Pitta Nature Tours
Birding Indonesia Part 4: West Bali National Park

Posted: October 23, 2018

September 9 to 11, 2018

The thrill of seeing any Pitta, but especially the gorgeous Javan Banded Pitta!

If you were dropped off in West Bali without having been anywhere on the east end of the island, you might think you were in a different country. The rainforest that covers most of the island is still visible from the west, but the entire area of West Bali National Park (Bali Barat) is Monsoon forest, and during the dry season you could mistake it for some place in Krueger National Park, South Africa. Large acacia trees loom over the forest below, which during our visit consisted of many trees void of leaves. It made for easy birding, but quite a surprise for what I expected.

The dry monsoon forest at West Bali National Park

Before dawn on Septemeber 9, I left our room at The Menjangan Hotel, which is situated in the National Park. It was an amazing location to stay--with both the standard rooms and the private beach villas being top-notch accommodations. While the prices were definitely western, the location was 100% wild and well worth every penny.

Our Beach Villa at the Menjangan

I'd hoped to come across another SUNDA SCOPS-OWL, and with all the open branches the chance for a clear shot seemed good. And there were several owls calling as I wandered down a road in the dark. But try as I might, none would come in any closer than a few trees away. As I wandered down the road, a car approached, then slowed with the window down. A voice from inside, "Tim?". I replied yes--it was Hery, my guide, and his driver. They were on their way to my room to get me.

I jumped in the car and we set off down the road. The plan was to try for owls before the sun came up and I wouldn't argue against trying some more. We stopped where Hery thought we'd have some luck and got out--it was starting to get light and an owl called in the distance--but I heard a loud "toe-kay" call from the barn behind us--I asked if that was a TOKAY GECKO, and he said it was--so I asked if we could refocus on finding that--and we did. Hery made quick work, spotting the stunning lizard in the rafters.

The incredible looking Tokay Gecko

We hopped back in the car and headed down the road when Hery called out PITTA! There in the road right in front of the car was a JAVAN BANDED PITTA--my #1 target for Bali. I anxiously asked about getting a picture, to which Hery replied, "oh, we'll get you good pictures in a little bit." I was nervous about that proposition since I'd heard this before on other trips, but decided to trust the process. We continued toward a canopy tower that would be our perch for the first hour of daylight, as we watched and listened to the jungle come alive.

The View from the Canopy Tower

From the tower the view was incredible, and Hery explained that we would get mynas and starlings here. As if prompted by his word, a pair of BALI MYNA flew in and landed in a tree next to the tower. My 2nd most wanted species for Bali, and not in a cage at a zoo!

My lifer Bali Myna

We would end up seeing more than a dozen, and everytime one flew by or called I got just as excited at those first two. The national park we were standing in was created in order to help save this species. There were an estimated 350 birds in the West Bali National Park in the 1980s. During the 1990s over 400 cage-bred birds were released into the park to increase their numbers. But by 2005, the park authorities estimated the number to have fallen to less than 10. This decline was caused primarily by poachers responding to the lucrative demand for rare birds in the caged bird market. Today estimates range from 100 to several hundred individuals in the park, where they seem to be again making a resurgence.

Bali, like most of Southeast Asia, struggles with the illegal cage-bird trade. In fact, during our time on the island, I saw 100's of cages species of dozens of species--including birds from neighboring islands--and critically endangered species. From the tower here, we observed two other species that have taken a major hit from this trade--the first being the JAVAN MYNA, which flew by in several small flocks is much more widespread than its Balinese counterpart.

A flyby flock of Javan Myna

The other species, may not be as fortunate as the previous species. The park is home to a small population--of what is believed to be the only remaining wild BLACK-WINGED STARLINGS in the world--with perhaps as few as 50 birds remaining. This species is one of the most popular species among collectors, making it a prime target, and leading to an 80% reduction in population in just the last decade. Hery spotted one singing from a perch in the distance, and I admired it through the scope. This species might not make it through this decade, but Hery was optimistic that the park, may be the key to its survival, just like the Bali Myna.

1 of less than 50 wild Black-winged Starlings on the planet

There was a fair amount of activity to keep us busy. Most of this consisted of various green pigeons, doves, and swiftlets. A super confiding ISLAND COLLARED-DOVE landed in the morning light right at eye level in the canopy and posed perfectly for pictures before moving back to the jungle floor.

Picture-perfect Island Collared-Dove

We left the tower to look for birds closer to the ground and made our way through the forest, eventually stopping when Hery heard a CHANGEABLE HAWK-EAGLE calling in the forest somewhere. He opted for us to walk the road and look for other birds while we got closer to the raptor. This proved fruitful with a COPPERSMITH BARBET flying into a nearby tree and calling up a storm.

A Coppersmith Barbet posing in the tree tops

Around the same time, a high pitched chirp caught our attention as a YELLOW-THROATED HANGING-PARROT came zipping past and landing in an enormous tree. After a few minutes of searching, we tracked down the gorgeous little green creature and watched it for several minutes while it preened and took in the warm morning light.

One of the best shots I've seen of a Yellow-throated Hanging Parrot

Our walk had brought us closer to the hawk-eagle, but still no view--then all of the sudden through the trees, the huge raptor made a swooping pass overhead. It banked and headed away from us, gone as quickly as we had seen it.

The shot I managed of the Changeable Hawk-Eagle

We continued towards the Menjangan beach where we picked up a BAR-WINGED PRINIA foraging on the ground. My family would spend a night in the beach villas later, and the prinia were a common sight here. I also got my first look at a Black Giant Squirrel, but the lighting kept me from getting any nice pictures.

A very confiding Bar-winged Prinia

We headed out of the park on our way to some salt pans to the northeast to look for shorebirds. But we didn't make it far before Hery spotted a secretive and often hard to find MANGROVE WHISTLER low in some brushes. This drab gray bird isn't much for looking at, but apparently, it can be quite difficult to see as well as we did.

The rather inconspicuous Mangrove Whistler

Leaving the park proved more difficult than expected as we kept spotting birds--it wasn't more than 5 minutes later when Hery with his magic picked out another JAVAN BANDED PITTA in some extremely dense understory. I wasn't risking waiting for a shot, and took a record shot just in case I didn't see another (which as you know by the first image in this post shouldn't have been a concern...).

What I thought would be my best look at a Javan Banded Pitta

Onward, we stopped again when I spotted a minibus with two familiar faces--Sam, and Cam were on their way to breakfast at the beach and I had to wave hello. We eventually made it on to the highway and sped towards the salt pans at Pejarakan. It's not a far drive, but once you leave pavement again, the travel slows to a crawl on a horrendous back road. As we made our way towards the water, I spotted a LONG-TAILED SHRIKE in a nearby field which posed nicely.

A very striking Long-tailed Shrike

As soon as we got to the pans I spotted a JAVAN PLOVER--the first target bird. This was followed quickly by a PIED STILT and another Javan Plover. There weren't a lot of shorebirds in the pans, but the birds we were seeing were targets!

Javan Plover running along a dike

Pied Stilt feeding in a salt pan

We continued when I spotted a flash of bright blue flying low over a canal--it landed on a nearby post and was a stunning SMALL BLUE KINGFISHER. This one provided much better looks than the previous ones in Nusa Dua.

Small Blue Kingfisher and it's unbelievable color

There wasn't much else in the way of new birds as we made our way to the beach on the north end of the ponds. As we got to the last ponds this changed drastically as we found all the shorebirds. There were COMMON REDSHANK, CURLEW SANDPIPER, and RED-NECKED STINTS. There were GREATER and LESSER SAND-PLOVER. There were RUDDY TURNSTONE, BLACK-BELLIED PLOVER, PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER, and GRAY-TAILED TATTLER. And everything was close enough to get decent photos.

Common Redhsank

Red-necked Stint

L to R: Greater Sand-Plover and Lesser Sand-Plover

L to R: Ruddy Turnstone, Gray-tailed Tattler, Pacific Golden-Plover, Greater Sand-Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, and Black-bellied Plover 

A small flock or Gray-tailed Tattler

We took a short walk along the outside dike and canal to a brackish cove where a small flock of SUNDA TEAL were sitting. I was able to get a few shots before they took off, along with dozens of WHIMBREL and a single BAR-TAILED GODWIT. We scanned the beaches hoping to find a thick-knee, but today wasn't our day.

Looking west to Java on the shoreline

Sunda Teal in flight

Before leaving the pans we made a quick scan down another stretch of beach where Hery though we might find a MALAYSIAN PLOVER. And he was right as we quickly picked one out of the camouflaged surroundings.

Malaysian Plover on a coral and shell beach

Leaving the pans we had missed one bird that I had seen but hope for photos of and Hery was fairly certain we would find one--as we approached the last turn out, I spotted a SACRED KINGFISHER sitting right next to the road for killer shots. It looks very similar to the larger and more common Collared Kingfisher, but has buffy underparts, and flies very fast like a smaller kingfisher. We lucked out, and left the pans with everything except the thick-knee!

A dleightfully cooperative Sacred Kingfisher

Back on the highway, Hery told me that it was time for pittas. And I was thrilled. I won't delve too much into the details of where we went or how we go there--only to say that you wouldn't know it existed if someone didn't lead you there. We were dropped off on a small road and met by "The Pitta Man" at a nondescript opening in the forest. We followed him into a clearing and across a small field where we entered another patch of forest and a small man-made hide with several notched out viewports. Here "The Pitta Man" set up a large log and we waited while he whistled the call of a pitta. Immediately a HORSFIELD'S BABBLER landed on the log.

Horsfield's Babbler posing for a nice shot

Then Hery whispered, "a male pitta about 10' behind and to the right--it's coming!". And within 15 seconds, there atop the log was the male JAVAN BANDED PITTA. I'll let the pictures tell the story.

A male Javan Banded Pitta in a variety of poses

It was incredible watching the pitta so close. The colorful bird was mesmerizing and I never imagined getting the looks we were getting. The male jumped off the log and wandered back into the forest, only to be replaced by the female bird who hopped on the log and repeated the same show that had just played out with the male bird.

A female Javan Banded Pitta in a variety of poses

I couldn't have been more thrilled. Once the female left it was hive fives, and reveling at the moment. I won't share any more about this experience, only to say, if you want to see Javan Banded Pitta, get in touch with Hery--you won't regret it!

One last close-up of the star of the Bali Birding Trip, a Javan Banded Pitta

Before we left Hery heard a CRESTED SERPENT-EAGLE call, and almost immediately the bird flew out of the trees and overhead. I snapped a few shots, but my camera settings were still trained for pittas, and I wasn't able to get things switched until the bird had already made a pass and was starting to leave.

Flyover Crested Serpent-Eagle

We hit the road again and headed inland away from the park towards the rainforest on the hills above. The scenery changed quickly to dense greenery and humid forest. We slowed down and approached a bridge, Hery explained that a Javan Kingfisher often sat on a dead tree here. As we made our way onto the bridge I could tell something was wrong. Hery told me the tree that was there had been torn down in the past week--the perch for the bird was gone! We turned around and pulled on a small side road and started scanning the power lines and trees. It wasn't even 5 minutes when I spotted a bird gliding in and landing along the main road on a power line--it was the JAVAN KINGFISHER. It dove into a garden with a number of short palms, so we slowly drove towards it. Hery spotted it sitting only 15' off the road and we got killer looks and photos!

An increidbly colorful Javan Kingfisher

As we left Hery shared with me that most people that try for this bird will try to approach on foot and that using the car is the best way to get close--it worked today!

We kept going into the Blimbingsari Rainforest to look for a couple more target birds. As we drove Hery's magic ears picked up a BLACK-NAPED MONARCH calling form the forest. We pulled over and within a few minutes had a pair right next to the road posing for pictures.

Black-naped Monarch are a phenomenal bird

After the monarchs disappeared we got out of the car--there were FRECKLE-BREASTED WOODPECKER calling and drumming nearby and we wanted to try and find them. We had a couple flyovers, but no good looks. Then a COMMON FLAMEBACK burst into call, but again it proved difficult to see, staying in the forest. As this was happening a LITTLE SPIDERHUNTER started to call and work its way closer to us--I'm not sure I've ever seen a bird fly so fast, as it got close then zipped across the road and continued on its way out of sight in less than a second. Rainforest birding at its finest.

The Blimbingsari Rainforest

Trying to keep on schedule, we headed deeper into the forest by car, with our driver spotting a HAIR-CRESTED DRONGO flying past--it would be the only one of the trip.

The only Hair-crested Drongo of the trip

As we neared the end of the road we got out when Hery heard a LITTLE BARBET calling. Pretty soon we found 2 sitting high in nearby trees. Of the barbets we'd seen in Bali, these ones have the most brilliant colors, but their small size and ability to hide high in trees can make the views a little less impressive.

A Little Barbet high above us in the trees

None-the-less it was another lifer and target bird off the list. We spent the better part of the next 40 minutes trying to track down a singing RUBY-THROATED BULBUL. There were around 3 dozen bulbuls of 4 species visiting fruiting trees here, but the Ruby-throated which is one of the most sought-after refused to show itself. The same would go for an ORIENTAL PIED-HORNBILL that was calling up a storm from a large fruiting tree as we left. In consolation, I got a decent look at a DOLLARBIRD and a distant photo of a CHESTNUT-HEADED BEE-EATER.

Chestnut-headed Bee-Eater calling 

It had been a stellar morning and we were pushing a late lunch so we made our way back towards the highway to grab something to eat. But as with the morning, we didn't make it far, when Hery spotted a GRAY-RUMPED TREESWIFT flying over a neighborhood. We got out of the vehicle so I could get a few photos of this phenomenal bird. I had hoped to see one perched, but the flight shots would have to suffice.

Gray-rumped Treeswift making a pass overhead

As we watched I spotted another top target of mine--a WHITE-BREASTED WOODSWALLOW had joined the feeding frenzy and was now making loops overhead. It was a two-for-one with top targets in a manner of minutes.

Stopping for the treeswift provided a look at this White-breasted Woodswallow

The treeswifts would be the only ones of the trip, and I wouldn't see another woodswallow until our last day in Komodo National Park a week later and without a camera. It was a lucky find and a nice end to the morning birding. We headed towards the town of Gilimanuk and grabbed lunch at the Luvi Resto (Cafe and Restaurant). Really good local cuisine, and very inexpensive. We had some fried tofu rolls, and I ate crispy duck which I dipped in the chili sauce. As we ate a JAVAN KINGFISHER burst into call just out of sight in the forest behind the restaurant--and to think we could have just spent an hour at the restaurant eating and looking for the kingfisher :)

After our quick break, we headed out to look for a handful of pigeons and doves I still needed--among other things. Our first stop led us to Pura Tirtha Segara Rupek--a Hindu temple where Hery knew there would be BLACK-NAPED FRUIT-DOVE. As luck would have it, another guide with several clients we'd ran into a couple times earlier in the day were there and looking for it. They had seen it before we got there, but were currently trying to refind it. I spotted a flash of yellow and red high in the tree and realized this was the super colorful bird we were looking for.

Still can't believe the colors on this Black-naped Fruit-Dove

By-and-far the coolest dove I have seen to date. There are some very cool doves in the world, and my limited interaction with fruit doves and green pigeons meant my list of "cool ones" was short. We watched the bird for a few minutes before wandering off to another spot on the temple grounds. Hery told me there were some green-pigeons here as well, and that most guides that visit this spot don't leave the parking lot, so they were unaware of the roost. We walked a short distance, came around the corner of a building and there in a large fruiting tree were a handful of GRAY-CHEEKED PIGEON.

The subtle and stunning colors on the eyering and wings of the Gray-cheeked Pigeon

A very stunning green-pigeon, with a neon green eye-ring and primary edges as well as marron coverts. The birds spooked and took off--but what I hadn't seen is that the 10-12 birds I spotted were just a fraction of the more than 50 that took to the air--the tree had been full of pigeons!

We headed to another site nearby to see if we could track down a Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher--one of the prettiest kingfishers in Bali. We didn't have any luck with this bird but a consolation prize was a troupe of JAVAN LUTUNG, an Old World monkey from the Colobinae subfamily. These monkeys are endemic to Java, with a few subpopulations on surrounding islands--like Bali, where this species is restricted to West Bali National Park. This lutung is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation--a vulnerable species is one which is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening its survival and reproduction improve.

Killer looks at a Javan Lutung

Heading into Gilimanuk, we visited the harbor. If we had wanted to go to Java, we could have hopped on a boat and been there in under an hour--but I'll leave that for a future trip. Instead with tide low, we scanned the tidal flats and found a half dozen LESSER ADJUTANTS--a type of stork that is widespread in southeast Asia. Unfortunately, I was only able to digiscope these birds at a distance as they stayed in the wildest part of the bay.

Very distant record shot of a Lesser Adjutant

A SOOTY-HEADED BULBUL posed briefly in the trees along the street where we parked before we left. This provided a much better shot than my previous one at Sebatu!

Much better shot of a Sooty-headed Bulbul than my previous

Our time was getting short, and Hery like a champ had planned the day almost down to the minute. We drove back towards The Menjangan, abruptly pulling off the highway down a two-track into a pasture.

The "savanna" outside Gilimanuk

As we drove, BLUE-TAILED BEE-EATER appeared on the ground nearby. First one, then two, then 10. I counted 14, which was probably fewer than were actually there. They perched on every high point on the ground--even if that high point was a pile of cow dung.

A vividly colorful Blue-tailed Bee-Eater perched on cow poop

Of the 5 species of bee-eater I had seen in my life, this was the closest I had been to one, and the lighting made for incredible photos--even with the poop perches.

A pair of Blue-tailed Bee-Eaters

I had already seen this bee-eater a couple times on this trip, but was thrilled for the better views--but we had to keep going as there was another target we were here for. We crept along and I spotted some ZEBRA DOVES ridiculously close to the car. We stopped for photos since the light was still great.

Frame-filling shot of a Zebra Dove

We finally reached a dead end, and Hery had us exit the vehicle. He walked a few feet and pointed at a line of mangroves and said to look at the dirt patch at the base. There sitting in the shade was a SAVANNA NIGHTJAR.

A very cryptic Savanna Nightjar 

Another target bird successfully tracked down, Hery thought we would have luck with Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher at one more stop so we sped off towards the location. another non-descript trail into the jungle, the driver dropped us off, and we wandered into the trees. But, it looked like this was going to be the one that got away today. We tried unsuccessfully for about 15 minutes to track down this tiny kingfisher, that prefers the dry forest over wetter areas. Instead, I got a crappy record shot of a SMALL MINIVET, and a backlit shot of a DOLLARBIRD.

Poor but identifiable shot of a Small Minivet

I had thought Dollarbirds would be more common and was surprised that I only saw 2 during my entire time in Indonesia--both this day in West Bali. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the perception of reality from afar, versus reality in the field. Books and online reference to birds can paint a very different picture from reality and things that you expect to be quite hard to find and see, may, in reality, be easy to find--just very localized. And things you expect to be widespread might be widespread--but very uncommon. The joys of birding!

My silhouetted shot of one of the two Dollarbird I saw in Bali

With time for one more stop, Hery thought we might be able to track down one final target bird. He was unsure if the bird would be there since he hadn't checked in a while, but he knew of a single tree where RED-BREASTED PARAKEET are often found. So we set off to try. Parking along the highway, we hiked across a field to a single enormous tree. And there, calling in said tree were the parakeets. One bird took flight, giving a short glimpse at the bird as it flew directly away from us. It wasn't the greatest look, but it was a lifer, and better than no parakeet!

I hope at some point in the future I get better looks at this species, which is really a phenomenal looking parakeet! And with that, our day was finished. We had tallied more than 90 species, of which 39 were lifers. The list also included 10 of the top 20 species I hoped to see in Bali, with the Bali Myna and Javan Banded Pitta at the top of the list see well, and in greater than expected numbers. It was an amazing day of birding.

Back at The Menjangan, we parted ways--my biggest regret for this trip was not asking more questions and finding out that Hery doesn't just guide in Bali, but all over Indonesia. Given the experience I had in West Bali, I wish I would have had him for a day in the interior of Bali, as well as in Flores where we were headed next. Hery is an exceptional guide. He knows where the most sought-after target species in Bali are found, and how to find them. His ability to suss things out and provide high-quality views is top notch.

I found Hery by doing a little online sleuthing--his name popped up on several websites, as well as checklists specific to West Bali NP. And don't let eBird fool you with the Top 100--Hery has seen more than 300 species on Bali, he is without a doubt the premier guide on the island, and I really enjoyed birding with him. I reached out to him via an email address I found on one of the sites and it all worked out. Your best bet to get a hold of Hery might be through Facebook at the Bali Birding Tour page: https://www.facebook.com/balibirdingtour/

Common Iora was the last bird I photographed in Bali

Sam, Cam, and I spent another day at The Menjangan, living large in a beach villa, and snorkeling with Moorish Idols and various parrotfish.

Staghorn Damselfish

Blue Sea Star

Still not sure which species--but they have a nasty bite!

A pair of Moorish Idols

We also had a long encounter with a BLACK GIANT SQUIRREL at the swimming pool, which provided the photo op I missed while birding earlier in the week. And the FRUIT BATS  in the horse corrals were a constant source of amusement...

Black Giant Squirrel (more than 30" long)

Fruit Bat Species

Like so many other places we've been in the world, we underestimated how much we would enjoy West Bali--our biggest regret of the trip was only having 3 days to explore and relax in this incredible place.

Sunrise on our last morning in Bali

The next morning we were up early and loaded into a vehicle for the 4-hour drive back across the island to Denpasar and the airport. Our next stop was Labuan Bajo, Flores--the jumping off point for Komodo National Park!

Photos from These Days
Also Includes everything before West Bali

Checklists from These Days 
Menjangan Resort Owling
Menjangan Resort/West Bali Tower and Road
Salt Pans (Banyu Wedang)
Bali Barat Pitta Hide
Blimbingsari Rainforest (Kingfisher spot)
Blimbingsari Rainforest
Treeswift and Woodswallow Spot
Pura Tirtha Segara Rupek
Gilimanuk - Harbor
Gilimanuk - Savanna
Tegal Bunder - Forest
Tegal Bunder - Parakeets
The Menjangan (9/10)
The Menjangan (9/11)

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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