An expedition to Damar Island, South West Maluku, Indonesia
by Colin Trainor, OBC Bulletin 36, December 2002
Shaped like a dinosaurs head, with a steaming fumarole emitting discrete clouds of sulphur through a hypothetical nostril, the island of Damar has lain in wait for birders for over 100 years. That is, until recent work in August 2001 by BirdLife International to rediscover the Damar Flycatcher Ficedula henrici.
Damar, like many islands in eastern Indonesia is remote more than 100 km to the nearest similarly sized islands of Romang and Babar. It is one of a string of volcanic islands starting with Java in the west and ending with the Banda Islands, south of Ambon. Damar is only about 198 km2, however it has a distinctive avifauna with its single endemic, the Damar Flycatcher Ficedula henrici and two endemic sub-species, Rufous-sided Gerygone Gerygone dorsalis kuehnii and Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis dammeriana. Fifteen restricted-range species have also been recorded, including the near threatened Blue-streaked Lory Eos reticulata (perhaps introduced from the Tanimbar Islands), Green-cheeked Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx rufomerus (a South-west island endemic), Orange-sided Thrush Zoothera peronii (a Timor-group endemic) and Cinnamon-collared Kingfisher Todiramphus australasia (widespread in the Lesser Sundas). Prior to their rediscovery in 2001, the Damar Flycatcher was first and last recorded in 1898 and the Green-cheeked Bronze Cuckoo (endemic to Damar, Romang, Kisar, Leti, Moa and Babar) in 1902. Damar is perhaps also the easiest place to see the other restricted-range species listed above. Combine this with extensive and scenic forest, coastal landscapes, and two spectacularly intact small islands to the south teeming with turtles, extensive fringing reef and Beach Thick-knees, Damar offers much for guests during a 7-10 day visit.
Damar is, however, desperately undeveloped and has no electricity, no telephones, cars, motorbikes, hotels or losmen though hot running water is available from volcanic springs! Its isolation has maintained a particularly strong culture with tight social control managed by village heads. A total of 5000 people lives in seven villages, most of whom rely on the cash sale of coconuts and cloves together with subsistence crops (banana, cassava, chilli, tomato and papaya) and fishing for their livelihoods. Local transportation involves walking (23 h) or chartering motor boats (Johnsons) to other villages (30-90 min), which are all along the coast. Damar is best visited between July and October when the seas are calmer (especially September) and likelihood of rain lower. There are two separate local languages with the villages of Wulur through to Kumur having different local names for birds compared to the two westernmost villages of Batumerah and Kwai. Manu is the word for bird in the Wulur language.
Access and accommodation
Getting to Damar is difficult. Damar is accessible by public transport from Ambon and Saumlaki (Tanimbar Islands) and with greater difficulty from Kupang via Kisar Island (contact author for details). The most comfortable option would be to charter a yacht from Bali at about $US1500 per person/week. Access is perhaps easiest from Ambon, however this needs to be weighed against the ongoing civil unrest in this area (1998present). About every 20 days a kapal perintis ship, either the Iliana or Mentari 2 (but not both) departs Ambon on a route including Damar as the first port of call after about 26 h of travel (400 km). The ship is owned by PT Pelayanan Mentari Sejati Perkasa Ambon. Tickets cost only c. $US 2, however it is much more comfortable to arrange a cabin and bed ($US 10-15/night per bed). From Saumlaki, Tanimbar, the same ships are available at the other end of their route (ticket $US 34, bed as above), but travel to Damar takes 56 days via the islands of Babar, Sermata, Moa, Leti, Kisar, Wetar and Romang. Depending on your perspective, this is either wasted time or an opportunity to see some seabirds and get a look at some very remote and poorly known islands many without bird records for more than 100 years! From Kupang, West Timor, the ship Iramuar travels past the coast of Timor stopping a couple of times on Wetar, then on to Kisar (after c.48 h), where it will be necessary to disembark and wait for a boat continuing on to Damar. The Iramuar continues on to the Tanimbar Islands.
The village of Wulur is the largest on the island (c.1000 people) and all major ships stop in the Solat Bay between Wulur and Kehli making it the best base for birding on Damar. Stay with the kepala desa or village head Sigrandus Romode (until the year 2006) who can assist with arranging guides and other logistical aspects. Giving $US 23 per person/night for the accommodation and food will make any village stay more friendly and comfortable. Although there is much secondary forest and interesting mangroves and sago swamp at the mouth of the bay, it is best to head straight to the primary semi-evergreen forest about 2 km southwest of the village (a one hour walk) (ask to go to Yan Lutruwowans garden). This can be done as a day walk, or it is easy to arrange to camp in the garden, which is adjacent to primary forest.
After leaving Wulur, the White-tufted Honeyeater Lichmera squamata (known locally as Sunusopa) is the most abundant species, using all habitat including the canopy of mangroves, coconut trees and in shrubs. The Rufous-sided Gerygone Gerygone dorsalis (Lapitis) is also very common and particularly confiding when foraging in grass or low shrubs. Other common birds in the coastal woodland and mangroves near Air Panas include Pacific Reef Egret Egretta sacra (Sulit), Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus (Manu apruru the name given for all raptors), Variable Goshawk Accipiter novaehollandiae, Spotted Kestrel Falco molluccensis, Blue-tailed Imperial Pigeon Ducula concinna (Walur/pombo), Pink-headed Imperial Pigeon D. rosacea (also Walur), Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica (Imuan/pau pau) Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris (Aratilu), Black-faced Cuckooshrike Coracina novaehollandiae, White-bellied Whistler Pachycephala leucogastra, Northern Fantail Rhipidura rufiventris (Loi loi papa), Rufous Fantail Rhipidura rufifrons (Loi loi) and Ashy-bellied White-eye Zosterops citrinellus (Manu malar). As you begin the gradual climb from Air Panas Spectacled Monarch Monarcha trivirgatus will likely be seen in secondary woodland along streams. In banana and vegetable gardens Green-cheeked Bronze Cuckoo will be calling constantly but getting good views will be more difficult.
Within Yans garden the surrounding forest is a cacophony of sounds dominated by the abundant, small-island specialist Blue-tailed Imperial Pigeons urrauw call, uttered continuously through the day. The density of this pigeon reaches 2070 individuals/ha, and it can be observed feeding on Nutmeg fruits, the dominant forest tree, from July to September along with another abundant frugivore, the Black-backed Fruit Dove Ptilinopus cinctus. However, Pink-headed Imperial Pigeon and Rose-crowned Fruit Dove (Towo towo) are less confiding. The Green-cheeked Bronze Cuckoo is easily seen here as it frequently perches on stumps and logs where it gleans caterpillars and other insects from chilli bushes and the ground. Two other restricted-range species the Cinnamon-collared Kingfisher and Orange-sided Thrush are also relatively easy to see at the forest edge. The song of the thrush can be heard through most of the day, whereas the kingfisher calls either early morning or late afternoon (often duetting with its raucous ch-whee call).
The Damar Flycatcher has been observed repeatedly along the forest edge in an area targeted for further conversion to garden plots (usually an area 50 m by 70 m is cleared). Spending time at forest edge scanning the rattan understorey and potential perches below 3 m is a good place to begin a search for this species. Damar Flycatcher is widespread here, and learning its sibilant whistle will greatly assist detection. Male birds are far easier to observe, females often present with males but skulking within dense rattan. There are no well-marked forest trails so it is necessary to follow hunter-guides who know the forest. Olive-headed Lorikeet Trichoglossus euteles (Nuri hijau) will be heard frequently flying rapidly over the canopy, the less common Blue-streaked Lory (Asturi, Nuri biru or Nur Mer-mer) occasionally so. While the canopy is full of forest pigeons, the understorey and subcanopy often seem empty of birds other than the ubiquitous Spectacled Monarch. However Golden Whistlers, White-bellied Whistlers, particularly the females, are often seen skulking low in bushes or even hopping along the forest floor. Orange-sided Thrush can be observed daily, but getting a view of Elegant Pitta Pitta elegans amongst the dense understorey will prove more difficult. Similarly, the Metallic Pigeon Columba vitiensis was recorded here several times but is not confiding.
Kumur area (Kwai Protection Forest)
The easiest place to observe Damar Flycatcher during the 2001 survey was the lush semi-evergreen forest south of Kumur, but actually owned by Kwai village. Kumur is an interesting 3 h (7 km) walk from Wulur, but taking a motor boat (1 h) costing c. $US 2 if public transport or c. $US 10 if a charter, is recommended. Kumur sits on the western side of the Ayerkota River (the largest on the island) with the village of Bebar Barat 100 m away on the opposite bank. The forest is accessed by walking from the village for about 3 km (1 h), much of this along the scenic Ayerkota valley. Habitat along the valley includes some secondary forest, relatively extensive dense canegrass along the river, and coconut and clove plantations. It appears to have potential for rails, warblers and waterbirds, although apart from Pacific Reef Egret none were observed during recent work. Good views can be obtained of forest on steep slopes along the length of the valley with Brahminy Kites and flocks of frigatebirds Fregata spp soaring above. Blue-tailed Imperial Pigeons glide down from the ridges and Olive-headed Lorikeet is very common in flowering coconuts. Birds are under lower hunting pressure here than Wulur (where there are many air rifles) with the Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt (Hibla manu) calling frequently from mangroves close to Kumur village.
Another garden lodge is a useful base for walks to the adjacent forest where Orange-sided Thrush, Emerald Dove, Rufous-sided Gerygone, Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis (Manu metan) and Green-cheeked Bronze Cuckoo are frequently observed. After entering forest Damar Flycatcher is often seen while walking along the well-marked forest trails, usually perched on lianas or saplings 12 m above ground, where they sit silently scanning the ground below and any bare surfaces for insects. When a prey item is observed they wing-flap in apparent excitement, then fly to ground and forage amongst litter, or glean insects from shrubs or tree trunks. Their weak whistled call can be widely heard throughout the forest. The Blue-streaked Lory (Kasturi) may be observed feeding on the flowers of the Salawaku tree or Jambu air (Syzygium sp), but more usually flying at speed over the canopy. Cinnamon-collared Kingfisher and Elegant Pitta may occasionally be seen. Barn Owl Tyto alba (Uru) screech at night from the garden camp where they hunt the abundant rats, Rattus argentiventer. After finishing with forest observations, more working of the modified habitats along the Ayerkota River valley is a likely area to add new species for the island.
Forest at Batumerah is best accessed by travelling in dugout canoes 3 km along the coast from the village to the mouth of the Awehnyo River, then following the river inland for about 1 km until primary forest is reached. Man-modified coastal habitats here include mangroves, beach forest, coconut plantation and riparian forest. The Barred-necked Cuckoo Dove Macropygia magna was recently recorded for the first time on Damar from degraded forest near the river mouth, however this habitat contains few other birds of special interest except for White-bellied Whistler, which is common, while Osprey Pandion haliaetus fish along the coast. Working from a base hut in a garden plot is a good way to explore the tall semi-evergreen forest along the river. In 2001 a male and female Damar Flycatcher were observed for several hours as they moved through the camp garden foraging for insects. They regularly perched on large logs and the garden fence and flew down to the ground to feed amongst litter, on bare rocks and in chilli bushes. They typically spent 12 h in the gardens each morning working an area of 0.2 ha, and then moved back into the surrounding forest. Glossy Swiftlet Collocalia esculenta is a common aerial species in forest gaps and over gardens. The Rainbow Bee-eater Merops ornatus was newly recorded for Damar from this habitat.
Specialities in the Batumerah forest include Cinnamon-collared Kingfisher (likely to be observed perched above the river), Orange-sided Thrush, Elegant Pitta, Metallic Pigeon (they drink from the river in early morning), Black-banded Fruit Dove, Orange-footed Scrubfowl and perhaps Barred-necked Cuckoo Dove. Only a single individual of the latter was recorded in 2001, but it is likely to have been under-recorded. There are no marked forest trails but walking along the rocky river channel, or with a local hunter who knows the area is a good way to explore. Unfortunately, there is active forest conversion to agricultural plots, with several being created further upstream during the survey.
Terbang Utara and Terbang Selatan
Two islets (56 km2 each) located about 10 km and 15 km south of Damar are of avifaunal interest they were birded for the first time in Sep 2001. Access is available through chartering a small motorboat from Wulur (c. $US 70100 for 23 days). It would be possible to visit both islands in one day. Both are covered in intact tropical dry forest (1025 m high) and coastal shrub, with extensive beaches, rocky shoreline and coral reefs. A total of 34 species was recorded on these islands, five unrecorded from the Damar mainland; migrating Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres and Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva, Beach Thick-knee Esacus neglectus, Little Pied Cormorant Phalacrocorax melanoleucos and an unconfirmed species of cuckoo (probably Pied Bronze Cuckoo Chrysococcyx crassirostris).
Green Turtle Chelonia mydas nest on the beaches at night and the nocturnal calls of the Turtle Bird (Urur Penu) or Beach Thick-knee are a sign for local people that turtles are nesting. Beach Thick-knee is common on both islands (perhaps 1030 individuals on each). It can be observed throughout the day foraging on beaches and exposed rock platforms, feeding on barnacles and molluscs. There is a roosting colony of Greater Frigatebird Fregata minor and Lesser Frigatebird F. ariel on Terbang Selatan said to sometimes number in the 1000s (about 100 individuals in 2001). In addition, the abundance of several species is much greater here than on Damar. The Orange-footed Scrubfowl is exceptionally abundant (35 pairs observed per hour), as are Pink-headed Imperial Pigeon, Black-banded Fruit Dove and Rose-crowned Fruit Dove, whereas White-tufted Honeyeater was surprisingly rare.
Damar Island lies in a global biological hotspot, the Banda Sea Islands Endemic Bird Area (EBA 165: Stattersfield et al. 1998). This EBA harbours 18 endemic and 41 restricted-range bird species. Damar, supporting more restricted-range birds than Sumba (an island more than 50 times larger) is of high conservation interest with its single endemic Damar Flycatcher, near threatened Blue-streaked Lory and other globally restricted forest birds such as Orange-sided Thrush and Cinnamon-collared Kingfisher, demanding the greatest attention (see Table 1). With 70-80% (140-160 km2) of the island still covered in semi-evergreen and dry tropical forest there appears little threat to these species in the near future. However, small-scale logging carried out by local people, and increasing forest clearance for crops to feed a slowly rising human population will continue to place low-level pressure on the forest. As on the Sangihe and Talaud Islands (after Wardill and Riley 1999) showing that birds and forest are important in their right by visiting the island and paying local guides is one way that the Damarese can see tangible benefits of their forest stewardship. Understandably they find it difficult to believe why anyone would travel thousands of kilometres to see birds on their island.
Three restricted-range species went unrecorded during the survey; Kai Cicadabird Coracina dispar, Black-bibbed Monarch Monarcha mundus and Tricolored Parrotfinch Erythrura tricolor. Any new information to assist our understanding of the status of these and other interesting species such as the newly reported Barred-necked Cuckoo Dove and Shining Starling Aplonis metallica would be useful. Research priorities for the Damar Flycatcher include a census to assess its population size and distribution, although it is now considered common and widespread in forest and under little threat of extinction.
- Hartert, E. (1900) The birds of Dammer Island in the Banda sea. Novit Zool. 7:1224.
- Stattersfield, A. J., Crosby, M. J., Long, A. J, and Wege, D. C. (1998) Endemic Bird Areas of the World: priorities for biodiversity conservation. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 7. Cambridge, U.K.: BirdLife International.
- Trainor, C. (2001 in prep) The status of forest birds on Damar Island, Lesser Sundas, Indonesia. Prepared for Forktail.