In search of the Flat-headed cat – Days 2 & 3

Orangutan

Orangutan

My second morning in the jungle started way too early. I woke up blurry-eyed at 7am so full of nervous energy that I couldn’t go back to sleep. For something to do I joined Dan and Kristy, the only other two guests at the camp on a jungle walk, which follows a two kilometre loop trail around the camp. In a bizarre twist of interconnectedness of the modern world, it turned out that Dan and Kristy live just around the corner from me in Sydney, yet we met for the first time in the jungle of Borneo.

Our guide for the walk, Sha, turned up equipped with a loud speaker, leech gaiters and a machete. Thus prepared we set off along the ‘jungle’ path and as soon as we entered the forest two things happened. It became incredibly hot and humid and I got attacked by an army of hungry mosquitos. Sha was foresightful enough to carry mosquito repellent, which helped me with one problem. Unfortunately there was no relief for the second one. The air was so dense with humidity it became an almost tangible medium.

Gliding lizard

Gliding lizard

I needed a distraction, and for me jungle is the perfect place to look for one. There were so many butterflies  fluttering lazily all around us. Colored in vibrant reds, blues and greens they stood out against the dark green background of the jungle like splashes of bright paint. One species in particular caught my attention. It wasn’t brightly colored like the others, but it seemed to have unusually fine, wraith-like wings and it floated about as if in slow motion. I later learned that it was the slowest flying butterfly in the world, with a fitting name of a Forest Nymph.

Forest Nymph

Forest Nymph

The Clipper

The Clipper

Malay Red Harlequin Butterfly, Kinabatangan River

Malay Red Harlequin Butterfly, Kinabatangan River

While I was chasing butterflies Sha called in a male Chestnut Necklaced partridge. A beautiful little bird, he was passionately answering the calls of an amorously-inclined female, coming from the loud speaker in Sha’s hands. He would run around in short bursts and then stop, throw his head back and sing as if his life depended on it. His song was even more beautiful than his looks. Eventually he became confused as to why his earnest efforts were not eventuating in the appearance of an interested female. We left him alone before he totally lost his confidence.

Chestnut Necklaced partridge

Chestnut Necklaced partridge

We continued walking along the path and soon I noticed movement in one of the trees. Sha decided to investigate and ducked into the wall of jungle disappearing from view. While he was gone the creature in the tree started to become restless and we could tell it was something large. Sha re-appeared and motioned for us to follow. “An Orangutan”, he whispered proud of his efforts.

From the new viewing angle we could see a large brown shape hidden behind the tree’s branches. The great ape was clearly getting agitated. It was throwing its great bulk from branch to branch making the tree shake as if it was just a blade of grass.

Sha motioned for us to be quiet hoping to pacify the animal. When this didn’t work, he made us crouch down in the tall grass. The Orangutan was having none of it. The tree was now shaking violently and soon angry cries and bellows filled the air.  Sha was no longer smiling. He looked uncertain. And as the Orangutan threw itself onto the lower branches of the tree, he motioned for us to retreat back to the path. To his credit, while we were fleeing Sha managed to discern that it was a female with a young, rather than an aggressive territorial male. Still, we decided to leave the nervous mum alone and walked out of her line of sight.

Sha confided to me later that he was nervous at first. ‘A male Orangutan has the strength of 10 men’ – he offered in a way of justification. Inevitably my mind was flooded with images of battle scenes from the Planet of the Apes.

Back at the camp after a traditionally delicious lunch I discovered one of Borneo’s smallest mammals – a Plain Pygmy squirrel. No bigger than a mouse it ran up and down the tree trunk stopping now and then to obsessively sink its tiny teeth into the bark to extract whatever tasty morsel had attracted it. Its bigger cousins – Prevost’s squirrels stayed higher up in the canopy – at times freezing in a trans-like daze and remaining motionless with their mouths slightly ajar and eyes wide open.

Plain pygmy squirrel

Plain pygmy squirrel

The afternoon safari was exceptionally uneventful. We headed up river and apart from the usual primates and crocodiles didn’t see anything of note. On the way back we came across a herd of elephants completely hidden in the aptly-named elephant grass. We could see the grass sway trampled on by their large feet, but the elephants themselves remained hidden until the light was almost gone and we had to return to camp.

Estuarine crocodile

Estuarine crocodile

Estuarine crocodile

Estuarine crocodile

Juvenile Long tailed macaque

Juvenile Long tailed macaque

Ironically I saw more mammals at camp than I did on the river. As the darkness fell,  my porch light came on and attracted a large number of insects, which in turn initiated a bat feeding frenzy.  I tried to photograph the bats in an attempt to identify them, but capturing a flying bat on camera is not an easy task. The best images I got revealed only that it was a species of a Roundleaf bat. A legendary mammal watcher John Hall has trapped a few bats on his porch at KJC a few years ago and they turned out to be Fawn Leafnosed Bats. I was happy to accept that the bats I was looking at were the same species that John had trapped.

Just before we headed out on the night cruise, the camp was visited by a somewhat resident Malay civet. Staff and guests alike lined up against the railing of the restaurant to  admire the beautiful animal below. “This is Tom” Robert observed. “We have two of them that come around often. We call them Tom and Jerry. Jerry is the one with a short tail”. I was starting to think that river cruises were a completely unnecessary expense.  You could just stay at the restaurant at KJC and wait for the jungle to come to you. In fact, Robert once saw a Clouded leopard at camp, though it happened only once in the 10 years that he has been running the camp.

Malay civet

Malay civet

And then I heard a dog bark. It sounded like something small. A Maltese perhaps. But wait… A dog? Here? “Gecko”, – said Robert, seeing my surprise. And indeed, a look behind the fuse box revealed a good-sized gecko hanging flat against the wall and emitting calls almost indistinguishable from a puppy bark. I thought to myself that this place truly was a jungle paradise, or at least one version of it.

The night safari on the other hand was quite uneventful. Razmir took us to Menanggol River near the Sakau village. This river can be a good place to look for Flat-headed cats, but we saw no mammals at all. This outing, however, was interesting for a different reason. Sakau village is where Razmir was born and grew up. It was fascinating to cruise through his childhood playground, imagining him fishing here with his father, learning to drive a motor boat, discovering the wildlife for himself. It was a different world within a different world, a world of people within what to me is a world of wildlife, a life so unlike anything I am familiar with.

Stork-billed kingfisher

Stork-billed kingfisher

We did see a few birds on Menanggol: a Stork-billed kingfisher, a Black and Red broadbill sleeping in its over-sized nest above the river, and off course innumerable Black-Crowned Night herons standing frozen in concentration,  staring intently at the dark surface of the river on the lookout for their next meal. Night was my favourite time to be on the river. The jungle was quieter, the air was cooler and the gentle light of the full moon let the rest of the word melt away into darkness. Was it the moon that kept the cats away?

Black and Red broadbill in its nest

Black and Red broadbill in its nest

Just like the previous night, the best wildlife encounter of the night was waiting for us around the corner from the camp. The elephants have finally eaten their way to the water’s edge and were now in plain sight. The captain steered the boat towards the bank and a great leathery bottom filled my camera view. The endangered Borneo Pygmy Elephants. How extraordinary. In my chase after the wild cats I have had better luck with the elephants. I have now seen all three species of these gentle giants: African, Asian and now the Pygmy Elephant. Despite what their name suggests, the elephants I was watching now looked to be about the same size as their bigger relatives. We were incredibly close to them. A stout female stood closest to the water’s edge and if she decided to take just one step back, she would’ve stepped on the nose of our boat. Thankfully she was too busy eating, consuming everything her trunk could reach. It is hard work keeping such a massive body well nourished, even if it is only a pygmy variety.

Borneo pygmy elephant

Borneo pygmy elephant

Another two juveniles were diligently consuming vast quantities of elephant grass just a few meters away from their adult supervisor. All three of them were completely unfazed by our presence and kept feeding with single-minded determination. We watched them for a while and then headed home calling it a night.

The elephant sighting saved the night from going down in history as a completely mammal-less exercise, but it did little to raise my spirits. The Flat-headed cat kept evading me. There was a moment on the main river when I thought we spotted one. The captain abruptly turned the boat around and headed for the bank. His spotlight was pointing to the water’s edge. I felt my stomach tighten and my movements became almost automated as I readied my camera. I was almost afraid to breath. But it was all in vain. The subject of interest turned out to be a crocodile that was already slipping into the river.

The following day we saw the elephants again at the start of the afternoon river cruise. In the light of day they did appear to be small, or rather childish in appearance.  Even the bigger female had a ‘fluffy’ baby face look about her.

Borneo pygmy elephant

Borneo pygmy elephant

Soon other tourist boats started to arrive and at my request we headed to Tenneggang River where we were rewarded with two species of snakes and a Hornbill extravaganza. The snakes, a Mangrove snake and a Grey-tailed Racer were both curled up in tree branches more or less right above our heads.

Grey tailed racer

Grey tailed racer

The hornbills however, were considerably more active and entertaining. In the last rays of warm afternoon sun we watched a group of Winkled hornbills congregate on a fruiting tree.  As beautiful as they are, hornbills can be comically ungraceful when it comes to picking small fruit from hard to reach branches. As they tried to stay up right on the thinner branches, flapping their huge wings for balance they looked like pterodactyls descending on a small tree.

Wrinkled hornbill

Wrinkled hornbill

Wrinkled hornbills

Wrinkled hornbills

Just behind the fruiting tree a single Rhinoceros hornbill was snoozing on a sun-lit branch. What a magnificent bird. I have been dreaming of seeing this species since my days of hornbill watching in Thailand. Just like a Mouse deer on the first night, this encounter was another old time wish come true. While we were admiring these two species a group of Black hornbills flew in. The light was all but gone by then, but it was the closest viewing of these birds I’ve had so far.

Rhinoceros hornbill

Rhinoceros hornbill

Black hornbill

Black hornbill

Back at the camp Razmir announced his plan for tonight. Having discussed our failure to find a Flat-headed cat with the rest of the staff at camp, he learned that a nearby oil palm plantation was rumoured to attract a large number of cats. Evidently, not long ago the owner brought a snake trapper to the property and everyone was surprised at how many cats they spotted that night. These would most likely be Leopard Cats, which I still haven’t seen, despite having lived in South East Asia for 5 years. I thought a drive to the plantation was worth a shot.

Not surprisingly however, we didn’t see anything among the palm trees and after about an hour of driving around returned to the river. The river was much more alive: an owl here, a crocodile there, sleeping monkeys and birds, but disappointingly, no cats.

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