Friday, 23 August 2019

BORNEO 2019: Klias and Payeh Maga (19-23 August)

The main part of our Borneo trip had started. Nick Preston, Paul Noakes and I had met up with Lori Szucs in Kota Kinabalu and been driven to Beaufort. This blog is my personal view of the trip, illustrated by generally poor photos taken with a Canon SX60 bridge camera and supplemented by some of Lori's which are much better.

Monday 19 Augsust. We left the Gem Hotel in Beaufort at 05:30 for the shortish drive to Klias, arriving just on dawn having seen 3 Large-tailed Nightjars along the approach road. Despite having been notified that we would be arriving early the gate was locked so our driver climbed over to raise someone who released a small leaver to let us in, something we could easily have done ourselves if we'd known. We quickly walked to the end of the peat-forest boardwalk where a pair of Hook-billed Bulbuls took a bit of finding but showed well when we did. We had several poor views of Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker before Lori located a male in a more isolated tree which was more acceptable. Of our third target, Grey-breasted Babbler, there was no sign. Other birds seen in the five hours we were on site included Raffle's, Red-billed and Black-bellied Malkohas, Emerald Dove, Black Hornbill, Red-crowned and Blue-eared Barbets, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Blue-rumped Parrot, Bornean Spangled Drongo, Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Chestnut-rumped Babbler, Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher and Yellow-rumped, Orange-bellied and Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers. We left Klias and Sabah and drove into Sarawak (with minor formalities) and Lawas. In Lawas we transferred into another vehicle at the bus station, the arrangements Paul had made working very smoothly. It was a two hour drive to Merarap Hotsprings Lodge where we spent two hours birding along the entrance road, the best birds seen being Brown-backed Needletail, Rhinocerous Hornbill, Grey & Buff Woodpecker (superb) and Black & Yellow Broadbill. The rooms in the lodge were quite basic and it was very humid so good preparation for what we expected at Payeh Maga. After a good meal Paul, Nick and I walked up the entrance road again having unsatisfactory views of a Barred Eagle Owl. It flew over Nick's head in response to playback but landed in view in a distant tree too far away to be sure if it had a ear-tufts. It dropped out of view before we worked out how to approach it. We gave up when it started to drizzle, a prelude to heavy overnight rain. My insides were misbehaving but not to inconveniently.
boardwalk at Klias

Red-crowned Barbet at Klias
Bornean Brown Barbet at Merarap
Crimson-winged Woodpecker at Merarap
Grey & Buff Woodpecker at Merarap, a far more impressive species than this image suggests
forest at Merarap
Merarap Hotsprings, most of us resisted the temptation to jump in
Tuesday 20 August. Heavy rain overnight was almost torrential at 06:00 when we had breakfast. It had eased off a bit when we left at 07:10 and was persistent drizzle when we were dropped at the Payeh Maga gate at 07:40 and started walking up an old logging track. Our vehicle could have taken us up to the first camp but was going to pick up our support team (guide, cook and two porters) who would bring up our food, bedding and main bags. We'd left some things we wouldn't need at Merarap, most of my stuff in my case as I just about managed to fit everything I wanted into my day bag. The first part of the walk was fairly birdless and we reached the first deserted camp at 09:00. I'm not sure our walking there was the best strategy, more so as main track through the first camp soon petered out and we realised we should have taken a more overgrown one we'd initially overlooked. The drizzle was easing but there was little bird activity and few calls with an early Dusky Broadbill the main highlight. We were overtaken by our support guys who then indicated a short cut to reach the camp where we arrived late morning. It was a clearing with an accommodation building and basic toilet block. The accommodation block consisted of a kitchen and empty rooms, two in which had been erected two one-man inner tents equipped with mattress and sleeping bag. Luxury. It didn't take long to find Black Oriole in the trees around the edge of the clearing although they were rather secretive. We were given a forgettable lunch and spent a couple of hours around the clearing while the rain finally cleared. We then walked further up the track above the camp but there was little activity. On the way back down a Blue-banded Pitta was calling nearby and we went in a short distance to a slightly more open area and scanned. It responded briefly and I just happened to be scanning the far bank when I saw it in a small gap head on standing on a log. Unfortunately it hopped out of sight before anyone else could get onto it and sadly that was it. A nice but very brief view of a bird that really deserved better. Other birds seen included Crested Honey Buzzard, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Gold-whiskered and Bornean Barbets, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Sunda Cuckooshrike, Cinereous (Green-winged) Bullbul, Indigo Flycatcher, Bornean Forktail and Temminck's Sunbrd. I'd zipped off the bottom of my trousers to stop them getting wet in the light rain but was leeched 6-7 times as a result, at least there were no mosquitoes about. Another boiled rice, chicken-wings and cabbage meal but nicer than lunch. We tried for Bornean Frogmouth after dark but it was still quite damp and nothing was calling. It was raining heavily again by 20:30 prompting an early bed and diary session. My insides were still fairly liquid, not endearing me to local food.
Payeh Maga or Paya Maga? We didn't get high enough to find Whitehead's Trogon
Paul, Nick and Lori walking to Payeh Maga
Payeh Maga camp

Red-bearded Bee-eater at Payeh Maga
Black Oriole at Payeh Maga (photo: Lori Szucs)
Wednesday 21 August. A very disappointing day until the very end. We were up at 05:00 - a clear sky and a big moon - and along the trail to try for Bornean Frogmouth. We heard one a little way off the trail and went in for it. It came in high overhead several times giving Paul and Lori poor views but Nick and I were looking the wrong way. We returned for breakfast before continuing up the trail but little was calling and nothing responding with Bornean Barbet and a distant Pygmy White-eye best. We returned for lunch which I was going to skip until realised included beans which made the rice more bearable. We spent the afternoon above the camp. I spent a couple of hours slowly walking and sitting along a narrow forest trail seeing absolutely nothing. We finished back up the trail trying for pittas hearing another Blue-banded. We returned to area we had encountered Bornean Frogmouth and settled in before dusk. Just as the light was going a Bornean Banded Pitta called from quite close but remained unseen. Then the frogmouth called and after a brief flight view Nick spotted it sat on a horizontal branch to save the day. Too distant and too brief for my bridge camera but a great to see. We heard two more walking back to camp but neither were seen. Other birds seen included Ochraceous (Penan) BulbulCinereous (Green-winged) Bullbul, Black-capped White-eye, Bornean Leafbird and Bornean Spiderhunter.
forest at Payeh Maga

Temminck's Sunbird at Payeh Maga

Paul, Lori, me and Nick at Payeh Maga camp
Thursday 22 August. We were up at 04:50 and returned to the area we had seen Bornean Frogmouth the previous evening. We heard it but it was too high to see, no pittas were encountered either. We birded above the camp then returned for breakfast having seen male Dayak Blue Flycatcher that Paul taped and back near the clearing a Black Oriole but little else. After breakfast we walked down below the camp but it was no better - all very frustrating. I skipped lunch and walked the short trail instead but saw nothing. I then joined Nick on the trail above the camp. We went higher than before seeing Orange-breasted Trogon but little else. A very close Blue-banded Pitta was calling from just off the track. We went in with some difficulty but it stopped and didn't respond to playback. We returned to the path and it started calling again 50m further up, in an area where it was impossible to get off the track. It returned to the original area and we went in again, it repeated its behaviour and we gave up. On the way back down we met Paul and Lori who had tried for another Blue-banded Pitta which Lori had seen briefly. A little further down we heard Bornean Banded Pittas on either side of the track. Neither responded but I had a good view of a female below the trail which just happened to be standing in the one patch of forest floor I could see looking down. A good view but it hopped out of sight before anyone else saw it. While unsuccessfully taping another Bornean Banded Pitta a little further down the track Paul heard Hose's Broadbill calling and ran off down the track. We followed for 150m and had several flight views of two birds crossing the track in response to playback, no more than silhouettes in the fading light. They flew back and forward individually four times and Lori saw one perched twice inside the canopy but both times it flew before the rest of us could get onto it. I then saw one land in the top of one of the taller trees and picked it out on an exposed branch. High, distant and in poor light but it was clear what it was. Paul with top of the range 10x binoculars saw the blue underparts, a male, but my eyes/8x binoculars were not up to the task. Lori saw it too but unfortunately Nick didn't get onto it - completely out of character -  and his feelings got the better of him. A John McEnroe moment would be putting it mildly. From my point of view another day saved at the death although we were all very much hoping for better views in the morning. Those that had seen it feeling fairly confident they had roosted in the area being seen in such poor light.
Tufted Pygmy Squirrel at Payeh Maga (photo: Lori Szucs), easily the best mammal we saw in Borneo
Olive-backed Woodpecker at Payeh Maga
Orange-breasted Trogon

Straight Line Mapwing (Cyrestis nivea) at Payeh Maga
my tent inside the accommodation building
Friday 23 August. We were up at 05:00, earlier than was necessary, to be at the Hose's site for dawn which wasn't until 06:05. No response to tapes and nothing heard, other than an uncooperative Bornean Frogmouth, was very disappointing. We continued birding slowly up the track seeing little although a pair of high flying Helmetted Hornbills were impressive as we returned for breakfast. We packed up and left at 09:00 seeing a few birds around the edge of the clearing including Chestnut-bellied Malkoha, Black & Yellow Broadbill, Black Oriole, Pygmy White-eye and Chestnut-backed Scimitar Babbler before walking out. It was a much hotter day than previously and correspondingly quieter, if that were possible, although we had a superb view of Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler and I finally convinced myself of the pale eye of a Cream-eyed Bulbul. We were pleasantly surprised to find Isak and his vehicle at the first camp saving us a walk back to the road. He'd been there waiting for us the previous day too, Tommy who had arranged our transfer having mistakenly told him the wrong day! Isak seemed very understanding about it, I'm not sure we would have been if he'd been told we were leaving the following day. We dropped the support guys at the main road and Isak drove us to Ba'kelalan which with a couple of brief stops took about 4 hours. Much of the drive was on a dirt road through fairly open country with decent looking forested ridges and patches. As we approached Ba'kelalan there was an area of extensive roadworks which Isak told us was the main area to look for Dulit Frogmouth which was rather concerning. We drove through Ba'kelalan and up a very steep road to the Tropical Jungle Hideout situated on a forested ridge high above the town. It was an impressive setup run by Isak and Wendy. We were allocated two chalets and dumped our bags, had a cup of tea and were driven back into town to meet Andy and Badu (the guides used by Dave Cooper) who had agreed to help us look for Dulit Frogmouth. We met them opposite the airport seeing Cinnamon Bittern, Paddyfield Pipit and Chestnut Munia while waiting. We drove to the area near the roadworks where Andy gave us some tips about photographing night birds and insisted we practised on a spotlit branch, which we took great photos of. We felt this rather unnecessary especially as his attempts at playback elicited no response. We suggested he might try at a lower volume but I'm not sure our advice was welcomed. We tried further up the road but again loud taping produced no response and nothing was seen by shining torches on roadside trees. A distant Buffy Fish Owl was heard and at a third site an initially not so distant Oriental Bay Owl, until subjected to full volume of its call appeared to push it further away before it went quiet. Isak suggested another area by the road nearer to town and we drove there. A bird was heard some way off but it wasn't until Lori took over taping and tried a quieter playback that it responded.  Andy and Badu left us too it, catching a lift back into town, and we never saw them again. Several attempts with the Dulit Frogmouth drew a blank and although it crossed the road a couple of times it remained unseen. Frustratingly close. Isak took us back up to the Tropical Jungle hideout where we arrived at 22:50 for an excellent dinner that Wendy had waiting for us.
my effort at one of the high flying Helmetted Hornbill, bridge camera not focusing on what I'd wanted it to
Helemetted Hornbill flying across the valley at Payeh Maga (photo Lori Szucs)
Black & Yellow Broadbill at Payeh Maga

looking back to Payeh Maga on the walk out
Isak's 4WD was a welcome sight at the first camp
the road to Ba'kelalan

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