What seems like just a few days ago I received a text informing me to check a post on Bird Forum saying that a Seram Masked Owl was present in its roosting hole just 10 days ago, this was on the 6th November. I had a flight booked to Jakarta on the 12th to meet up with John Gregory planning to go to Enganno and Mentawi which are off the southern coast of Sumatra and then we were off to Lore Lindu to look for the recently sighted Sulawesi Woodcock, this was a late change to our original plans as we were going to Ache in northern Sumatra hoping to see my last mainland Sumatran endemics which I had already dipped – Aceh Bulbul and Roll’s Hill Partridge and the Woodpecker for JG. Within a few hours of reading the post another plan was forming in my head – a roosting Masked Owl was just too good to miss. Indonesian Masked Owls are notoriously difficult to find, I had previous with Minahassa Masked Owl, that took me 3 attempts to see it, it was never in its roosting hole, I finally saw one at night with JG a couple of years ago. I just had to convince JG it was indeed an excellent idea to go for the owl and then Seram Thrush would be another little side trip – little did we know what that would involve. I quickly made the necessary arrangements and contacted the local guide in Ambon; Vinno Soewarlan who was doing the local logistics and before you know I was in Ambon airport searching for JG who was expressing his doubt at my bonkers ideas. He had read Ross Gallardy’s report on his hike to Mt Biniaya for the Seram Thrush – it took him 6 days and was over 70kms with mud and river crossings – JG stated ‘this is not the sort of thing a bloke in his 60th year should be doing especially with a bloke who has only one kidney’ anyhow he was persuaded/duped into the plan and was soon enthusiastic about it all. What could possibly go wrong….
As we was on Ambon it seemed rude not to go and see the Ambon White-eye, the only island endemic there before we boarded the fast boat to Seram – there is no airport there. After watching a delightful pair of Whiskered Terns we were soon zooming our way across to Seram, once there it was about a 4 hour drive to our accommodation. Vinno thought he knew where the roosting tree was but we needed Butji the local chap to direct us to the exact tree, as it was already dark when we got to the area in question we thought we would have a look anyhow. We did head the Seram Masked Owl call close to us but we never saw it and as time was getting on we needed to hunt down Butji who was at a wedding in the next village, luckily we found him and he was sober! So next morning he took us to the roosting tree and………..nothing there! Oh no – disaster – we dipped, what to do, we needed to crack on with our hike to Mt Biniaya, so we left rather despondent but I knew it was around and was actually confident we could find it the traditional way although I probably did not show it at the time.
So Seram Thrush – it was first collected in 1921 and was not seen again until 1989, one was then caught in 2012 and Ross Gallardy saw and took the first field photograph just last year, RG had given me the GPS co-ordinates and a sound recording of a single call – all we had to do was get there. We quickly arrive at Huaulu which is the village at the start of our hike, our first aim was to get to Roho which is around 7kms. The start of the trek is pretty easy going – mostly along the side of the river and occasionally crossing it – all below welly depth for the time being at least. At 1330 we reach a big fast flowing river which we need to cross, it was here JG had his second dip of the day quickly followed by the 3rd – he was in the river on all fours, I tried not to look but you know how it is, I tried to make light of his situation but I was not convinced he was in a great frame of mind, I have known JG since 1985 – our friendship was going to be tested now, this is all my fault, the poor chap is recently retired, he was expecting to be drinking Bintang on Enganno after a day of easy birding but here he was grovelling around on all fours in a river on Seram looking like Mike Tyson searching for his gum shield after Buster Douglas had knocked it out, oh dear! Anyhow that obstacle crossed and a quick coffee break and all was well – then it started to rain, real rain and we were soon drenched, from here on our clothes remained wet for the rest of the week with just the variations in levels of wetness ranging from slightly damp to wringing my socks out again, pointless changing. We had to reach Wasimati today which we did just before dusk, it was a single wooden hut seemingly in the middle of nowhere but it offered us a roof over our heads and a chance to get out of our wet clothes. So we completed around 17 kms today – about half way we thought. We did manage to see a some good birds along the way – a few Long-crested Mynas perched out in the rain on a dead tree, Red Lorys seemed common and also a several Seram Imperial Pigeons, so all in all I was happy with the day. After photographing the resident spiders and a few coffees followed by a rice, noodle and canned fish supper I was ready for bed, my first chance to get my head down since I left home 3 days ago.
You can’t beat waking up in the rain forest – I love it, waiting for the birds to wake up and start calling, over night Moluccan Scops Owl was calling as was Pacific Koel, they seem never to sleep, soon the air was filled with bird song, Blyth’s Hornbills were soon whooshing overhead, after breakfast and several coffees we were off again. Straight up a big river crossing, wet feet almost immediately, oh well. A Grey Wagtail was hopping over the rocks, nice to see familiar birds in odd places. Today was a big hike, we had to be at the camp site up the mountain tonight somewhere near the GPS point we were aiming for. Another day of close to 20 kms walking, eventually we reached the village of Kanikeh which is a larger village accessed by a very rickety bamboo bridge, I crossed it ok but was not allowed to on the way back as it was considered too dangerous for me, I could not see how it was any more dangerous than before but maybe stupidity and bravery are closer than we think. After resting in Kanikeh we had to press on to at least camp 1, two of our porters bailed here, too much for them, bruised, battered, exhausted and overwhelmed at it all, they waited here for us to return, we left a few non essentials here to lighten our bags and off we went, the trail was now very steep, very muddy. After a few hours of walking in the heavy rain we finally reach camp 1 where we stop for the night in our tiny two man tent. We hang our wet clothes out on the tent guy ropes, fat chance of them drying but it seems like the right thing to do. The rain continues most of the night so at least my clothes get a bit of a rinse out.
Soon it is time to get up, the stars are out and the sky is clear, another beautiful morning – all we have to do today is walk a few km’s to camp 2 and see the Seram Thrush, sounds easy. A Large-tailed Nightjar makes a few chonks just before sunrise, the signs are good – today is the day. After breakfast of coffee, more rice and noodles washed down with another coffee we set off. By about 9 am we reach the GPS point – we are in the thrush zone. We spend a while around the gully were RG saw his thrush but nothing seems to be calling so I press onwards and upwards – I’m restless, despite knowing better I am not one for sitting about, I prefer to be searching rather than waiting so I head further up, after 30 minutes I reach a lovely mossy area with loads of bamboo where I sit for a while under a huge tree as a rain shower passes, I even have a power knap. During my break I watch a nice male Wallacean Whistler and a couple of Drab Whistlers – there are birds around. After the rain I see several Seram Leaf Warblers, photograph some Blue-eared Lorys, Mountain Tailorbirds are abundant and constantly calling, Little Pied and Snowy-browed Flycatchers were also seen. Then I hear it – the thrush called, not much of a call but that was it – a long high pitched whistle, not dissimilar to a Redwing or even a Fruiteater from South America. I spend the next hour or so in this area, the thrush called very infrequently and I never even got close to it, this was going to be a battle, I did see a few Seram Grasshopper Warblers in the bamboo – surprisingly easy to see, flicking around with their tails cocked, also my first Grey-hooded White-eye was seen. Overhead the sky was a deep grey and the thunder was rumbling, I knew my time was up for the day so I headed down to where JG was lurking – he had gripped me off with a Seram Pitta, something I never did see, but at least I had a starting point on the Thrush, tomorrow was going to be the day. We had to retire early as the rain was set in for the rest of the day, rest up, drink coffee and think of a plan.
Nervous excitement and anticipation had me up and about way before sunrise, today we had to see the thrush, imagine the thought of dipping, going back and telling everyone you failed, I have had this problem with Moustached Kingfisher before, I was determined not to give in, I was not going home empty handed, we had to see it, dipping simply is not an option, after all it’s only a thrush how hard can it be. JG in his moments of delirium and pessimism wondered if could they be altitudinal migrants, I hoped not, nonsense I said! Anyhow after breakfast we went to the gully and waited, it was pitch black, Large-tailed Nightjars were still chonking, Koels still calling but soon the diurnal birds were calling – Moluccan Cuckoo, Mountain Tailorbirds, Whistlers – then the thrush called, game on we are in business. Patience is power is a Buddhist saying, but is is difficult, don’t move and don’t use payback, wait……I make my own recordings but is it such a weak call and with everything else calling is it such a background call it is difficult to call in. Eventually we walk into the gully and use RG’s canned tape, sure it responds, it flies towards us, a black blur, hummm that’s no good, we soon abandon that idea, we get a few glimpses as a pair cross the trail. I decide to head up to where I heard one yesterday, maybe it is more active in the morning I optimistically thought, always over optimistic. I flush a thrush out of a bamboo patch, it calls, and alarm call very similar to our Blackbird, not what I was expecting, the a female Island Thrush hops out, a good bird and a seldom seen sub species but not the one. Not a sniff of yesterdays calling Seram Thrush, no calls nothing, then I hear a shout, its Dadji, our guide and thrush expert, well he had seen it before with RG, I head back down to the gully where JG had seen one perch up for a few seconds and had good views, the old Aboriginal saying, which I often quote came back to haunt me ‘ never turn your back on a roasting turtle’ had I buggered up? I wait patiently at the said spot and the something jumps up, there it is Seram Thrush! I have a good look, I knew my camera lens was fogged up but anyhow I rattle a load of shots off, autofocus was not working due to the misting, it still sat there while I fiddled with the settings, I finally got some sort of photos, had another view of in through my bins then off it hopped, it had surrendered, great views were had, photos better than expected, high fives and whoops rang out through the forest. We had done it, we can hold our heads up high, what a difference a minute makes, first thing I can think of is Seram Pitta! I had to see that before we left so of I went to the spot where JG saw it yesterday, it really was a half arsed attempt, the afterglow was burning bright, a male Island Thrush with its grey head attracted my attention, I played the Pitta tape, no response, was I bothered? yes and no, I had reached my Tufted Puffin in Kent moment, it’s all downhill from now, is there a harder bird to see? Moustached Kingfisher will always haunt me, but Seram Thrush was on! time for coffee then think about our return – we still had the matter of Seram Masked Owl to deal with, it wasn’t over yet and we had the best part of 40 kms to walk back.
We made our way back to the camp and packed our stuff together, the first target destination was Kanikeh – it seemed to take an age to get there, I found myself resting more than usual, I had reached secondary growth but Kahikeh never seemed to appear, surely I was nearly there, I took another stop and after my 5 minute break I walked a hundred metres or so and could see the concrete water tank at the start of the village, finally there and I could have a coffee and get these wellies off. JG soon turned up knackered. We decided to rest up here and blast the 30kms tomorrow, which seemed like a good idea today but tomorrow I knew it would not seem so good. So the next morning we set off and had done the 30 kms or so by 3pm and finally back to our guesthouse. Time to have a wash, change clothes and footwear and discuss whether to burst our foot blisters or not. But the job was only half done, I had come here to see the Masked Owl.
The following morning we were on the trail of the owl and checking the hole once again- he was not there!! had we really dipped? A second hole was checked but a Blyth’s Hornbill was living there, I spent the rest of the being very restless and itching to get out again, never give up, it must be around. I said to JG lets go back to the hole just before dusk, I had all my gear ready for an all night owling session, I was determined not to let this one get away – it would be embarrassing. As I made my way back down the owl trail, I looked at the tree early and at a little distance, there was clearly something in the entrance, was it home? was it a mammal , all I could see was brown and white, I hurried down to the best viewing spot and yes it’s there but where was JG – I uttered a few expletives in his direction, was he faffing or was he lame, either way he stumbled down and we had scored! We spent the next 45 minutes photographing and watching it. I wanted to get some recordings but with Tyto’s the call so infrequently I decided to leave my microphone recording to the night and pointing towards the tree. That worked very well and I got 6 good recordings from the 10 hours of recordings, I also picked up Moluccan Scops Owl, Hantu Boobook and Pacific Koel.
Hantu Boobook heard only
Common Paradise-Kingfisher heard only
South Moluccan Pitta heard only, seen by JG
Northern (Seram) Fantail
Slender-billed (Violet) Crow
Island (Seram) Leaf Warbler
Seram Grasshopper Warbler
Little Pied Flycatcher
Seram Island Thrush
Olive-backed (Black-breasted) Sunbird
Eurasian Tree Sparrow