23 August, 2021

Author: Ray Hale

The chance to tick something from ones bucket list does not often present itself. One can wait years for such an opportunity. However, when it does appear one must surely grasp it with both hands for such fleeting moments, in an otherwise mundane passage through life, are to be cherished. In these extraordinary times in which we now find ourselves such events are even more important as many of us begin to come to terms with our own mortality.

So many lives, each with dreams and hopes, have been needlessly lost to this terrible pandemic. I therefore consider myself to be most fortunate. Together my wife and I have seen amazing things, visited astounding places and above all met some unique people who inhabit this fragile planet we all call home.

In the early part of 2020 before the World stopped I was given the chance to cross not one but two things from my list. A company called “Sea Trek Sailing Adventures” offered me the opportunity to give a lecture about the Indonesian travels of that great evolutionary scientist Alfred Russel Wallace on board their ship “The Katharina”. With its sister ship “The Ombak Putih” they sail around the archipelago in search of unique wildlife and adventure. However for the record I must state that they are not simply just another cruise company. They are also instrumental in bringing educational and medical resources to the numerous small islands that make up this stunning archipelago. Something that is greatly appreciated by the inhabitants of these poor and often remote islands. To see the face of small child light up when given a simple colouring book or an eighty-year-old woman who is able to see clearly again with the gift of an old pair of glasses is truly inspirational. I am always in awe of these people. Their simple lives are dependent heavily on tourism and in these uncertain times they suffer greatly as their main source of income is forced to stay away. Let us hope for better times soon.

This particular trip would see us visit the remote islands of Raja Ampat and afford us the opportunity to see two of the most beautiful and iconic species on Earth. For me when the chance to see two species that I had yearned to see since I was a child presented itself we had no hesitation in agreeing to the trip. I refer of course to Wallace’s standard wing bird of paradise (Semioptera wallacii) and the exceptionally elusive Wallace golden birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera croesus). The former being found only on the islands of Halmahera and Bacan whist the latter is endemic to the handful of scattered islands of North Maluku.

Wallace wrote of the butterfly in his book The Malay Archipelago:

“The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death.”

On reading this somewhat excitable description, my initial thoughts were: could something so small really make one have such feelings. I would have to wait with expectation for our adventure to begin for today we were on the hunt for something a little bigger.

The alarm on my phone gently bought me back to consciousness. I glanced at the time. 3.00am. For a moment I had forgotten that I was somewhere in the Moluccas Sea and as the gentle pitch of the boat confused me slightly I slowly began to focus. Soon we were speeding towards the shore on board the Zodiac. The beam of the spotlight pierced the darkness and scoured the surface of the pond-like sea. Numerous fish caught up in our wake leapt effortlessly from the surface occasionally landing in the boat much to our amusement and their annoyance. Soon we beached and silently waded barefoot

through the warm water to the soft coral beach. Drying our feet and donning our dry walking shoes we assembled and followed a path though the darkened forest. At the top of the trail a four-wheel drive vehicle sat in darkness its dimmed headlights barely visible. This would ferry us all to the beginning of our trek some twenty miles away on the other side of the island. The vehicle began its journey as its excited occupants sat in a self-enforced silence. It eventually came to a halt at the side of the road and we readied ourselves for the forthcoming trek. The path was muddy, up hill and difficult. As our small party walked in silence the light from our head torches barely illuminated the way making us think carefully where our next step should be placed. The air was humid and despite it being 4.00am the heat stifling. Very soon small beads of sweat began to run down our backs. We walked for what seemed hours but in reality was probably no more than forty-five minutes until our guide paused and signaled for us to find a spot to sit. The respite was much appreciated by all and as we sat in darkness all of us eagerly awaited dawn to break. The darkness was oppressive. The air thick with humidity. Slowly but surely the silhouettes of the trees above us came in to focus. This rainforest cathedral in which we now all sat began to show its true colours. A rich hue of green, yellow and brown filled our eyes like an abstract canvas in some swish London gallery. The dawn chorus began.

At first the call of a lone wood dove heralded the beginning of the day. Soon a solitary crow broke cover and made a frantic dash across the forest. Our guide turned to us and pointed excitedly toward the open sky between two tall trees. At first we struggled to see exactly what he was looking at and then as our eyes focused it became apparent. Wallace’s standard wing bird of paradise. I had waited twenty years to see this incredible bird and there it was sitting less than fifty feet away from me. Its slight stature and blue green plumage gleamed as the sun rose behind it silhouetting it’s almost comical shape. Within moments a second bird arrived and made its presence known by shaking violently and displaying to its companion. These were two males jockeying for position to impress the female who was waiting out of sight on a nearby tree. The birds of paradise are unique creatures where the male of the species is far more attractive and colourful than the drab female. These males were without doubt both fine specimens. Both sported brilliant metallic violet crowns and each proudly paraded their emerald green breast shields. Without doubt their most striking feature was the two pairs of long white plumes petruding backwards from the wings that swayed gently upwards in the morning breeze like four standard flags proudly announcing a royal arrival. It is these feathers that give this beautiful creature its name.

It was this uniqueness that inspired Wallace in his quest to understand the origin of all species. He was most probably the first European to witness birds of paradise in their natural habitats and without doubt the first to describe their amazing behaviour.The two males jumped, flipped and hopped excitedly over each other. Initially one would fly away only to return moments later in an attempt to show his superiority over his rival. He would then wave his standard feathers before turning his back on his companion and showing his backside in what appeared to be an act of contempt. The female still sat quietly and watched from her higher perch. She seemed unimpressed by the churlish antics of her would be suitors. Both males continued their rituals and as the larger of the two flashed his iridescent neck feathers in the face of his companion the second seemed to accept that today was not to be his and flew off into the waking forest. The first male glanced up expectantly at his would be bride in the hope that his postulating had wooed her sufficiently. Nonchalantly she flew away. Perhaps this was not to be his day either.

Collecting our equipment, sticks and thoughts we began our long trek back to our awaiting boat. It had been a successful morning and as we made our way down through the now lively forest we spotted paradise kingfishers, ivory breasted pittas, butterflies galore and an impressive array of bugs and spiders all of which sat patiently whilst we photographed them.

Over the next few days we were fortunate to witness other wondrous birds unique to the area. The Red Bird of Paradise with its amazing yellow tail, the King Bird of Paradise with its unique red and white colouration and the multi-coloured dancing Wilson Bird of Paradise. All delighted us with their posturing and antics.

BOP by Ray Hale

I can say with absolute certainty that this trip was truly an inspirational moment for us. To see these birds on the very islands that Wallace had first discovered them in 1858 was indeed an honour. Our cameras had clicked and photos had been taken. A permanent reminder of our trip to perhaps amaze those we would show at a later date. But the very fact that we had stood in a rainforest as the sun rose and had witnessed something that very few will ever see was enough for us both and gave us a memory that we needed no photograph to recall. The next day we would begin our search for the butterfly that I hoped would astound me as it did Wallace all those years ago.

My thanks must go to both Sea Trek Sailing adventures for affording me this opportunity and to Kees, our amazing tour leader for his enthusiasm and knowledge of these wonderful birds.

“This article was originally published in The Borneo Post