A Hattrick of Phalaropes.

The Red-necked Phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus, is a long distance migratory wader that breeds in the Arctic Tundra and spend their winters on the tropical waters off Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo. The females are more brightly colored than the males and takes no part in raising its young, a reversal to the norm.

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Part of the main flock of 11 Red-necked Phalaropes that spend their winter at sea.

It is an accident visitor to Singapore with a winter bird seen at the Tuas flooded grasslands from 16-25 November 1994. This was my only national first record.

We have to wait for another seventeen years before another was seen foraging in the Straits of Singapore on 17 April 2011 during a NSS Pelagic Survey. Coincidentally I was on board on this trip.

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The lobed toes of the right feet that helps them to paddle themselves on water can be seen in this photo.

 

On 8 October 2016, Frankie Cheong photographed a moulting juvenile to winter plumage at a freshwater puddle at the reclaimed land at Pulau Tekong, our second land record.

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In flight the upper white wing bar stands out.

Last Saturday 28 September 2019, we came across a floating flock of 14 juvenile Red-necked Phalaropes again at the Straits of Singapore, north of Batam.  My hattrick! This is the first multiple sighting of this vagrant.

They were busy feeding among the floating sea grasses, paddling around in small circles with their lobed feet. This unique habit helps to stir up the marine invertebrates up to the center for easy pickings.

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Our first multiple sightings as all the past three were single birds.

With this record and hopefully more in the years to come, we may be able to reclassified their status from vagrant to a rare winter visitor.

Reference: Wild Bird Society of Japan. A Field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia.                    Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore) 2009.

 

 

 

 

 

In Search of Taiwan Endemics. Yilan to Lalashan.

Our decision to fly to Taiwan and look for the endemic birds in late June was inspired by Ping Ling’s recent birding weekend to Daxueshan. She even introduced us to Liao Mei-Feng, one of the top bird guides in Taiwan. I swear she knew the calls of just about every resident species in Taiwan. She picked us up at the Taoyuan Airport in her Honda CRV and we spent the next nine days driving up and down the central lowlands and mountains in search of the 28 endemic birds that lived here.

1-DSC04750 A number of small resorts and homestays at Baling town provide accommodation for tourists to Lalashan. They are fully booked during the cherry blossoms season in February, a good time to photograph birds with a backdrop of the pink flowers.

By the time she dropped us off at the airport we had seen 27 endemic species and I managed to photograph 24 of them, more than what I had hope for. We would have got the easy Chestnut-bellied Tit at Basianshan on the last day if not for the rain. But on the whole it was a super trip. For sure it will not be possible without her local knowledge, experience and skill. A big thank you to Mei-Feng for her tenacity and be at the right place at the time. It was almost like she had pre-arranged with the pheasants and partridges to come out to meet us.

Yellow Tit

Tits are very curious birds. They can be easily attracted by the calls of the Collared Owlet. An uncommon endemic, they can be found in mixed montane forests. One of the earlier endemics that we ticked off.

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Photo opportunity are around every corner and turn along the twisting mountain roads. Photo: Liao Mei-Feng.

After the side trip to Yilan for the Fairy Pitta, we made our way to Lalashan Nature Reserve, the home of the ancient sacred trees. I have birded here on my own before but it is so different with someone who knows the place well.

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The lush green valley inside the Lalashan Reserve, with a giant Redwood Cypress tree in the distance.

This is where we got the rare endemic Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush, Ianthocincla ruficeps, thanks to the alertness of my wife. Mei-Feng was over the moon as she did not expect to find this laughingthrush here. Just as well as we did not get to see them again during the trip.

Rufous-crowned Laughingthrush

We stayed in a small family guest house that overlooks the Baling Valley.  A bubbly lady ran the place and is known for her vinegar fruit drinks. We don’t have a choice of what to have for dinner. Her husband insisted that we must have their popular deep herb infused fried chicken. Who are we to refuse? It was very flavourful but I would prefer it to be a little less well done.

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Flocks of Yuhinas and Tits visit the trees in front of the balcony of our guesthouse in the morning. We enjoyed staying in this cosy and friendly place.

Taiwan Yuhinia

Taiwan Yuhina, a common endemic, comes in flocks and sometimes as part of a bird wave.

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A very attractive Black-throated Tit is another common resident of the mixed mid level forests. 

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Wild lilies and orchids add colour to the dense and dark forest.

Wild Orchid

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One of the 22 giant Redwood Cypress that the reserve is famous for. Most are over 2,000 years old existed before Christ. Photo: Liao Mei-Feng.

 

Rusty Laughingthrush.

The Rusty Laughingthrush move in family groups foraging among the undergrowth. A common endemic, that have lost fear for humans, often coming close to path in the reserve.

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A newly fledged Rusty Laughingthrush waiting for the parents to bring back food.

White-tailed Robin

White-tailed Robins are common in the mossy forests. The subspecies in Taiwan is the montium. Residents of Indian Subcontinent and China and uncommon resident in highlands of Thailand and Malaysia. 

Lalashan in Fuxing District is a mere two hours drive from the airport. Many of the resorts at Baling Town can arrange pickup from the airport.

Reference: Craig Robson. A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia

Mu-Chi Hsiao. A Field Guide to the Birds of Taiwan.

 

 

Nesting Fairy Pittas in Taiwan

When I contacted Liao Mei-feng to arrange our birding trip to Taiwan to see the endemic birds in the Central Mountains, I was curious as to why she included a night stay at Yilan in the north. Apparently a pair of Fairy Pittas, Pitta nympha, have returned to a small park near Sanxing to nest. This was their third year back to the site. It seems that the recent two nestings had failed and the pair was determined to try for another brood. This was good news for us.

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The foraging area is just next to the path. Their nest is somewhere up in the slopes in the dark thick forest on the right.

The drive from the airport on the expressway took us about two hours. We reached the site in the late afternoon and the birders there told us that the pittas came out twice this morning. They were there photographing the nesting of a pair of Taiwan Barbets. We waited till dusk without success and went to check in a local hotel at Yilan City.

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The moss covered fence gave this shot some greenery.

We made the right decision to go back to the park early next morning to try again. Normally the place will be packed with photographers but this being a Monday there was only one other birder there. He had good news for us. One of the pittas came out to the path earlier.

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Liao Mei-feng’s photo showing the pair of Fairy Pittas out foraging among the dead leaves.

We sat down and waited away from the site which cordoned off by the park staff. We did not have to wait too long. The first pitta flew in from the gully on the left and perched on the moss covered railings by the path. It was followed by its mate. Both then hopped down to the ground and started to forage for food. The Fairy Pittas look very similar to the Blue-winged Pitta. The Fairy Pitta is smaller. It has a whitish breast and belly and smaller blue wing patch. In flight the white wing patch is also much smaller. 

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Looks like a Blue-winged Pitta if not for a whitish breast and belly.

We were elated. The last time I had a glimpse of this pitta flying out of its nest was in Dongzhai in June 2016 after waiting for hours. This is the first time I get to photograph them up close. It seems that they got use to the park visitors there and were not skittish in the presence of photographers as long as we do not make any sudden movements and get too near to them.

Fairy Pitta

In the days that follow, we learned from friends that they were brooding a third batch. We hope that this will be successful just like the ones at another site further south where photos of a pair with four chicks were attracting hordes of photographers. They also breed in SE China, Korea, South Japan and winters in Borneo.

A big thank you to Mei-feng for taking us there to see and photograph my last remaining pitta in the super group of Indian, Blue-winged and Mangrove Pittas.

Reference: Mu-Chi Hsiao and Cheng-Lin Li.  A field Guide to the Birds of Taiwan. Craig Robson. A field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia. 

 

 

Wild Sandakan-Sharks, Rays and Conch.

I always visit fish markets in places I travel to if I can find the time. You get an education on the variety of marine life and the life of the people there.  The Sandakan Central Market is right in the middle of the town a few minutes walk from the Four Points Hotel. It also is next to the sea with a wharf for fishing boats to berth. Fishing boats unload their catches here directly to the stalls a few meters away. You cannot get fresher seafood than this.

Besides the usual groupers, snappers, lobsters and all sizes of prawn, I found a variety of lesser seen seafood like rays, sharks and shellfishes here. This is the best way to find out the kind of marine life off the coast of this part of Borneo. 13-20190302_083750

The fish section of the Central Market faces the sea with a wharf for the fishing boats.

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Fishing boats unload their catches directly to the wharf next to the market.

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Enterprising owners setting up makeshift stalls by the wharf to auction their crabs and prawns to wholesalers.

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Tying up and sorting swimmer or flower crabs.

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A mix of baby sharks with no chance of growing up. The top ones maybe Grey Reef Sharks.

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Conches big and small. Must be delicacy here. Anyone knows the name of these conches?

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Spotted Eagle Ray.

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Cutting up another spotted ray for the restaurants.

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The sad looking underside face of a ray.

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Bonitos, a ray-finned predatory fish in the same family as the Mackerel and Tuna. Not a prized fish here.

Many thanks to Stephen Beng for identifying these sea creatures.

 

Wild Sandakan. Night Beauties.

A night walk in the rain forests of Borneo is an unforgettable experience. Many of the mammals, insects and reptiles are nocturnal and are hard to find during the day.  We joined a night walk at The Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok. These walks lasting two hours, start at 6 pm covering the Canopy Walkway and the forest trails. The guides have an amazing ability to spot these night creatures and are very knowledgeable about the wildlife there. In fact without their sharp eyes we will not be able to see the rare and well hidden Western Tarsiers. We came across a roosting Wallace’s Hawk Eagle as well but was too far for any photos.

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Tarsiers are primates, found only in SEA. This Western Tarsier is one of the three species that lives in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra. We found two foraging close to the ground.

Rufous Backed KF

The jewel of the forest, a roosting Rufous-backed Kingfisher. This was a former resident of Singapore.

Giant Red Flying Squirrel

The Giant Flying Squirrel peeping out of their man-made homes. They move out close to dusk to join their fellow squirrels in the night hunt.

Peter's Bent-toed Gecko

Peter’s Bent-toed Gecko with its white bands on its body and tail. Inhabits mature forest and hunt along tree for insects. 

Tokay Gecko

Tokay Geckos, a large gecko are arboreal and solitary. Frequent homes and building near forest where they hunt for insects. Can be rather loud and noisy. 

Golden-eared Rough-sided Frog

Golden-eared Rough-sided Frog is a terrestrial frog preferring to hunt at night near swampy forest floor.

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis can be brown in color as well.

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We found lots of Stick insects during the night walks including a mating pair.

Ref: Nick Baker & Kelvin Lim. Wild Animals of Singapore. 2008.

Wild Sandakan. Kinabatangan.

This is my second visit to the Kinabatangan Wetlands after a long absence. We had the river and tributaries almost to ourselves then, but today the number of nature seekers flocking to experience a slice of the wild life there has exploded. It is now harder to escape to the wild.

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Evening grow over the riverside forest of the Kinabatangan.

We did not get to see any of the endemic Pygmy Elephants or Orangutans this trip. Luckily the rest of the inhabitants are still around to give the tourists a sense of “Kinabatangan” experience.

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Morning river cruises are cool and misty. Life around the river was just stirring.

We joined the 3D2N package offered by the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort and went along with their morning and evening river cruises, day and night walks with the rest of the guests. As I was not expecting much and certainly not thinking of getting close to the Storm Stork or Oriental Darters, I was able to enjoy whatever nature that we came across.

Borneon Natural Sukau Bilit Resort

The resort dining area faces the river with comfortable chalets at the back connected by boardwalks. It is a two hours drive from Sepilok to Sukau where a number of resorts can be found.

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Nice and clean looking baby crocodile estimated to be 6 years old.

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Mama crocodile spend most of the day sunbathing at the muddy banks digesting its meal.

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Alpha males has to fight off younger male to keep its harem.

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A bachelor group of younger males foraging and playing together. 

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The “Pinocchio” nose and big stomach set these Proboscis monkey apart from the rest of the primates.

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All the photography along the river are done on board the boat. 

Plume-toed Swifltet

Plume-toed Swiflets hawking insects over the forests in the evening.

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A flock of 20 Bushy-crested Hornbills can be really noisy when they all started to communicate with each other. This was taken behind the resort.

Oriental Darter

Oriental Darters is one of the more common waterbirds along the river bands. I remembered getting really close to them drying their feathers during my last trip, but not anymore.

Wrinkled Hornbill

This Wrinkled Hornbill flew across very early one morning and this is the best I can do to bring out the colors.

White-crowned Shama

The White-crowned Shama was our alarm clock every morning at the resort. The call is just as melodious as the White-rumped Shama. It is endemic to Borneo and quite common.

Wild Sandakan. Sepilok

Just a mere 26 Km west of Sandakan is the Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve, where the popular Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre are located. Several nature resorts fringing the reserve cater to the needs of eco tourists to the area. One of these is the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, where I spent 2 nights recently.

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The open air dining platform looks into the greenery and trees which are left to grow wild.

The owner Datuk Peter Pang himself is a keen bird photographer, whose excellent photos can be viewed at the resort. He made sure that the trees and greenery have been left intact to retain a lush habitat for the wildlife there. A small lake in the middle of the resort attracts a few waterbirds to the place. Jungle trails at the back of the resort allows trekking into the mature secondary forest where many of the rare birds can be seen.

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The feeding platform at the resort catering to the starlings and bulbuls and leafbirds.

I did most of my birding here after I found a roosting Rufous-backed Kingfisher at a gully just outside my chalet. And I was not disappointed. I recorded 40 species there and would have crowned my visit with the much wanted Bornean Bristlehead if I have checked out an hour late.

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This Black-backed Kingfisher may be nesting at the resort.

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This Buah Cherry tree is planted next to the open restaurant and visited by many frugivorous birds including this Greater Green Leafbird.

Buff-necked Woodpecker

A pair of Buff-necked Woodpeckers took their time looking for grubs in the tree trunks oblivious to my presence. This is the male.

Buff-vented Bulbul

Buff-vented Bulbuls is one of the more common bulbuls beside the Yellow-vented at the resort.

Orange-belled Flowerpecker

Wild Bananas and other fruit trees like the Starfruit are planted for birds like this Orange-bellied Flowerpecker.

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The resort is home to a pair of Black and Red Broadbills which is nesting near one of the ponds at the resort.

Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker

The endemic Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker feeding on the wild Hairy Clidemia berries.

Sandakan Checklist