Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Kalimantan Krush

Natalia just started a research project in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. If you’ve heard of this part of the world before, it has probably be in reference to Orangutans or maybe how their forest homes are being rapidly leveled and burned to make way for oil palm plantations and how carbon emissions from such burning is greatly exacerbating global warming.

The view from the ground can indeed be grim at times. 

Forest cleared to make way for oil palm in East Kalimantan

Nearly nobody bothers to bird here and visitors of any kind from 'the West' are exceedingly rare. The immigration officer raised an eyebrow when I told him I was visiting for a month of tourism. Kalimantan is a place largely  forgotten by the world except for the multinational logging and oil palm firms and a few intrepid orangutan researchers. 

Our East Kalimantan route, starting in Samarinda (A) and ending in Tanjung Redeb (F), visiting Kutai National Park (B), Wehea Forest (C), Merabu Forest (D), and Sungai Lesan (E)

The front lines of palm oil expansion and tropical forest destruction criss-cross East Kalimantan.  Even the ‘protected areas’ are suffering.

Site #1: Kutai National Park

We visited Kutai National Park, one of those protected areas in name only, that seem to be so common in the developing world. There has been much illegal logging here, as well as state-sanctioned exploration for petroleum resources (as we all know, humanity’s thirst for oil trumps all else). There was a slingshot hanging in the kitchen.  Apparently the park guard staff use the trail system as their personal hunting grounds for forest meat. The main reason anybody would visit this place is the orangutans, which are protected in both a legal and practical sense here.
Baby Orangutan up in the canopy - Kutai National Park
these things are everywhere - Macaque at Kutai National Park

While the forest here looked structurally intact, birds were scarce and wary, suggesting a history of indiscriminate persecution. 

In Kutai National Park with park guide Ikbal

Paradoxically, we found the best time to search for birds here was after dark, and not just for owls.  We found Little Spiderhunter, Diard’s Trogon, Hooded Pitta and three different Rufous-backed Kingfishers (we saw zero of these during daytime).  

Diard's Trogon female

Hooded Pitta

What the heck? Headless Fluffbird?

Oh, OK. Little Spiderhunter

Rufous-backed Kingfisher

Worst-named bird ever?

A visiting Dutch couple were led to a sleeping Giant Pitta, but apparently scared it from its roost as we couldn’t relocate it the following night.

Rufous Piculet. Wait, I thought zygodactyl meant two toes forward and two toes backward. I only see one toe on a side here.

Wait, is this a two-toed bird?! Weird.

Daytime bird highlights were Velvet-fronted Nuthatch…alledgedly not a rare bird, but the only one we saw during our time in Kalimantan and one I really wanted to see one (a nuthatch in the tropics!). Another was Bornean Banded Kingfisher, a rare, recently split endemic forest kingfisher.

Bornean Banded Kingfisher, an endemic if you follow the split

The mystery bird of Kutai for us (apart from all the unidentified songs we heard) was this roosting juvenile Blue Flycatcher. Which of the dozen different blue flycatchers is it?

Unidentified flycatcher juvenile

Site #2: Wehea Forest

We next visited Wehea Forest, a community-run protected area that persist within a logging concession.  Essentially all the remaining forests of Kalimantan have been divided into ‘concessions’ for international logging companies. Fast on the heels of logging is clear cutting for oil palm monoculture. Proponents claim that very little deforestation in Borneo is caused by oil palm expansion, but rather oil palm plantations are replacing already-degraded marginally productive lands. While this is technically true in a proximate sense, ultimately the process of old growth forest cover being replaced by oil palm has been ongoing and continues… the existence of a logging intermediate phase doesn’t absolve the palm industry of culpability here.

Travelling the road to Wehea is like a trip back in time.  First there is mature oil palm, then the trees begin to shrink in stature until you reach the brand new plantation areas with tiny baby palm fronds spouting out of the scorched earth. Bordering the newly cleared plots are the wooden walls of skinny tree trunks of the degraded forest from which the new plantations are being carved. 

The recently deforested areas do seem pretty good for raptor watching, if that's a silver lining. This is a Wallace's Hawk-Eagle we found on the road to Wehea Forest

Crested Goshawk on the road to Wehea Forest

From here the forest condition improves until the end of the road, which used to be the site of a logging camp. But the Weheans expelled the loggers and with help from The Nature Conservancy built a lodge for visiting researchers and intrepid tourists. The accommodations are basic and yet by East Kalimantan standards, downright fancy. The Lonely Planet misleadingly uses the word ‘swanky,’ which has led to serial disappointment from visitors expecting more than a mattress on the floor of a mattress-sized room. The unsuspecting folks on holiday would get taken here straight after a pampered stay at some upscale Bali resort.

Natalia in the Wehea Forest with Boi, Lah and Abdullah

The place’s best feature is without a doubt, the clear gravel-bottom stream that serves as shower, laundromat and swimming pool.  It also hosts Paradise Flycatchers, Malaysian Blue Flycatchers, and Blue-banded Kingfishers. We made the trek out to the towers (fire towers built by the logging company before it left), but this ended up being a lot of uncomfortable slogging through an overgrown abandoned road bed. It was mostly hot and relatively bird-less.

The best birding at Wehea is along the entrance road where we saw several hornbills and other birds.  Unfortunately the very best birds fled after giving us just fleeting glimpses.  A pair of the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbills bolted from an emergent perch and a couple of the oddball endemic Bornean Bristleheads flew across the road in front of us without stopping. Better views desired for both of these.

Black-and-yellow Broadbill
We got our first broadbills here and in three different flavors: Black-and-yellow, Black-and-red, and Dusky. The latter is quite rare and a family group gave us a show of bathing in the hollow of a broken of tree branch showering droplets on us below.

Dusky Broadbill in the canopy shaking off the bathwater

From here we parted ways with our goofy, chain-smoking guide, Abdullah, and travelled to the provincial capital of Berau, Tanjung Redeb. This was our jumping off point for a three-day visit to... 

Site #3: Merabu Village

...Merabu Village, another community-based conservation project on another beautiful clear river. The village has a beautiful piece of forest, which is split between productive and protection sections. To us it wasn’t all that clear where the distinction between protection and production lay and I’m not sure all the villagers fully understand or honor that distinction. We were shown an abandoned nesting site where somebody had captured a fledgling Rhinoceros Hornbill and on our way out to see the forest, encountered a songbird hunter. He proudly showed us how his setup functioned. A tethered female is raised 5 m up on a telescopic pole next to a sticky-coated perch. Playback is blasted through a speaker and any territorial Greater Green Leafbirds within earshot are sure to fall prey and be sold into the captive cage bird market. Straw-headed Bulbuls, White-crowned Shamas and White-winged Magpie-Robins have already been extirpated from the vicinity of all Kalimantan human settlements by this industry. Leafbirds are the next targets while they last.

Other than the birds that are specifically persecuted, the forest does appear to be 'protected.'

Black-bellied Malkoha (a kind of cuckoo) at Merabu Village Forest

Moustached Hawk-Cuckoo, a cuckoo and not a hawk

Orange-backed Woodpecker
Some of the best birding was done by boat along the stream.

Black Hornbill, by far the most commonly observed hornbill for us. Hornbills proved to be very shy. Is that because they are used to getting shot at? They were a lot harder to get good looks at (not to mention photos) than their new world counterparts, the toucans, are in Central and South America.

Brown-throated (or Plain-throated) Sunbird, the functional equivalent of a hummingbird, but in passerine form. Sadly diversity of sunbirds in South East Asia doesn't come anywhere near the diversity of hummingbirds in the Americas.  Nobody feeds them nectar at feeders either.

The proboscis monkey, a highly sought-after mammalian oddity. We saw a group of half a dozen along the river near Merabu Village all in this same 'chair' pose.

Up to this point we were flummoxed as to how we had not managed to see a single barbet. In Merabu forest we were finally able to come across some fruiting fig trees, which produced four species in short order.
Red-crowned Barbet

Yellow-crowned Barbet
Outside of Merabu we took a spin through the nearby oil palm monoculture hellscape. 

Merapun's oil palm, a cash cow

This could have been the fate of Merabu's forest. The nearby village of Merapun opted to sell out to the oil palm firms and now 40% of the village is employed in the industry. This has undoubted yielded a lot of economic growth for the village, but how long will it last? 

center of Merabu Village

It will be interesting to track the fates of these two parallel villages that have taken different paths. The community forest model may have its short-comings (i.e. hunting), but it's definitely better for biodiversity to have a de-faunated forest, than no forest at all.

this Black-shouldered Kite appeared to be enjoying the oil palm landscape

Site #4: Sungai Lesan

The last protected area we visited, Sungai Lesan, is a bit of an enigma. It was formerly logging concession, but some 20 years ago it became designated as protected forest for reasons that remain unclear to me. Anyway it’s pretty nice chunk of pristine lowland forest, possibly the best anywhere in East Kalimantan. There are two ways to access: a 10 minute drive from the roadside village of Sido Bangen to a small station operated by the provincial government’s forest management unit; and a two-hour boat ride along beautiful rivers to an abandoned research station. 
Lesser Fish Eagle seen along the river to the Sungai Lesan research station 
Physically the station is in fine shape…it’s only about 10 years old and solidly built with moneys from The Nature Conservancy. But apparently it was used once or twice before being let go. I guess they built it and nobody came?

Abandoned Sungai Lesan field station
...well it's not completely abandoned. The bats are making good use of TNC's investment.
We walked into the forest from the station on a very well-built trail, encountering two additional field stations.  These were also built only to go unused.  Currently all these lost structures have been commandeered by bats. The forest was full of huge old-looking trees and we came across a nice mixed flock of woodpeckers and malkohas. The woodpeckers being beautiful and scarce.

This more remote area seemed to be in better shaped than the more easily accessed entrance near town. We were told that during gemstone season the stream that separates the forest from slash-and-burn parcels fills up with eager prospectors panning for precious pebbles.

speaking of stones, this is a terrible photo of a Garnet Pitta. It flew up to sing from this branch some 5 m off the ground. 

Whiskered Treeswift perched at the edge of the Sungai Lesan Forest, Treeswifts unlike true swifts can perch on branches and yet they share the same order, Apodiformes

This ends our whirlwind tour of East Kalimantan's most important remaining lowland forest. The birds here are wonderful, at least the ones that aren’t yet trapped in cages. And yet nobody birds this province. Why?  Well there is no tourist infrastructure to speak of. No birding guides and just a handful of general tourism guides. Few people speak English and the services non-existent, the accommodations as basic as one can get (i.e. mattress on the floor, that’s it; also see ‘how to take a shit in Indonesia’). Plus the Malaysian state of Sabah, just to the north, has worlds better infrastructure, guides, etc. and essentially the same avifauna. As a result, Natalia and I are now top eBirders for East Kalimantan (which eBird considers to be a county) and are both top 3 in Kalimantan.

Natalia hasn't yet accepted all the shared checklists

Crested Serpent-Eagle a roadside bird near Sungai Lesan

I couldn’t recommend that anyone make a birding trip to Kalimantan, but as somebody who enjoys adventure and getting off the beaten tourist path, it’s great to see the intact remnants of habitat here before they are further degraded and destroyed. And despite all the hardships of this place: instant ramen noodles three meals a day; the oppressive heat and humidty; the voracious mosquitoes and leeches; the squat toilets; the lack of connectivity; the inability to communicate with anybody; the constant staring from locals glimpsing their first white person; the blaring calls to prayer at 5 am; I'm actually looking forward to coming to visit again. 


  1. Great stuff, Scott! Well, not so great about the deforestation, songbird poaching, and abundant leeches... Hopefully you can get to a few areas that are protected in more than name, but there aren't many left on Borneo. I'd predicted that upon seeing your first orangutan (a baby, at that!) you'd see the light and move on up to mammals, though I'm pleased to see I was wrong - your birdly dedication has only increased! Have fun over there, and say hi to Natalia for me.

    1. Hey Cooper!
      Natalia says 'hi' back. We ran into a Canadian Orangutan researcher at Wehea. Those apes are pretty cool, but following them around in the forest for 14 hours per day is not for me! I prefer to follow birds around for 14 hours per day. =P
      The level of hunting pressure here is insane. And not just on mammals... the pheasants are all being eaten and the song birds hauled off in cages.

  2. Brutal on so many different levels. Also questioning everything I know due to piculet toe formations.

    1. yeah I'm still not sure if that two-toed piculet is a real thing or somehow a photographic artifact. Certainly Indonesia has made question plenty of things I formerly took for granted...

  3. Scott

    Some amazing bird pictures and some species color combinations that I had never seen for sure. The deforestation is sad for many ecological reasons and one might ask how much palm oil the planet needs?


    1. Hi Curt,

      That's a great question, which at least a few economists are pondering. Apparently the answer for now is: 'more'

      It's very difficult to avoid consuming palm oil. If you look at the backs of the boxes of many food and personal care products at the local grocery store, you'll realize how deeply it has penetrated the vegetable oil market. Demand is high and the palm monocultures are highly productive and profitable. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the forests they are replacing.

      A 'deforestation free' oil palm certification is in the works akin to the 'rainforest alliance' seal that has found its way onto many products. I'm not convinced that this program is much more than 'greenwashing,' unfortunately.

  4. Here is a good piece of further reading on oil palm and deforestation:

  5. Hello Scott!
    Nice "little" trip you had in East Kalimantan. I am planning to go there with my wife this September (end).
    How long did it take to you to do the whole trip from Samarinda to Tanjung Redeb? Did you fly from Balikpapan and Berau?
    We love wildlife, what about other animals like mammals or reptiles or "strange animals", is it easy to see them and what about the quantity? I seem to read different opinions on the internet about this, I also see videos of people who have not seen anything......O_o......
    Sorry for all these questions, but it seems quite difficult to find information about this.

    Thank you

    1. Hi Ricky,

      I flew into Balikpapan and made all the travels to Tanjung Redeb by car (with detours to the various stops on the map). If you googlemap driving directions, the drive times will be reasonably accurate, but my memory is that it would take you several hours (maybe 8?) to get from Samarinda to Tanjung Redep in one shot. We flew out of Berau.
      There's all kinds of wildlife around, I just tend to focus on birds. Other than the ubiquitous monitor lizards most things tend to be pretty shy. But if you put in the time and effort, are patient and go to the natural areas you will definitely see things like macaques and leaf monkeys.
      There's not much info about Kalimantan because very few people travel there. As you will find (and as I describe in this post) the tourism infrastructure is very basic.
      good luck and have fun


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