Monday, 23 September 2013

Taman Negara: the Merapoh entrance

Taman Negara is the largest park in Peninsular Malaysia and sprawls over three states. Taman Negara has several entrance points with Kuala Tahan being the best known. Taman Negara Merapoh or Taman Negara Sungai Relau is the least well known. GPS reference; 40’50.18” 102°03’25.00

Parks such as Taman Negara should be treated with reverence and a departing glimpse of how the natural world was bearing in mind the uninhibited logging and spreading contagion of palm oil plantations over much of the country.

Getting there
Merapoh is located along Federal Route 8, around 27 kilometers from Gua Musang, Kelantan. A 7 km road, which has a rather cryptic entrance, from Merapoh undulates through palm plantations to Sungai Relai.  From the Sungai Relau settlement a narrow sealed road crosses a bridge over the Relau River and connects to Kuala Juram. This 14km long road was built during the late 1980s by the Malaysian army. Most people visiting Sungai Relau do so for the purpose of climbing Gunung Tahan, which is a 5 day return journey.
My journey from Penang Island took around 5 hours driving. The turn off from the main trans-Malaysia highway occurs just south of Ipoh. You follow the signposts to Cameron Highlands and after Cameron Highlands follow the road to Gua Musang. The road is quite steep up to Cameron Highlands and traffic can build-up behind slow vehicles but there are adequate passing lanes. 

The location of Gua Musang (right of centre) in relation to Penang.

The settlement of Merapoh (centre right) and the road to the Sungai Relau complex(right, below centre)

The forested peaks soon give way to the random desecration around Cameron Highlands. The development of the fruit and vegetable industry around Cameron Highlands pays no attention to waste disposal, conservation or preserving the serene beauty of this highlands area. The decapitated peaks later give away to extensive areas of lower altitude hills that are being cleared for the uncontrolled march of the palm oil industry.

The random and haphazardly arranged plastic greenhouses at Cameron Highlands.

The native vegetation is being rapidly cleared for cultivation

As the highlands give way to the foothills, the bush is cleared for Palm Oil cultivation.

Accommodation at Sungai Relau is available in the form of several dormitories, non air-conditioned and air-conditioned chalets. Bookings can be made via You need to register at the office on arrival and pay 1 Ringgit for entrance fee and 5 Ringgit if taking photos during your stay.
I have stayed in the air-conditioned rooms at 70 Ringgit per night. They are large rooms with two double beds. Two units have sit-toilets and one has an Asian squat toilet. The rooms have an air-conditioning unit and a ceiling fan. The ‘ensuite’ bathrooms are in poor condition with cracked toilets and cold-water showers. It is also advisable to take your own toilet paper and a towel (they may or may not be provided). There are two power outlets in the spacious room but no facilities for boiling water. I have an SUV and greatly increased my comfort by bringing a bar fridge, a hotplate and an electric kettle. You need to bring food for breakfast and lunch and other snacks. The rooms are not serviced during your stay and I found a broom to be useful also.  Remember to pack for different contingencies; sensible jungle clothes, which should include leech socks, insect repellent and candles ….the latter are useful in power outages.  

One of the air-conditioned rooms.

Interior view of one of the rooms.

A bar fridge is an extra but a kettle is a necessity.

There is a canteen in the complex but it is only opened when there are a number of people staying, such as the training of park wardens. When the canteen is operational; some food can be purchased at a moderate price. Merapoh has no retail outlets and the closest place to get supplies would be Gua Musang…..a 54km round journey. There are a few small family-run restaurants in Merapoh but their opening hours can be erratic and you need to get used to a diet of Nasi Goreng each night. When returning from the evening meal in Merapoh it is a good time to do some spotlighting. We have seen various owl species, Leopard cats, and Common and Small-toothed Palm Civets.

Around the compound
The area around Sungai Relau has a paucity of nutrients in the soil and this is reflected in the poor yield of the palm oil estates in the area. There is also poor insect diversity as a result.
Various species can be photographed around the compound. A pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills often do a fly-past across the Padang in the early morning as they seek fruiting trees. Other species of hornbills (Wreathed,Wrinkled and Black) can be seen in the skeletal trees across the river. Fruiting trees will attract, leaf birds, various Bulbul species, Asian Fairy Bluebirds and Green Broadbills. Sunbirds, Spiderhunters and Flowerpeckers can be photographed on the flowering plants.  Primate species can be seen and heard on the trees along the Relau River and along the road into the forest. The haunting calls of the Siamang punctuate many mornings and there is the frequent rustling of Long-tailed macaques, Pig-tailed Macaques and Dusky Langurs. The orange babies of the latter species have long been a personal photographic target. There is a plethora of Magpie Robins around the compound and they will succumb to strategically placed mealworms to get close-up shots of them. The compound also has a resident population of the tri-colored Prevost’s Squirrels that always provide entertaining photographic subjects.

Prevost's Squrrel

Greater Green Leafbird (male)

A Prevost's Squirrel feeds on a fruiting tree

Asian Fairy Bluebird (male)

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Spectacled Bulbul

Magpie Robin (female)

Magpie Robin (male)

At the Sungai Relau station there is a program to breed the Kelah fish, also known as Malaysian Red Mahseer, Thai Red Mahseer and Greater Brook Carp This species known for its decorative and ‘game fish’ skills had been seriously depleted in the river systems by often illegal over-fishing, pollution, river degradation due to silting and straightening of rivers and deforestation. Fish are bred and raised through the various stages at the centre and released into the river system both adjacent to the settlement and at Kuala Juram

Along the road
A bridge spans the river behind the chalets. The  boundary of Taman Negara is delineated by the Relau River, which is a small, shallow river whose course is broken with folded sedimentary rock and occasionally the underlying limestone protrudes.  There is no access for private vehicles but you can arrange with park staff to be taken to Kuala Juram. The cost per person at the time of writing is 30 Ringgit return. In general a combination of factors such as low tourist traffic, absence of aboriginal settlements in the adjacent area and a general lack of disturbance contributes to the abundance of wildlife in this lowland dipterocarp forest.  Camera trapping at Sungai Relau has been quite successful with Asian elephants, tigers, wild pigs, wild dogs, Sumatran Rhinoceros, panthers as well as Barking and Sambur deer appearing in camera trap images. Sun bear and tapirs can be glimpsed occasionally adjacent to the road.
Taman Negara boasts over 400 species of birds. Good birding can be done in the first 2km along the road and along the side trails. Diard’s, Scarlet and Cinnamon-rumped Trogons, Red-bearded Bee-eaters, Great Slaty Woodpeckers, Chestnut-naped forktails as well as a selection of Bulbuls and Babblers can be sighted off the road while Green Imperial Pigeons use the road to zip along to their destination. It can be beneficial to sit still at the side of the road and see what emerges.
Bird species photographed by friends or colleagues include: Spectacled Bulbul, Yellow-bellied Bulbul, Grey-bellied Bulbul, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker, Raffles Malkoha, Black-throated Babbler, White-chested Babbler, Grey-breasted Spiderhunter, Plain-throated Sunbird, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Garnet Pitta, Greater Fish Owl, Black and Red, Black and Yellow Broadbills, Greater Green Leafbird, Lesser Fish Eagle, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Large Wren Babbler, Crimson-winged Woodpecker.

Long-tailed Macaque

Dusky Langur (Spectacled Leaf Monkey)

Black and Red Broadbill

Red-bearded Bee-eater

White-rumped Sharma

Crested Serpent Eagle

Crimson-winged Woodpecker

White-throated Kingfisher

The star birds at Merapoh appear to be the Garnet Pitta, the Banded Pitta and the Large Frogmouth. All these species need work to call them in and the pittas are best photographed from hides with the appropriate placement of mealworms. Currently there is quite a well-worn patch in the forest about 300 metres from the bridge. The Large Frogmouth(s) resides near the bridge and along the first 100 metres along the road. He/she will answer calls and make a brief appearance at dawn or dusk.

Kuala Juram
The buildings and grounds at Kuala Juram are well maintained. On two occasions the driver took us in at 7am and picked us up at 12 noon. The first time the misty jungle was filled with the haunting calls of Siamang and there was a fruiting tree on the compound that attracted the normal avian suspects and several varieties of squirrels. A population of Kelah drift at the junction of two waterways, one stream a light jade colour and the other tannin-stained. They are fed once a day by one of the drivers. The second time we visited, on another trip, it was very quiet with no fruiting trees and few mammals calling or foraging. The only obvious action were several species of butterflies puddling on the edge of the road. One of the tall trees in the compound has a classic-looking wax-constructed Sweat Bee nest looking like a large spout. Sweat Bees are a generic name for a number of bee species that seek sweat rather than nectar, do not sting but can make a nuisance of themselves when you are perspiring in the heat of the jungle.

Mist shrouded forest around Kuala Juram.

Nick Baker waiting for some action

A group of Kelah fish (centre, right) wait to be fed.

Looking like a small branch, a Sweat Beehive emerges from a tree trunk.

Closer view of the wax-constructed Sweat Bee hive.

The entry port for the Beehive

Photographic conditions and equipment
Bird photography of the pittas in the forest requires a camera capable of high ISO settings. I was shooting at ISO 3200-5000, at apertures of F6.3-8 and speeds less than 1/100th second. Light is really too low on overcast or dull days.
Fruiting trees are bird photographers’ best friends and they attract the frugivores from the forest and it is the photographers’ task to isolate them in the twig spaghetti of the fruiting tree.
For bird photography a long lens is a pre-requisite (500mm – 800mm). Also essential are a sturdy tripod, a camera capable of a high ISO setting, as well as a flash and support system. My colleagues who were shooting anything from mammals to reptiles prefer a portable set-up with an intermediate zoom lens and an attached flash for night work and dark interiors.

A Five-bar Swordtail Butterfly that was puddling on the road

The pittas and some of the other desirable birds can be lured in with recorded birdcalls. Unfortunately when this technology is in the hands of inexperienced operators and calls are often played for too long and too loud. This situation is likely to, and possibly has already modified the behavior of the target birds. Some calls in the ‘library’ are also alarm calls and playing these will stress the birds. At Merapoh a number of photographers use the  recordings and mealworms to photograph several species of pitta. It was my observation that the recording acts like a dinner gong for other species of birds and I counted at least 6 species that knew where to find the food stash when the sound was broadcast.

Male and female Banded Pittas

Juvenile Banded Pitta

Interest and intent
To see a full range birds, mammals, reptiles that reside in the national Park you will have to visit a number of times. It is a good idea to go with others with a diverse range of interests. My colleagues, Nick Baker and Horst Flotow, have expertise with mammals and reptiles, birdcalls and forest craft. I am open to photographing anything in the natural world but tend to specialize in bird photography. One of my colleagues photographed a species of otter in two different locations in the park that have not been seen alive in Peninsular Malaysia for over 50 years. This demonstrates an open and curious mind is more desirable in the field than pursuing one target species for bragging rights as the sole objective of your visit.

Nick Baker and Horst Flotow at Kuala Juram

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Byram, Penang: Paradise lost for bird photographers

Good bird photography requires a number of elements to be in place:
1.     Interesting species
2.     Good directional light
3.     Tidy perches that have a ‘clean’ background
4.     An ability to get the subject within lens range
5.     Good photographic equipment

#4 can be achieved by increasing the lens size, using a hide or having cooperative birds.

Byram circa early 2012 and before had the entire elements in the list above. The confluence of different elements: the rubbish dump, the effluent ponds, semi-submerged skeletal trees, a mangrove estuary and coastal location conspired to bring a number of species to a small area.
On my first visits in my SUV in late 2011 and early 2012 I was overwhelmed by the perched and swimming species that were boosted by Northern migrants enjoying a warmer climate. Blue-tailed Bee-eaters tossed insects in bushes adjacent to the road, Little Grebes chugged around the ponds and ran across the water when frightened, Oriental Pratincoles stared in wonder at peering photographers and Paddyfield Pipits scythed across the ground or peered at the world from raised mounds.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Paddyfield Pipit

Little Grebe

Oriental Pratincole

 Crested Serpent eagles plunged into bushes to pull out snakes, Changeable Hawk-eagles patrolled the area and a Black-shouldered kite would tease me often, tearing up prey on a perch that was always in the wrong location in respect to the sun direction.

Changeable Hawk-eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle

Several species of Kingfisher also attracted the camera; Collared Kingfishers sat on several regular perches while the elusive Stork-billed Kingfisher could be captured on well-aligned twigs adjacent to the stream that flowed from the sluicegates to the seas. The migratory Black-capped Kingfisher was also a desirable target for the longer lenses. I was sure this particular species knew the length of various lenses and would always position itself just beyond the ideal range of the lens. 

Collared Kingfisher

White-throated Kingfisher

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Black-capped Kingfisher

 Shore birds use the estuary and the pond to forage for food or quietly practice their ballet moves.

Little Heron with breakfast.

Reflected Wood Sandpiper

Pied Stilt

A Great Egret pirouettes on take-off

Bird species are not the only photogenic wildlife at Byram. A group of Otters often scurried through the grass, slid across tidally-exposed mud or had group bonding sessions in their communal toilets. 

Smooth-coated Otters

The ever-present Long-tailed Macaques are in their natural environment in a mangrove swamp and regularly patrol the waters edge for food as well have have board meetings in the trees.

Foraging Long-tailed Macaque

Macaque board meeting

Walking around with a camera fitted with a long lens does not usually result in many great images because a walking human is seen as a threat to avian well-being. If you read the National Geographic July 2013 edition you would know that our feathered friends have every reason to treat us with suspicion and distrust. A hide can be used to get closer to stationary birds. The use of such devices in tropical South-east Asia however represents a good substitute for a Finnish sauna without the refreshing roll in the snow afterwards.
A judiciously located vehicle is a very good hide and was ideal for photographing birds and mammals around the old Byram. I had a number of productive sessions in my SUV and photographed everything from Fiddler Crabs to Giant Monitor lizards climbing tall trees and having a stand-up wrestling contest.

Fiddler Crab

Laced Monitor Lizard sunbathing on a dead tree

I was rather dismayed in the latter half of 2012 when workers began to remove the ‘wood’ from the ponds and started filling the lakes in two locations. Enquiries suggested that filling in the lakes might represent phase two of the rubbish disposal complex so we should be grateful for what had been. Thankfully it turned out that only part of one pond was filled in for a few additional buildings to be constructed.
The next ‘improvement’ that occurred was an example of mind-blowing near-sightedness and demonstrated a clear lack of consultation with those who appreciated the wildlife in the area. It was worse than putting lipstick on a pig…..the porcine in this case had an unwanted boob-job, botox treatment, hair transplant and complete makeover. A raised and concreted path was constructed around the remaining pond areas, trees were planted on either side of the path, shelters were erected and concrete seats were distributed at regular distances apart. Whom may I ask are these for, other than possibly  the grass cutter to take a rest and a phone-break.

The raised concrete path snakes into the distance

Macaque seats?

or for grass cutters?

OK let us analyze who actively observed or photographed the wildlife in the area prior to the makeover. In my frequent visits I saw only photographers in vehicles who were clearly recording the resident or visiting species. The place had local legendary status amongst the avian appreciators. Cars could be driven quite close to perched birds and in extreme cases you could almost touch the subject with the end of the lens. I took a friend to Byram and he said it was more a place for the really long lenses, which would mean an 800mm lens, which additionally means that the distance from the photographer to the target should be minimized.

The raised path, new trees and fence constitute a barrier and added distance for vehicle-based nature photography

So the question that begs to be asked is: were any photographers, the only apparent appreciative audience, asked for advice before the makeover occurred? Perches have been removed, the distance between lens and subject has been increased and potential targets obscured in a number of ways…including barbed wire on the surrounding fence and the random planting of trees and clumps of bougainvillea. To get any decent wildlife shots now you are forced to become a pedestrian on the concrete path and the animals will abscond to Perak or Kedah.
Who else is likely to use the expensive walkway? The 8-10 kilometers from the only substantial population at Nibong Tebal is likely to exclude most of the populace and I would think romantic couples with a vehicle would prefer the heady scent of Chanel #5 over that of Eau de Rubbish Dump. In essence it is as ridiculous as putting a floral clock near the summit of Mount Everest. Mercifully most of the species will still be around but photographing them has been made unnecessarily very difficult. The path itself may give rise to another species however......a white elephant and an expensive one at that.

A shelter for geriatric Macaques and old Otters?