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

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