Friday, April 7, 2017

Birding Iguazu Falls and Misiones

Unlike Asuncion, you, dear reader, are reasonably likely to wind up one day in Argentina’s northernmost province of Misiones. Puerto Iguazu is the jumping off point for the National Park that offers spectacular views of the world’s greatest waterfall and it's also the richest birding region of Argentina.

I know we're here for birds, but some quick thoughts on the waterfall are in order. In reality, Iguazu is a sprawling complex of more than 100 individual cascades. Extensive networks of boardwalks on both Argentinian and Brazilian sides give visitors terrifyingly close views of so many gushing torrents. So much water vapor hangs in the air that every view is inevitably embellished by a perfect rainbow adding to the overall sense of magic to the place.

It's hard to do this place justice with photos, but here's a small part of Iguazu Falls
The magic is somewhat dampened by the crush of crowds. We happened to visit during an Argentinian holiday, so families with noisy and unruly children were especially dense. We were able to circumvent the worst of the frustrations by queuing up at the entrance prior to opening.  And despite the throngs, the park was actually rather birdy.

Eared Pygmy-Tyrant, Iguazu Falls

Plush-crested Jays are trash birds at Iguazu. Literally. They stand on the railings hoping the tourists will feed them trash.

One bird highlight are the Great Dusky Swifts which are endemic to the area.

Great Dusky Swifts nest at Garganta del Diablo (the Devil's Throat), the most intense part of the falls, accessible from the Argentinian side via a long elevated boardwalk. Obsessive birders justify visiting the waterfall by the opportunity to tick this unremarkable birder's bird.

But for some more serious birding we knew we would have to get off the beaten track a bit. After suffering with no guide in Bolivia and an inept guide in Paraguay, we were keen to make the most of our time in the Atlantic Forest of Misiones and coughed up some serious cash for a 5-day tour with Ornithologist and renowned bird guide, Guy Cox.

Our 5-day route with Guy Cox, starting in Puerto Iguazu (A), birding the Iguazu National Park (B), camping at Parque Provincial Urugua'i (C), a cushy stay at Reserva Karadya (D), then backtracking north to lovely Surucua Lodge (E), then a long haul south to Guy's place in San Pedro (F) for birding in Parque Provincial Araucaria just behind his house and nearby Cruce Caballero (G). After we left Guy we stayed a night at the inferior San Sebastian across the road from Karadya (D) before crossing into Brazil back at Puerto Iguazu (A). 

Guy, his doggie, us and his unreliable van

A quick aside about the Argentinian economy: the nation is still suffering (or at least was in July 2016) from the latest in what seems to be a never-ending series of economic/financial crises. I had always heard about how these tend to make things cheap for anybody possessing a much-coveted stable foreign currency, but the situation appeared to be the opposite, with everybody charging based on what they anticipate to be the diminished value of the peso 3 months down the road. Basically most things cost about the same as the would in North Carolina, except that the largest denomination note, the 100 peso bill, is worth about $7. So one must carry around absurd wads of cash. 21st century hyperinflation!

After getting a handle on the actual cost of Argentinian goods and services, we realized Guy wasn’t completely ripping us off (as I had wondered when he first sent the quote). And for birds, he’s certainly the real deal. Guy has decades of experience with ornithological work in Peru and Bolivia, rubbing elbows with the late great Ted Parker. He’s somebody whose identifications can been trusted.

We asked Guy for the cheapest tour possible, which meant we cut quite a few corners in terms of food and accommodation. We signed up to stay one night camping and one night sleeping on the floor of Guy’s house.  The two other nights were spent at rather luxurious eco-lodges, so the contrasts were rather stark. Guy’s strengths certainly lie with birds and not hospitality, so I’d certainly recommend you weigh your wallet and options carefully before making the arrangement we did.

Before the tour began, we visited the Jardin de los Picaflores—a can’t miss, for the birder or photographer. 

Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, the coolest and rarest of the eight regular hummers present at Jardin de Los Picaflores in winter

Guy picked us up at our aptly named ‘Swift Hotel’ in his boxy green van to bird along the old Iguazu park entrance road. This is ideal for birding as the road gets little traffic and offers great views of the forest edge and canopy. But just an hour into our tour the wheels literally fell off the wagon. While navigating a three-point-turn, Guy announced a problem and jumped out to investigate. His gentle English lilt didn’t break, but when he sputtered his third consecutive “Oh dear…” we knew there was a serious problem.

Guy's van, even while at peak performance isn't exactly a dream boat. The inside reeks of diesel and burnt oil and the cacophony from the motor make conversations difficult, which is a shame because Guy's an interesting guy to talk to.  He told us he's looking to unload this box and get a new bird-mobile (we wish him luck with that!!)

So we left Guy to sort out his broken axel strut and continued birding along the road on foot. Thankfully it was pretty birdy, so we didn’t have to roll our eyes at each other to entertain ourselves. Incredibly, Guy managed to get a taxi into town for the replacement part, make it back to the vehicle and get it mended in about 3 hours, so we were back on track without too much of a loss. Give him some credit for resourcefulness.

This Rusty-breasted Nunlet tried to keep us entertained by sitting completely still (as nun/puff-things are want to do)

This Streaked Xenops was a bit livelier, giving us some nest excavation action. 

With the van mended, we headed for Urugua'i, an important area for some targets that like  dense bamboo thickets. This site has some sort of weird microclimate going which reminded us that we were no longer properly in the tropics. It was cold and foggy, so terrible conditions for photos, but the birds were interesting. We had a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper working a concrete edge just by the highway overpass and saw Rufous Gnateater along the trail loop.

We weren’t well-prepared for camping in near-freezing conditions and so had a rough night huddled together under filthy blankets in the back of Guy’s van (he stayed in a tent). This was after an uninspired dinner of canned sardines. Guy’s a far better birder than he is a chef. Thankfully Natalia had anticipated this problem and bought some crackers and soup earlier (she hates canned fish).

In the morning we were treated to some sunshine and a beautiful pair of Blond-crested Woodpeckers made a happy interruption to our breakfast. After birding the trails at Urugua'i and getting some targets, like the Blackish-blue Seedeater and White-eyed Foliage-Gleaner (both regional endemics and bamboo specialists) we continued onward.

At Bio Reserva Karadya the manager and resident birder, Julian, rolled out the red carpet for us. He served us a delicious lunch and then showed us to our tower room, which has a roof deck serving as a canopy tower.  The moment we arrived, a mixed species flock happened to be working the area.

The VIP canopy tower penthouse at Karadya. Highly recommended.
Instead of American Robins there are Rufous-bellied Thrushes in Misiones.
We didn't score a ton of specialist/target birds at Karadya for whatever reason, but the food was so good we didn't care. This Variable Antshrike put in a special effort to make us happy and that can go a long way.

It turns out Julian is an ornithologist himself, and in between serving up insanely delicious meals would lead us to spots for tricky target species, like Planalto Tapaculo or White-shouldered Fire-eye. While we ate he would tell us about the Harpy Eagle nest he used to monitor—the last known breeding record for Argentina. Sadly the nesting site has since been abandoned.  He also showed us a frozen carcass of a Violacious Quail-Dove, which crashed into one of the lodge’s windows. Once accepted by the authorities it will be Argentina’s first official record of the species.

Argentina's first record of Violacious Quail-Dove. More proof that inanimate objects are better field biologists that people.

We would have gladly stayed several days with Julian, but we had other sites to see, so no time to delay.  Luckily we found our top target in the gardens behind the lodge at the last minute: a flock of Saffron Toucanets.

This Saffron Toucanet showed up with a flock in the gardens at Karadya, the only ones we saw on the tour.

Our next stop was the Surucua Lodge, named for the Surucua Trogon.  

On the road to Surucua there were some fruiting trees loaded with Toco Toucans (at least 20), so we stopped for the obligatory picture of this common but iconic bird.

The male Surucua Trogon for which Surucua Lodge is named.

Female Surucua. Trogons are just as easy to photograph in Argentina as they are in the rest of the Americas.

This lodge is gorgeous and boasts an extensive network of trails through pristine forest abutting the Iguazu River as the trogon flies, not too far upstream from Iguazu Falls. The food was exquisite, rivaling that of Karadya and the couple who own/manage the place bent over backwards to make sure our every need was met. Laura did the cooking and Adrian came out with us birding. It always helps to have a local birder on hand to help with targeting and we knocked off many of the species that had eluded us in previous days.

Bertoni's Antbirds never stop moving, so it took a good bit of effort to catch one in frame without stick-face

This Gray-hooded Flycatcher decided to come sit on a branch within 5 meters of us, so I was able to catch a decent shot despite the poor light.

Band-tailed Manakin is arguably one of Misiones' prettiest birds. Thankfully, they're fairly common.

A puddle next to the Surucua Lodge has an attendant Rufescent Tiger-Heron (juvie)

Large-headed Flatbill... maybe it's the angle of the photo, but the head didn't seem to be especially large. One of those names an uninspired  taxonomist with calipers came up with.

Best of all was the Spot-billed Toucanet, which I finally managed to spot in the canopy after we had been frantically trying to locate an unseen calling bird overhead.

Spot-billed Toucanet way up in the canopy at Surucua

Surucua Lodge was another spot where we would have been glad to linger for several days, but on we went to Guy’s House in the ramshackle town of San Pedro. The trash-strewn dirt street haunted by stray dogs gives the area a bit of an un-enticing appearance. The aesthetic of Guy’s house matches that of the surrounding town. As he attempted to make order of the chaos inside and meet the demands of his wife and two children he advised us to find something to cook ourselves for dinner. His guest quarters are a mattress on the floor with dirty blankets and he struggled to find us towels so we could shower.

I’ve certainly done my time living in squalor and wouldn’t begrudge Guy for helping us save money by letting us stay at his place, but the conditions were a bit of a shock following on the heels of the pampering we had received at Karadya and Surucua.

The reward for enduring a stay at Guy’s place is that his backyard is, literally the entrance to Parque Provincial Araucaria, one of the few remnant patches of Dr. Suess-like Araucaria trees. Long favored by loggers for their tall, straight and branchless trunks, these trees have been all but driven to extinction (97% loss). A few obligate bird species cling to existence in the remnants, such as the Vinaceous-breasted Parrot, an endangered bird that exists almost exclusively behind Guy’s house.

Araucaria angustifolia or 'Candalabra Pine,' a critically endangered tree
The park behind Guy’s house also contains a few rare patches of cane, where, if you can dodge the truant children, loose dogs and mentally ill bums, you might be able to glimpse the Canebrake Groundcreeper. After some persistence and playback we were able to get decent looks at one.

The only place we had Red-breasted Toucan, the last toucan we needed in Argentina, was in Guy's yard.
Red-breasted Toucan were flocking to the planted fruit trees near Guy's house

San Pedro is just down the road from another important remnant of Araucaria trees at Parque Provincial Cruce Caballero. We birded here on our final morning with Guy and were disappointed to find the trails dead silent.  Where were all the birds?  Of course when we returned to the parking lot, the activity was manic, proving one of Natalia's favorite birding axioms: the best birds are always in the parking lot to reward the lazy.

Our third Rusty-breasted Nunlet of the trip.  We couldn't seem to avoid these things.

Here we had the most special of specialists, the Araucaria Tit-Spinetail.

Araucaria Tit-Spinetail is completely dependent on the critically endangered Candalabra Pine, and yet the bird is only listed as Near-threatened... c;mon IUCN; what the hell.

We also scored a pair of Pavonine Cuckoo thanks to Guy's keen ear.

Singing Pavonine Cuckoo through the tangle

After one more swing through the Araucaria our tour with Guy ended, inconveniently enough with us stranded in San Pedro. Guy was nice enough to give us a small refund for the delay on the first morning, which ended up being just enough to buy us a taxi ride part way back north toward Puerto Iguazu. We had an extra day to bird, so we stopped at San Sebastian de la Selva, the across the street competition to Karadya. 

The food at San Sebastian has nothing on Karadya or Surucua, but bird-wise it filled some important niches that the other sites had left empty. The layout is totally different than other places we had visited, with the gardens surrounding the cabins and lodge mostly open with a network of ponds of various sizes teaming with Capybara. Rounding a bend you would hear a terrifying splash only to realize it was just one of the gigantic pig-rats plunging into a pond.  

Anyway, the water and surrounded shrubs attracted different types of scrub and edge birds (not lifers, but new for the trip) and then the feeders outside the dining area were very well-managed, providing some excellent photographic opportunities while waiting for lunch.  

Blue-and-yellow Tanager, a feeder bird at San Sebastian
Chalk-browed Mockingbird, another feeder bird

Green-headed Tanager, gem of the San Sebastian feeders

The good forest with important bamboo patches takes a bit of hiking uphill to reach, but if you arrange with the resident guide, Nene, he'll drive you up in his 4x4. Nene is clearly used to taking out hard core birders, as he knows how to tape out the specialist species. He showed us Variegated Antpitta and the Ocellated Bamboo-Wren (we dipped on the Speckled-breasted Antpitta, though).  But Nene's a bit unpolished as far as guides go. His speaker system was belching out skull-splitting static, so he ended up using our iPod/speaker setup to call birds (lucky we had it!). But far worse was when he left us waiting shivering in the pre-dawn cold for him to emerge to take us birding. Why set a meeting time you aren't capable of making? When he did finally show up he didn't even seem to realize he was late or that being late was a problem.

Generally, the experience one has staying at San Sebastian is one of irrelevance. Nene and his wife seemed completely ambivalent about our presence or happiness.  I guess that's what happens when the owners of a place are absentee and leave others behind to manage. The price certainly doesn't reflect that this place is several notches below the other local lodges. Nevertheless, we still picked up six lifers here in 24 hours after five days of birding the region and it's got the best feeder setup.

We were able to catch a bus back to Puerto Iguazu and make our way into Brazil for a series of flights back to the US.

This concludes our post-graduation tour of South America. I hope you've enjoyed the arm chair ride!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Swiss birding squad

Even for somebody like me who has been through the process a few times, moving to a new continent can be a bit intimidating. On top of all the usual challenges in navigating a new culture and physical setting, the critical support networks of friends and families are left behind.

With Natalia off in southeast Asia I was left on my own to bird in a strange Swiss land. The forecast had looked good, but an unexpected dense fog shrouded the landscape, as well as the birds, at the local hotspot, "Katzenseen."

The dense fog at Katzenseen. I felt like I was more likely to encounter an advancing infantry front than a bird.

My early wake-up and pre-dawn arrival proved to be pointless, as I wandered around destitute in the haze for hours while silhouettes of migrating Goldfinches and Fieldfares swirled around in the colorless treetops. Passing hikers said unintelligible things to me. Greetings, presumably, though the Swiss-German accent to my untrained ear recalls more of a fork being dropped into a garbage disposal.

When the sun finally came out after several hours, I blinked at the beautiful landscape I had been until then unable to perceive.  It was quite pretty and I could see the birding potential, but I was starving and it was time to retreat home for lunch. I would have to return another day.

After the fog lifts I can finally see where I am

This was a bit of a lonely and inauspicious early go at Swiss birding for me, but thanks to birding's growing popularity, finding birder friends has become easier than ever.  Within Natalia's work department alone we now know a half-dozen-or-so birders.

So armed with Natalia and some new friends I later returned to Katzenseen to give the place another go.

bird squad at Katzenseen

And of course it was so much more fun, even with a decent snow falling.

The ubiquitous European Robin eating fallen apples in the snow
And this time birds were better and more interesting. Or perhaps it was just that having people along to listen to my jokes and pontifications.

'This treecreeper looks like it could be from Eurasia." This comedic gold would usually be left to bang around inside my own.

I'm finally starting to get a handle on the treecreepers. This is a Short-toed Treecreeper (note the long bill), not to be confused with the nearly identical Eurasian Treecreeper (both are common and widespread in Eurasia)

Finally a decent look at a Fieldfare (if you're not snow blind). The Katzenseen apple orchard was loaded with Thrushes.

Wow, a Black Woodpecker excavating a nest!  This is worth a video.

Best of all, we had a target staked out.
Long-eared Owl, the first I've seen since I saw my lifer in Rhode Island a full decade ago. Fun fact: my life list at that point was less than 300.

Ashwin knew where a group of Long-eared Owls roost, and we were able to tally 11 of them peering out of a dense thicket.

Our report of the owls to eBird drew some attention, and not the hate mail that casually reporting an owl roost usually brings. Some birders from Basel reached out wanting some location details so they could chase.  I offered to lead them to owls the following weekend and earned another couple birder friends. Daniel and Julie also happened to be professional conservation ecologists with a knack for whispering out Water Rails.

Since then I have had the chance to bird a few times at hotspots further afield thanks to my new friends' cars and willingness to drive.

The best, closest birding spot to Zurich is Lake Constanz, which offers an impressive spectacle of waterfowl mega-flocks (the best I've seen outside of North Carolina's Mattamuskeet NWR).

small chunk of mostly Tufted Duck within a raft of 10,000 mixed with Greater Scaup and Common Pochard

Let's take this opportunity to appreciate some of the common Eurasian Waterfowl, like this Eurasian (Common) Teal

Or these Red-crested Pochard (with a Great Crested Grebe), which Natalia considers to be the prettiest duck on the continent. My new Spanish birder friend Josep disagrees (the red bill is too gaudy, he says. I bet he also doesn't like women who wear lipstick).

I had pretty low expectations about Swiss birding when I arrived here in the middle of Europe, but it's been surprisingly fun. Despite having birded a good bit in Greece and Scotland, I've managed to tick 22 lifers during the species-poor winter months.

A recent lifer for me was Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (this one was at Lake Constanz). It may not look like much more than a Downy Woodpecker, but this can be a tricky bird to find.

After a lot of searching I finally found my first Great Bittern at Klingnauer Stausee

Digiscoped pic of my most recent Swiss lifer was Garganey, a bird I had dreamed of seeing as a vagrant in North Carolina. It proved to be easy enough to find at Lake Constanz in March.

This success has all been thanks to my new Swiss-based birding friends (you know who you are). With migration around the corner, I'm sure I'll be out birding with them again soon!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Birding Sabah (ahh)

This trip was planned at the last minute, as it wasn't clear whether Natalia would be able to extend her trip thanks to Malaysian Immigration's archaic attitudes toward Colombian Nationals. But once she sorted things at the migration office, the round trip tickets from Zurich to Kuala Lumpur (KL) for $457 convinced me that I couldn't afford to stay home for this one.

After the rough adventure of Kalimantan (see The Kalimantan Krush), I had myself mentally braced for trying times as I flew to meet Natalia in Sabah. But the Malaysian part of Borneo proved to be a world apart from its Indonesian neighbor to the south.

When people say they are going birding in Borneo, there's better than a 99% chance they're hitting up Sabah, and for good reason. Over the past couple decades Sabah has fashioned itself into a kind of birder's Disney Land, with excellent accommodations, food, and wildlife-focused parks.

Mount Kinabalu National Park, certainly a must-visit for birders hoping to see some of Borneo's montane endemics, was our first stop.
Golden-naped Barbet, Mount Kinabalu - our first Bornean Endemic
Black-sided (or 'Bornean') Flowerpecker, another endemic

Most visitors to the park are non-birders who want to summit the 4000 m elevation peak, but the best bird action is along the power station road and excellent network of trails that crisscross pristine cloud forest habitats below 1900 m.

Gray-chinned Minivet pair, Mount Kinabalu
 The most important bird targets here are the "Whitehead's Trio": Trogon, Broadbill and Spiderhunter, the latter of which graces the front cover of the Phillipps' field guide.  We spent a couple days prowling the park and while 52 doesn't sound like an impressive bird list, 14 of these were Bornean endemics, including the Whitehead's Spiderhunter and crippling views of a Whitehead's Broadbill.

Whitehead's Broadbill, a highly sought-after Bornean endemic

that's the stuff; nice spot Natalia!
The Park offers such excellent access to so many range-restricted species that it also popular with biologists and a very large proportion of the birds we saw sported color bands.

Bornean Whistling-Thrush (an endemic) color-banded
Most of the bird tours spend 3 or 4 days at the park, but it seemed like we had pretty much hit diminishing returns on the local bird life after just two, so we decided to check out Poring Hotsprings, which lived up to its reputation as 'boring poring.'  The one trail is really steep and had few birds. We hiked around all morning and found only 22 species! The place does have a really cool canopy walkway, which unfortunately doesn't open until 8 am.

We continued on to the Rafflesia Information Center at the Crocker Range National Park, which is supposed to be better for some of the mountain endemics that are extra rare at Kinabalu. Birding here was also disappointing and of the endemic targets here (i.e. Fruithunter, Montane Barbet, Bornean Barbet to name a few) we only managed Bornean Bulbul.  Despite the poor reviews, we had a pleasant stay at the nearby dilapidated Gunung Alab resort/motel.

Natalia had to get back to work co-instructing a forest ecology field course, so we flew Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan to join the group at Sepilok, which fortunately for us, is a kind of birding Mecca. The Rainforest Discovery Center at Sepilok has taken the concept of canopy walkway and canopy tower and to a new level. It has four steel towers of varying heights and a long stable and wide elevated walkway that links two of them. They have plans to eventually join all four towers with the walkway.

Natalia at the Rainforest Discovery Center canopy walkway, Sepilok
Although lowland Sabah forests have been devastated by the same wave of oil palm development that has Krushed Kalimantan, the big difference is that Sabah has not only set aside protected areas, but also aggressively developed them into ecotourism destinations. Sepilok is one such highly developed ecotourism destination. In reality it is just a small island of pristine forest in a sea of oil palm desert, but its a big enough oasis to support a lot of endangered, endemic and charasmatic wildlife and is now fringed by high-end resorts that bring in tourists from all over the world hoping to glimpse an orangutan or a bristlehead.

Speaking of bristlehead (i.e. Bornean Bristlehead) it is far and away the top target for birders at Sepilok. Heck, given that it's the sole species of the endemic Pityriaseidae family, it's arguably the most important bird in all of Borneo. The Phillipps' book advertises it as 'common' at Sepilok.  While it may have been commonly viewed and photographed at Sepilok years ago, recent sightings have been few and far between.

We asked everybody with binoculars or a camera about the bristleheads, hoping for some local intelligence. Nobody had seen a bristlehead recently and yet everybody advocated for the same strategy: bird the canopy walkway in the early morning or the later afternoon and listen for their odd nasal calls. We spent a lot of time on the canopy walkway and I began to wonder if the Wallace's Hawk-Eagles nesting above it weren't part of the reason why the Bristleheads had become so shy.

Wallace's Hawk-Eagle eating [something]. A pair was nesting almost directly above the Trogon Tower on the canopy walkway.

One of the interns at the Sunbear Center told me it took her two years to see her first Bristlehead, so I pretty much wrote this bird off as a miss.  Luckily there were plenty of other interesting birds around the canopy towers to marvel at while the Bristleheads didn't show.

Blue-throated Bee-Eater -- not a rare bird, but a looker indeed
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, another common attractive bird at Sepilok
How about some Hornbills?  Try the 27 m Hornbill Tower!
Asian Black Hornbill (female)
Bushy-crested Hornbill
Oriental Pied Hornbill
 But there's only so much waiting one can do and there were certainly other birds for us to see along the trails. Many of the trip reports recommended the Kingfisher Trail, but other than a friendly Purple-naped Spiderhunter...

Purple-naped Spiderhunter

 ...and Short-tailed Babbler...

Short-tailed Babbler
... it was consistently pretty quiet.  No sign of the Rufous-collared Kingfisher here (the one we wanted), in fact I walked that trail at least three times and only saw a Blue-eared Kingfisher (common bird) once, the only kingfisher we saw at Sepilok.  It had been really dry and the creek level was low; this probably had something to do with it.

We ended up having much better luck on the Pitta Trail. First we stumbled upon the elusive White-crowned Hornbill and then interrupted some sort of dispute between the two biggest of Bornean woodpeckers:

This White-bellied Woodpecker (a Dryocopus, the same genus as North America's Pileated Woodpecker) seemed to get the better end of the deal and happily foraged on this fat rotting snag
All the while this Great Slaty Woodpecker (the world's largest Piciformes) scolded him from a nearby tree
And then we came upon an aggressive Black-crowned Antpitta (another endemic) that came charging out onto the trail when we played him some tape.

Black-crowned Antpitta, a Sepilok poster bird
 The last morning of Natalia's course I went out birding on my own and wasn't having a terribly productive time of it until I ran into another pair of birders I recognized from back at Kinabalu National Park. We had exchanged a few words with these guys as we criss-crossed paths time and again..just helpful bird sightings advice as friendly birders do in the field. This time they gave me a real nice nugget: Bornean Brown Barbets and a Red-naped Trogon at the far end of the Pitta Trail.
Bornean Brown Barbet (endemic) excavating a nest cavity out of an active termite colony. His/her partner was sitting on a nearby branch. I watched them for 20 minutes take turns digging and getting covered in termites.
 Natalia was free after lunch, so I brought her back to the spot where the barbets were still going hard at it. As she was taking photos I noticed an odd quiet call from nearby. Eventually I located a gorgeous male Red-naped Trogon.

Red-naped Trogon -- doesn't make up for missing Whitehead's Trogon at Mount Kinabalu, but a beautiful lifer

Red-naped Trogon
We took our time enjoying and photographing the barbets and trogon and just around the time we might have begun to start thinking about moving on, Natalia caught a glimpse of a large black bird in the canopy as she swigged from her water bottle.

Oh my god it's the Bristlehead! The water bottle nearly crashed to the ground.

Bornean Bristlehead (immature), Sepilok


After all the advice about looking at the canopy tower in the very early morning, here were looking up at three feeding Bristleheads on one of the trails at 3 in the afternoon. So much for conventional wisdom.

Bornean Bristlehead (adult), Sepilok

 It was yet another amazing spot by Natalia. She had one final one left in the bag.

That night we met the students at the canopy walkway to watch the giant flying squirrels emerge (an awesome sight; we did this three nights in a row). As we walked our way out to the parking lot to hop a taxi back to the resort, Natalia noticed what she first thought was a tarsier in her flashlight beam.

The tarsier turned its head and revealed itself to be this Oriental Bay Owl, a tough bird to find!
With the course wrapped up, we were free to move on to the Kinabatangan River. The landscape here has been severely fragmented by oil palm development over the past four decades which makes it an important area to visit for Natalia's research on birds in oil palm landscapes. The remnant forested riparian corridors, made ever more important for wildlife hemmed in by the oil palm deserts, have, somewhat paradoxically, become famous for ecotourism. Fancy lodges have sprung up along the putrid and often smelly Kinabantangan's banks drawing a steady stream of tourists hoping to glimpse or photograph a Proboscis Monkey or a Bornean Elephant.

Conveniently for us the Kinabatangan is also excellent for birding and we signed up for a birding package with the resident bird guru Robert Chong. His lodge and fees aren't cheap by Malaysia standards, but as he offers the best chance in the world to see the endemic Bornean Ground-Cuckoo and a handful of difficult pittas, going with him is well worth the cost.

When the Kinabatangan Jungle Camp bus showed up to pick us up from Sepilok, who should be inside but the same pair of birders we had met on the trails of Mount Kinabalu and Sepilok over the previous week.

Turns out we had been birding a parallel itinerary with a pair of Belgian kings of the world of birding. The guy with the parabolic mike and the prosthetic leg turned out to be Peter Boesman, the most prolific bird sound recordist in the world. Seriously, nobody else has contributed so many vocalizations (circa 26,000) to Peter has double-legendary status for also losing his leg to a bushmaster bite in the Peruvian Amazon some 20 years ago. His Swarovski-scope-wielding accomplice turned out to be Mark Van Beirs, a 30-year veteran bird guide for tour company Bird Quest and the #7 world life lister (he ticked #9000 on this trip to Borneo) according to the scoreboards over at (you hear that, Seagull Steve? The actual world #7 in the flesh!).

We found ourselves birding with Belgian birding celebrities (if such a thing exists) Peter Boesman and Mark Van Beirs (insert culturally insensitive joke about waffles and/or chocolate here). If you notice a down-tick in Peter Boesman's sound uploads, it's probably because I talked over most of his recordings. Countless potential new splits eluded adequate vocal documentation thanks to me.

The Belgians proved themselves worthy of their lofty reputations immediately by spotting roosting Brown Wood-Owls just behind our cabin.

Brown Wood-Owl juvenile, Kinabatangan Jungle Camp
Brown Wood-Owl adult, Kinabatangan Jungle Camp
Otherwise the birding in this area is nearly 100% done by boat, which is great for photography. A few of the more common specimens:

Gray-headed Fish-Eagle, not to be confused with the similar Lesser Fish-Eagle
Oriental Darter, the Southeast Asian cousin of North America's Anhinga
Blue-eared Kingfisher, with the possible exception of Stork-billed, the most common kingfisher here
Stork-billed Kingfisher, the other most common Kingfisher.

Black-and-red Broadbill, affectionately referred to by local guides as  'Angry Bird.' These things were building nests all along the river banks.

Wrinkled Hornbill (male), yes these are quite common on the Kinabatangan.

What the hell is this thing? Apparently in Southeast Asia in breeding condition Great Egrets have dark bills with blue facial skin and pinkish thighs. Peter Boesman and I nearly came to blows over this ID. He insisted that these birds were too small to be Great Egrets and I was ready to concede that the Phillipps' Guide illustrations might be totally worthless. Later side-by-side views of the egret trio (Great, Intermediate, Little) confirmed and vindicated the Phillipps' rendering

Sadly we ended up dipping on the Ground-Cuckoo, only hearing a few distant calls, and had no luck with any of the elusive pittas. Otherwise the birding was excellent (as was the birding company), so we weren't as bothered as we probably should have been.

We got great looks at this ugly Lesser Adjutant, one of the two threatened stork targets here
Storm's Stork, the second threatened stork target, also put in a good showing

Natalia's favorite bird of the Kinabatangan was this Ruddy Kingfisher (poorly named, this bird is a gorgeous deep purple)

White-crowned Hornbill. One of three lifers Mark Van Beirs ticked on his first day out with us on the Kinabatangan. The other two were Large Frogmouth and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo

I finally got my second Ixobrychus species in a cooperative Yellow Bittern that clumsily clamored in the emergent vegetation 
We left the Kinabatangan at the last possible minute, heading straight to the Sandakan airport to catch successive flights to Kota Kinabalu and on to Kuala Lumpur for a brief stopover in Peninsular Malaysia before the jaunt back to Switzerland.

It seems incredible that after spending 4 weeks in Kalimantan we could return to Borneo and tick 111 new species with relative ease. Comparing lists and effort from these two adjacent states speaks to the huge difference in birding opportunities. Kalimantan -- 177 species in 4 weeks; Sabah -- 200 species in 10 days.

Conclusion? Go birding in Sabah. There are a lot of interesting endemics to search for, the ecotourism infrastructure is world class and costs are relatively low. When you go, be sure to run into Peter Boesman and Mark Van Biers for a guaranteed fun time.