Indonesia, 2015

The Bali Myna is Bali’s only endemic vertebrate species. These wild populations are under extreme pressure from illegal poaching for the pet trade.

Our first “big trip” was to Indonesia over winter break. We landed in Jakarta, transferred to Bali, then hopped over to the port of Labuan Bajo on Flores. From there we boated to Rinca for a day trip, camped on a small island nearby, and then flew back to Bali where we finished out the month in West Bali National Park, one of only three places in the world where the critically endangered, endemic Bali Myna lives wild.

Humans may think they’re in charge, but it’s really the Balinese Long-tailed Macaques who run the show.

We spent our first few days based in the town of Ubud, situated in south-central Bali among rice paddies and other small plantations. Most prominent of course are the charismatic Long-tailed Macaques, who cheerfully terrorize anyone who has forgotten to strap down anything important securely to their person. We spent a portion of one amusing afternoon watching a young macaque steal someone’s water bottle, unscrew the lid, and unceremoniously dump the contents out before abandoning the litter to be rescued.

The lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is native to India and East Asia, but occurs all over Southeast Asia and beyond, probably due to human introduction.

A Javan Pond Heron foraging in a flooded rice paddy.

Less disruptive inhabitants of the region we spotted included many Javan Pond Herons foraging in the rice paddies; a Javan Kingfisher, an incredibly colorful species endemic to Java and Bali; White-breasted Waterhens, surprisingly bold birds of the rail family that I photographed with my lens’ front element completely fogged with condensation (rookie mistake); a Plantain Squirrel, a fruit-loving tree squirrel common across Southeast Asia; and an exquisitely beautiful butterfly chrysalis that I believe belongs to Euploea core, the Common Crow.

On a day trip to the central highlands: a Long-tailed Shrike; Scaly-breasted Munia feeding on grain; Amorphophallus muelleri, a wonderful arum (a relative of the Titan Arum) that forms an inflorescence around two feet tall; and a Common Moorhen foraging in the marshy shallows of Lake Batur, a caldera lake inside an active volcano.

Water Hyacinths (Eichornia cassipes) are a native plant of the Amazon that is heinously invasive in waterways worldwide. In many areas they were introduced for horticultural reasons due to their beautiful purple-blue flowers, in others as animal feed and for sewage management, but they can quickly outcompete native aquatic plants and algae. Thick mats can form that cover water surfaces, depleting dissolved oxygen that fish depend on, and even causing transportation hazards for ship traffic.

The sighting that really delighted me was a Yellow Bittern, a rather common but very small Old World heron, hunting the same marshy reed-beds of Lake Batur. I was absolutely thrilled when it successfully pulled up a shrimp.

A successful hunt for a Yellow Bittern.

From Denpasar we flew to the island of Flores, where we spent a day in a beautiful fishing town called Labuan Bajo (the view of the port during a dramatic rainstorm from a hill above the town is pictured below) before our trip to visit Komodo National Park, which comprises a number of islands in the Lesser Sunda archipelago. Naturally the target species in Komodo National Park is the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon. At up to 10 feet long, these are truly giants and absolutely intimidating, even at rest. They gather near the ranger stations to sleep in the sun, but spotting some individuals awake, roaming the sparse forest was the real highlight.

The Komodo Dragon, on the move in the sparse forests of Rinca, an island contained in Komodo National Park.

Besides the dragons, we enjoyed sightings of some sparring Fiddler Crabs; an Amorphophallus paeoniifolius flower absolutely filled with beetles, which it traps inside its inflorescence overnight; and a number of interesting snakes, including a White-lipped Tree Viper (a female?) that appears to have sustained an injury to the scales of her jaw, and a Russell’s Viper that quite charmingly appeared to have dressed up for the occasion!

We watched this little red insect (I think this is an nymph [immature form] of the true bugs, Hemiptera, but I don’t know enough to identify further) crawling across the leaf litter when we stopped to photograph the viper. Its journey took it up the side of the snake’s head, over its nose, and down the other side, back into the leaf litter whence it came.

Russell’s Viper (Daboia russelii), a highly venomous and aggressive snake whose countenance is only slightly softened by its bright companion.

We slept that evening camped out on one of the many tiny islands out in the archipelago, where regrettably we both were very ill with foodborne illness, the experience of which shall not be further recounted here. More cheerfully, we still managed to enjoy the sight of thousands of bats flying out of the hills on a distant island at dusk, off to find food.

This photo of a cloud of bats rising out of the hills at dusk is quite unremarkable, but it does show an interesting technical artifact that appears as grid banding in lifted shadows. This seems to have been a prominent issue on a few generations of Canon CMOS sensors. I have only seen it on a few of the more underexposed, high ISO photos from this trip.

In the morning, we woke after a restless night to the odd sensation of being scrutinized. A trio of feral goats had picked their way down to the remote beach to feed on vegetation, a female with a kid in tow and a male. Feral goats are a common introduction to the national park, where they seem to thrive on the scrubby and steep hillsides. I’m not sure if they’ve reached numbers in Indonesia that push them into “invasive”.

A White-bellied Sea Eagle seen soaring from the boat, and a Collared Kingfisher perched on a snag.

One boat ride and one tiny plane ride later, we were back in Bali. The next morning we (very slowly) climbed Mount Batur, one of several active volcanoes on the island. The summit elevation is only 5633 feet, and the stats are easy, but we were still quite sick from the camping trip and didn’t make our strongest showing. We were just reaching the summit when the sun crept over the low-lying clouds across the caldera lake.

At the summit, there are, of course, enterprising hordes of monkeys, and also a number of dogs that seem to make their living begging scraps off tourists. One of them may have gotten my volcanic vent-steamed egg.

A young Long-tailed Macaque perched over a cliff, with a bird’s eye view into Mount Batur’s smoking vents.

Smoking volcanic vents on Mount Batur.

Later that evening, we made our way to a Cattle Egret rookery. The Cattle Egret is an interesting cosmopolitan species of heron, the only member of its genus. In breeding, their white plumage flushes dramatically orange.

A Cattle Egret displaying in breeding plumage.

Unfortunately for late hatchlings, Cattle Egrets, like many herons, preferentially feed the largest and strongest offspring in the nest. Though this little chick flailed quite dramatically for its parents’ attention, I never saw a parent feed it, instead feeding the largest chick several times.

A colony of Geoffroy’s Rousettes that live in the cave encompassed by Pura Goa Lawah. These are an old world megabat, but unlike other genera of fruit bats, they have the ability to echolocate using tongue clicks. At this time of year, there were a number of females with babies.

In East Bali, we avoided storms and dove the incredible reefs offshore. One evening, a surprisingly charming find was this invasive Asian Black-spined Toad resting by a pond, used as an unwitting trampoline by young toadlets of the same species.

These toads are thought to have spread to Bali via hitch-hiking. An array of factors, including a generalist diet, a poisonous body, human commensalism, and incredible fecundity expressed through opportunistic breeding throughout the year, has made this toad incredibly successful where it has been introduced. Notably, it shares these traits with the infamous but much larger Cane Toad. Its ecological impact in Indonesia doesn’t appear well-studied, but it is widely naturalized and its effects could be on the scale of that of the Cane Toad in Australia.

Our last days in Bali were spent at West Bali National Park, one of only three places in the world where populations of the critically endangered Bali Myna exist. Under pressure from both deforestation and illegal poaching for the pet trade, numbers once dropped to fewer than 10 known individuals. Today, on the order of 100 adults are assumed to exist in the wild, with closer to 1000 in captivity. At least two of the myna we saw at West Bali National Park were unbanded, which appears to suggest they were at least second generation birds since a captive release.

Though they prefer to take cover high in the canopy, we were lucky to spot a few individuals in the national park closer to eye-level on two occasions. Seeing these birds in the wild, feeding and preening each other, was an enormous privilege.

The park has very rich biodiversity. Among the other animals we encountered hiking around the monsoon forests and mangroves were: the charismatic Javan Rusa Deer; a metallic male Olive-backed Sunbird; many Yellow-vented Bulbuls; Striated Heron, a tiny heron of the mangroves; an incredibly bright blue Cerulean Kingfisher against the red roots of the mangroves; mudskippers; a Collared Kingfisher; a pair of Coppersmith Barbet; a male Green Junglefowl; some Black-winged Starlings (tertius subspecies) from afar, another critically endangered starling of Indonesia; and of course, an incredible squirrel the size of a housecat, the Black Giant Squirrel.

After West Bali National Park, our winter break was over and we made our way back to frigid Illinois, where we had managed to skip out on the worst of the polar vortex. Our layover in Jakarta was not as idyllic as the siesta being enjoyed by this Javan Rusa, but we did make one last discovery: our first Beard Papa’s, an international chain that makes fresh cream puffs, that very providentially has locations in Seattle.

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