Thursday, 15 May 2014

What young birders can get up to after NGB: Matt Williams in Borneo

If you've ever been to a different country, or even a different site from your local patch, for birdwatching, you’ll know the feeling I experienced when I arrived in Indonesia.

You’re immediately immersed in potential new sounds and sights, confused and thrown off balance, but also more alert than normal.

Almost one year ago I came to Indonesia to work for a rainforest research and conservation organisation, and from the moment I landed in Jakarta I had that feeling. Ubiquitous tree sparrows were the first surprise. In the towns and cities this bird which is becoming increasingly scarce in the UK is more common than our own magpies or blackbirds.

Tree Sparrow
And today, ten months later, I find myself writing this to the backdrop of singing gibbons and the curt, electric buzz of Van Hasselt’s sunbirds. I work as the Communications Manager for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, a research and conservation organisation based in the heart of the Sabangau rainforest in Indonesian Borneo.

The Sabangau rainforest is brimming with wildlife and is renowned for being home to the world’s largest populations of orangutans and southern Bornean gibbons. But it’s also a haven for birds. And even in our base camp on the edge of the forest, you can find a wealth of bird life.

Blue-eared Kingfisher

Borneo is one of the world’s largest islands, found in Southeast Asia, and its birds are a subset of the wider Oriental region. Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, identified the Wallace line, created by a deep sea trench, which kept many species from crossing to Borneo from nearby Sulawesi or New Guinea, and vice versa. This make’s Borneo’s birds very distinct in evolutionary terms from species to the Southeast of the island.

Rufous-backed Kingfisher

But during the last 50 million years Borneo has at many times been connected by land to other parts of Sundaland – the islands of Sumatra and Java to the West and South. And during the last million years repeated periods of global ice ages allowed Borneo to be connected by land, and species to cross over and (re)colonise the island.

For example, scarlet-headed flowerpecker and savanna nightjar are just two species that made their way to Borneo during colder periods with lower sea levels.

Savannah Nightjar
I often join our field staff, who spend much of their time following primates through the forest and collecting data. These ‘follow days’ start at 4am by the light of a headtorch and end 12 hours later when the primates head to bed.

And whether I’m in camp or deeper in the jungle, I’m always on the lookout for birds, as I have been since the age of five, when I first started clutching binoculars.

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker

I’ve had many of my highlights in camp, from the blue-eared and stork-billed kingfishers that flit in and out to fish in the swamp, to the greater coucals – brown and black members of the cuckoo family, the size of a pheasant. It has a very plaintive persistent hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo call that is almost a constant backdrop around camp.

One of my favourites are the nightjars. Savannah nightjars hawk over the sedge on the river’s edge while in the forest Bonaparte’s nightjar is a speciality in our forest and when it’s dark at night or early morning you can hear it’s alien-like call.

Regular visitors to camp are also another member of the cuckoo family – the chestnut-bellie malkohas, with their stunning iridescent green-black plumage, their white tail highlights, bluish bill and red eye ring.

Chestnut-bellied Malkoha
But perhaps the best place to birdwatch from is the tower. It’s a 30 minute walk from camp, and it’s best to get there as the sun rises at 5am, after trudging with a head torch through the knee-deep mud.

You can hear a recording from me sitting up the tower first thing in the morning here, with a backdrop of gibbons and cicadas.

The tower is a great place to watch birds in the early morning. The edible-nest swiftlets, whose saliva-based nests are farmed and collected for food in the local village, are the first to arrive. Soon woodpeckers begin to appear, including the great slaty, the world’s largest species.

Black and red Broadbill

And there’s always a chance a crested-serpent eagle will fly past, as has happened on a couple of my visits.

Blue-crowned hanging parrots, a bright green bird with a flash of blue, occasionally fly past and sunbirds or flowerpeckers buzz from tree to tree. And the black-winged flycatcher shrike, as you might imagine a pied flycatcher crossed with a great grey shrike might look, is a beautiful little bird I often see.

Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher
Blue-throated bee-eaters and dollarbirds are often seen perching together on bare branches. The bee-eaters hawk for insects in a loop that brings them back to their original perch.

But the biggest spectacle is perhaps the hornbills. The Asian black hornbill has an unmistakable wretching sound that can be heard several hundred metres away. These birds are frugivorous, but specialise in different fruits so as each species can live alongside the other but avoid competition.
Olive-backed Sunbird

One morning, three of us stood at the top of the tower watching two adult wrinkled hornbills feeding with one juvenile. With our eyes glued to our bins we failed to notice what was happening to our right. A Storm’s stork, which obviously used the tower as a perch as well, had almost landed up there with us. It only pulled up at the last second, veering away when it realised its usually peaceful perch was otherwise occupied. This is one of the rarest birds I've ever seen, it’s classified as Endangered and there are only 500 of them left in the world.

The year I've spent has taught me, as it did scientists two decades ago, that peat-swamp forests might look like they’re fairly poor quality forest, but they’re actually invaluable for wildlife. And while the orangutans and gibbons might be the star attraction for most people, birds are no exception. And it’s a reminder to focus on songs and calls. In such a dense habitat birdwatching and finding new species can take a long time and be incredibly tricky. Familiarity with songs and calls can make all the difference.

Hasselt's Sunbird
I've still got a few birds I would love to see before I leave in June. Crestless fireback and any pitta species in particular. But even if I don’t get these I’ll feel thoroughly satisfied with the year I've spent in Borneo.

-Matt Williams
Matt is a conservationist and wildlife photographer. He began his conservation career early, joining the rspb at the age of five. He currently works for the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project in Indonesian Borneo, as their Communications Manager. He's also part of The Urban Birder team and a Committee Member of A Focus on Nature. 

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