Alor. Allure. Two words that sound the same and in all honesty, probably don’t have all that different meanings. Alor is a pretty alluring place if you want to see some island-endemic subspecies of birds. One might be the name of an island and another describe a feeling of charm or appeal but, island-endemics in Indonesia are sort of our thing as of late so perhaps we were “Alor-ed” here. When we arrived at the airport, we negotiated with a taxi driver to drive us up to the small town of Apui located up in the mountains in the center of the island. Here’s the thing that we both sort of laughed about in going to Apui, we were about to be showing up in a small town, asking to speak to the chief of the village to gain permission to walk the area and then asking for him to allow us to sleep at his house – and we weren’t even blinking an eye. It wasn’t the first time we were showing up at a stranger’s house and expecting that they would be inviting us in as house guests.
We were dropped off at the chief’s house (or so we think) spoke with the people there and asked if we could stay for a few nights. Eventually a man by the name of Piter Singamou came out of a nearby house, sat down with us and then showed us into his home. He and his wife cleared out one of their small bedrooms and made us welcome. We dropped our bags and, after a bit of a painful coordination, arrived at the top of the mountain thanks to two motorbikes. (In hindsight we WAY overpaid for this ride, but since we were right outside of the chief’s house and at least 15 people were watching this ordeal, we didn’t want to fight about the price.) Regardless, we were dropped off at the top of the hill so that we could walk the somewhat steep trail back down to town and not really have to exert too much energy that afternoon.
It was already mid-afternoon by the time we started birding for the day. Surprisingly, our first afternoon was extremely productive, as we quickly had views of the skulky Timor Bush Warbler and managed excellent views of Little Cuckoo-dove and Black-backed Fruit-dove. While we were birding Alor we wanted to be sure to keep an eye out for a few targets from neighboring island Flores that can be quite tricky. As luck should have it, (really no luck was involved – Ross heard the distant call, identified the source and taped the bird in) we had views of one of our Flores targets, Flores Green-pigeon! We continued on the walk down searching for a few more birds and by the end of the afternoon racked up all but three targets – Flores Hawk Eagle, Alor Myzomela and Alor Cuckooshrike. Not too shabby! Technically the cuckooshrike and the myzomela are still considered to be subspecies of Wallacean Cuckooshrike and Scarlet-headed Myzomela respectively, both birds we’ve already seen and therefore wouldn’t be new for the trip, but the newest bird guide poses them to be potential splits and Ross is not one to pass up an endemic subspecies so targets they remained!
We went back to our homestay just at dusk, grabbed our flashlight and walked across town to a known site of our main night target, Alor Boobok. We made sure to smile at everyone in town and say hello whenever they would come up to us. We wanted to be sure they had a good first impression of American birders because surely we were some of the very first white people they had ever seen. Anyway, we finally reached the site and I think it took less than 5 minutes before we had an extremely responsive pair of Alor Booboks come and perch above our heads. Easy! We took a few photos and headed back to the homestay so they wouldn’t wonder where we were. The children and adults alike were thrilled when we arrived back and Ross showed them the picture of the owl we had just seen! If the newest Indonesian bird guide didn’t weigh 3lbs, we kept thinking about how great it would be to bring extra and give people like this a copy! If the forests are to be saved, the children need to know how special they are! And what better way to teach them to save the bird than to show them how many different types live there and call the forests of Indonesia home? The children at the homestay wouldn’t set our bird book down and were pouring over each and every page. We let them look at our bird book and they all gathered around while Ross and I feasted on a meal of you guessed it, plain ramen noodles over white rice.
The following morning we opted to just walk up the steep trail to avoid having to go through the trouble of finding two motorbike drivers willing to wake up early. Truth be told, the trail isn’t that steep, we were honestly expecting much worse when we came down it the day before. As Ross always likes to say to me “it’s amazing how much you can gain in elevation just by walking.” Actually, I think we say that phrase to each other a lot, and it’s true. Before long we had climbed up the steepest section of the trail and as the sun was cresting the other side of the mountain we stopped to scan the trees just as light was beginning to hit them.
As we stood still looking off in the distance we began to hear movement nearby. We waited like statues to see what could be making this much noise because it sounded like a bigger bird. One began to call and Ross was ready with his recorder to tape the sounds. Clearly the bird didn’t know we were there. As we were waiting to see if the birds nearby would show themselves, we spotted a Flores Hawk Eagle flying in and watched as it landed in a distant tree. Suddenly seeing what we presumed to be Green Jungle Fowl in the close grass became an afterthought. One of our last remaining targets was now sitting in perfect sunlight! One quick play of the bird’s song and we had two Flores Hawk Eagles flying towards us. Ross managed at least one or two passable photographs and we were thrilled. Over the course of the day we would see three birds extremely well, likely a pair with a juvenile bird circling over the territory.
It was amazing that in just one afternoon and less than an hour of daylight we were left with only two targets, a cuckooshrike and a myzomela, neither of which is its own species as of now (2017.) We went up and down the trail and birds such as Sunda Bush Warbler, Lesser Shortwing, Black-fronted Flowerpecker, and Olive-headed Lorikeet proved to be relatively common. I spent the majority of the morning staking out a group of flowering trees hoping the myzomela would show itself while Ross headed higher up the trail to a spot where his friends had seen the bird the previous year. Although Ross got a brief view of the Alor Myzomela, it wasn’t much and he still wanted better views. By afternoon we were both starving after only having white rice for dinner the night before and again for breakfast that morning. We were hungry but didn’t really want to go back for lunch because we knew it would be very subpar. Honestly, we weren’t expecting to eat much considering we just showed up unannounced, but meals of white rice and ramen noodles were getting old. Eventually hunger gave in and we walked back to the homestay for lunch of, you guessed it, white rice and plain ramen noodles. This time we came prepared with the Indonesian word for “spicy” and asked for the “pedas.” A look of shock came over the lady when Ross and I used all of the remaining spicy sauce trying to add flavor to our meal. After lunch we walked over to their small shop and purchased some cookies that we could take up the hillside with us to hold us over until dinner because as you might be aware, we were burning more calories than we were consuming and still were hungry despite just eating lunch.
We made it back up the hillside in the heat of the day, but it wasn’t until much later in the afternoon, as we were scanning a different part of a close hillside, that I spotted a male Alor Myzomela at the top of snag. The unsatisfying glimpse of this bird Ross had earlier was made up for with some excellent scope views of a bird not too far away! He’s kicking himself now for enjoying it in the scope instead of taking a picture, but seeing the bird is the goal, photographing it is just a bonus.
We continued trolling for the cuckooshrike but it remained elusive. Throughout the entire day we heard the call on two occasions, once when we were further down the mountain and again in the early evening. Neither time did the birds respond to playback. We were perplexed. This was not supposed to be the hard bird. We thought it was common and easy! On our walk back to the homestay we had views of Elegant Pitta before arriving back down at the homestay at nearly the exact same time as the day prior. It was Deja-vu, as we again quickly grabbed the flashlight and walked back over to the owls, this time hoping to record their calls. The bugs started up much quicker tonight but Ross still managed a decent recording and another photograph of Alor Boobok.
When we arrived back at the homestay it appeared that a party was going on. We were nervous that the party was in our honor. Piter whisked us inside and asked us to sit around the fire with all of the other adults and children hanging around it. We concluded that the party was not in our honor and that it would have been happening regardless but we do not know what the occasion was. Anyway, being a part of the circle was nice gesture and all, but our conversations rarely stray from “Hello,” “How are you doing?” “Very good!” and after that we sat there quietly until the food was ready. We weren’t looking forward to dinner much, knowing what was in store. Surprisingly we were given tea to drink and appetizers of freshly baked bread and yucca. Then for dinner we were given fried noodles, breaded fish and yummy vegetables. Also while we were gone the spicy sauce bowl was refilled with a freshly made batch. Perhaps we should have asked for the “pedas” a long time ago if it proved to the lady that she could feed us the local food and we would eat it! Dinner was a much needed dose of protein and calories.
The following morning, our last morning, we opted to repeat the walk back up the trail and search for our last remaining target, Alor Cuckooshrike. We were mid-way up the trail looking for the eagles again when we decided that the birds simply were not in the valley of the trail we had been walking. We opted to climb all the way to the top of the trail, out to the telecom road and see what we could see. We found that we had a view into the neighboring valley and started to scan the area. Because we were on the road, it didn’t take long before the people of the even smaller village up here spotted us as they were walking. They stopped and asked us to take a picture. Again, this was not new to us, by this point in the trip I’ve lost count of how many people have come up and asked to take a photo with me or of me, again we were simply the first white people these people had ever seen. I agree to take a photo with them except they tell me they do not have a camera. So they stand there next to us watching us scan and ask every single person who comes walking up the road until finally someone has a camera. Naturally every person they ask who didn’t have one, stood with them until we’d gained a small audience before finally a girl comes along with a cellphone camera. I proceed to take photos with each of them while Ross looks for the birds. Satisfied they walk away. Ross and I also make our way up the hillside to scan from a different vantage point. After maybe only 10 minutes of solitude, one of the girls from our previous encounter returns. Only this time she does not want a picture, she just wants to watch us. At first we were confused as to what she wanted, we smiled and said hello but she didn’t speak any English so it wasn’t that she was trying to have a conversation. Eventually we just decided to ignore her and continue doing what we were doing, despite feeling slightly awkward that we were being watched. Soon some schoolboys come walking down the hill. We assumed they were on their way somewhere but they see us and stop. We stood there scanning for the next 30 minutes with an audience of 20 people. Then a man comes and yells at the kids to get back to school so they walk back up the hill. Turns out the kids weren’t going somewhere, they literally only came to see us. I talked about selfieing with them to Ross while scanning just so you could see, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. In hindsight, I really, really should have. It was both adorable that they were so intrigued by us and also annoying as they were talking to each other preventing us from hearing any more cuckooshrikes calling. Eventually we had to just give up birding the road and go hide ourselves back on the trail where less people were likely to find us. In case you were wondering, during all of this, at one point Ross did manage to find two Alor Cuckooshrikes as they were chasing each other low through the valley, but unfortunately, they flew into the close hillside before I was able to get on them.
By mid-day we gave up, and walked back to the homestay without me ever seeing the bird. Ross is under strict orders to never let me know if Alor Cuckooshrike ever gets split from Wallacean Cuckooshrike and becomes its own species. It’s much easier to dip a subspecies of a bird you’ve already seen than it is to find out you did in fact miss a separate species.
We went back to the homestay, packed our things, and coordinated rides back down to the main town of Kalabahi. Overall, Alor was very successful and yet another island is crossed off of the list with Ross maintaining his streak of seeing all target birds!
Ross and I want to thank Mr and Mrs Singamou for inviting us into their residence, giving us a bed to sleep in and meals to eat. We recently found out that Piter Singamou had suddenly passed away, approximately one week after we had stayed in his home. He died on June 24th, and if we hadn’t shown up a week ahead of schedule, that would have been the day we were to arrive on Alor. Pretty crazy. I want to dedicate this Alor post in his honor. RIP.