Pitta Nature Tours
Birding Indonesia Part 6: Komodo National Park

Posted: November 05, 2018

September 13 to 15, 2018

The Komodo Dragon--the entire reason for our visit to Komodo National Park.

On the morning of the 13th, we woke and packed our bags for the boat--not altogether sure there would even be a boat. Given the cancellation by our previous guide, and his arrangement of another guide for us, I wondered if we had been duped. We hadn't. Jack and a driver showed up and packed our stuff. After a minute ride to the harbor, Jack and several crew members loaded us and our gear onto a motorboat to transfer out to the main boat. As we did so I looked up to see BRAHMINY KITES circling--my first of the trip. Looking the other direction and there was giant raptor soaring high over us--this was a WHITE-BELLIED SEA-EAGLE, also a lifer. Two lifers in 2 minutes, and we hadn't even left the harbor.

Cam and Sam on the boat ride to the live-aboard

Once on the boat, we were introduced--the crew was young, I would guess everyone was under 40, with a couple kids who might have only been 21 or 22. There was the captain, his first mate, and 2 more crew members. They all took turns during our journey doing various upkeep, cooking, steering and making sure everything went smoothly. And I won't leave you in suspense--everything went relatively smooth! The crew was excellent and made sure we got where we needed to go when we needed, and safely.

Jack on the left and our captain at the helm

The boat was fairly basic--our room had AC, but the beds were awful. The bathroom had a gravity toilet which was a fun experience--gravity toilets rely on the user pouring bucket of water into the toilet after each use to flush the remnants. This meant there was a 40-gallon take of water right next to the toilet. It was a new experience for all of us.

Leaving the harbor at Labuan Bajo

Our boat wasn't the newest or nicest, but it wasn't anywhere close to the worst. If I were comparing boats to cars, there was everything from a 1970's Pinto, to a 2018 Tesla Model X. The majority of boats were somewhere in between--ours was probably a light SUV, perhaps a Honda Pilot or Jeep Cherokee. I envied the Teslas and Beamers, but was thankful to not be in the Honda Civics, late model pickups or 70's Pinto!

The Puri Sari Beach Hotels beach from the boat

Shortly after introductions, we were underway to head snorkeling at nearby Moringa Snorkeling Beach on Kelor Island. Enroute we followed the coast south, past the Puri Sari Beach Hotel where we stayed the previous two nights. After an hour we arrived at the island, and the "dingy" (motor boat) took us to shore to check things out.

Kelor Island with its white sand beach and turquoise water

We got right to snorkeling, which is something I've gotten more and more into the last few years. The next 3 days would be the most incredible snorkeling I've ever done--which was a good thing since the birding was rather slow. The waters here have seen a lot of bleaching in recent years, but some hardy corals and plenty of reef fish have persisted quite well. At Kelor I would see my first Anemonefish as well as a host of other really cool species.

An orange and a dark version of the Clark's Anemonefish at the coral here

After spending a couple hours we were back on the boat headed to our next stop, a short hour trip down the coast of Flores to Manjarite Beach for more snorkeling. Manjarite is strange, as you pull up to a jetty and snorkel from here--not the beach.

The Manjarite Snorkeling site

Sam and Cam decided to walk to the beach, but when they got to the shore there was a huge "no trespassing" sign, so there really wasn't anything to do. I only stayed in the water a bit and we then headed back to the boat, calling it a day

A Moorish Idol... a.k.a. Gill from Finding Nemo

A Horned Sea Star, a.k.a. "chocolate chip sea star"

The Titan Triggerfish can grow up to 30" long, making it the largest triggerfish in the waters here.

The afternoon was spent relaxing on the boat while we made our way southwest to Rinca Island, where we would anchor for the night. Part of the tour included a visit to a village on Rinca, one of just 3 or 4 villages in the National Park. As with much of the information available on the area--there is no information available. The village shows up on Google Maps as unnamed roads--but no actual name on the map. And as to its actual name, our guide couldn't say. Growing up in the age of information, it's crazy that unnamed villages like this exist!

The Village on Rinca Island

The visit to the village was interesting--but a bit of a disappointment. We walked quietly through the walkways with a procession of local children in tow. Our guide didn't tell us anything other than this was a fishing village. A kid asked if I had a pen, and I made the mistake of pulling out a handful of Mountain West Birding Company pens. The issue was that the children turned into a mob clamoring of the pens. I picked the smallest kids, to give the few I had away, but several bigger kids snatched them and ran off. I wish I would have brought a whole box--something that is a cheap marketing tool for me is highly sought after by the kids here.

Barely 100' from the boat and we had an entourage

After this, we were ready to depart--the only issue is our captain had wandered off to talk to some people he knew, and Jack couldn't find him. So we sat with a growing number of kids who were enamored by our blue-eyed, blonde-haired, light-skinned child. Cam shied away at first but started doing a "magic show" to which the other children applauded and cheered. While I know he won't remember this experience, I'm thankful he gets to have them. Seeing how children in far-flung places around the globe are different--and the same as him is the best education any kid can get on our world. And give him an appreciation for where he comes from and what he is able to do.

Cam showing the local kids "magic tricks"

The wait provided one more interesting happening. I heard the harsh call of a cockatoo, and as luck would have it one had flown out of the forest and landed in a tree in perfect lighting. It was a YELLOW-CRESTED COCKATOO!

Pretty wild seeing a Yellow-crested Cockatoo in the wild!

I was ecstatic, as this was a top target. The bird spent some time in the top of the tree before taking flight and disappearing. Later form the boat I would see dozens of cockatoo flying by to their roosts, but they were hundreds of yards away, instead of dozens of feet like this individual.

The Yellow-crested Cockatoo taking flight

Eventually, the captain arrived and we headed back to the boat.

Sunset and post sunset from the boat

As the sun set on our first night, we headed to a nearby mangrove patch where the light of day traded places with the darkness of night--and with it, 1,000's of SUNDA FLYING FOXES emerged from their roosts, passing within feet of us as they headed out to feed for the night. It was a spectacle.

The following morning we had a long boat ride towards Komodo Island. The ride was rather uneventful but provided some birding. I spotted several WHITE-BELLIED SEA-EAGLES perched on exposed debris on the reefs during low tide. There were shorebirds, and GREAT-CRESTED TERNS in the distance, and the occasional PACIFIC REEF-HERON, but nothing new for the trip.

The family enroute to Komodo Island

We made our way towards the scenic and popular Pink Beach in Komodo National Park, where we would spend the rest of the day. I spotted a huge heron in the distance and was pretty sure I knew what it was. A . quick look through the binoculars revealed it was a GREAT-BILLED HERON. It would have been cool to see it closer, but I watched the giant heron wrestle a giant fish in its giant bill, which was awesome!

Great-billed Heron wrestling with breakfast

After anchoring the boat, we headed to the beach for some snorkeling, and to let Cam play in the sand. The snorkeling was again, incredible.

A variety of reef fish--the Parrotfish was the most colorful...

Some type of Unicornfish--you can see the horn starting to grow on the upper lip.

The family snorkeling at Pink Beach

The beach is pretty awesome as there are small flakes of red sand in the white sand that give it a pink look when the waves and light hit it just right. It has become an Instagram phenomenon, with vain young Americans and Europeans taking way too many selfies at the beach--the only annoyance when trying to get a photo without people in it!

Crystal clear water and pink sand at the Pink Beach on Komodo Island

We took a mid-day break back on the boat, where I was treated to a pair of circling WHITE-BELLIED SEA-EAGLE, finally providing a decent shot of this fantastic raptor.

White-bellied Sea-Eagle soaring over the boat

After noticing the beach crowds had dwindled we decided to go back and it was the best decision. The beach was empty on this go around. A few boats pulled in while we were there, but it was a much more peaceful experience, and it proved to be the luckiest snorkeling moment of the trip as I happened upon a couple of HAWKSBILL SEA TURTLES fighting!

Hawksbill Sea Turtles swimming close to shore

These were the first sea turtles I had actually seen in the wild, and the 3-4 minutes I watched them was incredible--check out the video...

As dusk approached we decided to check out another mangrove path where flying foxes roost--tonight there were no foxes, but a pair of BRAHMINY KITES put on a show before it got dark, giving me a photo op I hadn't had thus far on the trip.

Killer looks at Brahminy Kites before sunset

To top things off, the sunset was absolutely incredible as with so many of the sunrises and sunsets we experienced in Indonesia.

One of the most incredible sunsets of the trip

The post-sunset glow was even more incredible

The only lights at night were the boats and the stars

On Saturday, September 15 our trip was winding to an end. We woke up as the boat made its way before sunrise to Loh Liang, on Komodo National Park. Today, we would see dragons.

Approaching the dock at Loh Liang

 Upon arrival, we were escorted to the park HQ where our guide had to fill out a few forms and pay the entrance fee. We were then introduced to two local guides who would take us on a short trek on the trails on the island. All visitors are required to go with the local guides "for safety".

Cam and Sam following one of our guides

We hadn't even walked 100 yards when one of the guides "spotted" a KOMODO DRAGON. Seeing one was an incredible experience, even with the feeling that these animals, close to the HQ were likely fed (despite the park swearing they don't) making them quite approachable and used to people.

The Komodo Dragon--what an epic beast

After spending a few minutes taking pictures and having our pictures taken we continued on our trek through the forest to seek out more dragons and birds.

Trekking through the forest on Komodo Island

There were various clucks and chortles coming from the forest--I spotted several GREEN JUNGLEFOWL but no stunning males yet. I also got my only look at an ORANGE-FOOTED SCRUBFOWL.

All I could manage of an Orange-footed Scrubfowl

I was told these would be common by several birders, and despite hearing a few, the only one I saw made a mad dash away before I could get good shots. I was too busy trying to make sure Cam saw the bird with feet that were his favorite color.

 A typical brdige crossing on Komodo... Totally kidding this was an old bridge, the new one is to my right :)

 A truly typical view through the forest here

A break in the trees provided views of some of the mostly barren hills above us.

It was a very humid morning, one of the most humid during our trip. The jungle felt like it was sweltering and there wasn't a ton of activity. But our guides who didn't know the English names of the birds knew how to point them out. This led to a great look at a HELMETED FRIARBIRD.

Helemeted Friarbirds are one of the colest birds in the park

It also led to numerous looks at GREEN IMPERIAL PIGEONS sitting high in the trees looking over everything below. These large pigeons with their shiny green backs and pale head and underparts were striking against the blue sky.

The Green Imperial Pigeons provided great looks

There were also more YELLOW-CRESTED COCKATOO, but none of the looks we had were as great as the one on Rinca. A single flyover was really cool and provided a nice underside view as it passed.

Our last look at a Yellow-crested Cockatoo flying over

One of the most common birds observed on Komodo was the WALLACEAN DRONGO. I felt like there was one at every turn on our hike, tallying 7 just based on visuals. The glossy black plumage and bright red eye made for a striking look, and a much better view than the ones I saw on Flores earlier in the week.

A very well lit Wallacean Drongo

About this time we came into a clearing in the forest and there were GREEN JUNGLEFOWL all over the place--including a male sitting in a small opening of sun. I took full advantage and started taking pictures--it was a top photo target and I had yet to capture a great shot. Nevermind the fact that 50' away was another KOMODO DRAGON--I wanted a photo of that chicken!

Finally, the shot of a Green Junglefowl I'd been waiting for!

After getting the chicken shots I turned my focus to the dragon who looked like he just ate a big meal and had no plans of doing anything this day, the next, day and perhaps the rest of the week.

Check out the claws on this Komodo Dragon

There were quite a few small birds moving about as well--but most weren't overly cooperative. Sunbirds, gerygones, and whistlers were all present with a female RUSTY-BREASTED WHISTLER posing for shots.

Another drab female Rusty-breasted Whistler

I got crappy but identifiable shots of a few species I didn't have pictures of but had previously seen. CINEREOUS TIT and LEMON-BELLIED WHITE-EYE were foraging high in a distant tree, but I snapped them anyways.

Record shot of a Cinereous Tit

Record shot of a Lemon-bellied White-eye

I did see one bird flycatching in the distance that I wasn't sure about its ID. I saw it fly in and land in a treetop and sally twice, before flying off. I snapped a couple pictures, but its face was obscured in both. My initial thought was that it was a Paradise-Flycatcher minus the tail. The head appeared dark gray, with a ruddy body and tail. If it isn't a young female BLYTH'S PARADISE FLYCATCHER, I'm not sure what it is.

Anything else this could be besides a juvenile Blyth's Paradise-Flycatcher?

Wrapping up our hike we were crossing one last bridge when I heard Cam say, "look, daddy, Zebra Doves". I turned to find him pointing off the trail at two BARRED DOVES, the eastern counterpart of the Zebra Doves of the area west of Wallace's line. They would be the only one of the trip :)

A nicely barred Barred Dove

Back at the visitors center, I took one more visit with a KOMODO DRAGON since there is a distinct possibility I'll never be back to Komodo. They are incredible lizards and were the star of the trip. If you find yourself in Indonesia, its worth it to make the jaunt to Flores and Komodo to see these beasts.

A selection of Komodo Dragon shots form our trip

Finally, we went to where local vendors were hocking shirts, carvings, and various Komodo centric goods. We had already snagged a carving from a guy on a boat, so we passed on one here, but we got Cam a shirt and a few magnets as keepsakes for other relatives. We bid the island farewell and hopped on the dingy back to our boat.

Great way to end our trip!

As we propelled away from the island I spotted a large shorebird flying in and landing on the shore several hundred yards away--the pattern had me thinking about that BEACH THICK-KNEE I had missed at every beach the previous 2 weeks.

Way out there on the beach--is that a Beach Thick-Knee?

Lifting my binoculars up and scanning, I spotted it--it was the thick-knee--a fortuitous find to cap the visit to the national park.

Definitely a Beach Thick-Knee!

As we motored back towards Labuan Bajo, we passed several large flocks of GREAT-CRESTED TERNS on sandbars. With them were various other species of birds including LITTLE TERN, COMMON TERN, and one species I hadn't yet seen, BLACK-NAPED TERN. The photos I got were pretty weak, but it was nice to add another bird.

Black-naped Tern hiding behind a Great-crested Tern

We made 2 more stops on the return boat ride, the first at an area known as Manta Point in the middle of the Flores Sea. This area of crystal clear 20' deep open water is one of the best places to see MANTA RAYS in the park. As luck would have it there were two passing through in the strong currents this morning, so I jumped in and enjoyed my lifer look at these enormous rays.

The rays moved with such ease in the currents that had me kicking at full speed and not moving at all. It was another amazing wildlife experience produced by Indonesia. The last stop was at the Kanawa Island snorkeling site where shallow water and coral created a maze to swim through. Again, it was incredible snorkeling with great looks at a variety of reef fish, most notably for me was a family of OCELLARIS CLOWNFISH, the species most people commonly refer to as "Nemo".

Nemo (Ocellaris Clownfish) and company at their anemone!

We enjoyed our last moments basking in the sun on the beach at Kanawa, before flagging down Jack to come pick us up. A . pair of WHITE-BREASTED WOOD-SWALLOWS flew around calling up a storm and landing in a small tree. I wished my camera was with me for a perched shot, but just admired them since I knew they'd be the last I saw. We motored away from Kanawa and would be back in Labuan Bajo in an hour.

This was our home for 3 days and 2 nights in Komodo National Park.

Bags packed, and in the harbor, we thanked the crew for the phenomenal job they did. We made it safely everywhere we needed to go, and they went above and beyond to make sure we had a good time. Ferried back to shore, Jack had a car waiting for us, and we were back at the Puri Sari Beach Hotel before sunset.  We watched the sunset over the sea ahead of us for the last time. The next day we would start our 34 hours, 4 flight trip home, and that would all go off without a hitch... or so we thought.

So, this trip had for the most part gone by rather smoothly.  We hadn't had any major or really minor issues.  A few missed rides, and delayed flights--it was business as usual.  Back in Labuan Bajo on Sunday morning, we were brought back to reality as we went to check into to our flights.  We had been without service for the past 72 hours and missed everything going on in the world--this included the massive Typhoon Mangkhut which has been passing over the South China Sea, battered the Philippines and was now headed straight for Hong Kong--where we had a connection to LA on Monday morning.  With my phone on and emails and messages coming through, we got the news--our flight was almost certainly going to be canceled.

The way we booked our flights home was to give us a 12-hour buffer in Bali in case we had any travel issues. We had a Sunday morning flight back to Denpasar, with 13 hours til our next flight would depart for Hong Kong.  This meant we might be able to make something happen.  I hopped online to see what I could do on Hong Kong Airlines website--it was garbage--I knew this beforehand, but in an emergency, it was even worse.  Their rebooking system wasn't working--and it was time to head to the airport.  I switched on my phone service and called Expedia to see what they could do--it wasn't much.  In fact, they took so long trying to help me, that I had to get on the plane to head to Denpasar without a solution to our issue.

Once on the ground in Bali we walked over to the airport hotel and checked in.  Then it was back to the phone.  I received a message saying they could get us on a flight on the 18th, so I called back, prepared to adjust the rest of our trip home--only one problem--in the ensuing time between calls all the available seats were gone and our only option was to upgrade for like $2,000/seat to first class.  So I asked what was the next flight they could get us on?  Keep in mind our flight home was supposed to leave Bali at 1:30 AM on September 17.  The soonest Hong Kong Airlines could rebook us--Monday, September 23rd.  Every flight in the week between was either full or couldn't accommodate the 3 of us. We were ducks out of water.

Another week wasn't an option--I mean I would have loved to have checked into a beach hotel and just relaxed for 7 more days, but we have a 4-year old who was already out of his element and ready to go home after 19 days.  Hong Kong Airlines wouldn't do anything for us, except refund the 1/2 of our tickets for the flights home--which was all fine and dandy.  But the cost of any tickets to get us back to LA one way was nearly triple that amount.  There was really no other option than to deal with it.  We were unsure if the travel insurance would cover the costs for another week in Bali--talking to someone over the phone made it sound like they would only cover a certain amount.  And the credit card that claims to have the best travel coverage also said they couldn't do anything for us--act of "god" after all.  Way to use your deity to cop out on your customers. So we booked new flights home on a different airline--left Bali just after 12:00 am on the 18th, and were back in SLC around 6:00 PM that evening.  It was an exhausting and expensive ending to our journey. 

In the end, it is what it is.  Lesson learned to make sure we have better trip insurance and to always expect the unexpected.  Oh--and NEVER fly through southeast Asia (especially on Hong Kong Airlines) during Typhoon season--or if you do, fly on an American carrier who might actually be able to help you...

 Photos from These Days
Includes all photos my from Indonesia

Checklists from These Days 
Rinca Island
Rinca Island -- From Boat
Flores Sea
Komodo Pink Beach
Komodo Pink Beach -- evening
Komodo National Park -- Loh Liang
Flores Sea
Kanawa Island

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

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