Sunday, April 25, 2010

West Malaysia: Panti Forest - A Birding "Sanctuary"?

After the conservation debacle that was the CITES Conference in Doha (if you don't believe me, read the news reports), and a series of ghastly flight mixups, him and I find myself, with considerable relief, back in Malaysia! I'll be here until the middle of June, and I hope to be able to supply my eager readers (should there be any) with a greater frequency of posts that I have managed over the past several months.

Let's get started: After a few days in Singapore, Eileen and I crossed over to the Malaysian state of Johor on March 30 for a visit the next morning to what is supposed to be one of the best low land birding areas on the peninsula, Panti Forest near Kota Tinggi.

This is not primary forest, but its secondary forest habitat contains what is supposed to support one of the larger, or at least one of the easier-to-see, populations of one of Malaysia's most peculiar birds, the Rail-Babbler (Eupetes macrourus). Panti, however, appears to have changed, and not for the better. The famous (at least among birders) Bunker Road - so called because it starts off just north of a pair of immense World War II concrete bunkers flanking either side of the highway between Kota Tinggi and Mersing - is now marked with a large sign declaring that the area is a "Birding Sanctuary" and other signs warning of dire penalties for any who dare enter without permission.

What this appears to mean is that the road entrance is now blocked by a guard house, where you will be informed that you need a permit, obtainable only in the state capital of Johor Bahru a good hour's drive away, to visit the site, and that the gate only opens at eight o'clock in the morning. I have no objection to permit requirements, in moderation, but anyone who thinks that this means that the habitat is now being protected with greater vigilance will not be pleased by the heavy traffic in cars, lorries and motorbikes whizzing back and forth along the road to a sand mine some 8 km into the forest.

What is more, the road is being "improved" by bulldozers bent on rendering it sufficiently wide to prevent it from providing any decent roadside habitat for bird life. All in all, it is a bit difficult to see exactly what's designating this area as a sanctuary has amounted to, especially considering that the "official" opening of the site is supposedly still several months away.

Okay, end of complaint (and over to you, Malaysia and Singapore birders who might want to do something about this situation). It's good to be back in Malaysia, and it's good to be back in tropical forest. I'll have to admit that as a birding destination, Panti was not a success. That said, as a welcome patch of greenery with myriad plant life and enough animal life (including a chorusing troop of White-handed Gibbons (Hylobates lar) which I not only heard but, briefly, saw) to keep any northern naturalist happy.

For one thing, the road was often lined with flowers. This one, a common roadside plant (or, if you prefer, weed, as it is apparently not a native), is probably Melastoma malabathricum, the so-called Singapore "rhododendron" (though it is not a rhododendron, but a member of a quite different family, the Melastomataceae).

This one appears to be Dillenia subfruticosa, endemic to the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo but now widely planted elsewhere. It is locally known as simpoh air.

This magnificent flowering vine is orange bauhinia (Bauhinia bidentata), a common plant on the Malay Peninsula. Cascades of it drape themselves over roadside trees all along the road through the forest.

Other flowers in the forest are far subtler (and less easy for a non-botanist to identify), but add their touches of colour and form...

Some, as is often the case with tropical forest flowers, spring directly from the trunks of trees, a condition called cauliflory.

Here are some cauliflorous fruits, I believe from a sort of fig.

Some trees flower high in the canopy, and their flowers are only obvious when they fall to the forest floor.

I am always fascinated by the variety of leaf shapes among the plants in a tropical forest. Here are two contrasting examples; the second photo shows leaves with elongated "drip tips" that help drain away rainwater, a common feature of tropical forest trees in many parts of the world.

This is a ginger (Family Zingiberaceae), demonstrating the habit of many gingers of growing with a spirally twisted stem - a very neat arrangement for making sure that each leaf gets maximum exposure to the sun.

Though most of Panti's trees are fairly small (as you would expect in a secondary forest), occasionally a giant from older days survives, supported -- as is this tree -- by huge, flaring buttress roots.

On a dark forest trail, a patch of gleaming white reveals the decaying fruiting body of a fungus.

Dragonflies along the roadside included this male Orchithemis pulcherrima...

...and this female Neurothemis fluctuans (thanks to C.Y. Choong, whose fascinating blog on the Odonata of peninsular Malaysia is listed opposite, for the identifications).

To make up for the relative lack of birds, there were lots of butterflies, and my thanks to Colin Kirton for putting names to my photographs. This one, though it looks remarkably like one of the danaiids, is a swallowtail: Pendlebury's Zebra (Pathysa ramaceus pendleburyi).

Here are two views of a Peacock Pansy (Junonia almana).

A head-on view of what may be a Royal Assyrian (Terinos terpander robertsia), but it's a bit hard to tell from this angle!

This butterfly, Orsotriaena medus, is unfortunately known as the Nigger (Australian butterfly books, being more politically correct, refer to it as the Smooth-eyed Bush Brown). The only member of its genus, it ranges widely from India to Australia.

The most gorgeous of the lot is the Fivebar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates), named for the five dark bars (well, I count six) on the underside of the forewing.

High above me on a trunk I spotted this dragon lizard, probably a Common Dragon Lizard (Draco sumatranus). This is a male, ellevating his gular pouch but declining to show me his realy outstanding feature: his extended rib cage, which he can use as a gliding "wing" to dart through the air from tree to tree.

Finally, a couple of birds: this is a Cream-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus simplex), one of a complex of very similar forest bulbuls, but easily identifiable (at least on the peninsula) by its white iris. On Borneo, the same species has a red iris like the other species in the group, making it much more of a pain to identify!

Finally, my sole life bird in the forest: a Rufous-winged Philentoma (Philentoma pyrrhoptera) that I whistled up on a forest trail (its simple whistled song placing me under the impression, at first, that I was drawing in some sort of undergrowth-haunting babbler). Philentomas (there are two species, quite different-looking to my eyes) were once thought to be Old World flycatchers but are now thought to be close to the African bush-shrikes (Malaconotidae). A rather understated, but pretty and most welcome, highlight of my trip to Panti Forest.


  1. An interesting site. My wife and I are going to spend 5 days in Singapore in July en route to Europe from New Zealand. We wondered whether it was worth going to Pantin Forest for bird watching. Your comment about getting a permit is off putting. Would it be worth the effort?

  2. Hi Phil - I'm not sure about recommending it as I found the birding poor (the forest was pretty dry, which may account for my luck) but you never know; there are certainly good birds there (I didn't mention it but I saw Wallace's Hawk-Eagle, for example) and I'm not sure of the best alternate sites in that part of Malaysia. If you check out some of the blogs on Singapore I cite in my blog you may get some other ideas for places to go. If you do go to Panti I would definitely get a permit from the forestry office in Johor Bahru as you mat be refused entrance otherwise.

  3. Hi Ronald, I'm fascinated by the nice Bauhinia bidentata featured in the blog. Is there a way you could get some cuttings of the plant and send them to me (am willing to pay for the charges)? I live in P.J and most of the time deprived of time to get too close with nature!

    Hope to hear from you!