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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Indonesia: The Lesser Sunda Islands

Sumba, Timor and Flores

2018 Narrative

In Brief: Indonesia has a multitude of islands and thirty-four provinces, and the Lesser Sundas or East Nusa Tenggara is one of the least well known of them. We explored three of these fascinating islands in the far south-eastern corner of this fascinating archipelago in search of the incredible birdlife that has evolved on these laboratories of natural selection! With over 380 endemic bird species, Indonesia has the highest number of endemics of any country in the world. Sadly though, with 122 threatened species, Indonesia ranks third in the world in this department – a dubious honor.  The three islands we visited – Sumba, Timor and Flores – are each placed in their own Endemic Bird Area by Birdlife International. So clearly, each island has its own distinctive character and our tour felt like a series of unique experiences with delightful discoveries on a daily basis.

Highlights were many but of particular note were a roller coasting Timor Black Pigeons on Rote as well as that amazing day time sighting of a very defensive Rote Boobook; a single stunning Sumba Hornbills at close quarters in the Manupeu Tanah National Park on Sumba; a super spot by Freddy of surely one of the world’s most beautiful doves – the Red-naped Fruit-Dove; the simply gorgeous Elegant Pitta perched up at eye level not once but twice (Sumba and Flores); a little family group of Timor Sparrows at Bipolo; and on Flores that jaw-dropping White-rumped Kingfisher as well as the remarkable (in every way!) Bare-throated Whistler; and how about that strutting Beach Thick-knee interrupting our breakfast reverie!


Sumba is a hilly, low-lying, dry island lying of its northern volcanic island neighbours Flores and Sumbawa. Small patches of monsoon and rain forest remain in some areas of more rugged terrain but much of the land has been cleared for agriculture. Most of our birding time was spent in the Manapeu Tanah National Park where the largest tract of forest on the island is protected. We started our birding with a visit to the Yumbu Grasslands just out of Waingapu though, in search of the increasingly rare and endemic Sumba Buttonquail. Our quest was eventually successful but not without considerable effort. The grass was higher than usual this year so we only managed flight views but it was a sweet victory! Moving inland to the forested areas of the national park, we had a few great days birding along roadsides and trails.

Our first stop was the so-called Km51, presumably for want of a better name! We started off our birding in style with sharp-eyed Keith G spotting a sexy Cinnamon-banded Kingfisher. Waiting until after dark we then nailed down a Little Sumba Boobook, who mostly got the better of us.

Our early morning forays into the national park proper were fun and rewarding so that by the time the heat of the day beat us down we had notched up a wonderful collection of this island’s special birds. During our windows of opportunity, we came face to face with so many beauties including Pale-shouldered (Sumba) Cicadabird, the enigmatic Yellow-spectacled White-eye, and the gem-like Apricot-breasted Sunbird amongst others. One morning, we journeyed a little farther afield to a hilly area where we had a great view of the endemic Sumba Hornbill in company with lots of Red-cheeked Parrots and a stunning Chestnut-backed Thrush that had eluded us thus far. More explorations eventually turned up a co-operative Elegant Pitta, which certainly lived up to its name!


Moving on, we next dropped into Rote Island off the coast of Timor, a first for a Wings tour, for a couple of days of excellent birding. Our aim here was not only to see a little handful of Rote endemics but also to track down a number of birds shared with Timor that are a little easier to find here. All the endemics were soon tracked down – the boobook, fantail, myzomela and the leaf-warbler. We also encountered the aforementioned Timor Black Pigeon, as well as very cooperative and cute Timor Stubtails along with the strange Timor Oriole. Alfred Russel Wallace first noticed that the oriole mimics the friarbirds, soon after his fateful discovery of the theory of natural selection on the islands to our north in the Moluccas.


After a very successful stay on Rote, we arrived in Timor. Our first afternoon outing took us to Bipolo, a small patch of forest that is one of the few accessible remaining forests on the overpopulated island of Timor. It holds an astounding diversity of great birds, including many of our sought-after endemics. These islands are hot so it’s important to make the most of the cool, pleasant mornings and late afternoons which we wasted no time doing! We birded along the roadside and soon notched up a bunch of neat endemics and other localized species.  This island, lying at the crossroads as it does, holds a strange mix of Asian and Australian groups - as the honeyeaters and parrots call and cavort overhead we can hear the high pitched whistles of stubtails in the undergrowth and Cyornis blue flycatchers flit in the canopy. One of our best finds of the day, or should I say evening, was a cooperative Timor Boobook responding from a perch high in the forest. On other days we had gorgeous Apricot-breasted Sunbirds entertaining us as they fed on flowers of roadside shrubs as well as Timor Blue-Flycatchers and handsome White-bellied Bushchats. We checked the neighboring fields for various munias with great success with rare Timor Sparrow putting in an appearance for all to admire, as well as the smart Five-coloured Munia for extra bonus points.

We also visited the highlands of Gunung Mutis further inland where the birding was a little slower but with some neat sightings of Pygmy Cupwings and others. The highlight may have been our lunchtime visit with the village headman, though. They’re little welcome ceremony for us is always a lot of fun.


Our final, and unanimously favorite, destination was the beautiful green island of Flores. It was so refreshing to be in the cool mountain air surrounded by lush rainforest and exciting birds! As soon as we stepped off the plane we took off to the mountains and soon we were looking at a bunch of the wonderful Flores endemics, including the delightful Flores Minivet, in company with Flores Jungle Flycatcher, Flores Leaf-Warbler, Crested Dark-eyes and White-browed Dark-eyes! Much to our delight the incomparable Bare-throated Whistler responded and show off in atypical fashion on our very first outing. On one occasion a low flying pair of Bonelli’s Eagles causing us to screech to a halt and we must have looked like a bunch of mad people! And, after a ridiculously frustrating attempt to see furtive Russet-capped Tesias, it was very amusing to see a number of them sit up and out in the open for seemingly minutes on end. On another day we went in search of another of the trip’s most wanted – the fascinating and startling White-rumped Kingfisher. It deigned to approach eventually and sat out in the open for quite some time for us to admire him.

In the hotter lowlands of Kisol we found a pair of soaring Flores Hawk-Eagle, which was super exciting, along with a very responsive Flores Crow – what a strange bird.

Returning to the mountains, our next target was the increasingly difficult to find a Flores Green-Pigeon, which we did find after much effort.

Moving down towards the coast we stopped at Puarlolo, the traditional site for the scarce endemic Flores Monarch. Usually this bird put up a lot of resistance, but we got very lucky with a pair showing almost immediately and very well at that. This was not before a super Elegant Pitta perched up for us and was followed by a fabulous Chestnut-capped Thrush. This bird is critically threatened by the cage bird trade, so our sighting was bittersweet. 


The icing on the cake of a very successful tour, our day outing to the remarkable island of Komodo, was not only a resounding birding success but also a lot of fun. A very large Dragon greeted us on arrival and we were soon enjoying great looks at the rare Yellow-crested Cockatoo and the gorgeous Green Junglefowl as well as comical Orange-footed Scrubfowls and Island Collared Doves. What a great end to the trip!

Created: 18 October 2018