Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Nature of Fraser's Hill; Mammals

Written and photographed by Nick Baker

The forests surrounding Fraser’s Hill are rich and diverse in mammal life.  In contrast to the birdlife, which is dominated by montane species, the majority of mammals around the hill resort also occur in the lowlands of Peninsular Malaysia.  What makes Fraser’s Hill a bit special, however, is the proximity of unspoiled forest (with probably limited poaching) to easily accessible roads and vantage points. Thus there is a greater chance of observing mammal species which are more difficult to locate in the lowlands.

Quite a few species of primate are active around the hill station. Two species of macaque can be seen, including the ubiquitous Long-tailed Macaque (common all over Peninsular Malaysia), and the larger and stockier Southern Pig-tailed Macaque. Leaf Monkeys or Langurs are represented by two species which are the Spectacled Leaf Monkey (or Dusky Langur) and the White Thighed Leaf Monkey (or White-thighed Surili). The latter was once very common at Fraser’s Hill but during a recent visit in early 2013 I failed to spot a single specimen : perhaps it was not the right season for them to emerge from the forest ?

Southern Pig-tailed Macaque

White-thighed Leaf Monkey

Rarer primates include the the Siamang, which is the largest species of gibbon.  The latter is considered a ‘star’ species of Fraser’s Hill : it can be heard most mornings whooping and yelling from the forest canopy. The call can travel some kilometres, so the species is hard to locate. Some luck is needed to spot family groups in the canopy, but if good vantage points are routinely checked during your stay you may be lucky to catch a glimpse of them early in the morning or late afternoon.

Sunda Slow Loris

Siamang adult with young

The other group of diurnal mammals easy to locate are squirrels. A diverse range of squirrels occurs in the area ranging in size from the tiny, manic Himalayan or Western Striped Squirrel, which has a head-body length of just 11 cm, to the Black Giant Squirrel, which is amongst the largest in the world and which approaches the size of a domestic cat. Between these two extremes is the common Grey-bellied Squirrel and the uncommon Mountain Red-bellied Squirrel, both of ‘normal’ squirrel size.  Not to be confused with a squirrel is the Common Treeshrew, a ground-dwelling mammal with a pointed snout and large gape.

Himalayan Striped Squirrel

Black Giant Squirrel

Grey-bellied Squirrel

Mountain Red-bellied Squirrel

Common Tree Shrew

A good deal of luck is needed to spot another ‘star’ species, namely the Yellow-throated Marten. I have visited Fraser’s Hill perhaps eight times, and have glimpsed the species just once : late one morning I was standing quietly at the edge of the ‘old road’ a few hundred metres down from the security gate, when a marten briefly emerged from the forest, sniffed the air and turned his head to gaze directly at me.  Fortunately I had my longest lens mounted on my tripod at the time, and I managed to capture a single, decent image of this elusive animal before it bounded off into the forest.  A friend told me of having observed this species chase and kill a Black Giant Squirrel in the forest canopy, which gives some idea of the ability of martens to make a kill.

Yellow-throated Marten

As night falls the nocturnal mammals emerge, and to see these you will need to carry a decent flashlight. The most frequently encountered species is the Common Palm Civet, but with some luck you may be able to spot the uncommon civets such as the Small-toothed Palm Civet and Masked Palm Civet.  Another fairly common species is the Slow Loris, a type of primate with large eyes and a generally ‘cuddly’ appearance. Bats too emerge at night : insectivorous species may be spotted flying around street lamps feeding on small insects, while frugivorous species will head to fruiting trees, including figs. The strangest denizen of the night is the Colugo, a primitive gliding mammal which might be spotted at dusk as it glides from tree to tree : you might be forgiven in thinking you had just witnessed a ‘hantu’ (ghost) going silently about its business !

Common Palm Civet

Dusky Fruit Bat


Nick Baker's website contains a wealth of information on local mammals and other species and can be found here

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Red-wattled Lapwings

The Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus) is a largish lapwing large plover in the family Charadriidae.   The wings and back are light brown with a purple sheen, but the head and chest and front part of the neck are black. A white patch runs between these two colors. The tail is tipped black and there is a red, fleshy wattle in front of each eye (looking like trendy red plastic eye-glass frames worn backwards), black-tipped red bill and the long legs are yellow. Males and females are similar in plumage but have a slightly longer wing and carpal spur. 

They usually keep in pairs or trios in well-watered open country, ploughed fields, grazing land and margins. They are relatively common in areas around Malaysia and in Penang where I am more familiar. In my ‘studio’ where I have followed two species of Bee-eaters and the White-throated kingfishers nesting…a population of 12-15 of these Lapwings seems to have a permanent residence. They have been observed elsewhere to feed at night and particularly around a full moon but in my domain seem to graze in the grassy margins. The main characteristic of this species is that they have a slightly raucous call and are ceaselessly vigilant. The call has been described as did-he-do-it or pity-to-do-it, which has lead to colloquial names like the did-he-do-it bird. There may be regional or sub-species variations with the alarm calls but to me it sounds like pot-atoooo. They would make good watch ‘dogs’ because of their vigilance and their name in Tamil aal-kaati….means ‘human indicator’. Here is the call;

The species breeds form West Asia, eastwards across South Asia with another sub-species in South-east Asia.

Indeed the Red-wattled Lapwings have a right to be vigilant. In the observed domain itinerant cows occasionally graze the grass. Wild boar, up to nine mebers of a family have been seen furtively sneaking across the grass, Red-jungle fowl strut and crow, White-breasted Waterhen frequent the same territory, coucals scavenge amongst the trees and on the track periphery, Brahminy kites and Crested Serpent Eagles frequently scan the territory. Paddyfield Pipits share the same turf with their purposeful and inquisitive way. There is also harassment by ubiquitous groups of feral dogs.

The breeding season in Mainly March to August. Following a courtship display and mating eggs are laid in a shallow scrape sometimes fringed with pebbles or animal droppings. About 3-4 black-blotched eggs with a pyriform shape are found in these scrapes. As the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters finished their annual nesting I observed 4 clutches of eggs being incubated by nervous adults. The adult assigned the egg-sitting duties appeared to sit on the eggs less than 50% of the time.....whenever any threat was perceived it left the eggs to divert attention away from the area. The partner was always nearby, usually on a small look-out ridge to maintain a vigilant look-out. 

I have followed nesting behavior in my ‘domain’ for two seasons and I find it curious that the eggs are laid in conspicuous places but the chicks when hatched are sequestered rather cautiously. Although the eggs are well camouflaged in their micro-environment the rather open nests beg questions. In India nests have been recorded on the stones between railway track with the adult leaving the nest each time a train passed. Egg mortality is recorded as being high at around 43% whereas chick mortality is relatively low, which corresponds with my observations. In 2012 one set of eggs was literally inches from a motor-cross track and another one was in a direct line from the White-throated kingfishes favorite perching tree to their nest cavity (both sets of eggs indicated with arrows, below). Kingfishers and Lapwings were observed to partake in numerous dogfights.

Both the male and the female incubate the eggs and divert predators using distraction displays or flash their wings to deter herbivores from their nests.
The four pairs nesting at the same time (March/April 2013)  they seemed to have well-define territories. They cooperate when warning of outside intruders but also seem to have a number of border disputes with their neighbors with aerial buzzing attacks accompanied by warning alarm calls.

The collective mood of the Lapwings changed when the chicks hatched. It was difficult to define but you knew from the behavior or variation in alarm calls that a new phase had occurred. While concentrating on other species I had not seen the chicks in 2012 after they hatched. When I arrived at the site around 7am in mid-March I noted that one of the eggs of three had hatched. When I left four hours later a second chick had hatched. The first hatchling could be seen with the parent (little black and white shape by the feet) as I observed from a respectable distance. The parent flew off with the used eggshell and deposited it elsewhere.

The open spaces in which they nested is fringed with trees and bushes and it appeared the chicks were sequestered in this vegetation while the parents formed a guard line to protest their foraging offspring when they emerged into the adjacent grassy area. As they chicks got bigger they foraged further out into open spaces.

In early May the inter-Monsoon period often produces colorful sunrises that can also illuminate some impressive cloud-heads. The Kingfishers newly fledged chicks are hunting for themselves, the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters have raised their broods and departed and only the Blue-throated Bee-eaters who perched in the early morning peripheral trees were still to hatch their chicks.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

White-throated Kingfishers nesting behavior

Early in the New Year the Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters are busy hunting bees and going about their nesting duties. Paddyfield Pipits patrol the grassy area that was my 'studio'.

In the same area I estimate there are 4-5 pairs of White-throated Kingfishers. Last year my two favorite pair had a couple of attempts at nesting.  It was quite clear that there were some problems because they were actively feeding and suddenly gave up. I have written a previous blog about their hunting behavior.....this one covers a successful nesting cycle.
Normally 4-7 eggs are laid by the female in a cavity inside a tunnel that is around 24 inches long.  Eggs are laid on different days so that there is a difference in chick size and clearly the ability to compete for food. The female of the pair last year had several toes missing and certainly by the end of the season in July she looked rather ragged. The male appeared to have have taken another mate this year. This female was a beautiful specimen with immaculate feathers and a deeper than normal blue coloration. She was a little na├»ve at times when hunting larger prey but quickly learnt to adapt.  This species of kingfisher communicate with each other by a form of semaphore whereby they open the wings either very briefly of for sustained periods. It is thought that the white patch on their wings provides a clear visual signal to each other. They also call frequently.

In the early months of 2013 the pair hunted individually or together. Sometimes the male could be seen giving his catch to the female.

Mating usually takes place early in the pre-dawn hours. I saw the pair under observation mate several times around 7am as early as the end of January. 

There was a well-established nest hole on a muddy bank that was used last year but this was ignored and a new nest cavity was made further along the same bank. 

The kingfishers favorite perching tree was nearby and this provided a staging post for hunting and for trips to the nest. Eggs hatch 20-22 days after laying and in early April I was pleased to see them feeding the new nest.  There were the remains of a dead tree about 4 meters from the nest that they often landed on prior to entering the nest cavity. I was surprised to see the size and variety of prey delivered to chicks that would only have been days old. Both parents were busy feeding the nest with prey ranging from small insects to skinks and frogs. One prey looked like fledgling chicks from another bird species. Towards the end of the feeding the female made trips to he nest in a bit over four hours.

After arriving on the skeletal tree they aimed at the nest hole and took off. Delivery and the return was over quickly .............the prey must have been dumped in the first gaping mouth. It was noted that when a frog was caught it was placed in a 'streamline' position in the beak to be readily received by the chicks

The Red-wattled Lapwings had nests on the ground nearby and later small chicks but these birds aggressively chased off foraging kingfishers. The Bee-eater species had changed with the Blue-throated having taken over from the Chestnut-headed. They were mating and digging holes to raise their brood.

It was fortuitous that the early morning light was at right angles to the line the kingfishers took from the tree to their nest hole. This allowed for high ISO settings and speeds up to 1/4000th second to record the action with incoming prey. My shots were done with a 500mm lens, either on its own or with a 1.4x extender that narrows the focal depth but smoothens the background. All shooting was done from a car window on a beanbag. It is pertinent to add that at no time were the Kingfishers stressed or deviated from their normal behavior by my/our presence.

I could only place the egg hatching within 3 days but from my reckoning the first chicks fledged 20-22 days from hatching. When the first chicks fledged the parents stopped feeding the nest…no doubt pre-occupied trying to provide for the demanding fledglings.  The newly fledged chicks were competent fliers, had under-developed tails , white eye-rings, darker bills and less flamboyant leg coloration

Like many things in nature it would be a survival of the fittest with the first hatchlings having a considerable advantage over those that were last. It was nonetheless satisfying to see the cycle of life with these kingfishers that had provided, entertainment, information and photo-opportunities. As the kingfishers complete their cycle the Blue-throated Bee-eaters are silhouetted by the sunrise waiting to complete their breeding cycle.