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A mountain full of endemics
In search of Caerulean Paradise Flycatcher, Eutrichomyias rowleyi
By Paul Jepson
It's Saturday 9th October 1999. Birders are pouring into Scilly for the Siberian and White's Thrush, and I've just arrived on Sangihe Island, midway between Sulawesi and the Philippines on my ultimate rarity hunt. UK rarity hunting is great, but I always seem to bump into some party spoiler keen to tell me how he's seen hundreds of the target species abroad. No chance of that here. I am after Caerulean Paradise Flycatcher, a first for the decade - meaning it was believed extinct until rediscovered in 1998 - and Sangihe Shrike-thrush, a first for the world because it was only described as new species this year. Added to these, there's Elegant Sunbird, the got-to-be-a-good-species Lilac-marked Kingfisher, Sangihe Hanging Parrot and Sangihe Scops Owl to go for. All class birds, all unique to Sangihe, and all mega-global rarities. Not surprisingly, a wave of anticipation swept over me as I stepped off the crowded overnight ferry into the bustling cacophony of Tahuna key, cloaked in the muggy heat of a tropical dawn.
Jim Wardill and his wife Tisna, swing round my hotel at just after two in a chartered microlet, and we head out of town, past neat wooden houses with verandas of orchids, to the vibes of power of love, which every bus in Indonesia seems to have been playing constantly for the last two years. Jim and Tisna have dedicated the last three years of their lives to saving the critically endangered endemics of Sangihe and its neighbouring island, Talaud. Their pioneering initiative 'Action Sampiri' is capturing the attention of progressive conservationists. I'm here to help them plan for the scaling up of their exciting public awareness, education and research activities. But that's another story: this weekend is for birding. The fourth member of our team is Christian Memengko, an evacuee from the BirdLife Maluku office recently closed because of continuing civil unrest in Ambon. Chris was Frank Lambert's assistant on the legendary survey of Talaud when Frank scored the ultimate birding hat-trick by discovering three new species for science!
Our target birds are confined to a remnant, 800 ha patch of forest that survives on the steep ridges of Mt Sahendaruman in the south of Sangihe. The road winds up through beautiful old agro-forests of coconut, clove and nutmeg, past scenic ocean viewpoints and down through coastal villages with colourful out-riggers lounging in mangrove fringed creeks. In Tamako village, famous locally for its frequent knife brawls, we turn inland and by 4.30 the road has disintegrated into boulders and it's time to walk.
The trail climbs up through a long village. Jim and Tis stop frequently to greet old friends. I comment to Chris on the heat. Sweating almost as profusely as me, he remarks how everyone jokes that Sangihe has two suns because it's so hot. Five minutes further on, Jim turns and comments that it's nice and cool today. What!
As dusk falls, we arrive to a warm welcome at the house of Bu Niu. Ten minutes later Niu, the man who rediscovered the Caerulean Paradise Flycatcher, appears out of the forest of fruit and spice trees that seem to engulf the house. He has a massive grin on his face and is clearly looking forward to guiding us tomorrow. If I dip it's not for want of a crack team! The heavens open, and a tropical downpour continues on into the night.
Our alarms wake us at three. The rain has stopped, a good sign, and we slowly pack-up our gear and start on, upwards. A beautiful star-lit night is visible through gaps in the coconut and nutmeg trees, but the steep trail, dully illuminated by my headlamp which is bright enough to pick out the shapes of rocks but not whether they are slippery or not, needs all my attention. Four times we cross the creek which is full with last night's rains: slips and wet feet but nothing serious.
By five we reach a dilapidated pondock on the edge of the forest, owned by Bu Epping, Niu's uncle. Tisna brews brews coffee, Epping joins us and we wait for dawn. Like everywhere near the equator the day-break comes suddenly. This is it! The anticipation is high as we head on up the trail, which is so steep we must clamber up using hands until we come out on to a scrub-covered ridge back. Almost immediately Elegant Sunbirds are buzzing about and after a few minutes I get my first view of a female, and then, a male! The relatively long and sturdy bill (for a sunbird) and iridescent ultramarine forehead catch my notice first. I move to get it in full view; bright yellow breast with apricot belly, deep red nape and bright yellow rump. Wow - what a totally cosmic little thing! Not long after we enter the forest and reach Action Sampiri's campsite on the ridge top. There, we drop down into a steep gully and settle down to wait for the flycatcher on a slightly raised hump looking into some tall trees. Jim reassures me that this is the place where the flycatcher was re-discovered and where he has seen it on two out of three tries. The bad news is that last February is the last time anyone has looked.
An hour goes by. Nothing, apart from an Emerald Dove flying up the gully. A light breeze is developing into a wind. Not good at all. I begin to get a little edgy. After another hour we decide to try further down in the valley where it may be sheltered. Niu leads the scramble and we find another spot to sit in quite expectation. A Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher calls twice from up on the ridge but it's two far off to try for. The tree in front explodes into a cacophony of sounds and a drongo alights on bow. Jim reminds that this could be a race of either Spangled or Wallacean Drongo or another new species, but nobody has yet compared specimens. There's nothing else doing, so we return to our original vantage point. Tisna and Chris have stayed behind and greet the site of our return with a nervous 'lihat' – seen it? We resort to hand signals to make it abundantly clear that neither group has scored. More waiting. It's now past nine. A load churring call and Nui jumps up only to declare it a tree shrew. The call again and Jim hisses “got it!”. He's seen the flycatcher swoop down into a patch if giant gingers. I see something flick, Tis sees a bird drop down. We stare into the base of the gingers for fifteen minutes or more before accepting that it's flown out the back.
At least we now know it's in the area. That's something. But the tension is beginning to get to me. By way of a diversion I ask Nui how he came to rediscover the flycatcher in this valley. He explains that they usually carried water up to the camp from Eping's pondock, but on the 4th October, one year ago this week, they had run out of water and he thought he could find some in this gully. He knew, of course, that the Action Sampiri team were searching for a small blue bird, and as he passed this place he saw two birds that he'd never seen before 'playing' in the trees. Jim chips in to say that he wasn't at the camp that day but his colleague, Jon Riley, told him that Niu casually dropped news of his sighting into the conservation that evening. Jon wasn't that excited because they had heard so many stories and had so many false alarms. Indeed, he asked another team member, Joris to check it out, while the next morning he continued with his regular bird survey plots. Joris confirmed it, got Jon, and later they all came down to find Jim and Tis who were doing conservation awareness work in the village.
Tis exclaims 'ada', Chris is on to it. There are pointing into the gully. I've no idea of distance, eye-height is all they can explain. Do I wait to pick it up with my naked eye, or scan the mass of trunks, vines and foliage through my binoculars and risk that it flies off outside the narrow field of view of my binoculars? I am definitely panicking!. Jim's got it, he gives me the distance and I am on to it. Relief. Wow! Relief!
The Flycatcher is sitting quietly on a vine looking round in a lackadaisical sort of way. The broad-based bill and partial white eye-ring are very distinctive. The upperparts are dull powder-blue and underparts greyish white. It flits up to another vine and we get a back view. A shaft of sunlight catches the blue on the wing. Beautiful! It sits quietly for another 3 or 4 minutes, stretches out a wing, fans the tail. It is just lounging about. Then with a beautiful cock of the tail it flicks up wards into the canopy and flies over to our right where it joins a second bird, before both disappear up the valley. Hand slaps all round. Going on the size of Chris' grin he looks even more made up than me! We get the Tranjia out again for a celebratory brew.
Relaxing with a cup of coffee, Jim tries to tell me of his emotions when he finally clapped eyes on the Paradise flycatcher a year ago. How he cried with an overwhelming sense of relief at the knowledge that this species, which he'd looked for so long, had not after all been wiped from earth by man's indifference. And how the famous quote from Wallace's Malay Archipelago came to mind – the one about the birds-of-paradise on Aru living out the lives in the darkness of the forest, their beauty unseen by the eyes of man. So too the Caerulean Paradise Flycatcher had been living out its life, just 400m from Action Sampiri, blissfully unaware of the concern, writings in journals, mystery and sacrifice that its disappearance had caused.
A warbler appears in the canopy in front of us. It's a migrant Arctic Warbler, and Jim says to Tis that it used to be his dream to find one of these on the Yorkshire east coast. Not until this point had we made the connection that we are both Yorkshire birders. I'm from Leeds, Jim from Hornsea. So we start comparing notes on which east coast rarities each has seen. Talk of rarities gets us focused again and we climb back on to the ridge in search of Sangihe Shrike-thrush.
We walk in single file along the knife-edge ridge top through dense mossy forest. The trail skirts a landslide and we get a view across the caldera and of the last remnants of forest clinging to the steep ridges. It is strange to think that here in a view is the last refuge of so many unique species. After a while we stop to rest and we all realise that we're famished. It's past one and we started out at three. So we send Nui back down to kill a couple of chickens and get Sunday lunch going.
We are now on the caldera ridge and Epping is crouched down making squeaking and clucking noises by another big patch of ginger. After a while he beckons me over and points intently into the dense mass of stems. A shrike-thrush hops into view. Superb! Stocky, brown, slight flecks on the ear-coverts, rufous in the wing and tail, and with a heavy bill. A birder's bird. Then golden bulbul calls. After ten of so minutes we get clear views of one though gaps in the canopy. Jim's excited. He reckons this is one of the rarest birds on the mountain and could be a good species. It's definitely bigger and much yellower than other sub-species of golden bulbul, but I've seen Golden Bulbul so often on other islands in Maluku it fails to get me excited. Having cleaned up on the three of the most difficult species (we omit the white-eye because it has only been see three times in all the years Action Sampiri has been studying the mountain) we decide it's time to head down. The excuse is that we have a better chance of Sangihe Hanging parrot flying over the lower slopes, but all of us know it's the thought of grilled chicken that is now driving decisions.
At about four we walk back into Nui's simple house. We didn't see any hanging parrots or Lilac-checked Kingfisher, but Jim keeps going on about how jammy I am to get the flycatcher, shrike-thrush and bulbul all in a day. We sit down to lunch. Big bowls of rice, chicken smothered deep in bright orange chilli paste, all washed down with glasses of Saguier, the fermenting-alcoholic sap of the Areng palm, which grows in Niu's garden. The chili is delicious, but dynamite. Chris has to go outside twice, and Jim looks like his eyes are about to pop out. Tis is fanning her mouth. Remarkably, I manage to keep my cool and have the pleasure of demonstrating to these youngsters that I'm on old Asia hand. Eventually we stagger out and roll back down the trail into the rapidly gathering night and the coastal village of Tamaka where we charter a bus home to Tahuna. What a weekend!