Monday, November 14, 2016

How the West was birded

It's dark and miserable in Switzerland (snow on Nov. 7?!) and old world flycatchers and warblers are super boring, so let's flash back to happier times and a grand adventure out West.

The route, starting in San Fran and ending in LA, hitting up 7 national parks (Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Death Valley, Zion, Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree), one national disgrace (Las Vegas) and with a bonus add-on in South Texas.

Natalia's parents flew up for our graduations and this was kind of a celebration trip. Non-birders involved, so it was not a 'birding trip' per se, but with the focus on national parks, it was pretty easy to be opportunistic. Heck, I scored 24 lifers. And that was before scooting off to Texas.

Since Natalia and I had already done a good bit of birding around LA the opportunities for lifers were slim for the first several days, so we'll just gloss over those except for some obligatory landmark pics:

Golden Gate Bridge (sponsored by Hyundai)

Yosemite Valley

General Sherman Tree

During this stretch I was so desperate to see something new that I coerced the group into taking a small detour to a random city park outside Fresno to chase a Yellow-billed Magpie.

Yellow-billed Magpie, some park outside Fresno. This is one of the few birds endemic to the United States


After Sequoia we finally crossed the rain shadow to reach Death Valley, desert territory and the chance for some different bird life. The desolation surprised me with its beauty.

Death Valley. Last landscape shot from here on it will be all birds

At the Death Valley Visitor’s Center we picked up Lucy’s Warbler, Verdin and the much-desired Greater Roadrunner. Awesome!

I didn't manage any lifer photos in the 100+ degree heat, so have a Warbling Vireo instead. Death Valley

I was dreading the obligatory stopover in Las Vegas, but it proved to offer some great birding opportunities at local parks not far from The Strip.

Unlike game birds in a lot of parts of the world, these silly-looking Gambel's Quail are parking lot birds around Las Vegas.

I guess we were there during breeding season because this goof ball sat up for us to sing.

a skukling Verdin, one of my most-wanted desert birds in a park in Las Vegas
We also scored Abert's Towhee, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Costa's Hummingbird and Crissal Thrasher.

After surviving Vegas we took a "quick" detour by Zion National Park, which in retrospect, was a mistake. It added just a few hours of extra driving, but 4 hours is not nearly enough time to see this place. Heck, with the crowds it was barely enough time to park, have lunch and cram onto a bus for a spin around the valley.

It almost paid off big time.

California Condors are nesting in this hole in Zion Canyon. This is great news for condor conservation. Unfortunately for us the birds did not make an appearance.

Had the California Condor showed up at this hole where the ranger told us it nests, the Zion jaunt would have been well worth the effort.  But do yourself a favor and give this place at least a couple days.

After Zion, it was on to the main event, the Grand Canyon.

OK, I lied. This is also a landscape

The view really crushes the birds here though. I was surprised to find that Grand Canyon ended up being my favorite park of the seven. This was almost certainly because we took the time to slow down and stay a few days instead of stopping to tick a box and rush off to the next long drive. Also key was staying right in the park so we could get up at dawn to see the rim before the rush of tour buses packed things out. This is what we did wrong at Yosemite and Zion.

Black-throated Gray Warbler, Grand Canyon National Park
Violet-green Swallow at Grand Canyon National Park. Great shot for photo-stringing
White-breasted Nuthatch at Grand Canyon National Park. There are rumors that this bird may soon be split and have a new name. I have no idea what this one would be called.

Originally our plan had us cutting back through Vegas on the way to LA, but, fortunately, we instead cut south through Arizona in order to swing by Joshua Tree.  In Arizona we made tactical stops at Kaibab and Prescott State Forests.  These produced a nice haul: Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Scott’s Oriole, Canyon Towhee, Gray Vireo and Bridled Titmouse.

Finally at Joshua Tree, our 7th and final park of the tour, we found Rock Wren and Bendire’s Thrasher.

Bendire's Thrasher at Joshua Tree National Park, this bird is known to occur here, but apparently hasn't been photographed very often (or so the local eBird reviewer told me)

I caught a glimpse of what had to be a LeConte’s Thrasher scurry between a couple bushes, but like some jerk magician, it vanished into thin air.  Do these things burrow under the ground or something?  Not yet a nemesis bird, but I’ve got my eye on that one to show up later.

Black-throated Sparrow at Joshua Tree National Park

After the long drive back to Los Angeles, Natalia continued the tour with her parents down to San Diego, while I flew east to Corpus Christi Texas for a wetlands conference.

I don’t care too much for my U.S. list or the ABA area, so instead of driving south to Brownsville, I headed west for more lifer opportunities in the arid ecosystems around Falcon Dam State Park.

Pyrruloxia at Falcon Dam State Park

I finally got the Pyrruloxia I had always wanted to see after growing up surrounded by Northern Cardinals.  What surprised me about this bird is that it overlaps with the cardinal.  I saw both sing from the same bush by falcon lake.

Curve-billed Thrasher, Falcon Dam State Park

Inca Dove, Falcon Dam State Park
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Gray Hawk, Lesser Nighthawk and Olive Sparrow rounded out my Texas lifers, but I dipped out on the orioles.  Altamira and Audubon’s both eluded me.

Technically I got my first Mexican birds at Chapeno looking across the Rio Grande (which is so narrow!), but I haven’t properly logged them yet. 

From close range a border wall here seems even sillier than it does in the abstract sense.

My life knows no walls. This trip was really just a warm-up for the real post-graduation trip: six weeks in South America starting in Southern Peru and ended at Iguazu Falls in Brazil/Argentina. Stay tuned for that!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Musing over Muscicapa (and fretting over Phylloscopus)

Birding in Southeast Asia during the months of September and October brought with it the chance to see, in addition to all the amazing tropical residents, migrants recently arrived or in transit from northern mainland Asia.

We began regularly seeing many little brown jobs at forest edges that look something like this:

This is a Muscicapa sp. at Wehea Forest (bird A), a bird you were quite happy to have not ever heard of

Now I love the Phillips Guide to the Birds of Borneo (really... it's one of my all-time faves), but it simply isn't all that helpful with sorting out which Muscicapa one might be looking at, especially for an out-of-towner like myself.

The book does at least lay out three likely candidates (which, confusingly, may actually be five).

1a. Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica daurica) - allegedly the most commonly seen migrant, but see 1b and 1c...

1b. Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica williamsoni) - apparently a rarer/overlooked/never recorded(?) migratory species/subspecies in Kalimantan.

1c. Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica umbrosa) - a scarce resident subspecies/species that breeds in lowland forest

2. Dark-sided Flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica) - a scarce migrant "Plumage is variable and this bird is easily confused with Grey-streaked Flycatcher. The extent and density of streaking varies from almost none to quite heavy. Breast is generally darker with streaks less contrasting than in Grey-streaked."

3. Gray-streaked Flycatcher (Muscicapa griseisticta) - a scarce migrant "Usually more heavily streaked than Dark-sided Flycatcher with streaks more contrasting against a whiter background. Also white streak in front of the eye is more prominent than in Dark-sided Flycatcher, and tip of primary feathers i the same length as the tail..."

If you could see the cartooning illustrations you would see the conundrum!

another Muscicapa sp at Wehea Forest (bird B)

The muscicapas kept piling up and I kept taking photos and focusing on more interesting birds.

yet another at Wehea (bird C). Most of the birds we saw in East Kalimantan looked like this. Blurry brown streaking
My initial thinking on these first three birds is that given that there were so many around (more than just these three I photographed that gave a similar giss) that they must be the most common of the choices, which would be: 1a Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa daurica daurica).

Then at Wehea I saw a different-looking musicapa:

4th individual Muscicapa sp at Wehea (bird D)

...instead of streaking on the underparts it has more of a matrix of dark blots and there's some dinginess to the undertail coverts where they seemed to be purely white on the previous birds.

bird D again

A closer look revealed this bird to an immature with pale spotting on the head and back, so probably just a young version of whatever the first three (A, B, C) were.

At Merabu Village forest the Muscicapa continued to pile up.

Muscicapa at Merabu (bird E), looks like another young bird

Bird E again. Yeah, the pattern on the underparts looks a lot like bird D from Wehea

One final shot of bird E, just to show how much speckling young birds can have on the upperparts

Unfortunately I didn't get a great show of this bird at Merabu (bird F), but it appears to lack underpart streaking altogether... or perhaps just a photographic artifact?

What happened at Sungai Lesan?  We saw more:

Muscicapa at Sungai Lesan (bird G) another young bird?
Bird G again

This is another bird (bird H) that is either significantly less streaked or the harsh light is tricking me. It's got some tail feather molt going on as well, which was not apparent in any other muscicapa we saw

Whatever these birds are, they are everywhere, so I just kind of assumed that they were all Asian Brown Flycatchers (a "common migrant").

But then in Singapore we saw these guys:

what the heck is this? (bird I)
Is this even a Muscicapa?

So my Singapore book is even less helpful for flycatcher ID because it doesn't exist.

bird I again
But I couldn't help but wonder if this Singapore bird (bird I) is the real Asian Brown Flycatcher (Muscicapa d. d.) and all the Borneo birds were Dark Sided Flycatchers (Muscicapa sibirica).

Google imaging (for what that's worth, which is probably not much) seems to support this conclusion, but I feel like I'm missing something here.

So, help a birder out and pass this post along to somebody who's experienced with Southeast Asia.  I'd love to be set straight with this Muscicapa mess.

Oh... and while you're at it, have a look at these phylloscopus.

The old world warbler family was already tough enough, but then some asshole geneticist had to come along and split Arctic Warbler into three, the cryptic trio of Artic/Kamchatka Leaf/Japanese Leaf Warbler.  Since they are mostly identified by voice and generally silent in winter, I'm not sure anybody yet has a great handle on their migration/wintering distributions (though I have read that the Japanese one prefers high elevations).

Also, these birds are about 100 times more difficult to photograph than muscicapa, so sorry for the poor quality.

Bird J, Singapore Botanic Garden

Bird J, Singapore Botanic Garden
Bird K, Sungei Buloh Wetland Park, Singapore

Bird L, Maratua Island, East Kalimantan

Bird L, Maratua Island, East Kalimantan

*Update: some Old World experts have chimed in a reached a consensus on the IDs of these birds (see the 'answer key' below). For details about their reasoning, see this thread over at Bird Forum. Also see this blog post by Dave Bakewell for more muscicapa musing (you just couldn't get enough could you?)

A - Dark-sided Flycatcher
B - Dark-sided Flycatcher
C - Dark-sided Flycatcher
D - Dark-sided Flycatcher
E - Dark-sided Flycatcher
F - Asian Brown Flycatcher
G - Dark-sided Flycatcher
H - Asian Brown Flycatcher
I - Asian Brown Flycatcher
J - Eastern Crowned Warbler
K - Eastern Crowned Warbler
L - 'Arctic' Warbler

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Kalimantan Krush

Natalia just started a research project in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. If you’ve heard of this part of the world before, it has probably be in reference to Orangutans or maybe how their forest homes are being rapidly leveled and burned to make way for oil palm plantations and how carbon emissions from such burning is greatly exacerbating global warming.

The view from the ground can indeed be grim at times. 

Forest cleared to make way for oil palm in East Kalimantan

Nearly nobody bothers to bird here and visitors of any kind from 'the West' are exceedingly rare. The immigration officer raised an eyebrow when I told him I was visiting for a month of tourism. Kalimantan is a place largely  forgotten by the world except for the multinational logging and oil palm firms and a few intrepid orangutan researchers. 

Our East Kalimantan route, starting in Samarinda (A) and ending in Tanjung Redeb (F), visiting Kutai National Park (B), Wehea Forest (C), Merabu Forest (D), and Sungai Lesan (E)

The front lines of palm oil expansion and tropical forest destruction criss-cross East Kalimantan.  Even the ‘protected areas’ are suffering.

Site #1: Kutai National Park

We visited Kutai National Park, one of those protected areas in name only, that seem to be so common in the developing world. There has been much illegal logging here, as well as state-sanctioned exploration for petroleum resources (as we all know, humanity’s thirst for oil trumps all else). There was a slingshot hanging in the kitchen.  Apparently the park guard staff use the trail system as their personal hunting grounds for forest meat. The main reason anybody would visit this place is the orangutans, which are protected in both a legal and practical sense here.
Baby Orangutan up in the canopy - Kutai National Park
these things are everywhere - Macaque at Kutai National Park

While the forest here looked structurally intact, birds were scarce and wary, suggesting a history of indiscriminate persecution. 

In Kutai National Park with park guide Ikbal

Paradoxically, we found the best time to search for birds here was after dark, and not just for owls.  We found Little Spiderhunter, Diard’s Trogon, Hooded Pitta and three different Rufous-backed Kingfishers (we saw zero of these during daytime).  

Diard's Trogon female

Hooded Pitta

What the heck? Headless Fluffbird?

Oh, OK. Little Spiderhunter

Rufous-backed Kingfisher

Worst-named bird ever?

A visiting Dutch couple were led to a sleeping Giant Pitta, but apparently scared it from its roost as we couldn’t relocate it the following night.

Rufous Piculet. Wait, I thought zygodactyl meant two toes forward and two toes backward. I only see one toe on a side here.

Wait, is this a two-toed bird?! Weird.

Daytime bird highlights were Velvet-fronted Nuthatch…alledgedly not a rare bird, but the only one we saw during our time in Kalimantan and one I really wanted to see one (a nuthatch in the tropics!). Another was Bornean Banded Kingfisher, a rare, recently split endemic forest kingfisher.

Bornean Banded Kingfisher, an endemic if you follow the split

The mystery bird of Kutai for us (apart from all the unidentified songs we heard) was this roosting juvenile Blue Flycatcher. Which of the dozen different blue flycatchers is it?

Unidentified flycatcher juvenile

Site #2: Wehea Forest

We next visited Wehea Forest, a community-run protected area that persist within a logging concession.  Essentially all the remaining forests of Kalimantan have been divided into ‘concessions’ for international logging companies. Fast on the heels of logging is clear cutting for oil palm monoculture. Proponents claim that very little deforestation in Borneo is caused by oil palm expansion, but rather oil palm plantations are replacing already-degraded marginally productive lands. While this is technically true in a proximate sense, ultimately the process of old growth forest cover being replaced by oil palm has been ongoing and continues… the existence of a logging intermediate phase doesn’t absolve the palm industry of culpability here.

Travelling the road to Wehea is like a trip back in time.  First there is mature oil palm, then the trees begin to shrink in stature until you reach the brand new plantation areas with tiny baby palm fronds spouting out of the scorched earth. Bordering the newly cleared plots are the wooden walls of skinny tree trunks of the degraded forest from which the new plantations are being carved. 

The recently deforested areas do seem pretty good for raptor watching, if that's a silver lining. This is a Wallace's Hawk-Eagle we found on the road to Wehea Forest

Crested Goshawk on the road to Wehea Forest

From here the forest condition improves until the end of the road, which used to be the site of a logging camp. But the Weheans expelled the loggers and with help from The Nature Conservancy built a lodge for visiting researchers and intrepid tourists. The accommodations are basic and yet by East Kalimantan standards, downright fancy. The Lonely Planet misleadingly uses the word ‘swanky,’ which has led to serial disappointment from visitors expecting more than a mattress on the floor of a mattress-sized room. The unsuspecting folks on holiday would get taken here straight after a pampered stay at some upscale Bali resort.

Natalia in the Wehea Forest with Boi, Lah and Abdullah

The place’s best feature is without a doubt, the clear gravel-bottom stream that serves as shower, laundromat and swimming pool.  It also hosts Paradise Flycatchers, Malaysian Blue Flycatchers, and Blue-banded Kingfishers. We made the trek out to the towers (fire towers built by the logging company before it left), but this ended up being a lot of uncomfortable slogging through an overgrown abandoned road bed. It was mostly hot and relatively bird-less.

The best birding at Wehea is along the entrance road where we saw several hornbills and other birds.  Unfortunately the very best birds fled after giving us just fleeting glimpses.  A pair of the critically endangered Helmeted Hornbills bolted from an emergent perch and a couple of the oddball endemic Bornean Bristleheads flew across the road in front of us without stopping. Better views desired for both of these.

Black-and-yellow Broadbill
We got our first broadbills here and in three different flavors: Black-and-yellow, Black-and-red, and Dusky. The latter is quite rare and a family group gave us a show of bathing in the hollow of a broken of tree branch showering droplets on us below.

Dusky Broadbill in the canopy shaking off the bathwater

From here we parted ways with our goofy, chain-smoking guide, Abdullah, and travelled to the provincial capital of Berau, Tanjung Redeb. This was our jumping off point for a three-day visit to... 

Site #3: Merabu Village

...Merabu Village, another community-based conservation project on another beautiful clear river. The village has a beautiful piece of forest, which is split between productive and protection sections. To us it wasn’t all that clear where the distinction between protection and production lay and I’m not sure all the villagers fully understand or honor that distinction. We were shown an abandoned nesting site where somebody had captured a fledgling Rhinoceros Hornbill and on our way out to see the forest, encountered a songbird hunter. He proudly showed us how his setup functioned. A tethered female is raised 5 m up on a telescopic pole next to a sticky-coated perch. Playback is blasted through a speaker and any territorial Greater Green Leafbirds within earshot are sure to fall prey and be sold into the captive cage bird market. Straw-headed Bulbuls, White-crowned Shamas and White-winged Magpie-Robins have already been extirpated from the vicinity of all Kalimantan human settlements by this industry. Leafbirds are the next targets while they last.

Other than the birds that are specifically persecuted, the forest does appear to be 'protected.'

Black-bellied Malkoha (a kind of cuckoo) at Merabu Village Forest

Moustached Hawk-Cuckoo, a cuckoo and not a hawk

Orange-backed Woodpecker
Some of the best birding was done by boat along the stream.

Black Hornbill, by far the most commonly observed hornbill for us. Hornbills proved to be very shy. Is that because they are used to getting shot at? They were a lot harder to get good looks at (not to mention photos) than their new world counterparts, the toucans, are in Central and South America.

Brown-throated (or Plain-throated) Sunbird, the functional equivalent of a hummingbird, but in passerine form. Sadly diversity of sunbirds in South East Asia doesn't come anywhere near the diversity of hummingbirds in the Americas.  Nobody feeds them nectar at feeders either.

The proboscis monkey, a highly sought-after mammalian oddity. We saw a group of half a dozen along the river near Merabu Village all in this same 'chair' pose.

Up to this point we were flummoxed as to how we had not managed to see a single barbet. In Merabu forest we were finally able to come across some fruiting fig trees, which produced four species in short order.
Red-crowned Barbet

Yellow-crowned Barbet
Outside of Merabu we took a spin through the nearby oil palm monoculture hellscape. 

Merapun's oil palm, a cash cow

This could have been the fate of Merabu's forest. The nearby village of Merapun opted to sell out to the oil palm firms and now 40% of the village is employed in the industry. This has undoubted yielded a lot of economic growth for the village, but how long will it last? 

center of Merabu Village

It will be interesting to track the fates of these two parallel villages that have taken different paths. The community forest model may have its short-comings (i.e. hunting), but it's definitely better for biodiversity to have a de-faunated forest, than no forest at all.

this Black-shouldered Kite appeared to be enjoying the oil palm landscape

Site #4: Sungai Lesan

The last protected area we visited, Sungai Lesan, is a bit of an enigma. It was formerly logging concession, but some 20 years ago it became designated as protected forest for reasons that remain unclear to me. Anyway it’s pretty nice chunk of pristine lowland forest, possibly the best anywhere in East Kalimantan. There are two ways to access: a 10 minute drive from the roadside village of Sido Bangen to a small station operated by the provincial government’s forest management unit; and a two-hour boat ride along beautiful rivers to an abandoned research station. 
Lesser Fish Eagle seen along the river to the Sungai Lesan research station 
Physically the station is in fine shape…it’s only about 10 years old and solidly built with moneys from The Nature Conservancy. But apparently it was used once or twice before being let go. I guess they built it and nobody came?

Abandoned Sungai Lesan field station
...well it's not completely abandoned. The bats are making good use of TNC's investment.
We walked into the forest from the station on a very well-built trail, encountering two additional field stations.  These were also built only to go unused.  Currently all these lost structures have been commandeered by bats. The forest was full of huge old-looking trees and we came across a nice mixed flock of woodpeckers and malkohas. The woodpeckers being beautiful and scarce.

This more remote area seemed to be in better shaped than the more easily accessed entrance near town. We were told that during gemstone season the stream that separates the forest from slash-and-burn parcels fills up with eager prospectors panning for precious pebbles.

speaking of stones, this is a terrible photo of a Garnet Pitta. It flew up to sing from this branch some 5 m off the ground. 

Whiskered Treeswift perched at the edge of the Sungai Lesan Forest, Treeswifts unlike true swifts can perch on branches and yet they share the same order, Apodiformes

This ends our whirlwind tour of East Kalimantan's most important remaining lowland forest. The birds here are wonderful, at least the ones that aren’t yet trapped in cages. And yet nobody birds this province. Why?  Well there is no tourist infrastructure to speak of. No birding guides and just a handful of general tourism guides. Few people speak English and the services non-existent, the accommodations as basic as one can get (i.e. mattress on the floor, that’s it; also see ‘how to take a shit in Indonesia’). Plus the Malaysian state of Sabah, just to the north, has worlds better infrastructure, guides, etc. and essentially the same avifauna. As a result, Natalia and I are now top eBirders for East Kalimantan (which eBird considers to be a county) and are both top 3 in Kalimantan.

Natalia hasn't yet accepted all the shared checklists

Crested Serpent-Eagle a roadside bird near Sungai Lesan

I couldn’t recommend that anyone make a birding trip to Kalimantan, but as somebody who enjoys adventure and getting off the beaten tourist path, it’s great to see the intact remnants of habitat here before they are further degraded and destroyed. And despite all the hardships of this place: instant ramen noodles three meals a day; the oppressive heat and humidty; the voracious mosquitoes and leeches; the squat toilets; the lack of connectivity; the inability to communicate with anybody; the constant staring from locals glimpsing their first white person; the blaring calls to prayer at 5 am; I'm actually looking forward to coming to visit again.