27 July 2016

3rd night; 3rd Frogmouth!....BORNEO (28 June)

Four our second full day at the wonderful Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley, we changed tack. Rather than walking out from the lodge and into the forest, (as we'd done before), we drove out and birded the road and trails further afield. Our main aim for our starting port of call was to see the endemic White-fronted (Bornean) Falconet, which was said to be coming to prey on insects that were attracted to a small building that left its lights on overnight. On arrival at the building the insect harvest was not too impressive, and so may have explained the reason for a complete lack of falconet. We did however, pick up a pair of Diards Trogon as some form of avian compensation. Moving back towards the forest trails again our eagle-eyed local guide spotted a tiny bird sitting on a distant dead snag, which turned out to be the worlds smallest raptor, none other than a White-fronted Falconet! However, our local guide, Azmil, was not done just yet; as we peered gratefully at the falconet, he gestured up front, where our first Bornean Orangutan was foraging languidly in a tree ahead of us. Late in the morning, there was palpable relief when we finally connected with a cerulean-capped male Blue-headed Pitta, one of the most stunning endemic species on the island of Borneo, (that is home to more than 50 birds found nowhere else).

The remainder of the day was often like pulling teeth, with long periods of inactivity, with target birds calling at us, but remaining hidden (including the now daily taunt from one of the local Bornean Banded Pittas!), and studded with a smattering of new birds, like Long-billed (Large-billed) Blue Flycatcher and Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher, and another Bornean Blue Flycatcher. It was becoming traditional to see something spectacular over lunch from the lodge, (after yesterdays Black-and-yellow Broadbill, and the day befores Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker), and this day was no different, with a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills interrupting the well-stocked buffet. In the evening, the group made different choices, some like Gary and Gail, headed out on another night drive in the hope of rare mammals, while Chris and I went in search of nightbirds closer to the lodge. We were hoping to add to the confusingly low number of sightings of Oriental Bay Owl on the lodge property, but heard not a peep from that locally rare species. However, we did find the regular Brown Wood-Owl hanging out near the staff quarters, which was new for the trip. As we left the owl behind some red eye shine revealed an absurdly confiding Leopard Cat, hanging around the same area too. I was determined to find some more nightbirds, which are only recently becoming better known at this site; however, Chris was done and headed back for bourbon and bed.

My personal goal was to track down an Oriental Bay Owl or a Goulds Frogmouth. The former was, of course, highly unlikely, and the latter was known to be around, but I was informed never came in to playback. This was like a red rag to a bull for me. I only knew a rough area where it had been seen (i.e. the name of the trail and no more), and so set off there, and played the call hoping for this denizen of the night to respond. Amazingly, it only took a few tries to receive a reply. I began to feel cocky, instantly; this was going to be easy. However, 30 minutes passed and I felt no closer to seeing the bird, so maybe the local guide was right after all, (they usually are). I took a break from that and went off in search of other nightbirds, but, finding nothing, headed back. On the way back I heard, once again, the Goulds Frogmouth taunting me all over again. I decided to have one last try, so I found a spot with some nice, close perches that were begging to be used by a frogmouth, and tried playing back its call again. Suddenly, this stubborn bird, which had previously seemed unmoved by my overtures, was calling right on top of me! I swept the near branches with the spotlight, and there it was glaring back at me with large cheek whiskers, and bold eyes. I was stoked, and quickly reeled off a set of photos, fearing it would swiftly return to its earlier, considerably more lofty perch. However, it merely remained there, glued to its branch, until I walked away. I got back to my lodge cabin after 10pm, sweat-drenched, and ready for a shower, but quickly noticed that Gary and Gails cabin lights were still on. Dare I ask them if they were interested in a sweaty 20-minute walk for a frogmouth which had likely moved on? Of course I did, as I so wanted someone else to see this bird! I was expecting, at this late hour, that a grumpy "NO!" would come back at me, but Gary quickly revealed his keenness to try and Gail was quick to follow too. Once leech socks were donned again, we returned to the spot, and to my utter shock, the bird was still sitting quietly on the very same perch, near eye level. The outcome: THREE nights, THREE frogmouths! (1 Blyths, 2 Large, and 3 Goulds), a series I am unlikely to repeat too soon.

25 July 2016

2nd Night; 2nd Frogmouth!...BORNEO (27 June)

This day at Danum Valley was the best and worst of Bornean birding all wrapped into one. That is to say, we heard some great birds, but saw much fewer of them than we heard, but when it came to the end of the day we had racked up some stellar species. Birding in the verdant jungles of Southeast Asia is a challenge for some; it is surely more demanding than say birding in the super diverse rainforests of South America, but arguably the rewards are greater; for me Asia still holds the World's best birds. I accept that this is a very personal view, but I knew this was my view when I came to pick my best birds in the World a few years back, and slotted two from Asia in at number one and two (China's Lady Amherst's Pheasant and Borneo's Blue-banded Pitta). My passion for Asia, and Oriental birding, likely comes from the fact my first big dedicated trip was in this region, and I have held a strong link with it ever since. Likewise, Borneo; I first came here in 2001, and I can honestly say that I enjoy each visit more each time, it never ceases to surprise and amaze me in terms of wildlife.

This could be said of this day too. I was shocked that one of the first close calling birds we were trying for, on walking from the lodge, was no less than the rare Giant Pitta. One thing that was not a surprise to me though, was not seeing the bird at all, which was tantalising close, but never showed. This begun a long list of species that did the same to us on this day (i.e. heard but not seen)-Bornean Ground-Cuckoo, Bornean Banded Pitta, Blue-headed Pitta, and Black-throated Wren-Babbler. However, this is merely part of rainforest birding, and while I did not handle this too well (bird guides are inherently greedy birders!), we did get some more uplifting moments through the morning. One of the best morning sightings was a particularly confiding Bornean Wren-Babbler, which participant Chris Sloan managed a great photo of here...

One of the recent developments at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, is the use of radios for the local guides, which means that sightings can be quickly relayed, and has got me and the participants a few killer sightings over recent years (not least a Clouded Leopard in 2011!). The radios relayed to us that one of our most wanted birds had been seen during the morning, and with other birds not performing as hoped, we decided to race after it. The bird in question was the Bornean Bristlehead, an endemic species, and an endemic, one-species, bird family confined to the island of Borneo. It was most people's most wanted on the trip (although a few had orangutan in this spot), and so we moved quickly over to the trail, and split up, so that we could cover more ground. Soon enough, our expert bird guide from the lodge-Azmil-announced that he had heard them further up the trail. We sped up there, sweating profusely along the way, in the 90% humidity, and were relieved when Chris picked one up in the trees overhead, and we were all soon enjoying them pre-lunch.

After lunch back at the lodge (with a Black-and-yellow Broadbill for company), the afternoon continued with more dastardly birds calling, but avoiding our gaze. However, we did manage to see a smart Banded Kingfisher, of the endemic subspecies with the lack facial mask, a potential future endemic species. We also lucked into our second group of 4 Great Slaty Woodpeckers in as many days, scored a female Green Broadbill, and also saw one of the smallest squirrels in the world, the teeny, tiny Bornean Pigmy Squirrel. Late in the day we made our way along a rainforest trail, and waited it out until darkness fell, and where we hoped to find our second frogmouth in as many nights. This one though was particularly special, being the largest Asian species-Large Frogmouth-and almost twice the size of the Blyth's we had seen the night before! It also, for me, possesses one of the great nightsounds of Asia. Shortly before dark, the 6 O'Clock Cicadas (a real species name by the way), started up their whining sounds, and shortly after dark the spine-tingling sound of a Large Frogmouth answered our call. There was some initial frustration as the bird landed by me, but flew off before everyone was in position to see it. Finally though, this colossal frogmouth landed heavily on a low branch, where it remained until we left...

23 July 2016

Back to Borneo...26 JUNE

This was a strange start to a Borneo tour; the night before (somewhere near 1am), I arrived back at our Kota Kinabalu hotel having picked up the group from their long flight from the US (via Korea). Just hours later-at just after 6am, we were back in the same airport, a little weary, but heading to one of my all time favourite places to stay, and to bird...Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley Conservation Area. While I had at least had a a few days to recover from the long journey time to Borneo, all of the group had not. In spite of a complete lack of rest time, the group were in good spirits, living on the adrenaline of where they were going, one of the most exciting places to bird in all of Asia.

We winged our way from one side of the Malaysian state of Sabah to the other, arriving in the eastern city of Lahad Datu. A brief stop at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge office in this small town-come-city, got us signed in, but also got us a few quick birds like Plain-throated (Brown-throated) Sunbird and Pink-necked Green Pigeon, to kick off our bird list. Soon after, keen to hit the road, and get into the rainforest, where the greatest bird diversity lies, we were lined up in 3 comfortable pick up trucks-connected by radio-for the journey in. I had fired up the group, and tried to keep them from nodding off from jet lag, with stories of past trips into the lodge, which had yielded elephants and orangutan. Well, we had none of these, but the trip in was no less eventful, with a great set of birds. Our first hornbill was Bushy-crested Hornbill, and amazingly by the time we had reached the lodge we had racked up 6 species of this family. A designated stop-thanks to a tip off from Scott Watson, who had been in the area before me-was by a large blooming tree that was packed full of nectar-eating birds, which even held a lifer for me in their midsts-Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker, found by Chris and some others shortly after our arrival. The same extended stop also produced our first trogon-Scarlet-rumped Trogon, which glowed red from the dark forest understorey. Further along the road came Changeable Hawk-Eagle-found by Shannon, and an animated party of 4 Great Slaty Woodpeckers. At 50 cm long, this is the largest extant woodpecker in the world, being as large as a female Cooper's Hawk from North America!

Soon after a shock White-crowned Hornbill-found by one of the lodge drivers-we arrived at the lodge and were enjoying the luxury of the place, with a full buffet spread for our lunchtime arrival. Over lunch we cemented an endemic bird on our list, with Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker in the garden. After a rest,  and meeting with our superb lodge bird guide-Azmil-we hit the forest, which was often frustrating and quiet, but early success came at a stakeout for Grey-chested Jungle-Flycatcher, and then, better still, late afternoon produced great views of a pair of Black-crowned Pittas that hopped on to a log and called to us, a stunning endemic bird.

The sheer number of birds heading our way kept the group running on adrenaline alone, and amazingly all agreed to a private night drive to search for key nightbirds and animals too, after dinner at 8:30pm. This lasted about 90 minutes. People would have probably wilted sooner, but the animals and birds came so quick and fast, everyone's attentions were gripped. Not long out of the lodge a Bornean Colugo was found clasped to the side of a large dipterocarp tree; which was quickly followed by a Malay Civet trotting across a lawn nearby. The large and ugly Bearded Pig was spotted near the staff quarters, before we racked up Thomas's Flying-Squirrel as we made our way back along the entrance road to the lodge. After a longer gap, we added a pair of spectacular Barred Eagle-Owls hanging around a small set of buildings, where lights attracted both moths and these owls. On the way back to the lodge, by which time the group was mostly asleep, we added one final bird in the form of a Blyth's Frogmouth, complete with long whiskers jutting out from its cheeks, and an enormous bug clasped in its beak! A dramatic end to a fantastic first day out of Borneo Rainforest Lodge.