AND THEY’RE OFF: European and Far Eastern Curlews fly to their feeding grounds.
By Ronald Orenstein
LAST year, as I left Sarawak for my home in Canada, I wrote in thesundaypost of the pleasures to be had watching tropical birds in the gardens of Kuching.
Now that I am back again, I wanted to call first on some other visitors from high attitudes before they too returned to their homes in the north.
Two weeks ago, I joined my friend Anthony Wong and members of the Bird Group of the Malaysian Nature Society (Kuching Branch) on a morning excursion to the Sejingkat Ash Ponds near Bako. Our targets were waders — shorebirds, as we call them in North America — waiting in the ponds for the tide to drop in Buntal Bay, exposing the sandbars where they would spend the day feeding.
Though a few waders do nest here in Borneo, those we sought at the ash ponds were visitors: birds that breed in the high Arctic and feed on the insect larvae that swarm in the tundra ponds during their brief emergence from the grip of winter. For many of them, Borneo was not even the endpoint of their southward migration, but only a way station on the flight path to their wintering grounds in Australia or New Zealand.
WAITING FOR FOOD: The Bar-tailed Godwit. — Photos by Sia Sie Kai
Mid-April is late in the winter wader season, and Anthony was worried, as we drove out to the ponds, that the birds we hoped to see might already have departed. Certainly, many already had, particularly adult birds, freshly moulted into breeding plumage, rushing northwards to stake out prime territories or to claim mates — one mate orseveral, selected either by the male or the female, depending on the species — before their rivals. At best, we were hoping for young birds whose chance of breeding, even if they arrived home early, was probably slight. And there, fortunately, they were: hundreds of them, waiting quietly for something in their internal clocks to tell them that the tide had turned and their day of feeding could begin. Waders are not, by and large, colourful birds, and identifying them — usually down the barrel of a telescope, because they can be shy and may ‘spook’ easily — is usually a matter of judging size and shape.
Thus, among a cluster of crisply-mottled gray-and- white birds with long pale olive legs, where larger ones with heavy green and black bills — Common Greenshanks — amid packs of slightly smaller birds with thin, straight bills like sewing needles — Marsh Sandpipers.Among them were still smaller Terek Sandpipers, a mostly Asian speciality, with short orange-yellow legs and long bills that curved strikingly upwards at the tip. In the neighbouring pond were birds whose bills curved the opposite way, downwards: Whimbrels, and their larger relatives,European and Far Eastern Curlews, with impossibly long bills whose delicately sensitive tips could pluck up an insect or tiny crustacean with the precision of a surgeon’s forceps.
By size, leg length, and bill length and shape, the eight species of waders we saw that day partitioned their feeding grounds. Some staked out the shallow nears shore, while others waded in deeper water. Some plucked food from the surface, while others probed beneath the wet sand. The shifting sandbars of Buntal Bay provide them with such a rich bounty of food that BirdlifeInternational declared Bako- Buntal Bay to be an Important Bird Area (IBA) — a place of global significance, whose protection is necessary to the waders and other birds that visit it.
After a few hours watching the birds, we saw them suddenly rise together, in shrill piping flocks, responding at last to the bay’s unseen signal. They circled the ponds over us, calling before flying off to find the food they needed to fuel their long voyage north, and I thought, as I watched them go, how good it was to be back in Sarawak.