Return to Kinabalu

May 9th 2014
Published: May 9th 2014
Edit Blog Post

Leaving Peninsular Malaysia for Sabah I was allowed to leave my batteries in my check-in luggage, contrary to other Air Asia flights, but I had to take off my belt to go through the checkpoint. There are two airports for Kuala Lumpur, one is the KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) and the other is Air Asia's LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal). I'm quite familiar with the LCCT, having flown in and out of there many times, but Air Asia is moving! There is now a brand new airport, the KLIA2, and Air Asia is moving all their facilities there on the ninth of May. I flew out of the LCCT but when I return from Borneo on the thirteenth I will be flying into a brand new airport. How exciting.

I arrived in Kota Kinabalu (the capital city of Sabah) at around 7.30pm, got the airport bus into town for five Ringgitts, and went to Lucy's Homestay where the dorms are 28 Ringgitts. In Kota Kinabalu it is difficult finding anywhere cheaper than that because of all the tourists coming through. Lucy remembered me from my last stay, in 2009 (or to be more precise, she remembered my hair!). The next morning I caught a mini-van to Mt. Kinabalu for 20 Ringgitts. Mt. Kinabalu is only about two hours from KK and it is a standard fixture in the tourist route of Sabah. (Last time I was in Sabah I wrote that it took three hours between KK and Mt. Kinabalu; I'm not sure why that would have been because the vans and the road are exactly the same now as then. Suffice to say this time I left KK at 8.30am and got to the mountain at 10.30). Few people stay more than one or two nights though because they are just there to climb the mountain and then move on to the next place to stay one or two nights at. There is accommodation inside the park but it is ridiculously expensive. Last time I was here I stayed at the Bayu Homestay (aka Bayu Lodge) which had 20 Ringgitt dorm beds and was about five minutes walk before the park gate (when coming from KK). That place is now closed, as I discovered after getting out of the van. I walked up to the park where I found that a new budget place called Tabuhan Lodge has opened up, literally directly across the road from the gate. They were full however, so I continued walking and found the Mountain Resthouse, just 200 metres further along. The dorms here were 35 Ringgitts but there are only three beds in each dorm and if you are alone you just get the whole room for yourself which is alright (if you are two or three people the dorms are 25 per person). The place is seriously run-down, most of the buildings are on a decided lean as they threaten to slide down the hill, and I slept with the lights on each night to stop the cockroaches eating my face, but the woman running it is friendly, there is free WIFI, and if you don't mind basic accommodation then it is handy for the park (you know, if the new Tabuhan Lodge opposite the gate is full when you arrive!). Like the Bayu Homestay was, the Mountain Resthouse is a dream for entomologists: there are uncountable numbers of moths of all sizes and shapes and colours attracted by the lights at night; I even found a big mantis in one of the bathrooms.

After arriving, checking in and getting something to eat, I headed into the park. The entry fee is 15 Ringgitts and although it states on the ticket it is a one-day ticket I was told it is valid for two days (unless staying inside the park in which case it is three days); in 2009 I was told one, two, three and five days -- in Malaysia things are just made up as they go along! In the event I only paid once over the four days I was there because each time I went in past the checkpoint I just held up my ticket to the guard as I walked past and he would wave me through. There are lots of trails through the forest on the mountain but you don't often meet anyone else on them unless they are also birders. Most people who come to Mt. Kinabalu are just there to climb it. They get driven up the 4.5km paved road which runs from the HQ to Timpohon Gate, hike up the seemingly never-ending steps to the summit and back over one or two days, and then get driven down to the HQ again. Some people do stay an extra day to walk some of the trails but it isn't very common.

The best trail for birds is the Liwagu Trail which runs along the Liwagu River valley from the HQ all the way up to Timpohon Gate. It is about 5.6km long and takes me around four to five hours (one does not walk quickly when birding). I did the Liwagu Trail every day, usually going upwards because coming down it is not as easy on the steeper sections. Most of the trails connect with the main paved road, so after reaching the top of the Liwagu Trail you can either just walk down the whole road to HQ or go into any of the other trails along the way. The Bukit Ular Trail is another of the better trails and that starts maybe twenty or thirty metres up the road from the Liwagu Trail's end.

Mt. Kinabalu is one of those places where bird waves are quite common, but in between the bird-waves there is almost nothing! You can be walking for ages seeing no more than one or two individual birds, and then suddenly there will be a great screeching flock of all sorts of different species hurtling past -- you try to quickly ID as many as possible, and then they're gone. On my first day I went up the Liwagu Trail and then down the paved road to the HQ. I had no bird-waves and saw exactly four species (chestnut-crowned erpornis, white-bellied erpornis, snowy-browed flycatcher and grey-throated babbler). Shameful. I met a New Zealander on the trail, which is a noteworthy event in itself because it is almost as rare to find a New Zealander in southeast Asia as it is to find a pangolin! He was wondering why it was so bird-less and when I explained about bird-waves he was very excited. I saw him later that day (he was staying at the same place as me) and he said he had found a bird-wave after meeting me and it made an immense difference to the experience by not only knowing why the birds were all together like that but also in explaining why he wasn't seeing much at the other times.

The mammals were just as absent as the birds that day. The only one I saw was a Bornean black-banded squirrel who lives up on the deck at Timpohon Gate, probably surviving mainly on a diet of biscuits. I thought this was probably the same squirrel as I saw here in 2009, but a couple of days later I saw five black-banded squirrels on the deck all at once. Interestingly enough, Timpohon Gate is quite a bit above the altitude range of black-banded squirrels as given in the field guide to Borneo's mammals.

Not all was lost for mammals though, because in the evening I returned to the park for some spot-lighting. I had been going to walk up the Liwagu Trail in the dark and then down the road, which would have been about six or seven hours in total, but I spent too long talking to a couple of guys at the hostel who wanted information on where to see animals in Borneo, and so started much later than I intended. And I never did do the Liwagu Trail at night because a tree came down across it that first night. During the day I didn't mind crawling through the canopy of the downed tree to get past, but I didn't fancy doing that at night by torch-light with the number of venomous snakes on the mountain! Anyway, right up the top of the road near Timpohon Gate is a big rubbish bin and at night this attracts scavenging animals including, apparently, ferret-badgers (seen there by animal-watcher Vladimir Dinets). It only takes an hour to walk straight up from the HQ to the top of the road (because at night you're not stopping for birds all along the way) and it isn't as steep as I had anticipated. I saw zero animals along the way, except for some moths and a few unidentifiable bats, but at the rubbish bin I found a hungry opportunist. The bin is pretty big (more of a dumpster really), with sides about five foot high. I shone my torch down inside and sitting on the rubbish bags was a rat. A giant rat. If there's one thing I like, it is a giant rat. This one was of a species called the long-tailed giant rat, and neither of those descriptives is inaccurate. It is very big and the tail is very long, easily twice the body length. It is also a most attractive rat, being a bright reddish colour streaked through with black, with a white belly, white gloves and grey leggings. It sat there for a while, whiffling its nose at the light but not really sure what to do, then casually disappeared in amongst the bags.

There a couple of small bins further up nearer the gate so I started to head that way, but got stopped in my tracks by a low-slung animal with a shortish thick tail scooting across the road just round the bend from the big bin. My brain automatically went "ferret-badger!". I could see that the animal hadn't gone under the road barrier and down the bank, so it must still be on the roadside. I sidled around the bend and sure enough there was a pair of eyes glowing back at me in the torch-light. I could tell immediately from the way it was sitting that it wasn't a ferret-badger, but rather some sort of small cat. The thing with eye-shine is that it is often so bright that it obscures the animal behind it until you get closer. I could see some markings on the face and throat so had a fair idea of which species of small cat it was, but I needed to confirm it. I edged across to the other side of the road to try and get a side-view of the animal, hoping it wouldn't dash off. It just sat there watching me. Once in a better position I could give a 100%!a(MISSING)ccurate assessment of the species. Domestic tabby cat! I guess it lives in the power station up there. There was nothing higher up the road, and back at the dumpster the cat was inside and the rat was not. I suspect that rat would have been more than a match for that cat though if it had tried anything! However, there was more to come lower down the road on the way back down. A bat flew past and instead of vanishing into the night, it landed on a tree trunk and hung there swivelling its head about. No idea which species it was, other than a black-coloured horseshoe bat. A bit further on I picked up some eye-shine in the top of a tree, and then another pair of eyes, and another, and another! There was a whole group of small-toothed palm civets running about in the canopy! I didn't even know they were found on the mountain! I guess it was a family group, and they were feeding on either fruit or flowers. I stayed there watching them for about half an hour. Even further down the road I saw another small-toothed palm civet running along the power line above the road. They must be really common up here!

My second day on the mountain went much better than the first. Some of you may recall that back at the start of the trip, in August, I had met up with a fellow birder by the name of Mike at the Hong Kong airport. Well, Mike was coincidentally in Sabah at the same time as me. In fact he flew into KK on the same day and came up to Mt. Kinabalu on the same day. However it turned out he didn't have any internet connection at the place he was staying so our attempts to connect were hindered somewhat. We were going to meet this morning for some birding but it didn't really work out because we didn't know where each other was. Instead I went up the Silau-Silau Trail, starting at about 6am, then up the Bukit Ular Trail, and then down the Liwagu Trail (where I discovered that tree which had fallen down in the night -- I reported it at the Visitor Centre so it could be cleared but it remained across the trail for the rest of my stay). The Silau-Silau Trail wasn't too birdy to be honest, although I saw the first chestnut-hooded laughing thrushes and Bornean whistlers of this trip, as well as an unacceptable fly-by of a Bornean montane forktail. In 2009 these were seen commonly but this time I saw one flash past, heard another, and only saw one more which I could count (and they were probably all the same individual bird). There were other birds which should have been common too which I didn't see anywhere, like the eye-browed flycatchers, and I only saw grey-chinned minivets once and indigo flycatchers twice. Mt. Kinabalu is odd like that -- a bird as common as dirt on one visit can be entirely absent on another. You really need to spend as long as possible on the mountain to keep winkling out a few more birds each day. The Bukit Ular Trail was better. Apart for twice getting too-short glimpses of what must have been a crimson-headed partridge, I saw a great bird-wave which included my first Bornean (bald-headed) laughing thrushes ever, and the first tickable views this visit of Bornean treepies. Up at the Timpohon Gate viewing deck, while I was watching the black-banded squirrel, a mountain black-eye (a type of white-eye but with black eye-rings instead of white) came hopping up along the railing. To go all the way to the summit you need an expensive guide, but you can go to Layang-Layang, halfway up, by yourself. There are various animals best seen between the Timpohon Gate and Layang-Layang but I'd seen most of them already (the only real exceptions being the friendly bush-warbler and the Bornean swiftlet) so I wasn't going to go that high this visit. Among the animals usually seen higher is the mountain black-eye. Another one is Jentink's squirrel, a little wee thing the size of a rat, and I unexpectedly saw one of those on the Bukit Ular Trail. And down below the viewing deck I saw two more higher species, the mountain ground squirrel and the mountain tree-shrew. So pretty good going.

The walk down the Liwagu Trail also went well. As is well known God has an inordinate fondness for beetles, but he excelled himself with the trilobite larva, a creature so extraordinary that it was given a common name which is preposterously opposite to what it actually is and yet describes it so perfectly that you could probably imagine its general appearance just from the name. There are quite a number of species of this type of beetle around the southeast Asian highlands – I have also seen them in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia – but the Mt. Kinabalu one is probably best-known and also one of the most colourful. Interestingly they aren't shy at all, often being seen just wandering about on the ground in the middle of the day. I guess they must taste bad (and as I discovered in Sumatra they are bioluminescent, so they probably taste really bad). Trilobite larvae are sort of a random find when you're on the mountain, and I just came across one this visit (I saw at least five or six last time).

Short-tailed green magpies made their presence known initially by their raucous yet musical caroling. They are beautiful birds, bright green with red wings and a black mask, like a more-fashionable Zorro. A funny thing with green magpies is that in captivity the feathers tend to turn a powder-blue due to a lack of the right ingredients in their diet. Here I saw one which was blue! Not the blue of a captive bird, but a sort of greenish-blue, really distinct from the bright green of the other birds. Even better was to come, right near the end of the Liwagu Trail, almost back at the HQ. I had stopped to watch a bird-wave, mostly chestnut-hooded laughing thrushes but also some Sunda laughing thrushes, when another biggish bird came flying in and landed. Binoculars on it -- Whitehead's broadbill!! I was totally blown away to see this bird because I simply never expected to. It is one of the harder species to find on the mountain, and it was larger than I had thought it would be (I had been expecting it to be the size of the lesser green broadbill). I had been told that there had been a pair nesting recently right over one of the trails but they had been hounded so relentlessly by photographers that they abandoned their nest. Having seen the behaviour of photographers at Kaeng Krachan I can picture the scene exactly. I followed the wave along the trail for a while -- I even ignored a (probably smooth-tailed) tree-shrew in favour of the broadbill, if you can believe that! The broadbill was very active and perched regularly where I could see it well, but all the photos I tried to get were obscured by branches and leaves.

I managed to meet up with Mike and his wife that evening and we tried some spot-lighting without much success. The bin at Timpohon Gate was full -- completely full so all that could be seen were the topmost rubbish bags -- and there were no rats visible. I stayed out later than they did but all I saw was a pair of small-toothed palm civets. One of them was calling, sounding like someone blowing on a tin whistle. Really weird noise and not at all what I would have thought a civet would sound like.

The third day was another good bird day. Mike and I met at the HQ at 6am; because he was going to Sepilok that day he only had until 9am. We started up the Liwagu Trail to see if we could run into the broadbill from yesterday. No luck there, but we did totally unexpectedly find a very obliging Everett's thrush! This is another endemic which not everyone manages to find on the mountain (and when they do it is usually high up, not at the lower end of the trails!). It hopped across the trail into the undergrowth but then just sat in plain view on a log preening for ages, before hopping back onto the trail, pausing, then dashing off to the other side. It was pretty quiet from then until when Mike had to leave, so I hope he saw something on the way back. Everett's thrush is probably a good consolation though if he didn't! Further on I found a small flock of grey-chinned minivets, black-capped white-eyes and some other usual stuff. Then a small round bird with a short cocked tail hopped across the trail and stopped on top of one of the water pipes. My first thought was "what the heck is that thing?", followed by "no, seriously, what the heck is that thing?!" It was entirely reddish in colour apart for the wings which looked slate-grey. It looked like something which should be following an army ant trail in South America, not sitting on a trail on Mt. Kinabalu. What I wrote in my notebook was "some weird babblery thing - small round ball, cocked tail, slate back, reddish head and underparts - on ground". Down at the HQ later I had a look in the Borneo field guide in the giftshop and the only thing which comes even close is orange-headed thrush, but I have seen those before (even just recently at the Penang Bird Park) and the only way it would work is if it was a young one so smaller than an adult, had lost half its tail, decided to carry said shortened tail in a permanently popped-up fashion, and had further decided to not act or move like a thrush at all. After posting this originally someone suggested it might be a female white-browed shortwing which in fact is exactly what it was. Mystery solved.

At the top of the trail I paid a visit to the viewing deck where there were five black-banded squirrels and also a Sunda bush-warbler (of the spot-breasted form), then went down the Bukit Ular Trail where there was a Bornean whistling thrush and nothing else! On the Silau-Silau Trail I found more green magpies, more Bornean laughing thrushes, and some greater racquet-tailed drongos lacking their racquets. There was no spot-lighting that night because the wind had got too strong. Rainforest trees are only shallow-rooted so being in a forest in high winds is not a good idea! Also it rained for the first and only time (last time I was at Mt. Kinabalu there was a lot of rain -- this visit there were hardly even any clouds a lot of the time).

My fourth and last day at Mt. Kinabalu was more like a repeat of the first day -- no birds!! I went up the Liwagu Trail as usual, and did see a pair of mountain wren-babblers and a golden-naped (Kinabalu) barbet really well, but otherwise there wasn't much. I spent a while "rock-pooling" in the river. There's lots of life in there, including two or three species of hillstream loaches, several (?) species of tadpoles, freshwater crabs, and larvae of caddis-flies, stoneflies, damselflies and others. Lots of fun. Going down the Bukit Ular Trail I found nothing, then down the Mempening Trail with much the same. At night I went up the road to the bin where there was nothing, down the Bukit Ular Trail, then down the road to the HQ. I had been going to do the Mempening or Silau-Silau Trail as well, but the Bukit Ular Trail was slow-going and those trails would have taken even longer. There's an extremely venomous snake up here called the Kinabalu pit-viper which lives on the ground and is active at night. It likes to sit in the leaves on the trails and wait for prey -- and apparently it can be quite aggressive if disturbed. So I was moving five or ten steps watching the ground with the torch, then stopping to scan the trees, move another five or ten steps, then scan. I didn't see any pit-vipers, but better safe than sorry! The trail is only a kilometre long but it took an hour.

The only animal I saw all night was one I couldn't identify. It was just downhill from where the big bin is, but it was at the top of a bank in amongst the trees and all I could see was the eyeshine. It had forward-facing eyes with greeny-bluey eye-shine, and it was making a really weird noise like a double gurgly hiccup. If I was to write the noise down it would be something like "glug glug". It wasn't a civet (red eye-shine), it wasn't the domestic cat (wrong noise), and it wasn't a giant flying squirrel (red eye-shine). The only other animal I can think of is a ferret-badger. I never saw it so it probably was a ferret-badger! I spent half an hour trying to see it but still only got the eyes apart for a vague outline when it turned its head from time to time. I couldn't get closer due to its position, and it never moved from the spot. After I came out from the Bukit Ular Trail I went back up the road (the trail comes out about 1.5km below Timpohon Gate) to see if the animal had moved but it was still in the same place; I couldn't even get eye-shine this time, but it started making its "glug glug" noise when the light moved over the area.

The next morning I took a bus to Sepilok where I am staying at the Sepilok B&B, five minutes down the road from the Rainforest Discovery Centre.


10th May 2014

Is Mike there? Is he married?! Aw, Mike.

Tot: 0.23s; Tpl: 0.019s; cc: 26; qc: 120; dbt: 0.0391s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.7mb