Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sarawak: Visitors from the North

Eileen and I finally got back to Kuching, our Malaysian home, in early April, and it wasn't long before I was afield again - this time on a Malaysian Nature Society trip to see wintering shorebirds at the Sejinkat Ash Ponds, led by my good friend Anthony Wong.

Here's Anthony explaining some fine points of identification!

Shorebirds were our primary goal, but of course there were other birds about - White-collared Kingfishers (Halcyon chloris)..

Tiny Yellow-bellied Prinias (Prinia flaviventris) calling incessantly from the undergrowth and occasionally popping up for a look around...

And Blue-throated Bee-Eaters (Merops viridis) eyeing likely insects from the power lines.

I wrote the trip up for the MNS column in the Borneo Post - so I can cheat a little and reproduce my writeup here, with extra photos. Here is the article:

Visitors from the North

by Ronald Orenstein

Last year, as I left Sarawak for my home in Canada, I wrote in the Borneo Post of the pleasures to be had watching tropical birds in the gardens of Kuching. Now that I am back again, I wanted call, first, on some other visitors from high attitudes before they, too, returned to their homes in the north.

This past Sunday, then, I joined my friend Anthony Wong and members of the Bird Group of the Malaysian Nature Society (Kuching Branch) on a morning excursion to the Sejingkat Ash Ponds near Bako. Our targets were waders -- shorebirds, as we call them in North America -- waiting in the ponds for the tide to drop in Buntal Bay, exposing the sandbars where they would spend the day feeding.

Though a few waders do nest here in Borneo, those we sought at the ash ponds were visitors: birds that breed in the high Arctic and feed on the insect larvae that swarm in the tundra ponds during their brief emergence from the grip of winter. For many of them, Borneo was not even the endpoint of their southward migration, but only a way station on the flight path to their wintering grounds in Australia or New Zealand.

Mid-April is late in the winter wader season, and Anthony was worried, as we drove out to the ponds, that the birds we hoped to see you might already have departed from the north. Certainly, many already had, particularly adult birds, freshly moulted into breeding plumage, rushing northwards to stake out prime territories or to claim mates – one mate or several, selected either by the male or the female, depending on the species – before their rivals. At best, we were hoping for young birds whose chance of breeding, even if they arrived home early, was probably slight.

And there, fortunately, they were: hundreds of them, waiting quietly for something in their internal clocks to tell them that the tide had turned and their day of feeding could begin. Waders are not, by and large, colorful birds, and identifying them -- usually down the barrel of a telescope, because they can be shy and may "spook" easily -- is usually a matter of judging size and shape.

Thus, among a cluster of crisply-mottled gray-and-white birds with long pale olive legs, where larger ones with heavy green and black bills -- Common Greenshanks -- amid packs of slightly smaller birds with thin, straight bills like sewing needles -- Marsh Sandpipers. Among them were still smaller Terek Sandpipers, a mostly Asian specialty, with short orange-yellow legs and long bills that curved strikingly upwards at the tip.

In the neighboring pond were birds whose bills curved the opposite way, downwards: Whimbrels, and their larger relatives, European and Far Eastern Curlews, with impossibly long bills whose delicately sensitive tips could pluck up an insect or tiny crustacean with the precision of a surgeon’s forceps.

By size, leg length, and bill length and shape, the eight species of waders we saw that day partition their feeding grounds. Some stake out the shallow nears shore, while others wade in deeper water. Some pluck food from the surface, while others probe beneath the wet sand. The shifting sandbars of Buntal Bay provide them with such a rich bounty of food that Birdlife International has declared Bako-Buntal Bay to be an Important Bird Area (IBA) -- a place of global significance, whose protection is necessary to the waders and other birds that visit it.

After a few hours watching the birds, we saw them suddenly rise together, in shrill piping flocks, responding at last to the bay’s unseen signal. They circled the ponds over us, calling before flying off to find the food they need to fuel their the long voyage north, and I thought, as I watched them go, how good it was be back in Sarawak.

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