Friday, January 7, 2011

Sabah: Kinabatangan - The River by Night

Perhaps our most exciting excursion on the Kinabatangan was a trip up one of the tributaries of the river after dark. The forest by night is an unpredictable place; a night ride may turn up nothing, or a surprise encounter with any number of unusual creatures.

We set out in our boat as darkness fell over the main river, silhouetting the forest trees against the deepening sky. By the time we turned into the tributary we were in the realm of the night creatures.

This didn't cause the same degree of enthusiasm in all of our party, especially when glowing eyes just above the water's surface resolved themselves, under our torchbeam, into a bevy of young Saltwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus). While Lord Cranbrook and I strained closer for good views and photographs, Eileen very properly pointed out that we were in a very small boat and that if the baby crocodiles were nearby Mother might not be far away. Fortunately we were spared the experience of seeing how a full-grown mother crocodile might react to her offspring's temporary celebrity, and we continued up the tributary unscathed.

Truly nocturnal animals proved to be thin on the ground, but here is one of two Asian Palm Civets (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) we spotted foraging on the bank. Palm civets are opportunistic omnivores, the ecological equivalent of North American raccoons. Like raccoons, they have adapted well to the presence of humans, ranging widely from the forest to suburban gardens.

The Buffy Fish Owls (Ketupa ketupu) that we had seen resting along the river by day were now ready for the hunt (though, alas, we did not see one try to catch a fish, or any of the other things they eat).

Although our trip was primarily intended to spit nocturnal animals, some of our most fascinating - and certainly our most colorful - sightings were of day-flying birds, now roosting and, therefore, closely approachable. Here a pair of Malaysian Blue Flycatchers (Cyornis turcosus) roost side by side (the male is on the left).

Most spectacular were two common species of kingfisher, usually seen by day streaking up the river ahead of us. The two are from different branches of the kingfisher family, and from different extremes of the kingfisher size range. At the smaller end of the scale (though not quite the smallest kingfisher in Borneo) is this little gem, a Blue-eared Kingfisher (Alcedo meninting). The Blue-eared is one of the river kingfishers, the branch of the family that includes the Common Kingfisher of Europe (A. atthis), the original bearer of the family name - a species, by the way, that also occurs in Borneo (in fact, it ranges from Britain to the Solomon Islands).

The largest kingfisher on Borneo is the Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis). Though the Stork-billed is a haunter of watercourses, it is actually a member of the forest kingfisher group, whose members can often be found far from any river and whose diet is more likely to include lizards than fish. Seeing one this close was a new experience for me - a chance to appreciate what a magnificent bird it is.

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