Birders to the montane forests of northern Borneo pay more attention to the Whitehead trinity of Broadbill, Trogon and Spiderhunter than the other bird species named after another ornithologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck.
The three Whiteheads are rarer which made their quest more rewarding. John Whitehead, an English explorer and naturalist was the first documented person to scale Mount Kinabalu. He also was the first collector of the Whitehead Broadbill and had 10 bird species named after him.
Coenraad Temminck, a well known Dutch ornithologist and zoologist was the first director of the Leiden Museum of Natural History. He inherited a large collection of bird specimens from his father who was a good friend of Francois Levailant, another well known French ornithologist and wildlife collector.
There are 20 birds and 14 mammal species named after Temminck. During our trip to Tras Madi, Sabah in June, I added the Temminck’s Babbler,Pellorneum pyrrhogenys, to my list of two species i.e. Malaysian Eared Nightjar,Eurostopodus temminckii and Temminck’s Sunbird, Aethopya temmickii. I missed Temminck’s Stint at Sungei Balang by an hour.
The Temminck’s Babbler is found in the sub montane forests of Borneo and Java. There are four subspecies with the ones in Borneo having a grey face instead of the brown-grey face of the Javan subspecies.
The Temminck’s Sunbird on the other hand can be found in the lower montane and lowland forests of Peninsular Malaysia, West Sumatra and Central Borneo. The nearest population to Singapore is at the Panti Bird Sanctuary but not often seen. It looks like the Crimson Sunbird with its reddish head and back but the Temminck’s has a silvery white belly and a red upper tail compared to the greyish underbelly and dark tail.
Reference: Eaton, Rheindt et al. Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago. Wikipedia.
The Trus Madi Conservation Area at the Crocker Range in Sabah is well known among insect and moth lovers as the place to go and see the hundreds of insects of the tropical montane hill forests. The Trus Madi Entomology Camp, better known as the Borneo Girl Jungle Camp was set up in the conservation area primarily to study the insect life there.
Insect screens with special lights to attract the insects were erected at the both sides of a ridge near the camp. On most nights, these screens were swamped with insects, mainly moths of all shapes and sizes, cicadas, beetles, cricket and wasps. April I was told is the peak month.
Every morning the resident Pig-tailed Macaque will make its way to the ridge and pick out the biggest and juiciest cicadas that are still on the screen. It will tear away the wings before biting off its head and then the body. These fruit eating monkeys would not pass off a chance of tasty snack that is rich in proteins as well. We saw some squirrels around but did not see them taking any of the insects.
During the night, another opportunistic raider was on standby. The Barred Eagle-Owl waits patiently at the near-by tree for some of the larger moths and cicadas to fly by before swooping down to pick it up. These insects will supplement their usual diet of rodents and squirrels.
When dawn breaks, the rest of the insectivorous birds would gather at the trees on both side of the ridge to start their day with easy pickings. The Ashy Drongos and the White-throated Fantails will sally out for the smaller flying moths. Flocks of the endemic Chestnut-crested Yuhinas will flush out the rest of the insects for a quick meal. While the Black-bellied Malkohas and the Red-bearded Bee-eaters wait for the larger ones. Even the small tailorbirds were able to pick and choose their food from the buffet in front of them.
This feasting must be a ritual for these birds every morning. Free and easy food in the cool montane air. For the bird watchers and photographers, it is an opportunity not to be missed.
With Wilson Leung, Theresa Ng and David Tseu ( Nature guide).
One of the heart stopping birding moments I remembered was hearing the calls of the Great Argus Pheasant behind my back and seeing them at its “dancing ground” in the Johor Forests way back in the 1997. Last week I experienced the same heart thumping moment when a male Bulwer’s Pheasant, Lophura bulweri, appeared right in front of our hide at the Trus Madi montane forest of the Crocker Range in Sabah.
David Tseu, a nature lover and experienced bird guide who have been studying the habits of this pheasant, made this possible. I came to know about this place and this Bulwer’s last year when Datuk Peter Pang posted photos of it on his facebook page. Due to the pandemic and closed borders, all the nature parks in Sabah were closed to oversea visitors. The wildlife here had their forests for themselves for over two years. When Sabah opened up in in May, Dr. Chan Kai Soon from Ipoh was the first to visit and posted photos of this pheasant. This was enough for me to book my flights to Kota Kinabalu, the nearest jumping off city ( a 4 hours drive) to the Borneo Jungle Girl Camp at Trus Madi. I asked Wilson Leung and his wife Theresa to join me as he has been wanting to go birding with me for some time. I had to thank Eric Tan for the intro to David Tseu and where to bird.
The pheasant was not seen since Dr. Chan’s visit more than a month back, but David was somewhat confident that it is still around. It was a no show on the first afternoon. We had only one more afternoon left and at 4.30 pm a family of the Crested Partridges, Rollulus rouloul, came up at the edges of the stake-out. This was a great sign as the Bulwer’s Pheasant is known to move with them for protection. Sure enough, shortly after David whispered to me ” It is here”.
I could hardly focus my camera on the pheasant standing just a few meters away from us as my hands were shaking. We cannot believe our luck, being so closed to such a stunning looking pheasant, its dark purple speckled body contrasting with its snow white tail. I was savoring every seconds of its presence until it got spooked and ran away. Fortunately it came back after it sensed that it was safe and we had another round of less frantic shooting.
It is locally common in the remote montane hill forest of northern Borneo. But you will need to be at the right area, lots of patience and a dose of good luck to see one as their numbers are low. Since 1998, there were only 19 entries in ebirds with records from Poring, Danum Valley, Maliau Basin and most recently at Trus Madi. It was mission accomplished for my number one target for the trip, thanks to David’s local knowledge and birding skills.
I am glad that the site is under proper management by the owners of the camp, a group of passionate nature lovers and insect experts whose main aim is protect the habitat and the wildlife in it for the younger generations to come.
Reference: Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan
There is only so much HDD and balcony birding one can do during this CB period. With the release of the 2020 edition of the Birds of Singapore Checklist, I decided to go through my list of 359 species to date to see how many bird family “grand slams” (of 5 or more species) do I have. If you are doing this as well, do let us know what your “grand slams” are.
A magical place inside CCNR. How insignificant are we? Photo: Glenda Heng.
Not that many as it turned. Only 11 out of a total of 26 families with 5 or more species in it. I was missing the Little Green Pigeon for the 14 Pigeons and Doves Columbidae family. But now with the acceptance of the Oriental Turtle Dove, a national first, it will be that much harder to complete.
I though I have the 12 Rails and Crakes Rallidaefamily done and dusted but found out that the Eurasian Coot, a stray last seen in 1988, is in this family. Arrrrh……
Thanks to Francis Yap:) I “lost” the 13 Bulbuls Pycnontidae family when he photographed the Black and White Bulbul at Jelutong Tower in 2012.
A big thank you and shout out to all my friends, past and present for the timely alerts and help. Many of you will recall the happy memories of when we got these species together. Special mention to all my mentors and my long time birding friends Alfred Chia, Kenneth Kee and Yang Pah Liang for being with me in this journey since the early 1990s. These are the stories of the sighting of the last species of each of the eleven families.
1. Ardeidae (Bitterns, Herons and Egrets) 19 species.
It was a late afternoon phone call from Vincent Ng that an Indian Pond Heron was seen at Bidadari Cemetery. Joseph Tan had photographed it on 11 April 2015 but did not processed it until Er Bong Siong posted his a week later. It was subsequently identified by Francis Yap. Link. Our first record was from Senoko on 20 March 1999 by Lim Kim Seng and Lim Kim Chuah. It was listed in Category D ( Wild birds but possibility of released or escaped cannot be ruled out). Since then, we had 8 more records from Farmway 3 in 2012 and 2016, Bidadari 2015 and 2018, Bishan Park 2018, Jurong Lake in 2019, Windsor Park and Transview Golf Course in 2020. This should not be a difficult family to complete.
The first Indian Pond Heron seen in Bidadari in 2015.
2. Charadriidae ( Lapwings, Plovers) 11 species.
I was late to tick the Grey-headed Lapwing at SBWR on November 2011, found by Lim Kim Chuah. But when news that one was scoped inside Kranji Marshes on 23 October 2016, we went running in to the tower to look for it. I remembered missing it by 5 minutes as it flew over the open field outside the Marshes. Geoff Lim and I decided to drive into Harvest Lane to look for it. We flushed it just after we got out of the car. For most the Common Ringed Plover will be your nemesis in this family.
3. Cuculidae ( Cuckoos and Coucal) 19 species.
The last cuckoo was supposed to be the Lorong Halus’s Jacobin Cuckoo in 2015 but a female Asian Emerald Cuckoo turned up at Siloso, Sentosa in late December 2017 changed that. Link . Topping this was our third record and this time an adult male in its full brilliance found by Kelvin Ng and friends on 23 March 2020 next to the Ulu Pandan Canal behind MOE Ghim Moh.
The adult female Asian Emerald Cuckoo was much easier to identify than the first juvenile female photographed by KC Tsang in 2006.
4. Tytonidae/Strigidae (Owls) 10 species.
January 2016. Another late afternoon phone call this time from See Toh that almost knocked me off my seat. A juvenile Barred Eagle Owl was spotted again at the car park at Bukit Timah NR. I missed the last appearance as I was away and was glad to have completed this difficult family which has the vagrant Short-eared Owl, Northern Boobook and the most sought after Brown Wood Owl in it. I had an old entry in my notebook of a BEO sighting on 16 Nov 1996 near the summit of BTNR during a survey, but I do not have any strong recollection of this sighting.
5. Alcedinidae ( Kingfishers) 8 species.
The migrant Black-capped Kingfisher is known to be super skittish, secretive and hard to find here. Most of the old records were from Pulau Ubin, hidden in between the mangroves. That was where I got mine. For many of the birders it was the most wanted kingfisher. Most should have this family grand slam by now with the Ruddy Kingfisher ever presence at Kranji.
6. Picidae (Woodpeckers) 8 species.
I was lucky to be birding when the White-bellied Woodpeckers were still around. Then the former resident Great Slaty Woodpecker made a spectacular reappearance on May 2018 at BTNR. But it was the Buff-rumped Woodpecker that eluded most of us until Adrian Silas Tay found one at Pulau Ubin on May 2019. Good thing it stayed around long enough for us to tick it.
This male Buff-rumped Woodpecker stayed around the same patch at Pulau Ubin.
7. Psittaculidae ( Parrots and Parakeets) 6 species.
The rare forest wanderer, Blue-rumped Parrot numbers have remained small all these years. They can be seen flying across the Central Catchment Forest in small flocks on good days. It was only the discovery of a fruiting Star Fruit tree at Venus Loop that we were able to see them close up. This should be an easy grand slam for all.
Nationally threatened Blue-rumped Parrot feeding on the Star Fruit at Venus Loop.
8. Monarchidae ( Monarch and Paradise Flycatchers) 5 species.
None of us expected to see an Indian Paradise Flycatcher here as it was not their usual wintering range. But Oliver Tan photographed one at SBWR on 2 December 2017 which was later identified by Dave Bakewell. Link. Our second and third records the following year were at SBWR as well.
The identity feature of this Indian Paradise Flycatcher is the long crest.
9. Hirundinidae ( Swallows and Martins) 5 species.
Both martins in our Checklist were hard to find, Surprisingly I got the rarer Asian House Martin before the more common Sand Martin. Both can be easily overlook unless you pay attention to any flocks of flying swallows.
10. Phylloscopidae ( Warblers) 5 species.
The Dusky Warbler would be the missing warbler for this family for most but I was around when Peter Kennerley mist netted one at Tuas in 1994. Instead my warbler to complete this family was the SakhalinLeafWarbler that was heard calling along Dairy Farm Loop by Lim Kim Keang on March 2014. We had the Pale-legged Warbler in our Checklist, but the sub song was clear enough for us to replace it.
Sakhalin Leaf Warbler replaced the Pale-legged Warbler in our checklist.
11. Cisticolidae ( Cisticolas, Prinia and Tailorbirds) 6 species.
This is an easy family to complete as all the 6 species are our common residents. Among them the forest edge Rufous-tailed Tailorbird was the hardest to find and photographed for some time. But their presence at Dairy Farm and Venus Loop made it much easier now.
This Rufous-tailed Tailorbird was photographed along the railway track at Wessex Estate.
HDD Hard Disk Digging. CB Circuit Breaker, CCNR Central Catchment Nature Reserve, MOE Ministry of Education, BEO Barred Eagle Owl, BTNR Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, SBWR Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.
Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore 2009. NSS
Craig Robson. The Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia.
The rice fields of Sungei Balang, a short drive north of Batu Pahat, had to be the richest waterbird site in Johor. It is also the foraging site for the main flock of the Lesser Adjutants and the wintering grounds for migrant raptors and shorebirds.
The monsoon rains have arrived. Time for a new crop of rice. Rich foraging grounds for the White-breasted Waterhen and the Wood Sandpiper.
We counted over 60 Lesser Adjutants that day. There were over 200 Asian Openbills thermalling over Balang this morning.
The daily buffet provided by the plowing of the rice fields attracted a one day Woolly-necked Stork, a second for Malaysia, to Balang. We missed it by a few days.
A few Sand Martins ( above) together with Barn and Red-rumped Swallows hawked for insects flushed up by the plowing.
Not giving each other an inch of space as they fly towards the plowed field for their feast.
Marsh Sandpipers are well adapted to feed at freshwater rice fields besides mud flats.
But the Little Ringed Plover in breeding plumage prefers to forage at freshwater habitats.
A Greater Spotted Eagle was wintering there the week before. But only this juvenile Black Kite and a male Eastern Marsh Harrier were around. A Booted Eagle was photographed wintering there this week.
Tick-tock, tick-tock, the tail of the skink swinging from end to end as it was being eaten alive by the Black-winged Kite, the most common resident raptor here.
Common Moorhen with juvenile given the zoom in treatment for effect.
This wintering Black Drongo has a rather stubby short bill, so how is it going to catch insects with it?
With hundreds of dragonflies around this Blue-tailed Bee-eater saved time hunting by snapping up two at one go.
No stones around for this Stejneger’s Stonechat so a mud mount will do.
This is the closest we got to a Citrine Wagtail. The white supercilium did not curved down enough to form a half circle behind the ear.Eastern Yellow Wagtail.
Sometimes lup sup birds like these Scaly-breasted Munias are worth shooting. There were flocks of White and Black-headed Munias around as well.
The star bird of the trip is this rare Small Pratincole pointed to us by Chris Gibbins. The site fidelity of this pratincole is truly amazing.
I wished to thank Kim Keang and Veronica for arranging this trip and doing all the driving.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cover photo: Logging track into Panti Forest Reserve just before the dip with Gunung Panti Ridge in the distance.
Jungle, Tree and Tit Babblers of Panti.
“Babblers are the most infuriating group of birds to shoot”, Morten Strange, retired professional bird photographer once told us. We cannot agree more. They are sulking, confining and always on the move inside the dark under storey. You hear them calling more often than you will see them. Getting a good look was enough to make your day. You will need persistence, quick fingers and lots of luck to get decent photographs of these lowland forest babblers.
Much easier to zoom in on the birds at Panti’s sparsely wooded second clearing with from left Milton Tan, Alfred Chia, Veronica Foo, Patricia Tiang, Jimmy Chew and the author. Photo: Lim Kim Keang.
The lowland rainforest of Johor has 20 species of these Babblers. (See list below). You can find all of them at the Gunung Panti Forest Reserve. Some of the more common ones like the Black-capped and Chestnut-winged Babbler are more conspicuous and vocal, while others like the Grey-breasted are rare. They are mostly insectivorous, moves in family groups and non migratory. Forest fragmentation is a threat.
I was lucky during some of my recent visits to find a few either having a bath in the open, nesting building, feeding its chicks or popping out in the open for a split second. Here are some record images of them.
This pair of Chestnut-winged Babblers were busy gathering leaves to build their nest and did not care too much about our presence. We have a small vulnerable population in our Central Catchment Forest and they are not so easily seen.
We found this Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler bringing back food for its chick. Even so they were very cautious and we had to stayed at a distance before they will feed the chick.
On hot mornings, the Black-throated Babblers cannot resist a dip in the puddles of water at the quiet tracks. Inside the undergrowth, it is hard to get the sheen of their plumage.
The Black-capped Babbler is one of the most vocal and common babblers in Panti. Still it is not easy to see them as they prefer to stay inside the forest. Best is to wait for them to fly out into the open and hope to snap it in the split second.
The Horsfield’s Babbler resembles the Abbott’s Babbler except for the faint streaks on its breast. Theirs were the first calls you used to hear as part of the dawn chorus at the first clearing. Unfortunately they have moved further in and are hard to find these days.
Rufous-crowned Babblers are very jumpy and prefer to stay inside the dark mid storey. Light is always a premium for getting any good shots. Looks similar to the Scaly-crowned Babbler except for the grey legs.
The White-chested Babblers inhabit the freshwater swamps of the lowland forests. Uncommon in Panti so great to have this record shot. It is very rare on mainland Singapore, last seen and heard in the early 2000s.
Reference: Graig Robson. The Field Guide Birds of Thailand and South East Asia. Lim Kim Seng and Lim Kim Chuah. Pocket Checklist of the Birds of Johore, Peninsular Malaysia. My thanks to Lim Kim Keang, Alfred Chia, Jimmy Chew, Veronica Foo, Milton Tan, Thio Hui Bing, Patricia Tiang, Luke Teo and Timothy Liew for their great company and help during these trips.
Not all forest birds are as colorful as the Trogons or Barbets. Some are just plain and drab looking and obviously does not attract the same attention from bird photographers. I would like to highlight a few of these under the radar “Little Brown Jobs” that we photographed at Panti Forest last month.
The Grey-breasted Spiderhunter is one of the rarer spiderhunters at Panti. It has a all grey underside with faint streaks. The eye-rings are absent. Usually found sipping nectar from flowering trees by the roadside, they also has shorter bills. Was a former resident in Singapore.
The Plain Sunbird is a very rare resident of Singapore with the last confirmed record on 25 January 1986 when a male was seen at Senoko. There were unconfirmed reports from CCNR and Rifle Range Road in 1998 and 2006. This is another species that is attracted to certain blooms in the forest. The male can be identified by the small bluish patch on its forehead.
The Buff-vented Bulbul is another very rare resident of Singapore. All the sightings so far were from Bukit Timah NR. Best chance of finding this bulbul is when the ficus tree at the summit is fruiting. They are common at Panti especially along the “old road” feeding on the berries and figs there.
It could be the low numbers why this Spectacled Bulbul went extinct in Singapore while the Red-eyed and Cream-vented Bulbuls survive today. With a healthy population in Panti, there is always a chance they will make a comeback. The orange eye-ring is a good id feature for this bulbul.
Reference: Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore) 2009. Craig Robson. A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia. Asia Books Co. Ltd
The bus depot had taken away many of the trees lining the canal leaving a narrower buffer.
The wild scape along the Ulu Pandan Canal fronting the Faber Crest Condominium was badly affected by three recent developments there. There is now only a small buffer of trees lining the canal due to the clearing of the forest for the building of the bus depot. The bird life has been impacted. This forest was where the Changeable Hawk Eagle had been nesting for years. Then the new IBP Road curved over another nesting site of the nationally threatened Purple Herons. Lastly a new condominium took away whatever greenery was left of the northern end. I used to see the Abbott’s Babblers here.
The Pacific Swallows were feeding and flying low along the canal making them easier to shoot.
Luckily the pair of Grey-headed Fish Eagles still come back to hunt for catfish at the canal. We been getting lots of stunning photos of these eagle hunting here recently.
A baby skink is as good as a fish for this White-throated Kingfisher.
I went down this morning to look for them but the fish eagles were not around. Either were the Pond Herons which should be foraging along the banks of the canal at this time of the year. Instead I recorded twenty-four other species in my one hour walk, a good number considering it was late morning. Most are the usual garden species but good to find a Grey-rumped Treeswift hawking for insects, a White-throated Kingfisher enjoying a baby skink, Asian Dollarbirds sallying overhead, a calling Drongo Cuckoo and a Brahminy Kite looking for scraps.
The more common Collared Kingfishers are well adapted to small forests patches and a fresh water canal for food.
The hollow tree branches of the Albizias that lined the canal made good nesting holes for the Dollarbirds.
List of birds recorded from 10.30-11.30 am 31 March 2018