Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Kinabatangan River #1; a fragile treasure

Malaysian Borneo, which I've talked about before in this blog, is very rich biologically, but its natural areas tend to be fragmented and thus are often relatively poor in larger wildlife. The south-east of Sabah is among the wildest areas, and here the forests of the Kinabatangan River are an important resource and are probably the most readily accessible for visitors.
The arrow indicates the approximate position of the lower Kinabatangan River.
South of there are wilder, more remote rainforest areas such as Danum and Maliau.
I am no expert on the language, but I understand the best approximation to the pronunciation is to
separate the syllables, with no emphasis on any of them - kin-a-bat-an-gan.
At 560km long from source to mouth, the Kinabatangan in Sabah is only a couple of kilometres short of being the longest river in Malaysia (which honour belongs to the Rajang in Sarawak). The rich floodplains at the lower end of the river support remarkable concentrations and diversity of wildlife, thought they are hemmed in by oil palm plantations. That industry does not generally comprehend the concept of ‘enough’ however and until the 1990s the modest ‘protected area’ of just 27,000 hectares was under constant threat of clearing and planting to oil palms. In 2006, following the killing of an elephant, the area was gazetted as Wildlife Sanctuary, which gives it greater security. Essentially however it remains a strip of lowland rainforest along the river, within which wildlife is trapped. Remarkably this area includes 1000 plant species, 250 bird species and fifty mammals, including Asian Elephants, Orangutans, Borneo Gibbons, Proboscis Monkeys, civets and otters. 

We visited last year, and our group stayed at the Myne Resort. This is not an endorsement of Myne over any of the other riverside lodges - it's simply where we were booked into so I can't make meaningful comparison. However it was comfortable and with good wildlife opportunities in and around the grounds; in summary I'd recommend it, while noting that other lodges probably have similar advantages. The real focus of a stay along the river is time on the river itself - and I assume that all the lodges provide boat trips. That will be the subject of my next posting; there is enough to say about the wildlife of the lodge, its gardens and surrounding forests to warrant our full concentration today.

Myne River lodge from the river.

The cabin balcony looking out into the rainforest foliage is an excellent place to spend a hot afternoon
between excursions. The flowerpecker photo below was taken from ours.
Early morning view of the Kinabatangan River from the cabins - it's just there!
We arrived in the evening, and were very impressed by the wealth of geckoes on the walls inside and outside the lodge.
I suspect the geckoes themselves put the sign up - the board was certainly more beneficial to
them than to the insects! (And I'm so impressed that they knew where to put the apostrophe...)

Large Forest Gecko Gekko smithii. Despite its name, this beauty was actually inside the dining room.
Frilly Gecko Hemidactylus craspedotus.
I love the camouflage of this beautiful animal; it seems to work as well on the lodge timber as on a tree.

The gardens and boat wharf are havens for many birds.
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker Dicaeum trigonostigma.
This exquisite little bird spent some time in front of our balcony on a steamy lazy afternoon.
It is found from Java to the Philippines and to Bangladesh.
The Asian (and African) barbets are now recognised as comprising a different family from the American ones; all are fruit-eaters in the same Order as toucans. A couple of species were in the fruiting shrubs by the river early in the morning.
Male Red-throated Barbet Psilopogon mystacophanos. (The female lacks the red throat and has a blue forehead.)
Bornean Brown Barbet Caloramphus fuliginosus.
I do love the insouciant scruffiness of this species, compared with the colourfully immaculate
turn-out of most its relations!
I'm also very fond of the pretty little Velvet-fronted Nuthatches which are very busy foragers on tree trunks and branches - and stumps apparently.
This species is found throughout south-east Asia and Indonesia.
While watching the barbets by the river, this magnificent big bee came along; I think it merits being admired from both ends!
Carpenter Bee Xylocopa sp.; my thanks to Susan (in comments) for setting me right!

Perhaps the star of the gardens however was this impressive owl, which fished along the river and roosted in the trees around the lodge by day.
Buffy Fish Owl Bubo (or Ketupa) ketupu. There is disagreement as to whether the four Asian
fish owls belong in their own genus (Ketupa) or with the eagle-owls (Bubo).
Either way they are not closely related to the four African fishing owls.
This big bird lives primarily on fish, also taking frogs and crabs.
Unlike fish eagles or ospreys they avoid getting their feathers wet while hunting.
The only small disappointment was being unable to sight the gibbons which called from the adjacent forest. We did however do a walk in the hot late morning (after a boat ride) and found some other life in the forest.
Looking down the slope in the forest.
Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus lugubris, named for its apparent resemblance to drongoes.
There are three other members of the genus from south and south-east Asia, sometimes lumped as
Asian Drongo-Cuckoo, but that approach is losing favour.
They are brood parasites on a wide range of forest bird species.
Plain (or Least) Pygmy Squirrel Exilisciurus exilis. 
 High in a huge tree, this is a tiny squirrel (apparently the world's smallest), with an entire length of
only 14cm and weighing less than 20 grams. It appears to live on bark and lichen.
Sun Skink Eutropis sp.
This genus of Asian skinks contains some 30 species.
Giant Leaf Hopper, family Cicadellidae (I think!).
A terrible photo of an exquisite animal; a plant hopper nymph,family Flatidae.
Finally we did a night walk, but it was truncated by tropical rain; here are a few things we saw before retreating.
A fascinating grasshopper - love the back legs!
Scutigeran, or Wood Centipede.
If you're of its size, you need to be quick to run away from those legs chasing you!
Malaysian Blue Flycatcher Cyornis turcosus roosting.
The blue is actually quite deep, but is distorted here by the light.
A lot of people visit Malaysian Borneo these days, and it is in many ways a superb destination. Moreover, the more of us who do so, the better the chance that the environment will be protected, especially from the scourge of oil palms. When we go to somewhere like Kinabatangan, we are saying that the place is worth money as it is...


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Susan said...

Lovely selection of insects. Love the scutie especially. Your big 'fly' is a bee. I assume a carpenter bee Xylocopa sp or thereabouts. I didn't bother keying the wing venation. I'm reasonably sure Xylocopa of some sort occurs in the region and that's what it looks like. You can tell it's a bee and not a fly because it's got lots of antennal segments. Flies only have three (unless they are Nematocera gnats, mosquitoes, craneflies, etc).

Ian Fraser said...

Excellent info thanks Susan - greatly appreciated. The depth of my mine of invert ignorance never ceases to amaze me...