09 September 2016

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition! …SPAIN (7 Sept.)

During a brief stint in Granada province of Spain, I took a day off from visiting family, and dipping in the pool, for some birding with local British birder Mick Richardson. We started out in the Moraleda Fields (near the town of Moraleda de Zafayona), where our first birds were most unexpected, and contained within two enormous aviaries, in the campo just outside of town. Around 100 falcons were being held for the local falconry trade, (most seemed to be either hybrids or Gyrfalcons).
Moving on to wild birds, I was happier watching the migrants and resident birds surging through the farm fields and almond groves close to town. During this visit, (at the start of autumn migration), and timed in the early morning, to avoid the recent, extreme high temperatures of a continuing Spanish drought (47°C/115°F), birds were abundant and conspicuous. Larks were around in their hundreds; and seemed to pulse through the fields in active “Mexican Waves”; the most evident groups were formed of the stoutly built Greater Short-toed Lark (numbering well over a hundred birds); although in smaller numbers, (though still alluding to some 60 or so birds on their own), was the stockiest of all the local larks, the butch Calandra; while the usual resident Thekla and Crested Larks regularly exposed themselves too. Further evidence of migration was provided by a series of typically restless Northern Wheatears also foraging in the “lark fields”, along with just a few Whinchats. Later in the morning Mick also picked up on the call of several Tawny Pipits, one of which allowed us to drive right up to it. 
While much of what was feeding prominently at this hour could be said to be subtle shades of brown, (and could easily be overlooked as all the same were it not for our studious surveying of them); this could not be said of the Eurasian Hoopoe, one of the Old World’s most striking, and unique birds. If you are not familiar with it, the hoopoe is essentially a soft pinkish-brown, thrush-sized bird, with striking pied wings and tail. It has the beak of a construction worker-pick axe shaped, and wears the crown of a king. In short, it is one of Europe’s most exotic looking birds. Historically, they would largely spend only the summer months in Western Europe, retiring to northern Africa for the icy winter months. As the European winter climate has softened in the last decade or so, some of these gorgeous birds have changed their winter habits; many now can be seen year-round in southern Spain. Thankfully, for one of the country’s must-see birds, it is easy to find; they typically forage on the ground in arid, open country, and often bound up on broad, piebald wings, making short, though very conspicuous flights. So, hoopoes are probably only evaded, by the most unobservant observer! We had a handful of these stunning birds littered through the local agricultural lands, one of which also exposed its prominent royal crest. Other birds that peaked my interest (for only rarely do I get to bird the Iberian Peninsula), were a few dowdy young Woodchat Shrikes, and two separate Southern Grey Shrikes standing sentry.
To many, a pile of old rocks means nothing at all, and is just that, a pile of rocks. But, to local birder Mick Richardson, one particular innocuous-looking rock pile, signifies something else: Little Owl. Sure enough, as we rolled the vehicle up alongside a rubble of red rocks, there on its zenith, sat a Little Owl, eyeing us closely, with that magnetic stare that only owls seem to capable of. We were here though, principally, for something other than larks, hoopoes, shrikes, and owls, nice as they all were; namely Black-bellied Sandgrouse, for which this is a known, local hotspot. These cryptically plumaged, ptarmigan-like birds blend in perfectly within these arid beige-toned grasslands, and so it proved; they eluded us entirely that morning.
Next we moved on to Contraembalse de los Bermajeles, where a large lake played host to plentiful ducks (60+ Common Pochard, 10+ Northern Shoveler), lots of Little Grebes, and a handful of Grey Herons, which held a lone Black Stork among them, a rarity in Granada province, and therefore the surprise species of the day. Other notable birds there included 1 Common Snipe, and a calling Water Rail, which remained hidden. Overhead, some of the best action occurred with half a dozen late Pallid Swifts (most would have been expected to have moved towards their African wintering grounds by then), a mass of Northern House Martins, with a smattering of Sand Martins (Bank Swallows) among them. However, better still were around 15-20 European Bee-eaters, one of my favourite Spanish birds. These birds are a kaleidoscope of colour; careful examination of their extraordinary plumage reveals a blood red eye, broad blazes of rich chestnut across the body, a sky-blue panel on the lower body, a golden yellow throat, and jade-green tinged wings. It is an undisputable stunner. Amazingly, these beautiful, richly coloured birds can be hard to see, when gliding in an open blue sky, that is unblemished by even a single cloud. At this time of year with skies seeming to rise infinitely overhead, the birds are happy to glide high, but betray themselves by their social nature; they like to keep in contact with each other on the wing, regularly calling softly and so letting us know they are there in the process. We looked up to see pieces of sky moving from one deep cerulean patch of sky to another-their underparts blending perfectly with the idyllic skyscape. We watched these birds for a while as they drifted effortlessly on the wing, seeming to revel in their highly skilled acrobatic, aerial antics.
Moving further along the road, the lake gave way to a deep, craggy gorge. Just the sort of place you would expect to see Eurasian Crag Martins, and this was indeed where we saw them. Mick informed me that this is also a traditional haunt of a local pair of Bonelli’s Eagles. A large, unkempt bundle of sticks on a rocky ledge opposite, betrayed where they had nested over the past 7 years. However, by this time of the year they had moved on and breeding will be forgotten for another year. All the same though, a bicolored shape on another outcrop proved to be one of the local eagles gauging its territory. It, and another bird (presumed to be its long term mate), were later seen on the wing swiftly moving from close over the gorge to the distant horizon, with barely a wingbeat required on the powerful hot thermal air available to them on this intensely hot day.

Later in the day, after lunch, and admiring some roadside butterflies that included a pretty Scarce Swallowtail (as well as finding another angry-looking Little Owl), we returned to the scene of the sandgrouse, or more appropriately, the scene of the no-sandgrouse. Mick was determined to find one, and felt we had a better chance in spite of the intense heat, for at this time, they can be confined to the shadows of the stunted almond trees, and are reluctant to leave these shady retreats. And so it proved; Mick locked on to a female Black-bellied Sandgrouse, which allowed us to sidle right alongside it, by using the car as a very effective blind. We admired this cryptic bird for a while, before we moved off and finishing off with a pale phase Booted Eagle before we retired after a very rewarding day.


eBird Checklists:



Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition! …SPAIN (7 Sept.)

During a brief stint in Granada province of Spain, I took a day off from visiting family, and dipping in the pool, for some birding with local British birder Mick Richardson. We started out in the Moraleda Fields (near the town of Moraleda de Zafayona), where our first birds were most unexpected, and contained within two enormous aviaries, in the campo just outside of town. Around 100 falcons were being held for the local falconry trade, (most seemed to be either hybrids or Gyrfalcons).
Moving on to wild birds, I was happier watching the migrants and resident birds surging through the farm fields and almond groves close to town. During this visit, (at the start of autumn migration), and timed in the early morning, to avoid the recent, extreme high temperatures of a continuing Spanish drought (47°C/115°F), birds were abundant and conspicuous. Larks were around in their hundreds; and seemed to pulse through the fields in active “Mexican Waves”; the most evident groups were formed of the stoutly built Greater Short-toed Lark (numbering well over a hundred birds); although in smaller numbers, (though still alluding to some 60 or so birds on their own), was the stockiest of all the local larks, the butch Calandra; while the usual resident Thekla and Crested Larks regularly exposed themselves too. Further evidence of migration was provided by a series of typically restless Northern Wheatears also foraging in the “lark fields”, along with just a few Whinchats. Later in the morning Mick also picked up on the call of several Tawny Pipits, one of which allowed us to drive right up to it. 
While much of what was feeding prominently at this hour could be said to be subtle shades of brown, (and could easily be overlooked as all the same were it not for our studious surveying of them); this could not be said of the Eurasian Hoopoe, one of the Old World’s most striking, and unique birds. If you are not familiar with it, the hoopoe is essentially a soft pinkish-brown, thrush-sized bird, with striking pied wings and tail. It has the beak of a construction worker-pick axe shaped, and wears the crown of a king. In short, it is one of Europe’s most exotic looking birds. Historically, they would largely spend only the summer months in Western Europe, retiring to northern Africa for the icy winter months. As the European winter climate has softened in the last decade or so, some of these gorgeous birds have changed their winter habits; many now can be seen year-round in southern Spain. Thankfully, for one of the country’s must-see birds, it is easy to find; they typically forage on the ground in arid, open country, and often bound up on broad, piebald wings, making short, though very conspicuous flights. So, hoopoes are probably only evaded, by the most unobservant observer! We had a handful of these stunning birds littered through the local agricultural lands, one of which also exposed its prominent royal crest. Other birds that peaked my interest (for only rarely do I get to bird the Iberian Peninsula), were a few dowdy young Woodchat Shrikes, and two separate Southern Grey Shrikes standing sentry.
To many, a pile of old rocks means nothing at all, and is just that, a pile of rocks. But, to local birder Mick Richardson, one particular innocuous-looking rock pile, signifies something else: Little Owl. Sure enough, as we rolled the vehicle up alongside a rubble of red rocks, there on its zenith, sat a Little Owl, eyeing us closely, with that magnetic stare that only owls seem to capable of. We were here though, principally, for something other than larks, hoopoes, shrikes, and owls, nice as they all were; namely Black-bellied Sandgrouse, for which this is a known, local hotspot. These cryptically plumaged, ptarmigan-like birds blend in perfectly within these arid beige-toned grasslands, and so it proved; they eluded us entirely that morning.
Next we moved on to Contraembalse de los Bermajeles, where a large lake played host to plentiful ducks (60+ Common Pochard, 10+ Northern Shoveler), lots of Little Grebes, and a handful of Grey Herons, which held a lone Black Stork among them, a rarity in Granada province, and therefore the surprise species of the day. Other notable birds there included 1 Common Snipe, and a calling Water Rail, which remained hidden. Overhead, some of the best action occurred with half a dozen late Pallid Swifts (most would have been expected to have moved towards their African wintering grounds by then), a mass of Northern House Martins, with a smattering of Sand Martins (Bank Swallows) among them. However, better still were around 15-20 European Bee-eaters, one of my favourite Spanish birds. These birds are a kaleidoscope of colour; careful examination of their extraordinary plumage reveals a blood red eye, broad blazes of rich chestnut across the body, a sky-blue panel on the lower body, a golden yellow throat, and jade-green tinged wings. It is an undisputable stunner. Amazingly, these beautiful, richly coloured birds can be hard to see, when gliding in an open blue sky, that is unblemished by even a single cloud. At this time of year with skies seeming to rise infinitely overhead, the birds are happy to glide high, but betray themselves by their social nature; they like to keep in contact with each other on the wing, regularly calling softly and so letting us know they are there in the process. We looked up to see pieces of sky moving from one deep cerulean patch of sky to another-their underparts blending perfectly with the idyllic skyscape. We watched these birds for a while as they drifted effortlessly on the wing, seeming to revel in their highly skilled acrobatic, aerial antics.
Moving further along the road, the lake gave way to a deep, craggy gorge. Just the sort of place you would expect to see Eurasian Crag Martins, and this was indeed where we saw them. Mick informed me that this is also a traditional haunt of a local pair of Bonelli’s Eagles. A large, unkempt bundle of sticks on a rocky ledge opposite, betrayed where they had nested over the past 7 years. However, by this time of the year they had moved on and breeding will be forgotten for another year. All the same though, a bicolored shape on another outcrop proved to be one of the local eagles gauging its territory. It, and another bird (presumed to be its long term mate), were later seen on the wing swiftly moving from close over the gorge to the distant horizon, with barely a wingbeat required on the powerful hot thermal air available to them on this intensely hot day.

Later in the day, after lunch, and admiring some roadside butterflies that included a pretty Scarce Swallowtail (as well as finding another angry-looking Little Owl), we returned to the scene of the sandgrouse, or more appropriately, the scene of the no-sandgrouse. Mick was determined to find one, and felt we had a better chance in spite of the intense heat, for at this time, they can be confined to the shadows of the stunted almond trees, and are reluctant to leave these shady retreats. And so it proved; Mick locked on to a female Black-bellied Sandgrouse, which allowed us to sidle right alongside it, by using the car as a very effective blind. We admired this cryptic bird for a while, before we moved off and finishing off with a pale phase Booted Eagle before we retired after a very rewarding day.


eBird Checklists:



Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition! …SPAIN (7 Sept.)

During a brief stint in Granada province of Spain, I took a day off from visiting family, and dipping in the pool, for some birding with local British birder Mick Richardson. We started out in the Moraleda Fields (near the town of Moraleda de Zafayona), where our first birds were most unexpected, and contained within two enormous aviaries, in the campo just outside of town. Around 100 falcons were being held for the local falconry trade, (most seemed to be either hybrids or Gyrfalcons).
Moving on to wild birds, I was happier watching the migrants and resident birds surging through the farm fields and almond groves close to town. During this visit, (at the start of autumn migration), and timed in the early morning, to avoid the recent, extreme high temperatures of a continuing Spanish drought (47°C/115°F), birds were abundant and conspicuous. Larks were around in their hundreds; and seemed to pulse through the fields in active “Mexican Waves”; the most evident groups were formed of the stoutly built Greater Short-toed Lark (numbering well over a hundred birds); although in smaller numbers, (though still alluding to some 60 or so birds on their own), was the stockiest of all the local larks, the butch Calandra; while the usual resident Thekla and Crested Larks regularly exposed themselves too. Further evidence of migration was provided by a series of typically restless Northern Wheatears also foraging in the “lark fields”, along with just a few Whinchats. Later in the morning Mick also picked up on the call of several Tawny Pipits, one of which allowed us to drive right up to it. 
While much of what was feeding prominently at this hour could be said to be subtle shades of brown, (and could easily be overlooked as all the same were it not for our studious surveying of them); this could not be said of the Eurasian Hoopoe, one of the Old World’s most striking, and unique birds. If you are not familiar with it, the hoopoe is essentially a soft pinkish-brown, thrush-sized bird, with striking pied wings and tail. It has the beak of a construction worker-pick axe shaped, and wears the crown of a king. In short, it is one of Europe’s most exotic looking birds. Historically, they would largely spend only the summer months in Western Europe, retiring to northern Africa for the icy winter months. As the European winter climate has softened in the last decade or so, some of these gorgeous birds have changed their winter habits; many now can be seen year-round in southern Spain. Thankfully, for one of the country’s must-see birds, it is easy to find; they typically forage on the ground in arid, open country, and often bound up on broad, piebald wings, making short, though very conspicuous flights. So, hoopoes are probably only evaded, by the most unobservant observer! We had a handful of these stunning birds littered through the local agricultural lands, one of which also exposed its prominent royal crest. Other birds that peaked my interest (for only rarely do I get to bird the Iberian Peninsula), were a few dowdy young Woodchat Shrikes, and two separate Southern Grey Shrikes standing sentry.
To many, a pile of old rocks means nothing at all, and is just that, a pile of rocks. But, to local birder Mick Richardson, one particular innocuous-looking rock pile, signifies something else: Little Owl. Sure enough, as we rolled the vehicle up alongside a rubble of red rocks, there on its zenith, sat a Little Owl, eyeing us closely, with that magnetic stare that only owls seem to capable of. We were here though, principally, for something other than larks, hoopoes, shrikes, and owls, nice as they all were; namely Black-bellied Sandgrouse, for which this is a known, local hotspot. These cryptically plumaged, ptarmigan-like birds blend in perfectly within these arid beige-toned grasslands, and so it proved; they eluded us entirely that morning.
Next we moved on to Contraembalse de los Bermajeles, where a large lake played host to plentiful ducks (60+ Common Pochard, 10+ Northern Shoveler), lots of Little Grebes, and a handful of Grey Herons, which held a lone Black Stork among them, a rarity in Granada province, and therefore the surprise species of the day. Other notable birds there included 1 Common Snipe, and a calling Water Rail, which remained hidden. Overhead, some of the best action occurred with half a dozen late Pallid Swifts (most would have been expected to have moved towards their African wintering grounds by then), a mass of Northern House Martins, with a smattering of Sand Martins (Bank Swallows) among them. However, better still were around 15-20 European Bee-eaters, one of my favourite Spanish birds. These birds are a kaleidoscope of colour; careful examination of their extraordinary plumage reveals a blood red eye, broad blazes of rich chestnut across the body, a sky-blue panel on the lower body, a golden yellow throat, and jade-green tinged wings. It is an undisputable stunner. Amazingly, these beautiful, richly coloured birds can be hard to see, when gliding in an open blue sky, that is unblemished by even a single cloud. At this time of year with skies seeming to rise infinitely overhead, the birds are happy to glide high, but betray themselves by their social nature; they like to keep in contact with each other on the wing, regularly calling softly and so letting us know they are there in the process. We looked up to see pieces of sky moving from one deep cerulean patch of sky to another-their underparts blending perfectly with the idyllic skyscape. We watched these birds for a while as they drifted effortlessly on the wing, seeming to revel in their highly skilled acrobatic, aerial antics.
Moving further along the road, the lake gave way to a deep, craggy gorge. Just the sort of place you would expect to see Eurasian Crag Martins, and this was indeed where we saw them. Mick informed me that this is also a traditional haunt of a local pair of Bonelli’s Eagles. A large, unkempt bundle of sticks on a rocky ledge opposite, betrayed where they had nested over the past 7 years. However, by this time of the year they had moved on and breeding will be forgotten for another year. All the same though, a bicolored shape on another outcrop proved to be one of the local eagles gauging its territory. It, and another bird (presumed to be its long term mate), were later seen on the wing swiftly moving from close over the gorge to the distant horizon, with barely a wingbeat required on the powerful hot thermal air available to them on this intensely hot day.

Later in the day, after lunch, and admiring some roadside butterflies that included a pretty Scarce Swallowtail (as well as finding another angry-looking Little Owl), we returned to the scene of the sandgrouse, or more appropriately, the scene of the no-sandgrouse. Mick was determined to find one, and felt we had a better chance in spite of the intense heat, for at this time, they can be confined to the shadows of the stunted almond trees, and are reluctant to leave these shady retreats. And so it proved; Mick locked on to a female Black-bellied Sandgrouse, which allowed us to sidle right alongside it, by using the car as a very effective blind. We admired this cryptic bird for a while, before we moved off and finishing off with a pale phase Booted Eagle before we retired after a very rewarding day.


15 August 2016

John Whitehead the Tormentor….BORNEO (5 & 6 July)

After an amazing time in the lowlands, our attentions switched to the highlands of Sabah, and we headed in the direction of Borneos largest peak, Mount Kinabalu, in the Crocker Range. The first of these days was spent at Tambunan, while the second saw us right on the flanks of the mighty mountain of Kinabalu itself. I have to admit, my favourite Borneo site is in the lowlands, (Danum Valley), as I am as big a fan of the mammals as I am the birds, and that is also where the pittas are found, one of the great bird families of the world, and one for which Borneo is a hotspot. However, the highlands have their own appeal, and for birders with an entirely avian slant, this is where they wish to be, for this is where the highest number of Borneos endemic birds occur.

In particular, there are a trio of species all named after an English explorer, John Whitehead, who conducted surveys in Southeast Asia in the late 1900s, which led him to discover the enormous  Monkey-eating Philippine Eagle in those islands, and the spectacular Whiteheads Broadbill on the island of Borneo. Later, two further species were named to commemorate John Whitehead, which have now become famous amongst visiting birders looking for key endemics: Whiteheads Spiderhunter and Whiteheads Trogon. They have become famous, variously named as the Whiteheads Trio, or The Whiteheads Three, because they are striking and beautiful birds, but also difficult to find; it is entirely possible to miss all three of them. Therefore, as a professional bird tour leader these are a set of quintessential pressure birds.

So we started out at Tambunan, for our endemic Gold Rush as it were, when a surge of endemics was to be expected on our first day in the highlands. In the top of my mind was of course this triumvirate of endemics. To illustrate how difficult they can be, we arrived at Tambunan at dawn, arguably the best place for the Whiteheads Spiderhunter, although it took us until well after lunch to actually see it. Thankfully, we traced it to a flowering vine, where it sat preening, with our scope lined on it, for five whole minutes. Curiously, this same vine also attracted another endemic spiderhunter, with a Bornean Spiderhunter frequenting the same tangle, and causing some notable false alarms prior to the arrival of "Sir" Whitehead!

In our first two days in Borneos highlands, we enjoyed the usual sudden stream of endemic birds and recorded 25 of these key species! At Tambunan, the Barbet Capital of the Highlands, we quickly scored Mountain, then Bornean, then Golden-naped Barbets, completing the five endemic barbets of Borneo (we also saw another Brown Barbet, a new Bornean endemic, following a recent split). Tambunan opened up the wound of endemics that bled out steadily on our first mountain day, with regulars like Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crested Yuhina, Bornean Leafbird, Bornean Bulbul, and Bornean Treepie standing alongside other rarer ones, like Pygmy White-eye and Bornean Forktail. Non-endemics in this first Crocker Range site also included the vivid red Temmincks Sunbird, the subdued Sunda Cuckooshrike, a very cooperative Dark Hawk-Cuckoo (just recently split from Large Hawk-Cuckoo in the latest, August 2016 updates to the Cornell/Clements list); and a fine male Orange-breasted Trogon.
  
Our first morning on Mount Kinabalu, opened with our usual dawntime slow drive up the road, hoping for birds feeding on the road, emboldened to feed in the open in the  half-light; this paid off when we had prolonged views of both Orange-headed Thrush, and the endemic Bornean Whistling-Thrush. Our good form continued when we entered a forest trail, quickly saw a Crimson-headed Partridge, which was shortly after followed by the other of the endemic brace of partridges on the mountain with Red-breasted Partridge too. This all would have been fine and dandy alone, but then, just moments after the second partridge scuttled by, a bright green bird flew up into a tree nearby, and there is no other bird that boasts this iridescent green on the mountain; there just hours into our first morning on the mountain was a Whiteheads Broadbill! In the end we realized there were 3 of them, which soon enough melted back into the forest and were gone, but not before all of got to see them. 

The rest of the day was overshadowed by this bird, but we did get cracking looks at Mountain Wren-Babblers, one of which approached to within 10 feet, and watched an a amazing flock with Bornean Green Magpies and Bare-headed Laughingthrush within it; and also made time to visit Borneos largest flower Rafflesia keithii. This massive flower measured 78cm across, and flowers for just 5-day, and unpredictable, periods. We were lucky to observe it on its second day, before the fourth day that generally sees the flower blacken and start to wither.
 

Having opened with such a stellar two days in the highlands, it was all set for crawl to the finish line, with only a small, discrete set of endemics left to find. Of course, one of the remaining ones to find boar the name of that famed 19th Century naturalist (the tormentor), Whiteheads Trogon

(Big thanks to Chris Sloan for the broadbill photo shown here, and to Michael Todd for getting us those memorable looks at the Whitehead's Spiderhunter!)

10 August 2016

Monkey Business….BORNEO (3 July)

This day was spent within the Sukau area of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. This was not one of the standout days of the tour for birds, with nothing spectacular seen. However, for me birding in Borneo is not only about birds, in spite of the implication. Borneo is a virtual treasure trove of wildlife, and the Kinabatangan area illustrates this well; it is home to an incredible 10 primate species, something that few other places in the World can lay claim to. Indeed, when I first planned on visiting the island of Borneo in 2001, my primary motivation was simian; I desperately wanted to see The Red Ape, or orangutan. Likewise, some of the group who were with me on this latest journey through Sabah, were also strongly driven to come to Borneo with the promise of seeing that odd Great Ape. And so on this day, non-avian wildlife took centre stage. It turned out to be one of the more popular days of the trip, as we enjoyed some cracking looks at many animals, which led to this being the single best day for photography on the entire tour. Borneo is generally, a challenging place for the nature photographer, with difficult light conditions in the tall, verdant, dipterocarp forests. However, Sukau is the one big exception to this, and arguably offers the best photography opportunities on the island.
We spent a relaxing day covering several areas around Sukau by canoe, and once again enjoying a comprehensive field breakfast within the boat, including a fine cup of Sabah Tea on the water! Our morning along the Menanggol River was largely uneventful, aside from some perched Long-tailed Parakeets (more usually fleetingly seen darting overhead); a striking Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker (a vastly underrated Bornean bird in my book); and some close ups of a Stork-billed Kingfisher. A Mangrove Cat-Snake expertly found coiled around a tree by our boatman was another highlight, as was a North Borneo Gibbon lounging in a tree with its Stretch Armstrong upper limbs extended impressively out on either side; (see Stretch Armstong here for the idea!). Gail however stole the morning, when she found the very erratic Jambu Fruit-Dove in a fruiting tree back in our lodge, which it was sharing with six different bulbul species. A few of us smooched around the back of the lodge for a short time before lunch, and were rewarded with point blank views of a gorgeous iridescent male Van Hasselts Sunbird.
In the afternoon it was time for the primates to take centre stage; by the close of the day we had seen 6 different primate species, (and we missed an easy one damn it!). During the afternoon we drifted beneath a giant fruiting fig tree, which was alive with the sound of Blue-eared Barbets, a sound that other frugivorous animals know well and are often drawn to for the promise of fruit at the other end. And so it also emerged on this day too; as we watched the frenzied activity of the leaf-coloured barbets picking off the ripe figs, a large movement caught our attention from the base of the same tall canopy. Soon after, a merlot-coloured arm materialized out from the foliage, revealing itself to be none other than a Bornean Orangutan! We had already seen two of these animals previously, but while our appetite for them had undoubtedly been whetted, it had not been fully satiated. This all changed when a young baby orangutan removed itself from its mothers chest and dangled on its own in full view of a gaggle of excited people gently drifting in a canoe below! 
Once The Red Ape had moved off, (with its offspring now attached once more), we continued along the forest-lined creek, soon bumping into a troop of mischievous looking Southern Pig-tailed Macaques. However, the group were still musing how it was, we were still missing a truly satisfying encounter with another of Borneos celebrity primates, the spectacularly peculiar Proboscis Monkey. In particular, we were still lacking a truly gratifying experience with a bulbous-nosed male of the species. With this in mind, we returned to the main Kinabatangan River, whose gigantic girth is reminiscent of some of the larger tributaries of the mighty Amazon in South America. 
While this final afternoon appeared to be slipping out of reach, with little daylight left to find our final targets, we still managed to find three different male Proboscis Monkeys in this final Sukau "curtain call". The third time really was lucky, as this ultimate proboscis posed at full stretch above us. With 5 primates for the day, we tried for a new monkey in the last knockings of daytime, and remarkably our local guide Remy duly found it, a solitary Silvered Langur preparing to roost along the riverbank. 
The final die cast of the day was a great long look, at the Technicolor Wrinkled Hornbill, sitting by the channel bathed in late afternoon sunlight; (one of five hornbill species for the day). As you may be able to tell, Borneo has cast a long-standing spell over me, and Sukau is surely one of its greatest ecotourism assets! Mammals continued into the night, when (yet another) long duel with one of the local Oriental Bay Owls ended, again, with no owl, but did see us observe a new mammal for the trip in the form of an Island Palm Civet, and yielded another Bornean Colugo, this time viewed from a boat.

04 August 2016

To the Bat Cave!…BORNEO (2 July)

Over the previous few days we had changed venue twice; we finished up in Danum Valley, with a nerve-racking battle with a Bornean Banded Pitta. This species had taunted us daily, but left it until our final morning to finally show itself. This was a good parting gift from Borneo Rainforest Lodge. From there we traveled to Sepilok for a single night, and a morning to admire birds like Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot and Red-naped and Diards Trogons from the state-of-the-art canopy walkway there. After that we transferred by boat to Sukau, quickly chasing after a pack of Bornean Pigmy Elephants, (by canoe), on our first afternoon, when 27-40 animals were seen in a large noisy herd, regularly snorting and trumpeting from the banks.


For our full day out of Sukau, we began our day just as the sun rose, by boarding our private canoe, and gently making our way down a forested creek-named Menanggol. We spent the first part of the morning there, even taking our very well organized breakfast in the canoe-sipping hot tea with the sounds of the Bornean rainforest all around is no bad thing! A highlight of the creek was a pair of White-fronted Falconets perched on a dead tree; and all getting crippling looks at the crippling looking Hooded Pitta, as it called from a rainforest vine. In the late morning, and still missing Sukaus most famous bird, the endangered Storms Stork, we returned to the main river, the Kinabatangan, one of the longest rivers on the island at 560 km long, and tried another spot. This led to a series of good raptors, with Jerdons Baza, Wallaces Hawk-Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Lesser and Grey-headed Fish-Eagles, and Rufous-bellied Eagle all featuring before the end of the morning. 

The undoubted highlight though occurred when two large shapes were seen on the wing overhead. This time though, they were not raptors but storks, and no other than Storms Storks, our main morning target species. We raced up underneath them, getting cracking looks at them in flight, and watched as they languidly circled, gradually lowering their altitude, and suddenly alighting in a riverside tree, in full glorious view. The photographers in the boat, like me, went into overdrive at this. This striking forest-dwelling stork is in a bad way, numbering only around 300 adult birds left in the wild, and we were watching 2 of them! This is not only their Bornean stronghold but their global stronghold, so that, for now, they are usually seen in this area if several days are taken.


After a handsome morning we retired to the lodge for lunch and then made a visit to the bat caves in Gomantong. A visit to this site is undoubtedly fascinating, although not altogether pleasant. The large limestone caverns are home to hundreds of thousands of bats – mostly Wrinkle-lipped Bats, which we saw plenty of clinging to their rocky roost sites. Alongside the bats thousands of swiftlets also nest in the caves, of 4 species: Glossy, Mossy-nest, Black-nest, and White-nest Swiftlets. The latter three species are known as echolocating swifts, as they navigate in much the same way as bats do. The other odd fact about the latter three species is, they are essentially identical by sight, and can therefore only be reliably identified by seeing them perched on their distinctive nests. And so, once we saw one of these unremarkable birds clinging to a nest that appeared largely like a lump of moss, we knew we could now safely say we had seen a clean Mossy-nest Swiftlet. Similarly, when we put the spotlight on another unremarkable bird sitting on a largely white nest, we knew we could now count White-nest Swiftlet on our list.  The latter species is the most valuable one of them all, for their white nests are comprised entirely of the birds saliva, and are sold for high sums of money as the ingredient of Birds Nest Soup. The value of the birds, or more specifically, their saliva becomes all top clear when you read online that a kilogram of the material can fetch up to $2500 US dollars for a single kilogram! The cave was a creepy place, crawling with rusty red cockroaches that swarmed over the floor and the vast piles of odorous bat guano that dominated the terrestrial landscape. We also saw a Müllers Rat scurry past, a species that specializes in caves like this, and also grimaced at the large Cave (Long-legged) Centipedes that scuttled up the cave walls. All around us the pungent smell of ammonia hung in the air. It was, at times, cloying, but somehow we got used to it, and made a full circuit of the cave, before emerging back into daylight, and the by now overpoweringly fragrant rainforest air. Our afternoons birding was peppered by long bursts of rain, which curtailed much of what we did. However, we did see some stellar mammals, including a troop of Pig-tailed Macaques lurking above the mouth of the cave, a mob of Maroon Langurs (Red Langurs), a Red Giant Flying Squirrel peering out of a cavity; and the amusing vision of a mother and baby Bornean Orangutan sitting on the railing of one of the cave workers houses, out of the rain, while they ripped chunks out of a large Jackfruit. At the end of the day, once darkness had descended we returned to the creek near our lodge in Sukau, where we tried, and failed to find a pair of calling Oriental Bay Owls, a very frustrating experience indeed!!!