Rote – Indonesia – And the Most Cooperative Owl to Date

Coming to Rote was going to get us some future lifers, but not add anything to our current list. Confusing? Maybe. But that’s because the “species” that are found on Rote haven’t been identified as species yet (well at least according to Clements and therefore eBird where we base our lists.) We had come for 4 “new” species and yet according to the taxonomy list in eBird, none would be new but in a few years when someone gets around to officially describing them, we are sure that they will be elevated to species status. Heading to Rote as we were planning was a bit of a gamble. We had a target left that we didn’t get on Timor (looking at you, Timor Figbird) and if we didn’t get it on this tiny island, there was a good chance we would just move on without ever getting it. So I guess there was a possibility for at least one new bird…

We took a speed ferry over to the small island of Rote and Ross had been coordinating with a driver on that island who knew the homestay at which to take us. (We thought using him would be easiest because otherwise it could be confusing knowing what house to go to.) When we got picked up it became apparent that said driver thought he could charge a premium for this service and demanded 1.2 million rupiah! That wasn’t going to work with us, so we found another truck to ride us. It took a bit longer (2 hours longer to be exact) because our driver didn’t know where to go and didn’t trust us with directing him but eventually we arrived at Ren Maku’s Homestay. It’s not so much a homestay as it is a man’s house and he gives up his bed to those coming to stay. On second thought, maybe a “homestay” is exactly what it is, but I think showing up completely unannounced adds a whole other dimension when you are expecting to stay at someone’s private home. Establishments synonymous with hotels that you can find in cities yet call themselves a “homestay” are more misleading in my opinion. Anyway, our main target and most important bird to find on the island of Rote was an owl, and we knew regardless of the time that we arrived at the homestay, we would be able to go searching at night, but because we got there a bit later, we weren’t too sure we would have enough time to find any other birds during the day. We dropped our bags and hit the nearby trail just in case we might run into something. The trail cuts through some degraded habitat before reaching a scrubby forest. We walked this trail and I finally got great views of Timor Stubtail, a bird that Ross had seen but I was missing up until this point. Just after that we had two Jonquil’s Parrots fly by and land in a nearby tree. They were in perfect light but with some vegetation in the way, the photo didn’t turn out that great. Regardless, getting this was HUGE for the evening. Parrots, especially critically endangered ones like this, are hard to come by and more or less something that has to find you. Even if we didn’t see a single other bird for the remainder of the daylight we were going to call this short walk a success! Fortunately we also had looks at “Rote” Northern Fantail, one of our other targets.

Not a great photo, but it shows a Jonquil Parrot nonetheless!

At dark, Ren took us to search for our #1 target, “Rote” Southern Boobook. This particular owl was re-discovered in 2010 and has already been proposed to be elevated to species status. We arrived at the edge of a clearing and heard some frogs calling nearby. We played the sound of the owl and waited. Thankfully looking up and seeing the brightly colored sky with thousands of white lights was a beautiful distraction as we stood there not hearing anything besides the frogs. Looking at the southern hemisphere’s pool of stars in an area with almost no light pollution is indescribable and I was immediately thankful that this owl brought me to stand in this clearing with an incredible view of the purple-hued Milkyway. After about 15 minutes and asking Ren if we should move, I think Ross and I both came to the same epiphany at the same time – the frogs weren’t frogs, it was the “Rote” Southern Boobook! The bird had been doing a different call than the recording we had, a very low soft almost continuous croaking compared to the typically two note croak (it really sounded like a group of frogs!). We walked about 100m closer to the sound and played tape one more time and soon the owl was sitting right above our heads. This particular fellow was so cooperative that Ross managed one of his best owl photos ever! A 5-star photo and a great recording were more than enough to satisfy and we went back to the homestay to eat and get some sleep with only three target birds left to see. Unfortunately, dinner was nothing more than a plate of plain, white rice with a single egg on top. Who needs food when there’s good birds?

There was some minor confusion in the morning as Ren doesn’t speak much English and when we woke up and he started walking in one direction, we were under the impression that he wanted us to walk to the forest that was 7km away because that was the only forest we knew about. We still aren’t sure if that’s what his plan was or not, but we told him that the sun was going to be up soon and that if he wanted us to go to this patch of forest, he should have told us so we could have left earlier. Either way, Ross and I ended up speed walking, catching a ride on a motorbike and making it to the forest just after the sun had come up. We had two targets, a myzomela, and a leaf-warbler, both future potential splits. Technically we had three targets if you include the bird we just never seemed to be able to find, a Timor Figbird. We had a productive morning and the forest along the road where we were was extremely birdy. It didn’t take long before we had views of Rote Leaf-warbler among a flock of Ashy-bellied White-eyes. We continued walking and surprisingly came across a pair of Red-backed Buttonquails along the road which provided us with such nice views that Ross managed a photo! Unfortunately a local boy walking to school saw the bird and immediately picked up a rock to throw at it! Sad if that’s the view of the wildlife that these children have because they are the only hope the jungle has to save it. We yelled at the kids and they walked away. We scanned the lake on the opposite side of the forest and picked up a few trip birds in the form of Australian Darter, Wandering Whistling Duck and Little Grebe. Soon after we turned our attention back to scanning the birds in the forest when Ross spotted a “Rote” Scarlet-headed Myzomela eating from some white flowers at the top of a tree. It may look very similar to Suma Myzomela, but according to our book sounds entirely different. Unfortunately the bird flew away without ever calling and all we managed was a lousy photo (but great scope views!).

The morning was a huge success and we had found all of our targets on Rote, including some more difficult ones! There was absolutely no reason that we shouldn’t have seen a single figbird up until this point! I know there are some world birders wondering how we could have seen all the hard birds, but not run into a figbird along the way. Both Ross and I debated whether we should go back to Timor, back to Bipolo (where we stayed with the nuns), and try for it again at that location because Ross was sure he heard the call there before he knew what it was. We were both contemplating different options and how we could continue on towards our goal of no dips in the Lesser Sundas. We got a motorbike ride back to the homestay around 9am and opted to walk the close forest once again before giving up.

Wouldn’t you know, Ross played the tape for a different call that the bird makes, one he has played least of all the sounds he has, and a pair of Timor Figbirds came and landed above our heads! It was almost too good to be true, except for the fact that we weren’t even that excited to see this bird! What a happy ending to a successful trip to Rote Island. Seeing the bird here just saved us a bunch of money because we were going to be spending a lot of extra $$$$ if we went back to the nuns.

The group that joined us sitting outside     ….just because.

We headed back to the homestay, packed our bags, and sat outside of the house to wait. It was pretty hilarious because when we sat down no one was around but over the course of the next 30 minutes, we accumulated quite the crowd. No idea who these people were, or where they had come from but they all were here and were sitting around us. We just had to laugh. Something different I guess. Ren came back with two motorbikes coordinated to take us down to the next town where we could hitch a ride back to Ba’a where we had come in by ferry.

Two hours later we were where we wanted to be, about to eat lunch (it was 1pm and we hadn’t eaten anything yet) but Ross noticed a ferry in the harbor. Turns out there is a 2pm ferry back to Kupang and we opted to take it because even though we were skipping a meal, in the end we would have more down time back in the city to get a few things done before our flight the next day. Not to mention, we could eat at the delicious night market once again! Our trip to Rote was a huge success! Off to Alor next! Stay tuned!

One more photo of the owl because he wanted to wave goodbye:

A Rote Boobook making shadow puppets!