Brown. Bare. Dry. A fire-scorched and sun-baked island. These were the words that formed in my head as I flew into Kupang, Timor at the height of the dry season.
As a keen forest bird-watcher accustomed to the lush greenery of Papua, Sumatra, and Java, it was a shock to be greeted by such contrast, and little to inspire confidence for seeing and photographing the birds of Timor.
However, that was of little consequence, I thought, as I am here to work as an intern and `birding’ is, after all, just a hobby.
My assignment took me to the highland town of Soe, 110 kilometers up a winding road. On the way we pass several stretches of monsoon forest which start to instill hope. The forest, although sparse, actually looks much better from the ground.
After several weeks of work, I head off to the field on my first possible opportunity. In Paul Jepson’s book Birdwatching in Indonesia, the section on Timor written by Richard Noske tells of an abundance of endemic species (bird species confined to restricted areas) at Buat, a site five kilometers from Soe. Even though it’s blowing a gale I need to get out. I hope that my impressions upon arrival will be proved wrong.
A borrow a motorbike and 15 minutes later start my birding on Timor.
Three common species are instantly recorded then quail run across the path, a group of 11, and a species I have not encountered before. Up to the crest of the hill and I am standing on a magnificent three-kilometer-long escarpment.
Incredible! This must be one of the most spectacular places for bird-watching. The trees start from way below the drop-off and their canopy is just below my feet, and the view into it is great.
My first Timor endemic, the Yellow-eared Honeyeater — are probably the most abundant species here and can be seen and heard all around. A descending whistled scale is easy to mimic and I pull out a Plain Fairy-Warbler, in the canopy of a tall tree … but just three metres away, another Timor island endemic species is seen.
To my surprise Buat is remarkable rich. In all, after several visits, I recorded over 50 species including 20-odd Timor endemic species or subspecies.
Orange-banded thrush still persist, although much less common than Richard observed 13 years ago. Unfortunately, this species is trapped and sold as a cage-bird, and now headed for extinction in many parts of Timor. It certainly has a beautiful song and is a joy to hear in the forest, so when I encountered this bird in Kupang and Soe, trapped in cages, my heart sank.
In over three months working on Timor I had the opportunity to discover many such great bird-watching sites; at Bipolo — a remnant of lowland evergreen forest rarely found on Timor, and unusually rich in birdlife, especially pigeons; Taman Hutan Raya near Amarasi — where I saw many of the islands endemic and enigmatic birds; and Mount Mutis — the tallest peak on Timor and covered with eucalyptus forests, a similar scene to that in Australia. A four hours hike up Mutis revealed many beautiful birds such as Iris Lorikeet, Olive-shouldered Parrot and Timor Imperial Pigeon — all found nowhere in the world except the Timor group of Islands.
Thus, upon leaving Timor, my first impressions of the island lay shattered. Birdwatching in Timor is excellent!
Bird photography was particularly successful and I managed to capture many of Timor’s specialties on film, including the first ever photograph of a Timor Black-Pigeon in the wild. Also, bird-watching would not have been so enjoyable on Timor if it were not for the hospitality and warmth of the local people. Tradition is still strong and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in all villages in which I stayed.
Everyone shared their knowledge, customs and stories, and were also keen to discover the uniqueness of Timor’s birdlife, which otherwise to them seems ordinary. It was a joy to see local people caring for their wildlife and wishing to safeguard it after learning of Timor’s uniqueness.
Unfortunately, conservation organizations seem to have ignored Timor. WWF has a program around Mount Mutis, but activities were not evident in the field during my stay. Illegal logging continues apace, as is now the unsavory norm in Indonesia.
Hopes for conservation of Timor’s birds and the forest in which they dwell are now in the hands of the people. Education and awareness are the keys to success. In general, most Timorese communities remain ignorant of the uniqueness of Timor, having a lack of information and nothing to compare it with.
Perhaps, it should be the responsibility of NGOs and government alike to inform the people so they can make informed choices for the future. Hopefully, for the sake of birdlife, forests and ecologically stability, there will be enough who choose conservation.