Is that a pitta I hear? And wow, what mammal is that?

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June 12th 2018
Published: June 12th 2018
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It hadn't dawned on me (pun intended) how early sunrise was here until I checked on Google just before bed. It's still in the same time zone but because of how much further East it is, sunrise is more than an hour earlier.

With it being so hot in the middle of the day and so dead bird-wise, I wanted to make sure I was in as early as possible. Unfortunately, the Rainforest Discovery Centre only opens at 8, but I got to the entrance at about 5:45. There are no gates and the guard seemed to be asleep so I just gave him a wide berth and went in. Having not been told anything explicitly about the morning opening times, I could claim ignorance which is going to be much more difficult at night now. If I had known I was going to be stopped at night, then I would have been fine but it’s a bit tricky now.

Anyway, it was indeed much birdier in the morning with lot of babblers and sunbirds and things calling. Still quite difficult to see the birds though, even with the advantage of having a canopy walkway. Some nice things about nonetheless, but no more Bornean Bristleheads. I did find my second Bornean endemic bird though, and the most common of the sixty-odd Bornean endemics: Dusky Munias. And a bit later, I added another Bornean endemic: White-crowned Shama. I left just before the official opening time of 8, had breakfast back at the B&B and then headed back in for the morning, buying an entry ticket then. Last night, the night guard had said that what I should do is ask at the ticket office for permission to enter at night and if I could get permission from them, the guards would let me in. When I asked about it, I found out that the reason for this rule change was because recently some tourists had got lost in the forest at night in the RDC and they had to call search and rescue. How you can get lost is a bit beyond me because all the trails are thoroughly signposted and all eventually come back on each other anyway and the place isn’t very large at all. The RDC is connected to the main area of Sepilok rainforest but it juts out a bit and in itself is just a small area, though connected to the proper forest. I persuaded the ticket counter people that I would be fine, but they couldn’t give me permission and I would have to ask the manager who wasn’t there so I left my number and they would phone me if/when the manager arrives. This whole thing is a right pain but if I can get it sorted then that will be much easier than ‘accidentally’ leaving late in terms of fitting in dinner as well as not worrying about the guards.

Although it was getting hot a bit by this point, I decided to continue trying for birds and I headed up the ‘Pitta Path’. Generally, the names of paths in places like this aren’t actually correlated with the birds you see, but in this case it seemed that this is actually the best spot for pittas. It wasn’t long before I could hear the distinctive whistling call of a Black-headed Pitta but it was quite far away. Going down the trail I heard the whistles again occasionally but couldn’t see any of the pittas themselves. There was a group of birders/bird photographers also looking down the trail but they hadn’t seen any pittas either. After about 11:30 I decided it was pointless in the heat and I should turn back. I did have one scare walking on the way back down the trail though as I passed a group of Pig-tailed Macaques going the other way. There were three massive males with a large group of females and young and they really didn’t like me there. They started by just displaying their teeth and doing the threatening macaque bending down as well as eventually mock-charging and almost going for me. I just held my ground and walked slowly on the other side of the trail, trying to keep as far away from the females and young as possible, but it wasn’t a very wide trail and it did get very hairy as I was going past. Even once I was past the group, the males followed me down the path, mock-charging along the way, until I was well away from the group. I’m not sure what the right response is for macaques. For dogs you bend down to pretend to pick up a rock but I don’t think that would have been good for macaques. Do you make yourself look as big as possible? I imagine running would have been the wrong thing to do in this situation, it rarely is right with animals.

A bit further down the track, I heard a pitta that seemed quite close. I slowly followed the sound down the track and it seemed very close indeed. The bird photographer group who I had seen early seemed to have the same idea and a bit later they showed up too. The pitta really was close, and before long, I saw something shimmery red and blue in the undergrowth. The pitta! It was very obscured indeed in the undergrowth and it wasn’t the only one around. There was another pitta that sounded quite close coming from the other side of the track and they were calling at each other, presumably territorially. A bit later, one of the people from the bird photography group who had gone off came back and said they had found the other pitta! It was sitting up in a tree right by the path in a much more exposed position. In fact, without mealworms you’d struggle to get a pitta in a more open position than that. Absolutely stunning bird and pittas really are amazing. Even better that the Black-headed Pitta is endemic to this part of Borneo. The one in the exposed position didn’t hang around for that long and flew off to disappear into the undergrowth, but the first pitta, the one that was obscured in the undergrowth but just visible about 10m from the path was just sitting on a low perch calling. A pitta walkaway view!

As I left the RDC to go out for lunch, I checked to see if the ticket office people had heard from the management but the manager hadn’t arrived yet. I also asked about the guided night walk, making it clear that this was a last resort and I would much rather go on my own (the ticket people as well as the guard, both seem to want me to be able to go and spotlighting on my own so it’s not them being obtuse and unreasonable. They just can’t allow it without management permission) but they require a minimum of 4 people and there was no one else yet. They thought the manager might show up a bit later though.

So I went for lunch and it was far too hot to go birding so I just lounged around. I did find that I had a rather interesting room mate though, a wonderful Bornean endemic: a Large Pencil-tailed Tree-mouse. Two species of Pencil-tailed Tree-mice so far! This one seemed a bit distressed because it is supposed to be nocturnal and seemed to have got stuck in the room. It was climbing up and down the walls and mosquito mesh window to try and get out. It then ran around the room a bit and ended up sitting on my bedside table for a while before running across my bed and out the room. Apparently it had woken my human room mate up at night by running across his face during the night. Lovely little mammal.

Before going back out for the afternoon, I stopped at the reception to see if I could arrange for a taxi to visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary for a day trip. From what I've heard, it's a protected area of mangroves with wild proboscis monkeys but are fed at set times in set places each day so are habituated to humans. Anyway I'll hopefully see what it's like in person tomorrow as I've arranged for a taxi to pick me up tomorrow at 9 (I want to do it tomorrow because it's the last day before three days of public holiday for Eid). Apparently it should be 45 ringgit for the return trip which is less than I had feared.

Going back into the RDC in the afternoon I was stopped by the woman at the ticket entrance and told that she had asked her manager who said no. I then asked if it was possible to speak to the manager myself, expecting to be told no, but surprisingly she said yes and took me up to the main office. So I was walked up the big steps and through the security keyed door to the manager's secretary and finally the real big cheese and park chief herself. There was quite a bit of back and forth and polite discussions. Luckily, polite but relatively firm and assertive discussions is the sort of thing I'm happy to do and can do I think reasonably well, but the top manager was nice anyway and we discussed wildlife watching in Malaysia and the national parks etc. So I eventually got permission to stay in the RDC until 8 o'clock only (that was firm, but gives me an hour and a half to two hours of spotlighting time) and I had to have my picture posted at the guard office, agree to sign in and out, and sign a declaration saying I would be fully responsible, the park would have no liability, etc. I’m not sure why the required my picture at the guard office, to identify the body or something, but it really is overdoing it on the “safety”.

So that's a pain! Sort of fun though? And it is a recent management decision on her part because of idiot tourists who don't know what they're doing. So it's much more difficult now, but still possible. If anyone here wants to try and skip ahead a few steps, ask to see Ben in the office upstairs. 8 is quite early to end spotlighting but it's better than nothing and sunset here is almost exactly one hour earlier here than it is in KL.

I started on the canopy walkway where there’s a spot where you can easily see Red Giant Flying Squirrels coming out of their nest hole. I’ve been seeing them pretty easily throughout the trip, but I thought I could have another go. I got a fantastic view of a Red Giant Flying Squirrel Gliding above me just before sunset and then gliding between the trees after that. It would shimmy up the trunk of an emergent tree then glide down to the canopy below and repeat. I wasn’t fast enough and there wasn’t enough light to get a picture of one in flight though. I saw a number of Red Giant Flying Squirrels from the canopy walkway just after dark and then headed down for the spotlighting from the ground with about an hour and a half of proper full-darkness spotlighting with five nights including this night now that I hopefully have got it sorted.

I didn’t see any tarsiers unfortunately, though I did hear what can only be tarsiers bounding around near the forest floor and jumping up from the leaf litter. I think they must have been tarsiers because I can’t think of anything else that would have bounced like that. Based on the sounds, they seem moderately common but I couldn’t actually see any. Tarsiers don’t have eyeshine which makes them much more difficult to find. I think they evolved to not have eyeshine just to spite me personally. I did, however find a Common Palm Civet quite high up in a tree, I believe they’re a different subspecies to the ones in Peninsula Malaysia? I also got a great view of a Lesser Mousedeer, sitting quietly right by the path with a rather striking bluey-green eyeshine.

It was right around the mousedeer sighting however, that I got by far the best mammal of the night. I still can’t quite believe it. I was walking up the Ridge Trail a bit then turned back around just after walking past a spot with a particularly strong mammalian smell. And as I turned back around and shone the torch down the path, just near where I had the smell, there was very clear, bright eyeshine looking directly back at me from on the edge of the path. It was about 80-100 metres away and looked to be entirely black at first. I walked towards it as fast as I could without being startling for it, wondering what that could possibly be. Then I realised what it was… it had a bit of white on it too… a medium sized mostly black and a bit white mammal on the ground on the edge of the path quite near the edge of where the RDC meets the secondary growth on the edge of the forest. I couldn’t quite believe it and I think I had an audible sharp intake of breath when I realised what it was as it turned and went quickly away into the forest off the path. A stink badger! Wow! What an amazing mammal! It was a Sunda Stink Badger which is a mammal that I knew had a small possibility here but never expected to actually see. Amazing!

I was not too far from the exit of the RDC (for anyone interested in the details, the stink badger was near where the Tarsier Crossing joins the Ridge Trail) which was good because it was nearly 8 o’clock and if I was much after 8 leaving I’d probably have problems for future nights. I didn’t see anything else much until just near the exit there were some Large Flying Foxes overhead. I’m very pleased indeed to have been able to go spotlighting!

New birds seen

White-crowned Shama

Short-tailed Babbler

Brown-backed Flowerpecker

Javan Myna (should be on the list already I think but missed off)

Black-capped Babbler

Bushy-crested Hornbill

Dusky Munia

Fiery Minivet

Chestnut-winged Babbler

Black-headed Pitta

Oriental Darter

Temminck’s Sunbird

Hill Myna


Variable Giant Squirrel

Large Pencil-tailed Tree-mouse

Sunda Stink Badger

Large Flying Fox


14th June 2018

Selamat Datang
Brilliant writing, William! We appear to be having sub-tropical humidity here in Warsaw thanks to the Vistula and perpetual warmth. You may want to check out Paul Theroux's 'Riding the Iron Rooster' etc... it's not as saporific as Conrad - I promise. I saw the tarsiers in Cebu, amid much tree disturbance from the park's custodians. Happy travelling.

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