In search of …10 Kings behind the Wallacea Line

on 11th October 2009

“Join me from your armchair and let me take you on a journey behind the Wallacea Line – an imaginary line named after renowned naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace that zoographically forms the biological boundary within which Sulawesi, the Moluccas and the Lesser Sundas huddle within the Republic of Indonesia – to search, explore specifically 10 species of Kingfishers found recorded in just one Nature Park in Sulawesi alone.

“My first journey – this year to the world’s largest Malay Archipelago – began having to take on two red-iron birds, two bone-shaking Sulawesi mod-to-mini buses and finally on the back of a fish pick-up truck; to arrive at the volcanic forested reserv e- Tangkoko National Park, straddled on a 8,800ha reserve on the northern tip of the octopus shaped island of Sulawesi (formally Celebes) (below left).

“Here, 10 species of Kingfishers have been recorded. Seven endemic Kingfisher species alone inhabit Tangkoko National Park forests making it a Mecca for birders and photographers.

“On my second trip in that same final lap of winding, narrow roads through deep forests, Minahasian ojeks or motor cycle taxis took over. I sat as pillion rider on one, while my luggage divorced me and eloped shamelessly in haste ahead with Ojek 2.

“It was an unforgettable ride not to be repeated. I witnessed an onward coming rider being shaved off the downward winding road by another oncoming road runner, mikrolet – open-backed jeep that locals commute cheaply in. The incident left the exasperated female rider sat fallen and swearing at the jeep driver. It sounded no where compared to the sweet manja (titillating) calls of any feathered or unfeathered bird calls known to man!

“Putting incident aside, let’s join Avian Writer for a bird walk through treacherous gegone infested floor of Tangkoko National Park. Be with probably the first lady bird-Digiscopist to photograph wild birds in digiscopy techniques and doing it solo therein.

“Admire those gorgeous, giant buttress roots of century old trees, a rare sight to behold in these Archipelago tropical rain forests of the 21st century (above centre).

“Get off the trails and stealthily walk into semi-darkness under tree canopies, into high humidity areas of ‘Ala Tangkoko Sauna Bath’ the natural way (above right).

“Take care to avoid species of spiky and hairy giant palm groves that not only cause abrasive skin injuries but clothes to tear. Avoid too, tree vines that strangulate photographic equipments and palm foliage above and at body level that are transporters of small black ants, whose itch is worse than the bite. You will begin to wonder why you never checked your beddings before exhaustion from kilometers of walks knocked the daylights out of you.

“Feel drops of sweat rained down your face continuously, shirt drenched in sweat and attracting a host of annoying, depraved female mosquitoes that decided to sing and sting on any exposed flesh that anti- mosquito repellants missed.

“As your eyes scanned for perched or movable objects in trees and on the tropical rain forest floor, the chances are …….

“This is where… one finds the gem of rare and endemic birds.

“Your lens spectacles would have by then misted up and hastily proceeded to wipe off sweat and all. If the bird had stayed long enough to be admired through binocular vision 8×42, and opportunity of time to execute some perspiring digiscopic shots without distressing the bird, such would be considered beautiful moments and an extra bonus if decent images could be had that will be of credible worth.

“By then, one would be breathless from the suffocating high humidity habitat within and ecstatically bewildered, having had a lucky encounter and having seen a new bird species away from home. A twitcher will call it a lifer.

“Two endemic species of wood Kingfishers that is high on birders’ wish list live here in this lowland tropical rainforest.

“The above-left image shows a female Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher (Cittura cyanotis) with blackish eye-stripe and wing –coverts. The male is feathered deep blue.

“Considering its size of about 28cm and with plumage of olive-brown uppers, buffy-lilac eyebrow, cheeks and breast and a chestnut tail, it is not an easy bird to spot when perched quietly in mid-storey.

“For, its plumage camouflages well thus posing much challenge especially under limited lighting conditions and habitat obscurity to execute bird digiscopy in full decent views.

“The Lilac-cheeked Kingfisher (Cittura cyanotis) being extremely inconspicuous and not often heard is known to predate on arthropods and small reptiles as mentioned in field guides.

“The above-right image shows what looks like a seed in the beak of a female. A new food record…..?

“What made me love to pursue these creatures in an unrelenting way was that they seemed to have the magic of appearing out of nowhere, only to startle me suddenly with a blue-headed face staring, five feet perch away like this male Green-Backed Kingfisher (Actenoides monachus) (above).

“I and the bird could hear my heartbeat pounding in my head!

“I am simply no match for a ‘Hide & Seek’ game with these endemic specialists of camouflage. I had to retreat my steps to no less than fifteen feet from the bird to be able to focus with my Digiscope and prayed hard the 32cm bird to stay put and I, not fail to deliver.


“At most times, it would be Greeny sending me on a trivial pursuit into obscurity or simply gave a pathetic, menacing stare at this green dressed Homo sapien for having a total of seven movable and immovable lens yet remained so visually impaired.

“However, I was not much alone in this Sulawesian forest as three pairs of nocturnal ‘ET’ eyes were watching me closely. At three inch body size, the Spectral Tarsier (Tarsius tarsier) whose ping-pong eyes inspired Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie ET: Extra Terrestrial is the smallest in the world of the Eastern Region nocturnal primate species and much besotted by tourists (left).

“Apart from sighting a seemingly active nesting hole of a wood Kingfisher species, there were no nesting activities encountered. It was also not my priority to be looking out for them as a short term visitor. An incomplete nesting cycle observation is of no scientific value. I would prefer parents carry on the business of nurturing their young with less prying eyes Sightings of the Collared Kingfisher (Halcyon chloris), Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) (below left), Blue-eared Kingfisher (Alcedo meninting) and the light-blue rumped teasing flash flight of the Ruddy Kingfisher (Halcyon coromanda) (below right) down streams were regular sightings of a Kingfisher birding day.

“A boat ride to the mangrove edges, sluggish rivers and swamps beyond added views of a shy, early, southern winter visitor from Australia- the Sacred Kingfisher (Halcyon sancta).

“The ultimate boat trip was to seek out the sparsely populated and elusive Great–billed Kingfisher. (Halcyon melanorhyncha).

“It wasn’t long before a kookaburra sized bird of 37cm flew alongside me. Like a stealth bomber, it provided a magnificent, graceful fly pass in full bodied, creamy white appearance, blackish wings and a huge, chunky, and black beak unmistakable of a Kingfisher.

“I was too stunned sitting in the boat with the boatman as I pointed the bird out to my bird guide Fan who sat front and saw not (right).

“‘Is this the guy? Oh……blimey!’

“Two more endemic species- the lowland Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx fallax) and the uncommon submontane Scaly-breasted Kingfisher (Actenoides princeps) continue to elude me.

“Join me again in the next article to view more endemic bird images of Tangkoko National Park, sharing its space with other fauna and wonder why the island of Sulawesi behind the Wallacea Line is such a source of wealth of spectacular and varied avian species not seen elsewhere.
How long will they last?

“Is pristine Tangkoko Nature Park ripe for ecotourism plucking?”

© In Search of Kings…Behind the Wallacea Line
Photographic equipments used: Field scope ED82+ 30x + Cooplix P4
Bird Mission Sponsored by: Daisy O’Neill Bird Conservation Fund Pte.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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