Sunday, June 16, 2013

Borneo Blog: My First Acquaintances with Pittas, Gibbons, and Wren-Babblers

May 1, 2013

Finally – another installment of my recreated Borneo Blogs.

Maybe I should get the leech story over with first. In case you haven’t heard, in much of southeastern Asia there are terrestrial leeches waiting on the tips of leaves in the forest that want your blood. Yesterday wasn’t a problem, as I was on the road almost all day. But today I tackled the forest trails across the Segama River, crossing the foot bridge and entering the 500 meter-by-500 meter grid of trails used by researchers. The further you get into the grid, the narrower the trails and the denser the low vegetation at ground level. But I stayed on top of the problem, constantly checking my legs for leeches, flicking them off, and teasing them when I saw them waiting patiently on their leaf perches before they noticed me. In the late morning I paused to look inside my boots and discovered 20 in each, all in their infrared heaven but no manna – hunkered down and pressed flat either on my socks or against the inside of my rubber boots. It took a good 10 minutes to get them all out, flicked off (with some effort) into the woods. I was a little more vigilant the rest of the day, but when I got back to the dorm, there were again a few inside my boots, and I scraped them out and flicked them off into the grass where they probably perished from exposure. Then inside, getting ready for my shower, I took off my shirt, and there above my left nipple was a nearly fully engorged leech, fast attached. “You little f*er,” was all I could say, and I dislodged his-her mouth by scraping it off with my fingernail, shuddered as it stuck to my finger like glue, and hauled him-her outside. It would have been too much work to try to kill it, so I just flicked it off into the lawn like the others. So, permethrin-treated socks, pants, and long-sleeved shirts will not deter them. Obviously, having button-down shirts is no insurance that they won’t sneak in between the buttons or down the collar if their journey begins where I can’t see them, such as on my back.

Ok, done. I took no photos of engorged leeches or blood (sorry Kate). I think most people just wouldn’t like that, and I don’t really want to be reminded, even though I’m usually of an extremely hardy constitution. Just google “leeches and blood” if that’s your thing (and you can move on to botflies if you haven’t had enough). But I did have a spectacular morning of birding, even if most of the sounds I recorded are still mysteries. Birding in the understory of tropical rainforest is hard anywhere, but it’s particularly hard when you don’t know the vocalizations and when the canopy is 60 meters tall. I eventually decided that one of the amazing, loud and surprisingly melodious sounds coming from many directions belonged to Bornean Gibbons in the canopy. Others might have been Agile Gibbons. But then I never even glimpsed a monkey, so my second guess is that they were Thick-billed Pigeons, a bird I did see way high in a tree through a tiny gap in the mid-story umbrella of foliage. As you see, I have no clue, and I’m grasping square straws and putting them in round holes.

I was excited to see my first pitta today – a colorful beauty which in the book is called Black-and-crimson Pitta, by the IOC Black-crowned Pitta, and in the Clements list Black-headed Pitta. I’m sad that I don’t have a photo to share of it, as it’s a gorgeous gem of a bird, but I did get excellent sound recording of its simple song – a 3.5-second pure whistle starting at about 1190 hertz and gradually rising to 1260, a barely noticeable increase in pitch. I later heard a few more and saw three by the end of the day, but it was the first one that was so spectacular, as I was not at all prepared and in retrospect realize that I was whistling the song only absentmindedly, not actually expecting a bird to fly up so abruptly from a hidden ground perch. Its wings gave a loud, snapping rattle, adding to the drama.

Then not far down the trail, while recording the second pitta, I recognized a two-noted whistled that I had been studying – the endemic Bornean Wren-Babbler. I hadn’t studied the pictures, so it was quite a surprise to see this quail-sized bird with long legs, long neck, brown-and-white streaked breast and an odd walking behavior hop on to a fallen log and pace back and forth in excited response to my whistled imitation. The other babblers I had seen were all vireo- or antbird-like foliage dwellers, not something rather like an oversized, disproportionate antthrush. Here's a horrible digibinned image.

By mid-day the cicadas had become impossibly loud, and I wanted to avoid getting caught in what seemed like would be a daily afternoon downpour, so I spent most of the afternoon back at the dorm, studying for tomorrow’s outing (and to take a break from the leeches, to be honest). Before I left the forest, a couple critters caught my attention: a small frog in the leaf litter, and a showy damselfly.

Walking back across the footbridge over the Segama River is this view of some of the Field Centre’s buildings, in what is a ridiculously oversized, spread-out campus that could have been more concentrated, allowing for a larger area of forest regrowth. Is a half-mile walk between the dorms and the dining hall really necessary?

This is the suspension bridge which doubles as a Whiskered Treeswift hunting perch, which I learned after flushing one at a distance of only a couple feet before I noticed it. I’ll try to remember another afternoon.

This evening, a few interesting moths visited the lights by the kitchen (I love the green one, and am very curious what family the big, square-winged one might be in), and a Bearded Pig cruised the grounds looking for handouts.

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