Thursday 27 August 1987

MALAYSIA August 1987: Taman Negara & Fraser's Hills

The final part of a blog recounting a trip to Malaysia that Nick Preston and I made in summer 1987.  Poorly illustrated with scanned slides of dubious quality and heavily reliant on half-forgotten memories ... 

Taman Negara (19-24 August).  We arrived at Taman Negara after a pleasant boat journey up river although the only birds of note were a Stork-billed Kingfisher and 5 Yellow-crowned Bulbuls.  We checked into the dormitory and had a pleasant couple of hours in the clearing seeing Brown Needletail, Red-bearded Bee-eater and Black & Red Broadbill.  We also heard a Garnet Pitta but it was not close.  On my visit in 1982 the ravine off the main trail just before the Bukit Teresek junction had been excellent and we headed that way the next morning.  We’d not gone far when we saw a female Banded Pitta by the trail.  Even better we found a pair at an active nest about 3m up in a tree near the junction.  They were brilliant and we returned to watch them, from a distance, every day.  We had four full days at Taman Negara and spent most of it walking the trails and in the ravines along the river with a couple of visits up to Bukit Teresek and time in the clearing.  I found it very relaxing as I’d seen most of the likely birds on my previous visit although the terrain along by the river was much hillier than I remembered.  I saw two new birds and both were good ones: a superb pair of Crestless Firebacks and two very smart male Jambu Fruit Doves.  We also saw a party of two male and six female Crested Firebacks one evening and a single male another day, Short-toed Coucal, Cinnamon-rumped, Scarlet-rumped and Diard’s Trogons, Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers, Rhinocerous and Helmetted Hornbill (although we only heard the latter), Orange-backed and Grey & Buff Woodpecker, Green and Black & Yellow Broadbills, an excellent Garnet Pitta (with others heard), Chestnut-naped Forktail, Large-footed Wren-Babbler and Sultan Tit.  We left Taman Negara at 11:00 but not before a final look at the nesting Banded Pittas and a fortuitous encounter with a female Great Argus on our way back.  We again saw Stork-billed Kingfisher and Yellow-crowned Bulbuls on the river.  We caught the bus back to Kuala Lumpur and another to Kuala Kubu Bahru where we arrived after dark and spent the night in a cheap hotel.

Nick watching a Banded Pitta nest (top, slightly left of centre) from the main trail at Taman Negara
Banded Pitta nest
forest stream at Taman Negara
black-backed Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher
Sungai Tahan

forest at Taman Negara

Bukit Teresek (shrouded in low cloud) from Bumbang Tahan
view from Bukit Teresek
Fraser’s Hill (25-27 August).  We caught an early bus and the climb up to Fraser’s Hill was on a narrow road with many hairpins.  Traffic was only allowed in one direction at a time but that didn’t stop our driver clipping the retaining barrier and nearly leaving the road.  Nick and I were the only passengers and we both ended up on the floor.  Better that than at the bottom of a steep drop though!  Our enquiries about accommodation soon made it clear that Fraser’s Hill was a very expensive place but it was suggested we tried the Corona at the far end of the town.  It was quite basic but much more reasonably priced which suited us fine.  The only disadvantage was that we had to walk back up through the town to get most places.  We had a couple of days on leech infested trails that the terrain made it hard to get off to look for any ground birds.  We did see Red-headed Trogon, Black-browed Barbet, Lesser Shortwing, Slaty-backed Forktail, Rufous-browed and Pigmy Blue Flycatchers, Streaked Wren-Babbler, Black, Chestnut-crowned and Red-headed Laughingthrushes, Silver-eared Mesia, White-browed and Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, Sultan Tit and Blue Nuthatch.  On our final morning we birded down to the Gap where we saw White-hooded Shrike Babbler.  We got a bus back to Kuala Kubu Bahru and another to Kuala Lumpur where we caught our flight back home.

view from Fraser's Hills

Fire-tufted Barbet at Fraser's Hills
A combination of energy-draining heat and difficult to find species (not helped by us being tape-unaware) made it a hard trip and there were times when nothing seemed to be going right.  We were fortunate to have the time to persevere and in the end saw most of what we’d hoped to at the sites we visited, even if we had to return to Sepilok three times!  It was a trip that wasn’t always a lot of fun at the time (extreme anxiety rarely is!) but it improved with age as the hardships were soon forgotten or looked back on with amusement.  The birds were superb and well worth all the effort and worry.  As ever Nick was the perfect travelling companion, even if I didn’t speak to him one evening – an incident he thought hilarious at the time and me soon after (when I’d caught up with Whitehead’s Broadbill).  Our main disappointment was learning of the newly opened Danum Valley Field Centre a few months after we got back.  Nick made it there 15 years later, I didn’t have the time on that occasion, but we both did 10 years after that (see  I’d quite like to go back again but won’t leave it another 25 years. 

[blogged November 2014]

Monday 17 August 1987

SABAH August 1987: Return to Sepilok

Part three of a blog recounting a trip to Malaysia that Nick Preston and I made in summer 1987.  Poorly illustrated with scanned slides of dubious quality and heavily reliant on half-forgotten memories ... 

Sepilok (13-17 August).  Best laid plans nearly came crashing down soon after 05:00 when we attempted to leave the hotel in Kota Kinabalu to walk to the airport for our early flight to Sandakan.  The grill was across the front door and we could not get out.  The gaps were too narrow to squeeze out of and there was nobody in the lobby to open it for us.  We tried climbing out of an upstairs window with the idea of dropping onto the ground and were about to drop our bags out first when the noise we were making must have woken up whoever was supposed to be on duty.  He opened the grill and pointed out that it hadn’t actually been locked!  Idiot foreigners!  We quickly walked to the airport and caught our flight to Sandakan arriving on time at 07:45.  We got a bus to the entrance road to Sepilok, walked to the Field Centre and reclaimed our room.  We went back into the forest and headed along the Waterfall Trail.  We had only just reminded ourselves of the call of Blue-headed Pitta and were half way to the Tree Platform at about 10:30 when we heard one calling the other side of a small ridge directly ahead of us.  We hurried on and there it was just off the trail.  According to my notebook it was ‘a totally amazing bird, probably the best I’ve ever seen.  Brilliant bright blue forehead, crown and nape, black mask from bill onto lower nape,.  White throat extending onto sides of face below mask.  Bright chestnut mantle, back and rump.  Bright blue tail.  Black upper breast grading into dark royal blue belly.  Black wings with thick white bar separating wings from chestnut back.  Black bill and long almost white legs.  Calling regularly, a disyllabic mournful tooi-oo’  We followed it for 50m while it quite quickly hopped along parallel to the path before being lost to view.  It was an unbelievable feeling of excitement and relief to see such an amazing bird, one of my best ever, and within an hour of returning.  Later that afternoon, at about 17:00, we heard a second bird and had nearly as good views of another male near the bridge.  How had we managed to go eight days without seeing one on our previous visits?  They must have been silent then.  What a difference it makes having pittas calling.

Sabah coast
approaching Sandakan
best birds of the trip and amongst the best birds ever

The next morning Nick went straight into Sandakan to book flights back to Kota Kinabalu for the afternoon of 17th and our return to Kuala Lumpur on 18th.  I’ve no recollection of going back with him to do this so doubtless made some excuse …  Back at Sepilok the female Giant Pitta was by the seat 10:30.  We spent the rest of the day on the Waterfall Trail seeing Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler and Bornean Blue Flycatcher but little else of note and at about 17:00 saw our ‘second’ male Blue-headed Pitta by the bridge again.  I then saw the male Giant Pitta by the seat at 18:00 and the female nearby from 18:05-18:15.  I really was enjoying our return for Sepilok as for the first time on the trip I could go birding without the pressure of looking for a major target bird, although the lack of Bristlheads, especially from the Tree Platform, was disappointing.  Another day on the Waterfall Trail produced further views of the Giant Pittas near the seat - the female at 07:00 and the male from 18:-00-18:15.  Both were amazing.  Being privileged to have prolonged views of the female and now the male on consecutive days it was clear that Blue-headed Pitta’s reign as my all time favourite bird had been short lived.  Nick found a Rufous-tailed Shama that I got to see but I wasn’t so fortunate with a Banded Broadbill that promptly vanished.  Our last full day at Sepilok was spent wandering along the Mangrove Trail with an Olive-backed Woodpecker,  Green Broadbill and 2 Crested Jays the best birds.  Our final morning wouldn’t have been complete without a Giant Pitta and the male performed by the seat at 06:15.  They had been astoundingly good. 
tall tree at Sepilok
near the seat at Sepilok

We caught our flight to Kota Kinabalu and slept in a quiet spot at the airport as we had an early departure the next morning to Kuala Lumpur and didn't want to risk not being able to get out of a hotel again.  Great plan but the flight was delayed and we were taken to the nearby Hyatt Hotel where we were given a room and a meal.  We did some birding around the airport seeing 23 Pacific Golden Plovers and a Pied Triller before our delayed flight left that evening.  We arrived in KL after midnight and slept at the airport again until it got light.  We caught a bus into town and got a taxi to the National Park Office.  There we booked the next five nights at Taman Negara and returned to the bus station.  We had missed the only bus that would have got us to Tembeling in time for the 14:00 boat so had to get a shared taxi.
over Sabah
coastal village
outskirts of Kota Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu from KK
KK runway
KK sunset

Wednesday 12 August 1987

SABAH August 1987: Kinabalu

Part two of a blog recounting a trip to Malaysia that Nick Preston and I made in summer 1987.  Poorly illustrated with scanned slides of dubious quality and heavily reliant on half-forgotten memories ... 

Mount Kinabalu (3-12 August).  We caught a late morning bus back up to the park entrance where we checked into the dormitory.  It was empty and we were allocated a double ‘cubicle’ which was handy, if a bit claustrophobic.  We arrived in time to walk the Silau-Silau trail and see our first few endemics.  The next day was superb, at least until it started raining.  We concentrated on the Liwagu and Mempening Trails where we saw 5 Whitehead’s Trogons, 3 Mountain Wren-Babblers, Black, Grey & Brown and Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes and 2 Whitehead’s Spiderhunters.  With the advent of heavy rain we sheltered at the edge of a cleared area and Nick picked up a Whitehead’s Broadbill.  My view was obscured by his umbrella and by the time I had moved so had the bird.  Very disappointing but at the time it didn’t seem critical as we had over a week to see another ‘big green bird’.  It didn’t happen the next day which we concentrated on the Kilau View, Silau Silau and Liwagu trails seeing amongst others a Fruithunter, 2 White-browed Shrike-Babblers and a Tawny-breasted Parrotfinch.  

On 6 August we headed up the mountain to spend a night in the Laban Rata hut.  We left some of our gear in our cubicle but still needed sleeping bags and warm clothes and ended up with petty full rucksacks.  It was quite a trek just to get to the Timpohon Gate where the trail started.  We persuaded the guards that we were only going to the hut birdwatching and had no intention of climbing the mountain, which would have required taking a guide.  Almost half way up to the hut we met Nigel Redman, Simon Harrop and their Birdquest group coming down.  They had seen several Kinabalu Friendly Warblers that morning and played a tape which brought one in.  Impressive, or it would have been, but while Nick saw it briefly I only had untickable views as it quickly moved off.  Tapes were not something we had and we were beginning to regret it.  Nigel & co had also seen Blue-headed Pitta at Sepilok, while we were at Gomantong, but had not been given our note about the Giant Pittas.  They were at Kinabalu for a few more days and we promised to catch up in the restaurant in a couple of evenings.  

We continued the steep ascent to the hut, one of only two occasions ever I have been ahead of Nick on a long climb and then only because he had a heavy cold.  We saw Flavescent Bulbul and Island Thrush but it was cold, dull, breezy and generally birdless, other than Mountain Black-eyes.  The cloud rolled in soon after we reached the hut and we spent the rest of the day inside trying to keep warm.  It was a cold night and birds were not very active the next morning.  We again heard Kinabalu Friendly Warbler but with no tapes weren’t able to tempt it in.  In stark contrast I saw 10 Mountain Bush Warblers, disappointing …  

We returned seeing similar birds to the previous day although it was a lot easier going down.  That evening we had a long chat with Nigel and Simon and felt quite relieved that they were finding it hard going too.  Nigel played us a recording of Blue-headed Pitta, it was not a call we recognised hearing so they probably had been silent while we were at Sepilok.  I had bought a cheap bootleg compilation ‘Women in Rock’ tape and Nigel and Simon recorded Blue-headed Pitta over the start of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls just want to have fun’ for me.  It provided a novel intro …

Mount Kinabalu in sunshine!
near the entrance gate at Mount Kinabalu
Kinabalu in the clouds
Atlas moth at Kinabalu
Liwagu river

starting to climb
me at the Timphon Gate with Mount Kinabalu behind
Nick on the trail to Laban Rata, one of the few occasions I've ever been ahead of him
forest trail
Laban Rata hut
above the tree line

even though we were well short of the summit it felt as if we were on top of the world
cloud coming in
pitcher plant

temporarily dropping below the clouds

Back around HQ my focus was back on finding the ‘big green bird’ as Whitehead’s Broadbill had become known.  We had 4 solid days on the Silau Silau, Mempening and Liwagu trails, concentrating most on the latter, with no luck for me.  Towards the end of the third day it started raining (not an unusual occurrence) and I left Nick in the clearing at the start of the Liwagu trail as I decided to go back along it for a second time.  I should have known it was a mistake to leave Nick and he saw a broadbill in the clearing after I’d left.  Apparently I said ‘that’s bloody typical’ on hearing the news later and didn't say another word for the rest of the day.  I spent all the next day in the clearing and on the Liwagu trail, walking it twice, but no broadbills.  We were seeing a lot of good birds – daily Whitehead’s Trogons (with 7 one day), pairs of Red-breasted and Chestnut-headed Partridges (the former with a chick), Brown Wood Owl (flushed in daylight), Blue Shortwing, Sunda Whistling Thrush, several Short-tailed Bush Warblers and Mountain Wren-Babblers, Temminck’s Babbler, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, White-browed Jungle-Flycatcher, Fruithunter, more Whitehead’s Spiderhunters and Short-tailed Green Magpie - but not the much sought after big green one. To cheer myself up I wrote two pages in my notebook about my Giant Pitta sightings.

Liwagu Trail
various views of Mount Kinabalu from the heaquarters

Ashy Drongo at Kinabalu

Nick’s broadbill sighting had been in the same area as the umbrella incident and Nigel had seen one near there too.  This suggested a change in tactics might pay off (wait for one to find us rather than my hoping to find one) and Nick and I returned to the clearing the next morning, me extremely anxiously as our time at Kinabalu was running out.  At last my luck changed and mid morning we had excellent views of one around the edge of the clearing.  My notebook simply says WHITEHEAD’S BROADBILL (few birds are afforded capitals!) 1 ex.  This amazing species seen after 8 days of trying!  The big green bird had finally fallen.  

We immediately returned to the dormitory, packed our gear and were on the road at noon where fortuitously we got a lift into Kota Kinabalu with the canteen owner.  I wanted to get back to Sepilok but Nick was wavering a bit on that front as he had not been to Taman Negara which a return to Sepilok would eat into.  My reiterating how good the pitta would be (bright blue crown, black face, white throat, black upper breast, dark blue underparts, chestnut upperparts, white coverts, blue tail) and our now having a recording of it quickly removed his reservations.  Once in KK we booked a flight back to Sandakan for 07:00 the next morning.  Our cheap hotel, the Nam Tai, was within easy walking distance of the airport but an early start was needed.