Mangrove Pitta, Brown-winged Kingfisher and Rufous Piculet, South Thailand, July 22nd-24th

Red-crowned Barbet, Trang Botanical Gardens, July 22nd.
Opportunistic and rather blurry shot of a Red-crowned Barbet, Trang Botanical Gardens, July 22nd.

From Malaysia, we flew into Hat Yai on an incredibly cheap Air Asia flight ($22 per ticket), and continued by local bus to the small town of Trang. The nearby botanical gardens with their canopy walkway provided an opportunity for me to add some more “southern” birds to the year list, and I spent a few enjoyable hours here one afternoon and again the following morning.

The Trang botanical gardens make an excellent day trip for birders and non-birders alike. About 10km south of the town, they form a small remnant area of tropical lowland rainforest and swamp forest, and some more open park-like areas with planted trees. Most interestingly, there is a multi-towered canopy walkway, with metal bridges of various heights between the towers allowing for good views of different levels of forest vegetation. Access to the botanical gardens is free of charge, and when I visited there was virtually no one else there.

Despite the botanical gardens’ many attributes, birding was fairly slow, but over the course of my visits I did pick up several lifers including the quite magnificent Red-crowned Barbet. From the highest walkway tower, I had great views of a Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, which was also calling throughout my visit. This bird has been recently split from the more northerly Fork-tailed Drongo Cuckoo. I also flushed a day-roosting small owl, but unfortunately couldn’t relocate it.

The canopy walkway at Trang botanical gardens.
The canopy walkway at Trang botanical gardens.

From Trang, we moved north to Krabi town for a three-night stay. About 50km south-east of the town is the infamous Khao Nor Chu Chi (KNC) reserve, until recently known as the only remaining site in the world for Gurney’s Pitta (fortunately a fairly large population has recently been discovered in southern Myanmar). These colorful and very elusive birds sadly became functionally extinct at KNC in 2014, when the last two remaining females and lone male finally disappeared. I’ve been to KNC on a number of occasions since 2006, and always tried to find a Gurney’s Pitta for myself, being reluctant to pay the quite extortionate 9,000 baht that well-known guide Yothin charged for his services. With hindsight, having never managed to self-find a Gurney’s, I should have paid the money.

Anyway, no visit to Krabi would be complete for me without a nostalgic visit to KNC. I set off early on a rented motorcycle while it was still dark. On arrival at the site, it was clear that things continue to change. The Emerald Pool entrance area is now an ever-growing mess of food stalls, coffee stands and an enormous coach park, while the main trail past the entrance gate (“A” trail), where Gurney’s and Malayan Banded Pittas were formerly regular in the early mornings, is now lined with trash cans. On all sides of the reserve, the inevitable oil palm plantations continue to encroach on the fragments of remaining primary forest. It’s all rather depressing. Some pockets of nice habitat still exist, but birding is a frustrating experience here at the best of times, as even in the good old days the site was notorious for producing very few birds at all on a typical visit. True to form, I saw very little for the first three hours. After exploring the trails near the Emerald Pool, I wandered over to “U” Trail and lingered in the first gully for an hour, a former Gurney’s Pitta hotspot. Here I saw just two individual birds, an Emerald Dove which landed on a low branch just five feet from where I stood motionless, and a Rufous Piculet which lingered nearby for quite some time.

So my visit to KNC was predictably a bit of a waste of time, but luckily my main target for this visit to Krabi can be found much closer to town: Mangrove Pitta. I had heard they are easier to find here in the rainy season, whereas most birders visit in the dry. The mangrove boardwalk beside the river, just north of the tourist area of Krabi town, is a well-known spot for them. Starting at first light, I spent three hours walking slowly up and down the boardwalk, with no sight nor sound of a pitta. Returning in the afternoon, I did something I almost never do, and played the tape of Mangrove Pitta song from my laptop. Again nothing until very near the far end of the boardwalk, when a pitta finally responded. I had brief flight views as it swooped past me, then I fortunately located it in a tree where I had good views for some 10-15 seconds. Finally, one of Thailand’s “easier” (relatively speaking) pittas was safely on my list after quite a few previous attempts.

Aside from the Mangrove Pitta, I was kept entertained in the mangroves by several magnificent Brown-winged Kingfishers, while over the river at the end of the walkway some Rufous-bellied Swallows were flying about. These distinctive birds have been recently split from Striated Swallow, and are therefore another bona fide addition to my list.

South Thailand lifers: Red-crowned Barbet, Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo, Rufous-bellied Swallow, Mangrove Pitta (total 1,964).

South Thailand 2015 Year Ticks: Red-throated Barbet, Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker, Rufous Piculet, Chestnut-winged Babbler, Yellow-bellied Bulbul, Brown-winged Kingfisher (total 824).

Oil palms, an ever-increasing sight at Khao Nor Chu Chi. Now that Gurney's Pitta has been extirpated from the site, the future for the remaining lowland tropical rainforest here looks bleak.
Oil palms, an ever-increasing sight at Khao Nor Chu Chi. Now that Gurney’s Pitta has been extirpated from the site, the future for the remaining lowland tropical rainforest here looks bleak.

Banded Woodpecker and Barbets, Malaysia/Singapore, July 16th-22nd

Asian Fairy Bluebird at the FRIM botanical gardens, July 18th.
Asian Fairy Bluebird at the FRIM botanical gardens, July 18th.

After our month in Indonesia, we spent several days in extremely civilised (and expensive!) Singapore. Luckily we were staying with friends, which kept the costs down somewhat. With just one free morning for birding, I elected to head to Rifle Range Road in the central catchment area, which on the map appeared to be within walking distance of our accommodation. It turned out to be over an hour’s brisk walk away, but with great views of Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot and Pied Imperial Pigeon along the way, I wasn’t complaining.

Alongside Rifle Range Road is some excellent, intact tropical rainforest, in which the birds seemed more active and conspicuous than is usual for this kind of habitat. Highlights of a couple of hours wandering along the road included a stunning pair of Banded Woodpeckers, a Chestnut-bellied Malkoha, and a showy male Crimson Sunbird.

Our next stop was Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia for a couple of nights. Our Singaporean friend had warned us of the potential for civil unrest and even a terrorist attack in central KL that weekend, and seeing as Jenna and I have both visited KL before, it was an easy decision for us to stay outside the center of the city. We visited the Batu Caves, which have to be one of the least impressive tourist attractions I have seen in Asia – horribly crowded, stiflingly hot, filthy dirty, infested with monkeys, and home to lots of shabby food stands where I contracted a healthy dose of food poisoning.

The upside of the Batu Caves district is the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), a mere 25 minute walk from our hotel. I arrived at 7am and was very surprised to find runners, cyclists and even picnicking families already active in the park. It’s an impressive place, with open parkland and patches of mature forest providing easy birding opportunities, and it wasn’t too hard to escape the crowds. I lucked upon a fruiting tree beside the road, which produced some excellent sightings over a one-hour period including both Sooty and Gold-whiskered Barbets, Greater Green Leafbird and a beautiful male Asian Fairy Bluebird. Nearby, a Blue-eared Kingfisher at a small pool was a useful year list addition, a bird I’ve seldom seen in SE Asia despite it being very widespread.

Singapore and Malaysia Lifers: Banded Woodpecker, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot, Olive-winged Bulbul, Gold-whiskered Barbet, Sooty Barbet, Spectacled Spiderhunter, Spectacled Bulbul.

Singapore and Malaysia 2015 Year Ticks: Pied Imperial Pigeon, Chestnut-bellied Malkoha, Red-eyed Bulbul, Grey-breasted Spiderhunter, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Greater Green Leafbird, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker (total 814).

Hitting the 800 mark in Bali, July 8th-14th

Bar-winged Prinia, a Java/Bali endemic, at Uluwatu, July 12th.
Bar-winged Prinia, a Java/Bali endemic, at Uluwatu, July 12th.

Thanks to an unsatisfactory recent Air BnB stay, my wife Jenna and I were compensated with a free $150 voucher, which we decided to spend on a week in a cute little apartment in the back streets of Seminyak. I’m fairly divided in my opinion of the southern Bali beach resorts. On the one hand, there are plenty of excellent restaurants, the beaches are pretty nice, and several interesting birding spots are close at hand. On the other hand, the area is very urbanised and busy, there are pushy touts and vendors and all the ugliness of mass tourism, and traffic can be a nightmare.

To get around, I rented another car from BaliCarFinder, a made-in-Indonesia Toyota people carrier, which was a whole lot of car for $22 per day including delivery to and pickup from my accommodation.

I didn’t spend a huge amount of time birding, but I did take a few mornings to visit the local hotspots of Nusa Dua settling ponds, Serangan Island, and Uluwatu. Leaving Seminyak before it got light avoided the worst of the traffic, and I was home by mid morning to maximise beach time.

Nusa Dua settling ponds is a small area of lakes near the Nusa Dua complex of high-end resorts; the ponds provide a source of irrigation for the gardens and golf courses. It’s an extremely pleasant place to spend a few hours, with a wide track around the perimeter of the lakes and plenty of easy birding. Highlights during my visit included a beautiful Cerulean Kingfisher, Olive-backed Tailorbird (these two species are Java and Bali endemics), a Wandering Whistling-Duck, a few pairs of Sunda Teal, crowd-pleasers such as Blue-tailed Bee-eater and Pink-necked Green Pigeon, and plenty of herons including Striated and Purple.

I was less lucky with the birds at Uluwatu, a scenic clifftop temple on the far south-west edge of Bali. Famed for its world-class surfing, Uluwatu features imposing limestone cliffs which occasionally host White-tailed Tropicbird, while all three species of Frigatebird are also seen here from time to time. However, I saw almost no seabirds apart from a few passing Great Crested Terns. The clifftop scrub was a little more interesting, with easy-to-view Bar-winged Prinia and Olive-backed Tailorbird, two rather common Bali specialities.

Finally, Serangan Island produced quite a few birds for the year list, and left me wishing I had brought my telescope! Serangan is a restricted-access island south of Denpasar, accessible via a causeway. Shortly after the causeway, there’s an entry barrier and booth on the right. Here, visitors must pay 5,000 rupiah and leave some ID at the gate. Apparently cameras are banned here, but my bag wasn’t searched. After checking in, visitors are free to drive the network of dirt roads. It took me several visits to find the best birding area, where there were lots of waders – but unfortunately many of them were too distant to identify with binoculars. Among the ones I did get a closer look at were several Javan Plovers (a recent split from what we used to call Kentish Plover), and a nice group of Far Eastern Curlew, which is a rare bird further west in the region and one of the few waders I missed at Pak Thale/Laem Pak Bia in Thailand earlier in the year.

Other birds seen at Serangan Island included some very showy Cerulean Kingfishers, a lone Glossy Ibis (an East Asia tick for me), a Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo, and finally, just as I was about to give up hope, a beautiful male Scarlet-headed Flowerpecker which gave prolonged views on a bare branch – the perfect way to hit 800 bird species for the year.

Seminyak itself produced rather an odd sighting. I was outside our apartment doing my usual early morning workout, when I happened to glimpse what I could have sworn was a Nicobar Pigeon flying past low over the garden. I am sure it has been many years since wild Nicobar Pigeons inhabited these parts, so my first thought was that it was probably an escape – this endangered species is sadly a popular cage bird in the region. In any case, definitely not something I can add to my list ….that one will have to wait until I can visit one of the few remote islands off SE Asia where this bird still occurs in the wild.

Serangan, Nusa Dua and Uluwatu lifers: Bar-winged Prinia, Olive-backed Tailorbird, Cerulean Kingfisher, Wandering Whistling-Duck, Sunda Teal, Javan Plover, Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo, Scarlet-headed Flowerpecker.

East Asia tick: Glossy Ibis.

2015 Year Ticks: Far Eastern Curlew, Little Pied Cormorant, Pink-necked Green Pigeon (total 800).

Cliffs and big surfable waves - but sadly no White-tailed Tropicbirds - at Uluwatu, on Bali's south-west coast.
Cliffs and big surfable waves – but sadly no White-tailed Tropicbirds – at Uluwatu, on Bali’s south-west coast.

Yellow-crested Cockatoo and Komodo Dragons, Komodo National Park, July 1st-2nd

Adult Komodo Dragon on Rinca Island.
Adult Komodo Dragon on Rinca Island.

Everyone has heard of the mighty Komodo Dragon, yet relatively very few people make the long trip to see them in eastern Indonesia. Komodo island is about four hours by boat from Labuan Bajo on Flores; it is possible to visit on a day trip, but many opt for a two day, one night cruise for a more relaxed experience.

In Labuan Bajo, we spent a few hours shopping around the travel agencies and eventually settled on Komodo Expedition, who weren’t the cheapest operator in town but we were swayed by their professional attitude and glowing online reviews.

Our fairly large, comfortable boat came fully equipped with three crew (the driver, his assistant, and a cook), and a choice of two cosy cabins. Hiring the boat as a private charter including all meals (lunch and dinner on day one, breakfast and lunch on day two), came to about $220. A bit of a splurge for the average backpacker budget, but in terms of value it was unbeatable. The food was plentiful and excellent, and included freshly caught fish for lunch on the second day.

We set sail at 8am, heading south-west towards Rinca island. The two-hour voyage revealed few birds of note apart from a small mixed group of Greater Crested and Lesser Crested Terns near Labuan Bajo, several Black-naped Terns at their nesting islets, and an occasional Brahminy Kite or White-bellied Sea Eagle passing over.

Docking at Rinca island, we walked the short distance to the park headquarters. Straight away, it was noticeable how arid the island was, with open sunbaked mud, savanna-type dry forest, and no natural fresh water to be seen. We later learned that the few sources of fresh water on the island are a magnet for the local animals and therefore a favorite hunting ground for Komodo Dragons.

We opted for one of the “medium” length treks, in the company of a compulsory guide. Permits for Komodo National Park totaled 600,000 rupiah (= $46 or £30) for one day for two people, including entry fee, government taxes, guide fees for Rinca and Komodo, and snorkeling permits. It’s quite expensive by Indonesian standards – one hopes that the money is being efficiently used to protect the park and its wildlife.

Something we noticed straight away was the abundance and fearlessness of large mammals. Deer are everywhere, even close to the park buildings, and macaques are common. The monkeys have been introduced to Rinca – this is one reason why small birds are scarce on the island, as the macaques eat their eggs. Komodo, which has no monkeys, is by far the better of the two islands for birding.

Komodo island deer .... dragon food!
Komodo island deer …. dragon food!

Rinca is currently the best bet for guaranteed dragon sightings. Behind the rangers’ kitchen, just a short distance from the park HQ, we quickly saw three of these great beasts, two of which were quite large and around 18 years of age. Our guide told us that they continue growing throughout their lives, and reach a maximum age of about 35 years; they have no natural predators and their demise usually comes when they lose their teeth and can no longer hunt.

Komodo Dragons usually prey on deer, wild pigs, buffaloes and monkeys, and can also be dangerous to humans. They seem quite sedate most of the time, but are capable of sudden bursts of speed when an unwary animal strays too close. We were able to observe the resting dragons safely at a range of about 4 meters; any closer than this and we would have risked a bite, which can lead to serious infection and even death. In the wild, after having bitten an animal, the Komodo Dragon follows it around until the animal eventually dies of the poisonous bite. These predators have an extraordinarily powerful sense of smell, and other dragons from as far as 2km away quickly descend on a fresh kill. They only need to eat a couple of times a month – my feeling was that life is quite easy for a Komodo Dragon, as their prey species are so abundant on the islands.

Apart from the dragons hanging out behind the kitchen, we had two more sightings of these fearsome reptiles during our hour-long trek: a big one lying right next to the path, and another slightly smaller one walking along a forest trail. Komodo Dragons are cannibalistic, so small ones less than about 4 years of age live exclusively in the trees in order to avoid the big dragons on the ground below.

Birding on Rinca wasn’t very impressive, but this was probably partly due to being there in the heat of the day. Orange-footed Scrubfowl is supposedly quite common, but much easier in the early morning and we didn’t see one – our hike yielded only low numbers of very common species, such as Black-naped Monarch and Pied Bushchat.

Bidadari Island, offshore from Labuan Bajo on Flores; Komodo national park has many similar small islands with clear water, white sand beaches, unspoiled coral and no one else around to share it with.
Bidadari Island, offshore from Labuan Bajo on Flores; Komodo national park has many similar small islands with clear water, white sand beaches, unspoiled coral and no one else around to share it with.

At about lunchtime we set sail again for the two-hour boat ride to Komodo, seeing almost no birds along the way but enjoying the sunshine and splendidly rugged island scenery. Komodo island has a huge concrete pier, presumably to make it easier for large numbers of tourist boats to dock; but there was only one other boat docked there and we saw only two other tourists on the island. Local people sell handicrafts such as carved wooden dragons from a small warehouse on the island; they seemed desperate for our business and it was quite painful to have to turn them down, but we have no space for heavy souvenirs in our backpacks. We bought two fresh coconuts from one man, but he didn’t have a machete to cut them open for us, and nor did anyone else in the area it seemed, so this deal fell through much to the man’s disappointment (and ours, since we were thirsty). I don’t know how he expected us to drink the coconut water if we couldn’t get the coconuts open …. hopefully the vendor will come better prepared with a knife next time.

Amid this almost ghostly lack of tourists, we recruited a guide to take us on an island walk. Komodo is very hot and very dry, and the guide was pessimistic about our chances of connecting with Yellow-crested Cockatoo at this time of day – but we lucked out with superb views of one in a tree right above the path. This was my main target bird on Komodo, it’s a critically endangered parrot that is now extinct in the wild almost everywhere else but maintains a final stronghold here. I was elated with this sighting, but couldn’t continue my lucky streak with Orange-footed Scrubfowl, which again eluded us. Green Junglefowls were, however, plentiful, and there were a handful of other birds to be seen despite the mid-afternoon heat including abundant Green Imperial Pigeons, White-shouldered Triller, Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, an Asian Koel, and brief views of a flushed buttonquail that had to remain unidentified.

Among the other animals, Wild Boar are noticeably abundant here, providing a key prey species for Komodo Dragons. However, we didn’t actually see a dragon on Komodo, much to the disappointment of our guide, although having already seen the dragons on Rinca I was more bothered about having missed Orange-footed Scrubfowl.

A final excellent bird sighting on Komodo was a species I’ve been wanting to see for some time, in fact one of the few East Asian shorebirds I had been missing from my list – Beach Thick-Knee. Three of these magnificent birds flew past as we walked along the concrete pier. This is yet another bird that is declining in the region due to human pressures, because they depend on undisturbed beaches and mudflats for feeding. However, I imagine they must hopefully maintain a fairly healthy population among the uninhabited islets of Komodo National Park.

After leaving Komodo pier, we headed south along the coast, spotting a soaring Lesser Frigatebird en route, and moored offshore of some mangroves for the night. Nearby, hundreds of enormous fruit bats appeared at dusk and flew over the boat; the sunset and full moon added to the eerie spectacle. Upon awakening to a fiery sunrise and freshly cooked banana fritters, I spotted several Yellow-crested Cockatoos perched distantly on tree tops on the island, but unfortunately we were a little far from the mangroves to have a chance at spotting any rails or crakes.

We spent most of the second day visiting various snorkelling sites on our way back to Labuan Bajo. The coral here is almost pristine, especially near Komodo Island and off Kanawa Island, and aquatic highlights included a turtle, a huge Manta Ray, and a pod of dolphins, as well as thousands of tropical fish. While it was tempting to revisit Komodo Island for Orange-footed Scrubfowl, we decided against it as this would have involved paying another round of hefty entrance fees, and Jenna wasn’t too keen on the idea of another baking hot hike around the island.

While on the subject of islands, I should mention a day trip we made from Labuan Bajo to an inshore island called Bidadari (or Angel Island). It offers pristine white sand and good coral and is just 30 minutes by boat from the town. It was the only place I saw Lemon-bellied White-eye, an Indonesian endemic that specialises in small islands – it was abundant on Bidadari but seemed entirely absent on the Flores mainland just a short distance away.

Komodo National Park lifers: Yellow-crested Cockatoo, Beach Thick-Knee, White-shouldered Triller.

Komodo Dragon emerging from the bushes on Rinca Island.
A “small” Komodo Dragon emerging from the bushes on Rinca Island.

Wallace’s Hanging Parrot, Flores Crow and White-rumped Kingfisher, Flores, June 29th – July 5th

Sunset at Labuan Bajo, west Flores' port town and the ideal dropping-off point for Komodo boat trips .... the area around the town also offers some good birding.
Sunset at Labuan Bajo, west Flores’ port town and the ideal dropping-off point for Komodo boat trips …. the area around the town also offers some good birding.

Just east of Bali is the famous – or at least, famous among birders – “Wallace’s Line”. Bird species on islands to the east of this line have more in common with those in Australasia, whereas many of the birds on islands to the west (Bali and Java) are shared with south-east Asia.

The distance between Bali and Lombok is only about 35km, but for more than 50 million years this deep water channel between the Asian and Australasian continental plates formed a daunting barrier that few species of birds – and even fewer mammals – were able to cross. It is remarkable how many bird species’ ranges extend as far east as Bali, or as far west as Lombok, but do not cross the gap.

Flores lies well to the east of Wallace’s Line, and as this was my first visit to this faunal region, it presented an opportunity to see quite a few new birds for my list.

For the first couple of nights, we stayed in the small, dusty and friendly port town of Labuan Bajo. This is the epicenter of the developing tourist industry on Flores. The town has a shiny new airport and several new midrange hotels, and tourism will no doubt take off here in the next few years. For now, the town is at that perfect point where fairly decent infrastructure exists, but it still receives only a tiny fraction of the number of visitors of better-known Indonesian holiday locations. Labuan Bajo is an ideal springboard for diving and snorkeling trips to offshore islands and reefs, as well as boat trips to the Komodo National Park.

I birded on several early mornings on the outskirts of Labuan Bajo, ranging as far south as the river mouth, which was probably a splendid complex of impenetrable mangroves until recently but has now been heavily degraded, with dirt roads deep into the area and some kind of mining going on. A welcome sight in the mangroves was a Stork-billed Kingfisher, and hopefully some other interesting species also hang on here despite the disturbance and habitat loss.

Common species throughout the coastal strip included Flame-breasted Sunbird, Wallacean Drongo, Yellow-spectacled White-eye, Black-faced Munia, Zebra Finch, Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker, Sacred Kingfisher, Barred Dove and Black-fronted Flowerpecker – almost none of these birds can be found to the west of Wallace’s Line so most of them were new for my list.

Truck trail through degraded mangroves south of Labuan Bajo.
Truck trail through degraded mangroves south of Labuan Bajo.

The local birding highlight was a splendid Elegant Pitta, which I spent some time stalking in a wooded gully on the edge of Labuan Bajo, before it finally gave itself up for good views. Many species of pitta are maddeningly elusive, able to disappear almost into thin air; they tend to frequent dark areas of the forest floor and can slip away undetected even when you think you’ve got their location pinned down. So the satisfaction levels are high when you finally connect with one.

I also had an unexpected Australian Pelican soaring offshore one evening. This is an uncommon visitor to eastern Indonesia during the southern hemisphere winter, and as with all pelicans is a spectacular sight.

There are two well-known birding locations near Labuan Bajo that can be reached by scooter or even public transport. The first is the forested hill around the Puarlolo communications tower, about 50 minutes scooter ride east of Labuan Bajo. The site is easy to find as there is basically only one main road out of Labuan Bajo which passes right below the tower after about 38km …. but be wary of the smaller but similar tower a few kilometers before it. The “real” tower is on the right hand side of the road, and there is a billboard with pictures of endemic birds shortly before it.

This is one of only a handful of known sites for Flores Monarch, which can be elusive although it is probably fairly common in the area. I had a very frustrating morning at this site. First of all, I walked the short approach road up to the tower, which produced Crested Dark-eye, and several singing Russet-capped Tesias which unfortunately I could not get a visual on. Next, I returned to the main road and walked a few hundred meters back towards Labuan Bajo. Behind a newish building on the left, a narrow trail leads into the forest. This trail proved to be a singularly frustrating experience as I saw almost nothing in there. The habitat looks good but the vegetation is very dense, and although I heard many birds I didn’t get tickable views of anything much at all, apart from an Asian Paradise-Flycatcher that approached me so closely that it almost seemed to be mocking my lack of success.

I had much better success at the “other” famous Labuan Bajo birding site, although my expectations for this place were somewhat lower. This is the road to Rareng, also known as the Potowangka Road. I had to check Google Maps carefully for its exact location, as it’s not signposted – look for a surfaced road on the left, in a village about 10km from Labuan Bajo, shortly before the main river crossing. This minor road winds its way slowly uphill through degraded lowland forest, and continues for many kilometers for those with the inclination to explore, although most birders seem to focus their efforts on the area between 3 and 7km from the main road. Recent trip reports indicated that this road is now quite busy with traffic, making birding difficult. It is also clear that the quality of the habitat has been much reduced in recent years – there are piles of trash here and there, and I saw several hunters with guns entering the forest, although thankfully much of it still remains inaccessible because of the lack of trails.

I arrived at the site at first light on a Sunday morning. At first I was pleasantly surprised at how little traffic there was along the road, at least for the first couple of hours. One annoying factor in this part of Indonesia is the “friendliness” of the people – in other words, every passing truck or motorcycle will sound their horn, and the driver will invariably shout or wave when they see you. So much for quiet undisturbed birding. At one point I tried to hide in the bushes when I heard a bus loudly approaching, but I was spotted and the bus even reversed so its occupants could have a close look at me and shout out their greetings as I slunk shamefully out of my hiding place.

I walked about 3km along the road, and although birds were fairly scarce it was definitely a case of quality over quantity here. My favorite bird here was a beautiful White-rumped Kingfisher, perched in full view not much higher than eye level among the trees. This is an unusual kingfisher, an endemic to Flores, and sometimes it can be a tough bird to find. I also had good looks at a pair of Flores Crows, a shy jungle crow with rather odd vocalisations that is now endangered due to loss of habitat. I was also lucky to connect with Wallace’s Hanging Parrot, arguably THE speciality of this site, but as is typical with hanging parrots my views were of the in-flight-overhead-calling-loudly variety. I had much better views of several pairs of Flores Minivets, a singularly attractive member of a very attractive bird family, made all the more satisfying because it is a Flores endemic.

Labuan Bajo Area Lifers: Flame-breasted Sunbird, Rusty-breasted Whistler, Spotted Kestrel, Wallacean Drongo, Black-faced Munia, Yellow-spectacled White-eye, Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker, Zebra Finch, Barred Dove, Indonesian Honeyeater, Elegant Pitta, Black-fronted Flowerpecker, Crested Dark-eye, Australian Pelican, Arafura Fantail, Flores Crow, Flores Minivet, White-rumped Kingfisher, Wallace’s Hanging Parrot.

Labuan Bajo Area 2015 Year Ticks: Sacred Kingfisher, Brown-throated Sunbird, Little Black Cormorant.

Javan Whistling-Thrush and Yellow-throated Hanging Parrot, Bali highlands, June 24th-26th

Bedugul Botanical Gardens, a really lovely place in the Bali highlands with cool temperatures and lots of birds.
Bedugul Botanical Gardens, a really lovely place in the Bali highlands with cool temperatures and lots of birds.

With car hire being exceptionally cheap in Bali (US$18 per day for a small car with unlimited mileage), it made sense to trade in the scooter and take the safer, more comfortable option. I decided to head to the central highlands, an essential port of call for those wanting to see some of Bali’s montane bird species.

I focused my attention on the famous Botanical Gardens at Bedugul, which resemble well-manicured English parkland in places, and contain a wide range of tree and plant species. The climate is cool and pleasant up here at an altitude of around 1,300 meters above sea level, and afternoons are often cloudy or misty with spots of rain. Birding can be very good here, even in the afternoons, with plenty of opportunity to see regional specialities and endemics; species such as Flame-fronted Barbet, Javan Grey-throated White-eye, Blood-breasted Flowerpecker and Short-tailed Starling are very common.

A fairly good map of the gardens is handed out at the gate. You can drive your car into the gardens for an additional fee, which is worth it in the early morning as it enables quicker access to more distant areas of the park. The first road to the left goes through some good habitat, including some denser forest around a gulley that might produce skulkers like Lesser Shortwing, although I didn’t see one. The quieter reaches of this road are good for Javan Whistling-Thrush in the late afternoon, I had several on the grass verges as daylight started to fade, and again in the early morning the next day. The edge of the denser forest held Fulvous-breasted Jungle-Flycatcher, with a Sunda Warbler in a mixed feeding flock that also contained Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher.

Deeper into the gardens, some trails at the far north east pass through a little-visited area of primary montane forest. Birding was much harder here than in the manicured parklands, but this is where I had my only sightings of Crescent-chested Babbler, Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler, and several juvenile Sunda Cuckoos being tirelessly fed by their “parent” Mountain Leaf-Warblers.

Yellow-throated Hanging Parrot is a speciality of the area, but typically for sightings of this genus, my bird passed quickly overhead, calling loudly, before disappearing far away.

I also paid a short visit to nearby Lake Buyan, where I failed to find my target White-browed Crake, but did have great views of several Freckle-breasted Woodpeckers, a Striated Grassbird, and a Yellow Bittern.

Bedugul Lifers: Grey-cheeked Pigeon, Blood-breasted Flowerpecker, Short-tailed Starling, Javan Grey-throated White-eye, Flame-fronted Barbet, Fulvous-breasted Jungle-Flycatcher, Sunda Cuckoo, Crescent-chested Babbler, Javan Whistling-Thrush, Yellow-throated Hanging Parrot, Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon, Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler.

Bedugual Year Ticks: Mountain White-eye, Mountain Leaf-Warbler, Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike.

Java Sparrow and Javan Kingfisher, Ubud, June 16th-27th

Views from our accommodation in Ubud - these rice fields held a good range of birds including Javan Kingfisher, Golden-headed Cisticola, and my only Streaked Weaver of the trip.
Views from our accommodation in Ubud – these rice fields held a good range of birds including Javan Kingfisher, Golden-headed Cisticola, and three species of Munia.

Our first priority after a very hectic wedding fortnight, and a long four-flight journey from the south of France, was to relax. Fortunately we had chosen just the right spot for our honeymoon accommodation, a traditional Balinese villa with an infinity pool, overlooking tranquil rice fields, about ten minutes to the south of town.

I was last in Ubud in 2007, and I had fond memories of a quiet little village surrounded by country roads and peaceful rice fields. Not any more – Ubud is now a busy town with an enormous range of accommodations and tourist services, and a burgeoning traffic problem. Modern coffee shops, art galleries and designer boutiques crowd the main streets. The restaurant scene is now eclectic, sophisticated and very healthy, much to the delight of my vegan uber-health-conscious wife. I wondered whether I was going to see any birds here, as initial forays into the countryside on my rented scooter revealed urban sprawl and construction projects stretching for many miles all around.

I needn’t have worried, as during our extended stay here I was able to see almost all of the expected Ubud birds. Top billing goes to the pair of Java Sparrows around our accommodation early one morning. At one time common throughout Bali, this beautiful bird is now very rarely seen in areas where it was once abundant. It is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and according to birding trip reports is not often seen anywhere these days.

The spectacular Javan Kingfisher is endemic to Java and Bali, and is another speciality of the Ubud area. I had a handful of sightings during my visit, although for such a large and colorful bird it can be elusive and I probably heard it ten times for every one actual sighting.

Munias were everywhere in the rice fields, mainly Scaly-breasted, with smaller numbers of the endemic Javan Munia, and a handful of smart White-headed Munias. Both Zitting and Golden-headed Cisticolas were present in the rice fields, but I had just one sighting of Streaked Weaver.

Ubud lifers: Cave Swiftlet, Streaked Weaver, White-headed Munia, Javan Kingfisher, Java Sparrow.