Sunday, April 14, 2013

Last Foray into the Great Western Woodlands

Apologies to those anticipating the next chapter in the Borneo series. You'll just have to wait a liiiittle longer as I amass the appropriate photos etc. Here instead is a more up-to-date account on my recent working field trip into the arid scrublands, sandplains, and woodlands about 500km East/NE of Perth (North of Southern Cross). Some of you may recall my rained-out adventure back in late November. Well I finally got to go back, and it didn't rain! I was the "bird guy" on a team of environmental consultants, aiming to survey the fauna of the area to the best of our abilities, concentrating on threatened/endangered species, and "SREs" (Short Range Endemics-- eg. scorpions, spiders, millipedes, isopods, etc.), that might be impacted by the proposed iron-ore operations in the area.
Most of this area is decidedly flat, but it's these iron-rich hills that the mining companies are interested in.
Outside of birding, the rest of the vertebrate team monitored these traps. A pipe or bucket  (pit-trap) dug in at the center, with directional fences on each side, and funnel-traps at each end. This is mainly for reptiles like skinks, geckos, and snakes. We also had a few Elliot/Sherman traps and live-cage traps set up for mammals.
Below are a few of the critters we saw out there.
Jordan holding a Common Scaly Foot (Pygopus Lepidopodus). This is a legless lizard that I've  posted a few pics of in previous posts. This one was different though in that it dropped it's tail (despite being handled correctly), and click HERE to see what happened next! Usually when a reptile drops it's tail, the lost appendage flops around for 5-10 seconds, but this was something else! Not only did it carry on for close to 5 minutes, but it actually was able to move through the leaf-litter like a live snake, and when I picked it up, (the tail) wrapped around my fingers and started wiggling frantically.
Diplodactylus pulcher
Southern Shovel-nosed Snake (Brachyurophis semifasciatus). These guys are burrowing snakes so it was a bit surprising that all four of our captures came from rocky areas. Probably seeking out reptile eggs in the leaf-litter etc at the base of eucalyptus trees.
I forgot to get a snap of the only Rosen's Snake of the trip (Suta fasciata), so I  nabbed one off Google (note credit in bottom right--thanks Steve!). The tiger-like striping on ours was much blacker, but you can still see that it is a cool-looking snake. Tip: Do not get bitten by one of these.
This was definitely the herp highlight of the trip for me. Having fancied their photos in fieldguides and on the internet, I finally found this guy by chance as I walked back to the truck from a bird-survey. This is a Pebble Dragon (Tympanocryptis cephalus), which I would NOT have found if it didn't move.
Find the Pebble Dragon! Other than the fact that I've placed it right in the centre, the best way of picking them out is by their tail... which kind of looks like a euc twig.
More "Pebbling"--the next generation of planking/owling.
Monk Snake (Parasuta monachus) beside a funnel-trap
Bynoe's Gecko (Heteronotia binoei)
Ctenotus uber (Subspecies unknown--could be new? Don't ask me)
Burton's Snake-Lizard (Lialis burtonis)
My first Black-headed Monitor (Varanus tristis), and by far the smallest Goanna/monitor I've ever seen.
Cute wittle baby.
For the sake of variety, here is a mammal! No pygmy possum this time I'm afraid. This is an Ash-grey Mouse.
And yes I did see a few birds, although overall it was a very quiet survey. One exception were the Gilbert's Whistlers (pictured), who were quite vocal and provided me with some nice looks at this uncommon mallee specialist.
Australian Owlet-Nightjar hiding in a hollow branch. This guy was actually found roosting in one of our pipe pitfalls, and only reluctantly moved to this more natural setting.
Another big highlight of the trip was searching for "SRE" invertebrates--especially the scorpions and trapdoor spiders.  Because of the dirty work involved and extra weight, I usually didn't have a camera with me so I don't actually have any photos of the numerous scorps and spiders, but here's a shot of one of the awesome trapdoors built by a (probably undescribed) spider. Not the size, and the intricate leaf/stick arrangement around the base.
Closer look. Some of these spiders can live to be over twenty years of age!
Another trapdoor, this one using grass fronds. Unfortunately this was likely abandoned  due to  disturbance from  vehicles and heavy machinery.
On our second last evening, Jordan and I headed up the hill to stake out a small waterhole. Bird activity was slow, but there were some very cool aquatic inverts lurking in the pools as well as a few frogs. We also got destroyed by mozzies and flies! As night fell we put in an hour or so of spot-lighting but only managed a few geckos etc.
At least one was a lifer for me--a 4cm-long Clawless Gecko (Crenadactylus ocellatus)
Looking down upon the massive expanse of dry eucalyptus woodland. Whiles this might seem like a large area of native habitat, it is dwarfed by the surrounding "Wheat Belt" of SW Western Aus, and even this patch is threatened by increasing mining pressures.
The sun sets on the Great Western Woodlands, where my adventures in "W.A." began in the first place.  Big thank you to BirdLife Australia, DEC, and Ecologia, for bringing me out into these little visited areas. There ain't a single tourist in history that's seen this tree! ;)
And finally--we also got another THORNY DEVIL! I didn't grab photos of this one, so lets take a nostalgic (VIDEO) look back at the one Liz Fox and I found back in November.

Coming Up Next on the RUSS BLOG: Final thoughts on Australia, and a continuation of my Bornean adventures. Back in Canada in less than a week!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Borneo Blog: Kota Kinabalu

With the exception of the Shanghai airport at night, I've never been to Asia, and with no pending fieldwork coming up in the hot Australian summer, I figured "Hey, why not go up to Asia somewhere... I hear it's cheap." Coaxed on by another top-notch suggestion from Nigel, I decided that Borneo would be a good place to start. Filled with a great mixture of wintering birds from the Asian continent and a plethora of unique creatures and plants; it is a jungle world of extremes: Boasting the World's smallest deer, and largest squirrels; the smallest elephants and rhinoceros, and the largest walking-sticks, leaf-insects, cicadas...practically every cool insect that your imagination can create, lives somewhere in Borneo.

But the large island of Borneo is no longer the mystic and impenetrable rainforest of the early colonial days. Much of the coastline and major rivers are now lined with rapid urban and agricultural development. While la few decent swaths of pristine forest still remain in some of the highlands and remote river basins, the majority of accessible native habitat is quite fragmented, often surrounded by thousands of hectares of Palm Oil Plantations. These valuable trees, native to Africa, grow fantastically in Malaysian Borneo (the small northern state of Sabah alone produces around 20% of the World's palm oil... and this figure is growing each year) and are now the principle driver of Malaysian Borneo's economy, and the main reason many lowland plants animals are in serious threat of being wiped out.

But the tide seems to be turning, as local politicians realize the impact primary habitat loss has on tourism, not too mention the ecological and cultural integrity of the country. So there is still hope, and still plenty to see--especially for someone like me who hadn't even seen a wagtail yet!

I flew in on January 31st, and ended up staying for 1.5 months. Here's the first chapter...

As with most people, my Bornean Adventure began in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah (in northern Malaysian Borneo). I think the population is around 450,000 but compared to North American cities of the same size, it seems relatively small. I guess everyone is just packed in! This is a view of the downtown area from "Signal Hill" where I got good views of one of Borneo's most abundant and omnipresent birds, the GLOSSY SWIFTLET. "KK" is a relatively modern city, with massive shopping malls, a good variety of cuisines, and a vibrant business district. It used to be called Jesselton (a former British port), but has been renamed to sound more Malaysian, and as a tribute to the famous mountain of the same name (about 1.5 hour drive from the city).
I had arranged to meet up with some Canadian friends, on February 4th, so I had a few days to explore the city on my own. Malaysia is quite culturally diverse, with large numbers of both Muslims and Christians, as well as Hindus and others... all represented by a stunning array of ethnic groups (Mainly Malays from the mainland, Chinses, Indians/Pakistanis, and the descendants of Bornean native tribes). Sabah is a little different from the rest of Malaysia from an ethic/religious standpoint because of its proximity to the Philippines. Sabah used to be a part of the Filipino-based Sulu Empire, and in recent decades, disgruntled Muslim Filipino refugees have been settling the Saban coast in large numbers. This religious and ethnic connection with the problematic situation in southern Philippines, has predictably led to some serious issues for Malaysia. This came to a head while I was in the country, when over 100 armed Filipino men landed on the east coast. A drawn-out conflict with local police followed, and many of the Filipinos were killed, along with members of the Saban police. To complicate the incident, other Filipino illegals already in the country, as well as sympathetic Muslim Malays rose up against the police... and the situation continued. This effectively shut down the east coast--famous for World-class scuba-diving and much more--to tourism, but luckily my friends and I had already been and gone, by the time things got heavy. We did however have to endure constant securtiy checkpoint by machine gun-toting police (at the time we had no idea why they kept stopping us; they were looking for Filipino insurgents).

Okay anyway, back to Kota Kinabalu. As you can see, it has a couple beautiful Mosques, and it was lovely waking up to the morning prayers, and hearing them after dusk as I tucked into a lamb curry.
While, KK is very modern in many respects, there are still many remnants of the old ways, such as these fishermen at Likas Lagoon. Ruining the tranquility, is that this lagoon is filled with garbage (mostly KFC---by far the most popular 'thing' in Borneo after Angry Birds and Gangnam Style). And if I was to take a more wide-angled shot, you would notice an army of 9 weed-whacking city employees, and 3 men armed with leaf-blowers, cutting the grass and removing leaves from an area that only poor fishermen and desperate birders would ever visit. In fact every city in Malaysia seems to employ large numbers of these grass-cutters and leaf-blowers, while the piles of coke cans and junk-food bags pile up. It was depressingly ironic to see the guys with leaf-blowers work around the garbage to get at the leaves. Plus the fact that one man with a lawn-mower could have done the trick (if keeping the highway fringes trimmed to a goal-green is totally necessary), but there were always many of these people out there! Maybe a few bucks to garbage cleanup is in order?
Nearby this fisherman set up in Likas Bay, under the watchful eye of a rather friendly GREAT EGRET.

On my first full day in KK, I walked over to a local mangrove reserve. The rain bucketed down most of the time but since this was my first day birding Asia, I scored lots of lifers including WHITE-BREASTED WATERHEN, MANGROVE BLUE FLYCATCHER, a single MALAYSIAN HONEYGUIDE (possibly a rare find for this location?), and a bunch of PURPLE HERONS (whose colony is located in the background of this photo--not easily visible).
I've hinted already that KK is a city of contrasts. This tin-roofed slum village, built overtop of a tidal mudflat, is located directly beside a massive Five-Star Resort & Golf Course.
Not the greatest photo but a cool bird. This is a PINK-NECKED GREEN PIGEON.
Should have seen these in Queensland but somehow didn't. This is a "Mudskipper"--a fish that can walk on land!  Common in mangroves around this part of the world.
On my last full day alone in KK, I took a water-taxi out to Manukan Island--part of a small national park that protects the pristine archipelago just off from the city. At around 1.5km long, Manukan is the second-largest in the group, and has a few birds that are difficult or impossible on the mainland. There are a few jungle tracks on the island, none of which seemed to be used by anybody except spiders, so I had most of the forest to myself. The reason no one was in the woods was because everyone was here, at the beach (it got a lot more packed after I took this photo early in the morning). It looks like a fairly tame island beach but the snorkeling is actually fantastic, and I reckon I saw more tropical fish species here than in a whole day on the Great Barrier Reef! Out of about 1,000 beach-goers that day, I may have been the only one not wearing a life-jacket. Not sure if that's because Korean tourists can't swim, or 5 feet is just too deep to take the risk? 
A peek at the ocean from the jungle trail, where I got rather sweaty, lost my hat, but saw lots of neat things including MAGROVE WHISTLERS, OLIVE-WINGED BULBUL, ARCTIC WARBLER, and some very spiky vines.
The main target for most birders on Manukan are these guys--TABON SCRUBFOWL (a Filipino  member of the Megapode family), which can only be found on a handful of islands off the coast of northern Borneo. They are apparently quite skittish, so I was happy to find two different pairs.
The other main island in this archipelago is Palau Gaya. This picture was taken a few weeks later when my friend Jessica and I visited for a hike/swim adventure. Here Jess is posing in an oldgrowth mangrove swamp. Bagged a few more lifers on Gaya including the endemic WHITE-CROWNED SHAMA.
On February 4th, my close friend Jessica (from Vancouver) flew in, joined by another friend (Alex) from Vancouver, and two Swedes (Erik and Ida). Here we're about to munch on some fresh fish and squid at Tanjung Aru Beach just south of KK. Some great fresh juice on the table too--watermelon and lime.
"Build it, and they will come".
After building my first sand-castle in many years, I left briefly to try some Durian  ice-cream. When I returned the castle had been taken over by a family of locals. They weren't playing as much as just sitting. Maybe there's a comfort in human-made structures.
Even at the beach, I'm birding. This is a good one. Before this feral population established itself near KK, the BLUE-NAPED PARROT was endemic to the Philippines. Due to habitat loss, this awesome bird is in serious danger of extinction in the next decade! It is very possible that this KK population may be the last outpost. I saw 4, including one at a roost/nest hole.
My first ever hornbill! This is an ORIENTAL PIED-HORNBILL, just chillin' above us while we ate dinner at the busy beach-side market.
Sun sets over the South China Sea, as the "Year of the Snake" begins. Was really cool to be in an "Oriental" city for the New Years celebrations--non-stop parades, street markets, dancing, singing, fireworks... the works.

Return to Aotearoa

East Cape, North Island, NZ (from google)
After the high-adrenaline brain-buster that was our 15,000+ km Aussie roadtrip, I flew from Brisbane to Auckland for 2 weeks of downtime. Some of you may know that I lived in NZ for most of 2008, so this trip aimed to catch up with old friends and just RELAX for a bit. I didn't take a single photograph (others did, but I haven't got around to acquiring them yet), and only pulled out the binoculars a couple of times since there is little on mainland NZ I haven't seen already. Since my time in 2008 was mostly centered around the South Island, I took this time to explore the eastern half of the North Island--from Cape Palliser in the south, all the way up to the East Cape, and back around the Bay of Plenty to the Firth of Thames. The weather was absolutely pristine, and the company even better. In many ways, the East Cape region feels like the "Real New Zealand" where little Maori boys ride through town bareback, the sparkling seas party shadowed by the Eden-esque Pohutukawa trees, with the smell of grilled crayfish hanging in the breeze.

And yes I did manage to see a couple of nice birds along the way. New for my New Zealand life-list were: COMMON GREENSHANK, MARSH SANDPIPER, GREATER SAND-PLOVER, WHITE-WINGED TERN, and COMMON TERN, while it was also nice to reacquaint myself with old friends like the NORTH ISLAND KOKAKO, the tiny RIFLEMAN, rambunctious NZ FANTAILS, flame-winged KAKAs, and the rare SHORE PLOVER (my first adult male).

It was the perfect way to retreat from the intense (albeit thrilling) Aussie ordeal. By the time I flew back to Perth, I was ready for the next big adventure.