Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sarawak: Return to Kuching

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.

Orthetrum testaceum
 Orthetrum testaceum
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.

Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker (Prionochilus xanthopygius)
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.

Thick-billed Spiderhunter (Arachnothera crassirostris)
 Thick-billed Spiderhunter (Arachnothera crassirostris)
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.

Thick-billed Spiderhunter (Arachnothera crassirostris)
 Thick-billed Spiderhunter (Arachnothera crassirostris)
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.
Thick-billed Spiderhunter (Arachnothera crassirostris)
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.

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