Thursday, August 28, 2014

Short-toed Coucal

Short-toed Coucal Centropus rectunguis has been stated to be a rather rare/scarce bird in Borneo by many literature and field guides.

It is similar to the much more common and larger Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis. To positively identify one from the other is not easy especially from afar and with the bird often partially hidden by bushes.

I took photo of  suspicious looking coucal quite sometime ago but keep the ID on hold until after I have done enough research. I now think they are Short-toed Coucal, my conclusion is based on the following reasons which are elaborated below for the benefit of those who are interested.

1. Size

While a bird's size in the field is sometimes quite subjective, but Short-toed Coucal is overall noticeably smaller, 40 cm against 52 cm of Greater Coucal as per Smythis, whereas, Frederick N Chasen in The Birds of The Malay Peninsula states Greater is 21.5 inches against Short-toed Coucal at about 16 inches.. Any seasoned observer can easily notice the different in size.

It is similar in size to Lesser Coucal Centropus bengalensis but they can be easily separated in the field by appearance and color of the eye, Lesser Coucal does not have red iris.

Lesser Coucal

2. Tail length

Per Smythis, Greater Coucal has longer tail, 30 cm versus 20 cm of Short-toed Coucal.

So the tail length of Greater Coucal is 30 cm over its entire length of 52 cm, which is 57.7% or more than half of its body length.

Whereas Short-toed Coucal's tail is 20 cm against its body length of 40 cm, which is about 50% of its body length.

Per Chasen in his The Birds of The Malay Peninsula, the tail length is 12 - 12.5 inches for Greater Coucal and 7.5 - 8.5 inches for Short-toed Coucal.

The tail length of Greater Coucal is, therefore, 12 - 12.5 inches over its entire length of 21.5 inches, which is about 56 - 58 % or more than half of its body length (Consistent with Smythis).

Whereas Short-toed Coucal's tail is 7.5 - 8.5 inches against its body length of 16 inches, which is about between 47% to 53% of its body length (I think this is also consistent with Smythis, albeit the range here is wider).

While we cannot measure their tail length in the field, if we see them in good posture, we can generally gauge whether the tail is more than or less than 50% of the body length.

 Greater Coucal, see that the tail appears overall longer and is proportionately longer when compared to body length.
Short-toed Coucal, the tail is evidently shorter.

This is how a Coucal is usually seen, among thick bushes and undergrowth, without clear view of its claw. This is taken from Tabin Wildlife Reserve, this should a Short-toed Coucal based on its short tail and forest habitat. 

3. Habitat

Whereas Greater Coucal can be found from gardens, mangroves, cultivated areas, grasslands to forests, Short-toed Coucal is restricted to forests, never in gardens and cultivated areas.

4. Hind claw length

Per Smythis, Greater Coucal has longer claw length in its inner toe measuring 18mm, whereas Short-toed Coucal is named as such as its claw length is much shorter at 12 mm. This feature is practically quite impossible to observe in the field as the claws are most often blocked from view by foliage. (I think Smythis's reference to inner toe is the same as hind claw.)

However, there are times when we are lucky to spot the bare feet, we can than take pictures and compare them. It is generally illustrated in field guides that Greater Coucal has longer hind toe claw than Short-toed Coucal.

In Frederick N. Chasen's Birds of The Malay Peninsula, the length of hind toes are given as 0.5 inch and nearly straight for Short-toed Coucal and 0.75 and more curved for Greater Coucal. When converted to metric system, the length are exactly as what is stated in Smythis.

 Short-toed Coucal, image enlarge from photo above, showing shorter hind toe claw, length of claw is about length of hind toe.
Greater Coucal, image enlarged from photo above., showing long hind toe claw, length of claw is longer than length of hind toe.

Another method to identify them is to by voice as they are reported to have different call. I doubt the reliability of this method as their calls are very similar and with various variations and it is very difficult to tell them apart.

Happy birding.

Photodocument of Wild Birds of Borneo

Standard References for my blog

Friday, August 1, 2014

Pilgrimage to Bornean Peacock Pheasant's shrine.

I visited Sungai Wain Protection Forest in Kalimantan Timur, Indonesian Borneo at the end of March 2014 to try my luck on the super rare endemic Bornean Peacock Pheasant Polyplectron schleiermacheri. I only present some images for the trip here, further info on Sungai Wain Protection Forest are readily available from the Internet.

We flew from Tawau to Tarakan via Maswing and took a domestic flight from Tarakan to Balikpapan, the rest of the journey was by road.

Aerial view of areas around Tarakan on approach, I think these are aquaculture ponds.
 Warning sign before approaching PERTAMINA's water reservoir.  
 PERTAMINA's water reservoir in front of the Kampung Sungai Wain entrance to the Protection forest, I was told this was built during the Dutch colonial era.
 Notice board at the entrance of Protection forest, listing the prohibited activities.
 Boardwalk over peat swamp at the entrance.
 Another section of Boardwalk.
 Resting platform. We need to cross the boardwalk before reaching the forest proper.
 First camp, where we stop to rest and eat.
 Our homestay house.
 View of Kampung Sungai Wain, near the entrance to the Protection Forest.
 View from the back of our homestay house.
Mobile hawker of Sungai Wain
 Malaysian Honeyguide Indicator archipelagicus, a rare bird in Sabah, my 1st lifer.
 Garnet Pitta Pitta granatina, a bird that does not occur in Sabah, another lifer.
 Plantive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus
 Dusky Munia Lonchura fuscan, a Bornean endemic.
 Abott's Babbler Trichastoma abbotti, my third lifer. This species is super rare in Sabah.Note its longer tail and different call as both this and the very similar looking Horsfield's Babbler Trichastoma sepiarium occur here.
 Abbott's Babbler
Horsfield's Babbler, sharing similar habitats with Abbott's Babbler, note its short tail.
 Sooty-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus aurigaster, another lifer. This species was first recorded in Borneo in Palangkarya, Kalimantan Tengah in 1984, it has now established itself in south-east Borneo.
Little Spiderhunter Arachnothera longirostra.
 Female Borneo Peacock Pheasant, heavily cropped from the image below (head is blocked).
 Uncropped image of the above image, you can see twigs, leaves, and branches working against you while you try to take a clear shot of the pheasant.
 Uncropped image showing an out-of-focus male.
 Crop of the above image, you can see the unmistakable head pattern of the male Peacock Pheasant here, with its white throat and red eye patch.
This is an in-focus shot of the back and tail of the male with its head blocked from view.

The star of the trip is the Peacock Pheasant, Sungai Wain is may be the easiest place in Borneo to see it. To take a good photo is another matter altogether as all ground birds are tough to photograph, they are more often than not blocked by foliage, twigs, undergrowth and stumps. 

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A snap shot of caged birds in Balikpapan, Indonesian Borneo

I was in Sungai Wain, Balikpapan, Kalimantan Timur, Indonesian Borneo in the last week of March 2014 hoping to photograph the Borneo Peacock Pheasant Polyplectron schleiermacheri, which eventually proved to be too elusive. However, the trip was a thought-provoking eye-opener in another aspect of Bornean birds.

On the way to the airport on our way back, we stopped at two places where cage birds were openly on sale, one was housed in a building while the other was made up of a few stalls with birds in cages piled on top of each other on mobile carts.

Here are some images I managed to take of these two places. It is sad to note that I saw a few "lifers" there, being birds that I have yet to photograph in the wild but seen here inside cages.
 This is the shop, there is a Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach in one of the hanging cages in the fore ground.  

 Bold-striped Tit-babbler Macronous bornensis .
A cage of Yellow-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus goiavier and Sooty-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus aurigaster. The wild population of the latter in pockets in Kalimantan must have originated from cage birds.

 There are many caged White-rumped Shama Copsychus malabaricus , that's why it is so hard to see one in the wild there.

Mobile stalls, the building in the background is also in this trade as the cages are visible in this picture.
Mobile stalls from another angle.
Chestnut-cheeked Starlings Sturnus philippensis that will not be returning to their home, sandwiched by cages of various doves and pigeons.
Cages and cages on top of each other.
Chestnut-capped Thrush Zoothera interpres, I have yet to photograph one in the wild.
 There are a lot of Chestnut-cheeked Starlings.
Yellow-vented Bulbuls.
 Large Green-pigeon Treron capellei, I have yet to photograph one in the wild.

 This is a Pied Starling Gracupica contra, a bird not in the Bornean Checklist.

 Chectnut-backed Scimitar-babbler Pomatorhinus mantanus, which is not an easy bird to see in the wild.
 This is definitely a non-Bornean species, I suspect it is from Java but have no resources to check what it is.

 Surprisingly, Large-billed Blue Flycatcher Cyornis caerulatus also can be caged.
This is Yellowed Bellied White-eye or Lemon-bellied White-eye Zosterops chloris, mentioned in both Phillipps and Myers as only found in Karitmata, Matasirih and Marabatuan, which are islands off the coast of south and west of Borneo. Here they are, quite a few of them in cages for sale. 

I even saw a fire-tufted Barbet Psilopogon pyrolophus, which is not in the Bornean checklist,  for sale.

On casual conversation with the traders, we were told that some of the birds were imported from Java,  which explained the origin of those non-Bornean birds on sale. 

Considering the deep-rooted tradition of trapping and caging birds in this part of the world, I believe this is a negligible and immaterial part of the huge cage bird trade in Kalimantan. I can't help but keep thinking about the number of birds species not in our traditional checklist imported to the island of Borneo which managed to escaped and gone feral in the whole of Kalimantan over these years, bear in mind that Kalimantan occupies the largest part of the island covering 72.57% of the land area. 

A major revision to the Bornean Checklist might be required if we have adequate data from that part of Borneo.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Whitehead's Spiderhunter Fiesta

Bird photographers and visiting birders in Sabah were all excited since the beginning of December,  as happening somewhere in Sabah, the most elusive of the three Whitehead's, Whitehead's Spiderhunter Arachnothera juliae, could be guaranteed seen and photographed in good light from less than 15 meters away.

At Rafflesia Forest Reserve, along Tambunan Penampang highway, a small tree, less than 10 meters tall, was in bloom with pink flowers at its canopy, and Whitehead's Spiderhunter could be seen feeding on nectar among the flower clusters at regular intervals throughout the day. For each visit, it would  stay and feed on average for a few minutes, hopping merrily from twig to twig prodding its long bill and extending its hair like tongue into the longish bell-shaped flowers, oblivious both to the people watching and to the noisy heavy traffic passing underneath.

The maximum number of bird seen feeding at any one time was three, I was lucky to witness two feeding at the same time. Interestingly, Whitehead's Spiderhunter seemed to be the only bird species feeding there, the Sunbirds and Flowerpeckers busy feeding on the opposite side of the highway were not interested in this flower at all. No other bird was seen feeding on this tree during the intervals when the spiderhunter was away.

Whitehead's Spiderhunter is one of the most sought-after Whitehead's in Borneo, as one could have tried for years before being rewarded with a view of it far away on the canopy of a flowering tree. You can imagine the amount of hoo-ha it generates among the interested people as it can be assured of feeding daily at that tree, occasionally up to three birds at the same time.

The flowering tree is just across the highway from the gate of Rafflesia Information Centre, observers and photographers would set up opposite near the gate which is slightly over 12 meters across the highway from the tree, considering the two-laned highway of approximately 9 to 10 meters wide.

Mr Kong Ket Leong and I drove from Tawau on 14th December (in the third week after first discovery of the feeding), as the pressure was mounting  after being told that the flowers might not last longer than another week, and only God knew when it would bloom again. 

I do not know the name of the tree. I have also not heard nor read about this feeding before as anything of this nature involving a Whitehead's would be big news to people who are interested.

Does the tree flower yearly? I do not know, as I have not heard of this feeding frenzy last year nor the year before. Sabah has been quite active in the birding scene for at least the past six or seven years, so I opine that anything of this nature in this relatively short history of bird watching/photography would have been hotly circulated as it does now, thus I think this has not happened before. The tree just might flower irregularly and erratically, may be once in an unknown number of years or on certain unknown trigger.

On the other hand, as the flowering tree is less than 10 meters tall and its girth not bigger than a power line pole, it might very well be flowering for the first time and hence the lack of any previous observation.

If the tree is indeed flowering for the first time and if it blooms annually, we can have a yearly Whitehead's Spiderhunter Festival there for birders and photographers. We will only know about that next year, and at the meantime we do what good birders do, we wait.

(Note: this is the unedited version submitted for publication in December 2013 issue of Suara Enggang. The flower is subsequently identified to be Wightia borneensis.)

Happy birding.

Photodocument of Wild Birds of Borneo

Standard References for my blog