Monday, December 24, 2012

Borneo: Over the Wallace Line. Part I: Kubah National Park

In April, I took a trip to Malaysian Borneo with a mate of mine, George, with the simple aim of seeing as many animals over there as humanly possible.

We began our trip in Kuching and headed for Kubah National Park for a couple of nights' stay. We dumped our bags and walked straight out into the rainforest, filled with anticipation. Within metres of our accommodation we saw a couple of crimson-winged woodpeckers and a greater racquet-tailed drongo. I glimpsed a streak of grey-brown on a branch. It took me a few moments for my mind to come to terms with what I was seeing: a squirrel (it turned out to be a Low's squirrel). We were definitely not in Australia any more.

Low's Squirrel

Here was a perfect illustration of the reason that George and I had chosen Borneo as our destination - Borneo is west of the Wallace line - an important biogeographical division that separates the fauna of Australia and the islands to its north from the Asian fauna and well, essentially the rest of the world. So while squirrels and woodpeckers are common elsewhere, Australia has no representatives from these groups. Back in Australia, the land of possums and quolls, to browse through the field guides of Borneo was like reading a fairy tale: animals such as civets, leopards, porcupines, monkeys and other primates, deer, otters, shrews, mongoose and of course squirrels were as foreign and fantastical to us as goblins and leprechauns. Even common animals in Borneo would impress us with their novelty.

As well as these completely different orders of mammals, the frogs, reptiles and birds have some groups (at the family level) that do occur in Australia but are represented in different ways over here. For example, in Australia we only have one ranid frog, confined to the far north of the continent, while in Borneo the group is widespread, has several genera and a wide diversity of shapes and sizes. The situation is the inverse with Elapid snakes - only a few representatives of this family occur in Borneo (though the diversity of colubrid snakes is high). Then, as with mammals, there are the completely foreign groups of reptiles and amphibians such as vipers, flying frogs and toads.

Needless to say, we were filled with eager excitement as we began our trip.

Kubah is characterised by steep terrain, with pleasant, moderately long walking trails, creeks and a waterfall. It even featured a frog pond, of all things. We spent our time here walking the trails and road day and night. We quickly found out that Kubah is an absolute paradise for frogs (and, by extension, froggers).

Black-spotted rock frog, Staurois guttatus

The first frog we came across was a charming little ranid, the Black-Spotted Frog, Staurois guttatus. Many individuals were active in the day, perching on the rocks beside a small swift stream, making a bird-like, chirping call. I was even lucky enough to view a display of territorial behaviour in the form of foot-flagging - that is extending the hind foot and spreading the toes to reveal light-coloured webbing. Returning to this stream by night, these frogs were still out and about though seemed to sit on vegetation rather than rocks.

Draco sp., Flying lizard

We also soon found our first Flying Lizard - Draco sp. These slender dragons live on tree trunks and possess a large membrane supported by modified ribs which allows them to glide between trees. They can be quite shy and this one individual that we spotted at Kubah was particularly so - doing the old trick of scuttling around to the opposite side of the trunk from the viewer. It was delightful to encounter species of Draco almost everywhere we went in Borneo.

Princess cicada

The rainforest in Borneo is a noisy place. There are that many animals making noise that it can be quite bewildering to tell what's what. We were to eventually discover that squirrels sound like parrots, frogs may sound like woodpeckers, some geckos bark like dogs, there's a bird that sounds like a gibbon, katydids and crickets can sound like anything else and frogs can sounds like crickets and katydids. However, our first evening at Kubah we heard a very distinctive sound that blared out like a trumpet from the canopy, drowning out all other noises. Our first thought was that it might be hornbills, but we were not to discover what the real culprit was until our final week in Borneo – it turned out to be the “Six-o-clock cicada”. That a noise of such volume can emanate from an insect is astounding.

Heading off into the rainforest again after dark, we found progress to be slow. We certainly weren't complaining though - the reason we weren't getting anywhere was the sheer amount of wildlife that we were spotting. Eyeshine could be seen everywhere we looked. 

In Australia, George and I generally have a pretty good idea of what we're looking at when we see a frog or a lizard or a snake. Though an identification might still elude us sometimes, it's the exception rather than the rule. Now to be seeing so many species of frog and gecko on our first couple of nights out was just overwhelming. The unsettling thing was not even being able to tell what family a frog was in, let alone a genus. We defaulted to referring to frogs by the names of the Aussie frogs they most closely resembled, despite the phylogenetic reality.

We found frogs in the gutters beside the road, frogs perched in vegetation, frogs in creeks, frogs sitting on the ground on paths, and a great many frogs around the frog pond.

Spotted stream frog, Rana picturata

A favourite of mine, a species that turned out to be quite common, was the Spotted Stream frog, Rana picturata. Or, as we called them, party frogs - after coming across a festive group of these pretty, vocalising frogs in one particular pond on a creek. One thing that we noticed with the frogs here in general is that they had a tendency to be quite shy - jumping away swiftly or diving into water and disappearing - our Aussie frogs seem rather predator-naive by comparison.

Gonocephalus bornensis, Bornean Angle-headed lizard

One our second afternoon, while walking along the road, a movement caught our attention some distance off track. We ventured into the rainforest and spotted a spectacular animal, the Bornean Angle-headed Dragon, Gonocephalus bornensis and approached slowly, taking photos of the creature in-situ on a buttress root. The afternoon had been growing dark as clouds gathered, and just as we were admiring the dragon, several things happened at once. The heavens opened and it began to pour, the dragon jumped off the buttress and made a run for it and George and I quickly gathered our gear and tried to find some shelter. We found ourselves hunched in a road culvert, sharing the space with a bat and our dragon which had somehow found its way there too. After a good half-hour of this, as the water rose and our patience dwindled, we legged it to somewhere more hospitable. It wouldn’t be the last time we got rained on in Borneo.

Megophrys nasuta, Bornean horned frog

That night began auspiciously. Waiting for George to get ready, I took a look around just outside our cabin. Investigating the reflection of two big eyes in the leaf-litter, I was astounded to find one of the frog species we’d been crossing our fingers in the hope of finding. The Bornean Horned Frog (Megophrys nasuta) is one of those iconic animals that has taken camouflage amongst the dead leaves of the forest floor to the extreme. We saw only a handful here at Kubah, and another couple later in the trip, generally finding them to be quite scarce. They seem to have habits somewhat analogous to the forest-litter dwelling Mixophyes species of Australia.
Blue Coral Snake, Calliophis bivirgatus, eating Reed Snake, Calamaria sp.

Suitably impressed with our first discovery of the night, we set out. Within minutes, I spotted a large brilliantly coloured snake just off the track. George, on first glimpsing the creature (about two metres long though slim, jet-black with white racing stripes and a scarlet head and tail) tried to tell me it was a pile of colourful rope. As we snapped some photos we realised that it was actually in the middle of eating another snake – a tiny reed snake (Calamaria sp.). George, ever resourceful, got out one of his snake books and I looked it up while he prevented it from getting away. As the snake got rather too close for comfort, I read aloud from the book. “Blue coral snake, Calliophis bivirgatus… family Elapidae… dangerously venomous… no known effective antivenin… huge quantities of venom... from glands extending a third of the length of the body…” After learning these sobering facts, we resolved to treat unknown snakes with rather more circumspection in the future.

In just three days we saw all this and so much more. A Mangrove Cat-Snake (Boiga dendrophila) nestled amongst low foliage. A Giant Red Flying Squirrel leaping and gliding between trees far overhead. A Common Palm Civet darting down a trunk and disappearing into the jungle. A great diversity of frogs including the Harlequin flying frog (Rhacophorus pardalis) and the File-eared frog (Polypedates otilophus). Nepenthes pitcher plants of various species all over the place, including some housing tiny tadpoles (possibly of the microhylid species Microhyla nepenthicola). Geckos everywhere. Pill millipedes trundling along the tracks.
Kubah, as our introduction to the biodiversity and abundance of the Bornean rainforest, did not disappoint. Our next stop was to be a couple of bus-rides and a boat trip away: Bako National Park. Could we top our already impressive sightings or had we peaked too early?

1 comment:

cathy @ ma vie trouvee said...

AWESOME PHOTOS! Leaving on Wednesday hope to see some creatures like you did.