Friday, 13 February 2015

Jack Baddams on working with Operation Wallacea in Sulawesi

I had always promised myself that once I had finished my final year of university I would spend the summer in some far off land working on some form of bird project. I’m lucky enough to say that is exactly what happened and I was able to secure a position with Operation Wallacea as an ornithologist for the 2014 research season. When applying for the post, I had absolutely no idea where I would end up. Operation Wallacea has sites all over the world in lots of different biodiversity hotspots and it wasn’t until I had a phone call that more or less started with “How does 8 weeks in Indonesia sound?” that I discovered which expedition I was joining. 
One of the forest camps we were using.
Now, I’m not ashamed to admit that I barely knew anything about Indonesia and could only vaguely point out where I thought it was on a map of the world. A short Google later and I had learnt that Indonesia is an archipelago made up of over 17000 different islands that stretches between the continents of Asia and Australasia. I now realised that all the islands that I used to think were countries in their own right (Borneo, Sumatra, Java, etc.) were all part of Indonesia and it had some of the most unique ecosystems on the planet. The island that I was being sent to was Sulawesi, which is arguably the home of the most extraordinary flora and fauna of the lot.

One of the main reasons for this special collection of life is down to the isolation that Sulawesi has been subject to for thousands of years. Even during the last Ice Age, when sea levels were at some of their lowest points, the deep trenches surrounding the island meant that the sea still formed a barrier and movement of species was always limited. This has meant that Sulawesi has evolved some absolutely cracking endemic animals. Babirusa (a forest pig with long curled tusks), Anoa (a type of forest buffalo) and the Maleo (a megapode that lays its eggs in sun baked sand for incubation) are some of the striking animals that exist here and nowhere else on Earth. 
Sulawesi Ciacadabird

As if that wasn't enough to get your ecological juices flowing, Sulawesi also has another card tucked up its sleeve to supercharge it with even more biodiversity. You see, as mentioned before, the islands of Indonesia form a chain that link the continents of Asia and Australasia together. On the islands towards the western part of Indonesia (Borneo, Sumatra, Java) you get typically Asian species of plants and animals such as Tigers, Indian Elephants, Orangutans etc. The eastern islands (Papua and surrounding smaller ones) have Australasian species such as Cassowaries, Marsupials and the like. Sulawesi is in the middle of this island chain however and so has a mixture of both, something that only occurs on that particular island. Walking through the forests of Sulawesi allows you to see Macaques (an Asian species) eating in the trees alongside a Bear Cuscus, a marsupial (an Australasian species). The species of tree that they’re eating could equally be of Australasian or Asian origin too!

Anyway that’s your biology lesson over, on with the expedition.

I was based on Buton Island, just off the south east coast of the main island, where I would stay for 2 months. The main base for the 30 or so strong science team was a small forest village called Labundobundo - so nice they named it 1 and a half times – that took 3 days of travelling to get to from the UK. We lived with local people, sharing their houses and using the village as a base from which we would head into the jungle to stay and work at the various forest camps. These forest camps were dotted around Buton Island, with some being about an hour’s walk into the forest from the village, to some being further away. One really took the biscuit though, as it took a 6 hour drive (on jungle roads), 1 hour boat trip and 1 hour jungle trek to get to.

Living was basic and I’m not talking “I’m a Celebrity” basic, I mean proper basic. My bedroom in the village was home to geckos, toads, ants and crickets, and I had a rat that woke me up once during the night by brushing past my head at 3 o’clock in the morning. The jungle camps, which we spent 5 nights a week in, included fires for cooking the food (which included rice 3 times a day), hammocks for sleeping in and trenches dug into the ground for… you get the idea. 
One of the moths that greeted us on the sign out board in a morning

My job involved working 5 days a week collecting data through point counting, whereby I had to start surveying at 6 o’clock in the morning on transects that had been cut through the jungle around the various camps. Some of the transects’ start points were 2/3 kilometres away, so it involved getting up at quarter to 4 in the morning and having a two hour trek through the dark jungle to be at the transect for 6. This led to some interesting and slightly hairy encounters, particularly with a Sulawesi Wild Pig that was less than happy to see us and promptly warded us off with a charge. All this before we had even started our 3 kilometre there and back transects where the actual point counts took place.

There were two reasons for the point counting; one was to simply survey the bird populations of the forest to try and obtain better protection for the reserves and the birds within them. Indonesia has the second highest rate of deforestation in the world and I saw lots of evidence that designating somewhere as a national park has little effect on logging. That's why the work that the team of scientists that were out there was so important, to make known the value of the area and to try and get better protection for the region.
Sulawesi Babbler

The other reason for the study was to compare the surveying techniques of point counting vs mist netting to see how best to accurately measure species richness in such a forest. The lead scientist of the bird team, a top bloke called Tom Martin, had a pretty good idea of what we were going to find. Basically, in this environment, mist nets are rubbish. As all the birds live high up in the canopy, it’s difficult enough to see them half the time never mind catch them in mist nets. We just needed to gather the data to prove that point counts, that use identification by sight and sound, were much more effective.
Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher

As sound was going to be the main source of identification (up to 98% on some point counts), I was inducted with a 4 day crash course on Sulawesi bird calls to supplement the Xeno-cantoing that I had done before I left the UK. This is made all the more harder by the fact that the insects sound like birds and some of the birds sound like insects, particularly the aptly named Cicadabird. Even the squirrels regularly mugged me off during my first few days with their uncanny impression of a Black Sunbird.

So I got all clued up on the birds’ ID and set off on my 2 months surveying. As you might imagine, spending this long in a jungle means I managed to see some really cool stuff. Some of my ornithological highlights included birds such as Yellow Billed Malkoha, Sulawesi Crested Myna, Rufous Bellied Eagle, Grosbeak Starling, Bay Coucal, Ornate Lorikeet (which I saw whilst sat in a 50 metre high emergent fig tree as I watched morning break over the forest) and Oriental Hobby, which was only the second ever record for the island. I was also the first ornithologist to ever survey a large forest reserve in the north of the island, where I was able to add the IUCN listed species Grey-headed Fish Eagle and Sulawesi Dwarf Kingfisher to the areas list. 
Knobbed Hornbill

As the region has such a high rate of endemism, a lot of the birds there can’t be seen anywhere else in the world. Sulawesi Dwarf Hornbills, Sulawesi Babblers, Sulawesi White-eye, Sulawesi Hawk Eagle and the ever present Knobbed Hornbills were all such birds. My favourite has to be the Sulawesi Serpent Eagle though, which has by far the coolest name of any bird I have on my life list so far.

I finished on just over 80 species for the trip which admittedly isn't a large number for 2 months spent constantly out in the field. That can be explained by the fact that whilst bird endemism is high, actual species diversity is rather low compared to other tropical forests. Also, birding in forests is bloody hard work. 
Sulawesi Hawk Eagle

I also got to see some other great wildlife too such as those Sulawesi Wild Pigs I mentioned getting chased by, a couple of Reticulated Pythons I saw whilst out with the reptile guys, Sulawesi Tarsiers, Black Macaques, Flying Lizards, Rhinoceros Beetles, Malay Civets, awesome bat species, Hammerhead Worms, Whiptail Scorpions, Dwarf and Bear Cuscus and loads of really cool butterflies and moths.. I also saw a King Cobra crossing a road. I believe he was trying to get to the other sssside. (I’m so sorry.)
Reticulated Python
Despite seeing all of these incredible animals, the best part of the experience was the people that I met. It was a revelation to find like-minded people that were so passionate about their chosen field, whether that be reptiles, mammals, insects or birds. Their desire to try and understand and protect the natural world was as infectious as it was inspiring. It was also a pleasure to work and live so closely with the local people, I even surprised myself by learning a decent amount of Indonesian and making some Indonesian friends I’m still talking to now. 

All in all, it was the best thing I've ever done and I’m immensely grateful to everyone who I met out there. If anyone reading this has any thoughts of aiming to do something similar, I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It has certainly left a lasting impression on me. It showed me that living the life I had always dreamed about as a kid was not only possible but also entirely achievable, as I met people in the jungle who had spent their lives seeing nature’s wonders in an effort to understand and protect the treasures that it holds.

Jack Baddams

Jack is a 22 year old birder, ringer and a zoology graduate from the University of Leeds. Living on the border between Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire where he has access to all the inland ornithological delights these counties posses. When not in the UK, Jack likes to travel the world working as an ornithologist on various projects

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