Trip report: Sulawesi and Halmahera Aug-Sept. 2015 by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods. This was a set departure tour.

“At the same time, the character of its natural history proves it to be a rather ancient land, since it possesses a number of animals peculiar to itself or common to small islands around it, but almost always distinct from those of New Guinea on the east, of Ceram (now Seram) on the south, and of Celebes (now Sulawesi) and the Sula islands on the west.”

British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, writing on Golilo (now called Halmahera), in the “Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan, and the Bird of Paradise. A Narrative of Travel, with studies of Man and Nature.” in 1869

Acclaimed British naturalist (and co-conspirator with Charles Darwin on the development of the theory of evolution of species by natural selection), Alfred Russel Wallace spoke of the “peculiar”, and it was indeed the peculiar, or ENDEMIC, which was the undoubted focus of this tour. Birders come to Sulawesi and Halmahera to see birds you cannot get anywhere else. While the uniqueness of these species is a clear attraction all of its own, many among them are also stunning birds to boot, and are rightly revered as some of the most highly desired species in all of the region; a quick perusal of our final bird list reveals exquisite birds like Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher, Lilac-cheeked and Green-backed Kingfishers, Knobbed and Blyth’s Hornbills, Moluccan and Ivory-breasted Pittas, Purple-winged and Azure Rollers (A.K.A “Purple Dollarbird”), Rusty-backed (Red-backed) Thrush, and the astonishing Wallace’s Standardwing (a spectacular endemic bird-of-paradise), a bird which Wallace himself was credited with the discovery of during his long expedition to the “Malay Archipelago”, (which encompassed these islands too in his definition). A list of some 280 birds were recorded on this tour, with just a handful only heard (5 species), and many of these were seen long and well by all present, like the strange Geomalia (photo below), and Maleo, the handsome Rusty-backed (Red-backed) Thrush, and most of the kingfishers, including the notoriously difficult Scaly-breasted Kingfisher.

Among the other birds peculiar to the region was a lengthy list of nightbirds, making for some long, long days, nights and dawns in the field, but it felt worth it, after we racked up Minahassa Masked-Owl (during the daytime!), Sulawesi Masked-Owl, Moluccan and Sulawesi Scops-Owls, both forms of Cinnabar Boobook, Ochre-bellied and Speckled (Boobooks) Hawk-Owls (also during the daytime!); quality looks at the oddball Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar (photo on page 4 of report); and Satanic Nightjar (A.K.A.”Diabolical Nightjar”), dayroosting Great Eared-Nightjars, and a rare co-operative Sulawesi Nightjar sat in our beam for a time. This was also capped off with some cool mammals, also endemic to the region, such as Spectral Tarsiers roosting in a large fig tree, and troops of Celebes (Black) Crested Macaques surrounding us while birding at Tangkoko (photo in report)!

The main tour focused on the larger, starfish-shaped island of Sulawesi (formerly named Celebes by the first European settlers from Portugal), taking in lowland sites on the Minahassa Peninsula in the north like Tangkoko (famed especially for its myriad kingfishers), and Dumoga-Bone (famed as the most reliable place on Earth for the rare, and endangered Maleo); combining these with mid and higher elevations at Lore Lindu in Central Sulawesi, and also a short time in the far south, where limestone karst forest kicked off the tour a short way from Sulawesi’s biggest city, Makassar in South Sulawesi. The main tour ended at a lavish resort on an idyllic mangrove-fringed coast near Manado, before most of the group continued on for an extension to the North Moluccas and the island of Halmahera. While it only takes a short flight and boat ride to get there, it quickly feels very different indeed; after all, by crossing from Sulawesi to Halmahera, we had crossed “Weber’s Line” an imaginary line proposed by Dutch-German zoologist Max Weber, delineating the border between the Oriental region on the Sulawesi side and the Australasian region on the Halmahera side. This was quickly obvious from our time on Halmahera, the familiar birds of Sulawesi were largely gone, while others we had not seen before became quickly familiar, (e.g. Willie-wagtail, Red-cheeked Parrot, Sombre and Blue-and-white Kingfishers). The two parts are in sharp contrast to each other, but there were also commonalities; both gave us plentiful endemics, leading most people with a lifebird list for the tour well in excess of 100 birds (with some experienced ones boasting more than 150!) As well as plenty of the “peculiar”, as Wallace referred to the endemics, both legs also displayed some of the region’s most colorful and/or most wanted birds, from the odd Geomalia and Hylocitrea (a recently recognized endemic bird FAMILY no less) and Purple-bearded Bee-eater in Sulawesi’s highlands, to the utterly unique appearance and displays of the Wallace’s Standardwing on Halmahera, and the gaudy Moluccan King-Parrot there too, there were many unforgettable moments, leading one well-traveled birder among the group to comment that it was her “…favorite birding trip of all time”! Hopefully, this report will reveal, to some degree, why!? While it was a tiring tour, regular early starts and late finishes necessitated by the myriad endemic nightbirds as well as daytime species; however, the rewards for this were immense; (e.g. 7 species of kingfisher at one of these sites, the newly described Cinnabar Boobook, the rare Sombre Pigeon, not to mention the aforementioned Geomalia and Hylocitrea, making theses sites an absolute must). Another hardship of the tour was the simple places stayed at two of the sites in particular, being the best available although these were balanced with superlative accommodations elsewhere, especially on Halmahera, where our long stay at a high end dive resort brought us not just a comfortable place to stay, but a beautiful bay to look out on from our cabins, and easily the best food of the trip, in spite of good food being a feature, even in the more Spartan accommodations.

A summary of the highlights is given below, which should illustrate quite what an exceptional tour this was: It had been a very fortunate trip, with most of the endemic targets seen, both in Sulawesi and on the Moluccas Extension in Halmahera. Some of the many highlights included the rare “capture” of all 4 possible megapodes (including good views of digging Maleos on Sulawesi, and great looks at Moluccan Scrubfowl during the night on a black sand beach on Halmahera); 20 species of raptor, which included all 4 endemic accipiters on Sulawesi (Vinous-breasted, Spot-tailed, Small (Dwarf), and Sulawesi Goshawks); all 28 possible species of pigeon, including 7 beautiful fruit-doves (Superb, Black-naped and Red-eared on Sulawesi, and Blue-capped, Gray-headed and Scarlet-breasted in the Moluccas), and the rare Sulawesi Ground-Doves; 13 species of kingfisher, (including exceptional long views of a juvenile Scaly-breasted Kingfisher at Gunung Mahawu); 9 species of owl, which included all of the endemic species on offer (including a very fortunate daytime sighting of the rare Minahassa Masked-Owl, the rarest of the endemic owls); Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar whilst on Halmahera; all 5 possible species of nightjar seen, including Diabolical (Heinrich’s/Satanic), Savanna and Great Eared-Nightjars all in the daytime, and a good perched view of Sulawesi Nightjar in the spotlight; all 3 possible hornbills, with great looks at the dramatic Knobbed Hornbill on Sulawesi (photo below) and equally impressive Blyth’s Hornbill in the Moluccas; all 15 possible parrot species, including good perched views of the Pygmy (Small Sulawesi) Hanging-Parrot on Sulawesi, and an excellent encounter with a male Moluccan King-Parrot at a new site on Halmahera; all 12 possible cuckooshrikes; spectacular displays of the Wallace’s Standardwing near our comfortable dive resort in Halmahera on the extension; all 3 endemic thrushes on Sulawesi were seen well, including an exceptional encounter of several hours with Geomalia at in the mountains of Central Sulawesi, as well as the more expected stellar views of Rusty-backed (Red-backed) Thrush at Tangkoko thanks to the excellent local guides there; all 9 species of mynas/starlings, including the striking Fiery-browed Myna in the Sulawesi highlands, and a single flock of 16 Sulawesi (Crested) Mynas on the Minahassa Peninsula; and all 4 endemic flowerpeckers, which included the scarce Halmahera Flowerpecker in the Moluccas. Along with this heady list of birds was a discrete set of interesting, endemic, mammals, like the habituated troop of Celebes (Black) Crested Macaques, daytime roosting Spectral Tarsiers, and Sulawesi Bear Cuscus all at the wonderful Tangkoko reserve in Northern Sulawesi. The top five birds of the tour are mentioned at the end of the report….

Click this link to view the full report in PDF format.