Java is the most populated of the islands in the Indonesian archipelago, not surprising since the capitol of Jakarta is located there. The original itinerary that Ross designed did not include Java but because we had a few extra days, we were able to add a few extra islands, one of which being Java where we would mainly focus on the eastern side of the island. We weren’t spending any time anywhere near Jakarta (thank God) as we were visiting the island on essentially the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, the end of Ramadan. Technically Ramadan is a “holy month” where Muslims pray to Allah and practice fasting from dawn until dusk every day for a lunar month to hopefully gain prosperity. At the end of the month they revel in a successful time of fasting with a big celebration. As you may know, Indonesia has the highest number of Muslims of anywhere in the world, and we were coming to Java on what you could consider Christmas in their culture. Oops. The original itinerary accounted for Ramadan, but it was overlooked when we were trying to figure out where we should go with our extra days. We had to pay a bit of a premium when it came to transportation, and finding people willing to drive us places was a bit of a challenge, but other than that and the fact that many eating establishments were closed, it really didn’t impact our trip all that much.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me add that Ross was super excited to be heading to Java because we would be crossing the invisible barrier known as “Wallace’s Line.” I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s this fancy invisible bio-geographical line where the fauna on one side is different from the fauna on the other. In case you have forgotten, I’ll quote Alfred Russel Wallace again from his book The Malay Archipelago, to sum it up and remind you why this line is significant. “In Bali we have Barbets, Fruit thrushes and Woopeckers; on passing over to Lombok we see these no more, but on Lombok we have an abundance of Cockatoos, Honeysuckers, and Brush-turkeys which we do not see in Bali or further west.” We were headed to Java, and Java is west of Bali. AKA, we would be seeing some birds here that we wouldn’t be seeing at any other point in our planned trip.
In our research on where to visit when coming to the eastern side of Java, we found that an excellent birding site also happened to have a volcano that erupts with blue fire (well something like that). Technically sulfuric gas is emitted from the volcano of Mount Ijen and the blue flames are a result of the gases combusting when they come in contact with the air. The result, they ignite and burn blue. Pretty neat right? If Ross were alone on this trip I can say with certainty that he would have bypassed this tourist spot in favor of more time spent birding, but I convinced him that we should check it out since we would already be there and all. We had planned to do this trip up to the crater independently because usually tours up to tourist destinations are way overpriced and doing it yourself is cheaper, but when we arrived at the ferry terminal, we met a tour guide with surprisingly reasonable prices. We were pretty surprised that his fee included transportation up to the start of the hike, our 100,000 rupiah entrance fee, gas mask rental, and a crater guide all for the price of 250,000 rupiah! Honestly, I don’t think you could do it much cheaper than that if you wanted to. And to save ourselves the headache, we just went with it. To visit Mount Ijen and see the blue flames, one must visit at night. Obviously the sulfuric gases emitted from the volcano continue 24/7, but to see the blue fire that makes this volcano unique can only be viewed in the dark. We arrived in Java late that night and were waking up at midnight to be taken up to the mountain. We only got 2 hours of sleep before we had to get up and go. Thankfully the group of people we met that were on the same tour as us were very nice. We were looking forward to visiting Mt Ijen but did not realize how big of a tourist attraction it had become until we arrived and saw at least a hundred vehicles similar to ours in the parking area. Something neat to see demands viewers right?
The hike up to the crater usually takes about 2 hours, but Ross and I hike pretty quickly and did it in just over an hour leaving our group way behind, despite the fact that our backpacks were filled with pounds of birding equipment. Instead we hiked up following the streams of people until we reached the top of the crater and had to begin the decent down to the blue flames. The hike is very steep but the trail is wide and road-like making the walking easy. (Relative to some of the other hikes we do we thought it was easy anyway considering some of the trails we do are not only steep but also very narrow and uneven.) Perhaps some people were not aware how strenuous of a hike this would be and were very apparently struggling to walk up. Locals were capitalizing on this and had rigged up wheel-barrow devices allowing for people to sit down and be wheeled up to the top. I am sure that these rides came at a pretty penny, along with the hefty price of one’s self-esteem. Eventually we made it to the top of the crater where we would begin our descent down to the blue flames. At this point the gas masks we were given came in handy as the sulfuric fumes were permeating the air. The trail down to the blue fire is only wide enough for a single lane of hikers so unfortunately we could only hike as fast as those in front of us. Eventually we arrived at a viewing point where we stopped and were able to enjoy this crazy phenomenon along with the hundreds of other people there with us. We photographed the fire to our heart’s content and started on the walk back out of the crater. I think we were mid-way up on our walk out that we ran into our tour group who had just started the hike down – we were that far ahead. I opted to continue on to the summit to view the sunrise while Ross raced down the mountain to make it into some good habitat by daybreak.
The Horsfields Thrush that Ross had while on the trail at the bottom is a significantly better bird than the Green Junglefowl I had at the top. In fact, this endemic subspecies of Scaly Thrush can be rather difficult to find let alone see well and Ross had it right in the middle of the once-crowded trail while everyone who came to see the blue flames were up the mountain somewhere. Unfortunately two hikers came by and flushed the bird from the trail before he could manage a better photograph. Nonetheless, I’ll include this photo here and see if you can find the thrush in it.
Ross continued down the mountain and eventually we reconvened around 8AM. We spent the next several hours walking up and down the road with highlights for the morning and afternoon being Javan Bush-Warbler, Indigo Flycatcher, Flame-fronted Barbet, Black-banded Barbet, Orange-breasted Trogon, Sunda Minivet, Sunda Cuckooshrike, Blue Nuthatch, and one of our main targets, the range restricted White-bellied Fantail. We ended up staying late in the day to see if activity would pick up again at dusk as we scanned the trees searching for Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon, but only came as close as seeing Green Imperial Pigeon instead. The road was frequented by vehicles throughout the day but not so many that it was annoying to walk but with enough that we thought we wouldn’t have a problem hitching a ride back to town. How wrong we were. I think it was just after we finally put away all of the birding gear and decided that we would get on the next ride that traffic completely shut off for the night. It wasn’t even dark when we committed to stopping birding for the evening, but darkness came quickly and it was at least an hour of walking before we finally had a vehicle stop to pick us up. We had no cell phone service up there to call for a ride either, so we figured we might be walking the 8 kilometers to the next town if it came to it. Luckily it didn’t! We made it back to town to find that all of the restaurants and shops were closed for the holiday. We weren’t sure where we would be eating! We did manage to find a single establishment owned by a Swedish ex-pat selling burgers and hotdogs. Typically we tend to avoid eating Western food while traveling because it’s never as good as it is in the US, but we were just thankful to have a meal. We planned to go back up the mountain again in the morning but found that coordinating transportation up was very difficult with it being the Muslim equivalent of Christmas.
Finally we found someone willing to take us up the mountain but his price was significantly more expensive than we had wanted and we had to leave an hour earlier than we would have liked so he could be back to town for prayer at 6am. Either way we made it back up the mountain so we could try again to see one of the 20 Grey-breasted Partridges that we heard calling the morning before. Like clockwork at dawn again we heard numerous Grey-breasted Partridges calling off in the distance. None were particularly close to the road so we crawled in a few holes hoping to see one but to no avail. The birds shut up pretty quickly as they did the morning before and our window of opportunity came and went without a sighting. We spent the next few hours trying to see Dark-backed Imperial-Pigeon and Pink-headed Fruit-Dove, but only managed to hear both. Luckily we did see a single Ruddy Cuckoo-Dove and a flyby Wreathed Hornbill to at least add a few new birds for the day! It was a bit frustrating to leave with a few of our main targets as “heard onlys,” but with this being a “bonus trip” we couldn’t be too disappointed. By midday we opted to move forward with our trip leaving this silly partridge and pigeons as a “heard-only.” We decided it would be a better use of our time to go back to Bali and head to a botanical garden where we could try for a few other birds.
In closing, let me add that while we were up the mountainside of Mount Ijen we had great looks at Javan Lutung also known as Ebony Leaf Monkey, a monkey species endemic to the island of Java. If you look closely you will see that the fur around their face falls in such a way that it looks like they walked into a barber shop and asked for a bowl cut.