Monday, November 2, 2009

Sunday birdwatching at Niah NP, IBA

For those who are not aware, Niah NP is one of the IBA in Northern Division, MY50. The others are Lambir Hills NP (MY51), Similajau NP (MY49) , Mulu NP (MY53), Loagan Bunut NP (MY52) and the Kelabit Highlands (MY54).

Important Bird Areas (IBAs) are sites of international importance for bird conservation at the global, regional or national level, based upon standard, internationally recognised criteria. IBAs are not only important for birds, but typically support awide range of other important flora and fauna species. Furthermore, many IBAs are also significant for human welfare and economic well being through protecting catchments, providing flood control or as a source of natural resources.

Google map of a section of Niah Caves National Park. We birdwatched along the river from Park HQ to Batu Niah town, a distance of 3km on relatively flat concrete pathway.

The following few paragraphs are from the "Directory of Important Bird Areas in Malaysia", MNS Conservation Publication No. 8.

Niah NP itself supports 7 globally threatened species. The Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster, Grey-headed Ichthyophaga ichthyaetusand Lesser Fish-Eagles I. humilis (all near-threatened) have also been recorded in the area. The following is from "Directory of Important Bird Areas in Malaysia".

Globally Threatened species which has been recorded in the park:

a) Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle (VU) Spizaetus nanus (SFD 2002a).
b) Large Green Pigeon (VU) Treron capellei (Sebastian 1984-1987 ).
c) Short-toed Coucal (VU) Centropus rectunguis (Sebastian 1984-87, 2002)
d) Blue-headed Pitta (VU) Pitta baudii (SFD 2002a).
e) Straw-headed Bulbul (VU) Pycnonotus zeylanicus (SFD 2002a).
f) Hook-billed Bulbul (VU) Setornis criniger (SFD 2002a).
g) Large-billed Blue Flycatcher (VU) Cyornis caerulatus (SFD 2002a).

Two hundred and forty-one (241) species of birds have been recorded in and within the immediate vicinity of the national park (Gregory-Smith 1996; Marduka 2001; Sarawak Forest Department 2002; Smythies 1999). Niah Caves itself harbour great populations of swiftlets in its chambers. The swiftlet population, consists of the White-nest Swiftlet Aerodramus fuciphaga, Black-nest Swiftlet Aerodramus maximus and Mossy-nest Swiftlet Aerodramus salaganus.

Come to think of it, our group has not quite done a proper job of birdwatching at Niah NP. It's always either to go to Niah Caves NP to explore the limestone caves, check out the insects along the plankwalk or climb Bukit Kasut ... and birdwatch along the way, on the side, never the main event. Perhaps we are just spoilt for choice as far as birdwatching locations are concerned.

Past Sunday, we tried to gather as many of our small Miri Branch birdgroup for a spot of birdwatching-only outing at the park. "As many" didn't turn out to be as many as we had expected.

Sian's got work, Sara's away, Musa's off possibly fishing, Steve's away to attend to some major snafu in Labuan. None of the Curtin birders were anywhere to seen or heard from ... possibly stumped with homework. We ended up with a motley crew of Clare, Rosie, Amer and yours truly. And not to forget, two very junior birders in the form of pint size Aisya and not so pintsize Ali.

Since we were birdwatching on this side of the river ie. along it, outside the park per say, we didn't have to pay the required entrance fee to the park! Yes, it was free!!!

Niah River meanders thru the park to form the boundary between park headquarters and the park grounds proper. There's a well-used (used to be) path from the park hq to Batu Niah town right alongside the river banks, it's concrete all the way to Batu Niah. This path was our target this time around. All 3 kms of it.

The trailhead from Batu Niah entrance ... concrete all the way to the park, interspersed with fruit orchards and a few village houses.

... and friendly dogs.

Having birdwatched in Niah before, we noticed how much harder it was to pick out birds from dense foliage within the park itself, you can always hear the birds but hardly ever see them without putting a real effort. The Chestnut-rumped Babbler we ticked off previously on a preivious visit was called out before we had a good positive look at it.

Along this path however, they are numerous breaks in the forest cover along the way, the first kilometer is probably the most fruitful for birds being a distance away from the kampung and still retaining some of the original riverine cover. The rest is an easy trek to Batu Niah.

We took almost two hours to complete the full trail, spending time spying for birds along the way. The walk back to the park from Batu Niah took us a full 20 minutes to the park headquarters, without the birdwatching of course.

The first patch just outside the back fences of the park boundary was actually a cleared forest planted with fruit trees such as nangka, cempedak, tarap and the like. There were still a few stands of large original cover. This was perhaps the most productive spot being rather bright.

We have spotted the following birds in this area: broadbills, spiderhunter, drongos (2 species), treeswift, bulbul, hornbill, barbet, fantail and numerous sunbirds.

On this particular outing we sighted Scarlet minivet (a group of 3 individuals male, female and a likely juvenile); Pacific swallow, Cream-vented bulbul, and Yellow-vented bulbul. We heard Common tailorbird, barbet sp., fantail sp., drongo sp. and broadbill sp. but were unable to locate where they were calling from. The barbet was definitely high up in the tall trees.

As we moved further into the shadier trails, we spotted a bird we have not seen before for a while. After much peering into the dark foliage, we made out at least three birds. Upon further examination we had a good look at two of the birds. One individual decided to fly across the Niah river.

The ones that stayed behind were positively id as a resplendent male Diarde's Trogon and a slightly smaller Scarlet-rumped Trogon. We surmised that the third that flew away was also a Scarlet-rumped Trogon based on it's call. What are the odds of that? Both birds were lifers for Rosie and Amer.

As we walked on further thinking the day could not get any better we stumbled upon a group of babblers stealthily moving inside the fairly dense foliage next to the trail. We almost did not bother until we heard the sounds of juveniles nearby.

Upon closer look indeed it was confirmed that one of the adults birds was feeding young inconspicously hidden behind some leaves inside a nest. The bird kept flying in and out of something which looked more like a clump of brown dead leaves than a babbler's nest. We confirmed id as Chestnut-winged Babbler having been given full view of the adult birds as it flew in and out to feed the youngins. We were completely stoked by then.

In that clump of dry leaves precariously hanging on live twigs is a Chestnut-winged Babler's nest. Juveniles were heard from inside as adults birds flit in and out bringing morsels of food.

The rest of the walk to Batu Niah was not as eventful other than several squirels playing catch and several appearances of the ever present Cream-vented Bulbul across our path. As we moved closer towards Batu Niah, the vegetation turned to oil palm, and more fruit trees mostly of rambutan, durians and tarap.

The short but sweet birdwatching outing at Niah NP ended with hearty lunch and ABC for desert at Batu Niah town.

Though we did not tick any of the globally threatened species listed above this time around, we will definitely do this trail again if only for the trogons and babblers we spotted! On second thoughts, the Blue headed Pitta could just be the reason to go back and soon.

MNS Miri, Nov 2009

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