the Night-Walkers

May 12th 2014
Published: May 12th 2014
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All the major sites in Sabah are connected by an excellent bus network. In 2009 I went Kota Kinabalu to Mt. Kinabalu to Lahad Datu (for Danum Valley) to the Kinabatangan to Sepilok to Poring to Mt. Kinabalu again and back to Kota Kinabalu (and fitted the Crocker Range in there as well somehow, I think just as a round-trip to and from KK). This visit I am just doing Mt. Kinabalu and Sepilok due to only being here ten days and not liking to rush about like a headless megapode. But still I would only be at Sepilok for three nights. From Mt. Kinabalu I caught a passing bus from the side of the road outside the Mountain Resthouse, in the company of two English guys who were also going to Sepilok. The bus cost 40 Ringgitts (it varies according to which bus you catch) and took four hours to reach the turn-off to Sepilok (an hour before the town of Sandakan), from where we took the remaining couple of kilometres by taxi for five Ringgitts each.

Most tourists visiting the orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok just stay in Sandakan and make a day-trip, but there is lots of accommodation around the Sepilok area. No need to book ahead because I doubt anywhere is ever full. I was staying in a three-bed 33 Ringgitt dorm (of which I was the sole occupant) at the Sepilok B&B which is where I stayed in 2009. It is about twenty minutes walk away from the orangutan sanctuary but only 400 metres from the Rainforest Discovery Centre, so much better sited for me. The orangutan sanctuary (where people go to see “wild orangutans” on their holiday to Borneo) is open just twice a day, between 9am and noon and then between 2pm and 4pm, which is when the free-ranging ex-pet orangutans are fed. The cost of entry is 40 Ringgitts. In contrast the Rainforest Discovery Centre (henceforth abbreviated to RDC) costs 15 Ringgitts and while officially open between 8am and 5pm can in practice be visited at literally any time – there are no gates and you simply pay on the way out if you entered before opening time. There are lots of trails at the RDC, ranging from paved roads through gravel paths to rough leaf-covered tracks, and in addition there is a fabulous Canopy Walkway ten metres off the ground with viewing towers over 26 metres tall.

It is extremely hot in lowland Borneo. I had forgotten quite how hot it is. At Mt. Kinabalu the temperature is perfect, you can walk all day without breaking a sweat and one small bottle of water will last the day. Getting off the bus at the Sepilok junction was like stepping into a furnace. The sun felt like it would be hot enough to not only fry an egg on a bald man's head but also give the bald man skin cancer in the frying time. Thus birding is mainly restricted to early morning and late afternoon. You can keep birding all day if you want but it is a lot of lost sweat for just a couple of birds. What I found was that by even 9am the birds have mostly disappeared out of the heat. Unfortunately the food times at the Sepilok B&B do not match well with birding like this. They have a free breakfast which is an actual buffet breakfast, not the white bread and coffee of most places, but it is only available from seven until nine. The first morning I went out at six and came back at seven (that's why the closeness of the RDC is so handy!), then back out for the rest of the morning. The next morning I went out until 8.30 and came back for a later breakfast because that worked better. Lunch is fine because I wasn't doing anything anyway. Dinner was annoying. The kitchen at the B&B didn't open until 6pm and closed at 9pm – and I was in the RDC at those times spotlighting! There is a very good cafe at the RDC but it closes randomly between 3pm and 5pm depending on their whims. For the first night I got some boiled eggs at the cafe before it closed at 4pm, the second night I headed back to the B&B at 8.30pm, and the third night I took the “go out late” option and had dinner at 6pm then went to the RDC afterwards. You have to have some flexibility if you want to both eat and bird/mammal-watch at the RDC.

On my first afternoon I didn't really see very much. There is a lot of bird activity in the morning but not much in the late afternoon (more than in the middle of the day, but still not a lot). Best animal of the afternoon was in fact an ant-mimic spider scurrying about on the railing of the Canopy Walkway. I can't recall ever seeing one in real life before, and they are neat little things. The body is the exact shape of an ant's body, and to complete the illusion they run on six legs and hold the front pair of legs straight out in front to look like antennae. I couldn't get any photos unfortunately because, as mentioned in earlier posts, my little camera refuses to take photos now and my proper camera has a lens which can't focus on tiny invertebrates. There are lots of swiftlets over the forest, most of which I think are black-nest and edible-nest swiftlets (I haven't got either on the list though due to ID difficulties!); also glossy swiftlets, silver-rumped spinetails and I saw one whiskered tree-swift. There was a pair of Wallace's hawk-eagles nesting in the really big tree next to Trogon Tower on the Canopy Walkway. This was the tree the red giant flying squirrels used to live, I think not any longer but more on them later. I also came across more filthy photographers. I am really starting to dislike these guys. I don't mean birders who take photos of birds, or even pure photographers who show some craft and respect for their subjects. No, I mean the scum photographers who have no idea of what the word respect means, the sort I met at Kaeng Krachan in Thailand or the ones I heard about at Mt. Kinabalu who forced the broadbills to desert their nest. The sort of people who don't give a damn about the birds' welfare and would rather a bird abandons its chicks to die, just so long as they get a photo. And they always have their cameras on rapid-fire so it sounds like machine-gun fire. There were two guys at the RDC after photos of Diard's trogon and they had a tape of the call. I don't use tapes, I prefer to find birds on their terms and if I can't find them then too bad for me. But these guys didn't even know how to use a tape to attract a bird. They had the call on a continuous loop and played it, well, continuously and at such a volume that even I could plainly hear it hundreds of metres away through the forest! Any time I was at the RDC I could hear it playing, non-stop, all the freaking time!! They would just stand on a trail with their cameras set up and play the tape for an hour. Then move to another trail and do the same thing. I wanted to just go and stamp on it. Did I see a Diard's trogon without a tape? Of course I did. Did I get a photo of a Diard's trogon without a tape? Yes I did. Are those two guys going to a special hell when they die where someone is going to be screaming COME HERE COME HERE COME HERE COME HERE COME HERE COME HERE COME HERE COME HERE at their face for all of eternity. Yes they are.

There are lots of squirrels at the RDC. In 2009 I saw six or seven species I think. Some of the best were the giant flying squirrels, of which (in 2009) I saw both the red and the black species. Flying squirrels are nocturnal and the reds used to live in the really big tree I mentioned. If you stood on the walkway by Trogon Tower you could see them gliding out over the forest around dusk. On my first evening this visit I was standing there with a couple of other people, waiting, not sure where the squirrels would come from now, and the two English guys who had come from Mt. Kinabalu on my bus suddenly turned up from the far end of the walkway and said “fancy running into you here.... we just saw a flying squirrel!” Poo. I spent part of the night walking round the trails looking for slow loris and tarsiers but with no success. I had actually fully resigned myself to never seeing a slow loris. I would keep looking any time I was in the right habitats but I knew it would never happen. Although I really do think I am owed a slow loris given the amount of time I've spent out at night looking for them!! I didn't see any other animals that night either. I did hear things crashing about in the undergrowth which sounded reasonably big but I couldn't see anything.

The next morning was much better for birds than the previous afternoon. Also it was good for squirrels, first with a pair of endemic ear-spot squirrels which look very similar to plantain squirrels but are smaller and have a pale spot behind each ear; then a couple of actual plantain squirrels; later at breakfast there was a Prevost's squirrel in the garden of the B&B. Prevost's have a lot of subspecies with different colourations; the ones here are glossy black with a red belly. Along the road between the B&B and the RDC there were flocks of pink-necked green pigeons and glossy starlings, as well as the ubiquitous yellow-vented bulbuls and a brown barbet in a tree-top. The name brown barbet doesn't make it sound very interesting but they are actually very attractive with a beautiful salmony-peach throat. Hawking over the lake just inside the entrance were numerous swifts, swiftlets and Pacific swallows. Up on the Canopy Walkway there wasn't much new but a singing white-crowned shama, endemic to Borneo, was very nice. I returned to the B&B for breakfast, seeing Oriental magpie-robin, dollarbird, chestnut munia, dark-necked tailorbird, slender-billed crow and collared kingfisher along the roadside. After breakfast as I walked back to the RDC I spotted a small flock of Malayan black hornbills. I walked round some of the trails for the rest of the morning trying unsuccessfully to find pittas. There are six species of pittas recorded here and I've only seen two of them before (both at Danum Valley). Further along from the Canopy Walkway is a building called Drongo House, next to a second short canopy walk leading to Broadbill Tower. Inside Drongo House is a big board with a full bird list for the RDC. I had read on the board the previous afternoon that dusky munias could sometimes be seen feeding in the grass outside Drongo House, so this morning I was careful in my approach – and sure enough there was a little flock of five or six dusky munias feeding in the grass outside Drongo House! Above Drongo House was a fruiting tree, out of which flew a flock of small parrots which must have been blue-rumped parrots but they were gone before I could see them properly. A brown barbet remained though so I got to watch that for a while. Quite a few bulbuls about as well, including black-headed, red-eyed, streaked and puff-backed.

In the afternoon I saw nothing. Literally nothing. At dusk I was up on the Canopy Walkway in the spot where the English guys had seen the red giant flying squirrel. Nothing. Sigh. The squirrels come out just on or before dusk so when it got too late for them to be appearing at that spot, I headed along to the regular spot from last time, by Trogon Tower – and there were the flying squirrels, goddammit. They were up at the top of one of the emergent trees, so very high up, but the eye-shine showed up nicely and they were silhouetted against the sky so I could watch them moving around. Then one flew off, followed by the other, so I got to see them gliding as well. For the rest of the night when spot-lighting – Nothing!! Seriously, looking for animals at night at the RDC is even less rewarding than looking for animals during the day!! But, if you don't try then you can't succeed right?

The second morning was yet another slooooow birding event. Lowland rainforest is like that – it can be busy or it can be dead, but you won't know which until you are out looking. I gave the Canopy Walkway a miss to start off with, in preference for trying to find pittas on the trails. I found none, of course, but I did find a few babblers which being ground-dwellers can't usually be seen from the canopy. Chestnut-winged babblers were first, followed by white-chested babblers, and then a fluffy-backed tit-babbler which probably has the best common name of any babbler species. Up on the Canopy Walkway before returning to the B&B I saw a plain pigmy squirrel. I had forgotten how tiny these were! It was only the size of a mouse, but that mouse is Speedy Gonzalez – the pigmy squirrels fairly fly between branches, like they have little rocket-packs in the soles of their feet.

I had to go into Sandakan on this day too, to get a bit more money and also to buy some more socks. I was on my very last pair and the holes were getting a bit too big. There is a shuttle bus which runs between Sepilok and Sandakan four times a day and costs five Ringgitts. One thing I really like about Malaysia is that the music of choice here is always 80s rock. The bus to and from Sandakan was playing the entire collection of The Scorpions, and elsewhere I hear Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Guns 'n' Roses, Def Leppard. I think that the era you grow up in is the era of music you prefer, hence “today's music sucks, it was much better in my day!” which is quite true. Today's music does suck, and 80s hair bands are the pinnacle of musical achievement.

On my third and final night I went to the RDC after dinner at about 8.30pm, instead of going over in the late afternoon and waiting for nightfall. I headed first for the Kingfisher Trail. There are lots of really excellent bird information signs scattered around the trails, with quality photos for identification (handy for me, with no field guide!), but along the Kingfisher Trail there is also some mammal signage (for tarsier, slow loris, colugo and bearded pig). I thought it would be nice to see a tarsier right next to a tarsier sign. Of course I did not see a tarsier by the tarsier sign; jolly misleading advertising if you ask me! Some way past the tarsier sign, almost up to the slow loris sign in fact, I caught a tiny glimpse of red in a tree. Was that eye-shine? I had a second look, nothing, another sweep of the torch – and a pair of glowing red eyes were staring back at me. I knew exactly what it was as soon as I saw them. Slow loris!! Finally! It's only taken me eight years of searching to find one! And not just any old slow loris but a Bornean slow loris, which ramps up its Awesome Factor significantly. Anything from Borneo is automatically better than anything from elsewhere. The loris looked at me, climbed down the branch it was on, up another, and disappeared into the leaves. I moved around on the trail trying to relocate it but couldn't. The thing with eye-shine is that the animal obviously needs to be looking at you for you to get the reflection – if it turns away then you see nothing. And between me and the loris was a creek, just too deep to step into and just too wide to jump across, and in any case on the other side was just a thick tangle of jungle. I tried for some time to see it again but it had either departed unseen or had tucked its head into its stomach and gone to sleep. It wasn't exactly my dream sighting – the loris sitting a metre away on a branch blinking in bemusement, so close I could reach out and tickle its fat little belly while it giggled hysterically – but I'll take it! Time for the slow loris victory dance. You can imagine it as Fred Astair or as Joey from Friends, up to you. I broke my porcupine curse on this trip (at Khao Yai in Thailand) and then suddenly ended up seeing lots of porcupines of two different species, so I'm hoping that now the loris curse is broken I will see loads more! Now, where those tarsiers at?

I finished off the Kingfisher Trail, went along the length of the Ridge Trail which meets back at the start of the Kingfisher Trail again so I did that a second time but the loris was still unseeable, then over to the Broadbill Tower walkway, then towards the Canopy Walkway. There was nothing seen up to that point, although I could hear noises in the night all around. Halfway to the Canopy Walkway, a Horsfield's tarsier suddenly came hurtling in from the side, landed with a thump on the ground in the middle of the trail literally a metre in front of my feet, then bounced onto a sapling, ricocheted off onto another and disappeared into the undergrowth. As with the slow loris it was impossible to then relocate it due to the thickness of the vegetation, and because tarsiers don't have eye-shine (dirty cheating scoundrels!) I couldn't even get a reflection to tell me where it was. I could hear it though, crashing about between the leaves. They are NOISY! The Sulawesi tarsiers were like silent ninja kangaroos as they bounced through the trees. The Bornean tarsiers are more like Mr. Magoo ninjas. It's as if they just throw themselves into the void yelling “I DON'T KNOW WHERE I'M GOING!” and crash into whatever lies in front, and then repeat, “WHY AM I DOING THIS?!” and crash into another tree. The difference may have been that the Sulawesi tarsiers were jumping around in the branches, whereas the Bornean ones seem to prefer the undergrowth. I had been hearing them all night – and on the other nights –without knowing if it was tarsiers or not, and not being able to see anything, but they must be really really common at the RDC. I saw another briefly when almost back at the entrance but although I spent forty minutes trying to see it and could hear it (or them – I think there were several in there) perfectly well, I never saw it a second time.

The next morning I slept in until 6am and then had to pack my bag because I was leaving back to KK straight after breakfast, so I didn't get a third morning birding. It is six hours by bus to KK (from the junction on the main highway) and the bus ends its trip at KK's northern bus terminal, nine kilometres from the city centre. The taxi drivers (and the bus driver himself) emphatically stated there were no local buses from the terminal to town which made no sense at all. Fortunately there is an information desk at the terminal and they told me where to catch the local bus from (it costs one Ringgitt, and is just out on the main road, past a couple of blocks of shops). I am now back at Lucy's Homestay. Next post will be about parrots.....


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