Borneo – Beautiful Birds

Two young olive-backed sunbirds (Photo by Jan Young)

Dear Readers, Borneo is full of living jewels – I have never seen so many splendid birds in one place, and although rainforest birdwatching is notoriously challenging we managed to spot some very obliging creatures. It helped that the gardens and surroundings of the places that we stayed were so lush: these two little olive-backed sunbirds (Cinnyris jugularis) were cuddling up together in the gardens at Sepilok, and there was a nest dangling above the entrance to reception.

Olive-backed sunbird nest, with female inside (Photo by Sue Burnley)

The nest is a wonderful construction of leaves, lichen, twigs and spiders’ web, and both parents help to make it. No doubt it helps to protect the eggs and young from the ubiquitous snakes. Sunbirds feed mainly on nectar, but like many birds they will take insects for their protein content when they have young: closer to home you may see house sparrows hawking for flies when they have youngsters. I remember reading that blue tits also switch from the normal caterpillars to spiders at a certain stage of the development of their fledglings.

We weren’t lucky enough to get a photo of a male olive-backed sunbird, but he is a magnificent creature.

Photo One by By Doug Janson - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Male olive-backed sunbird (Photo One)

And how about this fabulous chap? This is a male Temminck’s sunbird, who tends towards eating insects with a bit of nectar thrown in, rather than the other way round. The species is named for Coenraad Jacob Temminck, a Dutch aristocrat who founded the National Museum of Natural History in Leiden in 1820, and who wrote the definitive guide to European birds in 1815. Over twenty species of bird and fourteen species of mammal are named for Temminck, which then, as now, was a way of honouring someone. Who can forget Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna, for example, or indeed Attenborough’s goblin spider, both named for Sir David Attenborough? I do wonder, however, whether there was a degree of sucking up involved in the naming of so many creatures for Temminck – he was an aristocrat, a very rich man, and could probably provide significant patronage. Or maybe I’m just a tired old cynic.

Temminck’s sunbird (Aethopyga temminckii) (Photo by John Tomsett)

The broadbills are a group of big-eyed, large-billed birds who look to me like cartoon characters. I half expected them to speak. They eat mainly insects, frogs and lizards, and catch these mainly in flight, pulling unsuspecting frogs from the branches and plucking bugs from the air.

The black and yellow broadbills space themselves through the forest, announcing their presence with loud, high-pitched calls, which are answered by their neighbours, much as the wrens are doing in the UK at the moment.

The beaks of the black and red broadbills are almost luminous when they are alive but fade to dullness after death, like a candle gently going out.

Black and yellow broadbill (Eurylaimus ochromalus) (Photo by Sue Burnley)

Black and red broadbill (Cymbirhyncus macrorhyncos)(Photo by John Tomsett)

And then we come to the kingfishers. Holy moly. In the UK you might occasionally catch a breath-taking glimpse of electric blue. In Borneo, an oriental dwarf kingfisher popped into the restaurant while we were having breakfast and hung around for ten minutes. This species doesn’t need to live near water, and feeds mainly on insects: like all kingfishers, though, it likes to perch and survey the scene before plunging down onto its unfortunate prey.

Oriental dwarf kingfisher (Photo by Toni Burnley)

The stork-billed kingfisher is almost three times the size of the dwarf kingfisher, and hunts bigger prey, taking small mammals, fish and crustaceans. It is a feisty bird that has been known to drive eagles away from its territory, and it has a general air of ‘don’t mess with me’ about it.

Stork-billed kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis) (Photo by Toni Burnley)

And while the chap below might look familiar-ish (we know he’s a chap because the whole of the lower bill of the female is orang-red), he is in fact a blue-eared kingfisher. His habit is very similar to ‘our’ kingfisher, though: this one sat beside the water, looking for movement, and pounced down upon the many little fish below.

Blue-eared kingfisher (Alcedo meninting)

I can’t leave Borneo’s birds, however, without some photos of a much less brightly-coloured bird, but a notable one nonetheless. This is Storm’s stork, a bird so rare that there may be less than 400 individuals left in the world, and certainly the world’s rarest stork. This is, despite appearances, a secretive bird, who haunts the small forest pools of the deep forest, hunting for frogs and fish. As these pools are disappearing, along with the rest of the forest, the bird has nowhere to go. Pollution from oil-palm plantations in the form of run-off of fertilizers and pesticides has reduced the frog, fish  and invertebrate populations to a fraction of what it once was. The species is extremely sensitive to human intrusion: if it sees a human while it is on the nest it will fly away, and may not return for two to three hours. And then there’s this:

‘Anthropogenic noise sources such as from motorboats and chainsaws may also affect this stork; in response to such noises that penetrate the forest matrix, adult birds have been observed to press their head and body into the nest with only the eyes showing‘.

So, what is the future for the species? Two zoos have managed to breed Storm’s storks (including San Diego Zoo), but the birds become too tame to be released. Plus, with the peat-swamp forests that they evolved in disappearing, where could they be released to? Some animals can adapt to human encroachment, like our dwarf kingfisher and the sunbirds: some even take advantage of the new opportunities that our buildings and agriculture create. But for the specialised creatures like the Storm’s stork, the future looks bleak. I would like to think that it will somehow hold on in the little pockets of forest that it currently inhabits, until the tide turns and we start to become willing to buy up land to preserve it. For now, though, I leave you with these few photographs, of a Storm’s stork surveying the forest from his lofty perch.

Storm’s stork (Ciconia stormi)

Photo Credit

Photo One by By Doug Janson – Own work, CC BY 3.0,





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