March 2nd HARD RAIN, HARD BIRDING
After a short night's sleep in a hostel at the base of Gunung Gede, we began with our hike up Java's highest mountain. Our guide was Khaleb Jordan aka the 'Jakarta Birder', one of the sharper birdwatchers our birding friends from Holland had ever met. I had taken a wild gamble by including Java in our itinerary since the beginning of March is at the peak of the rainy season.
Things started as expected, namely wet, but the birding was surprisingly good as we made our way up the mountain. Endemics were everywhere and we were especially content with the beautiful White-bibbed Babbler.
Soon it became clear to us that it would stay wet all day, ranging from mist to drizzle to hard rain and everything in between. And at the end of the day we would not sleep at a cosy hotel, no we had made the crazy decision to camp out at 2300 meters!
Right as the day neared its end the rain stopped for a brief moment and right in that little window of dryness we stumbled on a fantastic displaying pair of Javan Trogon, our most wanted bird on Gede!
We camped under a shelter which meant that conditions were dryer than expected and two friends of Khaleb prepared warm tea and dinner, spirits were up again! Things got even better when an endemic Javan Ferret Badger paid us an unexpected visit. What a cool little animal!
Javan Ferret Badger Melogale orientalis (Max van Waasdijk)
Javan Trogon Harpactes reinwardtii (Max van Waasdijk)
March 3rd PERFECT BIRDING
When I opened my tent around 4 AM and looked up there was a crescent moon and stars overhead, things looked good this morning!
First on the agenda was the endemic Javan Scops Owl, but as we made our way through beautiful virgin cloud forest we suddenly heard the rubber duck-like call of a Javan Woodcock displaying over the canopy. We are talking about a bird that few people have ever seen or heard so this was quite the thrill. We heard the bird about 3 times and it even responded to a playback of its call, but it just wouldn't show and neither did the Scops-owl. Hearing this Woodcock proves that camping at 2300 meters in the middle of the rainy season can bring some big surprises. Suddenly Max picked up movement on the forest floor and there was one of the weirdest most unexpected mammals of the trip so far, the bizarre Stink Badger. It has been a long time since I saw a mammal that I didn't even know existed!
As we walked back to our camp at first light one of the most difficult birds on the mountain gave its unmistakable clear whistle from a tree right above us, a Javan Cochoa! It was still in the twilights so we needed some extra light from our flashlights to get a good look at it, but boy what a stunning bird.
We packed up camp and made our way down and still riding that wave of momentum of this morning Khaleb heard the calls of a small flock of the very rare Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush and moments later we got good views of at least 5 birds. We had seen the Big 3 of Mt. Gede, Java's equivalent of the Whitehead's trio: Javan Trogon, Javan Cochoa and Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush, amazing!
We quickly made our way down the trail to reach the boardwalk in time to hopefully see the rare Javan Hawk Eagle. As the sun created some thermal drifts there was lots of raptor activity; Black Eagles, a Crested Honey-buzzard and a Spotted Kestrel, but no Hawk Eagle. We were on the verge of losing hope when suddenly there was a pair of Javan Hawk Eagles displaying overhead! Less fortunate was the fact that Max got stung by a huge Hornet on his left hand...
Now there was another huge target lurking lower down the mountain, the endemic Spotted Crocias, but by now thunder clouds had packed over the mountain, according to Khaleb certainly not ideal conditions for the Crocias, but he hadn't even finished his sentence when we heard the unmistakable call of a Spotted Crocias meters and again we obtained fantastic views.
Just before we had dinner at our camp we saw our last Forktail species at the waterfalls, the Sunda Forktail and our last new bird of the day was our 8th species of Frogmouth, the Javan Frogmouth. This surely must have been one of the better days so far!
Javan Cochoa Cochoa azurea (Max van Waasdijk)
Rufous-fronted Laughingthrush Garrulax rufifrons (Max van Waasdijk)
Spotted Crocias Crocias albonotatus (Max van Waasdijk)
March 4th A HUGE FINISH IN JAKARTA
We woke up at 4, packed our backs - with a calling Javan Scops Owl in the background - and started with our walk down to the headquarters. Khaleb had chosen to leave so early because there still was a nice selection of night birds possible lower down.
At the Blue Lake things got interesting when a Barred Eagle Owl started calling continuously, but the bird would not show. While trying for the owl we heard another displaying Javan Woodcock! Again this bird responded to playback and this time we actually saw the bird as it zipped past in our torchlight. A very rare sighting indeed!
As we made our way further down we heard 2 different Javan Owlets, saw a fantastic Sunda Scops Owl and a Salvadori's Nightjar that almost landed on my torch! Not bad for a morning owling session.
Around the headquarters I had my biggest dip of the trip so far, the rare Sunda Thrush. Max saw this rare zoothera really well while I was looking the other way. A constellation price was a self-found male Siberian Blue Robin, a rare winter visitor for Java and a lifer for Khaleb.
Next up were the Botanical Gardens where we quickly found the endemic Pygmy Bushtit, but the absolute star bird here was a cracking Tawny-breasted Parrotfinch, a bird that few birders ever see.
We left Gunung Gede with a very satisfying grin on our faces. Our next destination before our 6 PM flight to Sulawesi were the mangroves of Jakarta, home to several very rare species.
First on the agenda was Javan Plover, a threatened species of wader confined to the Javan coast. We readily found 3 birds on a tiny stretch of mudflat that will soon be turned into a coastal resort...
The last refuge for several globally endangered species is a tiny stretch of 'protected' mangrove forest and swamp right next to busy downtown Jakarta. Despite arriving right at midday we gave it our best to find our target birds here, but at first glance it was quiet and we had only 2.5 hours at this site. Suddenly Max saw a flock of 3 Black-winged Starlings, but I unfortunately missed it.
Time was ticking away and I started to worry, but then we had one of those magic runs again. First I found a Sunda Coucal sunbathing on a distant bush, then Khaleb picked up a Frigatebird circling overhead and unbelievably it turned out to be an unmistakable adult male of the critically endangered Christmas Frigatebird, Wow. Next up was a flyby group of no less than 20 Milky Storks and we finished with an exquisite Black-winged Starling. Java was too good! Thanks mainly to the Jakarta birder, Khaleb Jordan.
Black-winged Starling Acridotheres melanopterus (Max van Waasdijk)
Tawny-breasted Parrotfinch Erythrura hyperythra (Max van Waasdijk)
March 5th MEETING THE FILM CREW
Can you imagine waking up at 4 AM at 2000 meters on a mountain on Java and waking up the next day in a camp along a river somewhere in the middle of nowhere Sulawesi? That's how a Biggest Year works, you gotta keep the momentum going...
Well to get to this river campsite in Sulawesi we had to first fly for 3.5 hours, then drive for 2.5 hours followed by half an hour sitting on the back of a motorcycle across a small forest track and finally wading through a fast flowing river with all our equipment and walking the last 20 minutes to the 'campsite', in this case a piece of plastic on the ground with a mosquito net as a blanket...
Here we met Michiel van den Bergh (director) and John Treffer (camera man), the two-man filmcrew that will document my Biggest Year for the big screen. Besides Sulawesi they will follow me in the Netherlands, Ghana, possibly Peru and Surinam and finally in the US.
Chiel and John had arrived the day before at the site to film some of the special birds we were going to look for today, one of these birds was the rare Ochre-bellied Boobook. They had made some terrific footage of this cracking night bird so it was great that the first bird we saw today was that same Boobook!
Then started the long wait at a nesting site for Sulawesi's star bird, the Maleo, a bizarre looking very shy and endangered megapode (scrubfowl) that is only found on Sulawesi. This special bird lays its eggs in so called 'mounds' that it digs in the ground around geothermal springs so that its eggs are incubated by the heat of the earth around them. When the young birds hatch they are fully fledged and can take care of their own.
The site we had chosen is not known to normal tourists, but our Guide Nurlin Djuni of Malia Tours had made special arrangements for us. The only problem is that at this untraditional site the birds are even shyer and far from guarantied. Great for the movie, but too bad for Max and me we failed to find any Maleo during our first try (we did see some amazing Knobbed Hornbills and a pair of Sulawesi Hornbills, two other star birds) and we had only till noon at this place!
We decided to go for a quick round of birding around the camp and come back half an hour later at the Maleo site. This gamble turned out to be a good one because we first found the amazing Lilac Kingfisher and when we came back at the Maleo breeding site Max suddenly spotted 2 adult birds that had wandered close to the cage with captive bred Maleo's, our most wanted bird was in the bag! Max and I both adopted a captive bred Maleo and released it into the wild. 'adopting a Maleo' is a great local initiative to give this breeding program the financial boost that it so badly needs.
We packed up camp and traveled all the way to .... The gateway to Lore Lindu NP. When we arrived at the guesthouse we did a quick round of night birding with an amazing result, a Sulawesi Masked Owl, one of my most wanted night birds!