Indonesia’s South Moluccas: part 2 – Kai Kecil, Kai Besar, Haruku, Seram and Boano: – 15th – 26th September 2019   1 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).

One response to “Indonesia’s South Moluccas: part 2 – Kai Kecil, Kai Besar, Haruku, Seram and Boano: – 15th – 26th September 2019

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  1. Just as a note, the Ice Age sea level map is not from Natural Earth Data, it’s from me and was posted to my Flickr page in December 2019:

    The base data comes from primarily the ETOPO1 whole Earth 1-arc second DEM raster, and the bathymetry comes from Natural Earth. The elevation raster was then processed quite a bit to get the final results, as well as to determine where rivers and such should fall (given the error range of the elevation raster).

    You can see both my name as well as the two sources of the initial data on the map.

    It’s also not exactly the LGM (Last Glacial Maximum). The LGM sea levels were about 120-130 meters lower than now and the map I made is a continental shelf map at 200 meters lower than present. I made a set of maps for the LGM but the differences were so slight between that and the continental margin map that I didn’t bother to post the LGM version.

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