Brief Encounters

Cloud Forest Wildlife on Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

Mount Kinabalu, Borneo © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
Mount Kinabalu, Borneo © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
2 NOV 2014
by

Thin wisps of mist blew through the montane rainforest and the calls of Mountain Barbets throbbed around me. I was on the highest mountain in South-east Asia; Mount Kinabalu, in the eponymous Mount Kinabalu National Park. I was not on its rocky summit but on its lower slopes where swathes of lush sub-montane rainforest embrace it like a green scarf to keep the mountain warm. Many people come here to climb the mountain. I had also done that many years ago. On this trip I was here to enjoy the mountain for its special wildlife. Some species on this mountain are found only here and nowhere else on earth. Down below in a resort close to the park, my family slumbered tucked under heavy duvets. The mountain chill was yet to be melted away by the sun. We were on a family holiday where a lie-in was part of the holiday spirit for them. So I had tiptoed out; keen naturalists never indulge in lie-ins, especially not when so close to a rainforest treasure trove.

One of the easier birds to see on the mountain is the stunning Green Magpie with chocolate edges on the wings. The birds here don't seem shy. Like most members of the crow family, they are intelligent enough to realise how close they can get to people without being at risk. In the morning gloom, a Bornean Whistling Thrush had hesitantly alighted on the road to glean for insects. Most Whistling Thrushes look a dull, dark blue, almost black in low light. But their colouration is not for human eyes. Seen in ultra violet light, which they are sensitive to, they have distinctive patterns. The way they signal with their plumage is an adaptation to the dim light in which they choose to live. They are hunters of the low lit undergrowth partial to streams. Under the rainforest the lighting was dim and the air moist. The trees were festooned with mosses and lichens. Ferns were studded underneath with spores. The water from monsoonal rains will wash them away from the mother tree for them to begin the circle of life anew.

Along a little footpath away from the main trail used by the trekkers, I had the forest all to myself. I walked in search of a stream to look for dragonflies and damselflies. I found a little brook murmuring softly and scanned the edges. Before long I found a long blue damselfly. It was a Threadtail (Prodasineura sp.) with a black thorax and a pair of luminescent blue crescent markings on the edges facing each other. The eyes were edged in blue and the dark ‘tail’ or abdomen was tipped in blue and seemed to shine like a beacon in the gloom of the forest. Damselfly is the general name for these creatures although Fairyfly would be an appropriate name for these beautiful inhabitants of cloud forested gloom. The Threadtails are a family within the damselflies. They have a curious habit of perching on the edge of leaves. Most plants in the rainforest have characteristic leaves with the end gracefully tapering away to form a ‘drip tip’. This helps to keep them dry as damp leaves leave them vulnerable to attack by mould. In the rainforest it’s a constant battle for survival as one species depends on another for its survival, with the dependencies often being predatory in character.

I emerged onto the main track which leads to the start of the trail used by trekkers pushing for the summit. The traffic to drop off trekkers had abated and the road was quiet. With my microphone out I walked down slowly listening to calls of birds and recording them. A movement in the canopy caught my eye. It was a Mountain Imperial Pigeon, a Bornean endemic. It may have been used to people as it allowed me to edge closer and film it through a 400mm optic attached to my video camera. At moments like this one feels rewarded for the labour of carrying so much gear and a tripod as well.

Suddenly I heard a crash in the undergrowth. An animal emerged from the forest and bounded across the road a few meters away from me. It was a Yellow-throated Marten. I felt privileged to see such a rarely seen mammal although it has a wide distribution in Asia. Many people visiting the mountain are not even aware that it exists. Martens belong to a family which are widespread across Asia, Europe and North America. The Yellow-throated Marten is the largest in the Old Word and it displayed its characteristic lack of fear to humans as it crossed the road without even acknowledging my presence. It was gone in seconds, as if I had imagined this fleeting encounter.

A "chakking" call drew my attention to the side of the road and I trained my mike on the calls of a Sunda Bush Warbler, one of the specialities of Mount Kinabalu. I tiptoed up and down along the trail as the warbler threaded its way through the dense tangle of bushes lining the road. On the trees above a singing Yellow-breasted Warbler distracted me. It is common on the mountain but this does not detract from its beauty; a bird bathed generously in sulphur-yellow topped with a red patch on the crown. Sunbeams from the rising sun tunnelled into the mushroom and epiphytic plant laden cloud forest warming it and lightening it up. One of the sunbeams striking the damp floor had come alive and transformed into a beautiful brushfoot butterfly with golden yellow wings thickly edged in black. It foretold of a day where light and warmth will bathe the cloud forested slopes of a special mountain in South-East Asia. The flashing yellow and black was also my time marker to return to a family that would be rubbing the sleep off their eyes.

Useful Books

Keen naturalists will find some of the books below useful. I have used all of them either for pre-trip reading or in the case of some of the field guides, in my field bag on trips in Borneo.

MacKinnon, J & Phillipps, K. (1993). A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali. Oxford University Press Inc., New York, United States. Illustrations by Karen Phillipps. 459 Pages. ISBN 0-19-854034-5.
Orr, A. G. (2005). A Guide to the Dragonflies of Borneo. Their identification and biology. Natural History Publications (Borneo). 195 pages. ISBN 983-812-069-3.
Orr, A. G. (2005). Dragonflies of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. Natural History Publications (Borneo). 127 pages. ISBN 983-812-103-7.
Payne, J., Francis, C.M. & Phillipps, K. (1985). A Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo. The Sabah Society, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. 332 pages. ISBN 967-99947-1-6.
Payne, J., & Prudente, C. (2010). Wild Sabah. The magnificent wildlife and rainforests of Malaysian Borneo. John Beaufoy Publishing: Oxford. 208 Pages.
Phillips, Q. & Phillips, K. (2011). Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo. Second edition. John Beaufoy Publishing: UK. Pages 372.
Shi, W.T. (2012). A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Borneo: Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan. John Beaufoy Publishing: UK. 176 pages.