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Monday, November 2, 2009

Borneo Highlands Welcomes Birds and Birders

By Mary Margaret /Photo copyright by Robert Yeoh

The second annual Mini-Bird race organized by the Kuching Branch of the Malaysian Nature Society and the Borneo Highlands Resort took off on October 4, 2009 with 24 teams composed of two people. Students from University Sarawak Malaysia came out in full force comprising 80 percent of the teams and taking home the three top prizes. Congratulations!
First place went to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang', otherwise known as Isa Sait and Isham Azhar who sighted 44 species of birds in the half-day event.
Bird races are fun and exciting, but there is a serious side. The data collected provides wildlife researchers with background information on bird populations and an understanding of their dynamics, for example fluctuations in populations and species composition. 11 species were sighted in the area for the first time this year including a Rhinoceros Hornbill. This rare and exciting sighting was made in the early morning by a MNS member at the Kalimantan / Sarawak border.
The Borneo Highlands Resort, about an hours drive south of Kuching, is in the Penrissen Range which is recognized internationally as an Important Bird Area by Bird Life International, a global partnership of conservation groups. Recognized IBAs have large numbers of threatened or endemic birds and are key biodiversity areas.
The habitats are varied and as we travel upwards towards the ridge that marks the border between Sarawak and Kalimantan, we can observe the transition of secondary forest with a few large dipterocarp trees to misty montane forest which occurs at about 900 metres. The forest skirts the edge of the golf course and on the lower slopes paddy fields all of which add to the array of habitats.
From a birding point of view it was a fantastic day, but activities did not stop with the bird race. Non-birders had the opportunity to learn about birds and photographing them; and ecology through talks and walks.
As city dwellers we create artificial (we believe) fully controlled environments. We cool our homes, create gardens that suit our tastes and travel about in cars. We often forget the power of Mother Nature (remember the terrifying storms that have recently rocked the region) and our dependency on the forest. Our survival and wellbeing are intricately interwoven within the circles of life that radiate from all the world's ecosystems.
Jungle fruits such as durian are much sought after by humans and other forest dwellers such as orang-utans. We chanced upon two such trees that stood like sentinels guarding a bridge. They overlooked a stream rolling across a pebble bed - a perfect spot for a cooling dip in clean mountain waters and lunch. We think that trees were 'planted' when the seeds were tossed aside after the consumption the creamy durian flesh.
The trees do not exist independent of other life. Numerous insects and other invertebrates live amongst the foliage as do birds and other animals such as squirrels. Cave fruit bats ('Eonycteris spelea') are responsible most pollination of durian flowers. Without the bats there is no fruit. This single, relatively simple example demonstrates that no living creature is an island.
We were able to see many fig trees along the trail and about 92 of the more than 1000 species are found in Sarawak. A few, like the strangling figs grow rapidly into large conspicuous trees, but most are small trees found along streams, imbedded in rocky cliffs or on landslips. The unusual vase-shaped fruits are vital sources of food for birds, including hornbills, monkeys, squirrels, civets and large herbivores such as wild boar.
Each species of fig has a complex and fascinating relationship with a corresponding fig wasp. The pollination of the flowers that leads to the development of fruit only occurs in the presence of the correct species of fig wasp.
The female wasp wriggles its way through the scales of the fruit which protect the flowers growing inside this protective covering. Here it lays its eggs and dies. The eggs hatch, the female wasps leave, after mating with the males and receiving a dusting of pollen, to lay her eggs inside of another fig to continue the cycle of life not only of the plant, but all the life that twirls around it and the forest.

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