Monday, 3 August 1987

SABAH July 1987: Sepilok & Gomantong

More ancient history, poorly illustrated with scanned slides of dubious quality and heavily reliant on half-forgotten memories.  If that works for you read on ...

Introduction.  Nick Preston and I decided to visit Malaysia for five weeks in summer 1987.  We were inspired by a detailed report of a trip to Sabah by Graham Speight, Mick Turton and Richard Rowland who had spent several weeks there in spring of the previous year.  I’d been to Peninsular Malaysia before but the closest Nick had been was Nepal.  A lot of new and exciting birds awaited both of us and we set off with a feeling of anticipation.  We flew with Singapore Airlines from London to Kuala Lumpur via Singapore arriving after dark on 21 July.  We found a quiet place at the airport and attempted to get some sleep, not very successfully, ahead of our early morning Malaysian Airlines flight to Kota Kinabalu.  We arrived in Kota Kinabalu and immediately bought tickets on the next flight to Sandakan.  This went smoothly although coming into land it was quite depressing to see how far out to sea silt from the rivers was being carried.  Almost certainly the result of substantial forest clearance up-river. 
Field Guides in 1987 were not always what one might have hoped for, the best thing to be said for this one was that it truly was pocket sized
flying over a silt discharging river on the way to Sandakan

the entrance to Sepilok, our home for the next week
Sepilok (22-28 July).  At Sandakan we got a local bus to the turn off to Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre.  We walked the 3 miles down to the Headquarters where we arrived mid-morning.  We persuaded someone in authority to let us stay in a room in the Field Centre for a week or so, we would have had to camp otherwise and were pleased not to need the tent.  The Field Centre had three double rooms and a kitchen which was equipped with a stove and cooking utensils.  Our room even had a fan - luxury.  The only downside was there were no shops in the immediate vicinity, and in our haste to get to the forest we’d not thought to stock up with supplies in Sandakan.  It wasn’t an immediate problem as we had a few ‘emergency’ packets of biscuits and dried fruit & nuts so we headed into the forest.  We birded the Waterfall Trail seeing Diard’s Trogon, Rufous Piculet, Orange-backed Woodpecker and Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher.  Early afternoon Nick decided to go into town to but some supplies.  I can’t remember if I offered to go too, probably not(!), but he was happy doing it.  I stayed in the forest, not seeing an awful lot in the heat of the day to be honest. I stayed out until dark, a bit concerned not to have seen Nick on the trail, so was quite relieved to find him back in our room.  He’d had a successful shopping trip, got back with an hour of light left, wandered along the trail and virtually walked into a male GIANT PITTA!!  Probably my most wanted bird, I couldn’t believe it.

I looked for the pitta the next morning to no avail, perhaps surprising as it turned out, and we then concentrated on the Mangrove Trail seeing 4 Black-throated Wren-Babblers and a Blue-eared Kingfisher.  Another couple of days mainly on the Mangrove Trail produced Storm’s Stork, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Black-backed and Blue-eared Kingfishers, Grey & Buff and Great Slaty Woodpeckers, Black & Red Broadbill (new for Nick ‘what’s this amazing barbet’, amazing indeed), White-crowned Forktail and Striped Wren-Babbler.  Despite the latter we were not seeing many ground birds and I’d not seen a single pitta.  Some periods of heavy rain were making the forest damp and there were few dry leaves for them to rustle in, at least that was my excuse. 

a window into more open forest at Sepilok
trialing a new one-way system, Orang Utans down on the left, squirrels up on the right.  No guesses which was moving the fastest

Bornean Gibbon

On our fourth day I headed down the Mangrove Trail again, I was concentrating on it as it was where Graham Speight et al had seen Blue-headed Pitta.  I’m not sure why, perhaps I’d heard something subconsciously, but at about 08:00 I suddenly became extremely tense.  I froze but couldn’t see or hear anything.  I took a couple of small steps forward and noticed a slight movement of a large pitta shaped bird behind vegetation just off the trail about 10m away.  I don’t think the second it takes to raise my binoculars has ever felt so long but what seemed like a lifetime later I was looking at a male Giant Pitta.  Was it good!  An amazing bird, it took a big hop a bit more into the open and slowly turned its head to look at me.  Another big hop and it looked at me again and then it crossed the trail in a couple of bounds and was gone.  It had been on view for about a minute but I was completely mesmerized.  My inclination was to rush back and tell Nick, but he was going down the Waterfall Trail and it might takes ages to find him so I continued on my way.  I was walking on air and probably not being very alert, although I did see a Black & Yellow Broadbill, a very confiding pair of Chestnut-breasted Partridges and three Black-throated Wren-Babblers.  On my return I saw the male Giant Pitta again, at 17:50 just off the trail in the same area as before.  Brilliant, but the day was not over as about ten minutes later a female Giant Pitta was on the trail near the seat, in about the same area Nick had seen the male four days previously. 
Pitta plate from the Pocket Guide.  Giant Pitta are 2a (male) and 2b (female).  My focus now switched to Blue-headed Pitta (3a and 3b).
the end of the Mangrove Trail
Returning to the area the next day I saw the female near the seat at 07:00 and Nick’s original male at 18:00.  As we had suspected there appeared to be a pair in the area, hopefully taking turns sitting on a nest.  It also seemed very likely that the male I had seen on the Mangrove Trail was different as it was about a mile away.  We were also regularly seeing Great Slaty Woodpeckers in the area and discovered a nest hole that they were visiting.  August seemed to be the middle of the nesting season, at least for some species.  I saw the male Giant Pitta by the seat the following day at about 07:00 and 18:00, the last sighting from the ‘bridge’.  Two minutes later a Black & Crimson Pitta was bathing in the stream near the seat – it looked very small compared to the Giant!  Another great day but we had now been at Sepilok for a week and still not found Blue-headed Pitta so we decided to head for Gomantong where they had also been seen. 

White-crowned Shama demonstrating how poor the light was for pre-digital photography

At Sepilok we also spent time in the first clearing near the entrance and on the Tree Platform looking for Bristleheads but it was generally unproductive although we did see White-fronted Falconets regularly near the former and Black & Yellow Broadbill and Black Magpie from the latter.  Before we left for Gomantong one session on the Tree Platform was enlivened by the visit of a one-armed Orang Utan.  It appeared from nowhere and grabbed my water bottle from the seat beside me, held it in one foot, took the top of and tipped the water into its mouth, extending its lower jaw to do so.  As the Orang only had one arm I felt I could outwit it by offering a biscuit in the hope of grabbing the bottle back when it put it down.  The Orang wasn’t so easily fooled, held the bottle in its foot again, took the biscuit which it decided was too salty (it was a Cheddar, part of my food supplies from UK) and attempted to dip it into the water but as the opening was too small rather scrunched it in.  The Orang then tried to take a bite out of the water bottle while I told it off and Nick was rolling around with laughter.  Another biscuit worked and I grabbed the bottle back, an amusing episode once my bottle was recovered and the bite mark found to be cosmetic.  Almost a badge of pride and I was sorry several years later when the water bottle finally had to be replaced.  On our return to Sepilok we saw the Orang climbing up the side of a massive tree trunk, its one arm seemed to put it at no disadvantage at all.  And to think I was contemplating a tug of war with it over my water bottle.  There would only ever have been one winner there.

canopy view
an immaculate Black & Yellow Broadbill, but they all are
Scarlet Minivet
a visitor to the Tree Platform
she soon made herself at home
with my water and biscuits
although it was hard to be cross with her for long
Gomantong, Sepilok and Kota Kinabalu (29 July-3 August).  We were on the main road soon after it was light and got an early bus back into Sandakan where we bought some supplies and made for the waterfront.  From there we caught the mid-morning ferry, the Express Mahjur, across the bay to Suan Lamba, which took about 90 minutes.  We hitched a lift with a truck going to the Forest HQ, very handy as the last part was three miles down a dirt track and by now it was very hot.  
Sandakan Harbour
on board the Express Mahjur
leaving Sandakan
our hut by the headquarters at Gomantong

At Gomantong we were given an empty room in a nearby hut to sleep in but to say it was basic was an understatement – it had absolutely nothing in it at all, no electricity and no windows.  We put mossie nets up inside and spread our stuff out.  We were keen to get into the forest, so much so that I wasn’t paying enough attention crossing a wooden bridge over a ditch and stood on the end of a plank which broke.  I fell and caught my lower leg on the next plank causing a very deep painful gash which bled profusely.  It eventually stopped but left a permanent scar.  The first bird we saw when we got to the forest was a Black & Crimson Pitta and I had eight sightings in the three days we were there.  Nick found a superb Chestnut-capped Ground Thrush, came to find me and it was still showing when we got back, a brilliant bird.  Later I wasn’t so lucky with a Red-legged Crake that Nick saw but had disappeared before I could get back to it (teach me to wander off so often).  Fortunately we were together when Nick found a female Chestnut-collared Kingfisher, although I found it for myself the next day.  Other highlights at Gomantong were Bat Hawk (up to 5 in the air over the caves at dusk), thousands of swiftlets (the cave was amazing but smelly), male and female Red-naped Trogons, Chestnut-collared and Black-backed Kingfishers, Black & Yellow and Green Broadbills and swarms of bats running the Bat Hawk gauntlet at dusk.  It had been a nice couple of days but we were no closer to seeing Blue-headed Pitta which was now becoming rather a concern. 

Black and Crimson Pitta was almost the first bird we saw at Gomantong
Green Broadbill
Chestnut-capped Thrush
Black and Crimson Pitta
overlooking the forest at Gomantong from above the bat caves
bats leaving Gomantong at dusk

After a final morning at Gomantong we walked out to the main road.  It was very hot carrying a rucksack.  We got a lift to Suan Lamba and slept on the ferry which left for Sandakan before dawn the following morning. 

leaving Gomantong
dawn between Suan Lamba and Sandakan
We were soon back at Sepilok where we concentrated on the Waterfall Trail.  The highlight was a pair of Bornean Wren Babblers until, at 18:00, the male Giant Pitta was again by the seat.  We had hoped to see Nigel Redman at Sepilok as he was doing a recce with Simon Harrop ahead of a Birdquest tour but unbeknown to us they had changed their plans.  We left them a note at headquarters about the Giant Pittas and a few other things but they never got it.  In hindsight a note on the Tree platform might have been better, provided an Orang Utan didn’t run off with it!  We decided we needed a change of scenery, and a bit of coolness, and hoped that Blue-headed Pitta might be more evident if we returned a week or so later into our trip. 

We got an early bus into Sandakan on 2 August and then another to Kota Kinabalu, the later taking 9-10 hours.  The forest had been cleared as far as the eye could see virtually the whole way through the lowlands.  Everything was trashed with occasional tree stumps standing out above it.  Very distressing and it brought home where all the topsoil we’d seen being carried out to sea had come from.  It made supporting the protection of rainforests my main conservation priority. 

We arrived back at Kota Kinabalu where a look around one of the parks produced Green Imperial and Pink-necked Green Pigeons.  The following morning we visited the Tourist Office, Post Office, Singapore Airlines (to reconfirm our flights) and the National Parks Office to book a stay at Kinabalu.  Both the last two felt like unnecessary hassle, especially the latter as our bus had gone right past the entrance to the National Park an hour or so before we got to KK the previous afternoon. 

Kota Kinabalu

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