Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Review - 'Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago' (First Impressions)

The islands that make up Indonesia are extremely rich in bird life, a huge amount of which is endemic to whichever island they happen to be on. Yet, should you find yourself in one of these 'birders wet-dream' locations, you may find yourself challenged to identify what you see.

Indonesia has always been pretty poorly covered by field guides, especially away from the larger islands. Borneo has its two established guides (Phillipps' and Myers) but once you get away from 'The Land Below The Wind', things get patchy. A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali covers at least those areas in the title, but the most recent edition of that dates back to 1993. If those are not the islands you are looking for, your choices are even fewer. You pretty much have the option of one of the many generic South-east Asia field guides, which typically also cover Thailand, Malaysia and so on; A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia, which covers 960-odd species and is obviously a photographic guide (not everyone's cup of tea); or, you could try to find one of the coveted, very expensive copies of the 1997 Guide to the Birds of Wallacea: Sulawesi, the Moluccas and Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia.

Until now.

Enter Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago, published by Lynx Edicions (of Handbook of the Birds of the World fame) and written collaboratively by the formidable team of James Eaton, Bas van Balen, Nick Brickle and Frank Rheindt. It covers 1417 species and almost the entirety of Indonesia (it does not cover West Papua, but that's normally lumped in with New Guinea field guides anyway), along with connected areas such as Malaysian Borneo and Brunei.

When this book popped up on my radar at the end of last year, it was immediately of interest to me. Not just because I love to buy and read field guides, which I do, but because birding in that part of the world is of particular interest to me. I resolved to buy it when it was published.

A few months passed and the publication date kept getting pushed further and further into 2016, and I started to fear another situation as is currently playing out with the Princeton birds of Australia field guide - which has been 'coming' for several years now - but I needn't have worried. The pre-sale special for the Indonesia guide was announced in October 2016 with a publication date of November, and I signed up.

A couple of weeks later and here I am, book in hand, and ready to put forth my first impressions of this pretty incredible volume.

The Physical Book
Taking it out of its tight protective cardboard packaging and slipping off the plastic wrap, the first thing that hit me was 'Wow - this feels awesome!' the cover of the book (currently only available as hardback) has a smooth, matte finish which feels very high-quality, compared to the either grippy or slippery glossy finishes on some hardback bird books I own, that by comparison feel rather average. Although I don't expect them to fall apart anytime soon.

The cover design is quite interesting, with a spread of some species from within the book. Interestingly, I notice that a few of the species (Wallace's Standardwing, Maleo, Bare-eyed Myna) also graced the cover of the original Wallacea guide from 19 years ago. Coincidence?

The black and white background pattern gives it a rather sleek and professional air, more like an office/library reference book than something that you're supposed to drench in Sumatran rain.

Not that that will stop me.

Inside, the pages are a very nice-feeling, fairly glossy paper. This shows off the birds nicely, although it might raise some minor issues reading under bright lights or direct sun, as can be seen in my attempts to photograph the pages. Again, the high-quality feeling pervades.

Inside the covers, both front and back, are maps detailing the area covered by the guide - useful since, based on my family's reaction, the average person picking up the book in a shop probably has no idea what or where Wallacea (or, for that matter, either the Greater or Lesser Sundas) refer to. The inside front cover shows the Greater Sundas, from the tip of Sumatra in the west across to the edge of Sabah in the east. Inside the back cover is Wallacea, the area between Wallace's and Lydekker's Lines, which includes the eastern half of the Indonesian archipelago (the Lesser Sundas), Sulawesi, Halmahera, the Moluccas, and a couple of easterly island groups (Kai and Tanimbar). These maps are in no way meant to provide an idea of birding sites, they are there just to acquaint the reader with the basic geography of the region. However, the dotted red lines separating the island groups (say, the Moluccas from the Lesser Sundas), as well as the solid red lines defining the region covered within the guide, and the solid green lines showing Wallace's and Lydekker's Lines, are a nice and very useful touch.

Map of Greater Sundas inside the front cover

The book is large, measuring 237mm x 166mm x 29mm by my measure, making it almost exactly the same size as Pizzey and Knight's Birds of Australia. The hard cover adds to the weight of the book, which is noticeable, but not restrictive.

Size comparison with Pizzey and Knight 

The First Bit
On opening the book, you're greeted first by a title page, and the names of the four authors. Immediately following this is exactly the same page, but this time with the contributing artists listed below the authors (and there are quite a few). I'm not sure why there was a need for both pages - they probably could have stuck in an extra page of information by just listing the artists on the first one.

Next is the index, which lists the sections of introduction and then lists the species accounts by family, Latin first followed by English in brackets. The ordering of the families is a little different to some older field guides, listing Ratites up front, followed by waterfowl, landfowl, cuckoos, swifts, nightjars and frogmouths, and so on. While it may take some people a little while to adjust to the ordering of the families, it is based on the latest available work in the taxonomic field and presents little difficulty to get used to after a few flick-throughs. The subject of the sequence of families, as well as genus arrangements and various aspects of species taxonomy, is well-discussed in a roughly four-page section at the beginning of the book. It's worth a read before you groan at facing a new layout.

Following the index, the acknowledgements and introductory sections make up "the first bit", as found in most field guides. The 16-page introduction covers a good range of topics, such as the geographic limits of the region covered by the guide, short sections on ecology of each of the covered island groups, conservation, an intriguing ornithological history of the region, the aforementioned section on taxonomy and a short introduction to the field guide's layout, explaining the colour-coding and markings on maps, the headings in the written species accounts, a series of helpful diagrams showing the topography of birds, and explanations of the abbreviations used throughout.

The Good Bit
Having worked through the text-rich introduction, you arrive at the bit you actually want the book for (and the bit you're most likely reading this for): the species accounts.

The first page of species shows us how this whole section is going to work. On the left page, bold block-coloured sections separate the text into family groups, each followed by a brief description of the family's common traits, followed by the species themselves.
The amount of text for each species varies from a very short paragraph (Southern Cassowary) to almost a full column (Oriental Honey-buzzard), but in general the information is concise. The breakdown of information itself is discussed in the introduction, but since this write-up is aimed at those who have not yet bought or seen it, the information essentially comprises:
  • Name
  • Size
  • A general indication of abundance and the area the species is found, for example Aus (Australasia), Phil (Philippines), as well as general habitat (and altitude, where applicable)
  • Taxonomy, giving information on subspecies both inside and outside the region covered
  • Short, basic descriptions of the species as adults (by sex where applicable) immatures/juveniles, and eclipse/nuptial plumage where applicable.
  • Identification notes for those species that are easily confused with others
  • Description of the bird's call
  • Alternative names
Throughout the book, it's clear that space is at a premium. The attempt to strike a balance between portability and practicality as a field guide, while still covering the 1400-odd species to full effect, has led to the species accounts being shorter than in many other, smaller, field guides. While it would be nice to have a little more detail on pretty much everything, from a perspective of trying to find and identify the birds, having the book really any larger would limit the ability to use it effectively in the field. There's also the factor of the considerable extra time and effort required to provide more detailed or personal accounts of 1400 species.

The end of each species account is marked clearly by solid red lines, and the next species introduced in bold red lettering, making it practically impossible to accidentally start reading the next species text as part of the former's, a problem I've surprisingly had from time to time in other guides. The language used throughout is pretty simple to understand, making quick reading on the go nice and easy.

In summary, the text accounts are what you'll need and no more, simply due to the constraints of size and practicality in the field. That said though, all of the sections of information listed above are covered to completion - you're not left asking "but what about..." after reading a species' vocalization section, for instance. They've included only the essentials, but they've got those essentials covered.

The species names themselves are worth mentioning. The use of very recently updated taxonomy means that some species are given different names to what a reader might, perhaps, be used to. This caught me out a couple of times while I was flicking through for the first time and saw species I recognised with unfamiliar names. Names like "Jay Shrike" (known to me as Crested Jay), and "Sahul Pitta" covering what I know as the Red-bellied Pitta complex (down to species level, for example substituting "Papuan Sahul Pitta" for "Papuan Red-bellied Pitta") can easily confuse readers who have been using older names for extended periods of time, and this is not helped by the layout of the rear index, which I'll get to in a bit.
Yes, please 

Another, more minor thing that bugs me a little bit is the consolidation of names that I normally hyphenate (e.g. Honey-buzzard) into a single word (Honeybuzzard). This in no way hinders my ability to use the book to identify the bird, and honestly it doesn't even bug me that much, but it's something I noticed.

Arguably, the most important part of a field guide is not the text but the plates. And the maps. But the plates come first. Here, the guide has you covered - the illustrations in this book are mostly the same beautiful paintings used in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, although apparently hundreds of new illustrations were produced specifically for this volume.

As listed in the front of the book, illustrations were gathered from quite a long list of artists for inclusion, and this is where a lot of field guides find trouble. For example: the Birds of New Guinea (Second Edition) field guide (Pratt and Beehler 2014), used illustrations from both John C. Anderton and Szabolcs Kókay. Kókay's illustrations were simply fantastic - detailed, lifelike and accurate. Anderton's, by comparison, are a very different style of art - almost sketchlike with rough edges, flatter colours, less detail, and lower accuracy. One only has to look at the rendition of Australian Magpie to become a little suspicious of relying too heavily on the other Anderton illustrations for jizz and fine ID.

This is not a problem faced by Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago. While I can't profess to have studied every single one of the 2500+ illustrations closely and judged each on accuracy and detail, I can say from a slow leaf through that nearly all the paintings appear detailed, accurate, well-finished and show bright (within accurate) appealing colour. There is inevitably variation from artist to artist, but as usual, when using multiple illustrators, artists change between families, not species. The Green-magpies are a different artist to the Nuthatches, for example, not a different artist between Common and Bornean Green-magpie. This helps keep identification reliable. The differences between artists, though noticeable, does not seem to detract from the plate's usefulness in field ID, as it might with the PNG book. While some paintings are smooth (such as the Thrushes), and others (Green-magpies for instance) are more highly detailed, as according to the artist's style, both are perfectly usable in the field.

Now, I said nearly all the illustrations are good. It's inevitable that in any field guide, there will be a couple of plates that are a little bit dodgy, and this guide is no exception. From my rather brief look through, plates that jump to mind are the Eclectus Parrots, which do not give much indication of the brightness or sheer vibrancy of this species (and the jizz of the female riedeli subspecies seems a bit weird, though I haven't seen that subspecies in the flesh), and the owls.

I'm generally pretty lenient with the illustrations of owls and frogmouths in field guides. In fairness, they are among the most difficult birds to draw. I tend to just go with the flow and use what I can, understanding that the nocturnal section of most guides is pretty dodgy. Or just downright awful, like the frogmouths in Phillipps' Bornean field guide. This field guide is a little bit of a mixed bag, but in general, much better than some I have come across. The Tyto owls look a little boof-headed, and the Ninox owls sport stunned-mullet facial expressions, but these are easily worked with, and in terms of the ID features, really not bad at all. And the Scops-owls, large owls and Frogmouths are stunning.

 Owls are very hard to draw...

But some are harder than others!

Posing is something that I find quite important with field guide illustrations. A bird's pose is often the very first thing used in identifying it to family level (along with shape, size and 'feel', it's part of the bird's jizz). The degree to which artists play around with posing varies wildly between field guides. For example, Simpson and Day's Birds of Australia put nearly all their birds in behavioural poses (feeding or hanging off trees), which I liked as it gives some representation of how you're likely to see the bird in the field. By contrast, Pizzey and Knight's Birds of Australia put almost all their birds in classic, standardized, side-on postures.

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago is something of a compromise. The illustrations vary between simple side-on portraits and back-and-front views, and the posture and posing of the birds conveys accurately (at least, in the species I am familiar with) how you might expect to see one perched in the field. There's a fair amount of variation in the head angles of birds too, facing slightly toward or away. Although not usually helpful with ID, this does help bring the plates to life a bit, which is nice to see. Raptors and Swallows are illustrated in flight from below, and seabirds are shown in a variety of flight positions including side, above and below (as well as various angles).

An example of a plate where posing makes all the difference 

Both sexes are illustrated in sexually dimorphic species, although if the difference between them is restricted to a small area of the bird, usually only that area will be illustrated (for example, head-only portraits of some female Tailorbirds, where the extent of facial markings is the only difference).

Given the number of subspecies present in the covered area, it is no surprise to see them illustrated as well. As with sexes of the same species, if the area of difference is restricted then so is the illustration. But it's nice to see the Red-bellied (I'd better get used to saying "Sahul") Pitta complex, for example, fully illustrated.

All the plates are labeled with the species, subspecies (where applicable), and sex.

This is one of those guides where the maps are on the plate, rather than next to the text account. I both like and dislike this - while the layout makes matching map to illustration easy, I do not feel it makes it any easier than if it was with the text. I also feel it makes the plate page messier, and restricts the space, making the illustrations smaller, which I'll go into in a second. Yes, it would also lessen the amount of information able to be put on a text page, but I'm of the opinion that in the field, plates matter more than text.

The species distribution maps all show the same area, even if the range in question is restricted to one tiny island (in those cases, it is indicated by an arrow). I personally prefer this to maps that zoom right in on that speck of land, as for someone new to the region, it can be hard to get your bearings with the position and shape of each island. The maps are colour coded for resident, breeding visitor and migrant birds.

The size of the illustrations is my biggest gripe with this book (so far, having not used it in the field yet). While most are a usable size, some - such as the Falconet species, are simply minuscule, and honestly offer very little practical use in the field. There's something to be said for scaling species relative to each other on a plate, but when the species figure gets down to the size of a 5-cent piece, I think it's time to re-evaluate the primary purpose of illustrating the species in the first place, which is surely to aid in field identification. The same problem is evident throughout the book, and often on plates where really there is enough room to enlarge them, such as the raptors on page 173.

Falconets really are tiny! 

An example of a plate where illustrations could have been scaled up 

One final, though smaller, issue I have with the plates is the amount of planning put into the layout, with respect to identification. What I mean by this is, there are some cases where high-confusion species aren't on the same page as one another, making the reader flip back and forth over and over to work out an ID. This both adds to the wear and tear of the book, but also adds often-critical time to clinching the ID, and adds to user frustration. One example of this is in the Spiderhunters, where Spectacled and Yellow-eared are on different pages. While these two species aren't that hard to separate once you get your eye in, it's the people who are getting their eye in who need the field guide most!

One final thing to note - and this is neither a plus nor a minus from my perspective, but it's worth mentioning - is that in this book, presumably to save space, a new family of birds will be introduced directly after the last. Many field guides introduce a new family on the next page, to help establish boundaries between families. I think in this case it's fair enough to flow straight from one to the next
given the sheer number of species covered, and the change is clearly marked, so it's unlikely to cause any confusion.

The Ending
Behind the species accounts lurks an extensive bibliography, which is nice to see, and finally the rear index. There is only one index, unlike some guides which have one for Latin and one for English, meaning that scientific names and common names are mixed together. I prefer this layout, as often I'll go straight from looking up an English name to a genus name.

Interestingly however, the English names are alphabetically by species, not by family. There is no entry in the index, for instance, for 'Woodpecker', but every Woodpecker species is entered by its full common name (Buff-rumped is in B, Grey-and-buff is in G). While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it does make things a little difficult if the species name you're looking for has changed from what you're used to - refer back to Jay Shrike v. Crested Jay.

Comparison and Conclusion
In terms of alternative field guides, really there are none. As I said in the beginning, other field guides either only cover small areas of the region - and not all of the region is covered by these restricted guides - or are very old, out of print and cost several hundred dollars for a used copy. In my eyes though, that's okay. This guide is everything you are likely to need, from information to plates, and considering the effort that went into putting it together, it comes at a very reasonable price and in a beautiful package. Like any field guide it has its shortcomings, but aside from the smaller species figures, these are fairly minor and can be worked around.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing how good it is in the wilds of Sulawesi at some point!!

Julian Teh

Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago is available directly from Lynx at this link:

Friday, November 4, 2016

"Gone Pishing" - National Twitchathon 2016!

Last weekend (October 29/30) was the date of Australia's first National Twitchathon. Previously held as statewide events separate from each other, this year all the states were united to form one national event, and to the delight of the organizers it appears to have been a success!

For those not familiar with the concept of Twitchathon, it is in essence a race - a competition to see which team of crazy birders can see and hear the most species of birds in a 24 hour, 12 hour or 3 hour time period (depending on the race type). In many ways it is the ultimate test of a birders skill - or at least, for those birders not quite crazy enough to attempt a Big Year. It requires a lot of effort in planning a good route, practice ("oiling") runs to make sure the expected species are present at each site, coordination of a team, timing and transport, and of course the fundamental skills in identification of birds by sight and sound.

So why would people - even crazy bird people - go to all that effort? Well, there are a variety of prizes for race winners, and of course it's a lot of fun and a good challenge. But the biggest reason, the whole point of the race, is that it acts as a fundraiser. Competing team members ask their friends, family, workmates etc. to sponsor their team in the race, and those funds are directed to various bird conservation programs. This year for example, teams in New South Wales raised funds to help provide artificial nesting sites and other support for Gould's Petrels and White-faced Storm Petrels on storm-ravaged Cabbage Tree Island; Queensland team's money went towards removing invasive Rubber Vines and feral pigs to help Capricorn Yellow Chats, and so on.

I'd never attempted Twitchathon before. Mostly because I never considered myself a good enough birder, particularly with calls, to be a useful asset on a serious team - not to mention that until this very week, I've only had a learner's driving license (or none at all). But this year, the organisers decided to try out a new type of race - a three-hour version, which they called "Birdathon". Here's how it's supposed to work:
 "The ‘Birdathon’ is a super-strategic event that could take teams all day, or as few as three hours. It targets everyone, young and old, experienced and novice! Each team has three 1-hour blocks to bird watch over the course of the day, which they can choose to use at any time, and in any place. So one hour (or more) could be at your local park, or wetland, or it could be that patch of mallee or rainforest that’s a few hours’ drive away."

This, I thought, was a good way to dip my toe into the swirling pool of madness that is the competitive birding scene. It also suited me because of my busy work schedule, and its ability to be carried out at a couple of local sites rather than a 12 or 24-hour dash across half of NSW. I figured I could head on down, tick off 70 or 80 species, and be home in time for lunch.

My planning began about a week before race day (which would be Sunday the 30th, since I had work commitments on Saturday). I sat down with my laptop and, using eBird, worked out an approximate list of gettable species based on records from the month prior. I ended up with 74 species I reckoned wouldn't be too hard to pick up, and about 20 each in the 'unlikely' and 'probably not' categories.

Looking at these records I was able to fairly easily piece together my plan for sites to visit, and a few years of local experience gave me the order to visit them in. It was clear from the start that to maximize variety and get a high score, I'd need to spread my three hours out over a good range of habitats. Thankfully, Canberra isn't very big, so not only was picking my sites easy, but the distances between them were pretty small, allowing me to get from one to the next in fairly quick succession, without losing too much precious good birding time in between. The sites I settled on were Jerrabomberra Wetlands for the species of a more aquatic inclination, either Campbell Park or Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve for the woodland dwellers, and the Australian National Botanic Gardens to clean up the remainder. I knew that I'd have to start with Jerra, to get my eyes on the Crakes and Snipe that only come out into the open early in the morning, and then move on as quickly as possible to my woodland site to take advantage of the morning activity while it lasted. The gardens I felt I could pretty much do at my leisure, since my targets there were few, relatively easy and sedentary.

Armed with this plan, I headed out early on Thursday the 27th for my 'oiling' run with dad.

My hour at Jerrabomberra was promisingly productive - a good mix of waterbirds and bush birds, nothing unusual or even really noteworthy, but it netted me a solid 41 species, a good base to build on at my next site. The diversity of waterbirds was noticeably low though. Following the massive amount of rain the whole southeast of Australia has received in the last couple of months, the vast majority of our waterbirds have disappeared inland to breed. Coots especially - in some lagoons and lakes along the south coast where they normally number in the thousands, they have all but vanished. I knew this would cost me a couple of species such as Pink-eared Duck and Chestnut Teal, but I wasn't too concerned about it since most other teams in my category would face the same problem.

 I decided to try out Campbell Park next, since it's closer than Mulligans to the wetlands. By the time we arrived it was already beginning to warm up, and not a lot was calling - I started the timer and set out, but my optimism soon vanished. After an hour of traipsing over the hills I had collected only 15 new species. Nice species like Mistletoebird, Shining Bronze-cuckoo and White-throated Gerygone, but only 15. Time was running short since dad and I both had things to do in the afternoon, but I decided that come race day, I would take the risk in going to Mulligans instead.

Sunday rolled around, and mum and I (the official members of team "Gone Pishing") rolled out! We arrived at Jerrabomberra around 6, just before sunrise, and waited patiently for the birds to become active. At 6:35 we decided it was time - the timer was set, and we begun!

We started in the Bittern hide, and quickly noted down the first species for the morning in Pacific Black Duck, Eurasian Coot, Australasian Reed Warbler and Willie Wagtail. The nesting pair of Sacred Kingfishers put in a nice appearance, and a couple of Australasian Swamphens and a Dusky Moorhen were seen munching grass roots across the pond.

We moved on, stopping between the Bittern and Cygnus hides to pick up White-browed Scrubwren and Superb Fairy-wren, and a passing Silver Gull on its way to the sewage works across the road - although a scan of the poo-ponds revealed no ducks at all. The Cygnus hide gave us a pair of Australasian Shovelers (nice to see, since they were absent on the oiling run), and we continued on our way around towards the silt trap, steadily racking up species as we went. By the time we reached the woodland loop we were edging towards 30 species, with half an hour left to go. We picked up a couple of starter bush birds (Rufous Whistler, Yellow-faced and New Holland Honeyeaters, although there was no sign of the recent White-cheeked Honeyeater) before heading back for a second run at the main hides on Kelly's Swamp. This turned out to be a good plan, because we picked up several new birds for the morning, the highlight being two Spotless Crakes, one of which flew right across the pond and was visible in the reeds where it landed for a good two minutes.

The timer went off, and we finished our hour at Jerrabomberra with 43 species.

We made our way straight to Mulligans Flat from Jerrabomberra, and before long were walking over the familiar hill between Amy Ackman Drive and the reserve gate. We came across a large walking group just inside the gate, but quickly overtook them and started the list at 8:13am to the gurgling song of Grey Butcherbird.

Choosing Mulligans over Campbell Park turned out to be wise. The activity, both vocally and visibly, was much higher - before long we had another 10 with common woodland birds like Weebill, Noisy Friabird, Spotted Pardalote, White-throated Gerygone, White-throated Treecreeper and White-winged Chough. A detour from the path to the edge of a gully brought us a small mixed feeding flock with Golden Whistler, Buff-rumped Thornbill and Striated Pardalote, and as soon as we returned to the trail a group of Varied Sittellas flew in.

We walked northeast into the reserve for our entire hour, picking up some nice birds like Grey Currawong, Pallid Cuckoo and Superb Parrot before the timer went off and we closed the list at 26 species, giving us a total of 69 species for the morning!

We were very pleased with this total - given my estimates had put our list at between 70 and 80 species, to reach 69 in the first two hours was very encouraging. However, our third hour had to be put on hold, as I had been called in to work to cover for my boss, who had taken himself to hospital late the previous night with some chest pains (luckily nothing serious).

I finished work at 3, met up with mum again, and we continued down to the botanic gardens straight away. As we drove down, the weather was looking increasingly threatening, and by the time we arrived we knew we didn't have much of a window before the rain arrived. I decided not to start the list until we found our first new bird, and thankfully it didn't take long: a Brown Thornbill at 3:30pm took us to 70 species, and was quickly followed by King Parrot, Eastern Spinebill and Satin Bowerbird. A search along the bottom path near the CSIRO gate brought us another couple of species including the much hoped-for Gang Gang Cockatoo, before the rain started coming down heavily. We decided to call it quits, since the only birds we had missed that we stood a chance of reliably seeing in the gardens were Eastern Yellow Robin and White-naped Honeyeater, neither of which had so much as peeped at us thus far.

Team Gone Pishing finished the Twitchathon with a grand total of 76 species. Although Victoria has yet to complete their twitchathon this year (it was delayed a week so as not to coincide with Melbourne Cup Day), as things stand, we are sitting in third place nationally in the Birdathon event!!

Big thanks to mum for doing the driving and running around with me. And apologies to readers of this post for the lack of photographs! I decided to go hard and not bother with the camera for most of it.

Donations to Twitchathon causes are still open, and can be found here:

Please consider donating if you can, the money goes to great causes around the country. And if you didn't this year, perhaps consider forming a team in next year's race! As a first-time entrant, I can attest that it's great fun for anybody of any age and level of fitness or birding ability. You don't need to get first place to have a good time and fundraise for rare birds. Get involved!!

Our full species list can be found below. In other news, please check back to the blog soon, as I should be getting more content up soon! I'm booked on a Sydney pelagic this weekend with a bunch of the young birding crew, and I have plans to start writing up a few birding book reviews as well. Until then!


*H=Heard only

Jerrabomberra Wetlands (6:35am-7:35am)
  1. Pacific Black Duck
  2. Eurasian Coot
  3. Australasian Reed-warbler
  4. Willie Wagtail
  5. Australasian Swamphen
  6. Dusky Moorhen
  7. Common Blackbird
  8. White-browed Scrubwren
  9. Silver Gull
  10. Superb Fairy-wren
  11. Grey Fantail
  12. Black Swan
  13. Australasian Shoveler
  14. Magpie Lark
  15. Masked Lapwing
  16. Pacific Koel (H)
  17. Australian Magpie
  18. Pied Currawong
  19. Common Starling
  20. Red-browed Finch
  21. Australian Wood Duck
  22. Rock Dove
  23. Golden-headed Cisticola
  24. Red-rumped Parrot
  25. Little Corella
  26. Australian Raven
  27. Welcome Swallow
  28. Silvereye
  29. Australasian Grebe
  30. Australian Pelican
  31. Yellow-rumped Thornbill
  32. New Holland Honeyeater
  33. Rufous Whistler
  34. Red Wattlebird
  35. Yellow-faced Honeyeater
  36. Little Grassbird (H)
  37. Crested Pigeon
  38. Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike
  39. Grey Teal
  40. Crimson Rosella
  41. Spotless Crake
  42. Sacred Kingfisher
  43. Cattle Egret
 Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve (8:13-9:13am)
  1. Noisy Miner
  2. Grey Butcherbird (H)
  3. Noisy Friarbird
  4. Striated Pardalote
  5. White-throated Gerygone
  6. White-winged Chough
  7. Spotted Pardalote
  8. White-throated Treecreeper
  9. Weebill
  10. Buff-rumped Thornbill
  11. Galah
  12. Golden Whistler
  13. White-faced Heron
  14. Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
  15. Varied Sittella
  16. Olive-backed Oriole (H)
  17. Grey Currawong
  18. Striated Thornbill
  19. Brown-headed Honeyeater
  20. Pallid Cuckoo (H)
  21. Laughing Kookaburra
  22. Mistletoebird (H)
  23. Eastern Rosella
  24. Grey Shrike-thrush
  25. Dusky Woodswallow
  26. Superb Parrot (H)
 Australian National Botanic Gardens (3:30pm-4:00pm - cut short due to rain)
  1. Brown Thornbill
  2. King Parrot
  3. Eastern Spinebill
  4. Satin Bowerbird
  5. Fan-tailed Cuckoo (H)
  6. Gang-gang Cockatoo
  7. Common Bronzewing

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Birding Sabah - Part 6

The following is part six of a series of daily diary-entries from a month-long birding trip fellow young-birder Brandon Hewitt and I undertook in Sabah, Borneo, during February 2016.

For anyone who has come to this page looking for a brief "went here, saw this" report, you've come to the wrong place! However just such a version of this trip report is now up on, and can be viewed HERE

If after reading this (and the following) posts you have any questions about birds we saw, places we visited or just generally birding in Sabah, feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to get back to you ASAP :)


February 24th (Wednesday)
We started out early, and were on the Pandanus trail before the first blue-frosted light of dawn began to seep through the trees. We waited in silence, hoping we would either hear or see the Everett’s Thrush that Arjan et al had here just a couple of weeks ago.

But Everett’s Thrush doesn’t exist, so I can cut that long depressing story short.

At dawn the banders arrived. It turned out they were two Malaysian field assistants, working with a group of 10 uni students from Montana. They let us join them, and we spent a few hours having a good chat about the differences between Australian and Malaysian ringing, and comparing them both to what we’d learned of American practices. We chatted because there wasn’t much else to do - it was a very slow morning for them (despite them having 6 nets each to look after, which is impressive given we normally have at least four people for a ten-net round). In the few hours we were with them, we caught three Grey-throated Babblers and a Bornean Whistler. Brandon ran into them later, and they said that during the afternoon they caught a Mountain Leaf-warbler. Very slow day. Nevertheless, good fun! The morning was made better by having a male Whitehead's Trogon hang around where we sat for half an hour or so, although it stubbornly refused to fly into a net.

Bornean Whistler in the hand

We went for breakfast (at around 10, making it brunch really) then walked up the main road to the top of the Silau Silau trail, where it meets the end of the Bukit Ular trail. We were looking for different things at this point - Brandon wanted to focus on finding Pygmy Blue-flycatchers, a rare resident that is occasionally seen around that area, and I was extremely keen to find the nest of the Whitehead’s Broadbill. Chew Chong Leong, who I mentioned briefly in an entry from our last visit to Kinabalu Park, had discovered their nest shortly after we left the park. According to him it was still active, and positioned around 700m from the top of the trail.

I walked diligently 200m past the 500m marker, and started looking around. Nothing to be seen, and no birds present to lead me to the nest. I knew that I was looking for a bit of a needle in a haystack, a single nest in a rainforest, but from the photo I'd seen, I figured it had to be pretty easily visible from the path. After about ten minutes, a pair of older birders wandered past, and I asked them if they’d seen any Broadbills. They asked me if I’d seen the nest - and when I replied no, told me that it was about 200m from the top of the trail (500m back) and that they’d show it to me when they got there, if I was happy to wait for them going slowly.

I was indeed happy to wait, and slowly we made our way back up the path. At length we arrived, and they pointed out the nest - a beautiful structure, woven out of palm fronds like a rattan basket, and cleverly disguised with a draping of mossy tendrils. It was teardrop-shaped, with a large entrance (it’s a small nest for  a large bird) and quite a deep cup. When the adult sits inside, usually the head sticks out the entrance, from the few photos of Broadbill nests I’ve seen. Sadly though, nobody was home. I began to worry that the chicks might have already fledged. The nest was first noticed weeks ago, after all. Also worryingly, I had no idea where Brandon was, and my phone was out of battery. I made my way a kilometer or so down the Silau Silau trail and out to the little shop near the Kinabalu Hall to buy a drink. Clearly he’d had the same idea, because he was already buying his drink when I walked in.

Unattended Whitehead's Broadbill nest

We sat down and thought about what we wanted to do for the afternoon. He wanted to do a few laps of park HQ for the Blue-flycatcher, and then head out to the grounds of some local hotels outside the park gates to try for Pygmy White-eyes. While the thought of lifers on my birthday was tempting, the thought of photographing Whitehead’s Broadbill at the nest was the easy winner. Brandon wandered off, and I went back to the resthouse to pick up my powerbank before hiking back up the trail to the nest.

When I got there, there was still no bird activity. In fact, a Little Pied Flycatcher was foraging on the same branch with no opposition. Not a great sign, but I was feeling lucky so I hid myself deep in the foliage to the side of the path and leaned back against a tree (checking it first for Pit-vipers) to wait.

This time I didn’t have to wait long. Fifteen minutes into my vigil, a branch shook off to my right. Then a shape moved around to the left, and in short order the female Whitehead’s Broadbill popped up on a branch just behind me. She was very careful, and sat there for five minutes or so, scanning the area for danger. Satisfied, she took off in a green blur and landed, clinging vertically, to the front of the nest.

Female Whitehead's Broadbill at nest

Now that she was in clear view, it again struck me just how stunning a species Whitehead’s Broadbill is. The green is sleek and shiny, as though freshly waxed, punctuated with pitch black in a wonderfully fluid contrast. Everything about the bird seems to shine, not a single feather out of place. I focused on taking photos and mental notes about her behaviour. I can’t say for certain without doing some research, but I wouldn’t imagine there have been many field observations of Whitehead’s Broadbill nesting biology. The female was regurgitating food for her chicks inside, throwing her head upwards and bringing up individual red fruit, passing each one through the entrance before repeating the performance. I couldn’t see inside the hole, so I have no idea how many young were in there, but it/they ate quite a few berries before she flew off. 

I relaxed my aching arms and squatted down to delete the blurry photos (of which there were many, at 1/125th of a second with a 400mm lens). The two birders wandered past again, and I showed them my good photos, thanking them for the help in finding the nest. They didn’t stick around, but they probably should have - not five minutes after they left, I was doing some testing to arrange the composition of my shots better, and when I focused through the viewfinder after changing a few settings, there was a bird at the nest again! The male this time, featuring more black spots than the female and a larger black ear-patch, and showing that in this species both parents take equal responsibility in feeding the young. He did the same thing as the female, ducking his head backward to bring up a fruit, before passing it in. He stayed a bit longer, perhaps three minutes, and looked around often to check his surroundings. Eventually he took off and disappeared into the forest like a green lightning bolt.

Male Whitehead's Broadbill at nest

Stoked to have had the privilege of seeing and photographing this rare species at the nest, I extracted myself from the bushes and made my way back to HQ.

I figured out as I went that Brandon was now some way down the road at the Nikgold Hotel, so I arranged to meet him back at the resthouse when he was done, giving me time to edit and cull some photos before going for dinner. He turned up half an hour later, and we chilled out for a while.

We made our way back into the park, up to the Sutera restaurant for my celebratory birthday dinner of roti canai, followed by waffles with strawberry ice-cream (interesting and pleasant mix). We tried spotlighting after dinner, but despite standing directly under the tree where a Mountain Scops-owl was calling, we failed to get a look. We gave up and came back to rest up for tomorrow, our last crack at Everett’s Thrush and a travel day back to Kota Kinabalu.

February 25th (Thursday)
We woke at 5, as usual, when my alarm went off.

But neither of us got up. In grunted comments we agreed that the bander's activity around the thrush site would mess up our chances of Everett’s (even though it doesn’t exist) and thus there was no point leaving the comfortable sanctuary of our beds.

The Steps of Hell that haunted my nightmares

We slept in until a truly groundbreaking 7:30 before getting up, packing slowly, and hiking up to the park entrance to wait for our minibus to Kota Kinabalu. The mountain loomed, clear of cloud, moody and grey behind the buildings of Park HQ. It almost seemed to grumble, as if insulted we should leave again so soon after arrival - after all, it had brought out the very best in birding experiences for our return.

It struck me again just how lucky we have been on the mountain - all three of the mythical Whitehead’s Trio, all multiple times. Yesterday we had the Broadbill at the nest, a male Trogon near the banding station, and we heard the Spiderhunter several times throughout the day. If I didn’t know any better I would have said all three were locally common!

As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait all day for a minibus. About twenty minutes after we arrived, who should show up but our friendly taxi driver. And better still, he happened to be on his way to KK anyway - no skin off his back if he took a couple of passengers. He gave us the almost 3-hour ride (usually between 200 and 300 ringgit) for RM25 each, along with another backpacker we picked up on the way. Handy way to make 75 ringgit to go where you were already intending to!

Goodbye to Mount Kinabalu

We arrived in KK and immediately I noticed that I wasn’t sweating myself dry. It seems that somewhere over the last four and a half weeks I’ve become acclimatised, and in fact I’ve felt pretty comfortable all day. Of course, we only have two days left, but at least those two days will be bearable. I was fearing the return to KK.

We had a few things to do. Leaving our bags at the familiar Borneo Backpackers, we walked up to Jesselton Point, the harbour from which boats to the islands depart and return. It’s only about ten minute’s walk from the backpackers, making it much more convenient than Sutera Harbour. Our goal was to work out the departure/return times and prices for our trip to Manukan Island, a small hunk of land and forest about fifteen minutes out into the bay. Here we are targeting Tabon Scrubfowl, a relative of Brush Turkeys and Malleefowl (but less attractive than the latter), along with Mangrove Whistler and Mangrove Blue-flycatcher. All of which, according to eBird, were seen on the island today. Excellent!

We managed to decipher that the first boat leaves at 8:30am, and the last boat returns at 4:30pm, and the cost all up would be RM40.63. Pleased, we made our way back to one of the huge shopping malls we’d passed on the way, and popped in for some lunch at - where else - the Multi-Bake. Multi-Bake is love. Multi-Bake is life.

We spent all afternoon exploring the shopping mall and browsing bookshops before eventually returning to the backpackers around 3:30 to pick up some birding gear, and head out to spend the afternoon at Tanjung Aru. With the taxi rank so close to the backpackers, we were at the beach by 3:40.

We walked up as far as Sutera Harbour and back, stopping in at the hawker stalls for a spider (of the soft drink rather than arachnid kind), before continuing down to the other end of the beach. We walked slowly, enjoying the beautiful afternoon and stiff sea-breeze, watching the Blue-naped Parrots and Asian Glossy Starlings flock in the trees. We made our way slowly back as the sun set, which was a spectacular end to the day.

Lazy afternoon seawatch at Tanjung Aru 

We went out for dinner at the same shopping mall, and spent a few hours afterwards perusing the bookstore, as Brandon wanted to buy a book for the plane. Relaxing on my dorm bed now, drifting off to sleep and looking forward to island birding tomorrow!

January 26th (Friday)
With the first boat leaving at 8:30, this morning’s start was actually quite relaxed - we got up around seven, ate some toast, readied our things, and walked down to the ferry terminal. It transpired that the company we talked to yesterday (there are ten companies with stalls in the ticketing hall, all madly competing with one another) were having engine troubles this morning, and wouldn’t be going anywhere until ten. We quickly found a different company able to take us at 8:30, and settled down to wait.

Before long we had boarded our little boat, and set off across the turquoise waters of the bay. I had read that the boat drivers tend to gun it across to the islands, making for quite a bumpy ride, but ours seemed content to take it slow. We passed the great green lump of Pulau (Island) Gaya, noticing the small settlement on its eastern side. A town for the wanderers - people who have fled the Philippines but are not accepted by Malaysia, so are forced to live stateless on the island. Moving quickly past, we arrived at Pulau Sapi, where most people got off, then made the five minute transit to Pulau Manukan, our stop.

Manukan is a small island, just a couple of kilometers across, but it has a couple of birds that are harder to find on the mainland. Chief among these is the Tabon (or Philippine) Scrubfowl, one of the Megapode group which also includes our Malleefowl, Brush Turkey and Orange-footed Scrubfowl. The Megapodes are found throughout the pacific, and many species are endemic to the small islands on which they are found, such as Sulawesi’s Maleo and the mysterious Tongan Megapode.

Being a small island, finding a couple of other birds is also a bit easier than on the mainland. Mangrove Whistler and Mangrove Blue-flycatcher made targets two and three for the morning. We got off the boat and made our way down the long wooden jetty arriving at the island resort run by - who else - Sutera Lodges. Seriously, these guys own everything. We did our best to ignore them as we made our way up the one and only trail on the island, which follows the ridge running down the centre from end to end. We had hardly moved fifty meters when we came upon a couple of Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds. Not particularly exciting birds, or a major target, but a lifer for me and the last of the Bornean Tailorbird species on my list. Always feels nice to have a full page of ticks in the field guide!

Moving on, we very quickly came across a Mangrove Whistler singing its heart out from a low perch. Mangrove Whistlers aren’t at all interesting looking, unlike many of their family. Australia’s Golden, Mangrove Golden, Rufous and White-breasted Whistlers all look quite handsome. Even the endemic Bornean Whistler is pretty colourful - but Mangrove is the exception to the rule, and is pretty much entirely dust-brown and cream. Four or five steps further on and around the corner, I flushed a big bird off the ground - a Tabon Scrubfowl, roughly the size of a small chicken with chocolate and slate-blue plumage and bare pink facial skin. Although flighty, it stuck around so we could both get good views.

We had been on the island fifteen minutes and had seen two of our three targets - surely Mangrove Blue-flycatcher wouldn’t also be this easy? Not quite. In fact it took us almost another ten minutes to have one perched right above us.

We had until 2pm on the island, and it was very nearly 11:30. With all our targets seen, we made our way to the far end of the island, then spent an hour working our way slowly around the coastline, picking our way over the fields of boulders and white crescent-shaped beaches. At one point, I’m sure the waters off Manukan would have supported a vibrant marine community, as there was once a reef here. Walking along the beach you find all manner of bits of old, dead coral and reef-life. Sadly the coral are now mostly dead, and although the waters still teem with small fish, they wander aimlessly through the clear waters, as though not entirely sure what they’re doing there. At least one species is still doing well though - over every smooth rock surface crawled rafts of Mudskippers, bizarre and endearing fish that spend their day sitting out of the water, flipping their way around with barely-controlled jumps.

There are worse places to bird, I suppose 
We arrived back at the lodge headquarters hot and sweaty, and quickly decided we weren’t going to pay for another Sutera meal. At least, somewhat surprisingly, there were other options around, and I was soon downing some chicken curry and rice on the beach. With nothing else really to do until 2, we sat around relaxing for a while, before making our way to the jetty. While we were there we had a very frustratingly distant view of a lone female Frigatebird. We could see from the extent of the white on the underside that it wasn’t a Great Frigatebird (which would be exceptional in these waters anyway) but there was no way to conclusively decide between Lesser and Christmas Island Frigatebirds, other than Lesser being the more common of the two. Brandon ticked it as lesser, but I wasn't comfortable with my views.

We spent what remained of the afternoon eating baked goods and relaxing at the backpackers - we had intended to go out to Likas Lagoon in north KK during the afternoon, but neither of us really felt like it. This evening after dinner we caught a taxi out to a park in the east of the city called Taman Tun Fuad Stephens to look for Sunda Frogmouth. All the Bornean Frogmouth species are pretty tricky to find, as I’ve written before, but several records from this park gave us some hope. Sadly, despite an hour and a half’s wandering around in the dark, we emerged frogmouthless. Still good information to have for future trips though.

Tomorrow is our last full day in Borneo. We have some interesting birding lined up - we’re being picked up from the backpackers at 6am by a member of the Borneo Bird Club, Zaim Hazim. He’s offered to take us out to the paddyfields south of KK, where hopefully we’ll pick up some Bitterns, various migrant ducks, and waders before heading out to Lok Kawi beach to look for Malaysian Plover (and waders in general). That should take us to the early afternoon, after which I expect we’ll return here and decide whether we feel like birding in the evening.

February 27th (Saturday)
A very busy and quite unexpected day today. I woke up at 5:29, scrambled to turn off my 5:30 alarm, and we were out of the backpackers by six. Around 6:15 Zaim picked us up, and we headed for the Penampang Paddyfields, a large area of rice-growing land south of Kota Kinabalu, and a habitat pretty fresh to both of us.

We arrived and began birding, walking down the narrow dirt roads between the fields, picking out the smaller numbers of Scaly-breasted and Dusky Munias among the vast flocks of Chestnut Munias. Striated Grassbirds were everywhere, a relief no doubt for Brandon who missed the one I saw at the KK wetland centre on our first day. A variety of Egrets picked up the frogs from between the rice stems, along with the occasional (and surprisingly sneaky for their size) Purple Heron. The paddyfields were full of birds, and kept us occupied for a few hours - and I did pick up three new lifers: Cinnamon Bittern (both Yellow and Cinnamon were common in the rice, and showed themselves well - not my usual experience with Bitterns!), Oriental Reed-warbler and Black-winged Kite, along with the more expected birds such as Buff-banded Rail, Eastern Yellow Wagtail and several Snipe which, although we didn't settle on an ID for, were probably Swinhoe's. I also saw a pair of Red Avadavats, part of a feral population.

Scaly-breasted Munias

Yellow Bittern, thinking itself invisible

Probably Swinhoe's Snipe

Striated Grassbird 
After the rice fields we made our way down to Lok Kawi Beach, more a mudflat than a beach really, and started looking for waders. Ruddy Turnstones, Terek Sandpipers, Greater and Lesser Sand-plovers, Pacific Golden and Grey Plovers, Striated Herons, but none of those were lifers (the problem with migratory birds - we get all of those in Australia). I was scanning a small mud island when I noticed one of the smaller plovers was brighter than the rest, and featured a full white collar. Kentish Plover.

Black-winged Kite

Malaysian Plovers 

As we moved up the beach to get closer to the Kentish, we found our actual target for the day - a pair of Malaysian Plovers, which quickly went and joined the Kentish, allowing for good comparison photos after a quick sand-crawl.

It was now just after 10am, and we were driving back towards town when Zaim said “It’s a bit impromptu, but… fancy going to the Rafflesia Centre?”

This took us by surprise, as the Rafflesia Information Centre is 2.5 hours drive from KK, up in the mountains of the Crocker Range. Think going back to Mount Kinabalu, but lower and not as geologically impressive. We’d thought about trying to hitch-hike up there, as there are a number of birds in Crocker that aren’t found easily elsewhere in Sabah, but had decided to leave it for another trip. So we jumped at the opportunity to visit it - although had I known we were doing that, I wouldn’t have done the sand-crawl.

We stopped to pick up some snacks to eat on the way, and headed once more into the mountains.

We arrived around midday, and unsurprisingly, all was quiet on the bird front. Nothing really calling at all. Nevertheless we did manage to pin down a Blue-and-White Flycatcher and a Mugimaki Flycatcher feeding on the information center’s lawn, and a Grey Wagtail in the gutter. Brandon stopped to investigate a call while Zaim and I walked down the road a bit. Pity really - he ended up missing the only two Pygmy White-eyes of the trip. Not that they're much to see, just tiny, greenish-brown birds.

An hour’s walk up and down the road yielded a few mystery raptors in the distance, and, finally, a Black-and-crimson Oriole. Phillips writes that this species is “very common” around Kinabalu Park HQ, but that’s rubbish. We never saw any, and everyone we asked said they saw them only occasionally.

We made our way down from Crocker Range and pulled in at our last stop for the day - Zaim's local patch, Likas Sewage Ponds, a few kilometers north of the CBD. We picked up a few more good birds here, including Grey Herons (the last time I saw these was in London five years ago), Black-winged Stilts, and plenty of Wood Sandpipers. Just before we left, I was scanning a large flock of Wandering Whistling-ducks and managed to pull out a female Tufted Duck, a vagrant to Borneo, and the last bird to make its way onto our Sabah lists. What a bird to end on!

Zaim dropped us back at the backpackers and we spent the late afternoon relaxing, before going out to the shopping centre for desert. Finished it off with an awesome cocoa-strawberry milk tea.

Tomorrow’s the big day, at last!! We fly out of KK at midday, arrive in Singapore around 2-ish, and have until midnight to explore the city. High on my priority list is Pasir Ris park, 5km from the airport, home to a family of Spotted Wood-owls. Fingers crossed they’re there tomorrow.

January 28th (Sunday)
At long last.

Departure day.

Brandon was definitely right back on Mount Kinabalu almost a month ago - I have forgotten how to sleep in. I woke up at around six and lay there half-dozing for an hour, before getting up and finishing my packing for the day. One packed, I then unpacked everything again, because I needed some stuff from the bottom of my bag.

We set off for the airport at around 9:30, weaving our way through the Sunday markets occupying the street between the backpackers and the taxi rank. I’d forgotten there are Sunday markets in KK, if I’d known I would have gone out earlier to explore them. As it was, we could only smell the delicious street food and glance at the trinkets and items of all varieties on display. We got our taxi, spending my last 15 ringgit in the process, and checked in our bags.

It didn’t really feel real, to be honest. It kind of seems like the last month-and-spare-change have become my life - getting up early, birding all day, going to bed early. It’s almost hard to believe I have an ordinary life back home. Although I am looking forward to returning to it. It seemed like no time at all before we were boarding our plane to Singapore, and looking down through the clouds for the last time at the twisting coastline of the Land Below the Wind. I’ll be back.

We landed in Singapore at around 2, and went to take care of some business - repacking my birding gear into one bag and my laptop etc. into another, finding a place in the terminal to store the unnecessary items, and exchanging my last 200 ringgit for a paltry 65 Singapore dollars. 3:1 exchange rates are great one way, but they suck coming home. With this done, we left Changi, and ventured out into the heat of a Singapore afternoon.

We caught a bus (after some difficulty explaining to the driver where we were trying to go) up to Pasir Ris, a large area of north-east Singapore. We were aiming for Pasir Ris park, but didn’t realise until we got off that the park and the town park are two different things. It took us half an hour to walk to where we had been expecting to be, but the walk was eventful! On Pasir Ris 52nd St. we came across some birds. A rolling, melodious gurgle announced the arrival of a brilliant Black-naped Oriole in a tree above us, luminous gold with black markings. A Sooty-headed Bulbul foraged in a flowering tree up ahead, and a variety of Sunbirds and White-eyes flicked around the canopy of the street-trees. We spent a few minutes sifting through these, before making our way up to the park proper.

The first birds we noticed when we got there were a surprise: A pair of Black Bazas, which look pretty amazing, flying between the trees at the park edge. Very flighty and hard to get a good look at, but we saw them well enough to identify them. We also picked up Oriental White-eye. We continued on into the park, ticking lifers every few minutes (turns out Singapore’s great for birding!) before we bumped into a couple of bird photographers. We asked them if they had seen the supposedly resident Spotted Wood-owls anywhere, and they both replied that it had been several weeks since they had seen them. Bad luck for us, I really wanted to see those, but that’s how it goes with Owls.

House Crows

A strangely confiding White-breasted Waterhen 

We spent all afternoon in the park (which is huge) exploring and chilling out. Singapore has a very relaxed atmosphere - heaps of people about, but nobody seemed to be in a rush. Lots of electric scooters, kids walking dogs, surprisingly old men on roller blades, and a general feeling of fun. I think I’d like to spend more time in Singapore - the birds are certainly here as incentive. By the time evening was falling we’d picked up seven lifers, as well as a mammal tick in a mating pair of Smooth-coated Otters near the mangrove boardwalk.

Javan Myna

Grey Heron 

We caught a bus down to a place called ‘Downtown East’, which turned out to basically be a small shopping mall, where we found some dinner. We walked down the road to a much larger shopping mall, and spent a happy hour and a half browsing a bookstore and the public library before leaving to find a taxi back to Changi. This turned out to be unnecessary, as from the taxi rank you can see the SkyTrain terminal - we agreed that would probably be cheaper (at $2.80 each, it was) so we caught that instead.
I did up the list before we left - I spent a lot of time late last night re-writing the entire thing, because it turns out I really screwed up the one I originally made before the trip. Now that I’m familiar with the birds, I can see all the mistakes (and there were many) so I decided it would be best to make a new one. We filled it in together, and we ended up with our trip totals: 322 all up, Brandon scoring a few more than me. Between us we also amassed 15 heard-only species, which neither of us saw. Not great to be honest, Josh and Max only had two heard-only species - but we did beat them on species seen, which was both unexpected and remarkably ego-soothing!

At 12:45am the time came to board our flight, and we settled in for the long trip home.



This brings us to the conclusion of our Bornean adventure! 

Special and sincere thanks to Josh Bergmark for months of patience in answering my flood of questions, Zaim Hazim for so generously driving us all around town and even as far as Crocker Range on our last day, Arjan Dwarshuis, Sander Bot, Max van Waasdijk and Jelmer Poelstra for good company, beer, Everett's Thrush gen, and the use of their scope in Danum. 

For those who have read this report as research for their own trips to Sabah, two things - firstly well done for making it this far, I know that I ramble a lot. Secondly, stay tuned: Up next is Birding Sabah - Part 7, which will contain a lot of site-maps you may find valuable, as well as our complete annotated species list. 

Thanks for reading!!

Julian Teh.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Birding Sabah - Part 5

The following is part five of a series of daily diary-entries from a month-long birding trip fellow young-birder Brandon Hewitt and I undertook in Sabah, Borneo, during February 2016.

For anyone who has come to this page looking for a brief "went here, saw this" report, you've come to the wrong place! However just such a version of this trip report is now up on, and can be viewed HERE

If after reading this (and the following) posts you have any questions about birds we saw, places we visited or just generally birding in Sabah, feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to get back to you ASAP :)


February 16th (Tuesday)

Today was a very lazy day - I woke up early as usual, but dozed until about 8:40, since I had nothing better to do. I wanted to be up the Waterfall trail, of course, but with Brandon sick I was obligated to stick around. He slept until about 9.

We spent basically all of today lounging around at either the dining hall or the hostel balcony, escaping the heat and catching up with writing the trip report and updating lists. We're currently sitting on a trip list of 232, and still have a little time left to make it to our target of 300, as long as we make the most of it, and don’t waste any more valuable days like today. Thankfully I don’t think it will happen again, as Brandon improved greatly throughout the day and is nearly back to normal. From now on I’m forcing him to carry my 'LifeStraw', so that if he decides to make stupid choices like drinking from a Malaysian river, at least they won’t impact my birding.

By about 3:00 I was bored of being bored. I had to go do something. I felt that the trails would be fruitless, I didn’t have the energy to go all the way up the waterfall trail, and I didn’t want to go too far - so I chose the entrance road. Brandon stayed behind, and I set off at 3:30 on my own. With memories of the elephant incident, I told Brandon that if I wasn’t back by dark to send a vehicle out to get me.

I was a bit nervous at first, but was soon distracted by the birds. I passed the spot where the elephants had been feeding and there were no fresh traces, so I settled down and began to enjoy myself.

There was plenty to enjoy, too - birds seem to be more active along the road than anywhere else in the afternoon, perhaps because from the road you can see right into the canopy. Yellow-rumped Flowerpeckers, Olive-winged and Grey-cheeked Bulbuls foraged in a fruiting tree on the roadside, Greater Coucals boomed from deep within the bushes, Greater Green Leafbirds flew across and Chestnut-breasted Malkohas skulked about in the taller vine-entangled trees, visible only as black shapes shifting in the shadows, occasionally poking their faces into the outside world to check for danger.

My attention was grabbed early on in my walk by a whooshing sound, like the downdraft of a Hornbill’s wings, but low down and very close. This was soon joined by a cacophony of gurgles and rattles, and a family of Bornean Black Magpies burst through the bushes. Large and long-tailed, they are nothing at all like our Australian Magpies, more like black Malkohas or Treepies. They produce an amazing variety of sounds, so when they’re around there is almost no point listening for other birds as it’s almost impossible to tell what is and isn’t a Magpie.

The Magpies were still moving along the roadside trees when movement in the canopy caught my eye. Two Dark-throated Orioles flew across, but there were other birds up there too - black birds, bouncing around right at the top of a 50m tree. Could these finally be the Bornean Bristleheads I had been looking for for two weeks?

Yes. They could. I raised my bins and stared up at the large black bird, outfitted with bright red head and flanks and a huge crow-like bill, and it stared down at me. Borneo’s signature bird, finally, was in my sights. Four Bristleheads were up there, not appearing to feed, simply socialising and bouncing between the branches. Although I could see four with my naked eye, finding more than one at a time with binoculars was difficult, so it took me a while to work out that two were female, lacking the red flanks, and one was a male. The group flew off before I could pin down the fourth.

Bristlehead tree

The thing that struck me most was the silence. The whole ten minutes I had been watching them none of them had opened their beaks. Everything I knew about Bristleheads said that they are extremely vocal, and you always hear them before you see them. A few minutes after they flew off there was a burst of calls and screeches from the direction they went, but other than that, had they not been moving around I would never have known they were there.

I moved on, my enthusiasm doubled by this success. As I reached the open area near the (empty) Sumatran Rhino facility there was increased bird activity, with more Leafbirds, Rufous-crowned Babblers, Cream-vented Bulbuls, a small party of Raffle’s Malkoha, and five Oriental Dollarbirds engaged in an aerial dispute. Silver-rumped Spinetails hawked over the road, and Black-and-crimson Pittas whistled furtively from the undergrowth. With the heat dissipating and the humidity low, it was turning out to be an excellent afternoon.

I continued on for another kilometer before deciding it was time to turn back. The walk back was fairly quiet, seeing mostly more of the same things, until I once again reached the Rhino facility. Suddenly a grey shape flashed across the road and perched in a small tree a few meters away. I lined it up in my bins and found it was a Grey-and-buff Woodpecker, a handsome species with a very funky crest. What’s more, it was a male, so the front of the crest was crimson, giving it an even more punk-rock appearance. The woodpecker took off, and its departure flushed out my third and final lifer for the afternoon, a Brown Shrike. When I had passed the facility walking up I thought I had seen a Shrike-like shape fly off, but given the activity of Cream-vented Bulbuls in the area had assumed I’d been seeing things. Not so, apparently, and this scarce migrant sat still for a minute to let me take in the finer points of its plumage to distinguish it from Tiger Shrike.

I walked back to the field centre as dusk was falling very pleased with the afternoon and keen for tomorrow’s attempt at Ground-cuckoo. We ate dinner and have since retired to bed for our 5am start tomorrow.

January 17th (Wednesday)
 5am starts suck.

Nevertheless we were out the door by 5:30 and making our way over the suspension bridge by 20-to, continuing up the dark trail until the observation platform, after which the Tembaling Waterfall trail begins. Pity we didn’t begin it, as we almost immediately took a wrong turn (easy to do in the dark) and walked for five minutes down a different trail until I realised and turned back.

Dawn was starting to colour the sky when we started up the right trail, and after half an hour’s exhausting climb up the steep hillside, we arrived at the ridge-top where we had heard the Ground-cuckoo two days before.

I gazed out at the valleys on either side of the path. It could be anywhere by now. Was there more than one? Was this a normal part of their territory? If we played calls from up here would they even come up the hill to check what’s up? Only one way to find out. We  put the speakers on the ground a fair distance away then hid ourselves in the buttress roots of a large tree.

We played the recording a few times, and nothing. Silence from the brightening forest. Just as I was about to go and move the speaker to a new spot, I picked up the very faintest “Cooooourghghh” from deep within the valley. The Cuckoos were still here. Somewhere. The sound seemed to be coming from the other side of the ridge to the last time we heard it, so I hopped over to the other side of the tree to better hide myself, and continued playing the call.

This time, the response seemed to be coming closer, and closer again after my next burst. Ground-cuckoos might be incredibly hard to see, shy, skulking, and generally hard to find in the first place, but there are two things that give humans a hand in seeing one: They call very loudly, and they are very territorial. Playing a call usually elicits a response, even in places like the Kinabatangan where they are taped in on a regular basis. These Ground-cuckoos must be taped very rarely, and so their response was even stronger than normal. Within ten minutes, they were calling at very close range, perhaps twenty meters away on the side of the hill. Out of sight, but undeniably there.

The birds (there were two calling) were on the opposite side of the tree to me, and I figured they hadn’t seen me, which was the only reason they hadn’t already scurried off. They were calling even closer now. At a glacial speed, I stuck my face out, just enough that one eye could see around the trunk.

It was difficult to scan with just my left eye (the worse of my two bad eyes) and no binoculars, but I couldn’t risk any movement being seen by the birds, or they’d spook and our chance would be lost for one or maybe two days. I searched the nearby branches. Leaves. Leaves. Twigs. Leaves. Black thing. Leaves. Wait. Black thing?

I squinted hard at the black shape, which seemed to be twitching, before risking moving my head around so I could use both eyes. There, sitting on an exposed branch perhaps a meter and a half from the ground, was a Bornean Ground-cuckoo. The black movement I had seen was the bird’s tail, which it flicked up and down every few seconds as it stared in the direction of my speaker. I hissed at Brandon to say I had it, and he poked his binoculars around the corner of the root and got a good view as well.

My camera was in my hand, but I knew I’d never be able to lean out far enough to get my lens around the corner without the bird seeing me. As if to prove it, as I shifted position my head shifted minutely and the cuckoo snapped its head round to stare at me for two seconds, then dropped down to the forest floor and disappeared.

I’ve said before that I think Cuckoos are the most boring group of birds out there, and generally speaking I don’t bother hanging around to look for them. Bornean Ground-cuckoo is the one exception I’ve encountered to date. Aside from the rarity factor (chasing rare birds is an exciting prospect for any birder), they don’t fit the cuckoo mould in a variety of ways. For a start they’re huge - 60cm or so, beak to tail. Unlike the majority of Cuckoos they are also quite colourful, with a green back, violet wings, black-striped underparts and a black hood, from which the large eye stares surrounded by green facial skin. Ground-cuckoo nests in the wild have never been described, so it is not known if the species is parasitic. Generally very little is known about their behaviour or habits, only that they sometimes follow foraging mammals such as Sun Bears, Elephants and Bearded Pigs, picking up the insects they turn over.

To indicate just how hard it is to see a Ground-cuckoo (outside of Kinabatangan where they are fairly regular) Phillips notes that 7 years of field research at Gunung Palung and a further 7 years at Sungai Wain in Sarawak turned up 8 and 32 records respectively.

The birds were still calling, and having both seen them, I ducked out from the roots of the tree and began to stalk my way up the path in the hopes of photographing one, noticing as I went that there was now a third bird calling. No such luck - they saw me coming from miles off, and shot across the path and into the undergrowth, continuing to hoot seductively from the bushes, well out of sight. It was lucky I chased them though, for had I not I wouldn’t have seen a lifer. Just as I was giving up on the Cuckoos, a medium-sized chocolate-brown bird with a dark blue tail hopped up on a root nearby, looked me up and down, and disappeared down the hillside. It took me a few minutes of mental searching to find the species, but I finally got there. Siberian Blue Robin, female, a widespread but fairly scarce migrant to much of Northern Borneo. Excellent bird to see, right after the best bird Sabah has to offer!

'Ground Cuckoo Ridge'

Elated, we continued up the path. It was properly light now, so bird activity was good, although frustratingly much of it either flying through or high in the canopy. I’m fairly certain the green flash zipping between the trees was an Asian Green Broadbill, but I can’t tick it on those views. Far above my head two Helmeted Hornbills (Sabah’s largest at 145cm long, and just uplisted to critically endangered due to trapping for trade in their ivory) were calling. Their call starts off with a steady flow of simple hoots, which gradually get faster and louder before cascading into a laughing cackle not unlike a Kookaburra. They are amazingly prehistoric looking birds, and a species I would dearly love to see, but sadly not today. The lower canopy too thick, and there were no gaps through which I could look into the true canopy.

One bird that did show itself, and finally I was carrying a camera for its performance, was Black-and-crimson Pitta. One was whistling from low in the bushes (or so I thought), so I whistled back and we held a conversation for about ten minutes before suddenly the vines started swaying just above eye level, and there he was. Absolutely gorgeous, if only he had sat in better light - at ISO1600 my camera was only achieving 1/25th of a second, which simply doesn’t work when hand-holding a lens with no image stabilisation. I fired off about 200 shots, perhaps 7 of which were sharp. Ah well - when a Pitta puts on a show, it’s good enough just to be there!

Black-and-crimson Pitta

At long last we reached the fruiting tree, stopping only once more to look at a mixed flock of Babblers, and a flying-lizard (of a different species to the one I saw at Poring, this one had a strange black-and-white neck flap which it flicked in and out every few seconds). Sadly it seems in the last few days the birds have mostly cleaned up the fruiting tree, and what little fruit was left was being picked out by birds too small to make out without my scope. Not that I regret leaving my scope at home, considering how heavy my bag is without those extra two kilos.

After some time spent unsuccessfully whistling to try and relocate the Blue-banded Pitta we heard the other day with the Dutch, we headed back down. At one point I turned a corner and was surprised to find a Yellow-throated Marten strolling along the path towards me. I’m not sure he even minded my presence until he got within about 5 meters and suddenly picked up my smell. He sneezed, shot me a disgusted look, and fled in the opposite direction. My shirt could probably use a wash after six days hiking in the valley.

When we finally arrived back at the field centre, two hours later, we were both hot and very sweaty, so we decided to take our daily shower early. I went in wearing both shirt and hat, and both smell marginally better now. I’m trying to have as little washing to do as possible when we get back to Sepilok the day after tomorrow to save money, so I’ve been wearing the same shirt, pants (patterned with bloodstains courtesy of the sneakier leeches) and have only changed socks once since we got here. It’s a good thing I can leave them outside the dorm at night.

This afternoon was fairly quiet - we paid our accommodation and meals fees, finally, after sorting out our uni acceptance letters to prove that we’re students. RM855 each for 7 nights and 7 meals. Far more expensive than I had hoped, but that’s just how it goes. I think I still have enough cash on me to last me until we leave Sabah, but if I get concerned I’ll top up in Ranau when we go back through. We went for a walk down the road, but the showers made me turn back as the constant droplets on my glasses made birding difficult. Brandon kept going for a few hours, but only got one bird up on me (Crimson-winged Woodpecker) so I don’t mind that much.

Tonight I had my first ever go at badminton, and failed miserably to hit the birdie. The racquets are very long and it’s taking me a while to get used to how much reach I’m working with. We were so distracted by this that we missed dinner, although as consolation we did find a Buffy Fish-owl behind the badminton court.

Tomorrow starts at 4:30am. Yay.

February 18th (Thursday)
It wasn’t as bad a start as I was expecting this morning. Shortly after last night’s entry I was lying in bed, thinking about the trail and remembering how many elephant tracks I’d seen that morning, clearly made the night before (by the small amount of water in them). If elephants were going to be active at night, then I didn’t want to be out there at night. If there’s one thing I’m more scared of than elephants in daylight, it’s elephants in the dark. I mumbled this to Brandon and he agreed. We decided on a 5am start instead.

I was barely able to wake myself, but we were soon stumbling up the dimly-lit trail. It’s not a long climb, unlike the Langanan Waterfall trail at Poring, but it’s steep - several sections are outfitted with ropes - and the first 300m is extremely muddy. We reached “Ground-cuckoo Ridge” just as dawn was beginning to break, and made it to our first rest stop about 200m further on with good light. We stopped to break open our packets of peanuts, which for the last seven mornings have been breakfast. As I was crunching a mouthful, a long whistle sailed out of the bushes to the right. Pitta, definitely, but which one? It was shorter than most of the Black-and-crimsons I’ve heard. It also descended very slightly, rather than the usual ascension of B&C. This would have made it an easy Blue-banded Pitta, if not for the pitch, which was about a tone lower than Blue-banded is supposed to be, but right on the mark for B&C. If only to solve the mystery, I stepped out from the buttress roots we were sitting in and began to stalk it.

At that moment, infuriatingly, the clouds broke and rain poured steadily from the sky. The pitta stopped calling, and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat to cover my bag in its rain-jacket. The rain kept up for half an hour, during which time we left the area and continued a bit up the trail, in the vague hope that the rain would eventually let up and the birds would become active again.

The rain did eventually settle down, and the birds did become a bit more active, though not as active as they had been before. A Grey-chested Jungle-flycatcher sang sweetly from a low vine, and a short, surprisingly simple song heralded the presence of a Rufous-tailed Shama, nowhere near as varied or complex as its common cousin the White-crowned Shama, which we have been hearing everywhere since we left Poring. The Shama was a lifer, and it took us fifteen minutes to find it, even though the song was so loud that it was surely within 5m of us at all times. Both of us thought the call was coming from different directions, and every time we moved to try and get closer it would suddenly shift to somewhere else. We were stumped for a while, before I realised there was only one possible solution - I looked straight upwards, and there he was, sitting motionless on a branch 3m up a tree, singing his heart out. The ventriloquism achieved by this species is astounding - I watched him singing, and every few moments he would tilt his head minutely, and the call would be bounced to a completely different part of the forest.

We had a steady trickle of birds all morning, mostly Rufous-crowned Babbler groups with the occasional more interesting bird mixed in, until we reached the vicinity of the fruiting tree, now almost completely devoid of berries. A high-pitched song was echoing through the trees, and I recognised it as Bornean Blue-flycatcher, the only endemic species of Blue-flycatcher and one we were very keen to see. I played the call and immediately a bird flew in - but it wasn’t the Bornean Blue. It was a smaller flycatcher, with a black back and tan front, a long white eyebrow-stripe extending back almost onto the neck. A Rufous-chested Flycatcher, a species I had completely forgotten about, but had no other sites than Danum Valley for. Excellent, but the Bornean Blue was still calling. One more play of the tape and he flew in, a stunning blue-and-orange bird which sat in the open calling for us, before disappearing.

The rest of our morning was spent traipsing up and down the trail in the building heat and gathering humidity, trying to find any new birds that we could, as today was our last chance to bird the waterfall trail. We had a Bornean Banded Pitta calling at quite close range, but just as it seemed to be coming in a party of hikers went past and the bird stopped calling. I searched for an hour (while Brandon went down the steepest part of the hill and got nothing for his troubles) but he never called again.

We left on our two-hour hike back to the field centre, and the only new bird we picked up was a very flighty Cinnamon-rumped Trogon right at the bottom of the trail. Josh and Max missed this species, in fact it was the only Trogon they missed, which makes me a bit smug. So far the only Trogon we’ve missed is Orange-breasted, a submontane species, and we might have another crack at that one on the way back in a few days.

We sat at the dining hall and considered our tally. Danum Valley had been a surprise to me - of the species we’d seen, a large number had been spectacular and/or rare species, like Bornean Ground-cuckoo, Bornean Ground-babbler, Bristlehead, Cinnamon-rumped Trogon, Bornean Blue-flycatcher and Siberian Blue Robin, but in terms of lifers our progress has been slow. Just 34 lifers for me, in one of Sabah’s most bird-rich areas. Also shocking is the number of high-profile target species on our heard-only list, including Helmeted Hornbill, Short-toed Coucal, and most importantly, Blue-banded, Blue-headed and Bornean Banded Pittas. I’m absolutely gutted to have missed all three species, especially Blue-headed which is arguably the most spectacular of Sabah’s pittas (even Josh wrote a paragraph in his trip report about how stunning the male is, which isn’t the sort of thing he normally does), and supposedly easy to come across. I keep finding myself staring regretfully at the field guide page that displays all three, and thinking in “if onlys”. If only there hadn’t been five of us on that ridge looking for Blue-banded. If only I’d gone harder for the Blue-headeds we heard calling on our first trip up the waterfall trail. If only those hikers hadn’t scared off our Banded this afternoon.

Next time.

We went for a walk up the road, but it started raining quite heavily so I turned back. Brandon kept going, and managed to get a few species that would have been lifers for me (including Black Eagle), but I don’t mind too much. I have to come back for Blue-headed Pitta, anyway. They can wait until then.

All my clothes are rolled up (except for the ones still drying from this afternoon’s deluge) as our transport leaves at 8:30 tomorrow morning.

 February 19th (Friday)
A travel day. We woke early, packed, and left Danum Valley by 9. It was a long, bumpy ride out, although we did stop for ten minutes to admire a female Orang-utan clambering through the roadside trees. It struck me that this would be the last I would see of this spectacular species for several years, at least. Quite sad, really, as was leaving the DVCA in general. So much there to explore, so much left to be seen. But our time, for now, is up.

Posing for photos at our dorm

We made it back to Lahad Datu around 10:45 and made immediately for the Multi-Bake around the corner, spending up big (to the tune of roughly AUD7) and buying plenty of delicious baked goods for breakfast and the long trip ahead.
It turns out it wasn’t the trip itself that was long, but the wait to undertake it. We had missed the 10am bus to Sandakan, and the next left at 4pm. We left our bags at the bus office (little more than a concrete room on the side of the road) and made our way down the hill, into the centre of town.

We spent the next five hours in the shopping mall near the Silam Dynasty hotel where we stayed 8 nights ago (hard to believe it’s only been a week). We did a little shopping, I picked up three lovely field notebooks at a stationary shop for roughly AUD1.50 each, and Brandon got a powerbank to stop his phone running out of charge quite so often. Other than that, we had nothing to do but wait.

After what felt like an eternity, we made our way back up to the bus stop, only to wait for another forty-five minutes for our bus to arrive. When it did, having made sure three times that it was going past the Sepilok Junction, we made it almost an entire kilometer down the road before it broke. The next half hour was spent standing around, watching them change the two back-left tyres.

Coach of the year 2010"

After another ten minute stop to fill up with petrol, at last we were underway. Dusk soon began to cloud the sky, and by the time we reached Sepilok Junction it was well after dark, approaching 9pm. Thankfully I had been able to phone ahead to the B&B to ask them to send a car to get us, as a taxi would have been impossible to find at such a remote place at that hour. We arrived at the B&B very tired, but glad to have made it back to the friendly lights and comfortable dorm beds.

Tomorrow we bird hard at the Rainforest Discovery Centre before coming back to wash our clothes in the early afternoon. I wore just one shirt/pair of pants throughout Danum to keep the cost of washing down, so they really need a clean. Hopefully they have plenty of stain remover to get the blood out.

Our plan for our remaining time in Sabah is this: Two nights here in Sepilok, two nights at a new and almost completely un-birded place in Poring called Lupa Masa (we’ll take one for the team and scope it out for future birders), then two nights on the mountain and three nights in KK. Then we fly.

To bed now in expectation of yet another early rise. Almost hoping it rains.

February 20th (Saturday)
Well, it didn’t rain, but it was a good day!

The wakeup was annoying as expected, but we were soon out and walking up the Kingfisher trail, which woke me up. I’ve been testing out a new listing app recommended to me by the Dutch, and trying to work out its processes whilst birding and walking a rocky trail keeps you on your toes. We made our way up the Kingfisher trail and climbed up the ladder to the Trogon Tower, from there starting to bird properly along the canopy walkway as the morning rush got underway. 

Enormous leaf on the canopy walkway

It was a very good morning by canopy tower standards - from 8:30 to 9:00 there was a surprising amount of activity, with a handsome pair of Red-bearded Bee-eaters engaged in courtship feeding, Black-winged Flycatcher Shrikes buzzing around, Black Hornbills flying over, a fruiting tree full of Bulbuls (including Buff-vented, a new one for me. It looks identical to Red-eyed and Cream-vented, except it has a white instead of red eye. Bulbuls are boring.), and regular flyovers from interesting species like Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots, Buff-rumped and Orange-backed Woodpeckers, and Green Ioras.

We left the canopy walkway soon after 9, and made our way up the trails to the Broadbill tower, a few hundred meters down the path. Nowhere near as high as the canopy walkway, but high enough to get you into range of some flowering bushes, where we spent half an hour watching Yellow-eared, Thick-billed and Spectacled Spiderhunters and a family of Van Hasselt’s Sunbirds feeding.

We returned to the B&B and gave our Danum clothes to the lady for washing, then sat down for a while. It was getting very hot, bird activity had slowed almost to a standstill, so we took the opportunity to take a break from birding. At around 3:30 we headed out once more and took the longest trail in the RDC in the vain hope of finding a Pitta or two to look at. No Pittas, in fact very few birds at all, but we did score a perched Bathawk, the third time we’ve seen this incredibly cool species.

The Sepilok Giant

We had dinner at the B&B - fish and chips, constantly interrupted by having to push to local kittens off me - before starting out for a spotlighting session along the RDC trails. All was quiet as we walked in, but we soon had a Sunda Scops-owl calling at close range. We ducked off the path, and I soon located him perched low down on a bent stem, looking like an angry ball of cobwebs and moss. We could hear Reddish Scops-owls calling from across the valley, and two hours of searching finally gave us a look at one, calling steadily from just off one of the cross-tracks. Two Scops-owls in one night, when over the last month we’ve dipped on them every time we’ve spotlit! Very pleased. We tried for Oriental Bay-owl, but that was a long shot and we had no response.


Sunda (above) and Reddish Scops-owls, taken through bins with iPhone


I managed one final lifer for the night, bringing the total to ten for the day, with a Large-tailed Nightjar hawking for moths in the RDC carpark before heading back to the B&B and bed.

Tomorrow we have breakfast and a sleep-in at the B&B, then catch as early a bus as possible up to Ranau, then taxi to Poring to meet our guide who will take us to Lupa Masa.

February 21st (Sunday)
We had a sleep in today, all the way until 6:30! What excitement!

I packed what I could, then we went for breakfast at the B&B dining area (/reception/home of the dartboard). Breakfast was pretty fancy this morning - when lots of people are staying there, like last time, they just put out a buffet breakfast type thing. Make your own toast etc. This time, I think, we were the only people staying in the whole place, and as such we got rather special treatment: A plate full of toast, papaya, bananas, butter, jam and a bowl of scrambled eggs. Each. It was great!

We retrieved our laundry, packed, and were taken out to the junction by one of the guys working at the B&B. There were two other backpackers waiting, but thankfully the first bus that came along had room for all of us. Sort of. Not sure where the other two sat, but we got the stairs at the front of the coach. Not terribly uncomfortable, but it was with great pleasure that we jumped out at the turnoff to Poring, four hours later.

We had arranged with Lupa Masa to have someone pick us up from the junction, rather than go all the way to Ranau then back again. In due course she arrived, and we were taken to the restaurant in Poring that is designated as the meeting place for the hike in. After repacking my bag (they allow you to store luggage above the restaurant so I left what I didn’t need behind) and a delicious plate of lemon chicken, we set off on the walk to the camp.

It was an interesting walk, similar to the Langanan Waterfall trail in some respects, but generally much nicer submontane forest. Several creeks to cross, lots of downhill sliding and some uphill struggling. We got to the camp roughly an hour later, and were escorted to our room - a simple wooden building, up off the ground, with a large mattress and mosquito net inside. Everything here is very simple. No electricity, just fire to cook with, candles to see by, and a river to swim in. If you don’t mind the leeches. The buildings are wooden or bamboo constructions, sturdy but not extravagant, with neat gravel and stone paths laid out between them.

It was drizzling all the way in, which opened up to steady rain once we arrived. I spent a fair bit of time just sitting on our little balcony looking out over the forest and river, enjoying the laid-back nature of it all. When it finally stopped, Brandon had already disappeared with his binoculars, so I grabbed mine and headed out too.

Our balcony

I wandered around for a while, finding a Cinnamon-rumped Trogon by the river, before finding a trailhead and starting up it. Luckily it was a loop trail, and it was just on dusk when I made my way out again. I did pick up today’s lifer though - Asian Green Broadbill, a stunning lookalike of Whitehead’s Broadbill, but without the dark streaks through the plumage. I panicked for a moment when I saw it, thinking it might be the legendary Hose’s Broadbill, but nevertheless I am pleased to have finally caught this species. They are not present on Mount Kinabalu, so this was our last chance!

We played some card games before dinner - a home-cooking style affair, rice and stir fried veggies. Surprisingly yummy. There’s a Scottish guy and an American girl staying here at the moment, the American very much not a birder (“bats aren’t considered birds, are they?”) the Scot actually a bird guide. He quizzed me at length about the Ground-cuckoos, then clearly deciding we were alright, told us he’d show us the spot where the Hose’s Broadbills were nesting a few years ago. Old information, but definitely worth checking out.

After dinner we went on a night walk. Didn’t see much, the only bird was a roosting Little Spiderhunter, but we did find a huge gecko and a couple of cool frogs.

Unidentified frog sp. at Lupa Masa

 February 22nd (Monday)
Last night was freezing! Quite refreshing, or it would have been if I’d thought to bring a jumper. This morning we got up at 6 or thereabouts, and pretty much just got straight into birding. We went up past the dining area, along the main path until it splits onto the ridge trail and went up that, and tried to find a way across the river to where the path (supposedly) picks up. No luck - the river there is both fast and deep. This all took us some time, as we birded slowly, and by 11 I was ready to head back. Brandon wasn’t quite, so I went back on my own and chilled out on the porch for a bit, before the river’s temptations grew too great. I chucked on some bathers and headed down for a dip.

The water was frigid, and as such I didn’t go all the way in. Just up above my knees, standing half freezing half heated by the sun. It was very pleasant actually, the water in this river is fast-flowing (fast enough to keep the leeches at bay), and crystal clear. Some of the clearest water I’ve seen in a long, long time. Absolutely beautiful. It’s shallow at the point below our cabin, the water rushing over smooth river stones and areas of pebbles, a few big smooth boulders providing patches of slack water where I stood. I even indulged in a bit of natural therapy, as the handsomely black-and-gold-scaled fish swarmed around my feet to pick off what juicy morsels a month in the rainforest could provide them.

After a while I realised it was almost time for lunch, and went off to look for Brandon, in case he’d forgotten about it and was in danger of missing out. Not to worry, he’d beaten me to the dining area, and had already almost finished his plate of fried noodles.

There was a sudden, if brief, burst of activity at about 1pm right next to the dining area. It started with a male Verditer Flycatcher (lifer!) flying in, looking top-notch in shining aqua with a small black facial mask. He was quickly followed by Sooty-capped Babblers, Yellow-rumped Flowerpeckers, and as we followed them round the side of the verandah we realised that one of the fig trees was fruiting, covered in Flowerpeckers (including Plain, a lifer) and Bulbuls, mostly Puff-backed, pecking their way through the tough skin of the abundant fruit to get to the juicy insides.

We went back to our cabin after lunch, and on the way came across an unusual sight - a ball of black and orange fluff, lying on the stone steps. A microbat, no idea which species, standing on its head, in the middle of the path, in broad daylight. What?

Microbat grounded

Gingerly I picked up a twig and gave it an experimental poke. It wriggled and put its wings out - clearly alive, then. I’ve no idea what it was doing on the ground, but it started to crawl off and we left it be. There was no sign of it later - either it found a tree, or it got eaten.

This afternoon was very slow for birds. We found a place to cross the river and tried birding along the trails on the other side, but nothing was active, it being around 2pm and still hot. As the evening drew in I gave up and returned to the cabin to leaf through the field guide and write some notes. Brandon stayed out until dark, but saw nothing more.

We went to the dining area for dinner, and spent some time as it was being readied just sitting, illuminated only by candlelight. As dinner was served, the arrival of some new guests caused a bit of activity. A tour group of two Americans, two UK, and one Melbournian, along with their guide. Nice to have the company of a good Melbournian drawl, it’s been a while. Their guide caught wind we were birders and decided he would test us - a very easy test, as it turned out, and I was able to answer all his questions immediately off the top of my head.

“How many Hornbills in Sabah?”
“What’s the biggest?”
“Helmeted, 145cm including tail extensions”
“What’s the smallest Kingfisher?”
“Oriental Dwarf”
“What are three birds endemic to Borneo?”
“Ground-cuckoo, Blue-headed Pitta, Blue-banded Pitta”
“Nice. But you forgot to mention-“

The guide was satisfied and his charges very impressed - I do enjoy showing off in front of non-birders. Great fun.

I’m pretty exhausted, and we have a long day tomorrow - bird in the morning, then the hour-long walk back to Poring carting all our stuff, then taxi to Ranau, stop for lunch and banking there, then taxi to Kinabalu Park to see if the Mountain Resthouse has a room for us.

February 23rd (Tuesday)
Another cold night last night, but I had the foresight to sleep with all my clothes on, so at least I didn’t wake up every twenty minutes. Even so, it wasn’t the most comfortable I’ve ever been, and I didn’t sleep all that well, getting up at a bit after six not entirely rested. We birded our way along the top of the ridge until breakfast (not super eventful; though I did finally score a Maroon Woodpecker, one of the brighter members of the family that I had been very keen to see!).

We returned for breakfast - porridge with honey - before once again heading out along the ridge to scope out some tall trees. Not literally, sadly, this was one of the situations we’ve encountered where my scope would have been very useful.

We got couple of interesting birds during the latter half of the morning; Maroon-breasted Philentoma flew in and then departed very quickly (too quickly for me to see it tickably, annoyingly), a Crimson-winged Woodpecker worked its way up the side of a tree, and a Bornean Barbet was excavating a nest-hole in the underside of a tree branch. By 9:30 I was ready to set off, and at 10 we made our way out of camp and down the long track back to Poring. We did the walk on our own, and thankfully it was a simple path to follow. A few up and down-hills, a few rickety bamboo bridges to cross, but nothing difficult. Just follow the path straight back from the camp to the banana plantation, then exit the path onto the dusty, rocky road. Walk up this for about 1km until you reach Poring. Simple.

Staying and birding at Lupa Masa was an interesting experience. There are very few birder reviews of the place, and as such it was an unknown to us going in. Part of the reason we decided to do it was to scope it out for future birders, and with that in mind, I would say that it's worth a visit. Birding was slow at times, and the trail system not terribly extensive, but we did pick up a few species that we otherwise would have missed, primarily Maroon-breasted Philentoma, Verditer Flycatcher, Asian Green Broadbill and Bornean Barbet. If you have time on your trip, it's worth checking out - if the birds don't perform, there's always the fact that it's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. 

And the chance of a Hose's Broadbill is always tempting! 

One of the many waterfalls around Lupa Masa

We arrived sweaty and out-of-breath at the bottom of the long, thin street that is Poring. For some reason which I fail to comprehend, Poring is hotter and more humid than Danum Valley. It’s horrible. I downed a restorative sarsaparilla then collected the bag I had left with the restaurant owners and set off in search of a taxi.

Real taxis are hard to come by in Poring, since it’s such a tiny place, but if you ask the security guard on the gate to the Sutera Lodge, he’ll shout a few questions to the guy at the restaurant across the street, and ten minutes later a grinning local will arrive who’ll happily take you back to Ranau for RM45. It’s an odd system, but it gets the job done. We loaded our stuff into the back of the guy’s ute and set off.

Once back in Ranau we had a couple of things to do - first, lunch. Second, bank, to withdraw enough cash to see us through the rest of the trip. I still had a few hundred ringgit left, probably enough to last me, but I do like to be certain of things when it comes to money. With these essentials off the list, we went and signed up for a share-taxi to Kinabalu Park. We waited for an hour, and eventually someone else turned up to share the cab with us. In an odd coincidence the taxi driver happened to be the same guy who drove us from Kinabalu Park to Poring last time. He dropped us at the Mountain Resthouse and we went up to our new room to drop off our bags.

It feels great to be back on the Mountain - it’s so much cooler here, the air is dry, and generally it feels like it’s possible not only to walk but do so energetically. I’m definitely not suited to the tropical lowlands, but this I find very pleasant. It’s nearly Canberran. Apart from the sprawling garden of flowering tropical plants, bananas, and the geckos.

We went for a walk around park HQ in the afternoon, and almost immediately stumbled across a lifer - a pair of Temminck’s Babblers. It took us a while to figure out what they were, as we had both forgotten that we needed the species, but we got there in the end. Excellent to be able to tick a skulky Babbler without needing to search for it! Continuing, we found a big mixed feeding flock near the lookout, and stood back to sift through it. Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike was another lifer, but everything else we’d already seen. Not that it wasn’t a pleasure to see them again, familiar faces after a few weeks in the lowlands. Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Temminck’s Sunbirds, Grey-chinned Minivets and Mountain Tailorbirds led the flock, followed by Yellow-breasted Warblers, Little Pied Flycatchers, Black-capped White-eyes and Mountain Leaf-warblers, the ever-present Chestnut-hooded Laughing-thrushes and Indigo Flycatchers bringing up the rear.

We walked on to the Silau Silau trail and spent some time walking that to reacquaint ourselves with the territory, reveling in the rolling cries of the Bornean Treepies and subtle flashes of grey and chestnut as the Sunda Laughing-thrushes flew past. Arriving back at HQ, we went to have a look at the Pandanus trail in preparation for tomorrow’s stakeout for Everett’s Thrush. We arrived and found our spot quickly, thanks to Arjan’s directions. One thing though - a mist net was slung, furled, pretty much exactly where he said the Thrushes had been. I don’t know how this will affect our chances, but who knows - we might catch one! I’ll see if they’ll let me band with them tomorrow morning, since I have a banding license here in Australia. Should be a fun morning if they do!

We tried to go out spotlighting tonight but found that the fog was heavy, meaning our chances were very low. We came back and enjoyed hot showers instead.

Early start tomorrow, hoping for that Thrush as a lifer for my birthday. Exciting times!