Working for the birds

Batrisyia Teepol with her facilitator, Daniel Kong, at Buntal.

By Mary Margaret

THE RICH, biologically diverse mudflats of the Bako-Buntal Bay, an approximate 45-minute drive from Kuching, is of great importance for visitors of the winged kind, as Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) student Batrisyia Teepol found out.

The bay is literally a refuelling station for tired avian travellers such as plovers, terns and egrets. The shorebirds consume huge quantities of sea creatures, including shellfish, worms and fish. The mangrove forest that edge the mudflats shelter the birds during high tides, night and from harsh weather (storms and sun).

Accommodation and plenty of food are the likely magnets for the shorebirds.

There are about 10,000 to 15,000 shorebirds overwinter in or around the Bay. It hosts several globally threatened and near-threatened species, including the iconic Chinese Egret. Over 400 individuals of the estimated 2,600-3,400 individuals worldwide have been sighted at one time at Bako-Buntal Bay. These birds fish for crabs and fish, including mudskippers. They breed in the Yellow Sea between Korea and China and the Sea of Japan between Korea and Japan, with the majority overwintering in the Philippines.

Other threatened species include the Chinese Crested Tern with a flyway population of less than 50 mature adults and Nordmann’s Greenshanks with a flyway population of 500 to 1,000.

Curlews, a shorebird, feeding and resting at an ash pond. (Photo credit: Batrisyia Teepol)

Batrisyia said this during her presentation here on Dec 5, which was organised by the Malaysian Nature Society – Kuching Branch (MNSKB). Batrisyia, through the support of Unimas Professor Andrew Alec Tuen and MNSKB chairperson Rose Au, was sponsored for one year by the Conservation Leadership Programme to study shorebirds at Bako-Buntal Bay.

In her presentation, Batrisyia remarked that she had undergone training to enhance her bird identification skills and understanding of the environment.

The Conservation Leadership Programme, which is a partnership of three leading conservation organisations, aims to build leadership skills in early career conservationists who are striving to overcome threats to nature.

The evening presentation by MNSKB also featured another Unimas student, Jason Teo. This was followed by an award-winning documentary ‘Migrating Birds – Scouts of Distant Worlds’.

Teo and Batrisyia participated in the MNS Hornbill Volunteer Programme in the Belum-Temenggor Forest Reserve in Perak from Aug 28 to 31 and from Sept 3 to 6 Sept, respectively.

Bako-Buntal Bay and Belum-Temenggor Forest Reserve are two of Malaysia’s 55 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA).

Teo, in his talk, commented that they learnt about methods used to count hornbills — point count. He said that in 11 hours of counting, he saw 284 plain-pouched hornbills, a species that is not found in Sarawak.

Jason Teo in the field. (Photo credit: Jason Teo)

The Belum-Temenggor Forest Reserve is the only remaining contiguous block of tropical rainforest connecting to Bang Lang National Park/Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand. This biologically diverse habitat, home to endemic plants and geological wonders, supports iconic and endangered animals — Malayan tigers, Asian elephants, primates and Malayan tapirs — as well as all 10 hornbill species found in Malaysia! (Sarawak has only eight.)

Teo said that he saw five species of hornbills: plain-pouched hornbill, black hornbill, oriental-pied hornbill, great hornbill and wreathed hornbill. Hornbills migrate between the forest reserves and protected areas of Belum-Temenggor Forest Reserve, Greater Ulu Muda Forest Complex and Hala-Bala Wildlife Sanctuary: the hornbill triangle.

When not counting hornbills, Teo and Batrisyia counted other bird species, including the white-bellied sea eagle and oriental honey buzzard, and participated in community activities with the people living in the area.

In the second part of the evening, the documentary ‘Migrating Birds – Scouts of Distant Worlds’, directed by Petra Hofer and Freddie Rockenhaus, presented some of the ongoing research that European ornithologists are conducting to understand reasons for migrations, identification of routes and the overwhelming odds that the birds face.

Every year, billions of birds migrate from the northern summer breeding grounds to the southern overwintering grounds; and every year, billions of birds die on route. They starve, die of thirst, are killed by exhaustion or environmental poisons, by enemies, by winds, or by power lines. Despite this, the migrations take place year after year; generation after generation.

Batrisyia Teepol in the field (Photo credit: Batrisyia Teepol)

Researchers are studying via extremely light satellite transmitters that record everything from the vital statistics of the bird to flight patterns, environmental conditions and routes. The dramatic aerial photography along with the ‘personal’ information of the birds brings onto the screen the drama that migrating birds face.

Some of those attending the presentation felt that they were flying with the birds, facing the extreme exhaustion as they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and felt their successes as they reached the other side, only to be faced with the even greater challenge of the Sahara Desert.

Migratory birds battle for their lives as they are driven by freezing weather (perhaps) to leave northern summer breeding grounds to the southern, warmer overwintering grounds.

However, birds are responding to climate change — they stay longer in and return sooner to the north. It has been predicted that the birds will stop migrating as the world warms.

Keeping track of populations is also essential. The Annual Waterbird Census (AWC) 2019 is scheduled to begin from early to mid-January 2019. It began in 1999 and the on-the-ground information is used to monitor waterbird populations using the East Asian-Australasia Flyway and to assist with management decisions concerning Ramsar sites, IBAs and other types of wetlands.

Meanwhile, Au commented that supporting participation in programmes such as the Hornbill Volunteer Programme was one way to build skills and capacity of MNS members, and it is fundamental that up-and-coming conservationists join.

MNSKB are looking for volunteers, and if you have the interest in and time be part of this, contact MNSKB at

Article and photos courtesy of the Malaysian Nature Society—Kuching Branch.

— DayakDaily