Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bornean Groundcuckoo and Beach Thick-knee

A member of our Suai recce team claimed to have spotted something that looked like a largish tall chicken by the estuary of Sg Suai back in October 2008. Of course in situation like these, there's never any cameras involved, no one took videos or images. It was just a quick look resulting in vague and sketchy descriptions from a non-specialist doing his best to describe something he's never seen before in his entire life.

Our friend knew it was "like a chicken" but confidently confirmed that it's not a chicken. And he knew what a junglefowl looks like.

Imaginations ran wild: Beach-thicknee and Bornean Groundcuckoo made the shortlist. Pictures and sketches went back and forth, we still couldn't decide on either one. Both seemed likely. Habitat wise, the coastal settings seems to suggest a thick knee or even one of the larger waders. But it's not exactly a bird common in these parts. Groundcuckoo was equally unlikely, what is it doing on a sandy beach near an estuary?

Not having seen either birds, we started building up expectations to find them. Either one would be a major tick. Both have never been sighted in the vicinity of our shores.

Bornean Groundcuckoo:

Photograph by (c) James Eaton from and

"Records of the Bornean Ground Cuckoo show it to be or to have been widely and evenly distributed across the island of Borneo, with a total of 49 localities, 10 in Sabah, 15 in Sarawak, four in Brunei, and 11 in East, four in Central and five in West Kalimantan.

Although it is normally characterised as a rare species, evidence is accumulating that it is better considered a generally highly secretive but in fact moderately common bird. However, its habitat is clearly mainly primary forest, and it probably favours level areas near rivers, mainly but not exclusively in the lowlands.

Rates of loss of such habitat probably cancel any positive effects on its Near Threatened status stemming from improved knowledge of its range and numbers. It subsists chiefly on forest-floor invertebrates, sometimes following bearded pigs Sus barbatus or sun bears Helarctos malayanus, but its combination of apparent pheasant mimicry and unpalatability is puzzling.

Its breeding remains unknown, but the various reports of its vocalisations sort into at least five calls, a deep thook-torr, a monotone koo, a rolling torrmmm, a snarling ark or heh in alarm, and a bizarre bleating in breeding-related behaviour."

Local names : kruai manang, manuk babui

Description of Bornean Groundcuckoo above from "Distribution, status and natural history of the Bornean Ground Cuckoo Carpococcyx radiatus" A. J. Long and N. J. Collar, FORKTAIL 18 (2002): 111-119

Beach Thick-knee:

Photograph by (c) Hans and Judy Beste on

"The beach thick-knee is the largest species of thick-knee and ranges from 21 to 22.5 inches (53 to 57 centimeters) in length. It has thick yellow legs, a long, strong, bill, and yellow eyes. The beach thick-knee is gray-brown on the back and pale on the belly. The shoulder is black above a thin white line. The head is mostly black, with a white stripe through the eye. The bill is black except for a yellow base. There is a rust-colored patch under the tail.

The beach thick-knee is found on seashore beach habitats. These include sand, shingle, rock, and mud beaches.

The beach thick-knee eats crabs primarily, but also eats other crustaceans. Large crabs are torn into small pieces before they are swallowed. It generally follows its prey quietly, and then suddenly lunges and grabs. Sometimes, beach thick-knees also search in mud and sand for prey."

Local names : kedidi malam

Descriptions of Beach Thick-knee from

We came back in January from our 70kms coastal walk from Bungai Beach (26/12) to Similajau National Park (31/12) passing through Suai, endless sandy beaches and countless river estuaries over 5 days empty handed. The largest bird we saw was White-bellied Sea Eagle and a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha. Clearly, both did not fit the "largish chicken" descriptions, they werent anywhere near the ground.

We didn't see a single groundcuckoo nor a shadow of the thick-knee. We did however stumbled upon a family of breeding Malaysian Plover with chicks near a secluded coralline sandy beach exactly at the tip of Tanjong Payung promontory.

We are building high hopes for the groundcuckoo having recently seen published accounts of it's sighting last in Similajau National Park. In all honesty, no, the sighting was not on the beach but close enough. And we can drive to Similajau NP.

Google map (Image 2001). Mark the spot "M" for Bornean Groundcuckoo, as reported by Duckworth et al (1996), sighting made Sep 1995. Degraded area on the right showing conversions to oil palm plantation bordering the forested areas of the park.

MNS Miri, Nov 2009

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