Saturday, April 1, 2017

Asia Urban Birding (Part 6) - Jakarta

Mangroves and Frigatebirds in Jakarta's NorthWestern Suburbs

Sunday, March 19

After the trip to Gunung Gede, I had a spare day in Jakarta and opted to use my Sunday to chase down a few more local specialties and a couple of globally threatened/endangered species.  Jakarta's traffic is legendary but with a  4am start from Ciboda, we managed to skip the worst of it and get to the NorthWest of the city not long after dawn.

Some rare Sunda Teal zipped over in the hazy morning light
First stop was Muara Angke, a patch of mangroves and wetlands totally surrounded by urban development and busy roads.   It was hopping with birds first thing in the morning and before we'd gone too far down the (somewhat rotten and scary - remember I weigh a lot more than the average Indonesian) boardwalk we'd seen SUNDA TEAL, a Black Bittern, and great, although distant views of a perched SUNDA COUCAL.  This last bird was the clear target here, pretty much a Javan Endemic (a few sites on Sumatra) and very limited in terms of the places where you can easily see one.  So the day was starting out well and we were hoping for a few more goodies when a government official (not one of the usual reserve rangers) appeared and told us we had to leave.  Seems we were caught up in some local administrative squabble but arguing wasn't productive so we changed our schedule around and moved on to our next destination.

View from the boat and our major targets. 

Next stop, after a long drive with the dense traffic of Jakarta in the morning - sometimes Jakarta feels like 20 million teenagers just got mopeds and are out trying them out for the first time (which may well be true) - was a chartered boat ride to the fish traps near the island of Palau Rambut.  The poles, and presumably the fish in the traps, attract frigatebirds of several species in season, and it's one of the best and most reliable spots for traveling birders to get CHRISTMAS ISLAND FRIGATEBIRD.

Christmas Island Frigatebirds
 Christmas Island isn't easy to get to.  A small Australian possession closer to Java than to Australia and famous for it's (now threatened) land-crab migrations, it also has a few endemic land-birds and it's own Frigatebird.  Luckily the frigatebirds spend the non-breeding season wandering around, and many of them end up near Jakarta where they can be relatively easily seen.

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In addition to the 45 Christmas Island Frigatebirds, we also had 10 Lesser Frigatebirds, and apparently it's also possible to see Great Frigatebird here in November.   Definitely one of the best places in the world for frigatebirds.

Lesser Frigatebirds

The area also has another star bird, as Milky Storks are often seen flying over on the way to a breeding colony.  This is another widespread but scarce and threatened bird so I was keen to see one.  In the end I saw 17 as small groups passed high and distant over us on the way out to the islands.

Milky Storks - distant shot, heavily cropped.
So no complaints there, and after weaving our way back through the crazy traffic and and stopping briefly to get JAVAN PLOVER at some fish ponds, it was time for lunch!  With few targets left, we made our way back to where we started the day and stopped for some amazing Indonesian food in a very fancy, Range Rover filled shopping area - Indonesians do seem to love their cars.


The team above - L to R: Boas Emanuel (Jakarta Birder), Me, our driver, and Khaleb Yordan (who organized the whole trip and is very much THE birding guide in Indonesia these days).

Indonesian food is amazing and I'm sorry I didn't have time to try more.  This last lunch consisted of some traditional spare-ribs, an amazing spicy vegetable dish with a peanut sauce, and this fried gourami.  All very good.

After lunch we headed to another relic patch of mangroves at Hutan Lindung, this one surrounded by multi-million dollar homes in a gated community.


Targets here included Small Blue Kingfisher, which we saw quickly, and Black-winged Starling (which we'd missed earlier in the day at Muara Angke).


The highlight here for me though turned out to be an Estuarine Crocodile (Saltwater Crocodile).  As we came in, the rangers told us that there was one about, and as we walked the boardwalk we bumped into a fisherman who was excited to tell us where to see it.  I love seeing these creatures holding on in urban and suburban environments (I saw one last year in Singapore too).  The don't do much usually at least in the day when you see them - just sleep - but it's good to see that they are still around.

Estuarine Crocodile not doing much
While we were there, we got a call from the rangers at Muara Angke saying that whatever this morning's problem was had been resolved and inviting us back.  We headed over in the hope of Black-winged Starling, despite gathering rain clouds, for a last vigil.  The clouds became rain that did indeed force us to stand under a shelter for a while, and the starling did not show itself but we did have a consolation Chestnut-winged Cuckoo and lots of other birds to keep us amused.   Nice place to end the day, and always amazing to see how much life hangs on in these tiny little scraps of habitat left in the giant cities.  Definitely worth seeking them out.

Oriental Darter



Sunday, March 26, 2017

Java in the Rainy Season

Three Days at Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park

Java is one of those places I've been half meaning to visit for a while.  It's close to Singapore, where I often end up on business trips, has lots of endemic birds, and has good local guides.  Last year, my Singapore birding friend Lim Kim Chuah had mentioned that he had a birding guide friend in Jakarta and was kind enough to put me in touch with Khaleb Jordan.  Nine months later, when I knew exact dates for my Singapore trip, Khaleb planned an "airport-to-airport" long weekend of birding in Western Javan for me.  The highlight of the trip was three days at the famous Gunung Gede Volcano, a real hotspot for Javan endemic birds.

Thursday, March 16 

A 5am pick-up and the Airport in Jakarta and a long drive to the park.  Once we arrived at the park HQ, we met our local guide and a porter and set off up the "Hot Spring Trail", planning to bird our way up 5 or 6 km to the Hot Springs themselves and then camp overnight.  The trail was relatively well maintained, and the going was actually pretty easy (at least going up) despite the steepness of the trail and the very mixed weather (we stopped and took shelter from heavy rain a couple of times).  The birding, while the guides thought it was slow, gave me a bunch of life birds.

Javan Trogon, perhaps the bird I most wanted on this trip

Javan Cochoa, a high quality endemic lifer
Many of the endemic birds of Java can be found along thus trail and we racked up a fair number of them that day - Javan Trogon, Javan Cochoa, Flame-fronted Barbet, Rufous-tailed Fantail, Javan Tesia, Javan Fulvetta, and Javan Whistling-Thrush were among a slew of life birds that I had that day.  Once we'd set up camp and eaten dinner we also added another with a search for Javan Scops-Owl yielding a calling bird close to camp.  Great day of birding, despite the rain and the steep hike.

The camp sight and the team ,..


Friday, March 17

After a rough and sleepless night on the hard ground in the tent - and being woken twice by a Javan Ferret-Badger raiding our supplies and clattering around in our pots and pans - dawn came way too early.  In fact, we were up well before dawn, the plan being to hike another hour or so up the trail before first-light in the hopes of seeing a Javan Scops-Owl and perhaps even a Javan Woodcock. We had decided, given the weather, not to do the 4-hour hike to the crater for Volcano Swiftlet, and while I was sad to miss this bird, the prospect of walking 6-hours down the steep trail in the rain was quite daunting and adding another 3 hours to the hike really wasn't at all appealing.

The owls did indeed cooperate, giving good close views in the light, and while the woodcocks remained elusive, we did get a Salvadori's Nightjar for our troubles.

The hike down was 'tough' and by the time we got to dinner at the hotel that evening my knees and ankles were screaming in protest.  We did add some good life birds for me though, including several target birds like Rufous-fronted Laughing-Thrush, Spotted Crocias, Sunda Forktail and Sunda Bush-Warbler but at that point I would have been very happy never to see that trail again.

An endemic Javan Horned-Frog that spent a couple of hours with us during a downpour

Saturday, March 18

While I was reluctant to go back to the "trail of death" after my knee-jarring experience the day before, I manned up and set off up the very same trail again at dawn.  The decision turned out to be a good one with a great crop of birds seen or heard right at dawn including Javan Frogmouth, Sunda Scops-Owl, Barred Eagle-Owl and a Javan Banded-Pitta.

Javan-banded Pitta in the flash on the trail at dawn
The weather didn't really cooperate unfortunately and the rain and fog closed in quickly, pretty much killing our chances of seeing our target Javan Hawk-Eagle and Giant Swiftlet.  We did get some consolation though when a group of Asian Small-clawed Otters crossed the trail ahead of us and could be heard chirping in the marsh (otter species number 2 for the trip).

Speaking of mammals, we did actually see quite a few on the trail.  Ebony and Grizzled Leaf-Monkeys were common and visible, as were three species of squirrel - the Black Giant Squirrel being the most impressive, but the pudgy little Three-striped Ground-Squirrels quickly became a favorite.  We also saw an Asian Palm-Civet on the trail and some Long-tailed Macaques closer to the village.

Orange-spotted Bulbul in the rain, and the view from the boardwalk ...
note the lack of soaring raptors ....

Coming out of the forest at lunch time, we ate a great meal of goat stew and goat saté while we waited for the torrential rain to stop.  And newly fortified, and with the rain stopping mid-afternoon, we headed to the Cibodas Botanical Gardens and enjoyed some decent weather and another crop of life birds.
The restorative powers of a hot meal of goat ... then on to the Botanic Gardens

The biggest target at the gardens was the endemic Yellow-throated Hanging-Parrot which we saw after carefully watching a giant fig tree where they were feeding, well hidden in the green leaves.  While we were there we also finally had a fly-over Javan Hawk-Eagle and a moment of excitement when Khaleb found a Blue-and-White Flycatcher, a life bird for both he and I.

Javan Hawk-Eagle finally surrendered.
The endearing Pygmy Tit.
Blue-and-White Flycatcher, a scarce migrant was a life bird for Khaleb, while
Little Pied Flycatchers turned out to be abundant once I learned their call.

So a great haul of birds, a few good mammals, and I was sure that my knees would forgive me eventually.  Dinner that night was at a restaurant in a shopping mall, where a middle-aged local lounge singer treated us to his versions of popular George Michael songs ... not an experience I'll forget in a while, but I won't forget the great wildlife of this beautiful place either.  Indonesia is a wonderful country filled with the friendliest people and an amazing variety of birds.  Special thanks to Khaleb Yordan (and team) for organizing this trip ... definitely won't be my last trip to Indonesia.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Asian Urban Birding (Part 5) - Singapore (again)

Another Day Off in the Parks of Singapore

Sunday March 12 - Singapore Botanic Gardens and Gardens By The Bay

Arrived early morning on a Singapore Airlines flight from Munich.  The hotel room wasn't ready of course so, rather than hang out at the Spa (as the staff at the ParkRoyal Hotel suggested) I dumped my bags and took a cab over to the Botanic Gardens.

First stop was the Rainforest trail, where a few good birds, including an Orange-headed Thrush - a potential lifer for me - had been hanging out this Winter.  The thrush hadn't been reported for a while but I was hopeful and started carefully birding the boardwalk, listening for things rustling in the leaf-litter.  By the time I reached the end of the trail though, I'd seen absolutely nothing, so I turned around to try again and this time moved even more slowly, scanning thoroughly, and was rewarded with close views of a HOODED PITTA (but no thrush).

Hooded Pitta - hard to photograph in the darkness of the forest floor 

Feeling good about the Pitta, I decided to quickly pick up the long-staying Buffy Fish-Owl at it's regular roost.  I knew exactly where it was, but as I've said before, I suck at finding owls so it took my 15 minutes of systematic searching before I finally located it .... pretty much sitting in the open ... right where it was supposed to be.

Buffy Fish-Owl
Next stop was a reported HODGSON'S HAWK-CUCKOO, which would also have been a life bird for me.  I braved the weekend crowds near Swan lake and started circling around in the area where it had been reported but was soon distracted when a photographer told me his friend had just found a roosting Large-tailed Nightjar.  Who isn't up for seeing a roosting nightjar?

The nightjar was relatively easy to find, and not far away I also bumped into a couple of Black Bazas and the cuckoo.  All in all a very productive couple of hours spent in the Botanic Gardens.  Wonderful spot.

Large-tailed Nightjar and Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo

After checking in at the hotel and taking a shower, I decided to go birding again and took a cab over to the Gardens By The Bay, Singapore's newest (and most expensive-looking) park.  The weather wasn't great for birding, with the sun beating down and the birds generally keeping under cover, but I persevered and managed to winkle out a few things.  The big highlight for me though wasn't a bird, but finally bumping into Singapore's famous urban otters.

Gardens By The Bay and one of the famous Indian Smooth-coated Otters


This family group of Indian Smooth-coated Otters are celebrities in Singapore and the city has erected "otter crossing" signs in many parts of the Marina Bay area.  Today the otters were hanging out at the park, eating some tasty-looking fish, and putting on a show for their adoring audience (and one Welsh Paparazzi).  This was actually a new species for me so I lingered for a while, took a lot of photos, and pointed them out to delighted tourists.  Who says urban wildlife is dull?

As the sun started to get a little less intense the birds started to perk up too.  A nice sampling of herons all emerged from the reeds at the 'bittern ponds' (my name for them) and I was able to track down a nice Asian Emerald-Dove nearby.  There were some Oriental Honey-Buzzards overhead and the place was just a lot birdier as the heat dropped and the smaller birds got more active again.

Oriental Honey-Buzzard
Asian Emerald-Dove 
Striated Heron and the (much rarer) Black Bittern

Not a bad day of birding, and I wrapped up an amazing visit in Singapore with dinner at the fabulous Restaurant André (currently #32 on the World's 50 Best Restaurant List).  Singapore pretty much has everything ... can't wait to come back.

2 of 20 dishes at André

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Keeping Myself Amused with County Listing

A Few County Ticks Near New York City 

Not much to report this last weekend.  It was cold, I was busy, but I did get to sneak out for a while on Saturday.

Last week, I added a couple of new birds to my New York County (basically Manhattan) list.  This county, having been my home (or one of them) for 25 years, should be huge .... but it isn't because basically all of my birding happens in Central Park which has no coastal habitats.  Still, this week I had the opportunity to add Killdeer (#213) and Great Cormorant (#214) to the list.  Probably not the first time I've seen either species, just the first time I put them in eBird.  Slow progress ....

Saturday, March 4 - Suffolk and Nassau Counties

Cold.  Very cold.  So a quick morning of birding that never really hit it's stride.  I added a EURASIAN WIGEON to the year list at Seatuck Creek, then failed to find Rusty Blackbird at Quogue Wildlife Refuge or American Bittern at Dune Road.

At Oak Beach I failed to find a Barrow's Goldeneye -  a classic dip day was clearly unfolding here - but then bumped into Brent Bomkamp and Taylor Sturm who gifted me some good intel.  A few minutes later I added EARED GREBE to my Suffolk County List (#324) and later picked up some early migrants for the year list with Piping Plover, Eastern Phoebe and Tree Swallow all joining the list.  Cold and not really feeling the birds though, I gave in and went home, some days it's best not to fight your karma.

When I got home, I settled in, put a cooking show on Netflix and opened a bottle of wine.  I also logged on to catch up on social media and noticed a photo of a Long-eared Owl posted by Anders Peltomaa on Facebook.  Now Anders pretty much sticks to Central Park where he birds while walking his dog, so I messaged him to see if the sighting was recent, and it turns out he'd found the bird that morning in the Shakespeare Garden ... and very generously shared exact directions.  So what to do ... back in the Winter cloths and over to Central Park where ... the owl was exactly where it was supposed to be.


A year bird, and even though I've seen this species several times in Central Park before, they never get old.  Such a cool creature.

So done for birding for the Winter.  I saw what I saw, and now I'm off to Asia for a bit.  And when I get home, hopefully Spring will have arrived.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Birding Goals and Following Through On Them ...

Another New York State Bird and Some More Modest Progress Towards Goals

I spent most of the week like a cat pressed against the glass window itching to be outside but trapped indoors.  The weather this week was beautiful, 60+ degrees and sunny, if a little unseasonable for February in New York.  The bird news was also good, or frustrating depending on your point of view.

Me this week ....
Mid week, two bits of news broke:
1. A CLARK'S GREBE, a first New York State record, was found up at Oswego, and
2. Someone claimed to have re-found the recently departed ROSS'S GULL at Tupper Lake.
I REALLY wanted both birds, and I couldn't leave the City until Saturday at the earliest, so Thursday and Friday, well let's just say they dragged a bit ....

So as an aside, I set some birding goals every year, and sometimes I achieve them.  This year's goals were modest, nothing heroic, but I've tried to keep focussed on them:

1.  See more than 1,000 species worldwide (which should help my sadly neglected life list move along a little bit.  I'm at 415 so far this year.).
2.  See more than 300 species in New York State and stay in the top 10 of the eBird 'Hot 100" for the state (a recurring goal that keeps me focussed on local birding - I saw 311 species and was 5th last year).
3. Get my New York State Life List over 400 species (started the year at 390 and had added 4 species before this weekend - Northern Fulmar, Atlantic Puffin, Great Gray Owl and Black Guillemot).
4. Have an eBird county list in every New York County (so far this year I'd added Clinton, Rensselaer, Columbia and Putnam counties to the ones I'd already started, 52 down, 10 to go!)
5. Add 5 new states (or countries) to eBird (so far this year I've added only Bahia, Brazil)

So both these birds would have helped with goal number 3 (and numbers 1 and 2 to some extent).

Saturday, February 25 - Oswego County, etc.

In the car at 5am and slogging across New Jersey and Pennsylvania to hook up into Western New York, and pick up Adrian Boyle in Binghamton at 7:30am.  There must be better ways to spend a Saturday morning, but at least I'm up and running and on my way North toward a hopeful meeting with a Clark's Grebe.  The trip went smoothly, and at 9:48am we pulled into the parking lot on the pier at Oswego Harbor.  There were birders there ... Tom Burke, Gail Benson, Greg Lawrence and others .... I gave one a questioning thumbs up ... a birder gave me a smiley thumbs up.  The bird was there ...

Clark's Grebe - NYS#395

Well that was easy!  Another state bird, my 5th so far in 2017.  Things are looking good for the State List Goal.

After that, let's just say the rest of the day didn't live up to expectations.  It rained, pretty much heavily and solidly for the rest of the day.  Then we pretty much dipped everything we tried to see. Payback for the easy grebe I guess.

A Thayer's Gull had been hanging out for month at Phoenix Lock but wasn't there when we were there (it as seen again today, after we were safely out of the area).  Detailed directions to a roosting Northern Saw-Whet Owl also produced nothing more than a thorough chilling and soaking in torrential rain.  But at least I did get to zig into Chenango County and start a new New York State County List, with 12 species now on my Chenango List.  Hey, its the little things that make you happy!

Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull and Iceland Gull ...
... but no Thayer's Gull
The drive back to the city was miserable .... heavy rain the whole way .... glad I got the grebe but it would be nice if the next potential state bird showed up closer to home ... just saying ...
Oh, and the Ross's Gull rumor ... just that, a rumor ... at least so far.




Monday, February 20, 2017

Another New York Nemesis Bird Surrenders!

Finally seeing perhaps the most common bird I still need in the State.

Saturday, February 18 - Montauk

Everyone has nemesis birds.  Birds that aren't necessarily all that rare and that other people seem to see regularly ... but you don't.  There are a few birds that show up in New York state more or less annually that I have never seen.  Some are what I call "Act of God" birds - a Magnificent Frigatebird or a Swallow-tailed Kite will fly over me one day, when the time is right and if I continue to be very kind to widows, orphans and small furry animals .... right?  Other species should be see-able with enough effort .... in New York, if you sea-watch as often as I do, you should have seen a BLACK GUILLEMOT or two over say the past 26 years, right?  It's a species that is seen almost annually somewhere in the state, usually at Montauk where I do all my sea-watching.  It's also a species I know well and have seen in several other states and countries (so we know I'm not overlooking it).  But in 25+ years of birding in New York State ... not one Black Guillemot had I seen before this weekend ....

Last weekend when I was 9 hours North of Montauk looking at Great Gray Owls, a Black Guillemot was found in the harbor there and seen by many birders.  My reaction was basically ... "D'oh!"  ... totally fits the pattern of many other Black Gullemot sightings I haven't had in New York.  But this bird stuck!  It was seen on Monday, and Tuesday ... and even though I had no chance of getting out to see it before the weekend, I kept checking the status daily, hoping that his would maybe be the one that broke the curse.  The bird was still being seen on Friday and on Saturday I headed out to East Hampton, but with guests, dinner plans, etc. I had no real hope of getting to the bird before Sunday.  Would it stick another day?  I couldn't stand the tension and wait, so I persuaded some of my guests that Saturday lunch in Montauk would be a good idea, bundled 3 non-birders into the Land Rover and chugged out to Montauk at noon on Saturday.

Surf Scoter
What happened next, never happens.  A perfect 'surgical strike' on Montauk with birds lining up to be seen in an improbably short time-window.

As we pulled into Montauk with 30 minutes to spare before lunch I checked the list serves and saw that Tom Burke and Gail Benson had just found a LITTLE GULL with a Bonaparte's Gull flock at Ditch Plains.  Would my guests like to visit the famous surfing beach?  Yes?


Pulled up to Ditch Plains ... bins up ... Bonaparte's Gull flock ... dark wings ... Little Gull ... Suffolk County bird #322 ... nice!

Next stop, down the street to Star Island, where I parked the car and jump out promising to be no more than five minutes.  Bumped into Frank Quevedo (and a birding group from the South Fork Natural History Museum) and Mike Scheibel (the Nature Conservancy guy from the Mashomak Preserve) and they have the BLACK GUILLEMOT all tee'd up in the scope.  Suffolk County bird #323 and and New York State bird #394.  Nearby an Iceland Gull also joined the year list right next to the restaurant we were heading to ... which was closed for the season.  Oops!

Black Guillemot and Iceland Gull

Sunday, February 19 - Montauk and East Hampton

After a fabulous home cooked Italian Dinner - picture home made Carponata, Italian cheeses, Gnocchi with Brown Butter Sage sauce and Braised Short-Ribs with Polenta, all served with a great selection of Italian wines and homemade desserts - 8am Sunday morning came way too soon.  Michael Duffy was one of my dinner guests the night before and while everyone else planned to sleep until noon, we got up at 7am and headed off to Montauk to do some birding.

The day started well with a female KING EIDER at Montauk Point and some year birds for me including Great Cormorant and Purple Sandpiper.  We spent more time with the Black Guillemot but spent most of our time looking for the Little Gull (which Michael - who's a huge world lister and probably seen lots of everything we saw that day) was most interested in ... but unfortunately it seemed to have moved on.

Canvasbacks and Pied-billed Grebe in Montauk 

Coming to terms with failing to get the gull, and having to buy ingredients for dinner and be back at the house for lunch, we gave in and ran to East Hampton to shop.  With a few minutes to spare though we stopped at Wainscott to look for a Sandhill Crane that had been spending the Winter there.  I'd looked for this bird before and not seen it, but today after careful scanning I spotted it mostly hidden in the willows and phragmites along the North side of Wainscott Pond.  I have a soft spot for Cranes and this was only the fourth one I'd ever seen on Long Island so a nice bird for the day.

So not a bad haul of birds (Michael tried and dipped again on the Little Gull the next day but did get a Black-headed Gull) but I had to get back to cook a multi-course Portuguese dinner for guests ... lots of pork, clams, and even an olive-oil cake.  The weather was fabulous, the food and wine were delicious, the guests were charming, and the birding was good ... pretty much the perfect weekend.

Perfect Spring weather in East Hampton in February!