Monday, April 1, 2013

Borneo Blog: Kota Kinabalu

With the exception of the Shanghai airport at night, I've never been to Asia, and with no pending fieldwork coming up in the hot Australian summer, I figured "Hey, why not go up to Asia somewhere... I hear it's cheap." Coaxed on by another top-notch suggestion from Nigel, I decided that Borneo would be a good place to start. Filled with a great mixture of wintering birds from the Asian continent and a plethora of unique creatures and plants; it is a jungle world of extremes: Boasting the World's smallest deer, and largest squirrels; the smallest elephants and rhinoceros, and the largest walking-sticks, leaf-insects, cicadas...practically every cool insect that your imagination can create, lives somewhere in Borneo.

But the large island of Borneo is no longer the mystic and impenetrable rainforest of the early colonial days. Much of the coastline and major rivers are now lined with rapid urban and agricultural development. While la few decent swaths of pristine forest still remain in some of the highlands and remote river basins, the majority of accessible native habitat is quite fragmented, often surrounded by thousands of hectares of Palm Oil Plantations. These valuable trees, native to Africa, grow fantastically in Malaysian Borneo (the small northern state of Sabah alone produces around 20% of the World's palm oil... and this figure is growing each year) and are now the principle driver of Malaysian Borneo's economy, and the main reason many lowland plants animals are in serious threat of being wiped out.

But the tide seems to be turning, as local politicians realize the impact primary habitat loss has on tourism, not too mention the ecological and cultural integrity of the country. So there is still hope, and still plenty to see--especially for someone like me who hadn't even seen a wagtail yet!

I flew in on January 31st, and ended up staying for 1.5 months. Here's the first chapter...

As with most people, my Bornean Adventure began in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah (in northern Malaysian Borneo). I think the population is around 450,000 but compared to North American cities of the same size, it seems relatively small. I guess everyone is just packed in! This is a view of the downtown area from "Signal Hill" where I got good views of one of Borneo's most abundant and omnipresent birds, the GLOSSY SWIFTLET. "KK" is a relatively modern city, with massive shopping malls, a good variety of cuisines, and a vibrant business district. It used to be called Jesselton (a former British port), but has been renamed to sound more Malaysian, and as a tribute to the famous mountain of the same name (about 1.5 hour drive from the city).
I had arranged to meet up with some Canadian friends, on February 4th, so I had a few days to explore the city on my own. Malaysia is quite culturally diverse, with large numbers of both Muslims and Christians, as well as Hindus and others... all represented by a stunning array of ethnic groups (Mainly Malays from the mainland, Chinses, Indians/Pakistanis, and the descendants of Bornean native tribes). Sabah is a little different from the rest of Malaysia from an ethic/religious standpoint because of its proximity to the Philippines. Sabah used to be a part of the Filipino-based Sulu Empire, and in recent decades, disgruntled Muslim Filipino refugees have been settling the Saban coast in large numbers. This religious and ethnic connection with the problematic situation in southern Philippines, has predictably led to some serious issues for Malaysia. This came to a head while I was in the country, when over 100 armed Filipino men landed on the east coast. A drawn-out conflict with local police followed, and many of the Filipinos were killed, along with members of the Saban police. To complicate the incident, other Filipino illegals already in the country, as well as sympathetic Muslim Malays rose up against the police... and the situation continued. This effectively shut down the east coast--famous for World-class scuba-diving and much more--to tourism, but luckily my friends and I had already been and gone, by the time things got heavy. We did however have to endure constant securtiy checkpoint by machine gun-toting police (at the time we had no idea why they kept stopping us; they were looking for Filipino insurgents).

Okay anyway, back to Kota Kinabalu. As you can see, it has a couple beautiful Mosques, and it was lovely waking up to the morning prayers, and hearing them after dusk as I tucked into a lamb curry.
While, KK is very modern in many respects, there are still many remnants of the old ways, such as these fishermen at Likas Lagoon. Ruining the tranquility, is that this lagoon is filled with garbage (mostly KFC---by far the most popular 'thing' in Borneo after Angry Birds and Gangnam Style). And if I was to take a more wide-angled shot, you would notice an army of 9 weed-whacking city employees, and 3 men armed with leaf-blowers, cutting the grass and removing leaves from an area that only poor fishermen and desperate birders would ever visit. In fact every city in Malaysia seems to employ large numbers of these grass-cutters and leaf-blowers, while the piles of coke cans and junk-food bags pile up. It was depressingly ironic to see the guys with leaf-blowers work around the garbage to get at the leaves. Plus the fact that one man with a lawn-mower could have done the trick (if keeping the highway fringes trimmed to a goal-green is totally necessary), but there were always many of these people out there! Maybe a few bucks to garbage cleanup is in order?
Nearby this fisherman set up in Likas Bay, under the watchful eye of a rather friendly GREAT EGRET.

On my first full day in KK, I walked over to a local mangrove reserve. The rain bucketed down most of the time but since this was my first day birding Asia, I scored lots of lifers including WHITE-BREASTED WATERHEN, MANGROVE BLUE FLYCATCHER, a single MALAYSIAN HONEYGUIDE (possibly a rare find for this location?), and a bunch of PURPLE HERONS (whose colony is located in the background of this photo--not easily visible).
I've hinted already that KK is a city of contrasts. This tin-roofed slum village, built overtop of a tidal mudflat, is located directly beside a massive Five-Star Resort & Golf Course.
Not the greatest photo but a cool bird. This is a PINK-NECKED GREEN PIGEON.
Should have seen these in Queensland but somehow didn't. This is a "Mudskipper"--a fish that can walk on land!  Common in mangroves around this part of the world.
On my last full day alone in KK, I took a water-taxi out to Manukan Island--part of a small national park that protects the pristine archipelago just off from the city. At around 1.5km long, Manukan is the second-largest in the group, and has a few birds that are difficult or impossible on the mainland. There are a few jungle tracks on the island, none of which seemed to be used by anybody except spiders, so I had most of the forest to myself. The reason no one was in the woods was because everyone was here, at the beach (it got a lot more packed after I took this photo early in the morning). It looks like a fairly tame island beach but the snorkeling is actually fantastic, and I reckon I saw more tropical fish species here than in a whole day on the Great Barrier Reef! Out of about 1,000 beach-goers that day, I may have been the only one not wearing a life-jacket. Not sure if that's because Korean tourists can't swim, or 5 feet is just too deep to take the risk? 
A peek at the ocean from the jungle trail, where I got rather sweaty, lost my hat, but saw lots of neat things including MAGROVE WHISTLERS, OLIVE-WINGED BULBUL, ARCTIC WARBLER, and some very spiky vines.
The main target for most birders on Manukan are these guys--TABON SCRUBFOWL (a Filipino  member of the Megapode family), which can only be found on a handful of islands off the coast of northern Borneo. They are apparently quite skittish, so I was happy to find two different pairs.
The other main island in this archipelago is Palau Gaya. This picture was taken a few weeks later when my friend Jessica and I visited for a hike/swim adventure. Here Jess is posing in an oldgrowth mangrove swamp. Bagged a few more lifers on Gaya including the endemic WHITE-CROWNED SHAMA.
On February 4th, my close friend Jessica (from Vancouver) flew in, joined by another friend (Alex) from Vancouver, and two Swedes (Erik and Ida). Here we're about to munch on some fresh fish and squid at Tanjung Aru Beach just south of KK. Some great fresh juice on the table too--watermelon and lime.
"Build it, and they will come".
After building my first sand-castle in many years, I left briefly to try some Durian  ice-cream. When I returned the castle had been taken over by a family of locals. They weren't playing as much as just sitting. Maybe there's a comfort in human-made structures.
Even at the beach, I'm birding. This is a good one. Before this feral population established itself near KK, the BLUE-NAPED PARROT was endemic to the Philippines. Due to habitat loss, this awesome bird is in serious danger of extinction in the next decade! It is very possible that this KK population may be the last outpost. I saw 4, including one at a roost/nest hole.
My first ever hornbill! This is an ORIENTAL PIED-HORNBILL, just chillin' above us while we ate dinner at the busy beach-side market.
Sun sets over the South China Sea, as the "Year of the Snake" begins. Was really cool to be in an "Oriental" city for the New Years celebrations--non-stop parades, street markets, dancing, singing, fireworks... the works.


  1. MASWings fly you to Kota Kinabalu every day! :)

  2. Nice post. I am a KK local and I didn't know much about my own area. And the bird species. Thumbs up!