Tuesday, November 26, 2013

West Malaysia: A Stop En Route

September 14, 2012, found me in West Malaysia, heading north from Kuala Lumpur with my friends Bing Lim and Mark Ng. We were en route to a place I had wanted to visit ever since an abortive attempt in 1972: Taman Negara, Malaysia's most famous national park.  I'll have more on Taman Negara in later postings, but this one is devoted, instead, to a brief stop we made along the way.

Gua Bama ("Gua" means "cave" in Bahasa) is an isolated limestone outcrop near Kampong Relong, about twenty minutes' drive from the town of Kuala Lipis in the state of Pahang, in the central peninsula.  Tourists visit it to climb the rocks and visit its cave, neither of which we did.  Our intent was, instead, ornithological; Gua Bama holds a few pairs of Dusky Crag Martin (Ptyonoprogne concolor), a rare bird in Malaysia (though common enough further north, and in India).  We saw a few birds high above us, far out of photographic range. Ornithology satisfied, I spent the rest of our stopover happily pursuing dragonflies around a small marsh at the base of the outcrop.  Here are some of the results.

Aethriamantina gracilis
Aethriamantina gracilis
None of the species I found here could be described as rare, or, I suspect, even unusual.  I am still, though, very much an odonate beginner, and one was new to me.  This was Aethriamantina gracilis, a dainty little blue insect that I suspect I may have confused in the past with the quite similar, but larger and commoner, Brachydiplax chalybea.

Neurothemis fluctuans
Neurothemis fluctuans was, of course, pretty much unavoidable.

Neurothemis fluctuans
Neurothemis fluctuans
Neurothemis fluctuans
Neurothemis fluctuans
However, I seem to have more luck finding males of this abundant species than females, so I am enjoying, for once, the opportunity to present these shots of the species' other half.

Orthetrum testaceum
Species of Neurothemis and Orthetrum must be the two most common and obvious dragonflies in Malaysia (though there are rarities in each) - the odonatologist's equivalent of a dirt bird.  Orthetrum testaceum is, nonetheless, beautiful.

Rhodothemis rufa
Malaysia is home to a number of bright red dragonflies, and I am just now learning to tell them apart.  Rhodothemis rufa is a particularly rich scarlet, with eyes that just meet over the top of its head.

Urothemis signata
The male Urothemis signata is a startling vermilion, with tell-tale black spots near the tip of his abdomen and cinnamon-brown patches at the base of each hindwing.

Trithemis aurora
Trithemis aurora
Trithemis aurora
Not so much red as day-glo pink: the male Trithemis aurora, named for Homer's rosy-fingered goddess of dawn.

Trithemis aurora
Trithemis aurora
Like many other small dragonflies, Trithemis aurora often adopts an obelisk posture, with abdomen tilted skyward and wings bent to the front.

Rhyothemis phyllis
Rhyothemis phyllis
Finally, the unmistakable and elegant Rhyothemis phyllis, one of my favourite Malaysian dragonflies.

Rhyothemis phyllis
As I said - nothing unusual, but not too bad for a roadside rest stop!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sarawak: Giant Worms and Perching Swifts

This little archway is always a welcome sight - it means that I have arrived at the border overlook at Borneo Highlands Resort, one of my favourite spots.

In this case, it was September 7, 2012, and I was in the high country thanks to an invitation from my friend and co-birder Anthony Wong.

As always, a brief stroll along the road edges and forest tracks at Borneo Highlands gives me an excellent opportunity to display my botanical ignorance.

What, for example, are these fruits, sprouting from the trunk of a forest tree?

Or this striking, vaguely canna-like bouquet of butter-yellow flowers?

Or this truly impressive spherical inflorescence?

Or these globular fruits?

I can make a stab at some of these:  this seems to be a species of Ixora (there are only about 500 to choose from).

This, by the form of its ladder-like leaf venation, is apparently a member of the Melastomataceae.

This is a ginger of the genus Etlingera - probably Etlingera coccinea.  Its flowers sprout at ground level from a creeping underground rhizome, and you could be forgiven for not associating them with the leafy stems arching over their heads.

These startling orange-flowered vines are members of the genus Bauhinia - either Bauhinia bidentata or one of its near relatives.

Dipteris cf conjugata
This odd-looking plant is an umbrella or sun fern - a species of the genus Dipteris, probably D. conjugata. a member of a tiny (only 12 species) and very ancient fern family, the Dipteridaceae, ranging from tropical Asia to Australia.

Cinereous Bulbul (Hemixos cinereus)
Birds were a bit thin on the ground this time, and the only highland species I have to offer is this Cinereous Bulbul (Hemixos cinereus).

I had better luck with the lower orders, including this fine green scarab beetle.

The bearer of these impossibly elongate antennae is one of the bush crickets (Nisitrus sp.).

Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus)
Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus)
Satyrine butterflies are particularly common in Borneo forests.  This is a Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus).  The name refers to the number of rings on the underside of the hindwing.

Kinabalu giant earthworm (Pheretima darnleiensis)
At the Tea House on the resort grounds Anthony and I found an invertebrate of a different sort, probably driven out of the soil by recent rains.

Kinabalu giant earthworm (Pheretima darnleiensis)
It was one of Borneo's spectacular giant earthworms, of which the most well-known is the Kinabalu giant earthworm (Pheretima darnleiensis).  Whether that is what this is or not (and there seems to be some confusion about the name) I wouldn't dare to say.  For anyone who finds it odd to combine the words "spectacular" and "earthworm" in the same sentence, let me point out that the Kinabalu species grows to 70 cm in length (besides being blue).

Rhinocypha sp n.
I found this damselfly near a stream crossed by the roadside below the resort.  It was clearly a member of the genus Rhinocypha, but which one? After looking in vain through a number of books and web sites, I appealed once again to Dr. Rory Dow.  

Rhinocypha sp n.
His reply certainly explained my failure to come up with an ID: "Your Rhinocypha female seems to be the same as the new species from Kubah National Park, although it has broader antehumeral markings than any of the other females I have, either from Kubah or Penrissen."  In other words, this is either a new species that is still awaiting description, or something else altogether.  There is something wonderful about a place where you can find undescribed species by the side of the road!

Partway down the road from the resort, there is a pull-off by a rocky stream, with a trail (if you can call the bamboo structure in these photos part of a trail) to a waterfall-fed pool.

Growing among the rocks I found an assortment of ferns...

...and a species of balsam (Impatiens sp.).  Note the long, slender nectar spur (the threadlike object hanging from the back of the flower), which ensures that only moths and butterflies with sufficiently long probosci can profit from visits (therefore reducing the range of pollinators, which in turn increases the chance that pollinators who do visit an Impatiens are likely to carry its pollen to a flower of the same species).

Black-spotted Rock Frog (Staurois guttatus)
Black-spotted Rock Frog (Staurois guttatus)
I found this little Black-spotted Rock Frog (Staurois guttatus) sitting on a rock above the stream, and managed to get a few quick photos before he became equally aware of me and disappeared.  It is unusual, among similar frogs, in that it is active by day (which is undoubtedly why I found it).

Not far away Anthony spotted the hive of a colony of Giant Honeybees (Apis dorsata), reportedly among the most fearsome denizens of Borneo's rainforests.  Fortunately, it was some distance away.


Near the bottom, we passed depressing evidence that Sarawak's forests are diminishing - all the more reason to bring them to the attention of the world.  That's one of the reasons I write this blog.  I love Borneo more every time I go back, and I hope that my readers, especially Malaysians whose heritage this is, will have their own chance to experience,  be fascinated by, and cherish the things I have seen.

Whiskered Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata)
Whiskered Tree Swift
We were already out of the gate at the bottom of the road to Borneo Highlands, and on our way back to Kuching, when Anthony and I came across this little bird perched on an overhead wire.  It was a Whiskered Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata), smallest of a family of four species at least partly differentiated from their cousins the true swifts by the fact that they can perch at all.

Here, just to illustrate the point, is a true swift - one of the hybrid swiftlets (Collocalia sp.) that swarm around Kuching as a result of the growth of swiftlet farming (their nests are the prime ingrediant in bird's nest soup).  This one was right outside our doorstep - perhaps stunned after flying into a window.  Anyway, notice that it isn't perching, but hanging.  Despite what older books say, swifts do not have all four of their toes directed forwards all the time (which would make perching tricky), but they are still unable to perch.  Treeswifts, though, perch very well indeed.

Whiskered Tree Swift
This view gives you a good look at the Whiskered Treeswift's whiskers.

Whiskered Tree Swift
Whiskered Tree Swift
Whiskered Tree Swift
Treeswifts have exceptionally long, narrow wings.  When the bird is perched, they cross over each other, making the bird look as though it has a three-pronged tail - and giving it a very distinctive flight silhouette.

Whiskered Tree Swift
The Whiskered Treeswift is a bird of forests and forest clearings (more so than the other three members of its family), so this one must have been under the impression that the road passing through its wooded habitat amounted to a sort of clearing.  Perching on wires is apparently a recently-acquired behaviour for this species (well, the wires are pretty recent themselves).

Whiskered Tree Swift
Whiskered Tree Swift
Whiskered Tree Swift
Whiskered Tree Swift
In September we were apparently near the end of the breeding season.  Pairs of Whiskered Treeswifts defend territories; when a second bird joined the first I assumed that it was the other member of the pair, though it could have been a recently-fledged young (though young birds usually head off to find their own territories pretty quickly).  I can't tell if these photos are showing pair-bonding or aggression; it looked like the latter, but perhaps a bit of both were involved.

Whiskered Tree Swift
Whiskered Tree Swift
Anyway, our visit with the treeswifts amounted to the closest encounter I have had with these pretty, yet odd-looking, little birds; they are not always easy to approach.  For both Anthony and I, it was the birding highlight of a very pleasant day.