In Bahasa Indonesian an owl is burung hantu which literally means spirit bird. This year I decided to visit Indonesia to look for owls. It's the best country (by far) for owls, with both the most owls, and most endemic owls. My plan is to visit Sulawesi and some satellite islands, along with a site in Java.
April 19th. This is a regular work day. I have about an hour after work to grab dinner, walk Maile (my dog) and double check I have packed all my stuff. Tui drive me and the boys to the airport. We say goodbye at the departure drop off, and I am off on my owl trip.
I have been working on this trip for so long, that I had little preparation left to do this spring. I have a nagging feeling that I have not attended to the trip. Surly I have forgotten to do something important. The first leg of the journey is a flight to Seattle which goes just fine.
April 20th. I fly on Eva via Taipei to Jakarta. The flight departs at 130am, which enables me to sleep through most of it. Most of the day is lost to the international date line.
April 21st. I arrive in Taipei at 4am. The airport is amazingly quiet. I walk around, re-hydrating at every water fountain. The flight to Jakarta goes well. I enjoy my last beers for a few weeks.
I had set up for Indira Ferdinand ( email@example.com ) to help me with travel arrangements in Java. Indira has arranged for his nephew, Rizki, to meet me at the airport. It takes about half an hour to find him. Rizki turns out to be an English teacher, and we talk about Indonesia for the whole drive.
Jakarta looks a lot flashier than when I was here 15 years ago. Tall condominium towers are everywhere. Of course there are still many people who look like they are struggling.
It's later afternoon, and soon the sky turns dark. A huge storm erupts. Thunder booms, and we see lightening all around the car. Soon the road is thick with run off and traffic has slowed painfully. We eventually reach the mountains. The rain eases, but never stops. At nightfall we arrive at a small hotel in Cibodas, a tourist town situated under a volcano (and national park); Gunung Gede.
Rizki introduces me to my guide, Adun, a thin, chain smoking guy in his late thirties. He's been birding the trails here for most of his life. Adun is soft-spoken and fluent in English. As it's raining He suggest we wait until 4am, I request we make it 3am and he agrees.
I get ready for bed. I feel crappy not going out into the forest on my first night. Rain drums gently on the hotel roof. I fall asleep before 7pm, but am struggle to stay asleep after midnight.
April 22nd. By 130am I finally give up trying to sleep and slowly get ready for the day. My targets for Gunung Gede are Javan scops, Javan owlet, and Bartell's (AKA Brown) wood-owl. At 3am, I meet Adun by the hotel's iron gate. It's a beautiful cool morning. We hike through Cibodas and into Gunung Gede national park. The park guards are asleep, so we walk by unnoticed. The trail in the park is cobbled with big stones, it's not muddy, but the stones are wet from last night's rain, and it's hard to walk with ease on such an uneven surface. After 2km of climbing, Adun starts taping for Javan scops. This is a little know mountain owl. It was once thought to be silent. After birders figured out it's call it was thought to be unresponsive to playback. We try playback at six different spots. Nothing. At the seventh we get a nearby response after a couple of minutes-a wavering, slightly trilled screech, unlike any scops owl I have heard. We tape on and off for a few minutes, but the owl stubbornly stays in a gully filled with an impenetrable thicket of wild ginger. Adun suggests moving down the trail. He tapes again. Immediately we hear a soft four note growl. Adun whispers this is a different call of Javan scops. The owl comes in very close. I can hardly bare the tension. It growls again and again, moving through the trees above us. Adun tries the spotlight but all we see is ancient, twisted, mossy trees. In the distance we hear the original bird's screeching. Then the soft growl, so close. Lights. There it is, perched above us. It's a beautiful orange-eyed owl, with bold pale eye-brows and a rich rufous mantle and breast. It's a brilliant little owl. All too soon it takes off, and is gone. Elated we return to a trail-side shelter. Adun takes out his stove and brews up a couple of mugs of hot coffee, and we celebrate in style, drinking our coffee, sat on a cold stone floor under a pair of volcanoes.
Our next target is Javan owlet. It's predominantly active early in the morning and later in the day. Adun suggests we descend a little and try for it as the sun rises. Sure enough, after a couple of stops we get a response to Adun's playback. The owlet comes close. We hear a flurry of scolding song birds-and assuming they are mobbing the owlet, venture into a thicket. The owlet moves around, calling loudly from many places. I eventually track it down, and catch a brief view of it perched on a branch, only to have a drongo chase it away, before I can enjoy a sustained view. We continue to persevere, with some serious off trail struggles to get closer. Several times I suggest we quit taping and try elsewhere. Adun insists on returning to this place. So we do.
The Javan owlet tree. (No owlet in the photo)
Eventually the owlet completely stops calling and we move on, trying lower down on the mountain. We fail to get any other response. It's about 10:30am when we arrive back at the hotel. I eat breakfast and try to sleep. Mostly I just lay in bed, listen to dogs, kids and chickens. In the middle of the day I hike to an internet cafe and email Tui. Back at the hotel, I watch big clouds obscure the two volcanoes. The sky grows dark. I wait.
I meet with Adun at 3pm. He's thoughtfully brought me a copy of "Birds of Indonesian Archipelago" for me to read tonight. That afternoon we return to the owlet site.
Gunung Gede (left), from Cibodas
We tape a bit and get a distant response. We try a little higher on the trail, but get nothing. Returning to the spot, it's now well after sunset. A big owl flies over us. My first thought was eagle owl. A moment passes, then a barred eagle-owl sings from the trees ahead.
We leave the forest and visit the dinosaur park/campground in search of Sunda scops and buffy fish owls. Both birds I have seen before. I'm almost asleep on my feet. We don't find anything. Our last stop is a small pond behind the mosque, where we look for buffy fish owl, but again draw a blank.
We decide to call it a night and I sleep soundly.
April 23rd. I wake well before my alarm and slowly get ready for the day. My goal is to get a better view of the Javan owlet. After yesterday's excessive taping I'm not feeling optimistic. Adun and I take a bemo (micro bus) to the trail-head. Wild pigs have raided the garbage bins, and trash and pig shit litter the entrance. We hike into the park in darkness and stop at the owlet site. We tape and wait. We walk the rocky trail, craning our necks to search the canopy. Periodically the owlet calls, usually from some distant tall trees, that are largely obscured by other big trees. A couple of times it comes in close, and low, below the canopy. We hustle through the dense undergrowth, fighting spiny rattan vines. We don't find it.
Then it starts to rain. A little at first, the torrentially. We hike up to a concrete shelter with a metal roof. Adun brews coffee. A diabetic hiker shows up in bad shape asking for food, and Adun feeds him some cookies and water. Soon he is looking much better. Adun tells me about a time he found a dead couple at the summit. Most likely they had succumbed to hypothermia. He also describes helping to carry the bodies of ill-prepared hikers from Gunung Gede.
Eventually the rain eases up and we return to the owlet site. The bird comes in, calling but still hidden. Then we see it in flight between two trees, before disappearing into the canopy. We wait around, trying to find it in the canopy. It starts to rain with a vengeance, and we decide to bolt down the trail to the shelter by the park entrance.
The rain eases, and we hike back to the owlet site, hoping for a better view. We hear the owlet in the distance, but that's it. It does not come in. We return to the hotel, vowing to try again late in the afternoon.
By 3:30pm, Adun and I are back at the owlet site. We wait there until dark. We hear it call just a couple of times from far away. A steady stream of tired looking hikers passes us. Adun comments "when they start the hike they are like heroes, but when they return they look defeated". After darkness falls we switch strategies and start taping for for Bartell's (brown) wood-owl. This is either (depending on the taxonomist) a race of brown wood owl, a bird I have seen in Sabah and Kerela, or a rare endemic species found on Java's uplands. Regardless, I don't find one tonight. This does not surprise me, as Adun explains he has never seen or heard one at Gede. Soon the rains start again in earnest, we run through the darkness down slippery cobbled trail to a stone shelter by the entrance. It's packed with soaked hikers smoking and eating snacks. It's a jovial sort of place to while away an hour listening to the heavy rain pound the metal roof.
Eventually we decide to throw in the towel, and return to the hotel, checking the pond behind the mosque along the way (no fish owls there today). I eat dinner, say thanks to Rizki and then a driver takes me, with Adun, back to Jakarta airport. I'm exhausted and fall asleep before we leave Cibodas, waking in a daze at the airport terminal. I walk into the terminal and find a nice bench to sleep on.
April 24th. I wake early on a bench at Jakarta airport. I have several hours to kill before my flight. I WhatsApp Tui and Alfonds (my next guide). As it gets light outside, I see the weather is shit. The sky is a sort of brownish color, and rain lashes the glass wall of the terminal. I check the forecast "heavy thunderstorms in Manado". I look at my new boots, and about 40% of both soles have separated from the uppers. This isn't good. It's hard to buy a big shoe in rural Indonesia and I don't want to be stuck wearing flip flops in the forest.
The flight to Manado, Sulawesi goes well. I meet Alfonds (firstname.lastname@example.org), manager of Mama Roos guesthouse at the airport late in the afternoon. He's a stout friendly guy who speaks great English. It's a slow drive to Tangkoko National Park, but at least it's a beautiful warm sunny afternoon. I'm excited to hear that Alfonds has a detailed plan of how we are going to look for my four target owls; Minahassa masked owl, ochre-bellied, speckled and cinnabar boobooks.
We drive straight to a site near his guesthouse at dusk to look for Sulawesi scops owl-a bird I have seen before, but it's always great to see an owl. There are a few photographers hanging out, and another guide has a speaker playing the scops' call strung up on a tree. It only takes a minute to find the small owl.
Dinner is delicious-I recall eating here back in 2003, and the food was good then. Alfonds and I meet at 8:30pm and hike into Tangkoko National Park. We get to a clearing and lay out a bluetooth speaker on the grass, and retreat to the shadow of a large fig tree. We play a recording of Minahassa masked-owl. This is a local owl that's sometimes very challenging to find. One minute passes and a medium sized, long-winged owl flies over the clearing. I spotlight it-and it's a typical looking barn owl with buffy upper parts, with many fine darker spots. As it flies it makes a series of forceful screeches confirming it's identity. (The Sulawesi masked-owl, a species I have seen before, has a similar call, but it's weaker, higher pitched, and the note tends to change as it calls). The owl disappears into some big trees. More taping and we hear a few responses from different areas of the forest, but we don't see it again. Eventually it falls silent.
We try another site in some littoral forest close to the shore for a better view. We get no response.
Feeling very fucking lucky we return to Mama Roos, where I sleep heavily.
April 25th. I set my alarm for 2:55am and wake up groggy. After a quick coffee, Alfonds introduces me to a guide, Mensur. We all set out to the lower slope of the mountain where there is a staked out spot for Minahassa masked-owl. My goal is to get a good view of a perched bird. We tape a little on and off but only hear a distant response twice. Alfonds and Mensur try spotlightling, but the trees are truly vast and we see nothing but leaves.
We also hear an orche-bellied boobook in the distance. Mensur insists that he can find a roosting bird, so it's ignored.
At dawn we begin searching know roost sites of Minahassa masked owl, both cavities in big trees, especially strangler figs and small shade trees. We don't find any masked-owls, but do see a lovely roosting ochre-bellied boobook. This is a new owl for me. It has a gray-green bill, pale yellow eyes, a dark grayish head and breast and rich ochre belly, lightly marked with fine dark streaks. The back and wings are chocolate colored. The wing coverts and scapulars are spotted white. The tail is barred, apart from the outer-tail feathers. It has rather delicate feet-indicating a preference for smaller prey.
On the way back to Mama Roos, Mensur shows me a family of tarsiers; amazing diminutive primates.
Back at Mama Roos I sleep 'till noon, then eat Nasi Goreng (fried rice and egg) for lunch.
At nightfall we return to the original Minahassa site, set up a Bluetooth speaker and hide under a tree. We wait for a while, then play a recording of the owl. Within a few minutes a Minahassa masked-owl, circles the speaker, calling vigorously. We don't spotlight it, hoping it will perch, but unfortunately it disappears into deeper forest. We wait around, but neither see nor hear the bird again.
Next we drive a few kilometers into the coastal hills to look for speckled boobook. This would be another new species for me. We park outside a recently abandoned lodge. It's a beautiful open building next to a creek. We start playback, and it takes a long time to get a response, a single note call, quite different from the slightly manic series of notes of my recording. Eventually the boobook flies overhead and onto an exposed perch in a large tree. The eyes are yellow, highlighted by prominent white eye-brows. It's brown above, spotted white, with a slightly barred brownish chest (this does not quite meet in the center, giving a waist coat-like appearance), white throat and belly. The feet look sturdier than those of the ochre-bellied boobook, indicating an ability to handle larger prey. Alfonds tells me this bird is locally difficult to find, so I am happy to see it.
I eat a delicious dinner cooked by Alfonds' wife. Alfonds takes off with his family late in the evening to visit his brother, Victor, in Manado, who is unfortunately in the hospital. I have the homestay to myself.
April 26th. Alfonds wakes me at 4am due to some confusion about the start time. We head out again for the original Minahassa masked-owl site, hoping for a better view. Again we lay out the Bluetooth speaker, and retreat under a big tree. It's a while before we get a response, a couple of calls from some nearby trees. In the gloaming we wander under these trees, spotlighting thickets, tangles and palms. The owl does not reveal itself to us and at daybreak we return to Mama Roos for breakfast.
Our plan for today is to drive to a mountain, Gunung Ambang (near the town of Kotamabatu), in search of Cinnabar boobook. This is a small mountain owl only discovered at the end of the last century.
We run Alfonds' dad over to visit Victor at the hospital in Manado. Then Michael (driver), Alfonds and I continue on towards Gunung Ambang. Alfonds explains his brother is in really bad shape and needs a triple by-pass.
The drive to Gunung Ambang isn't far, but its really slow and takes most of the day. The road is really twisty and we rarely get above 50kph. Around noon we stop at a roadside fish restaurant. Michael is excited because the leader of Golkar (the party of the former dictator) is enjoying a fish meal at the next table. (A fittingly flash black SUV is parked out front and armed guards are in attendance). Anyway lunch is delicious.
The last hour of the drive is through torrential rain. Sheets of brown runoff cover the road. This makes me nervous about our owling prospects. We finally arrive at Pak Julius' home around 4pm. He's a forest ranger who has taken many birders out onto Gunung Ambang. We sit on his porch and enjoy a coffee, waiting for darkness, and willing the rain to stop. Eventually we drive with Julius up through some cabbage fields to the end of the road. We park, and Julius, Alfonds and I hike further through the fields and finally into the wet montane forest, just as darkness falls. Julius is a really fast walker, and it's s struggle to keep up with him as we climb the muddy path into the mountains. Thousands of people have walked this way before, creating a well worn trail, six feet deep in places. After an hour of hiking the trail levels out and Julius indicates this is a good place to tape for the owl. It's raining lightly. While getting my gear out I hear a pair of Cinnabar boobooks far below. For half an hour I tape on and off, but the owls don't approach. The very steep hillside is an absolute tangle of thick mossy forest. I am inclined to try and hike down it. I suggest this, Alfonds explains the birds will come in their own time. Then I notice that the birds are no longer below, but to the right. I take off along the trail. Magically both birds start calling really close. They duet a simple two note call. I spotlight one bird right next to the trail, low in a small tree. I get good views of this new owl. It's a small with vivid yellow eyes, a pale bill and pale small feet. It's predominantly a rich chestnut color with some white spots on the scapulars and belly, and some fine barring on the tail). Brilliant! I go and find Julius and Alfonds, and try and show them the owl. Even though they are still calling vigorously we are unable to relocate them in the thick wet forest. Neither are too concerned, having seen them before.
It's a happy muddy walk in the rain back to the car. Michael and Alfonds celebrate with a smoke. I think they are happy that we don't have to get up early to look for owls tomorrow. The weather clears and the moon illuminates the mountain.
Driving back to Julius' home we flush a big owl from a patch of tall roadside grass. Luckily it perches high on a lone dead tree. Michael parks and it's a mad scrabble to get my owling gear from my bag. In the bins I see it's a big, gray faced Tyto; clearly a a Sulawesi masked-owl. Alfonds feels it's a Minahassa masked-owl. I don't press the disagreement.
Pak Julius' wife has prepared an amazing feast made from fresh fish and local produce. I shamelessly eat much more than my restrained companions.
Alfonds had booked a nice room for me in Kotamabagu, while he and Michael have made arrangements elsewhere in town. They are cool guys, and I try and convince them to share the (big) room, but the decline.
April 27th. I am able to sleep until 630am and am able to loaf around, enjoying the WiFi (videochat with Tui and the boys) and good breakfast.
The drive back to Manado isn't as sluggish as yesterday and we make it by lunch. Because I have seen all the owls I am looking for in Northern Sulawesi, Alfonds' suggests dropping me off at a hotel in Manado. This works for me as I have a 7am flight tomorrow, and Mama Roos is almost 2 hours from the airport. Before going to the hotel I visit Alfonds' brother in the hospital. He is asleep when we find him. He is a powerful looking guy with big arm tattoos. His family is camped outside the ward and look like they have been there for days.
Downtown Manado is bustling. I enjoy walking around town as the suns sets over the bay. It's fun to just take in the youthful city.
April 28th. I'm up at 4:45am and find a cabbie sleeping in his car. I wake him and he runs me to Manado airport. There I catch a small prop plane flight to Sangihe. This is a small island half way to the Philippines. It's home of the endemic Sangihe scops owl. The airport at Sangihe is very small and quiet. I'm looking for a cab in the parking lot, when a tall blonde dude, smoking a cigarette asks me if I am going to Wesley's. Indeed I am. Wesley ( Wesley_rainbow@yahoo.co.id ) is a local bird guide based on the other side of Sangihe. Wesley had contacted this guy, Michael, a Czech guy who is married to an Indonesian lady to help bring me to his place.
Michael and his wife take me on a leisurely drive around Sangihe to Wesley's. The road is slow, so it takes close to two hours of driving. Plus we stopped for coffee and to enjoy the view, and then to visit some old colonial buildings.
I am really happy when we get to Wesley's. For close to twenty years I have been hearing about his place and the endemic birds that live on the mountain behind his guesthouse (the Rainbow Losman). Wesley is a very soft spoken, lean but powerful-looking guy. He works a small farm, "his garden" and has an intense love of all living things. We have coffee and talk for a while. Eventually the rain sets in. Michael and his wife leave after agreeing to pick me up at 5am tomorrow to bring me back to the airport. (He charges me $20 each way for the airport transfer-which seems very reasonable given how long it takes to drive. Michael can be reached at email@example.com ).
The view from Wesley's front door
During the afternoon I try and sleep while it rains. Later I talk with Wesley's brother, who teaches English. He's an impish older man, with wild long hair and a big toothy smile. He's so soft spoken I have to lean in to catch his words. Wesley's mom, who is 93 makes a nice fish diner for us on an open fire at the back of the losman.
Wesley and I leave at 7pm and walk into his forested yard. We spend about 30 minutes trying to solicit a Sangihe scops owl, but get no response. Several owl-sized bats quietly fly by, adding to the tension. I suggest we try elsewhere and Wesley takes me to his garden, which is about a kilometer away in the foothills above his home. Along the way, we stop and try for the scops-owl at several sites. No response. The moon is brilliant and the night so beautiful. Wesley explains sometimes the owl is easy but other birders miss it even after several nights in the forest. He suggests we wait for an hour then try again. We rest in a little lean to shelter in his garden. I am so tired, I fall fast asleep on a simple bamboo bed, while Wesley waits.
I wake after and hour and we set out again. Wesley shows me a pair of little emerald green vipers he's been tracking for three years. He explains there is a big one down by his home. We descend to an open area of coconut palms and start to tape. After a five minute wait, we get a single response! (The call is higher pitched and longer than Sulawesi scops). The bird continues to call from a distance. Wesley suddenly gets excited-he saw the bird fly by. A minute later I glimpse it in flight between the trees. Soon we see it again and again, flying between trees and hear it-now an excited two note call. Wesley spotlights a perched bird. It's similar looking to a Sulawesi scops, not particularly small, gray-brown (perhaps a little darker than the Sulawesi birds and more strongly marked with a darker crown, wing coverts and stronger breast markings). I am just thrilled. It's after 11pm, and I was feeling I was never going to find this owl. Plus I have my flight early tomorrow. The big moon shines on us. Mountains encircle us on three sides, and the sea stretches out in front of us on the fourth. I feel happy. We hike back to Wesley's. Along the way he shows me the big green viper-it's coiled on a branch at head height. A short, fat vividly colored snake with a remarkable strong triangular jaw. Wesley explains he has known this snake for twenty years. He also shows me a tarsier jumping actively through a thicket to avoid his flashlight.
Back at Wesley's I lie on the hard bed and listen to the sounds of the forest outside. It takes me over an hour to calm down and sleep.
April 29th. It's a short night. My alarm beeps at 4:45am. Michael and his wife have already arrived to pick me up and take me back to the airport. We have coffee and I say goodbye and thanks to Wesley.
Michael drives slowly on the very twisting road back to the airport. Despite this we are first to arrive at the terminal so we loaf around and enjoy another coffee. I then catch the short flight back to Manado.
At Manado, I have a few hours to kill before my flight to Makassar. (Unfortunately I wasn't able to fly directly to Luwuk in Eastern Sulawesi). Again I have a few hours to wait at Makassar airport. Strangely the time on the departure board is an hour later than the actual departure time. I end up running through the airport and am last on the plane. The plane touches down at Luwuk's very small airport at sunset. I take a cab into town and am surprised when the cabbie tells me there is an evening ferry to Salakan on the island of Peleng (my ultimate destination and home to an endemic scops owl). I buy a ticket at the harbor and then find some delicious tofu in a spicy orange-colored sauce.
Back at the boat I am surprised that my seat is actually a bunk-one of over 400.
The ferry that runs from Luwuk to Salakan
It's tiny and hard, and in a very packed, airless and claustrophobic low room. I wrap my backpack around my arm, and fall asleep holding it. I wake around midnight as the boat docks at Salakan, my backpack still wrapped in my arms.
April 30th. I am really tired as I disembark the boat. Salakan is a small town, but everyone is at the harbor. I check into a nearby hotel and dump my backpack. Then find an Ojek (motor cycle for hire). The rider takes me up to Kawalu, the second village north (10km) of town. It's a beautiful night for a motorcycle ride. The rider drops me off at the village. He leaves. No one's around. Just the moon and me. I set off back down the road to Salakan, taping for Peleng scops owl. For the first 3km I get no response. I do see a lot of owl-sized bats.
Eventually I hear a response about a quarter of a mile up from the road. Preferring to avoid the thick forest, I tape from the roadside, but the owl is unwilling to come in. It's a difficult hike in. It's very steep. I climb over a labyrinth of limestone rocks, with precipitous three foot deep fissures. Closer now, I tape again. The owl responds on and off, still not close. Something flies silently right by my face, I can't be certain it's not a bat. Then silence for an age. Mosquitoes harass me, and I consider looking for another territory that's not on a rocky hill. I pull myself through a 100m of viney tangle. I fall and get up. Fall again. I think to about snakes and how they love limestone, and about how my feet are treading unseen into deep holes in the rocks. Finally I emerge under a big tree, silhouetted by the moon. It's so steep that I fall over while scanning the tree. I tape. The owl flies, and I catch it in the flashlight. Eventually I see it perched. It's clearly a scops owl with a whitish throat and streaked chest on a gray-brown owl. Perhaps a little smaller than Sulawesi scops? Importantly the call is completely different-a long querulous note. The owl will sometimes repeat these notes 3-6 times, getting shorter and higher pitched. I also hear the owl duet with an unseen partner. The first bird calls, then the second makes a slightly lower pitched call. This is brilliant. It's great to be alone in the forest with this little known owl. Returning to the road, I end up going through a farm. I tiptoe unseen through the garden. Fortunately no dogs bark.
Back at the road I try and get a ride. It's 3am. The first three bikes have no room, but stop to check on me. The fourth bike runs me back to Salakan. He kindly gives me the ride for free. It's 4am, when I arrive at the hotel. I creep in quietly to avoid waking the clerk.
I wake at 8am. I go down to the docks, where I am told the boat goes at 4pm.
Fortunately my room has a TV and I while away a few hours watching National Geographic shows. For a change of scene I board the boat at 2:30pm, which was the right choice because without explanation it leaves an hour early. It's a beautiful journey by to Luwuk on mainland Sulawesi. The sea is flat calm. I see a few phalaropes and flying fish from the boat. The sun sets over the mountains above Luwuk as we pull into the harbor.
The approach to Luwuk
There are a ton of guys at the harbor hustling for business. One agrees to take me to Ampana (a town about 5 hours away from which I will take a ferry to the Togian Islands). Due to a lack of a common language there is some confusion. I am taken to a small office, where I wait for an hour. Then four other guys arrive, and we load up into a car and finally take off for Ampana. Almost immediately I fall asleep, only to wake with a start when the car takes a corner too fast. It's a swift and slightly scary ride. At least the driver kindly drops me off around midnight at the nice Marina Cottages in Ampana.
May 1st. I am up at 7am. Breakfast is brilliant. I want to gorge, but I have to get to the harbor to make sure I catch the morning ferry. I buy a ticket for the 9am ferry and another for the Togian Islands National Park. The islands are home to the newly discovered endemic Togian boobook.
Online the boat reportedly takes 90 minutes. This one takes 3 1/2 hours. Still the gulf of Tomini is calm and beautiful. There are a few tourists (and a lot of locals) on the boats. All the tourists are heading for diving resorts. No one, but me, is looking for birds. I stay on one of the main island Palu Batu Dako at Wakai Cottages. Another beach front bungalow.
The view from Wakai Cottages
I eat a fish lunch in a small warung (local restaurant) in Wakai and then rest up during the heat of the day.
I take an Ojek to Tanempo (4km inland) and at the end of the sealed road. The rider shows me a trailhead. Lacking a detailed location for the owl, I check it out. Unfortunately the trail goes up to a nearby waterfall. I meet a bunch of friendly locals, who take selfies with me. I'm soaked with sweet, so it's a little weird. After that the trail gets quite technical and I decide to turn around-this isn't a good owling site. I follow the main road inland, which is now just a gravel track. It follows a valley through coconut groves, fruit trees and patches of second growth forest. There are a lot of small farms along the way. Everyone waves and says "hello". After a couple of kilometers the trail climbs through some degraded forest. I am hoping to find some good forest before it gets dark. Foolishly in my haste I forgot to bring water. It's hot and there is no shade. I feel light headed, but press on, eager to get to good forest. Eventually I come to a huge concrete bridge that's painted black and pink. The government must have plans to open up the track into a full road. The track then winds through more second growth and cow pastures.
Cow pastures on the hike inland from Tanempo
Finally after 5-6 kilometers I reach some big trees, and the track climbs into the mountains. After a couple more kilometers I reach the summit. The sun is setting and the views of the green island spreading out to the blue waters are beautiful.
View from the summit
The track just beyond the summit
I descend for a ways, then tired and dehydrated I stop at a small clearing and rest. The sky turns from light blue, to orange and finally black.
I start taping for the Togian boobook. No response. Wearily I hike back towards the summit, taping every few hundred meters. Just below the summit I hear a rustling. I turn my headtorch, and a few faces away a big babirusa lifts it's head and sniffs at me. This is a tall, slender wild pig, with four tusks, two grow in a big arc over its snout and back to it's forehead. It has hairless gray skin, like an elephant. I freeze, waiting to see what it does. A moment later it takes off and runs into some bushes, then snorts loudly at me. I hustle down the trail eager to give it space.
At the next clearing I get a distant response from the boobook, a series of frog-like barking croaks. I hike back up the trail to get a little closer. The bird is calling high in a big tree, so it's pointless walking through the thick undergrowth to get closer. I have to get it to fly in near me. Eventually a second bird commences calling. It's also high in a really dense tree. Eventually both fall silent. I wait. And wait. Eventually I try spotlighting the big trees-which is fairly pointless. All I see are leaves. I wait some more, but hear nothing. Reluctantly I move on down the trail. I am surprised to see flashlights ahead. I meet a couple of friendly guys with a bucket of freshwater shrimp and a small eel.
As I make my way back towards town I hear 16 Togian boobooks. Several are fairly near. I use playback to try and lure them from the canopy of tall trees. A owl-sized bat near a calling owl briefly causes some excitement, then disappointment. I spend hours staring at big trees, stark against the moon. I am really tired and dehydrated, so most of the time I do this laying on my back.
I reach Tanempo after midnight. A tiny store is open and I buy a couple of soft drinks and demolish them lustily. Even in the village I hear boobooks. I traipse through rice paddys to the forest edge. I tape, but each time the owls fall quiet.
I walk about half way to Wakai, when a motorbike passes. I wave it down. It takes ages for the rider to turn around. He kindly agrees to take me to my cottage. Even from the back of the bike I smell liquor. We weave slowly, drunkenly down the country road and back to town.
May 2nd. I wake around first light. It takes a moment before the disappointment of last night hits me. I eat breakfast at the cottages. My hostess tells me they were worried about me last night. I do my best to explain. He husband, Harun, kindly lets me use his mobile to call Nurlin, (a capable bird guide I am meeting in Palu, firstname.lastname@example.org ). Nurlin has seen the boobook and has some helpful suggestions, chiefly to get under the canopy, rather than to tape from more open areas. And to limit playback. My plan is to repeat last night's long hike, but to set of earlier and to get much further along the trail-as it was only the last stretch of the trail that passed through reasonably good forest, where I could get under the canopy. And this time I would bring something to fucking drink!
I eat a good lunch and then prep my gear. I hear distant thunder and worry a bit about rain ruining the owling. I pack my gear into a Ziploc bag just in case. Harun's wife kindly sends me off with a big piece of cake.
I catch an ojek to the end of the sealed road at Tanempo and buy some drinks, then head up the track. Ominous slate-colored clouds build over the mountains. It thunders. A farmer stops me, points at the sky and cautions me. Later, another stops me and I explain about the boobook. I play him a recording. "Ah tokeiah", clearly an onomatopoeia. It's a sweaty climb over the mountain. Just after the summit, the sun starts to set. I eat the cake, and am thankful for the sustenance. I hustle faster down the trail, wanting to get deeper into this new territory before night falls. After a few kilometers the trail levels out and the forest opens into farmland. It's been raining lightly for a while now. I see a guy by his farm and ask with gestures if I can shelter on his back porch. He understands, smiles and nods. I climb up and he disappears. Soon he returns with three young guys. I explain about the tokeiah, and play the recording for them. We introduce ourselves. The guys stand around and smoke.
Eventually the rain eases, and I set out, up the dark trail and start taping. I arrive at a patch of nice secondary forest when it starts to rain again. A steady rain. Too much for owling. It's noisy on the leaves. I retreat to the farm and hop on the porch. I move a bit of wood out my way revealing a shiny fat scorpion. I put the wood gently back, and leave well alone. Soon the rain starts to pound on the roof. Run off from the roof soaks the porch. I decide to ask if I can shelter inside the house. I jump down and run through the downpour, up a ladder and knock loudly. No response. I bang louder and again no response. Perhaps he can't hear me, the rain is really pounding on the metal roof. I carefully unlatch the door and step into the dry, smokey space. "Hello". No response. I quietly walk through the house-it's very sparse. No furniture. A chainsaw is in a bedroom. I close the door and lay down on the warm rough planks. A cow is tied up, under the house. It moves around, gently rocking the whole house. An hour passes and the rain eases. I get up to leave. A large huntsman spider bears witness to my trespass. I slip out, carefully latching the door with a piece of wire, just as I had found it.
I hike for a kilometer in the drizzle, before it starts to rain in earnest. Frustrated I turn around, again, and return to the farm. Half way back to the farm I notice a bright star. I stop, and realize the sky is clearing. I return towards the mountain again. At a good patch of forest I play a tape and get a very distant response. A few minutes later something flies by, I spotlight it and can see it's an owl. A small brown owl with a brown back and whitish belly. It disappears and does not call. I am not really sure what I have seen. I go back to taping. I hear a soft quiet growl above me. I spotlight the place, a Togian boobook is looking at me. A small earless owl, with yellow eyes, a weak pale supercilium, the upper-parts are brown with lighter markings on the head and white spots on the scapulars, a brown mottled chest, a whitish belly with some indistinct brown markings and rather weak looking unfeathered pale legs. Oh brilliant! I enjoy long looks at this rarely seen owl. All I have to do now is cross the mountain. Its a longish (10km) walk back to Tanempo on a wet trail. Hundreds of frogs sing from the big puddles on the trail. I hear a couple more distant boobooks, but don't stop and tape them. About halfway back, a big amber moon emerges from behind the palms. Thousands of stars shine. Fireflies glow from the tallest trees. Trail-side cows, move slowly out of my way, their hollow wooded bells ringing softly. I reach Tanempo at 9:30pm and hail the first motorcycle. I should probably be more discerning. Tonight's rider also smells of liquor. Still its a great slow motion drunken ride back to the cottages. At my door a wire-haired dog that I had befriended waits for me. Despite the hike, I am wired and it takes ages until I'm calm enough to sleep.
May 3rd. Despite my best efforts I can't sleep past 5:30am. It's already bright out. People, dogs and roosters are all making a commotion. I pack and clean she cowshite of my pants. (Last night I must have walked through every cowshite on the trail). Showered and fed I say goodbye and thanks to my host and walk down to the docks.
I catch the 9am fast-boat-which turns out to be genuinely fast. A few times it stops in the channel. A mechanic works on it briefly and then we resumes our journey.
Back in Ampana, the docks are noisy and full of hustle. I discover the van to Palu leaves at 5pm. That's six and a half hours. I walk around in the hot sun and end up at an airless warung where I eat an early lunch. I decide to catch an ojek to the Marina Cottages (where I had stayed three nights ago). I now have WiFi and a beach view. I while away the afternoon checking in with Tui and Nurlin on WhatsApp and watching a big storm come in and pound the place for about an hour.
Torrential downpour at Marina Cottages
I catch another ojek back to the harbor and meet my van. Luckily the guy who sits next to me speaks great English. He's married to a Finn and we talk a lot about Western culture, values and marriage. We stop at a roadside fish place. I pick a fish out of a bucket of ice, and its grilled up and served on rice. Delicious.
The journey to Palu takes almost 12 hours. It's tedious and uncomfortable trying to sleep. The van lacks wipers, and during periods of heavy rain we have to drive slowly.
May 4th. Nurlin had arranged to meet me at 3am at a beach-side hotel in Palu. I ended up being a couple hours late. I find him and his driver asleep in an old white Mazda van outside the hotel. One of the first things I learn is that Alfonds' brother, Victor had just died.
We drive out of Palu as day breaks and through rice paddys and small villages. Then we climb through the forest to a higher valley also filled with paddys. We stop at a small village and eat breakfast. Then we press on and drive higher into the forested mountains of Lore Lindu National Park. Nurlin and I talk owls. Because I have seen all the species of owls in Sulawesi, my goal is to look for "white spotted boobook". This is a newly discovered bird. It has alternatively been reported as a young cinnabar boobook, a race of cinnabar boobook or a new, and not yet scientifically described species. Nurlin explains it occurs alongside cinnabar boobook at Lore Lindu, which, if he's correct, effectively rules out that its a race of that bird. He also explains that he does not have a recording of this bird's call and that it is unknown to him. This means we are going to have to track one down during the day. That won't be easy. The park is a massive forest. Furthermore Nurlin reports the birds are not using the same roosting site repeatedly. Still he is optimistic we can track one down. Before we get to the park headquarters we stop at a couple of sites where Nurlin has seen white spotted boobook before. We hike around, off trail, scanning tangles. We don't find any owls, but I do get stung by a bush. Nurlin tells me the pain will go away in three days. (He's right of course. Mostly it didn't hurt, but for the next three days when ever I touched the many parts of my body that had been stung I would feel sharp pain).
Eventually we break for lunch, and drive down the far side of the park, and stop at a small warung in the second village. We eat fried tempe, rice and hot sambal (Sunda style). It's brilliant. We drive a little further to a new guesthouse (Homestay Nasional) and take a break for a couple of hours. Nurlin's niece, Yana joins us. She's a collage student studying to be an English teacher. She's here to learn the ropes of the bird tour business. (Yana's not a birder, but is unfailingly positive. Over the next three days she enthuses every time we see an owl. She hikes miles off trail without falling in a pair of white gym shoes). At 3pm we drive back into the mountains in the van. We stop and pick up Lito, a former hunter who works with Nurlin as a bird guide. Lito is a powerfully built guy who wears a big smile.
Back in the park we try more off trail bushwacking in search of roosting boobooks but find none. Eventually it gets too dark to search the forest and we hike back to the road. Nurlin takes me to a site for Cinnabar boobook. (I had seen this bird at Gunung Ambang, but wanted to see it here. It had been explained to me that the "white-spotted boobook" maybe just the local race of Cinnabar boobook). Nurlin thought different-that they are separate species. So I wanted to see both. In no time we had a response. By moving away from the bird, and taping I was able to catch it in flight as it moved towards me. Eventually I got good views of a perched bird. To me this bird looked and sounded like the birds at Gunung Ambang. (Rob Hutchinson, an experienced bird guide later shared a photo of a Cinnabar boobook taken here. The photo shows a bird, clearly similar to the birds in Gunung Ambang, but with white spotting on the otherwise cinnamon belly feathers).
We return Lito to his home, and try for Speckled boobook in his back yard. No owls, just a gang of noisy piglets. We had planned to visit a couple of other lowland sites for other owls (that I had earlier seen with Alfonds), but it starts to rain heavily. We return to the homestay and eat yellowfin tuna for dinner. It's still pouring when we finish dinner, so we decide to call it a night.
May 5th. I get up at 3:15am. We eat an early breakfast at the homestay and drive back up to Lore Lindu, picking up Lito along the way. Our plan is to look for owls along the Anaso Track. This is an old track from a 1970s Japanese logging operation that climbs the mountains. It's a legendary birding trail giving unique access to higher elevation forest. Lower on the trail we tape for Minahassa masked owl. (I am still hoping for a view of a perched bird). We try a series of spots along the first mile of the trail. A big bat flies in at one of them, giving us a moment of excitement. But no owls. Dawn breaks. A distant Cinnabar boobook calls.
We change tactics. We search for a roosting white-spotted boobook. We hike for several kilometers up to Anaso Track. Regularly we venture off the track, and off trail for long detours through promising looking forest.
Thick forest near the Anaso track
Lito and Yana on the Anaso track
Despite a lot of effort-six hours of hiking, we find no boobooks. We do see a pair of large Sulawesi bear-cuscus, a rare arboreal mammal. As the weather warms, Lito cuts a vine, and crafts a head-band out of it. He looks like the spitting image of Sylvester Stallone in Rambo. Well, except for the smile. Hungry and tired we return to the homestay for lunch. I try and sleep after lunch, but it's hot and I have had too much coffee.
At 3:30pm we set off to some nearby paddys in search of Eastern grass-owl. This is a bird I saw in 2002 in Mindanao, when I flushed one from a swampy grassland. I am eager to see it again, and hopefully get a better view. Until a couple of years ago this was considered a rare bird in Sulawesi. Now they are regularly seen hunting near Lore Lindu. We park and start to walk along a farm track that runs through extensive paddys.
The grass owl site
We find a hunting spotted harrier and black-winged kite. At the end of the track we get talking to a guy. He asks for a photo with me. Much to my amusement he goes back into his home, and emerges minutes later in a police uniform, complete with an assault rifle. We take some pictures. He explains he assigned to Poso. This town was the site of a lot of killings between Christian and Muslim people a few years ago. Understandably he didn't like his job. On weekends he returns to the family farm to get away from it. I wish him well and we resume searching for grass-owls. We end up back at the van scanning the horizon for owls. Lito yells out. A grass-owl is quartering the paddys. It looks like a barn owl, but with very long legs and a darker mantel. It's a gorgeous bird. I appreciate getting to watch an owl in the day time and not harassing it with a spotlight or playback. I watch the owl for several minutes before it plunges into some tall grasses and disappears.
We drive back though the paddys and see a second bird. This one passes much closer by, and in the late afternoon sun looks glorious-big and buffy.
On the way back to the homestay we stop at a cacao plantation. It's dark as we walk behind the farm house and start to tape. We eventually get a manic response from a pair of speckled boobooks. They fly into a small tree, and we get brilliant views of these fantastic owls. I am struck by how heavy the bill looks for a relatively small owl.
Next we visit another farm and tape out a very obliging Sulawesi scops owl. We also try for Minahassa masked-owl at several sites, but fail to get any response.
After a delicious diner at the homestay we walk through the village to some nearby fields and tape for Sulawesi masked-owl but fail to see one.
May 6th. I wake at 4:30am, and after breakfast we drive back towards the mountains of Lore Lindu.
View from the van at dawn, driving to Lore Lindu
Along the way we stop and tape for masked-owls (both species) but find none. We do hear a distant speckled booboook. This is the last day of owling on the trip. My goal is to find a roosting "white-spotted boobook." I am not optimistic after spending many hours over the last couple of days walking off trail hoping to flush a boobook from a low roost. We hike up a side creek, next to a very primitive bamboo and tarp shelter. There is no farm, so I assume it belongs to someone harvesting from the forest. I'm walking behind Lito, when he flushes a small brown owl from low in a thicket. I catch sight of it as it flies swiftly and disappears into a patch of dense trees. I stand watch from a small ridge, while Nurlin and Lito make several passes of the area, but we never relocate it.
Nurlin takes off to check another area, while Lito and I continue to expand our search. It's more of the same. Very steep hills, spiny rattan vines. The bush that stings. Fallen logs to clamber. Eventually we hear Nurlin. I ask Lito to translate, but he shrugs, indicating whatever Nurlin's saying is no big deal. After a while we slowly make our way back to the van to regroup. Nurlin excitedly tells me that he flushed a pair of roosting boobooks. He could not confirm what species because he didn't want to risk flushing them again. We returned to the area, scrambling up a steep slope. Nurlin shows me the spot where he flushed the owls out of a sapling. Twenty yards up the hill, something flushes over me and lands up slope. I get my bins on it. It's a "white spotted boobook". The owl looks bigger than I had expected-but this could be due to seeing it in the dim understory. The background color is a uniform cinnamon, with no barring seen. The head is uniform, except for pale eye-brows, which are not white, but a very light cinnamon color. The bill is pale and horn colored and does not appear small. The breast has prominent white spots. On the belly the spots are larger and more profuse. I can't see the mantle, but briefly see the scapulars and wing coverts-some of these had white spotting, but my view of the side was too brief to be certain exactly which feathers are spotted. The tail was obscured by the tips of the primaries, whose tips appeared uniform cinnamon. The feet were pale yellowish and unfeathered. I crept quite close to the owl, and was even able to take some crap pictures on my phone.
The "white spotted boobook" is somewhere in this frame
Terrible iPhone picture of "white-spotted boobook"
Wow! I feel elated. Even if this is not a new species of Sulawesi owl, its still brilliant to have seen something that's not pictured in my book. Plus it had started to feel like an impossible quest to find an owl sleeping in the vast forest.
I happily say goodbye and thank you to Lito. He waves goodbye and hops on his motorcycle. We return to Palu, which is hot and busy. Nurlin kindly invites me to his home for lunch. I meet his charming son, Wallace Jr. We eat a good lunch and I get to browse through Nurlin's library of bird books. He has WiFi, so I make a WhatsApp call to Tui. Later Nurlin runs me to the fancy Mercur hotel. We plan to reunite after a couple of hours and check out a Sulawesi masked-owl that lives in the next town.
Nurlin picks me up at at 5pm. Wallace Jr is with him, and another guide, Allin, who works with Nurlin. We drive up to Dongalla (a port town) about an hour away arriving at dusk. We meet another local guide, Kasman (Nurlin works very hard to develop a team of bird guides). Kasman found the owls nesting in a tower at the harbor.
We wait around, and once it's fairly dark, we see a big owl fly into the tower. A few minutes later a second owl perches on an abandoned building. We are able to spotlight it and get great views of this really large and beautiful owl, with it's big beak, powerful legs and exceptionally long neck. We get to watch it fly around several times. I am really struck by the huge wings of this bird.
We loaf around the docks for a while and enjoy the sound of the water and boats. It's a beautiful place to linger. Eventually we grow hungry and drive to a local warung for dinner. I get dropped off at the fancy hotel. I should sleep because tomorrow will be a long day, but it's hard for me to settle after such a good day.
May 7th. After a great breakfast at the Mercur, Nurlin picked me up and ran me to Palu airport. I said goodbye and thanks. I flew home (thanks to the international date line), via Jakarta, Taipei and Seattle.
Many thanks to everyone who helped me with including Ross, Shaun, David, Rob and Nick (and his excellent website http://burung-nusantara.org/birding-indonesia/ ) . And thank you to the guides who all did an excellent job of finding owls: Nurlin, Lito, Alfonds, Mensur, Wesley and Adun.