Sunday, February 19, 2012

The "white egrets" of Northern Sarawak

I used to get quite frustrated when many and invitation to go checkout egrets on nearby backyard beaches received quick retorts from invitee, "What could be interesting about a white egret, they are all over the place, and they are all white!" Or when you hear someone from the floor yelling "WHITE EGRET!" when you successively show pictures of the following 6 species of "white egrets" at a slideshow.

Here are a selection of images of the "white egrets" made in Sarawak over the past several years, some are as recent as from February 2012.

Pacific Reef Egret (Grey morph), Egretta sacra, prefers rocky shores with breeding records from Sabah and Sarawak. The white morph are common in Sabah. Ranges from East India to Australia and Pacific Islands, north to Japan.

Little Egret, Egretta garzetta garzetta ... notice the little yellow "socks" on his feet. Breeding range from Europe to East Asia. Egretta garzetta nigripes has completely black feet and are less common.

The ubiquitous Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis, perhaps the most common egrets in these parts. Breeds in East Asia and can be seen hunting for insects on grassy fields. Orange breeding patches prior to their return to breeding grounds (see below).

Cattle Egret in breeding plumage.

Intermediate Egret or Plumed Egret, Egretta intermedia, notice the yellow bill with a black tip at the end. Breeds in Northern Asia with several breeding records in Sabah. Winters south.

Great Egret, Ardea alba, breeding populations in Sabah however no known breeding records in Sarawak. The largest of the white egrets.

Chinese Egret, Egretta eulophotes, a scarce winter migrant to Sabah and Sarawak from Northern Asia.

Chinese Egret.

I've also added images of Grey Heron and Purple Heron to satisfy those looking for those not-so-white egrets but big birds with long necks and legs.

Purple Heron, Ardea purpurea, with breeding records from Sabah and Sarawak. Breeds in Europe to North Asia, winters south.

Grey Heron, Ardea cinerea, breeds from Europe to Asia, winters south. One nest with young observed at Kuala Baram in 1998. The nest tree was long gone since then.

Two more images visibly missing are that of a white-morph Pacific Reef Egret and Great-billed Heron Ardea sumatrana. The first can be easily procured at Likas Bay, Sabah while the latter may prove slightly more difficult. Most recent records of Great-billed Heron was made in Danum Valley, last record in Sarawak was at Trusan in Lawas ... another potential site in Sarawak would be Loagan Bunut.

Images by Nazeri Abghani/MNS Miri/Feb 2012

References : Birds of Borneo, 2nd Edition, Quentin Phillips and Karen Phillips, 2011.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

AWC Pulau Bawai Sandbar 11th Feb 2012 : Last for 2012

MNS Miri Branch's last AWC site for 2012 (the lower pink track): Pulau Bawai Sandbar. Though we originally planned to traverse the entire island, unfavorable tidal conditions (expected) only allowed us to count along the sandbridge to the island. By 0900hrs the NE half of the sandbridge was slowly submerged by rising tide. The shorebirds on the island has to be counted on some other auspicious day in the next AWC season by the looks of it. Tracks bt Musa Musbah.

This outing was MNS Miri Branch's last Asian Waterbird Census for the season. Aptly enough all the die-hard were present : Sara Wong, Peter Pillai, Faye Osman, Joyce Sivalingam, Musa Musbah and Nazeri Abghani. Others who weren't there were with apologies : Steve Dexter (back surgery), Anura Dason (overworked and sleeping), Erwin Adams (little rugby) and Lee Bor Seng (on weekend diaper duty).

Kuala Baram Lagoon is perhaps the best place to watch waders in Miri, Pulau Bawai is located off a sandbar to the North East. The island itself is a roosting site for waders and terns en route to their Autumn and Spring migration destinations.

We only managed to scour the eastern half of the sandbridge, the tide was rising even before we reach Pulau Bawai proper. The birds we saw were restricted to the flats visible according to our walking path. Several flocks of waders were seen flying from the Western side of Bawai to the flats as the tide was receding.

Bird list:
Peregrine Falcon 1
Osprey 1
Sanderling 20
Kentish Plover 30
Lesser Sandplover 30
Red-necked Stint 30
Pacific Golden Plover 4
Grey-tailed Tatler 1
Grey Plover 1
Collared Kingfisher 2

We made the trek back to the beach at 0900hrs, by then most of the sandbridge was already underwater.

Special thank you to all MNS Miri Branch members who have participated in this year's AWC, here's looking at you guys for continued effort to conduct AWC in the next several years.

Common Sandpiper on driftwood in the dried-up quickly revegetated Kuala Baram Lagoon. The landscape in this parts are drastically altered during the yearly landas season. Two years ago this area was a shallow bracakish lagoon with several species of terns swooping around all over the waterbody.

A tiny isthmus in formation, the perfect place to watch sunset in Kuala Baram. For waterbird watchers there are plenty to keep them amused : Malaysian Plover (nests here), Chinese Egret, Peregrine Falcon, Great Egret, Oriental Darter, Greenshank, Marsh Sandpiper, Grey Plover, Pacific Golden Plover, Common Kingfisher, Sanderling, and others.

The once used to be shallow lagoon is now overgrown with grass. Several young mangrove trees are also staking their claim on this choice property by the shore.

We love river crossing, big or small especially shallow ones. Freshwater run-off from the nights heavy rain draining to the sea. The lagoon are sometimes frequented by Oriental Darter when the water is high.

The team on the flats counting off far-away waders. We arrived mid-way of the sandbridge by 0730hrs at lowest tide at 0.40m. We had about 1.5hrs the checkout the birds before turning back on account of the rising tide. By the time we arrived at the beach by the lagoon side, the sandbirdge was completely underwater.

Serenity at it's best. If it was in the Maldives some enterprising folks would have gladly offered a cook-on-the beach packaged breakfast, lunch or dinner on the flats surrounded by ample understated beauty. Miri's got a long way to go yet ... one day one can pay to be served breakfast with chilled champagne by sharply dressed chef and his assistants on this very sandbar.

Text and images by Nazeri Abghani/MNS Miri/Feb 2012 unless specified.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

AWC Loagan Bunut National Park 4-5th Feb 2012

This year our survey covered the entire width and breadth of the Loagan Bunut without traversing Sg Teru as per previous years. We covered the lakes twice, once in the late afternoon and another in the morning the next day. Map and tracks courtesy of Musa Musbah 2012.

As per last year's visit, our AWC party to Loagan Bunut National Park remained low keyed. We left in two cars, a 4WD Hilux and a rented Unser which not your typical vehicle to be found traversing the adventurous road to the park. Fortunately the weather was with us, we arrived our intended destination on time as planned after a brief stop-over at Beluru.

This year's AWC had the following people tagging along : Musa Musbah, Sara Wong, Grace Len, Sim Yuh Thin, Jane Doe, Amer Matridi, Nazeri Abghani, Edward Ong, Remli Adenan, Ali Nazeri and Aisya Nazeri.

We crammed two boatrides along the lake for $60/boat for 4 persons and $10/head for each additional persons per ride. Evenings are good due to cooling weather and dramatic clouds drifting over till sunset. Morning time is always best for glorious morning clouds and sunny rays of sunshine. We had rain on our morning boatride this year but it was well worth it.

Over the years the resident Oriental Darter has always been the highlight of the the lake. Following closely is the possibility of maybe a Great Heron (listed but we have yet to see it at our normal haunts), Storm's Stork (first recorded 1999 by MNS Miri Branch AWC crew) and Grey-headed Fish Eagle (recorded twice before during the early years but hasn't got onto the list over past 2-3 years).

With the lake habitat, Osprey, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Brahminy Kite, Changeable Hawk Eagle are regularly seen coasting over the waters. Hornbills the likes of Asian Black Hornbill and Oriental Pied Hornbill are regulars. Bigger hornbill species are scarce in the area if any due to lack of any major presence of large fruiting trees. Other memorable species are Stork-billed Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Grey Imperial Pigeon and various egrets and herons.

This year Oriental Darter did not fail us : we saw close to 10 darters all around the lake. Several Osprey and Purple Heron also made the list.

Our complete birdlist at this year's AWC is as follows:

Loagan Bunut AWC Saturday 4th Feb 2012 (5.30 pm to 7 pm.)
1. White-bellied Sea Eagle = 1
2. Pacific Swallow = 3
3. Large-billed Crow = 9
4. Tree Swift sp. = 30
5. Olive-backed Sunbird = 2 (heard sound along the lake)
6. Hornbill sp. = 1 (heard sound along the lake)
7. Asian Black Hornbill = 7
8. Flowerpecker sp. = 2
9. Purple Heron = 1
10. Grey Imperial Pigeon = 5
11. Broadbill sp.= 1 (heard sound along the lake)
12. Blue crown Hanging Parrot = 4
13. Black and Red Broadbill = 1
14. Striped Tit Babbler = 1 (heard sound along the lake)
15. Osprey = 1
16. Tern sp. = 35
17. Little Heron = 3
18. Stork-billed Kingfisher = 1

Loagan Bunut AWC Sunday 5th Feb 2012 (7 am to 930 am.)
1. Swiftlet = 63
2. Osprey = 6
3. Large-billed Crow = 2
4. Rufous-backed Kingfisher = 1
5. Hill Myna = 5
6. Yellow-vented Bulbul = 1
7. Little Heron = 1
8. Flowerpecker sp. = 3
9. Pacific Swallow = 1
10. Olive-backed Sunbird = 2
11. Stork-billed Kingfisher = 5
12. Purple Heron = 10
13. Oriental Darter = 10
14. Olive-backed Sunbird = 5
15. Striped Tit Babler =1
16. Great Egret = 1
17. White-bellied Sea Eagle = 2
18. Asian Black Hornbill = 3
19. Tree Swift sp. = 17
20. Black-bellied Malkoha = 1
21. Long-tailed Parakeet = 5
22. Brahminy Kite = 1
23. Owl sp. = 1 (unidentified)

Going back to the lake year after year gives us more than just a list of birds for AWC. The lake exudes a kind of calmness and tranquility that you can take home with you. It's beautiful surroundings despite the oil palm and logging momentarily puts you in a place as close as possible to a hidden eden, not many places these days which can do that. Best part is it's only 3 hours away from Miri on a bumpity dusty road, and 90 percent of the time there's no one else there but you.

Tired out from the bumpity bum ride on the famed Beluru-Lapok gravel highway, members taking a fitful well deserved rest in the spacious living room of our NP dormitory ... best accomodation at the lake. The whole 1st floor is the living room cum dining hall. Sleeping bunks are separated into 14 bunk beds in 4 rooms each with a bathroom equipped with 2 shower stalls and 3 toilets. Theoretically you can have quite a crowd on these two floors, however most of the time it's fairly quiet.

Our team this year comprises MNS Miri Branch AWC regulars and newbies as well as representative from SFC Miri Regional Office, Remli Adenan of Sibuti Wildlife Sanctuary. Remli has started to be our AWC guy in SFC for the past several of years.

The cloud formation over this lake has always been very dramatic at any time of day especially on those impending wet stormy weather days.

Living around the lake are the Berawan, original inhabitants in these parts. The Berawans around the lake retain their privilege to harvest fish within the NP boundary. Most are very protective of this special privilege.

Oriental Darter breeds at Loagan Bunut. In Sarawak this is probably the only location where one can view these magnificent snakebirds in abundance. The rookery requires 1 hrs through water logged terrain infested with crocodiles, an undertaking reserved only for the hardy birders.
Purple Heron is also regularly seen around the lake. The Great Heron was recorded here at one time but have not been lucky enough to sight one even after many years of annual visit to the lake. Perhaps it's hanging out at the rookery.

The most common hornbill in these parts has to be the Asian Black Hornbill. These can be seen around the lake at anytime of day during fruiting season, very often also heard.

Stork-billed Kingfisher, a shy species spotted only because of it's large size gaudy coloration. This year we completedly missed out on the ubiquitous Blue-eared Kingfisher but had a glimpse of the Rufous-backed Kingfisher seldom seen at the lake.

We sighted several Osprey this year at separate sectors of the lake. Very distinctive species very fond of the abundant fish at the lake.

The surrounding forest around the lake at the end of the day. Main threats at Loagan Bunut NP would be overfishing, illegal logging an drun-off from oil palm plantation surrounding the NP boundary. Licensed logging ventures are longtime staple activities in these parts.

"We are looking for volunteers to stay 48 hours in a fishing hut to keep an eye on the birds of the lake. Canoe for transport to and from the fishing hut to the canteen can be arranged. Must be able to handle extreme tranquility during the day and completely dark nights. Please enquire within."

Text and images by Nazeri Abghani/MNS Miri/Feb 2012 unless specified.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Mist net in Bungai

Innocuous looking scarecrows looking after a field of paddy in Bekenu, at the junction to Bungai. Upon closer inspection, the cruelty less obvious is heartbreaking.

We found a quiet free Sunday and headed to Yone Restaurant in Bekenu for our Sunday breakfast. By "we" I meant Ali, Aisya and yours truly.

Bekenu has been a favorite weekend hangout ever since we got to Miri, even before the kids. It's now apparently Palm Oil Capital of Northern Sarawak for some obvious reasons. This comes complete with a giant fruit bunch right in the middle of town. It's not big and it's not small either ... they should just make it gigantic if they are trying to make a point.

Before oil palm, there was fruits and tonnes of them. If people in Miri sell rambutan at $5 for ten wiener rambutans, here in Bekenu market you get the whole sack, big motha of rambutans. And they have plenty of fruits too in the right season. Plenty of fruits ... durians , pineapples, watermelons, mangoes ... if you are a fruit junkie you'd be here every weekend.

We love Bekenu so much, we did one of our first birdwatching outreach here back in 2008 with Pamela Lim, Lee Bor Seng, Ali Nazeri and the late Choo Tse Chien in conjunction with the first ever WMBD celebration in Sarawak. It was followed up in 2009, 2010, 2011 with support from the kind folks from MNS Miri Branch. Basically we go to schools in the area and talk about the joys of birdwatching and show the children and teachers in the area some nifty Malaysian birds. Then we take them out birdwatching in the neighbourhood. The conservation theme always central to the cause.

Growing up in a rural setting, it's understandable how these children and their folks view birds. These thoughts must've run through their brain everytime they see us : "What's the big deal with them birds anyway? Some are too small to eat, some destroy our crops and some steal of chickens." Not many have come through the villages preaching about birds as a tool for conservation: observing, analyzing and at the same time gain understanding of our environment. At minimum, allows us to appreciating the exquisite beauty of God's creation. In bird diversity alone, one would be more than just be impressed. Aesthetics however has little value in impoverished or semi-impoverished community such as ours. Thus the neglect, don't care, what's it got to do with me attitude.

We who most likely have had the benefit of perhaps slightly better exposure and more forgiving surroundings must have seemed very weird people to these kids, their parents and teachers. Who watches birds anyway?

That Sunday, we recorded birds trapped in mistnet in Bekenu. At least two still alive birds struggling to free themselves from the ever tightening deathly grip of the net, right by the roadside main thoroughfare to Bungai. It encourages no reaction from passers by ... why else would there be dead and dried birds hanging from the nets. In fact there were several birds writhing in pain and panic trying their best, giving it all their worth to free themselves from their fate set by farmers to protect their patch of paddy.

Rufous backed Kingfisher:

Eurasian Tree Sparrow:


Yellow bittern

Rufous backed Kingfisher

No doubt these are the work of the adults aka parents, but surprisingly where are the other people?

Perhaps, it's worth reminding us and the community of Article 32 of the Sarawak Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998 which states:

"(1) Any person who sells mist nets for the catching of mammals or
birds without a licence issued by the Controller shall be guilty of an
offence: Penalty, imprisonment for three months and a fine of one
thousand ringgit.

(2) Any person who uses mist nets to catch any mammal or bird
except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a
licence issued by the Controller, shall be guilty of an offence:
Penalty, imprisonment for six months and a fine of two thousand ringgit.

(3) All licences issued under this section shall be subject to such
terms and conditions as may be imposed by the Controller."

Selling and using a mistnet for such purpose is clearly an offence. It is very clear is that we need to do more for the community : the outreach, the talks and slideshows, and occasionally enforcement. Show them the birds, perhaps they'd understand better and learn to be interested in our feathered friends.

"Apologies to have destroyed your mist nets. Please furnish us with a copy of your identity card, sign here and collect your due compensation from the Controller's office at the 11th floor of Wisma Pelita. Be prepared to bring some change of clothing and $2000 cash in case we feel like stuffing you in jail for 6 months for your dastardly deed."

Images and text by Nazeri Abghani/MNS Miri/Feb 2012