West Timor Story

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September 19th 2011
Published: September 19th 2011
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So Flores is over and done with for the second time. I had a rough start, couldn't find any birds at all it seemed, but it picked up marvelously and I not only found a Giant Rat but also "cleaned up" most of the birds I still "needed" (I dislike that word "need" but its a birders term, so when in Rome...). The only ones now missing are that pesky hanging parrot, Weber's lorikeet, Flores scops owl, Flores hawk-eagle and variable goshawk. The tally of "new" birds was still low -- only 21 for the whole month to date in Sulawesi and Flores -- but that is what I was expecting because I've only been covering ground I already covered in 2009.

I took the bus from Riung at about seven in the morning, getting to Ende in eastern Flores about 12.30. Ende seems like a really nice town. It stretches in a ribbon along the shoreline and unless I just caught it on a good day it is situated just right to get a nice cooling sea-breeze, unlike (for instance) the hotter-than-Mayte-Carranco towns of Labuanbajo or Riung. I was planning on spending a bit more money on the Ende-to-Kupang ferry to get a shared cabin rather than Economy Class so I could be a bit more secure about my bags, but 2nd class was already full and 1st class was a bit more than I wanted to spend, so I again settled on the $12 Cattle Class (I mean, Economy Class). Sleeping here does always bring to mind the quarantine ships mentioned in the Will Smith movie I Am Legend ("those ships were never meant to be permanent"). I didn't stay in Ende, or even look around; I simply got off the bus, went straight to the Pelni office to get my ticket and then went to the terminal to wait a few hours for boarding time (5pm according to the ticket but the ship arrived at 7.30 and left port at about 10).

The boarding of the Ende ferry was even worse than that of the Makassar one. There were so many people that it literally took an hour to move from the terminal building to the ship, a distance of probably 100 metres. Shuffle a few steps, wait five minutes, shuffle a few steps, wait ten minutes. The reason became clear when reaching the ship where one narrow gangplank served to get passengers on and off at the same time. Once again it was just an insane crush of shoving yelling people. The ticket office earlier in the day had been the same, just a mass of people at the counter all pushing and thrusting money forwards, so many that nothing actually gets accomplished. Even stupider was at the terminal building itself when a desk was set up just before the ship arrived. One desk, two staff, and instead of forming two queues so everything goes smoothly all the people completely surrounded the desk like an angry bait-ball. It was simply ridiculous.

I got an alright spot on board, near some nice people so I didn't need to worry about my gear if going off to the toilet or where-ever. At 4.30 in the morning Muslim prayers were broadcast loudly throughout the ship, and somebody had thoughtfully brought a rooster on board as well, naturally, because if you don't have a watch then a rooster is the only feasible way to tell if its dawn! I couldn't go out on deck to endure the mind-numbing boredom of sea-watching because the ferry was overbooked and every square inch of deck was covered in passengers and their belongings, so I returned to my slave-rack inside and lay in a pool of sweat for the next ten hours watching the cockroaches run laps around the walls.

Getting off the ferry was the usual trial of chaos. Being a basically chivalrous sort of person it makes me angry seeing grown men pushing women around. There were two ladies ahead of me, one with a baby for crying out loud, who were just getting barged all over the place, so I stepped in behind them and blocked up the passageway so they could get off safely. What a nice guy I am. The people behind me did not seem impressed! At the gates to the terminal one small inset gate was funnelling out the disembarking passengers. Inexplicably the guards suddenly opened up the entire double gate and all the people massed outside waiting to board surged forwards into all the ones coming out. It was like the battle scene in Braveheart where the two armies just smash together. Indonesians are nuts!!

Outside the terminal was, of course, the madness of the bemo and motorbike drivers. I wanted a bemo because it would be cheaper (funds are getting tighter!). One chap took me to his "bemo" which turned out to be a motorbike so I walked away. Bizarrely, none of the bemo drivers would talk to me. I wanted to go to the Pantai Timor Hotel and they would say yes they go there, but as soon as I asked how much they just clammed up and refused me service. Only one actually gave me an answer and that was a ridiculous 70,000 rupiah. All the motorbike drivers were saying 100,000 because it was "very very far". Unfortunately for them I knew exactly how far it was and eventually got one down to 30,000. As it turned out the Pantai Timor was more expensive than I had been told, so I ended up at the Hotel Laguna where I stayed in 2009.

In West Timor there are basically three bird sites you need to visit (if you're a birder that is; if you're not then go to Roti). The mountain site of Gunung Mutis is quite far out but fortunately I had found all the birds I wanted there in 2009 so didn't need a return visit. The other two sites are lowland forest patches only an hour out of Kupang, and their names are Bipolo and Camplong. Unless you hire a car or bike to take you there, its impossible to get anywhere early here. The first buses for Bipolo and Camplong don't leave till around 7am, then they drive around for an hour or so picking up additional passengers, and you eventually get to your bird-some destination around 9.30. As always, too, the bus terminal isn't particularly near town. There are bemos that go to the Oebobo terminal but I have never found out how to get them, so I always go by motorbike from the hotel.

Bipolo, the place I went on the first morning, is a very birdy place. Even as late in the morning as 9.30 the trees are filled with birdsong and activity. Last time I was here (in June 2009) the fig trees were fruiting which made it easy to find figbirds and fruit pigeons. This time (September) there were no figs but half the trees in the forest were in flower. It made it harder to find the fruit-eaters but there were honeyeaters by the bushel-load. Every species on the island was here in abundance -- Indonesian, streak-breasted, yellow-eared and black-chested honeyeaters and helmeted and Timor friarbirds.

The bird I was particularly after at Bipolo was the Timor sparrow, cousin to the more familiar Java sparrow. They can be tricky to find apparently, if only because they usually occur singly or in pairs rather than flocks, and I had missed them in 2009. After a good few hours in the forest, I headed towards the rice-fields. The scrubby area between the forest and the fields is the best place for the sparrows (and also it seems for sooty-headed bulbuls, which obviously got introduced to Timor after the Wallacea field-guide was published). Just at the start of the scrubby area were a couple of big flowering trees alive with honeyeaters, sunbirds and fantails -- and right there at the front was a pair of Timor sparrows probing at the flowers! It couldn't have been easier! Not where I expected to find them, up in a tree, and certainly not what I expected them to be doing, but that's animals for you. After watching them for a bit I continued on to the rice fields to look for five-coloured munias but it was pretty windy, too windy for birding out there in the open, so I returned to the forest where I found a couple of Timor stubtails but nothing else new for the day.

The next day I went to the forest at Camplong, which is only about 7km further up the road from Bipolo. I got there the same time as at Bipolo (about 9.30) but in contrast here it was very quiet. It took a while before I found a bird I hadn't already seen the day before (orange-sided thrush) but it picked up a little as the day went on.

The ground here is covered in a thick layer of large and very dry leaves that make sneaking up on birds quietly impossible. There are a lot of cows using the forest for browse though, so my advice for visiting birders is to give up sneaking and instead just pretend to be a cow -- stomp as loudly and obviously as possible through the forest, holding your fists up on either side of your head with a finger up in the air like horns. If you every now and then say "mooo!" in a very loud and deep voice that will only enhance the illusion. Now I can't guarantee this technique will work because I didn't do it myself, but I certainly recommend it to others.

There are quite a few big strangler figs scattered through the forest at Camplong but none were in fruit. I did still see quite a lot of rose-crowned fruit doves which I was pleased with. I had seen one yesterday at Bipolo but it was such a short view I couldn't count it. A couple of bronze cuckoos were added to the list as well (Gould's and Horsfield's). The species most birders want to see here is called the black-banded flycatcher. Its a shy skulking bird of thick undergrowth like the tangled bamboo thickets that are everywhere here, and as I understand it few people see it without the use of tapes to lure them into the open. I wanted to see it the natural way, which was really a bit of a forlorn hope -- but then, I'm a bit of a forlorn guy. At midday I found a handy place to eat my lunch, where the roots of a strangler fig had formed a nice seating arrangement. As I took my chicken out of my bag a flash of reddish-brown off through the trees caught my eye. I thought it must be just another Arafura fantail but had a look anyway, and there in my binoculars was a male black-banded flycatcher!! Once again the Wallacea field-guide showed just how rubbish it is at depicting the birds. In real life it is just stunning, with a really bright reddish back and rich black head, not looking at all like a poorly-posed wooden cut-out. It was pretty active, flitting continuously from branch to ground to liana to ground as it foraged for insects, and I got to watch it for about five minutes before it departed. Great bird, now in my top favorite Timorese sights.

On my third day I returned to Bipolo, getting there a little bit later than the first day, about 10am, but there was still a lot of bird activity. The original forests in Timor, before they got fragmented and the bird populations so reduced, must have been extraordinary places to visit. I managed to find a Timor figbird but only one -- it really is easier when the trees are fruiting! There were more sooty-headed bulbuls in the forest too. Because it wasn't windy today I could head out into the rice-fields to look for munias. Long-tailed shrikes, one of my favourite open-country birds with their clockwork tails, proved a worthy distraction along the way. Good thing I did get onto the fields today because there were quite a few Australian pratincoles out there (winter migrants from Australia, in case their name didn't give it away). These were my first pratincoles and great birds; always nice to get a new family started, especially when the first species is one so dapper! White-shouldered trillers were everywhere on the open ground which was a bit of a surprise (I thought the first one was going to be a pied chat as it flew up in a flash of black and white, until I got my binoculars onto it), there were a few white-faced herons here and there, and a number of black-faced woodswallows in the scattered palm trees.

The bird I was out here in particular for was the five-coloured munia, another kind of finch related to the Timor sparrow. They live on three of the islands I visited in 2009 (Sumba, Flores and Timor) but I hadn't seen a single feather. This trip I hadn't found any on Flores, and it seemed like I couldn't find any on Timor now either. There were birds a-plenty out here, just none of them finches! As I headed somewhat despondently back through the fields a flock of about twenty munias erupted from the grass and flew off. A few minutes later a little bit further on a group of six did the same. They looked like five-coloured munias but they didn't settle anywhere near enough for long enough for me to actually get a proper look. There's nothing worse than seeing what are probably the birds you're after but not being able to confirm and knowing that might be the only view you get. Luckily, after not too long I spotted a pair feeding on the ground not far from the path and could say yes definitely five-coloured munias. Funnily enough, in 2009 I saw all sorts of finches here -- zebra finches, black-faced munias, nutmeg finches -- but not a single five-coloured munia, whereas this visit apart for a single zebra finch in the forest this morning and the pair of Timor sparrows the other day, every finch here was a five-coloured munia. Funny old world it is when you're a birder.

Its been great revisiting West Timor because, unlike Sulawesi, everything here is exactly the same price as in 2009 meaning I don't need to go through all the hassle of finding out how much things should really cost; I just get on the bus or motorbike and hand over the 5000 or 10,000 note when I arrive where I'm going, no fuss. But, still, Indonesia can't let everything go so easily. The buses back from Camplong or Oelmasi all go to the Oebobo bus terminal by Kupang and then you take a bemo or motorbike to your final destination in the city. Anyone getting off the bus along the way is just dropped by the side of the road. But today the bus to Kupang was taking everyone direct to their door, going through every little village, so it took over two hours instead of the usual one for the trip. Then -- and this is where things went south -- after the last Indonesian passenger was dropped at their house the driver took the bus back onto the main road, pulled over, and said something like "OK this is where you get out"
"What, here?" I said
"Yes, get out"
"Where am I?"
"Get out"
"I don't know where I am"
"Get out"
"But where am I?"
"Get out"
He was getting angry because I wasn't getting out, so I got out, he drove off, and I was like "well this sucks!". Of course you can't really be lost for long in Indonesia if you're standing next to a road because every second motorbike doubles as a taxi. I had already recognised a girl at the counter of a shop across the road because the bus passed her shop every morning on the way out of Kupang, so at least I knew which direction to go in. I flagged down a bike and, yes, it was a LONG way to the hotel from where the bus left me.

I was only in Kupang for five nights, giving me four full days for birding. For the last day I decided to go back to Bipolo rather than Camplong. I still had a small list of birds I wanted to find and I thought it most likely I would find them at Bipolo. That morning, though, the Bipolo forest was like a graveyard. A birdless graveyard. It was an hour before I saw the first flame-breasted sunbird of the day. The first streak-breasted honeyeater, a bird that had been exploding from every bush and tree by the dozen the other three days, didn't appear for two hours! So no new birds on my last day in West Timor, not even any new trip birds. I did however see two really big solid skinks, one climbing a tree and one on the ground. I've been keeping a look-out for reptiles while in West Timor, especially blood pythons and spotted monitors, but these two skinks were literally the only reptiles I saw anywhere. I don't know what species they were but they must have been in the genus Eutropis. I haven't got a reptile list for Timor so they will remain a mystery for now.

So that's West Timor finished. I found three of the birds I was still looking for (Timor sparrow, five-coloured munia and black-banded flycatcher) plus a few extras, but none of the others on my list. Not surprisingly, all of those missing species are defined in the field-guide as being uncommon/rare or as being difficult to find (things like Timor green pigeon and buff-banded thicket-warbler).

The flight from Kupang to Bali the next morning was with Batavia Air whom I've never flown with before. I think Lion Air must be my favourite local airline but Batavia is alright too. Their drinks trolley was stencilled "Ukraine International Airlines". I was seated in the very first seat (1A) so I got handed an emergency evacuation sheet to tell me that I was required to assist in case of emergency. The sheet said something like "we only seat the most capable persons next to emergency exits". Judging by the state of the half-drunk fat lady in leopard-print sitting next to me they take their safety concerns seriously. The sheet also said you could ask to be re-seated if you don't think you can be of adequate assistance. I was contemplating asking to be re-seated anyway because everyone in my immediate vicinity was an Australian of the loud boorish Bali-visiting type for whom fun is holding competitions to see who can projectile-vomit the furthest and who on the plane make fun of the air hostess' English as if she can't hear them.

There were cave swiftlets and fork-tailed swifts swirling round the airport at Bali which was a nice introduction. I got a taxi (after a major struggle getting one at a decent price -- Bali really does suck) and went to the Bali Manik Hotel where I stayed in 2009. The price has gone up from 80,000 to 100,000, and I really don't remember it being such a dump. Maybe its gone downhill in the last two years. Also the palm tree where the nutmeg finches were nesting has been chopped down!

Early tomorrow morning I fly to Kuala Lumpur and get straight on a bus to Taman Negara where my success at finding tapirs will be astounding to all.

Remarkably, my blog is now entirely up to date. Even more remarkably it has now been filled with photos of Komodo dragons, pit vipers, even something that may or may not be able to be distinguished as a Giant Rat if you squint very very hard and use a lot of imagination! So go back through the last six blogs before this one (although one doesn't have any photos in it anyway) and be amazed!!


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