Gunung Gede – Java
Only 60km south of Jakarta and 30km from Bogor, overlooking an area with one of the densest population in the world, stand the twin volcanoes of Mt Gede and Mt Panggrango (both approximately 3000m high), surrounded by a protected area of 150 square km of montane forest, home to 250 birds, 30 or so endemic to Java, and mammals such as Leopards, Javan Gibbons, Grizzled and Ebony Leaf monkeys, and Asiatic Wild Dogs.
Access is pretty straight forward by road from Jakarta airport, south toward Bogor, then up the Puncak pass, and finally the road to Cibodas, the main access to the park. With no traffic the journey would take just over an hour and a half, but then you’re in Jakarta, Indonesia… At week-ends and on public holiday the whole Puncak road gets completely clogged by traffic, and it can take 6, 8 hours, sometimes more. I made the mistake to plan my return to Jakarta airport on a Saturday, and despite taking a large buffer, by the time i got there my plane had already left an hour before. My advice : Don’t travel on week-ends/public holidays. As you also want to avoid being in the park during week-ends, as the lower section to the waterfall gets really crowded, arriving on a Monday and leaving on a Friday is the best, if you can afford it. Even better : plan your flights to arrive in the evening and leave in the morning, so that you do the road transfer by night. You will easily find a car to bring you to Cibodas at the airport, either a regular Taxi, or a Car/Limousine company such as “Blue bird”, that has an office in the airport. One way transfer will set you back approximately 60 USD. For budget travelers and those for whom time costs less than money, using cheap public transport (bus) is also possible.
In Cibodas and in the vicinity, there are plenty of accommodations available, but for some reason, all birders end up staying at “Freddy’s homestay”, and that’s what i did as well. The rooms are very basic, with a communal bathroom, and running hot water only after you asked “Pak Freddy” to turn it on. The good thing is that it’s close to the action, just a 15 mins walk to the Park entrance, and Pak Freddy is used to birders and their peculiar schedules. His wife will make packed breakfasts and lunch available upon request, and since they are devout Muslims, you don’t have to worry about setting the alarm clock : you will be on your feet every morning at 4am. In case you want a guide, Pak Freddy’s son, Indra Ferdinand (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a very knowledgeable birder. I was happy to use his services on the first day, despite his expensive rate of USD 80, as it gave me a good introduction to the park and useful information for the following 2 days. But again, you don’t NEED a guide, and it’s perfectly Ok to visit the park without one.
Location wise, beside the Park itself, most birders visit the beautiful Cibodas botanic garden, where some target species such as Pigmy Tit and White-flanked Sunbird are easily seen. With only 1 day left, having seen the sunbird and the tit already in the park, and still in search of the Javan Trogon that only occurs higher in the Park, i decided to pass on the botanical garden in order to get another shot at the Trogon…
The park itself now : orientation is fairly easy once you found the access gate (ask around on the first day), since there is only one trail going up… It starts with the Park buildings where you will be asked to purchase a Ticket if you enter at regular hours. If you enter at birding hours (5am or before), you just move on and you will buy the tickets (2 USD per day) on the way out. In case you are asked where you’re heading to, just say “the waterfall”. Theoretically, one might need a permit to go higher on the trail and to the summit, but somebody seems to care about it, starting with the local trekkers, and there is no control anywhere higher so just don’t bother either.
– The lower section. From the entrance (1250m) to the “waterfall trail” (1600m), 2.8km/1h. In this part look for Sunda and Siberian (in winter) Thrush, Crescent-chested and White-bibbed Babblers (often mixed in a large flock), Sunda Blue Robin (often sitting quietly at eye-level near the trail), Sunda Whistling-thrush (hopping on the trail, very tame), Banded Broadbill, Eye-browed and Pigmy Wren-babblers (the latter can be found almost all the way up, very common and unusually tame), Lesser Shortwing (tamer and less skulking than anywhere else), Pigmy Tit, White-flanked Sunbird and Javan Grey-throated White-eye (both also easily found higher). At night i heard several Sunda Scops Owls, Javan Barred owlets and a Brown Wood Owl in the first 600m after the entrance. A pair of Javan Kingfishers hangs around the Blue Lake area (about 1.8km from the bottom). Before the Waterfall junction, there is an open “grassland” area where the trail becomes an elevated Boardwalk : look for Spotted Crocias and Yellow-throated Hanging Parrots foraging in the canopy, Sunda and Orange-spotted Bulbuls in the bushes, and Sunda Bush-warbler and Olive-backed Tailorbird in the grassland. I had a great sighting of a perched Javan Hawk-eagle in one of the large trees surrounding the grassland. At the “waterfall junction”, you can take the trail to waterfall (400m), a good spot at dusk for Salvadori’s Nightjar. Giant swiftlets used to visit the place, but sightings have become scarce.
– The medium section. After the waterfall junction, the trail climbs more steeply until a hot spring area (2150m, 5.3 km/2.5 hrs from Park entrance) that you can’t miss since the hot spring actually flows over the trail. All along this section Javan Tesia is surprisingly common and easy to see. Your best chances of seeing the 2 star birds of Gunung Gede, the Javan Trogon and Javan Cochoa, are also along this section, but they are not easy at all. I managed to get fleeting views of both and consider myself happy with it. The Cochoa is an inconspicuous low density canopy dweller, which presence is only told by its peculiar high-pitched whistle. And even then actually seeing it remains a challenge. The Javan Trogon is certainly easier to see when it’s around, flying from perch to perch in the mid-storey, but it’s a scarce bird and sighting is not guaranteed at all. I saw briefly one on the third day, trailing behind a large mix-species flock, at about 1800m. The medium section is also best for the endemic Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush, the only laughingthrush occuring on Java. It is also an uncommon bird, but always moving in flocks as typical to its genus. Other notable birds i saw or heard in the area : White-browed Shortwing, White-browed and Chestnut-fronted Shrike-babbler, Orange-fronted, Brown-throated and Fire-tufted Barbets (the latter being of dubious origin, probably escapees), Chestnut-bellied Partridge (heard only), White-crowned Forktail, Blue Nuthatch, Rufous-tailed Fantail (common), Chestnut-backed Scimitar-babbler, Javan Fulvetta (common, the core component of mixed bird flocks), Sunda Minivet. In this part you also have your best chances at a sighting of the endemic and endangered Javan Gibbon. Grizzled and Ebony Leaf-monkeys are more common and can also be found in the lower section, as well as Long-tailed Macaque.
– The higher section. After the Hot springs the trail reaches a camp site called Kandang Batu, then climbs steeply to another camp site called Kandang Badak (2400m), sitting on the “saddle” between Mt Gede and Mt Panggrango. Then comes the final stretch, with a very steep 200m climb before reaching the edge of the crater. From there it’s another 30mins to the summit (2960m, 5h/9.7km from the Park entrance). The vegetation pattern changes dramatically as the trail elevates, turning into a dwarf mossy forest around the crater. I came only once to this section, when making the trail all the way to the summit, and had not much time for birding : pressing the pace on the way up to reach the summit early enough, and pressing the pace on the way down as dark clouds and mist started to roll in…. From the crater i sighted a pair of Volcano Swiftlets, and heard a flock Mountain Serins calling from somewhere down the slope, just before it all disappeared in the mist. Island Thrush is frequently sighted around the summit but had no sniff of it. Mountain Leaf-warbler and Mountain White-eye were common, and i was surprised to find a Black-and-Crimson Oriole at elevation 2600m. To give oneself more chances at the Serin and the Thrushes, one should consider camping one night or two at the saddle. You won’t be alone there, especially during dry season week-ends when the summit trek becomes a very popular outing for Jakartans.
So depending on how long you stay and what your main targets are, you have to allocate your time to those 3 areas, considering also the rain factor : in early November, the rainy season was about to start and i had one downpour or two every day, starting from the mid-morning.
If you can overcome the traffic hurdle and avoid busy week-ends, Gunung Gede is an excellent and easily accessible birding destination from anywhere in Asia, and 3 days in the park will yield over 60 birds, including 20 or more Java endemics.