And so begins the second segment of our Indonesian trip “The North Moluccas” starting with the island of Halmahera. But let’s talk Indonesian geography for a second, because, let’s be honest, it’s probably been awhile since you’ve ever looked closely at this super fascinating country on the other side of the world (unless of course if you read the last blog post.) Indonesia is comprised of over 17,000 islands and spans a distance of 1,760 kilometers (1,094 miles) from the north to south and 5,120 kilometers (3,181 miles) from the east to west. As you would expect from the world’s largest island country, Indonesia is broken up into a few sections.
We started our trip in what is known as “The Lesser Sundas,” a region in the southern portion of the archipelago, although we were originally going to start our trip in “The Moluccas.” However, May through August is the rainy season in the Moluccas, the opposite of the rest of Indonesia, and we were really trying not to have to spend our time in the region sheltering from the downpours that frequent that time period. Sooooo we went to the Lesser Sundas first where the rainy season occurs a bit later (November – March). Logical. Anyway, that being said, we recently finished up in the Lesser Sundas and made our way up to the Moluccas starting on the island of Halmahera.
To reach Halmahera by plane as we did, you technically fly to neighboring island Ternate, as that is where the airport is located and then take a speed boat over. Halmahera is a pretty big island by Indonesian standards, the 4th largest, but despite its larger size, it is not as populated as other islands. Anyway, we arrived in Ternate and took a speed boat over to Halmahera.Once there, our plan was to visit the small village known as Foli, a 4 hours drive from where we were dropped off by boat in the small town of Sofifi. We figured we would be paying a boatload to go that distance and were prepared to settle on 1 million rupiah if that’s what it came to. We are so used to having to haggle down the ridiculous prices quoted to us by transportation people that we were almost unprepared to meet a taxi driver who quoted us the reasonable price of 400,000 rupiah. Plus he wasn’t a smoker which was a huge plus! I often tell taxi drivers that they will get paid a bit less if they want to smoke on the ride–their choice. Usually they take the money over the cigarette but I didn’t think I’d be able to find anyone willing to go 4 hours without a smoke. I’ll save the smoking habits of Indonesians for another blog post, but let’s just say they are really, really BAD.
As has become somewhat the norm, we were once again showing up in a village unannounced, arriving at the place of residence of a man named Jeffrey and expecting him to provide us shelter and meals. Sound familiar? Or How about now? To be fair, we travel with a tent so if anyone were to actually not be able to take us in, it’s not like we would be totally screwed. Thankfully, Jeffrey and family are used to visiting birders as most tour groups will make a stop here, so although they weren’t expecting us, they knew the drill. Spontaneously showing up hasn’t been a problem thus far, so after the lady of the house moved her things out of one of their bedrooms, we had a place to stay set up our tent. (It only takes getting bedbugs once or 100 mosquito bites in a night to know that being on the inside of a protective barrier is ALWAYS the way to go in these areas.)
We dropped our bags and quickly made our way to the nearby forest where we spent the remainder of the afternoon and early part of the night searching for birds. Several of our targets were to be the likes of pigeons, fruit-doves, hawks, eagles and parrots, aka birds you really can’t do much to see other than just spot them. It was midday when we arrived but the trail was exceptionally birdy and birds such as Red-flanked Lorikeet, Gray-headed Fruit-Dove, and Black Sunbird were very common. We quickly got on multiple targets as well such as Sombre Kingfisher and Spectacled Imperial Pigeon, Superb Fruit-Dove, and Shining Flycatcher. We stayed out until after dark and managed to find our first of three night targets, Halmahera Boobook.
The next day we left super early and made our way to the entertaining Wallace’s Standardwing lek before dawn and watched as seven stunning males with crazy long feathers and a bright green chest patch that they would flare up attempted to outperform each other to impress a rather interested female. Seeing my first bird of paradise performance was not a disappointment! From the lek site we hit the trail and proceeded to spend the rest of the day and early part of the night walking the old logging road. We left the homestay at 0400 and got back at 2100, totaling 17 hours spent in the field!
Our second day was exceptionally productive with great looks at birds such as Scarlet-breasted Fruit-Dove, White Cockatoo, Violet-necked Lory, White-naped Monarch, Halmahera Oriole, Cinnamon-bellied Imperial Pigeon and Common Paradise-Kingfisher. We finished the night with great views of Moluccan Owlet-nightjar. The next day looked a lot like the previous, except we targeted several species but definitely got lucky on more than one occasion, when Ross spotted one of our few remaining targets, an Azure Dollarbird out on a distant hillside. I can’t say it was luck though, Ross is exceptionally diligent when it comes to scanning for birds and is adamant that a scope is a necessity on a birding trip. Although we only ever had scope views of this rare endemic, the 15 minutes we spent watching two birds feed were more than sufficient. It was a lucky day for sure as the evening brought a Grey-throated Goshawk our way along with views of Rufous-vented Bush-hen, two birds we were missing up until this point.
With so many targets in the bag, we decided we did not need to spend another day on the logging road in Foli so we coordinated for a taxi to pick us up at 0400 and made our way to the Subaim-Buli Road, a nearby cross island road reaching 535m in elevation where we could get a few different birds not found in the lower elevations of Foli.
We originally came to this road to find Halmahera Leaf-Warbler, and we had an almost flawless morning with excellent views of Moluccan King Parrot, Chattering Lory, North Moluccan Pitta, Great Cuckoo-dove and even getting suuuuuper lucky to have a Halmahera Goshawk perch up close in the open. Red-flanked Lorikeets were common and we managed views of two Moluccan Cuckooshrikes. We both had to laugh when the cuckooshrikes that flew overhead and landed in a nearby tree turned out to be the last remaining cuckooshrikes that we needed to find, the ones we spent two days searching for in Foli but never saw, the ones we were certain were going to be a dip. As it turns out the leaf-warbler that we came here for was the only target bird we didn’t get that morning! Unfortunately the birds shut up early up on the mountainside and by 0830 it was pretty quiet so we ended up opting to leave around 10 to start on our way to a little town a few hours west where we could try for the next to impossible to see, perfectly named, Invisible Rail. So far Halmehera was a huge success but we weren’t holding our breath thinking we would see an Invisible Rail. Our other main target in the area was Moluccan Dwarf-Kingfisher, so we at least had that to look forward to.
Ross actually had contact information for this homestay and had sent Roji a message a few days prior to warn him of our upcoming arrival. Unfortunately we never heard a response, because as we learned when we showed up unexpected, his phone was broken. Go figure. We are just destined to crash the dinner party I guess and show up unannounced. Either way it didn’t seem to matter that our appearance was unplanned, we had a room immediately and were soon taken out on the trails to try for the rail and kingfisher. Unfortunately a recent flash flood had hit the area causing the areas along the river that are usually good for the rail and kingfisher, what we imagine usually looks like a peaceful stream, looked more like a raging river. We spent the afternoon out and still managed views of Sombre Kingfisher, Black-chinned Whistler and Ivory-breasted Pitta but never heard nor saw a single Invisible Rail or Moluccan Dwarf-kingfisher.
The next morning we hit the trails early to hopefully at least hear an Invisible Rail calling. We never did, but we were treated with excellent views of an adorable and super brazen Moluccan Dwarf-kingfisher who decided that right in front of us was the best place to take his morning bath! We had fantastic views of the bird as he would sit on a perch then fly down to the stream, dunk himself and fly back to the perch to repeat. It was fantastic and we both just looked at each other with “wasn’t expecting that” written all over our faces. With no rails in the area we decided it might be best to walk further up the trail and see what we could find. We staked out a small area up the trail along a small stream bed that looked like it might be good for the rail. Surprisingly, we were right, the area was great for a rail, but just not the right one. We had views of Bare-eyed Rail walking by, but no Invisible Rail, but as it turns out there are even fewer recordings of this species on eBird so it was still a great bird to get. The rest of the morning we hiked around the area but never even heard our target rail, one which is supposedly fairly easy to hear. Midday we visited an area along the beach for Beach Kingfisher. We had to climb through a bit of a mangrove tangle to get to the location, but it was worth it as we had views of two Beach Kingfishers!
We came back, ate some lunch and headed back out, but with no sound from the rail we decided it would be pointless to spend another day searching….or at least that’s the sentence I wrote while Ross was back out in the afternoon and evening searching for the rail. Upon his return he informed me that he did indeed hear the Invisible Rail, but it only called once for about 5 minutes and despite crawling into the middle of a swamp and sitting for over two hours, he never heard it again. Luckily he had a Halmahera Spectacled Monarch to keep him busy and at dusk he found roosting an Ivory-breasted Pitta and a Dusky Scrubfowl and after dark he managed photos of the local subspecies of Moluccan Scops-Owl. Despite having heard the rail once, we figured our time would be better spent heading to Morotai a bit early, so that’s what we did starting at 0300 the next morning. Stay tuned!