Thursday, 28 July 2016

Kota Kinabalu and Papar Wetlands

For our final day in Sabah, we first headed back out towards the forested hillside along 'Jalan Raya Kg Sugud Timpango' that we had visited the previous afternoon as the area had really looked quite promising for some lowland forest birds. It proved to be quite exceptional, and I picked up no fewer than five lifers from this one spot alone! Right off the bat, the Red-crowned Barbet Psilopogon rafflesii popped out in the open, but took one look at me and was gone before I was able to get my camera on it (though I had at least done things the right way round in getting my bins on it first for a quick look). Although this was a bit of a disappointment, my second lifer was only seconds away, as sitting in a small clearing at some distance below me was a cracking male Scarlet-rumped Trogon Harpactes duvaucelii. This thing was much smaller than the other trogons we had seen at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, thoroughly cute and stonking all at the same time!

Very quickly we began racking up other species, including Brown Caloramphus fuliginosus and Blue-eared Barbets Psilopogon duvaucelii. The bulbuls would come next, with two Black-and-White Bulbuls Pycnonotus melanoleucos flying through the area, alighting only briefly, and once more frustrating me by flying off the very second I got my camera on to them. I would score with a second lifer bulbul shortly after, though, Puff-backed Bulbul Pycnonotus eutilotus, but would only manage blurred images of this one as it refused to come out into the open.

My final lifer from this area would be Red-throated Sunbird Anthreptes rhodolaemus, a species we had been told we had already seen at the Rainforest Discovery Centre some days earlier (as we had been looking at 'one' at the same time as a group of birders from Thailand, who seemed quite sure that the sunbird in question was a Red-throated rather than a Brown-throated Sunbird Anthreptes malacensis, on the basis primarily of a 'pale-centred' throat). At the time I remained unconvinced, as all the Brown-throated Sunbirds I had looked at had also had pale-centred throats, though was happy to concede that the separation of these two might be a somewhat nuanced affair. Although most field guides do illustrate the pair so that they look practically identical, it transpires that they are not really all that similar at all, and that Red-throated Sunbird is actually quite strikingly different from Brown! The male at this spot had a strikingly vivid shining green back and crown (all much bluer in Brown-throated), which contrasted strongly with solid bright red shoulders and all wing coverts (blue shoulders and duller coverts on Brown-throated). Below, it practically lacked yellow on the flanks, which were off-white, and had yellow in the centre-breast only (yellow throughout below on Brown-throated), and whilst the throat was indeed pale-centred, the ear coverts were a much deeper red than the throat and more glossed (the other way round in Brown-throated). I was well-chuffed to finally catch up with this bird (which does seem to be quite rare), though disappointed that I never managed to get the whole bird in the one photograph. (I have also added the Rainforest Discovery Centre 'Red-throated' below for comparison).

When the area we were in had gone quiet, we continued 'exploring' by driving up the hill a short distance to where we found a side road that could be followed up into thicker forest. At the end of the road, we picked up quite large numbers of Black-headed Bulbuls Pycnonotus atriceps, and the flock contained what would be my final lifer of the trip, a Grey-bellied Bulbul Pycnonotus cyaniventris, one I had missed several years ago just below Fraser's Hill. As my feet were by now killing me from all the walking and standing up over the previous week, I hung around the car park birding whilst Da Chiao Lin ventured out along one of the short trails. He picked up two Wreathed Hornbills Rhyticeros undulatus whilst out wandering, and a Great Argus Argusianus argus was singing from somewhere just off the trail. This all indicated that a good selection of lowland forest birds still survived in this relatively small spot, only a stone's throw away from Kota Kinabalu.

At noon, the rain began coming down, and it did not look like it was going to stop. We headed to Lok Kawi for lunch, after which we decided to drive south to Papar to pick up some trip ticks from a farmed 'wetland' area there. The rain had eased off by the time we arrived early afternoon, and we picked up the usual suspects within ten minutes or so of arriving (these being Black-winged Kite Elanus caeruleus (interesting only in that it is a different race to those occurring on Taiwan, as evidenced by the translucent secondaries), Wandering Whistling Duck Dendrocygna arcuata, Black-backed Swamphen Porphyrio indicus and Striated Grassbird Megalurus palustris). There was doubtless more to be had in this decent-looking area, but as the rain began coming down again mid-afternoon, we really weren't given the opportunity to explore it further.

Instead, we banked on the rain having stopped by the time we reached the Likas Lagoon just north of Kota Kinabalu, which would be our final stop (with Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus the last target). The rain had not stopped when we rolled up there, but this did not stop us from picking up an immature night heron out in the open more or less the second we pulled up. From the amount of rufous in the wings of this individual, I assumed it must be an immature Nankeen Night Heron without question. However, later on we would bump into some quite likely-looking hybrids, which introduced more uncertainty into all the rather dark-looking immatures we were seeing (which may have just been dark-looking because they were wet). However, it didn't take too long for a good-looking adult to fly in and plonk down next to what looked like a hybrid adult (with black forehead and some reddish tones on neck and wings, but black mantle), allowing us to be sure that we had at least seen one good Nankeen Night Heron this trip. Later on, a more convincing immature took to the wing, suggesting that there was in fact no shortage of them at this site, even though there may also have been no shortage of hybrids!

With Nankeen Night Heron in the bag, that was it for the trip. As we had to return the hire car and there was still also plenty of drizzle around, it did not seem worth trying again for the frogmouth, so we elected to leave that one for another visit. As our flight out of Sabah was anyway at 06:00 the next morning, it seemed prudent to return to our hotel and try to get some sleep. Nankeen Night Heron was the last bird onto the trip list, bringing the total (at least for me) to 182 species (for full list: Click here). Of these, 32 were new, far more than I had been expecting given that this was my third visit to Sabah and that I would be visiting some low diversity locations (Mantanani) this time round. What remains utterly astonishing from my the last three visits here is just how much there is that remains to be seen, with Danum Valley and Kinabatangan River in particular still not having received even a look-in! As long as the cheap air fares continue, I can really see no reason why I won't be back in this part of the world at pretty much the same time next year, and perhaps for a much longer stay! Above photos taken around Kota Kinabalu, Sabah 24/7/16.

Crocker Range and Kota Kinabalu

After returning to Kota Kinabalu from Mantanani, we picked up a hire car for our remaining two days in Sabah. The time constraint obviously meant it would be difficult to travel anywhere too far out of the city, but I fancied that there would still be enough dotted around close to town and that we should be able to find one or two decent birds with the added bonus of transport. Saturday morning saw us heading out early up to the Rafflesia Centre above Tambunan where I hoped to connect with Mountain Serpent Eagle Spilornis kinabaluensis, a species which had eluded me on my last two visits to Sabah. It would elude me for a third time, though, and indeed the Rafflesia Centre per se would prove to be astonishingly quiet bird-wise, with just a few miscellaneous odds and ends popping out for the camera. Most astonishingly of all, there were absolutely no barbets whatsoever singing throughout the morning! Below are a few birds of interest, Cinereous Bulbul Hemixos cinereus, Mountain Barbet Psilopogon monticola, Sunda Cuckoo-shrike Coracina larvata, Indigo Flycatcher Eumyias indigo, and one of the 'whatever they are' swiftlets that breed at the centre (presumed to be Bornean Swiftlets Collocalia dodgei).

We had lunch at the Gunung Alab service station, and noticed that there was a small road heading uphill from there that we thought might be worth a look in the early part of the afternoon. In actual fact, the park at the top turned out to be much better for birding than had the Rafflesia Centre (at least on this particular visit), and we managed to find Fruithunter Chlamydochaera jefferyi, Mountain Blackeye Chlorocharis emiliae, and several small mixed flocks which contained Bornean Whistlers Pachycephala hypoxantha, Mountain Leaf Warblers Phylloscopus trivirgatus and Temminck's Sunbirds Aethopyga temminckii amongst other things. At such altitude, I once again fancied my chances of Mountain Serpent Eagle from this park, but as the mist began to roll in late afternoon, it was obvious that that was not going to happen.

As the weather began to deteriorate, we turned tail and headed back down the mountain in the direction of Kota Kinabalu. As it was still quite early, we turned off in the direction of Lok Kawi and then took a side road above Penampang (a road apparently called 'Jalan Raya Kg Sugud Timpango') in the direction of what appeared to be a large forest fragment on the hillside. However, about two thirds of the way up, there was an interesting-looking clearing just off the road which seemed worthy of investigation. It didn't take long upon stopping the car to pick out a singing Red-crowned Barbet Psilopogon rafflesii, hence we decided to give this area a bit more time. Although this bird would not show, we were able to get a reasonable selection of birds from the roadside, which included yet more Raffles's Malkohas Rhinortha chlorophaea and a 'Sabah tick' in Everett's White-eye Zosterops everetti.

As evening began to draw near, we left the area, pencilling it in as a potential spot for the following day. We had bigger fish to fry during the evening, though, and headed off towards the running park at Taman Tun Fuad Stephen in the hope of connecting with Sunda Frogmouth Batrachostomus cornutus. The park was easy to find, and became very interesting after dark, even though nocturnal birds were challenging to find as there were practically no calls being given by anything. Fortunately, I had remembered to pack my tape, and set up in a small rest stop on the western side of the lake. There was a immediate response to playback, a kind of growl from under the canopy of the lower story bushes immediately above the trail, followed by a bird flying away when I went out to investigate. I couldn't find this thing perched, and left to explore a bit more widely. Returning after a short period, I set up the tape again and once more got an immediate response, this time a smallish nightjar-shaped bird flying in at almost ground level to investigate the tape before abruptly u-turning and heading back into the forest, growling once more as it went. Despite checking the bushes where this bird seemed to have headed, I couldn't find this one perched either, and that would be it for what I assume to have been Sunda Frogmouth (as there would be no response a third time). I couldn't help but feel that these birds may be quite straightforward in this park at times of year when they are calling. Unfortunately, this was just not in July! All was not lost camera-wise for the evening, though, as Da Chiao Lin had found himself a Sunda Scops Owl Otus lempiji, which, although somewhat awkward, was rather better behaved than the frogmouths had been.

It was 21:30 when we left the park. We should have stayed later, but early start after early start (with another one due the following morning) and no dinner was really starting to take its toll, and we returned to our hotel happy to have at least one night bird on out cameras (a second owl or the trip). I should have set more time aside for the frogmouth, really, a lesson learned for next time! Above photos taken at various sites in the Crocker Range and around Kota Kinabalu, Sabah 23/7/16.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Mantanani Island

I had been wanting to go to Mantanani Island ever since I learnt about the massive frigatebird roost there. With Christmas Island Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi occupying a position quite high up on a 'bucket list' of sorts, I didn't think that I could visit Sabah for a third time without stopping off to take a look at it. There was the further lure of a highly range-restricted owl, Mantanani Scops Owl Otus mantananensis, and the outside chance of a few decent pigeons, including that wonderful weirdo Nicobar Pigeon Caloenas nicobarica, which in truth occupied a position perhaps even higher up on said list than did the frigatebird. Going to Mantanani proved to be very easy, as we were readily able to book a 2D1N package at a dive resort on the island through an agent at Kota Kinabalu airport the minute we arrived back there from Sandakan. This cost 500 MYR per person, which included transfer from any hotel in Kota Kinabalu, return boat trip, and all meals (the 'standard package' for this spot). So, the following morning (Wednesday) we were on our way to Mantanani, arriving at the 'Bemberan Beach Resort' at around 11:00. Obviously, it was straight out birding, and a 100-metre walk up the beach quickly added my first two lifers, Grey Imperial Pigeon Ducula pickeringii and Philippine Megapode Megapodius cumingii, though I was only able manage head shots of the former (with the scrubfowl simply 'legging it' into the forest).

We returned for lunch at 13:00 and enquired about how to reach the small island on which the frigatebirds roost. As it turned out, we were at completely the opposite end of the island to this rock, and getting anywhere near it would require a 3-4 km walk along the beach in the heat of the day after lunch. Of course, this trudge was undertaken (though I had not imagined Mantanani to be quite so big), but, as the frigatebirds started to show up late afternoon, the heavens opened, meaning that getting the camera full of 'stunning' images of frigatebirds I was hoping for was simply not going to happen. Indeed, all I had on my camera at the close of play was a few grainy shots of Lesser Frigatebirds Fregata ariel and an immature White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster, which for some reason had chosen to head out fishing in the heaviest of the downpours.

At least several hundred frigatebirds had come in to roost (mostly Lesser, but with plenty of Christmas Island in amongst), but had not landed at dusk as the rain was simply bucketing down and the flocks were obviously flying around the showers trying to avoid the deluge (hence presumably roosted after dark). At dinner, we decided that we really had to stay another night to make the most of this incredible spectacle, and resolved to extend our stay (to 3D2N) before heading out to look for Mantanani Scops Owl once the rain had ended. Although we managed to see one owl, this bird was actively hunting and disappeared the second I got my camera onto it. All I came away with from the first night's owling (before the 23:00 curfew) was a single fruit bat SP, meaning that another night was going to be required anyway should I want photos of the owl.

Our second morning on Mantanani was spent on trails through scrub due west of the Bembaran Beach Resort. Despite hearing several Philippine Megapodes mewing away in this area, we failed to connect with any. More surprisingly, Grey Imperial Pigeons proved to be much more difficult than they had been the previous lunch time (when quite easy to find), and only one was willing to venture out into the open, albeit at range. Perhaps not too surprisingly, there was very little else on offer as the day grew hotter, with just the ubiquitous Collared Kingfishers Todiramphus chloris and Pied Trillers Lalage nigra offering themselves up as camera fodder. One or two Germain's Swiftlets Aerodramus germani were also fluttering around the resort.

The birding was proving to be very challenging and things felt ominously quiet, until mid-morning, that is, when three giant frigatebirds drifted low over the camp. From the colour and length of the bills alone, these were clearly Christmas Island Frigatebirds, and I was finally able to get some shots of this very big target species I could actually be happy with (though I would have preferred a bit more variety than just three adult females).

Once these birds had drifted out to sea, that was it for the 'action' until the evening, when the long march out to the roost site had once again to be undertaken. Although it did not rain heavily this evening, there were some big thunderstorms around, and the leaden skies meant that once more any efforts at photography would be thwarted. I managed some poor and not aesthetically-pleasing shots of parts of the flock coming in to roost, but that was it really. Try as I might, I could not pick out a Great Frigatebird Fregata minor in amongst this lot!

In the evening, our attentions turned once more to Mantanaiani Scops Owl, and we spent an hour or so  in the area where we had seen the bird the previous evening. Almost straight away, we were able to relocate what was presumably the same individual, and this evening it was a lot more tolerant of our presence, meaning that I could get some pretty decent photos of it all told.

The decision to stay the extra night was fully justified the following morning, which turned out to be the best one of the trip out to Mantanani. It started with some creeping around in the scrub behind Bemeberan Beach Resort producing a large, all-dark pigeon flushed from the canopy, a bird which can only have been a Metallic Pigeon Columba vitiensis (which later checking on Xeno Canto revealed had also been singing at one inaccessible spot on the island the previous evening). Deeper in the forest, I flushed two separate Philippine Megapodes before finally managing to catch up with one which would allow me to snap off a couple of partially obscured head shots before scurrying away deeper into cover. The big reward would come later, though, following a detour down a small trail (as the trail I had wanted to walk on had been blocked by rather a large cow) which produced a fat green bird which (startled by my sudden presence) ran quickly under a bush not far in front of me. This fat green bird had clearly had a stumpy, all-white tail, hence was that biggest of all prizes for me, a Nicobar Pigeon! It froze for just a split-second under the bush it had run into, meaning that I would be permitted a further obscured head shot, but nothing more!

The bird disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared and, although I did manage to flush it a couple more times and get decent flight views, it was extremely flighty and off before I could pick it up on the ground. This bird (much-wanted by me for many years for some reason) meant an almost clean sweep of Mantanani from the three days available and species-wise things couldn't really have gone much better (6 lifers from an island list of just 22). We had been very unlucky with the weather in the evenings, though, but otherwise the trip out to the island had constituted a surprisingly profitable detour and a return visit in the future may well be on the cards. A slight word of warning, though, about bookings and agents to this place. There is practically no phone signal on Mantanani, so contacting agents back in Kota Kinabalu to revise any travel arrangements is problematic to say the least (it took us an hour or so to get a phone signal, which was weak and frequently cut off). We paid the difference (between 2D1N and 3D2N) upon returning to our hotel (as we had also arranged to pick up a hire car from the same agent). However, they most certainly did 'try it on' with us by initially trying to charge for an additional trip instead of an additional night (i.e. by doubling the price from 500 to 1000 MYR). When we protested that this was wholly unreasonable (with most operators, the difference between a 2D1N stay and a 3D2N stay is around 100-150 MYR), they very quickly backed down and accepted an additional 160 MYR to cover the extra night. I must add that this behaviour has nothing to do with the Bemberan Beach Resort (which was excellent), but with the agent used to book the resort. I'll leave them nameless, too, as they did not put up any kind of fight once they knew they had been rumbled (as stated, they were simply 'trying it on'), but it's unpleasant to have to go through this sort of thing at any time, really. Above photos taken on Mantanani Island, Sabah 20-22/7/16.