Sunday, March 25, 2012

Midway Atoll!

Alan and I are just back from Midway Atoll, an idyllic coral-fringed trio of islands, where significant history and wildlife converge. I was scouting a tour which WINGS will offer in coming years.

Color-drenched Sand Island at Midway Atoll (Photos by Narca)

When we step off the small chartered jet into the night, into the cool sea breezes, our first sight is of Bonin Petrels fluttering overhead. The petrels enter their burrows at night to take over incubation duties from their mates or to feed chicks. At dusk, a tempest of petrels amasses just offshore, and when it's dark enough, they storm inland, homing in on their burrows, filling the air with their churrrs and piping.

A Bonin Petrel returns at night to its nest burrow.

The track from the runway to our rooms in Charley Barracks is lined with the nests of albatrosses, as far into the dark as our vision penetrates. And indeed, when day comes, the sight of a million albatrosses within the confines of a small island is astonishing. Midway is the birds' turf. How presumptuous of humans to think it was ever ours.

Charley Barracks surrounded by nesting albatrosses, all of them quite unconcerned that humans share their island.

Portrait: Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatrosses are sovereign here. About 70% of the world's Laysan Albatrosses nests at Midway. Their numbers have been steadily rising with the change in the atoll's status from being primarily a military base to being managed as a national wildlife refuge. (In addition, the atoll is now part of the Papahanamokuakea Marine National Monument.) The number of Laysan Albatross nests had grown to about 480,000 in spring 2011, when the tsunami struck the island. Biologists figure that 110,000 chicks and quite a few adult birds were lost in that catastrophic event. This year the albatross nest tally is about 380,000, so the tsunami caused a downward tick, but they are still prospering.

An adult Laysan has just returned from the sea to feed its chick. A chick needs provisioning by both of its parents in order to survive and fledge.

When we look at the vast stretch of nests––nests of one sort or another are packed into nearly every available square foot––we see chicks everywhere, adults returning from the sea to feed their young, and masses of teenage albatrosses, all socializing, learning to display, checking out potential mates, forming their life-long pair bonds. When young albatrosses are about 3-5 years old, they return to their natal island to find a mate. They practice everything: synchronous displays, nest-building (such as it is), occasionally cuddling chicks.

A trio of young Laysan Albatrosses relaxes after a bout of strenuous displaying.

Like teenagers everywhere, these subadult Black-footed Albatrosses pass the days socializing and pair bonding.

Along with the vast numbers of Laysan Albatrosses, a few tens of thousands of Black-footed Albatrosses also nest––and a single pair of nesting Short-tailed Albatrosses.

Portrait: Black-footed Albatross

Short-tails are highly endangered. They mostly nest on Torishima, an island off the coast of Japan. At one time their entire nesting population consisted of only 10 pairs. By 1949 they were thought to be extinct, but a few subadult birds were still at sea, and they eventually returned to Torishima to nest. With intensive protection, Short-tailed Albatross numbers have come from a low of about 25 birds in 1954 to a current estimate of 2,000 or more.

The Short-tail is magnificent. It towers above the other albatrosses. The Laysans seem very curious about it, approaching and circling with outstretched necks, occasionally attempting to preen it. I am so very, very glad that this splendid and regal bird still rides the winds, glad that some day our grandchildren might also see it.

A superb Short-tailed Albatross (a.k.a. "Golden Gooney")

We'll return to Cambodia-related posts when there's a free moment, but right now I'm heading off for a Jamaica tour, while Alan holds the fort at home! A busy winter and spring!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Okoki's White-winged Ducks, and More!

Our next stop is Okoki, famed for its White-winged Ducks––yet another endangered species that finds refuge in Cambodia. We arrive mid-afternoon at this remote site, only about 10 miles from the Laos border. As soon as we pull into the campsite, local guides meet us. They are excited––the White-winged Ducks are there, now!––and that takes precedence over everything.

A bespeckled White-winged Duck at Okoki, Cambodia
(Photos mostly by Narca)

A 10-minute walk along a trail takes us to a blind, and there indeed is the prize. We quietly watch and photograph the ducks. They are alert and aware of us, but not too worried. (The next day, while we again watch the White-winged Ducks from a blind, a pair of Giant Ibis lands in the tree immediately over our heads! That mega-rarity is here, too!)

The faces of our local guides reflect their pleasure in showing us the White-winged Ducks.

White-wings are among the largest of ducks. They are a puzzle. Originally thought to be related to Muscovy Ducks and the dabbling ducks, recent DNA work indicates that they are actually closer to the diving ducks. They are very secretive. Although the Wikipedia account notes that they are known to feed only at night, the ducks that we observed were feeding, as well as loafing, during the day. White-wings are spottily distributed in Southeast Asia, India, and Sumatra. They depend on hollows in trees for nesting, and since this is a big duck, it needs big hollows. Habitat destruction is a major threat to their survival.

A White-winged Duck displays those white wings. 
(Photo by our guide Duong Nara, who was experimenting with our camera)

At Okoki we once again stay in a tented camp, complete with tented bush shower and toilet, and outfitted by the local villagers. We pass a couple of very pleasant days, searching out Green Peafowl and Bar-bellied Pitta, Green Imperial Pigeon and Puff-throated Babbler. Indian Rollers tumble through the sky in courtship rolls, flashing brilliant blue as the sun catches their wings. Tickell's Blue Flycatcher joins the parade of other blue flycatchers.

Okoki's butterflies are outstanding. Here are just a few! I hope to put names to at least some of them, eventually.

A nymphalid, possibly a species of Moduza (known as the Commanders)

This emerald-eyed beauty has strangely-shaped hind wings. It's a pristine individual.

Another jewel-eyed hairstreak whose turquoise wingspots match the eyes.

This beautiful creature reminds me of Helicopis from South America.

This lovely Yellow Moth (surely there's a better name?) finds Rich's well-traveled hat completely irresistible.

The Yellow Moth, Dysphania sagana, is a geometrid moth from Southeast Asia, Sumatra and Borneo.

A few flowers enliven the dry season, including this probable iris relative:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Vulture Restaurant

When we were setting up this Cambodia trip through the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, and saw the price breakdown for different items, Jim emailed us something to the effect of "and we get a cow, too! What's that about?"

A critically-endangered Red-headed Vulture joins his White-rumped kin at a feeding station. (Photos by Narca)

The populations of several species of Old World vultures have been in freefall in recent years, to the point that they are critically in danger of extinction. The primary cause has been a veterinary drug, diclofenac, which is given to sick livestock and which kills the vultures that feed on the carcasses of toxic animals. Vultures are wide-ranging, so although the drug is not used in Cambodia, the Cambodian populations have nonetheless declined dramatically.

A stopgap measure now in use is to provide a few feeding stations with safe carcasses for the endangered vultures. If we can nurse the populations beyond this major challenge, while removing the toxic drugs from the environment, it is possible that the vulture populations can once again thrive. In addition to helping vultures, these feeding stations also provision endangered Greater Adjutants (a stork), endangered Dholes (Indian Wild Dog), and Leopards.

Feedings at the Chhep Vulture Restaurant in Preah Vihear Protected Forest are timed to coincide with the visits of birders, although the vultures are fed monthly whether or not tourists are present. Feedings also occur at other sites, with the overall timing staggered to even out the food supply. Local villagers benefit from the sale of aging or ailing animals, and the vultures perform their natural function. The idea may sound a bit gruesome, but I found the scene was much less macabre than similar scenes of chaotic predation in Africa.

Here is what happened:

We arrive at our campsite, which is exactly like that provided at Prey Veng. Local villagers cook for us and outfit the camp. In return, the village receives fees from our stay; fees from ecotourism fund much-needed projects like the drilling of wells for clean water.

The next morning we rise before dawn and make our way past the pond where yesterday a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched. A beautiful big snake, thickly banded in black and pale yellow, slithers past us. Beyond the pond lies grassland with scattered trees, the foraging turf for Savannah Nightjars.

About a kilometer from camp, we enter two blinds raised on scaffolding. Rich takes the higher one, which has openings better suited to his big camera lens.

Alan and our guide Nara descend from the blind at the Vulture Restaurant.

Dawn breaks, and the trees beyond us are festooned in vultures. Below them lies the dead cow. Looking at the gaunt beast, I decide that it is probably a mercy to feed it to these vultures. Soon the vultures descend to the ground next to the cow, but don't feed. They seem wary.

White-rumped Vultures contemplate breakfast.

The few big Red-headed Vultures are magnificent beasts, dominating the smaller and more numerous White-rumped Vultures. The Red-heads hold themselves regally and brook no interference from lesser mortals. Eventually the vultures settle down. Predictably, a Red-head is the first to begin to feed.

A Red-headed Vulture in full splendor

But before the bulk of the vultures can start feeding, a lactating village dog arrives, and the vultures withdraw to watch. Then a herd of Water Buffalo moves in, sniffing the cow, licking nearby bones, and routing the dog who should by this time be well-fed. Very soon, our local guides arrive with a packed breakfast omelette, and they shoo away the buffalo, threatening them with a small stick.

Water Buffalo investigate the feeding station, as the vultures wait.

Vultures are a patient lot. Now, finally, they feed. The flock quickly morphs into a roiling mass of wings and snapping beaks. A half hour later, birds begin to withdraw, their crops very full.

White-rumped Vultures have... white rumps

We amble back to camp, to a very welcome bush shower, before heading on to Okoki.

A Red-headed Vulture flies off with full crop.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Home Base at Tmatboey

Anyone considering a trip to Cambodia may be interested in seeing what accommodations at Tmatboey are like. The villagers involved in the ecotourism program were unfailingly helpful and friendly.

The cabins are duplexes. Like elsewhere in Cambodia, people are asked to remove their shoes before entering.

Our cabin at Tmatboey (Photos by Narca)

Inside, the rooms are simple and clean. The ceiling fan is a big plus. Mosquito netting keeps out unwanted nighttime visitors.

Our room at Tmatboey

The bathrooms are a... let's say cozy... combination of shower, sink, and Western-style toilet, with the typical system of flushing by means of buckets of water. The shower water was even heated, for those who could figure out the system.

And en-suite wildlife went beyond geckos to include this charming frog, perched on the bathroom mirror.

Here is the open-air dining area at Tmatboey. Food was tasty, and the cooks made an effort to meet individual needs.

Now can you manage that? Of course you can. And the true rewards include a wealth of birds. This tiny Collared Falconet graced the road in.

Collared Falconet

And butterflies! I have no idea how this one even fits into the grand scheme of life.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Tmatboey's Treasured Ibis

Tmatboey is a small village set in deciduous dipterocarp forest in the center of Cambodia's Northern Plains. It has the distinction of being home to two highly endangered ibis, the Giant and the White-shouldered. Both birds have suffered precipitous population declines in the past half-century, and both are finding refuge and breeding success in Tmatboey.

The primary threat to Giant Ibis is disturbance of critical wetlands and conversion of their habitat to agriculture. Giant Ibis were once associated with wild ungulates, and today they depend upon grazing by domestic livestock such as Water Buffalo to maintain their short-sward grassland habitat and muddy edges to waterholes.

Water Buffalo enjoy a good wallow in the mud.
(Photos by Narca)

We hike in before dawn to a vantage point for seeing from a distance a known roost of Giant Ibis. Soon after daybreak, the ibis in view begins to preen and call, then flies off to forage. Later in the morning we encounter a couple more, as they forage at the edge of a wetland. This photo is of a distant individual, but at least conveys an impression of the huge, shy, red-eyed bird.

Giant Ibis, through a telescope

Dusk at Tmatboey, with a new moon tangled in the tree branches.

Dusk is a good time to see White-shouldered Ibis, as they move to roost trees. White-shouldereds were once widespread from Malaysia to China, but now occur only as a relict population of perhaps as few as 20 individuals in Borneo and the small population in Cambodia. It is good to see them prospering at Tmatboey.

White-shouldered Ibis. Low light conditions make photography difficult!

A program to protect the ibis nests rewards the local farmers who discover the nests, employs rangers from the village, and employs two staff from Wildlife Conservation Society to monitor the nests and to confirm successful fledging. 70% of the program's funds go directly to the villagers. In a region where family incomes average $350 a year, the money from conservation is a substantial help.

White-shouldered Ibis fly to their evening roost.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Prey Veng's Birds and Leps

Let's return to the field with our trusty guide, Nara, and a local guide from the village. Mardy, who guided us at the temples of Angkor Wat, has also come at our invitation. He is eager to see Prey Veng for the first time, and in addition he augments the local cook's efforts with his own culinary feats.

Mardy presents us with a breakfast omelette, Cambodian-style
(Photos by Narca)

Prey Veng features a very fine wetland––an ancient baray about a mile long and a half-mile wide. (Barays are artificial wetlands constructed centuries ago by the Angkor empire.)

White-rumped Falcon, a highly-sought-after species, graces our camp.

The very first morning, a rare White-rumped Falcon swoops into camp. We had also seen one on the drive in, and to see a second is bounty beyond belief.

We spend two days exploring the baray, finding Eurasian Hoopoes, Lesser Adjutants, Oriental Darters, Oriental Honey Buzzard, a huge Gray-headed Fishing-Eagle, Orange-breasted Pigeons, Golden-fronted Leafbirds, Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers, Ruby-cheeked and Purple Sunbirds, and spectacular White-bellied Woodpeckers.

A lovely Orange-breasted Green Pigeon

Asian Barred Owlets are quite fun––for us. Not for anything smaller than they are.

Asian Barred Owlet, terror of small birds

I am astonished at the number and variety of butterflies we encounter, even though it's the dry season.

A Gray Pansy, Junonia atlites...

and its more colorful cousin, a Peacock Pansy, Precis (or Junonia) almana 

I have barely begun to sort out the butterfly species, and lack the references to do a very good job of it. Here is an unknown species, a striking little hairstreak, which could prove to be a challenge... [but, as of 8 March, it is no longer unknown! Doug Danforth has identified it as a Common Pierrot].

Common Pierrot, Castalius rosimon, near Prey Veng...

and a nymphalid, probably Lexias pardalis.

Throughout our trip, we encountered warm and helpful people. Alan, in particular, received the royal treatment due to a respected elder in Cambodia. After observing a way of making Alan more comfortable, Mardy or our drivers, Da or Li, carried a foldup chair for him on every trail, so he wouldn't become tired with the effort of standing. Now that is exceptional kindness.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Up South Fork Without a Camera

Aww, man!... and five coatis scamper across the road just ahead.

White-nosed Coati (Photo by Narca; not to be confused with the photo I might have gotten!)

Conservation in Cambodia

What fine examples we found of ecotourism bringing needed revenues to small, impoverished villages!

The organizer and catalyst for ecotourism in Cambodia is the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, working in conjunction with its international partner, Wildlife Conservation Society. WCS founded SVC in 2006 for the express purpose of providing "an alternative sustainable livelihood from ecotourism for the local communities at the sites that WCS prioritizes for conservation."

It's happening, and it's working.

The SVC logo on our car door (Photos by Narca)

The logo comes from a Sarus Crane motif carved into temple stone at Angkor Wat.

I first learned about the SVC through a long-time friend, Howie Nielsen, who has been training local birding guides in Cambodia for this project. Judging by the quality of the guides we met, the effort is going very well.

Funds generated by SVC projects have enabled villages to dig wells for access to clean water, build schools, maintain roads and bridges, and build health clinics. In return, the villagers have become the guardians of some of the most critically endangered birds anywhere.

The populations of endangered birds within the project sites are rising. In the case of White-shouldered Ibis at Tmatboey, a graph on the SVC website shows the ibis population growing from roughly 2 to more than 30 during a 9-year period.

Besides ecotourism, the villagers have few alternatives for making an income. They farm rice. They raise Water Buffalo and other livestock.

Water Buffalo at Prey Veng, our first campsite and a region important for the continuing existence of critically endangered Giant Ibis, Greater Adjutant, and White-winged Duck

And they harvest resin from several species of trees to use to waterproof boats and other objects.

Jim at a tree where resin is collected

As Nara said to us many times, "They have nothing." He should know. He grew up as the son of poor farmers, and through his own initiative, talent and intelligence––with help from SVC––is crafting a different life for himself. In a place like Cambodia, even a small investment in ecotourism can bring new hope and opportunity.

Conditions for travelers are more basic than in many countries, but they are manageable, and I do plan to fashion a tour through Naturalist Journeys, which we'll be offering in January or February of 2014.