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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Kota Kinabalu, naturally

As mentioned previously, I've recently returned from a somewhat unexpected visit to Malaysian Borneo, and in that previous posting I promised more material from that exciting experience. Here's the first instalment. You might like to follow the link above to the previous posting for some background if you missed it, but it's certainly not essential. 

Kota Kinabalu (pronounced ki-na-BAH-lu) is the capital of Sabah, in north-eastern Borneo. It is a busy - but by no means intimidating by developing nation standards - port city of around half a million.
Sabah occupies the north-eastern corner of Borneo; Kota Kinabalu can be seen on the west coast.
For travellers there are two general accommodation options. You can stay in city centre, near the port, or you can stay near the airport south of the city centre. I did both at different stages. During the trip, which started and ended at KK (to use the familiar name used by many locals) we returned partway through en route to Sarawak, and stayed in the centre, just a block from the waterfront. Even here wildlife was quite good (even aside from the very large and presumably exotic rats which pottered about the wonderful fish market, and the gang of introduced House Crows, the only ones in Borneo, which also loiter thereabouts). House Swifts and Glossy Swiftlets breed on buildings, and there are herons and terns in the port and various passerines in empty land nearby.

My favourite was near the airport, where I stayed at the start and end of the trip, close to the popular Tanjung Aru Beach (tanjung is a cape, and it's always abbreviated to Tg Aru), backed by extensive parklands with the unlikely name of Prince Philip Park. I stayed at the Casuarina Hotel, cheap and pleasant and just a few minutes walk from the beach and park. Just looking out the windows was a good introduction to the local birdlife.
It was a pleasant surprise to be greeted with so many trees.
Each afternoon storms rolled in, but didn't usually last long.
Asian Glossy Starlings Aplonis panayensis from my room balcony.
Huge numbers are everywhere, in town and out of it, seeking fruits.
They are closely related to, and similar in appearance to, the tropical Australian Metallic Starling A. metallica.
Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis, another widespread bird which has adapted to urban living,
as long as there are open spaces, from India to Java.
Formerly believed to be a thrush, it is now regarded as a flycatcher.

Much more familiar were these elegant White-breasted Woodswallows Artamus leucorynchus,found throughout much of Australia as well as Indonesia and the Philippines.
The beach and park are busy, especially on weekends (when I was there) but very worthwhile for birds in particular. The waterfront is lined with mostly cheap restaurants (and expensive bars) and a constant parade of people. The views though are excellent.
Views south (above) and north along Tg Aru Beach, lined with big casuarinas.
In the photo above the proximity of the airport is evident, just across the bay.

At sunset, at least on weekends, people flock to the beach to watch the sun set
over the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
On the Saturday afternoon I arrived the lawns under the plentiful trees of Prince Philip Park backing the beach were crowded with families and other groups picnicking, but there were still plenty of birds above their heads, though it took a while to see most of the ones alleged to be present. I returned early on the Sunday morning before my flight, and unsurprisingly did better then. The following photos are from a combination of those visits. 

One of the highlights of Tg Aru is the presence of a colony of very rare Blue-naped Parrots Tanygnathus lucionensis, breeding in the hollows of old casuarinas. Formerly common throughout the nearby Philippines and islands between there and Borneo, it is now rare or extinct in much of its range.
Blue-naped Parrot in casuarina. There is actually some debate as to whether the Tg Aru population of this attractive and robust parrot should be regarded as feral or whether it arrived with Cyclone Greg in 1996.

The population, of apparently no more than 50 birds, is seemingly limited by the supply of nesting hollows.
There are some pretty spiffy pigeons too, in addition to the ubiquitous Spotted and Zebra Doves which are often underfoot.
Zebra Dove Geopelia striata, closely related to the Australian Peaceful Dove G. placida; indeed it is only recently that they have been regarded as separate species.
As with the parrot, there is debate as to whether the Bornean Zebra Doves are indigenous or
imported from nearby Indonesian islands.
The status of the beautiful Pink-necked Green Pigeon Treron vernans is not is doubt,
being found naturally in much of south-east Asia.
Can be in quite big flocks, including with other green pigeons.
The Green Imperial Pigeon Ducula aenea is another widespread and very handsome big pigeon,
wandering to follow the fruiting trees.
I initially mistakenly accused the Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which are everywhere, of being another exotic, but in fact their huge natural range stretches from western Europe to Indonesia. We in Australia are used to seeing House Sparrows everywhere, so this was a refreshing change, especially after I realised they were native!
Eurasian Tree Sparrows Passer montanus, really are handsome little birds.
Collared Kingfishers Todiramphus chloris are also common in near-coastal Borneo, but
have a huge range (not continuous) from the middle east to the Pacific.
Unlike in Australia, Bornean Collared Kingfishers are not limited to mangroves and are quite common in towns.
This very pretty little waxbill, Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla, has a large range in
south and south-east Asia, including throughout much of Borneo.
My first sighting of a flock of them at Tg Aru was a treat however.

So, if you've been to KK, I hope this brings back some memories. If not, I hope it encourages you to spend at least a few hours there when you visit Sabah.



Susan said...

It took me years to adjust to the thought of sparrows as a much loved native species in Europe after having grown up with them as an invasive alien. And what do the little blighters do in return? They still nest under my eaves no matter where I live!

Flabmeister said...

How optimistic are the locals that the House Crows will stay just around the Port? In Tanzania they started off in Dar es Salaam but have now spread inland and a major threat to the (inter alia) native corvids. This press article has some pessimistic coverage of the current situation. Another article estimated that they had killed 700,000 of them - which I suspect to be a bit high, but there were an awful lot in Dar when we were there.

I am surprised (not) that the name of the Park has not been updated to recognise the recent awarding of a knighthood to the honoree!


Ian Fraser said...

Yes, it's very hard for me think of Passer sparrows as being native anywhere I must confess! I wonder how House Sparrows lived before towns?

Martin, your question is a very good one, but I can't yet answer it. I'll be in a better position to do so when I go back next year and work with a local birdo. Handbook of Birds of the World describes their arrival in northern Borneo as 'recent', but I'm not sure of the date. That's probably ominous.

Flabmeister said...

WRT House Sparrows, they are declining world wide. I don't know why, but when the effect was first noticed in the UK it was attributed to the decline of hedgerows through adoption of larger paddocks to accommodate more efficient machinery. That still seems to be an explanation for the decline of some other Pom species.

Attaching it to P. domesticus (even that name suggests towns/houses) seemed strange to me at the time as, like you, I think of them as a town bird (or at least a haunter of human habitations).