Halmahera and Wallace’s Greatest Prize: The Standardwing Bird of Paradise

We boarded a tiny speedboat crammed with 27 other passengers from Ternate across to the comparatively large, resource-rich and still sparsely populated island of Halmahera. After our recent experience with overcrowded boats in North Sulawesi, and with our hosts from Birdlife Indonesia ominously supplying us with inflatable life jackets beforehand ‘just in case’, I’ll admit it was a rather nervous 60-minute crossing to the town of Sidangoli on Halmahera. Wallace made only two trips to this western coast of Halmahera (he also made a short trip to the southern coast on his return trip from Waigeo), while his assistant, Charles Allen, spent many months collecting on the island.

Wallace considered his two brief visits to the west coast (to Jailolo and Dodinga) largely as failures in terms of collecting, and our main aim for the trip was to search for what Wallace considered his greatest prize, the Standardwing Bird of Paradise, Semioptera wallacei. Wallace actually came across the bird on neighbouring Bacan Island, the only other place apart from Halmahera within its known range. At that time, Wallace’s assistant, Ali, returned from hunting birds ‘much pleased’ to say “Look here, sir, what a curious bird”. Quoting from ARW:

“I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers, which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself, when fluttering its wings, and that they remained so without his touching them. I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the Bird of Paradise, differing most remarkably from every other known bird.”

The range of Wallace’s Standardwing marks the westernmost extermity for this unique family.

Most people searching for the Standardwing, known locally in Halmahera as ‘burung bidadari’ or ‘fairy bird’, start by visiting local bird expert, Pak Anu. Having located a lek near his farm at Tanah Putih outside Sidangoli, Pak Anu became the unofficial custodian of the site. Like most birds of paradise, these fairy-birds exhibit eccentric mating rituals where the males return daily to the same display trees in the forest, known as a lek. Sadly, this initial lek was destroyed during Maluku’s four-year religious war that followed the fall of Suharto. Pak Anu then located another lek further into the forest and built a house, again acting as site custodian and charging Rp250,000 (about 30USD) in management fees for groups visiting the site. Burung Indonesia (the local affiliate of Birdlife International) had arranged for Anu to act as a our guide for two days and we arrived at his house late in the afternoon as several pairs of the endemic Moluccan Hornbill, Blyth’s Horbill, were charting routes across the valleys. It was here that we truly felt ourselves on the eastern side of Wallace’s Line, with white cockatoos and parrots a common sight.

 

 Pak Anu's Birding Hut near Sidangoli

We woke at three in the morning and walked the 2-kilometer track towards the Standard-wing’s Lek in the pre-dawn darkness, along with a group of enthusiasts from Birdquest. In silence, we all assumed our positions in the leaf litter on an eastern-facing slope and were soon treated to the first distinctive call of the Standard-wing before the metallic green breast feathers became visible. At least three males then went about their display that involved frantic leaps more than five metres into the air, posturing and a great variety of calls. The entire group sat silently transfixed for the early morning show, which lasted about half an hour before the birds noisily disappeared into the forest to forage.

Worryingly, however, this lek is also now under threat. It is located on secondary forest that holds no formal conservation status and the name ‘Tanah Putih’ itself (literally, ‘White Land’) holds a clue to its likely demise. Approval has been granted for cement extraction at the site, and Pak Anu has given up all hope of conserving the site. His search for an alternative habitat in the local area has borne some results and he offered to show us a site in less damaged forest where he has recently observed Standardwings.

Impressive as the display at Sidangoli was to us, Pak Anu stated that it is nothing compared with a lek he has discovered on the eastern peninsula of Halmhera, at a place called Labi-Labi, where her claims up to a 50 birds congregate each morning. The site is located on the fringe of the recently established Aketajawe-Lolobata National Park (the first park in Halmahera), but is accessible only by chartered boats and a full-day travel. According the IUCN, population numbers of the species are not believed to approach the thresholds for population decline anhd it is currently evaluated as ‘Least Concern’.

In the late afternoon, we trekked for 3 hours through regenerating secondary forest to a riverside camp from where we would join Anu for a forest walk up the mountain in search of a possible new Standardwing lek. Unfortunately, Anu managed to get us lost in the dawn darkness the next day and we arrived at the site just after sunrise. In what would appear to be a good conservation sign for the species, however, we caught sight of at least one individual before it noisily dissapeared again into the forest.

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Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith