Sangihe – Indonesia – Mega, Mega, and Another Mega

The outlook for endemic wildlife found on the small island of Sangihe appears to be quite grim. Several species have gone extinct and several others are teetering on the brink of extinction. Stop. Think about this for a second – there are unique living creatures that currently call our blue planet home that will soon no longer exist. GONE. FOREVER. Naturally we wanted to see them before they meet this sad, sad fate.

Gareth Knass, an English birder who visited the area in 2014 does a great job explaining the situation on Sangihe in his recent trip report. Because I don’t think I could do a better job of saying it myself, I’ll include an excerpt from that report detailing the sad condition of this particular island’s birdlife. “Sangihe is one part of an Endemic Bird Area that includes a number of species/forms of birds that have the unfortunate distinction of being incredibly rare and threatened, with a number critically endangered species on Sangihe itself: Cerulean Paradise Flycatcher, Sangihe Shrikethrush, and Sangihe White-eye.  The forms of Dwarf Kingfisher and Golden Bulbul that occur on Sangihe are also most likely at the edge of extinction as well, the former not having been recorded for a number of years, and the latter only rarely recorded.” It’s a pretty bleak outlook already but unfortunately this sentiment isn’t exactly accurate as the Sangihe White-eye that he mentions as “critically endangered” is already extinct.

Needless to say, Ross, Michael Kearns and I were coming to Sangihe with a few targets in mind, but not really knowing if seeing them was even a possibility or if they were already gone, never to be seen by anyone ever again. We knew a few were still plausible so we were hopeful for those but had pretty much already written off the likes of Sangihe Whistler (aka Sangihe Shrikethrush), Sangihe Golden Bulbul and Sangihe White-eye.

Sangihe is a small island located north of Sulawesi and just south of the Philippines. It is among the northernmost islands in Indonesia. Our ferry from Manado to Sangihe left port at 7PM and we arrived at our destination at 3:30AM, a full hour and a half earlier than we expected. I must admit I was somewhat sluggish to want to move at this hour (especially after some early morning starts the last few days) and we didn’t officially leave the ship and get on the road until a full 45 minutes later. We found a taxi driver to take us to the town of Tomako where we were staying at a homestay known as Rainbow Losmen, run by the brother of one of the only people on Sangihe who is fighting to keep the forest intact. Wesley Pangimangen is knowledgeable and passionate about the remaining tracts of forest and is one of the only people who knows the trail up the mountain where the birds might still be around. The top of the mountain, where it is most inconvenient to farm, is the only place that forest remains on the island of Sangihe.

We arrived at Wesley’s house at 0600 and quickly packed a lunch so we could get on the trail early and possibly see some of our targets. Per several trip reports, the trail up the mountain is slippery limestone but the first part of the trail gave us no issues at all and in just an hour’s time we had climbed ~300m in elevation and arrived at the “Garden House” a small house/shack structure built as a stopping point while enroute up the mountain. Our first target of the morning was the critically endangered Cerulean Paradise Flycatcher, with only 60-100 birds remaining of the species. Getting to the garden house may have been easy, but it became more difficult from there when we took a precarious path down to the valley as these birds like to live along the mountain stream’s edge. It was tricky to navigate but the location wasn’t far and we soon were treated to views of two Cerulean Paradise Flycatchers high in the tree! Unfortunately we were near a stream so recording the birds was pointless. The birds quickly moved on but Ross and Michael followed and again were treated to even better views along a section of forest with minimal river noise so Ross was able to snag a really great recording of this extremely vulnerable species. We began the walk back and had nice views of Elegant Sunbird, Sangihe Hanging Parrots perched in a tree, Hooded Pitta, and Sangihe Lilac Kingfisher. We had several hanging parrots flyby earlier and considered ourselves quite lucky to have decent sightings of this tricky endemic. We quickly returned back to the “Garden House” after our 1.4km detour and started on the hike up the mountain. Perhaps this is the section of the hike that the trip reports were referring to when they said “slippery.” Slippery was an understatement, but not of limestone rock like we were expecting, and instead just a steep, narrow path of mud up to the ridge. I’ve never seen Ross, who wants to be able to see something at a moments notice, have to put his binoculars in his bag because they were getting in his way and making it hard to climb up. That’s how slippery this mud was.

The hike was technically difficult with having to navigate over mud but it was super straightforward and we gained another 350m in elevation in only about 2 km! We are often used to climbing in elevation only to go back down and have to climb again, or have to hike a long distance at a gradual climb so the fact that we could get to the crest of the mountain in just 90 minutes was perfect, even if we had to do so via a rather treacherous trail. When we reached 730m in elevation we heard Sangihe Golden Bulbul calling off in the distance. Seriously? Just like that? Ross played tape and we had the birds respond by calling again but never had a sighting. This was great news in that one of the birds we thought might be gone was clearly still around! It also meant that since we now knew the bird was in fact around, we would definitely have to put in a proper amount of effort to see it…

We continued walking and soon reached the top of the mountain around 860m elevation. We ate a small lunch and started walking around exploring the top. There were no views from the top, but the green moss covered trees towering above us were enough of a sight! Believe it or not (and I’m sure you will since I’ll be including a photo) we had sightings of a single Sangihe Whistler, another of the targets that we weren’t sure would even be around! We were very fortunate to have amazing weather on our visit up the mountain. We spent a bit more time wandering the trail and decided we should start birding back down before it got dark. On the way back down we had sightings of Elegant Imperial-Pigeon and more Elegant Sunbirds before catching up with yet another Sangihe Whistler! This time the bird posed in the open for photos and we watched for several minutes as the bird hunted and successfully retrieved a moth from a dead piece of palm matter. It was definitely neat to see! We tried again for the golden bulbul but no such luck. When we made it back to Rainbow Loseman Homestay, we decided to try for Sangihe Scops-Owl and it wasn’t long before we heard one call. We spent a bit of time watching and photographing a cooperative Sangihe Scops-Owl before calling it quits for the night.

Despite this “hope” that the golden bulbuls were around, we weren’t holding our breaths that we might get to see this absolute mega. Ross and Michael planned to wake up at 3AM and hike up in the dark. I honestly thought about going, but the prospect of catching up on some sleep, coupled with the fact that doing this hike completely in the dark sounded less than fun (read: borderline dangerous) and knowing the chances of getting this bird were slim, I opted to stay behind. After all, most people who come to Sangihe dip this bird, but hindsight is always 20/20. Not only did Ross and Michael not dip Sangihe Golden Bulbul, they had two birds extremely well and managed to take some of the best photos ever recorded of this species! Other birds they also managed to catch up with included Sangihe Pitta, Hooded Pitta, and Sangihe Lilac-Kingfisher. By mid-morning they were back at the homestay and we soon were on our way back to the ferry terminal.

Our short trip to Sangihe had been extremely successful, but also very sobering. It’s great to see such rare birds, but also depressing to see what little habitat they have left. Wesley informed us that the forest that we birded was still privately owned and despite his efforts to convince them otherwise, the people would rather chop it down – it was not protected. Unfortunately most of the birds we saw in the past two days won’t be around for much longer.

Next up, the island of Sulawesi!