Saturday, December 12, 2009

drinking snow

Did you mother ever tell you not to drink snow? Well, apparently their mothers did not tell these birds… These hardy birds presumably don’t have to worry too much about lowering their body’s core temperature by taking a little snow, and if your diet is dry like seeds (or the fruit you’ve been eating is dry and shriveled) then a little water is very important to aid digestion...

Cedar Waxwing

Red Crossbill - female

Red Crossbill - male

Ruffed Grouse

These Red Crossbills and Ruffed Grouse are both drinking snow that has accumulated on a branch and has perhaps been compacted or melted a little and refrozen to ice, in which case it will have more water content that powdered snow…

Friday, December 4, 2009

Birds and climate change and, well, change...

There is an interesting little summary piece on the Birdlife International page today about the impact on birds of climate change. You can read this at:

Here in Manitoba, we have seen northward shifts in particular of aspen parkland species. For example, I recently documented Yellow-throated Vireo in the Porcupine Mountains, a good 200km north of even the most current range maps. In and around The Pas, where land clearing for agriculture has created parkland like habitat, other parkland species like Black-billed Cuckoo are starting to show up, again well north of their expected range. Trembling aspens themselves are apparently growing faster and are encroaching on new areas at a rapid rate.

Notice anything special about the bird in the photo below?

You might if you had been studying them in the U.K since the 1960s! This is Blackcap, a type of Old World warbler. Since the 1960s some Blackcaps breeding in Germany, began changing their migration. Instead of going southwest to Spain, they went northwest to southern England. There have been many articles written about that fascinating phenomenon. It is also one of those cases that demonstrate the important partnership between birdwatchers and scientists. It is precisely because there are so many birdwatchers in every corner of the British Isles that this phenomenon was so well documented. But the story doesn't end there...

We are also starting to learn of the truly staggering pace at which birds can react to seemingly subtle changes in their environment. An interesting piece came out in the Globe and Mail summarising the findings of a recent study demonstrating how the population of Blackcaps that migrate to the U.K have made subtle changes to their bill shape and wing shape in just a few decades. The authors concluded that this was thanks to the combined effects of climate change and… wait for it... bird feeders! Really makes one think of the impact of even seemingly innocuous behaviour like putting up a bird feeder. Read the following for more details:

It is amazing what a difference a few degrees makes… and the cumulative pressures on birds from so much and so many types of change, change, change is staggering!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Another one on the wrong list!

With the announcement today of the latest round of COSEWIC (Committee On the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) assessments, Manitoba has gained yet another bird on the wrong list – the list of threatened species. And, not surprisingly the newly listed species is a grassland bird – the grassland specialist being probably the most threatened group of birds by habitat, at least in North America.

The species in question is the Chestnut-collared Longspur, a species that breeds in our native prairie (in Canada in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). The species has suffered severe population declines since the 1960’s. Like so many grassland birds, the Chestnut-collared Longspur is threatened by loss and fragmentation of native grasslands from the usual array of anthropogenic developments and their influences on the landscape.

More details on this new round of assessments can be found at

A few photos of the Chestnut-collared Longspur in community pastures with native hay in western Manitoba are included below. You can appreciate the rich colours of this well marked species but you will also notice in the first photo how the cryptic patterning on the back works well as camouflage in the grasslands. In the second and third photo you can see the elongated toes that gives the four species in the genus Calcarius their English name (longspurs). In Manitoba this species once bred as far east as Winnipeg, including at sites near the present day airport. Unfortunately, this species has not only declined in our province but also has experienced a dramatic collapse of the periphery of their range. These days, you need to go almost all the way to the Saskatchewan border to see one (at least to the Brandon area anyway). The same is true for other grassland specialists like Baird’s Sparrow, Burrowing Owl and Sprague’s Pipit. These birds are in urgent need of our assistance to try and win back the prairies that we are losing at such as alarming rate!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Borneo - waterside

One of the best ways to see wildlife in the rainforest is to use the waterways – their openness creates light and allows one to see into the canopy. I was able to get out on the water along the magnificent Sungai Kinabatangan (Sungai means River) and in a few other places near the coast.

One of the most remarkable species that lives along these waterways is the Proboscis Monkey. The large nose of the male that gives this species their name acts as a resonating chamber when they issue their warning calls. The fat belly is a product of a complicated stomach specialized bacteria to digest the leaves that make up their diet (leaves that would be unpalatable to most).

The Estuarine Crocodile loiters along the banks of the Kinabatangan and with a bit of luck can be seen sun baking.

The Bearded Pig is another resident of the riverside forests, where there are plenty of opportunities for wallowing.

The Oriental Darter, the Asian member of the Anhinga family, is very difficult to see on the Asian mainland, where it has become very rare. Borneo is one of the best places to see them!

With views of the canopy all around you, traveling the river by canoe is a great way to see hornbills. These are Sunda Wrinkled Hornbills and there is a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills also near the bottom of the photo.

Away from the main river where there are smaller pools or wetlands there are of course various members of the rail family. This is the shy Red-legged Crake.

And on smaller forest streams, one of the distinctive Asian groups, the forktails, related to robins, make their living. This is a female Chestnut-naped Forktail. The females have more chestnut on the back than the males! This individual seems to have less of a forked tail than most, perhaps due to wear…

The Straw-headed Bulbul is most commonly found in riverside forests. This beautiful songster is now listed as “Vulnerable” (one step down from Endangered), primarily due to declines caused by trapping for the cage-bird industry and also habitat clearing. This species has disappeared from many areas where they were very common a few decades ago. They are virtually extinct on Sumatra, where trapping of live birds is rampant, but fortunately they still occur in places like Borneo. I can recall several times hearing their magnificent song coming from a cage, which I found completely depressing.

There are pittas to be found near the water too. The beautiful Mangrove Pitta, one of several pitta species with a similar rainbow colour scheme, is restricted to the coastal Mangroves and is threatened by the heavy deforestation of that habitat type.

The Hooded Pitta is another species that I saw along the waterside…

Naturally, there are kingfishers by the river (as well as deep in the forest). The well-named Stork-billed Kingfisher, with their enormous bill, is one such species.

The much smaller Blue-eared Kingfisher with their magnificent rich azure, neon and red is a sight to behold. Here are two images to show the richness of bother the upperparts and the underparts of this bird.

That’s it for this small series. Only a small sample of the avian beauty of the area. More photos from South East Asia at

Borneo - Danum Valley 2

There are more than just birds in the rainforest canopy. While walking a long trail at Danum I came around a bend only to face this male Bornean Orangutan feeding in a fruit tree. He immediately climbed higher and began to sound as threatening as he possible could. Of course I tried a few photos but when he started breaking off small branches and throwing them at me I had to leave him alone. Apparently female Orangutans in this situation prefer to throw their own excrement at you – an even more effective strategy I guess. Not so long ago, most people considered the Orangutan to be a single species endemic to Borneo and Sumatra. These days most taxonomist recognise two genetically distinct species, the Bornean Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus now listed as Endangered, their population having fallen by more than half over the last 60 years, and the Sumatran Orangutan Pongo abelii, listed as Critically Endangered, their population being reduced to less than a quarter of their numbers 75 years ago.

The Colugo, or “Flying lemur” is a nocturnal animal (not actually related to lemurs) with a large membrane between their limbs that enables them to glide considerable distances between trees. I surprised this one in the daytime while moving through the bush after a calling pitta. You can see the membrane and the large eyes.

I always spend a fair bit of time out at night if I possibly can and there were many nocturnal species to keep me busy at Danum. The Buffy Fish Owl, a stunningly beautiful owl in my opinion, likes to hang around the light of the research station and is easier seen here that anywhere else I know. Relatives of the “horned owls” (Great Horned Owl and Magellanic Horned Owl) and eagle-owls, the Asian fish-owls are very adept at catching fish in shallow water.

The Buffy Fish Owl’s relative, the Barred Eagle-Owl is a secretive denizen of the rainforest.

The Brown Wood Owl is in the genus Strix, a genus familiar to North American and Europeans. A pair hang around the camp ground at Danum, although I must admit that I am cheating because I did not take this photo there.

The Brown Hawk-Owl (or Brown Boobook) is not related to the Northern Hawk-Owl. This species belongs to primarily Australasian genus Ninox, often referred to as “Boobooks” (an Australian onomatopoeic word). Many authors have split this species into different species (Northern Boobook Ninox japonica, Brown Boobook Ninox scutulata and Chocolate Boobook Ninox randi) In Southeast Asia the Brown boobook is nicknamed the “doo-up” bird because of their two note inflected song. There is the resident form Ninox scutulata borneensis on Borneo and also the migratory japonica form in winter.

The frogmouths are a fascinating nocturnal group related to nightjars but with a much more vertical posture. Their New World relatives are the potoos. Their enormous gape and sensitive rictal bristles are an adaptation to capturing nocturnal insects on the wing. This is a Large Frogmouth, the largest Asian species and possibly the most difficult to see. I organized a special night drive to find this bird to an area where one had been heard previously. I was well worth the long drive as this is the only occasion I have seen this species.

Back in the light of day – well what little of it reaches the lower storey of the forest — there are gems to be found low down too. This diminutive Black-backed Kingfisher (<14cm>

The Little Spiderhunter probes for insects with their long bill, that also allows them to feed on nectar.

The magnificent trogon family is well represented on Borneo, and many of them are surprisingly low down in the canopy. This male Scarlet-rumped Trogon is just a few feet off the forest floor.

Likewise, this juvenile Red-naped Trogon hides low down. The second image shows an adult male.

Perhaps the most highly sough after gem of the Asian forest floor is the pitta family. Super secretive with electric colours, they capture the attention of all birders in the region. The superb Black-and-crimson Pitta has a colour scheme of electric red and neon blue on the back.

The Banded Pitta is like a living rainbow. They are shy though and hard to capture their magnificence on film. Some people have split this species into several species on the various Sundaic islands and the Thai-Malay Peninsula.

The Blue-head Pitta is a dazzling Bornean endemic… they are like a ball of blue light hopping along the dark forest floor!

The pheasants are another Asian-centered group that are superbly plumaged but difficult to see. One of the most sought after species is the Great Argus – a large cryptically patterned pheasant with tail feathers nearly a metre and a half long and elongated secondary feathers that are more than a metre long that are used in a spectacular display. Unfortunately for me, the only photo I ever managed of this secretive bird was this male slinking away in the undergrowth and barely visible despite his enormous size.

Also on the ground, the endemic Bornean Wren-Babbler, may not be colourful but their cryptic pattern is also beautiful and they are just as secretive as pittas and pheasants.

Another one of those shy Asian babbler, the Chestnut-backed Scimitar Babbler pops out in front of me briefly.

While back on the ground, this Black-capped Babbler, slinks around a tree trying to avoid detection.
While this Emerald Dove tried to remain undetected by sitting tight. In the darkness of hte forest floor their bright plumage is somewhat obscured, as is true of so many of the Asian forest gems.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Borneo – Danum Valley

The lowland rainforest of Borneo is another place of wonder and beauty. There are fewer endemics in the lowlands than on the mountains and many of these species can also be seen on the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Nonetheless, there are some sites in Borneo that offer superb opportunities to view some of the most secretive species of the dark Sundaic lowland rainforests. One such place is Danum Valley, where most of the following photographs were taken.

It is very humbling to stand beneath the tall canopy of this rainforest. The canopy itself is like a sold green wall 50m above the ground and, in addition, massive emergent trees of the dipterocarp family (Greek: di – pteron – karpos = two-winged fruit) tower above the canopy, some reaching 70 or even 80m in height. Needless to say, little light reaches the forest floor. When you hear the pulsating sound of a hornbill’s wing beats, you can only crane your neck and hope that they will fly through a clearing.

There are a few endemics living high in the canopy and one of them is the peculiar Bornean Bristlehead. This species is hard to find and as a denizen of the tall canopy had never been photographed before I got this shot – it was published in 2002 in the Oriental Bird Club Bulletin 35: 75- 77. It is a poor shot, looking straight up and heavily backlit and there have since been better photos taken by others but at the time it was a great honour to be the first person to photograph a wild Bornean Bristlehead. The only reason I managed this shot at all was by being in the right place at the right time, on a high ridge that allowed me views into the canopy of the trees lower down the slope.

Out on a snag, another Bornean endemic, the tiny White-fronted Falconet, caches a dragonfly for later consumption. As you can tell this handsome falcon is not that much bigger than a dragonfly. They are amazing fliers though and I once saw a related species catch a swallow.

There is a great variety of fruit in the canopy and likewise a variety of fruit-eating birds. This the beautiful and shy Dark-throated Oriole, coming in to feed. Old World Orioles are among a large group of birds loosely related to crows (unlike New World orioles that are icterids along with New World blackbirds, cowbirds, oropendulas and caciques).

Many of the canopy species are green, which provides great camouflage. This is a male Red-throated Barbet (photo of a juvenile in the fruit-eaters series).

The aptly named leafbirds, are an Asian family of real birds – no, not leaves that look like birds! Like the Asian barbets, they are mostly green all over with any colour restricted to the head. This is a Lesser Green Leafbird.

The Asian Fairy Bluebird is another dramatic rainforest species whose spectacular rich colour against the dark background of the forest makes it seem like they are plugged into a power source! Genetic evidence suggests they are related to leafbirds, although rather different from most of that family in appearance.

On the blue-green note, here is a Chestnut-bellied Malkoha. Malkohas are large Old World cuckoos with a distinctive shape and very long tails. They are unusual among Old World cuckoos in that they are not brood-parasitic (brood parasites lay their eggs in other birds’ nests).

The Raffles Malkoha exhibits a rather different colour scheme. This is a female with a grayish head and a brown tail.

Speaking of long tails – not many exceed the male Asian Paradise Flycatcher! This male is a rufous morph but there is also a white morph (all white except for black head). Although called a flycatcher, this species does not belong to the flycatcher family. Like the Old World Orioles, they are more closely related to crows (remember that Birds of Paradise are crow-relatives too!).

Different colour scheme but the Black-naped Monarch is also related to the paradise flycatcher. This stunning male was worth waiting for near his nest.

The lowland rainforest is full of hornbills although they are surprisingly hard to see considering their enormous size. This is the magnificent Rhinoceros Hornbill, named for the hollow casque above the bill. It was always a great delight to see these magnificent creatures – I think my heart always skipped a beat when I heard their wing beats overhead.

High in the canopy on a dead branch, a pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers are looking for a meal. At half a meter in length, they are as large as the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (but still smaller than the presumed-extinct Imperial Woodpecker).

Of a more “normal” size, the Banded Woodpecker is one of the many red and green woodpeckers in the genus Picus. This bird is feeding on ants on a dead palm frond.

Woodpeckers are remarkably diverse in Borneo. There are also woodpeckers in the Philippines but as one moves further east they start to drop out of the avifauna – there are none at all in Australasia! Amazing to think of a continent without woodpeckers, but fortunately for the parrots and other cavity nesters of Australia, eucalypts and some other Australasian trees are riddled with natural cavities. In Borneo, the beautiful Rufous Woodpecker is one of a few mostly red woodpeckers.

And dwarfed by the Great Slaty Woodpecker, at less than 10cm in length the tiny Rufous Piculet may not look a lot like the larger woodpeckers but that is what they are!

The honeyguides are related to woodpeckers. Most of the diversity in this family is found in Africa and their biggest claim to fame is that some species will lead mammals to bee-hives (like the Ratel or honey badger or even humans) and then get an easy meal after the mammals rip open the hive. In Asia there are only a few species of honeyguides and they are very secretive forest dwellers that many search for but few see. This is a female Malaysian Honeyguide.

You may think of kingfishers as water birds but in Asia and Australasia there are some kingfishers that a deep forest species and which feed on a variety of reptiles and amphibians, not necessarily associated with water. The spectacular Banded Kingfisher is one such species.

As is the Rufous-collared Kingfisher. I was elated to get a photo of this super shy denizen of the forest, although it is so dark you can barely see the bird!

The broadbills are a mostly Asian family of little forest jewels – always a highlight when you see one well. The Black-and-yellow Broadbill has a rather unusual colour combination - black, pink, yellow and blue bill! Wow!

The Dusky Broadbill may be among the least colourful of the Asian broadbills but still a fascinating species to watch – and what a bill!

There are many bulbuls in the forest too, like this Finch’s Bulbul.

And Asia is of course famous for the monstrously large and diverse babbler family (although recent genetic studies seem to be splitting this family up somewhat). Here a Chestnut-rumped Babbler slinks around.

Related to robins, the beautiful Rufous-tailed Shama is one of those species that I had great difficulty connecting with on the Thai-Malay peninsula but seemed to find them much more easily at Danum Valley.

The sunbirds are a fantastic family of small nectar eaters. This is a male Crimson Sunbird. Knocks your socks off every time really!

Sunbirds build closed nests that dangle from a thin branch or vine that barely supports their weight. This is presumed to be an anti-predator devise and may limit access by snakes and other nest predators. Some other Asian tropical birds such as the broadbills also build dangling nests. This is a male Olive-backed Sunbird feeding young.

And why not finish with an endemic… this is a Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker feeding on small fruit. The flowerpeckers are nectar and fruit eaters related to sunbirds. They also come in a dazzling array of colours.

More to come!
Nature Blog Network Birdwatching Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Fatbirder's Top 500 Birding Websites