Monday, June 27, 2011

The Borneo Objective

This is the account of our visit to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, North Borneo. Our objective was to see as many lifers as possible.

Day 1 - Borneo Identity

For some unknown reason our flight was delayed by almost an hour. I was worried. Inasmuch as we will be arriving Kota Kinabalu in Northern Borneo beyond our expected arrival of 5:40 pm, I am afraid that the van that would pick us up would no longer be there. Add to that the fact that I did not even get a confirmation from the hotel that they would indeed send somebody to fetch us from the airport. Riding in a cab at night in a foreign land isn't exactly something to look forward to.

It was nearing 7 pm when we finally emerged through the Malaysian immigration booth and picked up our baggage. There lined up ahead of us were people holding up placards with names written on them, typical of any arrival area of any airport. I smiled as a young man held one that says "Mr. Robert Kaufman" on it. This was not my first trip abroad, but this was the first time that my name was among those (what I believed to be) world class travelers venturing into a new country.

We begged the young man whose name is Douglas, to wait a little longer as we have to have our currencies exchanged into Malaysian Ringgits. Then off we went into the night. Douglas asked if we had dinner already and we (birding buddy Ralf Nabong, my wife, Cynthia, and myself), in one voice, said no. We asked if there were any fast food restaurants nearby and Douglas rattled off the usual McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFCs... We unanimously voted for KFC. We decided to bring the food to the hotel so as not to further delay our trip to our destination which is still a good two hours away. (The term they use here is "take away" instead of "take out" or "to go"). An hour passed. Cynthia and I can no longer contain our hunger so we nibbled away at our chicken dinner as our van climbed the steep road to Kinabalu Park.

It was almost ten pm when Douglas finally parked the van in front of the reception area of the Sutera Lodges. The night staff were very friendly despite our late check-in. Douglas was even kind enough to take us to our hotel (which was some 10 minutes by car away from the reception area). He got a well deserved generous tip from us. We took a warm shower and crashed into our soft bed at the Liwagu Suites (we were upgraded from our original booking at Hill Lodge - we at suite#4, Ralf at suite#2) close to midnight.

Days 2-5 Borneo Supremacy

5:30 am and we were awake. I set up my gear and placed it at our veranda which overlooks some trees and even a patch of the Botanical garden. As light slowly crept in and illuminated the trees before us, a cacophony of bird calls filled the air. Cynthia wished she had more hands so she could point out to me the plethora of birds that seemed to pop up from everywhere. I was busy taking shots at the colorful Temminck's Sunbirds and Black-capped White-eyes when a burst of trills and shrieks came rushing by. A flock of Chestnut-capped and Bornean Laughing Thrushes flew into the tree in front of Ralf's veranda, paused for a couple of seconds and then flew into the direction of the botanical garden. We were primed! We were excited far beyond any caffeine-induced rush!

Our next stop was at the Liwagu restaurant. No, not to eat, but to use their veranda which is wider, longer and even closer to the trees. Again, we were not disappointed. Here we got good looks at the yellow Bornean Whistler and even closer views of the Temminck's sunbirds and Black-capped White-eyes.

From the restaurant, we proceeded to the grounds around our hotel. An Olive-backed Sunbird sang from the treetop and a pair of Bornean Treepies played hide and seek among the dense foliage all the while calling to each other loudly. Next to the parking lot, a female Little Pied Flycatcher was patiently hunting for insects. It wasn't long before the male perched on a branch just a few feet away from me and Ralf. It even pounced on an insect a foot away from Ralf's feet! In the distance, a Little Cuckoodove cooed melancholically.

Nine am, the hotel van picked us up and took us to Balsam Buffet Restaurant, across (and several, no, a lot of, steps down) from the Reception area parking lot. The buffet breakfast, which was free, was bland. And cold. And forgettable. Unfortunately, we had to deal with this for rest of our stay here. Once again, the veranda was the perfect spot for birding. Here we saw the Indigo Flycatcher, the Chestnut-crested Yuhina, the White-throated Fantail and the extremely rare Eurasian Tree Sparrow (haha).

We returned to our suites after breakfast and agreed to meet again for lunch (which was to be at 3 pm - having just had our breakfast at midmorning). Perhaps it was the excitement of seeing so many, beautiful birds that I just couldn't take a break. Outside of our veranda I saw a nondescript looking brown bird. It just sat there eyeing me as if begging me to take its picture. Which I did, of course! That brown bird turned to be an Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher. Soon, the female and a young one also appeared.

Lunch was, once again, quite so-so. Even if it was at the more classy Liwagu restaurant. Seeing nothing else than the "usual" sunbirds and white-eyes, we decided to check out the grounds behind the hotel. There we met Peter and Catherine, a Belgian couple and both nature lovers. Peter was frantically trying to photograph a Temminck's Sunbird when Catherine said that there was a Flowerpecker (she didn't know what particularly) up in the pine tree next to us. We all peered and vaguely saw the tiny bird. Peter eventually finished his stalking and we were talking about birds in general when I saw the flowerpecker alight on a fruiting bush, practically at eye level. In unison we all leveled our cameras at the colorful bird  and shot away. Satisfied that we had enough good photos, we urged Peter, who had a shorter lens, to came closer. The flowerpecker, which turned out to be a Black-sided, just sat there unperturbed by all the commotion caused by a group of enthusiastic photographers. Dusk fell. As we were about to go our separate ways, Peter showed us a picture he took earlier that day. A picture that made our jaws drop and gave us a resolution, as it were, to pursue that bird which he said was "just there". It was the picture of a Short-tailed Green Magpie.

We didn't see anything new the next morning. After lunch, we decided to go for the Green Magpie. It was just flying across the road going to Timpohon, the Belgian couple assured us. Around 4 pm, they said. Little did we know that that road was uphill. With our heavy gear and with vehicles zooming a few inches away from us made the trek something more than we bargained for. But the desire to see the magpie kept us going. Two kilometers later and four in the afternoon, our tongues were hanging out, we were gasping for breath and still no magpie. Sadly we turned back. Our day ended with sore muscles and aching hearts.

June 20 was Ralf's last day. He will be returning to Manila at five that afternoon. Cynthia and I on the other hand, will be transferring to Mesilau, an hour away further up the mountain. We all decided to bird the whole morning to the hilt. With a new strategy, at that. This time we will stake out the Bukit Tupai trail. That was one of the better decisions we have made. Compared to yesterdays disappointment, today we added more lifers to our list: Snowy-browed Flycatcher, the colorful Yellow-breasted Warbler and the very active Mountain Leaf Warbler. But the highlight came as we were about to leave. It was already 10:30 and Ralf wanted to be at this suite by 11 so he can start packing (he leaves at noon). As we were getting out of the trail, Cynthia went into a frenzy pointing to an opening in the bushes. Ralf who was ahead of me, suddenly plunked his tripod and started firing away. All I had was a glimpse but I knew that what caused all this excitement was a Crimson-headed Partridge, a skulker and a rarely seen bird here. I tried to follow it as it hid in the dense undergrowth but I was unsuccessful at getting a photo.

Happy for Ralf for getting a prize shot and getting more than just a consolation for missing the magpie yesterday, we bade our farewells.

Our trip to Mesilau took about an hour, only stopping briefly at the small town of Kundasang to buy some fruits (which will be our dinner that night). Once again the reception staff was very friendly. And once again, we were "upgraded" from the original booking at Crocker Range Lodge to the Witti Lodge. The accommodations are nice but the problem is that we have to walk a steep lane to get there. Since there is no local transportation, we were forced to walk graded roads in getting to and from our lodge to the restaurant or to the reception area. Something our aged bodies are not used to.

Again, across from our lodge is a patch of forest. We were even greeted by a pair of Flavescent Bulbuls just as we were settling in. Later that afternoon, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches were checking out the tall tree seen from our veranda. A family of Ashy Drongos, on the other hand, were in the tree behind our building. A small "wave" of birds came drifting by and we caught some quick views of an Ochraceous Bulbul and a Grey-throated Babbler.

The following morning the Ashy Drongos were back accompanied by a Crimson-winged Woodpecker. On our way to the restaurant for our breakfast, we saw a Bornean Whistling Thrush perched nonchalantly above the stream. Later on, in front of the Nature Center, we saw another one this time accompanied by an immature. 

Since going around Mesilau became a physical torment for Cynthia and myself, we both agreed to spend our last day back at Kinabalu Park. After making arrangements with the reception staff, who were once again helpful and very understanding, we returned to our lodge to pack. It was then that I saw the Mountain Tailorbird.

Back at Kinabalu Park, we were booked at the Hill Lodge. Our room was very basic, but quite comfortable. Just outside a Mountain Leaf Warbler was seemingly curious about the new residents.

After resting for a couple of hours I decided to go for the Green Magpie again. Cynthia who was sore all over as a result of our strenuous hikes at Mesilau decided to sit (or rather, lie) this one out.  Bringing with me her lighter camera gear, I hit the Silau-Silau trail a little before 4 pm. The woods were pretty quiet except for the gurgling stream nearby. A loud birdcall stopped me in my tracks. With my binoculars, I scanned each and every tree top and found not even a single bird. I kept going. Then some movement in the trees ahead! Big birds, but they painfully look like laughingthrushes. I stood still and faced toward the stream on my left.  A bird landed on a tree branch above it. It was green! To my surprise, the green bird flew from branch to branch towards me. Until it was almost above me. At last, my Short-tailed Green Magpie had come. Everything was anticlimactic after that. I took the paved road on my return trip as if I was floating on air. Cynthia was waiting by the door as I approached our lodge. By the smile on my face, she knew without a doubt that my mission had been accomplished.

Day 6 - Borneo Ultimatum

I was out the door at the crack of dawn on our last day at Kinabalu Park. As I walked along the parking area in front of our lodge, I saw a flash of green pounce on something on the wall of the building. It then landed among the stalks of the orchid plants that line the front of the Hill Lodges. I could barely discern the figure that peeped out of the thickets. But then when I saw it through my lens, I couldn't believe that I'm looking at a Golden-naped Barbet. When I tried to get a little bit closer, it got spooked and flew away.

Cynthia soon joined me and we moved towards the end corner of the parking lot. It was there that we saw a family of Grey-chinned Minivets basking in the morning sun. A Hair-crested Drongo, perhaps jealous of the bright colors of the minivets came and chased them away. We were still drooling from this avian spectacle when a Bornean Treepie came barging in. Like a publicity-starved movie star it practically begged us to take its picture.

Somehow we did not mind anymore the bland taste of the buffet breakfast we had afterwards. The antics of the White-throated Fantail near the restaurant diverted our attention away from our meals. Soon it was time to go. Sitting at the back of the taxi that was taking us to the airport, we saw some lowland birds along the road: Asian Glossy Starlings, Peaceful Doves, Spotted Doves, Munias (Chestnut?). We resolved to return. This time to concentrate on the birds of the lower elevations.

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