Thursday, May 27, 2010

West Malaysia: Fraser's Hill - Setting the Scene

From the coast at Tanjung Tuan Eileen, Bing and I travelled via Kuala Lumpur to one of my favourite places in Malaysia, the mountain resort of Fraser's Hill. We spent two days here (April 6-7), birding, nature watching and just enjoying the view.

The view is, of course, very enjoyable!

Fraser's Hill, besides being an extremely pleasant spot, has the advantage of being surrounded by quite a bit of reasonably undisturbed forest. The powers that be seem determined to "upgrade" the charming little village, with its vestiges of British colonialism, an activity that mostly seems to be accomplished by the addition of a lot of reinforced concrete, but fortunately the Pahang state government has put a freeze on further development. With luck, the area may continue to be a birders' mecca.

It is also something of a botanists' mecca -- 900 species of vascular plants, with 36 endemics!. As far as I am concerned, any place with tree ferns (Family Cyathaceae), perhaps the loveliest plants in the world, is a beautiful spot by definition.

Birders visiting Fraser's Hill always head for the Telekom Loop, a road near the summit lined with tree ferns and surmounted by a telecommunications tower. It is an excellent place to find mixed flocks of mountain birds.

For birds of lower elevations, the best bet is to head for the so-called new road, and alternate way up (or down) the mountain. Some people have even seen tigers here. At various times this road may be either open or inaccessible....

...And at the moment it is being disfigured by some pretty hideous roadworks, apparently in response to a quite significant landslide, so we could only reach it from the top.

I have so many pictures from Fraser's Hill that I have decided to split my entry up into sections. This one, besides scenery, we'll give you a bit of botany (or, in the case of these bright yellow mushrooms, mycology) and invertebrate zoology.

More mushrooms -- and please don't ask me what they are!

Ferns line much of the new road, framing views of the hills in the distance.

I believe this to be Dicranopteris curranii, the roadside fern. It certainly grows along roadsides, where its multi-branching growth habit produces dense, impenetrable thickets.

On the other hand, this common epiphytic fern (whose name, I'm afraid, I do not know) forms highly attractive, discrete clumps, each sprouting from a basin of dead leaves.

This beautiful, coppery-red young frond belongs to another species of fern that I cannot identify, growing along the edge of the new road.

Two contrasting flowers (or, in the first case, inflorescences): does anybody know what they are? I presume that the lower one is a member of the family Amaryllidaceae, but that's as far as I can go.

I do know what this is! It's a bamboo orchid (Arundina graminifolia), and the new road is lined in many places with thickets of the stuff. They do look rather like clumps of bamboo until you notice the flowers. it can be a rather treacherous plant; while trying to take these photographs I managed to fall, slowly, into a deep hole cleverly hidden beneath clumps of orchid stalks.

Fraser's Hill has an interesting spider fauna, including (according to Chris Shepherd of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia) five species endemic to the region. This, however, is not one of them. It is, instead, one of the giant orb weavers (Nephila spp.), widespread spiders whose huge size, big enough to span your hand and more -- at least as far as the females are concerned; the males are quite tiny -- and immense webs can give arachnophobic visitors to the tropics (not to mention insects and even small birds) the fright of their lives. Fortunately for me, I like spiders, and I find these monsters quite beautiful.

Both these photographs show butterflies of the genus Jamides, known as caeruleans, though as the various species are extremely similar (some can only be identified by dissection of the genitalia) I am not sure which one it is (or they are; these are different individuals, photographed separately along the new road).

These photos are of the same butterfly - a Wizard (Rhinopalpa polynice eudoxia). It is a widespread southern Asian butterfly, the only member of its genus.

These two butterflies were sampling the mineral salts at the roadworks along the new road. I believe that the upper one is one of the crows (Euploea spp.), though there are other butterflies (eg Chilasa spp.) that mimic them. The lower photo is probably of another Euploea, the Magpie Crow (E. radamanthus).

This superb beetle, an immense longicorn I believe, was prowling around some bushes near an old English-style hotel where we stopped for tea.

And to finish our parade of Fraser's Hill invertebrates, here is a truly impressive leech, an animal I'm glad I didn't meet on closer than photographic terms!

Eileen took this shot of me contemplating the view from our apartment balcony at the end of the day. I hope I look happy, because I certainly was!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

West Malaysia: Raptor Watch at Tanjung Tuan

Getting behind again -- too many good stories to tell!

The lighthouse at Tanjung Tuan, near Port Dickson on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, sits atop a wooded promontory overlooking the Straits of Malacca. Here, thanks to our friend Bing Lim, Eileen and I spent April 2-3 with the intrepid participants in the annual raptor watch organized by the Birding Group of the Malaysian Nature Society (Selangor Branch).

The reason the promontory is still wooded, Bing told us, is that although Port Dickson is in the state of Negeri Sembilan, this isolated bit of land is officially part of the state of Melaka and thus somewhat immune to the development pressures in the surrounding area. The result is not only and excellent place to watch migrating raptors, but a nice little forest reserve.

Here's an attractive epiphytic fern growing on a tree along the road....

...and here are two extremely attractive denizens of the forest - Dusky Langurs or Dusky Leaf-Monkeys (Trachypithecus obscurus).

The raptor watch has been an annual event for quite some time, is officially held during one weekend in March, but the really keen watchers stay on duty for a whole month, counting the birds as they fly across the strait from neighbouring Sumatra.

Watching birds from an attractive terrace by the seaside may not seem like a particularly strenuous pastime, but that reckons without the midday heat. The thermometer climbed on both days to 38° C. The canopy was a big help!

Our intrepid team members included Khoo Swee Seng and his wife Carol, with Bing on the right.

All eyes (well, most eyes) were glued to the waters of the strait, waiting for the raptors to arrive.

Out on the strait itself, barges and container ships plied the waters....

...With a few small fishing boats nearer to shore.

The rising temperatures made the waters below look quite attractive, if a bit murky!

There were, of course, distractions as we waited for the raptors to arrive. One dead limb below us provided perches for a pair of Blue-throated Bee-Eaters (Merops viridis) and a Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier)...

...And, on the second morning, for a Lineated Barbet (Megalaima lineata), here near the southern end of its range.

Below the lighthouse parapet, a young Pin-striped Tit-Babbler (Macronous gularis) begged for food from its presumed parent (Note: this is the bird that was once known simply as the Striped Tit-Babbler until it was split from the Bold-striped Tit Babbler (Macronous bornensis), the form found in Borneo. The new name makes it sound as though it is clad in a business suit, which is clearly not the case).

Red-Eyed Bulbuls (Pycnonotus brunneus) came in for a close look...

...While an Orental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) sang from a nearby perch.

This Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis) used the lighthouse as a regular perch. The second shot shows how the bird got its name - the roundish wing-patches are supposed to resemble silver dollars.

We adopted this Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) as a sort of mascot - or perhaps it was vice versa! As the upper photograph shows, it seemed as affected by the midday heat as we were...

A few Plantain Squirrels (Callosciurus notatus), the common garden squirrels of most of Malaysia, visited the nearby bushes. The lower shot may not show the whole animal, but it does give you a good view of its characteristically rusty belly.

I'm afraid that I am not a good enough photographer to do much with swifts in flight, so you will have to take my word for it that the air around the lighthouse was swarming with them. This one, I think, is a House Swift (Apus affinis), but we also noticed some migrating Fork-tailed Swifts (Apus pacificus) and multitudes of swiftlets. Most of the swiftlets were plain birds with grayish rumps, and were probably examples of the vast number of hybrids that now swarm over much of Malaysia as a result of the boom in swiftlet farming. However, I also noticed some small white-rumped birds which may have been the resident Germain's Swiftlet (Collocalia germani), and a few large, dark individuals that may have been migrating Himalayan Swiftlets (C. brevirostris).

We were there, of course, for bigger things, and although it was almost the end of the raptor migration eventually birds of prey started to arrive as the temperature rose and thermals started to form. White-bellied Sea-Eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) like these are probably local residents.

Here's one with a Black-shouldered (or Black-winged) Kite (Elanus caeruleus) - a nice demonstration of how two birds of prey with somewhat similar patterns can differ so enormously in size and shape!

Here is another eagle, this time an immature.

A lone Pergrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) swoops in amidst a pack of swifts....

...while knots of commoner raptors circle overhead. These are Oriental Honey Buzzards (Pernis ptilorhynchus), by far the most abundant species over the whole of the raptor watch period.

These are Chinese Goshawks (or Chinese Sparrowhawks, if you prefer) (Accipiter soloensis), identifiable (even at some distance overhead) by their pale underwings and black wingtips. We saw several other species as well: Japanese Sparrowhawks (Accipiter gularis), Black Bazas (Aviceda leuphotes) and a sole Pied Harrier (Circus melanoleucos), all life birds for me, were standouts - though I confess I should like to have seen them closer to!

Lim Aun Tiah carefully recorded all the details - this is a scientific survey, remember!

Here is Bing performing another crucial survey function - keeping the local Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) away from our bananas... not always successfully, I might add...

The pole is necessary - I tried shooing away a male with my hand and got a full-scale, very toothy threat display in response. Final score: macaque 1, blogger 0.

The end of a successful two days, as Eileen celebrates with our happy team!