We have learned that there is always a look of enlightenment that occurs after we say the words buru hantu, Indonesian for owl. When people see us in very rural and remote areas of Indonesia, they often come up to us and ask what we are doing. Heck, even when we aren’t in super remote areas people always ask us what we are doing. I imagine the behavior we exhibit appears very strange to the passerby. Obviously I’m not fluent in Bahasa Indonesian, but I can tell them we are looking for birds, or burung-burung, as it is in Indonesian. Often get a very funny look. Although bird watching is gaining in popularity, I’m pretty sure we would get the same look back in the US if someone unfamiliar with birds saw us searching for them. At least in the US people understand what a hobby is, but in Indonesia people have no idea why we would want to spend time looking for birds. For some reason though there is a universal look of enlightenment when we say the words buru hantu. At first we thought it was an isolated case, but after about a month or two and the same “ohhhhhhhh” reaction occurring, we began to realize that owls must be a group of birds people know about and people seem to understand why we want to see them. Someone in taxonomy is very clever then when they named an endemic owl on the island of Buru, the Hantu Boobook. (Technically in the book it is listed as Buru Boobook with the scientific name Ninox Hantu, but I’m pretty sure that if the common name isn’t also Hantu Boobook, it should be and henceforth in this blog it will be referred to as such.) Anyway, buru hantu has become such a part of my favorite vocabulary that seeing Hantu Boobook on Buru was at the very top of the list of birds I needed to see. It was after all, THE buru hantu.
That being said there is actually one bird on Buru that Ross and I wanted to see more, Madanga. Technically the name is Madanga Pipit, a bird once classified with the white-eye genus and since moved to the pipit genus based on more closely related DNA samples. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if this species becomes a family all its own given that it acts nothing like a pipit would, a bird typically found in lowland rice fields walking along the ground. Madanga on the other hand is found only above 1450m elevation, and crawls along the trunk of a tree much like a nuthatch or something of the like. It is a bizarre species and there’s really nothing else like it. Perhaps it is one of Indonesia’s more unique endemic birds, certainly the top bird to see on Buru. Despite the fact that no one would want to come to Indonesia and miss this bird, most groups do not see it. The bird is rare and hard to access, but we didn’t want to let that stop us and had every intention to find it, even if no one else does.
Buru Island lies between two seas of the Pacific Ocean, Seram Sea on the north and Banda Sea to the south and west. Buru is shaped like an oval and is the third largest among the Maluku Islands after Halmahera and Seram, per Wikipedia. Buru has a pretty fascinating history, as many of the Spice Islands do, and was once a valuable source of cloves. (I highly recommend this Wikipedia article.) These days the island remains largely agricultural with most of the population being involved in farming, animal farming, or fishing. Buru was to be the next stop on our Indonesian journey.
We planned to do things a little differently from other visiting birders and instead of renting a truck out for a ride to the top of the mountain, a very expensive and often ineffective way of birding, we decided to head into the small tribal villages located near the center of Buru and from there hire a guide or two to take us up a trail and camp a few nights in the mountains. We arrived in the ferry terminal on Buru, found a public bemo and headed off to the small town of Wamlana, the turnoff to accessing the remote villages found on the other side of the mountain.
The road heading inland is 4WD only and in certain parts I was certain the makeshift bridges did not rate the amount of weight loaded into our Toyota pickup truck. Ross and 8 other people crammed into the bed of the truck along with jugs of gasoline and various other supplies being transported to those living so remotely. I road 3-deep in the front seat with a bag on my lap and a bag at the other guy’s feet. It was a bumpy 3 1/2 hour ride and when we appeared to be nowhere in particular, everyone began piling out of the truck because the remaining distance was not passable by motor vehicle and required a hike. We were confused. We thought the road went all of the way to the village. And indeed it used to, but a landslide knocked out part of the road and now the villages on the other side were a 3.5 hour drive and a 3 hour hike away from the closest other civilization! We had all of our bags and weren’t prepared for a 3-hour hike! Ross loaded himself down with the heaviest bag and set off having me sit with the rest of the gear while he hiked to the village and looked for a motorbike. Not a bad place to wait to be honest because I picked up some more common species found on the island such as Buru Golden Bulbul, Buru Fantail, Buru Leaf-warbler, Buru White-eye, Buru Monarch, Buru Grasshopper-warbler. The best bird was Buru Cuckooshrike and luckily Ross happened to have that on his journey as well. Five hours later Ross and two porters returned for me. Apparently the only motorbike in the village was not usable like we were told, and we set off on foot. The whole adventure was reminiscent of a rather miserable experience in Peru when we visited the remote town of Plataforma to search for Scarlet-banded Barbet, given that it too was a 6-hour journey to get to the remote town and now we were again on a 6-hour journey to make it to the village next to Danua Rana. I was just hoping that the people of Danua Rana would be much more pleasant than the scumbags found in Plataforma. (Is using the term scumbags too much? Too rude? Did I mention Plataforma was a miserable experience?!)
We didn’t know it at the time but it was only a month ago that the landslide wiped out the road. If we had come a month earlier, the truck could have driven all the way to the village and the 15 extra miles Ross had to hike (going down to town, coming back for me and going back to town again) could have been avoided.
Finally we made it to the village and we lucked out when a social worker from Java was stationed to the area to work on the social and economic initiatives of the village and spoke fluently in English. With his help we were able to coordinate for two porters/guides to take us up on a 3-4 day camping trip. Because the land is tribal, we had to participate in adat before we would be allowed to venture onto the land. Adat is one of those Indonesian terms that is hard to define because we westerners have nothing like it in our culture. Essentially adat is a cultural tradition performed before big events such as birth and death, marriage and divorce, inheritance, conservation, and education. And also when non-tribal members (like us) enter tribal land so that the ancestors are aware and don’t try to harm us. It is often a celebration and varies from place to place. Really, it’s quite hard to explain but much of the areas in Indonesia still have these tribal roots and we were told we needed to participate in adat to please the ancestors so we would be protected and wouldn’t be harmed on our journey. (Small plug, if you want to read more about the fascinating traditions of Indonesia, I must recommend the book Indonesia, ETC. written by Elizabeth Pisani. It makes for a good read, especially for anyone who has spent any amount of time or plans to visit this fascinating country.) Anyway, it was late but we convinced the village elders to perform adat that night so we could get on the trail early and we were required to make a 500,000 rupiah donation to split amongst the three tribal villages. (The guy from Java was also required to pay this amount for his adat as well, so it wasn’t that we were just getting hosed because we were Americans.)
The following morning we set off up the mountain. The trail was very steep but was pretty manageable and in most parts very decent for hiking. We were impressed that we gained nearly 200m in only a short distance. We took the morning slow and birded our way up which worked well for our guides because they could take multiple smoke breaks during the steep sections. At one point we stopped in a small gully when we heard a Buru Pitta calling. Ross and I had our guides wait and we crawled into the brush to play tape. Apparently a Malay Civet thought he was about to have a pitta breakfast and came sneaking up behind us thinking the tape we were playing was a real bird. We turned and I kid you not, the civet was 3 feet away. We certainly weren’t the meal he was expecting. He froze and Ross snapped a few pictures on his iphone before the beautiful black and white printed mammal scurried away. Photos on Ross’s 100-400m lens would have been much higher quality, but the little guy was probably too close to get a shot in focus anyway! The pitta never came in so we continued walking. Buru Thrush and Buru Grasshopper-warbler proved to be vocal and we managed several sightings of those two targets.
Eventually we made it to 1400m elevation at the top of a ridge. We were hoping to get up to 1600m to camp and then go even higher because the higher the better right? Well, it is never as easy as it sounds. Unfortunately after following the ridge at 1450m, the trail stopped going uphill and instead started paralleling the 1450m contour line. To make matters worse, our nice trail quickly deteriorated and our hopes of easily getting to 1600m began to fade. The nice path that we had been on completed dissipated and getting up the other side of a ravine at the end of the ridge required us to use all 4 limbs to propel upwards on the nearly vertical, muddy side of a mountain. Truly I have no idea how our guides did it with big packs on their backs and pots in their hands.
Thankfully it wasn’t long before we found a flat spot and decided that we would spend the night here, at 1450m elevation, just up from a stream and surrounded by pristine forest in hopes that we could continue up the ridge and get high enough for Madanga. We helped our guides set up the tarp that we had brought and then proceeded to set up our tent underneath it. The blow up Thermarest air mattress, Marmot sleeping bag, and Thermarest pillow I brought along to make my night of sleep more comfortable were snuck into the tent before they could see what they would likely deem “unnecessary luxuries.” Our guides simply slept on the ground outside.
After we had made camp Ross and I went up the narrow trail a few hundred yards to see what we could find. We were still only around 1450m elevation when we ran into a small bird flock. It was here, that I spotted a Madanga Pipit clinging to the side of a moss-covered tree right in plain view! The bird was silent and going about its business of not acting like a pipit at all, climbing up and down the side of a tree. I got Ross on the bird and he managed to take some pretty decent photos. Up until this point of our trip to Buru, Ross hadn’t managed more than a few terrible photos of the island’s birds. If this was the only good photo we were going to get on Buru, we’ll take it!
We were VERY lucky that we did not have to hike up in any kind of rain. We had perfect weather really. The sky was blue and occasionally overcast so we weren’t terribly hot, not that we would have been at this elevation anyway. It wasn’t until we were getting ready for bed that the mist turned into small raindrops. The less than desirable weather continued to the morning and we never were able to re-locate a Madanga.
The next morning I hung around camp while Ross made his way up to 1570m in search of Buru Honeyeater. It was foggy and lightly raining, but he still managed to see a single Buru Honeyeater. Unfortunately, since it was raining his recording gear had been put away so he was unable to get any recordings of it as it called directly above his head!
We hoped that the weather would be a bit better down the trail and the rest of our main targets were found at lower elevations so when we had a small break in the weather we started back down the trail. We went slow and birded along the way. On our way up the day before we passed a site at 1300m elevation that our guides initially tried to tell us we should stop at. We told them it wasn’t high enough and showed them on a map that it was only tiga blas (Indonesian for thirteen) and had since been referring to this location as “camp site tiga blas.” We told the guys they could go ahead to camp site tiga blas and set up the tarp because we were planning to camp there for the night and hopefully get some lower-elevation birding in. The campsite, while considerably lower than where we spent the previous night, was still too high for the birds we needed so we planned to actually walk down from the camp site and be at a much more desirable elevation to bird. It was good in theory but in order to get to a desirable elevation, we had to go much further than anticipated. We realized that staying at this campsite was not nearly as ideal as we had hoped. Ross birded downhill while I stayed back at camp. Although we exerted completely different amounts of energy, we both saw the same number of new birds – zero. For dinner we had brought along cans of tuna that we had bought on Ambon (a neighboring island with a big city) because they are an easy source of protein and can be cooked directly on a campfire. We had to laugh at how different life must be for our tribal guides because when we handed them each their can of tuna to open/eat/cook they just stared at it as if they had never seen one before. And they we realized, yep, they’ve never seen a can before. They were amazed when we showed them how to open the pop-top lid and did love the contents of the can, a nice change from the noodle/white rice combo dinner that is typical of places like this. That night we walked up from the campsite hoping to see this darn buru hantu. We were up the mountain in the dark with no light save for that emitted by the bioluminescence of the bacteria on the ground causing the roots of trees, and sometimes whole trees themselves, to appear as though they were glowing. It is an amazing phenomenon, and one that cannot easily be documented via photo so instead of inserting a photo, I’ll help you create one yourself: picture looking at the ground at some roots protruding above the surface and then take all light away. Now picture that in the total darkness you can still see the roots just as you left them because they are glowing yellow. It’s like that.
Anyway, we had a few Moluccan Scops-owls come in, but no boobook, although we were completely confused because the birds in front of us were clearly dueting, a practice known to occur among boobook pairs. The following morning we woke up and started birding our way back down. Up until this point I haven’t mentioned the dog that found us during our hike up. I’m not sure if she “belonged” to one of our guides or simply saw us walking, but she must have been bored because she decided to tag along. She was scrawny and underfed, and completely wary of Ross and myself, but even though the guides would kick her and push her when she was in the way and Ross and I were only ever trying to feed her, she only ever growled at us. She had followed us for the entirety of our journey until this point (including up that super steep ridge!), but at about the same time she joined us on our hike, she left us and we never did see her again. Funny how these abused animals still make for good company.
As we continued to descend, we made a stop for a Buru Dwarf-Kingfisher that we had heard on the walk up. Again we heard the high-pitched call of the bird so we figured this must be a territory. Although we staked out the area for about two hours, the kingfisher never showed itself. We continued back towards the village and made a final stop around 1000m where we saw our only new bird of the morning, Cinnamon-chested Flycatcher.
By mid-afternoon we made it back to the Kepala Dusun’s (village chief’s) house. We dropped our bags, paid our guides and spent the remainder of the afternoon sheltering ourselves from the torrential downpour of rain that ensued. Boy did we get lucky when it comes to weather! We hardly had any rain on our entire hike and as soon as we get back the skies open up?! We were okay with the rain though because it was a good excuse to prop our feet up and relax with the locals and sip on some super sweet tea.
That night it stopped raining so we went back out to try for owls. We crossed the stream to get out of town and started up the road back in the direction we had come in from just a few days ago. We were still looking for the Hantu Boobook and were getting increasingly frustrated as we didn’t have a good recording for it and the description in the book didn’t match the crappy recording that we had. While trying to tape for the boobook, Ross thought he might have heard a Buru Masked-Owl calling very far in the distance. Either he did or he’s just lucky because not even 3 seconds after playing the call, a Buru Masked-Owl came in with a vengeance and flew right over our heads! One more play of the call and it perched right in the open allowing perfect views and a near perfect photo. We were very happy to have this owl so easy because it can be tricky and usually involves spending a night in another town close to the coast.
We continued walking and playing this boobook tape but only ever saw Moluccan Scops-Owls, so many that we were beginning to wonder if these dueting “scops-owls” were really boobooks in disguise. Ross did manage to get a photo of a pair, thus maintaining his streak of successfully photographing every sub-species of Moluccan Scops-Owl, however, the photo quality was not as he would have liked because the off-camera flash receivers were not working. Truth be told, they weren’t working for the Buru Masked-Owl either but tytos give off much less eye shine and the photo turned out just fine.
The next morning we packed our bags early and started back in the same direction as last night with the intention of birding slowly back to the pick-up point, a 3-hour’s walk away. We coordinated that in exchange to keep the nice tarp one of our guides, Ronnie, would carry my bag and the village leader’s son, for a small fee, would carry the other. We didn’t get much sleep that night. We were out late trying for owls and then started walking at 3 o’clock in the morning so as to continue trying for this darn Hantu Boobook! Ross who typically never puts a tape on repeat was getting desperate and started playing the boobook call more frequently. Have I mentioned that this tape recording was rather strange? (Hint: I did.) Anyway, the recording consisted of a very loud call and a much softer call in the background. We didn’t know which call was actually the owl. We figured it was the more prominent of the two calls, but the more prominent call didn’t match the description given in the book of how this owl should sound. Regardless the author of this recording is very a reliable recordist so surely he wouldn’t have it mislabeled. We continued playing the boobook and in doing so apparently called in a Black-lored Parrot. As it flew over calling back to us, we realized the “owl call” was indeed the background noise and that the main recording was definitely a Black-lored Parrot! To put it into perspective, we knew this nocturnal parrot existed but birding groups rarely seem to see it. It’s nocturnal and it’s a parrot. AKA a nearly impossible combination! We’ll take it!
Plenty more Moluccan Scops-Owls were seen dueting but not a single hint of Hantu Boobook. Apparently this owl is very silent as the only recording of one available is the soft background noises in a Black-lored Parrot recording! The sun rose and we both realized that seeing buru hantu in the form of Hantu Boobook on Buru was not happening. Darn. But if you are only going to miss one realistic bird on Buru you really can’t complain.
Our morning walk back to the pickup point was very enjoyable. The weather was pleasant, the skies were clear and the forest along either side of us was very birdy. We had excellent views of Buru Monarch, Buru Mountain-Pigeon, Buru Cuckooshrike, Pale Cicadabird, and many others before we hopped into a much less crowded pickup truck and started on the journey back to the town.
Once back at the coast we still had one taget left, Buru Green-Pigeon. After our long journey to the center of the island, I thought it would be best to take a rest while Ross continued on to the town of Bara to try and see the pigeon. I headed towards to main city for a shower and some wifi while Ross headed in the opposite direction to a small little village. The game plan was going to be to meet up in a day or two, but later that evening, I received a message from Ross that he was on his way and that we were going to rush to grab the ferry back to Ambon. Apparently he had found the Buru Green-Pigeon only moments after his arrival in Bara and quickly turned around so that we could have a rest day in Ambon vs Buru (better showers and wifi in Ambon!)
Buru was quite a journey and in the end we were rewarded with views of one of Indonesia’s most unique birds, Madanga. I can say this now because this is being published long after finishing up with Indonesia, but Buru’s Hantu Boobook (THE buru hantu) was the only owl we dipped on our whole Indonesia trip. Pretty ironic if you ask me. Ross went 35 for 36 on owls! And that is pretty darn impressive.
And because I was informed I do not include enough photos of us educating the local people on the birds of their country, here is a photo I took on our first night at the Kepala Dusun’s house when everyone was gathered around candlelight going page by page through the Birds of Indonesia book. If we had enough copies we would have loved to hand them out to all of the little villages we visited! (James Eaton, if you ever read this, they would love to have a copy up in the small villages of Buru!)