2007 MALAYSIA TOUR (30 June-22 July)
by Dennis Yong
When the afternoon gets hot and humid, the canopy walkway of the Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a most delightful place to while away the hours. Perched some 100 feet above the ground, one has a terrific view of the treetops and the birds living there. Among the great birds enjoyed were: a male Jambu Fruit-Dove, Rhinoceros, Black, Bushy-crested and Wreathed Hornbills, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Black-and-Yellow Broadbill and Asian Fairy-bluebird. It was a very pleasant way to spend the last afternoon of our stay at this fantastic lodge.
With dusk descending around us, many birds were calling to say farewell to their day. Amongst the chorus was a Chestnut-collared Kingfisher. If there is a bird in the Malaysian rainforest that has earned a reputation of being difficult to find, this is it. It lives in the understory of deep dark forest, is a ventriloquist and moves around in stealth mode. I call it the “ghost of the forest.” We failed to find it in Taman Negara but not for want of trying. The birds there simply refused to respond to playback. Grateful for a second chance, I rushed Jean and Jorge down the stairs and along a steep path toward the calling kingfisher. It was quite close to the path and after a considerable length of time scanning here, there and everywhere by all concerned, I spotted it. But just as I was getting Jean and Jorge into position, the bird dove over our heads and disappeared across the path – into a patch of forest we couldn’t get into without making a lot of movement and noise.
There was nothing we could do except for me to try and coax it to return toward its original location. I played my call-back tape and the bird responded strongly but would not move. I played more of the tape and again the same response. It was getting frustrating and I was becoming desperate. The light was failing and I knew it would go within ten minutes. I decided to make a move to flush the bird. And just as I took the first step towards it, the bird shot across to where I was hoping it would! All of us scanned and re-scanned the area where we thought the bird had landed. But as the anxious minutes passed, we still could not locate the beast. And just when things looked hopeless, Jorge whispered that he had the bird in sight. The scope was cautiously whipped out and following his directions, I located it. All took a long leisurely look – at a fine male of the species. We then departed for the Lodge in the knowledge that we had vanquished the “ghost of the forest.”
by Dennis Yong
There are always some common birds which cause grief to bird tour leaders. One of these for me this year was the Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot. It is not that the bird is hard to find. It was just that the folks on the tour kept to a high standard - they wanted to see the bird perched before admitting it to the list! As a matter of fact and for the record, the bird was spotted near Fraser's Hill, on the journey from there to Taman Negara and at Taman Negara itself on the West Malaysian portion of the tour, and at Sukau and the road leading to the Gomantong Caves on Borneo. But all these sightings were of birds streaking across the blue sky. Thus it remained unticked even after fifteen days on tour.
Sepilok, the last lowland rainforest site on the tour, is my final hope. I have found it here on previous tours feeding on fruit of the oil-palm trees growing near the entrance of the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. But can I count on this? The last 100 meters of the road to Sepilok has always been a very birdy place. And on the morning of 11th July 2000, it was no exception. We found very quickly White-breasted Waterhen; four flowerpeckers, the endemic Yellow-rumped, Scarlet-backed, Orange-bellied and Yellow-vented; the black-bellied Bornean race of the Oriental Magpie Robin; Dollarbird; Hill Myna; Green Imperial Pigeon; the endemic Dusky Munia; and Green Iora among others. But the morning is getting on and still no hanging-parrot and I was really worried. Then I heard it. The shrill squeaky "tsee" given by a flying hanging-parrot that was sweet music to my ears. An alert was sounded and everyone took to scanning the nearby oil-palm trees. And true to form, I found it working its way to a bunch of oil palm fruits. The scope was quickly set up and the Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot FINALLY claimed its rightful place on the trip-list. I whispered a word of thanks to Orni.
But there were still other "thrills" (as Ben would say) to dig out from the forest at Sepilok. We set to work again and during the rest of the day, found Thick-billed Pigeon, Raffle's and Chestnut-breasted Malkhoas, Black, Wreathed and Rhino Hornbills, Rufous Piculet and Woodpecker, Blue-eared Kingfishers, Spotted Fantail, etc. and two much-prized Bornean endemics: the Black-throated Wren-Babbler and a party of 5 Bornean Bristleheads (seen within half hour of each other!). What a day!
1999 MALAYSIA TOUR
It was one of the slowest mornings I ever had on the Tahan Trail at Taman Negara. After an initial spurt at dawn (with a magnificent Green Broadbill and a male Rufous-chested Flycatcher vying as the main highlight), the birds went quiet. The birds calling took their own sweet time coming into my tape playback or, worse, went in the opposite direction. And it's barely 10 o'clock! I've to do something quickly. Finding a good fruiting fig would be ideal. But where along the trail which goes on for some 50 kilometers? As we'll be going by the local swimming hole, I decided the next best thing would be to take the group there and watch the river. It turned out to be a good move. We had, almost at once, a Blue-banded Kingfisher flying up the river, followed by a pair of Black-naped Monarchs building their nest over our heads, sunning Blue-throated Bee-eaters and the resident Oriental Magpie Robin.
Things then quietened down somewhat, until a group of Straw-headed Bulbuls showed up. Then it was noticed that they were going into a fruiting tree with tiny orange berries up from the river's edge across from where we were sitting. And there were "little brown birds" and the occasional Asian Fairy-bluebird sneaking in and out too. The scope was set up and those LBJs turned out to consist of 8 species of Bulbuls: Puff-backed (uncommon), Yellow-vented, Cream-vented (uncommon), Red-eyed, Spectacled, Finch's (rare and elusive), Yellow-bellied and Hairy-backed--bringing our total bulbul count for the day to 10 species. And in between the "bulbul watch," we had Black-thighed Falconet, Raffles and Red-billed Malkohas, Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds and a fly-by of 5 Great Slaty Woodpeckers. I took the group for lunch--much relieved but fearful for what is in store for the rest of the day.
I need not worry. The afternoon birding was "slow" again but our reward this time was a "tame" male Banded Pitta which kept stopping where the sunlight streamed through the forest canopy as if to make sure we see it in all its colorful glory. And before we called it a day, our "owl-prowl" found us 2 Gould's Frogmouths sitting together quietly.
The birding on the 1999 tour, maybe because of the freaky weather pattern, was generally slower than most years (316 species=300 seen + 16 heard only). But it had its moments: a Crested Goshawk on the way to Kuala Selangor; Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns and White-headed Munia in the rain enroute to Fraser's Hill; a male Malayan Peacock-Pheasant strutting on a path at Taman Negara; a glimpse of the rare and little-known Bornean Ground-Cuckoo and a truly great view of a male Blue-headed Pitta at Sukau; a pair of Bat Hawks attending their nest and hawking for bats together with Peregrines at Gomantong; 2 respective days sighting of 4 and 8 singing Bornean Bristleheads (with great scope views) and a group of Dusky Broadbills with the latter at Sepilok; and fine scope view of Whitehead's Trogons and definitive views of the Friendly Warbler at the 11th hour on Kinabalu.
Mammal wise, the group came upon (sometimes it is the other way round) 30 species. The highlights must be a sub-adult male and then young female Orang-utans at Gomantong, followed by' many Proboscis Monkeys on the Menanggol River and the "tame" Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel feeding on our leftovers and the tiny toy-like Whitehead's Pygmy squirrel on Kinabalu.
1998 MALAYSIA TOUR
"Is this the real thing?" I asked myself as I signaled the driver to pull over. We are in prime Storm's Stork country but all the long-legged birds we found perched on the trees on our drive from our Sukau - lodge to the Gomantong Caves yesterday turned out, disappointingly, to be only Purple Herons. But, as the van slowed down enough for me to keep my binoculars steady, I can make out a black body, then a white neck and a bright red bill. Yippee, I wanted to cry out--for I knew my worries had just ended. We flew out of the van. And as I rushed to set up the scope, a voice called out, "Bat Hawk, tree right of stork," followed almost immediately by another that said, "Look, there is a Black Hornbill in the tree behind the stork." Is this a great stop or what? Yes, we had magnificent scope views of firstly (we've to get our' priorities right) the stork, then the Bat Hawk--couldn't ask for a better view with it sitting facing us allowing great views of its white throat and black mesial stripe, and lastly the Hornbill--a bird we've already seen several times.
With a good start like this, the day went quickly by. And it's time to spend the evening cruising along the Menanggol River. It's a lazy wonderful way to bird, what with birds like Stork-billed and Blue-eared Kingfishers, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Black-and-Red Broadbill, Black-headed Bulbul, Green Imperial Pigeon, Raffles's Malkoha, Oriental Darter, and the occasional Black/Bushy-crested Malaysian/Wreathed/Rhinoceros Hornbills (and the comical Proboscis Monkeys) to keep us company. We were on the look-out for the Hooded Pitta--it was heard on our boat trip two evenings earlier but not seen due to failing light. Will it appear again? Well, not only did we have great views of this beauty, we also had a superb male Blue-headed Pitta coming close, in response to playback, to check us out. And a great many others, including a cooperative Javan Frogmouth to boot, before we had to rush home for dinner.
The birding was not always as hectic as this. Still, there were very few quiet days when we could have stayed in bed a little longer. The final tour tally was 339 (324 seen + 15 heard) species, including 39 babblers, 20 bulbuls, 16 woodpeckers, 7 hornbills and broadbills, 6 pittas, 5 trogons and a host of others.
1997 MALAYSIA TOUR
by Dennis Yong
It had been a good day for hornbills. We had, on our morning boat exploration up the Tenenggang River, spectacular views of six species -- the Bushy-crested, Wrinkled, Wreathed, Black, Malaysian and Rhinoceros! But we were still missing the "granddaddy of them all," the Helmeted. And with the sun lighting only the tops of the emergent tualang trees as we drifted along on our last evening cruise on the Sukau oxbow lake, time was running out. It would be too dark to see anything properly in the next ten minutes. Then it happened. A huge bird launched itself out of a tall tree and proceeded to glide just above the skyline across the lake. "Hornbill," whispered our boatman. "It has a long tail," someone called from the front. "Helmeted!" all cried out at once. The bird sailed helpfully into a tall bare tree, perched and gave its signature maniacal laugh. And this was answered by its mate which then flew across to join it. The next few minutes were magical as we watched this pair of birds against the darkening sky. A memorable finale to a remarkable "hornbill" day.
All in all, we encountered 322 species of birds on the tour, 304 of which were seen. Several of these stick out in the mind's eye -- an inquisitive Collared Owlet along the Genting old road, 7 Storm's Storks soaring (2 later perched for great scope views) on the Kinabatangan River, a Bat Hawk and Peregrine' Falcon hunting bats together and a Sunda Frogmouth (a first on KingBird's Malaysia trip) at the Gomantong Caves, a very tame Crested Fireback and a skulking Great Argus at Taman Negara, and an eleventh hour (again) Whitehead's Spiderhunter (voted most memorable bird of the trip) and Red-breasted Partridge at Kinabalu Park.
Thirty mammals were observed on the trip, the majority of which are squirrels -- from the tiny Whitehead's Pgymy Squirrel to the yard-long Black Giant Squirrel. We did well also on primates with ten species seen, including great views of wild Orangutans and the funny-looking Proboscis Monkey.
A PILGRIMAGE TO SOME LAST RAIN FORESTS:
HORNBILLS AND AN ORANG UTAN
(1989 KingBird Malaysia Tour)
Francis B. Randall
Yes, the terrible tidings are all true. "Around the world, the tropical rain forests are being cut at a staggering rate." (The Smithsonian Institution) Once there were nearly seven million square miles of them, twice the size of the United States including Alaska. Forty percent to fifty percent of them have already been destroyed, almost all since World War II. The rate of the massacre constantly accelerates as its victims disappear. An area of rain forest the size of Pennsylvania is now butchered each year; soon it will be the size of New York, then California.... About 4,000 species of living things are exterminated every year, mostly insects or smaller, but priceless elements of the earth's biodiversity. The African rain forests (19% of the world's store) are being annihilated mostly by overpopulated peasants desperate for more land, for which a kind of human case can be made. The Latin American rain forests (55%) are hacked down more than anything else to provide tenth-rate pasture for lousy cattle to be made into McDonald's and Burger King hamburgers. The Southeast Asian and Malay Archipelago (24%) rain forests are genocided mostly by big lumber companies to produce, more than any other item, twenty billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks a year for the Japanese. Primitive rain forest peoples from the Yanomamö of Brazil to the Orang Penan of Borneo are suffering the fate of our 19th century Indians right now. Few of us care about them, but when the tropical rain forests are gone, and the ensuing greenhouse effect melts the polar icecaps and drowns our coastal cities from New York to Tokyo, and the consequent lack of oxygen production asphyxiates all human and most animal life, then, perhaps, we shall care.
I went to Malaya and Borneo on a pilgrimage to some of the last tropical rain forests. It could do them only slight good, a tiny contribution to a tiny tourism to build a tiny constituency for preserving the forests to oppose the colossal worldwide stampede for megabucks immediately through pandestruction. I could see some of the infinite treasures of the relict forests. I could witness the universal ruin all around them. If only to a tiny audience, I can proclaim the terrible tidings. And so I must do.
* * *
We are wakened at 6:30 or 5:30 AM, wherever it is, under the sun, a half hour before dawn. We line up for the one, Turkish toilet--or sometimes for plural Western toilets. We enjoy hearty breakfasts prepared, like all our meals, by expert Indians in Malaya and by talented Land Dayaks in North Borneo, whose fathers may have been headhunters and who are rumored to be illegal immigrants from Indonesian Borneo. At 7:30 or 6:30--or ten minutes later if we are leadenly slow--when the sun has risen but is still hidden by the great trees and the blessedly cool mists of the rain forest at dawn, we start on our "morning bird walk," which often lasts six to seven hours.
We are in the Pasoh Forest Reserve, a rare relict rain forest on the coastal plains of Malaya, otherwise almost unbroken sweeps of commercial agriculture (rubber, palm oil, pineapples) and urbanization. We are in Taman Negara (the words mean Park National. It started out as King George V National Park in 1937.)--a splendid million-acre area of rain forest and mountains in central Malaya. Or we are in the Danum Valley Conservation Area in eastern North Borneo, perhaps the richest rain forest of all we saw, already half-ringed by murderous chain saws and giant double-trailer lumber trucks carrying off giant logs. It does matter which--there are many local variations--but the similarities far outweigh the differences, for these are the rain forests of the Oriental Realm of the biologists, the monsoon lands of India, Southeast Asia and the Malay Archipelago, which were a unified land area until the seas rose again at the end of the last ice age, which are proclaimed as "the oldest and richest rain forests in the world."
The rain forests! The Rain Forests!!! God!, they are different from the pleasant trees of Riverside Park out my window as I type this "Once within the forest wall, you are in an extistentially different, green world."--All the Romantic writing about rain forests since "Paul et Virginie" in 1798--all so purple, all such clichés, all so profoundly true! First of all it is a light green world, like our leaves of spring, not high summer. It is the famous Closed Canopy Forest, which blocks most but not all direct view of the sky and much but by no means all light. It is not and can not be the Hobbit's Murkwood.
Yes, there are many different kinds of trees, as opposed to the dominant stands of a few or one species in our Northern forests. Scientists counted more than 800 species in a half-hectare tract at Pasoh, a world record--except for the similar claims made for rich tracts in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.... Most of the trees are of moderate thickness and height, but in a primary (virgin) forest there are always a dozen forest giants in sight, six and occasionally eight feet thick in the smooth-barked trunks that shoot up, unbroken columns, beyond the foliage of lesser trees, to 100, 150 and occasionally 200 feet, impossible to be sure of in any given case. Most of the grandest trees in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are in the Dipterocarp family. (The name means Two-Winged Seedpods, like our Maples.) These are the finest tropical hardwood lumber in the world (to their deadly peril) along with almost vanished Latin American Mahogany. They, above all, are destined to become logs on lumber trucks, and then chopsticks.
Yes, many kinds of great trees are loaded with epiphytes, more so than in Africa, but less so than in Latin America. The American Bromeliads, Philodendra and Monsteras are missing, but their equivalents weigh branches down everywhere, and similar lianas twine and figs strangle. I see millions of Orchid plants, but not one in bloom in the trees. Ground Orchids are more enterprising, especially the Bamboo Orchid with a Cattleya-like purple-and-white flower fit for any corsage. Yes, there is an unbelievable profusion of bushes, plants and ground covers in the supposedly thin sunlight under the canopy. The Peacock Fern is particularly glowing with iridescent blue-green fronds. No, there are not the wildflower fields of temperate meadows, but we encounter brilliant little blossoms from time to time, and way up there, a forest giant is often completely crowned with mist-softened blooms. Yes, the profusion of life is equalled by the omnipresence of death. Fallen logs disintegrating with dark mosses and brilliantly colored fungi, rotting leaves over inches-thick organic mud on the ground.... Alexander von Humbolt wrote, "The polar regions are nature's nunnery, the tropical forests her whorehouse." The famous dank, rank, faintly fecal smells and atmosphere are all present, the even more famous 1,700 parasites of Borneo and deadly tropical diseases all menace us--but I am programmed to feel the marvelous rather than the sinister in the tropical rain forest.
And yes, large animals are rare in a rain forest, while the small ones are abundant beyond imagination. In Taman Negara and the Danum Valley, Asiatic Elephants wander unseen in the shrinking forests; we see their scat on the road to and from Danum. The even rarer " Sumatran" Rhinoceros exists in both places; we don't see even its wallows with hornholes in the mud. Sunbears elude us, and the Malayan Tiger (with telltale black-white on its ears), and the vanishing Clouded Leopard. If we should rent a "hide" in Taman Negara, one of six hot-as-hell, buggy cabins raised on stilts near a water hole, we'd have a one-in-fifty chance of seeing the strange, half-black, half-white Malayan Tapir, if we stayed up all night. (Some Australian girls did so and won, sightings on two successive nights!) We have to content ourselves with reddish Sambar Deer coming to beg at the restaurant pavilion at Taman Negara and with families of Wild Pigs with adorable striped piglets) prowling the lodge grounds for garbage--and with a brief glimpse, from a daytime hide, of a Mouse Deer, only as long as a newborn baby, sneaking through the dark underbrush.
But the smaller animals!: Ants, cumulatively by the millions. Every dozen feet, it seems, an Ant highway crosses our trail, dozens of species, sizes, patterns of highway intersection, stuffs to carry and responses to our presence. The biggest, inch-long Ant is solitary but very common--initially alarming, but supposedly unaggressive, so we come to enjoy letting it explore our arms and hands. We wouldn't mess in any such way with the Termites, whose armies run to and from their spiky round nests on the ground or ball-like nests in the trees, or invisible underground caverns. If you put your finger down in a stream of Termites, the workers halt and back off, and the soldiers come up, bigger, redder-fronted, with formidable mandibles. You are then well-advised to withdraw your finger, for the soldiers, blind like all Termites, rush up to where it was and thrust their mandibles out rapidly in all directions, as in a frenzy of aggression (which is of course defense) to find and sink into you.
Each day many kinds of flying and crawling insects appear, of families you have never seen elsewhere, of species you have never seen till this instant. Familiar insects, such as bees, behave unfamiliarly. One afternoon we find a swarm of bees settled like a sleeve around a branch, a yard long and three inches out from the branch in all directions. (We do not throw a stone!) They have no hive. They travel every day. Their queen, eggs, larvae and pupae are all inside that mass of bees. They are there the next morning, but when we stagger back from the morning bird walk, they have all vanished. It's cute to watch bees of all kinds investigating your clothes, hands, face--but when some gorgeous blue or green fly settles in, you have to brush them off, for too many kinds have fierce bites.
Dragonflies are a varied wonder of the rain forest. I had seen a striking kind with a red abdomen several times in the shade, but the last day at Pasoh one settles in the sun on a leaf in a little swamp. It cannot be! That abdomen glows like red hot steel, like a brilliant tiny light bulb, like almost half the sun! We more than expect that the Butterflies will be large and brilliant, and indeed they are. Is it wrong, when we are supposed to stand stock still, concentrating on the possible appearance of a rare bird, to be distracted and face away toward a seven-inch confection of hundreds of pale blue circles on black lace wings, fluttering in big figure eights near your nose? Or down to a dozen little bright yellow creatures that land on your sweaty hand?
No, there aren't the clouds of Mosquitoes in most of a rain forest that assail you in Alaska or New Jersey, but they are particularly famous denizens of it. Anopheles claviger is indeed recognizable, though ordinary Mosquito-gray-brown, by raising its abdomen and hind legs in the air as it inserts its sting at a 60° angle into you. I should know in a week whether my two kinds of malaria pills have prevented it from giving me malaria. Aedes aegypti, on the other hand, is a pretty little creature, black with tiny white stripes, the Tiger Mosquito.
So many insects support many kinds of Spiders, which build webs every day across the same paths in our faces. On muddy banks, roughish patches turn out to be the doors behind which lurks the Trap Door Spider, a Tarantula relative that springs alarmingly when teased by intruding straws. The Oriental Realm is the paradise of Centipedes; a bright red, spiky, foot-long species is the giant, and gives a sometimes fatal bite. We are treated to more Millepedes, notably its giant, a ten-inch, dark brown, undulating sausage progressing on its uninterrupted bank of tiny orange legs--842 of them, they say. When bothered, it curls up into a ball and exudes an irritating fluid.
* * *
But we are a Bird-Watching group. Our leader is Ben King, one of the great ornithologists and great men of our time. If I have the story right, he was born in 1937, raised in Shawnee, Kansas, where he began to watch birds seriously at the age of ten. He went to a Kansas Benedictine college and to Loyola University in Los Angeles. In the Navy he was often a lookout on a grand cruise to East Asia and Oceania, on which he spotted no enemy vessels and many birds. Then graduate work at Yale and Cornell. Then a career in which he became, quite simply, the world's leading authority on the birds of--no small patch of territory--Asia. His first adventures were in Saudi Arabia, where his father was building airfields. He seems to have gotten arrested for suspicious bird-watching on all three of his explorations there. Once, on a mountain top, he saw an idyllic palm oasis 3,000 feet below. He climbed down and identified a number of African species not known to go to Asia. The hard part was getting back up--by day and the Arabian sun? Or by night and the rock vipers? He risked the night, missed the vipers, was only half dehydrated and survived.
He lived some years in Thailand in the 1960's. There he completed, for Collins (London), publishers of the normative bird guides to the world, "A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia" (1975). In those years (1976) I had the immense good fortune to meet him when he led us on a Questers Nature Tour to Singapore, Sumatra, Java and Bali. He had then never been to Indonesia before, but he knew every bird. He is a Research Associate of the American Museum of Natural History. He was recently made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, after a R.G.S. expedition to Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, on which he may have identified a new species of bird. If I remember correctly, a night bird, the Pale-headed Frogmouth, was thought to exist in Sarawak and in northern Sumatra. Ben King secured a frogmouth at Gunung Mulu which, by voice and coloration, can't be the one on Sumatra. Whether it is the previously recorded "Pale-headed Frogmouth" from Sarawak--in which case it should be split from the Sumatran species--or whether the Pale-headed also exists in Sarawak--in which case this is a previously unknown new species (Batrachostomus rex?) awaits further trips and bureaucratic deliberations.
In the last ten years Ben King has been able to mount a number of exploratory expeditions in China, especially in the bird-rich Szechuan (a diplomatic feat almost equal to his ornithological ones!) and to become the most knowledgeable Westerner about the birds of China. (He is much too modest to claim more knowledge than any Chinese ornithologist, which nonetheless seems to me to be a distinct possibility.) He has also founded and led every trip of KingBird Tours, partly to make some money but partly--obviously because he loves it. I am having the privilege and joy of going on a KingBird Tour to Malaya and Borneo, his justifiably most popular run.--Very rarely am I or anyone lucky enough to get to know and to see in action a man who is the world's absolute master of a particular, significant science, art or craft. Leo Steinberg the art historian of Renaissance and Baroque Italy? Hugh Gough the maker of Baroque musical instruments? David McReynolds the non-violent revolutionary? Such a man is Ben King.
His co-leader is also extraordinary. Dennis Yong of Kuala Lumpur is described by Ben King as "the sharpest field birder ever produced in Malaysia. His knowledge of Malaysian bird vocalizations and habits is unequalled." What this means in action is that Dennis Yong, a few years ago, knowing all the songs of known wren-babblers, went to Fraser's Hill in Malaya, where a vanished bird, the Marbled Wren-Babbler, had last been seen in the 1920's. He listened for a slightly different wren-babbler song, at last heard one and rediscovered the Marbled Wren-Babbler--which he would now show us. Dennis smokes like a stack, even in the field, rather unusual, against all rules. It certainly doesn't seem to limit his skill and success.
The hero Siegfried slew the dragon Fafnir, tasting his book and instantly came to understand the language of the birds. Ben King and Dennis Yong obviously leeched some dragon somewhere in Malaysia, for they understand and speak the languages of hundreds of birds, and can initiate us into at least an apprenticeship in the art. Ben and Dennis can look into a bare tree and see three invisible species of birds in it. They can scry the shady rain forest and see birds where others see only leaves. But their real magic is not sight but sound. For anyone or anything in the forest, sight is less and sound is more. They and everyone usually hear birds before seeing them. But they know what they are hearing, and what will come next. Then we witness fantastic virtuoso displays as Ben, with us, and Dennis, a ways off, sing, chirp, whistle, hoot, cluck, honk, rap on logs, kiss their hands to produce a great variety of non-human sounds, and--almost always--coax shy, suspicious, rarely seen forest birds out of the leaves and the underbrush. And if not then, why, they go back again and snag them the next day. Their greatest professional triumph must be their mastery of the pittas, reclusive, "sneaky," ground birds in the densest and darkest brush. They sang us out the Banded Pitta and the Garnet Pitta and the Mangrove Pitta--and then, on a delirious morning in Borneo, the Blue-headed Pitta, the Black-headed Pitta and the Giant Pitta within a few hours. For those who really know birds, that's a real hat trick!
And there came a day, in Borneo, when Ben and Dennis spotted what they thought was a new bird for them, the Brown-backed Flowerpecker, one of the sixteen out of the 600+ Birds of Borneo--which even Ben had not yet seen. We stood aside and watched, fascinated, while two true professionals advanced the cutting edge of their craft. They learned its song, sang its song, lured it out, observed its markings (not easy; it's a dull little thing and looks like other flowerpeckers) and tentatively decided it might well be the prized bird. We went back the next day, had luck, observed it more closely, and they were prepared to say that it probably was the Brown-backed Flowerpecker, pending further work with specimens in the Sarawak Museum.
Real Bird-Watchers are a peculiar lot. (I don't rate; I'm only a happy duffer.) All of them mock the obsessed Birder who cares only for the number of species he has seen--but the sparks flew when the Birder of 4,200 plus species met the Birder of 6,600 species. (There are about 9,200 species known.) Purists insist that to add a Bird to our Life List you must not just see a flicker after Ben or Dennis has spotted one, but must clearly observe the distinguishing marks yourself. The true Birders in our group of only ten--for best viewing--outnumbered me, and had both disappointments and triumphs far keener than mine. Ben and Dennis are fully aware of the conventions, and take endless time to give their clients good and if necessary repeated looks at each bird--and if all save one of us sees a bird, they try again and again. Especially with that damnable Banded Pitta!
Between us, we spotted 308 species of birds. (I must have seen nearly 20% less.) I am not about to list and describe them for you. Although we had cracks at marshes and seashores, this was a rain forest trip for the hardest group of birds in the world to find, a Birder's bird trip. Some were huge--the eagles and the hornbills. Some were nocturnal; it was amazing to follow Dennis into the forest at night to hear him hooting out owls and see him catching them in his flashlight. But most were small birds of the daytime rain forest. Many were dull-colored, but many were brilliant, flitting jewels. But some of the most brilliant, if seen in a cage, such as the Greater and Lesser Green Leafbirds, looked just like leaves in the rain forest. There are two to three dozen species of babblers, bulbuls and flycatchers, often hard to be sure of from each other.
We all had our favorite jewels. The Scarlet Sunbird is a tiny thing, all scarlet on head and top parts, quite brilliant in the sun, which it likes to be in, a strong point in the Sunbirds' claim to be the Old World's answer to the American hummingbirds. But the minivets--the Gray-chinned, the Fiery and above all the Scarlet--surpass it in blazing, eye-wounding red bodies that cannot be believed as a mere reflection of sunlight. The Asian Fairy-bluebird is quite common, even in flocks, in the canopy of the rain forest, but sometimes some come down to blast us with their molten iridescent electric blues, worthy of a Morpho Butterfly or a Damselfish on a coral reef. The heads and necks of Barbets are almost all bouquets of small spots of bright colors. And no jewel dances like the miniature red spots on a number of the flowerpeckers.
Of middle-sized birds, the parrots, though brilliant enough, are not the predominant spectacular birds that they are beyond Wallace's Line in New Guinea and Australia. The pigeons of the rain forest are often educated. The Large Green Pigeon and the Little Green Pigeon startle a New Yorker; the Jambu Fruit Dove has all the colors of any bowl of fruit; and the Green Imperial Pigeon's distinguishing mark, Ben King insists, is "its regal bearing." I have a special thing about trogons, for I once went on a quest for the grandest of all trogons, the Central American Quetzal. The trogons of Malaya and Borneo have neater heads than the American ones, and are mostly blazing red. They are reclusive, deep forest birds. We saw five species, but rarely and not always certainly. Yet once, at Pasoh, a Scarlet-Rumped Trogon condescended to come out into the sun at the edge of the camp clearing and to stay there for minutes while Ben focused his forty power telescope on him. He filled its field and made each viewer blink. Seeing him alone was worth the whole trip, would redeem a misspent life.
But in the Oriental Realm, there's nothing like a hornbill! Their blacks and whites are spectacularly beautiful indeed, but we always call them "grotesque" for their great size, long beaks and "casques," multi-shaped excrescences above their bills. The Black Hornbill, the Busy-crested Hornbill, the Wreathed Hornbill, the Southern Pied or Malaysian Hornbill, the Rhinoceros Hornbill, the Helmeted Hornbill! In Indonesia Ben King had found me Rhinoceros Hornbills, and here again at Taman Negara and the Danum Valley--whole flights of them, seemingly big as turkeys, emitting "g-ronk, g-ronk, g-ronk" as they flew, heavily, whirringly, even clankingly. Their casques curve forward and up to a point, like a rhino's horn. They are a sacred bird to the Land Dayaks, who release them at their supreme festivals to take messages up to the gods. Some Dayaks are still said to interpret jet airplanes as the gods' own Rhinoceros Hornbills on high. Alas, the Dayaks are not thereby prevented from decorating their superb shields not only with hair from hunted heads but with the long, magnificent feathers, white with one broad back bar, of the Rhinoceros Hornbill, which you can see in the University Museum in Philadelphia.
The Rhinoceros Hornbill is listed by Ben King as 48 inches long, and by Smythies' Birds of Borneo as 105 centimeters. Even larger is the Helmeted Hornbill (50 inches, 130 centimeters). It is a giant bird, with a giant casque, all solid, alone among the hornbills, so the Chinese have developed the art of carving it into exquisite sculptured scenes since the Ming Dynasty. Ben found me two glorious examples, uncarved, sitting on top of a tree in the Danum Valley, and staying for the full telescope treatment. Their unnerving calls really do live up to the description quoted in Ben's book, "Call: long, 'starts with widely spaced poops, accelerates slowly to a loud climax of te-hoop notes, and ends in maniacal laughter.'" That maniacal laughter sounds amazingly human. It was recommended by Ben to the makers of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
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Perhaps Ben and Dennis will forgive me if I go on from birds to primates. We see Monkeys every day in the field. There are crashings in the branches and then one or a whole troop of Macaques or Leaf Monkeys (Langurs) bursts out, chatters and passes by us. Ben stands a bit impatiently and eventually says, "Now if we're finished with the monkey business. . ." Back to the search for the Banded Pitta!
But even Ben didn't rush on, that morning at Fraser's Hill, a British hill station with a golf course carved out of a mountaintop at 4,000 feet, when two Siamangs showed themselves across a little ravine. We heard the howlings of Gibbons every morning, a sort of "Wow-wow!" that carries for miles, and some of them may have shown bits of themselves at Pasoh, but here were two black Siamangs, the largest and rarest of the Gibbons, posing for us in full view, hanging by one arm, motionlessly, from neighboring trees. They took us in; we took them in. At last they brachiated off--swung from branch to branch, from tree to tree, gracefully, with even dancers' rhythm and no apparent effort, up and over the little ridge. They were my first Apes in the wild.
In Borneo we hoped to see an Orang Utan, though the chances are always against it. One can see tame ones in the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary in North Borneo; most of the few tourists to North Borneo do so. But we are purist Birders; a wild Orang or nothing! We arrived at the Danum Valley Field Centre at night in a pouring rainstorm (for a delicious spicy dinner cooked by Land Dayaks) and were delighted to hear from the British scientists that a male Orang had been seen near the camp on the three previous afternoons. But none appeared for two days, though we passed a number of their "nests," twig sleeping platforms, during our bird walks. We were gasping for breath in the heat of the day in our dormitory after the third day's morning bird walk, when our most devoted Birder, who never stopped searching, sang out (bless him!) "Orang Utan!" I and others rushed out in states of partial dress, slowed down as we neared--and there, against the odds, was a wild Orang Utan, 100 feet away up in the trees. He was a young adult male, living by himself, without the broad side flaps to his face of older males. He was a big ball of reddish fur (Isn't he hot?) with an Orang's famous face--mug--on top, a meter tall, with four arms/legs reaching out with comic crossings and uncrossings, about a meter each, constantly reshifting. About 80 pounds? He was guzzling a cluster of small green fruits--Orangs live essentially on fruits and have to wander over wide areas of rain forests to keep in fruits--which he chewed and dribbled out of his mouth. Then he moved right--now you see him now you don't--to eat a cluster of yellow flowers. We oh so cleverly looped back and around to get a little closer. He eyed us from his old, old, old looking face and didn't give a damn. Adding insult to benefit, when we doubtfully completed our approach, he sidled across half the distance to us--He was now only about 40 feet away, more up than over, and started to chomp green leaves. His hands and feet were just like our hands--a bridge across millions of years of evolution--but wrinkled like those of an old, old, old cousin. We were full of Romantic feelings of kinship. I doubt if he was. At long last, after forty minutes, he swung off into farther trees where following him would have been noisy and difficult. We had been lucky! We had been infinitely privileged! (After that, forgive us, Ben and Dennis, it was hard to concentrate on the afternoon bird walk.)
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Nothing could cap that. At the end of the trip Ben took us to Mount Kinabalu National Park, where we cooled off in park lodge cabins at 5,300 ft. and watched montane birds--and the mountain. Kinabalu is a giant, spiky granite castle of a mountain, 13,455 ft.--"the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea." It can be climbed in two days from the park lodge, to the wonderful castelets on top--"The Donkey's Ears," "The Ugly Sisters." We stayed at mid-level for the birds and the plants. On the heights, more primitive plants won out over the lowland moderns. Grand sweeps of twenty five foot Tree Ferns, and montane forests full of every other kind of Fern, and three-four foot Mosses, the world's largest, and Club Mosses. And a profusion of Pitcher Plants, much pulled up even in a National Park, capped by Nepenthes rajah, a fourteen-inch cup in which one person, once, found not only large insects but even a rat being digested. (The "rajah" was of course Alfred Russell Wallace's bow to White Rajah James Brooke of Sarawak, after whom he also named the Rajah's Birdwing, the world's largest Butterfly with a ten-inch wingspan, zigging emerald green designs on black.) I should love to have been young and slim again to have climbed Mount Kinabalu. Fifty thousand people are said to have done so. But there were no Hornbills or Orang Utans at that altitude. And so we mostly went home, but Ben King and our most devoted Birder went on to the baking dryer islands of East Indonesia, for horrible cabins in the jungle, in hopes of seeing, on Halmahera, the courtship display of an extraordinary Bird of Paradise, Wallace's Standardwing....
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The rain forests are vanishing. I have just seen things my children may never be able to see, my grandchildren certainly not. I have no claim to deserve being vouchsafed such blessings. I would give my all, even my life, to save the rain forests, but they cannot be saved by any such petty offering. At the end of Flaubert's "Un cour simple," the dying housewife believes she is being received into heaven by the Holy Ghost in the form of her beloved, dead, stuffed parrot. If I ever make it to heaven, I hope I shall be received by a Rhinoceros Hornbill.
[Editor's note: Prof. Francis B. Randall is a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He has recently published his memoirs as an E-book, "History papers: A Teaching Life" on pocketpress.cm. It is available for download from Amazon.com.]