Friday, 2 March 2018

Borneo - Part 11 (Sepilok, travel up the Kinabatangan River)

Introduction
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


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October 12, 2017

For the second straight morning I completed a pre-dawn walk to the Rainforest Discovery Center. I had begun my walk about fifteen minutes later this morning, meaning that dawn was already breaking as I walked past the flowers lining the parking lot of the center. Among the various spiderhunters and sunbirds, only this Spectacled Spiderhunter sat still long enough for decent photos.

Spectacled Spiderhunter - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Spectacled Spiderhunter - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

White-breasted Waterhens are ubiquitous in Sabah and many do not exhibit fear of humans. Several individuals were patrolling the edge of the parking lot, looking for something to eat. One was grappling with what appeared to be a crayfish, an odd sight at the edge of the parking lot. 

White-breasted Waterhen - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

Eager to explore a new area, I elected to skip the canopy walkway and focus instead on the intriguingly named Pitta Path. With only  ninety minutes allotted to pre-breakfast birding, I had to make every second count.

The walk was quite enjoyable and I soon heard two Black-crowned Pittas (E) vocalizing from down a slope. They would not reveal themselves, but I was happy to have finally connected with this endemic. A few minutes later I was slowly walking along a ridge when I paused to watch a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills that had flown into a nearby tree, calling loudly back and forth. As I stood there listening, some unusual but instantly recognizable calls from off in the distance reached my years. Bornean Bristleheads (E)! Thankfully my audio recorder was in my pocket, enabling me to make some recordings of the bristleheads. Though try as I might, they too remained unseen.

A bit further down the trail I noticed the unmistakable sounds of a troupe of monkeys moving through the foliage. For the next fifteen minutes or so the group of Pig-tailed Macaques slowly crossed the path, stopping to forage in the trees or to play-wrestle with each other, while the adults attempted to keep the youngsters in line.

Pig-tailed Macaque - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

I approached a few meters closer to the group until a big male macaque let me know that I was probably close enough. He slowly ambled towards me so I took his cue and backed off. It was an illuminating encounter with my first macaques.

Pig-tailed Macaque - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

A few of the bird species were new ones for me, including heard-only Cinnamon-headed Pigeon and Green Imperial Pigeon, as well as my first few Bushy-crested Hornbills and a pair of Fiery Minivets.

Bushy-crested Hornbill - Rainforest Discovery Center, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia

After breakfast our group loaded ourselves into the bus for the short drive to the city of Sandakan. After a brief stop at a small grocery store, where I picked up some squid satay and soursop concentrate, we continued to the dock to board the small fishing boat that would be taking us up the Kinabatangan River.


Sandakan docks, Sabah, Malaysia

Our route would take us to the coastline where we would follow it until reaching the mouth of the Kinabatangan River. We would then head upriver for an hour and a half, reaching our riverside lodge by early afternoon. The whole boat trip would take around three hours, including a few stops for wildlife (if necessary). Our route is shown by the blue line in the map below.


It felt great being out on the open water with the wind in our hair, and for the most part the trip was smooth sailing, with a few sightings of Lesser Frigatebirds, Oriental Darters and Lesser Crested Terns thrown in for good measure. The one brief setback occurred when our boat captain did not notice some fishing nets in the water and ran them over, leading to a very heated exchange with the local guys whose nets he had driven over. After a whole lot of shouting in Malay we continued onward, though there was a little bit of tension in the air!

Despite the time of day we observed some wildlife along the lower Kinabatangan, even as it passed through areas dominated by oil palm plantations.  Three Smooth Otters were basking on a riverbank and tolerated our presence for a few minutes while we gawked and took photographs.

Smooth Otter - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Like many species in south Asia, Smooth Otters are now listed on the IUCN Red List due to ongoing population declines, mainly due to poaching and habitat loss / disturbance. They do remain relatively common within protected areas in Sabah province, especially along lower sections of major rivers where the waters are calm. Out of the four otter species in Borneo, Smooth Otters are the second most common after the Small-clawed Otter.

Smooth Otter - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Many herons and egrets can be seen along the Kinabatangan River. Great and Little Egret were dominant, though we noticed a few Purple Herons as well, skulking in the shadows. Over time they too proved to be quite numerous along the river.

Purple Heron - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

One of our local guides spotted this absolutely massive Saltwater Crocodile basking on an exposed mudflat. It slipped into the water after our boat came into view, but its length was easy to appreciate even though it was mostly obscured in the muddy water. Saltwater crocodiles are known to be the largest extant reptile and some have reached lengths over 6 m and weights of well over 1,000 kg. I was pretty excited to finally see my first "saltie", a staple of wildlife documentaries such as Steve Irwin's "The Crocodile Hunter", that I grew up watching as a child and young teenager.

Saltwater Crocodile - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

Eventually we had left behind the oil palm plantations, having entered the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Our last few sightings included another pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills, our first and only Lesser Adjutant of the tour, several Oriental Darters, and our first group of Proboscis Monkeys. This charismatic species endemic to Borneo is a main target of many ecotourists who visit Sabah and fortunately the monkeys are relatively common along many of the major rivers.

Rhinoceros Hornbill - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

By 1:30 PM we had arrived at the docks for the Borneo Nature Lodge. Most of the eco-lodges in this area are accessible only by boat; the Kinabatangan River acts as the major highway. Without any trails cutting through the dense riparian forest, we would be exploring the area by boat on several occasions, traveling along the main river but also up several tributaries.

Borneo Nature Lodge - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

We enjoyed lunch and a brief siesta and by 4:00 PM had assembled at the docks for our first river excursion. The Menanggol tributary was our destination, located only a few minutes from our lodge.

 Menanggol River, Sabah, Malaysia

As we snaked up the watercourse it seemed like a scene out of The Jungle Book. It felt like the impressive forests could swallow the river at any given time.

Birds and monkeys were the theme of the afternoon boat ride. I spotted a few Brown Barbets (E) in a riverside tree,  but perhaps the highlight of the boat trip for me was a family group of six White-fronted Falconets (E) on a distant tree. This species is the smallest bird of prey in the world and is somewhat scarce throughout Sabah province, the only place where it can be found. The small size is quite appreciable; they do not appear any larger than a House Sparrow.
White-fronted Falconlet - Menanggol River, Sabah, Malaysia

White-fronted Falconlet - Menanggol River, Sabah, Malaysia

While the birding was excellent, the monkeys stole the show for most people. We experienced incredible ecounters with two groups of Long-tailed Macaques, one group of Pig-tailed Macaques, one group of Silvered Langurs, and even a group of Proboscis Monkeys settling in for the night along the river. Observing the hierarchies and social strategies in each of the groups was made much easier by the exceptional narration of Dr. Dominy, keenly aware of the monkeys' behaviours and how to interpret them. 

Long-tailed Macaque - Menanggol River, Sabah, Malaysia

Proboscis Monkeys - Menanggol River, Sabah, Malaysia

Reptilian encounters were scarce on this boat trip though we did stop when a Gray-tailed Racer was noticed, curled around a branch and resting about three meters above the surface of the water.

Our last new sighting was an Oriental Pied Hornbill which glided over the river to settle into a riverside tree for the night, not far from the lodge. Our first boat excursion had been a great introduction to the wildlife of the Kinabatangan.

Oriental Pied Hornbill - Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia

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Introduction
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

2 comments:

  1. Great blog, Josh, keep up the good work, am enjoying reading it. I'm travelling to Kota Kinabalu in August for a few days so your solo adventures were especially helpful reading.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Reuben, and good luck with your trip!

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