Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hong Kong: Yuen Po's Stock in Trade

In my previous post I made some general remarks (not entirely complimentary) about the Yuen Po Bird Garden. Now I think I should show you some of the many birds - at least 40 species, and I don't know how many hundreds of individuals - that I saw there.

Many of the birds on display - like this Senegal Parrot (Poicephalus senegalus) - were species you might find in the bird trade anywhere in the world. There were parrots of many species, including numbers of African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus) that may well have been wild-caught and were likely of illegal origin. There were Yellow-fronted Canaries (Serinus mozambicus), the African species known as Green Singing Finch in the trade, almost certainly captive-bred. I was more interested, though, in the native Chinese songbirds that probably originated from bird-trappers on the mainland - and there were plenty of them.

Probably commonest were Japanese White-Eyes (Zosterops japonicus), offered in individual cages piled one atop the other, though this is a species commonly bought for release and sold en masse. The clean white underparts mark this bird as probably the SE China race Z. j. simplex, as you might expect.

These Crested Mynas (Acridotheres cristatellus) are almost certainly intended for release. Chan's thesis records that many birds like this suffer from feather damage, and that some may be carrying infectious diseases including avian flu.

Larks, strangely enough, are common in the market. Most of these are Mongolian Larks (Melanocorypha mongolica), presumably brought in from northern China. The bird in the front, though, appears to be one of the skylarks, and here identification gets tricky. I think this bird is an Oriental Skylark (Alauda gulgula) based on the fine breast streaking, but I am far from sure.

This is also, I think, an Oriental Skylark; it shows the rufous in the wings that is supposed to be characteristic of this species. Larks are apparently very common in the bird garden and other bird markets, with the majority of them intended for release (though, oddly, there are no records I can find of Mongolian Larks for Hong Kong; probably not many survive release); hence the mass cages typical of birds kept for this reason.

Silver-eared Mesias (Mesia argentauris) are popular cage birds in many countries. This appears to be the particularly beautiful red-breasted race ricketti, perhaps brought in from southern China or Vietnam. This individual had lost its tail feathers, and was the only one I saw in the market.

Chats of the genus Saxicola seemed popular in the market. This is a Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola maura), apparently a non-breeding male of the dark Chinese race przewalskii.

This is a Grey Bushchat (Saxicola ferrea), an adult male in breeding plumage.

Finally, this is a Pied Bushchat (Saxicola caprata), the commonest Saxicola in the market even though it does not occur in the wild around Hong Kong and is fairly localized in China; the birds may have come from Vietnam. It is a male in non-breeding plumage - notice the buff feather fringes on the underparts.

I think this is a Pied Bushchat too, though a very oddly-plumaged one - a partial albino? Does anyone have any other ideas?

This was the only Siberian Blue Robin (Luscinia cyane) in the market - a restless little bird with a short, continuously bobbing tail.

This is an Orange-headed Ground Thrush (Zoothera citrina). I saw two in the market and another on sale in the nearby goldfish market, one of only a very few birds there.

Leafbirds, popular for both their plumage and their song, were a frequent offering in the market. This one is a Golden-fronted Leafbird (Chloropsis aurifrons).

The Fork-tailed Sunbird (Aethopyga christinae) is the only native sunbird in Hong Kong, where it lives in forest tracts such as Tai Po Kau, Sunbirds are delicate creatures in captivity, and the few I saw in the market looked quite listless.

This one gave me pause for a moment, but I finally realized that it was an immature male Crested Bunting (Melophus lathami). Chan does not mention this species, so it is probably rare in the markets even tough it is native to Hong Kong.

Finally - as a contrast to all those birds in tiny cages - here is a truly wild bird, a Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) dropping in to the market in search of some fallen seeds. It is the commonest city bird in Hong Kong, totally un-exotic, but it still seemed like the best one to end this otherwise unhappy collection.

Hong Kong: Yuen Po Street Bird "Garden"

On our way home from Malaysia, Eileen and I spent a few days in Hong Kong. There are wild areas in Hong Kong, and very interesting and important ones too, but on my first day I took a couple of hours to explore a much more urban wilderness.

The Yuen Po Street Bird Garden is one of the touted tourist attractions of Kowloon. It is not, however, a garden. It is, instead - despite its description by the Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department as a "Chinese-style theme park" - a walled-in open-air market where cage birds are bought and sold, built in the 1990s to replace the old Hong Lok Street bird market I visited back in 1968.

Yuen Po is certainly a fascinating place, and the tourist sites make it sound quite idyllic.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board describes it as a "charming Chinese-style garden... the favoured gathering place of Hong Kong's songbird owners, who carry their beloved pets around in intricately carved cages. All manner of beautiful birds can be seen here, as well as a selection of traditional bird-keeping paraphernalia".

After that, it is illuminating to turn to a study of what really goes on at Yuen Po. I have worked on international wildlife trade issues for many years, and I certainly wanted to know more. For that, I turned to a 2006 thesis by Chan Sin Wai entitled Religious Release of Birds in Hong Kong [the link takes you to a Hong Kong University request form you must submit to get access to the document].
Cage birds in Hong Kong are not merely - or even primarily - valued as pets. A great many are bought to be released as part of a merit-gaining, primarily Buddhist ritual. Chan notes that "this is a traditional practice in much of Asia, but in some areas it has become commercialized, leading to large-scale trapping, trans-border trading and the release of huge numbers of birds into novel environments." The numbers involved are vast. As many as half a million to a million birds may be released in Hong Kong each year, a great many of them passing through Yuen Po. Most reach Hong Kong illegally, smuggled in by sea from China along with other birds, valued for their song or their plumage, that their new owners have no intention of releasing.

Buying birds for release is not as benevolent an activity as it might sound. Chan tested 512 birds of 13 species sold for release for physical condition, and 281 for avian influenza. "Ninety-nine percent had visible feather damage, injury and/or sickness. No influenza A virus was detected but other viruses were. Five Eurasian Tree Sparrows, four Light-vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus sinensis) and three Red-whiskered Bulbuls (P. jocosus) sold for release were radio-tracked. Half died soon after release. Most birds sold for release are packed 50-100 together in flat bamboo cages stacked on top of each other, thus maximizing the risk of disease transmission between individuals and species, and to people who handle the cages." NB: Most of the birds in the photo are Oriental Magpie Robins (Copsychus saularis), a species not sold to be released, and kept one to a (tiny) cage in the market.

There are, supposedly, laws governing all this; Chan sets them out, including the Convention on Illegal Trade in Threatened and Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the chief focus of much of my work over the past twenty-five years. CITES, however, covers very few songbirds. Officially, the birds imported from China are supposed to come from from two
registered pet bird farms in Guangdong Province, but it seems hard to believe that many of the birds I saw on sale - flycatchers, larks and other birds not at all easy to keep and breed in captivity - are truly captive-bred.

There are some odder uses for the birds at Yuen Po; these Hwa-Meis (Garrulax canorus), though fine singers, are apparently trained for bird-fighting.

Chan makes a number of sensible recommendations for dealing with all this, including improved public education. A telling recommendation is a call for "a complete ban on the import of wild caught birds into Hong Kong. The border control should also be tightened to prevent smuggling or unchecked imports... Since birds imported from China were claimed to be captive-bred by registered pet bird farms, all captive-bred birds imported should be required to be fitted with closed rings that can only be fitted on chicks". I can only, full-heartedly, agree.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sarawak: Gunung Gading and Sematan

I'm writing this on my last night in Malaysia. Tomorrow we're off to Singapore, then to Hong Kong on the first leg of our trip back to Canada, so this entry represents my last posting from Sarawak for 2009. Not my last post about Sarawak, though; I have a lot of back postings to catch up on!

Yesterday was supposed to be an afternoon trip to the coastal towns of Lundu and Sematan west of Kuching, with our main target a seafood dinner. On the way, though, we got into a discussion of Sarawak's strangest plants, the parasitic rafflesias, and it turned out that my friends - all Sarawak residents - had never seen one. This called for action. Specifically, it called for a detour to Gunung Gading National Park, famous as one of the best places to see rafflesias in bloom. I had visited Gunung Gading at the end of January, and had seen there a growing bud, looking for all the world like an out-of-place, chestnut-coloured head of cabbage on the forest floor.

Rafflesia buds take 8-9 months to open, so we took a chance that by now the plant was in flower. It turned out that it was, but we were a few days too late to catch it at its prime. Still, a wilting rafflesia is better than no rafflesia at all, so we headed off up the main trail (with the exception of George, who elected to stay by the car) to have a look...
...and, after a false start and a bit of memory-jogging on my part, we found it. Here are Annie, her sister Shirley and their friend Molly demonstrating their enthusiasm.

This is Rafflesia tuanmudae, Borneo's largest species, but this specimen is hardly a record-breaker I have seen one nearly a metre across). In case you don't know your rafflesias, that strange brownish-purple object at the ladies' feet is the flower, and it's the only part of the plant you can see. The rest of it exists only as strands of material within the living tissue of the woody Tetrastigmia vines you can see crawling over the rocks - there are no leaves, no stems and no roots.
The flower, though past its prime, was still a remarkable object, with an internal structure like no other, a shape that resembles some sort of enormous fungus, and a leathery texture - but, contrary to popular belief, no evil smell. In fact, we could detect no odour at all.

Our botanical yearnings satisfied, we left Gunung Gading and pressed on to Sematan. At my request my friends dropped me off for a late afternoon hour at a spot I had found near here in January. If you follow the coast road westward out of Sematan for a few kilometers, you will eventually come to a long wooden bridge that crosses over a smallish river and on continues through a patch of black mangrove forest. Black mangrove (Bruguiera gymnorhiza) is not the one one on stilts - that's red mangrove. It's the one that sends up little twiglike structures called pneumatophores that project above the mud to provide the tree some extra surface area for gas exchange. This is quite a birdy little spot, and a lot of fun can be had walking quietly back and forth over the bridge (stepping aside now and then to make room for a stream of motorbikes and automobiles that seem to bother the birds not a whit). Red-and-Black Broadbills are here, but I missed getting a photo of these beautiful creatures.
One of the most obvious birds, at least by voice, is the Common Iora.

And here's a real mangrove specialist, the Copper-throated Sunbird. The female (no photo, alas) is one of the few sunbirds that is easy to identify: it has a grey head and striking large white tail-corners.
Like many sunbirds, the Copper-throated has tufts of colourful feathers that it usually keeps out of sight under its wings. In this photo, though, the male is displaying his - whether for my benefit, to signal his mate or to challenge another male, I cannot say.

For me, though, the highlight came at the end of the day, as a set of bobbing heads swam into view from up the river. The four whitish blobs you can see in this photo - all I could get - are otters, presumably Asian Small-clawed Otters (Aonyx cinereus). They swam down unconcernedly towards the bank by the side of the road, and I tried, as quietly as I could, to edge closer to them - but though I got excellent looks as they huffed at me from the waterside (and excellent smells, too - they are very musty animals) photography was out of the question - they seem able to see a flash and dive before it arrives. So you'll have to make do with this shot (which at least shows that I did, in fact, see them!)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sarawak: Kubah Curiosities

A few more little treasures from my day at Kubah with David Bakewell:

This rather peculiar angle represents the closest I could get to a female Archduke (Lexias pardalis) (or should that be Archduchess?). The Archduke is a common but fast-flying and rather shy forest butterfly. You can tell this one is a female by the spots (even on her eyes!); males are velvety black, with a broad swath of iridescent satiny blue along the edges of the hindwings. There are a number of species of Archduke; this one has its antennae tipped orange, a giveaway that this is L. pardalis and not the very similar L. dirtea, whose antennae are entirely black. It's surprising how easy this seemingly trivial difference is to see on the forest floor (and the difference probably means a great deal to butterflies in search of the right mate).

This very common little butterfly is a bushbrown, a member of a very diverse group of Asian and Australasian butterflies. This species, Mycalesis patiana, doesn't appear to have an English common name.

This little lizard crossed the boardwalk at the Frog Pond as I sat waiting for the Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers. It appears to be a Black-banded Skink (Mabuya rudis). If it is, then its cream-coloured throat marks it as a female; in males the throat is crimson. This species occurs on a number of islands in Malaysia and Indonesia, but apparently does not reach the Asian mainland.

...And this is a pill millipede (Superorder Oniscomorpha). It is, in fact, the same individual you can see trundling across the banner at the top of this page. Here, it is demonstrating its chief (and perhaps only) talent: rolling up into a tight little (pill-shaped?) wheel when disturbed. In this position it is about the size of a flattened ping-pong ball. Yeo Siew Tick found this one along Kubah's waterfall trail, and it provided us with a welcome distraction during a two-hours-plus attempt to see a Blue-banded Pitta (the pitta called constantly, but never showed himself). There are numerous species of pill millipedes, belonging to two (perhaps unrelated) groups, and some species vary a lot in colour, so I am not even going to try to identify this one.

Millipedes are charming creatures, though (unlike their carnivorous relatives the centipedes, millipedes are harmless feeders on decaying vegetation, though some species protect themselves with toxic skin secretions). Giant pill millipedes like this one (and even larger ones from Madagascar) are even sold in the international pet trade. I prefer them in the wild, myself.

PS: to tell a millipede from a centipede, count the number of legs per segment. Centipedes have one pair; millipedes have two.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sarawak: Dragonflies at Kubah

I have recently begun to notice dragonflies. I always knew that they were there, of course, but failed to appreciate not only diverse they were, but what wonderful subjects they made for a nature watcher and camera bug (other types of bugs, of course, should avoid these predatory beasts at all costs). For one thing, they are varied, beautiful and (to some extent) identifiable in the field. For another, dragonflies tend to hold still when they perch. If you flush them off, they will, as likely as not, head back to exactly the same perch in a few seconds. This makes them wonderful subjects for impatient and clumsy photographers -- even better than butterflies or birds.

With that in mind, I spent a fair bit of time during my recent trip to Kubah National Park near Kuching stalking the local Odonata (the fancy term for dragonflies and their relatives). I managed to photograph five different species in the widespread family Libellulidae, often known as Skimmers. (There is, by the way, an excellent book on the dragonflies of Borneo, but my copy is sitting at home in Canada doing me very little good. The following identifications are based on photos at the Asia Dragonfly website, and could easily be wrong!)

Three of them, not really forest species, hung around an open patch of boggy grass at the head of the Rayu Trail:
This one is a male Orthetrum glaucum. The name glaucum refers to his powdery-blue (or glaucous) abdomen. Dragonflies with this sort of waxy, powdery coating (and there are lots of them, worldwide) are called pruinose, and the powdery condition itself is called, of course, pruinosity (or, if you prefer, pruinescence). It usually appears on older males, and may be a signal that the insects are ready to mate (though it may also reflect excess sunlight, useful for dragonflies that spend a lot of time sitting in the open).

This is, I believe, another Orthetrum, but there are a number of dragonflies with fat red abdomens in Borneo so I could be wrong. I will put it down as Orthetrum chrysis, and await developments.

Finally, this is one of the grasshawks (Neurothemis), probably a young animal as the adult males turn deep bronzy-red. Grasshawks are hard to identify, the most obvious differences apparently being the shape of the clear (or hyaline) areas at the tips of the wings, and after poring over photographs of several different species I have to admit that I am not sure which one this is.

Not far from the trailhead is the Frog Pond, a shaded forest pool apparently created and maintained by generations of wallowing bearded pigs. At night, of course, it is great for frogs, and by day it is visited by the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher, a glowing little bird that looks as though it had been lit up from the inside. David Bakewell's blog has terrific pictures under his March 4-7 entry. As for dragonflies, I noticed two or three species but could only photograph this one:
It is, I think, Tyriobapta torrida. We would call this a "saddlebags" in North America, because the black patches on the wings make the dragonfly look as though it is carrying luggage!

The most spectacular of the lot, though, was this brilliantly iridescent Cratilla metallica -- how many dragonflies have golden eyes? -- and this one came to us. It decided that David's car antenna was the ideal dragonfly perch, and kept returning to it (even though this photo was taken on a nearby twig). Now that's a cooperative subject!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sarawak: A Morning at Semenggoh

Before getting back to last week’s trip to Kubah, I want to share a few highlights of a very pleasant morning spent with Anthony Wong at Semenggoh Nature Reserve outside of Kuching. Semenggoh is famous for its rehabilitated (and regularly fed) orangutans, but Anthony and I left them to the busloads of tourists that descended on the lace like gnats to watch the 9 AM feeding. Instead, we concentrated on the birds we could see along the road – and very nice birds they were too (though we got most excited by the dullest of the lot, a tiny, brownish little thing called, with reason, the Plain Flowerpecker).

This is not the world’s greatest shot -- but the bird is a Borneo endemic, the Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker, so it was nice to have a close look. Flowerpeckers feed on fruits, and this bird is taking on a rather large one.

Scarlet Minivets are common, but spectacular, members of the cuckoo-shrike family (Campehagidae). This is a male; the female replaces the black and red with grey and yellow, but is still a very pretty bird.

Birds, remarkably enough, aren’t everything. Plants are worth watching, too. Here, as an example is something a northerner doesn’t expect to see in a tropical rainforest: an oak tree, replete with acorns. Strangely enough, there are 100 species of oaks and oak cousins on Borneo, but they are mostly in the highlands. Not this one, though.... and look at those bright red acorns!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Getting Started.... Borneo Highlands

Last week I had the good fortune to accompany David Bakewell, a well-known birder from Penang, Malaysia, on a several days' run visiting Buntal Bay, Borneo Highlands, Kubah National Park and a few other areas around Kuching here in Sarawak. Aside from falling into a deep hole while trying to spot a pitta (moral: naturalists must watch their feet occasionally), I had a wonderful time even though most of these were old haunts for me. In nature, there is always something new to see, especially when you are in the company of expert wildlife spotters like Yeo Siew Tick (as David and I, most fortunately, were). David has his own blog, and he is a fast and expert man with a camera, so I refer you to for a selection of some of the more exciting birds and other wildlife we turned up. Until you do that, though, here are a few snaps of my own:
Borneo Highlands is not a national park; it is a golf course development on the Indonesian border... but it s surrounded by mid-mountain forest, and boasts a splendid overlook into Kalimantan. Once you tire of the view, you can turn around a bit and watch the plume of morning mist streaming from Mount (or Gunung) Penrissen, the highest peak in the area:

For the birds you can see at this lovely spot, check out David's blog entry. For one he didn't post, try the photo below: a Blyth's Hawk-Eagle, "digiscoped" on the cheap by holding my video camera up to David's telescope eyepiece and capturing a frame. The result, as you might expect, isn't terrific, but the bird is:

I discovered, though, that if you stare at the birds too much you can miss (or even tread upon) something as strange as this trilobite beetle larva as it slowly trundles its way through the leaf litter:
David is an insect-watcher too - he found this amazing cerambycid (or longhorn) beetle (Cyriopalus wallacei, according to Yeo) in, of all places, the washroom at the Borneo Heights Lodge..

.... and with that, I'll end this entry, with the promise of more to come from Kubah!