Though our stopover in Kuching was a brief one, it did give me time to join my friends in the local Malaysian Nature Society branch on a birding trip to the rice paddies of Chupak, some 50 kilometers south of town.
Chupak is one of the few places around Kuching where you can see freshwater birds, and at this time of year the freshly planted padi is still low enough to give a visiting birder a reasonably clear view of things.
I'm not sure what the workers on the padis think of the strange-looking people, sporting spotting scopes and long lenses, that invade their territory at regular intervals!
Freshwater wetlands good for birds can be hard to come by in Sarawak, so we're glad of this one. So, I suppose, are the migrant Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola) that flock here in considerable numbers.
Chupak is also a good place for other waders, including snipes of one species or another and this Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula).
Some of the birders, though, left a bit early. My friend Vincent Wong and I lingered, looking over the paddies to see what else we could find.
While Vincent scanned for likely birds, I checked out other padi life: the inescapable Orthetrum sabina...
and an attractively-patterned Grass Frog (Fejervarya limnocharis).
Waders (or shorebirds, if you prefer) aren't the only birds to be had at Chupak. Munias descend on the pads to feed on grains of rice. This one, the Spotted Munia (Lonchura striata), is even called "ricebird" in some parts of its range (including Hawaii, where it is an introduced exotic).
This is an immature.
If you are very lucky, you can even turn up rails. We were indeed lucky, and had excellent looks at a very attractive White-browed Crake (Porzana cinerea), a widespread species that ranges from Southeast Asia to Tropical Australia. It is less shy than other crakes, and consequently fairly easy to see in the right places.
I was feeling quite worn out by the time we headed back to the car (it gets pretty hot out there by midday), but there is nothing like a good bird to make a birder forget his discomforts.
Our good bird was another rail, this time a Buff-banded Rail (Gallirallus philippensis), flushed from the roadside but soon lured back into view with a recording of its rather feeble call. I didn't get a usable photo, but Vincent has kindly provided me with this one.
On November 24 Eileen and I found ourselves once more, this time briefly, in Kuching, Sarawak, our annual visit shifted ahead by a couple of months so I could attend the Society for Conservation Biologists' annual meeting in Auckland (my second trip to New Zealand this year, after a 34-year absence!). Even with only a few days to spare I managed to get in a little natural history. On the 27th we took some friends from Kuala Lumpur to the longhouse at Anna Rais and the orangutan rehabilitation centre at Semenggoh.
Though it's chief attractions are cultural, Anna Rais is a good place to watch butterflies - but not, at least on this visit, to photograph them, though a magnificent Rajah Brooke Birdwing did fly lazily over the elevated split-bamboo porch before vanishing into the surrounding jungle. I had to settle, instead, for a photo or two of this Orthetrum testaceum.
The trails at Semenggoh have been closed to general access after two staff members tried to separate an orang from a tourist, who had been foolish enough to bring food into their territory early in October, and were badly injured as a result. This is perhaps a natural consequence of making the site a mass tourist attraction, and when the main trail was finally opened for the afternoon feeding I had no desire to stray away from the crowd.
At first the orangutans didn't show, though I confess I find the prospect of watching semi-wild orangs less exciting than encountering some of the truly wild animals of the reserve - even if they are far smaller beasts.
A German photographer led me to this little, brilliantly orange centipede, one of two crawling busily over a plant in the undergrowth.
This little skink allowed me one quick snap before disappearing behind a fallen log near the viewing platform.
In the meantime, the orangs came in for their daily feed. The Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is in increasingly serious trouble as its habitat is logged over or converted to palm oil plantations, and in Kalimantan over the Indonesian border orangs have been deliberately (and illegally) killed to get them out of proposed plantation sites. Rehabilitation centres may contribute little directly to saving the species, but the animals in them are safe and lead at least a semblance of a natural life. In nature, though, orangs are solitary creatures, and the gatherings at the Semenngoh feeding tables do not represent the way wild orangs really live.
This mother and baby certainly appreciated the fruit...
…. although whether they appreciated being gawked at by a horde of tourists as they ate is another matter. Nonetheless, if Semenngoh promotes real appreciation for Sarawak's natural heritage among even a few of its visitors, that is a positive thing - and without the orangs, there might not be habitat for the truly wild creatures that live in the centre's forest.
That includes, of course, birds. Mid-afternoon is not an ideal time for birding, though I did have a good look at a beautifully metallic Hair-crested Drongo and a chance to photograph a Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker (Prionochilus xanthopygius), a common Borneo endemic. This shot shows the yellow rump, but unfortunately robs you of the sight of its brilliant yellow breast highlighted by a central splotch of fiery orange.
Hummingbirds are supposed to have cornered the market on hovering in front of flowers, but their (unrelated) old world counterparts the sunbirds can do a fairly decent job of it on occasion. I was nonetheless surprised to see this Thick-billed Spiderhunter (Arachnothera crassirostris), one of the heavier members if the family, hovering repeatedly at the white flowers of a bush by the parking lot.
For those using one of the standard Borneo bird guides, notice that the yellow eye-ring on this individual is far less obvious than it would seem to be on the birds in the plates.
The Thick-billed is one of the less common spiderhunters on Borneo, and getting a good look at it was - for me - the highlight of the day.
At the end of October Eileen and I headed south for a few days to Florida, where we joined my parents in celebrating Dad's 95th birthday (November 1, 2011). With one thing and another, we only had time for two brief nature walks, at Green Cay in Delray (where I photographed this blooming Lanceleaf Arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia)) and at the Daggerwing Nature Center in Boca Raton.
Green Cay was swarming with dragonflies, most of them zipping past at frustrating speed. Here are two pondhawks: a Pin-tailed Pondhawk (Erythemis plebeja) and an Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis).
This was a new species for me, a female Four-spotted Pennant (Brachymesia hervida), the only North American dragonfly with entirely white pterostigmas according to Sidney Dunkle's Dragonflies Through Binoculars (Oxford University Press, 2000). The pterostigmas are the blood-filled blisters near the tips of the wings (looking rather like grains of rice on this individual). They are used, according to Dunkle, in signalling mates or rivals.
My Asian readers may find this photograph strangely familiar. It is a female Scarlet Skimmer (Crocothemis servilia), a dragonfly that properly belongs on the far side of the Pacific, where it ranges from Asia to Australia (in 2010 I photographed males in Malaysia and China). It first showed up in Miami in 1975, and now ranges from Orlando to the Keys (as well as Cuba and Hawaii).
More familiar to me were these male Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis).
The commonest dragonfly at Green Cay was the little Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). I was able to take a series of photos of individuals ranging from females (or young males) to fully mature male adults. These are females or young males - nothing particularly blue about them (though they are rather dashing).
This male is on his way to adulthood. Notice the blue cast developing on the upper surface of the abdomen.
And here is an adult male. Not only is he now nicely blue on the abdomen and rear part of the thorax, but his eyes have turned jade green.
Common Gallinules (Gallinula galeata) are, as their name implies, common at Green Cay. In case you were wondering why this bird isn't called Gallinula chloropus, that's because we now realize (based on vocalizations and other evidence) that this is a separate species from the true chloropus, the Common Moorhen of the Old World.
Pied-billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps) are common too. This bird is in non-breeding plumage, with only a hint of the dark crossbar on the bill that gives the species its name.
Limpkins (Aramus guarauna), though not rare, are far shyer and harder to come by at Green Cay than the gallinules and grebes. They are commoner in the natural sawgrass marshes to the west, where they are more likely to find the Apple Snails (Pomacea paludosa) that are their favorite food. The Limpkin is a peculiar bird, the only member of its family; its closest relatives, according to DNA evidence, are the cranes (Gruidae).
Florida Red-bellied Turtles (Pseudemys nelsoni) are abundant at Green Cay, where we often saw them basking on logs or debris. Many of them, like these two, carry a coating of algae on their shells.
Daggerwing is a very different sort of place - a hardwood hammock (a slighty elevated patch of land that can support trees) isolated in a suburban development. It is named for one of its more striking butterflies, the Rusty Daggerwing (Marpesia petreus), though we did not see any on this visit. When I first visited here, shortly after the center opened in 1996, the hammock was dominated by a splendid growth of large strangler figs. The figs were subsequently destroyed by a hurricane, and only now is the tree cover - the result of regrowth and plantings - starting to get back to full size. This s the view from the overlook tower at one end of the short boardwalk.
The figs, of course, have not come back yet as stranglers require mature trees of other species to get a purchase ad grow. Among the trees now growing at Dagerwing is Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), though of course it will be a long time before they reach their full height (the largest known specimen is over 44 metres tall).
Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) are the commonest wintering warblers everywhere in South Florida, and there were plenty of them at both Green Cay and Daggerwing.
The Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) is, to my mind, one of the handsomest of the North American woodpeckers. At our home in southern Ontario we are at the extreme northern fringe of its range. It is a rare sight there, so I am always glad to see it in Florida where it are abundant and widespread. This is a male at Daggerwing.
Finally, a less than perfect shot, but of a bird I don't see too often (though they are common enough in both Florida and Ontario: a Merlin (Falco columbarius) at Daggerwing, perched atop a broken spar.