Category Archives: Trip Report

Trus Madi, Crocker Range. A Trip Report.

Trus Madi, Crocker Range. A Trip Report.

By Alan OwYong. 

The Crocker Range has remained my last birding destination in Sabah for some time. When news that the elusive Bulwer’s Pheasant had been seen at the montane hill forests at Trus Madi Forest Reserve, I started to do some serious planning and waited for the borders to open.

Crocker Range National Park.

I got in touch with David Tseu, a long time nature guide based in Kota Kinabalu, through the recommendation of friends. 

A 4 days trip was arranged and together with Wilson Leung and his wife Theresa Ng, a first time birder, we scooted to Kota Kinabalu on the 13 June 2022.

The morning mist just rising up from the valley below. Wilson and Theresa up and early, checking on the overnight insects at Trus Madi.

Wilson arranged an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn Express where the ceiling to floor windows look out to a forested hillside. A Blue-throated Bee-eater and flocks of Asian Glossy Starlings were ticked off. A stay at KK will not be complete without a seafood dinner. We chose the Crab House at Sabah Suria and shared two large crabs and grouper soup for RM 230. 

Popular rest stop at Gunung Alab Motel
The Plume-toed Swiftlets nesting under the roof of the motel.

David met us the next morning in his spacious 4WD and drove towards Tambunan with a break for breakfast at Gunung Alab Motel, a popular rest stop. The road was winding but thankfully the morning traffic was light. 

Gravel track inside leading to the camp accessible only to 4 WD.

We reached the Borneo Girl Jungle Camp inside Trus Madi Conservation Area in time for lunch after surviving a 90 mins bone shaking ride on the bumpy gravel logging track for the last part of the journey. Jimmy Chew and his partners have slowly expanded the camp, providing nature lovers with clean, comfortable but basic rooms. The nights are cold as we are at 1,400 meter asl. The big surprise for me was the food here. It was the best Hakka/ Cantonese cooking I ever had in all my jungle birding trips. Sweet and sour kampong chicken for dinner and double boiled Shiitake Mushroom soup for the next evening. 

The expanded Borneo Jungle Girl Camp nestled against the thick forested hillside. Photo: Theresa Ng.

The weather forecast was for thunderstorms for the whole of our stay, but thank god the weatherman was wrong. We had only 2 hours of heavy downpour during our entire stay. Best of all, our birding was not disrupted by the usual morning and evening misty foggy weather.

We did all the birding along the old logging track near the camp. It was easy pleasant birding amidst the cool montane forest. Many of the endemic species that can be seen at Mt. Kinabalu Park are found here. A playful flock of Brown Fulvetta, part of a mini bird wave, greeted us the first morning. The endemic Charlotte’s Bulbul was preening away. It looks exactly like the Peninsular lowland Buff-vented Bulbul as it was a recent split. Theresa alerted us to a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills flying across the valley. It was quite a sight! The Buah Cherry trees and the hibiscus plants at the camp are frequently visited by the Bornean Leafbirds, Red-throated Barbets, Bornean Bulbuls and Temminck’s Sunbirds. Always a treat to be able to photograph such rare birds without too much hard work.

Red-throated Barbet feasting on the Buah Cherry
Brown Fulvetta. A small flock came by as part of a mini bird wave.
Theresa alerted us to a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills flying pass below the valley.

There are several hides along the trail not far from the camp. We spent both mornings and afternoons in two of them.  We were extremely lucky to see and photograph all the species we came to see.

Wilson and Theresa at one of the spacious hides. This is Theresa’s first experience birding in a hide. The first bird she saw was the male Bornean Banded Pitta. She was beyond amazed at the beauty and color of this pitta.

Top of the list was the majestic Bulwer’s Pheasant, a most sought after endemic that had eluded many birdwatchers for a long time. A lone male showed up on the third afternoon. These are most probably the first photos of this pheasant taken in the wild by any group from Singapore. Next for me was the Bornean Banded Pitta and the Dayak’s Jungle Flycatcher. The bonus were a family flock of 14 Crested Partridges and the Temminck’s Babblers. Lifers for all of us.

The elusive male Bulwer’s Pheasant with a male and two female Crested Partridges.
Temminck’s Babbler resembles our Abbott’s Babbler but with more rufous flanks and streaky crown. The north Bornean is the longstaffi sub species. The nominate is found in Java.

Besides the birds, there were many interesting mammals to keep a lookout for. David’s acute sense of the jungle got us the endemic Red-leaf Langur, Whitehead’s Squirrels and Masked Palm Civet.

Whitehead’s Pygmy Squirrel with its distinctive ear tuffs. Diurnal and confined to the mountain ranges of Borneo.
Masked Palm Civet out on a night hunt, thanks to David’s spotting. Mainly nocturnal, it has a white face and a black “mask” from eyes to nose.

The ever changing views of drifting clouds across the mountain ranges and green valleys are just breathtaking. Sunrise and sunsets were even more spectacular. Unfortunately the nights were overcast and we missed seeing the Milky Way. 

Drifting clouds over the hill forests of Trus Madi.

The day’s action did not end after dinner. We were not prepared for the hundreds of moths and insects when we went to check out the four insect screens set up on a ridge near the camp. None of us have ever seen so many moths, beetles, cicadas and other weird and wonderful insects in our life. From the tiniest to palm size, the moths came in all shapes and colors. We had a great time perfecting our macro photography on them. We could not get enough of this and spent all three nights hoping to see some rare lunar moths, but none showed up.

We had a great time practicing our macro photography on the hundred of moths at night. Photo: David Tseu.
Archaeoattracus staudinger moth is larger and more purplish than the A atlas.. Forewings have prominent extensions at tip with markings resembling s snake head.

We left the camp after breakfast on the last morning and made our way back to the Gunung Alab Substation for the Red-breasted and Crimson-Headed partridges, both endemics. They proved to be more co-operative and came out within the first hour. The damp bamboo forest is their preferred habitat.

Family of endemic Red-breasted Partridges at Gunung Alab’s bamboo forest.

A family of Snowy-browed Flycatchers also took up residence here and it was nice to see the different plumages of the juveniles and females. 

Snowy-browed Flycatcher Male

There was enough time to pay a visit to the Mahua Waterfalls about 20 km from Tambunan to do some last minute butterfly photography  Some of the endemic butterflies including the Rajah Brooke and the Green Dragons can be found there. Wilson and Theresa booked an overnight stay at the resort outside the waterfalls and we bade them goodbye as David drove me to the airport for my evening flight home.

Mahua Waterfalls a popular weekend outing for the locals.
The Bornean sub species of the Orange Gull, Cepora judith montana. We encountered this by the roadside driving up and at the Mahua Waterfalls.

It had been a very successful and lucky trip, a memorable one as well, We got all our target birds, thanks to David’s local knowledge and experience. We recorded a total of 58 birds ( 14 endemics), 21 butterflies ( 2 endemics), 8 mammals ( 4 endemics), 1 reptile and hundreds of moths and insect species. We were blessed with good weather for all the four days. A big thank you to the staff at the camp for the delicious food and help.

Four happy smiling participants at the end of a successful tour.

Checklist Trus Madi Conservation Area, Sabah. 14-17 June 2022

Guide: David Tseu

Participants: Alan OwYong, Wilson and Theresa Leung.

Birds.

  1. Crested Partridge ( Family group of 14 )
  2. Bulwer’s Pheasant (Male).
  3. Little Cuckoo Dove
  4. Asian Emerald Dove ( on way out)
  5. Black and Yellow Broadbill.
  6. Black-bellied Malkoha
  7. Chestnut-breasted Malkoha ( photographed by Theresa)
  8. Plume-toed Swiftlet ( nesting at Mt. Alab Motel)
  9. Grey-rumped Treeswift
  10. Crested Serpent Eagle. ( one perched, another in flight)
  11. Barred Eagle Owl
  12. Rhinoceros Hornbill ( pair flying in the valley)
  13. Red-bearded Bee-eater
  14. Golden-naped Barbet ( Heard)
  15. Red-throated Barbet
  16. Rufous Piculet
  17. Bornean Banded Pitta. ( Both male and female showing at different times)
  18. White-bellied Erponis
  19. Dark-throated Oriole
  20. Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike
  21. White-throated Fantail
  22. Ashy Drongo (Bornean)
  23. Blyth’s Paradise Flycatcher ( Seen by Theresa)
  24. Crested Shrikejay (Seen by David)
  25. Dark-necked Tailorbird
  26. Ashy Tailorbird
  27. Mountain Tailorbird (Heard)
  28. Pacific Swallow
  29. Bornean Bulbul
  30. Yellow-vented Bulbul
  31. Cream-vented Bulbul
  32. Streaked Bulbul 
  33. Yellow-bellied Bulbul ( seen by David)
  34. Charlotte’s Bulbul
  35. Cinereous Bulbul
  36. Chestnut-crested Yuhina
  37. Temminck’s Babbler
  38. Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler.
  39. Sunda Bush Warbler
  40. Brown Fulvetta
  41. Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush
  42. Oriental Magpie (Black)
  43. White-crowned Shama
  44. Dayak Blue Flycatcher (Family)
  45. Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher
  46. Verditer Flycatcher
  47. Snowy-browed Flycatcher ( Family group of 4)
  48. Little Pied Flycatcher
  49. Orange-bellied Flowerpecker
  50. Black-sided Flowerpecker ( photographed by Wilson)
  51. Temminck’s Sunbird ( both male and female)
  52. Asian Fairy Bluebird ( seen by David on way out)
  53. Bornean Leafbird
  54. Dusky Munia (on way in and out)
  55. Chestnut Munia (on way in and out)
  56. Red-breasted Partridge ( Mt Alab)
  57. Crimson-headed Partridge ( Mt. Alab)
  58. Mountain Black-eye (Heard Mt. Alab )

Butterflies:

  1. Yellow-banded Awl
  2. Banded Yeoman
  3. Common Three Ring
  4. Banded Demon
  5. Knight
  6. Common Mapwing
  7. Orange Gull ssp montana
  8. Striped Blue Crow
  9. Common Hedge Blue
  10. Mydosama pitana
  11. Large Assyrian
  12. Common Grass Yellow
  13. Straight-lined Mapwing
  14. Pointed Six-line Blue
  15. Common Line Blue
  16. Potanthus sp
  17. Staff Sergeant
  18. Colored Sergeant
  19. Black Prince
  20. Great Orange Tip.

Mammals and others:

  1. Giant Squirrel
  2. Ear-Spot Squirrel
  3. Whitehead’s Pygmy Squirrel
  4. Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel
  5. Masked Palm Civet
  6. Malay Civet
  7. Maroon Langur/ Red Leaf Monkey.
  8. Pig-tailed Macaque
  9. Many Line Sun skink. 

*Bornean endemics in bold.

The Weird and Wonderful Insects of Borneo.

Even though it was a birding trip to the Crocker Range of Sabah to look for the Bulwer’s Pheasant at Trus Madi Conservation Area, we were surprised to find so many insects during our few days there. Most were moths that were attracted by the lights at night. But many of the strange and wonderful insects were seen during the daytime when the birds were not active.

The montane hill forests of the Trus Madi, Crocker Range.

There are many pygmy grasshoppers that mimic dead leaves, but there only two Oriental Macropterous in Asia. The Oxyphyllum found in India and Pakistan and the Paraphyllum in Borneo. David Tseu our guide knew exactly which rock face to find the P. antennatum on our way to the Trus Madi Camp. They are small and blend in well with the color of the rock surfaces. Their curved brown body looks like a dead leaf. We counted about half a dozen of them all males according to David. The females have an elongated tail.

Oriental macropterous Leaf-mimic pygmy grasshopper ( Paraphyllum antennatum)
Blending in well against the rock surface. All three are females.

We would have missed this on the track if not for David’s sharp eyes. The Pill Millipede, Glomeris sp. one of the largest millipede around, but short bodied. It exhibits the Pangolin way of defense by rolling into a ball when threatened. When left alone it will slowly open up, check the surrounding before fully extending to its full length.

The roly poly Pill Milllipede curling up in David’s Palm

Full extended size

This Tacua speciosa Cicada is one of the most colorful and also one of the loudest. Its call is unmistakable and can be heard for long distances. We missed the chance to photograph it close up and had to be contended with this back view shot.

Cicada. Tacua Speciosa

Lantern bugs of the Fulgoridae plant hopper family does not emit light but they are colorful. This is the common Pyrops sultana white body species with an orange snort, which is part of its inflated head. Wilson found this on the track near our camp.

Pyrops sultana .

I don’t know how David can spot such a small insect like this weevil resting on a thin blade of grass. This is the Larinus Weevil looking a bit like a shining beetle with a big nose.

Larinus Weevil

The menacing looking Giant Three-horned Rhinoceros Beetle, Chalcosoma moellenkampi, is one of the more common beetles that came to the screens at night. A favourite with beetle collectors, it is found only in Borneo. This is the male as the females do not have horns.

Giant Three-horned Beetle

Bee flies are colorful. This species Migya tantalus, was seen taking minerals at the Mahua Waterfalls area

Bee Fly Migya tantalus

Also on the way to the waterfalls beneath the dark forest canopy, David picked up this tiny jewel of a beetle on a leaf by the path. Borisb identified it as a Aplosonyx sp in iNaturalist. It looks like the A. monticola in another posting on iNaturalist by Gan Cheong Weei taken at the same location on 10 Jan 2019. There is not much information on this species online.

A nice find to end our trip.

Aplosonyx sp. Looks like A. monticola.

With Wilson Leung, Theresa Ng and David Tseu. 14-17 June 2022.

Many thanks to David for identifying the insects.

Reference: Wikipedia on line.

Bulwer’s Pheasant stake out at Trus Madi montane forest.

Bulwer’s Pheasant male at Trus Madi

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.

Full frame shot just a few meters from our hide.

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.

Wish this was sharper but happy to get both Crested Partridge and Bulwer’s Pheasant males in one frame.

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.

Head on views showing the overlapping wattle below the face.

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.

The montane hill forests of the Trus Madi Range of the Bulwer’s Pheasants.

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.

Alan OwYong.

Reference: Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan

USR-An Amazing Reservoir Park.

Of Endemic Crab, Night Frog, Unique Spider and Rare Butterflies.

The quiet Upper Seletar Reservoir Park is well known for its forest bird, butterfly and insect life. But being adjacent to the Nee Soon Swamp Forest, there is also a surprising diversed freshwater aquatic life as well.

Singapore Swamp Crab Parathelphusa reticula USR

On one late August morning, I was delighted to find a nocturnal swamp crab in one of the drains here following Art Toh’s FB post. It turned out to be the Reticulated Swamp Crab (Paratherphusa retculata), one of our three endemic crabs found in Singapore. It was only discovered in 1989 inside the Nee Soon Swamp forest as its secretive and nocturnal habits have kept it hidden all these years.

Malesian Frog a nocturnal semi aquatic carnivore occurs in swampy mature forest.h

Nearby a Malesian Frog Limnonectes malesianus betrayed its well-hidden nook by jumping away. Luckily for us it stayed motionless at it’s next resting spot. According to Nick Baker all the local Malesian Frogs have this black marking on the external ear drum. Along the same drain, there was a small reddish brown catfish about 10 cm long. I missed getting a shot as It was quick to swim away and hide under the leave litter.  

Female Coin Spider guarding its eggs.

Further up the road, on a tree trunk that I used to go pass umpteen times, a family of Spotted Coin Spiders Herennia multipuncta, were busy bringing up another new generation of these unique spiders. They are small and live on the tree trunks all their life, using camouflage as their survival against predators. Every successful generation is a celebration for this species as the male can only mate once in their lifetime.

Two rare butterflies came out this morning. The small Malay Dartlet that can be confused with the Common Dartlet and the male White-tipped Baron which I though was the more common Common Baron. Both are my lifers.

Malay Dartlet. It was not listed by early researchers and only discovered in 2011.
White-tipped Baron with a slight bluish sheen at the leading edge of the forewing. Thanks to Gan Cheong Weei and Aaron Soh for the id.

Besides these, there were some uncommon butterflies like the Full Stop Swift, Hoary Palmer, Palm Bob and the Darky Plushblue, the last staying on the same leaf for hours.

Full Stop Swift.
Darky Plushblue the least encounter among the four Flos in Singapore.
Hoary Palmer a fairly large skipper distinguished by its strongly whitened hindwings.
Palm Bob, once rare but expanded due to the cultivation of palm tress as ornamental plants.

Our hope is that there will be no developments at this park to destroy the precious biodiversity. Plans should be put in place to enhance it. There should be no trespasses inside the primary forests so as not to disturb the wildlife there.

I like to thank so many of my friends who helped to find and showed me these creatures, without which I would not have been able to photograph and post them here.

References:

Ng PKL (1997). The conservation status of freshwater prawns and crabs in Singapore with emphasis on the nature
reserves. Gardens’ Bulletin Singapore, 49: 267–272.

Nick Baker & Kevin Lim 2008. Wild Animals of Singapore.

Butterflycircle.com

Singapore Biodiversity online

The Killing Skies of Gomantong.

The Killing Skies of Gomantong.

If you have an afternoon to spare when you are in Sandakan, do take a 2 hours drive out to the Gomantong Caves and see for yourself the natural spectacle of mass exodus of bats leaving the caves in endless streams.

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Spirals of Wrinkled-lipped Bats streaming out of the Gomantong Caves at dusk.

Every evening since recorded history, more than a million bats, mainly Winkled-lipped Bats leave the Gomantong Caves in never ending spirals into the night skies. This awesome sight can last well into nightfall. The bats will spend the night feasting on insects all over the countryside before returning to the cave to roost before dawn.

Another drama is waiting to unfold. It will be a life and death encounter over the killing skies of Gomantong.

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Meeting the colony of bats side on, the Bat Hawk is built for the kill.

The resident Bat Hawks and the Rufous-bellied Eagles have been spending the day resting up for this moment. It is a buffet not to be missed. The larger Wallace’s Hawk Eagles and smaller Peregrine Falcons will wait nearby for their turn as there is no need to rush and fight for such an abundance of food.

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Cropped photo of about 300 bats in a single frame.

The Bat Hawks are specialised bat predators. With folded wings they will slice into the colony of bats, twist their bodies upright, push their talons up front and try to snatch at any of the bats that come close to it. Once in a while it will miss catching one or the bat somehow managed to wriggle out of its grasp. But it will be a matter of time before the Bat Hawk gets its talon on one. It will tear and eat it on the wing to save the trouble to coming back for another.

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The Bat Hawk locking on to a bat with its talons by twisting its body backwards.

The Rufous-bellied Eagle is less agile. It will have to fly into the cloud of bats several times before getting hold of one. The smaller Peregrine Falcons are known for their speed and they use it to good effect. They will thermal higher up above the colony of bats and then dive down for the kill. Their success rate is almost 100%.

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The adult Rufous-bellied Eagle had to make several dives before catching one.

On the day of observation, the Wallace’s Hawk Eagle was the less interested and did not join in the killing frenzy. It perched nearby watching the spectacle even as the bats were flying directly overhead. Maybe it had its fill or was just waiting for its favourite species to appear.

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The Wallace’s Hawk Eagle perch just below the colony of bats waiting for the right time to hunt.

I was ecstatic to be able to witness and capture this life and death drama, mother nature’s wonder, over the killing skies of Gomantong.

Reference: John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps. A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo.

Balang Revisited

The Birds of Sungei Balang.

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.

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The monsoon rains have arrived. Time for a new crop of rice. Rich foraging grounds for the White-breasted Waterhen and the Wood Sandpiper.

 

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We counted over 60 Lesser Adjutants that day. There were over 200 Asian Openbills thermalling over Balang this morning.

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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. 

Sand Martin

A few Sand Martins ( above) together with Barn and Red-rumped Swallows hawked for insects flushed up by the plowing.

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Not giving each other an inch of space as they fly towards the plowed field for their feast.

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Marsh Sandpipers are well adapted to feed at freshwater rice fields besides mud flats.

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But the Little Ringed Plover in breeding plumage prefers to forage at freshwater habitats.

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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.

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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.

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Common Moorhen with juvenile given the zoom in treatment for effect.

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This wintering Black Drongo has a rather stubby short bill, so how is it going to catch insects with it?

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With hundreds of dragonflies around this Blue-tailed Bee-eater saved time hunting by snapping up two at one go. 

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No stones around for this Stejneger’s Stonechat so a mud mount will do.

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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.

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Sometimes lup sup birds like these Scaly-breasted Munias are worth shooting. There were flocks of White and Black-headed Munias around as well.

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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.

 

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. 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.