Sunday, December 12, 2010

West Malaysia: Orchard and Forest

On April 11, for my last bit of birding in West Malaysia, Carol, Seng, Eileen Chiang and Lim Aun Tiah took me to two sites in Selangor not far from Kuala Lumpur: an orchard near Sungai Lepoh and a patch of forest near Perdek.

At the orchard we met some other local birders and took a wee breakfast break... to a fruiting tree that carried what, as far as I can tell, is some sort of mangosteen relative -- at least, the fruits looked, inside and out, exactly like mangosteens (Garcinia mangostana), the most delicately delicious of fruits, except for their colour and slightly more astringent taste. A local orang asli told me that they were kecupu (Garcinia prainiana, also known as cherapu or button mangosteen), Kecupu trees were once once popular, but are apparently rarely grown today. Certainly the kecupu is far less well-known than its purple relative, which appears to be conquering the world.

The orchard proved to be a surprisingly lively spot for birds. This was a lifer for me, a Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus). Tiger Shrikes are common winter visitors in West Malaysia, and I suspect I was just in time to see this one before its departure for its breeding grounds in eastern Asia.

Here is one of a group of Scaly-breasted Munias (Lonchura punctulata) we found by the trailside, feeding on tiny seeds of grass and sedge.

This delightfully pointy-headed creature is a female Grey-and-buff Woodpecker (Hemicircus concretus). She acted more like a nuthatch or a tit than in the manner we northerners have come to expect from woodpeckers. The two woodpeckers in the genus Hemicircus may, in fact, represent an early stage in the evolution of typical woodpecker behaviour. A recent genetic study has shown that Hemicircus is the sister-group to all other woodpeckers except the wrynecks and piculets, which lack the stiffened tail-feathers and tree-climbing adaptations of the rest of the family. In other words, this little bird may represent the first evolutionary stage in the evolution of a "true" woodpecker.

Here's something I never expected to see -and a tribute to the spotting skills of my companions!

This image, taken through a telescope, shows one of the most unusual breeding adaptations in birds. The lump between the legs of this Grey-rumped Treeswift (Hemiprocne longipennis) is its nest - one of the smallest in the avian world, so tiny that the bird must straddle it to brood its young. It is not even big enough to completely contain the single egg; instead, the egg is actually glued to the nest structure, perhaps deliberately but perhaps simply by adhering to the drying saliva that is the bird's main construction material.

The Handbook of the Birds of the World describes the Grey-rumped Treeswift's nest as "typically a half-saucer of hardened saliva incorporating small scraps of moss, bark flakes and body feathers, c. 36x24 mm, maximum outside depth 12 mm, built out as a bracket 5-30 m up on a thin, exposed twig." Why such a tiny, exposed structure? Perhaps to take advantage of the thinnest possible twigs, flexible supports that can instantly telegraph the slightest move by a prospective nest raider to the sitting parent.

This tattered but still beautiful butterfly is a female Malaysian Eggfly (Hypolimnas anomala). Eggflies are well-known mimics of other butterfly species. This one appears to be copying the crows (Euploea), members of the same family, Danaiidae, as the most famous butterfly to serve as a distasteful model,the monarch (Danaus plexippus). Usually only the female engages in mimicry, presumably because female butterflies select their mates and it is more important for a male to be recognizable to a prospective partner than to avoid a potential predator.

The orchard's trees were home to lizards as well as to birds. Here a Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) checks us out from a safe vantage point...

While on a nearby trunk a remarkable creature, a Common Gliding Lizard (Draco sumatranus), one of the genuine "flying dragons", signals his otherwise well-camouflaged presence with his bright yellow gular pouch.

On to the forest at Perdek, which turned out to be surprisingly busy. A bevy of photographers from Singapore had the burrow of an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx erithacus) pinned down under a barrage of telephoto lenses, much to the disgust of my birding friends, while a gaggle of buses disgorged a troop of Malay schoolchildren on a field trip. I was glad to see the kids - many teachers in Malaysia are unwilling to take their charges into the forest for fear of snakes, leeches and other creatures whose mere presence among the children might cause trouble with parents.

Letting children see the beauties of their own natural heritage, though, is never a bad thing.

Anyway, the visitors didn't seem to deter the birds. This would have been a pretty good shot of a Raffles's Malkoha (Rhinortha chlorophaea), a non-parasitic member of the cuckoo family, if that twig hadn't gotten in the way. Oh, well... The bird, by the way -- like the world's largest flower, Malaysia's most spectacular butterfly, and a famous hotel -- bears the name of Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), the somewhat ill-starred founder of Singapore, who first described it in 1822.

This may look like some sort of warbler, but it is actually a Plain Sunbird (Anthreptes simplex), perhaps the least colourful member of its family. The pink bill marks it as a juvenile.I am not sure about the identity of the purple fruits that appear to have its attention.

And here is a bird that is anything but plain, a male Black-naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea) on its nest. It is perhaps a bit unusual to see such a brilliantly-coloured bird taking its turn with nesting duties, especially when the nest is so open to view.

As the day became hotter the birds grew still, yielding the stage to the insects. Dragonflies like this Orthetrum chrysis perched in patches of sunlight.

This is Crocothemis servilia, an even redder species than the last. [Correction July 2017: actually Orthetrum testaceum

An animated bit of fluff crossing the forest floor -- the nymph of a flatid planthopper, covered with waxy filaments that serve it both as a disguise and as a sort of armour.  A bird that pecks at it may get no more than a beakful of wax for its trouble (though strangely enough flatid nymphs are apparently a delicacy in some parts of Thailand).

A forest bee, perhaps a Giant Honeybee Apis dorsalis.  What is it finding here?  Butterflies congregate on the forest floor seeking mineral salts; perhaps the bee was doing the same.

Butterflies we found in plenty.  This is a Malay Yeoman (Cirrichlora emalea), distinguishable from its near relatives by the straight-sided light bar on the underside of the hindwing, visible in the lower photograph.

The butterfly on the right of this photograph is a Lesser Jay (Graphium evemon), another species difficult to identify for certain without seeing the underside.  The otherwise similar Common Jay (G. doson) has an extra red spot on the costal bar, the dark stripe at the leading edge of the hindwing.

By far the most numerous of the forest floor butterflies were the so-called albatrosses of the genus Appias.  Why these delicate members of the sulphur family should bear the same name as Coleridge's giant seabirds I have no idea, unless the dark-tipped white wings of some species brought the plumage of an albatross (or, for that matter, a gannet or gull) to mind.  Anyway, most of these are Chocolate Albatrosses (A. lyncida vasava).

The other species present, the beautiful Orange Albatross (Appias nero figulina), would be hard put to bring to mind a seabird of any description!

All told, it was a highly productive and enjoyable morning.  Eileen, Carol and Seng certainly deserved their celebratory cups of coffee afterwards....

And I even managed to snap a final bird, a House Swallow (Hirundo tahitica), outside the kopitiam before we headed, at last, back to Kuala Lumpur.

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