Mt. Kinabalu (Again...)

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October 15th 2016
Published: October 23rd 2016
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From Sepilok to Mt. Kinabalu is about four hours by bus. You just head up the road from Sepilok to the junction with the main highway and flag down any bus heading past. The bus we caught was playing The Hobbit, and when that finished there was a Chinese movie called Monkey King 2 which had the most hilariously-indecipherable subtitles I have ever seen. Really the only reason I knew what was going on was because I was a big fan of the Japanese Monkey tv series from the 70s.

There are a couple of places to stay just outside the gates of the national park. Tahubang Lodge is directly opposite and the Mountain Resthouse is five minutes walk along the road. There is accommodation inside the gates as well, but this is owned by the Sutera company and costs more than any sensible backpacker would care to pay. We stayed at the Mountain Resthouse. This isn't a fancy place; in fact it is whatever the complete opposite of fancy is, with the buildings threatening to slide down the hill onto the road if you stand up from your chair too quickly, but I like it.

I was rather surprised that there seemed to be a lot of people around the place, far more than usual around the entrance to the national park and definitely more than usual at the Mountain Resthouse. While we were sitting in the restaurant outside the park having lunch before heading in for the afternoon, I realised that there were huge banners along the entrance road. It turned out we had inadvertently arrived on the day before the sort-of-annual Climbathon, an event where crazy-fit people literally run up the mountain and back down. This isn't just a regular 23km run, this is like running up and then down a ten kilometre flight of stairs. The winner for 2016 had a time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, and 33 seconds. We contemplated entering but we only had two days, and the run would have taken us about three weeks. We were actually going to go up to Layang-Layang, the highest point on the mountain to which you can go without paying huge fees for permits and guides, but we were barely fit enough for the regular forest trails so decided to leave it. I've been up to Layang-Layang twice before (it's basically 4km of steps straight upwards) in unsuccessful searches for the completely-inappropriately-named friendly bush warbler which is only found higher than the Timpohon Gate, as well as to (successfully) see some species which are mostly found higher up like the mountain ground squirrel and mountain black-eye. On my previous visits to the mountain, however, I have come off months of travel - going there at the start of a trip some of the steep sections were a little tough!

Few people visiting Mt. Kinabalu use the forest trails. They are mostly there just to climb the summit trail and then they leave. I think we would have only seen about five people total in the forest over our two days there. Like Bukit Fraser the birds here mostly come in waves (multiple-species flocks foraging together) but unlike Bukit Fraser the waves here are really scattered - you can go for an hour or three without seeing a single bird and then suddenly there are loads of them all at once, and then nothing again. They are always separated into large and small birds as well; large-bird waves have things like green magpies, laughing thrushes and woodpeckers, while small-bird waves have things like flycatchers, whistlers and babblers. The problem with the bird waves is trying to identify what is in them - they move so fast, with birds popping in and out between the leaves, that telling what all the species are is difficult. Fortunately, because I have been there several times already, as soon as a bird appeared I could identify it instantly. If Mr. Andy had been by himself he would have had to try to remember what each bird he saw looked like, then attempt to look them up individually in his field guide. I've been there, on my first visits to places like Mt. Kinabalu and Bukit Fraser, and you need at least a couple of days to get familiar with all the regular bird-wave species so you can filter them out and concentrate on the ones you haven't seen yet.

I've always found the Liwagu Trail to be the best for birds. I usually see Whitehead's trogons along here, although this visit we saw only one and that was next to the road down near the HQ. The Liwagu Trail starts at the HQ (at the park's entrance gate by the highway) and follows the Liwagu River valley up to the top where the Timpohon Gate is. The Timpohon Gate is the start of the summit trail - there's a paved road between the HQ and the Timpohon Gate which is also good for walking while birding, although as I found out it is quite a bit steeper than I remembered! We did the Liwagu Trail on our first afternoon. There was a good small-bird wave just after we started, with Bornean whistler, olivaceous bulbul, indigo flycatcher and yellow-breasted warbler, as well as a Brooke's squirrel. Then there was a long stretch with nothing, until the sudden appearance of a large-bird wave with a pair of short-tailed green magpies (a different species to the common green magpie of Bukit Fraser), a maroon woodpecker, a pair of crimson-winged woodpeckers, and a hair-crested drongo.

We got to the top of the trail just on dusk (about 6pm here) and went up onto the deck above the Timpohon Gate to look at the sunset. There's a big dumpster just by the side of the road near the gate where I saw a long-tailed giant rat on my last visit. We shone our torches inside and sure enough there was a long-tailed giant rat inside. He was quite shy but we got some good looks at him. Then we spotlighted our way down the paved road to the HQ, seeing a small-toothed palm civet along the way. To illustrate the vagaries of animal-watching, last time I was at Mt. Kinabalu I saw loads of these civets along the road, but I read a trip report where loads of common palm civets were seen and only one small-toothed palm civet. You just never know what you're going to get with spotlighting, and that's why it is fun (or frustrating, on those attempts where you see absolutely nothing).

The next morning we did the same thing as the previous day - up the Liwagu Trail and down the paved road. The Liwagu Trail is supposed to be a two-hour trail but when you're birding (and really unfit) it takes a lot longer. I think we were on there for about five hours. Not that there was a lot to show for that: it was one of those days where the birds are just somewhere else. There was one good small-bird wave with black-capped white-eye, Temminck's sunbird and pigmy blue flycatcher, as well as the same species from yesterday's small-bird wave; and there were a few other single bird species on the trail, like eye-browed jungle-flycatchers, mountain wren-babblers, snowy-browed flycatcher, chestnut-crowned erpornis and Bornean treepie, along with several more Brooke's squirrels.

We stopped for quite a while on the Timpohon Gate deck to photograph the Bornean black-banded squirrels which live there. People feed them so they are very tame, and I'd brought some biscuits up for them. There were also four or five mountain tree shrews on the ground down below the deck which were much more difficult to photograph where they were (as in, pretty much impossible). Near the end of the day, down by the HQ, we saw a smallish squirrel hunched up on a branch of a fig tree. I saw a band on its side and dismissed it rather too hurriedly as a black-banded squirrel. A few minutes later I paused as second-thoughts entered my head. It was too small for a black-banded and I hadn't seen them down by the HQ before. Maybe it was a red-bellied sculptor squirrel, which was a species I had managed to miss on all my previous visits. We went back and the squirrel was scurrying around in the tree, along with another one, and sure enough they were sculptor squirrels. My second lifer mammal for the trip so far (the first being the Sunda slow loris at Bukit Fraser). I saw more sculptor squirrels the next morning as well, so not sure how I have missed them until now - one of those animal-watching vagaries I mentioned I guess.

We had been going to stay at Mt. Kinabalu for three nights but Mr. Andy wanted to go to the city of Kota Kinabalu earlier to go snorkelling at Pulau Manukan, so we left a day early. This still gave us the morning for more birding on the mountain though. I went out alone at dawn. The big fig tree right at the park entrance was filled with birds (only ashy drongos were new for the trip list) and there were a couple of sculptor squirrels up there too. Then I went along the start of the Liwagu Trail (getting a black and crimson oriole in a large-bird wave) before branching off onto the Silau Silau Trail. This latter trail follows the Silau Silau stream, along which live Bornean montane forktails. I also spotted an Everett's thrush foraging along the opposite bank, which I watched for some time. Everett's thrush is an endemic mountain species which every visiting birder wants to see. Not all of them manage to do so because they apparently are very tricky to find, but I have seen them every time (another one of those birding vagaries). After leaving the Silau Silau Trail near the Botanic Gardens I walked back along the road. Just near the entrance gate I heard some rustling down the slope below the boardwalk, and was surprised to see a red-breasted hill partridge fossicking around down there. The undergrowth nearby was moving so I figure there was a little covey of them.

I joined Mr. Andy for breakfast at the restaurant opposite the entrance and afterwards we headed back in to see if we could re-find the new birds I'd seen. Surprisingly we did, with the exception of the oriole. He even managed to get a glimpse of one of the partridges and the Everett's thrush. Just before we left I spotted a Bornean montane flowerpecker feeding on berries by the HQ buildings. Somehow this was the first one I've seen, despite the field guide saying they are common around there. I think it is just because I never spend much time around the HQ itself.

After lunch we caught a shared-taxi from the side of the road to Kota Kinabalu for 20 Ringgits each.


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