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.

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