Tanimbar – Indonesia – An Unlikely Encounter

When you’re out walking the roads all day with binoculars around your neck, a camera hanging on your shoulder, and a scope in your hand, it’s no surprise that people notice you. Indonesians are very friendly and yell “hello mister” to us as they zoom by on their motorbikes. Occasionally people will stop to talk and we tell them about the amazing bird life that calls their island home. More often than not, they have no idea that there are birds found on their island that are found nowhere else in the world. Although we have made it common practice to educate people whenever we get the opportunity, most of the time the conversation sticks to a simple hello and a smile. (Actually, this practice happens with 90% of the people who pass us on the streets because it never hurts to be nice.) But to get back to my point, it’s funny how saying hello to one person can impact you in such a big way.

Such was the case on the first afternoon in Tanimbar when a man stopped Ross on the side of the road and asked him “do you know Mark?”  and our whole experience on Tanimbar changed drastically. What were the odds that we would know Mark? Well, pretty close to zero. But he had asked anyway. We were on the other side of the world and don’t even speak bahasa, but the man continued with “he’s studying birds” and that quickly peaked Ross’s interest. Maybe Ross didn’t know Mark but now he wanted to. Before long the man’s wife was kicked off of the back of the motorbike and Ross was on his way to meet Mark.

Technically we weren’t on the island of Tanimbar, but rather on the island of Yamenda, the largest among the cluster of the 65 smaller islands commonly referred to as the Tanimbar Islands. Yamenda itself is commonly referred to as Tanimbar and sits in the Banda Sea on the Eastern edge of Indonesia. We had arrived via the new airport which is located 15 km from the main town on the island, Saumlaki. The old airport location was very close to Saumlaki and definitely more convenient for visiting birders arriving on the island and hoping to get out birding later that day, all you had to do was drop your bags at a nearby hotel and get on your way to the birding spots located outside of town. Unfortunately the location of the new airport makes going out birding rather difficult for independent birders. Instead of dropping off bags and getting on the road, one must now go the 15 km into town to drop off the bags and then take a ride back in the exact same direction as the airport to get to the birding spots. Perhaps birding with everything on your back is an option for some, but we don’t necessarily travel light and it was not possible for us to walk around carrying our two bags and find birds at the same time. So to the town of Saumlaki we went where we promptly found a hotel.

It was almost a full night of travel getting from Singapore to Tanimbar so I opted to take the afternoon of birding off; I am a much more enjoyable partner when I’ve had adequate sleep. Ross left me to nap while he went out birding and, as usual, he had some good birds that afternoon such as Fawn-breasted Thrush, Slaty-backed Thrush, and Tanimbar Flycatcher, but perhaps the best event was meeting Mark.

Ross comes back to me in the hotel a few hours later and says “change of plans, we aren’t staying here anymore.” I went outside and met Dr Mark O’Hara and learned that he and his partner Dr. Berenika Mioduszewska are doing research on Tanimbar (Goffin) Cockatoos’ intelligence and behavior. They have set up a small field station with a local family and we were invited to stay with them in a spare room. The homestay happens to be within walking distance of the birding locations and thusly saved us several hundred thousand rupiah in transportation costs, time coordinating rides and going back and forth between locations, not to mention provided us with up-close views of the cockatoos and overall made our visit to Tanimbar very enjoyable with good conversation and insight into the local practices of the Indonesian people. Mark and Berenika are mentoring the local family and hoping that turning their research station into a place for birders to stay will help show the people that protecting the forests does more than just save the wildlife, it can also be a valuable source of income.

We fell asleep quickly that night and the next morning woke up at 0300 to try for owls. Only about a kilometer away from the homestay we quickly had views of Tanimbar Masked-Owl, the most difficult of the two owls to see on Tanimbar. This particular owl was very responsive and perched in the bare branches of a tree right next to the road. We continued on our way to our birding destination for the morning, an old logging road, and there had a pair of very responsive Tanimbar Boobooks allowing Ross to get recordings of different calls and a few passable photos! After the fiasco in Tangkoko with Minahasa Masked-Owl we thought we were destined to be up all night searching for owls but just like that both of our owl targets were out of the way!

We hoped to find Tanimbar Scrubfowl in the early morning of the logging road but since GPS coordinates for the logging road were a bit confusing, we weren’t sure we were in the right place. It was going to be getting light soon and we found ourselves in a field with a shack and no clear path to a forest continuing on. We were in the process of leaving and had started the walk out when we met a local man whom told us the forest continued. He then led us back to where we were and then onward into the forest. Without his help we would have lost hours of time going back to the road looking for another entrance to the forest, and likely never finding it. We left this kind local when we stopped to scan a fruiting tree, thanked him for his assistance and told him he could continue on with his business for the day. The kindness of local Indonesians continues to impress us! Anyway, this fruiting tree was loaded and we couldn’t walk past without properly scanning it. There were no less than 70 Rose-crowned Fruit-doves and 15-20 Wallace’s Fruit-doves coming in to eat the berries. Along with them we had a flock of Tanimbar Starlings, but perhaps the best bird of the tree was a “Violet-hooded” Metallic Starling among the flock, a VERY good bird to get as even BirdQuest only got it for the first time a year prior! Although it is probably only ever going to be a subspecies, the bird cooperatively perched up next to a Tanimbar Starling easily showing the difference in tail shape and eye color.

We continued our walk along the old logging road and found that the forest remained birdy all day long even in the hot hours mid-day. By the end of the day we had walked over 20km and picked up most of our target birds such as Loetoe Monarch, Black-bibbed Monarch, Fawn-breast Thrush, Tanimbar Drongo, Tanimbar Bush-Warbler, and Kai Cicadabird. After our first full day Ross only had 3 birds left on his list of birds to see on Tanimbar! (Missing that first afternoon and several species during the day meant my target list was a little longer…) We headed back to Goffin Lab a little early so that Ross could have time to investigate a point that he saw on an eBird checklist. Often these points are not in exact locations so he wasn’t sure if the point where Tanimbar Scrubfowl was seen would actually produce a trail as no other information was given in the checklist. When Ross went on a scouting mission that night it seemed that there was a trail in the general vicinity and we decided that this was the place we would try for the scrubfowl the following morning. We headed back to Goffin Lab Homestay and were fed a delicious meal before falling asleep after a long day in the field.

It was another early morning wakeup call so we could get to what we dubbed “Scrubfowl Trail” before light to investigate further. The trail continued and we made our way to the point in the eBird checklist, or so we think comparing it to Google Earth satellites of the area. It was a bit of a guessing game for us, because no trip reports mention this location, merely a single point on an eBird list, but it paid off in the end. We were early so we waited here until just before dawn when we decided to walk further up the trail playing the call of the scrubfowl. We had maybe walked another 500m when we heard one respond in the distance. That was our cue to sit down and make ourselves as inconspicuous as we could without a proper blind. Ross played the tape again and a Tanimbar Scrubfowl came flying in like a bat out of hell into a nearby tree. We weren’t exactly expecting that from such an elusive game bird. The bird dropped down before Ross could snap a photo but we could hear no less than 5 birds calling so we decided to stay put and see what would happen. If we had known the bird was going to fly in like that we would have been a little more prepared. These shy birds rarely exhibit that kind of behavior! Ross was in the process of recording the calls when another bird, or maybe the same bird came out of the forest into the trail super close to where we were. Because it was so close, it saw us immediately and quickly flew off. That was twice now that we missed an opportunity for a photograph! In reading trip reports it seems that tour groups would always get this one but independent groups hadn’t quite figured out how to tick this one yet. Hopefully this spot in the future will be beneficial to others. We do not have a photo (although we should) but we do have some recordings that will make their way to xeno-canto at some point in the future.

With that target in the bag early, we only had two targets left, Tanimbar Crow and Pied Bronze-cuckoo, both of which would more easily be found in more open areas like along the road. We were in the process of leaving when two men making their way down the trail stopped us and asked if we were looking for “maleo” the Indonesian name they have for the scrubfowl. They said they would show us a mound where they lay eggs if we pay them. We simply asked if they would take us because they were nice. I guess they wanted to be nice so they showed us to a mound free of charge but what we found when we got there was a death trap. Literally. There were no less than 8 snares set up around the mound so that the birds would be trapped when they came to lay an egg. Naturally we had to take them all down. Why people still go into the forest to hunt these endangered (???) birds despite the fact that they have much less meat on them than the 10 chickens and ducks they have outside of their house is beyond me. I would think raising and eating chickens from right outside your house would be easier. We knew no birds were going to come in to the mound with all of the rattling of taking down the traps so we opted to leave and head out to the road. (Maybe without all of the traps they will come in the future. We did tell Emus and hope he can speak to the villagers about how this is not good practice and the potential for income by keeping the birds alive.)

We walked up and down the road for I don’t know how many times and finally had a Pied Bronze-cuckoo fly across the road. It took almost 1 ½ days of walking the main road to finally see a single bronze-cuckoo and we never heard one call during the entire time we were there! They must be silent this time of year. Now our only target remaining was a crow subspecies that is likely going to remain as a subspecies of Torresian Crow. Since it was split already once and then lumped again, I doubt it will be re-split any time soon, if ever. But we had nothing else to do so walk the road looking for crows it was. Midday we took a break and Berenika showed us the cockatoo aviary where she is doing research. After that Ross and I decided to get back out to the road and Emus asked if he could join. We opted to go down to where Ross had visited the first afternoon and there we had great looks at a Slaty-backed Thrush and a Tanimbar Flycatcher. The afternoon was productive and I gained two new life birds and taking that first afternoon off didn’t feel like such a bad idea anymore! (But to be honest, it never felt like a bad idea!)

Ross and I began our walk back up the road towards Goffin Lab birding along the way. We had agreed to meet Berenika and Mark on the road to show them Tanimbar Masked-Owl, so when we got to that location we waited around for the next 2 hours until dark. Emus walked back. It was sitting here that we scanned a small overlook to hopefully see a crow. We saw the likes of Tanimbar Cockatoo, Eclectus Parrot, and Blue-streaked Lory and just as Ross was about to give up and had come over to talk to me (where I was sitting reading a book and not actually doing much birding) Ross screams get on that! Turns out it was two Tanimbar Crows chasing a Channel-billed Cuckoo! I only was able to get on the last bird, a crow, but the Channel-billed Cuckoo flew back in the opposite direction a little after and I picked up another life bird! (Ross had previously seen this species in Australia.) It might not have been the “look” we had wanted but we Ross completely cleaned up on Tanimbar!

We met Berenika and Mark but no owl ever showed. We will never know if we were just lucky at 3am that first morning or if the owl frequents this location. We came back ate dinner and went to sleep.

Our last day was a short day. I walked up with Berenika to the research station and was able to sit with the cockatoos while she cleaned up and fed them. Oddly, they didn’t seem to mind my presence, and an especially curious bird sat on a stick right above my head. That’s pretty impressive for a wild bird in case you didn’t know! Berenika mentioned how the birds are very wary of locals though, likely because the locals trap these birds, break their wings and/or tie them up to be sold for the illegal pet trade, in which case I’d be wary too! Nonetheless I sat there and watched as the beautiful white birds ate their breakfast. It was super fun to learn about what these intelligent creatures are capable of from the experts!

After doing a small ceremony called an “adat” with the village leader, a tradition to keep us safe from the ancestors’ wrath of walking the land, we headed on our way to the airport! Thanks to meeting a man on a motorbike on the first day, we met Berenika and Mark and therefore Emus and Vera and our time on Tanimbar was a very enjoyable experience!

Currently Mark and Berenika will be at the station until October 2017, but have plans to continue research and conservation for years to come in the area pending further funding. If you would like to stay at Goffin Lab during your visit to Tanimbar, Mark can be contacted at mark.ohara@vetmeduni.ac.at or +6281288524285. Both Emus and Vera speak basic English and can be contacted at verasamangun@yahoo.com, 082197545612, or on Facebook at moesmasleltanimbar or veramoes.