Humble in the jungle (no. 7 in Birding in Asia series)

by Jeff Durbin

OCCASIONALLY WE BIRDERS of Puritan heritage need to be humbled.

Several times a week I walk along the Kanzaki River to the factory where I work in Osaka. The banks are concrete, common practice everywhere in Japan, and the parkway gets mowed and trimmed regularly. Still, there are enough weedy, out-of-the-way places to see black-crowned night herons and Eurasian wigeons, gray-headed lapwings and skylarks. The upright, opposable-thumbed fauna is also worth watching: retired men and kids on school holiday recline next to their bicycles and alternate fishing and napping, mothers promenade with strollers or newly walking infants, golfers in sweater vests practice chips. The Kanzaki River is where I do my daily birding in comfort.

Too much comfort, probably. Here I can identify a bird the same moment I see it, and often before I see it if I catch a sound or movement. Binoculars? No need. I can practically tell you who is where before I arrive. I have extensive knowledge of this little habitat, and total confidence in my mastery of it.

In other words, I need to receive my birding comeuppance. I need to go to Borneo.

I went to Borneo because I wanted to see what a tropical rainforest looked like, and also because it is “Borneo,” an island made over by myths. The Victorians in the days of British empire turned Borneo into a dangerous, beautiful, infested, exotic, steamy jungle, home to people that inspired all the familiar racist descriptors. (You might say the Victorians invented many of them.) In fact, they projected enough of the Victorian unconscious onto this island to give neo-Freudians numerous journal bylines.

Nowadays we're more likely to think of Borneo in terms of logging controversies, vanishing ways of life for native forest peoples, and rare species.

Tourism has struck squarely, of course—no place is unvisited anymore. Northern Borneo, the Malaysian part, is a popular destination for all kinds of travelers, and birders who go there tend to be from places that haven't had jungle since the continental plates shifted to their current locations.

The transition from looking at waterbirds in the city to retreating in some anxiety from a troop of defense-minded langurs, as hornbills screech and cruise through the canopy, is a big step. If you're a birder, you have to be ready.

I was not ready.

Everywhere I went in Borneo—in the forest, on lakes, along streams, at the sea—I seemed to keep getting the droppings kicked out of me. At first I couldn't even get my categories straight, and my birding background had prepared me miserably. I'd never seen a babbler (32 species on Borneo), flowerpecker (11 species), sunbird (10 species), barbet (9 species), pitta (9), hornbill (8), broadbill (8), spiderhunter (7), trogon (6), drongo (5), bee-eater (3), or coucal (3). Nor did I prove to be a quick study.

One prime birding spot was a camp along the Kinabatangan River in the state of Sabah. This camp had one striking feature: it lay under a foot of water. It was the only place I've stayed where you could step directly from the boat to the dinner table, then paddle over to your doorstep. The woman who helped run the operation from back in Sandakan had vaguely mentioned water levels going up and down, but seemed not to think it particularly important.

Campers slept under mosquito netting, in cabins on stilts. From the roof above my head, bats gave empirical demonstrations of their ability to hang from corrugated metal. Loud and unfamiliar night sounds plagued the overimaginative among us.

The kitchen was a revelation—picture teenage boys (the camp staff) walking into what could be charitably described as a shack, and emerging with 3-star food. Dinner scraps were taken care of by the local wildlife, and we're not talking chipmunks. At various times the moochers included an 800-pound (combined weight) bearded pig couple, a Malay civet, and a 6-foot-long monitor lizard.

While I struggled with my babblers and broadbills, the Swedish birders at the camp were discriminating between lookalike sunbirds. How were they doing it? The first of their logistical advantages was The Birds of Borneo and Sumatra, by John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps. I had an abridged version of Bertram Smythies's famous Birds of Borneo, illustrated by Commander A.M. Hughes, which sounds romantic until you bird with it for a couple of days and fully realize the meaning of abridgement. Little remained of the descriptive text from Smythies, and similar species frequently lacked their own pictures. But it was the only book I had been able to find.

The Swedes, poring over their heavily annotated MacKinnon and Phillipps, also had evening chalk-talks in Swedish, where their trip leader went over potential sightings. I tried to understand, but—like the Far Side comic in which a dog listening to its owner talking can only understand its own name—all I caught were the English-language common names.

Serious birding means going to bed at 9 o'clock on New Year's Eve, so that's what we all did. Next morning I was up at 5:45, out the door and into the dugout canoe at 5:47. That's the beauty of a jungle camp, especially one that is underwater—you don't have to worry about your clothes or grooming. A friend and I threaded the canoe among trees to open water, paddling quietly, and circumnavigated the oxbow lakes along the Kinabatangan before breakfast.

We watched for more than birds. There are few better places to see Hose's langurs and proboscis monkeys. Over the lake surface your hearing is keen, and you track them by following sounds in the trees, or perhaps spying a branch in a tree at water's edge swinging back and forth. With the canoes you can approach in silence to sight range. The langurs are black-faced and silver; the proboscis monkeys a wild combination of long gray tail, patterned tan and white body, and long, long nose that has inspired a thousand similes. The proboscis monkeys also have unbeatable agility in the trees. When hurrying they leap boldly from tree to tree, jumping with little forethought but great skill. They look at you so intelligently that it's patronizing to put it in those words.

Another time we followed primate-like noises, glided near in the boat, and saw an orangutan standing halfway up a tree calmly munching fig leaves. It gripped with huge digits, the long arms and short legs looking interchangeable.

Unless you were raised on the Serengeti, the wildlife in Borneo will blow you away. Only the sainted will see a clouded leopard or Sumatran rhino or python or Asian elephant (remnant population of former captives), but just knowing those animals are out there has a powerful effect on you.

It's hard, though, to misidentify an orangutan or elephant. Birding has become a recreational activity partly due to the challenge it presents. Granted, a heron may fish for hours in the same spot, but try to identify a four-inch long bird from a few glimpses through the leaves and a brief call-note. Or a swift zipping along a cliff, almost too fast for the eye. Or puzzle out a young gull, in all gull species a hard-to-pin-down amalgam of brown and white. This can be interesting and fun stuff, and it's easy to get hooked. The birds are compelling to look at, they are a perfect entrée into learning and caring about the natural world, but, damn—it's hard to do.

Hence my frustrations on the Kinabatangan. I didn't seem to be making any tough IDs. I could handle birds seen before in North America or Japan, and I could also handle different species from a familiar family like the kingfishers. No problems either with unusual or conspicuous species such as the dollarbird, hawking insects over and over in a swoop-alight-swoop routine from a favored perch, and the oriental darter, swimming across a lake like an avian Loch Ness monster, neck and head breaking the surface, for good reason called a snakebird.

But after that, forget it. It's not easy to concentrate in the jungle. Picking off leeches and dog-paddling across swamps to escape mosquitoes does not lead one to a fine attention to detail. And the competence and preparedness of the Swedes had me a little flustered. About as far as I got was being able to hold in my mind the idea of a general barbet or trogon. In birdwatching circles this leads to the Bornean counterpart of “Hey, there's a duck!” a statement probably best kept to oneself.

Home in Japan after the trip, I got onto the Internet and ordered a copy of MacKinnon and Phillipps to see where I'd gone wrong. The book made it clear that the equatorial regions could clean out a birder's ego down to the spinal cord. I mean, nine species of white-eye? Japan has just one, the solidly named Japanese white-eye—no lemon-bellied or Everett's or Javan grey-throated. So I walked regularly along the leechless Kanzaki River in Osaka, familiar white wagtails and brown-eared bulbuls in view, thinking, “This, I can handle.”