End Of Timor Days

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June 17th 2009
Published: June 17th 2009
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I arranged my flight onwards to Ruteng in Flores (home of the giant rat....hopefully) for Thursday, at the unusual hour for Indonesia of 6am. With three days to utilise I chose to go to Bipolo on the first and third days and back to Camplong on the second, to attempt to try and find the remaining endemic birds of the island. Bipolo was remarkably easy to get to, simply bus to the whistle-stop town of Oelmasi and then take a motorbike to the forest at Bipolo about 15km further on up a sideroad. I was going to just bird along the road, which runs right through the middle, but I found a dirt trail heading into the trees so I took that instead and in a couple of minutes came across a fruiting fig tree. These are great for attracting wildlife. In the Greater Sundas (eg, Borneo, Java, Sumatra) you might see monkeys and gibbons and hornbills, but in the Lesser Sundas there are just birds (I mean, "just" birds). All the forests in Timor had fruiting trees when I was there and it made finding a lot of the species much easier than it might have otherwise been. Best-looking bird in the tree was the black-banded fruit dove but there were also some endemic species such as the Timor figbird and fawn-breasted whistler. This latter bird really looks nothing like its picture in the field-guide. There's only one bird book for the region, "The Birds Of Wallacea", which covers the Lesser Sundas, the Moluccas and Sulawesi. Its not really great as a field-guide because it weighs about 2.5kg! I did the sneaky thing and made up my own lists of the birds found on each island, so I just have to take the relevant list with me into the field and consult the book for the identification of the trickier species when back at the hotel at night. The pictures of the birds look good but as I have found out they don't always accurately depict the species, the fawn-breasted whistler being just such a one. The northern fantail is another bird that had me going for a while. I couldn't work out what it was at first because it was bigger than other fantail species I've seen and acted completely differently (speaking of which, the Arafura fantails here have a weird habit of scuttling about on the ground!).

After a while the trail came out onto a dirt road and I followed that until it hit the rice fields. Here was where I was hoping to find the Timor sparrow, which is related to the Java sparrow commonly seen in pet shops. I wandered round and round and up and down for hours under the blazing sun but narry a Timor sparrow did I spy. I did however find my first Timor zebra finches, which of course then turned out to be exceedingly common.

The next day it was a return trip to the forest at Camplong, where I discovered that you actually need a permit to enter the forest (15,000 rupiah). Camplong and Bipolo are both excellent forests, but somewhat different from one another. Bipolo is moist lowland forest (although as its the dry season, not as moist as the name might suggest) while Camplong is dry lowland forest. The ground is completely carpeted in bone-dry leaves making walking silently impossible. Camplong is the best spot to find some interesting endemic species including one I was particularly keen on seeing, the Timor stubtail. It looks almost exactly like a tesia which for those not familiar looks something like a tail-less feathered mouse (or, for New Zealanders, like a smaller not-so-round rifleman). The stubtails live on the ground in dense undergrowth and are very secretive, so while I was hoping to get lucky I wasn't overly confident, but no sooner had I entered the forest at Camplong than a stubtail goes hopping across the forest floor about ten metres away. Really nice little bird. I ended up seeing three in total during the day. Two other endemic skulkers refused to show themselves however, the buff-banded thicket-warbler and the black-banded flycatcher. I did manage to successfully track down the white-bellied chat (finally -- I had been thinking it would have been larger) and the very attractive orange-sided thrush

My second visit to Bipolo was completely different to the first. Birds that had been dripping out of the trees in their dozens were now missing entirely. The forest seemed deserted. But that's the way it is in birding, one day there's birds and another day there's not, even in exactly the same place. Giving up on the forest I made my way to the rice fields to have another crack at the Timor sparrow. Once again I wandered hopelessly across the fields seeing every sort of finch in the entire world except for the Timor sparrow. It may seem a strange way to spend a holiday in Indonesia, traipsing round a rice field for hours in forty degree heat looking for a sparrow, but that's the way we roll in the bird nerd world. On the way back I tried the forest again for a last shot at the remaining endemics, like the Timor black pigeon or the spot-breasted dark-eye, but of them there wasn't a sign.

So that's my West Timor dash done. I'm quite pleased with the birding outcome. I saw heaps of nice birds and the only endemics I missed out on were the apparently-almost-gone Timor green pigeon, the two awful skulkers (buff-banded thicket-warbler and black-banded flycatcher), the devilish Timor sparrow, and the spot-breasted dark-eye, Timor oriole and Timor black pigeon. I was hoping (nay, expecting) to get the last four but the first three I wasn't really expecting to see.

Kupang is hot and congested and noisy, but apart from that I liked West Timor quite a lot. It was very easy to get to the birding sites so long as you didn't want an early start. Birding is of course best first thing in the morning before it gets too hot but in Indonesia you can't rush anywhere. On my first day on the island, going to Camplong, the first bus didn't leave till 7, on the next to Oelmasi (which is right before Camplong) the first bus didn't leave till 8, the next day not till 8.30, and the next not till 9. Basically the buses just sit there until they have enough passengers and then they leave (or just sit there some more) -- and then they stop at what appears to be a secondary terminal about four minutes away and sit there for half an hour for no discernible reason. Its all a bit frustrating but there's nothing you can do about it. Before coming to West Timor I had really assumed that there would be more people than in Sumba that spoke English because of the troops going through and the flights that come in from Darwin (which apparently are still going despite what I had been informed of last year), but the ratio is about the same. Its funny where English-speaking locals turn up though. Most people know a couple of words (usually "hello Mister") but you just randomly come across others, maybe in the depths of a rice paddy or in some remote roadside rumah makan, that speak better English than some people who have English as their native tongue. Apart for five or six at the airport when I first arrived I didn't see a single non-Indonesian the whole time I was in Timor, which was also a bit of a surprise. I thought there would have been at least a few around Kupang.

So I'm finally off to Flores tomorrow. Apparently there's no internet in Ruteng. But hopefully there are giant rats.


17th June 2009

Why would you need to go searching in the middle of nowhere for giant rats when you work with a bunch already? :p
18th June 2009

magic water
oh dear god they have done it "magic water" water you can keep both fresh and saltwater fish in, it does do them harm over long periods but oh well. what a world. anyway your trip sounds hmmm interesting so far fingers crossd on the rat. sucky sucky $5

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