Thursday, September 23, 2010

Out on the beach in Kuala Baram Lagoon

The last time I dragged the big lens out to the beach was in March when I stumbled upon the downy Malaysian Plover chick. A couple of weeks back on a weekly vigil, the lens stayed in the Kinesis case all morning while at the same location ... the water was too deep to cross and the waders were too far away. We made do with the telescope and binos, better reach in prevailing conditions.

It's true what all bird photographers said, even a 600mm is a wee bit short of your desired reach, this considering some of them have already got 600mm stacked with a 1.4x extender AND on a 1.6 crop camera!

With the juvvy MP it was different, the guy was stationery and not likely to run anywhere (it deluded itself in being well hidden), I had to back up a few paces from minimum focus. Today the birds have the upper wings, they just take off when they feel threatened.

Even at 20 feet, you can tell they are cautious of your presence. You'd see them raising up a wing as a sign of alarm. You advance a foot, they'll back away a foot and a half.

A Bar-tailed Godwit foraging ... at least four Whimbrel were spotted on the same beach that day, they took off in haste.

A Gull-billed Tern amongst smaller birds. This year the Caspian Tern (a very large tern) was noticeably absent. Even the Greater Crested Tern and Lesser Crested Tern were scarce this year aside from glimpses on Pulau Bawai. Other waders in the flock were Red-necked Stint.

Greater Sandplover doing a Tai-Chi move ... stretch.

A halfway decent output was achieved with Sanderling on Lutong Beach back in February 2009 shooting with a 300+1.4x from a car window. Unfortunately the hard disk went AWOL, all's lost. These guys never seem to stop feeding and walking and feeding, at 20 feet this guy in Kuala Baram still seemed small.

Malaysian Plover, they were a pair on the beach that day. Highest recent count was five pairs on the same stretch of beach. It's fun watching them get curious and run helter skelter with head looking back all the while.

The day would've probably been a another one of those hum-drum outing had it not been for the ever obliging Little Egret ... it's size was just perfect for the big lens!

Little Egret scaring the little fishes, this is always fun to observe, it's hard work for the hunter and once in a while they are rewarded in a big way: extra large breakfast!

Little Egret pursuing a little fish.

Little Egret the victor.

Perhaps another trick to try is setting up a hide on the beach ... which involves getting up early before the birds arrive, carrying all the gear to the beach, preparing the get-up and shoot when they take up their spot on the beach. Mobility might be an issue though, an alternative ghillie suit on Kuala Baram beach is an option, it just might be a tad too riske for obvious reasons ...

Getting to Kuala Baram:
Almost the whole stretch of Kuala Baram beach has got the ubiquotous erosion control in place (huge boulders neatly piled up along the beach) from Kpg Batu Satu all the way to the Crocodile Farm junction.

Watching for waders can be done in Lutong Beach (almost always there are 2-3 Chinese Egrets there) but most productive would be this site, Kuala Baram Lagoon directly opposite the T-junction to the Crocodile Farm. Parking is just along the Kuala Baram road, most times there are no one else on the beach other that the odd fishermen, the waders and you.

The site is approximately 20 minutes from Miri town or 1o minutes from Lutong in the direction of the old Kuala Baram jetty. Most picturesque in a blue-skies morning.

Write-up and images by:
Nazeri Abghani/MNS Miri/Sep 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Birds from Hilltop Lodge, Lambir Hills National Park

It was Malaysia Day (16th Sep), my birthday (17th Sep), fruiting Macaranga all in the same week; it's kind of difficult to say "no" to a few days at Hilltop Lodge, Lambir Hills National Park.

Initial trepidation about the park being teeming with visitors was completely unfounded. Other than the few construction workers trying to hurry up the new park structures and the odd day trippers to Latak Waterfall, there was no one else about.

The birds were more obliging than as usual.

Over the few days I also learnt how to do a few things I haven't tried before:
shoot from the open windows from INSIDE the lodge, shoot birds without camo at the porch; make video (mostly of bird calls) while lugging my Vaio around the house and then playback; and lastly make halfway decent bird pictures with the Canon tethered to the laptop which in turn was hooked up to a powerpoint from inside the lodge.

The few days didn't all go to waste afterall but I'm not quite sure whether this is a new "high" or new "low" for in the field wildbird photography, truth be told I didn't venture out 20 feet from the lodge!

Red-eyed Bulbul.

Purple-naped Sunbird. The fastest of all, they just don't sit still.

Plain Sunbird.

Spectacled Bulbul.

Hairy-backed Bulbul, most obliging of all coming in with a party of 3-4 repeatedly throughout the day.

The Pura (local Iban name, common temuda tree) or Macaranga was located 10 feet from the house and it was heavily fruiting, which explained the stream of birds that came around the lodge in successions throughout the day. The birds were mostly made up of smaller bulbuls and sunbirds.

Mornings and evenings were punctuated by babblers skulking around the undergrowth around the lodge.

Other than the birds captured by camera above, there were also a pair of Black Magpie which flew right in front of the lodge one morning with their peculiar calls; a Black-backed Kingfisher (flew right in front of the window I was shooting from); Sooty-capped Babbler and two other species of Babbler sp which was not identified (one with a Balicasio like call with a brownish-chocolate body and grey bluish head); nesting Dusky Munia; a Blue-eared Kingfisher (at a pond nearby); and Asian Fairy Bluebird. There were also a few unrecognisable calls throughout the day, one was a highly suspected Banded Kingfisher.

Sorely missed were the Black-headed Bulbul which on previous occasions had numerous. One large raptor (suspected Crested Serpent Eagle, seen here before) flew low one morning.

It was a good short break with the family at our home away from home, Hilltop Lodge.

For visiting birders:
Lambir Hills National Park is situated 20mins drive from Miri International Airport reachable by taxi and public bus. Several types of accomodation options are available at the Park. AC Chalets (2 rooms with a living room, kitchen area and common bathrooms) are at $150/nite or $75/room; each room can take in 2-3 people. They are situated on a hilly section of the park close to the Park office and canteen.

Non-AC Chalets are $100/nite with similar configuration but with fan cooled rooms. Hilltop Lodge is away from the rest of the chalets at the head of Innoue Trail. The rate is at $80/nite or $40/room complete with living room, common bathroom and kitchenette. Each room fits 2 adults.

For more information on available options at Lambir Hills National Park and other facilities, please contact Kamal Abdullah, Person-in-Charge Lambir Hills National Park, 019-8574363.

Write-up and pictures by:
Nazeri Abghani/MNS Miri/Sep 2010

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Merdeka Weekend Birding in Bario

We were in Bario the same time last year, end of Aug, and saw many waterbirds resting and feeding in the newly planted paddyfields, the paddy was submerged in 6inches of water and succulent green shoots were frantically pushing themselves upwards reaching for the sun.

Going to Bario always felt like going home ... wide green expanse of paddy reminded me of old childhood playgrounds where we spent quite sometime running around (one occasion chased after by a farmer) on the narrow batas with our home made bamboo fishing rod complete with a luckless grasshopper on the hook trying our fishing prowess for puyu and haruan.

We weren't in Bario to fish, but more to check out the waterbirds this time of year and maybe do a bit of leisurely walking in the highlands neighbourhood.

Between us we had a Nikon D90 and 18-200mm; Canon 40d, 18-55mm, 400mm, 600mm; Nikon P5100 and Leica APO 77; and a Gitzo with a Wimberley head. In hindsight the trip seemed to be fully overloaded not to mention the two kids in tow.

On arrival, we were met at the airport by Douglas, and transported back to De Plateau, our home away from home approximately 3km away from the center of Bario.

The birds we saw the next 3 days:
Wood Sandpiper, Common Moorhen, White-breasted Waterhen, Black Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush, Bornean Treepie, Blacksided Flowerpecker with juvenile; Drongo Sp., Cinereous Bulbul, Chestnut Munia, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Zebra Dove, Spotted Dove, Marsh Sandpiper, Cinnamon Bittern, and Little Egret.

Truth be said, we spent more time walking to site rather than actual photographing the birds ... even with all the gear we ported over to the place. One friend proclaimed "gear overkill!" quite early on the trip.

Our first site was a small knoll just 5 minutes walk from the homestay. Much of the ferns along the road which last year harboured quite a few resting and perched Ruddy Cuckoo Dove, this year the spot was completely empty. Half of the area had been cleared on both sides during the ongoing road beautification. Indeed we didn't spot any ruddies this trip.

The laughingtrushes were still there, so were the treepies, fantail, flowerpeckers and a couple of sunbirds. We didn't see nor hear any barbets this time around. A lucky sighting was that of a Black-sided Flowerpecker feeding a juvenile. A parent flew in and out occasionally to check on the young one feeding on mistletoe flowers. The parent was unmistakable with the dark mantle and red front patch; the juvenile however was almost like a female olive sunbird with only little splotches of red under it's chin.

Our second promising site was 3km walk away towards Bario Asal past the little knoll, in the midst of paddyfields to the side of which flows a small river. We were expecting flocks of waders and other waterbirds. What we saw were a good number of Common Moorhen (though less than the year before) and not as many Wood Sandpiper. Approximately 15 moorhens can easily be counted off per paddy square lot. Last year the sandpipers were flying in large groups of 50 birds together with several Little Ringed Plovers. No plovers were seen this year at this site, the sandpipers were however feeding in groups of 5-10 birds separately, shy though they were quite vocal.

The walk to this second site was slightly strenuous on account of the ongoing road construction and muddy paths. Walking was slow and with extreme care, and with all our gear it didn't make the journey there any easier.

We stationed outselves under a well-placed paddy store and shot around the area. There were Little Egrets, White-breasted Waterhen, Common Moorhen, Chestnut Munia, Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and Wood Sandpipers.

A third promising site within easy walking distance was along the road to Pa' Ukat, a small little village an hour's walk from De Plateau. The path crossed a patch of forest which harbors sunbirds, drongos, babblers and bulbuls. An MNS birding party heard Malaysian Rail Babbler along the same path close by. Here we managed a shot of a pair of rather friendly Cinereous Bulbul feeding on a nearby fruiting tree. Sunbirds, drongos, babblers were heard along the same path.

It was here that we saw a Black Eagle and an Oriental Honey Buzzard soaring above. The eagle came down quite low, which would've made a very good photograph (much better than the present version made) had the 400mm actually been attached to the camera! Our five seconds fumbling trying to change lenses lost the shot.

All is well, we came back with only record shots of our target birds but with a better feel of the terrain and perhaps how to better approach it the next birding trip to Bario.

Next time:
1) drive to site and get stationed there early and wait for the birds
2) perhaps bring camo net (yet more gear) for shooting by the paddyfields.
3) 18-55mm, 400mm, 600mm could work out well, complementing each other.
4) bring just either the scope (too slow for flighty birds anyway) or 600mm (less reach but faster to deploy)

Hiring a more a less knowledgeable local person could possibly also raise our chances to getting to the right spot, at the right time to maximise our opportunities. One of the local guide, Red, as we were told have been taking tourists out birdwatching in the area in the past. He related to us on a previous trip that the Pa' Ukat forested stretch is very lively very early in the morning.

While chatting about birdwatching in remote places to a birder friend after this trip, these thoughts came up to possibly make birdwatching in the Sarawak interior more hassle free; along the way expose the locals to birdwatching as well as make birdwatching a part of the local tourism product.

They are based on this premise: getting local guides already conversant with their local area to be especially conversant with birds in the areal. Develop this capability/product locally in an informal way.

How about this : establish a birding guide network at each of our rural air services site specifically as a birdwatching resource to visiting birder community. Each area will have one or two of the better guides or maybe even a local person vaguely interested in birdwatching.

For each area, the capital outlay would probably be in the form of :
a) suitable fieldguides to the birds of Borneo ($100);
b) reasonably good quality bino if they haven't got one already ($300);
c) subscription to Suara Enggang ($20/year for 3 years=$60) and maybe
d) MNS membership ($70/year for 3 years=$190) for a total investment of $650 over the next 3 years.

The returns would be potential data on birds from the local area and other pertinent information from these remote locations; and of course our defacto guides for birdwatching trips to the area get hands on exposure everytime someone goes birding with them.

There are already individuals with potential in Bario and Bakalalan. Surely we can find one or two interested individuals in Long Banga/Long Lamai; Long Tungan/Long Siut; Long San/Long Akah; and Long Lellang. Or any other remote places for that matter. Bario and Bakalalan can be test cases.

Initial capital expenditure is not extravagant, the small amount can even be funded by donations from the birdwatching community or maybe even MNS. Established birdwatching tour outfit will have a local resource well placed in the community.

This is a win-win situation if there was one. Perhaps in the future, birdwatching trips to these remote places isn't too much of a hit and run as sometimes they are now. Think of all the data coming in ....

Nice rustic scene, gives off a warm feeling everytime.

Digiscoping in Bario.

Cinereous Bulbul, lifer.

Common Moorhen, more in numbers than we have seen in Miri and more approachable too, relatively speaking.

Juvenile male Dark-sided Flowerpecker, seen foraging with a male bird not photographed.

The transport mode of choice in the highlands ... walking for those with less plush lifestyle.

Hilux in the mud, it won't be getting out of this anytime soon 4WD or no 4WD.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Upcoming Birdwatching outings in the Miri area

The following birdwatching trips are presently on the cards for the month of September:

1) Combined CFZ-Owling and other Nitebirds, Kpg Bakam, 04th Sep, 1900-2200hrs
The CFZ Focus Group is checking out fireflies in Kpg Bakam, we are tagging along for possible owls and other interesting nitebirds.

2) Waderwatching Kuala Baram Sunday, 05th Sep, 0700-0900hrs
Our regular vigil for Autumn migrants.

3) Waderwatching Kuala Baram Sunday, 19th Sep, 0700-0900hrs
Our regular vigil for Autumn migrants.

4) Birdwatching Bukit Song, 26th Sep, 0600-1100hrs
We haven't been to this favorite secluded nook of ours for quite sometime. This should be a good revisit to see our regular feathered rainforest friends.

5) Combined CFZ-Owling and other Nitebirds, Lambir, 02nd Oct, 1900-2200hrs
The CFZ Focus Group in checking Lambir this time around specifically for roving fireflies, we are tagging along for owls and other nitebirds.

Please email if you are interested to join us in our birdwatching outings.