SULAWESI & HALMAHERA: INDONESIA BIRDING TOUR
The Indonesian province of Sulawesi, formerly known as the Celebes, is the large, rather odd-shaped island, variously described as spider or orchid shaped, to the east of Borneo and west of New Guinea. Indonesia has the highest rate of bird endemism of any country, and Sulawesi has the highest number of endemic bird species of any of the Indonesian islands—arguably, more than 70 species are found nowhere else. Additionally, there is a marvelous suite of endemic mammals and plants. Halmahera, the largest of the Moluccas or Spice Islands, lies just a short distance to the east and has a similar odd shape but a totally different avifauna, of which a remarkable 22 are endemic.
We’ll visit three of Sulawesi’s national reserves: Tangkoko, Lore Lindu, and Tompotika. From the cool mossy cloud forests to the luxuriant lowland rainforests, our targets will include the extraordinary Maleo, a suite of endemic raptors, some cracking kingfishers, the unusual Purple-bearded Bee-eater, the colorful Knobbed Hornbill, some tricky forest dwellers like Geomalia and Great Shortwing, and some amazing endemic starlings among many others. Our jumping-off point for Halmahera is the small island of Ternate, dominated by a gently smoking volcano and the most important town of the fabled “Spice Islands.” Ternate is much drier and has more affinities with the Australasian region than with Sulawesi, but it has an equally rich selection of endemics, including the fabulous Wallace’s Standardwing, one of the strangest of the birds of paradise which we should be able to watch at a display site. We’ll also be keen to find the huge and beautiful Ivory-breasted Pitta as well as other endemics such as White Cockatoo, Goliath Coucal, Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar, and the rare Moluccan Scrubfowl. Travel in Sulawesi and Halmahera is a real adventure, and although not especially difficult, it is certainly off the beaten track! Our accommodation ranges from excellent to basic, but nearly all with private facilities; the food is excellent but not fancy; our pace is moderate with some day treks; the climate is hot and dry with a chance of rain at any time; and our travel is by four-wheel-drive vehicles and minibuses. There is no doubt that birding in Sulawesi and Halmahera is a remarkable experience.
INDONESIA BIRDING TOUR ITINERARY
Day 1: Arrival in Makassar (Sulawesi)
After your arrival in the capital of South Sulawesi, you will be transferred to a comfortable hotel overlooking the harbor, for the night. For early arrivals an afternoon trip can be taken to Makassar fishponds for a swathe of Asian shorebirds, with a chance at Javan Plover among others, and the possibility of Savanna Nightjars hawking over the ponds at dusk.
Day 2: Karaenta to Lore Lindu NP
The first (of many) early rises, will see us travel up into the forested limestone hills north of the city. Karaenta Nature Reserve provides a beautiful setting for the first of many endemics. In particular, this area offers the highly local Black-ringed White-eye, an endemic that is confined to South Sulawesi. This forest also provides a good chance to catch up with Sulawesi Dwarf Hornbill, Piping Crow, and, with luck, Sulawesi Goshawk. Checking the slopes lower down we might also find the recently described (in 2015) Sulawesi Streaked Flycatcher. The area also holds an endemic mammal too in the form of the Moor Macaque. After much of the morning in this area we will return to Makassar and take a flight to Palu in Central Sulawesi. From Palu we will head to Wuasa, our base for exploring the montane forests of Lore Lindu National Park in the coming days. The first of four nights will be spent in a simple guesthouse in Wuasa, close to the park.
Days 3-6: Lore Lindu NP
We will have plenty of time to bird the rich forests of Lore Lindu, which offer a range of elevations, and therefore, species. Some of our birding will center around Lake Tambing, where Piping Crows may come to call from dead snags around the edge of the lake in the early mornings; mobile flocks of fantastic Fiery-browed Mynas come down to rest in the trees regularly; feeding flocks move through the canopy holding Pygmy and Cerulean Cuckooshrikes, Rusty-flanked Fantail, Sulawesi Leaf-Warbler, and the very odd Malia; while the understory is home to two of the most difficult birds in the area, the shy Great Shortwing, and the reclusive Maroon-backed Whistler. Other possibilities in this area include Superb Fruit-Dove, flocks of Yellow-and-green Lorikeets, and the noisy flocks of Finch-billed Mynas. On at least one of the days we will make the climb up the infamous Anaso Track, which allows access to higher altitudes, and the possibility of Sulawesi’s sole endemic bird family, Hylocitrea; the rare and strange Geomalia (recently found to be an odd zoothera thrush); along with Red-eared Fruit-Dove, Maroon-backed Whistler, White-eared Myza, and Streak-headed Dark-eye. These ascents will also give us a chance at the rare Sombre Pigeon, and will bring us to the favored area of the robust Purple-bearded Bee-eater, one of Sulawesi’s flagship species. There is also often the chance to find Diabolical (Satanic) Nightjars roosting during the day at regular stakeouts along there.
On at least one of the mornings we will venture out super early to try for other endemic nightbirds, with Sulawesi Masked-Owl, Speckled Boobook occurring, along with the Cinnabar Boobook, which was only recently discovered in the park. This will also enable us to visit an area at dawn when shy forest birds such as Sulawesi Thrush and Blue-fronted Flycatcher may be more easier to find. Some time will also be spent around the Sedoa Valley, which offers the best raptor watching opportunities in the park, with Sulawesi Serpent-Eagle, Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle, and Black and Rufous-bellied Eagles all occurring. On the afternoon of day 6 we shall drive back to Palu for the night, stopping en-route to bird a scrubby riverside area, which is good for White-shouldered Triller, day roosting Savanna Nightjars, and Pale-headed Munia; and also holds the rare Red-backed Buttonquail. The first three nights will be spent at a local guesthouse in Wuasa, while the final night will be spent at a good hotel in Palu, in readiness for our flight out the next morning.
Day 7: Palu to Tangkoko
In the morning we will fly from Palu to Manado, (via Makassar) in North Sulawesi, and take the drive out to Tangkoko. Although much of the day will be spent traveling, there should be time in the afternoon to visit a forest lookout near Tangkoko, where species like White-bellied and Silver-tipped Imperial-Pigeons, Golden-mantled and Yellow-breasted Racquet-tails, and White-necked Mynas occur regularly. At dusk we will make our first try for the often tricky Sulawesi Nightjar, while the grounds of our lodge often holds Sulawesi Scops-Owl. The following three nights will be spent at a guesthouse in Tangkoko.
Days 8-9: Tangkoko
This reserve on the eastern tip of the Minahassa Peninsula, is one of Sulawesi’s flagship parks, the excellent lowland jungle and mangrove forest providing superb birding, and great mammal-watching opportunities. The reserve is especially famous for kingfishers, and with the assistance of the skilled local park guides, we will be search for Sulawesi Dwarf, Lilac-cheeked, Green-backed, Great-billed, and Ruddy Kingfishers while on site. The wonderfully open nature of the forest provides excellent chances to find, and see well, a number of other normally tricky forest species too, such as the recently split Sulawesi Pitta (from Red-bellied), and the handsome Rusty-backed Thrush. The endemic Ochre-bellied Boobook can sometimes be found at daytime stakeouts too. Our time in the area will be mixed between trail walking through the forest, which may see walk among one of the large habituated groups of Celebes Crested Macaques; taking a boat ride through the mangroves for kingfishers and the endemic White-rumped Cuckooshrike; and watching for canopy species from a scenic lookout, which can yield a huge variety of endemics, from Sulawesi and Pygmy Hanging-parrots to Sulawesi Dwarf-Hornbills and Purple-winged Rollers, and Ornate Lorikeets. Both nights will be spent in a simple lodge just outside the park, which will provide excellent, and large, meals throughout our stay.
Day 10: Tangkoko to Kotamobagu
After a final short session around Tangkoko we will depart for another lowland site, Dumoga-Bone National Park, (now clumsily renamed as Bagani Nani Wartabone National Park). After a final few hours in Tangkoko, checking for gigantic, multicolored Knobbed Hornbills, or striking White-rumped Trillers, we will undergo the long drive west along the Minahassa Peninsula. En-route we will stop by sets of rice paddies, checking for Spotted Harriers, Sunda Teals, Black-faced Munias, and checking the muddy edges for rails and shorebirds. Three nights will be spent in a city hotel in the town of Kotamobagu.
Days 11-12: Dumoga-Bone NP
Two days will be spent in the lowland forests within this sprawling national park, visiting three main areas of forest within the park-Tambun (the famed Maleo breeding site), Toraut, and the Molibagu Road. On at least one day we will drive out to Tambun, for the otherworldly Maleo, an odd megapode, which lays its eggs in the warm volcanic soils in the park. With luck, we shall see some pink-flushed adults digging in the clearing in preparation to lay their eggs; and on some days it is possible to help with the release of chicks back into the wild. After spending some time searching for Maleos, we will walk in this small forest patch, searching for a local endemic, Maroon-chinned Fruit-Dove and perhaps get further chances at Sulawesi Pitta, if needed. Mixed flocks within the forest might also yield Yellow-billed Malkoha, the strange white-eyed race of Hair-crested Drongo (a surefire split?!), Black-billed Koel and Bay Coucal. These forests also hold White-faced Cuckoo-Dove.
In the late morning we will move onto another area of the park checking the roadside paddies and wet areas for Barred and Buff-banded Rails, and Wandering Whistling-Ducks on the way. After lunch at a nearby guesthouse, we will move on to Toraut, another forested section of the park, where we hope to find the regularly roosting Speckled Boobook within the park buildings, and pick up Pied Cuckooshrike during an afternoon forest walk, or Sulawesi Dwarf-Kingfisher, of we have missed it at Tangkoko. The plan for the second of these days will largely be governed by what is seen on the first day, but will probably include some roadside birding along the Molibagu Road, which is good for the endemic Ivory-backed Woodswallow, and is great for mynas, with Finch-billed, White-vented and Sulawesi (Crested) Mynas all occurring; it is arguably the best site for the latter, scarce species. It can also be a good spot to search for raptors like Barred (Sulawesi) Honey-Buzzard and the scarce Sulawesi Sparrowhawk. The two nights will again be spent in Kotamobagu.
Day 13: Gunung Ambang to Tomohon
The earliest rise of the tour is in order on this day in order to get ourselves in position on the lower slopes of Gunung Ambang for the chance at two very special birds: Before dawn the Cinnabar Boobook (only described to science, from this mountain, as recently as 1999), and post-dawn Scaly-breasted Kingfisher, the toughest of the many kingfishers on offer on this tour. The traveling time to get there, and the need to hike up to the nown areas for them necessitates a very early start. After dawn our focus will turn to tracking down the inconspicuous and very local Matinan Flycatcher, which is currently only known from four locations, all in North Sulawesi, with this being the only currently accessible one. In the afternoon we will drive back east towards Manado, stopping in a resort in the weekend getaway town of Tomohon, close to Gunung (Mount) Mahawu. If we are still missing Speckled Boobook, this offers another chance to find it, with good numbers to be found in this area.
Day 14: Gunung Mahawu to Manado OR Departure
A short drive from the resort brings us to arguably the best site in Sulawesi for the tricky Scaly-breasted Kingfisher. It is particularly difficult, as it calls right around dawn, and rarely for long after, and so we will ensure we are on site pre-dawn, when the calls may help us to track it down. This site also offers a good chance of the endemic Crimson-crowned Flowerpecker, which occurs with a wealth of other endemic nectar feeders at the site, which also includes Yellow-sided and Gray-sided Flowerpeckers and Sulawesi Myzomela. Within the forest interior there is also the chance of Sulawesi Blue Flycatcher and the ultra rare Rufous-throated Flycatcher, for which this is arguably the best site in the country. The mountain is also good for rails, with Barred Rail and Isabelline Bush-hen also occurring. In the afternoon we will return to Manado for evening departures out (for those NOT joining the extension), or to stay in Manado for those joining the Moluccan Extension. For those joining the extension, we will enjoy some rare luxury in a seaside resort overlooking mangroves, which can produce the endemic White-rumped Cuckooshrike, terns and petrels offshore, or Asian shorebirds like Terek Sandpiper and Lesser Sand-Plover loafing on the hotel jetty.
Halmahera Birding Extension (7 days)
While Sulawesi offers a heady number of more than 90 endemics of its own, Halmahera, in the north Moluccas, offers another 40 or so birds confined to the region. Particular birds of interest on this “Spice Island” include the dazzling Ivory-breasted Pitta and the outlandish Wallace’s Standardwing, an endemic bird-of-paradise discovered by Alfred Russel Wallace. It is likely that in excess of 50 new birds for the trip, and most likely to be lifebirds for most participants, will be added on this short extension alone, which may include 2 more pittas, 2 birds-of-paradise, 3 more multicolored fruit-doves, up to 3 more owls, another nightjar and an owlet-nightjar, 4-5 more kingfishers, and up to 8 more parrots. In the past birding tours to Halmahera have required considerable discomfort and hardship, although we will be staying in a luxury dive resort for most of the extension making this trip not only comfortable but accessible to all, with not only good lodging but some of the best food of the entire tour. For many, this “side trip” to Halmahera is the highlight of the tour.
Day 1: Manado to Halmahera
A morning flight will take us from Manado in North Sulawesi to the volcanic cone of Ternate, historically the business and administrative center of the North Moluccas (now renamed Maluku). After this short flight, we will board a private speedboat and cross over to Halmahera, visible across the bay. The crossing might be short but can be birdy with Lesser and Great Frigatebirds, Great Crested Tern, and Bulwer’s Petrel all possible. Once we dock at Sidangoli on Halmahera (checking for Beach Kingfisher in the mangroves opposite the dock), we will journey to the town of Tobelo for the night. On the way we will make a few stops alongside the roadside forest patches for our first “injection” of Moluccan birds. Roadside wires often hold the endemic Blue-and-white Kingfisher, while we will be keeping an eye out in the skies for huge Gurney’s Eagles on the wing. Arriving in Tobelo, where we overnight, during the late afternoon, we will take an early dinner and make the journey to nearby Galela. A short boat ride will take us to a deserted beach, where the black volcanic sands provide the ideal breeding situation for the Moluccan Scrubfowl, a megapode which flies down from a nearby, forested volcano, to lays its eggs within the warm sands on most nights. This could be the longest night of the tour as we spend a long night waiting for the arrival of the birds, which may be one of the highlights of the entire tour. The beach also often holds Large-tailed Nightjar, while the coconut palms are home to the Moluccan Scops-Owl. The night will be spent in Tobelo.
Days 2-5: Halmahera
After a lie in, following the exertions of the “scrubfowl safari” the night before, we will make our way south to another entirely different area on Halmahera, which is sure to provide some of the best moments of the tour yet. En-route to the resort which will be our base for the rest of our time on Halmahera, we will check a forest ridge for the rare Purple Dollarbird (Azure Roller), tricky Halmahera Flowerpecker, Great-billed Parrot, and White Cockatoo.
Over the coming days we will search for some of Halmahera’s standout birds, not least among them will be the Wallace’s Standardwing. A casual pre-dawn walk will bring us into the forest where a great display site has recently been found for them. As dawn approaches the flapping of wings will be heard, and then the ugly squawking of the excited males will penetrated the gloom, before full light reveals the full splendor of the male birds, with their green “cravats” raised, and delicate white display plumes vibrating during their energetic rainforest dances, which occur daily to draw in that ever-elusive female. As well as this highly sort-after species, we will also be on the lookout for the immaculate Ivory-breasted Pitta, one of the only species that could even outshine the standardwing on this leg!
Other endemics and specialties in the area include Moluccan Pitta, Scarlet-breasted Fruit-Dove, Rufous-bellied Triller, White-naped Monarch, Sombre Kingfisher, Spectacled and Cinnamon-bellied Imperial Pigeons, Paradise Crow (actually a subdued bird-of-paradise), Goliath Coucal, and the near mythical Invisible (Drummer) Rail (which would require some extraordinary fortune to see it). There will also be a visit to a new restricted access site planned (assuming no closures of the site occur due to changing access issues); although this means a two-hour drive from the resort, it brings us to some great birding possibilities, incuding our only chance at the Moluccan King-Parrot, the rare local form of Rufous Fantail, and the soon to be split “Halmahera” Leaf Warbler (from Island Leaf Warbler). Other great birds there include the stunning Black-chinned Whistler, Chattering and Violet-necked Lories, and Great Cuckoo-Dove. After three full days in this area we should amass a fair number of the many endemics on offer, which could also include some nightbirds, as all three endemic species occur near the resort: Moluccan Owlet-Nightjar, Halmahera Boobook, and Moluccan Scops-Owl, as well as Barking Owl.
Day 6: Halmahera to Ternate
After a final morning near our resort, focusing on whatever species we are still lacking, we will drive north again in the afternoon to the port of Sofifi (stopping again for Beach Kingfisher of needed on the way), where we will take the short speedboat ride back to Ternate, where we will overnight in a good city hotel, with all the mod-cons needed for the last night of the tour.
Day 7: Halmahera to Manado (Sulawesi)/Departure
In the morning we will take the short flight back to Manado in North Sulawesi to connect with international departures in the afternoon. Flights to either Jakarta or Singapore can be taken from Manado, should be planned for early afternoon or later.
INDONESIA BIRDING TRIP CONSIDERATIONS
CLIMATE: Hot and humid for much of Sulawesi and Halmahera, with a chance of heavy, tropical, downpours at any time. Cool in the mountains in Lore Lindu and Gunung Ambang, where rain is expected.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult, a fair amount of walking is required. There are three, optional, strenuous walks on the tour in Sulawesi (at Gunung Ambang and for the up to two visits to the Anaso Track in Lore Lindu). The walking in Halmahera is not difficult anywhere. The toughest aspect of this trip are the very long days, made longer by the pursuit of the many endemic nightbirds available on this tour (10% of the endemics are nightbirds). Many of these are usually, with effort, seen, by taking long days in the field.
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 completely lacking in others. At all sites we use the best accommodations in the areas. In the cities of Makassar, Palu, Tomohon, Manado, and Ternate, 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 2-5 at Lore Lindu will be spent at a very simple guesthouse, with no running hot water, but with 24-hour electricity and en-suite bathrooms. A flask of hot water is provided on request though, and showers are merely bucket showers. In Tangkoko another simple guesthouse is used that has large spacious rooms, with running showers, but no hot water is available. The rooms have en-suite bathrooms and electricity is via generator, which is usually turned off between the hours of 9PM and 5AM. In Kotamobagu, we use an old city hotel for the night of days 10-12, with full-time electricity, air-conditioning, and full-time running hot water. On Halmahera, the night of day 1 is spent in a simple hotel in a small town, but has 24-hour electricity, hot water, and air-conditioning. At Weda Resort for the nights of days 2 to 5 of the extension, we will be staying in a high end dive resort. There is full time hot water and electricity, en-suite bathrooms, but there is no air-conditioning, only good quality fans. There is also no Internet at Weda. Internet is only usually available at hotels for 7 nights of the full 21-day tour (day 1 in Makassar, day 6 in Palu, days 10-12 in Kotamobagu, day 13 in Tomohon, and day 14 in Manado).
BIRDING 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 the habituated Sulawesi Crested Macaques and Spectral Tarsiers, roosting owls, kingfishers and other staked out birds at Tangkoko in particular good subjects for photography. Elsewhere photography is much more limited. There are no feeders at any sites on this tour.
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 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 13 (of not joining the extension); if joining the extension, accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 14 of the main tour, and nights of day 1 through to night of day 6 on the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 through to lunch on day 14 (if not joining the extension) or through to breakfast on day 7 of the extension, if joining that too; one-way air ticket from Makassar to Palu on day 2, one-way air ticket from Palu to Manado (via Makassar) on day 7 for the main tour; for those joining the extension one way air-ticket from Manado to Ternate on day 1 of the extension, and one way air ticket from Ternate to Manado on day 7 of the extension; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 14 (on the main tour), through to morning of day 7 on the extension, if joining that too; local guides at Karaenta, Lore Lindu, Tangkoko, Dumoga-Bone, Gunung Ambang in Sulawesi and Galela and Weda on Halmahera; 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; one night search – including boat transport – for Moluccan Scrubfowl on the night of day 1 of the extension on Halmahera; one private mangrove boat trip on one afternoon/morning at Tangkoko; private speedboat between Ternate and Halmahera on day 1 of the extension, and between Halmahera and Ternate on day 6 of the extension; 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 in Makassar and Palu on the main tour, and Manado and Ternate on the 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.