Thursday, October 24

Gems around Fairy Caves

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WHERE IS IT?: Birdwatchers try to spot the Bornean whistling thrush.

MEMBERS from the Malaysian Nature Society Kuching branch turned up at theFairyCaveswith high expectations of an interesting morning. We had come hoping to catch a glimpse of the Bornean whistling thrush (Myophonus borneensis). This bird is a highland species that can be quite easily seen onMountKinabalu,Sabah. For some unknown reason, the Bornean whistling thrush is also found around the limestone outcrops at the Fairy Caves in Bau, a mere 40-minute drive from Kuching.

The swiftlets were out to welcome the beautiful day; their wings slicing through the crisp morning air. The dusky munias flew over the padi fields to make a landing occasionally before taking off again. The scaly-breasted munia was among them.

A small flock of whistling ducks was on its way to frolic in a nearby pond. The plaintiff cuckoo called while the crimson sunbird and red-eyed bulbul played hide-and-seek with us in the trees. Both the greater and lesser coucals came into view, though on separate occasions, leaving the birders to deliberate as to which was greater and therefore not lesser. Apparently, the greater coucal has a booming call, while the lesser coucal has streaks on its body. Unfortunately, no one heard the coucal call nor observed the streaks.

The Bornean whistling thrush was late.

Pitcher plants dotted the karst landscape. One of the most famous and spectacular pitcher plants, Nepenthes northiana, could be seen growing in heavy clusters on the steep sides of the limestone cliffs.

The limestone hills in Bau and Padawan are the only known localities in the world for this carnivorous plant, making it endemic toSarawak. The discovery of the species in the late 1800s, during the reign of the White Rajahs, further boosted the exotic reputation thatSarawakalready enjoyed as a place populated by remarkable people, plants and animals.

There was a high-pitched call from a flowerpecker and a song from the tailorbird. As we stood under some stalactites, sharp calls from the Eurasian tree sparrows drew our attention to the grey limestone walls. The rugged surface offers an excellent foothold for rock climbers.

Snakes known as cave racers use the rough surfaces to ‘climb’ as they hunt for bats and swiftlets. These adept climbers inhabit limestone areas and often leave their moulted skins in the cliff crevices.

There was still no sign of the Bornean whistling thrush.

A beautiful caterpillar, sub-family of a Monarch, looked contented nibbling on a kepayang leaf. With time, it will undergo metamorphosis to transform into the mesmerising black and white Malaysian wood nymph whose flight has been described as like a piece of floating tissue paper.

Just a few steps away we saw the most intelligent spider in the world-thought to be capable of learning and problem solving – the Portia jumping spider. Wrapped in its own silky threads to look like a lump of lint against the grey walls, this arachnid preys on other spiders and employs cunning with elaborate plans to stalk its victim in order to catch a successful meal. Such devious plans would include going to another’s web and toggling it to mimic the struggle of a trapped insect, thereby inducing the stalked spider to move towards it.

STRIKING CONTRAST: This caterpillar will in future transform into the mesmerising black and white Malaysian wood nymph.

Some wasps live in holes in the ground. The holes look similar to those made by crabs on the beach. The big black wasp is solitary and non-aggressive. Each female wasp digs a burrow for her eggs and catches grasshoppers and katydids for food.

We were back on the road, all the while on the look out for our whistler. We met a very agitated little spiderhunter. It took us a while to realise that we were right under its nest, which was well camouflaged among the leaves.  We had earlier mistaken the nest for a fruit. The nest was made of dried moss with a green moss covering and was hanging underneath the leaves.

A juvenile pale morph changeable hawk eagle was our star bird for the day. We were, therefore, not too disappointed when we left without meeting our feathered friend that morning.

The next day, someone posted a picture of a bird on Facebook asking for identification. A few members had stayed on aroundFairyCaveafter the majority of us left. I let out a low whistle on seeing the picture. The Bornean whistling thrush was there with us at the limestone hills the whole morning.