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. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Das Bird

You may have noticed that it has been almost 6 months since my last post.  This isn’t because I haven’t been birding. No way!  If anything, it's because I've been birding too much. In fact I’m in the middle of the biggest birding year of my life (1200+ species, more on that later).

No, what’s been happening is that... how do I say this... writing this blog is a routine. It's something I do regularly and habitually and that I make time for in a normal life schedule.

The problem, though not really a problem at all, is that life has been anything but ‘normal’ or ‘routine.’ Here are some quick highlights of the past 6 months:

-I graduated and earned a PhD
-I got engaged (to Natalia, my birding partner and best friend)
-I bought a house
-I sold my car
-I moved to Switzerland

On top of all that, I’ve been travelling, often in places without much infrastructure, for about 2 of those 6 months.  In fact, as I type this I’m sitting in the Zurich airport about to depart to Singapore for a ~1 month trip to Indonesia—my first time visiting Asia.

But you came here for birds, right? To keep this on topic here’s a bird:

Red Crossbill crush, Lucerne, Switzerland

It’s been a bit of a hectic transition with moving flats, assembling furniture and trying to figure out how transportation and waste management work in this organized little country called Switzerland. I did manage to get out on a couple outings in the 10 days I’ve been here.

Natalia’s work group had a paid hike to Entlebuch a UNESCO world-heritage area and RAMSAR site (wetland of international importance) in the forearc of the Swiss Alps. It features a huge karst formation, bogs and beautiful views of the Swiss countryside. 

Karst slope at Entlebuch - we were hoping to find Rock Ptarmingans here, but they all hid from us

Though we didn’t realize it, we had signed up for a 16 km trek up and down steep grades.  The Swiss are serious about their hiking.  It’s the default hobby here and with lots of mandatory paid vacation time, the modal Swiss person is a super-fit alpine enthusiast. This meant that the pace was a bit too fast for birding. 

Nice view from our picnic spot photo-bombed by a wing-suit diver

Nevertheless we managed to spot a few birds.  My favorite was the Alpine Chough.

Alpine Chough, apparently this is a borderline trashy bird, but it was new for me, so I wasn't complaining

A flock of 50 or so of these nice-looking corvids came cruising along the ridgeline while we ate a picnic lunch. A few stopped close to check us out, probably because they’ve learned that people can be an easy source of food.

Other than that and the crossbill (above) birds were pretty few and far between.  I’ve been told that 16 birds is not a bad number for birding in non-aquatic areas of Europe. This will take some getting used to.

Yesterday I went out with Florian (the same guy who led our Entlebuch hike) out to Neracherried, a Birdlife Switzerland reserve on a remnant wetland near Zurich.  There’s not much to the place: a little visitor’s center and modest-sized patch of reeds with some open water, but it attracts the birds well enough. What it seems to attract best though is photographers.  We showed up during prime sun on a Wednesday evening and could barely wedge ourselves in among the bazooka-sized lenses.

A normal Wednesday afternoon at the Neeracherried photo blinds

I picked up 6 lifers in fairly short order: Curlew Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common Ringed Plover, Stock Dove and Marsh Harrier.

Marsh Harrier, Zurich, Switzerland. K├╝hl!

The birds were kinda far off, so it was mostly scope work. Enjoy these shanks, three green and one spotted red

Common Ringed Plover. Now I'm prepared to find one in North Carolina 

It was great to see some of these European shorebirds. They’re the kinds of birds I always had half an eye out for showing up somewhere in North Carolina.  Now that I’ve seen them in the field, hopefully I’ll have an easier time spotting and identifying one out of range.

The rarest bird of the day ended up being an Osprey, of all things. They’re an uncommon migrant in Switzerland and this was only Florian’s fourth he had ever seen.  All the shutterflies went a bit giddy over this one, even the ones who had no idea what they were shooting picked up on the excitement and rushed outside to get shots as it passed over the blind.

Next post should be about birds in East Kalimantan, or depending on how the flights goes, perhaps an account of some of the cools stuff I’ve been meaning to share from the hiatus.  So we could end up in the Grand Canyon, or somewhere in South America. Who knows!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Blogging Belizean Birds

Natalia and I defended our dissertations last month (!); I'm sure you can guess what we did to celebrate.

We set this trip in motion last fall, whimsically looking around for the cheapest flights to promising birding destinations. The clear winner was Belize City;  $350 r/t from Durham was just too good to pass up.

As it turns out Belize is no slouch for birding--even for the relatively seasoned neotropical birder. We hadn't birded all that much in Central America, so the eBird targets function gave us each a nice hit list of 80+.

We focused our birding effort in the northwest corner of the country in the Orange Walk District.

From the airport we went straight to the community of Crooked Tree, which hosts a mixture of dry forest habitats including some pine savanna.  Most birders opt for the lagoon boat tour which offers great opportunities to photograph aquatic birds. A year or two ago the prospect of Agami Herons, Jabirus and Whistling-Ducks would have been irresistible for this wetland scientist, but since all our targets were land birds, skipping the boat to prowl the pine savannas for Yucatan endemics was our choice.

Yucatan Woodpecker - Crooked Tree, Belize
We found that the endemic Yucatan Woodpecker were pleasantly plentiful and easy to see along the roadside of the Trogon Trail (a road).

Yucatan Woodpecker - Crooked Tree, Belize

Confusingly there are also the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, which are in the same genus and are completely lacking any golden color.  The Yucatan Woodpeckers DO have gold around the bill.  This was so counter-intuitive that I at first assumed these similar birds were mis-labeled in the plates of Birds of Belize.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker, identified by the lack of any golden coloration - Crooked Tree, Belize

The Yucatan isn't a huge region for endemics by South American or Greater Antilles standards, with a dozen or so specialties, depending upon how generous one is with defining the region.  Several of these don't even make it into Belize and a couple more are nocturnal caprimuligids, too difficult even for the American Birding Association's Birders Guide to Belize to devote serious attention.

After knocking out the woodpecker, we lucked into the forgettable Yucatan Flycatcher, one of those myiarchus flycatcher dopplegangers.

The boring Yucatan Flycatcher - Crooked Tree, Belize

But the biggest prize at Crooked Tree was the charming Yucatan Jay, which was near the top of my target list for this trip.

Yucatan Jay (adult) - Crooked Tree, Belize
This jay is one of those rare birds where the immatures are better-looking than the adults.

Yucatan Jay (immature) - Crooked Tree, Belize

In the large flock we passed we even got to see a couple adolescents caught in that awkward transitional phase between immature and adult plumage.

Yucatan Jays ('tweeners) - Crooked Tree, Belize
It turns out Belize is also a gold mine for neotropical migrants, which in mid-March are in a pre-migration hyperphagic mania.

Orchard Oriole (adult male) - Crooked Tree, Belize

We ended up logging 22 warblers during the trip; spring migration (which for birders in eastern North America might as well be Christmas) came early for us this year.

Hooded Warbler - Crooked Tree, Belize

If you're interested in birding Crooked Tree, I'd highly recommend the Crooked Tree Lodge. It's reasonably-priced, family-owned and the food is excellent.  If you go, bring bug repellent and watch out for chiggers.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Crooked Tree
Plain Chachalacas - Crooked Tree

Rose-throated Becard at power pole nest hole - Crooked Tree


After a night at Crooked Tree we continued north along the Philip Goldson Highway to Orange Walk Town where we ate lunch before veering west.

We stopped off at some extensive rice fields.  I was hoping for a Bronzed Cowbird.

Jabirus made for a nice consolation.

Jabiru - Gallon Jug Road rice fields

Our ultimate destination was the pristine forest of the Rio Bravo Conservation Area in the extreme northwest of Belize, crammed into an armpit between Mexico and Guatemala, but we had planned to spend a night at a B&B in the Mennonite community along the highway.

It's a bit disorienting to be traveling through a country of English-speaking Mayans and Afro-Belizeans and then stumble upon a Kansas-like landscape of white Dutch-speakers with overalls and cowboy hats. We ended up missing out on getting an inside scoop on the local history because the B&B owners were out of the country.  Luckily we were able to get ourselves beds in the vacant researcher dorm at La Milpa Lodge where we were going to be staying the following two nights anyway. The dorm was nearly as nice as the cabana we moved into and, after some aggressive haggling, ended up costing half as much.

La Milpa was packed with a large group of birders from Massachusetts Audubon, so we had a chance to swap stories over meals.  The day before we arrived they had lucked out with a Crested Eagle, but without even hiring a local guide, Natalia and I were able to pick up a lot of the birds they had missed.

One example is this curious Crested Guan that lumbered around in a tree at close range.

Crested Guan - La Milpa

We saw quite a few birds at La Milpa, but other than the compost dump, which acts almost like a permanent ant swarm, the birding was a bit slow. 

There were a few odd things about staying at La Milpa as a birder: 1) They make you have breakfast at 7:30, which eats up the best possible hour for birding; 2) the local guides charge by the 'segment,' with a segment being either pre-breakfast, 10-noon (lunch), or 3:30-6 (dinner). After talking with the guides we weren't blown away with what they had to say and so were not tempted to break the bank with a full day's worth of guiding fees.

We hired Francisco for an afternoon, partly out of sympathy (we do like to support the local guides) and partly because he alluded to a Central American Pygmy-Owl stake out. We birded the Mayan ruins with him, which was nice because he also was knowledgeable about the ongoing archeological research. He was also familiar with most of the local bird vocalizations which helped us tick off some target species.  Unfortunately the pygmy-owl was a bust.

Collared Trogon - La Milpa

We woke up pre-dawn our second morning at La Milpa to drive down for a day at the swanky Chan Chich Lodge, built atop the grand plaza of an un-excavated ancient Mayan city. I don't know what it is about Chan Chich--perhaps it was because we happened to be there on Natalia's birthday--but whatever the reason, the birding there was far superior to La Milpa.

With little effort wandering around the lodge grounds before breakfast (which we were glad to find could be served any time during a 2 hour window) we spotted a few of our most-desired targets, including gems such as: Black-throated Shrike-Tanager and Black-faced Grosbeak.

Black-throated Shrike-Tanager - Chan Chich

Red-capped Manakin (of Michael Jackson youtube video fame) were plentiful in the fruiting bushes of Chan Chich

Other eye candy came in the form of this Golden-hooded Tanager - Chan Chich

We were then faced with a bit of conundrum.  We came across a good-sized army ant swarm (which is a birder's gold mine), just 20 minutes before the last call for breakfast. Stay and skip breakfast, or not? We ending up opting for breakfast, but at the last minute and not before enjoying some great views of attendant ant-tanagers, woodcreepers and my first ever sighting of a Bright-rumped Attila, a bird whose loud song had so often taunted me from the deep woods of Ecuador and Colombia.

Bright-rumped Attila, a common bird that's uncommonly seen - Chan Chich

After breakfast we prowled the bottomlands and eventually came across Natalia's birthday present along the Bajo trail, a Gray-throated Chat!

Gray-throated Chat - Chan Chich

This small-ranged bird is one less she has to find on her quest to see the all the world's pink(ish) birds. Finding it came with some personal vindication, as the La Milpa guides said it couldn't be found in the area; they recommended some other lodge that was not on our itinerary.

One of the birds I most wanted to see on this trip, the near-threatened, gaudy and yucatan endemic, Ocellated Turkey turned out to be a trash bird at Chan Chich.  We had been thrilled to spot one lurking at the forest edge of the La Milpa Mayan site, but at Chan Chich, grandiose males prowled the grassy lawns, defiant to approach and menacing with their spurs and testosterone.

Ocellated Turkey, near-threatened Yucatan Endemic and local yard bird at Chan Chich

How does it see with all those warts covering the eye?

We even got caught in a standoff with one territorial male on the drive down.  After some fancy maneuvering I was able to coax our rented Equinox past him. At this point a dinosaur-SUV chase ensued reminiscent of the T-Rex scene from Jurassic Park.

Angry Ocellated Turkey; note deadly-looking spurs - road to Chan Chich
During the afternoon doldrums we drove our way back toward La Milpa with a few stops here and there in futile hopes of scoring a glimpse of the highly desired and extremely improbable Lovely Cotinga. Instead we were rewarded for our patient ears with the long-winded and lonely checkpoint guard by one final lifer for Natalia's birthday: a Black-cowled Oriole.

Much shyer than the turkeys were the Great Curassows, but we did see a few along the road between La Milpa and Chan Chich, including this male

We found just a handful of new trip birds on our final morning at La Milpa. Since it seemed as if we were hitting diminishing returns we weren't too sad to leave, especially since our next destination was Ambergris Caye for some diving!

We spent most of our final Belize days underwater looking for sharks, rays and sea turtles, but we rented a golf cart one afternoon to explore and bird the mangrove habitats north of San Pedro.  We were rewarded with three more Yucatan endemics: the Yucatan Vireo, Orange Oriole and Black Catbird.

Black Catbird - Ambergris Caye

As a bonus I finally spotted a Bronzed Cowbird.

It was a fun and birdy trip! We logged 225 species in about 4 days of birding and each picked up 40+ lifers. Unfortunately Natalia left Belize 4 life birds short of 2000; poor thing will now have to cope with having her 2000th be some bland Eurasian species.