Friday, November 25, 2011

With Maleos

Big Diggers - A Maleo digs a nest
Just back this week from a 2-week trip to Indonesia, where I took part in a volunteer "Tripods in the Mud" project of the ILCP, documenting biodiversity on a part of the island of Sulawesi. (If you're not familiar with Sulawesi, go look at an atlas - it has to qualify as the weirdest-shaped island in the world.) Our work was in support of a small, but effective NGO called ALTO, the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation.

For biologists, Sulawesi is particularly important since it is the largest island in the region known as "Wallacea" named for Alfred Russel Wallace, eminent 19th century naturalist and contemporary of Darwin. Wallace traveled extensively in southeast Asia and discovered that Sulawesi and its smaller neighbors to the east, had a distinctive fauna - a blending of species from Asia and Australasia, but quite distinct from either with many endemic animals.

One of those, and one Wallace described, is the Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo), found only on Sulawesi and nowhere else on earth. The Maleo is a "megapode" (literally, "big-footed"), the size of a VERY large chicken, and is critically endangered due to habitat loss and egg-collecting. So why the big feet?  Simple - for digging...

Maleos do not build conventional nests, but lay a single egg in the hot tropical sand, allowing that heat to do the incubation. Once the egg is laid, the parents abandon it to its fate. On hatching, the orphan maleo chick has to dig its way out of the sand, emerging at night, fully-feathered and capable of flight. In fact, the first thing these newborns do is fly into a tree - even though they've never seen one before.  Amazing.

ALTO was created to help save one of the last nesting areas for maleos on Sulawesi and the protection they provide has profoundly increased the breeding success of these unique birds. One of my missions on the trip was to photograph the maleos, and I spent most of a week in a small blind on the fringe of the colony.

A Really Big Hole

On the breeding grounds, maleos have one thing on their mind - digging. It becomes a reflex, an obsession, and they move vast amounts of sand with a persistence and energy that is astonishing. The process of digging six feet down in soft sand, laying an egg and then re-burying it, can take these birds 4 hours or more - all under the hot tropical sun.

Photographically, the challenge was to get a bird NOT digging - since that is about all they do.  I will come back in a day or two with some other shots as I edit them. Maybe we'll see what else they get up to...

Nikon D3 with 200-400mm lens

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