Six days and 70+ kilometers later, we ended a trek planned entirely on a whim. A trek we were not prepared to go on and one that would proceed to be a bit further than we ever anticipated. When we started, we had no idea what we had gotten ourselves into. What exactly happened on Seram? That’s a very good question. Legitimately an alternate title of this blog post was “WTF”, but I’m a fan of keeping it PG so “The Perfect Storm” it was. This little story has nothing to do with the weather. As it was, the weather was absolutely FLAWLESS and if the weather hadn’t been so ideal Seram might not have gone so well. WELLLLLLLLLL it all started when Ross got an idea into his head that he wanted to do things a little bit differently than everyone else who visits Seram. You see, Seram has a few very rare birds and birders seem to never see them. In fact, the Seram Thrush had never been documented in the wild (and had only been seen a handful of times before being caught in a mist net in 2012) and the Seram Masked Owl had only been photographed once in 1989 and then not recorded again until having been caught in a mist net by ornithologists in 2012. So we went on quite the adventure to see if we could change all that.
If you’ve ever looked at a map, you might have noticed that Seram is the largest island found within the Moluccas. It also happens to have a big mountain range running through it and that mountain range it turned out to be a pretty big part of our Seram adventure. We arrived in Seram by ferry and made our way to a small hotel just outside of town. We dropped our bags in a room for safe keeping while we made our way along the coast to work out a way to get a boat to the island of Boana to pick up the endemic monarch found there. It was a ‘successful shit show’ indeed and our mistakes of the day before were bleeding into the following morning. We hadn’t coordinated a ride and hoped we could hitch our way into the town of Letwaru but we soon found that was not possible, nor were there any public buses so we were forced to hire a private taxi. Our taxi drove us to the town of Latwaru so Ross could get a charger for his phone. Apparently his had broken the day before and without a way to charge his phone we would without bird audio! It worked out in the end because in Letwaru we met a very nice taxi driver and he took us to our final destination, the town of Sawai. (But before I go on I just have to share this completely embarrassing, non-birding related incident that occurred when I went into the mall in Letwaru. I really needed to pee so I walked in and made my way to the back where restrooms are typically located. I didn’t immediately see one so I asked a lady who told me I needed to go upstairs. She might have said something else to me but I missed that part but when I walked upstairs I immediately saw the restroom and a pretty Indonesian girl wearing a jilbab (the Indonesian term for the Muslim head covering) go inside. So I did too. Perhaps the urinals on the side should have been some kind of clue but I wrote them off as another quirk of Indonesia. It wasn’t until I walked out and a bathroom attendant called to me that I realized I had used the mens’ room and that the “girl” I had seen wasn’t a girl at all! The employees thought it was hysterical. Whoops.) Anyways, we made our way to the town of Sawai via a taxi driver and attempted to find a place in town to stay. We are so accustomed to showing up at people’s homes and staying that we nearly decided to scrap checking out the fancy resorts and just find a local who might be willing to take us in. Unfortunately no one has done that before so we opted to stay at a rather expensive resort by BudgetBirders standards for the first night. In the end, the fact that we stayed at the coastal resort worked out because we met a few post-doc researchers and professors who were working with the local community. Funny because during the drive over to Sawai Ross spent his time reading an article from Forktail that Gareth Knass, another independent world birder, had sent him that referenced a 2012 expedition to Mount Binaiya that had successfully mist netted both a Seram Thrush and Seram Masked Owl. The article reference accessing the upper slopes of Mount Binaiya via the small villages of Huaulu, Roho, and Kanikeh. Since the post-doc researches had been in the area for the past few weeks, Ross asked if they knew how to access these villages. Although they hadn’t been there themselves, they showed us a map which referenced the villages and showed us the route to the top of the mountain. Furthermore, they mentioned that two Indonesian graduate students who were working with them were staying in the small village (Masihulao) a few kilometers away and would be able to help us to coordinate logistics for a trek up the mountain. By this time it was already evening and the plan was to spend the night at the resort and then head to the village in the morning to try and plan a multi-day trip to Mount Binaiya.
That night didn’t exactly go as planned as Ross had been suffering from a staph infection and spent the majority of the night running to and from the bathroom. The next morning, we sent some messages to our doctor friend (thanks Ab!) and tried to figure out if Doxycycline would be a good enough fix for the staph infection and if it would interfere at all with the Mefloquin that we were currently taking to prevent Malaria. Luckily we got the green light from Ab, and Ross was able to acquire 14 doses of Doxy from one of the Australian post-doc students and decided that any GI issues could be dealt with while trekking. Since he was mostly feeling better and now had appropriate medicine, we decided to continue on with the plan and headed to Masihulao (the small village up the road from the coastal resorts) to meet up with John Mampioper and Alfonso Denni Sianturi. We arrived in the village around noon (everyone was at church in the morning) and met John and Alfonso. They introduced us to Sonny, a local who has climbed Mount Binaiya 16 times! Unfortunately Sonny had a knee injury and couldn’t join us, but he was able to find two porters who knew the route and were willing to do the hike with us.
When Ross first started thinking about this trek, it seemed straight forward. Go past the three villages and then climb about 800 meters to the correct elevation. Easy. But once we started to talk to Sonny, everything started to unravel. It turns out you can’t easily get to Kanikeh (the third village). We figured we’d be able to take ojeks the whole way to Kanikeh, but after the first village of Huaulu, the road ends and you need to walk. This added about 21 kilometers to the hike and Sonny recommended that it would take a whole day just to walk to Kanikeh and at least 6 or 7 days to complete our trip! Yikes, this was a bit more than we expected! But by this point Ross was already committed to the idea of finding Seram Thrush, and figured that since we hike really fast we could surely get to Kanikeh in less time so we agreed on a plan and bought some food to take on our hike. We had never done more than a three day trek so weren’t sure how much food to bring so we asked our porters. We went through all of the food we brought, some rice, noodles, coffee ect, but they didn’t seem too concerned so we figured we would be able to buy more food in the village of Kanikeh if needed.
By 2PM everything had been sorted and we made our way to Huaulu where the road ended and we started our hike. We had only been hiking for about an hour when we realized that this wasn’t going to be easy. Originally we were told that the reason we couldn’t take ojeks all the way to Kanikeh because “the road was broken.” When you hear things like “the road is broken” I think it’s likely to assume you’d at least be walking on an old road. Wrong. Much to our disappointment, there actually wasn’t a road. The trail to get to the town of Kanikeh was actually a mud path, with elevation gains and steep drops and for a while hardly even a trail at all. As we were walking all I kept thinking to myself was “and people live out here?!” We spent a few hours hiking down the middle of a river and when the water got too high, we would have to take small side trails up the bank with mud deep enough to go up to the middle of our shins. To make matters worse, my sandal broke after the first few hours which made walking through the mud even trickier. Who else loves walking barefoot through Indonesian jungles?! After about five hours of hiking and many repeats of the phrase “and people live out here?!” we crossed the river one last time and arrived at the remote village of Roho. It was already after dark when we arrived so we set up our tent in someone’s hut and spent our first night. Getting to Kanikeh was a lot easier said than done.
The next morning we left at dawn and continued on our way to the town of Kanikeh. The first few hours of hiking went by quickly, but eventually the trail became extremely muddy and the terrain very hilly. We would often gain 50-100m elevation just to drop back down to cross a river again. Naturally I couldn’t help but wonder why this was the MAIN ROAD to get to this remote village. How could people possibly live out here?! Hopefully I’ve painted quite the picture already, but to sum it all up, getting to Kanikeh required stamina, trudging through mud, climbing in elevation, losing elevation, and crossing way too many creeks and rivers to count. But let me say it again, mud. Because most of all getting to Kanikeh included mud. And there was no way you could take a horse on this trail. The only way to get to Kanikeh was by foot.
Although it was only about 15 kilometers from Huaulu to Kanikeh, the hike took 8 ½ hours due to the horrible trail conditions. Yes, people live out here. When we looked at the map and realized we were finally getting close everything began to make less and less sense. We were in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden a bridge was built. There was no bridge for any of the other river crossings. Why is there a bridge now? We walked a bit further and suddenly a sidewalk appeared. How could this be? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nicer cement sidewalk in all of Indonesia and here one was in the middle of the jungle. We walked a bit further and suddenly grassy yards with white-painted fences started to appear. Soon flags were rising up out of the ground and evenly spaced, well-thought out homes on either side of the little road through the village. Kanikeh is the most remote place I’ve ever been in my entire life but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. It was challenging to get to but once there the place was straight out of a little book. Ross and I had to pick our bottom jaws up off of the floor. We were offered tea and sago, a staple Indonesian meal full of calories. It was a nice gesture but sago is quite possibly the least appetizing food I’ve ever tried. It tasted EXACTLY like what you would think chewing on cardboard would taste like. A small pit stop in the most random village and off we went.
Our guides hoped to spend the night in Kanikeh but we informed them that we still needed to get higher in elevation and so off we went to find a place to camp for the night. It was all uphill after Kanikeh. Finally we could start our climb! No more losing elevation to wade through a river (but don’t worry still plenty more creeks to cross!) . When we reached 1000m elevation, we found a patch were the old expedition must have once slept and set up our tarp and tent. A lovely dinner of white rice and ramen noodles and it was off to bed. The next morning we took it rather slow birding around the area but by 7am we started upwards. The best bird of the morning was easily the Purple-naped Lory that Ross had fly over camp. I never got on the bird and never saw another for the whole trip, save for the 60+ or so that we saw chained to posts outside of the villagers’ houses. From this point on it was steep going. We hiked for a few hours and just continued to gain in elevation. Finally we arrived at a spot next to a stream that had been mentioned in the 2014 Forktail article as “campsite 2” and decided that this would be our camp for the next two nights. Oddly I found a picture of a sign signaling that this was in fact on the route to the top of Mount Binaiya. Our two guides set up a tarp and built a fire while Ross and I set up our tent and collected fresh water. After a lunch of white rice and ramen noodles, Ross and one of the guides opted to hike further up the mountain and explore the area while I decided to read a book and rest after a long day of hiking because tomorrow we would be going up again.
A few hours later Ross came back down the mountain unable to keep a smile off of his face and said to me “tomorrow I promise to be the best bird guide ever” and proceeded to show me a photo of a Seram Thrush that he had found on the side of a steep mountain trail. WHAT?! Not only did he see it, he saw it well. Well enough that he managed to “digi-bin” a photo of it. Yes, the first photo of a wild Seram Thrush was taken using an iPhone pressed up against the eye piece of a pair of binoculars. Of course his camera, which goes EVERYWHERE with him, was left behind because the guide had originally taken Ross up the wrong trail and once he returned to camp, he was in no mood to climb up another few hundred meters to explore with all his gear. Not wanting to do another 300m elevation gain up a narrow and muddy trail, he left the bag behind for me. Luckily this first “wrong” endeavor proved fruitful in that the only Seram Pitta of the trip was spotted along it.
Anyway, the next morning we woke up super early to head back to the place where Ross had seen Seram Thrush the evening before. It was 3:30AM when we left camp and hit the trail. We left early not because it would take that long to get to the site, but because we wanted to try for owls along the way, particularly Seram Masked-Owl, an even more difficult quest. Seram Masked Owl’s existence is only known from a single specimen collected in 2012 via a mist net. This particular owl is practically invisible because it hasn’t been seen or heard of since. It was only last year (2016) that anyone ever reported so much as hearing it. We clambered up the steep, muddy trail in the dark and periodically would stop to play the call of a masked owl along the way. Masked-owls are notorious for not calling often so we wanted our playback to be as natural as possible and would only play a few calls before going silent. We played tape and then waited. Nothing. So we moved on. Ross is very methodical when it comes to owls and we worked up the trail like clockwork. It was just before dawn as we were standing at 1400m elevation wondering if this owl really was just a figment of someone’s imagination when I yelled “that’s it!” and we heard the distinct screech of a Seram Masked-Owl calling just down the trail where we once were standing. It called 5 times in quick succession and we headed that way. It seemed to be responding to our tape because when Ross called back to it the bird came closer, made some twitter calls, flew over our heads and did about 5 more screeches. Daylight came all too quickly after that and the owl had moved on. Unfortunately a photo wouldn’t have been possible as we only ever saw a silhouette in flight but a nice recording would have been doable – had the gear been ready. The very steep muddy trail doesn’t lend itself to keeping a giant parabola in full bloom so the recording gear was not readily accessible. I pulled out my phone and attempted to at least get some kind of recording but I more or less failed as the sound I did achieve is practically muffled out by the bugs and the poor quality of a phone microphone. None the less, we had Seram Masked Owl – a mega for sure!!! We only had to go about 70m up the trail to get to Ross’s thrush GPS point. It was just barely light enough to see when we crawled in, sat down and waited. I was a bit nervous that his encounter the night before was a fluke but he assured me that he practically put the bird to bed and it never saw that he was there so should be in the area. He was right and we heard the long, flute-like, high-pitched note of a Seram Thrush call. Without a doubt we were in its territory and it was very responsive. Ross managed some amazing audio recordings and we had fantastic views of the bird no more than 10 feet in front of us as it perched on a moss-covered branch and this time, Ross managed some more-than-passable photos! Clearly coming all this way, hiking up this mountain and exploring this area paid off big time! I can officially say I am THE FIRST FEMALE to ever do something – see Seram Thrush and Seram Masked-Owl!
David our guide met us right on time and from there we moved on up the mountain gaining another 300m in elevation and birding along the way. The forest was beautiful and nearly everything was covered in moss. The goal was to get to 1800m elevation where the “mount binaiya” subspecies of Island Thrush is supposedly more commonly seen so we worked our way there. We had Seram Bush Warbler, Blue-eared Lory, Grey-hooded White-eye and Seram Mountain-Pigeon along the way but no signs of Island Thrush. We planned to be out all day and ate a late breakfast/early lunch while out on the trail. Ross hardly rested and gained yet another 200m in elevation but to no avail. I was forced to rest to prevent any kind of blister on my feet so my afternoon was more or less unproductive, unless of course if reading a book counts as productive…
At 1800m the trail flattens out and is easy walking so we walked up and down it a few times but no Island Thrush. Surely this distinctly colored bird will be a split some day so we were very disappointed to turn around empty handed. Of course there was the chance that we would see it a bit lower down but with every meter decrease in elevation the odds became greater against us. Afternoon turned into evening and evening turned into darkness and we ended our long 16-hour day in the field the same way we started it – searching for Seram Masked-Owl. This time, no dice. We headed back to camp, ate a hearty meal of white rice and ramen noodles and went to bed. Ross woke up early to try for the owl again but never even heard it call. He did manage a photo of a Moluccan Scops-Owl, meaning that he successfully achieved the goal that he set for himself of photographing every one of the six subspecies of Moluccan Scops-Owls that we could possibly see on our trip! You might be asking yourself who even cares about sub-species of owls? I’ll tell you — Ross Gallardy does.
It would be a full two days’ of hiking before we were back in Sawai so we ate a quick breakfast, and broke down our camp before starting on the long walk down. Ross and I planned to bird along the way but there wasn’t too much to see. Ross flushed a Seram Pitta off of the trail but I missed it. It was looking like this was going to be a dip for me because they simply were quiet this time of year! This was only the second one Ross had seen and we hadn’t heard any up calling. I was also still missing Purple-naped Lory so I was hoping that if we got lower down we might be able to see one so we waited a bit at “Campsite 1” where Ross had managed to see one but no such luck. Hiking, hiking, and hiking made up the rest of our day. Lunch was surely a highlight because we made rice, THREE ramen noodles and had two cans of tuna to split between the four of us. You can imagine how hungry we were if this was considered a “big” lunch. By the time we made it to “the shelter” we were ready to get out of our soaking wet boots and be done walking for the day. The conditions were really taking a toll. Ross’s feet were in really rough shape and it was pretty painful to walk from the kind of issues you can imagine after spending days in wet boots. Yes, for six straight days we had wet feet. Boots don’t dry when you are up in elevation and constantly walking along a wet, muddy trail. Finally we had a nice shelter to camp in so it felt like a pretty big step up. The next morning we continued on our trek. We knew we had elevation to climb up, then climb back down, a river to walk through, cross a couple of times, and a lot of mud before having a flat trail and then ending with a climb and decline again. It was another day of hiking through ankle-deep mud attempting to sidestep around the wettest parts. But at this point we didn’t really care so much and walked through the thick of the mud without batting an eye. On our hike back down we birded along the way, particularly along the long flat section where walking was considerably easier. A main highlight was flushing a day roosting Seram Boobook! Ross was the only one to get a glimpse of the flushed bird but knew exactly what it was and called it out as the boobook. Sometimes I find it hard to believe and question his veracity when he only gets a quick glimpse, but we sent one of the trail guides into the woods to make it move so we could catch its location. Sure enough, we relocated the bird and had excellent looks at the little cutie! Other highlights from our walk out included some lowland species, particularly finally seeing Long-crested Mynas among a flock of Asian Glossy Starlings. These black and white birds have a long crest easily visible while perched and we had great looks but sadly the photo does not do the birds justice as the crest is hidden. Actually all of the bird is hidden and only real birders will know what it is from the look at the bill color. Identifiable, sure. Guess you’ll have to Google-it if you want to see better photos of a pretty neat-looking bird. We also managed good looks at Cinnamon-chested Flycatcher and Moluccan Cuckooshrike. Another full day of hiking and we reached the village of Huaulu. The village is accessible by motor vehicle but we couldn’t get through to anyone to come pick us up so we had to coordinate a ride in town when we got there and were forced to pay a premium for a ride in the back of a motorbike wagon. I was too tired to argue. ‘Just take our 100,000 rupiah and drive us where we want to go’ was the only thought. We arrived back to town and attempted to get situated. There was no restaurant in the town and we were starving. The lady at the homestay said she could make us noodles but she didn’t have any rice. As you can imagine, not the kind of feast we were craving after having only eaten white rice and ramen noodles for the last six days!
We went into the main little town of Sawai to see if we could get something better. It wasn’t much better but a bowl of Batkso would do while we searched for someone to sell us fish. We asked around a few places and eventually did find a lady selling fish. We bought 5 sizable grouper for only 50,000 rupiah!! INSANE. We also bought some chilies, garlic, rice and spices and headed back to our homestay to see if the nice lady could cook for us. Something got lost in translation somewhere and there was a lady I didn’t recognize cooking in the back kitchen. I explained what we wanted and that we would be willing to share our purchases with the family. To this day I do not know who the lady in the kitchen was but she was not our homestay lady whom I later found out was at church at the time of my requests. When she came back I explained to her but it was too late, most of the fish was “shared” with the lady I had initially talked to and we only got two little fishes to eat that night. It was definitely better than nothing that’s for sure! The lady that we bought the fish from was super friendly so while we were there we also asked if they had a boat. They were fisherman right? Surely they would have a boat and they did.
We did Seram a bit differently than everyone else, but still had to bird the road, the place where most visiting birders spend the majority of their time and head out to another tiny island off the coast hence the need for the fisherman’s boat! But because this was long enough already, more on that to come!