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!

1 comment:

Wong Tsu Shi said...

You have a real thriller here, Dave.