Timor – Indonesia – Lots of Birds, Not a lot of Pictures

Ross and I skipped over to the island of Timor a little ahead of schedule. (Because as you may have heard, everything went right on Sumba!) A few birds are endemic to the island of Timor and we hoped we could pick up all of them in an expeditious manner. From the airport we hired a taxi to drive us to our location, the small town of Camplong, roughly an hour away. In hindsight, it would have been just as easy to use public transportation as Indonesia has continued to prove that finding a ride here is a piece of cake. Nonetheless, we had a ride and arrived at our destination.

The town of Camplong is not very big. In fact, as we found out later that night, there isn’t even a single restaurant in town open on Sunday. (It was Sunday when we arrived and the only place to eat is closed on Sundays.) As you can imagine in a town with no restaurants, there also aren’t very many places to stay. Fortunately there is a Catholic Convent in town which has a room, and the nuns there were happy to take us in for the night so we stayed there.

The birding location is very close to the convent and we were able to just walk down the street into a dry forest to begin our search for some of Timor’s specialties. It was midday and extremely windy when we were walking so we weren’t too sure how much bird activity would be going on in those conditions. Much to our surprise we managed a good number of birds and picked up the likes of Steak-breasted Honeyeater, Yellow-eared Honeyeater, Plain Gerygone, Black-banded Flycatcher, Timor Stubtail, Tricolored Parrotfinch, Timor Fantail, and saw three Slaty Cuckoo-Doves and heard a few others, a bird that we were expecting to have to put in a lot of work to get to see.

I opted to go back to the convent for a bit of a rest and returned to meet Ross for some night birding, as one of our main targets was an owl. We reunited and at dusk heard several owls calling, so we assumed seeing them wouldn’t be very hard. As anything that you think should be easy would go, it wasn’t. The owls, although they would respond to playback, were elusive and would perch so that the only views we had were a silhouette flying over. Finally a Timor Boobook sat in an open position long enough that we could spotlight it perched, but flew away almost immediately after. It wasn’t an ideal situation but we decided to get going as we would have another opportunity for a photo later.

As I alluded to earlier, there is no restaurant in town so finding a means for dinner was rather difficult. We walked into town and asked and the guy told us that the nearest place to eat was 12km away. Ross ended up eating a bowl of ramen noodle soup for dinner…raw. Yes, raw. Who does that?! (Ross informed me that it wasn’t the first bowl of raw ramen he’s had and that he and a few friends used to do it all the time in the Marine Corps! Who knew?!) I convinced the workers of the convent to fry up some eggs that I had purchased from a store nearby and called it dinner. It wasn’t much but it was something!

The next morning we hitched a ride on the back of a coconut truck down to the turnoff to another birding location, Bipolo. From there, we convinced two motorbike drivers to take us the rest of the way and then proceeded to walk up a dry stream bed scanning for doves and pigeons. This location was supposed to be great for these types of birds but again it was rather windy and we didn’t hear much outside of a few Rose-crowned Fruit-doves calling. We flushed an Orange-sided Thrush on the trail and had a few Brahimy Kites, Rainbow Bee-eaters, and Timor Fantails over the course of the 2 hours we spent in this location. Finally we had our main target Pink-headed Imperial Pigeon fly over as we were about to give up!

The dry stream bed is relatively close to some other habitat so we opted to bird the grassland area before it was too hot in the day to pick up a few endemic munias. We ended up walking a few kilometers through completely harvested rice paddies wondering if we would ever come to some remaining grassy habitat. Thankfully we soon did and in one spot had several Five-colored Munias and at least two Pale Headed Munias amongst a large flock of Scaly-breasted Munias in the grass. After that flock we only had one target left for the habitat, Timor Sparrow. We continued walking to where others have had it in the past but with no luck. Ross was scouring his phone searching eBird records and other trip reports to see if there was a better spot we could check. While his nose was in his phone I was busy scanning and found a Timor Sparrow perched in a nearby tree. We both enjoyed scope views before the bird flew off. Thankfully all of our targets were accounted for in a fairly efficient manner, albeit stressful one.

From the grassland we intended to bird the forest area, but it was midday and still rather windy so after a little bit of trolling for Timor Figbird and Timor Drongo and not seeing either despite finding a few fruiting trees, we headed back to the convent, packed our things and hitched a ride up to the next major town, Soe, where we planned to spend the night. When we arrived the weather was foggy and cold and since there was only about 1 ½ hours of daylight remaining, I decided to stay at the hotel while Ross headed to a nearby spot called OleNasi. His goal was to scout out the area for the following morning as well as possibly get two birds that are reliable in the area, Dusky Cuckoo-dove and Timor Nightjar.

By the time Ross arrived at OleNasi, it was well after 4PM and he only had about an hour of birding light left. After trolling for the cuckoo-dove for about 30 minutes, he finally had a Dusky Cuckoo-dove fly in and land above him! Also from the same spot he saw a single Black-backed Fruit-dove. He waited around until dusk and although he did find a single Timor Nightjar, he only got a quick look before it disappeared and stopped responding to the tape. Since he had already found both of his targets, we decided the next morning we would head straight to Futumnasi, our next destination in the mountains.

The following morning we hoped to hitch our way up the mountainside to the other best birding location in West Timor, Fatumnasi. After 30 minutes of waiting in the damp and foggy early morning for a vehicle headed in the direction we wanted to go, we opted to start to offer money to anyone willing to go in that direction. The goal was to make it to the town of Kapan and then from there coordinate a ride up to Fatumnasi, a small tribal village. We knew from reading prior trip reports that the road leading up to Fatumnasi was in rough shape so we figured people from the town at the bottom of the hill would know the road and be capable of driving it. Did I mention that the weather was foggy back in the other town? Well, it was even worse here in Kapan! When we arrived, the whole area was a ghost town, shut in and with everything in a haze. So much for attempting to hitch a ride with the many vehicles headed up to the village!

Again we had to just hire a truck to get to where we wanted to go. It sounds expensive, but when put into perspective, $18 for a ride up a steep and terrible road really isn’t that bad. Our driver looked to be no more than 15 years old and was about to navigate us up the mountain. I’m pretty sure that when we crested one of the hills, I had the same feeling as I would if I were about to go down a roller coaster – only without all of the safety measures that I’m sure amusement parks are held to. Either way, we made it up the deteriorated road in the dense fog without any major hiccups. Unfortunately when we arrived the whole mountain was in the clouds, as we expected it would be (not ideal for birds in case you didn’t get that!)

There is only place to stay at in this town so we made our way there. Our accommodation at the homestay could only best be described as a hut. The whole roof was made of straw, the siding of bamboo and the floor nothing more than some dirt. Like I said, a hut. But it was exactly what you might expect coming to a tribal village. It wasn’t much, but there was a single lightbulb hanging from somewhere in the center and for that we were thankful. We dropped off our bags and when we left our hut, the sun had come out and the sky was blue! We almost couldn’t believe it. An unexpected turn of events!

We walked a kilometer down the road to a patch of forest and started to pick up some of the birds we needed to see. The weather remained intermittently sunny and foggy but despite all odds, our morning started out as a major success with excellent views of the recently discovered Mount Mutis Parrotfinch, a normally shy and elusive bird. It’s amazing that this bird was only first found in 2012! Along with that we finally found Timor Spangled Drongo, one we had been looking for the previous two days. Technically this bird is still considered a subspecies of Wallacean Drongo, but with a more deeply forked tail and completely different song/call coupled with alternative behavior and only being found on this island, we believe it to be its own species and wanted to be sure we saw it. Ross managed some top notch recordings as the drongo sat above us calling. Other notable birds for the morning were Bonelli’s Eagle, Metallic Pigeon, Timor Heleia, Timor Leaf-warbler, and Timor Myzomela, but one of our main targets was nowhere in sight.

As is true when looking for any kind of parrot, unless you know of a roosting, nesting, or favored feeding site, it’s hard to go to one spot to find them. The birds fly around and more or less, find you. We were here in Fatamnasi with two different lorikeets as a possibility, Olive-headed and Iris, both of which we were hoping to see. From reading prior reports, we knew that usually one must scan through hundreds of Olive-headed Lorikeets hoping that a few Iris Lorikeets have mixed in. One lorikeet was supposed to be common and the other we knew would be much rarer. Unfortunately we had been walking around all day and hadn’t seen a single lorikeet. Not a single one. This was probably because both species feed on nectar from flowers and the eucalyptus stands that dominated the forest were not currently in bloom.

With no sight of a single lorikeet we weren’t too sure if we could call the day a success. We went back to the homestay and were fed a simple lunch and then we opted to get back on the trails hoping that the more time we spent in the field, the better our chances of seeing a lorikeet would be. The afternoon wasn’t particularly birdy and the weather never completely improved. The afternoon was mediocre at best but about an hour before dusk we finally had 6 Olive-headed Lorikeets come perch in a tree right next to us! Finally, a few lorikeets! But still, we were worried that without the “hundreds” that we’d heard of not being around, we would surely not see any of the rarer ones. We knew we didn’t have much daylight left so we started on the walk back, birding along the way. Our luck changed when Ross heard the sound of a lorikeet and said “that’s it, find it!” But there were some swifts up above us and I quickly informed him that they were the source of the call he just heard. The swifts left and the calling stopped. It was only logical that the two were related. Soon the swifts were back and the calling started back up again, only it continued and continued in only a way that a parrot would. The sound was most certainly coming from lorikeets. We quickly started scanning the trees and, not sure how without seeing them come in, I spotted two lorikeets in a tree – backlit as could be. Just as Ross handed me the scope to put them in view, the birds took off. They circled around us and as the light hit them, we both had nice views of two Iris Lorikeets flying by, likely going to roost. Again they perched nearby but we never relocated them. Somehow, not sure how, we could put a checkmark next to one of the more difficult birds on our list of targets!

That night we went back to the homestay and hoped to coordinate for a motorbike to take us 7km up the road. The owner of the homestay speaks no English, but as we found out, she doesn’t speak Indonesian either. The tribal village has its own dialect so even when we had a student from Java fluent in both English and Indonesian helping us, we had some trouble communicating with her. Finally we went to bed after a few charades but when we woke up in the morning, no one else was awake. We had coordinated for breakfast at 4:45am and a motorbike ride at 5am (or so we thought) but clearly that wasn’t happening. The morning turned into just as big a fiasco as the night prior but finally a single motorbike was able to take turns taking myself and then Ross up to the trailhead. I got up there first and had views of 12 Olive-headed Lorikeets and Timor Drongo. When Ross arrived we started on the trail hoping to come to a clearing where we could scan for the often tricky to find Timor Imperial Pigeon.

We bypassed a few calling birds to get to the clearing as quickly as possible. We proceeded to spend the next 2 hours from this location, hardly seeing a single bird, let alone our target pigeon. Finally we opted to give up on scanning the clearing and walk in the woods. We weren’t on the trail for more than 10 minutes when we flushed a Timor Imperial Pigeon from a tree. It flew out from where Ross flushed right into perfect lighting. The bird was clearly a much lighter shade of gray than the book dictates. At least we finally saw one! (It would be the only one we would see for the morning.) Shortly thereafter Ross and I heard the distinct calls of a Jonquil’s Parrot. A good bird to get if we could see it. We scanned the tree but were unable to locate it. We continued on our walk back down the trail and were treated to the gorgeous views that we quickly passed on the way up. Seriously, our views of the oddly positioned gray-colored mountains back dropped by a cloudless blue sky looked unreal, as if someone tried too hard to make a painting look too perfect. It was pretty spectacular.

We finished out the morning with views of Pygmy Cupwing, more Timor Drongos, and a Sunda Bush Warbler. We went back to the village, packed up our things and opted to leave on the next mode of transportation that came by. We’ve learned by now that getting a ride in Indonesia is incredibly easy – they will put people in the backs of trucks, on top of trucks, off of the back of trucks and wherever else they can to get a ride. Ross and I piled into a truck carrying potatoes down the mountain…along with 16 other people. In the back of a small 10ft pickup truck bed were 13 people, a 55 gallon drum of who knows what, and countless potatoes! Sometimes it’s easier to ignore the blatant lack of safety and just take a ride. Someone once told me that ignorance is not actually bliss, but sometimes, it just is the only way to convince yourself to do something.

We made it down the mountain (at one point everyone had to pile out and walk so that the truck could go up and down an unspeakably terrible section of road) and quickly hitched another ride into town. We got off and snagged yet another vehicle to take us into the city. We never stood on the side of the road for longer than 5 minutes before someone asked us where we wanted to go. That’s just the way it is in Indonesia.

We made our way to a hotel room and had a decent bed to sleep in. And just as quickly as Timor had started, it was finished, once again – ahead of schedule. We were super happy to have the most amazing night market nearby where we ate to our heart’s content!

Next up, the island of Rote! Stay tuned!

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