Wednesday, December 8, 2010

West Malaysia: Genting Highlands - Beyond the Casino

As usual, eager readers of this blog (assuming such creatures exist) are having to wait an unconscionably long time for its author to catch up with himself. I'm already long home after four months in Asia, not to mention subsequent trips to the UK and Jamaica, and I am still trying to write up events that took place before I even reached Sarawak, my main destination. Oh, well, that's what comes of leading a more or less eventful life, I suppose. In my own defense I may say that I have been up to my ears completing writing projects on bird protection laws in the US (for the Animal Welfare Institute) and on the biology of the Cardinal family (for the Handbook of the Birds of the World), and blog writing has had to assume a very low profile.

Anyway, on my return from Fraser's Hill Seng and Carol took Eileen and I to Genting Highlands, an area I had previously avoided because I thought it had nothing more to offer than hideous condo blocks and a gambling casino. Well, it turns out that this entirely depends on where you go. Ignore the casino, head up the bumpy road to the weather station, and things change very rapidly indeed.

For one thing, the view improves, especially without all those buildings in the way!

Genting Highlands are just north of Kuala Lumpur, and some of the views from the top give splendid views of the sprawling city below.

Genting is slightly higher than Fraser's Hill, and in the early morning it is cool enough to warrant a bit of warm clothing -- a good sign that you are not in an ordinary corner of Malaysia....

The weather station is high enough to hold a few birds that are hard to find at Fraser's Hill (such as Red-tailed Minla)....

Though photographing in the area can be risky! (Don't turn me in, gentle readers....)

Here's Eileen, waiting for me to finish waiting for a singing Lesser Shortwing that never appeared. Eileen has yet to grasp the fascination of staring for what seems like vast stretches of time into a featureless clump of bushes waiting for some obscure feathered creature to show itself, but she's a good sport.

Mosses can be impressive in Malaysia, especially at higher elevations where moss diversity increases; the largest moss in the world grows on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. This isn't it, of course.

The subject of these photos is not a moss, but a clubmoss -- an entirely different, and vascular, plant. There are 32 species in Malaysia. This one is probably staghorn clubmoss (Lycopodiella cernua), a species with an almost worldwide distribution.

Nothing frames a mountain landscape better than a spray of tree ferns. This one is probably Cyathea contaminans.

Ferns were everywhere along the roadside, and I only wish I were enough of a botanist to put names to them - especially to these gorgeous cinnamon-bronze fiddleheads. I'll do my best here with the aid of the photographs in Ferns of Malaysia in Colour, by A.G. Piggott (Tropical Press, 1988), but don't quote me.

This appears to be a species of Gleichenia, a group of ferns usually found scrambling along the edge of high mountain forests (as here). I think this is Gleichenia vulcanica.

I have no idea what these two ferns might be, but I am open for suggestions!

I'm not sure what this strange little fern is, with its three-lobed leaves and swollen black stems. it might be a Davallia of some sort (but they are supposed to be in the lowlands). Any fern experts reading this?

I think, in fact, that I am just going to give up on the rest of these – I have tried several times to figure out what they might be, but my pteridophyte smarts are not up to the task – please enjoy the photographs anyway.

The road ran parallel to a steep bank covered with all sorts of interesting plants that, once again, I couldn't identify – so I had better leave it at that or I will still be trying to finish this blog entry well past the first anniversary of my trip!

Now this I can identify, at least to genus. It's a Begonia. There are 52 native species of Begonia in Peninsular Malaysia, and there is even an excellent book about them that I don't have. Well, this is one of the 52. I wish it were Begonia alpina, a species found nowhere in the world but Genting Highlands, but based on photos of that species in the Flora of Peninsular Malaysia collection I'm afraid it isn't.

More plants I can't identify:one is a palm, and the other, well, isn't.

Among my favourite plants - and surely among the world's most striking and unusual - are the carnivorous Asiatic pitcher plants (Nepenthaceae). They reach their peak in Borneo, but I was glad to see this peninsular representative scrambling up a tree on the roadside. There are three species of Nepenthes at Genting; this one is probably N. sanguinea.

Nepenthes has two kinds of pitchers on each plant - rather squat basal pitchers like these, and the elongate, graceful upper pitchers you can see in my earlier photo. The two pitchers may even attract different types of prey, though perhaps not in this species.

On to the animal kingdom, and, in particular, its butterfly branch. This ground-loving species is a common three ring (Ypthima pandocus corticaria), described on one web site as the "Cinderella of butterflies".

This is probably a common grass yellow (Eurema hecabe contubernalis), the most widespread member of its genus in Malaysia and Singapore, but it could be a close relative. Species in this genus are almost identical to each other, and consequently very difficult to identify.

Finally, another common open-country species, the Indian cabbage white (Pieris canidia).

Here's Eileen getting down to ground level!

That's where you find local fauna, like this land snail.Malaysia has an unusually large number of gilled land snails (Prosobranchia), but the eyes on the tip, rather than base, of the tentacles suggest that this is one of the Pulmonata, the land snails with lungs that are by far the largest group of these animals you will find out of the water. Land snails are not usually trumpeted as tourist attractions, but here is a glowing report by one traveler who came here specifically with these humble creatures in mind. I have no idea what this little fellow is, but it seems that limestone hill country in Malaysia has been a mecca for snail hunters for many decades.

Below Genting lies the Awana Resort, and nearby is a road through lower-level forest. By the time we got there the birds were pretty quiet, but that doesn't mean the forest was silent. Instead, it rang with one of the most remarkable sounds I have ever heard - the hooting cries of a family of Siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus), the largest gibbon in the world.

We were enormously lucky; the Siamangs were not only audible but visible, and close to the road. They were a family of four, two adults and two young, and we watched and listened to them for some time as they sang and played in the treetops. Here is the male, with one of his young, inflating his throat sac in song.

And here is a video of the Siamangs in performance. I won't claim any credit for my skills as a cinematographer, but perhaps this will give you an idea of why our encounter with the Siamangs ranks as one of my great wildlife experiences - and all within range of a resort and a casino! Go figure.... Anyway, enjoy this Symphony for Siamangs.


  1. I love the tropical highlands! And Genting Highlands is just one of those places I'd like to go on a weekend jaunt, just that it is in another country and it is a 7+ hours drive away from Singapore.

  2. Now this is a revelation!

    I've suspected Genting Highlands to be full of natural splendour for many years but never get to experience it myself. Now that you've revealed its "other" place of interests, I can't wait to explore it!

    By the way, it's true that Malaysia's attracted many malacologists and shell-enthusiasts. The snail photographed is Bradybaena similaris, a species introduced from Southern China. (Thus, not native to Malaysia) But there are many others deep in the forests that are native, endemic and rare.

  3. How far along the road did you walk to? I didn't went up that far the last time I was there as it was raining. Btw that's a nice pic of N. sanguinea uppers. The fern looks like a young plant of Lecanopteris, possibly L. pumila (very common. Can't see the hairs or the covers of the rhizomes properly.

  4. Agreed about the Lecanopteris, the red unidentified thing looks like a Cuphaea (an escape from cultivation), and the Begonia is actually Rubus glomeratus which is common in the area. Hope that helps.

  5. Just looked again and the plant above the Rubus is a Dianella, and the one above that probably an Exbucklandia.