Sulawesi, Indonesia

I spent an interesting time in Sulawesi, Indonesia in May 2013.  I used Singapore as a base to adjust before and after the trip and ended up spending a week longer there than anticipated when I had to leave Sulawesi a week earlier than expected because of an injured back.

SULAWESI BIRDS - VOLUME 1 Duration: 47:47 - This video includes the following species; Maleo, Tabon Scrubfowl, Philippine Megapode, Barred Rail, Isabelline Bush-Hen, Yellow-billed Malkoha, Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle, Purple-winged Roller, Hair-crested Drongo, Pale-blue Monarch, Bay Coucal, Brown Cuckoo-Dove, Slender-billed Cuckoo-Dove, Black-naped Fruit-Dove, Slender-billed Crow, White (Silver-tipped) Imperial-Pigeon, Knobbed Hornbill, Sulawesi (Sulawesi Dwarf) Hornbill, Sulawesi Myna, Sulawesi Crested Myna, Finch-billed Myna (Grosbeak Myna), White-necked Myna. Azure-rumped Parrot, Great Hanging-Parrot (Sulawesi Hanging-Parrot), Grey-cheeked Pigeon, (Grey-cheeked Green-Pigeon), Yellow-breasted Racquet-Tail, Black-naped Oriole, Eastern Crimson Sunbird, Grey-sided Flowerpecker, Green Imperial-Pigeon, and Rusty-breasted Cuckoo.

SULAWESI BIRDS - VOLUME 2 Duration 44:49 - This video includes the following species; Sulawesi Kingfisher, Lilac Kingfisher, Green-backed Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Black-billed Kingfisher, Scaly Kingfisher, Sulawesi Babbler, Dollarbird, Green Imperial-Pigeon, White-rumped Cuckoo-Shrike, Sulawesi Scops-Owl, Ochre-bellied Hawk-Owl, Speckled Hawk-Owl, Ashy Woodpecker, Black Kite, Chestnut Munia, Nutmeg Mannikin, Black-faced Munia, Pacific Swallow, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Yellow-sided Flowerpecker, Sooty-headed Bulbul, Sulawesi Blue-Flycatcher, Black Eagle, Island Flycatcher, White-backed Woodswallow, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher, and Mountain White-Eye.


SULAWESI - THE REPTILES AND MAMMALS - Duration 38:49.  This video contains material of the following species;  Crested Black Macaque, Gunther’s Keelback, Sulawesi Bear Cuscus, Spectral Tarsier, and Oriental Whipsnake.

Sulawesi Kingfisher

In May 2013 I spent two and a half weeks recording bird video on the island of Sulawesi. The plan was to spend four weeks in the very northern part of the island focusing on the full range of bird life.  Sulawesi has a large number of endemic bird species and relatively few birding visitors (Sulawesi Kingfisher, Ceyx fallax, to the right).  The birders which travel to Sulawesi are generally intense in their birding activities and come to focus on the endemics.  More on these factoids later but for now I will only note that the time on the ground ended up being two and a half weeks.  

Should you go to Sulawesi?  The answer to that depends on where you are in your birding career.  If you are a lister and have racked up species numbers in the upper thousands you should really consider Sulawesi, there are a lot of endemics in a relatively small area.  If you are a lister and don’t have those huge numbers there are better, and easier, places to go.

If you are a photographer there are opportunities for some endemics but the basic facts outlined above are as true for a birder/photographer as they are for a lister.

If you are a serious videographer, the answer is definitely no.  A number of countries in the world place a surcharge on videoing in their country or national park.  I generally try to avoid such places for the reasons outlined below.  Sulawesi charges 1,500,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah) a day to video in its national park with professional video gear.  At the time of this writing that is equivalent to $153 USD.  In addition, you will be required to pay 25,000 IDR for a permit, 20,000 IDR for an entrance fee, and 150,000 IDR for a local guide - bringing your daily fee to $172 USD.  This fee allows you to video in the park, that is all it allows, there are no additional services associated with the charges.

The Indonesian government, and the governments of many other Asian nations, equate professional video gear with commercial enterprises.  The days when such equipment was used only for film and television shows is a thing of the past.  As more birders turn to videography many turn to higher end equipment because of the magnification and optics.  (It is very difficult to obtain quality images in dark areas and when the birds are far away without quality equipment.)  

The fallacy of such charges has some significant downsides for those nations which impose them.  Beginning in the late 1980’s consumer video became available in the mass market.  Since that time the equipment has continually become more sophisticated and that used for personal use these days is equivalent to that used for commercial ventures.  Pricing personal work at commercial rates means that the personal work will not be done.  Those individuals who would otherwise visit the country will not and the monies that they would have spent on lodging, food, guides, and other goods and services will not be spent in the country.  Nor will the publicity (even if it is only word of mouth) which flows from such visits occur.  The net outcome is the exact opposite of what, I assume, the government intended.  Instead of increasing revenue, the tourist dollar is diminished significantly.

The charges also ignore the capabilities of most modern “still” cameras.  Most cameras produced today take video and many take full 1080p at the standard frame rates.  If the Indonesian government is intent on charging exorbitant fees for equipment which can produce high quality video images then the same charges should be applied to the still cameras that most tourists (and birders) carry with them.

If the intent is simply to charge wealthier visitors more, then surcharges should be applied to everyone with a Swarovski, Leica, or Zeiss binocular hanging from their neck.  

If you are a serious photographer and/or videographer you can find many places in the world which are a lot more productive and a lot less expensive than the national parks in Indonesia.

On a lighter note, over the years I have developed a practice of packing clothing which I have no intention of bringing back when I pack for longer trips.  When I packed for Sulawesi I took some tee-shirts and other clothing which were at the end of their lives, after a few days in the jungle, when they had been soaked through time and time again, when they had that revolting sour smell, it was in the garbage rather than in the wash.  The practice developed after years of experience in the tropics, in areas where it was impossible to get clothes to dry.  The fact that they would sour was one thing but the added weight of sweat that could put me over the airline weight limits was in a different league entirely.  (I travel with a large suitcase - to carry the tripod, which weighs a good deal - and weight is at a premium.)  To compensate for the added water weight, I return with less than when I venture out.

left boots

On my recent trip to Sulawesi my boots were identified as an item to be left behind.  The decision was made months before the trip when the soles were breaking apart, the stitching was coming undone, and the innards had separated to the point that it was very difficult to put them on.  They were put aside in anticipation of the trip (it is a sad fact of modern life that it is often less expensive to buy new than it is to repair - assuming it is possible to find someone who can do the repair).  After two weeks in the jungle I began to worry that I had miscalculated, I was not sure that they would last the trip.  And I, well I had no duct tape.  The potential crisis was averted when I stepped in a bamboo covered hole in the jungle and hurt my back, enough so that I had to curtail the trip and head off to Singapore for a week or so.


On my last night in Sulawesi I said good-bye to a pair of boots which had seen years of wear, all over the world, including hundreds of miles on the beloved trails of the Columbia Gorge in the Pacific Northwest of North America and the Black Range of southwestern New Mexico.  It was an event ripe with the potential of analogy. 

I spent most of my trip in the Minahasa district of northern Sulawesi, Indonesia.  During that time I videoed just short of 50 species, most of them endemics.  In general the number of species was disappointing although many of the images were quite good.

Carrying 40 pounds of equipment on slippery jungle trails, ten hours a day, in hot humid conditions can be exhausting.  Day after day of that effort probably contributed to the low video count.  I know that I ignored many still photography opportunities because I was so tired.

Sulawesi Blue-Flycatcher

Among the bird species I videoed are (SE = Sulawesi Endemic [including some small nearby islands] - IE = Indonesian Endemic);  Sulawesi Kingfisher (SE), Sulawesi Hawk-Eagle (SE), Lilac Kingfisher (SE), Tabon Scrubfowl (SE), Purple-winged Roller (SE), White Imperial-Pigeon (SE), Slender-billed Crow, Green-backed Kingfisher (SE), Pale-blue Monarch (SE), Hair-crested Drongo, Black-naped Fruit-Dove, Finch-billed Myna (SE), Knobbed Hornbill (SE), Sulawesi Hornbill (SE), Sulawesi Myna (SE), Yellow-breasted Racquet-Tail (SE), Azure-rumped Parrot (SE), Pygmy Hanging-Parrot (SE), White-necked Myna (SE), Black-billed Kingfisher (SE), Dollarbird, White-rumped Cuckoo-Shrike (SE), Barred Rail, Ochre-bellied Hawk-Owl (SE), Ruddy Kingfisher, Sulawesi Babbler (SE), Grey-cheeked Pigeon (IE), Grey-sided Flowerpecker (SE), Sulawesi Scops-Owl (SE), Ashy Woodpecker (SE), Speckled Hawk-Owl (SE), Yellow-sided Flowerpecker (SE), Scaly Kingfisher (SE), Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Chestnut Munia, Nutmeg Mannikin, Sulawesi Blue-Flycatcher (SE) - photo above, Citrine Canary-Flycatcher (SE), Mountain White-Eye, Black Kite, Ashy Bulbul (not reported from Sulawesi by Morton Strange), Plaintive Cuckoo, Yellow-billed Malkoha (SE), Black Eagle, Isabelline Bush-Hen (SE), Island Flycatcher, Green Imperial-Pigeon, White-backed WoodSwallow (SE), Maleo (SE), Olive-backed Sunbird, Pacific Swallow, Cicadabird, and Black-naped Oriole.

Despite significant effort I missed the Pittas and the Minahassa Owl.

My notes from May 4 and May 5, 2013, made at Tongkoko, Sulawesi, Indonesia:  May 4, Tongkoko - The Big Sweat

Today was the start of the Big Sweat.  Walking in the jungle the water enters my mouth and exits through every pore in my body in profuse amounts.  My quick dry clothes are continually soaked and cling to my body.  Since clothes never dry the smell is sour.   At night there is, on occasion, a wayward moment of breeze, oh the glory of something cool.

Much of the sweat is due to the fact that I am old and out of shape, that I am a dry land person who does not understand or deal well with humidity, that I am carrying substantial weight, and that the backpack does not have any ventilation between it and my back.  I am getting a good workout but having rivulets of sweat running down my chest, off my head, down my back, arms, and legs is a bit much. On the positive side I have not encountered leaches but my lower legs are infested with mites.  Hot, sweaty, and itchy.


The rooms at Mama Roos (right) are basic; a bed and a shower, the fan is hardly worth mentioning because it fails to move any air.  Hot, hot, hot and humid.

The food is adequate and on occasion very good.  Portions of meat or fish are of poor quality and meager, which is fine with me.  There is plenty of rice and tasty greens of unknown type.  Fresh fruit rounds out the meals, including a first for me - thick slices of fresh pineapple lightly dressed with sea salt, I would not have thought of it and it is very nice.

May 5, Tangkoko - The Long Jog

Not by me, for heavens sake, I am an old fat guy.  No, just every kid in town, jogging by on the road not far from my room, laughing, talking, and slapping their feet on the pavement.  Millions of them.  Well, maybe not millions, but at 4 a.m. when this is happening it seems like millions.  Apparently this occurs every Sunday morning in this town.  And not an adult in sight -- that speaks significantly to the differences in our cultures (and in case that is ambiguous, the west comes up very short).

From my notes of May 5, 2013 at Tangkoko, Sulawesi.

This morning I videoed a troop of Celebes Crested Macaque, Macaca nigra, at the river near town just before its confluence with the ocean.  They frolicked in the river, hunting for food, preening each other, running and splashing in the water.  A lot of tourists come to this National Park to see this species but never get past the entrance where a troop generally hangs out.  It is an amazing experience to watch them at the river.  Staying in town so that you can be there early to watch the antics is advisable if you are looking for a quality experience.

These Macaques have large fangs but are generally tolerant of humans taking their photographs. But be aware.

The Macaca nigra’s range is extremely limited and the total population is very small.  (additional photos)

I was able to see five mammal species in the wild, including the Spectral Tarsier, Sulawesi Bear Cuscus (Ailurops ursinus), and Celebes Crested Macaque.  

Sulawesi Bear Cuscus

Although the Sulawesi Bear Cuscus (photo right) is diurnal we did not find the group until they ventured out to feed just before dusk.  It is an arboreal marsupial endemic to Sulawesi and a few small islands which are nearby.  It is sometimes called simply Bear Cuscus (retaining the original species name following a species split) or Bear Phalanger.  Its scientific name was previously Phalanger ursinus.  The Sulawesi Bear Cuscus lives in the very top of the canopy where they often travel in pairs.  We were lucky to find a group of three, most likely a young cuscus with parents.  They have a prehensile tail and at least while I was videoing used it actively as they steadily moved through the tree tops - something between a spider monkey and a sloth in movement.  The frame grab (above) is from a video clip shot from a distance of about 30 meters.  The contrast in the image has been heightened since the cuscus group I was videoing were terribly backlit.

Some interesting factoids about the cuscus:  their diet (leaves primarily) is low in nutritional value which may explain their relatively slow movement; and the mother’s milk changes in consistency as a young cuscus matures - being high in carbohydrates initially and high in fat later.

Spectral Tasier

The people of Sulawesi hunt and eat anything they can and the Sulawesi Bear Cuscus is vulnerable (IUCN Red List) because of that and the heavy deforestation which is underway throughout Indonesia.

The frame grabs of Spectral Tarsier (right) was taken from video I shot in early afternoon.  As we traveled up and down the mountain we visited various “tarsier trees”.  Typically when the birding was slow and I appeared to need a rest.  Spectral Tarsiers colonies are generally found in large figs where they take refuge in the mass of intertwined trunk elements.  As you will quickly note, their eyes are huge, larger in mass - when compared to total body mass - than any other mammal.  Interestingly (for me) is that their eyes do not have a reflective coat which most nocturnal primates have - meaning there is no “eye shine”. Tarsiers are very agile and have wonderfully intricate digits.  They are known to leap 6 meters.  Known today as Tarsius tarsier it has been known by a number of synonyms. They are small (typically weighing about 4 ounces or 115 grams).  

Spectral Tasier2

Occasional vans of tourists from the dive resorts come to this area for three or four hours to see the Celebes Crested Macaque and Spectral Tarsier.  We ran into one of these tours on our way down the mountain.  The Tarsiers were not at home and the tourists were giving the guide a hard time, seeming to think that he could command the Tarsiers to appear at will.  For their part, the guides had brought along grasshoppers to place along the trunks of small trees about six feet from the fig.  Tarsiers love grasshoppers.  When they are home they will eye the situation and, having grown accustomed to tourists and their multiplicity of flash equipment, leap from the fig to the trunk of the nearby sapling, grab the grasshopper, and leap back to the fig so quickly that few tourists catch the act in progress.  

On the reptile front, I saw two snakes, both small.  One eating a frog and a green vine snake with an incredibly exotic head.  

© Robert Barnes 2015-2021