Thursday 11 January 2018

Borneo - Part 4 (Poring Hot Springs)

October 3, 2017 - Day 1 on Mount Kinabalu
October 4, 2017 - Day 2 on Mount Kinabalu
October 5, 2017 - Poring Hot Springs
October 6, 2017 - Day 3 on Mount Kinabalu
October 7, 2017 - Day 1 at the Crocker Range
October 8, 2017 - Day 2 at the Crocker Range, Kota Kinabalu
October 9, 2017 - Klias Peatswamp Forest Reserve
October 10, 2017 - Arrival at Sepilok
October 11, 2017 - Sepilok
October 12, 2017 - Sepilok, travel up the Kinabatangan River
October 13, 2017 - Kinabatangan River
October 14, 2017 - Gomantong Caves, travel to the Danum Valley
October 15, 2017 - Day 1 at the Danum Valley
October 15, 2017 - Night Hiking in the Danum Valley


October 5, 2017

Following two straight days of exploring the trails of Kinabalu Park between the park headquarters and the Timpohon Gate, I was ready to hike in a new area. I had done quite well in the park with but a few target species remaining, and I still had two days scheduled for this part of Sabah province. To switch things up I decided to make the short drive to the eastern slope of the mountain for my third full day to a place called the Poring Hot Springs. It is depicted with number 2 in the image below.

While my previous two days were spent exploring sub-montane forest between the elevations of  roughly 1500 m and 1900 m, the forests around Poring Hot Springs are much lower in elevation. The hot springs, popular with both locals and tourists, are located near the parking lot at an elevation of around 550 m. A trail leads from the hot springs for about four kilometers before ending at the Langanan waterfall, which is located at approximately 1050 m in elevation. The trail passes through several forest types that become increasingly less disturbed the closer one gets to the waterfall. This elevation band is not well represented in the common places that birders visit in Sabah and as a result a number of species difficult to come by elsewhere are found here. These include both Blue-banded Pitta (E) and Bornean Banded Pitta (E), the scarce Hose's Broadbill (E), and several other relatively difficult species, including White-necked Babbler, Scaly-breasted Bulbul, Cinnamon-rumped Trogon and Rufous-collared Kingfisher.

I left my accommodations shortly after 5:00 AM, making decent time on the windy roads down the mountain. The gate was open to the hot springs so I parked, grabbed my binoculars, camera and pack, and set out on foot just as the sun began to rise. As expected the hot springs were completely devoid of human activity at this early hour. Immediately I began adding new species to my life list. Most were common lowland species that I would see frequently later in the trip, including Plain-throated Sunbird, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha and Rufous-tailed Tailorbird. The distinctive calls of the latter species frequently helped compose the daily soundtrack in the lowlands during this trip. I managed good but brief views of a Lesser Treeshrew, which was my first ever treeshrew!

A White-crowned Shama (E) flitted around near the hot springs, and would have made a great photography target if I was not in a bit of a rush to start hiking on the trail. The early hour did not provide much light either so I resorted to using flash. This Sabah endemic is a relatively recent split (according to some authorities) from the White-rumped Shama, a widespread species throughout southeast Asia.

White-crowned Shama - Poring Hot Springs, Sabah, Malaysia

I found the trail leading to the waterfall and left the hot springs behind. Initially the forest was quite degraded, and it was in one of these stretches when a dark figure on the side of the trail caught my attention, hopping in a distinctive pitta-like fashion. I managed to watch the stunning Bornean Banded Pitta (E) for five seconds or so before it slipped off the trail. It reappeared two or three times, acting furtive and hardly allowing me to get my binoculars on it. Unfortunately I did not take any photos, but I encourage you to google this bird. Like many of the pittas, this one was a stunner!

Degraded forest near the Poring Hot Springs - Sabah, Malaysia

Feeling thrilled with the way my day began I continued hiking, crossing over several streams through areas of mature forest. Great views of a Bornean Spiderhunter (E) ensued, though it too eluded my camera. While the birding was a little slow to begin new species kept appearing, many of them being common birds found throughout lowland forests. It was during these early inclines after passing streams that I realized it would be a strenuous walk. The temperature by 7 AM was already 30 degrees with high humidity, and the trail was a near continuous incline to the waterfall. At one location I passed this ingenious water fountain.

water fountain - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

Several trip reports had given exact locations for stakeouts for some of the species, but try as I might I just did not have any success, striking out on good spots for Rufous-collared Kingfisher, Blue-banded Pitta and Cinnamon-rumped Trogon. I had some success with White-necked Babbler as I heard a few give their distinctive song, but none would come in close enough to observe. A few Black-capped Babblers, one of the more widespread species of this large family of birds, were a little more cooperative as they foraged along the trail.

Black-capped Babbler - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

Several small skinks flushed from the leaf litter onto the buttresses of massive trees as I walked past on the trail. I managed to apprehend one, a female it turned out, with two developing eggs visible through her semi-translucent abdominal skin. This species is called the Sabah Slender Skink (Sphenomorphus sabanus) and is reasonably common in forests up to 850 m in Sabah province.

Sabah Slender Skink (Sphenomorphus sabanus) - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

I continued to slowly hike along the trail, pausing whenever an unfamiliar bird song rang out from high up in the canopy. It was incredibly difficult to actually see the birds once I was in the mature forest and I could see how birding here could be very frustrating. Because I had all day I took my time and managed to tease a few species out of the woodwork but it was slow going. I also made ample use of my new sound recorder, taking snippets whenever I heard something unfamiliar to (hopefully) identify later.

 Langanan waterfall trail - Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

Some of the bird songs I had quickly picked up on,  mainly the frequent vocalizers like the Blue-eared, Yellow-crowned and Gold-faced Barbets, and the Black-and-yellow Broadbills. At one point the distinctive low croaks and rattles of a Whitehead's Broadbill (E) grabbed my attention, but I could not find it in the canopy. Already representing my third encounter in three days, I was feeling pretty lucky with this tricky species.

The trail's incline seemed to gradually and continually increase as I approached the waterfall, or perhaps fatigue was really just setting in! Regardless, the last kilometer or so of trail was a bit strenuous, but the views of the waterfall were well worth it.

feeling tired near the Langanan waterfall - Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

 Langanan waterfall - Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

I had no idea when I began my hike that the waterfall would be as impressive as it was. To be honest I had not read up on the waterfall at all, since I was more interested in the bird species that could be found on the trail leading to it. But at 120 m high, this waterfall is more than twice the height of Niagara Falls. The rush of wind caused by the movement of water was pretty refreshing as it blew past!

After a 20 minute break where I consumed the rest of my trail mix and downed nearly all of my remaining bottled water, I began retracing my steps. It was around 1 PM, giving me about five hours of light remaining.

At one point I spotted this interesting plant just off the trail. It was a bud of a Rafflesia flower, which is the genus containing the world's largest flower. One of the main tourist attractions in Sabah, Rafflesia flowers in bloom are quite rare, with the flower only blooming for a few days at a time. If one is discovered in bloom somewhere it quickly becomes a business venture for enterprising Malaysians. Signs advertising the flower are erected along roadsides to attract tourists to the rare sight. While I never did see any Rafflesia flowers in bloom it was neat to see a bud, at least! Unfortunately it looks like someone had peeled off one of the sepals protecting the flower. Rafflesia are holoparasites of vines, spreading their haustorium through the tissue of the vine. The only externally visible portion of the plant is the large flower. One common name for Rafflesia is the Corpse Flower, due to the stench of the flower, reminiscent of rotting flesh.

Rafflesia sp. bud - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

The walk back down to the hot springs was a little less strenuous than the walk up, partly due to the cloud cover which had mercifully blocked the sun. As it was still the middle of the day the bird activity was much diminished but it slowly improved as the minutes ticked by. I paused to photograph this massive leaf. It would make the White Oaks back home a little jealous, I think.

My main target bird refused to show itself so I resigned myself to the fact that I would not see a Blue-banded Pitta (E). The two main stakeouts along the trail did not produce anything, and if I had to guess, it would be because these birds were "taped out" by birding groups. Considering this is one of the main places that every visiting birder keen on seeing all the endemics would go to search for Blue-banded Pitta (E), it is a reasonable assumption.

On my walk back I paused at a particularly scenic bend in the trail. I listened to some of the birds vocalizing from the canopy and took a few minutes to carefully scan for movement in the treetops. The vegetated slope was rather dense with some clumps of bamboo, and so I played the song of the Blue-banded Pitta twice as I rested, since the habitat looked OK. With no birds responding to the long, mournful whistle,  I continued listening to the barbets and broadbills singing, recording several of the species.

Blue-banded Pitta spot - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

Suddenly I heard a peculiar whistle from just off the trail, and it took me a second to clue in that it was indeed a Blue-banded Pitta! I was recording a Black-and-yellow Broadbill at the time so I kept the recording going. The pitta sang two or three more times and I couldn't believe my luck.

Blue-banded Pittas can be quite shy so I was not expecting to see this bird. Just in case, I set my camera to "pitta mode", cranking the ISO up to 4000 and opening up the aperture, to let in as much light as possible in the dark understorey. Suddenly, there it was - a fiery red blob hopped into view, staring right at me! I slowly brought up my camera, cracking off a few dozen frames through the foliage, before lowering it and bringing my binoculars up to take in its beauty. For the next 30 seconds or so I stared at the pitta as he began flipping over some leaves, presumably looking for some morsel underneath. A few hops later and he was out of sight, while I stood there with my jaw open (probably). I couldn't believe the sequence of events.

Blue-banded Pitta - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

The excitement did not end there. I continued along the trail when I suddenly heard a Whitehead's Broadbill (E) call again. As I scanned the treetops, a different bird sang twice - a Hose's Broadbill (E)! This was one bird song that I had memorized as the species is sometimes heard before it is seen. Being one of the tougher Bornean endemics, I could not believe my luck. I scanned the treetops and suddenly a few medium-sized emerald shapes glided off. At least three birds were present, presumably all broadbills. Only one lingered long enough for me to see - a Whitehead's Broadbill (E). Try as I might, the Hose's did not appear in my binoculars. I waited in the area for another fifteen minutes in hopes of a repeat performance but it was not to be. Without wanting to waste too much time I eventually gave up and continued onward.

Whitehead's Broadbill - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

The last two hours on the trail were excellent, as bird diversity and activity began to increase. First, I saw my first ever hornbill - a Wreathed Hornbill - as it glided overhead through a gap in the trees. Next up was a little group of bulbuls that included several Scaly-breasted Bulbuls among the Hairy-backed Bulbuls, yet another target species down. After that was a gorgeous Rufous-collared Kingfisher, sitting on a branch overhanging the main trail near the "bat cave". And finally, I spotted a Chestnut-capped Thrush lurking in the shadows along the side of the trail as I crested a ridge and began walking towards the bat cave. It too flushed before I managed to get my camera on it. I was not really expecting to see this rare and elusive thrush on this trip, so it was a pretty great surprise, and the perfect way to cap off a really enjoyable walk.

Scaly-breasted Bulbul - Langanan waterfall trail, Kinabalu Park, Sabah, Malaysia

With the threat of rain looming and with few of my main target species left, I hurried through the last kilometer of the trail. My food and water had run out hours ago as well, which added to the urgency to return.

I reached my car at around 5:30 PM, devoured the remaining food in my car, and hit the road. I made a roadside stop at a little corner store to stock up on water, of which I drank about two liters worth in the first sixty seconds. Feeling a little better I returned to the hotel, my last animal of the day being one of the ubiquitous House Geckos above my doorway. I was exhausted but it had been an exhilarating day. Not only did I manage to encounter nearly every one of my target birds, but I had the entire trail to myself for the whole day. The massive, cathedral like trees were just as enthralling as the birds and throughout the day I frequently caught my self staring at the forest with a sense of wonder. I cannot wait until I can revisit the Langanan waterfall trail on my next visit to Borneo. This day was easily my favorite of the trip!

House Gecko - Kinabalu Pines Resort, Kundasing, Sabah, Malaysia

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