Some tips for naturalists traveling in Malaysia
In October-November 2002, during the first weeks of rainy season, I spent approximately
a month in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak. Below are some travel and
wildlife viewing tips. Most places mentioned below are well known, so I'll not
provide general descriptions and access information, and will only mention new
and particularly interesting locations. General "getting there" info
for all places typed in bold can be found in Lonely Planet's guide to
Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.
A complete list of mammals and birds seen during the trip is here - please refer to it for scientific names and other details.
1. Peninsular Malaysia
2. Sabah - mountains
3. Sabah - lowlands
1. Peninsular Malaysia.
Fraser Hill, a.k.a. Bukit Fraser, is one of Asia's most popular
birdwatching sites, but its outlying areas are seldom visited. Along the last
1500 m of the 4-km road down to Jeriau Waterfall, there are a few small
creeks crossing the road from the right. All of them are worth following upstream:
in the afternoon, these shady ravines attract a lot of birds, from pittas to
woodpeckers, as well as squirrels and leaf monkeys.
The waterfall area had forktails (upstream from the falls), Malayan water shrews (in the waterfall lake after sunset), and Malayan whistling-thrush (in the forest about 300 m downstream).
In the town itself, pine-covered hill above the golf course is the place to look for pine-forest species if you have no time to visit High Pines Resort six kilometers away. I didn't see any of them at the hill, but possibly heard some brown bullfinches.
If you turn right at the road junction above the mosque, you'll immediately see a group of stilt huts to your left - probably a defunct hotel. I spent two nights camping under one of the houses - this space is used as nighttime roost by at least 5 species of bats.
The access road to Fraser Hill is as interesting as the place itself, particularly if you hike down early in the morning, when there is no traffic. Look for giant scorpions in roadside cliffs, and flying lemurs in the forest. There is a unique area of large Agatis borneensis trees near the road - watch for a sign in Malaysian which has the tree's scientific name in it.
There is also a new road to Fraser Hill, which is longer, and still closed for traffic because of landslides. It might be even better than the old one - I wonder if anyone has hiked it.
Taman Negara National Park is probably the most visited Nature reserve
in SE Asia, but few visitors venture away from the headquarters area and popular
Gunung Tahan trail. There are other areas only a few kilometers away that have
different types of forest and interesting animals.
Gua Telinga, a small cave shown on all park maps, has amazing diversity of bats and other cave animals. Limestone forest around and beyond Gua Telinga has crestless firebacks and other uncommon birds.
There used to be many hides built for observing animals in Taman Negara, usually near salt licks. Some have been destroyed by elephants or rains, so in October 2002 only two were open: Tahan hide near the headquarters, and Tabing hide an hour away. I spent one night at Tahan, seeing only one muntjac deer and no people, and three nights at Tabing. It was overcrowded by noisy tourists, but they all fell asleep after midnight, and that's when animals appeared. Giant and other rats came inside the hide looking for scraps, while flying squirrels, civets, and pensil-tailed mice could be seen in the trees outside. The only animal to visit the lick was a tapir, which was very shy and disappeared as soon as I pointed a flashlight at it. The forest around the hide had blue-banded kingfishers, crested firebacks, greater arguses, pittas, hornbills, honeyguides, and numerous other birds. Mixed flocks of birds were passing by the hide approximately once in two hours - some were composed of only a few common species such as drongos and malkohas, while others were much more diverse and included leafbirds, broadbills, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and other beautiful birds.
A day's hike further north along Gunung Tahan trail there is a long climb to a hill called Gunung Raja. If you leave the trail at the summit and follow the ridge towards the top of the mountain, you'll soon enter the area of cloud forest where some coniferous trees endemic to Taman Negara can be seen. I was surprised to see a crested argus there - rare pheasant believed to be restricted to Gunung Tahan and a few nearby peaks.
In its northeastern corner the park is bordered by a huge reservoir, with bays reaching far into the forest. It would be very interesting to visit this area someday.
Panti Forest Reserve near Johor Bahru is much less visited that Taman Negara. Probably for this reason it is more easy to see large mammals there. I had particularly good luck with big cats. Look for bats in road culverts. It is also very good for gallinaceous birds, and many others.
Templer Park, a small hill forest just two hours by bus from Kuala Lumpur, is terribly overcrowded during weekends, but it has nice forest trails with lots of birds, mammals, reptiles, and frogs. One particularly rare species I saw there was Petaurillus kinlochii flying squirrel. The best trail starts between the office and the tiny foot bridge nearby, and follows the creek valley. The main trail to pools and waterfalls uphill is much less interesting. An open area upstream the main river is good for birds of forest edge and wet meadows, such as bee-eaters and buttonquails.
2. Sabah - mountains
Most people spend a few days at Mt. Kinabalu looking for high-elevation endemics,
and then proceed to lowland forests elsewhere. But many species are more likely
to be seen at another easily accessible site - Crocker Ridge near Kota
Kinabalu-Tambunan highway. To look for them, take a bus to Tambunan Rafflesia
Reserve (which is a great place to visit, too - in addition to Rafflesia
pricei flowers, there are lesser gymnures and blue-banded pittas in bamboo
groves further downhill). From the reserve entrance, walk back towards KK, checking
out short side trails. Whitehead's broadbills and black orioles can be seen
here, but every time you'd try to approach them, some passing driver would honk
at you and scare them away.
After a few kilometers, you'll pass the ridgecrest and reach a half-abandoned hotel with "mini-zoo" sign. The zoo had no animals at the time of my visit, but Dulut frogmouth was flying around the empty cages and the hotel lights. Not far from the first hotel is the second one - its lights were attended by a rajah scops-owl (I hope someone will be able to photograph both birds for more certain identification).
If 30-cm flowers of R. pricei are too small for you, ask locals at Poring Hot Springs - a larger species blooms nearby sometimes. Also, check out Bat Cave there for high-elevation species of horseshoe-nosed bats. Look for Bornean muntjacs and crested jays near the cave entrance.
Mount Kinabalu is one of the most interesting places our planet has
to offer a naturalist, and cloud forests there are probably the world's most
beautiful. One particularly interesting, and often overlooked, area is the vicinity
of the entrance gate at the beginning of the Summit Trail, near the power station.
Check out the small roadside garbage dump 100 m down the road: it had a good
collection of squirrels and tree-shrews during the day (as well as some birds,
including, surprisingly, fruithunters), while at night it was attended by masked
tree-shrews and a very shy ferret-badger.
It is a good idea to hike to the entrance gate at dawn (look for flying squirrels, partridges, and parrotfinches along the way), and spend some time around it before the gate is open and the crowds arrive. Kinabalu serpent-eagles, various flycatchers, and other interesting birds can be seen here, while Whitehead's broadbills and barbets occur near two waterfalls just uphill.
My best sighting at Mt. Kinabalu was a black shrew seen near the gate - almost certainly Suncus ater, previously known from only one specimen.
Another nice area is around and above Layang Layang - look for swiftlets nesting under the shelter's roof. I think some of them are giant swiftlets, a.k.a. waterfall swifts. Higher up is the area with the highest diversity of pitcher plants. Montane animals such as Kinabalu friendly bush-warblers and Kinabalu rats occur from here up.
There are some beautiful forest trails around the park headquarters. Some of them follow rivers, others - ridgecrests. The former are more popular among birders, but I found the latter to be more productive, particularly after rain.
3. Sabah - lowlands
Pulau Tiga National Park, a pair of tiny islands off Sabah's western coast, is famous for breeding congregations of yellowlip sea kraits on the smaller Pulau Ular (Snake Island), which also has one of the few easily accessible coral reefs in the area. The larger Pulau Tiga has mud volcanoes and a good collection of coastal flora and fauna, including cycads and hanging-parrots; the lagoon had a lot of shorebirds. Locals reported seeing Tabon scrubfowl and Nicobar pigeons there. Watch for green turtles around the islands, and for rare white-shouldered ibis along the road to Kuala Penyu, the town from which boats depart for the islands.
If you missed orangutans elsewhere, your last chance is Sepilok rehabilitation center. Look also for green pit vipers near the boardwalk, and (what a surprise!) for giant pittas around the office.
Another place on everybody's trip interary is Kinabatangan River in
eastern Sabah. I wish I had enough time to swim or ride a rowboat all the way
from Lahad Datu-KK highway bridge to the river mouth, but this time I only spent
two nights there at Uncle Tan's camp - very nice site. Pigmy squirrels, bearded
pigs, Malay civets, and various rats show up inside the camp, while other civet
species and numerous birds can be seen from the trail to the river, and particularly
around the abandoned luxury tourist camp across the lake. This second camp has
various bats roosting under buildings, a nice watch tower (hornbills sometimes
feed in the trees around it), and trails in varza-like forest around,
where orangutans, falconets, and other interesting things live. A toilet in
the forest nearby is used as nighttime roost by horseshoe-nosed and fruit bats.
The main attraction of Uncle Tan's camp is boat rides. A combination of morning and night rides is a great way to see darters, kingfishers, fish-owls, proboscis and other monkeys, etc. But I saw even more wildlife during the rides to and from the camp: most, if not all, of Borneo's hornbills, many pigeons, raptors, primates, and Storm's storks can be seen.
The lakes near the camp should be great to paddle around, but the camp's only rowboat is very slow, so you can't go far. It is better to swim - this way you can also go into smaller lakes, separated by dense flooded forest. Look for otters and extremely rare Tomistoma crocodiles. (Note: this area probably looks very different at other times of the year).
One more place you can't get enough of is Danum Valley, where I had
a few days to explore the network of trails and roads around the Field Center.
Virtually all species of Bornean lowland forest can be seen there. The forest
is relatively uniform, so it doesn't make sense to provide any particular locations,
but be sure to explore Elephant Ridge. I found a rhinoceros wallow there (it
was hard to miss at Elephant Ridge trail, less than half an hour after you leave
the main trail grid), spent twelve hours there, and saw 17 species of mammals
(including Sumatran rhino, bearded pigs, mouse deer, mongooses, and a lory),
and 35 species of birds (including Bulwer's pheasant, black-and-crimson oriole,
dwarf-kingfisher, and later some Bornean bristleheads nearby). You have to stay
at least 100 m from it to avoid scaring animals away, so don't expect good photos.
The first small river you cross en route to Rhino Ridge has giant ghost crayfish at night, but they are rare and difficult to find - look for eyeshine. There are also tarsiers in this area.
Another great way to see animals in Danum Valley is hiking along the access road at night. I was lucky to have full moon, so everything was visible without a flashlight. You meet various civets approximately once every two-three kilometers; I also saw Malay weasel and sambar deer. Species regularly reported there include cats (even Bornean bay cat), elephant, greater gymnure, banteng, and pangolin.
One group of birds I had difficulty finding at Danum was pittas. Eventually I discovered that they were more easy to see along small streams than along trails, particularly in hot weather. Partridges also occur on pebble-covered streambanks sometimes.
The vicinity of Field Center is another great place - the best one to see orangutans and other primates. There is also a tree platform there, 40 m or so above ground. I recommend climbing there before dawn and waiting for sunrise. Flying squirrels, as well as barbets, broadbills and other birds, can be seen around the platforms; if you're lucky, a herd of gibbons will pass by.
Gunung Mulu National Park is every bit as interesting as Danum Valley,
but less visited. One great advantage here is boardwalks - you can walk at night
without watching your step. These quiet, leech-free night walks are great for
mammal viewing, particularly the last one-kilometer stretch of Deer Cave/Lang
Cave trail from the bridge to the caves. It passes between a small river and
a limestone outcrop, which has thousands of holes and small caves and is apparently
used by many animals as shelter. During the first two hours after sunset, I
saw seven species of rodents there (including giant rats, pigmy flying squirrels,
and porcupines). Later, flat-headed cat was seen near the bridge. In the morning,
look for giant and other squirrels, flying snakes, and piculets.
Unfortunately, only the first two kilometers of Summit Trail have boardwalk (watch for giant leaves and flowerings of Amorphophalus there, and for badgers at night). You have to go a bit further to see really rare creatures such as Bornean peacock-pheasant (look at small clearings away from the trail), Bornean ground-cuckoo (shortly before camp 1), and Bornean bay cat.
Another trail goes to more caves, following the main river. It looks every bit as promising as Deer Cave/Lang Cave trail, but for whatever reason I didn't see anything interesting there, except for some nice bats in caves, a few frogs, and one stunningly beautiful Amphidromus tree snail.
The area around Deer Cave is worth exploring. The cave itself has over two millions of freetail bats, but they are difficult to see well, because the ceiling is almost 100 m above the cave floor. There is a "bat observatory" nearby, from which tourists watch the bats emerge at sunset. It is much more interesting to watch them come back at dawn. There are no people around at that time, and the bats dive at great speed from a few hundred meters above ground before entering the cave. If you position yourself atop the large rock at the cave entrance, some bats will land on you for a few seconds. Later, hundreds of thousands of swiftlets begin leaving the cave, so for a while there are two great streams of living things flying in opposite directions.
At dusk, mongooses can be seen inside the cave, as they look for dead bats and birds. Other interesting cave residents are fishes in the river, and whistling-thrushes near cave entrances. If you exit from the cave on the far side, you'll find yourself in a particularly beautiful patch of forest, where rare black partridges can be seen.
For close views of bats and swiftlets, try side passages in nearby Lang Cave, or, better, numerous small caves along the boardwalk and near both entrances of Deer Cave. Watch also for Bengal cat at night near the Bat Observatory, for two species of pygmy squirrels along a short boardwalk to the helipad, and for Hose's broadbills around the helipad.
A cheap, easy, but interesting alternative to Gunung Mulu is Niah Caves National Park. It also has huge caves with bats and swiftlets, nice swamp and limestone forests, and boardwalks. The main boardwalk is terribly squeaky, but two others are more quiet - look for dwarf-kingfishers and very rare earless monitor lizards. If you happen to hike the riverside trail from park headquarters to the nearby town at night, look for reticulated pythons.
If your interary doesn't include Southern Sarawak with its kerangas
forests, check out the tiny patch of forest growing on sandy soil near Miri
Airport - it is less than 1/4 ha in size, but has at least one pitcher plant!
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