Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kota Kinabalu - Information and Logistics

Here are some notes and comments regarding our trip to Kota Kinabalu:

Getting there: 
We took a round trip flight via Cebu Pacific from NAIA 3 to Kota Kinabalu. They have one flight in the afternoon every M-W-F. Another option would be via Air Asia but you have to take off from the Clark Airport in Pampanga.

From the airport you can take a taxi going to Kinabalu Park for about 150 Ringgit (you have to negotiate). In our case we requested the Lodge to arrange for a pick-up. We paid 250 Ringgit which was OK since there were three of us to share and it was late in the evening. 

We used a taxi on our return to the airport and we only paid 150 Ringgits.

Taxi from Kinabalu Park to Mesilau Nature Reserve was 85 Ringgits one way.

Liwagu Suites (Kinabalu Park) - we were upgraded to this lodge from Hill Lodge - is very spacious. Bedroom is located at the Mezzanine. There is a veranda at the back which overlooks some trees (quite birdy early in the morning). There is also a mini-ref, a TV, and daily complimentary coffee and bottled water. Hot water is available. However, our suite (#4) caused a leak in their hot water tank when we took a hot shower at night which flooded the the hallway in front of the suites. When they turned it off, we lost our hot water. Thankfully, they transferred us to Suite#3 which never had a problem with the hot water. Our friend, Ralf Nabong, which was booked in Suite#2,  also did not have a hot water problem.

Witti Lodge (Mesilau) - another upgrade for us from our original booking at Crocker Range Lodge. Our lodge comprised of three rooms: one at the lower level (where we stayed) and two more at the second level which were unoccupied. Again, there was a mini-ref and a TV. Complimentary coffee and bottled water were also included. Hot water is also available. But they don't have a phone in the lodge so you can't contact the reception area if you need something. They recommend using your mobile phone but if you're from another country that could be quite costly. They have a porch in front facing a patch of forest.

Hill Lodge (Kinabalu Park) - is very basic. Instead of one king bed, we got two singles. There were no mini-ref or TVs.  Hot water is available, so is the complimentary coffee and bottled water. They also have a porch in front which faces the parking lot, but also gives a great view of Mt. Kinabalu.

Inside Kinabalu Park and Mesilau Nature Reserve the food is not too good and quite expensive. The breakfast buffet at both areas (same menu) is the same every single day. Except for the congee, which was lukewarm, everything else is cold, including fried rice, scrambled eggs, chicken sausage, chicken curry, etc. But since it is free, you can't really complain.

Liwagu Restaurant is an ala carte place. Since we only had sandwiches there - which wasn't that good either - I can't really comment on the entrees. They're expensive though.

Another option would be at  the restaurant just outside Kinabalu Park. You go down a flight of stairs (quite long), cross the street and there you are. Food here is much better and a lot cheaper. Their lunch menu is very similar to chinese dishes and quite tasty. The average lunch is about 6 Ringgits and coke in a can is only 2 Ringgits. Compare that to a 22 Ringgit hamburger and 8 Ringgit coke in a can at the Liwagu Restaurant.

Getting around the parks:
At Kinabalu Park there is a van (and a very nice driver) that will transport guests from the reception area to any point within the park (the reception area, the lodges/hostels and restaurants are located at some distance from one another). Sadly that is not the case at Mesilau which was even compounded by the fact that the roads within are like roller coaster rides in their undulations.

The courtesy and helpfulness of the staff, both at Kinabalu and Mesilau, more than made up for whatever the lodges lacked in amenities. Despite our problems (lack of hot water, flooding on our first day) the staff did everything they can to make our stay as comfortable as possible. 

Our original booking was to spend our last two nights at Mesilau. But because of the strain of walking to and from our lodge to the restaurant/reception area, we decided to return to Kinabalu Park on our last night. Inasmuch as the lodges at both areas are owned by the Sutera Group, the staff at Mesilau coordinated with their counterparts at Kinabalu Park to have us stay at Hill Lodge with the same price as the one we stayed in at Mesilau (which was cheaper than those at Kinabalu).

On our last day, when we were about to board our taxi that will take us to the airport, the entire staff came to see us off. We never had that kind of experience before and we will certainly never forget that.

To the staff (and our new friends) of Sutera Lodges at Kinabalu and Mesilau, we say "Terima kasih".

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.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Kota of Many Colors

Mt. Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia. Located in Sabah, north Borneo, the peak reaches a height of 4,095 meters. Some 1500 meters in its slope lies Mt. Kinabalu Park. This was where my wife and I, together with our friend, Ralf Nabong, decided to go birding. This will be a first for us to visit this place. A place teeming with birds, most of which will be new to us. We were not disappointed.

Just within the vicinity of our hotel, a rainbow of avian delights displayed before our awe-struck eyes. Here then for your viewing pleasure are some examples:


Indigo Flycatcher

Snowy-browed Flycatcher

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch


Golden-naped Barbet

Black-capped White-eye

Short-tailed Green Magpie


Bornean Whistler

Yellow-breasted Warbler

Mountain Leaf Warbler


Grey-chinned Minivet

Temminck's Sunbird

How about a combination of colors?

Mountain Tailorbird

Black-sided Flowerpecker

Don't forget the browns, the greys and the blacks:

Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher

Bornean Treepie

Grey-throated Babbler

Chestnut-crested Yuhina

Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush

Bornean Whistling Thrush

Hair-crested Drongo

It was wonderful seeing all these colorful birds. Just as Joseph's father gave him a coat of many colors, so did our Father gave us a Kota of many colors.