Chris Watson

Birding

A Visual Celebration of Borneo's Wildlife

Review, Tourism, BirdingChris Watson

by Fanny Lai & Bjorn Olesen

Edited by Yong Ding Li

450 pages, $70 hardback

Published by Bjorn Olesen Wildlife Photography, Singapore

http://www.bjornolesen.com/

 

Fanny Lai and Bjorn Olesen started with Borneo the way many people do: the trek up to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. As Bjorn explained to me via email the other week:

After the climb we spent a few days at the Kinabatangan River in Sabah watching the incredible wildlife diversity there.  This was our first encounter with the Bornean Orangutan and the Bornean Pygmy Elephant; thus began our addiction to Borneo.  

That was in 1998 and it was enough to put the hook in them; they’ve been returning regularly ever since. A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is a photographic tribute to this captivating island and its unusual fauna. But it offers much more than a coffee-table experience of flicking through images. The photographs are accompanied by blocks of text providing more than mere captions; more than a visual celebration, there is genuine scholarship here too. There are chapters dedicated to the various habitats found around the island and specific destinations within them. Introductory pages pay tribute to the great naturalists of the region: Alfred Russel Wallace, John Whitehead, and Charles Hose. The depictions don’t focus only on the spectacular and celebrated animals of Borneo, but also direct attention toward the lesser-known. There are chapters covering marine fauna, invertebrates, amphibians, and the botanical wonders of Borneo as well.

Bornean Crested Flameback. Bjorn Olesen. Used with kind permission.

The book has a heavy focus on conservation. Royalties from the sale of the book are being donated to Fauna & Flora International (FFI): an international organisation which has fostered an innovative approach to conservation since the early 1960s. Fanny and Bjorn’s connection with FFI goes back several years:

We have worked with Fauna & Flora International in Southeast Asia on a pro bono basis since 2013, and we are impressed with their conservation work in the field. FFI was founded in 1903 and is the world’s longest established international conservation body, working now in more than 40 countries around the globe, mostly in the developing world.

An important partner to conservation initiatives is ecotourism and it can be argued that the income provided by ecotourism is particularly important in developing nations. This happy marriage of conservation science and ecotourism is something I’ve seen at work in numerous countries and it seems that Borneo is no different. Bjorn goes further, suggesting that conservation in many areas of the island would be lost without it:

For conservation projects in Borneo to be successful, it is now recognised that the involvement and participation of local people and communities is integral. It is imperative to find ways to generate some form of economic benefit from the ecosystem and doing so in a sustainable manner. In other words, conservation needs to be linked to improving the standard of living of the local people, so that they have a personal incentive in sustaining those conservation actions. It is here that ecotourism has an indispensable role to play for the continued existence and well-being of the natural areas and their wildlife in Borneo.

In Sabah, Borneo eco-tourism has been particularly successful and is employing a substantial number of local people and attracting international investments.  However, it is a long battle as for instance the palm-oil companies in Borneo also have a significant influence.

In Borneo, ecotourism has tremendous potential with the natural attractions and rich cultural traditions of the resident communities. Ecotourism can offer alternative ways to generate sustainable employment opportunities and income for the local communities, and provide unique tourism experiences, while creating incentives to protect habitat. While many challenges lie ahead, the experience from other parts of Southeast Asia shows that it may be the best way forward.

True to its conservation focus, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife doesn’t shy from facing the numerous impediments to conservation. One in particular might be difficult for Australian readers to fully grasp. The illegal trade in wildlife is naturally clandestine in nature but it is underestimated here in Australia. In South East Asia it is more blatant and what regulations there are tend to be poorly enforced. The nature of the market increasingly targets animals the rarer they become. It’s a savage feedback loop that currently has numerous species on a trajectory toward extinction. Bjorn elaborates:

In Borneo, trade in animal products and parts have been going on for centuries with China. Highly priced products like horns from the Sumatran Rhino and edible birds’ nests are in exceptionally high demand. Illegal trade in pangolin parts has decimated the population, and the Sunda Pangolin is now classified as Endangered.

The latest example is the ‘ivory’ casque of the Helmeted Hornbill, which is directly carved on or cut into ornaments.  Based on reports of confiscations and Asian trading websites between 2012 and 2013, it has emerged that up to 500 Helmeted Hornbills were killed every month in the province of West Kalimantan, Indonesia alone. The heads of the Helmeted Hornbills were subsequently smuggled out via Sumatra and Java to Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.  For this reason the Helmeted Hornbill was classified as Critically Endangered in 2016.

To make a long story short, illegal trading in wildlife is still a big problem in Borneo and the rest of Asia.

There are some species in the book which will be a genuine treat for birders. The pittas, of course, are true “birders’ birds”; they’re both difficult to see and wonderfully coloured. The grip-off factor is dialled up to eleven here as all Bornean species are depicted and stunningly captured by Olesen. When you appreciate how hard it is merely to glimpse these birds, it is flabbergasting to see them photographed so beautifully. Another stand-out in this regard is the Bornean Ground-cuckoo. This species permitted only the most fleeting of glimpses when I visited the Kinabatangan wetlands in 2015 and I was grateful for that. Again though, Olesen has triumphed with some marvellous shots of the species.

....and it's not all about the birds. Bornean Keeled Pit Viper. Bjorn Olesen. Used with kind permission.

For these birds alone, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife will be worth the asking price for most birders and there is much more besides to recommend it. Australian birders will find a thoroughly informative text providing an excellent foundation for birding trips in the region as well as information on all the other fauna and flora to be found on the island.

Fanny and Bjorn are already working on their next large-format publishing project which I am told has a working title of Asia’s Wildlife: A Journey to the Forests of Hope. The authors tell me it visits eight different ‘forests of hope’ in eight different Asian nations and is due for publication in mid-2018.

If the quality of A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is anything to go by the new book should be a lavish treatment of an even wider sample of Asia’s wildlife. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for it.

CBW

 

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Owlet-nightjar ant-eating behaviour

Birding, Tourism, ResearchChris Watson

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, basking in daylight at a roost hollow. Front-facing eyes, super cryptic, super creepy and, apparently, prodigious ant-eaters.

Recently, I had an interesting encounter on a photographic tour I was leading in Central Australia.

I’ve read about the foraging tactics and diet of Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, before, most memorably in the work of Dr Lisa Doucette. An article Dr Doucette wrote in The Bird Observer back in Feb 2011, really stuck in my mind. In that piece, she detailed the differences in the dietary composition between birds studied in the semi-arid ranges of Central Australia and the wet eucalypt woodland of NSW’s Northern Tablelands.

The bit that really stuck with me was the following paragraph elaborating on the fact that the largest portion of the desert birds’ diet (31% by volume) comprised… ants.

“Catching ants, an abundant, reliable taxa, active even at sub-zero temperatures, would require less energy and time to obtain.

Flightless worker ants that primarily forage and nest on the ground were the dominant prey type in the Australian Owlet-nightjar’s diet overall. This strongly indicates that the Owlet-nightjars are foraging on the ground following trails of ants and exploiting nests, not simply using a “perch-and-pounce” approach to capture large terrestrial prey. Relative to other species of nightjar, owlet-nightjars have longer legs, making them far more agile on the ground and better enabling them to exploit terrestrial prey.” - Dr Lisa Doucette, Foraging tactics of the Australian Owlet-nightjar, THE BIRD OBSERVER, No. 868, Feb 2011, p.6-8.

This astonished me for two reasons primarily: I’d never thought of Owlet-nightjars as being even remotely long-legged and; ants seemed an unlikely prey item for an animal equipped with a beak that appears best adapted for catching airborne prey. (Now, looking at my photo of the beastie above, I should have been more observant - it clearly has a decent set of pins.)

It was illuminating.

I never thought I’d witness this curious behaviour, not least because even in Central Australia where the birds are incredibly common, despite hearing them on most nights out in the scrub, I didn’t see them very often at all. The mental image of an Owlet-nightjar perched on the ground over a line of ants like some weird gigantic feathered Thorny Devil was incongruous. But it happened.

The more-famous Central Australia ant-eater, the Thorny Devil, Moloch horridus.

Wandering up the path from Ellery Creek Big Hole to the car park on a warm evening in March, I was startled by the sight of an Owlet-nightjar on the edge of the path in front of me. It was surprised by my intrusion at first but I retreated slowly leaving it in the edge of the torch beam and it shortly turned away from me and continued what it was doing. What it was doing, was straddling a line of ants making their way along the edge of the concrete path and, literally, decimating them. It was repeatedly and frenetically pecking at the line of small black ants, gobbling down the hapless insects.

I’ve no reason to think that these observations are unique but still thought it worth documenting them here in case they are of any use or interest to anyone conducting further research on the species. Unfortunately, my camera was equipped with a fixed 50mm f1.2 lens for star photography so my captures of the encounter are disappointing to say the least. After a couple of almost worthless record shots I sprinted to the car for a zoom lens but was crushed to return and discover that the bird had flown.

Record shots = you *really* had to be there.

Still, it was a distinct privilege to sit with that bird for those few seconds and gain this firsthand insight into this surprising behaviour.

CBW

 

PS: I was leading this private photographic tour for Mark Carter Birding & Wildlife. We had numerous one-off wildlife encounters like this, and were able to perfect our star photography in a number of scenic locations over successive clear, dark nights. If this sort of thing is up your alley, you should get in touch with Mark and see this astonishing region with someone who knows it best. http://www.birdingandwildlife.com/

Your Deserts Need You

Birding, Tourism, ResearchChris Watson

Desert birding - this is the year

Lately I’ve been back in the desert. Sometime soon, you should head to the desert too. Whether you’ve never been before, or you’re a veteran Outback traveller, this year, as a birder, you ought to get out there.

My recent trip was the first of what will hopefully be a series of trips to collect data for a research degree I’m undertaking. This first one involved myself and my colleague in most desert escapades, Mark Carter, leaving Coolangatta and heading west with no itinerary other than reaching Alice Springs in ten days or so. The only mission was to fill in a few blanks on the desert map that neither of us had visited and to try and see what few lifers might be lurking there for us. Chief among these were a few species of grasswren.

There was a dual purpose for finding the grasswrens: neither of us had seen most of them and my research involves obtaining good quality audio recordings of Dusky Grasswrens across central Australia so any recording encounters with congeneric species would be useful practice.

The most obvious thing we noticed as we barrelled west of the divide and into the arid zone of the NSW/QLD border districts, was how much lying water was on the country. From the very first afternoon we drove through large thunderstorms. At Cunnamulla, roads to the north and west were all closed forcing us to head south and miss some of the best Grey Grasswren country out toward Innamincka. But we still made it to a flowing section of Cooper Creek where Mark was able to give his kayak its blooding on a proper desert river.

This is where Burke & Wills went wrong: they should have brought a kayak.

Heading south brought us into the range of the intriguing NSW race obscurior of Thick-billed Grasswren so all was not lost yet. This is not intended to be a comprehensive trip report so to cut a long and all-too-familiar story short: we dipped. Consecutive days over 40 degrees, a dearth of recent observations and inexperience recognising the bird’s habitat certainly contributed to our dip. These factors and the ever-present threat of being rained-in kept us moving southward after a fairly full day of gibber bashing.

The afternoon weather was regularly foreboding...

From Port Augusta the punishing temperatures eased but the rains continued. We had success with the Western Grasswren near Whyalla and found the birds in good voice and reasonably approachable for photographs and recordings despite quite a gusty day. The Thick-billed Grasswrens showed themselves ever-so-briefly further up the track near Coober Pedy and then we kept pushing north to Alice Springs and Dusky Grasswren country with a few days up my sleeve to make some more recordings.

The one constant of this trip was our (or at least my) inane commentary on the amount of water we were seeing. Most of the numerous bridges across the Stuart Highway between Coober Pedy and Alice Springs had water flowing under them and those that didn’t, recently had. The Palmer River was flowing strongly, the Finke crossing at Henbury was swollen as it had been for some weeks, and every clay pan and gravel pit was brimful. Every gibber plain from Tibooburra to Idracowra looks more like a golf green than the bleak Martian vista they usually resemble. Mobs of Emu were encountered the whole way through and, as evidenced by a juvenile bird even showing up on the beach at Shoalhaven Heads, Inland Dotterels have clearly bred very well across their range. These captivating little shorebirds were everywhere.

Emus on the 16th fairway near Tibooburra.

In all my years knocking about The Outback I’ve never seen it like this. Even the wet years of 2010-2011 didn’t manage to spread the pulse of life as far across the landscape as the last 6 months of wet weather in Central Australia have done.

Many of the roads across The Outback have only recently started to re-open after lengthy closures and many will need a fair amount of repair work done. The country will need to dry a bit and birds will continue to breed up but, by May, birding should be hotting up just as the weather is cooling down.

Ormiston Gorge at the moment: ringing with the chatter of breeding Budgerigars in every tree with the songs of Dusky Grasswrens cascading over the cliffs and hillsides.

Mark and I are heading off on another desert expedition in May. This time we're covering the Great Victoria Desert and parts west in search of a few birds that will be new to many birders’ lists: recent western splits like Naretha Bluebonnet and Copperback Quail-thrush are both high on the target list and we’ll be on constant look-out for other specialties in this region like Scarlet-chested Parrot, Sandhill Grasswren, flocks of wild Budgerigar, and Princess Parrot. Boom years like this don't come around too often and if nobody is out there to witness the spectacle of it all a great opportunity will have been missed. We aim to get out there during the peak of activity as birds are coming off multiple consecutive breeding cycles and the weather is at its most agreeable. We'll be seeking the above-mentioned bird species, but we'll also be looking to document and photograph all manner of fascinating and uncommonly encountered desert wildlife and flora before the inevitable drying, the burning, and the long wait for the next period of such frenzied productivity.

Sunset over Willochra Plain - hard to beat.

This 10 day expedition leaves Alice Springs on the 24th of May (all the details can be found over on Mark’s website here) and it'd be great to have you along. We only have a few seats left so don’t muck around – get in touch! We look forward to seeing you out there.

CBW

Gotta Tick 'Em All

Birding, OpinionChris Watson

This piece first appeared in Australian Birdlife Magazine Vol. 5 No.3, September 2016.

Cast your mind back and you may remember an old Nintendo game from the 1990s where players would seek out fictional creatures and capture them to add them to their list—Pokémon.  

The latest version of the game, harnessing the cameras and GPS capability of smartphones, was released in early July and it didn’t take long for problems to arise. Within the first week of the game’s release, the Darwin Police had to remind players that they mustn’t enter their premises just because the game had designated the building a “Pokestop”.

Reports of car crashes and pedestrian accidents have been common, as have accusations of trespass as people chased Jigglypuffs and Charizards through suburban parks late at night—some Pokémon, it seems, are nocturnal. In the US, a series of muggings occurred when nefarious players lured others into isolated places. Bosnian players even had to be reminded to avoid wandering onto minefields, such was their Pokémon-induced stupor.

A lot of this should have a familiar ring to birdwatchers. We all know how single minded birders can be in pursuit of a lifer. There’re plenty of stories of birdwatchers, lurking behind binoculars, suspected of snooping. I’ve been grilled by the Australian Federal Police myself for straying too close to the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility toting high-end optics. There are also many regrettable instances of erratic driving, trespass and other ill-advised behaviour by birdwatchers in pursuit of their quarry.

But despite all the similarities, the biggest point of difference between birdwatching and Pokémon Go is the most obvious: birds are real. That’s not a small thing. Because birds are real, birdwatchers, from the rank beginner to the most experienced ornithologist, in their efforts to see as many species as possible, are learning about the world we live in and contributing to our understanding of its ecosystems.

Birdwatchers keep notebooks and submit their observations to online atlas projects where the information can be accessed by researchers and governments and used to inform studies of bird populations, movements and distribution, and make decisions about their conservation status and required levels of protection. Birdwatchers’ observations have informed recent decisions regarding the management of fire, mineral exploration and vegetation clearing.

Due in large part to the contributions of birdwatchers, our understanding of how birds occupy the landscape is more complete than for any other class of vertebrate on the planet.

But although my initial reflex was to dismiss Pokémon Go as mere skim milk to birding’s full cream, its phenomenal popularity clearly confirms one thing: our huge appetite for exploring, collecting and cataloguing. The similarity between the collecting mentality of birdwatching and the Pokémon tagline of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, shows the fascination with collecting to be a universal character of humanity.

So with the Twitchathon going national this year and the Aussie Backyard Bird Count in October, perhaps there’s an opportunity here. These are the extreme sports of birdwatching. It may take just the gentlest of nudges, as the interest in Pokémon Go begins to wane, for the listers of the virtual world to see their opportunity in an unaugmented world filled with multitudes of creatures which are even more spectacular and enchanting for their reality…

An iridescent flying creature which steals clothes pegs and trinkets from humans, but only if they’re blue? Satin Bowerbird—tick it off.

A ground-dwelling animal which constructs a mighty oven with delicate temperature control to hatch its young? Malleefowl—another one in the bag.

A huge flightless dinosaur-like beast with a single horn on its head and a vicious kick that could disembowel a would-be attacker?

Southern Cassowary—you beauty!

If they thought Pokémon Go was addictive, wait ‘til they try birding.

Britain's Birds: An identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland

Review, BirdingChris Watson

by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop and David Tipling

Princeton University Press, August 2016

Paperback AU$78.00

This new field guide arrived, fortuitously, only a few hours before I departed for a four week stint in the British Isles. As such, it has received a more thorough road-test than some field guides I’ve reviewed. I was also able to meet the authors at the British Birdfair and speak to a number of British birdwatchers there to gauge the early reception Britain’s Birds has received from locals. The overwhelming impression from my snap-poll? A resounding 'thumbs up'.

In total, Britain’s Birds was knocking about in my glovebox or backpack for a shade over 2200 kilometres of a trip that took in parts of England around Oxford and Rutland Water; southern Scotland around Glasgow; and islands of the Inner Hebrides including Mull, Islay and Arran in the Firth of Clyde. These are all areas that I have birded intermittently over the last 15 years, apart from Mull and Islay, to which this was my first visit. After a brutal dip on a vagrant Long-tailed Duck at Rutland Water, my only lifer from four weeks of birding was Red-billed Chough on Islay. But despite all other species being familiar to me already, Britain’s Birds taught me much more about them all and I referred to it constantly.

That first glimpse of a lifer; is there anything like it?! My picture here isn't a patch on the images you'll find in Britain's Birds but we were rapt to eventually have great views of close to 40 birds. Islay is one of very few places in Scotland this rare species still occurs. Britain's Birds informs us there are fewer than 3500 birds across Britain and Ireland with as few as 300 individuals remaining in Scotland.

Completeness is the inescapable first impression Britain’s Birds makes. It includes accounts for just shy of 650 species. With the usual list of resident birds and annual migrants to Britain barely topping 200 species, the fact that the official British list has grown to such a size is testament partly to its geographic location being favourable to avian vagrancy, but mainly to the fervour, size and skill of its birdwatching community. (For comparison, the vaunted Collins guide to all the birds of Europe treats 713 species, has 100 fewer pages and is about two thirds the weight.) As the inevitable result of being so comprehensive, Britain’s Birds is heftier than any other British field guide I’ve used, coming in at 1190g, just a fraction lighter than my ‘go to’ guide to Australia’s 700+ birds, Pizzey & Knight.

The species account for (Red-billed) Chough. The text is concise but more than sufficient. This is one of the more straightforward species to identify.

But if size is the only criticism I can make of Britain’s Birds, it is also a piddling one. It still fits comfortably in the glovebox or day pack, if not quite a jacket pocket. I happily carried mine in the Scopac across many miles of forests, moors and peaks during my visit. It’s printed on robust stock with a low-gloss finish and the solid cover is made of a splash-proof plasticised card which was sufficient to withstand the drizzliest days the Hebridean weather could throw at us.

My antipathy toward photographic field guides has been gradually dissolving since the release of Birds of Australia by Campbell, Woods & Leseberg; Britain’s Birds has banished my reservations about the form entirely. The images are uniformly brightly-lit, well-chosen, frequently breathtaking and carefully arranged without crowding the pages.

The authors have adopted an approach that will be familiar to users of the Crossley ID guides, with a few innovations of their own. Birds are set against a typical background with a number of other birds of the same species super-imposed around them for comparison. The collection of photographs they have collected in Britain’s Birds is staggering. Unlike Australian photographic guides which remain frustratingly bereft of images of Buff-breasted Button-quail (and Night Parrot although photos, happily, are now available for this species), every species is depicted. Not only that, but each species is shown in almost every plumage variation, in comparable light, in near identical poses, in flight and at rest. For a country in which a newb can easily become befuddled by the profusion of gulls (not to mention hybrid ducks!), the inclusion of additional comparison pages for difficult groups is particularly handy. Where vagrants are pictured, the authors have even gone to the trouble of sourcing photographs of an actual individual from its occurrence in British territory. Sub-species are also detailed in most cases; the best example of this may be the species account for Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, which has a dedicated page picturing all six races which occur.

For potentially problematic species you get the Full Monty: a double page spread here for the bogey bird of my trip, Long-tailed Duck. Flight shots, head shots, different moults, behavioural notes, other species it is likely to associate with... all in beautifully comparable, well-lit, photos.

Another highlight is the size and detail of the maps. This is a common stumbling block for many guides so I was stoked to see these produced at a size that allows for fine-grain geographic detail. Each map also has a caption giving movement information, a summary of habitat use and an estimate of British population size.

Also a welcome addition for many will be the ‘educational’ pages at the start of some sections for bird groups that might be difficult for newer birders or birders new to the region. These include helpful pages on the field identification of swans and geese, ducks, waders, gulls, skuas, auks and many others. These pages summarise the field marks to look for in separating the species and give useful behavioural details, moult cycles, confusion species, etc. Certain species accounts also carry a “Rare Beware” inset beside the title. This is a great innovation which immediately alerts you to the possibility of rare birds that might be confused with the species you’re looking at and lists the page numbers to check for those confusion species.

The order is roughly taxonomic with a twist; species are grouped into general categories like water birds, wetland birds, birds of prey, night birds, game birds, etc. To be honest, I’d be happier with a more strictly taxonomic order but the order presented doesn’t affect the usability of the guide in the slightest.

For me, Britain’s Birds has finally eliminated any reticence toward photographic field guides. Photographic and production technology has clearly reached a point at which a guide like this can be the equal of any hand-illustrated version. With the gobsmacking growth in popularity of wildlife photography in recent years who knows? Perhaps one day photo field guides could even become the preferred format.

Britain’s Birds will now be my first pick of field guides to pack when visiting the UK. It’s on the heavier side, but not impractically so. For the extra size you get a field guide which is beautiful, comprehensive, highly usable, as up-to-date as a book in print is able to be and will be a valuable reference on the species it describes, wherever they happen to be found.

CBW

 

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