This was written in Borneo, January 2013.
When I retired in 2009 my staff presented me with a thick and expensive book, The Birds of Borneo, by Smithies. I’d just read Into the Heart of Borneo, by R. O’Hanlon, who refers to Smithies throughout. On my present trip around the peripheral arterial system of Borneo I have with me a truncated edition of Smithies and a pair of binoculars which I remember buying in Kota Kinabalu some years ago. I tried them out in the shop but complained that they actually made things look farther away. The assistant politely turned them round and invited me to try again.
There are hundreds of fantastically coloured birds in Borneo. If you want to see them I can send you my copy of Smithies, either the full one or the abridged, or both, as I shan’t be needing them again.
Peering through those binoculars on many occasions in various parks I came to the conclusion that there may well be terrific birds here but not where I was. The ones where I was were a sort of sparrow, not unlike those we sometimes see at home, and a type of pigeon, very like those you observe in your garden.
I was wrong about that, however, as I learned in a coastal National Park near Kuching comprising littoral forest. There are litorally hundreds of birds present here, as you might just expect when you learn that it was here, in Santubong, that Alfred Russell Wallace collected many scores of new species, stuffing them and pondering evolution the while.
Once I saw one, but it was silhouetted against the sun and in dense foliage. The bird was only there for a second but even so I was able to observe that it had wings and a beak, and possibly legs.
In fact I saw one or two more of that same species, or it might have been of an allied species, or perhaps quite a different species.
Then a chance acquaintance, a GP travelling the world with his bird crazy son Cameron, allowed me to piggyback a bird watching excursion led by the resort’s Activities Manager, an expert. We were about to clamber up through the jungle to reach the hide when thankfully it started to pelt down with rain, forcing us back to the Jungle Hall. Here Cameron got stuck into his task of collecting 600 species worldwide, while his dad and I started up a convivial and engrossing conversation, so absorbing that whenever Cameron had seen and identified a barbet (he had the same guide book as me) or a drongo or a whimbrel, and told us, it had gone by the time I could get focused. The boy chalked up 8 or 10 species with enthusiasm. There was one of them that lingered a while, and Cameron used all his descriptive powers to tell us where it was. His dad found it but as a matter of fact I didn’t.
I have those binoculars with me still but I mean to give them away to somebody, anybody, before I return.
Postscript, in England
My new friend Jay is now the owner of those binoculars, and from his veranda in Miri we have spottted some fantastic birds, including a highly coloured kingfisher and a pair of green pigeons.
In Niah, and again in Lambir Hills, I saw a pair of black hornbills very close up. These are smaller cousins of the rhinoceros hornbill featured as the state emblem. And an eagle.
The swiftlets that make the edible nests gathered so precariously in the huge limestone caves also like to build nests in houses. Here is a picture of such a nest on the stonework of my hotel in Miri.
In Bintulu swiftlets come and go into the top floors of the town buildings. Their activity is accompanied by very loud twittering and clicking, such that it reminds you of The Birds. Here is a picture of swiftlets coming and going in Bintulu:
I remarked on this very loud noise to several people but was not put wise. It occurred to me that it might be amplified deliberately, and in fact that is exactly the case. I was driven round the farm area near Miri and came across this massive barn, a bird house, which was also playing non-stop twittering through a giant loudspeaker:
Presumably this represents a sustainable and easier alternative to scraping the nests off the cave walls. In this picture from inside the Niah caves you can see an enormously long bamboo pole strung from the roof (how!?) up which Punan gatherers climb in the season. They work hundreds of feet above floor level.