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Published: October 20th 2016
Time for another "Israel Goes To Asia" I think.
The first part of this trip will cover a short jaunt through Sabah. I am doing this bit with my friend Mr. Andy who wanted to go birding somewhere fun with me. He eventually settled on Borneo as his destination but because he has adult responsibilities, like a wife and a baby and a job, it could only be a short trip - just ten days or so. Given the short time-frame we chose easy places to which I had already been so I knew my way around, but to which he hadn't so there would be lots of new birds and mammals for him to see.
The flights from New Zealand come in to Kuala Lumpur, so we decided to start off at the nearby hill station of Bukit Fraser where we spent a couple of days looking for siamang before continuing on to Sabah. In Sabah we will be at Sepilok and then Mt. Kinabalu because he has always wanted to go there. This will be my fourth time at Bukit Fraser, my third at Sepilok, and fourth at Mt. Kinabalu. Consequently life-birds will be few and far between, but hopefully there will be some nice mammal lifers to make up for that.
Once his time is up Mr. Andy will fly back to New Zealand and I will go in the opposite direction, to New Delhi. I've been to India before, in 2014, but only to Calcutta and Assam. This time I'm doing the more classical India, the one with nilgai and mowglis.
Mr. Andy and I landed in Kuala Lumpur at 4.00 in the morning. That may seem like an ungodly sort of time, but that's the norm when travelling with budget airlines - you're pretty much always leaving or arriving somewhere when you really should still be asleep. We were flying with Air Asia, of course, the best airline in the world. Auckland to Kuala Lumpur only cost me NZ$316. Arriving so early had its advantages, despite the resulting lack of sleep (about three hours out of thirty since I got up on Monday morning), because it meant that there was plenty of time to get to our first destination and still have most of the day available for birding.
That first destination was Bukit Fraser, a hill station outside Kuala Lumpur set up by the British to escape the heat of the lowlands. I've been there three times already so it's hard to find new ways to write about it, but it is a fantastic animal-watching destination. It is easy to get to by public transport, there is good accommodation there (although the prices aren't too budget), the temperature is reasonably mild, and there is a combination of paved roads through forest and rough trails within the forest. The birds are plentiful, often in regular bird-waves, and there are also quite a number of mammal species to be found, including six species of primate.
You can take a taxi all the way there from the airport, but Bukit Fraser is north of the city whereas the airport is south, so it's quite a distance and would work out much more expensive than doing it the long-winded way. The cheaper way involves bus, train, and then
taxi. First you take the bus from the airport to the KL Sentral train station in the city - this takes about an hour and costs 11 Ringgits. (More expensive but a bit faster is the KLIA Ekspres train from the airport to KL Sentral, which takes 33 minutes and costs 55 Ringgits ). Then you take a train from KL Sentral to the town of Kuala Kubu Baru, which takes about 1.5 hours and costs 8.70 Ringgits. On the previous occasions when I've been to Bukit Fraser the train stopped at Rawang and there was a change-over to another train, but now the train goes the whole way in one go. We kind of found this out too late, costing us an hour in travel time because we had to wait in Rawang for an hour until the next train, losing me a considerable amount of travel cred with Mr. Andy - although there were Asian glossy starlings at the train station which was a lifer bird for him. From KKB to Bukit Fraser it is an hour by road and the only way to do this is by taxi; this currently costs 90 to 100 Ringgits. So all up it takes about four hours to get from the airport to Bukit Fraser and it cost us under 70 Ringgits each (that's NZ$23).
Just for a comparison I asked at the taxi counter at the airport how much it would cost for a taxi all the way there, and I was told 400 Ringgits.
We didn't have much time at Bukit Fraser, just the rest of today and the whole of the next day, then it would be back to the airport on the morning of the third day. Mr. Andy wanted to see as many "new" animals as we could find, but he particularly wanted to see siamang, dusky langur and Sunda slow loris. I've seen siamang on each of my previous three visits but finding them basically requires just walking the roads until you come across them - so luck versus time. Dusky langur I'd only seen once there. I've never seen a Sunda slow loris, even though everyone else seems to find them at Bukit Fraser without any trouble.
We arrived at the Puncak Inn at around 10.30am, checked into a room, had some lunch, and then went straight out birding. Bukit Fraser has a number of trails through forest as well as paved roads. The roads are actually better for birding because you can see much further and the birds often move along the forest edges. There are some birds which you'd only see on the trails but with limited time I thought it best to stick to the roads - especially seeing as siamang was a priority to find.
I was feeling much better than I was when in Auckland but Mr. Andy had started feeling sick, which didn't bode too well for his trip. Nevertheless we headed out on the road which leads to the Jeriau Waterfall. Unlike my other visits, the sun was blazing hot. We debated whether it was uncommonly hot, or if it is just that I normally go there after spending a long time in the lowlands so it just seems really cool in comparison. It turned out to be the former - it hadn't rained there in three weeks and every passing day without rain caused the temperature to rise a little bit more.
I've seen siamang in various places at Bukit Fraser, but I thought the waterfall road would be the best bet. It started off well, with all sorts of birds popping out from the undergrowth as we walked (none new for me, but most new for Mr. Andy), and soon enough we struck it lucky with finding a young siamang relaxing in a forked tree branch. It really was a lucky find because primates in general turned out to be conspicuously absent for all of our stay, probably due to the uncharacteristic heat. On my other visits I have seen crab-eating macaques, southern pig-tailed macaques and white-thighed langurs without trouble - this visit none of these were seen (although a crab-eating macaque was seen from the taxi on the way back to KKB later). We walked all the way to the waterfall but no monkeys were seen, and the birds had mostly gone into hiding as well. Mr. Andy was feeling pretty poorly by this stage, and fortunately a passing car gave us a lift back to the Puncak Inn. We tried spotlighting for slow lorises along the access road after dark for an hour or so, and found nothing. There were barely even any insects calling.
In the morning Mr. Andy was still not any better but a lifer white-throated fantail outside the room was a bonus for him, and after breakfast he said he was fine for walking the Telekom Loop, probably the best road for birds here. This is also the only place I had seen dusky langurs at Bukit Fraser, and they were Mr. Andy's next target species after siamang. The morning was nowhere near as birdy as Bukit Fraser should be, but Mr. Andy saw his first barbets (fire-tufted) amongst other new birds like golden babblers, black-eared shrike-babblers, silver-eared mesias and mountain fulvettas. I was happy with a common green magpie - not my first, but the first time I'd seen one at Bukit Fraser. I also saw what may have been a common flameback woodpecker which was a surprise, but apparently they migrate through at this time of year. Halfway around the loop road we stopped for a rest and a troop of dusky langurs passed through the trees right over our heads. Near the end of the loop I showed Mr. Andy the tarantula burrows in the roadside cliffs, and we tickled a few out so he could get some photos.
We had been given some information about slow lorises being seen at a particular spot on the Telekom Loop for the last three nights. Mr. Andy was feeling so sick he elected not to return there in the evening, so I went alone. I found the place as described to us, and after a short wait I found myself watching a pair of lorises clambering about amongst the branches in the canopy, and even mating at one point. As readers of my past travels may remember, I have something of a slow loris curse upon me. I am always looking for them, and I can never find them. In 2014 I finally found a Bornean slow loris (my first loris of any kind) and now finally I have seen Sunda slow loris. I don't know why I can't find lorises - they are common at Bukit Fraser and I have been here a number of times - nobody else seems to have any trouble. It just is what it is.
Our stay at Bukit Fraser was very brief, but despite the unexpectedly-hot weather reducing the usual abundance of birds it was still a success. Mr. Andy saw his siamang and dusky langurs, as well as a couple of dozen bird lifers; and I finally saw Sunda slow loris. However by that second night Mr. Andy was feeling so sick that there was a question mark over whether his part of the trip would even continue, or if he would be just flying home the next day...
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