Lesser Sundas, Indonesia: Birds plus Dragons in the Endemic Capital of the World

Indonesia is the world’s richest country in terms of biodiversity, and its birdlife reflects that statement well. The country holds more than 1500 bird species and depending on your taxonomy, between 380 and 600 of those are endemic, and found nowhere else on Earth! This makes it not only a must-visit destination, but one that any serious world birder needs to return to multiple times, to even get to basic grips with. The Wallacean islands of the Lesser Sundas are filled with endemic species, and this tour visits the best of them to seek out some 60+ species restricted to these islands. We visit four major and two minor islands on this 20-day trip through the Lesser Sundas.



Highlights on Sumba are sure to include the eponymous hornbill, buttonquail and green-pigeon, the spectacular Flame-breasted Sunbird, Red-naped Fruit Dove and snazzy Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher. Flores may reveal the massive Flores Hawk-Eagle, aptly-named Glittering Kingfisher, oddly skulking forest-interior Flores Crow, striking Flores Monarch, loud Bare-throated Whistler, mini-pitta–like Russet-capped Tesia, and a series of white- and dark-eyes that are restricted to these islands. Timor is the driest of the islands, and here we start to see Aussie influences like Zebra Finches. However, our focus remains firmly on the the endemics, including a trio of parrots and honeyeaters, White-bellied Bush-chat, Buff-banded Thicket-Warbler, Black-banded Flycatcher, Timor Sparrow and Timor Blue-Flycatcher. With the release of a new fieldguide covering this region that has split many species we will be keeping a close eye on many endemic taxa that may be raised to full species level by IOC and Clement’s taxonomies in the near future.

Throughout the archipelago, the forest floor hides the stunning Chestnut-backed and Orange-sided Thrushes, as well as one of the main prizes, the Elegant Pitta. Night birding is a real feature of this tour, and we will be seeking out the endemic Mees’s and Timor Nightjars, several Boobook owls (Roti, Timor – split in the latest Indonesia Fieldguide) Little Sumba and Greater Sumba Bookbooks, Wallace’s and Flores Scops-Owls. With luck, we may also encounter Mollucan Scops-Owl and Barn-Owl during our night-scapades. Our final adventure will be a trip to see a dragon! The Komodo Dragon is the planet’s largest lizard, and arguably the most famous reptile on Earth. For those that simply have not had enough, we have a 6-day pre-trip extension to Bali and eastern Java to see the now critically endangered Bali and Black-winged Mynas, as well as Green Junglefowl, Small Blue Kingfisher and a collection of montane Javan endemics on Mt Ijen.

The island of Sumba offers the Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher
The island of Sumba offers the Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher (Keith Barnes)

Day 1: Arrival.Arrival into Denpasar International Airport, either from the Tropical Birding Bali and Java pre-tour or from your international arrival. Located in the south-west corner of the beautiful island of Bali, we will prepare for our onward journey to the Lesser Sundas. Night in Denpasar, Bali.

One of the major targets on Sumba, the aptly-named Sumba Hornbill
One of the major targets on Sumba, the aptly-named Sumba Hornbill (Keith Barnes)

Day 2: Bali to Sumba to Lewa. We take a morning flight to the small town of Waingapu on Sumba before driving straight to the grassy scrublands of Yambu, where we seek out the odd little Sumba Buttonquail, which is endemic to the island. We may also encounter a selection of pipits and Australasian Bushlark, as well as Zebra Finch and Five-coloured Munia. Next, we head to the village of Lewa in the lower-lying hills of the island’s interior. A friendly and simple homestay will be our base for the next three nights. After lunch we head straight for the nearby Manupeu Tanah National Park. We are likely to hear the screeching of Marigold’s Lorikeets before we see them. But as the day wears on we hope to locate one of the megas: Sumba Green-Pigeon, stunning Red-naped Fruit-Dove or the massive honking Sumba Hornbill which seems to be making a comeback in the last few years. Other Sumba endemics may include Sumba Flowerpecker, Apricot-breasted Sunbird or something a little more sombre in the form of Sumba, Sumba Brown or Sumba Blue Flycatchers. These forests are also home to the noisy but secretive Elegant Pitta and Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher. A shot at either of these is likely to get the pulse racing. We may also encounter one of the recently split and romantically named Supertramp Fantail or Tenggara Whistler (not IOC splits yet). As dusk falls we will gather ourselves as the diurnal birds head to roost and the nocturnal denizens emerge. This small patch of road holds three species of endemic nightbird and we will likely first try for Mees’s Nightjar, before attempting to lure in one Sumba’s two endemic Ninox owls: Greater and Little Sumba Boobooks.

Red-naped Fruit-Dove is a specialty found on Sumba
Red-naped Fruit-Dove is a specialty found on Sumba (Keith Barnes)

Days 3-4: Manupeu Tanah Daru National Park.We will spend an additional two days in this large national park, based at our Lewa homestay. Time will be spent at different altitudes in an attempt to see as many of Sumba’s endemics and specialty species as possible. We will seek out the rarest of Sumba’s endemics, including Sumba Brown and Sumba Flycatchers, the black-and-scarlet Sumba Myzomela, Orange-crested Cockatoo, as well as perhaps Wallacean Cuckooshrike. The elusive Chestnut-backed Thrush, although not endemic to Sumba, is likely to be a major highlight of our time here.

Chestnut-backed Thrush, an attractive endemic of this island group
Chestnut-backed Thrush, an attractive endemic of this island group (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Sumba to Timor. After another morning at Manupeu Tanah, we return to Waingapu and take a flight to Kupang, Timor. This modern capital is surrounded by Eucalyptus woodland and between the habitat and birds one can sense the presence of the nearby continent of Australia. We first head to a local patch of woodland and mangroves where we might encounter our first Timor endemics such as Timor Meliphaga and Timor Friarbird, while in the grassy verges we might see Spotted Harrier, Brown Quail, and Red-backed or Barred Buttonquail. As we return to our hotel along the sea shore we can expect shorebirds and perhaps a distant Lesser Frigatebird lingering in the wind. Night in Kupang.

Timor Bushchat is a specialty of that island
Timor Bushchat is a specialty of that island (Keith Barnes)

Day 6: Kupang to Rote.The nearby island of Rote is our next destination, which we reach either by ferry or short flight (to be decided). It holds several endemic species and subspecies. Some authorities now recognize Rote Leaf Warbler and Rote Myzomela as distinct species, and we will seek these out along with Rote Fantail, and after dark, Rote Boobook, we as try for a clean-sweep of all the endemic ‘species’. In addition, there are a few birds that are easier to see on Rote than they are on Timor, so we shall be focusing efforts on these also. Orange-banded Thrush, Timor Blue-Flycatcher, Red-chested Flowerpecker, (Timor) Spangled Drongo, Timor Oriole, Jonquil Parrot and Pink-headed Imperial-Pigeon are chief among these. Other species we might see include Fawn-breasted Whistler, Timor Stubtail, Black Cuckoo-Dove, or at the wetlands some dinkum Aussie birds like Australian Pelican, Royal Spoonbill, Red-capped Plover, Pied Stilt and other shorebirds. Night on Rote.

Black-backed Fruit-Dove is one of the targets on the island of Timor
Black-backed Fruit-Dove is one of the targets on the island of Timor (Keith Barnes)

Day 7: Rote to Kupang. The morning will be spent mopping up any endemic or ‘local’ target birds, before we travel back to Kupang. If we have time we will begin our explorations of ‘mainland’ Timor. Scrubby patches may hold munias and other seedeaters.

Day 8: Camplong to Soe. We start the day early, and will be at the wooded deciduous monsoon forest of Camplong at dawn. The early chorus can be quiet, but we will slowly start picking up target birds. Our first efforts will be focused on the Orange-banded Thrush if we have not yet located them. Next, we will check fruiting trees for Black-backed and Rose-crowned Fruit-Doves, Timor Oriole, Timor Figbird and Timor Friarbird. As the light improves we shall enter the forest and try to track down the under- and mid-storey specialist species here: the minute and virtually tailless Timor Stubtail, noisy but furtive Timor Thicketbird, Timor Bushchat, snazzy Black-banded Flycatcher and scarce Timor Heleia. If we have time we shall try some scrubby patches for Timor Sparrow, or Tricoloured Parrotfinch. After a full morning here we make for Soe where the afternoon’s activities will have us searching for two furtive and seldom-seen doves: Black and Timor Cuckoo-Doves, plus Timor Gerygone. At dusk we will attempt to see Timor Boobook and Timor Nightjar. We overnight in Soe.

Orange-banded Thrush is found in the mountains of Timor
Orange-banded Thrush is found in the mountains of Timor (Keith Barnes)

Days 9-10: Gunung Mutis.We have to leave our accommodation pre-dawn to be in these mountains at first light, and we will be eating lunch in the field, to maximize our chances at some of the highland gems here. Early morning finds may include Metallic Pigeon, and Island Thrush. We shall find a mountain viewpoint and wait for passing pigeons and parrots. The electric Iris Lorikeet is rare and will require some luck to see, but we hope to have good luck with Olive-headed Parakeet and Jonquil Parrots if we have not yet seen them. Later in the morning, we shall take a walk looking for the vocally different and interesting race of Pygmy (Timor) Cupwing, and on one of the days we will take the difficult walk to look for Timor Imperial Pigeon, a species that is becoming very tricky to see indeed, and we will be delighted if we are lucky enough to encounter one. Our final main target will be the recently discovered (2012) Mount Mutis Parrotfinch, although it would take a huge amount of luck to see this enigmatic bird. The Mutis also give us additional shots at the rarer cuckoo-doves and other species should we still need to see them. Nights in Soe.

Day 11: Soe and Camplong.Today we have a number of options depending on what we still need to see. Options include a predawn start for some of the nightbirds at Soe, or a drive to Camplong where we can seek out the monsoon forest specialists. We will use this wildcard day to our best advantage. We overnight again in Kupang.

Wallace's White-eyes allopreening on Flores
Wallace's White-eyes allopreening on Flores (Keith Barnes)

Day 12: Timor to Flores. This morning we take a flight from Kupang to Ruteng. We transition from the drier forest of coastal Timor to the wet forest of montane Flores. We immediately head up into the nearby highlands of Lake Ranamese. Here we might find Scaly-crowned Honeyeater in a flowering tree, Montane White-eye, Little Pied Flycatcher, and perhaps our first endemics such as Eye-browed Heleia, Russet-capped Tesia, Flores Blue-Flycatcher, Flores Leaf-Warbler or Black-fronted Flowerpecker. Later we move off to Kisol, where we will be staying at a rustic Christian Seminary school in the foothills of the hills. This evening we will attempt to see the hulking Wallace’s Scops-Owl or Moluccan Scops-Owl, both of which frequent the forests of this area. Overnight Kisol.

Day 13: Full day Kisol. The Kisol area holds several highly-desirable birds, none more so than the Critically Endangered Flores Hawk-Eagle, and we shall spend a considerable amount of time looking for this very rare species from various lookout points. While we patiently wait, hopefully we can encounter (Flores) Spangled Drongo, Flame-breasted Sunbird, and with luck the amazing Glittering Kingfisher which has the strangest of calls. Spending time in the forest should yield Thick-billed Heleia, and with luck the very odd forest-interior Flores Crow. More scanning may with much luck reveal the increasingly rare Flores Green-Pigeon, and Sunda White-eye. Another nocturnal vigil will be arranged if we are still seeking the night birds of the area.

Eyebrowed Heleia is found on Flores
Eyebrowed Heleia is found on Flores (Keith Barnes)

Day 14: Kisol to Ruteng.After another morning’s birding near to Kisol, a coastal village that still has some easily accessible intact lowland forest we shall return to the highlands. Night in Ruteng.

Days 15-16: Golo Lusang and Lake Ranamese.For the next couple of days we shall split our birding between these two sites as we choose which species to target. The possibilities include Flores Warbling-Flycatcher, Flores Leaf-Warbler, Russet-capped Tesia, Flores Shortwing, Tawny-breasted Parrotfinch, Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon, Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker, and Parzudaki’s Cuckoo Dove. Night-birding around Ruteng could reveal Wallace’s and Flores Scops Owls. Visiting mid-altitude forest near to Ruteng gives us chances to see two of the most difficult of Flores’ near-endemics: Flores Green Pigeon and Wallace’s Hanging Parrot, both of which are frustratingly nomadic, making their appearances difficult to predict. Nights in Ruteng.

Flame-breasted Sunbird is endemic to the Lesser Sundas
Flame-breasted Sunbird is endemic to the Lesser Sundas (Keith Barnes)

Day 17: Ruteng to Labuan Bajo.Our main quarry today is the localized Flores Monarch, and we visit a reserve where they are not uncommon. Also here regularly is uniformly rare Chestnut-capped Thrush and we will try and find these beauties before heading to the seaside town of Labuan Bajo, where we spend the night.

Day 18: Komodo. Today we make a daytrip on a speedboat to a stunning place that is on almost everyone’s bucket lists as it is home to dragons: Komodo! Just the name is enough to evoke shudders of anticipation at seeing the world’s largest and surely most impressive lizard. Seeing this incredible animal will be one of the highlights of our time in the Lesser Sundas. Another of the targets will be the Yellow-crested Cockatoo, which remains fairly common and somewhat tame here despite being critically endangered. Other cool birds that are found on Komodo include Orange-footed Scrubfowl and Green Junglefowl. Night in Labuanbajo.

Day 19: Labuan Bajo to Denpasar. This morning we return to the exotic island of Bali, where we again overnight in Denpasar.

Day 20: Departure. We all fly out on our international departures.

The striking Elegant Pitta will be looked for on Flores
The striking Elegant Pitta will be looked for on Flores (Keith Barnes)

BALI and EASTERN JAVA EXTENSION (6 Days)

Bali is one of those places whose very mention evokes a tropical island paradise. This island does indeed have wonderful beaches, snorkeling, diving, and hospitable people. But in combination with eastern Java, just the other side of a narrow strait, it also offers some excellent birding. Although Bali lies in close proximity to the Lesser Sundas, it is on the other side of Wallace’s Line, which coincides with a deep oceanic trench. This means that in periods of low sea levels, it was connected with Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and the Asian mainland, rather than to the Lesser Sundas and Moluccas. This has resulted in an avifauna with strong Asian tropical affinities, including a rich set of endemics. This short and easy extension offers chances to see more than half of these endemics. These include some wonderful birds like Javan Kingfisher, Javan Banded Pitta, Black-banded Barbet, and the critically endangered Bali Myna.

Bali offers a vibrant culture alongside the birding
Bali offers a vibrant culture alongside the birding (Keith Barnes)

Day 1: Arrival. Drive to Pemuteran. After arrival in modern Denpasar Airport, we drive about three hours to the northeast coast, where we’ll be based in the chilled-out little beach town of Pemuteran. If time permits in the afternoon, we’ll start searching for the local specialties like Javan Plover and Green Junglefowl.

Day 2: Bali Barat National Park. Bali Barat protects the largest and wildest tract of land left on Bali. It includes a fat peninsula, which is covered in dry forest, while it grades into rainforest as you move inland. In combination with a coastline of sandy beaches, mudflats, and mangroves, it’s no surprise that this park supports a diverse mix of birds. It’s the last refuge of the spectacular, crested, white, critically endangered Bali Myna, and also holds the slightly more widespread but also critically endangered Black-winged Starling. Some of Bali Barat’s other endemics and sought-after birds include Beach Thick-knee, Great-billed Heron, Small Blue Kingfisher, Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher, Little Barbet, Ruby-throated Bulbul, Lemon-bellied White-eye, Scarlet-headed Flowerpecker, and the gorgeous Javan Banded Pitta. If we don’t get lucky and find them on day roosts, we may end the day with a nocturnal excursion to search for Sunda Scops-Owl and Savannah Nightjar.

Arguably the main target on the extension is the rare Bali Starling
Arguably the main target on the extension is the rare Bali Starling (Keith Barnes)

Day 3: Pemuteran to Mount Ijen. After a final morning to clean up on anything we missed on the previous day, or perhaps to do some shorebirding, we head for Gilimanuk, where we catch the ferry over to east Java. Despite being within sight of Bali across the narrow Bali strait, Java is quite unlike Bali, with a very different history and culture. We drive up to our hotel on the slopes of Mount Ijen. The cool weather and moist highland forest here always come as welcome relief after the heat of the lowlands.

Day 4: Mount Ijen. This park holds a mix of drier, savannah-like habitat, and true rainforest. It’s a good place for some of the lower-elevation endemic birds like Gray-cheeked Tit-Babbler and Black-banded Barbet, and also holds many of Java’s montane endemic species. Although it lacks some of the montane birds of western Java, it offers easy road access to the forest, rather than long walks on steep trails. Some of our endemic targets include Javan Hawk-Eagle, Flame-fronted Barbet, Sunda Minivet, White-bellied Fantail, Sunda Warbler, Orange-spotted and Sunda Bulbuls, Pied Shrike-Babbler, Crescent-chested and White-bibbed Babblers, White-flanked Sunbird, and Javan Bush Warbler. Other targets on the mountain will include Gray-breasted Partridge, Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon, Pink-Headed Fruit Dove, Crimson-winged and Checker-throated Woodpeckers, Cave Swiftlet, Indigo Flycatcher, Blue Nuthatch, and Mountain White-eye.

Green Junglefowl is easily found on Bali
Green Junglefowl is easily found on Bali (Keith Barnes)

Day 5: Mount Ijen to Denpasar. After a final morning birding session, we retrace our steps, and head back to Bali. If we haven’t seen it already, we’ll watch for Javan Kingfisher in rice paddies and other wetlands along the way. If time permits in the afternoon, we will bird the Benoa Harbor for species like Sunda Teal, Little Pied and Little Black Cormorants, Small Blue Kingfisher, and a variety of shorebirds. We’ll spend the night in a comfortable resort.

Day 6: Departure from Denpasar. We will be transferred from our hotel to connect with outbound international flights.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Hot and humid for much of Sumba, Timor and Bali, with a chance of heavy, tropical, downpours at any time. Cool in the mountains in Gunung Mutis, Java and Flores, where rain is expected. On the extension, the lowlands are very hot and humid, while Mount Ijen is cooler.

DIFFICULTY: Moderate, a fair amount of walking is required, although much of it on wide tracks and in fairly easy terrain. There is one, optional, strenuous walk on Timor’s Gunung Mutis, where we trek on a difficult rack for three hours to search for Timor Imperial-Pigeon. The toughest aspect of this trip are the very long days, made longer by the pursuit of the many endemic night birds available on this tour. Many of these are usually, with effort, seen, by taking long days in the field. The extension is easy.

ACCOMMODATION: As this is a remote part of the world the accommodations on this tour are highly variable, with good to excellent accommodations available in some areas, but rather rustic in others. At all sites we use the best accommodations available. In the cities of Kupang, Soe, Ruteng, Labuan Bajo, and Denpasar, good large modern hotels are used with private en-suite bathrooms, 24-hour electricity, full time hot water, air-conditioning and Internet. The nights of days 2-4 are at a simple homestay in Lewa, with 24-hour electricity, but shared bathrooms and cold water (warm bucket shower available). At Rote and Kisol we stay in simple accommodations with 24-electricity and en-suite bathrooms (cold water). On the extension the hotel at Pemuteran is a very nice resort with 24-hour electricity and hot water showers. At Mt Ijen a simple homestay is used.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, with a focus on getting as many birds as possible, although casual photographers in the group are likely to find some birds good subjects for photography. Elsewhere photography is much more limited. There are no feeders at any sites on this tour.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas on arrival in Indonesia can be obtained for tourists from the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and most European countries for stays of under 30 days. There is a fee for this, payable in cash. Travel requirements are subject to change; we recommend double-checking entry requirements six weeks prior to the tour, or ask our office staff for help..

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 18 (of not joining the extension); if joining the extension, accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 18 of the main tour, and nights of day 1 through to night of day 5 on the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 through to lunch on day 19 (if not joining the extension) or through to breakfast on day 6 of the extension, if joining that too; four separate one-way air tickets from Denpasar to Waingapu; Waingapu to Kupang; Kupang to Ruteng; and Labuan Bajo to Denpasar; speedboat excursion full day from Labuan Bajo to Komodo; for those joining the extension the return ferry tickets from Bali to Java are included as is the boat trip; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 19 (on the main tour), through to evening of day 5 on the extension, if joining that too; local guides throughout the Lesser Sundas, Bali and Java; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for optional luggage porters in city hotels on the main tour and extension; international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; visa fees (payable on arrival in Indonesia); departure tax when leaving Indonesia; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.