This is an account of our trip to Borneo (Sarawak, Malaysia) to search for Tomistoma, the False Gavial, in 2006
Our Trip to Bukit Sarang
In September of 2006, I traveled to the island of Borneo, to find and photograph the elusive False Gavial. Rob Steubing, herpetologist and “croc-ophile,” invited me to come to Bintulu, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) to get reference material for painting a Tomistoma, and to give a wildlife art workshop for local students. Rob is the president of the Tomistoma Task Force (TTF), a group of herpetologists working to conserve and study this disappearing croc species. The idea was to publish prints and make available the original for sale, to benefit the croc through the TTF. Sarawak is almost exactly on the other side of the planet from my home in Cincinnati. After 23 hours in various planes, we arrived in the surprisingly modern airport at Bintulu. After a
day taking care of business, we headed out to the bush and Rob’s field station at Bukit Sarang in the interior. We traveled by boat and canoe for hours, eventually running low on water as we got farther upstream. We had
to get out and drag the boats for awhile, all the while having our resident croc expert warn about Saltwater croc attacks in such conditions. Although the guy just in front of me stepped on a submerged, 2-meter long water monitor lizard (Varanus salvator), scaring the crap out of himself, we enountered no salties. At Bukit Sarang, we looked for Tomistoma day and night, both by boat and on foot in the forest. We even checked an underground river, seeing croc tracks in the mudbanks inside the caves. The idea of meeting a hungry saltwater croc in one of these dark passages was like something out of a horror movie. Despite having no luck finding crocs at Bukit Sarang, we did encounter lots of interesting stuff along the way. Eventually we got our photos of Tomistoma at Jong’s Crocodile farm outside of Kuching. The breeding adults lived in a large natural enclosure, and Rob and I were able to climb in with them to get some great shots.
Back in Bintulu, I did the art workshop for the Bintulu school district. Each school in the district chose one or two students and a teacher to attend the workshop. Some were from town, and some were from villages far upstream, making their first trip to the city. They were all great, and I did my best to give them an introduction to what I do, how I do it, and why. I had a lot of fun since they were such good students, and they treated me like a rock star.
My previous post was written nearly a year ago, just after I returned from Florida. Since then, I’ve talked to a lot of folks about my Ivorybill sighting. The hardcore birders (I’m not one) are jealous in a good-natured way, although some remain skeptics. Of course, I don’t expect them to change their views on my word. I have nothing more to offer than any other witness to this extant, “formally extinct,” bird. I was a skeptic before I went down to Ivorybill country, so I understand where they’re coming from. When people tell me, “You did not see an Ivorybill,” all I can do is smile. I know what I saw, and it was independently confirmed by another witness. But we are left with only our own experience, since it doesn’t count as proof. The fact that I had a camera in my hand and didn’t get a picture makes the experience very bittersweet.
I have completed a painting based on what I witnessed. Actually, it is pretty damn close to what I saw, but I hesitate to call it an eyewitness account. The reason is that the bird is not based strictly on my observation. I was also influenced by published photos and museum skins. The sketch that I made a couple of days after the sighting is missing some details. Not necessarily because there were not there, but because I only had a couple of seconds to see and my brain to record. Your eyes fix on attention-grabbing details. In my case it was the sunlit secondaries, glowing in their translucence. The other white that is supposed to be on the underside of the forewing was lost in shadow to me. So, I had to resort to other sources. besides, I don’t have a memory good enough to recontruct the proportions, exact colors, etc.
I had the good fortune to be invited to be a part of an adjunct study to the Auburn U. Ivory-Bill research group in the Choctohatchee River basin north of Destin, Florida. It is a 64 square mile study area. We arrived in the study area Jan 11, ’08, and hiked to a known “hot spot” where we found trees that the Ivory Billed Woodpeckers had been feeding on. They leave a horizontal groove in the wood when they chisel the bark off of dead trees in search of grubs. The next day we got out very early in the morning and stationed 5 people in various spots within a hundred yards of the feeding tree. I was in a kayak, parked in a cypress/gum swamp across the creek from the tree. I heard some Pileated woodpeckers raising a ruckus about 100 yards from me, and from that direction came a large, dark woodpecker. Thinking it must be a Pileated, I wasn’t in a big hurry to raise the camera up (A Nikon D80 with a 300mm lens was around my neck). The bird landed on a cypress tree about 20 yards from me, but on the other side. Thinking that I might as well practice on this “Pileated” I was raising the camera up to focus on the tree when it took off and flew right over my head at about 15 feet up. It was then that my eyes fixed on the brilliant white secondaries,
the trailing edge of the wing. In the 3-4 seconds that the bird was in view, I could clearly see the field marks of the Ivory-Bill, but still didn’t believe what I was seeing. It passed over my head and off to the east. By the time I turned the kayak around, it was long gone. I paddled down to team member Sally Wolliver about a hundred yards away, and she was gesturing wildly that she had seen an Ivory Bill. We quickly determined it had to be the same bird I saw because of the direction and timing. I checked the Sibley guide with her, which has an illustration of the underside of the Pileated’s wings, and then I was absolutely sure that what I had seen was NOT a Pileated! Other factors that confirmed the sighting were behavioral, the flat flight profile (not undulating like a Pileated), and no vocalization as the Pileated is prone to do. We heard the distinctive double-knock drumming sounds in the area as well. The Auburn group has had several sightings in this area, too.
Let me say that I went on this expedition as a big skeptic. I know people far more skilled than I at birding who have spent months and months in the field looking for this bird without success. I read the skeptics’ websites and found them convincing, so I thought this would just be a great excuse to go kayaking in a pristine river swamp and take pictures. Count me among the hard-core believers now. I also feel a bit guilty about it, as if I were an unworthy heathen just given a vision of the Lord God (Bird). I was in the field less than 24 hours and the thing practically lands on my head.
So why didn’t I get off a shot? For the same reasons that no one else has managed to do it. The glimpses are fleeting–a few seconds of fly-by in a dense swamp forest, and hesitation because of skepticism and thinking that it was a Pileated Woodpecker at first glance. I am now consumed by “If only…” –If only I had been quick to prepare, I would have been focused and ready when the bird took off toward me. A photo would have gone a long way to convince skeptics.
Now the Auburn group has set up robotic cameras in this spot in hopes that the bird has a roost in the area.
Let’s wish them luck! !
You can see a larger version on my website