ISLANDS OF THE SULAWESI SEAS, INDONESIA TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 1 Our tour begins at Manado airport in northern Sulawesi with a morning flight northwards across the Celebes Sea to the island of Sangihe, lying halfway between the northern tip of Sulawesi and the Philippine island of Mindanao.
Upon arrival at Tahunawe will transfer to our small hotel for a three nights stay and will have time for some initial exploration.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Days 2-3 The Sangihe and Talaud islands constitute Endemic Bird Area 167. Little natural forest is left on the main island of Sangihe (also sometimes called Sangir), which is dominated by the spectacular 1320m high volcanic peak of Gunung Awu. This impressive ‘stratovolcano’ last erupted in 2004. Sangihe is renowned for its white sandy beaches, amazing coral gardens and rich coconut, vanilla, nutmeg and clove (‘brown gold’) plantations growing on the very fertile volcanic soil. The region is regularly rocked by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and is especially known for its fine carved ebony wood, as well as fine embroidered fabrics.
We will concentrate our birding efforts on the slopes of Gunung Sahendaruman, where tiny forest remnants have survived on steep, limestone soils. The sometimes steep and slippery trails will lead us to the habitat of the six endemic species. The forest consists of tall broad-leaved trees covered in lianas and epiphytes with an understorey holding many palms interspersed with some tree ferns, gingers and screw palms (Pandanus).
The principal avian speciality is the amazing Cerulean Paradise-Flycatcher, which was fairly recently (1998) rediscovered here. It was previously known with certainty from a single specimen collected in 1873, followed by two inconclusive field sightings. This bright blue species with its pale blue orbital ring is classified as Critically Endangered by BirdLife International because of its extremely restricted range and its small population size. It has only been seen a handful of times by western birdwatchers, including during our previous tours. With persistence, we should be able to get good looks at that cracker.
The commonest endemic is the multicoloured and attractive Elegant Sunbird which is often found flitting from amongst the flowering bushes along the forest edge. Seeing the recently-described Sangihe Shrikethrush and the inconspicuous Sangihe Hanging Parrot will require some more effort.
The endemic Sangihe Shrikethrush was only known from one historical specimen collected in the late 19th century until it was rediscovered and formally described as a separate species in 1995. It is only known from sub-montane forest above c600 m on the Gunung Sahendaruman ridge. This modestly-clad species is not uncommon (in spite of the fact the total population is thought to be very small), but can be surprisingly elusive. It will require a hike to reach the highest ridges where this species survives (that’s where the pristine forest is!). The endangered, endemic Sangihe Hanging Parrot is regularly seen in small groups flying fast overhead emitting their high-pitched flight calls.
At night we will go out to try to locate the little known, endemic Sangihe Scops Owl, a member of the well-known and widespread genus Otus. It had been collected in the 19th century but was then considered a race of the more widespread Sulawesi Scops Owl until research revealed different vocalizations and morphology. This tiny owl was formally described as a species in 1998. It is relatively common in plantations and forest and is quite easily located by listening for its down-slurred whistle at dusk.
In addition to the endemic species, there are a number of very distinctive and rare subspecies. The Sangihe race of the Northern Golden Bulbul is extremely rare but vocal and appears to be restricted to ridge forest. The two last endemic species, Sangihe White-eye and Sangihe Dwarf Kingfisher, have not been recorded reliably since decades so it would require an infinite amount of luck to encounter them.
Overhead we should see Brahminy Kite, the daunting White-bellied Sea Eagle and some migratory Chinese Goshawks, together with Sulawesi and Glossy Swiftlets and transient, speedy White-throated Needletails.
More skulking inhabitants in the small pockets of forest include the gorgeous Red-bellied and Hooded Pittas and the beautiful local race of the Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher. Mixed-species flocks are regularly encountered and hold Yellow-sided and Grey-sided Flowerpeckers and Brown-throated and Black Sunbirds. The pigeon guild is particularly well represented here as Spotted and Emerald Doves, Slender-billed Cuckoo Dove, Grey-cheeked Green and Pink-necked Green Pigeons, the smart Black-naped Fruit Dove and Elegant (or Yellow-eyed) and Pied Imperial Pigeons all occur. Other species we will look for in these small pockets of forest include Blue-backed Parrot, Black-naped Oriole and the endemic, rather vocal Rosenberg’s Dwarf and Sulawesi Dwarf Squirrels.
At night we will also look out for the wintering Northern Boobook, the endemic race of Sulawesi Small Cuscus and the very attractive and endearing, endemic Sangihe Tarsier.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 4 Today we will take a flight back to Manado for an overnight stay.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 5 Today we will take a flight to the island of Karakelong in the Talaud Islands for a three nights stay. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Days 6-7 The island of Karakelong (or Karakelang) is the hub of the Talaud archipelago and covers an area of c350 square kilometres. It still holds substantial areas of lowland rainforest and a hunting reserve to protect introduced populations of Banteng and Forest Pigs was established fairly recently.
The Talaud Islands are home to four endemic bird species. Amazingly enough, two members of the so often secretive Rallidae (Rails and Crakes) family have been formally described from Karakelong in recent years. The very shy and retiring Talaud Rail was discovered only in 1996 and is closely related to the also very rarely-observed Bare-eyed Rail of the Northern Moluccas and New Guinea. It is a reticent but probably not uncommon inhabitant of wet grassland and rank vegetation habitats at the edge of the forest on Karakelong. This remarkable, yellow-billed and chestnut-headed species has only ever been seen by a few western birdwatchers, so we would count ourselves extremely fortunate if we would lay eyes on this truly mysterious bird. In 1998 a large, very dark and robust rallid, the Talaud Bush-Hen was described from this island. Its most interesting feature is a strikingly stout pale green bill and it regularly occurs next to the more widespread and better-known Rufous-tailed Bush-hen, although it is probably more of a forest bird.
Karakelong now supports the only viable population of the stylish Red-and-blue Lory. This noisy species often visits flowering trees and is seriously threatened by habitat loss and trapping. BirdLife International considers this beauty as Endangered. The fourth endemic is the intriguing Talaud Kingfisher, which closely resembles the well-known Collared Kingfisher, which only occurs around the coastline. It inhabits a variety of forested habitats, is favoured by an intriguing scientific name, Todiramphus (or Halcyon) enigma, and is usually found in the mid-storey, often together with its larger relative. Philippine Pitta of the endemic inspeculata race has already been split by some authors and skulks in the undergrowth.
In cultivated areas and forest we should also find Sulawesi Cicadabird, Rufous Paradise-Flycatcher, Grey-sided Flowerpecker, Black Sunbird, Everett’s White-eye, Asian Glossy Starling and Black-naped Oriole. All of these species are represented by fairly distinctive endemic subspecies on Karakelong.
At night we will go in search of Chocolate Boobook, which is otherwise confined to the Philippines.
The unobtrusive Grey Imperial Pigeon is uncommon here and leads a quiet life in the forest canopy. This threatened small-island specialist is currently known from only ten sites and its status is described as Vulnerable by BirdLife International. The Island Monarch is another small island specialist, small and noisy groups of which are regularly encountered in the forest.
Rails are particularly well represented here, and as well as the two endemic species we should also encounter Buff-banded Rail, Rufous-tailed Bush-hen and White-breasted Waterhen.
Talaud is the only place in the world where three species of Tanygnathus parrot co-exist: the endangered Blue-naped Parrot, Blue-backed Parrot and Great-billed Parrot!
On our wanderings through the variety of habitats on Karakelong, we should also find residents like the modestly-hued Philippine Scrubfowl, Golden-mantled Racquet-tail, Common and Ruddy Kingfisher, and Green Imperial Pigeon, together with a selection of migrant or wintering species like Japanese Sparrowhawk, Grey-faced Buzzard, Sacred Kingfisher, Fork-tailed Swift, Red-throated Pipit, Brown Shrike, Blue Rock Thrush, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, Arctic Warbler and Grey-streaked Flycatcher.
Around the coastline, we may well find Pacific Reef Egret and Pacific Golden Plover.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 8 After some final birding in Talaud we will take a flight back to Manado for an overnight stay.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 9 This morning we fly southwards to the town of Luwuk, situated near the end of one of Sulawesi’s charismatic starfish-arm peninsulas in the east-central part of the island. From this hub, we will travel by boat southwards to the island of Peleng, the main island of the Banggai archipelago.
Upon arrival at the small harbour town of Tataba, we will head for our first base in the foothills, where we will spend three nights. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Days 10-11 The pristine hill forests of the island of Peleng hold one of Indonesia’s best-kept secrets. For many years naturalists had considered the Banggai Crow to be just a race or even an aberrant form of the widespread Slender-billed Crow, but only recently it has become apparent that it definitely is a good species, with a very different morphology, vocal repertoire and biology. The Slender-billed Crows inhabit the varied, quite open habitats of the lowlands, whereas the more elusive Banggai Crow favours the forest interior and travels around in vocal parties, its behaviour more akin to Sulawesi’s Piping Crow. We should encounter several parties of this speciality during our wanderings through the well-preserved primary forest.
We will have to spend some time in dense undergrowth to get to grips with the secretive, endemic Sula Pitta, a close relative of the widespread Red-bellied Pitta. Some authorities still consider it as a race of the latter, while others think it is a good species. Whatever the situation, we will try to get good views as it is quite distinctive with its black face and throat, complete blue nuchal collar and uniquely marked, iridescent upperparts. The tiny, endemic Sula Hanging Parrot is usually located by its buzzy call when it flies bullet-like overhead. It forages in flowering trees and attracts attention with its distinctive red back. The splendid Helmeted Myna is endemic to the Banggai and Sula Islands and looks like a large version of the Sulawesi Crested Myna. It is adorned with a magnificent rounded, purplish-blue crest and can usually be located in fruiting trees. The endemic Slaty Cuckooshrike is a typical member of the cuckooshrike tribe with its grey and black colouring and leads a quiet life along forest edges.
At night we will go out, armed with a powerful torch to try to find the endemic Banggai Scops Owl (split from Moluccan) and with a bit of luck, we should also find the ghostlike Sulawesi Masked Owl, the endemic, appealing Peleng Tarsier and the endemic Peleng Cuscus. The smart endemic Banggai Fruit-Dove is a recent split from Maroon-chinned, from which it differs markedly in its call, while ‘Peleng Leaf Warbler’ is a likely future split.
Peleng is an excellent place to study the little-known and inconspicuous Henna-tailed Jungle-Flycatcher, another species that is endemic to the Sulawesi subregion, but which is virtually unknown from mainland Sulawesi. Other species we will hope to find in these magnificent forests include Barred Honey Buzzard, Sulawesi Serpent Eagle, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Vinous-breasted Sparrowhawk, the debonair Oriental Hobby, Sulawesi Black Pigeon, Superb Fruit-Dove, the splendid Moluccan King Parrot, Moluccan Drongo-Cuckoo, Grey-rumped Treeswift, the distinctive pelingi subspecies of Cicadabird, Sulawesi Triller, Hair-crested Drongo, Flyeater, Pale-blue Monarch, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher, Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Rusty-bellied Fantail, Common Golden Whistler, Ivory-backed Wood-swallow and Olive-backed Sunbird.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 12 After a final early morning’s walk in the foothills we will board our vehicles and drive east to an extensive area of rather degraded lowland rainforest, where we will be based in Salakan for a two nights stay. A stop on the way should produce the unique local race of Great-billed Kingfisher, which shows a lot of red on its bill.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 13 The main reason for our travelling to this tract of lowland rainforest is the regular occurrence of Sula Scrubfowl (or Sula Megapode) in the area. This rufous-plumaged species forages on the forest floor and builds a large nest mound of rotting leaves in a remote area. It is quite shy, but patient stalking should produce good views of this near-threatened species.
Another speciality here is the smart Red-and-black Thrush, which, with its bright cinnamon-rufous upperparts, is now often considered as a separate species from Red-backed Thrush. This timid and unassuming member of the famous and much-desired genus Geokichla leads a quiet life inside the forest gloom. The bird is known locally as Balu Sumbang (‘the widow with the ear-ring’). Rustling leaves should betray the presence of this awe-inspiring creature. During our walks, we will also find a good selection of species that we should have seen already in western Peleng, but White-throated Pigeon is easier here.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 14 Today we will travel by our private charter boat east to Taliabu, the westernmost and largest island of the Sula archipelago, where we will stay for five nights.
Seabirding can be very rewarding and we stand a good chance of encountering Bulwer’s Petrel, Streaked Shearwater, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Jaeger )or Long-tailed Skua), Bridled, Aleutian and Common Terns, and Brown Noddy. There’s also a slight chance of encountering the restricted-range Heinroth’s Shearwater, which has been recently sighted off Taliabu but is not yet known to breed there.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Days 15-18 The Sula Islands belong politically to the Moluccas (Maluku), but biogeographically they are a transition zone between the Moluccas and Sulawesi. Taliabu, with its peculiar triangular shape, is the most varied island of the archipelago, with mountains rising to 1320m (4331ft). The avifauna of Sula overlaps a great deal with the Banggai Islands to the west and together they constitute Endemic Bird Area 168 and hold eleven restricted-range species. Taliabu used to be covered in primary lowland and hill forest, but has undergone drastic habitat destruction as of late. It looks as if primary lowland forest has now gone from the island, as very large tracts have been converted to agriculture and coconut palm plantations.
The gaudy and spectacular Bare-eyed Myna is endemic to the Sula Islands and leads a discreet life in the mid-canopy of tall trees in degraded lowland forest. It is closely related to the Sulawesi endemic White-necked Myna, but shows a lot more white in the plumage and has a bright yellow bill. The endemic Sula Fruit Dove leads a quiet life in the subcanopy, while the slate-grey Sula Cicadabird is also endemic to these islands and is commonly encountered in all forested habitats. The local race of Sula Hanging Parrot is characterized by its orange back.
Nocturnal forays should yield excellent views of the recently described Sula Scops Owl, a close relative of the Banggai Scops Owl. If we are particularly lucky, we will connect with the rarely encountered and virtually unknown, endangered Taliabu Masked Owl. This species is only known from this island and seems to be able to adapt to secondary forest. Taliabu also holds the as-yet-undescribed ‘Taliabu Bush-Warbler’ and ‘Taliabu Leaf Warbler’, both of which we will try and find.
While roaming the different habitats of Taliabu we also have more chances to find regional specialities like Sula Scrubfowl, Sula Pitta, Slaty Cuckoo-shrike and Helmeted Myna.
Other species we could observe include Little Pied Cormorant, Lesser Fish Eagle, the formidable Meyer’s Goshawk, Spotted Kestrel, White-bellied and Silver-tipped Imperial Pigeons, Yellow-and-green Lorikeet, the very vocal Rusty-breasted Cuckoo, Black-billed Koel, Lesser Coucal, the huge Great Eared Nightjar, Sulawesi Nightjar, Variable Dwarf Kingfisher, Common Dollarbird, Rainbow Bee-eater, Grey and Eastern Yellow Wagtails, Pacific Swallow, Little Pied, Island Verditer and Snowy-browed Flycatchers, Citrine Canary-flycatcher, Island Thrush (of an undescribed race), Mountain Tailorbird, Moluccan Starling, Drab Whistler, Brown-throated Sunbird, Sulawesi Myzomela, Mountain White-eye and Black-faced Munia.
During our stay on little-visited Taliabu, we will have to hike into the foothills, where we will camp for two or three nights. The other nights will be spent in a guesthouse near the coast.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 19 Today we will return by our private charter boat to Luwuk on the mainland of Sulawesi for an overnight stay.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 20 From Luwuk we travel westwards by road and then take a fast boat across the Gulf of Tomin to the island of Batudaka, the westernmost of the Togian Islands for a two nights stay. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 21 The Togian (or Togean) Islands are a small archipelago of about 35 islands scattered in the Gulf of Tomini between the northern and eastern peninsulas of Sulawesi. Most of the islands have been selectively logged, but are still covered in a mixture of monsoon and evergreen forest interspersed with gardens of coconut, clove, cocoa and the dreaded durian.
The Togian Islands hold two endemics. The Togian White-eye was formally described as recently as 2008 and favours scrubby growth, secondary vegetation and mangroves. It has been found moving around in twos and threes and strangely enough, only occurs on a few of the islands of the group. It is considered endangered. In 2004 the Togian Boobook (or Togian Hawk-Owl) was described. This resident of lowland and hill forest is considered as near threatened and emits a gruff, two-to-four syllable croak. Both of these endemics occur in the vicinity of our accommodation and seeing them will be the main objective of our stay.
We will also try to find the endemic race of the Sulawesi Blue Flycatcher, which is morphologically distinct and may represent a separate species. We will also pay attention to the distinctive subspecies of Brown-Cuckoo Dove, Northern Golden Bulbul and Sulawesi Babbler.
Other species we should encounter during our stay include Great-billed, Striated and Javan Pond Herons, Little Egret, Osprey, Barred Rail, Whimbrel, Grey-tailed Tattler, Black-naped Fruit Dove, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Ornate Lorikeet, Sulawesi Hanging Parrot, Brush Cuckoo, Bay Coucal, Common Kingfisher, the very smart Knobbed Hornbill and Yellow-sided Flowerpecker.
The local form of the Spectral Tarsier is quite special as its calls are quite different from those of the Sulawesi populations.
The beautiful beaches and relaxed atmosphere of the Togians make it an ideal place for a fitting end of our island-hopping adventure.
Islands of the Sulawesi Seas, Indonesia: Day 22 Today we will return to the mainland and fly from Luwuk to Makassar (formerly Ujung Pandang), where our tour ends this afternoon.
KENDARI & WANGI-WANGI EXTENSION
Kendari & Wangi-wangi: Day 1 The extension to our Sulawesi with a Difference, Indonesia tour begins with an afternoon flight from Makassar to Kendari in southeast Sulawesi, where we will overnight.
Kendari & Wangi-wangi: Day 2 The forested lowlands around Kendari are home to the restricted-range, endemic Pale-bellied White-eye, which is fairly common. This distinctive species lacks the black front of the widespread Black-fronted White-eye and has a narrower eye-ring.
Along with this main target species, we should also encounter some more widespread but nevertheless interesting species like Knobbed Hornbill, Great-billed Kingfisher (birds here on the Sulawesi mainland have an entirely black bill) and a set of commoner Sulawesi endemics.
Afterwards, we will take an overnight ferry to the island of Wangi-wangi in the Tukangbesi (or Wakatobi) archipelago.
Kendari & Wangi-wangi: Day 3 Wangi-wangi island became ornithologically famous after the news broke that two new white-eye species had been described, in early 2019, by a group of scientists from Trinity College, Dublin.
White-eyes are known small island colonisers and are speciating much faster than any other bird family. The first one, Wakatobi White-eye, is found throughout the archipelago and had been the subject of debate for some time, before finally being assessed to species level. It was formerly subsumed under the supertramp Lemon-bellied White-eye species, but is distinctive in having a golden face, overall yellower tones and broader eyering.
The second one, Wangi-wangi White-eye, is found only on its namesake island, and is one of the most striking species of the genus, having a large orange bill and broad eyering. According to the paper published in April 2019, it has been found to be an ancient species, more than 3050 kilometres (1,900 miles) away from its closest relatives. The species being endemic to an 18km-long island makes it particularly vulnerable to extinction through habitat loss, as it is too often the case on tropical islands.
As well as these two major specialities, we will also look for the kuehni form of the Grey-sided Flowerpecker, a probable future split as Wakatobi Flowerpecker.
We could also encounter Great-billed Heron, Pacific Baza, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Grey-tailed Tattler, Black-naped Fruit Dove, Stephan’s Dove, Grey-cheeked Green Pigeon, White-shouldered Triller, Island Monarch and Black-faced Munia.
Afterwards, we will take the overnight ferry back to Kendari.
Kendari & Wangi-wangi: Day 4 Our tour will end this morning at Kendari airport.
(There are direct flights from Kendari to both Jakarta and Makassar.)