Friday, December 6, 2013

West Malaysia: Taman Negara at Last

Way back in 1972, I was on my way from Canada to Australia, where I spent two years studying the secret lives of Australian treecreepers for my doctoral thesis.  In those days, the cheapest fares came from a number of fly-by-night discount airlines, and I found one that would take me to Sydney with a week's stopover in Kuala Lumpur - my first chance to visit Malaysia.  I happily booked a week's excursion to the world-famous Taman Negara National Park.  Then, a day or two before my departure, the airline I had chosen demonstrated the meaning of "fly-by-night" by going out of business.  I was forced to delay my departure for a week and book an alternate route with a three-day stopover in Singapore.  For all I know, the boat drivers who were to take me to the main entrance to Taman Negara are still waiting for me to show up.

Anyway, with one thing or another, I bided my time, sure that I would find a reason to get to Taman Negara one of these days.  It came with an invitation to deliver a lecture on bird taxonomy to an intermediate-level birding course organized by the Selangor Branch of the Malaysian Nature Society.  The course was to be held in Merapoh, at the western entrance to the park (strictly speaking, in Sungai Relau National Park in Pahang) - not the entrance most tourists use, and probably none the worse for that.  We were to have comfortable accommodations, good food and direct access to the park forest. I could hardly say no.

So, after our stop at Gua Bama (see last posting) I finally arrived (some forty years late) at Malaysia's premier park, for a four-night stay.  The entrance station is on a river, and to get to the forest itself you cross a metal bridge (closed at nightby swinging gates that reminded me of a smaller-scale version of Jurassic Park - this end of the park has the highest concentration of tigers in Taman Negara).

The course involved, among other things, a number of birding forays into the park - and since this was a training session, we were instructed to leave our cameras behind and concentrate on the birds.  This is no bad thing as a learning experience, but it means the photos in this (and the next few) entries had to be taken in my spare time.  Fortunately, there was quite a bit of that.  In this photograph, we have a very happy group of birders (from left, Yours Truly, Rafi Kudus, Khoo Swee Seng and Jasmine Steed) posing for Seng's wife Carol Ho…

Garnet Pitta (Erythropitta granatina)
…and here, also photographed by Carol, is the reason we were happy: a Garnet Pitta (Pitta, or, if you prefer, Erythropitta granatina) that actually flew across the road and perched, albeit briefly, in the open.  It was a lifer for Rafi and I, and gorgeous besides.

Blue-winged Leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis)
Blue-winged Leafbird
Another gorgeous bird, a lot easier to photograph: a male Blue-winged Leafbird (Chloropsis cochinchinensis).

Blue-winged Leafbird
Here is a female.  We frequently found the leafbirds in low bushes along the roadside, feeding on the berries of what I presume (from the parallel veining in the leaves) to be a species of melastome.

Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker (Prionochilus maculatus)
Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker (Prionochilus maculatus)
Berry bushes along the road were also popular with flowerpeckers.   These are Yellow-breasted Flowerpeckers (Prionochilus maculatus), one of the less colourful members of its often-brilliant family.

Black-thighed Falconet (Microhierax fringillarius)
A few more birds I was able to snap (outside of course time) along the roadside: Black-thighed Falconet (Microhierax fringillarius)…

Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)
…a Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) that preferred to hang out in the trees fringing the parking lot...

Rufous Woodpecker (Micropternus brachyurus)
…and a Rufous Woodpecker (Micropternus brachyurus) that seemed to be eyeing the berry bushes.  This is an interesting bird: for many years it was thought to be an Asian outlier of an otherwise tropical American genus, Celeus, but its DNA says otherwise.  It may be related, instead, to the Asian genus Meiglyptes.  Like many woodpeckers, it eats ants; unlike many, it excavates its nest cavities in the nests of its prey (specifically, in the nests of acrobat ants of the genus Crematogaster).

Yellow-bellied Bulbul (Alophoixus phaeocephalus)
More birds: the Yellow-bellied Bulbul (Alophoixus phaeocephalus) is one of the more colourful members of its often-drab family.

Silver-rumped Spinetail (Rhaphidura leucopygialis)
As evening approached, little knots of Silver-rumped Spinetails (Rhaphidura leucopygialis) flew low over our heads by the river bank; this is hardly an outstanding photo, but any day I can capture even a vaguely recognisable photo of a swift in flight is a good day.

Brown Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida)
In the heat of the day there weren't many birds to see, so I was free to turn my attention to butterflies (and to dragonflies and damselflies, which I will feature in later posts).  This is a Brown Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida).

Chocolate Soldier (Junonia iphita horsfieldi)
Here is another Junonia, a Chocolate Soldier (Junonia iphita horsfieldi).
Horsfield's Baron (Tanaecia iapis puseda) f
Horsfield's Baron (Tanaecia iapis puseda) f
This female Horsfield's Baron (Tanaecia iapis puseda) has apparently had a narrow escape from a bird; the bird seems to have gotten a mouthful of wing for its pains.

Malayan Five-Ring (Ypthima horsfieldii humei)
Malayan Five-Ring (Ypthima horsfieldii humei)
This Malayan Five-Ring (Ypthima horsfieldii humei) appears to have had an encounter with a bird too, though with less drastic results.

Specklebelly Keelback (Rhabdophis chrysargos)
I just missed getting a decent photo of this little snake before it slid off into the undergrowth; my thanks to reptile expert Indraneil Das for identifying what you can see of it as a Specklebelly Keelback (Rhabdophis chrysargos).

Prevost's Squirrel (Callosciurus prevostii)
Malaysia is one of the few countries where the most colourful animal around may be a mammal.  This is a Prevost's Squirrel (Callosciurus prevostii), making use of a non-natural feature of the park landscape.

Asplenium nidus
If there were no birds or animals around (unlikely as that may seem) I could always photograph plants.  Here is a clump of Birds-nest Fern (Asplenium nidus) decorating a tree trunk.

Macaranga cf gigantica
Good evidence that I have been exploring a road edge rather than plunging into the forest depths: a species of (I assume) Macaranga, but certainly a plant with the large-leaved, rather loose growth form of a forest-edge specialist.

I don't know what these plants are, but their leaf shapes are typical of a lowland rain forest - especially the long drip-tips on the plant in the lower photo, adapted to make it easier for rainwater to drain away.

Mantid cf Haania sp
There was more to see after dark, including night birds I was never able to photograph: a Large Frogmouth (Batrachostomus auritus), one of the birding features of the area that Rafi and I spent a few evenings tracking down, and an Oriental Bay Owl (Phodilus badius) that we heard but never did see.  There were, of course, insects on the walls of our barracks: a mantis, possibly a member of the genus Haania

Marumba cristatus or Marumba juvencus
…and this particularly handsome sphinx moth - a species of the widespread genus Marumba, probably (I think) either Marumba cristatus or Marumba juvencus.

Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus)
One night I tracked some odd cries not to a bird, but to this Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) in a tree on the forest edge.

There are still large animals in Taman Negara, but we were not lucky enough to see them.  The closest we came was an encounter with a group of students who had retrieved the disintegrating bones of an Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) - possibly the victim of poachers, though that would be difficult to prove.  An estimated 631 elephants live in Taman Negara (or at least did, according to a joint Wildlife Conservation Society and Malaysian Wildlife and National Parks Department survey, in 2008), apparently making up the largest single population in Southeast Asia.

I was fascinated by the students' find, and they, in turn, were excited by what we were doing (we were able to show them a few spectacular birds - you'll see them in my next post).  It was mutual teaching and learning experience, and one of the particular rewards of my long-delayed visit to Taman Negara.

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