North India part one: Tadoba National Park. 18th-21st November 2019   Leave a comment

Although Margaret likes to travel she usually doesn’t want to join me on long and intensive birding trips where most of the time will be spent in dense forest. However we have enjoyed trips to Europe, the USA, South Africa and the Middle East where birding is mixed with sightseeing and other activities.

One area she was keen to visit was India. I have been on four dedicated birding tours of India plus have visited Bhutan and Sri Lanka so I’ve most of the birds, but there were still a few things I wanted to see. We needed some form of organised trip as I had absolutely no desire to drive myself, but both a standard tourist trip with no wildlife or a intensive birding trip with no sightseeing were out of the question. It was suggestedwe contact Jo Thomas of Wild About Travel who was able to organise an itinerary around what we wanted to see, with drivers, hotels, transfers etc all for a quite reasonable price. In particular she arranged us to visit Tadoba National Park in the state of Maharashtra which a park that I knew nothing about, yet proved to be highly successful and a beautiful place to visit.

This post is mainly about our visit to Tadoba National Park.

 

When I visited India for the first time in 1986 Delhi airport was a shabby affair, hot, crowded and inefficient – it lived up to the western stereotype of India. Now look at it, modern, air conditioned and efficient. We had decided not to burn the candles at both end on this trip so after the overnight flight we transferred to a nearby hotel where we rested for much of the day before being picked up and taken to the domestic terminal for an evening flight to Nagpur. Here we were driven to another hotel and the following morning were collected for the three-hour drive to Tadoba National Park.

 

Tadoba Nation park consists of 578 sq km of mainly teak forest, grassland and marshes in central Maharashtra. There are about four lodges around the periphery and we stayed at Jaharana Jungle Lodge. In the afternoon we made the first of four safaris in open backed jeeps. It was magical driving though the tall teak forest with peacocks and other birds scampering across the tracks.

 

Although there were plenty of birds to see in Tadoba, for safety reasons we were not allowed to leave the jeeps except at one or two designated areas. In reality mammals were the main focus here. The first mammal species to be seen was this Grey Mongoose.

 

Tadoba has recently acquired a large buffer zone around the park, significantly increasing its area. This consists of mainly open grassland and was very good for seeing ungulates, in particular the impressive Gaur.

 

Zooming in you can see just how large and imposing a bull Gaur is, the head and body (excluding tail) measure around 3m and it can be over 2m tall at the shoulders. It is the largest wild bovid extant today. I have longed to see this species since childhood and in 2018 I finally succeeded. After quite some effort we saw a few cows and calves in dense forest in southern India. I was amazed how common and easy they were to see in Tadoba and how conspicuous the bulls were.

 

Another common inhabitant of the more open areas were Nilgai, mainly herds of hinds and calves.

 

Indeed some would run down the track ahead of the jeep before heading of into cover.

 

The male Nilgai is often known as the ‘Blue Bull’ but of course its an antelope not a bovid. After the two species of Eland in Africa its probably the largest of the antelopes.

 

Sambar were commoner in the wooded areas and hinds were regularly seen from the tracks, this species is similar in size or a bit larger than a Red Deer.

 

This impressive stag has just enjoyed a wallow in the mud.

 

Chital, sometimes called Spotted Deer, were common in shaded glades where the forest met open areas of pasture. I suppose their spots camouflage them well in this sort of habitat.

 

It was lovely to see this Chital fawn suckling but it would have been a better photo if mum had turned her head towards us!

 

Unlike our similarly spotted Fallow Deer, Chital don’t have palmate antlers.

 

Langur Monkeys (more precisely Northern Plains Grey Langurs) were common.

 

They seem to have a feeding association with the Chital (although there is another explanation for their co-habitation) which I will explain later.

 

As evening fell we made our way back and came across this huge bull Gaur by the road. Bear in mind I’m standing up on the back of the jeep. If I was at ground level it would be towering over me!

 

There were plenty of birds to see both around the lodge and on the game drives. Here is the ubiquitous Spotted Dove.

 

Peacocks are thought of as ornamental birds, commensal with mankind but in the forests of India they are truly wild. The mating season was over though and the males had dropped their spectacular tail feathers.

 

Red-wattled Lapwings were common throughout the trip.

 

This one was nesting on a raised embankment so when we stopped briefly for a photo it was at eye level.

 

India , like much of the Oriental region, has some great woodpeckers including this Black-rumped Flameback.

 

There were a number of wintering pipits but this one seems to be the resident Paddyfield Pipit, rather than its slightly larger and migratory cousin Richard’s Pipit.

 

The area was also home to a male Pied Stonechat …

 

… and the eponymous White-eyed Buzzard.

 

There were a few wetland areas but getting close enough for decent photos wasn’t easy as we were confined to the jeep but I quite like this shot of an Oriental Darter drying its wings. Darters and their cousins the cormorants don’t produce oil from their preen gland to waterproof their feathers. This means they lack buoyancy underwater and so can swim faster, deeper and for longer when hunting fish but the downside is that they must hang their wings out to dry when they surface.

 

Another bird that showed well along the same lake was Red-naped Ibis, a bird that I missed on visits to India up until 2018 when I finally caught up with them in Rajasthan.

 

Not such a great photo, as it was hiding in thick vegetation, but this was the only Lesser Adjutant (stork) of the trip.

 

Green Bee-eaters, here of the race orientalis, which is rightly given specific race by some authorities, was common in the park with hundreds seen.

 

Of course the animal most tourists want to see is the Tiger. The establishing of Tiger reserves all over India has probably saved the species from extinction, but it is still heavily targeted by poachers for the Oriental traditional medicine trade. Almost all tourists head off in the early morning, there are lovely views like this as the sun filters through the dust stirred up by the jeeps. Communication between vehicle by phone or radio is banned, presumably to avoid every one racing around after Tiger sightings, but these still happen. After a number of false alarms our lucky break came (twice) on the second afternoon.

 

The presence of a Tiger is often revealed by the bark of a Chital …

 

… or the chatter of Langurs, some of which which remain alert in the trees and so can see danger coming. The Chital, on the other hand, probably have a better sense of smell, this symbiosis seems to benefit all but the Tiger!

 

We had two sightings of Tiger that afternoon, this was the second and probably least successful of the two, hence the decision to keep the best for last. It was a well known male; magnificent, but for most of the time it was hidden deep in cover.

 

There were two other jeeps ahead of us and they reversed to give the Tiger some space when it decided to wander down the road. The light was already going and this wasn’t such a good encounter as the earlier one.

 

Earlier that afternoon we had taken a one-way side road that led up to a viewpoint over a lake when another jeep passed and said there was a Tiger not too far away. To my surprise the driver didn’t either continue and go the long way round or ignore the one-way regulation and turn about, instead he reversed for over a mile as fast as he could. By the time we reached the main road there were about four jeeps all in a convoy and all going backwards! We joined an assemblage of at least six other jeeps and stared into the dense roadside vegetation.

 

Although initially hidden it wasn’t long until this female walked out right into the open …

 

… ignoring the admiring hoards she sauntered past the jeeps a matter of feet away.

 

It goes without saying that if she had wanted to she could have leaped into any of the jeeps in one bound and attacked anyone of us. Given the fact that a birder I once knew was killed by a Tiger back in the 80s, this was not something to be dismissed lightly.

 

I don’t mean this to sound patronising so don’t take it that way, but in National Parks in Africa almost all the visitors are western tourists. You hardly ever see a local unless they are employed there. So I was delighted to see that out of the 40 or so tourists (in 15 vehicles by the time we left!) who were watching the Tiger we were the only Europeans. Only when people value the wildlife in their own country will true progress be made in conservation.

 

I think this lad had the wrong hat on!

 

The Tiger (or should I say Tigress) sat down just feet from the jeeps. One guy decided to straddle two vehicles and I ended up trying photograph her through his legs.

 

I make no apology for posting so may photos of the same animal. I had a poor view of a Tiger from our bus in Corbett NP in 1986 and one quickly crossed the road just in front of our Jeep in Kaziranga in Assam in 2001 but both were brief encounters. This Tiger just hung around giving fantastic views, one of my best wildlife encounters ever.

 

In due course she crossed the road behind us and lay down on this rock and was still there when we eventually left. As I said and illustrated earlier in this post, a couple of hours later that afternoon we had another encounter – this time with a male.

 

So with two Tigers under the belt we drove back to the lodge at dusk. But the day still had a surprise in store. A Sloth Bear walked out onto the track in front of us!

 

… and moments later was joined by a second. I had seen Tiger before but this species was new to me. ten years previously I hadn’t seen a single species of bear in the wild, then I saw Polar Bear in Spitsbergen in 2011, Black Bear in USA in 2014, Brown Bear in Kamchatka in 2016. Just three more to go! The only trouble was it was getting very late for photos and these were taken at quite low shutter speeds.

 

Back at the lodge we were intercepted on our way from the chalet to the dining room and directed towards the swimming pool. We were treated to a poolside dinner. Romantic, but when the waiter stood in front of the bright light you couldn’t see what you were eating.

 

Our final morning at Tadoba brought us some new birds but no new mammals. Having said that I’ve now seen most of the ‘good’ mammals in lowland India. All those marvels that I read about in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as a child and have yearned to see ever since have been put to bed. We were picked up late morning and driven back to Nagpur, this time to the railway station. We got there quite early and had to hang around for a couple of hours, but we did add one more species to the mammal list whilst waiting – Brown Rat!

 

It had been arranged for us to take the overnight train to Agra, we shared a first class compartment with two locals. It was quite comfy but the movement of the train as it went over points and juddered to a stop at stations throughout the night meant we got little sleep. We were on the train for about 12 hours and arrived at Agra around 0500 where we were met by by our driver for the next section of the trip.

 

I don’t want to end this blog post with a photo of a railway compartment so here’s the star of the show (yet) again.

 

The next post will illustrate our time on the Chambal River and a visit to one of the most famous buildings in the world, the incomparable Taj Mahal.

 

Indonesia’s South Moluccas: part 2 – Kai Kecil, Kai Besar, Haruku, Seram and Boano: – 15th – 26th September 2019   Leave a comment

This is the second post covering my trip to the South Moluccan islands of eastern Indonesia.

In the first post I explained that the Moluccas weren’t connected to mainland Asia in the Ice Ages whilst the Greater Sunda islands of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali were, nor were they connected to Australia like New Guinea and the Aru Islands were. As a result there has been limited mixing of Asia and Australian birds and what mixing there has been was within the area known as Wallacea, shown within the dotted line below. For a map of Indonesia’s coast line during the height of the Ice Age see part one of my account of the trip to the South Moluccas.

 

As I outlined in the previous post, the group of Indonesian islands that were not connected to either Asia or Australasia during the Ice Ages are known as Wallacea in honour of Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discovered (with Charles Darwin) of evolution via natural selection, who was the first to speculate on the unusual mix of Australasian and Asia species in this region.

 

In the first post I described my travels around Ambon, Buru and Yamdena in the Tanimbar Islands. In this post I cover our time on Kai, Haruku, Seram and Boano. Note this is a map of the political jurisdictions of Maluku Utara and Maluka and so includes the Aru Islands which do not form part of the biogeographical area of Wallacea and the deep blue background represents a political area and not the depth of the ocean..

 

The conclusion of the last post saw the group flying back from the Tanimbar islands to the regional hub of Ambon, before flying on to Kai Kecil in the Kai island group, something I described as being like flying from London to Exeter via Aberdeen. On arrival we commenced birding along the road from the airport which bordered a variety of woodland habitats.

 

Birds seen varied from the widespread Sacred Kingfisher … (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

… to the island endemic ‘Kai Fantail’, currently considered a race of the widespread Northern Fantail but treated as a full species by Eaton et al in the Indonesian Field Guide. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

The Golden-bellied or Kai Kecil White-eye is endemic to this single island … (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

… to the Kai Coucal, a cuckoo once considered a dark form of the Australasian Pheasant Coucal but now considered a full species endemic to the Kai island group.

 

Perhaps the best bird on Kai Kecil was the beautiful endemic White-tailed Monarch (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

Although Kai Kecil is the ‘capital’ of the Kai islands, neighbouring Kai Besar is larger although much less populated. On earlier trips groups had visited Kai Besar by small boat charter but due to the persistent strong winds we had to go by ferry instead.

 

The interior of the ferry was quite well appointed yet empty …

 

… but that was because the locals had all squeezed together on deck. The guy on the right is Caesar, our local agent and ‘Mr Fixit’, who ensured that this logistically complex trip ran smoothly.

 

Our visit to Kai Besar was to see the single island endemic Pearl-bellied White-eye which we saw without difficulty … (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

… however the James Eaton’s book ‘Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago’ treats the Kai Besar form of Island Leaf Warbler as a separate species so it made sense to try and see it if only for ‘insurance’. However it only occurs above 350m asl and as we only had a short amount of time before the return ferry, a tiring and rapid ascent up a narrow track was required.

 

Once there it was easily seen (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest). As the Aru Islands are part of the Papuan/Australasia region then Kai Besar is the easternmost island of Wallacea. If Wallacea is treated as part of the Oriental faunal region (which it usually is) then this island is it’s easternmost point at 133 degrees east. However its not the easternmost point of Asia as the easternmost tip of Russia, Big Diomede Island in the Bering Straits is 169 degrees west  nearly 60 degrees further east.

 

We got back in good time for the ferry trip back to Kai Kecil (this is taken from the ferry near the dock at Kai Kecil, this is not the ferry itself!)

 

The next day it was a return flight to Ambon. Apart from the journey home this was out last island hopping flight, the remaining islands were visited by boat.

 

Once on Ambon we didn’t drive straight to the hotel, instead we crossed the big bridge across the estuary and headed to the north side of the island …

 

… and continued on to a small village on the north-east coast.

 

Here, in the late afternoon, we took a small charter boat to the nearby island of Haruku.

 

We disembarked at a small village where we soon became the centre of attention for the local kids.

 

We walked along the shore to an open sandy area …

 

… and as it got dark the skittish Moluccan Scrubfowl emerged to dig holes in the ground into which they would lay their eggs. Scrubfowl, along with megapodes and brush turkeys belong to the Family Megapodiidae, birds that either construct mounds of rotting vegetation or dig holes in volcanically heated or otherwise warmed ground in order to incubate their eggs. The laying sites are maintained to optimise the incubation temperature but then the chicks are left to fledge alone and fend for themselves. As the chicks are at an advanced stage of development when they hatch and claw their way out of the nest hole (in some species can fly on hatching) the eggs are unusually large and so are often targeted by local people for food. Here at least they seem unmolested. This photo was taken on another Birdquest trip by leader Pete Morris on the island of Halmahera in the northern Moluccas and is used with permission. (photo © Pete Morris/Birdquest).

 

It was well after sunset as our little boat made its way back to Ambon, fortunately the pilot could navigate in the dark …

 

… but the tide was now low so we couldn’t disembark on the dock, instead had to balance on a narrow plank!

 

The next morning saw us take a commercial ferry (identical to that seen in the background of this photo) to the island of Seram. We passed multiple islands on route including Haruku where we were last night.

 

Seram was the largest island that we visited. The ferry terminal was on the south side and it took quite a while for us to travel over the mountainous spine of the island and then eastwards towards our base at on the north coast.

 

We arrived at Sawai in time for lunch at this fairly basic, yet charming lodge built on stilts over the sea.

 

This part of Seram has some large areas untouched forest rising from sea level to the mountain tops. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

It was often overcast and light levels were low. As some of my photos are at a poor resolution or have been greatly enlarged I’m showing them at reduced a size. One of our targets was the bizarre Seram endemic Long-crested Myna.

 

Another Seram endemic found along the mountain roads was Seram Mountain Pigeon.

 

Parrots were well represented. The beautiful Purple-naped Lory used to occur on Ambon but is now presumed extinct there and so becomes a Seram endemic. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

However Coconut Lorikeet has a much wider distribution. ranging from the Moluccas to New Caledonia. The range was once much larger when it was lumped in with several other species in an enlarged ‘Rainbow Lorikeet’ whoose range extended all the way to Tasmania. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

As well as a great area for birds the road that run along the mountainous spine of the island was also a good place for butterflies such as this Eight-spot Diadem (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

Other Seram endemics included Seram White-eye which by white-eye standards is quite striking … (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

… Streak-breasted Fantail … (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

… and Violet Crow, a recent and well-deserved split from Slender-billed Crow. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

A few owling sessions got us Moroccan Scops Owl (for a photo see last post) and Seram Boobook but unfortunately not the very elusive Moluccan Masked Owl.

 

Early one morning we took a couple of boats to a small offshore island called Pulau Lusaolate …

 

… our target was Olive Honeyeater, a small drab species that is known to like small islands. Unfortunately only one was seen and then just by the leader just as we were approaching as it was high-tailed off to the mainland. Apparently there are usually several on this tiny islet and we can only assume that they come to feed on particular flowers or fruit that weren’t available in September. In 2019 for reasons unknown, this trip was run two months earlier than usual. Differences were the unusually dry and windy conditions which caused problems in some areas and a lack of northern migrants that hadn’t yet arrived from Asia. Chief of these as far as I’m concerned was the lack of Gray’s Grasshopper Warblers, a species that breeds in Siberia that I’ve never seen anywhere and was one of my main targets of the trip. One was heard on Buru by Craig but I didn’t hear it and none were seen, They are apparently quite common in the Moluccas by November.

 

Around the islet was a series of exposed rocks which acted as roosting sites for Black-naped and Crested Terns. These are common and widespread species but in previous trip they have been joined by at least one individual of another species, the critically endangered Chinese Crested Tern, of which perhaps as few as 50 remain globally. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case this year. Whether this was because the individual involved had stopped coming here or whether, as was the case with the Gray’s Gropper and the Olive Honeyeater, we were too early in the autumn, I’ll never know. However I reassured myself that as I was booked to go to eastern China in May 2020 then I’d catch up with Chinese Crested Tern there, but I wasn’t allowing for the fact that a) due to Covid-19 the trip would be cancelled or that b) the Chinese Crested Terns had abandoned the traditional site visited on that tour. So I went from two very good chances of seeing the species to none at all.

 

As we explored the little island we had close views of Eastern Reef Egret …

 

… and in the clear shallows saw some bizarre starfish …

 

… and a poisonous sea snake, Yellow-lipped Sea Krait.

 

We had a look at the nearby mainland just in case we could locate the Olive Honeyeater that had been seen flying in that direction …

 

… before cruising around the bay past various fishing platforms in the hope we could locate a Chinese Crested Tern.

 

No luck with the tern but we did see a Terek Sandpiper, a Siberian breeding wader that is a rare vagrant to the UK (I’ve seen four in the UK but none since 1998) and has a wide wintering range in the Old World tropics.

 

We also saw a number of Bar-tailed Godwits, this is a far more familiar species for me as a flock of 100+ winter in Poole Harbour and can be seen from the road at Sandbanks. Even so it was nice to see a few thousands of miles away in the Moluccas.

 

On our last morning at this site some of us did a very arduous ascent up a steep slope in the mountains. Our target was the almost unknown Seram Thrush. This species has recently been rediscovered in another part of the mountains but it took them three days of extremely difficult hiking to get there. News of another location just off the mountain highway was too good to pass by. We slogged up the slope (can you see John, one of the the other clients, just above me in the upper centre-left of the photo?) and eventually located one. It was in a deep and densely vegetated gully and although it called a few times it refused to budge. In fact the call was so high pitched that only a couple of the participants heard it, fortunately I was one of them.

 

So it was back to Sawai for lunch, pack up and the long drive along the north coast of Seram to Piru in the north-west corner.

 

The following morning we left early in small boats for the island of Boano.

 

We saw a few shorebirds and terns on the crossing but little of note …

 

… after docking at a small village on stilts …

.

… we headed inland and after a bit of a climb found the endangered endemic Boano Monarch, our last new bird of the trip. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

Back at the little village we boarded our boats for the trip back to Piru.

 

… then drove down the coast to catch the ferry from western Seram to northern Ambon and a transfer to Ambon City for a final night before departing home via Jakarta and Abu Dhabi the next day.

 

So its a goodbye from me, John, Norbert, Steve, Pete, Sally and Rainer. It had been a great trip with about 75 life birds for me. There had been a few disappointments, mainly because I hadn’t realised that the earlier departure would mean less migrants but it certainly is a beautiful and endemic rich part of the world and well worth visiting. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

 

I’ll conclude with this lovely phot from Craig of the sunset at Sawai in north Seram. (photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest).

Indonesia’s South Moluccas: part 1 – Ambon, Buru and Yamdena (Tanimbar): 6th – 15th September 2019   Leave a comment

Off all the countries in the world Indonesia is one of the most remarkable. Spread along the equator across almost 50 degrees of longitude with the western point of Banda Aceh on Sumatra level with eastern India and the eastern most point, the border with Papuan New Guinea is almost as far east as Tasmania, it consists of 17,500 islands varying from the huge islands of Sumatra, Borneo and New Guinea to uninhabited ‘desert islands’. It is the fourth most populated nation in the world with nearly 268 million inhabitants yet most people (in the UK at least) couldn’t point to it on a map.

From a biological point of view it is amazing, although the mega-fauna of the large western islands has largely disappeared due to habitat destruction, the bird life is incredible – although similarly threatened by habitat loss. Close to 1600 bird species have been discovered, beaten only by Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia and far in excess of any country that’s not in South America. Two factors can explain this; the multitude of islands had led to the evolution of myriads of variations on a theme, and perhaps more importantly and almost uniquely, Indonesia lies slap across the boundary of two faunal zone with a huge zone of integration between them.

Biologically Indonesia can be split into three zones, the Greater Sundas in the west with their typical Asia fauna, West Papua in the east with its Australasian fauna and between them Wallacea.

 

On the map above take particular note of the channels that separates 1) Borneo from Sulawesi, 2) Bali from Lombock and 3) Halmahera, Seram and Tanimbar from New Guinea and the Aru Islands. Now look at the next map below. – Map of Indonesia from see here 

 

This map of what is now central Indonesia shows the situation at the height of the Ice Ages. So much sea water was locked up in the polar ice sheets that sea levels were considerably lower than now. Note Bali is connected to Java but the channel between Bali and Lombok still exits. New Guinea and the Aru Islands are connected to northern Australia but Halmahera and satellite islands, Buru, Seram, Kai and Tanimbar islands plus all the Lesser Sundas remain isolated. This huge area that was not connected to Asia or Australia/New Guinea is now known as Wallacea after Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of evolution through natural selection and who was the first to realise that this region has a surprising mixture of Oriental and Australasian flora and flora. Map from www.naturalearthdata.com

 

This map shows the Moluccas and is geopolitical rather than biogeographical. The dark blue encircles the administrative provinces of North Maluku and (south) Maluku. Note that the Aru islands are politically part of Maluku but bio-geographically part of Papua and were not visited on this tour. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

 

This was my third visit to Wallacea. I had visited Halmahera and Sulawesi in 1995 and Timor and other islands in the Lesser Sundas in 2006. The tour started at Ambon, then visited Buru, back to Ambon, Yamdena in the Tanimbar Islands, then back to Ambon, Kai Kecil and Kai Besar, then back to Ambon, a short visit to Haruku (from Ambon), Seram, Boano before returning to Ambon for the flight home.

This post deals with the first half of the tour, Ambon, Buru and Yamdena.

 

I left home on the 4th September for the afternoon flight to Abu Dhabi. I left there in the early hours of the 5th and arrived at Jakarta on Java in mid afternoon. I stopped overnight at the conveniently situated airport hotel and then flew to Ambon where the tour started in the early afternoon of the 6th. I find it annoying when British news refers to almost any island in Indonesia as the ‘the remote Indonesian island of —‘. Ambon Island for example, although only 804 sq km in area has a population of half a million, most of which live in Ambon City, is the capital of Maluku Province and has an international airport. Hardly what I would call remote. Transport is largely by motorbike but that doesn’t prevent the traffic jams!

 

Our first birding was in an area known as Ewang Tulehu. Ambon was connected to Seram during the ice ages and so has few endemics. The only one currently recognised is the Ambon White-eye which we saw well, but we also saw the Ambon form of Seram Golden Bulbul (above) which is a potential split. Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

We also had good views of Ashy Flowerpecker, a species that is shared with the island of Seram.

 

Early the next morning we flew west one of the many inter-island turboprop flights to the island of Buru.

 

We arrived as early as 0730 so it was straight out birding. We saw a number of endemics such as this Buru Friarbird, or was it a Buru Oriole? In one of the strangest cases of mimicry in the world, almost every one of the larger Moluccan islands has a species of Friarbird (a large honeyeater) that is mimicked in both plumage and vocalisations by a totally unrelated species of Old World Oriole. The size and slightly downcurved bill makes me think this is the Friarbird but the definitive test is whether the dark area on the face is bare skin (friarbird) or feathered (oriole). Tour leader Craig Robson made the following comments in the trip report. ‘A recently published paper (Jonsson et al. 2016. The evolution of mimicry of friarbirds by orioles (Aves: Passeriformes) in Australo-Pacific archipelagos. Proc. R. Soc. B 283: 20160409. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.0409) has tested the hypothesis that regional brown orioles mimic friarbirds. Historical observations by Alfred Wallace and Jared Diamond of plumage similarities between co-occurring orioles and friarbirds led them to conclude that the former represent visual mimics of the latter. Here, the authors used molecular phylogenies and plumage reflectance measurements to test the mimicry hypothesis. The results show that friarbirds originated before brown orioles, and that the two groups did not co-speciate (although there is a plausible instance of co-speciation on Buru and Seram). Furthermore, the greater size disparity between model and mimic and a longer history of co-occurrence have resulted in a stronger plumage similarity (mimicry). This suggests that resemblance between orioles and friarbirds represents mimicry and that colonization of islands by brown orioles has been facilitated by their ability to mimic the aggressive friarbirds’.

 

We also two (rather poorly photographed) pigeons – Spectacled Imperial Pigeon …

 

… and the exquisite Claret-breasted Fruit Dove. One pigeon we didn’t connect with was Buru Green Pigeon, possibly because this tour wasn’t running at the usual time of year and they weren’t visiting their usual fruiting tree due to lack of fruit.

 

We did however see plenty of Black-bearded Flying Foxes. Mammals are scarce in Wallacea. We recorded three species of flying, two cetaceans, an introduced Brown Rat and a single species of cuscus, a marsupial that has somehow crossed the sea from New Guinea to colonise one of the Kai Islands. Western Indonesia has (or has had) the full suite of SE Asia mammals; leopards, tigers, elephants, rhinos, wild cattle etc whilst New Guinea has a large variety of marsupials. A single primate colonised Sulawesi but in general Wallacea is depauperate when it comes to mammals, in contract to the situation with the more mobile birdlife. Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

Much of our birding was along this old logging road, but we did make some forays into the forest …

 

… which proved tricky for the shorter members of the group.

 

We reached our accommodation on the north shore just before lunchtime where we searched for seabirds until we went out again in the afternoon …

 

… and we were lucky enough to get close views of Indo-Pacific Bottle-nosed Dolphins just offshore.

 

There were great views at sunset but having been continuously on the go for several days we were glad we weren’t out owling that night …

 

… instead we were out at 0430 the following day and scored with Buru Boobook, Large-tailed Nightjar …

 

… and the diminutive Moluccan Scops Owl. Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

We explored other parts of the island by 4×4 …

 

… seeing great birds like the endemic Buru Honeyeater (Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest) …

 

… and Buru Racquet-tail (named after the unusual racquet-shaped tail feathers which can just be seen on the lower left). Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

But one of the best was this gorgeous White-naped Monarch, one of many species in this mainly Australasian family. Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

Some of us also undertook an arduous trek into the highlands. Our main target was the legendary Madanga, a bird that was once classified as a funny looking white-eye but genetic analysis has shown (crazy as it sounds) to be an aberrant pipit. However if a group of pipits had been blown to this (once) totally forested island they would have had to adapt to survive and what sort of bird survives well in forested environments in Wallacea, small rotund passerines like white-eyes or flowerpeckers! Nowadays of course pipits could find live a more typical lifestyle in the many deforested areas. Unfortunately we didn’t become the second ever tour group to see the Madanga (the first was the previous Birdquest group) but we did see …

 

… Cinnamon-chested Flycatcher (Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest) …

 

… and a juvenile Moluccan Cuckoo being fed by Buru Leaf Warblers. Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

We had done pretty well on Buru, no Madanga or Buru Green Pigeon, but most of the island endemics were UTB. It was time to return to Ambon. We had time to visit a freshwater lake which added a few quality waders, a Black Bittern …

 

… and the cobalt-eared form of Common Kingfisher to our lists. The rest of the day was spent in forest where a number of new birds (mainly ones we would see again later on Seram) were recorded.

 

We overnighted in Ambon City …

 

… and then flew the following morning to Yamdena in the Tanimbar Islands, the southernmost point of our trip and just 350 km north of the Australian mainland.

 

Our accommodation was built on a pier out into the harbour.

 

Our rooms weren’t ready on arrival and there wasn’t time to go anywhere before lunch so we just enjoyed the view and watched for seabirds.

 

There was a great view from our rooms …

 

… over the nearby waterside shacks and boats.

 

You could even see Lesser Frigatebirds from your bed.

 

Yamdena is much flatter than Buru (or Seram) and so is more prone to deforestation, either clear felling for agriculture …

 

… or by stripping out the tallest trees in the forest.

 

Quite a bit of our time was spent finding our way through dense thickets …

 

… and along watercourses. As I said before the Moluccas have little in the way of terrestrial mammals but domestic water buffalo wander these woodlands and can turn up unexpectedly.

 

We saw a number of exquisite orchids in the gloom of the forest …

 

… and the bizarre ant plants, epiphytes in the genus Mermecodia that have a symbiotic relationship with certain species of ants. The plants give the ants shelter and food, the plant benefs from the protection the ants provide and nutrients from the ant’s dead bodies and waste. The plant grows epiphytically high in a tree (the seed having been deposited there by a bird) and grows these bizarre convoluted chambers to house the ants. This plant has fallen from a tree and split open exposing the ant containing chambers.

 

 

There were many good birds on Yamdena including this endemic Golden Flyrobin (Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest) …

 

… and another endemic Black-bibbed Monarch. Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest

 

Near the airport was this wetland area where we saw a number of waterbirds, mainly of Australian descent.

 

Another indication of our proximity to Australia was the presence of several Tree Martins.

 

Elegant Imperial Pigeons which are found on other small islands in the Moluccas and on the Lesser Sundas.

 

More widespread is the aptly named Eclectus Parrots which occurs throughout New Guinea and as far as Cape York in Australia. The female surprisingly in the red one whilst the male is green.

 

With the Eclectus were a number of Tanimbar Corellas, a species of cockatoo, it is endemic to the Tanimbar islands, but a few have been introduced to the Kai Islands.

 

The local xanthogaster race of Rose-crowned Fruit Dove lacks the rose crown! Variation between different races of a wide variety of species in Wallacea is often greater than the variation between different species elsewhere. It is hard to know where to draw the line between species and subspecies, but modern techniques of voice analysis and genetics may provide the answer. James Eaton et al’s lovely book on the birds of Indonesia splits many more forms (but sadly not this one) than do the various World Checklists. So far when detailed studies have been performed he has been shown to be right. Trips to Wallacea will be source of armchair ticks for years to come.

 

A nocturnal expedition got us great views of the endemic Tanimbar Boobook but unfortunately no photos.

 

It was very dry with string winds which is quite unusual in these parts. It made it difficult to traverse the forest quietly. However there were some damp areas remaining and here we located one of the loveliest birds of the trip …

 

… the endemic Slaty-backed Thrush. Photo © Craig Robson/Birdquest.

 

But there was one bird that really eluded us. Its presence was obvious from the raised mounds in the forest that it constructs to incubate its eggs. I’m talking about the elusive and endemic Tanimbar Scrubfowl. We searched high and low, occasionally the person at the front next to the leader would get a glimpse, but I usually missed. Eventually one was located in a tree and I got a brief view as it shot away.

 

Photographer Mark Harper clearly got much better views but he was probably working alone. Tanimbar Scrubfowl photo by Mark Harper from Bird Forum Opus

 

Our next destination was the Kai Islands about 250 km away to the north-west. Unfortunately we had to fly the 600 km back to Ambon and a similar distance back again. A bit like flying from London to Exeter via Aberdeen.

 

The next post will cover the rest of the trip with photos from Kai Kecil and Kai Besar, Haruku, Seram, Boano and of course Ambon.

 

Mothing – something to get me through lockdown   Leave a comment

 

Before I continue to catch up with accounts of my foreign birding I thought I’d add a post about another area of interest of mine  – mothing.

Many birders have developed an interest in butterflies and dragonflies and other interesting invertebrates that they might see whilst out birding, but in recent years the arrival of some very good field guides have opened up the world of moths to non-specialists.

There are about 70 species of butterfly in the UK (and you’d only get to see about 20-30 of these unless you made an effort to go and see the rarer/more localised species) but there are 750+ species of macro-moth and if you include all the micro-moths then the total rises at around 2,500!

I first starting to hear about mothing back in the late 90s. There were always people talking about and pouring over moth traps at Portland Bill Bird Observatory but it was the publication in 2003 of ‘The Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Waring and Townsend that really got birders interested, because for the first time moths were depicted as you would see them alive in the field and not dead and pinned to a board. Of course moths caught in a trap are released unharmed.

I got a moth trap at the end of 2003 and started mothing in my garden in 2004. Unfortunately soon afterwards my life went through some major changes and over the next few years it was hard to find time to keep the hobby going. Things improved markedly by the end of 2007 when Margaret moved in with me and settled life resumed, but I spent less and less time on mothing and by the time we were married in 2009 I had given up.

Fortunately I kept the old trap. In April of this year with Coronavirus lockdown in place, I couldn’t do any bird ringing outside the garden and birding was reduced to what could be seen on the short one-hour walks from home that were permitted under the guise of ‘exercise’.

To maintain some sort of sanity I dug out the old trap and was surprised to find that the mercury-vapour bulb still worked after all this time. Of course it was like starting from scratch I had forgotten all the moth names and during the intervening eleven years my metal acuity had diminished somewhat. But nevertheless I still greatly enjoyed sorting through a night’s catch, a few of the results of which are shown below.

As the autumn approached and lockdown eased, then I spent more time bird ringing and mothing has been relegated to the occasional day when I couldn’t go ringing for whatever reason. I’ll have to wait and see if I can manage to maintain mothing, birding, bird ringing and foreign travel when (or should I say if) Coronavirus restrictions are ever lifted.

 

You can start mothing but just looking for the species that fly by day or by tapping vegetation in the hopes of dislodging resting individuals, but most moth-ers (note the hyphen to distinguish them from mothers!) attract moths to light. This can be as simple as leaving the porch light on, but it’s best is to use a purpose designed trap with a mercury-vapour light (which shines in the UV as well as visible) or an actinic light. Such traps can be bought commercially but mine was built by a friend in Weymouth for a much reduced sum. The interior of the trap is usually filled with old egg boxes to give the trapped moths somewhere to rest.

 

The first picture was greatly under-exposed so you could see through the perspex lid but in practice it looks more like this. I usually run the trap between the conservatory door and the neighbour’s fence a) because its sheltered from any wind and b) to avoid shining the light directly into neighbour’s bedroom windows.

 

So the first thing you are going to say is that all moths are brown and boring. Well some like this Shuttle-shaped Dart, are brown, but few are boring. Also the vast majority of moths larvae don’t eat clothes, I think there are only two or three species that do.

 

So as well as a trap and some small plastic/glass pots to hold them in until you have identified and/or photographed them, you will need a guide. There are various versions of this guide but I find the Concise Guide to be the easiest to use when mothing, although I think I will buy the updated version of the full guide soon.

 

Moths can be photographed easily with any pocket camera or phone. The main problem is photographing them before they fly away, something I have yet to master! Moths have some wonderful names, some are purely descriptive like Large Yellow Underwing others are bizarre like The Uncertain, the Anomalous or Cousin German. There is both a Bright-lined Brown-eye and Brown-lined Bright-eye! This species is called Setaceous Hebrew Character. The Hebrew character bit I get, but apparently there is no known origin for the word ‘setaceous’

 

Although may of them do come in dull colours, the variety of shades, patterns and shapes is extraordinary. This is an Angle Shades.

 

Moths can vary greatly within the same species, some come in a variety of shades depending on their sex and/or location. This is a typical Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (probably a male) …

 

… this is a female, but both sexes share the startling yellow-orange underwing which has probably evolved to startle predators. Photo by Bernard Dupont from Wikipedia Commons.

 

Like most wildlife moths can be habitat specific and moving just a short distance can result in a completely different series of species being trapped. I have a friend who lives a stone’s show from the wetlands of Lytchett Bay and gets a much higher variety in his garden than I do. Another friend from birding trips abroad lives in the Peterborough area and was surprised to find that I regularly catch this species, Bird’s Wing, albeit in very small numbers, as in decades of mothing he’s never had one in his garden.

 

Another moth that is brown but far from boring is The Drinker, so called because the caterpillar sips on drops of dew on grass stems. Initially I used a cork mat to photograph the moths as it resulted in a neutral background colour for the camera exposure without too many shadows but more recently I have gone for white sheet of paper as it is less distracting.

 

Of course moths are a major food resource for birds and many are consumed, so it makes sense that some pretty amazing camouflage will have evolved. None more so than this Buff-tip which has evolved a perfect imitation of a broken-off twig. Photo by Iain Leach from Butterfly Conservation

 

A similar deception seems to be at work in this moth known as The Spectacle …

 

… you have to see it head-on to see where it got its name.

 

Often its easy to identify a moth to a ‘group’ but harder to tie it down to a species. In this ‘group’ there are only two species both of which shown here. On the left is Lesser Swallow Prominent and on the right is Swallow Prominent.

 

Even brown and grey moths can be extraordinarily beautiful. This Buff Arches has an intricate pattern on the forewing …

 

… whilst the large triangular patches on the rear of the forewing (next to the abdomen on the the closed wing) glisten like polished flint or grey obsidian.

 

Moths vary considerably in size from a few mm to big critters like this Oak Eggar with a forewing length of 40mm. One of the largest is the Death’s Head Hawk Moth (see photos towards the end of this post) which has a forewing of up 60mm ie its wingspan would be a full 12cm or 5 inches.

 

In general butterflies have a club-shaped antenna whilst moths have a feathered antenna, especially in the male. Most butterflies rest with their wings closed whilst most moths rest with the wings open. An exception is this Canary-shouldered Thorn which usually rests in this position. Butterflies are very closely related to moths, in fact genetically the butterfly Families are embedded between the various moth Families.

 

As well as brown ones and yellow ones, moths come in delightful pastel shades like this Buff Ermine …

 

… or pearly white as in the Common White Wave.

 

A few moths are a rich shade of green like this Common Emerald …

 

… or the delightful Scarce Silver-lines, but most of the ’emeralds’ fade to an off-white in time.

 

Black-and-white moths such as this Knot Grass abound (and I find many difficult to separate) …

 

… but there was no confusion when I trapped this pretty little Rosy Footman.

 

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