Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Birding Sabah (ahh)

This trip was planned at the last minute, as it wasn't clear whether Natalia would be able to extend her trip thanks to Malaysian Immigration's archaic attitudes toward Colombian Nationals. But once she sorted things at the migration office, the round trip tickets from Zurich to Kuala Lumpur (KL) for $457 convinced me that I couldn't afford to stay home for this one.

After the rough adventure of Kalimantan (see The Kalimantan Krush), I had myself mentally braced for trying times as I flew to meet Natalia in Sabah. But the Malaysian part of Borneo proved to be a world apart from its Indonesian neighbor to the south.

When people say they are going birding in Borneo, there's better than a 99% chance they're hitting up Sabah, and for good reason. Over the past couple decades Sabah has fashioned itself into a kind of birder's Disney Land, with excellent accommodations, food, and wildlife-focused parks.

Mount Kinabalu National Park, certainly a must-visit for birders hoping to see some of Borneo's montane endemics, was our first stop.
Golden-naped Barbet, Mount Kinabalu - our first Bornean Endemic
Black-sided (or 'Bornean') Flowerpecker, another endemic

Most visitors to the park are non-birders who want to summit the 4000 m elevation peak, but the best bird action is along the power station road and excellent network of trails that crisscross pristine cloud forest habitats below 1900 m.

Gray-chinned Minivet pair, Mount Kinabalu
 The most important bird targets here are the "Whitehead's Trio": Trogon, Broadbill and Spiderhunter, the latter of which graces the front cover of the Phillipps' field guide.  We spent a couple days prowling the park and while 52 doesn't sound like an impressive bird list, 14 of these were Bornean endemics, including the Whitehead's Spiderhunter and crippling views of a Whitehead's Broadbill.


Whitehead's Broadbill, a highly sought-after Bornean endemic

that's the stuff; nice spot Natalia!
The Park offers such excellent access to so many range-restricted species that it also popular with biologists and a very large proportion of the birds we saw sported color bands.

Bornean Whistling-Thrush (an endemic) color-banded
Most of the bird tours spend 3 or 4 days at the park, but it seemed like we had pretty much hit diminishing returns on the local bird life after just two, so we decided to check out Poring Hotsprings, which lived up to its reputation as 'boring poring.'  The one trail is really steep and had few birds. We hiked around all morning and found only 22 species! The place does have a really cool canopy walkway, which unfortunately doesn't open until 8 am.

We continued on to the Rafflesia Information Center at the Crocker Range National Park, which is supposed to be better for some of the mountain endemics that are extra rare at Kinabalu. Birding here was also disappointing and of the endemic targets here (i.e. Fruithunter, Montane Barbet, Bornean Barbet to name a few) we only managed Bornean Bulbul.  Despite the poor reviews, we had a pleasant stay at the nearby dilapidated Gunung Alab resort/motel.

Natalia had to get back to work co-instructing a forest ecology field course, so we flew Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan to join the group at Sepilok, which fortunately for us, is a kind of birding Mecca. The Rainforest Discovery Center at Sepilok has taken the concept of canopy walkway and canopy tower and to a new level. It has four steel towers of varying heights and a long stable and wide elevated walkway that links two of them. They have plans to eventually join all four towers with the walkway.

Natalia at the Rainforest Discovery Center canopy walkway, Sepilok
Although lowland Sabah forests have been devastated by the same wave of oil palm development that has Krushed Kalimantan, the big difference is that Sabah has not only set aside protected areas, but also aggressively developed them into ecotourism destinations. Sepilok is one such highly developed ecotourism destination. In reality it is just a small island of pristine forest in a sea of oil palm desert, but its a big enough oasis to support a lot of endangered, endemic and charasmatic wildlife and is now fringed by high-end resorts that bring in tourists from all over the world hoping to glimpse an orangutan or a bristlehead.

Speaking of bristlehead (i.e. Bornean Bristlehead) it is far and away the top target for birders at Sepilok. Heck, given that it's the sole species of the endemic Pityriaseidae family, it's arguably the most important bird in all of Borneo. The Phillipps' book advertises it as 'common' at Sepilok.  While it may have been commonly viewed and photographed at Sepilok years ago, recent sightings have been few and far between.

We asked everybody with binoculars or a camera about the bristleheads, hoping for some local intelligence. Nobody had seen a bristlehead recently and yet everybody advocated for the same strategy: bird the canopy walkway in the early morning or the later afternoon and listen for their odd nasal calls. We spent a lot of time on the canopy walkway and I began to wonder if the Wallace's Hawk-Eagles nesting above it weren't part of the reason why the Bristleheads had become so shy.

Wallace's Hawk-Eagle eating [something]. A pair was nesting almost directly above the Trogon Tower on the canopy walkway.

One of the interns at the Sunbear Center told me it took her two years to see her first Bristlehead, so I pretty much wrote this bird off as a miss.  Luckily there were plenty of other interesting birds around the canopy towers to marvel at while the Bristleheads didn't show.

Blue-throated Bee-Eater -- not a rare bird, but a looker indeed
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, another common attractive bird at Sepilok
How about some Hornbills?  Try the 27 m Hornbill Tower!
Asian Black Hornbill (female)
Bushy-crested Hornbill
Oriental Pied Hornbill
 But there's only so much waiting one can do and there were certainly other birds for us to see along the trails. Many of the trip reports recommended the Kingfisher Trail, but other than a friendly Purple-naped Spiderhunter...

Purple-naped Spiderhunter

 ...and Short-tailed Babbler...

Short-tailed Babbler
... it was consistently pretty quiet.  No sign of the Rufous-collared Kingfisher here (the one we wanted), in fact I walked that trail at least three times and only saw a Blue-eared Kingfisher (common bird) once, the only kingfisher we saw at Sepilok.  It had been really dry and the creek level was low; this probably had something to do with it.

We ended up having much better luck on the Pitta Trail. First we stumbled upon the elusive White-crowned Hornbill and then interrupted some sort of dispute between the two biggest of Bornean woodpeckers:

This White-bellied Woodpecker (a Dryocopus, the same genus as North America's Pileated Woodpecker) seemed to get the better end of the deal and happily foraged on this fat rotting snag
All the while this Great Slaty Woodpecker (the world's largest Piciformes) scolded him from a nearby tree
And then we came upon an aggressive Black-crowned Antpitta (another endemic) that came charging out onto the trail when we played him some tape.

Black-crowned Antpitta, a Sepilok poster bird
 The last morning of Natalia's course I went out birding on my own and wasn't having a terribly productive time of it until I ran into another pair of birders I recognized from back at Kinabalu National Park. We had exchanged a few words with these guys as we criss-crossed paths time and again..just helpful bird sightings advice as friendly birders do in the field. This time they gave me a real nice nugget: Bornean Brown Barbets and a Red-naped Trogon at the far end of the Pitta Trail.
Bornean Brown Barbet (endemic) excavating a nest cavity out of an active termite colony. His/her partner was sitting on a nearby branch. I watched them for 20 minutes take turns digging and getting covered in termites.
 Natalia was free after lunch, so I brought her back to the spot where the barbets were still going hard at it. As she was taking photos I noticed an odd quiet call from nearby. Eventually I located a gorgeous male Red-naped Trogon.

Red-naped Trogon -- doesn't make up for missing Whitehead's Trogon at Mount Kinabalu, but a beautiful lifer

Red-naped Trogon
We took our time enjoying and photographing the barbets and trogon and just around the time we might have begun to start thinking about moving on, Natalia caught a glimpse of a large black bird in the canopy as she swigged from her water bottle.

Oh my god it's the Bristlehead! The water bottle nearly crashed to the ground.

Bornean Bristlehead (immature), Sepilok

!!!!!

After all the advice about looking at the canopy tower in the very early morning, here were looking up at three feeding Bristleheads on one of the trails at 3 in the afternoon. So much for conventional wisdom.

Bornean Bristlehead (adult), Sepilok

 It was yet another amazing spot by Natalia. She had one final one left in the bag.

That night we met the students at the canopy walkway to watch the giant flying squirrels emerge (an awesome sight; we did this three nights in a row). As we walked our way out to the parking lot to hop a taxi back to the resort, Natalia noticed what she first thought was a tarsier in her flashlight beam.

The tarsier turned its head and revealed itself to be this Oriental Bay Owl, a tough bird to find!
With the course wrapped up, we were free to move on to the Kinabatangan River. The landscape here has been severely fragmented by oil palm development over the past four decades which makes it an important area to visit for Natalia's research on birds in oil palm landscapes. The remnant forested riparian corridors, made ever more important for wildlife hemmed in by the oil palm deserts, have, somewhat paradoxically, become famous for ecotourism. Fancy lodges have sprung up along the putrid and often smelly Kinabantangan's banks drawing a steady stream of tourists hoping to glimpse or photograph a Proboscis Monkey or a Bornean Elephant.

Conveniently for us the Kinabatangan is also excellent for birding and we signed up for a birding package with the resident bird guru Robert Chong. His lodge and fees aren't cheap by Malaysia standards, but as he offers the best chance in the world to see the endemic Bornean Ground-Cuckoo and a handful of difficult pittas, going with him is well worth the cost.

When the Kinabatangan Jungle Camp bus showed up to pick us up from Sepilok, who should be inside but the same pair of birders we had met on the trails of Mount Kinabalu and Sepilok over the previous week.

Turns out we had been birding a parallel itinerary with a pair of Belgian kings of the world of birding. The guy with the parabolic mike and the prosthetic leg turned out to be Peter Boesman, the most prolific bird sound recordist in the world. Seriously, nobody else has contributed so many vocalizations (circa 26,000) to xeno-canto.org. Peter has double-legendary status for also losing his leg to a bushmaster bite in the Peruvian Amazon some 20 years ago. His Swarovski-scope-wielding accomplice turned out to be Mark Van Beirs, a 30-year veteran bird guide for tour company Bird Quest and the #7 world life lister (he ticked #9000 on this trip to Borneo) according to the scoreboards over at Surfsbirds.com (you hear that, Seagull Steve? The actual world #7 in the flesh!).

We found ourselves birding with Belgian birding celebrities (if such a thing exists) Peter Boesman and Mark Van Beirs (insert culturally insensitive joke about waffles and/or chocolate here). If you notice a down-tick in Peter Boesman's xeno-canto.org sound uploads, it's probably because I talked over most of his recordings. Countless potential new splits eluded adequate vocal documentation thanks to me.

The Belgians proved themselves worthy of their lofty reputations immediately by spotting roosting Brown Wood-Owls just behind our cabin.


Brown Wood-Owl juvenile, Kinabatangan Jungle Camp
Brown Wood-Owl adult, Kinabatangan Jungle Camp
Otherwise the birding in this area is nearly 100% done by boat, which is great for photography. A few of the more common specimens:

Gray-headed Fish-Eagle, not to be confused with the similar Lesser Fish-Eagle
Oriental Darter, the Southeast Asian cousin of North America's Anhinga
Blue-eared Kingfisher, with the possible exception of Stork-billed, the most common kingfisher here
Stork-billed Kingfisher, the other most common Kingfisher.

Black-and-red Broadbill, affectionately referred to by local guides as  'Angry Bird.' These things were building nests all along the river banks.

Wrinkled Hornbill (male), yes these are quite common on the Kinabatangan.

What the hell is this thing? Apparently in Southeast Asia in breeding condition Great Egrets have dark bills with blue facial skin and pinkish thighs. Peter Boesman and I nearly came to blows over this ID. He insisted that these birds were too small to be Great Egrets and I was ready to concede that the Phillipps' Guide illustrations might be totally worthless. Later side-by-side views of the egret trio (Great, Intermediate, Little) confirmed and vindicated the Phillipps' rendering

Sadly we ended up dipping on the Ground-Cuckoo, only hearing a few distant calls, and had no luck with any of the elusive pittas. Otherwise the birding was excellent (as was the birding company), so we weren't as bothered as we probably should have been.

We got great looks at this ugly Lesser Adjutant, one of the two threatened stork targets here
Storm's Stork, the second threatened stork target, also put in a good showing

Natalia's favorite bird of the Kinabatangan was this Ruddy Kingfisher (poorly named, this bird is a gorgeous deep purple)

White-crowned Hornbill. One of three lifers Mark Van Beirs ticked on his first day out with us on the Kinabatangan. The other two were Large Frogmouth and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo

I finally got my second Ixobrychus species in a cooperative Yellow Bittern that clumsily clamored in the emergent vegetation 
We left the Kinabatangan at the last possible minute, heading straight to the Sandakan airport to catch successive flights to Kota Kinabalu and on to Kuala Lumpur for a brief stopover in Peninsular Malaysia before the jaunt back to Switzerland.

It seems incredible that after spending 4 weeks in Kalimantan we could return to Borneo and tick 111 new species with relative ease. Comparing lists and effort from these two adjacent states speaks to the huge difference in birding opportunities. Kalimantan -- 177 species in 4 weeks; Sabah -- 200 species in 10 days.

Conclusion? Go birding in Sabah. There are a lot of interesting endemics to search for, the ecotourism infrastructure is world class and costs are relatively low. When you go, be sure to run into Peter Boesman and Mark Van Biers for a guaranteed fun time.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Birding Asuncion, Paraguay

After escaping Bolivia, where we knew nobody and where friendly faces were few and far between, we were glad to be greeted at the airport in Asuncion by a high school friend of Natalia’s.  Juanjo was not a birder, but with unbridled enthusiasm woke up pre-dawn to take us to some ecoturism spot outside of the city that sounded promising.

'Ecotourism,' turned out to mean 'zip lining,' and also 'by reservation only,' which of course we had not made. There were some trees around the entrance and the bleary-eyed on-site manager was nice enough to let us bird the vicinity until the paying guests began arriving. Since we were blind being led by the blinder we didn’t exactly rack up a huge species count. Nevertheless, crossing paths with a few flocks gave us our first taste of some of the Atlantic Forest Avifauna.

Blue-naped Chlorophonia
Guira Cuckoo


Paraguay sits at an odd ecological crossroads. It harbors vast areas of arid scrubby savanna known as Chaco, as well as wetter seasonally flooded cerrado-like savanna and then its forests represent the westernmost extent of the Atlantic Forest, famous for being all but destroyed in Brazil and hosting the highest density of endangered birds in the world. This confluence of ecosystems yields an astonishing diversity of bird life and Paraguay’s country list is impressive, given that it is small, nearly flat and much of its territory lies south of the Tropic of Capricorn.

We were eager to continue onward to northern Argentina to delve deeply into Atlantic Forest birds, so only budgeted ourselves a single guided day-trip in Paraguay. In retrospect this was probably a mistake.  It would have been great to take a few days to go deep into the Chaco. Luckily it is possible to get a sampling of Chaco, wet savanna and Atlantic Forest all within an hour or so of Asuncion.

So we booked one long day with a local guide. Unfortunately, the ornithologist Alberto Esquivel, wasn’t available, so he set us up with an ‘apprentice guide’ who would take us up to the flooded savannas of Arroyos y Esteros and then down to 'Chaco I'.

The birding at Arroyos y Esteros was fantastic. The abundance and diversity was staggering for a landscape with almost zero vertical habitat complexity. So many flavors of flycatchers and icterids flitted among the shrubs and clung to reed stems and several Snail Kites were constantly in view in all directions.


Great Pampa Finch
Spectacled Tyrant. Eye like an egg yolk

Maguari Storks being photo-bombed by a Chimango Caracara. I counted 104 storks in this flock, my previous high count for this species was 1.

Yellow-rumped Marshbirds



Unicolored Blackbird. You can tell it's Unicolored and not another of the many superficially similar blackbirds in the region because it is so colorful.

Seriously, look at all those colors. That's a lot of freaking color for a bird called 'unicolored.'

White-banded Mockingbird

And yes, Snail Kites were the trashiest of trash birds here.  Look at this one slumming it on a swing set.


Just as incredible as the bird life was the ineptitude of our guide, Jose. We had been warned that he was an ‘apprentice,’ but the frenquency and severity of his misidentifications was truly staggering. As somebody completely new to this avifauna, it took me some time to catch on to his blunders. Here I document no less than 4 brutal errors that are contradicted by photographs. 

Jose called this bird a 'Southern Screamer.' It's clearly a young Great Black Hawk. If he had brought a scope there never would have been any doubt.


Jose called this bird a 'Bearded Tachuri,' a bird name I had not previously heard and so didn't recognize immediately how wrong it was. Tachuri refers to a genus of flycatcher; this Long-tailed Reed-Finch is in the tanager family! We saw half a dozen of these and they were all 'Bearded Tachuri.' At least he was consistent.

He was right to be calling a lot of Bearded Tachuri, because they were quite common. But with ample chances to recognize the real thing, he instead called this Bearded Tachuri a Euler's Flycatch.

At this point I knew Jose was screwing things up as there's no chance this colorful little flycatcher could be an Euler's Flycatcher, which is a forest species and wouldn't be at happily foraging in roadside scrub. So I made a special effort to get some decent photos... 

And then finally, we saw this fledgling Grassland Sparrow get fed by a parent. Jose's call? 'My gosh it's a Bearded Tachuri with pigment abnormalities!' I shit you not. This is when it dawned on me that Jose was a crap guide and we were being scammed. Hang on... it will get worse.


All of these mis-identifications Jose dutifully submitted to eBird and shared. After a lot of post-hoc editing I ended up with a much different list.

 How many other mistakes did he make that will never be realized? How much bad data is he submitting to eBird? How many false lifers is he foisting upon visiting birders?


Jose might have correctly identified this Southern Scrub Flycatcher; he did call one out at some point. But after all the struggle with Tachuris, it seems just as likely that he was looking at a Small-billed Elaenia or a White-crested Tyrannulet when he made the call.

In Chaco-I, the birds were no less abundant and interesting. At some unassuming overgrown intersection behind a gas station we came across an active mixed flock of a few dozen species (including a nemesis of mine: Red-billed Scythebill) during what is typically the midi-afternoon doldrums.

Rusty-collared Seedeater


Nanday Parakeet

By this point I think Jose began to realize that it was better to be inconclusive with birds rather than make blatant mis-identifications...possibly because I was taking photos. He puzzled a good while over a bird that Natalia and I later realized was a Firewood Gatherer.

And Jose took incompetence to a new level struggled as he drove us into a cow pasture mud pit where we would burn the prime late-afternoon hours unsuccessfully trying to dig his car out.


Jose's talents weren't limited to bird misidentification

Eventually he called his father who came with an SUV and a rope to pull us out. By this point it was long-dark and we were hungry.  Jose got lost on the way back to Juanjo's place and our dinner plans had to be cancelled.  So it goes.

Don’t get me wrong, Jose was a really nice guy, but for $200, one expects a few basic features in a bird guide, all of which Jose lacked:

1-   A spotting scope for appropriate open habitats
2-  A good sense of time-management and logistics
3-  Familiarity with the regularly occurring bird species!

It was like hiring a taxi driver who happened to own pair of binoculars, except that a taxi driver would have the resourcefulness to get his own car out of the mud. 

To his credit, Jose did help us see one of our main targets, the Strange-tailed Tyrant. We saw one distant female that we almost certainly would have missed if he hadn’t known where to stop and look.

Because we had never birded South America’s mesopotamia, we racked up loads of lifers (I got 42), but most of these birds are relatively easy to find in appropriate habitat in parts of Brazil and Argentina.  Other than the paucity of decent guides, the other drawback to birding Paraguay is that it almost entirely lacks specialties. There is one endemic tinamou that brings in a few world listers, but its taxonomic validity is in dispute. 

The lack of important targets and dearth of good flight routes to North America and Europe leave Paraguay as a forgotten corner of the world’s bird continent. This partly explains the trouble with guides…with such little demand, one gets few chances to practice.

It’s a shame that more birders don’t visit Paraguay, both because the birding is excellent and easy and also because the Chaco is rapidly being converted into mono-culture soy plantations, which is a conservation concern.


For better or for worse, Juanjo dropped us at the bus station the next morning for our ride to Ciudad del Este and a trip across the world’s most heavily traveled frontier, the “friendship bridge” to Brazil, which altogether lacks formal regulation. After a long wait in the traffic jam we passed over into Foz de Iguazu and then across the second part of the triple frontier into Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.