Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sarawak: A Morning at Kuala Baram

Not long after settling in, Eileen and I were off to Miri, at the eastern end of Sarawak, for our daughter Adrienne's graduation from Curtin University. Nazeri Abghani and Musa Musbah, from the Miri branch of the Malaysian Nature Society, were kind enough to take me out for a morning's birding in the Kuala Baram area to the east of the town. Musa has written his own account on the Miri birding blog (and, unlike your correspondent, did so on time and not eight months later!). Here, though, is mine:

Kuala Baram is - at least for the moment (it is being rapidly developed) - a coastal area of peatswamp and marsh, with some man-made ponds (not, unfortunately, intended to be permanent)covered with waterlilies and lotus.

These, near Curtin Lake, are probably Hairy Waterlilies (Nymphaea pubescens), a common southeast Asian species.

Indian Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera) is a fascinating plant (and an extremely beautiful one).  Its significance to the people of Asia, as everything from an object of religious symbolism to a source of food, is of course profound.  It has surprised botanists, too.  Anyone looking at it would think that this is simply a particularly spectacular sort of waterlily.  Its unique seed pods, though, suggest otherwise, and genetic analyses have revealed that not only is it not a waterlily - it is not even a close relative. 

 Instead, it appears to be allied to the Platanaceae, the sycamores or plane trees so commonly planted on European city streets, and the Proteaceae, the family that includes the macadamia and the spectacular proteas of South Africa.  There are only two living species (plus an Eocene fossil from North Dakota), this one and the white-flowered American Lotus (N. lutea), and they are distinctive enough to be placed in their own family (Nelumbonaceae) and order (Nelumbonales).

Ducks, so ordinary a feature of wetland areas in North America, are hard to come by in Malaysia. These Wandering Whistling-Ducks (Dendrocygna arcuata) are the first of their family I have seen in Sarawak, and reason enough to hope that at least some of the wetlands at Kuala Baram can be spared.

This rather unremarkable-looking warbler has, nonetheless, an interesting story.  It is a Striated Grassbird (Megalurus palustris), widespread from Pakistan to Indonesia but formerly quite rare and local in Borneo.  It apparently arrived naturally on the island as recently as the 1980s, and for some years was restricted to the area around Lahad Datu in eastern Sabah where I first saw it in 1992.  It has spread rapidly since, becoming one of the few birds to benefit from the vast loss of forest on the island.  In Sarawak I have only seen it in the grasslands around Miri, but I suspect it will arrive at Kuching before long if it hasn't done so already.

We spent some time wandering among the ponds, admiring Oriental Darters (Anhinga melanogaster), another uncommon species here, circling kites, and this Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea).

A drive north towards the coast brought us, after a short ferry crossing, to the prawn farms at Singai Tujuh.  We didn't go to the actual farms, but instead visited a tiny kampong between a narrow canal and the sea.  The canal was happily productive for these fishermen, who proudly showed off their catch - a couple of rather small Barramundi (Lates calcarifer) -- the species can reach almost 2 metres in length, but it presumably doesn't do so very often.

I have no idea what this little, very colourful fruit is, but it was growing in profusion along the canal.

The path along the canal could be tricky in spots...

But it was, among other things, a rewarding spot for insect-watching.  Rhyothemis phyllis, one of the most attractive and easily-identified of Borneo's dragonflies (that tiger-striped patch on the hindwing is matched by no other dragonfly on the island), was particularly common.  Hunting adults zoomed about us continually as we walked.

Butterflies were common, too.  This is a Grey Pansy (Junonia atlites), a wide-ranging species found from Sri Lanka to the Lesser Sundas.

The Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya) is even more widespread, from southern Africa in the west (where it is called the Eyed Pansy; there is another Blue Pansy there, J. oenone) to Australia in the east (where, just to be different, it is called the Blue Argus).  This is a male; the female is a much less brilliant creature, its pattern and colour calling to mind its North American cousin the Buckeye (Junonia coenia).

One mudflat below us was dotted with displaying fiddler crabs rhythmically waving their claws.

Mudskippers, those most entertaining of fishes, hopped out of the canal to defend their patches of mud or chase insects or algae (depending on whether the species involved is a carnivore or a vegetarian).  Going by the blunt face with its pendant, mustachio-like barbels, and the dark stripe running back from the eye, this may be the Giant Mudskipper (Periophthalmodon schlosseri), a definite carnivore.

The path led us through the kampong and its stilted wooden houses... the shore of the South China Sea.

Here we found ghost crabs and some unidentified castings on the sand...

And the trackway of some sort of mammal - otter? civet? something else? - making its way along the beach.

As we worked our way back to the car, a White-bellied Sea-Eagle (Hailaeetus leucogaster) circled above us, only to be mobbed by a White-breasted Woodswallow (Artamus leucorynchus).  I later used this photo for a beginner birding lecture in Kuching - not a bad illustration of how shape and size can sometimes be more important for bird identification than colour or pattern!

I used the next few photos, too, as examples of similar species -- three common egrets.  First, a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta), with its gracile build, black bill and legs, and "golden slippers"...

 Next, an Eastern Cattle Egret (Bubulcus coromandus) in breeding colour (with a lot more orange about the head than the Cattle Egret (B. ibis) of Africa and the Americas) ...

And, finally, the awkwardly-named Intermediate Egret (Egretta intermedia; I prefer the African name, Yellow-billed Egret).  This can be a bit hard to tell from the yellow-billed races of Great Egret (E. alba), but notice the shorter neck and, in particular, the black tip to the bill.  This cooperative individual posed next to our car as we drove away - a nice finishing touch to our excursion.

No comments:

Post a Comment