29 October 2011

World's Weirdest Mammal???...AUSTRALIA (27 Oct)

Believe it or not, this is the closest thing to a Duck-billed Platypus, even though it lives on land and looks like a hedgehog. Just after we swerved to avoid this spiny creature, it decided to curl up in the ball and hide in plain sight. Trouble is we could see it perfectly! It´s name?...Short-beaked Echidna. Where?...Royal National Park, New South Wales (Australia).

More to come from down under, very soon!

27 October 2011

Aussie GOLD...Australia (24 Oct.)

Well the pressure was on. I had let slip that I might just know a Golden Bowerbird bower, and that we might just look for it (understatement). On arrival at the site with detailed directions from another Tropical Birding guide Nick Leseberg I was feeling confident, and even had a bit of a swagger. I knew this bird would simply blow people away. I had not been there for a year but thought in true Aussie style it would be "too easy". How wrong I was. Going to the "obvious track" described by a friend I found a dead end, and a dead end without a bower. Unperturbed, I tried the next "can't miss" track only to hit another dead end, and come back bowerless, and bowerbirdless. Then panic set in. I called Nick, relayed the instructions again and soon found the indistinct track between the two can't miss ones (and the right track). Again though I just could not find the bower. At my lowest ebb and with an expectant crowd just off the trail I sighed and leaned against a tree. It was only then that I changed my stance (by complete accident), which exposed a rather large (and has to be said, "obvious") bower. The call went out and Susan returned with the group. While I waited for their imminent arrival and scoured the trees closely for any sign of "golden balls". A first cursory sweep revealed nothing so I settled down glanced up at the heavens and landed my bins immediately on a gaudy Golden Bowerbird, one of the classic Queensland specialties! Love it! All too soon everyone else arrived, with absolutely no reaction from this handsome bird who proceeded to continue adorning his large bower with some fancy white lichen, time and again while we stood just feet away. True Aussie Gold!

More from Oz to come soon...

25 October 2011

In Australia now...Oct 2011

Got Rainbow Bee-eater as a "welcome present" in Cairns!

More to come when I have time!

19 October 2011

On Cloud 9...BORNEO (9 Oct)

To continue my earlier post on our first full day in the famous birding site of Danum Valley. The day had been going to plan, we had managed to find the hoped-for Large-billed Blue Flycatcher, followed soon after by a fine pair of confiding Bornean Ground-Babblers, followed after by two showstopping male Blue-headed Pittas on the path, unhindered views with absolutely nothing masking their incredible plumage: bright blue head, and deep purple underneath. Then we tracked down the other endemic babbler that Danum is a major site for: Black-throated Wren-Babbler. Things were going swimmingly. Then we tried unsuccessfully to see a calling Helmeted Hornbill, that fled the scene noisily with just one of us seeing it. Frustrated I tried to get its attention again, only for our guide to gently announce that we should skip the hornbill! Before we could protest, he explained why. One of his colleagues, a ranger who roams the forest for wildlife then alerts everyone by radio once he finds anything of interest. It just so happened he had found something of major interest: a Bornean Clouded Leopard had been observed hunting Bornean Gibbons (unsurprisingly with no success at all, given the gibbons extreme agility!) This normally nocturnal mammal is very rare, and despite Danum and Borneo Rainforest Lodge being on of the best sites to get it, there are periods of months between sightings, and most of these are brief snatches of the animal at night. Vivian suggested quietly we go and look for it. We were all in full agreement, although wondered why it would stick around if it was on the hunt? Vivian then calmly informed us it was currently taking a "catnap", and so, with luck, it may be there for some time! It was a no brainer, and we were soon skipping along the trail, yearning to get to the leopard before it wakes up, and moves on. Our local guide was in constant contact with the ranger, and I was constantly haranguing him for the latest updates. Sentences like "still there 2 minutes ago", and "all the other guests are now there watching it" (we of course were furthest from the animal when found by chance), spurred us on and quickened our pace. Horrifying thoughts of other groups disturbing the animal went through our minds, and further images of a happy lodge buzzing post leopard, with us leopardless went through my mind and made the journey seem a lot longer than the kilometer or so that it actually was. A final very muddy slope barred our way to the animal, and we clawed our way up it in desperation. Finally, we were on the top of the slope, we could see a small quite crowd gathered, and there above was the heavy paws hanging down of a Bornean Clouded Leopard, one of the ultimate animal prizes in Asia. Most people took a look and were soon on their way. Not us, we soaked this in from every angle, joyful when it lifted its head calmly and opened its eyes, and held us in its formidable stare. After several hours of taking in something we could only dream of we reluctantly walked away and back to the lodge for a hearty meal of Beef Rendang. Just an hour or so later the animal crawled down from the tree, putting the fear of God into the lone ranger standing there, and walked off into the jungle, never to be seen again.

The night drive was lame that night, truly so, although we didn't care. We had already seen the very best of Bornean mammals that very morning in glorious daylight!

More from Danum to come: another muddy hill, and another spectacular bird awaited us the following day...

17 October 2011

Forgotten Tarsier...BORNEO (8 Oct)

It is a true measure of how good things were on this Malaysian tour that I have completely forgotten to fill in a significant gap between the the first afternoon's birding at Danum Valley and the following morning....Gap to be filled now! On arrival I bumped into once again Chris Kehoe and his group who gripped me off with tales of a confiding Western Tarsier that interrupted their dinner the night before, when found close to the lodge. I have yearned for this bug-eyed primate for years. Indeed, on my very first trip to Danum Valley I stayed at their famous field center, where I opted out one night's birding due to a stomach incident, only to be gutted when I was later regaled with tales of an encounter with this hard-to-find primate later that evening. And that was ten, tough, years ago! On hearing that one had been sighted recently, (something that I had never found on all my previous trips when shortly after arrival I would inquire desperately about this animal!), I quickly quizzed Vivian (our superb lodge) guide on the chances of doing a night walk for it that evening rather than one of their traditional night drives. Vivian was keen, Karen and John (my private group) were keen, and I was keen with all this history of course. We had arranged a night walk in the hope of finding it earlier on the tour at Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre, only for rain to stop play and have the night walk canceled on us. So grudges were out their, and previous disappointments were in vivid in my mind!

Late in the afternoon the skies darkened and the heavens opened as only they can in the tropics. John, Karen and I looked at the black skies and hoped that this would stop as suddenly as it started (something that can happen with tropical storms of this nature). However, over dinner (of Beef Rendang for me of course, my Malaysian staple!), the rain could still be heard on the lodge roof and our hopes were waning fast. I spoke to our guide who informed us their ranger had NOT managed to find it that evening and that it was unlikely to be active in the wet conditions, even if the rain was now easing. Reluctantly we said good night to Vivian and I readied myself for bed, only for moments later for Vivian to return with the simple words "it's there". It was so soon after he had informed me the ranger had not managed to find it, that I stupidly felt the need to ask "what's there?". "The Tarsier" he replied. My shoes were on in moments and I was at John and Karen's cabin knocking frantically. They did not need much motivation, and within minutes we were in the jungle a few minutes walk from the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, staring up at this magical creature!

This "new" system of rangers being sent out to find animals at Borneo Rainforest Lodge had already paid dividends for us with this mammalian oddity, and would continue to do do so in the coming days...

16 October 2011

On the trail of endemics...BORNEO (9 Oct)

Birders visiting Borneo dream of the endemics that the island boasts (some 50 or so of them with new taxonomic changes). And so did we. Having arrived at Danum Valley the day before today we were to have our first real shot at the lowland endemics found in the thick jungles of Danum. The morning began well when a troop of Crested (Bornean) Firebacks stalked the lodge grounds. Very different from the birds we had seen on the Peninsula, as these ones have a yellow (and not white) tail. Then we hit the trails hard. First on the list was a Large-billed Blue Flycatcher which performed with aplomb. Next on the agenda was the endemic Bornean Ground-Babbler that shows how good babblers can be. They are not all boring brown jobs! Then it was showtime. A distant calling pitta had us rapidly re-routing, and taking a side trail. I pressed play on the I-pod and a movement by a fallen tree betrayed the presence of a dreamy Blue-headed Pitta, a bird to die for! (and an endemic, confined to Borneo). Then it was on to another endemic babbler, the Black-throated Wren-Babbler. Known for being shy and tricky we feared the worst as they called and called but remained hidden. The something changed, as they came steaming in to challenge my I-pod at close range. Superb.

However, this day will be long remembered for more than just birds. Normally a pitta would take center stage on any day, but a radio call and hurried change of plans brought us one of the wildlife highlights of a lifetime...

15 October 2011

More encounters with the Red Ape...BORNEO (8 Oct)

As I mentioned earlier we managed to find another (or rather my driver did) Orang-Utan before we had even stepped foot in the luxurious surroundings of the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the lush jungle of Danum Valley. Here is a picture of the young red ape, along with a photo of our first male Bornean Blue Flycatcher. Turned out to be good for both these in Danum which were seen again repeatedly over our 4 night stay there. A Great-billed Heron rounded out the day at Danum, post a good tropical storm. Visible from the lodge!

More from Danum (which might explain my title shot) to come...

14 October 2011

Road Block: Danum Style...BORNEO (8 Oct)

After the lowland jungles of Sukau, we swapped for the steamy rainforest of Danum Valley, staying in the ultra plush Borneo Rainforest Lodge (literally one of the very best lodges I have been to on Earth). Before we got there though we had some "obstacles" on the way in to deal with. First, we found a Bornean Pygmy Elephant blocking the road, and a tusker at that (male). At first he looked a little too interested in us but soon casually walked off the road, leaving us open-mouthed in its wake. Then the driver pulled the car over for a rusty shape in the trees alongside: a young Orang-Utan that just hung in the tree staring at us, with the mother presumbly nearby (but not seen by us). Another distraction was a pair of White-fronted Falconets haunting a dead snag, the world's smallest raptor. We finished the day with a walk near the lodge, taking in both leeches (luckily we were now all too familiar with the advantages of wearing leech socks, with ours looking a little worse for wear after our earlier time in Taman Negara on the Peninsula). It was well worth it though for a glistening male Bornean Blue Flycatcher, and our first Dusky Broadbills before the rain started lashing down, tropical style, and had us running for cover.

Once the rain stopped though, we realized the show was not over just yet...

13 October 2011

Jewel-Thrush Eulogy...BORNEO (7 Oct)

Well with just a few hours left before we sped out of Sukau Lodge along the Kinabatangan River by boat I opted to go after the jewel in the lodge's crown: Black-and-crimson Pitta (formerly considered a race of Garnet Pitta that it has now been split from, which is also known as Black-headed Pitta). An Asian beauty if ever there was one, and available just yards from our rooms. Indeed, we had only just got onto the boardwalk when the soft whistles of this purple, scarlet, and electric blue dream were heard emanating from the damp leaf litter. After a couple of brief and tantalizing looks the bird hopped onto a log and turned this way and that allowing us to view every inch of its perfect plumage. Pittas used to be known as jewel-thrushes, and I am sad to say this term is not used much these days, although feel it should be, as it describes them perfectly: like thrushes made out of precious gems!

We have racked up 7 species on our journey through Malaysia, each and every one of them as precious as this Bornean endemic species...

12 October 2011

More Monkey Business...BORNEO (6 Oct)

OK before the swiftlets being hunted down by the ever-opportunistic Bat Hawks at Gomantong Caves, we took a walk down the road from there. Or more specifically, a drive down there to find some hornbills that Chris Kehoe had tipped us off about. The van was soon stalled though by the sight of a close troop of Red Leaf-Monkeys doing what they do best: munching leaves. Then we made our way to the "magic marker", km3, and pressed play on the I-pod. Minutes later these huge winged beasts flew in, a group of 3 White-crowned Hornbills! The scarcest of the Bornean species that responded impressively to imitations of their owl-like calls. Superb, what a day: thousands of swiftlets, millions of bats, Orang-Utan threatening us, hornbills pursuing us, and Red Leaf-Monkeys nonchalant about us!

A final last minute endemic was still to come out of Sukau right around our lodge though the next morning...

11 October 2011

Into the Bat Cave...BORNEO (6 Oct)

Our final afternoon around Sukau was both ghastly and brilliant all at the same time, as we visited the huge caves at Gomantong. What were we as birders doing there you might ask? Well this is home to thousands of swiftlets (and bats). Three species occur within the caves that are numerous and common on Borneo, but are inseparable in appearance and can only safely be told apart by examination of their nests. So we visited Gomantong to see their nests and ensure they were countable! At dusk thousands of swiftlets came into the cave-some tucked up next to their white nests, which were Edible-nest Swiftlets (also known as white nest swiftlets). This is the most highly prized species as its nest is made up of pure saliva and is harvested for edible-nest soup. Other similar swiftlets were tucked up next to dark black nests, and are appropriately called Black-nest Swiftlets. While the ones in this photo were nestled by their mossy nests, and you guessed it, are known as Mossy-nest Swiftlets.

At dusk millions of bats emerged from the cave while thousands of swiftlets piled in for the night. The bats had a small party of Bat Hawks circling and waiting for them as they streamed out of their dark daytime den. The birds and bats share more in common than their home: they both use echolocation to navigate in the dark caves, the swiftlets being some of few birds that possess this ability.

A distraction en-route to the cave was a rather grump male Bornean Orang-Utan, who took distinct displeasure to our presence and vented this in way that only primates can: he broke off branches and thew them down from his lofty position, and then when we showed no fear at this gesture he proceeded to throw his own faeces down. We retreated at this point!

More monkeys and birds from the caves to come...

10 October 2011

On the banks of the Kinabatangan...BORNEO (5-6 Oct)

We spent two days in the Sukau area, staying in a luxurious lodge on the banks of the Sungei (River) Kinbatangan, a known stronghold for some of Borneo's best birds and animals. On our first morning a Hooded Pitta teased us from the understorey before finally revealing his jewel-like features to us all-emerald green, scarlet red, with a blackish hood that brought the leaf litter to vibrant life!

The night cruises can be great for wildlife, and owls, notably Buffy Fish-Owl, which is conspicuous and impressive in the area. Funnily though the best of the fish-owls greeted us at the boat dock when we returned from our night cruise as seen above...
Behind the lodge during lunch recesses we bumped into the endemic White-crowned Shama regularly, one of Borneo's most melodic songsters, and the inconceivably small Plain Pygmy Squirrel scurrying along the boardwalk. Borneo is a haven for mammals and especially squirrels, where we are tipping 40 mammal species for the trip so far (including our time on the Peninsula too).

More from Borneo on the way very soon...

06 October 2011

Welcome to Sukau!...BORNEO (4 Oct)

Well after our morning with the Bristleheads of Sepilok we were ecstatic, but geared up for some mammals and birds along the banks of the Kinabatangan River. A known hangout for some very exciting rainforest birds, and an enticing mix of animals too. Shortly after our arrival at our fancy lodge on the banks of this mighty river, the word came through that a horde of Bornean Pygmy Elephants had been sighted down river. The chase was on. Plans were changed and our boat was soon pointed towards the promise of these tiny elephants that are unique to the lowland jungles of Borneo. On arrival at the scene we found some already arrived tourists looking forlorn, and were greeted with elephant-less banks. Another word went round that they had headed towards a tributary just off the main river so we spun the boat around and tried to keep our spirits up and our eyes open for some large grey shapes! We had only been motoring for five minutes when a number of nearby boatman gestured something that was hard to figure to our foreign eyes, although the fact that our guide had stepped the boat up a gear and we were charging forward told us all we need to know. The elephants had homed into view once more. The excitement was palpable, and then just minutes later a large group of some 20 or so Bornean Pygmy Elephants fed on the banks, ripping up large tussocks of grass, flapping their large ears, and waving their substantial trucks around. We were just metres away, with the animals appearing super tolerant as one boat after another got word, and arrived expectantly at the scene. However, they were only calm as we were all in our boats, had one of us stepped ashore the scene could have changed in an instant. Thankfully no one was that stupid!

A life mammal, and one I had yearned for, for many years and many visits to the lowlands of Borneo.
More on the way from this mammal extravaganza!

Bristleheads...BORNEO (3 Oct)

After returning to the flashy modern, and uniqie canopy walkway at the Rainforest Discovery Center at Sepilok Borneo we finally found our target. A superb party of 4 Bornean Bristleheads a unique species and family to boot. Awesome, but not photographable. Therefore, here is another shot from the same magic morning in the steamy lowland forests of Borneo, one of two Rufous-collared Kingfishers seen that morning. This one was on the enticingly named "Pitta Path", where we saw and heard no sight nor sound of a pitta!

More from Borneo to come...

05 October 2011

Borneo Beckons...BORNEO (2-3 Oct)

After a brief period in the mangroves and forest at Kuala Selangor, where Barred Eagle-Owl at a day roost stole the headlines, (as well as Mangrove Whistler and Mangrove Blue -Flycatcher), we were on our way to Borneo. Our first port of call was Sandakan before we were whisked away to Sepilok in the dark of night. The following day we went on an unsuccessful hunt for Borneo's star resident: the endemic species and family, Bornean Bristlehead. We did however pick up a flock of Bornean Black Magpie for our considerable troubles in searching in the intense heat and humidity.

However, for an owl freak like me there was only ever one highlight on this day: a stunning Oriental Bay Owl behind our resort. It had rained in the early evening scuppering our plans for a nightwalk. We sneaked in a Red Giant Flying Squirrel anyway in the rain, looking very reluctant to fly, and waited it out. Post supper the water droplets hitting the pond in our resort had ceased and we could not resist a short search for the Bay Owl. We were pretty incredulous when just 20 minutes or so later we had this beauty staring back at us and calling in the spotlight. The tour highlight for me, hands down so far (I know we had Rail-Babbler and pittas and other such delights but just take a look at this thing!!!) We also added Brown Hawk-Owl for good measure just fifteen minutes after the Bay Owl right above the cabins!

More to come from deepest, darkest Borneo...

03 October 2011

What's in a name?...MALAYSIA (1 Oct.)

Well our final morning at Fraser's Hill bought us some new birds and some old friends. Some of these had received new names in very recent times due to ever-changing taxonomies. For example, a few years back the photo here would have been labeled "Pygmy Wren-Babbler", though now this sits in a new family creates out of the small tailess babblers like this, which has been named the "cupwings". Hence this little guy, shot on the roadside, is now called Pygmy Cupwing!

We also saw what I would have usually called White-browed Shrike-Babbler, though this complex has recently received a face lift and been split apart. Hence the pair we saw on Fraser's Hill is now known as Blyth's Shrike-Babbler. On top of that the Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush that opened the day and was just last year grouped within the large babbler family, is now known as Malayan Laughingthrush, and sits within the new laughingthrush family! I could go on to say that the Large Hawk-Cuckoo we saw there may just soon be renamed Dark Hawk-Cuckoo but I won't! Wait a minute, I just did!

01 October 2011

The Gap...MALAYSIA (29-30 Sept.)

With the top of Fraser's Hill shrouded in mist at times we descended to the humid lower slopes around The Gap for some lower altitude species. The day seemed too hot and humid for birds and then a Black Laughingthrush jumped into view to prove me very wrong. Not long after the same stand of bamboo hosted our first of 3 Orange-breasted Trogons. The following morning another stint at The Gap opened with a party of Collared Babblers, babbling in the bamboo, and ended with a Chestnut-naped Forktail working its way along a thickly forested stream. A final return to The Gap in the afternoon produced another pair of forktails (along with the decidedly more common Slaty-backed Forktail), Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler hooting softly from another mighty stand of bamboo, which it shared with a red-capped male Bamboo Woodpecker, and a pair of striking Buff-rumped Woodpeckers. And I almost forgot to mention the Red-bearded Bee-eaters we saw there too! And there was me thinking the afternoons were meant to be quiet!

More to come from the heart of Southeast Asia, Malaysia!