Saturday, August 28, 2010

25th August 2010: Kubah National Park

I awoke to the sound of steady drizzle, and the rain didn’t stop till about 9am. I made my way up to the pitta spot and did a bit of ‘gardening’, clearing loose debris and tying back saplings, so that I had a clearer view of the area where the pitta had appeared last night. I then left the place for about an hour.

A familiar face! Another Rufous-crowned Babbler.

A Jentinck's Squirrel, in the same tree that I photographed one two years ago!

Right, now is probably a good time to put on some sunglasses!

At the pitta spot I played the call for over an hour and got zero response from the bird. Just before starting the player on what I decided would be my last try, I heard the bird calling – not very close but not too distant. I knew this was the same bird as the one I’d seen yesterday due to the distinctive downward slur of its call. However, after a few calls, it stopped, and I decided to turn the MP3 player off as well. After 5 – 10 minutes of silence, suddenly a familiar orange head appeared over the lip of the knoll, exactly where it had first appeared yesterday.

The show begins! It hopped up onto the knoll and stood motionless for a time...

Then it flew a few feet up onto a low liana, where it remained for some minutes, no more than 10 metres away.

A clear shot at last!

Since I had brought the tripod today I was able to try taking some shots without flash. I'd forgotten to bring my remote shutter release, so these a bit 'soft' at 1/5 of a second, but OK!

I much prefer the natural light to the effect of flash, but you need a very steady tripod and a very still bird!

This bird was incredibly obliging, and even allowed me chance to shoot a minute or so of video, which I posted a couple of days ago.

After sitting on the vine for a while, the bird moved up the slope on my left as it had yesterday. Eventually it hopped up onto a log to my left about 4 metres away! It then hopped down again and called to me for about 5 minutes. I just sat there and watched it without using my bins or trying to take pictures. It was a moment of magic that I'll not quickly forget! Having made sure I knew who was boss, it hopped off out of sight and stopped calling, and that was it for the day. I watched it for about 20 minutes today - less than yesterday, but with much superior views!

As I got up to go I noticed some shoots of the wild ginger plant to my left. They were exactly the same brilliant red and orange as the pitta.

24th August 2010: Kubah National Park, Sarawak

I set out this morning with fresh resolve to overcome the 'pitta problem'! I decided I would use the car as a hide today, and drove up to the watchpoint near the summit, and then worked my way gradually downhill.

Fairly early in the morning I located one pitta calling well above the Waterfall Trail entrance, in the valley below the road. I spent about an hour calling it, but the undergrowth by the road was very dense, and the bird didn’t seem to be coming any closer, so I gave up.

This female Black-and-Yellow Broadbill was one of the first birds I came across.

I went back to yesterday’s spot above the Waterfall Trail entrance. I parked and sat in the car by the side of the road and put the MP3 player on the other side of the road. A bird started calling from below the road and came in very close indeed, but in about 3 hours I never caught a glimpse of it. Again, the bird seemed to have an almost telepathic ability to detect my every move. It would stop calling any time I made the smallest movement. Eventually it moved away and I gave up again.

By this time a sense of inevitability was beginning to set in! It was easy enough to get the birds to respond by playing the call, but, even when they moved closer, it seemed almost impossible to tell where they were calling from, and as soon as I moved my head, or batted away a mosquito, the bird would stop calling! These birds were starting to get inside my head! How difficult can it be – seeing a brilliant red bird in a green forest? I must be blind! Or maybe the bird has mystical chameleon-like properties that enable it to blend into the background!

A drongo challenge! The default resident drongo is Greater Racket-tailed. Even in juvenile plumage or when the tail 'rackets' are missing, the species is usually quite distinctive in West Malaysia, as there is a vestigial crest and the tail is not strongly forked. But this bird appeared to lack any crest and to have a deeply forked tail. Other possibilities which sprang to mind were Crow-billed (a migrant) and Bronzed. Bronzed can easily be eliminated by the heaviness of the bill, but not Crow-billed. August would be exceptionally early for one, but you can hardly build a strong case for or against solely on the date! In this case, aging the bird was helpful. The matt, non-glossiness of the head, most of the mantle and underparts show that this was a juvenile. Juvenile Crow-billed are strongly spotted with white below, which means that this must, after all, have been a Greater Racket-tailed. In referring to Myers, I found that the endemic Bornean race, 'brachyphorus', has a short crest - shorter than the races which occur in the Peninsula, and T S Wong's pictures on OBI confirm this.

A pair of duetting/courting (?) Chestnut-winged Babblers.

Rufous-crowned Babblers are, together with Brown Fulvettas, one of the most visible birds in the Park.

They're superficially similar to Scaly-crowned Babbler (which is also common here).

Here's a Scaly-crowned from my visit two years ago. Rufous-crowned are significantly larger and larger-billed. Other ways in which they differ are:

1. Rufous-crowned has a streaked throat and breast, Scaly-crowned lacks streaks
2. Rufous-crowned is greyish-brown around the face and breast, Scaly-crowned is much browner
3. Scaly-crowned has pink legs and bill base; Rufous-crowned has blue-grey legs and lower mandible
4. Scaly-crowned has prominent black fringes to the rufous crown feathers; Rufous-crowned has none, or only vestigial fringing

Ditching the 'car hide' plan, after a midday snooze I walked back to the same spot where I had parked the car in the morning, and this time went down the slope about 15 metres till I had a reasonable view to my right. I sat down on a small knoll. The view to the right was clear, but below me was very dense. After a while the pitta started calling in response to the MP3, but distantly. After a couple of hours, the bird seemed to be very close, but I was again having trouble knowing exactly which direction I should be looking.

By now I was getting desperate! I had spent over 10 hours looking for this bird on this trip (let alone the fruitless hours on the previous trip) and yet I seemed to be no closer to actually seeing it. I prayed, asking God to direct my eyes to the right place, and let me see the bird. Although I do pray about most things, I wasn’t too sure whether I could pray for God to show me a bird! After all, He isn’t a magic genie in a bottle, to answer to my every whim and wish! Still, I was desperate.

Suddenly the bird called a few times rather softly very close and then stopped calling. My eyes focused at the base of a small tree directly below me, on the lip of the knoll. I saw some movement of leaves and raised my camera. Suddenly I realized that there was an out of focus red blob in my viewfinder! Focusing, I found that I was looking at the pitta, about 10 metres away!

My first view, taken at 1730! The bird moved unhurriedly, peering toward me from time to time, and it appeared to be foraging. It wasn’t calling, and I noticed that it weaved its body from side to side as it stood. It frequently appeared to wipe its bill on the ground.

In response to the call from the MP3 it would stand very erect and fluff its feathers out, but did not call. After a few minutes, I heard the sound of wingbeats from behind me and simultaneously the pitta took flight and was lost to view.

The bird started calling again, and after a few minutes, hopped up onto a low vine a couple of metres above the ground and continued calling.

It stayed in this spot for a few minutes, before flying to another branch closer - about 12 metres away. After a few moments it flew down to my left into a clump of wild ginger. I could see it perched low in the clump in silhouette, but could not twist my body round to look at it properly. It made its way slowly uphill to my left. Eventually it hopped into view directly above me – about 6-8 metres away, but it was aware of my presence, so did not linger. I managed to get a couple of blurred photos as it hopped onto a log and then it disappeared down into some dense undergrowth.

I stopped the recording for a few minutes and then started it again. This prompted the bird to fly up onto a vine about 3m up. It remained there calling for a while, and wiping its bill on the branch.

From there it flew to another branch, before eventually flying out of sight below the knoll.

I stopped the tape, but the bird continued calling, and reappeared to my left again, having done a complete circle around me. It continued calling, perched a few feet off the ground in some dense undergrowth. By now the light was very dim, so I watched the bird through binoculars. It eventually flew low across the valley below me and landed out of sight, where it continued to call. By now it was about 1845, so I left, with the bird still calling.

I had watched the bird for over an hour and had taken photos and even a short video, and as I walked back to the hostel I felt as if my feet were not even touching the ground!

Viewing my photos on the computer that evening, I was well pleased, but did notice that I hadn’t managed to get even a single ‘clean’ shot of the bird – in every one part of the bird was obscured behind some undergrowth. So, I made plans to try to repeat the exercise tomorrow! Was I being greedy?...

Friday, August 27, 2010

23 August 2010: Kubah National Park, Sarawak

A few posts back I mentioned the Sarawak Waterbird Survey.

A quick plug...!

The extensive coastline of Sarawak is one of the most important wintering grounds for waterbirds in Malaysia. It contains more coastal Important Bird Areas (IBAs) than any other state in Malaysia . The west Sarawak coast regularly records some of the highest concentrations of migratory waterbirds in the country during the annual Asian Waterbird Census.

The Sarawak coast hosts internationally important numbers of Endangered Nordmann's Greenshanks and Vulnerable Chinese Egrets during the non-breeding season. In addition, there are three historical records of the Critically Endangered Chinese Crested Tern off the Sarawak coast, one of the few places the species has ever been recorded away from the breeding grounds.

Despite this, the status of waterbirds and their habitats on much of the coastline is poorly known. There has never been a comprehensive coastal waterbird survey of Sarawak.

The survey is being planned from Oct this year till March 2001. If you are an experienced waterbird watcher/counter, and would like to take part in this pioneering survey as a volunteer, please contact me!

OK, end of plug!

After a productive weekend of meetings with the Kuching branch of MNS, discussing the survey, I took myself off to Kubah National Park, just half an hours' drive outside Kuching. After my last visit two years ago, I wrote what an amazing place it is. I rated it then as one of the best birding sites no one has ever heard of! That's not true any longer (happily) since the publication of an article on Sarawak's birding destinations in the most recent edition of BirdingASIA. I really hope that birders will increasingly put Sarawak on their itinerary when planning a trip to Borneo, and if this blog helps, great! More tourist birding dollars mean, hopefully, more attention to protection of important sites.

Anyway, back to Kubah! My goal was to see, and, hopefully photograph, Blue-banded Pitta. I had seen two previously at Poring, Sabah, and got the world's worst photo, which I reproduce here in all its glory!

Two Blue-banded Pittas and some nice leaves at Poring, Sabah, October 2008!

On my previous trip to Kubah, I'd heard, and spent 5+ hours trying to see the pitta, with zero success, so I was really set on seeing it this time!

Practically the first bird I saw in the morning was a lifer - a female Bornean Blue Flycatcher. She was very orange, both below and above - in fact, when I first glimpsed her upperparts the only bird that came to mind was Ferruginous Babbler. The rich chestnut tail provides an easy clue to her identity.

I couldn't get any decent shots of the upperparts, but this unflashed photo gives an impression of the true colour of the crown (and rest of the upperparts).

There was better to come - when I realized she was feeding a juvenile. This plumage has yet to be described, according to Susan Myers' Birds of Borneo, which possibly means these are the first ever photos of this plumage!

Finally the male showed up (sounds like the kind of thing my wife might say!).

According to Steve Blaber, Grey-breasted Babbler used to be reasonably common on the slopes either side of the road below 300m up until at least 2003. This is one of my most sought-after birds (being the symbol of the Peninsular Malaysia 500 Club!) so I played a recording of the song and call every 50m or so as I climbed the foothill. After one such session I noticed a grey and peach babbler with a short white eyebrow very close, behaving in a most agitated manner in response to my playback. For a moment before I got the bins onto it I thought I had found my bird, but as soon as I focused I realized the bird was much too short-tailed, and didn't really have a well-defined grey breastband. By a process of elimination, I worked out I must be looking at a Horsfield's Babbler, which I later read was the 'rufiventris' race. It looks very different in colouration from the Peninsula birds (of which this is an example).

Higher up the slopes I came across a fruiting tree which had lots of bird activity...

A Grey-cheeked Bulbul (the endemic 'gutturalis' race)...

a Hairy-backed Bulbul ('viridis' race)

...and a Finsch's Bulbul. I think this may be a first record for the park. It's a scarce bird everywhere, (though, coincidentally, showing well at Sungai Sedim recently) and this confiding bird seemed quite happy to perch so close I had to zoom back to get it all in frame!

I didn't realize that the tail could look quite chestnut in back-lighting.

Another Bornean Blue Flycatcher sat close by, much lower than the previous birds. They seemed everywhere today, yet I didn't hear or see another one in the remaining time I was there! I noticed this with several species - that they could be very conspicuous on certain days, yet seemingly absent on others. A good example was Short-tailed Babbler, which I neither saw nor heard for the first three days, yet on the fourth it seemed to be singing everywhere I went! I guess that means there's still hope that Grey-breasted Babblers might yet be there!

Some birds though, were always obvious. Brown Fulvettas seemed to be one of the commonest species in the park. It's interesting that this bird has a vestigial brown lateral crown stripe where many other species have a well-defined black line.

White-bellied Erpornis/Yuhina are another ubiquitous species.

But what of the pittas?

I played the call on the road just above the Waterfall Trail entrance. In response, 2 birds started calling, one on either side of the road! This made choosing which one to focus on difficult! I decided to try for the bird uphill first, since the undergrowth seemed more open there. The bird appeared to be coming closer, but it was impossible to be sure exactly where the sound was coming from! Every time I made the slightest movement, the bird would stop calling, and then start up again further away. Since the bird would not move out of the extremely dense undergrowth further uphill, I tried walking in, but this proved disastrous, as it immediately made the bird move further in.

I then turned my attention to the bird below the road, and tried sitting motionless and calling it, but, after over an hour of playing the call, the bird did not seem to be moving closer. This bird’s call was distinct from the one above the road by having a downward slur, whereas the one above the road was more of a monotone.
After about 4 hours I gave up. I had been told that the birds are wary, and I was beginning to believe it! They seemed to have an almost telepathic ability to detect my slightest movement, and I never felt that I came close to seeing either bird, though it seemed that they could see me!

So - the total hour count looking for the Kubah pittas went up to 9 hours, but tommorow was another day!