Birding Indonesia Part 5: Flores Endemics

October 26, 2018

September 11 to 12, 2018

The Chestnut-backed Thrush was a star of the birding on Flores for me

As I've become accustomed to with travel overseas, delays are frequent--so it wasn't surprising that our flight out of Bali to Flores was delayed more than 90 minutes. We eventually boarded a stuffy plane, with an extremely narrow pitch--my knees wouldn't have made it if it weren't for having a toddler next to me. The flight was under an hour, and we thudded into Labuan Bajo with a landing fit for no plane--seriously the plane lurches left and right when the wheels touched, for a brief moment inducing the thought, "are we about to crash?". We didn't. I really like regional airports in small cities--and this one was no exception--the signage facing the runway read K O M O D O in big block letters, and there was a dragon motif on the exterior of the building to go along with it.

Komodo Airport in Labuan Bajo

Even on the otherside of the world, the font Papyrus haunts me..

We grabbed our bags and quickly found that our ride was not waiting for us--in this case, the 90-minute delay was to blame. We snagged a taxi and were at the Puri Sari Beach Resort 10 minutes south of town before sunset. We walked out to the beach and enjoyed the last few minutes of light before it faded to pink then dark.

Sunset on the beach

A few minutes later from our room...

Before coming to Flores I reached out to a guide who agreed to set up our boat tour to Komodo National Park, and could also help with birding in Flores. My main focus on the island were the 3 scops owls, and a handful of endemics that I figured I could get with a 1/2 day tour and a couple nights of owling. As it would turn out our guide, Max Wago would not be able to take us on our trip. He claimed to have tonsilitis and instead would send us with another guide. Everything would work out in the end, but the birding was nearly 100% self-guided in a place I would have really liked to have had a guide. The truth is, I should have planned better and could have probably avoided any issues.

So the following morning Max arranged for a driver to pick me up at 4:00 am and head into the mountains to look for owls. The driver knew the rough areas to stop, but I would have to try for the birds on my own. As luck would have it, we didn't have to go far before a MOLUCCAN SCOPS-OWL flew across the road just outside of town. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't coax the bird into the open. At our first actual stop I got out the car to a calling MEE'S NIGHTJAR--formerly a subspecies of the Large-tailed Nightjar, this species has a significantly different call. Like the owl, the nightjar didn't care about my playback and we moved up in elevation.

The next several stops turned up exactly ZERO owls or nightjars of any kind. The frustration of not knowing an area and where the birds are. As we reached the elevation where Flores and Wallace's Scops Owls overlapped my driver pulled over and made a comment about the spot being good for owls. Out of the vehicle, I immediately heard a calling WALLACE'S SCOPS-OWL. I got my gear ready and headed in the direction of the sound. For the next few minutes, the bird and I played phone tag, until the bird eventually flew right at me, passing just a couple feet above my head and gliding up the hill behind me into a tree. Despite following it with the spotlight, I couldn't pick it out in the large tree, and subsequent attempts to coax it out failed.

I was slightly frustrated, but we still had time to try for Flores Scops Owl. Had I done better research before,I would have had the driver take me to the trail we would end up birding later in the day, and I would have just hiked through the jungle trying for the bird. Instead, we tried again on several small side roads. Again, the first few stops were void of owls--but on the third try a bird, a FLORES SCOPS-OWL immediately responded to the playback. But like the other birds, it refused to cooperate.

Sunrise from a moving car over Flores...

The morning would go down with 2 flyby owls, a 3 audible, and an audible on the nightjar--how I wish I would have had a couple more days to try again. As the horizon began to lighten to the east, I could make out the mountains I was currently in. We drove down one more road and tried again for the 2 higher elevation owls with no response--and as the sun rose, ELEGANT PITTA started calling from several locations in the forest around us--the jungle came to life.

We headed towards Puarlolo which from what I can tell is a reserve. I found this description online which is helpful:

This small forest patch lies alongside the main East-West (Ruteng) road around 36 km east of Labuanbajo. It can easily be reached as a day trip from town, or en-route to or from Ruteng. Look out for the birdwatching signs and the obvious telecom tower set just back from the road on the right (as you travel from Labuanbajo). Small trails leave from the clearing in front of the tower, and a more obvious trail descends from the main road a couple of hundred meters back from the turn-off to the tower, around the back of a small building/office.

The forest from the road near Puarlolo

I walked down the trail from the main building into the forest--there were birds making noises all around, and I didn't recognize any of them. The first bird that I spotted was an easy ID as a FLORES MINIVET. Still too early for photos without a flash, my shots all turned out black. I headed deeper into the forest and got my first look at a CHESTNUT-BACKED THRUSH, truly a remarkable looking bird--the lighting issue persisted for another 15-20 minutes.

I waited till I felt I could start getting shots of things to keep moving when I heard a call that sounded like a parrot coming from a tree above.

Scanning the tree I spotted a rather drab looking RED-CHEEKED PARROT. It must have been a young bird. But at least I was able to get a picture!

A young Red-cheeked Parrot without those red cheeks

After a few minutes, I heard an ELEGANT PITTA calling from what sounded like just a few feet away. So I found a good place to sit down where I was mostly surrounded by tall grass and I tried to lure it into the open. The call got so close I felt like the bird was a foot away, but I couldn't' see it anywhere.

I strained my eyes on the forest floor scanning every stick, rock, limb, flower, and leaf. Nothing. The bird sounded as if it were maybe 6-10' above me, but why would a pitta be up in a tree I thought... So I never looked--and I never saw the bird that spent the next 30 minutes calling from everywhere around me. It was maddening.

The trail where I hid looking for the Pitta

I later in the day learned that while the Elegant Pitta is terrestrial like most other pittas, it is also quite adept to displaying anywhere from 10-30' off the ground, in the trees. The bird was above me, and I had failed to scan where it was likely sitting because of a preconceived an incorrect notion that pittas are always found in the understory! But the wait did turn up several CHESTNUT-BACKED THRUSHES, of which I was able to get decent shots.

These Chestnut-backed Thrushes really are gorgeous birds

It also turned up a number of other birds like calling and endemic WHITE-THROATED KINGFISHER and FLORES CROW. A pair of RUDDY CUCKOO-DOVE made a short appearance before they realized I was watching them and flew off back into the jungle.

A very grainy shot of a Ruddy Cuckoo-Dove

GREEN JUNGLEFOWL and BROWN QUAIL called from the jungle, while a VARIABLE GOSHAWK burst into chatter from somewhere nearby. There was so much audible stimulation, but the visuals were far and few between...

I started hiking down the trail to see if I could eventually find some more birds to look at when I got into a small flock of birds moving along together. There were BARE-THROATED WHISTLER and RUSTY-BREASTED WHISTLER--I could hear male birds singing further back from the trail, but only female birds out in the open.

Female Rusty-breasted Whistler (probably)

Female Bare-throated Whistler (probably)

RUSSET-CAPPED TEPIA and SPECTACLED MONARCH passed by too quickly for photos, leaving me photographing a small yellow and brown bird that I couldn't figure out. The bird was a DARK-CROWNED WHITE-EYE--but it looked, unlike any white-eye I'd seen before.

Dark-crowned White-eye look nothing like other white-eyes in my opinon

I spotted a thrush jumping up the trail--only this one wasn't the more common chestnut-backed--it was a CHESTNUT-CAPPED THRUSH, and by the time I pulled my camera up, it disappeared into the understory. I only had till about 8:00 am before I had to leave to get back to Labuan Bajo by 9:00 am. So I painfully pulled myself away from the birds to start heading back. I spotted a drongo, the endemic WALLACEAN DRONGO, and got some crappy shots through the forest.

Wallacean Drongo hiding in the jungle

As I got closer to the trailhead I spotted a gray, white and black bird skulking through the trees--I was fairly certain it was a FLORES MONARCH, but it was staying well out of view. finally, it lit on a small cross branch in a rather dark patch of trees, and I got the full view of the bird--it was the endemic monarch, and I managed a decent shot of it before it disappeared back into the thick.

The endemic Flores Monarch

There was a surprising amount of activity in the patch of forest closest to the road, including several more drongos, and a small group of the RED-CHEEKED PARROTS, including a lovely adult male with the colors I had been expecting to see.

Red-cheeked Parrots, how I expected them to look

My time was up and I had to get back to Labuan Bajo. I wish I had had several more mornings, even if just to visit this same patch of forest over and over--it was fantastic. I recorded a lot of things that frankly I haven't even tried to listen to or ID since getting back. At some point hopefully, I will be able to match some of the recordings that I didn't know with some of the birds I do!

Loved this forest at Puarlolo

We descended from almost 3,000' back to sea level, giving me a whole new appreciation for where we had driven in the dark. Flores, is an interesting place and has enough endemic birds, that is it worth several days to cover the whole island. Unlike Bali, it is not a major tourist destination, with the vast majority of westerners never going east from town. Even as I sit here on the other side of the world, the one thing I wish I had done while on this trip would have been one more entire day of birding with a guide--while I racked up nearly 25 lifers on Flores, I probably could have probably tripled that with a proper guide!

Driving back to Labuan Bajo

The driver dropped me off, and I had breakfast with Cam and Sam, before setting off for town to try and get some cash and supplies for our boat trip. Labuan Bajo is truly a dusty frontier town--it's prominence on a map is 100% due to Komodo National Park, and surprisingly no one has really taken hold of that and done something amazing with the area. Everything feels very much like you are stepping back in time technology and modernity it wise. And I like that.

The main drag through Labuan Bajo

I met with our new guide, Jack, and squared away all the details for the following 3 days--tomorrow we were boarding a live-a-boat where'd we sleep for 2 nights, and live for 3 days. There would be snorkeling, birds, and Komodo Dragons, and it would pan out to be an incredible experience...

Photos from These Days
From Puarlolo

Checklists from These Days 
Puri Sari Beach Hotel (9/11)
Puri Sari Beach Hotel (9/12 morning)
Puri Sari Beach Hotel (9/12 afternoon)

Other Posts in this Series
Indonesia Part 1: Via Hong Kong
Indonesia Part 2: Nusa Dua Lagoon
Indonesia Part 3: Sebatu and Ubud
Indonesia Part 4: West Bali National Park
>>Indonesia Part 5: Flores Endemics
Indonesia Part 6: Komodo National Park
Indonesia Part 7: Recap & Logistics

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