Rarity-hunting in northern Borneo

This was the title of one of my talks at the Borneo Bird Festival, but also my intention once the Festival was over.

Let me take this post to review part of my talk which explains my (and, by extension, most (?) British birders’) interest in looking for rarities!

Here’s a scaled (more or less) map of Borneo and Great Britain (of which the UK is a part). As you can see, GB is quite a bit smaller. The figures overlaid are the total number of bird species (more or less) seen in each. Surprisingly perhaps, despite one being larger and equatorial, and the other being a much smaller landmass is a much less biologically rich region, roughly the same number of species have been seen in each.

However, when you look at how those totals are made up, the picture is dramatically different. In Borneo there are over 550 resident or regularly occurring species, and only about 12% of the total is made up of ‘rarities’. The UK has fewer than 300 residents and regular migrants, and over 50% of all species recorded are vagrants!

So, how does this affect being a birder in each place? In Borneo, you could happily spend most of your life searching for the regular species (many of which are endemics) and still not succeed in seeing all of them – a worthy challenge.

In the UK, if you wanted to, you could see most or all of the 289 ‘regulars’ in a year or two. After that, then what? For most Brits, the answer is – go looking for rarities!

The funny things is, once this gets into the blood, it’s hard to be cured! If you look at birding communities around the world, even in countries which are very rich ornithologically, the Brits who have emigrated there tend to be rarity-obsessed!

Picture used with permission of Russ Wynn: http://www.seawatch-sw.org/

You can tell a British birder in the field. He’s the one sitting on that barren promontory gazing wistfully out to sea, wandering around  those sweltering mudflats, or slogging through an apparently insignificant line of scrubby bushes at the coast, day in, day out. What is he doing, you may have wondered? Why doesn’t he go to the forest and look at trogons? Can’t he see there are no birds here?

Have pity on him – he’s afflicted. For him, going to see the same birds that every else sees and knows are there isn’t enough. He wants to Find what’s Out There! He’s looking for ‘the Big One’ – the thrill of being the first to see a bird that’s never, or seldom been seen in that place before.

When Van Morrison wrote “Some people spend their time just runnin’ round in circles, Always chasing some exotic bird”, he was writing about British (well, Irish at least!) birders.

When we’re not out in the field, we can often be found poring over maps with a glazed look on our face. These are the kind of places we’re looking at:

These are the places where migrants (and rarities!) are most likely to make first ‘land-fall’, especially in bad weather. Normally, these places tend to have very few resident birds – they’re generally windswept and don’t have a lot of good habitat – but their geographical position makes them natural ‘migrant magnets’.

Recently, Chris Kehoe wrote a tantalizing article for Suara Enggang entitled: Into the Crystal Ball:Possible Future Vagrants to East Malaysia.

In it, he gave his (cogently-argued) predictions for the most likely next 10 additions to the East Malaysian list.

As an invited speaker, Sabah Tourism had generously offered me a visit to my pick of birding destinations in Sabah. A normal sane person would have undoubtedly headed to one of the centres of avian diversity for which Sabah is justly world-famous – Danum Valley, Maliau Basin, the Crocker Range, Sepilok, Tabin Wildlife Reserve, and many others. But this was October – migration season – and Chris’s article had whetted my appetite for ‘rares’. I was eager to get to the coast! So I chose Mantanani Island.

When I mentioned this, the first response from fellow birders was always – “Oh – you’re going for the owl!” Mantanani is famously the only place in Malaysia where you can see the aptly-named Mantanani Scops-owl. Well, if I could see the owl, great, but actually, I had other priorities. I’m a Brit – I was after migrants! The next posts will reveal how I fared!

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