Sunday, November 15, 2009

Borneo - Kinabalu

OK, so as promised, here is a little trip to Borneo. The only pity is that these old scanned slides don’t do these birds any justice whatsoever. Borneo is a place of great wonder and beauty and home to many endemic bird species. I though I’d start off on the majestic Mount Kinabalu. At over 4000m ASL, this mountain contains a variety of life zones and among the highest plant diversity of any site in the world. Borneo’s isolated high peaks shelter many endemic species, i.e. species found nowhere else. Borneo looks isolated on a map of the world but it is important to remember that she was connected at some points in her history with other parts of the Greater Sundas when glaciation cycles lowered sea levels substantially. Borneo lies to the west of the deep sea trench that gave rise to the famous Wallace’s Line, and so has greater avian affinity with Asia and Australasia (and not as much endemism as the even more isolated islands east of Wallace’s line such as The Philippines). Borneo’s winning cocktail is her history of shared contact with the Asian mainland that brought several waves of colonising species, combined with her periods of isolation that allowed some of those species to undergo genetic drift and speciate, plus her tall mountains like Kinabalu, with many life zones and opportunities for different niches to form (more speciation), and of course her large size that lowered the extinction risk for many colonizers and permitted self-sustaining populations. For all of these reasons, Borneo is a staggeringly rich cradle of life!

Needless to say, birding on Mount Kinabalu is fantastic, but, before I get started, I must admit that I will cheat a little but, because I didn’t take all of these photos on Mount Kinabalu, though I saw all of these species on that magnificent mountain. In a previous post on fruit-eaters I had already shown a photo of one of the key endemics found here, the unusual Fruithunter. I couldn’t do a post on Kinabalu without mentioning this bird so why not repeat the photo!

I had also talked about the Asian barbets with their spectacular green plumage living high in the canopy. There are a few endemic barbets on Borneo, this one being the Golden-naped Barbet. Note the subtle blue highlights on the head – most Asian barbets have green colouration with more colour/pattern on the head.

Another green endemic is Whitehead’s Broadbill – another green bird living in the green canopy. Broadbills a re a small family of brightly-coloured suboscine passerines, most of which occur in Asia. When seen well, the three species in this group/genus of green-coloured broadbills are truly spectacular. Since this photo does no justice at all to Whitehead’s Broadbill, I include a photo of the lowland species Green Broadbill below, so you can see the colour (and see how lighting can rob you of colour) . These species appear similar but the Whitehead's has a black throat patch.

Birders on Borneo will talk about the highly prized “Whitehead’s hat trick”, i.e. three secretive species names after British naturalist John Whitehead. The three species that make up this hat trick are Whitehead’s Broadbill, Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, and Whitehead’s Trogon. Although I saw the spiderhunter, I never managed a photo. Here however is that other Whitehead, the magnificent male Whitehead’s Trogon, perched low in the dark forest after the afternoon rain. I remember vividly how I found this bird. It had been raining for hours but I was desperate to squeeze in a little birding before dusk so when the rain slowed to a trickle I hike up to a good birding area. Because of the light rain I still had my camera in my bag, at least until I spotted a brown lump on a branch that proved to be a female Whitehead’s Trogon. I got my camera out as quickly and quietly as I could without excess movement but by the time I was set up, she had flown. Trying to follow her movement though I soon spotted the male a little further in, and he paused long enough for a few photos. Unfortunately I had to use strong flash because the light levels were so low (and that was before the age of digital when you couldn’t adjust the ISO until you finished a roll of film).

The white-eyes are an interesting family of small birds found in Asia, Australasia and Africa. Most are greenish in colour and have a prominent white eyering. This is the Black-capped White-eye, a Bornean endemic.

The Mountain Blackeye is another Borenean endemic in the same family. With their balck face mask, this species is unusual among white-eyes.

The beautiful Bornean Treepie is, you guessed it, yet another Bornean endemic. These birds are truly fascinating to watch.

High in the canopy, a four-note whistled call gave away the tiny Collared Owlet. These birds look very much like pygmy-owls, although some authors now place them in the 9-member genus Taenioglaux, split from the larger Glaucidium genus. If this tiny owl hadn’t called, we could never have spotted this blob in the canopy (lousy photo, fine memory).

Continuing with the Bornean endemic, this is a Bornean Whistler, one of a few Oriental members of a predominantly Australasian family. Wallace’s line is definately a barrier but not an absolute one!

Borneo proved to be a good place to view cuckoos, at least while I was there. This is the famous “brain fever bird”, the Large Hawk-Cuckoo, so nicknamed because of its accelerando song. Actually some authors split this subspecies “bocki” off from Large Hawk Cuckoo and call them Dark Hawk-Cuckoo.

This is a juvenile Sunda Cuckoo, the Bornean race being much darker than most other races. In case you are not familiar with the name , the Sunda Cuckoo is one member of a recent three-way split of the former “Oriental Cuckoo” complex.

Low down, near the ground a Sunda Bush Warbler pops up briefly to allow a photo. Unfortunately the Kinabalu Friendly Bush Warbler that I saw was not so obliging.

Perched low in the dark undergrowth this Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher is also endemic to Borneo.

In the same family but more colourful, the stunning Indigo Flycatcher, found only on Borneo, Sumatra and Java, is always a delight to see.

As is the stunning Verditer Flycatcher, the “green of earth” (vert de terre) bird. Well, blue-green to be precise.

The mossy trunk of this large tree holds a secret – a tiny female Snowy-browed Flycatcher is sitting tight on her nest.

Here is her partner – now you can see where the name Snowy-browed comes from…

In a pile of fallen branches, skulks the endemic Mountain Wren-Babbler.

While, yet another endemic, the Bornean Stubtail, an Old World warbler, creeps along the forest floor.

Also sneaking along the dark forest floor and yes, also endemic, this is the beautiful Red-breasted Partridge. It was just one of those birding moments – I had snuck off the trail to squat behind a large tree (you know why) and the rule is when you don’t have your camera in hand, good birds will find you. Fortunately, I was able to reach for my camera and get into position for this mediocre record shot, even without having done my belt back up…

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