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!!!

02 August 2016

Birthday Blues….BORNEO (29 June)

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not usually one to celebrate my birthday. However, I do always hope for a good bird on this day if I am in the field. Over my years at Tropical Birding, I have been in the field frequently on this date, but frequently, through some dark twist of fate, I have rarely had much luck. I remember well being with Nick Leseberg in Papua New Guinea for my fortieth birthday, a landmark that deserved at least a beer as some kind of commemoration, but were stunned to find the normally well-stocked lodge was completely out of SP lager, or any other alcohol.

When I am on tour, I sleep very little, as I sit up thinking through the plans for the next day, and going over the avian targets in my mind. The night before this day, this was especially true, for we had a very special target bird in mind for our next day in Danum Valley. Not only is the BLUE-banded Pitta a rare, elusive and shy forest bird, it is one that is only found in Borneo, one that I have openly stated as one of the top two birds I have seen in the World, and whats more the group knew this, and so some in the group had this chalked on their most wanted birds of the trip. Therefore, there was a little pressure riding on this years birthday plans! This species is also confined to the more hilly parts of lowland rainforest. What this meant was, the best site we had for it, was right at the top of the nearest hill. While a walk of just 4km or so sounds pretty trivial, this feels like much, much more in the energy-sapping heat and motivation-draining humidity of lowland Borneo, one of the most humid areas of the planet. My sleepless night was filled with thoughts of the hike up there, and how the group would take to it, or more likely, NOT take to it, and then, once the hill had been conquered, there was the small matter of finding the bird itself. A disaster in the making played around in my mind, all night long. The pitta occurs on steep, inaccessible slopes that are mostly carpeted in a layer of dense forest. This makes finding it already difficult, and then there is its call. Like most birds of the Bornean rainforest, it would be very hard to track them down without an intimate knowledge of their personal calls, and the strategic use of playback. What makes this species all the trickier is the nature of its call. Its call sounds near identical to another cohabiting pitta species – Black-crowned Pitta – which we had already seen well. So it is important to hear it well, to avoid the confusion (and potential disappointment), of finding out later you were chasing the wrong pitta! Furthermore, what makes this species particularly difficult to see, is that its signature whistle is given at very low volume, and is very ventriloquial. What this means is, the call leads many to frequently believe the bird is considerably farther away than it actually is.

The latest news on the bird was a mixture of good, and bad. The species had recently undergone a three-month hiatus of not being seen nor heard by anyone at this site; then, a month earlier, the reason for this seemed to have become clear, when a nest was found, indicating that they were busy breeding, and so not vocal. However, not a sole had been up that trail since, so it was hard to know whether our timing would be good –that they will have finished breeding and be ready to announce their existence vocally all over again, or bad - that they would still be breeding and continuing their period of self-induced silence.

The local guide Azmil and I had a strategy meeting the evening before; with the long, arduous hike needed, we would need to keep our eyes focused on the pitta prize, and not get needlessly distracted by too many other birds on the way up. This could cost us valuable, and probably necessary, time required to search for the pitta. This, however, is more easily said than done, as we would be walking up the trail right after dawn, when birdsong and activity is at its daily zenith. We did concede we would take at least a little time out however, to try for a couple of other key target birds on the way up.

We set out from the lodge after the usual hearty breakfast supplied by the exemplary Borneo Rainforest Lodge. As we were just passing the final lodge cabin, a large dark shape in the near trees revealed itself to be a roosting Barred Eagle-Owl! This was a good start. We continued on, and were soon engulfed by the rainforest as we entered it in earnest, crossing two swing bridges, and then began our climb. As we hiked up, we paralleled a shallow creek, which led us to sightings of two particularly striking terrestrial songbirds – both White-crowned and Chestnut-naped Forktails showing well along one stretch of the river. In this same area we stopped for our first major target of the day – Rufous-collared Kingfisher, which very quickly responded to my tape, by darting in and landing in a near tree, where we could admire it for some time, and note the body speckling that identified it as a female. At the very same spot came another very good bird, and a very scarce one – a pair of White-necked Babblers, which came in close before moving back on uphill, as we did too. So far, so good, it was already building up to something of a classic day. However, I knew well, that not only the hardest part of the climb remained, but also the hardest species to find, lie ahead of us. I also thought to myself that the Blue-banded Pitta, and how it treated us, could change the entire complexion of the daywe continued up the hill.

Finally, after much sweat and effort, we reached the so-called Fairy Falls, a pretty, in forest waterfall; and the home of the pitta. However, after a while there we were well aware that no sound of our chosen bird reached our ears. I decided the best plan might be for me to play the call at various points along the trail uphill from the spot wed stopped at, and left the group within the capable hands of the local guide. 30 minutes or so later I returned to the group, whod thought they heard me playing the tape 10 minutes earlier, but were shocked when I told them it could not have been me after all, as I had been well out of earshot at the time. Therefore, they had heard the pitta itself! The excitement was palpable among the group when this realization hit them. Quickly, we tried the call again, but were only met with stony silence. We moved a little up the trail and tried it again, and this time the low mournful whistle of a Blue-banded Pitta reached our ears. Azmil and I knew the trickery of the species well, and assured the group the bird was close, in spite of the muted sound of the call – this is its classic deception. We bobbed our heads this way and that, and remarkably my eyes landed on a bright red spot in the understory, so I hurriedly lifted my binoculars to my face, which confirmed my wildest hopes; the red spot was indeed a Blue-banded Pitta tucked deep into the understory. The angle and position of the bird meant that it was hidden from all but the one who could stand in the very position I was in. This led to some very nervous moments, as no one else could see it. The only solution to this was to quickly erect the scope, and prey the bird stayed put long enough for the line of participants to all get the bird! Thankfully, the bird obliged, and soon enough a groundswell of relief ran through the group, followed by celebration, once the bird dropped off its perch and melted back into the forest! As some were hoping for better photos, we played the call one more time to see if the bird would return, although this time it landed on an open perch, where it seemed to be very self-aware of its own boldness, and so soon dropped down onto the forest floor, and was never seen or heard again. It was a fantastic sighting, as we got to watch it for nearly ten minutes on its first perch, and we all had the bird in the bag by 9am, most unexpected indeed!

After returning to the lodge for lunch, and a Tiger Beer for celebration, we hit the trails close to the lodge again in the afternoon. The use of radios amongst the lodge guides can be at once a boon and a burden. On hearing of a mother and baby  orangutan near to the lodge, we retreated back towards there on hearing the news. However, as we walked back, the radio crackled into life again – a Bornean Crested Fireback – a species that had oddly eluded until then, was walking around the staff quarters. We continued our trajectory as we were heading the right way for both, but would have to soon make a choice; left for the fireback, or right for the orangutan. Our steady pace towards the lodge was interrupted when we met another guide who informed us that hed only minutes before watched a male Blue-headed Pitta hopping along the trail! This was too much to resist, we played the call, and this excitable male BLUE-headed Pitta came hopping right up to us, crossed the trail a couple of times, and even flew up and perched on an open rainforest vine, to ensure we all got cracking looks at what must be one of Borneos best looking birds.

Returning to our original quest, we continued on, and then the loud deep hoots of a Helmeted Hornbill reached our ears, and unlike usual, these were not frustratingly distant, but seemingly close to the road, just a short walk away. This was quickly confirmed over the radio-a pair was perched by the roadside. We quickened our pace in that direction, and away from the orangutan. The hornbills soon fell silent, and the radio again informed us of what we feared, they had taken off from their perch. However, just minutes later came the call that they had alighted in a large fruiting tree by the staff quarters, the same staff quarters hosting the patrolling group of firebacks. Our pace could not quicken any further, as we were already at full speed. Moments later we were on the road and racing towards the staff area. We arrived and quickly surveyed the tall trees for any sign of 2 very large hornbills in the treetops, but came up empty-handed. A change of angle though resolved the matter, and we got to see them feeding in the canopy for a short time, before they lifted off and disappeared into an impenetrable canopy of another tree. The fireback had gone from the area, but the hornbills were more than enough compensation. AND, on the way back to the lodge, we stumbled into a female Bornean Orangutan clambering from one tree to another, making quite a disturbance as it did so.

That night, some local rangers set out in search of another critter for us, the odd Western Tarsier, a mammal that I had put in a special request for. Some of the group were not aware of its existence, and asked me what it looks like, my simple answer was it is a real life gremlin! By the end of a long day, we all assembled for dinner, where we stocked our plates a little higher than was probably healthy – an all too regular result with such a good buffet on offer. Just as we all returned to our table, with not a mouthful of food yet taken, our local guide reappeared, with the news that the ranger had not only found the tarsier, but was waiting with it for us to join him! Dinner was quickly abandoned by all, we quickly donned forest footwear again and set off into the rainforest, only stopping once we had arrived – rather hot and sweaty again by that time – at the spot where a man lie on the forest floor with his torch trained on a cute, gremlin-like creature clasped to the side of a tree!

This, by all rights, should have been the final act of the day, but this group were nothing if not tenacious, and greedy for more, like me! After dinner, we set out into the rainforest again, this time to try and find the Goulds Frogmouth seen by the few the night before, for the remainder of the group. As we re-met with our local guide, he played another trump card, when he showed us a roosting male Bornean Crested Fireback, which had chosen to sleep in a large tree just a short walk from our cabins. After that, we headed off into the forest, where the frogmouth gave us a hard time, but with some effort was tracked down sitting quietly in the forest canopy. That really was the final curtain, and we returned to the lodge after an exhausting, but absolutely thrilling day of birds and other animals. Birthday BLUES indeed.

(Thanks to Chris Sloan for his photos from this day)