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.


  1. Love it....I did a few hours trip to Pulau Manukan for the Scrubfowl which was fairly cooperative as I guess they are more used to people. Mantanani looks like a great place that I could take the family and sneak away for some photography...I need to make a plan. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I think Mantanani would be excellent with family, Dave, with plenty of diving/snorkelling/crabs/nature stuff etc all on offer at well-organised 'resorts' (more like 'camps' TBH). You're a bit stuck in the resort, though, if not out birding or offshore, as there are no shops or historic buildings (or anything touristy) to speak of. It was also fantastically humid during the middle of the day, which is probably why everyone went out swimming at that time!