Sunday, 26 July 2015

Evening Skimmer

By far the toughest part of going on any holiday is coping with the tidal wave of depression that arrives like clockwork the minute you arrive 'home'. With the deeply disheartening prospect of a return to work on the horizon (and hence more of life flushed down the toilet), I surely can't be the only one that has difficulty handling this demoralising set of circumstances! A summer in Taiwan does little to help either, as this amounts to nothing more than heat, sweating profusely, and more of the 'same-old same-old'. The weather since returning from Sabah seems to have settled into the same pattern it was in before leaving, that of blue skies, uncomfortable humidity, and an incredibly punishing and burning sun. It was like one of the labours of Hercules rousing myself to head out today, and ultimately not really worth the bother. My dragonfly area in Xin Hua remains barely accessible, and Qi Pi produced only a couple of male Evening Skimmers Tholymis tillagra that I could photograph (which are pretty at least). The only Dusk-hawkers I saw (two Hyaline Gynacantha hyalina) seemed to have learnt from the birds by doing their favourite stunt of waiting until you're just about to press the shutter before darting off somewhere! The slenderest ray of hope came in the form of a flooded field in Xin Hua which had plenty of Wood Sandpipers Tringa glareola, Long-toed Stints Calidris subminuta and Little Ringed Plovers Charadrius dubius in it, a taste of things to come. Although some things have already started moving, it usually takes another month or so until the migration can be said to be in any kind of 'swing'.

Fingers crossed for some kind of weather that might rough up the sea a bit, otherwise the next month might be a bit tough. Above photos taken in Xin Hua, Tainan County 26/7/15.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Klias River

As we had driven north along the coast from Kota Kinabalu the previous afternoon and found little in the way of large areas of decent habitat, driving south seemed to be the only option open to us. I knew from examination of maps long before departing for Sabah that there was a large area of mangrove swamp about 100 kilometres south of Kota Kinabalu, known as the 'Klias Wetlands'. This would be a long drive should there prove to be nothing there, but as the area also holds large numbers of Proboscis Monkeys Nasalis larvatus (and indeed is on tourist routes precisely for that reason), it  seemed that it should, by reason, also hold a decent number of birds. A bit of asking around in Kota Kinabalu in the evening suggested that there may well be boats for hire during the day (all of the tours out of Kota Kinabalu focus on monkeys and fireflies, hence are afternoon or evening trips), so we decided to chance our arm and head for the Klias River for our final day of birding on Sabah. The decision proved to be a good one, as we had no problem hiring a boat, there was no boat traffic on the river given the time of day of our visit, and we managed to see a reasonable number of birds, which kicked off with a nice pair of Sunda Pygmy Woodpeckers Picoides moluccensis in the boatman's yard whilst waiting for the boatman to arrive.

We told the boatman that we wanted to focus on birds and asked him if he could take us to quieter parts of the river deeper in the wetlands and, if possible, extend the time of the boat trip (obviously for more money) from the two hours which are conventionally allocated for evening trips for Proboscis Monkeys. There was no problem on both counts, and in the end we got around four hours on the river (for which we were charged 400 MYR), heading out just before 08:00 and returning at noon. We travelled first down some of the wider parts of the river, which brought us good views of mostly parrots and kingfishers, including Long-tailed Parakeet, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris, Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting and Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher. Most of these birds were flying and a challenge to photograph, and I only managed pictures of Long-tailed Parakeet and Common Hill Myna Gracula religiosa from the wider stretches of the river.

The only bird that was really easy to photograph along these more open stretches was Oriental Darter, which we came across fairly frequently on our boat trip.

After an interesting but slightly frustrating trip down the wider parts of the river, the boatman turned into a denser, more overgrown creek which was much more what we had in mind. Birds recorded up this creek included Common Flameback Dinopium javanense, Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus, Lesser Cuckoo-shrike Coracina fimbriata, Black-and-Red Broadbill Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos, Common Iora Aegithina tiphia and Mangrove Blue Flycatcher Cyornis rufigastra. I managed only lousy pictures of the Lesser Cuckoo-shrike, but did rather better with both the broadbill and the flycatcher.

As this was our first time in Borneo (and we had really no idea whatsoever of what to expect from the Klias River), we were not unhappy with the birds we saw in the mangroves (and were happy to have found somewhere in western Sabah that provided an opportunity to access mangroves by boat). Obviously, our slender trip list does not compare to what is possible in eastern Sabah, but there was certainly far more in the mangroves than we actually saw if all of the different bird noises coming out them was anything to go by. Our trip list was always going to be light primarily because none of us had any familiarity with the local bird calls, and also in part because our driver was not himself a birder. With more local knowledge, and by spending more time in the deeper parts of the mangroves waiting for birds (or perhaps using tapes), I personally think that a very respectable trip list ought to be possible here. For me, the visit was worth it just for the Lesser Adjutants Leptoptilos javanicus, as these were up and soaring everywhere as soon as it got hot.

We very briefly tried a few roads into the wetlands when we were back on shore, but couldn't find any way to access any stretches of mangrove from land. As we were short on gas (and due to leave Kota Kinabalu on the first plane out of there the following morning), we began the lengthy drive back there shortly after noon. As chance would have it, we passed a wetland area beside the road just inland from Papar. This seemed to be worth a quick look, and turned out to be an excellent area, adding some very nice padding to the trip list (Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio, White-browed Crake Amaurornis cinerea, Yellow Bittern Ixobrychus sinensis, Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus). In addition, Wandering Whistling Ducks were fairly approachable here, meaning that I was able to get my one nice photo for the day!

There were a number of other unexpected species here that would ultimately bump up the trip list. These included Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus, Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola, Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybrida and White-winged Black Tern Chlidonias leucopterus. The stop at this wetland area would signal the end of the trip, as we would go straight back to Kota Kinabalu from here. Pretty much the last bird on to the trip list was a Striated Grassbird Megalurus palustris, which was singing at the roadside, a pointless exercise given the heavy traffic!

The day trip out to the Klias Wetlands had produced a further four lifers for me, these being Blue-eared Kingfisher, Black-and-Red Broadbill, Lesser Cuckoo-shrike and Bold-striped Tit-babbler Macronous bornensis. In total, my own trip list stood at 185 species from nine days in Sabah, 71 of which were new, a very respectable total given that we had restricted ourselves only to western parts of it. My full trip list (now the umpteenth update, which is hopefully finally correct) can be viewed below:

Sabah (2015) Trip List: Click here

Looking at what was missed, a trip to the eastern part of the state is most definitely called for, and soon! Above photos taken on the Klias River and at Papar, Sabah 19/7/15.

Kinabalu National Park (6)

The final morning of our trip into the mountains we spent on Gunung Kinabalu, and we had penned in a departure time of 11:00, at which point we intended to return to the coast and have the afternoon doing some exploratory birding there. This left each of us with just a few hours to try and pick up whatever we had missed. As I had missed Fruithunter, I got dropped off at the upper toilet block as I knew one had been showing there fairly regularly in the morning. Despite hanging around for an hour or so, no Fruithunter would show up, and all I was able to take pictures of was a Bornean Whistling Thrush, a new one for my camera at least.

I began my descent of the mountain early as there had been plenty of birds flying up from the roadside as we had driven up. I picked up a large, noisy flock of Bornean Green Magpies which seemed to be involved in some kind of display, but these were at considerable range and, as I had already photographed one well earlier in the week, I made no attempt to photograph them. I stopped to take a further look at the Bornean Swiftlet, which was still sitting quietly on its nest, and took a final farewell photo of that. Whatever this bird actually was, it was regardless undeniably quite cute and well worth stopping to look at again. A tail-less Sunda Bush Warbler was the only other bird that was active in this area, but Snowy-browed Flycatcher Ficedula hyperythra managed to find its way onto the trip list from my walk down the mountain (on which I saw two).

A final walk along the Silau-Silau Trail gave me the chance to get photos of a further flycatcher, Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher, which had hitherto eluded my camera this trip. On exiting the trail, the flock of small birds that had been hanging around the Silau-Silau rest stop for the whole of our stay (and which contained a Pygmy Blue Flycatcher) moved through the canopy, allowing me to get a pretty awful record shot of that, too.

At 11:00, we all met up again and left Kinabalu National Park to begin the long drive down towards the coast. We had no particular destination in mind, but hoped to find wetlands or mangroves which might hold some birds we had not yet seen on this trip. We found one such place by turning north along Highway 503 towards Kota Belud and by taking a left turn towards the coast shortly after crossing the first (and only) river (somewhere near a town called Tuaran). A small inland lake brought us our first views of (a very noisy) Changeable Hawk Eagle Nisaetus cirrhatus, Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster, and a pair of very unexpected Wandering Whistling Ducks Dendrocygna arcuata. As the ducks were miles away (and I would get much better pictures of them the following day), only the darter is worth posting here.

The heat drove us away in the end, and we continued heading north along the 503, only to find little of promise anywhere much before Kota Belud. As it began cooling down a little late afternoon, we returned to the lake at Tuaran to see what else we could find. Further exploration of the area turned up some additional goodies in the form of our first Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis, a Mangrove Blue Flycatcher Cyornis rufigastra (thought initially to be Large-billed Blue Flycatcher Cyornis caerulatus due to pale throat, but really not sufficiently 'shining' above), and a preening Ashy Tailorbird which was willing to sit still and to let me photograph it.

There were plenty of swiftlets flying around above the water, too, including one 'type' which I identified as being different from the others thus far seen. These were identical in pretty much all respects to the Type A swiftlet (Germain's Swiftlet) seen on Tanjug Aru on the very first evening, with the exception of having pale brown rump bands rather than white rump bands. They therefore differed from Type B in paler rump and longish, slender, obviously forked/cleft tail, and from Type C in slender body, lack of bulk (head/chest/broad-looking wings), deeper tail fork and presence of pale  brown tones below. These seemed to be a better fit for Edible-nest Swiftlet Aerodramus fuciphagus rather than for anything else, though they were sadly way too quick for my camera to get any record of. As the evening wore on and the light began to go, we left the lake and tried to get as close to the river mouth as possible by following farm roads in the direction of the coast from Tuaran. The roads we tried all ran into dead ends, but we managed to scrape a Large-tailed Nightjar Caprimulgus macrurus at dusk down the last one we tried. As darkness drew in, we drove on towards Kota Kinabalu and our hotel, wondering just what we should do with our final remaining day, as driving north out of town seemed to offer little in the way of birding. The day had been a good one, though, and the lifers continued to pile up, with the three additions today being Wandering Whistling Duck, Oriental Darter and Edible-nest Swiftlet. Above photos taken on Gunung Kinabalu and near Tuaran, Sabah 18/5/15

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Kinabalu National Park (5)

As it had been so good in the afternoons, our final full day in Kinabalu National Park was spent at Poring Hot Springs. The previous evening, one of the group had found an area which was thought to be suitable for birds, and claimed to have seen a Malaysian Rail-babbler Eupetes macrocerus in it. This is a species that sits somewhere very high up on my own personal wish list, so naturally I made a beeline straight for it first thing. The area in question was a small clearing around a toilet block a few hundred metres along the Waterfall Trail. It did turn out to be an excellent spot, and we spent much of the day there. Though I failed to connect with Malaysian Rail-babbler, I did connect with the next best thing, Black-capped Babbler Pellorneum capistratum, several of which were walking around in the clearing early morning.

There were plenty more forest babblers (a group we had been doing poorly for) on offer in this spot, including Chestnut-winged Babbler Stachyris erythroptera, Grey-headed Babbler Stachyris poliocephala and Horsfield's Babbler. The small stream behind the picnic spot held a prize all of its own, a female Hill Blue Flycatcher Cyornis banyumas. After a lot of head-scratching (and initially believing this bird to be (and posting it as) Bornean Blue Flycatcher Cyornis superbus on the basis of extensive orange in the underparts), reading around the subject suggests that the absence of strong rufous tones to the forecrown and the upper/undertail effectively rule out Bornean, leaving Hill Blue Flycatcher as the only explanation as to this bird's identity. Either way I'm happy, as Hill Blue Flycatcher is also a new one, but obviously I would have preferred the endemic! (The reasons to want to return to Borneo mount!)

There were plenty of other goodies along this stream, too, including two unidentified damselflies and a brown morph Asian Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina, the skinniest thing I think I've ever seen!

Meanwhile, back in the clearing, plenty more was going on, including a surprise appearance from the obvious 'bird of the day', a Chestnut-capped Thrush Geokichla interpres. This bird was feeding in leaf litter at the very edge of the forest and was especially shy, disappearing back into the forest the second anybody moved or tried to approach it. Although my shots of it are poor, I can't help but be thrilled with them as this little gem was a totally unexpected bonus! (Fortunately, Da Chiao Lin got quite excellent shots of this little corker, three of which I have shoved in below!)

We picked up plenty of other birds in this clearing throughout the course of the morning, including Buff-rumped Woodpecker Meiglyptes grammithorax, Dark-throated Oriole, Yellow-bellied Warbler Abroscopus superciliaris and White-crowned Forktail Enicurus leschenaulti on the nearby stream. Both Raffles's Malkohas Rhinortha chlorophaea and Chestnut-breasted Malkohas were favouring this area, but I was only able to manage shots of the latter.

As things began to quieten down in the afternoon, and the Malaysian Rail-babbler refused to show, I elected to return to the fruiting tree in the hope of getting some nicer shots of some of the bulbuls that had been hanging around there. Both Hairy-backed Bulbul and Buff-vented Bulbul Iole olivacea were happy to oblige, but all of the others kept their distance. A single Lesser Green Leafbird also put in an appearance, and was happy to pose for the camera.

The day would close with a few more splashes of colour at the fruiting tree in the forms of the ubiquitous Orange-bellied Flowerpecker Dicaeum trigonostigma and also a Crimson Sunbird. As evening began to draw in, large numbers of birds emerged on the hillside to sit in the dead trees there. These included various barbets, drongos, bulbuls, and spiderhunters, all very distant but all clearly indicating that the avian diversity at this site is remarkably high. As such, it has to be considered a 'must visit' site, especially if there are no plans to continue on towards Sandakan.

The march of the lifers continued, and I had picked up seven from the day, these being Raffles's Malkoha, Black-capped Babbler, Grey-headed Babbler, Chestnut-winged Babbler, Chestnut-capped Thrush, Hill Blue Flycatcher and Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker Prionochilus maculatus. A very nice way to end our stay in the mountains all told! Above photos taken at Poring Hot Springs, Sabah 17/7/15.