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Wednesday, 26 December 2012

To the mountains of Sabah!

For our christmas holiday my wife, son and I decided to spend a couple of days in Kota Kinabalu. This time we decided to undertake the journey by car. In case you were ever contemplating to do the same, a small word of warning: the total distance of around 400 km took us about 11 hours - the biggest bottleneck being a 3 hour wait for the ferry crossing across the Pandaruan river.

I had pre-arranged a day trip to KNP HQ with Andrew Siani for the 21st of December. Andrew is a birding guide from KK and I can thoroughly recommend him. Check out his blogspot for some excellent pictures:

Andrew picked me up at 5 AM and roughly 90 minutes later we arrived at KNP HQ. The weather was lousy: grey, wet and cold. We drove up to the powerstation and I almost immediately bagged two lifers from the car: a Bornean forktail and an Eyebrowed jungle-flycatcher. A good start! The follow-through was less impressive: as soon as we got out of the car I thoroughly messed up a perfect photo opportunity of an indigo flycatcher. While I was faffing about with the flash, the bird perched nicely 3 feet in front of me and I somehow managed to end up with only severely overexposed and underexposed pictures! The below, hardly cropped pic, is my best recovery attempt.
Indigo flycatcher (Eumyias indigo).
A walk along the Bukit Ular trail, starting from the power station at the Tempohon gate, seemed a little slow-going at first. A distant Bornean treepie was heard and seen and we were a little lucky to stumble upon a Bornean stubtail (which I clearly would have missed if Andrew hadn't picked it out).

Highlight of the morning was an encounter with one of the Whitehead's trio: a male Whitehead's broadbill. The bird stayed long enough to get a few shots without flash.
Whitehead's broadbill (Calyptomena whiteheadi).
This second picture was taken with flash. I am still not sure which picture I prefer. It looks more natural without flash though that really doesn't pay tribute to the almost iridescent green!
Whitehead's broadbill (Calyptomena whiteheadi).
This was one of my most memorable birding moments in Borneo; what a bird, absolutely magnificent! There was more. At the end of the trail we heard both Kinabalu's partridge species call and I got some brief close-up views of a pair of red-breasted partridges.

We stayed close to the road for a while, trying to call in a fruithunter (unsuccessfully...). Several warbler species wandered by as did this grey-chinned minivet.
Grey-chinned minivet (Pericocrotus solaris)
A pair of pale-faced bulbuls on the other side of the road were very obliging. The only time I had seen this species before was a single bird flying over the top of Bukit Pagon. This time a much better view!
Pale-faced bulbul (Pycnonotus leucops)
Before we called it a day we went to some flowering bushes close to the entrance of the botanical gardens. No Whiteheads spiderhunter, but this male Bornean flowerpecker didn't disappoint.
Bornean flowerpecker (Dicaeum monticolum).
Bornean flowerpecker (Dicaeum monticolum).
Just when we decided to head back to the car two black-capped white-eyes provided some great close-up views. While this is a common bird around KNP HQ, seeing it from this close was very much unexpected. I observed this with some other birds here as well; quite a few of them weren't particularly shy around humans at this altitude. 
Black-capped white-eye (Zosterops atricapilla).
Despite the weather this was a very memorable morning and a good reminder that I should try to venture into the higher areas of Borneo more often! Thanks for a great morning, Andrew!

Folkert, 27/12/2012

Sunday, 23 December 2012

To the mountains of Brunei!

I've been away on two excellent trips during the last two weeks. The first trip was to Bukit Pagon, the highest peak in Brunei. Brunei is most certainly not the Dutch topographic equivalent of Borneo - the highest "mountain" in Holland is only a whopping 322 meters, whereas Bukit Pagon is roughly 1850 meters high and offers some pristine montane habitat. The map, taken from wikipedia, shows the location of Bukit Pagon, at the tip of Temburong.

I did the climb to the summit in the beginning of the year. Most of my attention then went into the climb (a 10 hour trek, including a serious scramble to the top on the slippery slopes of fairytale-like mossy forest), though I did see some new birds. I had the feeling that some great species could possibly be hiding here and was therefore quite keen to go again, though without the climb and some more focus on the birding/photography. An opportunity presented itself on the weekend of 15 December, when 8 friends were all eager to do the summit. I gladly joined, with camera, and without the ambition to conquer the mountain again. Like last time, Haddy Sham again did an excellent job in organizing this trip. Thanks!! See also his website:

The trip starts with a 4 hour 4WD drive from the Kuala Lurah border crossing through Sarawak on old and more recent logging roads. Then, a one night camp is set up around 900 meters still on the Sarawak side of the border. The area around the camp is mainly secondary forest with the old growth taken out. There are some patches of mature forest and close by on the Bruneian side it is still all undisturbed primary forest. There has been a recent scientific expedition from the Univeristy of Brunei Darussalam (UBD), still the area is very much under-explored.

When we arrived at our camp it just started drizzling which made the visibility quite poor, especially for photography. There were plenty of birds around and a quick walk down the track showed several different bulbuls, including ashy and bornean, as well as streaky-breasted spiderhunter and a couple of fairy bluebirds. During a dry spell I quickly took out my camera and managed to get a couple of pictures of the ashy bulbuls.

Ashy bulbul (Hemixos flavala).
After dinner we went out for a short night walk. A malay civet offered some excitement. Apart from that we didn't see a great deal. Some tiny eye-shine revealed this large spider. I have no idea which species, perhaps someone knows?
Spider species.
The next morning the climbers set out for the top at 4 AM. As soon as they'd left I tried to get another hour or so of sleep. But by 6 I was ready to move and get some birding done. I had decided to stay close to the camp and try my luck on the hillside. As I set out very optimistically in the early morning an asian brown flycatcher flew into view. Despite of the very poor light, I managed to get a couple of great close-ups.
Asian brown flycatcher (Muscicapa dauurica).
Asian brown flycatcher (Muscicapa dauurica).
After some extremely poor shots the day before I finally managed to get a capture of the Bornean bulbul (Pycnonotus montis). This species used to be a subspecies of the Black-crested bulbul, but is now recognized as a separate species and a Bornean endemic. These birds were fairly common around the area where we had set up camp.

Bornean bulbul (Pycnonotus montis).
The other commoners around were some ashy drongo's and the calls of the gold-whiskered barbet were almost constantly heard, though I only saw two birds. Both ruddy and little cuckoo doves were seen flying overhead. Another lifer for me was this endemic Bornean leafbird. This female blends in nicely with the background foliage. This is the only leafbird species where the females also have a black throat.
Mountain leafbird (Chloropsis kinabaluensis)
A soaring raptor through our valley turned out to be a mountain serpent eagle, another endemic. Already on the last trip I had a strong suspicion that a serpent eagle I only saw briefly could have a been a mountain serpent eagle. This time there is not a shadow of a doubt!
Mountain serpent-eagle (Spilornis kinabaluensis).
I completely botched an opportunity to get a good picture of a perched Blyth's hawk-eagle by a far too eager approach. A bird flying overhead offered some small solace.

Blyth's hawk-eagle (Spizaetus alboniger).
At around 2 PM the climbers came back from the summit and we started our journey back to Kuala Lurah. Along the way some depressive sights of massive forest clearance.
When we finally arrived at the border we were rewarded with some great chicken-wings, washed down with an even greater tasting beer at Linggi's before heading back to Panaga.
The reliable 4WD and driver
The trip was very good though I did not see as many species as I had hoped for, but at least I got rewarded with some good new ones. If there is ever a next time I will try to get closer to the vast primary forests on the Brunei side of the mountain, as I am convinced that the more elusive species like Hose's broadbill or black oriole could all be possible there...

Big thanks to Haddy, Linggi and the crew for the perfect organization!

Finally, last week I went to KK and included a morning trip to the KNP HQ. I will post some more on that soon.

Happy holidays!

Folkert, 24/12/2012

Monday, 3 December 2012

A day in Brunei and some casual birding

My baby boy has attracted a lot of family visits recently and these two weeks my dad is over from Holland. Initially we had planned a little trip to Temburong during his stay, but later decided to stay closer to home and make a little day-trip to Bandar instead. The trip was not intended as a birding trip, but perhaps I could still casually 'score' a bird or two.

So yesterday we took out the car for a little "tour de Brunei". Our first stop was at the Wasan rice fields. The paddy fields must have been recently harvested. Most plots where either flooded or a had a new crop growing. I soon noticed a couple of wandering whistling ducks in one of the side canals.
Wandering whistling-duck (Dendrocygna arcuata).
The wet patches provided some good foraging grounds for plenty of birds. I counted more than 20 black-winged stilts and also noticed some marsh sandpipers.
Marsh sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis).
This great egret was very busy trying to swallow it's prey and hardly minded me getting any closer. The fluffy, drenched ball between the egret's bill is a common moorhen chick. The chick got dunked frequently back in the water and it took several minutes before the meal finally went down the hatch, whole.
Great egret (Ardea alba).
Great egret (Ardea alba).
Great egret (Ardea alba).
Despite the heat there seemed to be plenty of birds around. We didn't stay however and headed to Bandar for some lunch. My dad needed little persuasion to try KB's sister sushi-outfit in Bandar and the fish was very tasty!

After lunch we made our way to some viewpoints overlooking Brunei bay. Along the road I noticed this Common myna. I did know there was a feral population in Bandar and I suspect that these birds are not that uncommon around the capital. Still, I had yet to see one and this is a new species for my Brunei list.
Common myna (Acridotheres tristis)
I promised my dad a boat ride on the Brunei river. Despite having lived 3 years in Brunei, I had actually never taken a boat trip along Kampong Ayer and the Sungai Brunei mangroves. This was finally going to change!

There are plenty of boat-taxis around to ferry people back and to Kampung Ayer and take tourists out to the mangroves looking for Proboscis monkeys. Unfortunately these monkeys are classified as endangered due to, primarily, habitat loss, but there is still a small population around Bandar. The Proboscis is also known as Orang Belanda ("Dutchman") in Malay because of the likeness to the big bellies and noses of my ancestors. Luckily nowadays me and my fellow countrymen are all very slim with tiny, petite noses... 
Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus).
There was more to see along the riverbanks. This little heron did not mind the approaching boat and I got some good close-ups, even though the rocking boat meant I could delete most of the pics.

little heron (Butorides striata).
little heron (Butorides striata).
The boatman was a little too enthusiastic in his approach when I spotted a common kingfisher and asked if we could try to get a little closer. The kingfisher immediately bolted. The shapes in a couple of bare distant trees appeared to be two uncommon winter visitors: a female Osprey and a Peregrine falcon enjoying some leisure time in the afternoon sun.

Peregrine falcon and Osprey.
On our way back to Bandar we passed a group of terns sitting on a small wooden construction in the water providing some great picture opportunities. I struggled a little with a quick identification, but am fairly certain these are whiskered terns. Primarily because of the relatively heavy bill and lack of distinct "headphones" that can be expected on white-winged black tern. Of course I should also have payed a little more attention to the color of the rump when some birds flew of...
Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida).
Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida).
Whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida).
I am planning a trip to Bukit Pagon (highest peak in Brunei) with some friends in two weeks from now.  Very much looking forward to that!

Folkert, 03/12/2012

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Early November morning at KB road

I went for a short morning visit to the KB road this morning. It has been well over a month since my last trip to Kuala Balai, so it was about time as well. The morning started a little disappointing with a drizzle and grey skies. While approaching the forested area, I noticed that the clearing they started a few months ago now was adorned with the first signs of construction. I fear the amount of forest disturbance is already increasing and this unfortunately only adds further to the trend.

The birding was really good though this morning.

As I slowly drove up the road I soon noticed this male emerald dove foraging on the tarmac.
Male Emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica).
Though regularly encountered, these doves are usually very secretive. Most views are of birds quickly flying past. I have seen them foraging on riverbanks during boat trips in the past, and they seemed undisturbed by the boat. The early morning light made it very hard to get any great shots. The pictures above and below are the best I could manage of these splendid forest doves.

Male Emerald dove (Chalcophaps indica).
As my first record of the red-billed malkoha at KB road was only last month (see also Another visit to KB road) I was a little surprised to see them yet again this morning. I am not complaining though!

Red-billed malkoha (Phaenicophaeus javanicus)
My best bird of the morning was without a doubt this blue-winged pitta, that was foraging in the grass next to the road. These colorful birds are relatively common winter visitors to Brunei. PNHS historic records show that a couple of birds also wintered in the Panaga gardens in the past (and may still do so today). Pittas are notoriously secretive and unless you have one wintering in your garden, they're not the easiest species to see!
Blue-winged pitta (Pitta moluccensis).
As I was standing in the middle of the road, in plain sight, I couldn't get any closer. Still, the bird allowed me with a couple of minutes of unobstructed views while it was hopping about, occasionally standing upright to take in it's surroundings.

Blue-winged pitta.
Making my way back to the car a couple of wrinkled hornbills landed not too far away. Described as uncommon in Borneo, this species of hornbill is commonly encountered along the KB road and a few birds can be seen flying overhead on most visits. Close-up views are not easy to come by though.
Male Wrinkled hornbill (Aceros corrugatus).
Folkert, 18/11/2012

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Wasan Rice Fields

We had a day off work Friday because of the Eid-al-Adha holiday, which offered me a great opportunity to drive down to Wasan. I have only been there a couple of times in the past. The Wasan rice fields cover an area of roughly 5 square kilometers and form Brunei's biggest agricultural development. The place is ideally suited for migrating birds that prefer paddy & fresh-water habitat. Some exceptional historical records for Borneo come from Wasan; northern lapwing, grey-headed lapwing and black-collared starling have all been seen here in the past.

Unfortunately Wasan is still a good hour drive from Panaga, otherwise I'd probably visit more often. I still managed to arrive quite early and was greeted by a pair of overflying wandering whistling ducks. Two weeks ago a number of rusty-rumped warblers were observed by Merijn. And at my first stop, next to a little stream, 3 warblers showed themselves within a couple of minutes. Too briefly for any positive ID's though - and my knowledge of migrant warbler songs and calls clearly needs updating.

When I returned with camera, one bird in particular provided some nice photo opportunities, despite the poor light. But what was it?
Even though the flank feathers are disturbed (the bird was picking at it while I was observing) the streaky appearance of the black droplets seems limited to the breast only. Luckily I got some more pictures to confirm a correct ID.
Same bird: rusty-rumped warbler (Locustella certhiola)
Note that white tips to the tail, which are a key diagnostic of rusty-rumped, are not very clear. Two other details however allow an undisputed ID:
  1. The very prominent white tip/spot at the inner web of the tertials.
  2. The blackish band in the tail feathers.
These two features clinch the ID: a rusty-rumped warbler, also known as Pallas's grasshopper warbler (Locustella certhiola). The streaking on the breast and the heavy black streaks on the rump suggest that this is a first calendar-year bird - many thanks to Kolbjorn and his Norwegian friends for pointing that out and general discussion on identification!
Rusty-rumped warbler (Locustella certhiola), with the distinct features.
Unfortunately the other warblers didn't provide any photo opportunities. This greater coucal flew into view while I was trying to get some more warbler pictures. Initially I had identified this bird as a lesser coucal, but someone kindly pointed out this bird actually must be a greater coucal. The red iris, heavy bill and strong convex culmen are diagnostic. Thanks Dave!

Greater coucal (Centropus sinensis)
During winter time the Wasan rice fields are also home to large flocks of wood sandpiper. I didn't see as many as last year, but there were still several hundreds around. Besides some common sandpipers I didn't see any noticeable other waders, nor any signs of the lapwing that was seen a week ago...
Wood sandpiper (Tringa glareola)
There were also plenty of yellow wagtails around.
Yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava)
Much to the annoyance of the local farmers, the area also holds big populations of munia's and related seed-eaters; chestnut-, dusky- and scaly-breasted munia are all abundant. A specialty of the Wasan rice fields are the Java sparrows. These birds originate from Bali and Java and are an introduced species in Borneo. In spite of all the ingenious scare crows the farmers employ -and unfortunately I also did see a couple of nets- these birds are doing extremely well and are impossible to miss.

Juvenile java sparrow (Lonchura oryzivora)
Adult java sparrow (Lonchura oryzivora)
Wasan is a place with great birding potential in the winter time to see some rare migrants and I am fully planning to visit a couple more times this season!

Folkert, 31/10/2012

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Badas, Sungai Seria and some migrants

On Friday, October 19th, I spend a morning with Merijn in the field. Merijn was over from KL to align the planning for a possible future bio-diversity study in the south of Brunei. Merijn, a fellow countrymen and a keen birder, had asked me to accompany him to some of my favorite sites.

We started the morning at Badas, and highlights included a substantial flock of cinnamon-headed green pigeons, a blue-rumped parrot disappearing into a tree-hole, a grey-headed fish-eagle and a couple of hard-to-see shrikes (that we settled on to be tiger-shrikes). As usual there were plenty of dollarbirds and long-tailed parakeets about.

Male Long-tailed parakeet (Psittacula longicauda)
Male Long-tailed parakeet (Psittacula longicauda)
As it was low tide I also wanted to spend some time at the Sungai Seria estuary. The estuary underwent some big, manmade changes last year with the aim to make the water management more efficient in preventing small floods during the wet season. As a side affect the estuary now seems far less attractive to migrant waders and the exposed tidal flat during low tide has substantially decreased. the number of waders we saw was limited and a little disappointing.

We still saw some nice birds though. There were were a couple of common kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) on the lookout for fish. Every year a few of these kingfishers can be found around the estuary. This is however the only locality where I have seen this species thus far. I did get some good pictures of the female.

Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).
Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis).
One of Merijn's co-workers had found a dead von Schrenk's bittern earlier in the week in Lumut. No rare bittern's around today, but we did see several little heron's and this yellow bittern flew straight into our view. This is by far the most common bittern in the greater Seria area.

Yellow bittern (Ixobrychus sinensis)
Another regular winter visitor to Sungai Seria is the Chinese egret (Egretta eulophotes) and as luck would have it one flew over and landed nearby as we were about to leave. This species is listed as vulnerable by IUCN and the total global population is estimated to be less than 3500. Every year still one or two of these egrets call the Seria estuary their winter home. I can only hope this will continue in the coming years. The bird today did a good job in keeping it's distance, so no close-ups.

Chinese egret (Egretta eulophotes)
The past two weeks some very good observations have been made in Brunei. Unfortunately I didn't see most of them! The special ones:
  • Brown-backed flowerpecker (Dicaeum everetti), October 13, Panaga. Kolbjorn saw this species in his garden. This species of flowerpecker is very rarely recorded and might only be patchily distributed in Borneo. This is a great find and a very nice addition to the Panaga species list. For some good pictures of this species check Con Foley's website:
  • Grey-headed lapwing (Vanellus cinereus), October 16, Wasan ricefields. Bird seen in flight by Merijn. This is a very scarce winter vagrant. The PNHS sighting list has only one other recording in Brunei, which dates back to 1995. Merijn also saw a pair of Common sand martin's (Riparia riparia), another scarce winter visitor, during this visit.
  • Chestnut-cheeked starling (Sturnus philippensis). October 11 and October 13, Panaga. Seen by Kolbjorn in his garden. An uncommon winter visitor, though not as rare as the previous two species. A little envious of this one, as I was trying hard the last two winters to add this species to my list. Good thing is that this sighting does present me with a glimmer of hope for the next couple of weeks!
I did manage to add one new species to my Bruneian list as well:
  • Crested myna (Acridotheres cristatellus). Two birds in the car park at the Bandar airport on October 20.
Also am fairly certain I saw a Common kestrel flying over the Seria grasslands. As I only got brief naked-eyed views from the car I am a little hesitant claiming this one, even though it's hard to imagine it being any other bird.

Folkert, 21/10/2012