Tompkins County CEFO

CEFO Toco (short for Tompkins County) has wrapped up for the season as well, but check out what they did over the summer on their blog!  They collected a lot of awesome data and media and were able post quite a bit more than those of us in internet-poor Borneo.  Here is an updated link to their blog:

(The one that’s been on the page on this blog was for an out-of-date version, though I’ve fixed it now.)

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New header

Our new header is a set of pictures of the pittas we had such a great time observing in Borneo.  I changed the old one because we didn’t see any Crimson Sunbirds on this trip (although we did see its relative, the equally lovely Temminck’s Sunbird) and I thought using some of our target taxa would be better.  Here are some little anecdotes about each bird in the header and what interesting things we discovered by observing them.

On the far left is a Black-and-crimson Pitta (Pitta ussheri), which as I mentioned in a previous post was the most common pitta near where we stayed.  This is the species that we caught when Justin tackled it against the net, the one that we radio tagged, and the one that Julian found roosting in a fluffy red ball when radio tracking it one morning.  One of the most interesting things we learned about ussheri during the expedition is that they often make an odd little noise that we’d never seen described before: a clapping noise when they fly to change perches while singing in their territories.  We were able to get excellent audio recordings of this unusual sound, and although we don’t know much about it yet, we think it sounds like a non-vocal sound, as if the bird is thumping its wings somehow as it flies.

To the right of Black-and-crimson Pitta is the Blue-headed Pitta (Pitta baudii)  When we first found this bird we didn’t think we’d be able to observe it much because it seemed so shy and elusive, but it became much easier later on, probably because we got better at finding it and because it became used to our presence.  As time went by, we realized that this lovely male was on his territory with a mate, and we saw them together a few times.  We kept our eyes out for evidence of nesting, but our questions about their reproductive state were answered when Justin got a video of the female foraging with a nearly-full-grown juvenile male.  Hopefully when CEFO returns to the park we’ll be able to find them as they start breeding!

Next in line is the Blue-banded Pitta (Pitta arquata), which was discovered by McKenna and Clare on the east side of the ridge all of these pittas live on.  We were intrigued by the fact that three of our pittas, ussheri, baudii, and arquata, seemed to live in basically the same place, the eastern slope of the Tallest Tree ridge, and we wondered if they ever interacted with each other.  That’s still a question for the future, but we noticed as the weeks went on that the arquata went from being seen mostly on the east side of the slope to exclusively on the west side.  Was that just a coincidence?  Did we scare arquata to the other side of the slope when we used playback to try to catch it?  Was it kicked out of the east side by the last bird in the header, the Bornean Banded Pitta, the fourth pitta species to move onto that area?

On the far right, the Bornean Banded Pitta (Pitta schwaneri) was the largest pitta we found and he seemed to show up out of nowhere about three weeks into the trip.  We had heard more than eight Banded Pittas when Julian, Jack, Sophie, Brian and I hiked up to Mount Lucia, but that was up at an 800-1000m elevation, where we expected to find these birds.  Imagine our surprise when a pair seemed to suddenly appear on the east side of the Tallest Tree Ridge, down at about 250 m elevation!  While schwaneri have certainly been known to live down that low, they do prefer higher elevation, and one of the sources we used to study our target taxa prior to arriving in Borneo mentioned that it was “Never found in the same habitat as [Blue-headed Pitta] and vice versa.”  Clearly this wasn’t true in our case, because the schwaneri pair were now living in exactly the same place as the baudii pair.  Justin was even lucky enough to witness an interaction between the two species: he saw the female baudii hop down into a gully, and all of a sudden there was a commotion as if two birds were fighting.  When it was over, both a schwaneri and the baudii hopped away!  When Brian and I first discovered the bird on the slope, we had been playing back for baudii, and later on Jack realized that both baudii and schwaneri responded aggressively to each others’ calls!  We wished we could have stayed in Borneo longer to observe the outcome of this situation, but it does provide some interesting questions to think about for the future.

All four of these pittas are endemic to Borneo and all of them are relatively poorly known.  It was amazing to be able to watch them all living on the same ridge, under some of the tallest tropical trees in the world, and in the future whether we decide to focus our studies on the pittas or spend more time with our other target taxa, I’m sure we’ll keep an eye on these beautiful and captivating birds – they’re impossible to ignore!

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Back in the US

Once again, apologies for how little we were able to post on this blog in Borneo!  We’re back in the US now after about 48 hours of travel and many of us have gone our separate ways, at least for the next few weeks until the semester starts.  However, we will still be posting on the blog about the things that happened during our trip (there were a bunch of things we wanted to post about during the trip and never were able to) and the results of our experience.  Some of us might also upload some more pictures to the blog as well.

Also, CEFO is not over now that we’re back from Borneo.  Another crew will be heading back to Tawau Hills park some time soon (perhaps in February) and hopefully they can also use this blog.

For right now, I have to go back to cataloguing receipts from the expedition.  Dan and I have done 112 and we have about 600 to go it looks like.  A little less fun than chasing pittas!

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Photography and natural history

Photographing and filming here has made me realize how precious light is within the jungle! So far, I haven’t worn sunscreen at all; it has been quite unnecessary since the entire forest canopy acts as a pretty effective sunblock. In the mornings, though, there are plenty of isolated sunbeams slanting through portals in the tangled canopy, especially on the ridge trail. Besides illuminating aerial particles of mist and dust, the beams of light transform the dew on leaves into iridescent golden beads. If only a bird would hop into such a spotlight I think one might be able to get a grand picture. This is quite unlikely, but luckily scattered sunbeams aren’t the only source of concentrated light here. There are a fair number of clearings where big trees have fallen over, either because they were rotten or were strangled by vines. In these clearings, the sun can penetrate to create good lighting conditions for photographing and filming. Even then, it takes patience to get good shots; amidst the thick swathes of vines and leaves, birds easily hide from the camera lens.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the jungle is an excellent place for gaining skills in photography and filming precisely because it takes so much patience and forethought! It’s a bit like doing endurance training by wearing pants and hiking boots while running – the more challenging the conditions, the better you become! I’ve learned a lot about using camera settings to the best of my advantage in order to utilize the lighting that I have. It’s extremely rewarding when everything aligns at the perfect moment and you get a sharp shot of a bird singing! It’s quite fun to track some of the babblers who like to hang out in the undergrowth where the light is often the scarcest. It pays to be persistent when you hear one singing – if you can follow it through the understory without getting too tangled in rattan vines, you’ll likely get some good images. The other day, I came across a Ferruginous Babbler singing next to the trail. It was a gray morning and light was limited but the bird was so close that I figured I could get a decent shot of it so I began following it. It’s funny how absorbing it is to follow a bird; the frequent facefuls of spider webs don’t even matter when you’re seconds away from getting in range of a good shot!

Taking media to document the birds here is extremely valuable and satisfying. Even so, adding to the natural history knowledge base of the birds in this ancient primary forest can be most successful when you’re without any sort of media acquiring device. The 500 mm lens is a beautiful piece of equipment, and quite amazing to use, but binoculars, a GPS, and a notebook are great for observing the behaviors and interactions that can’t feasibly be noticed or documented when carrying around a camera all the time. Brian was saying the other day that he thought that an octopus would make a great field ornithologist – you’d be able to use binoculars, camera, GPS, machete, and an audio recording set all at the same time, no sweat. I agree, but I think spiders, since they can have up to eight eyes as well as eight legs, would also make very good field ornithologists. Our field crew currently has nine pairs of eyes and arms (not to mention ears) all being utilized for the purpose of learning about the birds here – I’d say we’re covering a lot of good ground every day!

Below is a picture I took while tree climbing today! I was standing on a branch 160 feet up in a fruiting tree, using a 200 mm lens. Of about 30 blurry images of the bird, this one was reasonably sharp!

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To the mountains!

On the evening of July 10th, a contingent of our crew decided to hike to the mountains Lucia and Magdalena the next day. We went with hopes of finding montane bird species we hadn’t yet seen, especially those on our target taxa list. Teresa, Jack, Brian, Julian and I were the self-selected explorers intrepidly tramping into mountainous areas of the jungle. We left on the morning of the 11th at 8:15 am with provisions for an overnight camping trip. Our provisions consisted of water, PB & J sandwiches, ramen noodles, and tiger biscuits (our favorite Malaysian crackers). Our essential gear included first aid, binoculars, plastic bags, three hammocks, cameras, audio recorder, playback speakers and a water purifier.

Lucia is 13 km away from base camp and Magdalena a couple km further. At 11.5 km into the expedition, we came upon the hostel in the hills, which looks like a great place to stay if we decide to allot some time to observing montane target taxa.

The species list on the outward bound trip included Eyebrowed Wren-babbler (very rare resident) Chestnut-collared Kingfisher, a pair of Temmick’s Sunbirds and a barbet that sounded like a dentist wielding a drill (Teresa’s quite accurate simile). These were not target species, but we were most excited to hear several Banded Pittas (a target species) on an extremely sharp ridge about 1 km away from Lucia’s summit. When we were close to the top, we spied the distant ocean from some openings in the tree cover, which reminded me of the fact that we’re on a large island (“the jungle” has been my geographic reference point for the past two weeks).

When we pressed onwards from Lucia to Magdalena, the trail into the deep ravine between the two mountains became so overgrown it was clear that no one has used it for at least the entire summer! Julian cleared a path with his parang (machete) for us, but we only continued on the trail for another kilometer because it was past 17:00 and getting quite dark. We set up camp near a stream in the ravine so that we could refresh our water supplies. We realized we had forgotten to bring along a tent, so two of us slept under a hammock, which served as a rain cover. Rain turned out not to be an issue, but this brings me to the topic of montane leeches. Many came to keep me company during the night, although I was not aware of how popular I was until the morning. Let me just say that sleeping without a tent is best avoided in the jungle. Actually it’s a trade-off, because in the absence of a tent, I got to see lovely fireflies blinking amongst the trees before I fell asleep.

On the morning of the 12th we tarried near Mt. Lucia for several hours and used playback (which means we play bird recordings with speakers and an iPod) to call up no less than 8 Banded Pittas from down the ridge! They responded to the playback, and some approached the top of the ridge so we all got a great chance to look at one!

At around 2pm, when we were still 6 km from base camp, torrential rain immersed us for the rest of the hike and the trail became a small waterway. The downpour was our relentless soundtrack for the rest of the trip, which allowed me to sing various songs at very loud volumes (like Singing in the Rain) without anyone hearing me.

A short list of our hike’s outcomes/highlights:
– A great place for targeting Banded Pittas!
– 28 km of great hiking/exercise
– Great video footage of us crossing a raging stream on the way back
– 11 new bird species (well, not new species, but newly seen for us!)
– A yellow throated martin!
– Unidentified mammal screams/barks at night (maybe a clouded leopard??! (: )
– Photo documentation of 17 leeches on one spot on Brian’s foot!

No sightings of Hose’s Broadbill…yet! We have to go back!

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7/13/12 update

Our projects have been going pretty well! Our pitta catching attempts continue and we hope to tag another Pitta ussheri soon. So far we haven’t seen evidence of pittas breeding, but we will use whatever birds we catch to find out about their territory sizes and daily movements. The lack of nests may be because pittas don’t breed at this time here – the window of breeding for tropical birds is very long (nearly all year long) and specific breeding times for pittas are poorly known – but it could also be that pittas are just very secretive. We’ll see….
Our radio tracking has helped us follow wandering groups of babblers and determine that there are at least two groups of Dusky Broadbills living around here, something we never would have known otherwise. Neither group has led us to a nest, but we aren’t short on nests these days! Justin found a trogon nest, a pair of eggs sitting in a hole in a stump, and it may be from a species whose nest has never been described in Borneo. We also have an active nest of a Scaly-crowned babbler, one of our target taxa. This morning I spent a few hours watching and videoing it and saw the incubating adult chase a giant ant away from the nest. Most excitingly, we have an active Black-and-Yellow Broadbill nest, which is one of the most important things we had hoped to find. We’re looking for a tree nearby that we can climb so that we can see the nest from the canopy.

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We haven’t been able to keep up with the blog as often as we would have liked, partly because our internet situation is a lot worse than we expected it would be, but also because we’ve been very busy out in the field literally from dawn to dusk.  So much time in the field has been leading to some amazing experiences.  Here are some things that have been going on:

-Four pitta species!
        Black-and-crimson Pitta (Pitta ussheri) is actually fairly common and not too hard to find once you get used to the fact that they can throw their voices.  When two people hear the bird and one person thinks it’s coming from the left and the other thinks it’s coming from the right, it usually means the bird is directly overhead!
We’ve succeeded in catching one Black-and-crimson Pitta so far – quite a feat, given that pittas seem to be able to see and avoid mist nets.  The only reason we caught the pitta at all was that Justin happened to see the pitta standing next to the net and dove at it, losing his boots to the mud in the process.  He was able to pin the bird against the net.  It was amazing to see a pitta in the hand and admire its colorful, velvety plumage.  We banded it and put a radio tag on it to find out if it had a nest.
        A couple of Hooded Pittas (Pitta sordida) have also been hanging around.  Hoodeds are nomadic, so we’re not sure if they have territories or not, but we hear them pretty regularly.  So far the only person to see them is Justin, who is also the only person in our group who has seen all four of our pitta species!
        A few days ago, Dan and I were sitting lazily on a log up on one of the ridges in the park, waiting for something cool to fly by so that we could photo it, and we heard the quiet song of the Blue-headed Pitta (Pitta baudii).  We were able to find it but it’s a shy and elusive bird and is very hard to locate!  We tried to photo and video it on a few different occasions, but every time we lug the heavy 500mm camera lens up the ridge, the pittas (and all the other neat birds) seem to retreat.  We’re starting to think that the 500 might be cursed.
        The most recent addition to our pitta list is the amazing Blue-banded Pitta, another rare and very beautiful bird.  Discovered by McKenna and Clare (who’s with us from LSU), we’ve just started a plan to catch the bird by putting mist nets in various places all around its territory.  Justin has gotten quite good at herding pittas (apparently he has a lot of practice herding geese at Stewart Park) and we may be able to guide the bird into a net so that we can radio tag it and find out if it has a nest!

-Aerial mist netting
        This slightly more exciting version of regular mist netting involves stringing nets high into trees to catch the types of birds that stay high in the canopy.  Our best success yet has come in the form of three Dusky Broadbills (Corydon sumatranus), an uncommon species that we thought would be impossible to catch.  Early on, we discovered a family of Duskies building a nest, but unfortunately they left the area after only a day.  However, they still seem to be in the area and now a few of them have radio tags, so if they build another nest we have a chance at finding it . . .
        Except for one day of amazing aerial netting, in which we caught many birds including a scimitar-babbler and a trogon in the space of a few hours, our mist netting attempts have been fairly disappointing.  A few of our nets have gone for days without catching more than a babbler or two.  But we’ve also discovered that using playback can be a very effective way of luring birds into our nets, and we may be able to catch some of the many Black-and-Yellow Broadbills (Eurylaimus ochromalus) that live in the park.

-Radio tracking
        We’ve put tags on about 7 birds so far, with mixed success.  The pitta we radio tagged lost its tag, but not before we had determined that it did not have a nest, and that pittas sleep fluffed up into a feathery ball (that involved going out to search for it at about 3:00am).  A babbler we tagged also managed to remove the tag, and although we’ve been able to track some of our birds, recently many of them seemed to have disappeared.  We know they aren’t dead – if they had died, the tag would still transmit from the ground – but where could they be?

        Other neat bird and animal sightings include six species of hornbills, Green Broadbills, Asian Paradise Flycatchers, a Red-bearded Bee Eater, tiny colorful kingfishers, pig-tailed and long-tailed macaques, several unidentified large snakes, and a slow loris.

        Some of our exciting upcoming activities include tree climbing (to look for broadbill nests and get a better vantage point for radio tracking) exploring (including a trip up to Mount Magdalena to look for montane species) and nest watching (we have a Malacopteron babbler nest being built and yesterday Justin found a trogon nest – quite a rare find!)

        A typical day for us here consists of getting up at 4:30am, when it’s still dark out, and trekking out to our field sites as the birds and gibbons start waking up and calling.  We usually split into several groups – a group for mist netting, a group for pitta herding, a group for radio tracking, etc. – and spend the morning working on our various projects.  We head back to our house which is right on a pond behind the park headquarters, for lunch (and sometimes a nap) and then head out again in the afternoon as long as it’s not raining.  When we get back in the evening, covered in mud (and often leeches!) we go up to the park kitchen to pick up our dinner which is always some variation of rice and meat or vegetables, and then do a nightly list of all of the birds we saw.  On our best day so far we had about 71 species.  The list is followed by a nightly meeting to plan out the next day’s activities, and then we head to bed by 9 or 10.

         In the future we’ll try to keep up with the blog more often, and hopefully we’ll have enough internet to add some more pictures soon!

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