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.

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