Day 328: The Maleo

In search of Sulawesi’s most-wanted bird.

November 24, 2015: Kota Mobagu, Sulawesi — Monal and I traveled from Palu to Manado via two short flights and a four-hour drive today, putting us at our destination in late afternoon. For the rest of this year, I won’t have more than four straight days without hopping a flight. It can be tough to spend so much time in transityou don’t see many birds from airplanesbut I must keep moving now to keep the pace. 

This part of Asia has a big bird list, but many of those birds are spread out on various small islands, which makes it more difficult to be efficient. If I stay in one spot for two days in a row, there aren’t many new birds to find on the second day (at Lore Lindu, for instance, I saw 36 new birds on the first day and just seven on the second day). These diminishing returns must constantly be weighed against the time lost to traveling onward. It’s a delicate balance!

Monal wanted to reach a special spot before dusk today, so we pressed through Manado’s traffic with no stops. At 4 p.m. we pulled up at a couple of huts by a river in the forest. This, Monal said, was the nesting site of a very strange bird called the Maleo.

The Maleo is endemic to Sulawesi. It looks kind of like a chicken, though it’s not closely related to chickens; it’s in a family called “megapodes.” The Maleo nests in loose colonies where, like turtles, these birds bury their eggs in the ground and cover them with dirt. An adult Maleo isn’t much bigger than a chicken, but each egg is five times larger than a typical chicken egg. When the Maleo’s eggs hatch underground, the chicks must dig their way out (sometimes more than a meter to the surface!) and fend for themselves.

Maleos are endangered and red-listed. A few years ago, a program was started to hatch eggs in incubators before releasing the chicks back into the wild, which protects them from predators. You can still see Maleos at a couple of sites where blinds have been constructed for discreet viewing.

The place we visited this afternoon had a wooden tower next to the nesting ground, and a ranger accompanied us while we waited for the Maleos to make an appearance. Below us was a patch of bare dirt near the river bank with half a dozen recently dug-out spots where the birds bury their eggs. One Maleo can lay 12 eggs in a year, and there are about eight pairs using this site. We waited for an hour before one called loudly from across the river, and we heard a whirr of wings as it landed somewhere in a tree on the slope nearby.

It seemed like the bird would strut into the open at any minute, but we waited another hour without getting a visual. At intervals we could hear the Maleo moving around in the foliage, but it was too dense to see where it perched. As the light faded into dusk, so did my hopes of seeing Sulawesi’s most-wanted bird, and with darkness upon us we reluctantly climbed down from the viewing tower.

“We have a difficult choice now,” said Monal when we reached the ground. “We can come back here in the morning to try again, or we can go somewhere else for several other birds. The two places are in opposite directions, so we can’t do both.”

As I digested this decision, the ranger was quietly looking around. Suddenly, before I could answer Monal’s question, he grabbed my arm and pointed upward. There, in the tree right above us, was the Maleo on its roostwe could just barely see it through a gap in the foliage! In the last five minutes before it was too dark to see, I snapped a couple of grainy photos. Oh, what a wonderful feeling it is to see a bird you thought you’d missed, especially when that bird happens to be a Maleo!

New birds today: 5

Year list: 5365

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