Sumatera - Overdue trip report
Four of us (me, Tania Ireton, Gil Langfield and Peter Lansley) flew out of Melbourne at 1010 on the morning of 13th April. We flew with Singapore Airlines to Singapore arriving at 1605 local time (2 hours behind Melbourne). After a 2 hours 40 minutes delay, sufficient to find 4 species from inside the air terminal (House Crow, White-vented Myna, Peregrine Falcon and Common Myna) we then flew to Jakarta, arriving at 1920. We stayed overnight at the Hotel Sheraton Bandara, chosen because of its proximity to the airport. This proved to be a good choice because it abuts a large lake and in a couple of hours in the morning before we had to leave for our flight, we were able to see some common urban species which do not occur, or we did not record, in Sumatera (the Indonesian spelling of what we commonly spell as Sumatra). These included Grey Heron, Javan Pond-heron (no Chinese Pond-herons, but we did try), Zebra Dove (very closely related to our Peaceful Dove) and Island Collared Dove, Olive-backed Tailorbird, Common Tailorbird (which I missed), Scarlet-headed Flowerpecker, Brown-throated and Olive-backed Sunbirds and Common Myna.
We left Jakarta on the heavily populated island of Java at 1005 and flew to Bandar Lampung airport, which is in the far south of Sumatera. Bandur Lampung has 2 names – it is also known as Tanjung Karang. Peter told me the port of Teluk Betung merged with another town, Tanjung Karang, and the 2 became Bandur Lampung. The flight is only a 35 minutes hop across the Sunda Strait from Jakarta: we could have caught a ferry, but declined this because it would cost us half a day. Our driver, Yandra, was waiting at the airport and we were soon on our way. As it is when you arrive in a new country, you want to stop for every bird. We had a long drive ahead of us so we had to be disciplined, with a minimum number of stops. We still managed to find some interesting birds – a Cinnamon Bittern, an Oriental Honey-buzzard, 2 Brown Shrikes and a Long-tailed Shrike and a small party of White-headed Munias. After driving for around 3 hours we arrived in Metro, the last town before Way Kambas National Park, our first key destination. We understood that the accommodation inside the Park was very basic and we debated whether we should find accommodation in Metro. Fortunately, the lure of waking up in the rainforest prevailed and after arranging the necessary permits, we continued into the Park. We reached the entrance gate before dark, with our accommodation still a further 13 kilometres away, so we started serious rainforest birding. Some of the great birds we saw in those 13 kilometres were 4 Crested Firebacks, Red-billed Malkoha, Rhinoceros Hornbill (an absolutely fabulous bird which not everyone saw, but we all saw later), Gold Whiskered & Red-crowned Barbets, Cream-vented Bulbul, Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker, and Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo. What an introduction to Sumateran rainforest!
On arriving at our accommodation, we were pleasantly surprised to find the new and very acceptable “Way Kanan Guest House” had been built with a number of twin share bedrooms. It was spotlessly clean and gave us an introduction to a “mandi” – a (in this case shared) bathroom with an Asian style toilet and a tub where you could bathe by ladling water over yourself. We were situated on the bank of the Kanan River (hence Way, which translates as River, Kanan), completely surrounded by rainforest. A truly magical place and we congratulated ourselves on making the decision not to stay outside the National Park. As we unpacked an Oriental Magpie-robin, which became our daily companion at Way Kanan, fed nearby.
We stayed within Way Kambas National Park for another 7 days: visiting as much of it as we could manage. Even around our accommodation birding was excellent with things like Brown Hawk-owl, which called almost every night and proved (for me at least) difficult to see until we eventually had excellent views, Malayan Night-heron (which wandered around on the lawn), fly-overs of Green Imperial Pigeon and Blue-crowned Hanging-parrot, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Banded Woodpecker, Dark-necked & Ashy Tailorbirds and 2 absolute stunners – Black-and-red Broadbill, which was nesting on a pole in the river and Black-and-yellow Broadbill. Walking along the 13 kilometre access road was also particularly productive because it gave visibility to the rainforest canopy and allowed us to walk bunched in a group, rather than in single file as was required on the forest trails. This increased the likelihood we would all see the target bird. From the road we saw Red-naped & Diard’s Trogons, Emerald Dove, Black-bellied Malkoha, Brown Barbet, Dusky Broadbill, Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Scarlet Minivet, Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike (other name Black-winged Hemipus), lots of species of Bulbuls, Lesser Green & Blue-winged Leafbirds, Scaly-crowned Babbler, Crimson Sunbird, Hill Myna, Bronzed Drongo and Black Magpie. The forest trails themselves were a different matter: while they increased the chances for some species, they were dark and well populated with leaches. Two highlights seen from inside the forest were Hooded Pitta (first heard from in the boat on the river) and Banded Pitta. We took every opportunity offered to get out in the boat. We went to the mouth of Way Kanan, where it empties into the Java Sea and we visited the Swamp Forest sites of Rawa Gajah Satu, Dua & Tiga (one, two and three) and Ulung-Ulung Satu. The Swamp Forest is the last refuge for the few remaining Sumatran Tigers in this National Park. We waded through this part of the forest accompanied by an armed guard but had little chance of seeing (or being eaten by) a tiger – my research before the trip indicated there were only 6 left in the Park, but the rangers there told us there were 30 (they might be out of a job if the last tiger dies). The tigers do everything they can to avoid detection because they are heavily hunted to supply the superstitious “medical” products market. Another attraction of the Swamp Forest for birders is the extremely rare trio of Storm’s Stork, Lesser Adjutant and White-winged Duck. We dipped on the Stork and all of us saw Lesser Adjutant. Peter and I accepted the challenge provided by the Park Rangers of wading up to 5 kilometres (plus 5 on the way back) through at times waist deep water to find the Duck. The 5 kilometres proved to be an exaggeration to check we were serious and devoted to the cause (that is, mad enough) – we only had to wade for a kilometre or so and walked the rest through dry to muddy forest. How the Rangers find their way through flooded forest is a mystery, but they found a pair of White-winged Ducks. Jubilation – a new bird for Peter who specialises in Indonesia.
After a week in Way Kambas National Park, we made the very long drive to Liwa, our staging point for Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. What struck me as we drove through the mostly rural countryside was all of the people appeared happy (very ready to return a smile or a wave) and well fed and there were large numbers of new and sometimes large houses, either being built or recently completed. This seemed to confirm my understanding of increasing affluence and an emerging middle class.
Our goal in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park and major goal for the whole expedition was to walk for 5½ hours to a site on Way Titias (Titias River) to look for the recently reported Sumatran Ground-Cuckoo. This is a species that until the last few years had only been recorded a handful of times. To give some indication of its rarity, Ben King, the American Asian bird specialist who has seen more species in Asia than anyone else in the world, has not seen one. When we got our permits to make the walk, everyone was at pains to ensure we understood the difficulty of getting into the site. We were told we had to negotiate mountainous virgin rainforest, make numerous creek and river crossings and most appealingly, sleep under a sheet of plastic on the forest floor, with no protection from forest mosquitoes and leaches. Most understandably, Gil and Tania decided they had other things to do. Peter and I decided to go for it. Peter is no fool, he asked our guide to carry his small tent which he had brought with him from Australia. We set out in drizzling rain and soon found how difficult the walk would prove to be when we had both fallen over, Peter most spectacularly rolling into a deep culvert, within the first kilometre. Crossing and re-crossing creeks proved particularly daunting with the rocks being extremely slippery. Our 2 guides seemed to have none of our difficulty, jumping from rock to rock in gumboots and with heavy packs on their backs! Peter and I had many falls between us, some very heavy, but remarkably we made it to Way Titias without major mishap. After erecting a plastic sheet for the guides and I to sleep under, Peter thought that was a good place for his tent, which made the sleeping arrangements very friendly. To be fair, it was suggested by our guide Fendi and there was very little other level ground. When set up and with one of the guides trying to start a fire using resin from a tree as a fire starter (everything was dripping wet), the other guide set out in failing light with Peter and me to look for the Ground-Cuckoo. We returned in the dark with no success. The next morning we tried again with an equal lack of success. It was particularly disappointing to hear our guide tell us that since he had discovered these birds (in his former (?) career as a supplier to the live bird trade), he had taken 6 groups in to see the bird and 5 had been successful. The only other group to dip was in April (the same month as us) last year. We had given it our best shot in the limited time we had and so made the 5½ hour return journey. The consolation birds we did manage to see included the endemic Blue-tailed Trogon, Maroon Woodpecker, Lesser Cuckoo-shrike, Grey-cheeked Bulbul, Golden-fronted Leafbird, White-rumped Shama, Eye-browed Wren-babbler, Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Blue Nuthatch, Baya Weaver and Pin-tailed Parrot-finch (a gem – at the time we scoffed at the suggestion in the Field Guide that they were common and raided rice paddies, but we saw 30+ so it may be true. Peter’s research since we returned indicates there have been no recent reports for southern Sumatera, which makes our sightings most interesting). With that collection I really have no grounds for complaint.
From Liwa we drove back to Bandar Lampung airport and then flew back to Jakarta, where we had another overnight stay. We had to do this because there was no internal flight from Bandar Lampung directly to our next destination, Padang, on the central west coast. From Padang we set out by car for the village of Keresek Tua at the foot of Mount Kerinci. We had barely left the airport and we were on a railway bridge looking down into a rice paddy and small wetland. It proved to be a worthwhile stop – we saw 2 Cinnamon Bitterns, including a juvenile we tried hard to turn into a Schrenck’s Bittern, Yellow Bittern, White-breasted Waterhen, both Greater & Lesser Coucals and Yellow-bellied Prinia. After 1½ hours on the bridge, we had to drag ourselves away to continue the 6½ hour drive to Mount Kerinci. At 3,805 metres, Mount Kerinci is Sumatera’s tallest mountain. It is within the giant Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatera’s largest park at 13,750 square kilometres (around 1.3 million hectares). The park hosts many rare and difficult to find bird species and has around 170 Sumatran Tigers (www.savethetigerfund.org). We focussed our energies on Mt Kerinci because, due to its altitude, it is one of the best places for birds and because of the high visitor numbers we were unlikely to encounter a tiger.
In Keresek Tua we stayed in the home of Pak (translated as Mr) Subandi, a man well known in international birding circles for his hospitality and as a bird tour entrepreneur. His home is the staging point for almost all international birding groups visiting Mt Kerinci. We had 4 full days on the mountain, climbing it each morning and returning to Keresek Tua each night. The maximum altitude we managed was 2,600 metres. We did not attempt the summit because it offers little in the way of birds, is mostly barren of vegetation and smells of sulphur – besides I am getting too old for that level of activity! Peter had visited the mountain previously and commented on the reduction in bird numbers since his last visit in 2002. We encountered hunting dogs one day and suspected there was a fair amount of hunting pressure occurring. We also saw people collecting vegetation, heard chain saws well within the park (including at night) and found many cultivated banana plants in cleared areas inside the forest. We did not encounter a single Park Ranger and noted the office there had been closed. In the past the park boundary had been creeping up the mountain as a result of vegetable garden encroachment, but Peter assured me this has now ceased. We appreciated what was left and saw some great species – but we missed species that would have been relatively common only a few years ago. The highlights were Red-billed Partridge & Salvadori’s Pheasant (both of which Peter was the only one to see), Black Eagle, Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (probably now lumped with our Brush Cuckoo), Mountain Scops-owl (which Peter miraculously found in daylight and enabled me to photograph), Barred Eagle-owl, Pale-headed Frogmouth, Salvadori’s Nightjar, Wreathed Hornbill, Fire-tufted Barbet, Sunda Minivet, Orange-spotted Bulbul, Lesser & White-browed Shortwings, Sunda Blue Robin, Shiny & Chestnut-winged Whistling-thrushes, Rusty-breasted & Pygmy Wren-babblers, Golden Babbler, Mountain Tailorbird, Mountain Leaf-Warbler, White-rumped Warbler (also known as Sunda Warbler), Large (which I missed) & Rufous-vented Niltavas, White-throated Fantail and Black-capped & Mountain White-eyes. The lowlights for Mt Kerinci were Oriental Cuckoo (which we heard most days but never saw) and Long-billed Wren-babbler (which we suspected we heard) and there were some rarer birds which we missed but might have seen such as Pink-headed Fruit-dove, Schneider’s Pitta and Sumatran Cochoa. We spent a huge amount of time looking for the last two because they are endemics.
From Mt Kerinci we made a short trip to Sungai Penuh, where we could drive through another section of the Kerinci Seblat National Park along a road known as Tapan Road. We covered the section between Bukit Tapan (highest elevation on the road) to Muara Sako (lower village of Sako). Again birding along the road, especially walking downhill, was very productive. Highlights were Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Blyth’s Hawk-eagle, Barred & Little Cuckoo-doves, Large Hawk-cuckoo, Drongo Cuckoo, Green-billed Malkoha, Blue-eared Barbet, Speckled Piculet, Greater Yellownape, Long-tailed Broadbill (what an absolute cracker and nesting too), Cream-striped & Spot-necked Bulbuls (both endemics) and Grey-bellied, Sunda-streaked and Ochraceous Bulbuls, Blue-masked Leafbird (another endemic), Asian Fairy Bluebird (always special), Lesser Forktail, Marbled Wren-babbler (extremely rare and shy, but as I was the only one to see it, strangely a bit of a disappointment), Temminck’s Sunbird, Common Green Magpie and Sumatran Treepie (yet another endemic). We also visited rice paddies around Sungai Penuh to pad the list out with a few waterbirds. To our surprise we added an unexpected species in Pheasant-tailed Jacana.
Before returning to Padang for our flights home, we visited a site for Waterfall Swift, which thanks to Peter I now know as Air Terjun Telun Berasap or in English as Letter W Waterfall. The birds were spectacularly wheeling over our heads prior to flying through a thunderous waterfall to shelter behind the wall of water for the night. The drive into Padang added more birds including a fine Rufous-bellied Eagle which circled overhead and gave us ample time to identify it.
We returned to Jakarta with Tania needing 9 more birds to give her 200 lifers for the trip. Peter suggested we all visit the mangroves at Muara Angke. It was extraordinarily hot and humid so most uncharacteristically, I opted to stay within the air-conditioned airport and catch up on the financial press. The others did the right thing and Tania reached her incredible goal. Overall around 90% of the birds she saw on the trip were new to her!!! With the mangrove birds included, the trip total was 265 species, of which I saw 240. I can cope with that.
Special thanks must go to Peter who acted as our leader. He speaks Bahasa fluently as he previously studied in Indonesia for 2 years. He also knows the birds and keeps abreast of the taxonomic changes. His goal is to perhaps one day become a full-time Field Guide and I hope he does it. Gil also contributed tremendously in organizing, with Peter, our internal flights and accommodation. Gil has worked in Indonesia and was able to use his contacts to good effect. Tania contributed by being a thoroughly enjoyable person to travel with.
Overall, a most successful trip.
PPS Thanks to Peter for vetting a draft of this email and picking up some mistakes made by a very tired man.