Halmahera and Sulawesi

Early September 2013 i visited 2 locations in the North Maluku island of Halmahera, and then visited the Central Sulawesi National Park of Lore Lindu. Both islands are located in the bio geographical area of Wallacea, tucked between sundaic Borneo and the Australasian island of New Guinea.

For a birdwatcher visiting those islands, endemism is the key word : whereas the total number of birds is much less than neighboring Borneo, mainland Sulawesi has an astonishing 70+ endemic birds, whereas Halmahera has 28. Moreover, Halmahera’s avifauna has many common species and genera with New Guinea and the Australasian region, with for example 2 Birds-of-paradise being found on the island.

In Halmahera, i chose to visit first a relatively new location nearby the coastal town of Weda, where an “Ecoresort” has recently open. Not only does the location support 24 of the 28 endemic species, but also there is in the vicinity of the resort a protected area with a beautiful Standardwing Lek.

Like most Birds-of-Paradise, the Standardwing male birds gather almost every morning in a display area, usually a clump of trees, and perform in front of quietly attending females in the hope of the ultimate reward : mating. This is a fascinating scene, starting at first light and lasting for an hour or two, before the birds disperse into the forest for feeding. Capturing it on camera is challenging though, as light is scarce below the canopy, and from the ground you will always shoot against it. I had brought 2 flashes with me but i decided to do without, unsure how birds would react to it. So i tried my best with just a tripod and a high ISO setting, trying to get a bit of the male birds glossy colors despite the poor light, and trying to capture movement without too much blur. To add to the difficulty, weather was not helping with morning mist and light drizzle on two of my three visits to the lek.

Another major target for birdwatchers in Halmahera is the endemic Ivory-breasted Pitta, a large pitta with an unusual color mix for the genus : white and red underparts, black head and upperparts, and light green on the wings. All pittas have attractive color patterns, but this one is arguably the most handsome of all. What also makes pittas special to birders is that they are never easy to see… the Ivory-breasted is not different, and in Weda i struggled for the best part of 2 days before finally getting poor overhead views of a bird at dusk.

So when heading to my second stop in Halmahera, the small village of Binagara at the outskirts of Aketajawe-Lolobata National park in the center of the island, i was eager to succeed at better views, and hopefully pictures of the bird. A second main target was to search for the ultra elusive, as its name suggests, Invisible Rail, another Halmahera endemic. This rail had been seen by only a handful of people, acquiring quasi mythical status, until 2 years ago a local guide, Pak Roji, found a nest nearby his house which allowed the first pictures of the bird in the wild to be taken. The alternative name of the bird is Drumming Rail, as it produces a very singular bass sound when calling, similar to that of a drum beat. This is the only thing i got from the bird, despite spending two days wading up and down the nearby river and surrounding marshes, staking-out various places and dawn and dusk : once, without notice, a bird started drumming from inside high grass, maybe only 20 meters away, for 10-15 seconds and that was it.

The Ivory-breasted Pitta however proved more cooperative : first we had fantastic views of a roosting pair at night, sitting low in a tangle of vines just above the path. And i had multiple views of a pair in the same area during day time, calling from a low perch and even hopping on the ground around me.

My stay at Binagara was very pleasant altogether, thanks to Pak Roji and his wife (and kids) who took great care of me and offered me to sleep in their house right at the edge of the forest, with great views just from the terrace of flocks of parrots and hornbills commuting between their roosts and the surrounding fruiting trees.

In Sulawesi, i visited only one location : the central Lore Lindu national Park, and stayed in the village of Wuasa for 7 days. Lore Lindu is a large 2000 sqkm park, stretching over a diverse set of habitats from lowlands to mountains (200 to 2600m), and, in theory, protecting a unique fauna. But despite its status as a UNESCO World Biosphere reserve, the national park status has done very little to reduce human encroachment, deforestation and illegal hunting. The emblematic Maleo, Sulawesi’s national bird, is now almost extinct from the park due to over-harvesting of its eggs by locals. The 2 unique mammals, Babirusa (“pig-deer” in indonesian) and Anoa (a dwarf buffalo), have become rare from poaching and habitat loss and exceedingly difficult to see. Given the unique natural assets and the cultural heritage of the area, Lore Lindu could have become a major destination for eco-tourism in Asia, but instead it’s being wasted by mismanagement and the ill-effects of the Transmigrasi policy.

Having said that, Lore Lindu is still an attractive place for a birdwatcher to visit, as it supports a large number of the Sulawesi endemics. Besides Maleo, for which Dumago-Bone NP in the north seems to be the last reliable stronghold, the most sought-after bird is probably the intriguing Geomalia, a poorly known Thrush-like bird that has taxonomists still debating on its status. Probably more elusive than rare, sighting of a Geomalia demands dedicated efforts. I was lucky to get a great view on my first attempt to the higher reaches of the Anaso track, probably the only place where the bird is regularly seen, but failed to capture a picture. Other sought-after birds in Lore Lindu include the Malia, another bird unique in its genus, the closest thing to a Laughingthrush you can find in Sulawesi,  the Satanic Nightjar, a very dark plumaged nightjar which dark-orange eyes reflect the light with a strange yellow glow at night, and the handsome Purple-bearded Bee-eater.

Both Sulawesi and Halmahera are extremely attractive destinations for birdwatchers and naturalists alike, and relatively easy to go by. Unfortunately, the unique natural assets of those islands are being wasted at an increasing speed as economic development is mostly achieved by conversion of forest to agriculture and plantations, and is made easier by improving infrastructure and the spreading of forest clearing machinery, chain seesaw to start with. So the sad truth is : if you want to witness the remaining natural treasures and visit those places, the faster the better.

Halmahera Birds :

Standardwing :

Lore Lindu :

9 thoughts on “Halmahera and Sulawesi

    • Bonjour Yann,

      Une fois de plus tu as frappé très fort avec cette nouvelle collection de photos et je suppose que tu dois avoir des informations de terrain non moins intéressantes. Ta série sur le paradisier de Wallace (Semioptera wallacei) en pleine parade nuptiale est sensationnelle. A propos de Lore Lindu, Sulawesi, as-tu vu ou entendu le serin malais (Serinus estherae)? car il s’agit d’une forme (probablement une sous-espèce) non décrite où le jaune du mâle est remplacé par un rouge-orange nettement différencié.


      • Bonjour Michel, merci de ton commentaire sympa. Le serin malais (mountain serin), comment dit-on “bogey bird” en francais ? J’ai ete 3 fois au sommet de la Anaso track, j’y ai passe 4-5 heures au total, des ornitho l’ont vu avant et apres moi, mais rien pour moi !

      • Bonsoir Yann,
        Sais-tu si l’un de ces ornithos a pu photographier le serin?
        Si oui, peux-tu me donner l’adresse e-mail de l’un ou l’autre de façon à remonter jusqu’à l’éventuel photographe.

  1. wow….your picture it’s very amazing especially paradise birds and Moluccan Scops-owl….you should came back again to Aketajawe Lolobata National Park for the drumer rail…..and I’m waiting in here…..Yann

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