Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Borneo 2018: Part 7 (Kinabatangan River, Gomantong Caves)

Part 1: Fly to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu (September 30 - October 2, 2018)
Part 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu (October 3, 2018)
Part 3: Full day at Mount Kinabalu (October 4, 2018)
Part 4: Mount Kinabalu to Sepilok (October 5, 2018)
Part 5: Sepilok (October 6, 2018)
Part 6: Kinabatangan River (October 6-7, 2018)
Part 7: Kinabatangan River, Gomantong Caves (October 7-8, 2018)
Part 8: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 8-9, 2018)
Part 9: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 9-10, 2018)
Part 10: Danum Valley (October 11-12, 2018)
Part 11: Danum Valley (October 13-14, 2018)


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October 7, 2019 (continued)

We all enjoyed a two hour break before reconvening for our late afternoon boat ride. I mostly relaxed during the break, though the birds around the cabins kept me alert. A new one for me was a Chestnut-necklaced Partridge vocalizing from the understorey in the dense forest surrounding the lodge.

We headed downriver for our evening boat cruise, eager to explore a new area. Along a small section of limestone lining the river a small colony of Plume-toed Swifts were present.


Plume-toed Swiftlets - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Birding was steady with many great sightings - several White-tailed Sea-Eagles, two Lesser Fish-Eagles, a flock of Little Green Pigeons and Common Hill Mynas to name a few.


White-tailed Sea-Eagle - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia
A pair of dark hornbills took off from a riverside perch and flew away from the boat, but something about them seemed different. Wreathed Hornbill!! This was a new one for the group and by far the best looks I have ever had of this species (my previous sighting was a brief flyover at the Poring Hot Springs in 2017).

Wreathed Hornbill - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Small groups of primates were commonly noted as we traveled and included Pig-tailed Macaques, Long-tailed Macaques, Silvered Leaf Monkey and Proboscis Monkey. Interestingly, one of the Silvered Leaf Monkeys was of the pale rufous morph, a genetic curiosity that seems to occur with relative frequency in the forests along the Kinabatangan River. While appearing superficially similar to the Maroon Leaf Monkey, the lack of a black face and paler fur color easily identify this individual as a Silvered Leaf Monkey.


Silvered Leaf Monkey (pale morph) - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


Silvered Leaf Monkey (pale morph) - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

We spotted a few more groups of proboscis monkeys as we traveled, many of them settling in for the night along the riverbanks. Probosics Monkeys congregate in trees alongside the rivers at dusk to limit their exposure to predators. Generally, the biggest terrestrial predator of Proboscis Monkey is the Clouded Leopard so by resting at the river's edge and facing the forest, they can increase their odds of detecting a Clouded Leopard ahead of time. They just need to make sure that they are located high enough up in the trees to prevent the chance of a surprise attack from a Saltwater Crocodile. Life isn't easy.


Proboscis Monkeys - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

We returned to the lodge to eat dinner and by 8:00 PM had reassembled at the docks for an hour-long night cruise. This is one of my favorite activities in the Bornean lowlands and while Reticulated Pythons remained out of sight yet again we still had a blast. Several Buffy Fish-Owls are a good bet to be found along the river and today was no different. This one turned it's head away from me just a second too early.


Buff Fish-Owl - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

While Saltwater Crocodiles appear uncommon at best during the day, in the evenings they really come out of the woodwork. Or rather, they become much more obvious due to the orange eyeshine they produce when hit with a light. We saw very few Saltwater Crocodiles during our stay at the Kinabatangan River this year - maybe four in total, compared to over twenty in 2017. The river appeared to be flowing with greater velocity this year - perhaps the crocodiles were hanging out in the calmer tributaries.

Saltwater Crocodile - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Not a Reticulated Python, but a reptile at least! This is a sleepy Asian Water Monitor.


Asian Water Monitor - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Part of the fun of spotlighting a river at night is the possibility of coming across birds roosting in the shoreline vegetation. This evening we spotted a few Stork-billed Kingfishers, a small group of Black-and-red Broadbills, a Blue-eared Kingfisher and some Oriental Magpie-Robins including one with a deformed bill.


Stork-billed Kingfisher - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


Black-and-red Broadbills - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


Oriental Magpie-Robin - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


Oriental Magpie-Robin - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Common Palm Civets are active mostly at night and love feeding on certain species of oily palm fruits.


Common Palm Civet - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


October 8, 2019

We awoke to a steamy morning in the Bornean lowlands. I made sure that I was up before dawn to listen to the forest come alive as it was our last morning along the Kinabatangan River. The Chestnut-necklaced Partridge was calling again from somewhere unseen while a bonus Crested Goshawk also appeared.

We said our goodbyes to the staff and boarded the boats for the last time. We made the short ride over to the docks at Sukau, transferred to our waiting bus, and hit the road.

Our last six nights in the Bornean lowlands would be split between two fantastic lodges situated at the edges of relatively large reserves. First up would be the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, followed by the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley. To break up the drive to Tabin we made a stop at the Gomantong Caves to view the bats, swiftlets, and whatever else we could find.

 Gomantong Caves, Sabah, Malaysia

Within the immediate vicinity of the caves a large swath of forest had been protected, preventing the land from the insatiable saws of the logging industry and the resulting oil palm plantations that have taken up so much of southeast Asia. Bornean Orangutans could be found in this forest, and indeed we viewed several old "nests" created by individuals each evening to sleep in, but no orangutans.

We followed a boardwalk through a section of forest that eventually opened up near the main cave entrance. A few small flocks of birds passed through that included Sooty-capped and Chestnut-winged Babbler. But the babblers were quickly forgotten when our first gliding lizard (Draco) was spotted!  The identification of these species is a bit tricky and I am not sure which one this is. We watched for a few minutes but it refused to glide for us!


Draco sp. - Gomantong Caves, Sabah, Malaysia

The sights and especially the smells within the cave were something to behold. High-pitched, twittering calls indicated to us that tens of thousands of bats and swiftlets were present, and certain walls of the cave were covered in small dark spots, each representing a bat hanging from the ceiling. The acidic smell took a few minutes to get used to while millions of cochroaches scuttled around, ensuring that this was not the place for the faint of heart. The sheer biomass in these caves is incredible, especially when it comes to cochroaches. The ever growing pile of nutrient-rich guano was several meters high across the floor of the cave.


Unidentified bat - Gomantong Caves, Sabah, Malaysia

We were all a little relieved to exit the cave and breath fresh air again. A unique experience, to say the least! One day I would love to visit the cave at dusk when the bats leave and the swifts come back in, since often several raptors (including Bat Hawks) gather near the cave entrance to feast. 

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Part 1: Fly to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu (September 30 - October 2, 2018)
Part 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu (October 3, 2018)
Part 3: Full day at Mount Kinabalu (October 4, 2018)
Part 4: Mount Kinabalu to Sepilok (October 5, 2018)
Part 5: Sepilok (October 6, 2018)
Part 6: Kinabatangan River (October 6-7, 2018)
Part 7: Kinabatangan River, Gomantong Caves (October 7-8, 2018)
Part 8: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 8-9, 2018)
Part 9: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 9-10, 2018)
Part 10: Danum Valley (October 11-12, 2018)
Part 11: Danum Valley (October 13-14, 2018)

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Borneo 2018: Part 6 (Kinabatangan River)

Part 1: Fly to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu (September 30 - October 2, 2018)
Part 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu (October 3, 2018)
Part 3: Full day at Mount Kinabalu (October 4, 2018)
Part 4: Mount Kinabalu to Sepilok (October 5, 2018)
Part 5: Sepilok (October 6, 2018)
Part 6: Kinabatangan River (October 6-7, 2018)
Part 7: Kinabatangan River, Gomantong Caves (October 7-8, 2018)
Part 8: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 8-9, 2018)
Part 9: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 9-10, 2018)
Part 10: Danum Valley (October 11-12, 2018)
Part 11: Danum Valley (October 13-14, 2018)


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October 6, 2018 (continued)

The Borneo Nature Lodge is one of several eco-lodges catering to tourists along the mighty Kinabatangan River. While much of the surrounding land has been converted to oil palm and nipa palm plantation, the Kinabtangan Wildlife Sanctuary covers a swath of land immediately adjacent to the river. It creates the illusion that one is surrounded by a vast tropical lowland forest when really in some areas the sanctuary ends only a few kilometers from the river, or is only present on one side of the river. However, the protected riverine forest is lush, diverse and beautiful. Traveling by boat down one of the tributaries invokes memories of the Jungle Book due to the impressive trees overhanging the river, hornbills cruising past and family groups of primates in the trees.


Menanggol tributary, Sabah, Malaysia

The first group of Proboscis Monkeys elicited oohs and aahs from everyone present. Proboscis Monkeys are one of several species of "leaf monkeys" in Borneo that have specialized gut flora to assist with digesting large quantities of leaves.


Proboscis Monkey - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

As afternoon turned to evening we watched the antics of the females and young males. The alpha male who ran this harem sat on his own off to the side, keeping an eye out for usurpers.


Proboscis Monkey - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

A nearby group of bachelor male Proboscis Monkeys were resting in some nearby trees. Apparently one of the males came a little too close, provoking an aggressive response from the alpha.


Proboscis Monkey - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


Proboscis Monkey - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


exploring the Kinatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


October 7, 2019

 The mist slowly rose off the surface of the river as the early morning sun crested the tall riparian trees. We enjoyed a cup of coffee with some banana fritters and set off in two boats upriver.



Oriental Darter - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

One of our first great sightings was unfortunately very distant and not seen by everyone - a distant pair of Endangered Storm's Storks that disappeared behind some trees across the river from the docks. Our first Slender-billed Crows of the trip cruised past the boat while we motored upriver.


Slender-billed Crow - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Morning along the Kinabatangan River can be an excellent time of day to see hornbills. Rhinoceros, Black and Oriental Pied were all seen well, many of them perched in riverside trees.


Oriental Pied-Hornbill - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

There are eight species of hornbills that call Borneo home. While they utilize different habitats, in sufficiently large tracts of suitable habitat all eight species may be present. One reason why they can all coexist with minimal competition is that each species specializes on a particular prey item. Some species go after large figs, others medium or small figs, and still others are mostly carnivorous. As deforestation chips away at the edges of forest tracts, eventually the species that require vast tracts of intact habitat like the Helmeted Hornbill or White-crested Hornbill disappear slowly over time. Eventually, fragmented forests are only large enough for Oriental Pied Hornbills or Bushy-crested Hornbills, if that.


Oriental Pied-Hornbills - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

A boat trip down the Kinabatangan provides an excellent opportunity to compare the differences between the resident Pacific Swallows and migratory Barn Swallows.


Pacific Swallow - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


Pacific Swallow - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

A pair of Crested Serpent-Eagles were keeping an eye out for serpentine shapes from prominent perches along the river.


Crested Serpent-Eagle - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Heron types were conspicuous along the river with Purple Herons in particular putting on a show.


Purple Heron - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia


Oriental Pied Hornbill - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

We rounded a bend in the river and some distant fluttering in a tree caught my eye so I stopped the boats. A closer look revealed them as Long-tailed Parakeets investigating the cavities in the tree. We missed this species in 2017 so the excellent though distant views were appreciated!


Long-tailed Parakeets - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

We investigated a quiet oxbow lake before returning to the lodge for a late breakfast. The sun was burning down on us by this point and not a hint of breeze could be found on the oxbox lake. The stifling heat limited the number of birds that were vocalizing, though a few White-chested Babblers sang out from the understory of the nearby forest. Ben spotted a pair of Rhinocerous Hornbills resting in the shade and closer inspection revealed that the male had a rodent of some kind in his beak. He gently passed it to the female who played with it for a while before swallowing it whole!


Rhinoceros Hornbills - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

In 2017 there were no trails that one could walk from the Borneo Nature Lodge but Ben heard from someone that one had recently been cut. Since we had no plans until our late afternoon boat cruise, Ben and I decided to lead a walk along this trail along with one of the guys working at the lodge.


Unidentified stick insect - Borneo Nature Lodge, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Though the day was very warm which limited bird activity, we came away with some decent sightings. The highlight for everyone was of course a trio of Brown Wood-Owls - an adult and two youngsters - but we also saw a Black-and-yellow Broadbill and a pair of Hairy-backed Bulbuls at close range, and heard a Lesser Coucal and a White-crowned Shama.


Brown Wood-Owl - Borneo Nature Lodge, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

One of the travelers pointed out this amicable anuran perched beside a small pond next to the main lodge building. I believe it is Chalcorana megalonesa (Large White-lipped Frog) which was one of our most frequently encountered amphibians on the trip.


Large White-lipped Frog - Borneo Nature Lodge, Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

That afternoon and evening we had two additional boat trips planned, which I will detail in the next blog post.

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Part 1: Fly to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu (September 30 - October 2, 2018)
Part 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu (October 3, 2018)
Part 3: Full day at Mount Kinabalu (October 4, 2018)
Part 4: Mount Kinabalu to Sepilok (October 5, 2018)
Part 5: Sepilok (October 6, 2018)
Part 6: Kinabatangan River (October 6-7, 2018)
Part 7: Kinabatangan River, Gomantong Caves (October 7-8, 2018)
Part 8: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 8-9, 2018)
Part 9: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 9-10, 2018)
Part 10: Danum Valley (October 11-12, 2018)
Part 11: Danum Valley (October 13-14, 2018)

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Borneo 2018: Part 5 (Sepilok)

Part 1: Fly to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu (September 30 - October 2, 2018)
Part 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu (October 3, 2018)
Part 3: Full day at Mount Kinabalu (October 4, 2018)
Part 4: Mount Kinabalu to Sepilok (October 5, 2018)
Part 5: Sepilok (October 6, 2018)
Part 6: Kinabatangan River (October 6-7, 2018)
Part 7: Kinabatangan River, Gomantong Caves (October 7-8, 2018)
Part 8: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 8-9, 2018)
Part 9: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 9-10, 2018)
Part 10: Danum Valley (October 11-12, 2018)
Part 11: Danum Valley (October 13-14, 2018)


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October 6, 2018

We were up early for a pre-breakfast walk at the Rainforest Discovery Center. The highlight here is the 347 m long canopy walkway which provides amazing views of the forest from a unique vantage point. Even before leaving the resort I spotted a few new bird species in front of my cabin - a Van Hesseldt's Sunbird and Red-legged Crake.

View from canopy walkway - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Canopy walkway - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

The canopy walkway at Sepilok rises 25 m above the forest floor and is constructed with steel beams, providing ample stability to those using it. At certain times of the year the birding can be rather dynamic, especially if certain nearby trees are fruiting. Much like during my visit in 2017, there were no fruiting trees near the walkway which made the birding a little bit slow. But over time we slowly added species here and there. A major non-avian highlight for many was viewing a Pale Giant Squirrel at close range and being treated to its bizarre vocalizations.

Pale Giant Squirrel - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia


The North Philippine Temple Pitviper was still present in exactly the same ambush position!

North Philippine Temple Pitviper - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Some of the highlights from an hour and a half on the walkway included a perched Wallace's Hawk-Eagle, a pair of impressive White-bellied Woodpeckers, several Brown Barbets, a flock of Blue-throated Bee-eaters sallying for insects, and a Black Hornbill that flew right over our heads several times.

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Brown Barbet - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Black Hornbill - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Black Hornbill - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

We returned to the resort for breakfast, then walked over to the nearby Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

Clipper - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Established in 1964, the center houses up to 80 orphaned or confiscated Bornean Orangutans in a nursery or in the nearby Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Many of the orangutans are roaming free in the forest reserve around the center, though they are given supplemental feedings. The ultimate goal is to wean the orangutans off of human reliance so that they can survive on their own in the wild. In part because Bornean Orangutans are not necessarily easy to find and were not "guaranteed' on our tour, our group would be visiting the center to give us a chance to observe the semi-wild individuals. As you will read later on, this was not really necessary given the views we had of wild Bornean Orangutans - more on that later!

Bornean Orangutan (captive) - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

A Gray-tailed Racer was roosting in a tree directly above where our bus was parked at the Center. Clearly this is a popular hangout, since in 2017 we saw several individuals in these trees as well.

Gray-tailed Racer (Gonyosoma oxycephalum) - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

We also stopped briefly at the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Center where several youngsters were scratching for insects, climbing trees, or resting in the shade.

Sun Bear (captive) - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Sun Bear (captive) - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Sun Bear (captive) - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

A nice surprise was a family group of Pig-tailed Macaques that passed through and lingered for several minutes near the Sun Bear enclosure. This was our first encounter with Pig-tailed Macaques on the trip and it was a great chance to observe the group dynamics.

Southern Pig-tailed Macaque - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Southern Pig-tailed Macaque - Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Our home base for the next two nights was the Borneo Nature Lodge located on the Kinabatangan River. This lodge is accessible only by water and is approximately 3 hours from the docks in Sandakan. Our bus driver dropped us off at the docks and we bid farewell, transferring our gear onto the boat waiting for us. Several Striated Herons were well camouflaged on the rocks at the jetty while several Asian Water Monitors cruised around the shoreline as well. They are quite adept at traveling by water, as expected given their name.

Striated Heron - Sandakan jetty, Sabah, Malaysia

With the sun beating down on us we left the docks behind, heading out to the open water and eventually, the mouth of the Kinabatangan River.

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Part 1: Fly to Borneo, Kota Kinabalu (September 30 - October 2, 2018)
Part 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu (October 3, 2018)
Part 3: Full day at Mount Kinabalu (October 4, 2018)
Part 4: Mount Kinabalu to Sepilok (October 5, 2018)
Part 5: Sepilok (October 6, 2018)
Part 6: Kinabatangan River (October 6-7, 2018)
Part 7: Kinabatangan River, Gomantong Caves (October 7-8, 2018)
Part 8: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 8-9, 2018)
Part 9: Tabin Wildlife Reserve (October 9-10, 2018)
Part 10: Danum Valley (October 11-12, 2018)
Part 11: Danum Valley (October 13-14, 2018)