About Me

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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Sepilok; an oasis in the oil palms #3

Over the past two postings I've introduced the lovely and forested enclave of Sepilok in eastern Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. You can find the first one here. Today I finish by visiting the side-by-side Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Sun Bear Conservation Centre which perform valuable conservation and animal welfare roles, but which also contain a wealth of wildlife in the forests that encompass them.
Feeding platform in the forest; the ranger does not directly interact with the animals,
which are being encouraged to leave the rehab centre for the forest.
Every year many young Orangutans are orphaned – through accidents or through the illegal pet trade. The role of the rehabilitation centre (which has been operating for 50 years) is not only to save them from a lonely unpleasant life, but to teach them how to be wild Orangs again, in order to return them to the wild. Visitors can see the stages of this, including now-adult ‘rescue Orangs’ coming back in from the forest for an occasional free feed, sometimes bringing wild-born young. The food supplied, mostly bananas, is designed to offer emergency support, but is too bland and limited to encourage dependency. Indeed the feeding stations are intended to lead animals to the reserve, not out of it. The Nature Reserve within which the centre is located has only 4,000 of primary rainforest but it supports a healthy Orangutan population. Males, which need big territories, are released at more distant sites, as there are already wild males in the area.
Outside exercise area for young orphan orangs, as part of their rehabilitation.
Female Bornean Orangutan with baby. She was well away from the centre,
though doubtless visits the feeding platforms from time to time.
All such babies are fathered by wild males.
The name orangutan (also written as two words, or hyphenated) means ‘forest man’ in Malay; it probably originated from a south Kalimantan dialect. We now know that the Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is a separate species from the Sumatran Orangutan (P. abelii), which makes the conservation of orangs on both islands even more critical. (And as of 2017 a third species, Tapanuli orangutan P. tapanuliensis, was recognised, from southern Sumatra.) They are the most arboreal of the great apes, seldom coming to the ground – though Bornean orangs, where there are no tigers, do so more than the Sumatran species. They are also the most solitary, living alone except while youngsters are still with their mother; they will however feed amiably in the same fruiting tree while food is abundant. They are essentially fruit-eaters, though they will supplement their diet with other vegetable matter on occasions. Orangutans are essential vectors of the fruit of various forest plant species.
Young free-living orangutan using the forest boardwalk railings as a route through the forest.
Males hold a large territory, within which are the territories of several females. Males don’t mature reproductively until they are at least 15 years old, though that may be delayed even further if there is a dominant resident male in the area. When they do mature it happens quickly, with the development of cheek pads and throat pouches. Females also do not begin breeding until they are 14 or 15 years old, and remarkably, tend to wait some eight years between births. Babies are entirely helpless for the first two years of their life, needing to be carried and fed. After that they begin to climb but don’t wean until they are four. 

Bornean Orangutans are listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List (Sumatran and Tapanuli Orangutans are Critically Endangered). Loss and fragmentation of forests (by logging, clearing for agriculture, especially oil palms, mass burning and road building) are important causes of decline, along with illegal hunting, for bush meat, crop protection, traditional medicine and the pet trade.

The Sun Bear Conservation Centre is a rehabilitation and research centre, only opened to the public in 2014 though founded earlier, for young bears rescued from illegal captivity. They live in a very large fenced-off area of rainforest, where they learn to forage and interact – it can be quite uplifting to see them playing and generally being real bears. The first release, which was successful, took place in 2015; local release is not possible as they require a large foraging range – up to 15 square kilometres for a male.

Young Sun Bears playing in their forest enclosure.
Sun Bears Helarctos malayanus are small bears (a big male weighs no more than 80kg), living in rainforests of south-east Asia from Bangladesh to Sumatra and Borneo, though their range is now much fragmented. They climb well and often, seeking insects (especially termites, ants and beetle larvae), and honey, which they extract from hollows with powerful jaws and a long tongue, and a lot of fruit. Young bears stay with their mothers, suckling, for 18 months. They are threatened by deforestation and widespread illegal hunting, including for the pet trade. The Sepilok centre is an important hub of Sun Bear research.

We were told that this was the first time this young bear had climbed this big stump,
a significant accomplishment.
A covered shelter looks out over the enclosure, and continues as a raised boardwalk, providing views of other wildlife as well as bears.
A tough old male Long-tailed Macaque Macaca fascicularis, who was in no doubt as to who owned the railings!
Another much more demure occupant of the railing was also very special.
Paradise Tree Snake Chrysopelea paradisi; just after this photo was taken I was astonished when the little snake
launched itself into the air and glided elegantly to the ground. These 'flying' snakes glide on flattened
rib cages, covering up to 100 metres from high in the canopy.
Little Spiderhunter Arachnothera longirostra. This remarkably long-billed member of the sunbird family
does hunt spiders, but it is probably more reliant on nectar.
The best wildlife watching however is along the kilometres of walking tracks in the forest at the rehabilitation centre.
Charlotte's Bulbul Iole charlottae; this is a Bornean endemic, split from the more widespread
Buff-vented Bulbul I. crypta.
Raffles's Malkoa Rhinortha chlorophaea male; pity about his modesty with regard to the leaf!
The malkohas are a group of large non-parasitic tropical cuckoos.
Bushy-crested Hornbills Anorrhinus galeritus. A slightly odd hornbill, with no close relations,
highly sociable and very noisy!
Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus, another single-species genus.
An ant-eating specialist, it is widespread in southern Asia.
Prevost's Squirrel Callosciurus prevostii; this north-eastern Borneo black form
lacks the striking white sides seen elsewhere in its range.
Plain Pygmy Squirrel Exilisciurus exilis, a Bornean endemic and one of the world's smallest squirrels,
with a combined head and body length of some 12cm. This little delight foraged through the
undergrowth just off the track for some time.

Striped Tree Skink Dasia vittata, another Borneo special.

Wagler's Pit Viper Tropidolaemus wagleri, an entirely arboreal mostly nocturnal species which is highly
variable in colour. Even when hunting however they are sit-and-wait predators of birds, mice and lizards.
A moth.... sorry!

Borneo Birdwing Troides andromache; this magnificent big butterfly is restricted to Borneo.
If you go to Sandarkan for instance, you'll probably go to Sepilok and the rehabilitation centres; don't forget to stroll further along the tracks though, you're bound to be surprised and rewarded.

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Thursday, 28 June 2018

Sepilok; an oasis in the oil palms #2

Last time I introduced the Sepilok area in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Bornea. With this post I'm continuing that series, but with a fairly brief post, relating to the surrounds of the Rainforest Discovery Centre, which is immediately adjacent to the Orang Utan and Sun Bear rehabilitation centres. 

This is primarily a schools education centre, but the public are welcome. It comprises an excellent interpretive centre and walking tracks through both labelled plantings of rainforest species and primary rainforest. One such walk circles a lake and climbs, via a boardwalk, to a canopy-level viewing tower. Flowering plants around the carpark support a good population of sunbirds. My photos on the whole were disappointing, and some are really not usable, but rather than ignoring the centre I've opted for this short photo essay, covering at least three visits there over two years. 

The forest itself is superb, especially as experienced from the boardwalk and viewing tower. Here are some views of it.

I really can't get enough of tropical rainforest!
The dipterocarps are members of the family Dipterocarpaceae, nearly 600 species of rainforest trees found throughout the tropical forests South America, Africa and Asia, but Borneo is their hotspot. There, you have a very good chance of getting it right by identifying a rainforest tree as a dipterocarp!
Parashorea sp., Dipterocarpaceae, Rainforest Discovery Centre.
Cauliflory on Sterculia megistophylla, Family Malvaceae (formerly in a smaller family, Sterculiaceae,
but in common with the current ways of botanical taxonomy it has been engulfed into a massive megafamily,
with arguably a loss of nuanced information).  Cauliflory ('stem flowering') seems to be a method of offering
flowers and fruit to pollinators and dispersers, though its advantages are not always obvious.
Adenanthera pavonina, a pea family tree, whose flowers are normally way above our heads;
this one was alongside the elevated boardwalk. Parts of the plant have been widely used in traditional
medicine, and there appears to be a fairly sound pharmacological basis to this.
Obviously there are birds present, but as is often the way in rainforests it is not always easy to photograph them. (Still less easy to do so well, though I'd like to be able to have my time there over with my current camera.)
Grey-cheeked Bulbul Alophoixus tephrogenys (at least I'm almost sure of the species, though a bit more
light would have been good). I do tend to  have trouble with bulbuls I'm afraid.
Ashy Tailorbird Orthotomus ruficeps, a common busy little Bornean bird, so named because it constructs
its remarkable nest by sewing the edges of a large leaf together, punching holes and drawing spider web
or plant fibre through them to hold it together.
Female Orange-backed Woodpecker Reinwardtipicus validus. This is a fairly big woodpecker,
and the only one of its genus. He is more colourful.
Eastern Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja. I almost left this photo out, but he is very handsome...
Lower down are reptiles.
Skink Mabuya (or Eutropis) multifasciata.
Malayan Box Terrapin Cuora amboinensis.
But perhaps the most impressive animal we saw there was a mammal, for which we waited until near dark. The following photos give the impression of more light than was actually present - I used a very high ISO and balanced the camera on the boardwalk railing for a very slow shot in torch light. I'd never seen any of the 'flying' squirrels previously, and this one was magnificent. Our guides knew their day-roost hollow, so we just waited for them to emerge.
Giant Red Flying Squirrel Petaurista petaurista.The 'giant' part of the name is not used lightly;
head and body are over 40cm long and the tail longer still.

Giant Red Flying Squirrel against the moon.
After a few minutes it turned towards us and glided directly overhead into the forest, at least 100 metres in the air. It was an impressive finale.

I'll be back next time to complete this celebration of the wildlife of Sepilok.
Sunset over the forest, Rainforest Disovery Centre, Sepilok.
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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Sepilok; an oasis in the oil palms #1

Sepilok is a leafy settlement a little to the west of Sandakan, which is the second largest city of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. The Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and adjacent Sun Bear Conservation Centre are major tourist attractions - but I'm pleased to say that this is definitely not the reason for their existence. 

Primary rainforest comes right to the edge of town, which is really pretty special.
Primary rainforest along the track to the rehabilitation centre ,which is within easy walk of
some of the best accommodation in Sepilok.
Once you drive out of  town however, in almost any direction, you realise that the appearance of being in an expanse of rainforest is a facade; the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, which contains the two centres and partially surrounds Sepilok, comprises less than 4,500 hectares. And on the edges the ever-expanding oil palm plantations are pressing hard.
Just a few minutes drive to the west of Sepilok, the landscape seems to comprise a vast monoculture of oil palms.
But I haven't yet showed you where I'm talking about.
Sepilok is approximately at the end of the red arrow, south-east of Kota Kinabalu ('KK') and Mount Kinabalu,
near the east coast of Sabah.
This post is not meant to be one of unremitting gloom, so let's instead focus on the delights of Sepilok, while always being aware of the threats looming over tropical rainforests everywhere.

It's probably fair to say that most visitors to Sepilok don't do much more than drive into to town from Sandakan or KK, walk along the tracks to see the rehabilitation process, hopefully appreciate the animals and the work that's being done, then drive away again. I think that's unfortunate, because this is a very rewarding destination in itself for lovers of wildlife. So much so in fact that I'm going to spread this account over three posts, to do proper justice to it.

Today I'm not even going to get to the rehab centres yet. I'm going to concentrate instead firstly on the gardens of town, and especially of the lovely garden lodge where we stayed - Sepilok Jungle Resort for the record, but it seems to be fairly typical of others in the immediate vicinity. I'll follow with a fairly brief introduction to the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre, set in the forest itself, and conclude with the rehabilitation centres.

(A disclaimer; I wasn't particularly happy with the camera I had on both these trips. On the other hand I can clearly hear my mother commenting that a poor worker always blames his tools!)

Here are a coupe of glimpses of the lodge grounds.

Part of the lengthy walkway from the rooms to the dining room.

The grounds, from the above walkway.

The view from the dining room deck.
Bird life in and around the lodge grounds was pretty impressive.
Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis; this species is widespread and common, but I come from a country
with only one native starling (similar to this one, but restricted to tropical coastal Queensland), plus a couple
of very damaging exotics, so I'm predisposed to liking (and even envying) others' native starlings!
Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis (actually one of the Old World Flycatchers). Another ubiquitous
species in Borneo and beyond, but another I'm fond of. I think I just caught this one as it moved, rather than exhibiting
any particular behaviour (since there was no direct sun it would be hard to come up with an explanation anyway!).
Some of the best birding was to be had from the restaurant balcony, with the extensive pond below and vegetation, including flowers and fruits, immediately in front of us. (And of course it would have been rude to occupy the seats without purchasing a drink.)

Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker Prionochilus xanthopygius. Flowerpeckers are lovely birds belonging to a Family
of some 45 species from south and south-east Asia, and represented in Australia by the Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum. This is the better picture, but the slightly fuzzy one below better shows its colours.
And speaking of substandard photos, here's another, but justified by its subject, which is both beautiful and very interesting.
Black-and-Red Broadbill Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos. The broadbills are a group of 15 African and Asian
passerines belonging to a predominantly South American basic subgroup of passerines, the Suboscines.
The group dominates in South America, but outside there the broadbills are joined only by the pittas and the four Madagascan asities. (The New Zealand wrens, of which only one species survives, are now regarded as so ancient
that they form a third subdivision of passerines.)
I find sunbirds a serious challenge to photograph (a challenge which I usually fail, needless to say), but this one cooperated.
Red-throated Sunbird Anthreptes rhodolaemus.I wish I could have shown you her gorgeous mate too, but you'll just have to look him up!
The hanging feeders, which weren't as popular as the flowers this time, did attract other visitors though.
Prevost's Squirrel  Callosciurus prevostii. This one was a mystery for a while - the illustrations in the guides have
dazzling white sides - until I discovered that the north-eastern Borneo race does not... The distinctive rufous
undersides didn't show up up in the dull late afternoon light - they are quite visible however in this
(otherwise forgettable) flash photo.
Perhaps the star of the balcony however was a regular visitor to the pond.
Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting. Again widespread in south-east Asia, this little beauty
is one of the fishing kingfishers.
It wasn't always sunny though over the pond incidentally, this being the tropics!

Another kingfisher, which I was lucky enough to get close views of from the walkway, possibly even overshadowed the delightful little Blue-eared however, at least in my mind, mostly because it is so different from any other kingfisher I've ever seen.
Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis. Despite being one of the tree-kingfishers, mostly
woodland hunters, this magnificent species spends a lot of time fishing, as this one was.
It is found from India to the Philippines and the Lesser Sundas near Timor.
There was plenty to see elsewhere in the grounds too of course, by night as well as day, though our night walk wasn't as productive as we'd hoped. These two lovelies were pretty much the sole reward for our torchlight stroll. I have no idea as to their identity beyond the obvious, so any assistance gladly accepted, as ever.

Early mornings were more productive, though a lot of the activity was happening frenetically and high in the flowering trees, beyond the capacity of my camera at the time. This is as close to a showable photo as I could get of the numerous sunbirds present.
Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja. They really are exquisite.
(The species name, by the by, is from a Malay word for an army general!)
Little Green Pigeon Treron olax. Yes, it is little and green and high up!
It was enthusiastically tucking into the figs around it.
Another non-prize-winning pic, but of a very rare bird that unexpectedly flew overhead.
Storm's Stork Ciconia stormi is the world's rarest stork (a dubious distinction it shares with the Greater Adjutant),
with an estimated maximum population of less than 500 scattered in southern Thailand, mainland Malaysia,
Sumatra and Borneo. Ongoing loss of its lowland riverine rainforest and peat forest is to blame.
And lastly for today, one of the most magnificent birds I know - this one was actually in the gardens of the lodge across the road.
Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros rhinoceros, always a thrill and an astonishment.
The function of the incredible casque is uncertain, but it must be significant, as in some
species it can account for 10% of the bird's whole body weight.
Hopefully I've managed to whet your appetite for Sepilok, but don't go until I've talked about the Rainforest Discovery Centre in a briefer post next time. 

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