Before we visit an island Ross usually gives me the rundown of what to expect and I’ve come to appreciate that he doesn’t sugar coat things. But when his exact words were “you’re going to hate birding Talaud” I was more than skeptical and questioned why we would be going in the first place. He followed that sentence up with, “the birds we are looking for are going to be difficult, and there’s a good chance we will miss several of our targets. We need to find a lory that has essentially been trapped out, a rail that is as impossible to see as Invisible Rail only it doesn’t even call as much, and a bush-hen that is all but mythical.” Maybe those weren’t his exact words but they were pretty close and I was pretty sure that birding Talaud meant we wouldn’t really be seeing any birds. Ross was right though, I HATE trying for birds and not seeing them so normally I would hate Talaud-style “look and always dip” birding, but this was currently fine by me because I didn’t even have binoculars anymore. (They were lost/stolen on Obi in case you missed that from the last post.) At least we had a pitta and a few more common subspecies to see and Ross was fairly confident we would at least get those, even though pittas can be quite shy and skulky. So with that kind of mental preparation for the difficult birds to look forward to, we went to Talaud and met up with Michael Kearns who was to be joining us for the next 3 weeks of our Indonesian travels.
Talaud is a small island found at the northern tip of the Sulawesi Region of Indonesia, nearly as far north as you can go before you cross over into the Philippines. In fact, several of the subspecies of birds found here more closely resemble Filipino birds than Indonesian ones. Anyway, we dropped our bags off in our hotel in the small town of Beo and met up with local bird guide Mike (not to be confused with Michael who is birding with us) and he spent the rest of the afternoon with us as we tried our best to see our #1 target but also most difficult bird, Talaud Rail, followed in a close second by Talaud Bush-hen. It was 2 PM when we finally hit the trail and we hoped that we could find something before calling it quits for the night.
Mike took us to a trail through the forest only 5km south from town that the rail and bush-hen have been seen from before. As we were walking up the trail Michael spots a Talaud Bush-hen but it darts across the trail before anyone else can get a look at it. The weather was rather ominous and we were preparing for the rain that was threatening to come. At least a little rain wouldn’t completely put-off the skulky ground birds we were searching for. We walked up the trail and saw a few birds such as Black Sunbird and Grey-sided Flowerpecker before the rain started and we decided to split up and stake out a few areas of the trail hoping that we might catch a glimpse of either of our targets before it was too dark. Oddly Mike, our local guide who sat alone up the trail from us, saw both the rail and the bush-hen from the same spot. We weren’t sure if he was telling the truth or not because that sounded a little too good to be true but just in case we decided that the following morning we would sit in the same spot and hope we might be as lucky.
The next day we thought that Mike would be joining us, and while he picked us up and dropped us off at the trailhead at 0400, he never came up the trail and we didn’t know what happened to him. We never even had a chance to pay him for the day before! We weren’t too upset because we didn’t necessarily need him but thought that he might like to join us for at least one full day of our 3 1/2 days on the island. Anyway, we got to the spot well before light and waited for daybreak because this is the best time to see rails as they might come out to cross the trail. It was 5:50AM when a Talaud Rail comes out on to the trail. Michael is the first to spot it but Ross is the only one of us who manages to get an identifiable look at it (keep in mind I’m birding without binoculars.) Regardless, even naked eye I watched as the skulky bird crossed into the trail and stopped momentarily before being startled off. We waited around for a few more hours hoping it might come and allow for a better view back but it never did. All was not in vain though and from that single spot we managed almost all of our other targets! Red and Blue Lory, which we thought might be tricky due to the rampant pet trade, proved to be quite common and we had no less than 12 fly over us at various points throughout the morning. We knew from prior trip reports that people have missed this one altogether. We also had views of Talaud Pitta, Talaud Kingfisher, and the local almost black-headed subspecies of Black-naped Oriole, all of which were targets for the trip. Ross also managed the endemic subspecies of Sulawesi Cicadabird. Except for a small break for lunch, we spent the rest of the day walking along the trail and finished the day staked out the same spot that we had started it just in case the rail would come back across it before night.
We started out the next morning at the same spot hoping the rail might come back again and allow us to get better views and/or photographs. Unfortunately finding a ride at 4AM proved to be quite difficult and we didn’t manage to make it to our spot for quite a while. In fact, it was nearly 5:30 before we arrived and sat down to watch what the early morning hours would bring. There was a terrible storm from the night before that brought down several trees onto the trail so we had to move a few before we had a decent view of the stretch of trail we planned to watch. No rail turned up that morning, but a nice consolation prize came in the form of excellent views of the endemic subspecies of Tabon Scrubfowl that crossed out onto the trail and proceeded to walk up it before perching up on the one fallen tree that was too big to move out of the way. We also had more views of Black-naped Oriole, Elegant Imperial-Pigeon, and Grey Imperial-Pigeon continuing to prove that there’s really only one spot you need to come to if you want to pick up all of the endemic birds found on Talaud. Well, except for the fact that we hadn’t even heard a Talaud Bush-hen.
We decided to head back to town early and check out a different spot north of town for the remainder of the day that might be better for the bush-hen. Considering I never planned on seeing a single bird, the fact that only one target was left was pretty darn good. Call me a fair-weather birder all you want, but I was more than willing to take that one as a dip and spent the afternoon relaxing in the hotel with my nose in a good book while the more dedicated braved the terrible weather and actually went to the birding spot. I wasn’t there, but when I finally met back up with Ross and Michael, I learned that Ross not only saw a Talaud Rail again, but also had a Talaud Bush-hen run directly at him after he had played the tape of the bird’s call. Michael was able to witness this bush-hen encounter and later met back up with Ross saying “Did you see that bush-hen charge directly at you?!” In other words, the afternoon was a success with Ross ticking the two birds he needed despite an hour of not knowing where to go and several hours in the heat with not much else going on. Aside from the bush-hen and rail sightings, the afternoon was rather dead and not much else was had except Island Monarch, more Red and Blue Lories, and Grey-cheeked Green-Pigeon.
After hearing of their success and still needing the bush-hen altogether and a better view of the rail, we went back to the same area that Michael and Ross visited the afternoon before. The spot looked perfect for small ground-dwelling birds with thick forests on either side of a narrow trail and I kept saying that if I were a rail I would want to live here, but what do I know about being a rail? Anyway, we woke up at the ungodly hour of 3AM and were out the door by 0330. Ross made sure to let me know that he loved me because the only reason he was coming was to help me find a bird, after all he had already seen all of the birds. Actually I believe his exact words were “I’m coming along to help you dip Talaud Bush-hen.” Clearly he was not confident that we would have it again. We waited for the sun to come up but never did see either target bird. By 7AM we called it quits so we could walk the hour back to the hotel and grab a taxi to the airport for our late morning flight.
Regardless, of me missing the bush-hen, (and I’m not sure Michael is even counting the rail) Talaud was a huge success. Apparently if you set the bar low, in my case a goal of seeing zero birds, you can do quite well. Despite a bit of rain, we had a lot of success and Talaud was nothing like how I pictured it would be. Except for the amount of mud, that much was exactly as I had pictured it.