Monday, January 3, 2011

Sabah: Kinabatangan - Water Birds

A cruise along the Kinabatangan River, or up one of it's tributaries, is sure to produce a selection of birds scanning the waters for fish or simply sunning in a riverside tree. Here is a sampling of some of the birds we saw there last May.

The Oriental or Indian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) is a very close relative of the Anhinga (A. anhinga) of the North American Everglades. Like that bird (or its other two cousins in Africa and Australasia) it is a superb spearfisher, with a dagger of a bill and a trigger mechanism in its neck vertebrae that allows it to stab its prey with great speed during its underwater forays. Its specific name means "black belly", and this bird sunning on an emergent snag certainly shows us why. Darters are not particularly common in Borneo, but we saw several along the river.  This bird, with its pale head and neck and yellowish legs, is probably a juvenile.

A Great Egret (Ardea alba) flushes as our boat approaches.  The yellow bill marks it as a non-breeding bird.

Near the other end of the heron size scale, a Little or Striated Heron (Butorides striata) flies down the river ahead of us.

Raptors patrolled the river, too. This is an adult Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus)...

While this is a juvenile.

Perched over a tributary we found a real fish specialist, a Lesser Fish-Eagle (Ichthyophaga nana), watching us unconcernedly as our boat passed beneath its perch. Even its generic name means "fish eater".  There are two species of Ichthyophaga eagles, both found in Borneo; the other, the Grey-headed Fish-Eagle (I. ichthyaetus) has a white tail with a black terminal band.  The Lesser apparently prefers narrow forest streams, such as the tributary where we found this bird, while its cousin favours broader rivers and lakes.

This Crested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela), perched in a tree along the main river, is probably not interested in fish. As it's name suggests, it is primarily a reptilivore.

Waiting for the night shift was another fish-catcher (and frog-, prawn-, insect-, bird- and small mammal-catcher to boot), the Buffy Fish Owl (Ketupa ketupu).

Definitely here for the fish is this Whiskered Tern (Chlidonias hybrida). Alone among the birds featured here, the Whiskered Tern is a winter visitor; the closest it breeds to the Kinabatangan is probably eastern China. We weren't sure that we would see terns in May, when they usually head off to their breeding grounds, but there they were nonetheless - both Whiskered Terns and a few of their extremely elegant cousin, the White-winged Tern (C. leucopterus). Photographing flying terns from a moving boat is not the easiest task in the world, and this was my most presentable shot. A beautiful, graceful creature!


  1. Nice photos of raptors!

  2. i am almost100% sure that i have seen 1 most days 4 past 2 weeks fishing on a wier on the river Thames @ Reading, Berkshire, UK. Would love any info if possible.

    1. Sorry - which bird are you referring to? None of these birds occurs regularly in Britain but some related species do (e.g. Little Egret Egretta garzetta).