So much happened during our 11-day trip to the island of Sulawesi, that it’s nearly impossible to describe it exactly. We had a lot of long days and sleepless nights, a few high highs and a few low lows searching for one of Asia’s rarest owls. A lack of sleep is likely contributing to why I have no idea how to go about chronicling our time on Sulawesi, but here is my best attempt. My apologies when this turns into the longest post ever. If you make it all the way to the end, congrats. Let me first say it all started and ended with Tangkoko so if you don’t make it to the end of this post, at least you know where it ended. Overall our trip was a HUGE success and to this day we still look back on it and think “how did that just happen?!”
n case you are wondering where Tangkoko is, it is found on the island of Sulawesi. Sulawesi is a pretty big island, the world’s 11th largest in fact, and is known for its abundance of birdlife. The whole landmass of Sulawesi is shaped like a lopsided ‘letter K’ or a ‘squished spider’ or an ‘octopus laying on its side’ as I’ve heard it described. Pretty accurate if you ask me. Our initial 60-day visa to Indonesia was about to run out, so we didn’t have nearly enough time to bird the island in its entirety so we focused on the north, a region known for its dive sites, volcanic mountains and nature parks.
Our overnight ferry arrived in the harbor at 4AM on July 27th (my birthday!!!) and we immediately began to search for a taxi willing to take us to our next destination, Tangkoko Nature Reserve. Having a plethora of taxi drivers at the port makes negotiating prices much easier. Every time someone said a silly price we just walked away and talked to someone else. We were quoted a few ridiculous prices before we found a guy willing to drive the 2 hours for 200,000 rupiah. We were going to be pressed for time and were a bit sad that we wouldn’t make it to our location, a birding site known as “kilometer 10”, until well after dawn, but there was nothing we could do about that (it wasn’t like we could have made our ferry go faster and arrive earlier.) We knew we would be a bit late but since Kilometer 10 is closer than the nature reserve, we still thought we could get there at a decent time. Kilometer 10 is a lookout site where you stand at a small hilltop overlooking the valley below and scan for birds flying through. We were coming here to hopefully check off some difficult to see targets and knew that birds were going to be most active during the early parts of the day. Lucky for us, when it comes to speed taxi drivers, we hit the jackpot. Or perhaps unlucky for us because we didn’t have seatbelts and found ourselves travelling at speeds of over 110 miles per hour on narrow, winding roads. We didn’t tell our taxi that we were in a hurry but he drove like he was on a mission. We may have been afraid for our lives, but we weren’t late and got to our location just as the sun was rising. Didn’t see that one coming. We arrived on the side of the road and attempted to make our way to the GPS coordinates that we had for the overlook site but we couldn’t find them. In fact we never got any closer than within 300m of the coordinates, but instead we found our own little overlook and this spot proved to be more than adequate. Ross swears that you can’t go on a birding trip without a scope and that morning proved it as he did what he does best, scan distant hillsides and find target birds. We had excellent views of White-bellied Imperial Pigeon, Grey-headed Imperial-Pigeon, Pied Cuckooshrike, Purple-winged Roller, Sulawesi Hanging-Parrot, Pygmy Hanging-Parrot, and Minahasa Racquettail and after just one morning we had already ticked off more than half of our Tangkoko targets. It was a good birthday morning for sure, even if I still didn’t have binoculars to use…. (Lucky for me my birthday present was going to be arriving in just a few days!)
From Km10, we hitch hiked the rest of the way into the small town of Batuputih, a town on the map because it is the only location to access Tangkoko Nature Reserve where plenty of international tourists visit to see the likes of tarsiers and critically endangered endemic monkeys. We too would be visiting the nature reserve to see these creatures, but in addition to the primates known in the area, most of our targets were feathered. We made our way to Mama Roo’s Homestay where birders have stayed in the past and then proceeded to make our way down to the small boat harbor hoping we could coordinate a ride out to the mangrove forest later that afternoon for two targets, White-rumped Cuckooshrike and Great-billed Kingfisher that are known in the area. Unfortunately it was low tide when we arrived so we had some time to kill before the boat we found could actually leave. We didn’t want to pay a park entrance fee for the day to have to turn around right away so we made our way up the road to a spot that looked good from a Google map satellite image of the area. It was a good spot for sure and before we even made it into decent forest, we had views of three White-rumped Cuckooshrikes, one of our main targets for the mangroves! (Good thing because we didn’t see any while we were actually in the mangroves!) then made our way deeper in and found a trail system in this nice patch of forest. The forest looked so promising that we knew we would definitely be coming back after our boat ride but did make the most of the afternoon when we found a territorial Sulawesi Pitta, an extremely good bird to get out of the way so soon!
We had to rush back to the harbor and got on a small boat up to the mangroves. Tide was still a bit too low for our boat to make it in with us riding in it, so we had to walk along the beach while our driver managed to get the boat into the canal. We hopped back in and quickly had excellent views of a Great-billed Kingfisher! We continued up the canal looking for more kingfishers and just as we were about to have to turn around as the canal dead ends, Michael noticed a bird fly across the river and another bird perched up over the canal. This time the Great-billed Kingfisher perched over the water let us get extremely close and both Ross and Michael managed excellent photos! We happened to do extremely well when it came to kingfishers that afternoon as we also had views of Collared, Sacred, and Common Kingfishers in addition to our three Great-billed.
We took the boat back to town and stopped at our homestay to make sure they could set us up with a guide for the national forest the next day. We didn’t want a guide but were under the impression that we needed to have one. The homestay said they could find us someone so we went back to the forest patch we found earlier and hoped to catch up with our guide later that evening to coordinate a plan for the next day. We arrived at the forest patch and birded for the remainder of the evening and then waited for it to get dark so we could finally take a stab at finding at least one of our nighttime targets. You see, we technically had 4 night targets to find while we were in the area Sualwesi Nightjar, Sulawesi Scops-Owl, Ochre-bellied Boobok, and Minahasa Masked Owl. The first night while we were walking around the forest patch we discovered just how common and conspicuous Sulawesi Scops-Owls are, as we had no less than 5 singing around us at one given point, one of which was so comfortable with our presence he allowed us to get within 3 feet of him and posed for a selfie. If you base how successful your birthday is on how many life birds you see that day, or owl selfies, my 28th birthday was a huge success!
The only downside came when we arrived back at Mama Roo’s Homestay and met with our “guide” for the following morning. First of all he was (in his own words) “not the best guide for birds” but the real kicker was that he wanted 500,000 Rp per person, a fee that did not even include the entrance fee to the park!!! It was 8pm when we returned from our owling and Mama Roo’s refused to cook us dinner saying it was too late. They also refused to assist in finding a different “guide” saying that they were not interested in helping. (I’m including this detail so that others seek out lodging elsewhere as Mama Roo’s is not the place to stay if you want decent service!) We packed up our bags and left on the spot. Luckily we didn’t have far to go as there are a few homestays in the area and we were quickly taken in by Tarsius Homestay and they said it was not too late to eat dinner! Crisis averted! They also coordinated for us to have a guide for the following morning and while he was by no means a bird guide, his fees were only 400,000 (per person) for the whole day – leaving early and staying out after dark – and included the 150,000 entrance fee so we agreed. We really only needed him as an escort after all.
Michael and Ross were out birding the road (at 2AM) when they crossed paths with Julien Mazenauer, a Swiss birder whom Ross has been corresponding with for nearly a year regarding various trips but never had the chance to meet. We were definitely looking forward to meeting Julien and that night he dropped off my birthday present, a new pair of binoculars that he had gone out of his way to pick up for me – 6 hours via train out of his way to be exact! Julien knows first-hand how horrible it is to be without binoculars so he went and got them and brought them along on his trip to give to me. The only good thing about not having binoculars was that it was short-lived! Thank you again Julien for picking these up! Not having “eyes” was getting old!! Julien was to be birding North Sulawesi for a few days with local guide Samuel whom we had messaged with prior to our visit but was unavailable, likely because he was already booked by Julien! Although Julien did ask if we wanted to join him on his tour, we had to decline because we knew we would be able to do it much cheaper if we did it ourselves.
We woke up early the next morning and headed into the nature reserve. It wasn’t even light when we had our first views of a singing Green-backed Kingfisher, a bird that would prove itself to be very common and conspicuous over the remainder of the day. Our guide showed us to the trail and we had fantastic views of a close Purple-winged Roller in addition to Ornate Lorikeets and Lilac-breasted Kingfisher. We stayed off of the main paths but not before we got to see an ever-adorable Spectral Tarsier in its chosen roosting tree. (We came to feel sorry for this particular tarsier because it seemed that s/he was awoken from roosting at all hours of the day. Every time we passed this tree there was someone standing there taking a picture, sometimes using a flash!) We picked up several birds including Red-backed Thrush, but the morning was arguably pretty slow. Apparently all guides insist on a “lunch break” from the hours of 11-2, so we headed back to our homestay to eat lunch and relax during the hottest part of the day. We were tired so it was worth it. Plus our homestay cost included lunch so we took full advantage of that! We went back out to the trail and decided to try for Sulawesi Bush-hen. Typically seeing these birds is very difficult so trying for them at two in the afternoon sounds like the recipe for failure but instead we had excellent and close views of TWO Sulawesi Bush-hens feeding in the tall grass and watched as they would jump off the ground to snag a bug at the top of the grassy vegetation. They never knew we were there and we essentially had walk-away views!
We continued meandering the trails through various gullies hoping our guide could show us where we could find a Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher. The areas we visited looked good but we never found our target kingfisher. We did however get to see a Bear Cuscus, an endemic mammal, as it climbed up a tree. We finished the day by staying out in the park until after dark to try again for Minahasa Masked-Owl but no such luck, other than hearing it call. Guess we will have to try again, Ross Gallardy does not dip owls.
We weren’t too sure what we were going to do for a guide the following day because we wanted to see if we could team up with Julien and Samuel. Unfortunately we didn’t have contact information for our guide when Samuel said “it would not be possible” for us to tag along. (Likely because he thought we were staying at Mama Roo’s Homestay and refuses to guide anyone staying there, so we aren’t the only ones who have problems with Mama Roo’s!) Since we had a guide the day before and knew the areas we wanted to be, we opted to just go into the park without one, although at the time we weren’t sure if that was frowned upon or not. We figured that if a guide was required, we’d just pick one up along the way, no big deal. We spent the morning checking various gullies for Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher as it was the most difficult target that we still needed to see. It’s hard birding when you only have one target in mind and focus on staying in a particular habitat, gullies in our case, and other than picking up White-faced Cuckoo-dove in the early part of the morning we really didn’t have too much else. We definitely didn’t have the kingfisher despite a full day spent looking for one.
If only we had birded with Julien that day, because while they were hanging out around the Knobbed Hornbill nest, an area we were very familiar with, one simply came to them! So not fair but at least we knew where to look the next day! That night we tried again for Minahasa Masked-Owl and, as had become custom, failed. Julien and Samuel however had success in finding a Minahasa Masked-Owl, and although we were already back in our homestay we quickly got back out to the trail when we received Julien’s Facebook message that they had the bird! We passed them on the trail and Julien gave us directions while Samuel shared his recording of Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher when he learned of our mishap at Mama Roo’s. Turns out the spot they had the owl was much further into the forest than we had been up until this point. I went back to the homestay knowing I needed sleep if I was going to go birding the next day while Ross and Michael hiked up in the dark. Ross returned around 2AM and informed me that Michael decided he would just sleep up there on the ground under a tree. Ross and I woke up at 4AM to head back to try again for this owl. It wasn’t exactly close and each time we went to this spot we would have to hike nearly an hour! Surely after 5 tries we could find it right? Wrong. We heard the owl super close but never got on it. At this point we were very familiar with the ins and outs of the trails at Tangkoko and decided we would hang out up at a spot known as “the hornbill’s nest” and hope we might come across an accipiter or run into that dwarf-kingfisher that we know was seen in the area just the day prior. Guides were bringing tourists up to the hornbill nest so they could watch as the colorfully adorned male Knobbed Hornbill would come to feed the female who had locked herself up in a cavity of the tree until their eggs hatch. The guides all knew what we were looking for and at one point mid-morning after Ross, Michael and I had split up to cover more ground when a guide came up to Ross saying they had found a Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher! Unfortunately they know how to play the game with tourists and refused to take us until we paid them 400,000 Rp! Yes, it’s a lot but we were desperate. I think there comes a time after you’ve dedicated so much time to finding a single bird that really you’ll do anything to just tick it off and be done with it. That’s basically what happened. Although we wanted to tell him “don’t you want to do it out of the kindness of your heart, you already have a tour group over there that is paying you??” we were pressed for time and wanted to be sure we saw the kingfisher before it flew off so we….. agreed. The guide showed us to a nearby gully, one we didn’t immediately recognize and there we saw it, the small bird with big colors, Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher! Finally.
We spent some time in that gully with that bird and Xeno-Canto users can thank us later when we get home and Ross uploads the best recording of this species to date. (Unless you count the more-than-passable one Michael managed using his cellphone voice recorder!) Prior to this the only recording available online was sub-par and likely explains why we never could get one to respond. We walked back to town for lunch and coordinated for rides out of town later that evening. But not before we tried for that darn masked-owl for the SIXTH time since we arrived. On the hike up to the forest before dark we taped in a Spot-tailed Goshawk, but with regards to the owl, it was the same song and dance – we tried and failed.
We left Tangkoko that night and drove a few hours to Tomohon where we spent the “night” (aka we arrived at midnight and left at 0400) in a resort-style hotel. The following morning we were taken to a birding location known as Gunung Mahawu well before first light so we could search for another kingfisher! If you aren’t searching for Scaly-breasted Kingfisher before light you probably aren’t going to see the bird as it only calls in the early morning and late evening and remains virtually silent and inactive during the other hours of the day. I feel like I’ve been super long-winded lately so I’ll be brief, but the fact that we found a trail into the forest is a minor miracle that I can’t gloss over. When we arrived on the mountain it was still very much dark and the air was thick with fog. We were searching for a small trail using the light of our headlamps hoping that the vegetation and fog wouldn’t obscure it. Ross is some kind of wizard though and has inconceivable insight into maps and trails, that he found one and said we should take it. We did and then made several rights and lefts and a small stream crossing somewhere in the middle before we found our way to the GPS coordinates we had for where someone else had seen the bird. Crazy that we made it there considering we did not have GPS coordinates for the start of the trail and Ross simply found the point by guessing trail directions! It was before first light when the bird started to call and Ross and I managed to tape it in and had great looks of a bird up-close. Unfortunately Michael was down the trail and missed seeing the bird before it flew off. We walked up the trail a bit searching for a few other species and ran into a few Sulawesi Jungle-Flycatchers. One bird, a female Sulawesi Jungle-Flycatcher, at first glance looks very similar to the much rarer Rufous-throated Flycatcher which is sometimes reported from the site, although the book notes that the bird is found below 600m elevation and this location is well above that. We scoured google images after we got back to town and found that even some sites online have the bird misidentified! (Also after some correspondence afterwards, it appears no one has actually confirmed Rufous-throated Flycatcher at Mahawu despite a number of eBird reports. So be careful with your flycatchers and if you actually do see a Rufous-throated there, take a picture!)
When we arrived back at our lodge, we figured we could pack our things and coordinate a ride to Kotamabagu. We had no idea that no vehicles make a direct route to Kotamabagu and that we must go through Manado first. We hoped we could make it birding by that afternoon but those dreams quickly faded and we spent the rest of the afternoon catching a ride with Michael to Manado (he left his recorder back in Tangkoko and was planning to meet someone from the homestay to deliver it) before taking a shared taxi to Kota. It was only 6pm when we arrived at our destination, but apparently that was too late for anyone to be willing to drive us to Tambon. Eventually we did find a bemo, but I’d rather not remember that ride as the driver completely ripped us off. (For anyone planning to go in the future, pay no more than 20-50k for this ride!) Anyway, we arrived late that night at Max’s homestay outside of the national park where Max has dedicated the last twenty plus years to saving Maleo birds. Maleos are interesting in that they are scrub-fowl type birds who lay massive eggs (very disproportional to their body size) in the ground so that the thermal heat from the volcanic soil can incubate the eggs. Also interesting is that the chicks can fly as soon as they hatch! Unfortunately they are critically endangered and efforts are being made to save them so when birds come to lay eggs, they are dug up and moved to a secure location to be protected from outside predators (human and animal).
The next morning we weren’t the only ones who were in town to see these endemic birds. Turns out Julien and Helene with Samuel and also an entire tour group from Birdtour Asia were all in attendance! When it rains it pours I guess and the massive group of people went out to walk the trails. We started the morning scanning a clearing picking up a few birds like Maroon-chinned Fruit-dove before we were alerted that a Maleo was spotted high in a tree! They aren’t nesting this time of year so we had to settle with views of the birds in a tree as opposed to coming in to lay eggs. We birded the trails for a bit longer with Julien before we came back for breakfast. Normally we NEVER eat breakfast during the precious hours of the morning, but since we were tagging along for the morning we had to head back for breakfast as well. This actually turned out to be a good idea as just before we sat down to eat, we saw a small group of Short-crested Mynas perched up on the hillside above the homestay. After breakfast Julien and Helene left and we left soon thereafter as well because we didn’t have anyone to “guide” us through the trails of the national park being that Max was preoccupied with BirdTour Asia and his assistant was with Julien. Oh well. Disadvantages of independent birding perhaps but we saw Maleo for a fraction of the price!
From Tambon we made our way to Torout which is actually a different side of the same national park. We acquired a room there and made our way to a nearby road to look for Ivory-breasted Woodswallow. After reaching the crest of the hill, we got out of the taxi we had hired and started walking down the road and scanning the open areas. It didn’t take long before we saw our first target fly by, an adult Sulawesi Hawk-eagle. In fact there were a lot of raptors around including Sualwesi Honey-Buzzard and Black Eagle. Next up was the main target, Ivory-breasted Woodswallow which we saw several of as they flew above the forest hawking insects. Since it was still early afternoon and we had seen our main targets, we made the decision to return to Torout and spend the late afternoon on the trail system. Although we didn’t see too much of interest, after dark we had nice looks at Speckled Boobook. That night we also attempted to see Sulawesi Masked-Owl, but no such luck despite hearing it call several times. Darn those masked-owls. We woke up early the next morning to the sounds of the masked owl calling but again couldn’t see the bird. Ross and Michael went birding that morning while I wisely stayed behind as they didn’t see a single new bird, the only real highlight was having much better views of Pied Cuckooshrike.
Our next destination is known among birders as Gunung Ambang and we made our way to “Julius’s Homestay” where Julius knows the birds of the forest and often acts as a guide to the trails for visiting birders. We made it to town for only 15,000 Rp via public bemo and found that Julius wasn’t home, but truthfully the trails were straight forward and Ross, who likes to do things entirely himself, was happy to not have the extra company. We dropped our bags at the homestay and spent the afternoon getting a feel for the area. We quickly picked up Purple-bearded Bee-eater and Red-eared Fruit-Dove while walking the trail and just before dark Michael and Ross managed to get great views of a Scaly-breasted Kingfisher while I stayed behind to read my book (luckily I had seen that one at Mahawu!). That night we stayed until after dark to try for Cinnabar Boobook but no such luck. We did have great looks at a Sulawesi Masked-Owl which was seen flying through the fields on the walk down and had another one perch on a snag providing nice views. We were fed a delicious meal by the ladies of the homestay and were off to sleep!
Morning came quickly as we were out the door before 4am so we could try for Cinnabar Boobook again because, as you may have guessed from the title, Ross Gallardy does not dip owls. We started at the same spot as the night before where we heard no less than 5 boobooks calling, but again, despite being quite vocal, the birds didn’t seem to want to come in. Eventually we moved further up the trail and finally had a bird that was responsive to our tapes! He came and perched in the open but we weren’t able to manage a picture, mostly because I was too lazy to hold the flash and Ross had to dig it out of his bag. Sorry babe! Unfortunately the bird flew before we were all set up making this only the 3rd owl of the trip that we haven’t managed a photo of. (Not bad considering how many owls we’ve seen! That Ross Gallardy guy is pretty serious when it comes to seeing and photographing owls…)
We walked up and down the trails and the day was quite productive with views of Matinan Flycatcher, Malia, Dark-eared Myza, and Flame-browed Myna, but easily the best bird of the day was finally catching a glimpse (and actually great views) of Sombre Pigeon, a bird we attempted to tape in earlier in the day after hearing it call. Many people dip this bird altogether and certainly rarely see it perched in a tree. We had the bird perched nicely but Ross’s camera was refusing to turn on (an ongoing and amazingly frustrating problem) so he wasn’t able to get a photo. Michael did snap a few record shots but his position made the bird much more obscured, and since he isn’t able to use manual focus, the picture isn’t the greatest, but despite the flaws, he did agree to let me post a photo of it so y’all know I’m not making this up!
After a successful day, Ross and I concluded that we were going to head back to town and get a hotel while Michael stayed behind to try for the boobook again. Before you chide us for going back to town, it turned out to be the best decision we made as we came back to find we had some e-mails with some time-sensitive information that we had to take care of. But really, sleeping in a nice comfy bed should be all of the excuse we needed.
The original itinerary did not have us going back to Tangkoko but since we managed all of our other targets and were refusing to miss that darn Minahasa Masked-Owl. Sure, we’d put in a lot of effort already and our dip was more than justified, but Ross simply refuses to dip owls so we packed our bags and headed back to Tangkoko where our whole trip to Northern Sulawesi began. Michael met up with us later and that evening the three of us walked back to the same place we had been trying to try once again. As always, we did the hour-long hike uphill to the spot. Normally we would give up and go elsewhere, but knowing that Julien had it in that area made us keep coming back. And don’t you know, we dipped it once again! We knew this owl was going to be hard but I don’t think we expected it to be THIS hard.
We didn’t have many possible targets in the area but knew that a sparrowhawk was recently seen in the area when Samual identified a raptor that he and Julien saw as a Small Sparrowhawk, so we stuck around until mid-afternoon to see what the morning would have in store. We did come across a sparrowhawk, but were unsure of what species it was given that the book description was contradicting with the drawing depiction and the sound description wasn’t quite matching up either. We figured it was the same bird that Samual had called a Small but Ross really wasn’t convinced, mainly because of the sound description. Ross managed audio recordings as well as a photo of the bird perched and in flight and planned to ask people who are more familiar with the species. (Update: BirdForum users (i.e. James Eaton) have concluded that the bird we had was Vinous-breasted Sparrowhawk! If only there were information made pubic so that we could have nailed this ID ourselves…) We went back to town by 10am to catch up with some much-needed sleep.
When evening rolled around, we had already decided we weren’t messing around. We had one last night before we flew out of Sulawesi and we planned to use every hour that we could to track down and see this Minahasa Masked-Owl so we packed our tent, some food for dinner and set off on the hour-long hike to the same spot we had been trying, only this time we planned to camp there and spend as long as it took. We arrived and opted to start the night off underneath a different tree close to our same spot. Darkness rolled around and we started to play the sound of the masked-owl. This bird calls very infrequently so we would play tape infrequently to match the bird’s typical behavior. When we didn’t have a response, we decided to walk back over to the big tree we’d been trying under before. On the way back I hear Ross scream “that’s it! Melissa get over here!” Apparently Ross had stumbled across a Minahasa Masked-Owl in a bush. The bird freed itself from the plant and perched on the side of a nearby tree only about 7ft off of the ground! We had excellent photos but realized the bird wasn’t acting anything like we thought it would. It had moved a few times, but not well and we began to wonder if it was injured or hurt so Ross decided to take a closer look and found himself stroking the back of a Minahasa Masked-Owl after checking it for injuries. Oddly the bird didn’t seem to mind and didn’t make any effort to fly away. It appeared to be okay enough and we felt it would be in its best interest to be left alone as it was. Our only guess is that it had gotten stuck in that bush while trying to snatch a rat and was more or less stunned from the impact. It probably didn’t help that this was exactly the same time that we found it. When I say “we” I really mean “Ross.” Michael is self-admittedly “useless at finding owls” and I simply do not have the right amount of perseverance. Ross on the other hand has the skill and determination necessary and takes pride in his ability to find – and photograph – even the most difficult of owls! Plus he just refuses to dip owls!
After trying so hard so many nights before, it was on our last night, the night that we walked up with all of our camping gear, that we finally were rewarded with walkaway views of the owl we had lost so many hours of sleep over. We did the math and calculated that we had spent 22 hours over 5 nights trying for this owl. Perhaps that made finally seeing this one all the more sweeter. And not just seeing it, watching from only a few feet away at eye-level.
We left Sulawesi on one of the biggest highs of the trip thus far.