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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spiders defence defence strategies strategies

ByCheong Ah Kwan

BEFORE the advent of online Spiderman games, little boys used to hunt down the real McCoys, put them carefully in small matchboxes and primed them for sport.
These ‘fighting spiders’, known to display aggressive behaviour when put together with another of its species, were trophies by themselves to be flashed at potential opponents in contests. A champion spider
could elevate a young boy’s status more than a few notches.
Joseph Koh, the current High Commissioner of Singapore to Brunei, was one of those little boys who carried around matchboxes with a prized spider in each of them.
What began as a simple hobby turned into a life-long passion.
His book on the spiders of Singapore has gained him recognition as the authority in the region.
The Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch has never had an expert talk about spiders and it was indeed a rare treat to have the mysteries of some of these spectacular web sites unravelled.
Spiders have an array of predators ranging from birds, frogs, wasps and other spiders.
As a result, these arachnids have evolved a host of defence strategies to protect themselves.
Some of these strategies to escape predation are ingenious and include camouflage, the building of shelters, intimidation with threat posture and the use of mimicry.
Camouflage is a very common defence strategy and we are not unfamiliar with animals that can blend into their surroundings to render themselves invisible to potential enemies. In fact, this is such an effective strategy that human beings have exploited the technique in warfare.
Spiders that resemble tree nodes are often found sitting on the bark or branch of a tree.
The wraparound spider simply ‘vanishes’ by wrapping itself around a twig during the day.
Instead of constructing webs, some spiders build shelters or burrows on the ground.
The entrance to such contraptions is often plugged with leaves and pebbles during the rainy season to protect against flood waters.
The waterproof trapdoor also keeps uninvited guests at bay.Most spiders possess great agility that enables them to escape with speed when danger lurks. Some slower moving spiders do play dead when they feel threatened.
CAMOUFLAGE: The bird-dropping spider takes mimicry to a whole new level.

The use of intimidation as a defence strategy is relatively common.As a deterrence to their enemies, many spiders are armed with thorny projections and may be colourful in their appearance in an effort to present themselves as unpalatable.
Defensive stances and threat postures such as the spreading open of legs, raising the body and exposing fangs are used to intimidate potential enemies.
Of all the defence strategies employed by spiders, the most fascinating one has to be that of mimicry.
Spiders have fantastic mimicry that they employ for protection as well as hunting.
To escape predation, several species of spiders have resorted to ant mimicry.
Ants are known to be unpalatable because of the formic acid they contain, and it is therefore advantageous to look like them.
In protective mimicry, these eight-legged creatures wave their forelegs in the air to fake antennae reducing the number of functional legs to six. In addition, their bodies also seem appropriately segmented to look like an insect.
Very often, protective mimicry extends into aggressive mimicry whereby the spiders use anatomical and behavioural ant mimicry to hunt ants.
Their stunning deception gets them accepted into ant colonies which they willlater destroy. The bird-dropping spider
takes disguise to a whole new level. It not only looks like bird dropping on a leaf, but comes complete with a wafting odour of dung. Such a devious strategy is effective against birds and wasps.
The smell is a plus as it attracts flies which are devoured.
The macro photographs of the spiders projected onto the big screen during Koh’s talk were a feast for the eyes. Certainly the Spiderman weaved us into his multi-dimensional web.
As we queued to sign up for the night walk to hunt for spiders, he promised a session on the feeding strategies of our eight-legged friends when he returns.
Meanwhile, to all the Miss Muffets out there, do stock up on curds and whey.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How Snakes Can "Fly"


ANNOUNCEMENT – BIRDING TRIP / Time: Sunday 28 November 4 P.M. at Chupak

 Pictures taken by Collin Cheong


The MNS Kuching Branch Bird Group is organizing a birding trip to Chupak!

It will be a perfect time to visit Chupak again as the paddy fields have just been planted and are in great condition to showcase the birds found there. 

Previous sightings at Chupak have been more than rewarding.  The Buff-banded Rail, a first sighting record for Kuching, was spotted in Chupak.  More recent sightings include the Black-winged Stilt and Gargarney.

The trip will be led by our expert birders, Daniel Kong and Yeo Siew Teck.  Unlike the usual early morning birding trips, the Sunday afternoon trip will give us a chance to see birds which are more active in the evening. 

Meeting Point:              By the road at Tapah Village

                                     Taman Rekresis Tapah (Town Park) Please be there by 3.45pm 
Time:                            Sunday 28 November 4pm

For those who prefer to sleep in on Sunday you still can join us!
One of the nearest and most extensive rice fields around Kuching area, Kg. Chupak/Skudup attract great number of migratory and wetland birds.   A number of interesting sightings have come out of the area including Sand Martin (1st record for Borneo for nearly a century), Greater Painted-Snipe (1st for Sarawak), Red-necked Phalarope, Blue-breasted Quail, Black-winged Stilt and Chinese Pond Heron. 

HOW TO GET THERE  Drive up the Kuching/Serian road, passing Siburan town, 18 mils (Jong’s Crocodile Farm) and Beratok town, 22 miles (limestone quarry is opposite the town).  Drive further along the road for 2 more miles and you will pass a Shell petrol station on your left.  Tapah town is just a kilometer along the road from Shell station.  So slow down!  Turn into Tapah town and meet at the road side in front of Taman Rekresis Tapah (Town Park) which is next to the Tapah Chinese Primary School.  Please be there on time - Those who are late will have to find their way to Chupak themselves.

TO BRING Please bring along your binocular, bird guides, pocket-size note pad, hat, and umbrella.  Please also remember to wear dull-coloured clothes.
FEES MNS Members and Students: FREE.  Non Members: RM5/-

For registration please contact Susan Teal at 012-8874401  or sueteal2006@gmail.com'

For more information about the trip please contact Anthony Wong at 013-8333163 (antwong@sareaga.com)or Susan Teal – 0128874401 or Kwan – 0198349499

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Chinese crested tern

RARE SIGHTING: An adult and juvenile Chinese crested tern are seen at the Min Jiang Estuary, China. — Photo by Zhang Hao (Fujian Birdwatching Society)

By Cheong Ah Kwan

“So, this is the place, eh?”, he half-murmured to himself.

When Adrian Long from BirdLife International visited Buntal last November, he could not be persuaded to get off the beach despite the searing mid-day heat.  It was low tide and the shorebirds were sitting too far out to be seen.  He scanned the coastline with his binoculars, now and then turning to our local guide to ask the same question, “and you have seen it; Chinese?” 

I did not catch the significance of his questions then.  A growling stomach did not help and playing over and over through my mind was …. “Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Mid-day Sun”.

Last week, after a scrumptious steamboat dinner in honour of Simba Chan, Senior Conservation Officer of BirdLife International Asia Division, we gathered around a table to listen to the exciting news our guest had to share with the Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch.  That was when I put the two separate visits from our BirdLife partners together, and the penny dropped.

The Chinese Crested Tern (Thalasseus bernsteini) is a globally threatened seabird and has been designated by the IUCN Red Data Book as Critically Endangered.  In layman’s term, the bird is extremely rare and in grave danger of becoming extinct.  In fact the entire population in the world today is estimated to be not more than 50 birds!

The Chinese Crested Tern was first described in the early 1860s.  Very little is known about the species since sightings were few and far between.  Identification is made more difficult as there is another bird very similar to it in appearance. 

It is generally assumed that the bird breeds in north eastern China because of the breeding plumage it displayed during the sightings there.  However, breeding grounds have never been discovered.  In 1937, on the islands near Tsingtao on the Shandong Peninsula, 21 Chinese Crested Terns in breeding condition were collected for specimens.  After that insanely tragic massacre of 21 there was no more confirmed sighting of the bird and it was thought to be extinct. 

In the year 2000, a photographer made a chance re-discovery of the Chinese Crested Tern while carrying out a survey in the Matsu Islands.  These tiny islands, designated as nature reserves, are just a short distance off the coast of Fuzhou mainland China but are administered by Taiwan.  Politically, the islands are of strategic importance.  They are, hence, under military regulation and have been off limits to the public for many years.  Security measures put in place for political reasons appear to have offered the seabird protection from poaching.  The highest count of the species in the year 2000 was 12 birds consisting of 8 adults and 4 chicks.

Poaching and the collection of eggs continue to threaten the Chinese Crested Tern. The Taiwanese Government gives strong support to projects that increase public awareness on this rare tern.  Taiwanese Coast Guards intercept and inform fishermen that poaching and egg collections are not permitted.  Both the marine and agriculture departments work closely to protect the birds even though the two departments are known to have little communication.
DOING THEIR PART: Student volunteer groups increase public awareness in Huangqi Town, Fujian Province. The town is very close to the Matsu Islands.

Simba updated us on his work with the Chinese Crested Tern.  He talked about concentrating efforts on where it is most needed which is information on the distribution and population size of the birds. The BirdLife International China Programme together with local birding communities in China is organizing a series of educational student workshops in areas where breeding colonies have been sighted.  The focus is on students from fishing families. It is hoped that these children will take the urgent message home to their parents who are often out at sea and might come into contact with the Chinese Crested Tern.  Posters and booklets are printed for distribution in restaurants and parks to get people to familiarize with the bird so that chances of it being identified are increased.  It is akin to the milk carton campaign in search of missing children.

While the breeding grounds of these birds have never been confirmed, a greater enigma hung in the air.  Where do they go during the non-breeding season? 

Non-breeding range of the Chinese Crested Tern is thought to include southern China, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.  There are three winter records from Sarawak; in 1890, 1891 and 1913.  The last confirmed sighting in 1913 was from the Bako Buntal Bay.  Yes, here in our very own backyard!  Since then the Chinese Crested Tern has not been reliably recorded from Borneo.

“….and you are sure you have seen it, the Chinese Crested Tern?”

Monday, November 15, 2010


                                             GRANITE SCENERY: A view of Sheepstor in Dartmoor, England.
Alan Rogers

Only six weeks ago I just finished reading “The White Rajahs of Sarawak” by Professor Bob Reece of Murdoch University, W. Australia when my sister phoned and invited me for a walk to Sheepstor on SW Dartmoor in Devon. Yes, I immediately took off to explore the Brookes family graves at St. Leonard’s Church only 100 kms from my house. Alas, alack, in my impetuosity, I neglected to bring my camera!

A few weeks later on holiday in Kuching I read two articles in the Borneo Post, one derived from the local SW England newspaper – The Western Morning News –on the final resting place of the Brookes family. The following day, in the Borneo Post, Dato Sri Dr James Masing explained how just before the downturn of the economy in 1997 the Sarawak Government tried to purchase land in that area of SW Dartmoor to promote Sarawak tourism. Had that happened the vicar of this beautifully built granite church in the 1400’s would be rubbing his hands in glee today. Actually the origins of the church date back to 1240 AD when a chapelry was built on that very site.

Rising majestically, above the graves of the First Rajah, James (d.1865), the Second Rajah, Charles (d.1917) and Charles Vyner (d.1963) and other members of the Family Brookes, is Sheepstor – a granite monolith. Interestingly inside St. Leonard’s Church one of the upper leaded light windows displays a Nepenthes Rajah (pitcher plant), a butterfly and a moth as a living memorial to those valiant Sarawakians who lost their lives during the occupation in World War 2. They will always be remembered.

Buried in the shadow of the imposing Sheepstor (altitude 369 metres) the Brookes family rest in peace surrounded by rugged granite scenery in an environment which was once moulded in geological times by a tropical climate almost identical to that which the Brookes family experienced here in Sarawak!

The word “tor” comes from Celtic meaning a hill. As a pure Celt of Cornish and Welsh parentage I was born only 15 kilometres from the castellated, famous granite cliffs of Land’s End. Only 4 kilometres away from my parents’ house I took my five year old son on his first abseil down a granite escarpment tor! Granite scenery has haunted me throughout my life be it in Cornwall, on Dartmoor or at Shap Fell in the Lake District – all in the UK but also on Mt.Kinabalu and at Praslin in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

Granite is a molten plutonic rock intruded into the overlying country rocks at Cornish and Dartmoor as two continental tectonic plates converged. As the molten granite meets the country rocks it bakes those rocks into metamorphic rocks thus changing their form. Various elements at different cooling stages in the molten rock were deposited as ores in the country rock – arsenic, copper, lead, tin and tungsten. The Cornish and Dartmoor tin mining industries continued into the early 20th Century when alluvial deposits of tin were exploited in a more economically viable form in Ipoh.

Granite magma was intruded at both high temperature and pressure and upon cooling it contracted producing vertical cracks or joints. In time the overlying country rocks were eroded and gradually the granite appeared nearer to the surface. Thus the granite mass experienced a reduction in pressure and ltemperatures! It responded by developing pseudo (false) bedding planes or horizontal pressure release joints. However as the granite cooled and crystallized water was released, which attacked the feldspars (brown crystals) to produce kaolin or china clay. Two other minerals in this granite are quartz – white or pink – (SiO2) and mica (black) the crystals of which occur at different sizes according to the rate of cooling.

Returning to Sheepstor, where the granite was injected some 290 million years BP (Before Present time) it was only in early Tertiary times (65 million years BP) that Dartmoor experienced a tropical climate with very high annual rainfall and temperatures and evergreen and semi-evergreen forests almost identical to Sarawak!

Consequently the rainfall percolated down through the soil overlying the country rocks into the granite thereby rotting the granite through its joints and pseudo bedding planes decomposing the quartz crystals into sand and the feldspar and mica crystals into clays.

The chemically rotted rock around the least affected parts of the was washed away by the high annual rainfall or by solifluction (litterally: soil flow) as a result of soil thaw at the end of the Ice Ages 10000 years BP. This exposed (exhumed) the solid granite core stones, which are now precariously balanced on each other. (See Diagram). Thus the granite tors were eventually revealed in the landscape. The processes of exhumation are still highly debateable and will continue to be, as each granite mass is studied in depth. However, Mt. Kinabalu with its ice cap which melted only 3000 years BP and subsequent exposure to freeze-thaw conditions meant that some chemically rotted granite was sludged downslope to reveal small granite boulders parly embedded in clays as on the Pinosuk Plateau in Kinabalu National Park. On the road up to the mountain one can see granite boulders embedded in clays where landslides or excavations have occurred. Its jagged skyline and peaks suggest as some geomorphologists believe that the ice cap protected some of its features.

Sheepstor in SW England never experienced the ice sheets and glaciers that sculpted the Northern areas of the UK and interestingly near Sheepstor remains of Prehistoric animals that migrated south from the advancing ice sheet have been found.

Whatever the continuing debate on the origins of granite scenery Sheepstor and Mt.Kinabalu weekly attract hundreds of hikers/climbers yet the Brookes family are buried in a geological time capsule. I just wonder what Rajah James would have made of Burrator Reservoir (the water supply to the city of Plymouth) in a flooded granite valley near his last residence at Burrator House.

For further information please refer to:
Professor Bob Reece, Murdoch University, Australia.  The White Rajahs of Sarawak – A Borneo Dynasty. 2004 Archipelago Press.
htpp:// www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk/lab-geologylandforms  

Sunday, November 14, 2010

More than counting birds

MAJESTIC: Towering tree ferns shade the trail.

Mary Margaret
THE three-day two-night Sarawak Bird Race’s final destination was the Borneo Highlands Resort in the Penrissen Range. Yes, the day was about birding — seeing, hearing and identifying — but there were also other activities.
In addition to bird racing, visitors to the Borneo Highlands Resort on the day learnt about birds and their value, as well as the natural world.
The beauty of birds was captured on film and (close-up) shots of rare and shy birds enticed the eye.
Visitors were also encouraged to get first-hand jungle experience by signing up for a walk through the Ridge Trail from the resort to the viewpoint at the Sarawak-Indonesia border.
This fascinating trail that scoots along the border has many stories to tell from the features of the land.
The first could be from the two towering durian (Durio sp) trees standing 
guard by a clear mountain stream. If seeds could talk, imagine the tale of their beginnings.
A hunter or a farmer may have tossed them after lunch. Or did a hungry monkey drop them? The answer is lost in the mists of time.
Needless to say, the fruit continues to be savoured by durian lovers — man and otherwise.
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 for most pollination of durian flowers. Without the bats, there would be no fruit.
This single, relatively simple example demonstrates that no living creature is an island.
SPLASH OF COLOUR: Beautiful flowers can be seen along the Ridge Trail.

As we move deeper into the forest, the trail passes through a slightly marshy bit. Next to the trail is a short-stemmed rather bushy palm (Arecaceae), known as buah salak.
Salak (Salacca zalacca) has fronds that can reach six metres and is cultivated in Indonesia.
The fruit is known as snake fruit because its outer scales resemble those of its namesake. The white flesh is sweet, acidic and quite tasty.
The path then heads upwards where mixed dipterocarp forest gradually takes on features of the submontane forest. It becomes cooler and mossy.
Large tree ferns become more frequent. These majestic ancient plants generally have large divided fronds.
There are many fig trees along the trail and around 90 of the more than 1,000 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, embedded 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 lead to the development of fruit only occur in the presence of the correct species of fig wasp.
The female wasp wriggles its way through the scales of the fruit that 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, they lay eggs inside of figs to continue the cycle of life not only of the plant, but all the life that twirls around it and the forest.
When the trail emerges, visitors can look from the viewpoint into the rugged beauty of the valley far below.
If we are true to ourselves, we recognise that despite the power of the 21st century’s technology, the strength, beauty, complexity and power of nature is greater.

petition against GM Mosquitoes

Releasing GM organism into the environment is a rather worrying practice.
Please read on below.


Subject: petition against GM Mosquitoes

At the risk of sounding like a repeating broken record, the important environmental issue of GM mosquitoes release is back with us. I've been trying to get the media to report on other views on  LMOs other than what has been reported in our local Malaysian media so far. Informed consent is mandatory in such a release.

GM Mosquitoes release in Pahang and Melaka are essentially a national release as obviously, mosquitoes Don't respect state boundaries!

 Meanwhile , I have started a petition and the link is as below for those who would like to sign it:

Cheah Hooi Giam

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Race to Borneo Highlands

SPOT THE BIRDIE: A variety of habitats where birds can be found at the Borneo Highlands.

By Mary Margaret

The sea to mountain three-day two-night Sarawak Bird Race was flagged off from the coastal village of Buntal, about half way between Kuching and Damai, lying at the mouth of the Sarawak River.   Five teams set off from Buntal on this long race.The winning team was composed of two very experienced birders, Anthony  and Yeo who sighted 165 species birds over the three days.  The UNIMAS students have, as in the past two years participated.  This year they took second and third place in the long race with 102 and 101 birds. 
Seven teams opted to participate in the short approximate four-hour race held at Borneo Highlands.  The team 'Eagle Eyes', also from UNIMAS sighted a phenomenal 46 species of birds during limited time of the race.

The three-day race aimed to provide birders the opportunity to count the birds living in the vast array of ecological habitats in Sarawak, literally from mountains to sea.  The requirements and the habits of the birds are as diverse as the habitats.  Some like owls are nocturnal, others are more active in the morning, yet others in the evening.  Some required primary forest, like the hornbills, whereas others like the Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Barn Swallow have made the habitats created by man their own.   Some birds like the edge effect and inhabit secondary forest, have been welcomed into urban gardens.  Three days were needed to visit the diversity of habitats at all hours.

KEEP GOING: Tired bird racers on the quest.

Buntal was chosen as the starting point for several reasons.  The mudflats are a key stopoverfor migratory water birds that travel the East Asian Australasian Flyway from the northern nesting grounds in Siberia, China and Korea to the southern overwintering areas.  This nutrient rich area is estimated to provide a feeding and resting grounds for 6000 migratory water birds. Here, as in the Penrissen Range (the end destination for the bird race) birders might see rare and common species like the Chinese Egret the common sandpiper; both breed in Siberia. And they might have encountered the only resident wader in Sarawak

Malaysian Plover, which has a range from Thailand to Bali.  The species of birds seen depends on the ecosystem being observed explaining why the bird racers travelled from the sea to the mountain.

Birders were sighted in Kubah National Park, before moving on to the Penrissen Range, where they might have caught a glimpse of the Argus Pheasant.  The marked trails enable access to the interior of the park. Quiet determination is needed to be a successful birder.
Most Birders arrived in the Borneo Highlands on Sunday morning (October 14) as the peaks were poking above the cloud like islands.  By Sunday morning (October 14) the rain had cleared and the narrow winding road was alive with birds and bird song from the Magpie Robin, Dusky Munia and the Common Coucal welcoming the tired racers.  However, some arrived Saturday; the route was limited to the ingenuity of the team.   As birds are generally not active during rainy weather and storms, the teams had to avoid the inclement weather that was prevalent over the three days. 

The Penrissen Range is recognized internationally as an Important Bird Area by Bird Life International, a global partnership of conservation groups. Recognized IBA areas have large numbers of threatened or endemic birds and are key biodiversity areas.  In this mountainous region, which marks Sarawak’s border with West Kalimantan, about 150 species of birds (or slightly over one quarter of birds species found in Sarawak) have so far been sighted in by MNS members. It is home to 8 endemic bird species:  Bornean Barbet; Blue- banded Pitta; Chestnut- crested Yuhina; Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker; Black- sided Flowerpecker; Pygmy White-eye; Mountain Black- eye; Dusky Munia. 
The unique area was an appropriate destination for the birders and the terrain and elevation create yet again a larger variety of niches for the birds to fill and an even greater number of birds to be sighted. 

The day, despite the fun of the race, had 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.And all the participants contributed to this knowledge, while giving the birds the spotlight.