Friday, May 19, 2017

Tarsiers and Endemic Birds in Sulawesi

(Hopefully) The Second of Many Trips to Wallacea

Alfred Russell Wallace  was basically a Welshman, or at least was born in Wales so we are claiming him as ours despite his dodgy English/Scottish ancestry.  He's not all that famous today, but he essentially discovered "Evolution" (for which Charles Darwin pretty much stole the credit) and has a Biogeographic Region (Wallacea) and a "Line" (The Wallace Line) named after him.  The Wallace Line, which he drew, separates an Asian type fauna found in the Oriental Region (Mainland South East Asia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Bali) from a more Australasian type fauna found in Wallacea (the Lesser Sundas, Sulawesi, the Moluccas, etc.).  One the one side, Apes and Tigers, on the other Cockatoos, Tarsiers, and Cuscuses.  It's not quite that simple, but I grew up utterly fascinated by his writings, travels and the evolutionary and geographical processes that shaped this part of the world, and many others.  He really is the father of Biogeography, and the Patron Saint of Island Biogeography (Read This Book if you haven't, the best book of Island Biogeography ever written) and I've been intrigued by it, and him, since I was a kid.

Only once (twice technically) before have I crossed the Wallace line - in 1996 I crossed from Bali to Lombok (and back) and went on to Sumbawa and Komodo on a Dragon-Quest.

So I've been itching to go back, and with a long weekend free, and already in Singapore, it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get back to Wallacea.  In this case, the magic island of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) was the goal, and I had a scant four days there, so I was determined to make the most if it.

Thursday, April 27 - Manado to Batu Putih

Lots of flights from Singapore, via Jakarta to Manado, and when I emerged from the airport into a scrum of predatory taxi drivers .... there was no-one there to meet me ... O ... K...  I wonder sometimes if I'll drop into some remote place, with emailed plans to meet a local guide at some time and place, and not have them show up.  So far it hasn't happened, touch wood, and this time too turned out just fine when after a few minutes of fending-off money hungry-local cabbies, Esli Kakuahe, my local guide, popped up with a sign saying "Mr Anthony".  So off we went to Batu Putih, roughly a two hour drive through an island dominated by coconut palms and churches (this certainly isn't Muslim Java) to the Tangkoko Lodge and my destination, Tangkoko National Park.

Yellow-billed Malkoha and Silver-tipped Imperial Pigeon

We actually got to Batu Putih village with time to do some birding that afternoon and, after checking in at the lodge, we birded around town picking up some of my first Sulawesi endemics including Yellow-billed Malkoha, Isabelline Bush-hen, Yellow-sided and Gray-sided Flowerpeckers, and Purple-winged Roller.  We also went to the edge of the National Park, picking up Silver-tipped Imperial Pigeon, Sulawesi Hanging-Parrot and a couple of White-necked Mynas.  The highlight for me though was a Barred Buttonquail with three tiny black downy young that ran across the road in front of us then crouched in nice close view in the roadside vegetation.  Even though it's not a Sulawesi endemic, and not globally rare, I've always wanted to see a Buttonquail - I grew up with the mythical "Andalusian Hemipode" in my field guide, a mysterious bird, now extinct in Europe - so finally meeting one in the wild as an amazing experience.  I was still savoring it as I ate my fried fish and rice at the lodge, checked out the Sulawesi Scops-Owls that roosted outside the dining room, and tucked in for the night super-excited to bird the Tangkoko forest in the morning.

Sulawesi Scops-Owl
Friday, April 28 - Tangkoko National Park

Up early and off into the forest where we saw lots of very cool endemic birds and got savaged by many hundreds of tiny, ferocious, ankle-biting ants.  The forest itself was very open with not a lot of understory, which made getting around relatively easy (although stepping on the hundreds of two-inch-long fat, gray, millipedes that carpeted the forest floor was a little cringe-worthy, but there was simply no way to avoid squishing the odd one, not matter how carefully you walked), and the birds were relatively easy to find.  In no time at all, we'd racked up a bunch of target Sulawesi endemic birds like Bay Coucal, Black-billed Koel, Sulawesi Babbler, and Pale-blue Monarch.  Birds of prey were also lurking in the canopy, and we tracked down Spot-tailed Goshawk, Vinous-breasted Sparrowhawk and a very photogenic immature Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle who posed for us while  calling loudly through the forest, presumably hoping for a parent to drop by with food.

Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle
Sulawesi us also pretty much ground zero for Kingfishers and has a host of endemic species, five of which I hoped to see on this trip, and three of which we did in fact see that morning.  Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher is a beautiful, subtly colored creature that we saw along the entrance trail, while not far away a Green-backed Kingfisher lurked in deep shadows.  Finally, we also saw a Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher after a long search of likely ravines and nesting areas.  All very nice birds, although the darkness of the forest meant that my photos of these gems were largely all terrible.

 The morning also produced two star mammals, the ultra-rare Sulawesi Crested-Macaque and the weirdly adorable SPECTRAL TARSIER.  I have always wanted to see a tarsier, and was shocked when Esli nonchalantly pointed to a gnarled fig tree and said "tarsier' before moving on to look for birds.  My response was a little more excited and I stopped to spend a little time with this crazy primitive little yoda-like primate.  Perhaps the coolest animal I've seen all year, and definitely the highlight of the Sulawesi trip for me.

Tangkoko is pretty much THE place to see the Sulawesi Crested-Macaque which occurs only here and on some nearby islands.  The population on mainland Sulawesi is tiny (3,000?) a result of persecution by farmers protecting their crops and locals hunting for bush-meat.  It is a very charismatic creature, most notably for it's odd black coloring (most macaques are a grayish brown color) and it's distinctive ape-like facial features.  They were also quite tame in the forest - perhaps unusual for a species that's still hunted - but at least here, close to the main trail, they allowed us to walk by them quite closely without paying us much mind.  A very cool primate, and I'm not usually all that fond of primates.....

After a siesta - simply too hot in the early afternoon - we returned to the forest and added yet more endemic birds.  Highlights in the afternoon included the majestic Knobbed Hornbill, Ashy Woodpecker, Sulawesi Mynah, and two 'hard to get' parrots, Azure-rumped Parrot, and Yellow-breasted Racquet-Tail.  Great day in the forest, and they even had beer at the dining room at the lodge!  Sulawesi is definitely not Java.

Knobbed Hornbill and Ashy Woodpecker

Saturday, April 29 - Tangkoko Overlook and Mangroves

Spent the day around the edges of the park picking up new things like the dapper White-faced Cuckoo-Dove, Sulawesi Cicadabird, Pygmy Hanging-Parrot, Golden-mantled Racquet-tail and the spiffy Black-naped Fruit-Dove.  A bit of time invested in the swiftlets overhead led me to conclude that there were three species - Sulawesi, Uniform and Glossy - present, well that was my best guess, I'm not very good at swiftlets.  Then as the day warmed up and thoughts turned to lunch, our target bird soared into view, another classy raptor the Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle.  A nice morning of birding along a road, and not a single ant-bite, although by now may ankles were itching like crazy and did so for the next five days.

White-faced Cuckoo-Dove and Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle

In the afternoon, we drove a little further to a mangroves area at a small river-mouth.  Out target here was another of the endemic kingfishers, the impressive Large-billed Kingfisher and it didn't take us long to find one.  We then basically just killed time, enjoying birds like Great-billed Heron and Rainbow Bee-eater until it got late enough to head back to the overlook to do some owling.

Large-billed Kingfisher
The weather in the evening unfortunately didn't cooperate for the owling, and light rain made it difficult to do very much, but we did manage to pull in a Minahassa Masked Owl.  We saw the owl several times in the lights, mostly flying over us, and we heard it call in response to the tape, but unfortunately the rain pretty much killed the chance of a photograph.  For me it as a bit deal though; after 40+ years of looking at birds, I finally saw a second member of the genus Tyto (yep, I'd only ever seen Barn Owl before that night so I was pretty excited to see a Masked Owl).

Monday, April 30 - Gunung Mahawu

The start of a very long trip home with flights from Manado > Jakarta > Singapore > Hong Kong > New York.  There was still time for a last stop though so we made our way over to Gunung Mahawu, hoping for another of the endemic kingfishers, Scaly-breasted Kingfisher.  We didn't have a lot of time at the reserve and unfortunately we never did find the kingfisher, but we did have a great selection of other endemic birds.  Sulawesi Woodpecker, the stunning Sulawesi Myzomela, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher, Island Flycatcher, and Sulawesi Blue-Flycatcher were all great additions to the list.  We did puzzle for a while over a strange, furtive bird in the leaf-litter which I later worked out was Chestnut-backed Bush-Warbler and we were gifted a visit from a Speckled Boobook that sat in the open and watched us right up until a split second before I got my camera focussed on it.

Island Flycatcher and Citrine Canary-Flycatcher

The stunning Sulawesi Myzomela
Too soon though time ran out and I had to head to the airport.  Sulawesi is a magical place and a short trip was no more than an amuse-bouche, priming me to come back for more.  I will absolutely be back there before too long.

Barred Rail at our pre-Airport lunch

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