Morotai – Indonesia – More Than We Bargained For

Morotai is a forested island located to the north of Halmahera. It is one of the northernmost islands in the Indonesia archipelago and it has all but been untouched by birders until recent years. In fact, we know of only a handful of birders who have visited before us. With only a few birders coming before us, information was a bit limited but we were excited to be one of the first to do some exploring on this island!

We arrived in Morotai via a speedboat ferry from the northern tip of Halmahera. Our transfer over was relatively straight forward and our immediate first impression of the island was a good one when Ross found a lady selling seafood for lunch. I don’t think he knew the kinds of fish he ordered until after he had bit into a deliciously sauced gigantic chunk of tuna. Purely amazing. And cheap. In fact, I don’t think you can beat that for lunch! From the ferry we made the one hour drive to the small village of Mira, and yet again, we were turning up at the village chief’s home and hoping that it wouldn’t be too much of an intrusion for us to come in and stay the night. He wasn’t home but his 16-year old daughter who happens to speak a bit of English was and immediately welcomed us in. We stayed and socialized a bit, but since her father, the Kapala Desa (village head) wasn’t due to be home for a few hours, we figured we could at least get out on a trail and pick up a few targets before we came back and coordinated for the following day.

From town we walked about a kilometer up the road before talking a left and heading up a dirt road leading up through plantations and disturbed forest. It was the middle of the day and very hot so it wasn’t a surprise when we arrived that the forest was totally dead. Although things started off slow, we ended up having a very successful afternoon picking up a few of our main targets in the form of Dusky Friarbird, Morotai Drongo, and the endemic doris subspecies of Common Paradise-Kingfisher. We then went back to the homestay and coordinated what we wanted to do. What did we want to do you ask? Well, we wanted to get up in the forest and camp there. Higher elevation was the only place we would be able to find one of our main targets. The best way to do this was to take lory trappers, men who capture wild birds for the pet trade but know the forest well. We absolutely despise their “profession” but perhaps in taking us they could learn that there are people who appreciate the forests AND the birds in them, not in a cage. It was a bit of a process, as odd requests of this nature often are, but eventually we did coordinate with two local lory trappers who agreed to take us up to a campsite and stay with us while we searched for a few of Morotai’s endemics. That night we bought some supplies and packed away our bags for a pretty serious camping trip and went to bed. We started off the night in the bedroom we were given but it was ungodly hot in the room and we felt we would be more comfortable camping outside. We had already had our tent set up as a makeshift bug net to keep the mosquitos at bay, so we simply moved it to the front yard. The lady of the home felt bad, and we hated to do it, but we knew we wouldn’t sleep otherwise. Our rationale must not have been too crazy because later we noticed that everyone who lives there all sleeps together on a mat on the floor of the living room instead in the bedrooms, presumably because they are too hot. 4am came quickly and before long we were packed up and out the door.

We knew from the information from Marc Thibault, who had done this once before, that the campsite we were to be visiting was around 500m in elevation, aka a gain of 1,600 feet. Not too bad right? Especially because the gps track that Ross had from Marc said the hike was 11 km in distance, or roughly 7 miles. We are by no means amateur hikers and have easily climbed that much before so we were looking forward to the fact that it was a relatively short distance and would be over in no time (or so we thought), despite a river crossing somewhere in the middle.

We left the homestay early and hit the trail, one so we could beat the heat and two so we could look for the endemic subspecies of Moluccan Scops-owl on the way up. We climbed up and up but unfortunately for us it was raining the whole time so we never managed to see nor hear the owl. At around 0900 we finally stopped to take a break hoping the rain might let up. After nearly 45 minutes of waiting, it hadn’t. Meanwhile we were already 7 km into what we thought was an 11 km hike and hadn’t even reached the river crossing yet. It’s a bit depressing to know you have a certain elevation goal in mind when you start to go downhill, knowing you’ll just have to climb up again. Well, that’s what started to happen — we started to go back down. Although we suspected it already, after 9 kilometers, when we finally did reach the river crossing, we realized we were in for a full day of hiking. What we thought was only an 11 kilometer hike looked like it just about doubled when we weren’t even close to what our GPS was telling us would be our campsite.

Apparently there had been quite a bit of rain because the river we were to be crossing was up and rising. The current looked strong and we questioned whether it was even doable. Thankfully it was, despite having to wade chest-deep through a really strong current. We crossed the river and hoped that we would begin to really ascend and not have to come back down again. Over the course of our hike up we did still manage a few birds despite the rain. We were happy that we stopped for the “Morotai” Ivory-breasted Pitta that was calling on the way up because it proved to not only be the only one we saw, but the only bird we heard on the entire walk up AND down, a bird that we thought would be commonly singing throughout the jungle. Perhaps it was the inadequate weather keeping them silent. By the time we finally reached the campsite at our goal of 500m elevation, it was 1200 and we were starving. Although the final report would say we reached 500m in elevation, it doesn’t actually show that we gained more like 900m over a distance of 13.7km, aka 8.5 miles!

Andenan and Jabert (our guides/porters) started by getting a fire ready while Ross and I were quick to take off our sopping wet boots. Hiking with pruned feet is not a fun business at all. We had a lunch break and then decided we had better get back to the trail to get up a bit further in elevation to have a chance at seeing North Moluccan Leaf-warbler where Marc had said he’d seen it before, a first-ever report for the island of Morotai.

We should have expected it but again we had to go up, and then back down and then climb up again before we reached our goal of 600m elevation all the while looking intensely for this darn leaf-warbler. I kid you not, at one point I was a bit frustrated and told Ross we should turn around. He knew I was frustrated with having to keep going downhill knowing we would only have to make that up again and then some, but Ross said that our best chance would be to start where it was seen before, at 620m elevation. It was late in the day when we finally did reach a clearing near 600m and by this point we had already been hiking for nearly 12 hours. Our guide told us we should turn around because it was going to get dark soon. He was right of course, but we had longer than he thought and there was no way Ross was going to turn back around 2 hours before sunset! Finally though just as the guide refused to go any further and I had stopped to take a break and Ross had dropped his gear yet continued walking making his own trail up into the grass, I hear him yell “That’s it! Find that bird, it’s calling right above your head!” I already knew that of course having heard the tape played on more than one occasion and was already on my feet searching for the source of the call. Ross played the tape once more and the bird immediately flew in his direction. Not ideal considering all of his gear, i.e. camera, recorder, was back where I was. I grabbed them and started to make my way to him. After a full day of hiking, and just before we needed to turn back around, we finally had found a responsive North Moluccan Leaf-warbler. I swear you can’t even make this stuff up. We obtained some passable photos and even better recordings before I decided I would walk back with the guide while there was still a bit of daylight remaining while Ross stayed behind. I hated to leave him alone in the middle of the forest when it was about to get dark but the fact that he has a GPS and knows how to use it is the only reason I didn’t demand he leave when we did. Honestly, I have no idea how we got back to the campsite without a GPS because the trail we were on, if you want to call it that, was narrow and extremely confusing. I never would have found my way back at all. Even the guide led me off trail a few times. Ross, when he did catch back up, said he had gotten off the trail no less than 15 times and only made it back thanks to the GPS (he also had nice looks at a flock of Morotai White-eyes while hiking back behind us).

We headed back to camp and enjoyed a lovely dinner of white rice and ramen noodles. Eating healthy for sure! We decided to finish off the night with a little bit of owling and had excellent views of two Barking Owls perched in a tree (although, the photos were a bit subpar!). The Moluccan Scops-owl subspecies remained a heard-only for the night. We were exhausted when we finally went to bed that night since in total we had walked over 20km for the day with elevation gains of over 1000m. Definitely a bit more than we bargained for. We set up our trusty tent and had a few funny looks from our guides as they likely wondered why we needed such a monstrosity. They slept on nothing more than a bed of leaves under a tarp. I assume they thought we were “soft” Americans and have no idea how to “rough it”. I definitely didn’t show them the blow-up air mattress and sleeping bag that I had brought along with me to make my sleep more enjoyable. I slept like a baby while our guides were up half the night from the cold and had to build a fire. Nothing they weren’t used to doing before I’m sure. Ross woke up well before dawn determined to see and photograph that darn scops-owl so he could continue to say he hadn’t dipped a subspecies of it yet. Determination paid off and just before dawn he had a very responsive Moluccan Scops-owl, complete with pictures, sitting in a tree.

Ross and I had a slow morning otherwise and were in no immediate hurry to rush down the mountain. We knew we would bird on the way down but we laughed because if we hadn’t gotten that leaf-warbler the day before, our guides were going to be in for a real treat when we asked to be taken further up instead of going down. Thankfully it didn’t come to that and we started back towards the small town of Mira, 14 km away, and birded along the way. We had great views of Dusky Friarbird and Morotai Drongo while on the walk back down and finally had a sighting of the endemic subspecies of Chattering Lory whose numbers are surely declining with all of the trapping taking place in the area. On our walk back down we came across three people whose sole intent was to capture whatever parrot they could. It was quite sad to see several Chattering Lorys and an Eclectus Parrot chained to a box, unaware that they were going to be used to lure their fellow species into a trap only to live a life in captivity. I tried to explain in hand motions and google translate that this practice of taking wild birds and putting them into disproportionately tiny cages is really bad, but I doubt my efforts went very far. It’s a “tragedy of the commons” as Ross likes to say because if these men didn’t go out and trap a lory to make 20 bucks, their neighbor definitely would so they had better capitalize while they could. Sad to see, but it is their livelihood and until more education occurs, there’s nothing I could do about it in that moment.

We continued on our hike back down and told ourselves that we would be staying in the nicest hotel in town that night. We deserved it. Obviously going down went twice as fast, despite birding along the way. Although Ross had seen all of our targets, I still hadn’t managed to see the Morotai White-eyes. Despite Ross “trolling” for them almost the entire hike down, they remained unseen. Once again though, along the last kilometer of the hike, Ross heard a few Morotai White-eyes calling and quickly taped them in for fantastic views. This form of Cream-throated White-eye is clearly a different species, sounding nothing like its Halmahera counterpart and looking more like a Black-capped Vireo from Texas than a white-eye! Unfortunately Ross’s camera went on the fritz and wouldn’t turn on so we couldn’t get any pictures of the very cooperative birds. Darn! We made it back to the homestay and when we went to pay them, the family said we didn’t even need to pay! Obviously we did though because we felt it was only fair, after all they fed us two meals (dinner on the night we arrived and lunch that afternoon after the hike), allowed us to spend one night on their property and stored our bags for us while we were up the mountain. Once again they were proving that Indonesians really are the best.

That night we went to town and found ourselves in a hotel, but the nicest one in town was fully booked. We settled on the Pacific Inn and it was nice enough that we almost decided against setting up our tent, but a few mosquitos was enough for Ross to know he wouldn’t sleep unless he was on the inside of a protective barrier. Finally having AC and being in a room that was a half decent temperature was all of the oasis we needed.

The following afternoon we got on a plane and headed to Ternate, the small island but big city found off the coast of much larger Halmahera. We had some errands to run and knew that this would be the best place to buy things before heading to the small island of Obi, accessible only via ferry. While we disembarked from the plane we randomly met Lisa Palmae, Dr Lisa Palmae as a matter of fact, and she said that since she was going in that direction and being picked up, her and her friend Thinga Arie could drive us to the ferry terminal before they went diving! It must have been fate because meeting her changed our whole day! We thought it was going to be a bit stressful going to the ferry terminal, buying tickets, then getting back up to the mall to run errands (Ross was in desperate need of a camera lens cap) and doing our grocery shopping before, but Lisa said it was no problem and she would take us. We met 2 of her other friends for lunch, and one of them, Lyana, refused to allow us to pay for our meal!! Lisa and Arie took us to the mall so Ross could buy a lens cap for his camera and Arie, happens to work at the ferry terminal, in fact, he’s the manager of it, so he made sure we had a private room ahead of time. We were thinking we would have to go to the terminal first to secure a room, even though it meant backtracking, but we wanted to be sure we had a private room. It was a perfect afternoon and we were so blessed by the kindness of complete strangers! As we were leaving Lisa we had decided that since she took us in for the last several hours, we should at least give her some money. Don’t you know she didn’t want any and the only way we got her to take it was by promising that she and her friends have ice cream after diving. Ross and I made a mental note that the next Indonesian person we meet in the States is going to get the royal treatment so we can pay this forward!

We left Lisa and Arie so they could finally get out diving and waited around until 9pm when we finally set sail on our 15-hour ferry ride to the island of Obi. Stay tuned!!

Lisa, if you are reading this, THANKS AGAIN!!!! (And come visit us in the US sometime!)

Thinga Arie, Resly Tjiuduan, Lyana Tampanguma, me, Lisa Palmae and Ross after a super yummy lunch!