Bali: Tourist Trap Birding
Following a successful finish to my summer working in Ethiopia, I had the month of August more or less off from work (although work matters always managed to sneak into my schedule some way or another). The initial plan was to spend the whole month in the Philippines, but since Nikki had just finished her degree in Australia and had a little time off before she had to start working again, we were able to set our sights a little further afield. We decided to take a quick vacation trip to Bali, which had been on Nikki's dream list for a long time. I, of course, was happy to be anywhere with new birds, which Indonesia definitely is. Our itinerary ended up being a five-day joint trip to Bali, after which I took a solo trip to Java to do some solo birding, while Nikki stayed in Bali to do some more relaxation.
From Ethiopia, it was a short flight from Addis Ababa to Dubai, then a long-ish layover until my flight to Manila, which departed at the extremely unfortunate hour of 3 in the morning. I arrived in Manila the evening of August 3rd, then had a couple of days there to recuperate from my long trip before jetting off once again for Bali the evening of the 5th. We arrived very late at night in the city of Denpasar, and had time only to exchange money, get SIM cards, and head to our hotel, a comfortable little room in the downtown area.
The plan for the next day was to visit a couple of sites in Denpasar, then head northwards into the center of Bali to the town of Ubud, where we were to spend the next night. Since the pickup wasn't until the late morning, I decided to wake up early and head to Pulau Serangan, one of Denpasar's best-known birding spots. It was relatively easy getting to the pulau (island) itself- I hired a motorcycle driver through the Gojek app to take me through the city and across the bridge to the island, where he dropped me at what was the entrance road to the birding site according to my phone. Unfortunately, when I got off the motorcycle I was stopped by a guard, who informed me that the southern half of the island (formerly the main birding place) was in the process of being turned into a resort, and thus was now closed indefinitely to birders. That was obviously bad news, as I had had high hopes for that morning's birding.
Since I still had a few hours until we were going to be picked up for our island touring, I decided to spend some time walking around Pulau Serangan to see what I could see. There was still a decent area of mangrove forest and mudflats that I could see, and I ended up seeing almost all of my target birds for the area anyway, even though the prime birding spot was closed off. One of the first birds I saw was a Malaysian Pied Fantail in some mangrove forest, and nearby was a flock of Sooty-headed Bulbuls, common but declining thanks to the caged bird trade. A Sacred Kingfisher, a bird I'd dipped on previously in the Philippines, was perched on a rock near the water, while a pair of big-headed Sunda Teals flew in briefly. Very, very distant but still recognizable was a Beach Thick-knee on the mudflats, extremely rare in the Philippines, but still fairly easy to see in Indonesia. Some nice non-lifer birds were a Little Pied Cormorant perched above a canal and some Whimbrels and Eurasian Curlews barely visible on the mudflat.
|Immature Malaysian Pied Fantail|
|You'll just have to believe me when I tell you this is a Beach Thick-knee|
|Little Pied Cormorant|
|I was initially super confused by this dove but it turns out it's just a Zebra Dove missing its tail|
I took a Gojek back to our hotel just in time for us to pack our things and head out of Denpasar for some Bali touring. I normally prefer to either drive myself or take public transportation while traveling, but we were there for a limited time and my driver's license had been stolen in Ethiopia (sigh), so we elected to hire a car and driver for our first couple of days on the island. It proved to be fairly affordable and very convenient, although our driver, Putu, was very much a driver only rather than a tour leader.
That morning we visited Uluwatu, a temple complex perched on a precipitous sea cliff on the far southern point of Bali. The temples themselves were impressive, and the views even more so even in the dry heat of late morning. We were warned not to wear hats, sunglasses, or any other loose apparel on account of the many Crab-eating Macaques that inhabited the temple grounds, some of which apparently have kleptomaniacal tendencies. The cliffs at the temple are supposedly good places to look for tropicbirds and other pelagic birds, but I saw nothing but waves despite scanning many times. Most of what I saw around the temple were many Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Sooty-headed Bulbuls.
|The cliffs at Uluwatu Temple|
From Uluwatu Temple, we made the long drive north to Ubud, in south-central Bali. It took several hours going past small towns and rice paddies, and the traffic once we neared Ubud was absurd, taking us 45 minutes to go less than a kilometer on the narrow village roads choked with vehicles. Ubud gained a reputation in the 20th century as a quiet, rural town full of temples and home to various foreign artists. It's certainly still full of temples and art, and one can still see hints of the atmosphere and heritage that drew people there 50 years ago, but these days the main streets of town feels more like the sort of tourist trap you can find the world over, including my hometown in Michigan–some local establishments, but mostly expensive restaurants and shops offering things like tacky paintings, tattooing, and healing crystals. I certainly don't begrudge the residents of Ubud their tourist dollars, but it's not really my preferred type of travel destination.
We had a late lunch in a cheap-ish canteen, and visited one of Ubud's many temples, the Pura Taman Saraswati, dedicated to the Hindu goddess of art, music, and learning. Bali is the largest remaining outpost of Hinduism in Indonesia, and the Balinese do their best to keep their temples holy places despite the onslaught of tourists. The quieter atmosphere of the temple and its lotus pond was a very welcome break from the strong Eat Pray Love energy in the rest of Ubud.
|Pura Taman Sarasvati temple|
After visiting the temple we split up briefly so Nikki could do some souvenir shopping and I could do some hiking. I decided to do the Campuhan Ridge Walk, a scenic walk just outside of Ubud with views over two river gorges on either side. It was a relief to escape from the bustle of the main town, and though there were a number of people on the hike, it was mainly locals, half of whom seemed to be high schoolers on awkward first dates. There were a few birds to be found as well- a beautiful Gray-cheeked Green Pigeon grazing in a tree, a surprise Lesser Coucal on a scrubby hillside, and brief flyovers from Ruddy Cuckoo-dove, White-headed Munia, and Scarlet-headed Flowerpecker, all lifers for me.
|Grey-cheeked Green Pigeon|
|Common Cerulean (Jamides celeno)|
|Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia)|
As it started to get dark, I walked back to town to meet up with Nikki for dinner and a quiet evening. Our main destination the following day was the Batukaru Temple (Pura Luhur Batukaru), one of the most important temples in Bali. Built as one of the nine "directional temples" meant to keep Bali free from evil spirits, it's also incredibly beautiful, located in a patch of rainforest on the edge of Mount Batukaru, Bali's second-highest volcano. We didn't get to see too much of the temple, since most of it is for worshippers only and off-limits to tourists, which is just how it should be in my opinion. It's got a reputation for being a decent birding spot, but I didn't see much, perhaps because we were there a bit late in the day. There was, however, a very inquisitive Javan Whistling Thrush, a calling Crested Serpent-eagle, and many Javan Heleias, also known as Javan Grey-throated White-eyes and Mees's White-eyes, because taxonomists can never agree with each other, especially when it comes to white-eyes.
|Javan Whistling Thrush|
|Hill Grass Yellow (Eurema simulatrix)|
|Amnirana nicobariensis I think, though I'm not 100% sure|
|Nososticta insignis, an amazing endemic damselfly|
After walking around the temple for a bit, we returned to the car and prepared for another long car ride, this one to the town of Bedugul where we would spend the next night. On the way to Bedugul we stopped at one of the lookout spots for Bali's famous rice terraces. You had to pay a fee to take rice terrace pictures, but as it turned out you could also stop and eat lunch there without paying the fee, so we took the opportunity to have some babi guling, Bali's take on roast suckling pig. Most Indonesians are Muslim so it's nearly impossible to find pork in Indonesia outside of Bali (a dietary restriction that probably raises Indonesians' life expectancy by a year or two), but I can't deny that the Balinese can do a halfway decent pig roast. The rice terraces were beautiful as well!
We arrived in the town of Bedugul near the center of Bali. Nestled in the caldera of an extinct volcano next to one of a set of three crater lakes, it's much less touristed (at least by Ubud standards), and much cooler to boot. We had time enough only for a short walk along the lakeshore and a look at the town's famous Water Temple before the sunset and it was time for dinner.
The next morning, I woke up early and started looking for a way to get to the Bali Botanic Gardens, my primary destination in Bedugul. As it turns out, there were no ojeks (hired motorcycles) in town, but the receptionist at our hotel was able to convince her friend to take me up to the botanic gardens instead. The Bali Botanic Gardens is Indonesia's largest botanic garden, occupying a nice stretch of montane rainforest above Bedugul. It's known to be a good birding spot, and the birds were there even though I arrived a little later in the morning than I had intended. Near the entrance I had flocks of Grey-cheeked Green Pigeons and Short-tailed Starlings in the tops of trees, and a beautiful singing Rusty-breasted Whistler. There was also a very cute Horsfield's Tree-shrew cleaning itself in the whistler's tree.
|The entrance to the Botanic Gardens, with a very imposing statue|
Birding in the botanic garden is supposed to be quite good, but unfortunately I wasn't sure how to get to the best spots, the mountain trails where the more sought-after birds like Banded Fruit Dove, Lesser Shortwing, and Sunda Thrush are supposed to be found. I spent much of the best birding hours wandering around the lower part of the garden before I found the road I was actually supposed to be on. I did see a Long-tailed Shrike, a few Mountain Leaf Warblers, and a flock of Scarlet Minivets while I was looking- none of them technically lifers, but all new subspecies and the latter two likely to be split from the birds I'd seen in the Philippines and Borneo at some point. I unfortunately didn't see or hear any of the Javan Bush-warblers that are supposed to be found in that area, though I did try.
|Smooth-fingered Narrow-mouthed Frog (Kaloula baleata)|
|Three-spotted Grass Yellow|
|The man-made forest in the lower section of the gardens|
It was late morning before I finally arrived in the area of true montane forest where the birding was best. Most of the birds were high in the canopy by then, but still calling; I heard Banded Fruit Dove, Dark-backed Imperial Pigeon, and Flame-fronted Barbet, but they were nearly impossible to get a decent look at. I had more luck with the ubiquitous Javan Heleias and a couple of cute Sunda Warblers. Grey-headed Canary-flycatchers stayed high in the canopy, though I did see a few. Walking along a narrow jungle path in a fruitless search for Sunda Thrush I heard the whistling call of a Lesser Shortwing, which I was able to get a brief glimpse of- still a better look than most people get of this extremely skulking bird!
|A very nice orchid (Vanda tricolor)|
I could have stayed in the botanic garden exploring the whole day, but I had to be back at the hotel in time for our noon checkout. I started down the hill towards the exit, getting slightly lost along the way. It was late morning, so bird activity was low. I did, however, run into another Rusty-breasted Whistler, a few Black-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, a Cinereous Tit, and a cooperative Fulvous-breasted Jungle Flycatcher. The heat of the day did mean that more butterflies and reptiles were out, which was always nice.
|Dark Evening Brown|
|Common Sun Skink|
|The view of the lake from the botanic gardens|
Once I exited the botanic garden, it became clear that, despite being later in the day, there were still no ojeks in Bedugul. I ended up having to walk the entire way back to our hotel, which took nearly 45 minutes and meant that I didn't have time for a shower before we had to check out. Alas!
We got picked up at noon by another driver, who was to take us to the town of Menjangan on the northwest side of Bali. The way out of Bedugul heading north is a winding road up to the top of the crater rim, which offers a fantastic view over the mountains and the crater lakes. Bedugul in general was probably my favorite place, and it feels like the sort of place I could spend weeks exploring- especially seeing the expanses of primary forest and temples around the lakes.
|The view across the Bedugul crater- the town of Bedugul is in the upper left|
From the crater rim, we took a narrow, dizzying road down until we reached the coastal road that took us to Menjangan. Menjangan itself is a small town of mostly beach resorts, ranging from moderate to eye-wateringly expensive. The main attraction, however (for me at least), is that it's next to Bali Barat National Park, which was to be our destination the next morning. Since we arrived in the late afternoon and had a few hours of daylight, we headed to one of the cheaper resorts to spend some time relaxing. A walk along the beach didn't bring much in the way of birds, but we did have a decent sunset view, plus some very cool Silverlined Mudskippers.
|The resort in Menjangan- looks like somewhere in the Philippines|
|Sunset on the beach|
Before I go into the story of our morning of birding in Bali Barat National Park, I need to fast-forward briefly to a couple of days later, when I was in Java: flush with success from a boat trip looking at Christmas Island Frigatebirds and Milky Storks in Jakarta Bay, I plugged my now-full memory card into my computer to upload pictures to Lightroom. The pictures uploaded, all seemed normal, and so I put the card back in my camera and wiped it in preparation for the next day's trip to Gunung Gede. Unbeknownst to me, however, not all was well: for completely unknown reasons, instead of uploading the pictures to my computer, Lightroom decided to simply upload them to a different folder on the same memory card: a folder that was deleted when I cleared the card. I only realized this a couple of days later when I attempted to upload more pictures. I immediately downloaded recovery software, but it was too late: all my pictures from my last day in Bali and first day in Java were gone forever, overwritten by pictures from Gunung Gede.
This was, of course, one of my worst nightmares as a birder and bird photographer, right up there with having my camera gear stolen and climate change and deforestation driving half the world's avifauna to extinction. It meant that some of my best-ever pictures, including photos of Bali Myna, Black-winged Starling, Javan Banded Pitta, Green Junglefowl, Christmas Island Frigatebird, Milky Stork, Aleutian Tern, and many other birds, some of which I may never see again, were completely wiped off the face of the earth. All that were left were the Lightroom thumbnails, most of which were too pixelated to be of any use at all. Thankfully I caught this computer glitch before it wiped all of my pictures from Gunung Gede (otherwise I'd probably still be in a dark room somewhere screaming), but it's still painful to think about. Thankfully, I had Nikki along with me for our Bali Barat birding trip, so we at least have a few pictures to remember it by.
Anyway, back to Bali.
Although nearly all of Bali's birds are shared with Java to the west, it does have two endemics: the Bali Myna and the Black-winged Starling (sometimes called Grey-rumped Myna), both of which are nearly extinct and essentially confined to the northwestern tip of the island. Their decline is primarily due to the caged bird trade, the scourge of Indonesia's avifauna. Caged birds are a sign of status in Javanese culture, and with the Javan diaspora since Indonesian independence it's spread throughout the agriculture, resulting in a precipitous decline in wild birds' populations, beyond the usual pressures of hunting and deforestation. Attractive birds and birds with nice songs have been particularly hit, meaning that dozens of species of parrots, shamas, laughingthrushes, and mynas are now nearing extinction. These two are some of the worst-off; the wild population of Bali Myna was as low as six birds in 2001, but has steadily increased since then thanks to the releasing of captive-bred birds. I don't want to judge cultural values too much, especially since some of my own culture's values have been far, far more environmentally destructive (think climate change denial and colonialism). Still
Given the reportedly extreme difficulty of finding wild Black-winged Starlings, we decided to hire a guide for that morning, as the likelihood of success in a single morning was otherwise slim. Hari Yono, the usual recommended guide for Bali, was away on a different tour but he set us up with his assistant Yudi, a park ranger in the national park who, as it turned out, also knew his birds perfectly well. I can certainly recommend Yudi (and Hari of course) to anyone needing a bird guide in Bali, although if I were to return I'd probably do it on my own, for cost and convenience more than anything.
Yudi and the driver picked us up at our hotel before sunrise, and we headed to one of the fancier resorts in Menjangan, which has an extensive scrub forest in front of it. We surprised a group of Javan Rusa deer in the pre-dawn light, followed by a Green Junglefowl that skittered away before I could get a picture. We got out of the car and started looking around for starlings. Soon, we heard the shriek of a Black-winged Starling, and soon after saw a pair of them perched on a distant tree branch. I was able to get a halfway-decent picture but, well, it's gone forever so you'll just have to believe me when I say that we saw them.
|Javan Rusa- picture salvaged from a Lightroom thumbnail|
We spent some time by a viewing tower further into the resort in search of more starlings. We had a brief flyover from a flock of them, but didn't get any better views. We did, on the other hand, see a distant Bali Myna perched- apparently a rare sight as they're usually seen only within the national park! There were many Orange-breasted Green Pigeons perched on the tops of trees, and a singing Lineated Barbet I eventually got a decent view and a (since lost) picture of. A huge Black Giant Squirrel was seen feeding in the top of a tree.
|Female Orange-breasted Green Pigeon- photo by Nikki|
|Black Giant Squirrel- picture by Nikki|
On the way out of the resort, we drove very slowly in search of pittas. We got a much better view of a Green Junglefowl (certainly better-looking than normal chickens!) in the process, as well as a herd of Barking Deer that ran off before we could photograph them. There were also many lovely Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters along the exit road. As we neared the exit to the resort, I spotted a bird scratching around in the undergrowth- Javan Banded Pitta! We rushed to get out of the car, and were able to get decent pictures before it walked out of view. It was certainly one of the best pittas I've seen, and it was amazing to get a good view of it. I only wish I still had the pictures...
|Green Junglefowl- picture by Nikki|
|Javan Banded Pitta- picture by Nikki|
|All that remains of my (seriously amazing) pitta picture|
|The remnant of my Chestnut-headed Bee-eater picture|
We'd seen the main Bali targets and it was still early in the morning, so Yudi took us to a few more spots. The first was a spot for Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, of which we saw a single male perched on a distant vine, and the second was for Cerulean Kingfisher, a tiny denizen of coastal mangroves. Finally, we stopped in an area outside the entrance to the national park proper that was supposed to be good for Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker. We didn't see the woodpecker, but we did see another beautiful Bali Myna, with a much better view than we'd had earlier in the morning. Bali Mynas are certainly one of the best-looking starlings in the world, and I suppose it's no wonder they're in high demand in the aviary and caged-bird trade.
|Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher- picture by Nikki|
|Cerulean Kingfisher- picture by Nikki|
|Bali Myna- picture by Nikki|
We stopped in the town of Gilimanuk at noon, where we had an excellent lunch of spicy Balinese chicken. There was one more stop on the way back to our hotel: an open field where we saw two roosting Savanna Nightjars, a species that had eluded me in the Philippines. We got our things in the hotel and were driven the long way back to Denpasar, stopping once near a rice field where a Javan Kingfisher could be seen perched on a stick.
|Savanna Nightjar- picture by Nikki|
We spent that afternoon and evening in Denpasar, enjoying a little more of the tourism sites there. A surprising last-minute bird in Denpasar was a flock of Java Sparrows eating the rice from a temple offering. I've seen Java Sparrows in the Philippines and Hawaii, where they're fairly common introduced birds, but it was much more satisfying to see them in their native range- and extremely surprising that they were in the middle of a city, especially considering that they're declining in numbers thanks to the caged bird trade.
Overall I enjoyed Bali a great deal, and it feels like the sort of place I could spend much more time exploring on my own, especially away from the usual tourist sites. If nothing else, it was a great way to readjust to Asian birds before being baptized by fire in the birding blitz that was waiting for me in Java...