Category Archives: Wildlife

Birds of the Balikpapan Botanical Garden – Part II

This is a followup to my previous blogpost, showcasing some of the wonderful birdlife which may be encountered at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan (Balikpapan Botanical Garden).

Collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris)

This lovely bird was remarkably unperturbed by my presence, and darted down from its branch several times to catch insects from the forest floor. After 5 minutes – and 65 photos – it flew off….

Asian red-eyed bulbul (Pycnonotus brunneus)

The Asian red-eyed bulbul is often seen getting grubs in lowland forests on the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, as well as here on the island of Borneo.

I like the creamy out-of-focus green blur in the photo below. Like a bird perched in the general idea of a forest.

Banded woodpeckers (Chrysophlegma miniaceum)

They make distinctive ‘klok-klok’ sounds as their beaks strike repeatedly against the tree trunks.

This attractive (and rather raffish-looking) pair of birds were searching for ants, termites and insects.

Greater racket-tailed drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus)

These birds have a massive repertoire of songs, including perfect imitations of other forest birds. They sing sweet and loud, just beside the tracks on which I walk at the Kebun Raya – as if to attract my attention. Well, they succeed.

They are locally known as ‘Sri gunting’ (Scissor birds), because of the pair of long tail feathers.

Brown barbet (Caloramphus fuliginosus)

These birds are endemic to Borneo, where they are a ‘common resident’.

Black hornbill (Anthracoceros malayanus)

This female was seen (and heard squawking raspily) at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan. Apparently they are particularly fond of eating fruit of the forest durian

Oriental dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis)

It was quite distant, but nicely lit by a few minutes of bright sunshine. A 560mm lens helped too…

Green imperial pigeon (Ducula aenea)

They are locally known as ‘Burung Pergam’.

For a few weeks, they were regular visitors to some trees near the Information Centre at the Kebun Raya, as they feasted (alongside a band of Long-tailed macaques) on ripe fruit of Alseodaphne elmeri.

Sooty-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus aurigaster)

Asian glossy starlings (Aplonis panayensis)

These ones are juveniles. When they grow up they take on a very shiny green-black colour – but they retain those striking red eyes.

Birds of the Balikpapan Botanical Garden

The Kebun Raya Balikpapan (Balikpapan Botanical Garden) is focussed on collecting, conserving and showcasing the unique trees, orchids and other plants of Kalimantan. Across its 307 hectares, it achieves this admirably. Most of that area consists of protected lowland dipterocarpus forest, which once blanketed much of the island of Borneo. This protected forest extends into the adjacent Hutan Lindung Sungai Wain (the Wain River Protected Forest), together forming a 10,000+ hectare window into the remarkable biodiversity of East Kalimantan.

Protection of the forest of course also protects the habitat of a huge range of other life: insects, reptiles, mammals, and… birds. So here’s a selection of just some of the birdlife I have recently encountered at the Kebun Raya. (For another selection, follow this link to view Part 2 of this post).

Chestnut-breasted malkoha (Phaenicophaeus curvirostris microrhinus)

Apart from eye colour, the female (yellow iris) and male (blue) are almost indistinguishable.

Bornean Crested Fireback (Lophura ignita in Latin, or ‘Ayam hutan’ locally)

This male was strutting proudly and showing off his fine plumage.

This female Bornean Crested Fireback is less dramatic and showy than its male partner – but no less beautiful.

Buff-rumped woodpeckers (Meiglyptes grammithorax)

The male and female are almost identical, with the male distinguished by the red patch under his eye.

They were carving out quite deep holes in the trunk of a dead tree, in pursuit of termites. So engrossed were they in that task that they let me approach within about four metres.

Pied oriental hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris)

A wildlife photographer from Bandung (Java) visited the Kebun Raya Balikpapan recently, saying that he was very keen to see a hornbill bird while he was in Kalimantan. Not wanting to get his hopes up, I told him that they are often heard but quite rarely seen.

5 minutes later… this (female) Pied oriental hornbill.

Lesser green leafbird (Chloropsis cyanopogon)

Like its close relative the Greater green leafbird (Chloropsis sonnerati), it is found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar. The IUCN has determined that the survival of both species is threatened by habitat loss.

Javan myna (Acridotheres javanicus)

A member of the starling family, originally found only on Java and Bali, but has spread (or been introduced) to other islands and countries.

White-bellied sea eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster)

They are found from western India to as far east as the Solomons and New Zealand (and Australia of course), but this was the first time I’ve seen them at the KRB…

Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster)

They are also known as ‘snakebirds’, because only the very long neck and head is visible when the bird is immersed.

Like cormorants, they stand with their wings outstretched to dry them after swimming.

Greater coucal (Centropus sinensis bubutus)

I have seen ‘burung bubut’ before, in Central Kalimantan, but this was the first one I’d seen here in East Kalimantan.

I was even more delighted when I saw that it had just captured a little snake, which was hanging, still alive and wriggling, from its beak. (I was of course sorry for the hapless little snake, but… well, it’s a jungle out there).

The Greater coucal is a large species of (non-parasitic) cuckoo, found from western India and southern China down south as far as Java. They are reportedly becoming scarce in Kalimantan because local belief is that a medicine made from the bird’s wings is useful for healing broken bones.

Greater green leafbird (Chloropsis sonnerati)

These very attractive birds are well known in Indonesia as ‘Cucak hijau’. They have a lovely rich complex song, and are good mimics too. This one is a male.

This may lead to their extinction in the wild, because they are being heavily trapped and sold in bird markets for upwards of Rp1 million (about AU$100) each. Their owners may enter them in the birdsong competitions that are popular here. Betting and prize monies are big, and a competition winner can sell for many times the original purchase price.

20 years ago the IUCN classed them as of ‘Least concern’. But now, due to rapidly declining numbers and habitat loss, they are classed as ‘Vulnerable’.

Pacific swallow (Hirundo tahitica)

It was perched atop a tall dead tree stump protruding from the middle of a pond. They are frequently seen across southern Asia and on the islands of the Pacific.

Monyet biasa?

Monyet biasa (‘Ordinary monkeys’), a.k.a. Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis), this morning at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan.

Common perhaps, but anything but ordinary.

Mungkin sering terlihat, tapi masih monyet luar biasa.

Owa wa

Hylobates muelleri‘ is known in English as ‘Mueller’s Bornean Gibbon’. But I much prefer the Indonesian name ‘Owa wa‘, which is a near-exact transcription of this gibbon’s distinctive call.

This primate is endemic to the island of Borneo. It’s classed as ‘endangered’ – mostly because of the continuing loss of its forest habitat.

I saw this one (an adult female) this morning at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan. She was a little distant, and I had to photograph her through the branches and foliage of another tree. Hopefully there’ll be more opportunities to see, hear and photograph Owa wa before the year is out.

Lutung merah

The Lutung Merah (Presbytis rubicunda) is variously known in English as the maroon langur, maroon leaf monkey, or red leaf monkey. It’s unique to Borneo and the neighbouring little island of Karimata. They eat leaves, fruit and seeds. Their bodies only grow to 60cm – but with an extra 80cm of tail attached. Although their range is limited, the species is not (currently) regarded as ‘threatened’.

There certainly seems to be quite a few of them at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan, even close to the visitor centre. I’m told that they are just one of 12 species of primates which live in the local forest.

Boiga dendrophila

If I was trying to think of things that I would LEAST like to find in my bed, a two metre long Mangrove Snake (Boiga dendrophila, also known as the Gold-ringed cat snake) would be high on the list*.


They are a bit temperamental, being variously described as ‘nervous’, ‘notoriously aggressive’, and inclined to ’strike repeatedly’. As a result, they make poor bed companions. Fortunately, it seems that they are only ‘mildly venomous’, though one website says (less reassuringly) that ‘there are no substantiated reports of human fatalities’.

* [Actually I CAN think of something much worse than finding a two metre long Mangrove Snake in my bed – but you’ll just have to read on to find out what that is…]


So, you’ve probably gathered that the snake-in-the-bed thing is not a hypothetical situation. On Saturday night we (Karen, our dear friend Gaye and I) were staying in a ‘guesthouse’ near the village of Jahanjang on the Katingan River, about four hours from here by car and ces (longboat). It’s a little out of the way, and only has guests stay there about once a month. The guesthouse stands on stilts in a little lake called Danau Bulat, 10 minutes walk from the village proper.


The lake was stunningly beautiful throughout the day, changing moods and colours every time the light changed. From the boardwalk we sighted proboscis monkeys, macaques, big fruit bats and a variety of water birds.


People passed by rowing their little jukung canoes, on the way to work, for fishing, or to collect the grass which grows in the lake for cattle feed. Sometimes it looked like they were traversing the sky.


It was also pretty nice in the evening light.


Jahanjang village was (as always) very friendly, and as always was home to many unspeakably cute children – such as Nesia (aged 5) and Maulida (2) above.


And boys learning to fly.


Across the Katingan River from Jahanjang is the western edge of the enormous Sebangau National Park. We made a day trip by a motorised ces canoe up a narrow river to Panggu Alas lake, and the nearby WWF station.

Sebangau National Park, although degraded in parts from past canal construction and logging is still the largest area of peat swamp forest left in Borneo, and home to big populations of wild orangutans, sun bears, proboscis monkeys, and innumerable other lifeforms, including… snakes.


Aah yes, snakes. As I was preparing to go to bed in Saturday night (our third and final night in the guesthouse) I reached down to pick up my clothes bag from the floor, and couldn’t help but notice that a large black snake with bright yellow rings was coiling himself up behind the bag. He slithered away under my bed, and I slithered away backwards as quickly as I could towards the bedroom door.

While I waited and monitored the snake’s movements, Karen and Gaye went up to the village (along a narrow dark elevated boardwalk through the swamp forest) to seek assistance. About 25 minutes later they arrived back, along with the guesthouse caretaker (Pak Adinan), Bambang, Pak Sarwedi and three others, armed with some stout sticks and an air rifle.

At first they thought that the snake had departed, then we realised that it had actually wriggled up inside the bottom half of my bed. The bed was propped up on a chair, two shots were fired into it, and as the (no doubt outraged) snake emerged to complain, the appropriately named Bambang whacked it repeatedly with a stick.


Bambang carried the poor limp thing outside and laid it out on the boardwalk.


It obligingly posed for some group photos (that’s Pak Adinan on the left, and Bambang on the right), before our rescuers all left (taking the snake with them) to their homes in Jahanjang village. Karen, Gaye and I fortified our shaky nerves with a cup of tea, and resumed our delayed preparations for bed and sleep. All’s well that ends well.

So… what’s worse than finding one large and aggressive (if only mildly venomous) snake in your bed? Well, finding two of them of course! As I reached across to open the mosquito net over my (only recently remade) bed, I couldn’t help but notice another snake, basically identical to one recently evicted, on the floor at the head of my bed. Black with yellow rings, about two metres long, it was a depressingly familiar sight.

Upon this disappointing discovery, we unanimously agreed that the guesthouse had lost its appeal, so we hurriedly decamped to the village. It was now almost midnight, and we had to knock on a few doors before we located Pak Adinan’s home and woke him up. He and his charming wife Siti Masni took us in, gave us another fortifying cup of tea, and his daughter Wini kindly gave up her room for us to sleep in. Perhaps surprisingly, we all slept well, with no snake dreams…


Here’s a list of “things I didn’t know about orangutans before I came to Kalimantan”. To be honest, it was pretty easy to put together a fairly long list, because I didn’t know much about them before moving into their neighbourhood. They make interesting neighbours…


Orangutans are native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Since 1996 these have been regarded as two distinct species: Pongo pygmaeus in Borneo and the Sumatran species Pongo abelii. The two species may have diverged about 400,000 years ago.


Population estimates are not reliable, but there are perhaps 55,000 Bornean orangutans and only 6,000 Sumatran. That makes the Borneans ‘endangered’, and the Sumatrans ‘critically endangered’. Numbers of Bornean orangutans have halved over the past 60 years, and Sumatran orangutans are now only found in an isolated area of Aceh province. Their numbers have dropped by 80% over the last 75 years.


The main reason for population decline is loss of habitat. Peat swamp and other lowland forests continue to be rapidly cleared for oil palm plantations and forestry, but also for construction of roads and clearing of land for housing and small scale agriculture.


Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans. They are amongst the most intelligent of primates, having split off from the evolutionary line that led to homo sapiens about 17 million years ago, after the gibbons, and before only gorillas and chimpanzees.


Orangutans are susceptible to all of the same diseases as humans.


The subfamily of used to include other species which are now extinct. They include species that lived in Thailand, India, Vietnam and China. One of these, the Giantopithecus, was (as the name suggests) really big, in fact the largest primate ever, and it only disappeared from the fossil record about 100,000 years ago.They could be 3 metres tall and over 500kg in weight.


Orangutans have long toes and an opposable big toe, allowing them to grasp things (e.g. branches!) equally well with their feet as their hands.


They are almost entirely arboreal, and are the largest tree-dwelling mammal. Their long limbs and curved toes and fingers make them a little awkward when walking on the ground.


Dominant adult males grow large cheek flaps, usually by the age of 20, which no doubt the females find irresistible.


An adult male orang-utan stands about 140cm tall, weighs around 75kg or more, and and has an arm span of TWO METRES! Adult females are about half that weight, and about 20cm shorter.


Orangutans will wade – but they do not swim. That’s why individuals being prepared for return to the ‘wild’ are held by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) on three islands in the Rungan River (just a few km from our home). There’s no danger of them escaping from the islands.


They eat fruit – lots of fruit, comprising around three-quarters of their diet. They will also eat some young leaves, shoots, bark, insects and ants, honey and birds eggs.


Apart from mothers and their babies, orangutans tend to be fairly solitary – more so than gorillas or chimpanzees.


Babies stay with their mothers until at least the age of seven, and sometimes into their teenage years.


In the wild females won’t become pregnant until their previous baby is at least seven years old. This is the longest inter-birth period of any primate.


They sleep at night in a nest made high in a tree from bent and interwoven branches and a mattress of leaves. Usually a new nest is made each night. Nest-making is a learnt skill, usually learnt from the mothers by the age of three. The orphaned orangutans at BOSF go to ‘Forest School’ where they learn nest-making from their human teachers.


When angered, an orangutan will suck in air through its pursed lips, making the ‘kiss squeak’ sound.


Rescue, rehabilitation and re-release of orphaned orangutans is both worthy and worthwhile – but it’s not going to be nearly enough to counter the rapid decline of the populations due to loss of forest habitat.

As the ecologist Dr Erik Meijaard, from Borneo Futures, has observed: “The balance in orangutan conservation is not right. In the past decade we lost some 25,000 wild orangutans and we rehabilitated a few hundred. Very few are investing in on-the-ground orangutan conservation. It’s like fighting a war with hospitals and nurses only.”

Extinction in the wild within a generation remains an appalling possibility.

Kupu-kupu (Butterflies)

The island of Borneo is deservedly famous for its butterflies (kupu-kupu in Bahasa Indonesia). There are masses of them, at least 939 species recorded in the Malaysian part of Borneo alone. And on top of that there are thousands of varieties of moths. The butterflies come in a huge range of colours, patterns, sizes and shapes, and many are stunningly beautiful.

We see a lot of butterflies, but haven’t yet managed to photograph many of them. They can show up and disappear quickly, usually when I don’t have a camera at hand, and they stubbornly refuse to stand still while I photograph them. Here are some that were kind enough to pose for me. About half of them were photographed ‘in the wild’, and the others were found in the wonderful ‘Butterfly Room’ at Singapore Airport (Terminal 3)


Great Mormon (Papilio memnon agenor). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

The Great Mormon (no I don’t know how it got that name…) is a large and very elegant butterfly, and it is actually fairly common. This butterfly (or one of its 13 subspecies) can be found from northeast India across to China and Japan, and down as far as Australia. Lucky for us, they are attracted to many domesticated plants, and are often found around home gardens.

We have seen them regularly, and I have even managed to photograph them in three locations in both Central and West Kalimantan. This one above was in one of the herb and flower gardens at work, and kept coming back to feast on the nectar of the flowers.

Lime butterfly (Papilio demoleus). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

Lime butterfly (Papilio demoleus). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

This butterfly is not only attracted to flowers of the lime plant, but to all kinds of citrus. Like the Mormon, they are members of the ‘swallowtail’ family, are quite common and are often found in and around home gardens.

It might sound like an oxymoron, but this is an aggressive butterfly. It is highly adaptable, fast breeding, and has now spread to almost all parts of the world – including Borneo, where it was not originally found. In many locations, particularly places with citrus plantations, it is regarded as a pest. It’s also fast flying and restless, so it can be hard to capture in a photo before it flies off.

Malay Yeoman (Cirrochroa emalea emalea)

Malay Yeoman (Cirrochroa emalea emalea). Tumbang Manggu, Central Kalimantan

The Malay Yeoman is often found around the edges of forest areas, as was this one above, which we saw in a protected patch of forest amongst logging concessions in the upper Katingan river.

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus), Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), Five-bar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates)

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus), Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), Five-bar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates)

Emerging from the bush onto a dirt road after a hike in jungly forest near Tumbang Manggu, we came upon a mass of butterflies in a genteel frenzy, swarming onto the sandy road surface. This beautiful delicate scene is apparently an instance of ‘mud-puddling’, a common behaviour of insects whereby they extract salts and other nutrients from wet soil, dung, decaying fruit, carrion – even the blood, sweat, and tears of animals. We were told that the butterflies above are attracted to urine. It rather took the shine off the pretty scene, and made me uncomfortable about lying on my stomach to take the photo!

According to the Butterfly Circle website, the Common Bluebottle (the blurry blue-green butterfly in the photo above) can often be found feeding on “roadside seepages or urine-tainted sand”. The site goes on to say that it “is frequently found in the company of the Blue Jay and the Five Bar Swordtail”. We can confirm that, as those are the three varieties of butterfly in the photo!

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus)

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus). Tumbang Manggu, Central Kalimantan

Some more Blue Jay butterflies (not to be confused with the bird – or the baseball team – of the same name) feasting on the urine-soaked sand. Yuck. Like many butterflies, they have quite different patterns and colours on the tops and undersides of their wings.

Karen and a Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi)

Karen with a Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi). Loksado, South Kalimantan

This butterfly kept landing on us. We’ve been told that they do that because they like the saltiness of perspiration, but we reckon it was just being friendly.

The species is called a ‘crow’ because of its dark colour, but that’s where the resemblance ends. In the caterpillar stage, they feed on milkweed plants, and so the adult butterfly is poisonous, and is avoided by predators. Some other unrelated species, which are not poisonous, have evolved to resemble the ‘Crow’ so as to get the same protection from predators.

Another Great Mormon (Papilio memnon agenor). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

Another Great Mormon (Papilio memnon agenor). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

I like the symmetry of this photo. This butterfly is a male; the female is quite different, not blue-black like the male but a sort of sepia brown colour, and is much less common.

Common Cruiser (male) (Vindula erota), Singapore

Common Cruiser (male) (Vindula erota), Singapore

Frequently seen, although anything but ‘common’ in appearance, this cruiser is so named because of its regal flight pattern, cruising around the forest like it owns it. It is found from India right across Southeast Asia.

Common Cruiser (female) (Vindula erota), Singapore

Common Cruiser (female) (Vindula erota), Singapore

The female Cruiser is bigger, with an overall greenish-grey hue, and a big white stripe. As well as being sexually dimorphic, the Cruiser also has very different forms depending on whether it’s wet or dry season. So there are four quite distinct adult forms.

Tree Nymph butterfly (Idea leuconoe). Singapore

Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe). Singapore

The Tree Nymph (also known as the ‘Paper Kite) is found across much of Southeast Asia, though in Indonesia only in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Like the Malayan Crow, it eats milkweed in the caterpillar stage, so it is unpalatable for birds and other predators. With those big wings, it is able to fly by gliding as much as by flapping, and it sometimes looks like it’s floating. It’s very pretty…

Great Eggfly (Hypolimnas bolina).

Great Eggfly (Hypolimnas bolina). Singapore

The Great Eggfly (where do they get these names?) is found fairly commonly from Madagascar right through to New Zealand (where they call it the ‘Blue Moon Butterfly’). The female looks quite different, mostly brown and without the distinctive spots of the male.

Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsea). Singapore

Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsea). Singapore

This beautiful butterfly with lovely scalloped patterns along the outside of the wings is another poisonous one (not that I could imagine wanting to eat one). It’s a forest dweller.

Common Mormon butterfly (Papillo polities romulus). Singapore

Common Mormon (Papillo polities romulus). Singapore

I don’t understand why this butterfly came to be known as the ‘Common’ Mormon. It really deserves a name more in keeping with its beautiful and elegant form. ‘Exquisite Mormon’, perhaps?

Not yet identified (Kupukupu tyrannosaurus); Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak

Not yet identified (Kupu-kupu jokarus tyrannosaurus?); Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak

We saw this gorgeous butterfly in the forest of the Kelabit Highlands, in Sarawak close to the Indonesian border.

So far I haven’t been able to find it listed in any of the butterfly catalogues, and we’ve settled on the improbable conclusion that it’s never been seen by humans before. That would give us ‘naming rights’, so we’d like to call it Kupu-kupu jokarus tyrannosaurus. (But perhaps I should first have another look through the catalogues).

And below are a couple of others that I haven’t been able to identify (yet). Suggestions, anyone?