Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sabah: Return to Kinabalu

My first encounter with Mount Kinabalu, the highest point on Borneo and the loftiest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea, was as a faded silhouette in a book. The late Bertram Smythies' classic "The Birds of Borneo" features a colour plate in which the shadow of the mountain looms behind a selection of its special birds. When I first saw it, many years ago, the mountain immediately became one of my dream destinations, and my first trip to Malaysia in 1992 was in the nature if a pilgrimage to this wonderful spot. I spent a week on the mountain with my old friend (and talented bird artist) Barry Mackay, and though we didn't see everything Kinabalu had to offer (Barry saw Whitehead's Broadbill (Calyptomena whiteheadi), a bird that has been described as an emerald-green version of a cock-of-the-rock, but I didn't and still haven't - it's amazing we're still friends) Kinabalu ranks as one of the great experiences in both our lives.

Now that I am married to a Malaysian, I get to go back to Kinabalu now and again. It is always a special experience, even though I haven't (and probably never will) scaled the mountain to its peak. Our visit last May, after our trip to the Kinabatangan River with Lord Cranbrook, was no exception.

 Frankly, I doubt that I am up to  the climb to the summit, though it is Kinabalu's prime tourist activity; back in 1992 I spent almost nine hours trying to get up the first three hours of the summit trail, and I doubt that I am in better shape today!  It doesn't really matter, though - the forest along the main road and the trails leading from it has plenty to keep me occupied.

At this elevation, midway up the mountain, I am already among birds quite different from those in the lowlands - even the common species, like this Bornean Treepie (Dendrocitta cinerascens), are mountain specialties.

The coloured leg bands on this Indigo Flycatcher (Eumyias indigo) are evidence that there were, on my latest visit, bird-finders on the mountain with a far more serious intent than mine.  Dr. Thomas Martin of the University of Montana is engaged on a long-term project comparing the life histories and parenting strategies of birds in different parts of the world (he describes the project here - note the irritatingly good photograph of Whitehead's Broadbill at its nest), and his team of volunteers were hard at work finding nests - not an easy task on the steep, densely-wooded slopes of the mountain.

Among the researchers' tasks were regular checks of nestling growth and health.  Checking up on a nestling Indigo Flycatcher involves scaling a steep bank to reach the nest..

....retrieving the chick...

...weighing it, and taking a blood sample before putting it back where it belongs.

The task of scanning the treetops for birds may be enlivened by sightings of one or the other of a series of mountain squirrels, most of them found nowhere else in the world but the mountains of Borneo.  This one, with a white blaze on the side of its muzzle and a long, thin tail, is Jentinck's Squirrel (Sundasciurus jentinki).  In fact, birding may be a good way to find Jentinck's Squirrel; it often follows mixed bird parties, a habit shared with the Microsciurus squirrels of the New World tropics.

This is Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel (Exilisciurus whiteheadi), my nominee for the title of World's Cutest Mammal (oddly enough, its diet includes mosses and lichens).  It is named after the same John Whitehead (1860-1899) memorialized by Whitehead's Broadbill (not to mention Whitehead's Trogon (Harpactes whiteheadi) and Whitehead's Spiderhunter (Arachnothera juliae)), apparently the first British naturalist to reach the summit of Kinabalu.  He later died of fever on the Chinese island of Hainan, coincidentally the original home of my wife Eileen's family.

Though my first attraction to Mount Kinabalu was its birdlife, its greatest treat for a naturalist may be it's wealth of plants -- approximately 5000 species are known from the region, making it one of the richest in the world. This is a species of Medinilla.

A very high proportion of the flora of is either endemic to the mountain itself or to the surrounding montane massifs of northeastern Borneo, and much of it is spectacular: orchids galore (an astonishing 856 species, including this Bulbophyllum; it may be B. lobbii, but there are 114 Bulbophyllums on the mountain!); a wealth of dazzling rhododendrons; and the greatest variety on earth of the remarkable pitcher plants in the family Nepenthaceae (totally unrelated, by the way, to the American pitcher plants (Sarraceniaceae) or the little Albany pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis) of southwestern Australia - an unparallelled example of triple evolutionary convergence). 
Not all of Kinabalu's plants would be exotic to a northerner; this is a raspberry (Rubus sp.)

These are the flowers of a parasitic mistletoe, perhaps a member of the genus Macrosolen (I have no idea, really, but you can compare it to other mistletoe flowers here).

Finally, a glowing gem hidden in a pile of brush near a viewpoint.  I believe it to be Aeschynanthus speciosus, one of the lipstick plants; speciosus means "showy", and this flower is certainly that! It is an epiphyte, meaning a plant that grows on trees (but not a parasite like a mistletoe), and it was probably at ground level because its host tree had toppled over, a point I failed to notice at the time.  Obviously travellers on Kinabalu should be accompanied by knowledgeable botanists at all times.  I was luckier on a jaunt to the other side of the mountain, the topic of my next entry.


  1. This is an excellent overview of flora in Mesilau. I really enjoy reading it. Thank you for sharing.