Flores – Indonesia – Friendly Little Owls

Flores was to be our last stop on our visit to the Lesser Sundas, the name for the group of islands found toward the southern portion of the Indonesian archipelago just above Australia, for those unfamiliar with your Indonesian geography. Up until this point we hadn’t missed a single target bird in the Lesser Sundas (well, except that pesky drongo on Lombok!)! Unfortunately we were a bit worried that our planned Flores itinerary was a bit too tight as several of the birds on this island can be very difficult to find. Two owls in particular are known to be very challenging to see.

When we were ahead of schedule, we hoped to just move on to Flores and then the extra days could just be used after our planned itinerary was over. The benefits of going to Flores before doing anything else were twofold, we could guarantee that we didn’t miss a difficult target bird because if we needed to we could just spend another day on the island, and also we would be able to avoid being in Muslim-dominated areas over the end of Ramadan. Unfortunately there were no seats available to move our flight up so we took our “extra” days and went to Lombok, Bali, and East Java before we were back on schedule and moved on to Flores. (By the way, when I say schedule I mean SCHEDULE. Ross is not only my husband and bird guide, but he is also a wizard when it comes to logistics and our itinerary for the next 6 months of travel is completely mapped out and color-coded, day by day. You know, because if you do it this way you can see more birds. For anyone interested, I’m screen-shotting a piece of the excel spreadsheet that details what we are doing on each day at the end of this post!) Anyway, not being able to push the schedule up was a bit unfortunate, as now we were in Muslim-dominated areas over the end of Ramadan festivities and wouldn’t be able to use an extra day if we needed it on Flores. Flores on the other hand is predominantly Catholic and would have been the perfect place to visit if it had been possible! Oh well! It all worked out in the end.

There are a few areas birders visit when coming to Flores and we planned to visit four of them in the central part of the island, Poco Ranaka, Golo Lusang, Pagal Road, and Kisol. We arrived in Ruteng, a small town in the middle of the island, and were initially surprised to see other tourists in the area. We didn’t realize that people outside of birdwatching had a reason to visit this mountain town! We immediately dropped our bags at a hostel and proceeded to hitch a ride 8km down the road to our first destination, Poco Ranaka. But names really aren’t important here so I’ll just say that our location for the day was an old road leading to a telecom tower. The road essentially goes up to this tower placed on a mountain and to get there you must walk entirely uphill. (Nothing we weren’t used to before.) The road is passable by motorbike but we were planning on walking because the whole point is to pick up some birds along the way. Why go to the top of a telecom tower otherwise? We finally got to the trail/road and started hiking birding at 9AM on the dot so it was pretty ironic that when we finished the day it was at 9PM on the dot. Yes, you read that right, a full 12 hours were spent on the trail. (We had recently purchased some peanut butter, jelly, and bread so it was sandwiches in the field for us, mom, in case you thought we might have opted to starve ourselves!) Anyway, when we arrived it wasn’t exactly early morning but activity was high and we immediately had views of the unique Bare-throated Whistler, a Flores endemic whose loud musical song we heard long before we managed to sneak into the forest and spot it in a tree. I also managed views of Flores Green Pigeon and Thick-billed Heleia while Ross got lucky in seeing a Tawny-breasted Parrotfinch while he had crawled in the woods to photograph a Russet-capped Tesia. We also managed to track down our only Flores Warbling-Flycatcher of the trip.

The reason we were on the trail for so long was because we wanted to stay until after dark in the hopes that we could find one of those two difficult to see owls that I mentioned earlier. While waiting around for dusk we managed to add a few additional birds to our list including Flores Shortwing and Pale-shouldered Cicadabird. For anyone who hasn’t caught on by now, Ross just LOVES owls. I think he enjoys it so much because he’s just so darn good at finding them and photographing them and before long we had two Flores Scops-Owl in a tree above us. It was an excellent first day and we already were starting to think that our “tight” itinerary might actually be longer than we needed!

The next morning we decided to visit Pagal Road, a location known to be good for Wallace’s Hanging-parrot, one of the birds we were worried about. I probably sound like a broken record but I’ll say it again, finding parrots can be tricky. Unlike the telecom road where we maybe saw 4 motorbikes the whole day, Pagal Road is a main through-way between two towns and is traveled by a significant number of vehicles. It was a bit of a nuisance to have to worry about oncoming traffic, but that didn’t stop us from seeing the birds. Clearly they don’t mind the road running through the forest. I think we were on the road for maybe 3 minutes before we had views of a Wallace’s Hanging-parrot flying above our heads. So much for worrying about finding parrots, this one found us and found us fast! We spent the morning walking the road and picked up a few other targets such as Elegant Pitta, Flores Green-pigeon, Blyth’s Paradise-flycatcher, Thick-billed and Crested Heleias, and Golden-rumped Flowerpecker. Also, having nice looks at White-rumped Kingfisher, another Flores endemic, was a real treat. Before we left we had seen the hanging-parrot fly by a number of times and luckily Ross was even able to manage a picture (although it was a bit distant!).

It was lunchtime when we left and our goal was to eat and then make our way on to another birding location to search for another parrot, Leaf Lorikeet, because, you know, parrots can be tricky. A quick meal of Cap Cay (stir fried vegetables) and Nasi Goreng (fried rice), mine and Ross’s favorite Indonesian dishes respectively, and we were on our way to Golo Lusang. The weather had been excellent thus far so we were surprised to see that the other side of the mountain was the exact antithesis of where we came from. We arrived and were in the clouds. We decided to walk anyway but eventually decided to give up because we couldn’t see anything. Not the kind of weather you need if you want to scan for parrots. Just as Ross was putting away his gear, don’t you know a parrot flies directly over our heads. The only problem was, it was a Red-cheeked Parrot, not the Leaf Lorikeet we were hoping for. Still it was pretty hilarious that the only bird we saw for the afternoon happened to be a parrot. We kept thinking, why couldn’t it just be the one we were looking for? With the weather looking ominous we hitched our way back to town (via the back of a truck that looked more like a mini store) to grab our bags and decided to move forward to another location, hoping that by the time we got back to Ruteng in a few days, Golo Lusang would be in the clear.

Our next destination located about two hours away was the small village of Kisol. This particular birding spot is where we were hoping to find that other tricky owl that I mentioned earlier. There aren’t any hotels in this town but there is a Catholic Seminary so we planned to stay there if they had any rooms available. If you’ve been following our Indonesian travels, you probably remember that this isn’t the first time we were using a religious institution as our accommodation. (Seriously though, why couldn’t we have been here over Ramadan?!) It was late by the time we arrived so we only had time to place our bags in our room and grab our night gear to go owling. The first night proved to be a wash and we didn’t hear nor see either of our two owl targets. Ross is very dedicated to his night birding and woke up at 2:30AM so he could get out and see if the wee hours of the morning would be better for owls. Lack of sleep was already an issue and I was exhausted so I opted out of his nonsensical wakeup time and instead met up with him later that morning. Honestly, sleep is a wonderful thing and adequate sleep has many health benefits. I can say that because I know, I’m a nurse. Ross refuses to believe that sleep trumps birds so he was out the door before anyone else would ever dream of being awake. When I met up with Ross later that morning, he immediately informed me that he had found both owls and all of our remaining targets. Didn’t see that one coming. He also informed me that I should have just woken up when he did because then we would have all of our birds and could go back for the Leaf Lorikeet and be done with Flores three days ahead of schedule. Insane. We discussed the possibility of doing a dive trip with these extra days we were accumulating, except that I didn’t have all the birds he did. We spent the morning birding and Ross immediately got me on Chestnut-capped Thrush and I got lucky when a Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon flew overhead, but I was still missing both owls and a crow. Eventually we decided that we would stay another night as planned and try for photos of the owls because that morning Ross only managed photos of one, Moluccan Scops-owl. There weren’t any other birds we could get so we opted to go back to the seminary and rest before going owling that night. At dusk my target Flores Crow came in to roost so I could cross that one off of the list. Unfortunately neither owl decided to cooperate so we were forced into another early morning wakeup call, but at least this time we were able to go to bed early.

The next morning we returned to the spot where Ross had Wallace’s Scops-Owl before to try again. We arrived in the middle of the night and sat amongst the trees waiting for a response. Although it took until just before dawn, two Wallace’s Scops-owls came overhead! After the birds left, we opted to walk the road to check an area we hadn’t checked before. Believe it or not, another Wallace’s Scops-owl started to call so Ross calls back and the bird flies right over us! Generally people have trouble finding this particular species, but in our 2 nights in the area, Ross heard 5 and saw 3! Not too shabby!

We had accumulated all of our targets for the area and decided we better get back to Ruteng sooner than later because using public transportation can be a bit unpredictable and take longer than expected. Honestly, I’d hate to bore you with the details of a simple ride hitched back to town, but it was a bit interesting in that we got into a van who then had a tire go flat. No one travels with a spare so our driver flags down another passing van, the driver of that van gets out and our driver takes his vehicle to who knows where – we left via another truck before he ever got back.

We arrived back in Ruteng by 9AM which really wasn’t too bad. We went back to the same hotel we stayed in prior, dropped our bags and opted to head back to Golo Lusang to try again for the lorikeet that we missed earlier due to the weather. Luckily this time the mountains were in the clear and the sun was shining! This is where it just gets funny. We took motorbikes to the site and just as we crested the hill to look down into the valley, we watched as clouds came rolling in. No joke. We stood on the hillside getting our gear ready and saw the blue sky clear as day on one side of the mountain and watched as the other side, the area we planned to walk, went from blue to being engulfed in white. We just had to laugh. This time we weren’t going to let a cloud ruin our day. (Not to mention we really didn’t have a choice.) We started walking the road and really saw very little. Another group of Red-Cheeked Parrots flew over and we did manage views of Short-tailed Starlings and Eye-browed Heleia, but it wasn’t until we had been in the area for a few hours and stopped at a small clearing that we FINALLY heard our target calling in the distance. Unfortunately the area we were scanning was quite small and you couldn’t see very far out. Even if the birds were close, we weren’t going to see them through the fog. We were exceptionally lucky however and the birds pretty much did exactly what we needed them to do – fly super close during a brief reprieve in the fog. It was just after 2PM when we had views of two bright green Leaf Lorikeets fly by. We decided we better leave while we still could and hopped in the next available vehicle. This time we road in the back of a truck where half of the truck bed was full of gasoline cans and the other half was piled up with sticks. There was just enough room that we could sit on top of the sticks, somewhat comfortably I might add!

Flores, the island Ross had been so nervous about, had gone exceedingly well. We had managed all of our targets, including some excellent photos of those pesky owls with an extra day to spare! With this extra day we figured we would be able to celebrate our 4-year wedding anniversary by going on a 2-day, 1-night live-aboard boat trip and include some SCUBA diving! You see, Flores is the gateway to Komodo National Park. One cannot come to Indonesia and not go see the infamous Komodo Dragon. Naturally we were planning to visit, but Komodo Island is also home to the endemic Yellow-crested Cockatoo which has essentially been extirpated from neighboring islands and only maintains a small foothold here. Now we could manage a bit more time with both creatures and have a little fun with a dive trip as well! Stay tuned!

Oh and as promised here’s a little sneak peak at our itinerary. Yes, it goes on like this for 6 months! I like to joke that Ross would have made an excellent truck driver because he can drive for hours on end…. but perhaps his best kept secret skill is logistical planning. Who is coming on the next one?!