In the jungles, forest enveloped mountains, meandering rivers and paddy fields, sandy beaches, and rocky cliffs birds intricately weave their lives and needs (food, shelter and nesting sites) within these diverse habitats that span the island of Borneo. Three Sarawak-based photographers, Ch'ien C. Lee, Collin Cheong, and Hans Hazebroek, in partnership with the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, put together a week-long photograph exhibition, that brought Sarawak’s feathered residents and their habitats to a popular Kuching mall, The Spring.
The larger-than-life still photographs illustrated intricate details of Sarawak’s and Borneo’s birds that inhabit the forests, shorelines and gardens. Collin, a licensed land surveyor by profession, is a passionate recorder of the natural world. He is particularly interested to highlight the rich natural fauna and flora in Borneo and the importance of conserving them for the future.
His passion is clearly stated in a photograph of an Oriental Darter (‘Anhinga melangaster’) known in Malay as ‘Burung Kosa’, a locally common freshwater resident. In this surreal photograph its sinuous neck twined amongst near-transparent reeds.
Ch’ien, a botanist by training and a professional photographer, has several publications on Nepenthes, pitcher plants, to his credit (www.wildborneo.com.my). He skillfully caught the very rare and highly endangered Dulit Frogmouth (‘Battachostomus harterti’). This bird, which when sitting appears to be a tiny leaf pile, is marvellously clear against the out-of-focus background. It has a restricted range and can only be found on Mount Dulit and in the Kelabit Highlands in Northern Sarawak.
In another photograph, the intricate details and the long distinguishing tail feathers of the endemic Asian Paradise Flycatcher (‘Terpsiphone paradisi’), captured by Hans was shown in its full glory against the blurred greenish background.
Hans, a geologist by training, has co-authored with Abang Kashim bin Abang Morshidi three books about Sarawak's national parks: including'National Parks of Sarawak', 'A Guide to Gunung Mulu National Park', and 'A Guide to Bako National Park' as well as two publications about Sabah's natural wonders 'Maliau Basin – Sabah’s Lost World' and 'Danum Valley — The Rain Forest' with Tengku Zainal Adlin and Dr. Waidi Sinun. For Hans, photography is an invaluable tool for making the wonders of these forests more accessible to others and to stimulate their interest in the natural world and venturing out into it.
Hans explained that powerful camera equipment is needed to capture these types of surreal, painting-like photographs. This equipment enables the photographer to focus on the details of the bird with little or no interference from the background. He added that patience and a love for wildlife is necessary to get the perfect picture and sometime he takes over a hundred shots to get a single perfect one.
Hans said that the exhibition was organized to stir interest and awareness for the diverse species of birds that inhabit Borneo. It was popular with shoppers and visitors who popped in for a glimpse of Borneo’s birds. I was enthralled by the photographs and returned to each one several times to breathe in their stunning beauty.
Bird watching is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world and it can be carried out almost anywhere and any place. Bird watching in gardens and parks is the perfect starting point for novices. The birds can generally be seen as they flit about the garden feeding on insects, resting on branches or feeding on flowers. Colin caught the domestic side of a frazzled Pied Fantail (‘Rhipidura javanica’) feeding several famished hatchlings with wide-open beaks begging for food. This bird is a common garden and open countryside resident that flits about hunting for insects to feed on.
For some, as with Hans, Collin and Ch’ien, hobbies can grow into a profession. Tourist guides who are passionate birders can become involved in the ever-expanding field of bird watching tourism.
The Malaysian Nature Society Kuching Branch (MNSKB), in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak (MOTS) organised, a Beginners Birding Workshop BHR from October 29 to 31. The participants, including 19 tour guides, four park guides and one tour operator, developed bird identification skills as well as those needed to be a bird watching guide.
Rosli bin Suleiman commented he had learned about bird habitat from the workshop and he intends to become a birding guide. His partner, Dolores Lim, said the training was an eye-opening experience.
Rose Au, in the workshop said that birding tourism is a niche market and that these visitors aim to see rare and endemic species. According to the ‘Phillips Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo’ Borneo has 55 endemic species. Tourists engage guides to ensure that they see ones on their checklist of must-sees.
Rose, who is the Vice Chairperson of MNSKB, said that some of the hot endemic Borneo species include the Pygmy White-Eye (Oculocincta squamifrons), which is also known as the Borean Ibon. This rare bird of the lower mountains is frequently and easily seen the Borneo Highlands Resort (BHR) in the Penrissen Highlands.
The first Sarawak Bird Race, which was organised immediately following the Birding Workshop, on November 1, 2015, was a fun half-day affair that gave an opportunity for the freshly minted and seasoned birders to develop their bird watching and identification skills.
The participants in a bird race compete to see the greatest number of species within a specified period of time and area. The top team in this Bird Race went to Eagle Eyes, composed of Hans Hazebroek and James Lee Fung Onn, who saw 33 species.
Hans advised novice and expert birders to love and respect birds as well as nature.
Ms Connie Christopher Kesa, Principle Assistant Secretary of MOTS in her closing address said that commented, in her closing address, that the next bird race in Sarawak would be organised in 2016 during late October or early November.
The Sarawak Bird Race is the latest addition to the bird race fraternity in Malaysia. Fraser’s Hill International Bird Race (http://www.tourism.gov.my/en/events/2014/6/frasers-hill-international-bird-race) celebrated its 28th race in May 2015 is the oldest of the group. It began in 1988 with five competing teams and in 2015 the 23-hour race hosted 44 teams from around the world and 60 secondary and post secondary students. Interestingly, Lim Kim Keang from Singapore was a member of the 1988 and 2015 winning teams.
The Sabah Borneo Bird Festival (http://www.borneobirdfestival.com), another internationally recognized Malaysian bird race is in its 7th year. In 2015 this annual celebration of birds was at the renowned as a bird watching destination Kinabalu National Park from 23 to 24 October. Phillips in his bird watching guide for Borneo indicates that most unique species can be seen at this park.
Sarawak, as lamented by Ronald Orenstein, Anthony Wong, Nazeri Abghani, David Bakewell, James Eaton, Yeo Siew Teck and Yong Ding Li in their 2010 article, ‘Little-Known Area
Sarawak—A Neglected Birding Destination In Malaysia’ published in BirdingAsia, has despite having 22 of the 55 internationally recognized Important Bird Areas (IBA) in Malaysia, along with several national parks, is not well known as a birding destination. Many birders opt to visit either Sabah or West Malaysia, which have international reputations as birding destinations. The authors cited several reasons for this including accessibility to the good birding sites and the lack effort to get birders to the state. Although, it is hoped the Sarawak Bird Race will help to put Sarawak on the bird watching map.
However, there are, as the authors pointed out, several national parks, including Gunung Gading, Kubah and Mulu ,and IBAs including the Penrissen Higlands and Bako-Buntal Bay that are easily accessible and facilities, that host rare species. The Bako-Buntal Bay is a recognized overwintering stop for numerous migrant shorebirds including the globally threatened Chinese Egret (‘Egretta eulophotes’). Significant numbers overwinter here and it probably has the highest concentration in Borneo.
Birds are intricately woven into the patterns of life in Sarawak, so is it not time for us to gaze in wonder at nature’s miracles?