Tuesday, June 25

An unforgettable week


WE recently went with a group of photographic and birding friends to Sabah’s Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC), after hearing so many good stories about birding there.

GOOD VIEW: The 300-metre canopy walkway with two watchtowers is a great facility for bird-watching.

RDC is located in Sepilok and the world famous orang-utan sanctuary run by the Sabah Forestry Department is only 2km away. The Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve (4.294ha) and the Sepilok Forest Reserve (1.835ha) are adjoining.

The primary function of this area is to create public awareness of the importance of conserving the rainforest and natural resources. A large part of this forest is made up of old growth lowland mixed dipterocarp forest. There is a visitor centre, orchids and pitcher plants arboretum, ginger and associated plants arboretum and many more attractions.

The 300-metre canopy walkway with two watchtowers is a great facility for bird-watching. Present records show that Sepilok forest is host to over 300 bird species in 52 families, with 15 endemics including the rare Bornean bristlehead, the blue–headed pitta and the white-fronted falconet; all of which are much sought after by bird-watchers from all over the world. It is also home to the superb barred eagle owl – the largest owl in Borneo.

RDC opened to the public in 2006 and the trails are well marked. On the first day, we saw a black-naped monarch breeding and the male and female took turns to sit on the eggs. It is sad that people still have to learn that they should not disturb the animals by using a flash. Visitors should not make noise too. When we checked a few days later, we discovered that the poor bird was not sitting on its nest but standing near it and we worried that it had abandoned the eggs. In the daytime it’s not necessary to use the flash, plus the pictures are so much better without.

It’s a great bird-watching area and you can see, if you are lucky, several different species of kingfishers including the beautiful ruddy kingfisher, along with hornbills and pittas.

The first day when we arrived at around 5pm, we went straight to the place where we saw a flying squirrel and its nest last year.

We waited without knowing if it still lived in the dead tree. Suddenly around 6pm, I saw his head popping out to just look around and then it went back into the hole and nothing further happened. At 6.30pm, his head came out again and this time he left the cavity; climbed higher up the dead tree and took off to the next tree. We all got a shot of him in the tree but not of him flying since we had no clue which direction he would jump. It was great to see this animal flying (or gliding really).

The next morning at 6.30am, we set off to the RDC, which is only 400 metres away. We immediately saw three oriental pied hornbills flying, playing, eating and all cameras came out in a flash. It was so amazing to see hornbills flying above gardens.

After shooting a lot off good pictures, we headed of to the trail where we heard a strange knocking. Two orange-backed woodpeckers, male and female, were tapping their way around the stem of a huge dead tree. We also saw the ruddy kingfisher, black monarch, and the very interesting black-capped babbler, which mainly forages for insects on the forest floor.

I checked the canopy walkway for birds, but not so many were seen. Then I went up the 40-metre tall tower with my husband and saw the incredibly brightly coloured male and female scarlet minivet as well as a beautiful green leaf bird. In addition we saw many large-winged butterflies gracefully manoeuvring just above the leaf canopy. We also saw oriental pied hornbills and raptors overhead. Finally we heard the distant call of the rhinoceros hornbill.

Some of you might remember that excellent talk by Dr Pilai Poonswand from Thailand about a year ago. She succeeded in putting up nest boxes on tall trees, as most tall nesting trees have been removed through logging operations. Hornbills have made their nests in them. We saw quite a number of these boxes attached in several high trees in Sepilok, but I don’t think it has been done here in Sarawak yet.

In the evening, as we were resting at the first pondok (shelter) to wait for the squirrel we saw the evening before, we checked the hornbill nest box that had been put up on a tall tree opposite the pondok and discovered a flying squirrel peeping out of the opening. I decided to stay there while the others went to check on the flying squirrel we saw the previous evening. It is interesting to note that squirrels have taken to hornbill nesting boxes. Around 6.30pm, I saw it coming out through my lens. When it went up into the tree, I found another following it and realised that there were two in the nest box and caught them on film, but only my husband got a good shot of them flying.

The next day we heard from some friends that they had seen four flying around and we decided to go there and wait.

Two of our friends managed to get a picture of a Bornean bristlehead on one of the trails, while a huge group of tourist birders where waiting at the first tower hoping that it would come up. They heard it but did not see it.

While I waited for the flying squirrel, I managed to take a nice picture of two pygmy squirrels. An Italian couple was also looking out for it and suddenly at 6.05pm, the lady saw the flying squirrel holding on to a tree very near us. We managed to get good superb pictures. It was not in a hurry since we were very quiet and it took its time to go up, washing his tail and fur, eating some leaves, then going up, eating again and then suddenly a jump to a farther tree and off it went into the darkness. It was so beautiful seeing it gliding.

Our last day was less lucky for our friends since a very noisy English guide, with a group of American retirees, kept on shouting when he saw a bird flying. I thought that birders know they have to be quiet and just whisper when they see something.

It was an unforgettable trip and we will go again. My wish is now to see the rare Bornean bristlehead myself.

For details read: ‘A photographic guide to the Birds of the Sepilok Forest’ by Cede Prudente and Robert Ong.