Friday, 10 August 2012

BORNEO August 2012: Sepilok RDC

August 1987.  Sepilok had been the highlight of our trip to Borneo in 1987.  Over the course of three visits we spent the best part of 13 days birding the two main trails there at that time (Mangrove and Waterfall) . The obvious highlight was seeing Giant Pitta, still one of my top three birds, although I did not get off to a very auspicious start.  We arrived late morning of 22/7 and were given a room with a shared kitchen & bathroom in a researchers resthouse by the entrance.  There was no food available so Nick volunteered to go back into Sandakan to buy rice and sardines.  I headed straight into the forest and spent the rest of the day birding with Rufous Piculet and Diard's Trogon the not overly impressive highlights.  I returned after dark hopeful that Nick had got us some food.  He had and with an hour or so of light left wandered into the forest and within half an hour had found a male Giant Pitta on the short Nature trail by the seat.  Game, set and match Preston!

I looked for it unsuccessfully off and on for the next three days when at 8am on 26/7, halfway down the Mangrove trail, I suddenly became really tense and froze - perhaps I'd subconsciously heard something hopping off trail.  What seemed an eternity later I saw a slight movement of a large pitta shaped bird just off the path.  It seemed to take an age to raise my binoculars but there it was, an absolutely stunning male Giant Pitta!  It was some distance (1 km+?) from Nick's bird but was it the same?  Not much caring about that, I watched it for a couple of minutes before it melted into the forest.  I resisted the temptation to rush back and tell Nick and instead continued birding the Mangrove trail.  At 5.50pm on my way back I disturbed it again in almost the same spot.  Then I couldn't help rushing back and, passing the seat soon after 6pm, saw a female in the same area Nick had seen the original male!  The next morning (27/7) I saw the female again near the seat at 7am and the male at 6pm (so almost certainly 3 Giant Pittas in 2 days!).  On 28/7 I saw the male at 7am and 6pm.  We then went to Gomantong and returned on 1/8 when I saw the male near the seat at 6pm.  We then went to Mt Kinabalu but returned on 13/8 seeing two Blue-headed Pittas which had eluded us until then (a recording from Nigel Redman greatly helped).  On 14/8 it was business as usual with the Giant Pittas and I saw the female at 10.30am and from 6.05-6.15pm and the male at 6pm (the closest we got to seeing them together which made us feel they had a nest nearby and were 'working' shifts).  On 15/8 the female was near the seat at 7am and I watched the male from 6-6.15pm.  I didn't see either on 16/8 but on our last day, 17/8, the male was near the seat at 6.15am.  Magical.

Nick returned to Sepilok in 2002 but found it greatly changed with no Mangrove trail and access to the Waterfall trail restricted to 'with a guide only'.  He was very disappointed, but still saw a Giant Pitta crossing the trail!

8-10 August 2012.  Back to 2012 and we hadn't planned a return, Nick wasn't keen after his 2002 experience and I didn't want to spoil my memories from 1987 although the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) with its canopy walkway hadn't existed then so was easily regarded as a (slightly) different place.  My not seeing Bornean Bristlehead at Kinabatangan or Danum was a major disappointment and I suggested I could leave Nick at Poring while I drove to Sepilok and twitched it (Sepilok RDC apparently being the best site in Sabah).  Nick appreciated it was a major bird for me, and had first hand experience of how grumpy I was likely to be if I didn't see one(!!), so he came too to help out.  Great, but unfortunately the bristleheads didn't realise that a quick twitch was required and didn't show for the first two agonising days we spent almost entirely on the RDC canopy walkway.  Each evening we reluctantly retuned to Sandakan (a 30 minute drive) and checked back into the cheap hotel there at about 8pm, leaving at 5am the following morning to be back on the walkway before dawn.  The walkway was impressive and quite nice to bird from although it is being extended and the sound of construction works in the near distance was at times very distracting/depressing.  It was never that busy, especially not early in the morning and we saw a selection of other reasonable birds, including good numbers of Cinnamon-headed Green Pigeons which were new for Nick (I'd seen them in Sumatra before).  It was a very pleasant surprise to see Yeo Siew Teck there (of Blue-banded Pitta fame) guiding a bird photographer.  We also enjoyed the company of Amy & Cherry, birders from Hong Kong who were at Sepilok for three days before going to the Kinabatangan River with Robert Chong.  On our second afternoon two Spanish birders arrived from Danum for their second try for Bristlehead - it was clearly not as straight-forward to see at this time as we'd been led to believe..

Day 3 at Sepilok RDC dawned with Nick and me on the walkway as it was starting to get light.  As previously we based ourselves in the Trogon Tower.  The Bristlehead Tower didn't seem to be in such a good position and had rather too many illustrations of you can guess what.  Soon after the Spaniards arrived and based themselves within shouting range in the Bristlehead Tower followed by Amy & Cherry and Yeo & his photographer client who remained on the walkway.  I had wandered down to the far end of the walkway which wasn't covered by anyone when Nick shouted.  If there was a gold medal for the RDC triathlon (fastest run to the Trogon Tower, climb to the top and get onto the bristlehead) I would have won it - just in time to see the last of 4 birds stick its head out of a low tree and disappear behind the next much taller one.  Everyone else arrived soon after I did and fortunately the birds were not out of sight for more than a few minutes before reappearing and then getting successively closer.  We all relocated to the end of the walkway where we got excellent views as they worked their way through the middle canopy although my attempts at photography leave a lot to be desired!  Interestingly, given that the literature suggested they are very vocal and often first located by call, we didn't hear the Bristleheads at all.  Perhaps the exceptionally dry weather had made them more silent than usual - as it seemed to have done for a lot of species - and that might have accounted for them proving to be much harder to locate than expected.

Also from the walkway we saw Bat Hawk, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Cinnamon-headed Green Pigeon, Long-tailed Parakeet (including a flock of 50), Raffle's, Red-billed and Black-bellied Malkohas, Bushy-crested and Black Hornbills, Orange-backed, Rufous, Buff-rumped, Buff-necked and Grey & Buff Woodpeckers (unfortunately I missed the last, best, one), Black & Yellow Broadbill, Black & Crimson Pitta (only heard by us but Yeo and the Spaniards saw one), Black Magpie (a flock of three went through quite quickly on our second morning, so near yet so far ...), Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Purple-throated & Crimson Sunbirds.

Soon after the Bristleheads had gone we left Sepilok and were very relieved to be turning left, to drive back to Mt Kinabalu for the last two and a half days of our trip, rather than right to Sandakan.
No memancing on the main lake at Sepilok RDC
The Bristlehead Tower
'if today is your lucky day ... ', it was eventually
one of many excellent photos of bristelhead that I enjoyed much more after the event than before ...
more bristleheads, although I didn't spot the typo at the time
panorama from the Trogon Tower, the bristleheads eventually appeared in about the middle of this view and worked their way left and closer
Red Giant Flying Squirrel in nestbox opposite the Trogon Tower
we watched it leave its nestbox at dusk both evenings we were at Sepilok, on the first it climbed into vegetation above as it got dark but the second it glided down about 100m  to the base of another big tree, ran up that and glided another 50m over the walkway.  Brilliant. 
Bat Hawk from the canopy walkway, photograph reproduced with kind permission of Amy Leung.  Note prominence of yellow eye
Eye-level Black & Yellow Broadbill from the Trogon Tower

Broadbills are almost as good at Pittas and this is one of the better ones
a glance at the Field Guide cover was an immediate pick-me-up when lack of bristleheads was getting to me
not all the pictures at Sepilok RDC were painful to look at.  We'd seen Black & Crimson Pitta well several times at Danum
recently considered a separate species, Bornean Banded Pitta Pitta schwaneri, is another we saw well if a little briefly at Danum
perhaps the most striking of all Borneo's pittas, Blue-headed we'd seen on our first visit to Sepilok, and again very well most days at Danum (probably involving 6 individuals)
Interesting cloud on our last evening.  Red sky at night ...
... birders delight,  and so it proved to be
my best efforts of Bornean Bristlehead, one of the group of four seen

the only occasion I really wished I'd taken my main telescope and tripod on the trip as I could doubtless have done a lot better digiscoping even though they didn't stay still for long
Bornean Bristlehead kindly provided by Yeo ( ) who did much better  than I did
Another of Yeo's shots of this rather bizarre species.  I was very glad not to be going home having missed it on both my trips to Borneo.
Eight very happy birders (including me) of four nationalities reliving the bristleheads at the end of the Sepilok RDC walkway.  Cherry  (hidden) and Amy at the back, Yeo's photographer (back on) with Yeo (hidden) and Nick reviewing his very impressive images and the two young Spanish birders (one hidden)
me in front of the Trogon Tower, smiling rather than scowling, so no prizes for guessing this is an after shot rather than before although I still look pretty disreputable I'm very happy! 
my notebook indicating daily attempts at seeing Bristlehead by successive RDC entrance stickers.  Very thankfully the room for three more was not needed!

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