Monday, September 1, 2008

Awesome August!

(Note: I was so preoccupied with guiding that I forgot to take any pictures until right at the end, so most of the photos in this post will have come from previous walks. Thanks to LK for remembering to take photos while she was guiding. Only those photographs that can be enlarged when you click on them were taken on today's walk.)

It's the last day of August, and we're back in action, showing members of the public the beauty and splendour of Chek Jawa.

Ever since we started doing monthly tours of the Chek Jawa boardwalk in February, we've noticed a rise in the number of visitors. Thanks to word of mouth, as well as recent mentions in the press, many of our visitors come specially for our guided walks, as compared to our first few walks, when our groups were made up of members of the public we had 'ambushed' at the Chek Jawa Information Kiosk.

Response has been so good, we don't even need to hang our banners to invite people to join us anymore!

The rain threatened to ruin our day, but thankfully, it soon stopped, and we were able to get on with the walk.

Durian season is over, but there are still plenty of rambutans hanging from the trees. (This photo was taken in July; now the rambutans have ripened and turned a lovely shade of bright red!)

The tide was quite low, so the hordes of orange fiddler crabs (Uca vocans) were out and about, with the males waving their pincers in the air. Did you know that if a male fiddler crab loses his oversized pincer, the remaining pincer will eventually grow to replace it?

The visitors learned all about mangrove trees and their specialised roots, which help them to survive in the often harsh environment found where land meets sea. Among the trees that you can see along the boardwalk, there are 3 kinds of mangrove trees, which can be easily identified by the kind of roots they have.

Api-api (Avicennia) have pencil roots.

Bakau (Rhizophora) have prop roots.

Perepat (Sonneratia) have conical roots.

The visitors also learned a bit about the importance of mangroves. From serving as nurseries for marine life (including fish, molluscs and crustaceans that we depend on for food), to supplying us with useful materials, mangroves provide so many vital functions, many of which cannot be measured in terms of mere dollars and cents.

Another plant commonly found in coastal habitats is the sea hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus). Visitors are always fascinated to learn about these slits that you can find near the base of every leaf:

These slits secrete a sweet liquid, which attract ants, which will attack and repel any other insects that happen to land nearby, including herbivores such as grasshoppers. So in essence, the sea hibiscus hires security guards! I find that one particular sea hibiscus plant along the boardwalk always has ants congregating underneath its leaves:

The flowers of the sea hibiscus are yellow when they first bloom in the morning...

... Then turn reddish before they fall off in the evening, or the next day.

Besides the plants, there were plenty of other inhabitants of the mangroves to marvel at.

There were quite a few tree-climbing crabs (Episesarma spp.) perched on the mud lobster mounds. We even saw one tiny crab munching on a leaf bigger than itself!

There were also mudskippers of all sizes, but my group was definitely impressed by the giant mudskipper (Periophthalmodon schlosseri). Too bad they're skittish and usually refuse to stay still long enough to pose for photographs.

Another big attraction, especially for our younger visitors, is the Jejawi Tower. Provided you survive the climb, you will be treated to an excellent view. Here's a picture of LK's group.

Moving on to the coastal boardwalk, we managed to spot what was possibly the resident great-billed heron (Ardea sumatrana), wading in the water close to the sandbar. With the help of my binoculars, the children in my group managed to get a good view of it stalking in the shallows, and could even spot it lunging at its prey! Too bad we were too far away to see if it was able to catch anything though.

The tide was still low enough for us to look at the seagrass and find crabs hiding amongst the fronds, and later on, near the end of the coastal boardwalk, we were thrilled to find several shoals of small fish, all bunched up together into tight balls close to the surface. Some of them were even leaping out of the water! Perhaps they were being attacked by predators.

The highlight of the trip came as my group was heading towards House No. 1 to sign the guestbook. LK called me on my handphone, but I didn't manage to answer it quickly enough.

It turned out that the Oriental pied-hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) were actually checking out one of the nest boxes placed along the trail by NParks, in full view of her group!

Over at House No. 1, there was a familiar noise coming from some trees nearby, I turned my head, and sure enough, there was a glimpse of a hornbill. We were treated to a spectacular sight as not one, but four hornbills took flight and landed in a tree even closer to the Visitor Centre!

And then, somebody suddenly called out, "Wild boar!"

Wow! My first ever sighting of wild boar (Sus scrofa) at Chek Jawa!

The guides had spotted wild boar during our previous walk last month, and had even managed to see the unbelievably adorable piglets. This time around, it was a sow and two juveniles (possibly her own young), foraging on the mudflat exposed at low tide. It was easy to tell the adult apart; not only was she larger in size, her fur looked coarser and greyish in colour, not to mention the stiff bristly mane on her neck and upper back.

They were rooting with their sensitive snouts, as all pigs seem born to do, probably looking for edible tidbits such as fruits or clams buried in the mud.

At one point, the hornbills seemed unhappy that they were suddenly being ignored, and flew across, directly over the feeding wild boar! Naturally, I was so excited by the breathtaking sight that the thought of taking out my camera to take photos never crossed my mind at all until much later.

While the wild boar calmly continued to feed, oblivious to the excitement that was going on nearby, our visitors got around to writing their thoughts and comments for our guestbook.

What a wonderful way to end our walk for the month of August! Every living thing has a vital part to play in the ecosystem; mudskippers and fiddler crabs are just as important as wild boar and hornbills, but having the good fortune to spot some of the larger animals that call Chek Jawa home is a real bonus, not just for the visitors, but even for us guides as well.

Thanks to LK, Alyce, Anuj and Ivan for volunteering their time, and to all our visitors! We hope to see you again for future walks!

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