Blog for 2010-06-11

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Lambir Hills National Park: Day 9

Nico Kirk-Giannini

Morning fog over Lambir Hills National Park

What a day!

We woke up before dawn to observe the early-morning peak in bird activity. Binos and birdcall speakers in hand, Frank led us along the forest's edge and pointed out a surprising number of different bird species in the area surrounding Lambir Hills National Park HQ. A fruiting Ficus several hundred meters down the road proved to be a hotbed of bird activity; we observed more than four different species of barbets, as well as many other birds, feeding in its branches. A nearby stand of forest harbored a group of rare Oriental Magpie Robins, which Frank managed to excite by playing a recording on his speakers. Three individuals took off and flew overhead, enabling us briefly to glimpse this rare Southeast Asian species. Though the Oriental Magpie Robin is found throughout Southeast Asia, the all-black form, which we observed, occurs nowhere else in the world. As we returned to HQ, we saw many of the ubiquitous swiftlets in the trees and speculated concerning why most birds sing or call most frequently in the early morning. I hypothesized that this pattern is a way of avoiding auditory competition with insects, which are active throughout the day. Frank, however, revealed that it probably has more to do with energy conservation: calling in the morning before feeding allows birds to adjust the amount of energy they expend to their energy reserves, which are sometimes severely depleted by unusually cold nights. If birds called during the day or in the evening, they would be unable to make such an adjustment and would be more susceptible to temperature variations. This hypothesis is supported by the observation that morning birdcall frequency seems correlated with temperatures in the night; colder nights are followed by fewer calls.

Frank broadcasts birdcalls from his portable speakers

We finished our bird observations just in time to grab a quick breakfast before breaking up into our project groups for the second day of data collection and analysis. I took this opportunity to gather information on the large Ficus in which we had observed the barbets, since Ficus is my chosen focal taxon. I took several closeups of leaf, bark, and apical branch morphologies and collected three fruit specimens for further study. With luck, my observations will allow me to identify this individual to the species and give me a better idea of the characters that vary between different fig species.

Soon enough, the time came to begin our work for the day. My project involves calculating the carbon stored per unit area of four different forest types in the Lambir Hills area. Today, we hiked up to the top of a nearby mountain, Bt. Pantu, to take measurements from the unique heath forest (kerangas in the local language). The hike was long and arduous, but the view from the top of Bt. Pantu was amazing! Sampling the heath forest was even longer and more arduous than the hike up - it took us five hours and involved dodging wasps and termites, sinking knee-deep into decomposing mulch on the forest floor, and plucking leeches - but it was strangely satisfying. The forest was small, restricted to the very top of the mountain, so we were only able to measure four plots. When we were finished collecting our data, we hiked back to HQ to wash up and start working on data analysis.

View from the summit of Bt. Pantu, Lambir Hills National Park

When we got back, we found most of the other groups working in the HQ studio, and we split up and joined them. My job, apart from helping to collect data, was to do statistical analysis. I spent several hours in R, working on automating the data analysis portion of our project. Great success! It didn't come easily because I had to learn about every function I wanted to use, but I managed to get a script up and running that would extract the date from a defined file hierarchy and put it into separate R objects for further analysis. I also set up an automated process for calculating tree volumes and writing the data into a set of new objects corresponding exactly to the imported table objects. The upshot is that we can now analyze an arbitrary number of plot files in minutes, which will be helpful when we gather the rest of our data and/or correct any errors in the original datasets.

The best part of the day came at the very end: Professor Web gave us a lecture on the ethnobotany of Borneo, which included some brief but fascinating comments on the indigenous peoples of the island and an edible survey of Southeast Asian fruits! Some highlights (pictures included): snakefruit, which has a scaly snake-like skin and, when peeled, feels a bit like a soft nut and tastes delicious; dragonfruit, which is the most intense color of red on the outside and purple on the inside, two breadfruit relatives, which made my hands sticky for four hours afterwards and tasted amazing, and the gigantic bitter beans, which I would properly call a vegetable and which had a flavor like getting punched in the stomach (Kinari thinks they're delicious, though).

After lecture, it was off to bed in preparation for another big day of project work tomorrow.