Indonesia Highlights: Sulawesi, Java & Komodo Aug 25—Sep 10, 2016

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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 “The little town of Menado is one of the prettiest in the East. It has the appearance of a large garden containing rows of rustic villas…with a succession of pretty cottages, neat gardens, and thriving plantations, interspersed with wildernesses of fruit trees.” Alfred Russel Wallace, 1869

And so it was we arrived in Manado on the Minahassa Peninsula on the northern extremity of Sulawesi to start our Indonesian Highlights tour. It was great to read Wallace’s classic book The Malay Archipelago while leading this tour, and I have added a few extracts to liven up this trip report.

Minahassa Masked-Owl

Minahassa Masked-Owl— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We spent our first morning on Mahawu, a dormant volcano, birding from the park gate to the forest edge. It was alive with small birds, and we generated a few surprises including excellent views of the scarce Crimson-crowned Flowerpecker, Streak-headed Dark-eye, some recalcitrant glimpses of the Chestnut-backed Bush-Warbler, well-behaved Sulawesi Pygmy Woodpeckers, and the distinctive lilac-breasted subspecies of Superb Fruit-Dove which was quite common. All up there was plenty of activity ranging from close Black Eagles to colorful Sulawesi Myzomelas, while fruiting mistletoes attracted good numbers of both Yellow-sided and Gray-sided flowerpeckers. Mixed flocks held Mountain Tailorbird, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher, Island Verditer Flycatcher, Sulphur-vented Whistler, and Sulawesi Babbler. We headed for a siesta. Post-break we explored some rice fields with Javan Pond-Herons in full breeding plumage and the first arriving Wood Sandpipers of the austral summer. We created a stir in a restaurant as we scoped a big flock of Sunda Teal. With dusk fast approaching, Mahawu gave up its biggest prize when Albert spotted the highly unobtrusive Scaly-breasted Kingfisher. This bird gave a mega view, although it was in thick rainforest in low light. Thank you Albert! A White-bellied Imperial-Pigeon lumbered over. On dark we trawled for owls and hit the jackpot with a fine enormous female Sulawesi Masked Owl that proved reluctant to perch overhead in our selected big tree. It did, however, perch for an extended view at a distance and, thanks to Jim’s extraordinary torch, it gave a decent view.

To say our first day at Tangkoko was a highlight of the tour would be an understatement. While we worked hard, the rewards just kept coming, and it was for me one of the finest birding days of the year. Sulawesi Scops-Owl for breakfast—well, not quite, but tucked up in their bamboo thicket, it was the first bird of the day. Pale-blue Monarch was followed by a troop of one hundred Crested Black Macaques. A superb pair of the scarce Sulawesi Nightjar was scoped in the day, a rare event. An Isabelline Bush-hen chose this moment to lope across in front of us. The Green-backed Kingfishers would not leave us alone when the first of three Red-backed Thrushes posed beautifully. A Bay Coucal turned up, followed by a phone call of a Sulawesi Pitta as breaking news. A quick dash and the colorful pitta was well-spotted hopping across a relatively open hillside in good view. We enjoyed a pair of Spectral Tarsiers—one even jumped out to seize a grasshopper. Tabon Scrubfowl scuttled through. Lunch was delivered on the beach by outrigger as we were shaded under the Kalapa Palms. A pair of bizarre Bear Cuscus, a powerful arboreal marsupial, was located in a fruiting Ficus variegata. A perched Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle at close range in the forest interior, a day-roosting Ochre-bellied Boobook, and four Ashy Woodpeckers hammering away—we were living the dream! A Minahassa Masked Owl in the daytime!!!!!!! A Lilac Kingfisher, Knobbed Hornbill male feeding his hidden brood, the disappearing White-necked Myna, perched Yellow-breasted Racquet-tails; it was all too much.

Green-backed Kingfisher

Green-backed Kingfisher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Needless to say, we were back at dawn, this time overlooking the forest at peak hour. First cab off the rank was the Large Hanging-Parrot scoped at eye level at close range; what strange parrots are the Loriculus. Silver-tipped and Green imperial-pigeons were quite common, while flocks of the bizarre Grosbeak Starling added to the atmosphere. A possible distant drongo spotted by Tamara manifested into the scarce Sulawesi Crested Myna. Next, another flew into a tree over our heads—yes! We located some distant Ivory-backed Woodswallows, but the Sulawesi Black Pigeons followed by the flocks of Gray-cheeked Green-Pigeons were much more obliging. Then we scoped some perched Golden-mantled Racquet-tails followed by another typically invisible perched parrot, the really elusive Pygmy Hanging-Parrot. A lot of high quality birds ended with a Purple-winged Roller. Then it was as if everything shut up shop, and hardly a bird stirred for the next two hours beyond a few bits and bobs, the best of which was a superb Draco (Flying Dragon) with citrine golden patagium. Some calling Sulawesi Dwarf Hornbills left us in the lurch. We took a break and resumed activity with an afternoon boat trip on a quite superb mangrove channel with strikingly clear water.  It was not looking good for our desired target bird, the rather incredible Great-billed Kingfisher. We trawled up and down the channel when, at the last minute, we received a tip that there was one near the boat ramp. We headed there directly, and there it was— quite the beast. It was joined by a Great-billed Heron that was remarkably tame. Also of note was a noisy churring flock of White-rumped Cuckooshrikes. That wrapped up our Sulawesi birding, and the next morning we found ourselves arriving on the island of Java at the brand new airport in Jakarta.

We did not waste much time heading out of this enormous metropolis and into the mountains to the south, basing ourselves in a lovely hotel in Cibodas. The afternoon was spent exploring the Cibodas Botanic Gardens where we spotted a few birds, the best of which was a trio of obliging Sunda Forktails. We found a small mixed flock that contained a timid Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Little Pied Flycatcher, Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, and White-flanked Sunbirds. A pair of Javan Munias was located, actively building a nest, and bullet-like Yellow-throated Hanging-Parrots refused to settle. We decided to stay out after dusk to try our luck with the rare Salvadori’s Nightjar and had quite good views of it perched on a projecting stick from a rocky outcrop. Another flying object proved to be a Red Giant Flying-Squirrel looking like a volpaning pizza box!

Lilac Kingfisher

Lilac Kingfisher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


The whole of the next day was dedicated to walking the trails of Gunung Gede National Park. We had an amazing day getting some very good rewards for our efforts. It could not have started better when we picked up a Sunda Thrush quietly feeding in a narrow side trail for an extended view of this ever so quiet and ghost-like bird. Bird activity was good on the lower reaches of the trail in the early morning as we slowly crept along. We had magical views of Lesser Shortwing, Sunda Blue Robin, Eye-browed Wren-Babbler, and Pygmy Cupwing. Mixed flocks held Javan Gray-throated White-eye, Sunda Warbler, Lesser Cuckooshrike, Flame-fronted Barbet, Trilling and Pied shrike-babblers, Javan Fulvetta, and Crescent-chested Babbler. We stopped for coffee at the clearing and had a superb encounter with a family of Silvery Gibbons, watching them brachiate and leap from tree to tree, a small youngster leaving its mother for a bit of unsupervised climbing practice. This was a lucky break. We then continued slowly uphill reaching an altitude of 1,900 meters. The birds slowed down in the middle of the day, but we continued to kick a few goals with Javan Whistling-Thrush showing well, Javan Tesia popping up out of the undergrowth for a very good experience, Fire-tufted Barbet (an introduced population), Blue Nuthatch, Lesser Racquet-tailed Drongo, and, just at the turnaround point, a very cooperative pair of Javan Cochoas. We walked downhill where at the clearing we had a lovely pair of the now quite rare Orange-fronted Bulbul.

A quick half-hour the next day produced a perched Yellow-throated Hanging-Parrot in the Botanic Gardens before we recommenced birding at Gede. We had a good result with one of my favorite Javan endemics, the White-bibbed Babbler, with four birds lined up allopreening—lovely! Then we had a long stream of noisy school kids and loaded hikers. We finally shook them off as we picked up a hyperactive flock of Spotted Crocias. A Chestnut-bellied Partridge sang right next to us, but would not come into view. The primates were in good form though, as we had excellent views in the scope of both Ebony and Grizzled langurs. A Javan Banded Pitta started calling and, as luck would have it, it was found in a scopeable location (not that you could see it with bins) and it pirouetted for some very lovely looks. Beyond one more very good mixed flock, it was time to leave Gede on a high note. The drive back to Jakarta was painless enough, and we squeezed in an hour of birding in the hotel gardens that produced Sunda Woodpecker, an Island Collared-Dove, and some skittish Pink-breasted Green-Pigeons.

Silvery Gibbon

Silvery Gibbon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


“Few Englishmen are aware of the number and beauty of the architectural remains in Java. They have never been popularly illustrated or described, and it will therefore take most persons by surprise to learn that they far surpass those of Central America, perhaps even those of India.” Alfred Russel Wallace, 1869.

We flew from Jakarta to Yogyakarta the next morning. We made a visit to the Prambanan Temple, a famous Hindu temple of exquisite sculpture from the ninth century. We enjoyed the extensive gardens very much, and we also enjoyed the sightings of Java Sparrow, now a critically endangered species in its homeland, a bird most people only now encounter in a feral population. It was encouraging to see several juveniles present. Also of note in the gardens were Scarlet-headed Flowerpecker, nesting Common Iora (feeding a chick), and the bright red-headed subspecies of Coppersmith Barbet found in Java and Bali. After a lovely lunch where some folks tried the coffee luwak (civet coffee), we moved along to Borobudur, Indonesia’s most famous archaeological attraction. This Buddhist temple built over a century in the ninth–tenth centuries has been largely restored after being abandoned when it was buried in volcanic ash and damaged by earthquakes. Since being re-discovered by Raffles in the early nineteenth century, it has been actively restored and in 1991 was added to the World Heritage register. It is a stunning site, and we had it largely to ourselves, enjoying the view from up top until sunset. The surrounding gardens were quite bird-rich with flocks of Gray-cheeked Green-Pigeons and small numbers of Brown-throated Sunbirds attracted to the fruiting Ficus religiosa. We made the effort to track down the endemic Olive-backed Tailorbird that showed well.

A morning trek at Gunung Merapi, an active volcano, could not have gotten off to a better start when we found a really obliging Scaly Thrush feeding on the trail. It was joined by a pair of very tame Horsfield’s Babblers, while Long-tailed Macaques waited in the wings for a public handout.  The powerful call of the scarce and colorful endemic Black-banded Barbet lured us uphill and, after a bit of a battle, we enjoyed some excellent views of this handsome species. Pink-headed Fruit-Doves showed fantastically while a brief White-bellied Fantail was another lucky break. We had a bit of fun trying to locate a perched Javan Hawk-Eagle that was lost in the fog before the mist lifted (after a patient wait), and we had a rare scope view of this powerful crested forest predator, very much an endangered species. Merapi had been brilliant. After lunch in the old center of Jogya, we flew to Bali to overnight as we transited to the island of Flores, once again crossing Wallace’s Line. 

Java Sparrow

Java Sparrow— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Disembarking at Komodo Airport after the scenic flight that traversed Lombok and Sumbawa past the spectacular volcanos up to 3,700 meters high like Gunung Rinjani, we were whisked away up the mountains to Puarlolo. This forest patch turned up the enigmatic Thick-billed Heleia, which we watched pry a spider out of a tree cleft, followed by the attractive Crested Dark-eye with its remarkably sedate behavior for a Zosterops and its brilliant bubbly song. Then we tried our luck on the localized Flores Monarch and succeeded in getting some good views of this Floresian special. A pair of Red-cheeked Parrots fed tamely over our heads. A Golden-rumped Flowerpecker kept its rump well-concealed! We drove through to Ruteng, our base for the next three nights. We tried our luck with some nocturnal birds, but only managed to hear two species of scops-owl (Wallace’s and Moluccan). We would try again for those folks who were keen. The cool conditions were delicious after our days in the coastal regions.

Early the next morning we were at Golo Lusang, a pass about 1,700 meters above sea level in patchy montane rainforest with much secondary cut over scrub. This is the place for the extraordinary Bare-throated Whistler. The males belt out a non-stop sonic, almost synthesizer-like array of complex whistles that can literally go on for hours, the pink unfeathered throat pulsing constantly as they draw breath. We soon had a male in the scope as the forest reverberated with their song. There were a lot of birds about as we racked up good sightings of many endemics including the beautiful Flores Minivet, Brown-capped Fantail, Scaly-crowned Honeyeater, Flores Leaf-Warbler, Russet-capped Tesia, and White-browed Dark-eye. A fine adult Rufous-bellied Eagle drifted over and, after a bit of effort, we had a beautiful Chestnut-backed Thrush teed up, continuing our very good luck with the elusive forest thrushes on this tour. There were other species like the Blood-breasted Flowerpecker, Short-tailed Starling, Wallacean Drongo, Cave Swiftlet, Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, and Mountain White-eye.  We wandered down to some ricefields to try for some open country birds when a Brahminy Kite was bombed by a Spotted Kestrel. We scoped the kestrels that were nesting in a church. We had an entertaining moment when we shared the scope with a local lady and she could not believe what she was seeing as she repeated constantly, “happy, happy, happy!” After lunch and a break, it tipped down with rain, and the afternoon session was a quiet affair as almost no birds were on the move with the leaden skies.

Black-banded Barbet

Black-banded Barbet— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We had a big day planned down to the south coast of Flores. We started early and found ourselves underneath a chattering Flores Scops-Owl in the predawn darkness. Trouble was that despite being overhead we could not locate it in the canopy, blocked by much foliage. Once in the coastal forests the birds began to cooperate—first up a trio of Flores Green-Pigeons. This was followed by a pair of Flores Hawk-Eagles that flew right over us, a good result for this scarce endemic. We had almost instant success with the Glittering Kingfisher, a truly unique forest kingfisher with a powerful red bill. Next we toyed with the paranoid Flores Crows that yapped at us and leapt about in the trees doing their best to keep concealed. With patience we had some good views. An Elegant Pitta though, was surprisingly easy as it perched up and allowed itself to be scoped for a long time. We spotted some more raptors including good views of both Brown and Variable goshawks and had a fly-over Oriental Honey-buzzard looking like the resident Javan subspecies. We returned to the mountains and explored the forest around a volcanic lake that held numbers of Pacific Black Duck and a trio of Little Grebes (here sometimes split as the Tricolor Grebe). The rain returned with a vengeance so we waited it out in a picnic shelter with a cup of coffee. It lightened up, and immediately a large mixed flock came through that included a pair of Pale-shouldered Cicadabirds. A sweet rambling song tipped us off on our next hoped for species—the Flores Jungle-Flycatcher—and the overcast conditions favored this bird that flew out and perched quite openly for an extended time. The great deluge returned and some folks opted to head in early. The rest waited where we had heard the Flores Scops-Owl; we soon had it chattering overhead and this time spotted the little rufous, yellow-eyed rascal for a decent view before it took off. No other nocturnal birds did much, although a Wallace’s Scops-Owl called distantly once.

White-rumped Kingfisher

White-rumped Kingfisher— Photo: Dion Hobcroft






We bade farewell to Ruteng and started our day on a headland overlooking a spider web rice field, a unique land sharing design of the local families in this region of Flores. Lots of small birds were about including Rainbow Bee-eater, Golden-headed Cisticola, close views of the two endemic flowerpeckers, several species of white-eye and Crested Dark-eye, plus a small flock of Red Avadavat. We traveled on to a valley with numerous Eucalyptus trees planted in it and searched for the Flores Lorikeet. It took a while to track down these green parrots in the green trees, but we managed to get some good scope views. No wonder a recent name suggested for this species is Leaf Lorikeet! A few other birds were bobbing about including a lovely Ruddy Cuckoo-Dove. We returned to Puarlolo where after a patient wait we all had views of the shy and heavily trapped Chestnut-capped Thrush. In the fields we found Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Striated Swallow, and Zitting Cisticola, while Zebra Finches greeted us at our new hotel. The afternoon was fairly quiet as we waited for the elusive Wallace’s Hanging-Parrot that was a no-show. A Metallic Pigeon gave a lengthy flight over us, and the Flame-breasted Sunbirds were in good form. We enjoyed interacting with the local people in this remote village area, the kids being very friendly and delightful.

At dawn the next morning we were in a speed boat zooming across Bond-style to Komodo Island, home to the famous Komodo Dragon, easily the world’s largest and most heavy-bodied lizard, a super-sized monitor. Difficult to bird from a speed boat, we managed to spot a few birds including a small flock of Roseate Terns, one adult holding a small fish suggesting they may nest somewhere in this myriad of islands. There was also a Bulwer’s Petrel, a small flock of Red-necked Phalaropes, a Lesser Frigatebird, and plenty of Crested Terns. As we approached Komodo, several Great-billed Herons and Pacific Reef-Herons were in evidence. Walking the loop trail, we were soon enjoying the antics of four Orange-footed Scrubfowl involved in an aggressive dust-up, the fighting males leaping upwards of a couple of meters as they tried to claw each other. We enjoyed some lovely studies of the now extremely rare Yellow-crested Cockatoo, watching one pair feeding each other. A roosting Savanna Nightjar was another good pick-up, and we soon had good views of Barred Dove, Lemon-bellied White-eye, and luckily, a trio of Wallacean Cuckooshrikes. Of the Komodo Dragon itself, we first found an adult female actively tongue-flicking over a patch of soil that had her much interested. She sauntered on. Then we were shown a colorful juvenile tucked up in a tree hollow. They typically spend the first three years of their lives hiding in the trees to avoid predation from adults. Down at the beach we found the massive males, some actively moving, and one let out a hiss like an express train as a warning to another male. Operation Komodo had been a big success. On the return voyage we spotted some dolphins and passed an islet with many nesting Black-naped Terns.

Komodo Dragon, male

Komodo Dragon, male— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


A final afternoon drew a blank on Wallace’s Hanging-Parrot despite a concerted effort. Asian Paradise-Flycatchers (these now rebranded as Blyth’s Paradise following a recent three-way split of this taxa) were very showy, the white streamered males always a knockout. At dusk we gave a final spotlight session and were rewarded with excellent views of the recently described Mees’s Nightjar that flew around and at us in very close fashion, but was too timid to perch for any length of time.

With an hour to spend before we were due at the airport, we squeezed in one last spot, a mangrove swamp that was alive with birds early in the morning. We scoped a beautiful Small Blue Kingfisher and then had a major surprise when we picked up two Stork-billed Kingfishers. Both species were very cooperative. As a final last hurrah we scoped a female Australian Hobby at the airport terminal. As Jim said, “Our tour of Flores finished with a flourish!” All up we recorded 261 species on this tour. We winged our way to Bali where we all continued on with our fabulous Indonesian birding adventure, but that account is in the next report.

I would like to thank all of our minders, fixers, drivers, and local guides who did such a fantastic job; awesome Poli and Roman, Bobby and Mansour, Albert, Adoy, Max, and Alfred amongst so many more. It was a great trip.