Brunei: Lower Belait, 14-15 June

Most of June was spent in Borneo, first in Sabah, then, from 13 – 28 June, in western Brunei, where I was doing bird surveys for the Wetlands International as part of their work developing a Biodiversity Action Plan for the footprint of Shell in Brunei. See this link for more information about this exciting project. The project location is in the lower Belait river ‘valley’ (since it’s all lowland, there isn’t really a valley!) in the north-west corner of Brunei, and the forest there is a mix of freshwater and peat swamp forest, as well as kerangas – heath forest – and kerapah – which is where peat has formed on top of a sand ridge.

I’ve not birded in poor-soil forest before,and it is associated with some difficult-to-see regional endemics, as well as some mouthwatering mammals. However, swamp forest is not the easiest of habitats to walk, let alone bird in, so I was both excited and a bit nervous about the prospect!

In this series of posts I’ll write up some highlights of the surveys. In advance I apologize for the relative lack of bird photos – that’s partly because birds are tough to see, let alone photograph in peat swamp, and partly because photography was not the focus of the work, I was usually too busy looking, listening and writing!

IMG_0935Some subjects were just too photogenic to resist however! This is a Swamp Toad Ingerophyrnus quadriporcatus. This was identified by Dr Ulmar Grafe, the herp specialist on the project. That’s one of the great things about working on a team – lots to learn!


My first day in the field I went out with Dutch WI volunteer Merijn van Leeuwen and our field assistant Angus, who was to be my almost daily companion in the field for the next two weeks.

IMG_4112Roads in Brunei are straight and usually traffic-free (the country population is less than half a million!). To the right is peat swamp forest, and our trail…somewhere!

IMG_4111In the forest looks can be deceiving. If you miss stepping on a root you’ll find yourself up to the knee, thigh or waist in wet peat!

IMG_4110In the wet substrate these kneed roots function in a similar way to some mangrove species, helping to provide aeration during periods of inundation by water. They also function well as booby traps to trip up the unwary birder!

Birding in this forest was very hard-going. Four hornbill species including Wrinkled, and Grey-chested Jungle-flycatchers were probably the best birds.

IMG_0946 This super-cool spider was probably the best of all – shame the photo wasn’t sharp!

IMG_0953There were some pretty impressive webs around too!

IMG_1048A Grey-headed Fish-eagle getting a suntan in the heat of the day!

At night we had three owl species including Oriental Bay-owl (heard only), as well as many Large Flying Foxes. Merijn also saw Temminck’s Flying Squirrel, which would have been a new mammal for me had I managed to see it!


IMG_0967What goes in one end in one place comes out the other at another place! Bats perform a crucial role in pollination of many fruiting tree species.

IMG_4114The aftermath of a day in the peat swamp! No matter how many times I rinsed my socks, the water always semed to turn to a rich black tea colour.

On the 15th June Angus and I were joined by Kolbjorn Schjolberg, a keen birder working with Shell, and we headed for some coastal forest near the Sarawak border.


Angus pointed out a decent-sized croc as we scanned a nearby pool looking for waterbirds. The croc sank silently from view, but not from our minds as we made our way through grass higher than our heads fringing severeal such pools towards the beach. I was fervently praying we wouldn’t come across a nesting female!

IMG_4118We made it to the beach and started a long walk along it in the early morning, hoping for Malaysian Plover among other things.

IMG_0977The first signs of life were rather larger! For a long time I just couldn’t work out what this beast was, till it turned sideways and the penny dropped – a Bearded Pig. Apparently they forage for shellfish on the seashore!

IMG_0985This can be a dangerous passtime. Later on we saw another Bearded Pig – a decent-sized boar – which had been cornered by a pack of feral dogs.

IMG_0989It was obvious that this stand-off was only going to end one way, and the dogs were in no hurry to force the issue.


Between the devil and the deep blue sea!

IMG_1017 IMG_1015 IMG_1012


The dog pack’s strategy was to wear the pig down to the point of exhaustion. It couldn’t turn and swim without becoming defenceless, and the dogs were far too quick to be in any real danger. The pig had no option other than to stand its ground till it became too weak to stand, overcome by heat exhaustion, and the dogs seemed happy to wait.

IMG_1008While photographing the dogs and pig I was distracted by this Orthetrum sabina munching on a large winged insect – another reminder that nature is “red in tooth and claw”!

IMG_4120We came across a snake track leading from the sea to the coastal forest – probably a sea-snake of some kind come to lay its eggs. No Malaysian Plovers though. The eroding coastline had no beach available above the high water mark, making it a practical impossiblility for the species to breed there.

One of the few birds we saw was this Rufous Woodpecker with a strangely misshapen bill.


IMG_4138In the afternoon, Angus and I took a drive up the “KB road” to Kuala Balai. It’s been a popular destination for birders in Brunei over the years, and sadly, for bird trappers too. Lines up into the tree canopy which are used to hoist decoy birds up which lure wild birds onto limed branches were very frequently observed. The main targets are Blue-crowned Hanging-parrot and Blue-rumped Parrot, but others are taken too of course.

IMG_1067 IMG_1071A pale morph Changeable Hawk-eagle eyed me suspiciously before deciding I had got close enough and making a move. Eagles are also the target of trappers here, and are considered prestigious pets.

IMG_4129A posse of Graphium butterflies feeding on something unsavoury at the end of the road next to the Belait river. The next day I was due to get onto the river, hopefully in a decent sized boat!


4 thoughts on “Brunei: Lower Belait, 14-15 June

  1. Pingback: Achterstallig onderhoud 2: Nederland en Brunei | Merijn en Marianne

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