Trip report: Sulawesi and Halmahera Aug-Sept. 2018 by Tropical Birding

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

By combining the two oddly-shaped islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera we racked up a substantial list of specialties, some 128 endemic species were recorded within a grand total of 274 species. The two islands are close, sitting within Wallacea, the transition zone between Oriental and Australasian avifaunas. However, they differ markedly, permitting a large number of additions when combing the both of them – nearly 80 species were added during our visit to Halmahera, among them more than 40 more endemics. The species list acquired included 8 owls (7 of them endemic), 5 nightjars, 1 owlet-nightjar, 4 megapodes (including the strange Moluccan Scrubfowl that uniquely lays its eggs at night), 19 raptors (including 7 endemic ones), 26 species of pigeon/dove (with some stunning fruit-doves among them on Halmahera in particular), 16 kingfishers, 3 hornbills (2 endemic), 3 pittas, 3 bee-eaters, all 15 possible parrot species, 13 different cuckooshrikes, 2 birds-of-paradise, 6 species of white-eye, and 9 different starlings/mynas, and the monotypic family, Hylocitrea, endemic to the mountains of Sulawesi. This illustrated once again that these islands are very much one of the great endemic “hubs” of Indonesia.

We visited the three main sections of Sulawesi: Makassar and Karaenta in South Sulawesi (where Black-headed (Green-backed) Kingfisher was a significant early success), Lore Lindu in Central Sulawesi, and then Tangkoko, Dumoga-Bone and Gunungs Ambang and Mahawu all in the north. 83 endemic species (to Sulawesi and satellites) were counted on this part, with some standout birds among them, like Lilac-cheeked, Green-backed and Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfishers all seen at Sulawesi’s “Kingfisher Capital” Tangkoko; 7 species of owls, including the recently described Cinnabar Boobook, along with other endemic ones like Ochre-bellied and Speckled Boobooks, Sulawesi Scops-Owl, and Sulawesi Masked-Owl. To add to this night fare were a dusk performance by Sulawesi Nightjar in Tangkoko, and a daytime viewing of a pair of roosting Diabolical (Satanic) Nightjars in Lore Lindu.

Sulawesi is also a great destination for raptor aficionados, holding a discrete set of species only found there. As usual, we did not find them all, but we did get exceptional looks at both Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle and Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle perched at Lore Lindu (a well as Spot-tailed Goshawk and the rare Vinous-breasted Sparrowhawk for some at the same site); Sulawesi Goshawk came later at Dumoga-Bone, the site which would also bring one of the regular favorites on this island, the otherworldly Maleo. Tangkoko provided some of the most memorable moments with both birds and mammals, with very confiding Rusty-backed (Red-backed) Thrush and Sulawesi (Sahul) Pitta, a dramatic appearance by a male Knobbed Hornbill perched beside a forest lookout, as well as cooperative Gursky’s (Spectral) Tarsiers, and the famous habituated troop of Celebes Crested Macaques that allowed us to walk among them. In spite of virtually no rain at Lore Lindu (or indeed on Sulawesi at all), we struggled to find the island’s endemic monotypic family the Hylocitrea, which made us wait until after lunch to show itself! A Sulawesi (Hawk) Cuckoo actually SEEN near Lake Tambing there was the clear winner of the surprise find of the trip, even if perhaps the more expected, and gorgeous, Purple-bearded Bee-eater (quite understandably) created a bigger buzz among the group in general. Exceptionally decent views of both Maroon-backed Whistler and Great Shortwing (Heinrichia) in Lore Lindu too, were also not anticipated from these “master skulkers”. The Sulawesi leg ended with a 10th and final Kingfisher on this island, with a serene Scaly-breasted Kingfisher at Gunung Mahawu which sat there for an age, allowing us all to climb into the best position in a forest gully to see it.

Moving on to the island of Halmahera, in the North Moluccas, the birding ramped up again, with a swathe of new endemic species once we’d crossed “Weber’s Line” into this very different region. We started out with rain and several obliging Moluccan Scrubfowls at night on a traditional beach in northern Halmahera. From there, we spent most of our time in and around Weda Resort further south, where the lodge’s showpiece, the display site of Wallace’s Standardwing (Standardwing Bird-of-the-Paradise) was the undoubted climax, being voted as the overall bird-of-the-tour by virtue of the exemplary performance witnessed. Our visit to this treasured place within the forest coincided with the visit of two female birds-of-paradise, which sent the six male standarwings present into a frenzy of display and dance in order to impress them. We were awestruck. The often awkward Moluccan (Halmahera) Goshawk was also heard and seen closeby. Side trips to the highlands on the island yielded some great looks at Moluccan King-Parrot (another very popular species with the group), a beautiful Purple Dollarbird (Azure Roller) late one afternoon, along with impish Gilolo (Rufous) Fantails, and eagles from different ends of the spectrum: a diminutive Pygmy Eagle gliding slowly overhead, and a hulking Gurney’s Eagle sat just above the road, both at the wonderful Bukit Limber. Our visit to Halmahera also allowed us to raise our kingfisher list by a further SIX species, with the endemic North Moluccan Dwarf-Kingfisher, Sombre and Beach Kingfishers, and Common Paradise-Kingfishers being the pick of them. We also broadened our list of nightbirds yet more, with a croaking Moluccan Scops-Owl at Galela, Halmahera (Moluccan) Boobook near Weda, and an absurdly accommodating Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar sat in the open above us for 30 minutes at least. Other highpoints in the Moluccas included three different species of fruit-dove (including an out-of-place Blue-capped Fruit-Dove on a roadside wire!), White (Umbrella) Cockatoo, a confiding North Moluccan Pitta, and an unusually obliging Dusky Scrubfowl foraging indifferently just meters away from us. Daily sightings of impressive Blyth’s (Papuan) Hornbills were not to be scoffed at either. While the trip clearly went very well in terms of birds, the pace of deforestation was particularly noticeable on this trip that has increased substantially from just a few years ago, suggesting potential visitors should go sooner rather than later to this amazingly endemic-rich brace of islands.

TOP FIVE BIRDS OF THE TOUR (SULAWESI and HALMAHERA):

1 Wallace’s Standardwing Weda, HALMAHERA
2 Knobbed Hornbill Tangkoko, SULAWESI
3 Moluccan Scrubfowl Galela, HALMAHERA
4 Maleo Tambun, Dumoga-Bone SULAWESI
5= Sulawesi (Sahul) Pitta Tangkoko, SULAWESI
5= Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher Tangkoko, SULAWESI

Full Sulawesi and Halmahera 2017 report in PDF format (14.1 MB).