Species Saturday

Species Saturday – the beaked flyers (birds)

One of the most exciting things about coming to Borneo for me was the chance to see new bird species. I’ve been interested in bird since a very young age – around five or so. Luke, one of my colleagues here likes to tease me about my obsession with ‘beaked flyers’,no prizes for guessing that he thinks primates are far more interesting!
Coming to an entirely new part of the world is always at once thrilling and intimidating in a bird sense. Thrilling because it’s like being five again, everything is new; intimidating because almost every bird I look at is a complete unknown.
There are of course some exceptions – ducks, herons, birds of prey: these body shapes and behaviours are common across the world, even if the exact species isn’t clear.
Our research camp and the surrounding forest have been challenging places to begin my Bornean birding odyssey.
Even the nearby town, Palangka Raya, has its treats. For example, tree sparrows, a very rare bird in the UK, are ubiquitous, visiting our garden every day. Grey-headed bulbuls screech and squawk in the garden from around 5am onwards.
The boat ride into camp is always lovely as we cruise through the rassau plants. I’ve seen purple herons, lesser whistling duck, brahminy kites and little green herons.
In camp, birds are slightly easier to see than in the forest, because they are forced to come to the edge and expose themselves in the vegetation.
Purple-throated sunbirds and orange-bellied flowerpeckers flit rapidly between the trees. Chestnut-bellied malkohas are more occasional visitors and there’s a dead tree that’s favoured by the blue-throated bee-eaters. A blue-eared kingfisher, pictured here below, is also a camp regular.
But the forest is perhaps the most special, and most challenging, place. Before first light, it’s a cacophony of noise. Whoots and whistles and screeches that are distinctly tropical contrast with what I’m used to – the more melodic and tuneful sounds of a British woodland. The grey-breasted jungle flycatcher has a rising series of five notes which is one of the first calls I’ve learned properly.
Once the sun has risen, light begins to reveal some of the birds to the still bleary eyes. The jungle tower is one of the best places to see them from, as it gives a birds’ eye view of the rainforest. From the tower, wrinkled and Asian black hornbills drift by. A crested serpent eagle once used its massive wings as a speed break to perch in a dead tree. Green pigeons fly by in small flocks.
Down in the forest at ground level, it’s a different story. The dense undergrowth and lack of light, even at the height of the day, makes spotting birds very difficult. A bird calling from mere metres away can vanish completely. But I’ve managed to pick out pied fantails, rufous-tailed shamas and chestnut-winged babblers.
I’m building my list of birds slowly, savouring the new sounds and colours each one brings, enjoying the very different idiosyncracies of behaviour. It’s a challenging environment, but being forced to learn slowly means I’m learning better. Over the coming months, I’ll probably be trying to sneak more birds into this blog, along with some photos. I hope you’ll keep an eye out for them.

Matt Williams, Communications Manager and birder