Simon Quek and Wang Bin
Day 332: Leaving Sulawesi
Noah begins a four-day journey into the heart of Papua New Guinea.
November 28, 2015: Makassar, Sulawesi — After a week in Sulawesi, it’s time to fly. New places await. I’ve hit the ceiling on birds here, and time is getting short…
Monal and I had a great seven days on this island, and I hope I can return someday to see those few endemics I missed this time. You can see photos of many of these birds on Monal’s website and get inspired to visit Sulawesi, too!
At dawn today we staked out a lake outside Manado, where I picked up two new “hens,” Black-backed Swamphen and Dusky Moorhen, before heading for the airport. This afternoon I took a short flight down to Makassar, where I’ll connect with onward legs tomorrow morning. Today begins four straight days in the air—a journey that will take me, step by step, into the heart of Papua New Guinea.
Apologies, by the way, for the intermittent updates this week. As always, I write these blog posts each evening but can only post them with a wifi connection, and internet has been tough to find lately! I can at least update the species list page with my cell phone, so it is generally up to date (unless I’m in a really remote area without cell service). Onward!
Day 331: The Tiniest Primate
Noah comes face to face with a tarsier monkey, the littlest primate on Earth.
November 27, 2015: Minahasa, Sulawesi — A local guide named Anes spent five hours this morning with Monal and me, tramping around in big circles inside the TangkokoBatuangas Forest. It was dry enough that leaves crunched underfoot; part of the forest had burned last month in a large wildfire. Even so, the humidity was unrelenting. I dripped sweat standing still.
We were hoping to bump into a type of owl called the Ochre-bellied Boobook, which is often found inside this forest, and we had some brief excitement when an owl materialized at midday. Unfortunately we saw it too well, and the owl turned out to be a lookalike Speckled Boobook, which Monal and I had already seen a couple of days ago.
We did see several Green-backed Kingfishers, a Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher, and a couple of Lilac-cheeked Kingfishers, none of them near water. The tramping continued until today’s heat kicked in, and we let the Ochre-bellied go before lunch.
This part of north Sulawesi has a classic tropical coastline and Indonesian fishing culture. It’s fun to explore an island that, before this year, I’d barely even heard of except in birding terms. Sulawesi, in general, isn’t a big tourist destination (several times this week, locals have come up to ask if they could take a photo with me), but it’s an interesting place. I saw two fun primates in the Tangkoko forest along with today’s birds: A tarsier (the world’s smallest primate) and the black macaque, which has no tail. Both very strange looking.
Day 330: Earthquake!
A little volcanic shakin’ going on.
November 26, 2015: Tangkoko, Sulawesi — I woke at 3 this morning to the sound of something falling on the ground and with the distinct, unsteady feeling that my bed was vibrating. The shaking stopped in a few seconds and, after wondering sleepily what had just happened, I returned to my dreams.
An hour and a half later, I asked Monal at breakfast if he’d felt anything during the night. “Yes, I woke up too,” he said. “That was an earthquake. We get them all the time. There are 11 active volcanoes in this area!”
It might have been a tiny one, but I was excited. My first-ever real, live earthquake! I’ve managed to avoid even the slightest tremor during my entire 29 years on this planet thus far (we don’t get them much in Oregon), so I was stoked to get shaken up this morning.
Then I remembered something else. “Hey, happy Thanksgiving!” I said to Monal.
He looked blank. “Huh?”
At 5 o’clock this morning, I found myself explaining the traditions of Thanksgiving, with Halloween thrown in for good measure, to an Indonesian audience. Both holidays began to sound pretty weird the more I described them (Black Friday… Jack-o-Lanterns…). Which brings up an interesting point: Is is still Thanksgiving if you’re in a place that doesn’t celebrate it, and if it’s not actually Thanksgiving yet (because of the time difference) in the U.S.?
In the past few years, I’ve spent three Thanksgivings in Antarctica, one in the Galapagos, and one in Amazonian Ecuador, so this one had a lot to live up to. I needn’t have worried. It was yet another fantastic day in the field.
The highlight came this afternoon when Monal and I boarded an outrigger canoe, a new form of transportation for me, which was piloted by two men from the local fishing village. We launched straight off the beach, crossed a bay in the sunshine, and meandered up a twisty channel into a mangrove forest at high tide. This was the realm of the Great-billed Kingfisher, a skulky Sulawesi endemic, and Monal was on high alert for this special bird.
He spotted it soon enough, perched on a mangrove branch overhanging the water. We admired the kingfisher, turned around, and floated back out to sea, where Lesser Frigatebirds wheeled overhead and Pacific Reef-Egrets dotted the rocks under the watchful eye of a White-bellied Sea-Eagle.
I have many things to be thankful for, from a supportive family to the wonderful community of birders around the world who have helped at every step of this year’s adventure. My dinner today included whole fried fish, rice, and veggies. I’ll save the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie for next year—meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Day 329: Rafting for Birds
Noah catches up on sleep and finds a Speckled Boobook.
November 25, 2015: Tangkoko, Sulawesi — For the first time in a long time, I had nearly eight full hours of sleep last night, and woke up at five feeling refreshed. I swear, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Whoever repeats this trip a few million years from now will have a big advantage, because the Earth’s rotation will have slowed enough to add an extra hour.
Seriously, did you know that when the dinosaurs lived, a day was only 23 hours long? That would really have handicapped a big year! Of course, the dinosaurs were birds, and today’s birds are dinosaurs (slightly more evolved), but counting dinosaurs might have been more hazardous. A logical conclusion lies here somewhere, which is that I need more sleep.
Monal and I kicked around a place called Toraut this morning accompanied by a local ranger named Hendrik. Touraut is a nice patch of lowland forest on the north tip of Sulawesi (the part that looks like a four-legged starfish’s raised fist) with some equally nice birds. To get into the forest, Hendrik poled us across a shallow river on a bamboo raft—a new method of transportation for my year list. I saw a Speckled Boobook, a pair of Maroon-chinned Fruit-Doves, and a Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher which didn’t mind being stared at. By the time Hendrik poled us back out of the forest before lunch, I was sweaty enough to consider just wading across the river. Yesterday I slipped into a rice paddy and wet my shoes up to the knee, and didn’t mind a bit.
We spent the afternoon retracing yesterday’s route through Manado’s traffic jams and out the other side, arriving at Tangkoko after dark. Sulawesi’s roads are twisty and narrow, sometimes barely wide enough to admit two vehicles traveling in opposite directions, so getting from one place to another is a deliberate process. I amused myself by watching my iPhone’s GPS readout, tracking our speed; we rarely exceeded 40 miles per hour on the open highway and averaged a walking pace in towns. This allowed plenty of opportunity to soak in the smells of fried fish, the sights of fresh produce stands, the sounds of prayers being sung at mosques, and the feel of the ocean breeze as we slid along the coast. More birds await in the morning.
Day 328: The Maleo
In search of Sulawesi’s most-wanted bird.
November 24, 2015: Kotamobagu, Sulawesi — Monal and I traveled from Palu to Manado via two short flights and a four-hour drive today, putting us at our destination in late afternoon. For the rest of this year, I won’t have more than four straight days without hopping a flight. It can be tough to spend so much time in transit—you don’t see many birds from airplanes—but I must keep moving now to keep the pace.
This part of Asia has a big bird list, but many of those birds are spread out on various small islands, which makes it more difficult to be efficient. If I stay in one spot for two days in a row, there aren’t many new birds to find on the second day (at Lore Lindu, for instance, I saw 36 new birds on the first day and just seven on the second day). These diminishing returns must constantly be weighed against the time lost to traveling onward. It’s a delicate balance!
Monal wanted to reach a special spot before dusk today, so we pressed through Manado’s traffic with no stops. At 4 p.m. we pulled up at a couple of huts by a river in the forest. This, Monal said, was the nesting site of a very strange bird called the Maleo.
The Maleo is endemic to Sulawesi. It looks kind of like a chicken, though it’s not closely related to chickens; it’s in a family called “megapodes.” The Maleo nests in loose colonies where, like turtles, these birds bury their eggs in the ground and cover them with dirt. An adult Maleo isn’t much bigger than a chicken, but each egg is five times larger than a typical chicken egg. When the Maleo’s eggs hatch underground, the chicks must dig their way out (sometimes more than a meter to the surface!) and fend for themselves.
Maleos are endangered and red-listed. A few years ago, a program was started to hatch eggs in incubators before releasing the chicks back into the wild, which protects them from predators. You can still see Maleos at a couple of sites where blinds have been constructed for discreet viewing.
The place we visited this afternoon had a wooden tower next to the nesting ground, and a ranger accompanied us while we waited for the Maleos to make an appearance. Below us was a patch of bare dirt near the river bank with half a dozen recently dug-out spots where the birds bury their eggs. One Maleo can lay 12 eggs in a year, and there are about eight pairs using this site. We waited for an hour before one called loudly from across the river, and we heard a whirr of wings as it landed somewhere in a tree on the slope nearby.
It seemed like the bird would strut into the open at any minute, but we waited another hour without getting a visual. At intervals we could hear the Maleo moving around in the foliage, but it was too dense to see where it perched. As the light faded into dusk, so did my hopes of seeing Sulawesi’s most-wanted bird, and with darkness upon us we reluctantly climbed down from the viewing tower.
“We have a difficult choice now,” said Monal when we reached the ground. “We can come back here in the morning to try again, or we can go somewhere else for several other birds. The two places are in opposite directions, so we can’t do both.”
As I digested this decision, the ranger was quietly looking around. Suddenly, before I could answer Monal’s question, he grabbed my arm and pointed upward. There, in the tree right above us, was the Maleo on its roost—we could just barely see it through a gap in the foliage! In the last five minutes before it was too dark to see, I snapped a couple of grainy photos. Oh, what a wonderful feeling it is to see a bird you thought you’d missed, especially when that bird happens to be a Maleo!
Day 327: Over A Dozen Birds With the Same Name
From the Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle to the Sulawesi Thrush.
November 23, 2015: Palu, Sulawesi — Today was a clean-up day. After yesterday’s gluttonous run of birds at Lore Lindu, we didn’t have much left to look for this morning, and Monal, Papa Ain, Herson and I scraped for a few more birds before heading back down to Palu.
In a day and a half at Lore Lindu, I saw: Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle, Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle, Sulawesi Goshawk, Sulawesi Woodpecker, Sulawesi Hanging-Parrot, Sulawesi Myzomela, Sulawesi Cicadabird, Sulawesi Drongo, Sulawesi Leaf Warbler, Sulawesi White-eye, Sulawesi Babbler, Sulawesi Streaked Flycatcher, Sulawesi Blue-Flycatcher, and Sulawesi Thrush. That’s 14 birds with the same name— sure to be some kind of record! At least it makes them easy to remember.
We ended the day in some rice paddies outside of Palu, where a large, swirling flock of munias were feeding on grass seeds. Most were Pale-headed Munias, with good numbers of Chestnut Munias and Scaly-breasted Munias mixed in. As the afternoon closed out, Monal picked out two Black-faced Munias in the flock. From Knobbed Hornbills this morning to munias this evening… all in a day’s work
Day 326: Noah Finds 36 New Birds
A fantastic day in the Lore Lindu National Park.
November 22, 2015: Lore Lindu, Sulawesi — Wow, where to start? Practically every bird I saw today was a lifer! Monal and I, along with the company of two locals called Herson and Papa Ain, spent the whole day in the highlands of Lore Lindu National Park, racking up endemic birds.
Lore Lindu is a huge park and UNESCO world biosphere reserve protecting more than 2,000 square kilometers in central Sulawesi. It hosts some awesome birds, notably the Hylocitrea, Ivory-backed Woodswallow, and Maroon-backed Whistler, all of which we found this morning. The forest here is lush and cool, and we lucked out with good weather. All in all, a fantastic day in the field.
I just missed one bird I’d hoped for, and it wasn’t in today’s cards. Lore Lindu is home to a bird whose official name is the Diabolical Nightjar (sometimes called the Satanic Nightjar)—one of the best bird names on the planet! Unfortunately, the mountain track where it can be found is currently closed because of an Indonesian military operation against some suspected terrorists hiding in this forest. Not even the locals can go up there right now, so the Diabolical Nightjar is, for the moment, inaccessible. They say the forest should be safely cleared out by January. Next time…
Meanwhile, 36 new birds makes the best day I’ve had in quite a while. It’s good to be across Wallace’s Line and into some new territory!
Day 325: An Endemic Birdfest
Noah looks forward to the plethora of endemic species of birds Sulawesi has to offer.
November 21, 2015: Lore Lindu, Sulawesi — I had a half-night layover in Surabaya last night and continued with a crack-o-dawn flight to Makassar, on the southwest corner of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, this morning. There, I met a local birder named Monal, who will spend the next week with me, and we headed straight out to see what we could find.
On the short hop to Makassar today, I crossed a significant geographical boundary called the Wallace Line, which runs between Borneo and Sulawesi. This line is named after a British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who explored these islands in the mid-1800s and noticed that the fauna west of this line are mostly Asian while those on the east side are more Australian. This is because Borneo and everything westward was connected to mainland Asia relatively recently, while deeper water here has been a barrier for the past 50 million years. This means that the birds on Sulawesi are very different than those on Borneo, even though the two islands aren’t very far apart. The island of Sulawesi alone has about 100 endemic species of birds!
Monal and I visited a patch of forest where we hoped to find a Black-ringed White-eye, a bird which lives only in this part of Sulawesi. When we found the bird a short while later, we turned around and headed straight back to the airport. The two of us caught an afternoon flight up to Palu, in north-central Sulawesi, and wound into the mountains this evening. Looking forward to an endemic birdfest tomorrow.