Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sarawak: The Next Generation

One of the joys of being a naturalist in Sarawak is the feeling that I can do more there than simply have fun. Nature appreciation in Sarawak, despite a number of dedicated, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people both amateur and professional, is in many ways in its infancy. Many of its citizens live in urban areas, and have little awareness of the wonderful natural heritage on their doorstep. As a member of the Malaysian Nature Society (Kuching Branch), I can help to do something about that.

MNS, among other things, operates an annual awareness program called MY Garden Birdwatch. The idea is to get people to record birds in their immediate area and contribute their data to a central database, while learning (we hope) to appreciate their local birdlife in the meantime. In Kuching this has morphed (thanks to a very useful suggestion from Eileen) into a focus on schoolchildren. Each year, we pick one school, and use the upcoming Birdwatch to present its students with a series of preliminary talks and workshops on birds and birding. 

In 2014, I joined Vincent Wong to meet the students at SMK Padawan, a rural school south of Kuching.   I was only able to attend two sessions, on February 26 and April 3, but both times I found that the kids were both interested and eager. 

After our first classroom presentation, Vincent and I took them out for a bit of binocular practice on the grounds of the school.  I expected to find only a few common things - sparrows, mynahs and the like.  Virtue, though, is occasionally rewarded - as I discovered when I happened to look up.

Bat Hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus)
High above, I spotted a pair of raptors circling in the sky - just a pair of dots, until I raised my binoculars.

Bat Hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus)
To my utter astonishment, the birds turned out to be a pair of Bat Hawks (Macheiramphus alcinus) - a first for Vincent, and a rare sighting for me.  This one is a long way off, but you can see the distinctive falcon-like shape, and the white throat and vent contrasting with its otherwise black plumage.

Bat Hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus)
We should probably not have been surprised.  The school is not far from the limestone cliffs of the Bau region, studded with caves filled with bats, and where else should their natural predators be?  However, though Bat Hawks have an enormous range (the best view I have ever had of one was in South Africa) they are far from common.

Students learn to use a field guide to identify birds.
Anyway, the day ended up being exciting for all (including Vincent, checking his photos, and myself, showing the students pictures, presumably of Bat Hawks, in our field guide).  The whole thing got written up for the Borneo Post by my friend Asha Kaushal (this photo has been brazenly lifted from the Post web site) - helping to spread the word still further.  So, thanks to the school, the students, the Malaysian Nature Society and everyone else involved for giving me a chance to send a message about nature to the people who will, one day, hold its fate in their hands - and, besides, to have fun in the process!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Sarawak: Strolling at Sama Jaya

Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)
As readers of this blog will know, when you can't get away from Kuching for a trip to the surrounding national parks, a stroll around the urban Sama Jaya Park in the Stutong area is always good for a few things of interest. You might turn up a handsome  Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella), for example, as it poses on the leaf litter. 

Assassin bug (Reduviidae)
Bright yellow-and-black assassin bugs (Reduviidae) are a common sight, usually at about eye level on trailside shrubbery (trails in the park are popular with morning joggers). 

 Neurothemis terminata
Along the trails, or in the wet grasses surrounding a small central pond, you can find dragonflies of a number of common species, including the abundant Neurothemis terminata...

Orthetrum chrysis
Orthetrum chrysis
...or one of the common species of Orthetrum, including Orthetrum chrysis...

Orthetrum testaceum
...Orthetrum testaceum...

Orthetrum sabina
...or the particularly ubiquitous Orthetrum sabina (here, a mating pair "in wheel").

 Grey Sailor (Neptis leucoporos cresina)
Te rather plain Grey Sailor (Neptis leucoporos cresina) is a common butterfly at Sama Jaya.

Does anyone know what these extremely colourful caterpillars are?

 Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)
 Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)
The resident troop of Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) usually turns up somewhere along the trail.  The younger animals seem never quite sure whether to regard you as a curiosity or a threat.

 Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)
Their elders either ignore you...

Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis)
...or make it (seemingly) clear that you are not welcome in their midst.

Striped Tree Skink (Apterygodon vittatus)
Striped Tree Skink (Apterygodon vittatus)
To finish our stroll as it began, here is another lizard: the attractive Striped Tree Skink (Apterygodon vittatus), a Bornean endemic.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Sarawak: Morning in Kubah

Fan Palm (Licuala sp)
After our MNS family night around Kubah National Park's celebrated frog pond (February 22-23, 2014), Ryan got a late-night lift home with Hans while I stayed on with Yeo for a bit of morning birding. There weren't a lot of birds about, as it happened, but in the daylight I could at least appreciate the vegetation: things like the bicycle-wheel leaves of the common Fan Palm (Licuala sp).

Once again, I felt the lack of a handy botanist keenly.  What are these handsome red berries?

How about this attractive spike of yellow flowers, growing along the road edge?  A monocot of some sort, I presume?

This may be Spindle Ginger (Hornstedtia havilandii).  According to Lamb et al., A Guide to the Gingers of Borneo (Natural History Publications (Borneo), 2013), skippers (like the unobtrusive little butterfly in this photo) cannot reach the plant's pollen and so act, intentionally or otherwise, as nectar thieves, feeding at the flowers but not pollinating them.

Indian Cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus)
Indian Cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus)
With Yeo as a companion, I can always count on seeing things I would probably have missed otherwise.  The Indian Cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus) is a bird that I hear almost everywhere in Malaysia (its four-note song vaguely recalls the opening theme of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), but it is frustratingly difficult to spot.  Despite considerable efforts I had never actually set eyes on one.  For Yeo, of course, spotting this bird, calling from the crown of a tree, was no problem at all.

   Black-eared Pygmy Squirrel (Nannosciurus melanotis)
Also high overhead was this Black-eared Pygmy Squirrel (Nannosciurus melanotis), sprawled against a tree trunk in typical fashion.

Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi)
Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi)
Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi)
Identifying members of the "crow" group of Danaiine butterflies can be tricky, especially considering that there are other butterflies (and moths) that mimic them.  The absence of a complete guide to Bornean butterflies doesn't help.  Nonethless, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that this butterfly, picking up salts from the sweat of human palms along the guard rail at the frog pond,  is a Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi).

Baron sp (Euthalia cf aconthea)
This  forest-floor butterfly is one of the Barons (Euthalia sp.), possibly E. aconthea.

Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher (Rhinomyias umbratilis)
Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher (Rhinomyias umbratilis)
Yeo has an excellent ear.  Otherwise, we would never have found this Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher (Rhinomyias umbratilis), an uncommon and inconspicuous bird.  Getting as decent look required a bit of careful pursuit through the undergrowth.

Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker (Prionochilus xanthopygius)
The Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker (Prionochilus xanthopygius), a common Borneo endemic, is usually much easier to find.

Water strider (Gerridae)
As the heat of the day set in and the birds quieted down, there was not much left to see except for the water striders (Family Gerridae) skating, as they always do, over the surface of the frog pond. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sarawak: Night of the Flying Frogs

If there is an ideal spot near Kuching for nature lovers to immerse themselves in tropical biodiversity, it is probably the famous frog pond at Kubah National Park.  The chorus of lovelorn frogs that descend by night to the pond's edge has been declared the most beautiful sound in the natural world. The frog pond is also a great place to take the kids, so when the Malaysian Nature Society (Kuching Branch) decided to hold a family weekend there on February 22-23, 2014, I eagerly signed up with Ryan for a grandfather-grandson trip to the forest.

Cratilla metallica
Cratilla metallica
The main feature of the visit was to be a night walk, led by Hans Breuer (who is an expert at such things).  I wanted to get there by late afternoon to try to photograph the resident Indaeschna grubaueri, a striking yellow-and-black darner dragonfly that haunts the area at about four o'clock in the afternoon. It did put in an appearance but, as usual, merely sped around the pond a few times before disappearing back into the forest. I was left to photograph this Cratilla metallica, which at least held still.

Plants make altogether more cooperative subjects.

Our weekend adventure began in earnest after dark, as we headed back up to the pond along the park road.

Nepenthes ampullaria
I stopped on the way to show Ryan a roadside colony of Nepenthes ampullaria, home to the tiny tadpoles of an endemic microhylid frog.

Cyrtodactylus sp
The bushes and low trees along the roadside gave us a number of delights even before we reached the pond.  This gecko appears to be a member of the genus Cyrtodactylus, but I do not know which one.

Wagler's Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)
A (presumed) male Wagler's Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) sprawled over a thin limb over our heads (its stunning lime green colour is characteristic of juveniles and adult males).  The Bornean population of this common venomous snake is sometimes regarded as an endemic species, the Bornean Keeled Pit Viper (T. subannulatus).  It spends its life in the trees, hunting birds and small rodents.  I'm not sure if it's true of this one, but arboreal pit vipers often have extremely potent and fast-acting venom - something they need, in order to ensure that, once bitten, their prey cannot get out of reach before it succumbs.

Giant River Frog (Limnonectes leporinus)
Some frogs turned up well before we reached the pond, including this Giant River Frog (Limnonectes leporinus).

Borneo boasts an amazing variety of phasmids - stick insects and their relatives - including some of the largest stick insects in the world.   For some reason, one of the largest, spikiest and most fearsome-looking of them is known as the Jungle Nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata). Of course Jungle Nymphs are harmless, but a less nymph-like creature it would be hard to imagine. We came across a mating pair, either of a Jungle Nymph or one of its cousins, the much smaller male clinging determinedly to the female's back.
A few other phasmids, of varying degrees of spikiness, we found on their own.

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca)    Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca)
I refuse to call anything in nature ugly, but even I have to admit there is a considerable difference between a grotesquely-spiked stick insect and an Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Ceyx erithaca).  We found this little gem perched quietly on a twig just over our heads, obviously getting ready to settle down for the night before being interrupted by a gang of torch-weaving, flash-popping nature papparazzi (your correspondent included).  I see these birds around the frog pond fairly frequently by day, but getting this close to one is another matter.

Harlequin Flying Frog (Rhacophorus pardalis)
Harlequin Flying Frog (Rhacophorus pardalis)
From the kingfisher it was only a few steps to the pond itself, and its remarkable collection of amphibians.  Usually the pride of place is taken by the Harlequin Flying Frog (Rhacophorus pardalis), with its broadly-webbed pink toes.

Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
This time, though, it was the night of a much more arresting species.  I had long wanted to see the celebrated Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus), but had missed it on my previous visits.  This time, though, Wallace's Flying Frogs appeared to be everywhere (well, we found four or five at least, which is pretty much 'everywhere' in my book).

Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Large (up to 10 cm), brightly-coloured and spectacularly-webbed, Wallace's (even if you ignore its ability to 'fly', or glide, or parachute) is surely one of the most magnificent of frogs.  Wallace himself called it "One of the most curious and interesting reptiles [sic, by modern standards] which I met with in Borneo".

Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Of course it is the feet that have made it famous.  Hans caught one so we could all get a closer look (note the remarkably 'pebbly' skin).

Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Set down on the boardwalk, it spread its front feet in the position it uses when it takes to the air (flaps of skin along its sides add to its gliding area).  It isn't really much of a glider by comparison with, say, a flying squirrel or a dragon lizard, though it can sometimes manage a trip of 15 metres or so (and it isn't the only frog that can do this, though it may be the best at it).  Anyway, we tried to get it to perform when we released it, but I'm afraid it only plopped disdainfully into the pond below. 

Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Wallace’s Flying Frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus)
Wallace's must be a lot commoner at Kubah than it appears.  It apparently spends most of its time in the canopy; perhaps its breeding episodes are more seasonal or intermittent than the other frogs that haunt the pond, but I don't really know.  I wonder if anyone does.

File-eared Tree Frog and Wallace's Flying Frog
Wallace's Flying Frog is one of the Rhacophoridae, the dominant tree frogs of tropical Asia  (quite unrelated to the Hylidae, the tree frogs of North America and Europe). The frog pond is rich in rhacophorids;  here a Wallace's shares a perch with one of the others, a File-eared Tree Frog (Polypedates otilophus).

 File-eared Tree Frog (Polypedates otilophus)
As faithful readers of this blog will know, File-eared Tree Frogs are pretty impressive creatures themselves - though in this writeup they will have to take second (or third) place to their green cousins.

Giant River Frog (Limnonectes leporinus)
More frogs lurked in the leaf litter beneath the boardwalk: another Giant River Frog (not a rhacophorid, but a member of the recently-split Dicroglossidae)....

Mahogany Frog (Hylarana luctuosa)
... and the handsome and unusual Mahogany Frog (Hylarana luctuosa), a member of the "true" frog family Ranidae (only "true" because the original "frog" of Great Britain, first to bear that name, is a ranid).

White-lipped Frog (Hylarana raniceps)
It may not look it, but the more arboreal White-lipped Frog (Hylarana raniceps) is a ranid, too.

Of course there is more to the frog pond than frogs, or even vertebrates, as this large and handsome cockroach demonstrates (my use of the words "handsome" and "cockroach" in the same sentence displays my naturalist biases pretty clearly).

Hairy caterpillars like this are best admired and photographed, not touched (though whether this one has stinging, or urticating, hairs I did not know nor - recalling an incident when a particularly nasty one went down my collar - did I care to find out).

Spiders of all shapes and sizes are easy to pick out in the torchlight; they have particularly bright eyeshine (most annoying when you are hoping to turn up something more mammalian).

Here, a delicate and particularly long-legged fly suspends itself from the tip of one leaf...

...while a mottled slug glides over the surface of another.  Is that rather scale-like pattern on its hindquarters meant to convince would-be slug-eaters that they are dealing, instead, with a snake (bearing in mind that among the major predators of forest slugs are snakes themselves)?

Finally, two creatures we found on our return, drawn in by the lights around our cabin (shared with my old friend and crack birder Yeo Siew Teck and his family): a strikingly-marked cricket...

Urapteroides astheniata
...and a moth I can actually (I think) identify.  It is Urapteroides astheniata, a member of the Uraniidae, the moth family that includes some brightly-coloured species that resemble swallowtail butterflies and are active by day.  Urapteroides, though, a widespread insect ranging from India to tropical Australia, is definitely a creature of the night.