20 April 2019

A Bornean Adventure : Part 2

A Bornean Adventure
Featuring Mahua Waterfall, Sabah : Part 2

The charismatic Kinabalu Swordtail (Pathysa stratiotes) that is endemic to Borneo

This is the concluding part of our Bornean Adventure to the Mahua Waterfall near Tambunan in Sabah. Last week we featured some of the butterflies that we encountered over the first two days of our trip to the Mahua Waterfall. In this weekend's blog post, we share our encounters with the butterflies over the final two days that we spent, mainly along the forest trails leading to the waterfall and the puddling area around the waterfall.

Day 4 (Tue 2 Apr) - Mahua Waterfall

The Mahua Waterfall substation building.  The blue steps lead to the entrance to the waterfall trail

The day started early as Mei Yee kindly prepared hard-boiled eggs for our breakfast. It was a clear blue sky morning as the warm sunshine bathed the vegetation around our dormitory. We quickly finished our coffee and buns and looked forward enthusiastically to another full day of shooting. As our main puddling ground was quickly drying out, we took a look for any new interesting butterflies, but just the usual common were out in the cool morning hours.

Dappled sunlit spots in the shaded forest understorey

A Malayan Owl perches with half-opened wings on a sunlit leaf

We headed straight to the forest trail that led to the Mahua Waterfall. The sunshine was streaming into the forest and we could see some butterfly activity amongst the sunlit spots in the vegetation. There was a very skittish Malayan Owl (Neorina lowii lowii) patrolling along the trail but was never cooperative enough to give us a good shot of it. It settles on the tops of leaves with partially opened wings but takes off the moment it feels threatened by the slightest movement.

Yellow Barred (Xanthotaenia busiris burra)

Banded Faun (Faunis stomphax)

Yellow Banded Awl (Hasora schoenherr chuza)

Striped Ringlet (Ragadia makuta umbrata)

There were the usual forest-dependent species like the Archduke, Yellow-Barred, Striped Ringlet, Banded Yeoman, Yellow Banded Awl, Banded Faun and many others. The damp forest paths in the early morning hours attracted a myriad of species to feed on the moisture on the leaves and forest floor.

The bridge leading to the Mahua Waterfall

We crossed the suspension bridge leading to the main waterfall and climbed up to the level of the pool where the water cascaded from 17m up the cliff. It was still too early, and other than the usual common Lycaenids and a few Skippers, the area was still pretty quiet. We had the place to ourselves, and it was certainly a peaceful environment to chill and meditate.

Tawny Rajah (Charaxes bernardus cybistia)

As the sun rose, we moved back to the main forest trail and encountered a few Nymphalidae puddling. Some animal poo attracted a few carrion-feeding species and a Tawny Rajah (Charaxes bernardus cybistia) kept us busy trying to shoot it. After a bit of feeding, it stopped at some sunlit spots amongst the leaves and opened its wings to sunbathe.

A variety of puddlers

A number of Staff Sergeants (Athyma selenophora amhara) were puddling and testing our patience with their skittish habits. A couple of other "Flats" - a Banded Angle (Odontoptilum pygela) and a Malayan White Flat (Siseria affinis) also came down to puddle with the other species.

White Banded Palmfly (Elymnias dara dara)

Whilst we were all busy with the puddlers, I noticed a black and white butterfly fluttering in the distance. A couple of shots from some distance away, it quickly fluttered off. A check subsequently showed that it was a White Banded Palmfly (Elymnias dara dara). A pity that it did not stay longer for a better shot.

Vagrant (Vagrans egista creaghana)

The endemic Bornean Sawtooth (Prioneris cornelia)

Chocolate Royal (Remelana jangala huberta) face off with a bee

On the mossy parapet wall along the forested trail, there was also quite a bit of activity. A hungry Vagrant (Vagrans egista creaghana) stayed long enough to pose for everyone. Meanwhile, along the path, Jonathan stumbled on another endemic, a Bornean Sawtooth (Prioneris cornelia), puddling. Nearby on another mossy area, a Chocolate Royal (Remelana jangala huberta) fed quietly at the side until a bee flew into it and scared it off.

How many butterflies can you count in this photo?

The endemic Kinabalu Swordtail

After we had our fill of the puddling butterflies in this area, we headed back up to the waterfall. By this time, Jonathan had met and nailed the Kinabalu Swordtail that appeared. The warm sunshine at the puddling area brought quite a number of species and a big congregation of the Kinabalu Bluebottles and Dark Mapwings. A few Red Helens also came down to join them.

Plain Puffin (Appias indra aemilia)

Lesser Zebra (Graphium macareus macaristus)

Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae antiphus)

We headed back out to the puddling ground in the early afternoon to see if there were any other new species to shoot. A Plain Puffin (Appias indra aemilia) was puddling, as was a mimic, a rather large Lesser Zebra (Graphium macareus macaristus) puddled for a short while before taking off into the forests. A Crow also came down to puddle amongst the other commoners that we have already shot previously. A Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae antiphus) was also amongst the puddlers.

Wanderer (Pareronia valeria lutescens)

The dark clouds hovered ominously above and it threatened to rain, but other than the overcast skies, and probably a very light drizzle, the area continued to be spared from any rains. The lack of bright sunshine affected butterfly activity and there weren't many species up and about by 3 pm. A walk around the dormitory area turned up a rapidly flying male Wanderer (Pareronia valeria lutescens) that suddenly stopped to feed on a flower.

A Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus sertorius).  This species was the most common butterfly that we encountered in the Mahua area.  In patches of open areas, there will be several individuals fluttering around amongst the shrubbery.

By about 4pm, we were ready to finish for the day, washed up, and it was back to Tambunan town for dinner again. Maybe we were famished, but the simple "chye sim" vegetables tasted fresher and more delicious than I can remember. The 'home cooked' food satisfied our hunger and we headed back to our dormitories after our usual stock up of groceries for the next day.

Day 5 (Wed 3 Apr) - Mahua Waterfall

Hard boiled egg, anyone?  Breakfast time at our dormitory

We were up bright and early again on this final full day of shooting at Mahua. Correction, Mei Yee was up and about early. She made enough noise to shake Jonathan and I out of our slumber. Thankfully, the smell of freshly-made coffee was enough to get me out of bed and raring to go. After a quick, but by now boring, breakfast of buns, biscuits and hard-boiled eggs, we headed out to the waterfall. The sky was a cloudless deep blue!

Just a few metres into the trail, Jonathan spotted a Red Harlequin which kept us busy. As usual with this species, it seems to know where to stop just to irritate us photographers. As with the previous days, the cool early morning temperature up to about 9:00am didn't facilitate much butterfly activity. But once the sunshine streams in and warms up the environment, the butterflies will be out in action!

A Common Tree Nymph flies high amongst the tree tops

In the meantime, a Common Tree Nymph (Idea stolli alcine) glides gracefully overhead and into the tree canopy. Whilst we saw this species on several occasions, they were always at the treetops and never stopping to feed or anything. Appearing like floating pieces of paper the Tree Nymph glides for long periods of time without even flapping its wings, probably using the thermal lift of the warming air in the forests to keep it adrift.

Underside and upperside of the Kinabalu Swordtail.  It was regularly seen at Mahua

It was just past 9:30am in the morning when we reached the waterfall. The sun was already warming up the area and there was much more activity today. Besides the common puddling Lycaenids, the iconic and endemic Kinabalu Swordtail came down with its entourage of Kinabalu Bluebottles, Red Helens, Dark Mapwings and the Bornean Mormons. Very soon, it was pretty busy at the puddling grounds and we chose our different favourite areas to shoot.

The Malayan Oakleaf

Bornean Mormon with spread-open wings

Two Bornean Mormons, a Malayan Zebra amongst a group of Kinabalu Bluebottles

Malayan Zebra (Graphium delessertii delessertii

A pristine Malayan Oakleaf came warily down to puddle, although usually staying away from the main crowd of Papilionidaes and Pieridaes. At nearby location, a lone Malayan Zebra (Graphium delessertii delessertii) joined the group to puddle. Later it joined in the main bunch of Papilionidae with the Kinabalu Bluebottles and Bornean Mormons.

The Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana)

Butterflies segretating themselves by taxonomic families? Papilionidae to the left, Nymphalidae to the right

Back at the forest trail, another congregation of Papilionidae was puddling. The awesome Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana), the nominate subspecies from Borneo that was described by Alfred Russell Wallace in 1855, came down to the puddling area as well.

On the way out from the forest trail, this Red Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista petaurista) dropped down from the tree nearby with a loud thud. It managed to crawl back up a tree to safety. The Squirrel has a membrane of skin between its legs, which is used to glide between trees. It is characterised by its dark red colouring and large eyes.

A Red Giant Flying Squirrel

When compared to other species of squirrels, this species is large, being on average 422mm long. Its entire body dark reddish except for black on nose, chin, eye-ring, behind the ears, feet and tail tip. Whilst not a butterfly, it created a short distraction for me in this Bornean forest.

Blue Begum (Prothoe franck borneensis)

About an hour past noon, a lone Blue Begum (Prothoe franck borneensis) fluttered along the shady forest trail and stopped to feed at a mossy rock. When disturbed, it flew off to a nearby tree trunk and exhibited the typical behaviour of this species - where it stopped with its wings folded upright with its head pointing downwards. After awhile it continued to puddle on the forest path and went back to the mossy rock.

By mid-afternoon, it was overcast again, as the sun was completely blocked out by rain clouds. Having had our fill of shooting some of the iconic endemic species at Mahua, we called it a day on this final outing of this trip. Dinner was back in Tambunan town, and it drizzled along the way and the road was wet indicating that it had rained earlier in Tambunan.

Our trusty white steed, a 1.5 litre Honda City that was our transportation for our Bornean adventures

The next day, after breakfast, we finished our packing and checked out of the Mahua Rainforest Paradise. At a rate of RM75 per night, the spartan and simple accommodation was adequate for us and we would not mind staying at this place again if we come back the next time. A final check and we loaded everything into our trusty little Honda City SAB 1175 R for the journey back to Kota Kinabalu.

A final picture for the memories' album

We took a final group mugshot at the Crocker Range Park main signboard as a memento of our trip to this exquisite forest park where many interesting endemic butterflies call home. Our trip back to Kota Kinabalu International Airport took slightly less than 2 hours due to much lighter traffic than anticipated, and we headed home to Singapore, happy and contented at our fruitful butterfly-hunting trip.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Loh MY and Jonathan Soong.

A Bornean Adventure : Part 1

14 April 2019

A Bornean Adventure

A Bornean Adventure
Featuring Mahua Waterfall, Sabah : Part 1

The 17m high Mahua Waterfall

Usually, at this time of the year, I would take a short butterfly-shooting vacation up north to our usual hunting grounds in Fraser's Hill, Gopeng or further afield to Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao in northern Thailand. This year, we decided to try out something new and head off to East Malaysia instead. We chose Mahua Waterfall in the Tambunan District in Sabah after hearing of good recommendations from Yi Kai who was up there earlier this year.

A panoramic view of the Mahua Waterfall and its surroundings

The Mahua Waterfall is one of the listed locations in the Waterfalls of Malaysia website, particularly in the state of Sabah, so we decided to check it out. The Mahua Waterfall is located about 6 km from Kampung Patau and about 16 km from the nearest town of Tambunan in the state of Sabah. Although described as "moderate" accessibility, the roads that lead to the Mahua substation are now properly paved instead of a rough dirt track as mentioned in the 2006 article.

The main Admin building of the Mahua Rainforest Paradise

An elevated view of the Surau Room and the dormitories where we stayed (green roof)

Planning began with checking out flights with the most convenient schedules, arranging for accommodation, booking a car and so on. We decided on an AirAsia flight that gave us a good balance of price, schedule and comfort. Mei Yee's research turned up that the best location to stay was at the Mahua Rainforest Paradise (note : FaceBook link), so that there will be minimal commuting between our accommodation and the Mahua Waterfall.

The car rental counter at Kota Kinabalu International Airport

After I confirmed our car rental bookings with Hertz (conveniently located at Kota Kinabalu International Airport) and made all the necessary preparations, we were good to go! Due to conflicting schedules amongst others, only 3 of us - Mei Yee, Jonathan and me, made it for this trip. But it was a good recce trip to ascertain whether future trips would be useful.

Our approximately 2-hour drive route from the airport to Mahua Rainforest Paradise

The Mahua Waterfall is located about 88 km from Kota Kinabalu and a road trip of about two hours or slightly more (depending on traffic) across the ridge that spans the Crocker Range. "The Crocker Range is a mountain range in Sabah, Malaysia. The mountain range separates the east coast and west coast of Sabah. At an average height of 1,800 metres (5,900 ft), it is the highest mountain range in Sabah. Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia, is part of this range. Part of the range has been gazetted for protection as Crocker Range Park since 1984." - Source Wikipedia.

Day 1 (Sat 30 Mar) - From Singapore to Kota Kinabalu

Lunch at Kota Kinabalu

After a smooth two-and-a-half hour flight to Kota Kinabalu airport, and picking up our rented Honda City from Hertz, we headed out for a quick lunch stop in town before making the road trip to Mahua. After stocking up on bread and water (just in case), we headed off to our destination. The weather forecast for the Tambunan area was not promising as it showed rainy weather for the next few days. Along the road trip, it drizzled a bit, but nothing too bad.

The route to Mahua Waterfall.  Note the mountainous terrain

Along the way, we noted that the Kipandi Butterfly Park was closed, but we didn't plan to make a stop there this time. Driving along the two-lane winding road requires a bit of concentration on the part of the driver, especially if there is a slow-moving truck ahead and you need to find an opportunity to overtake it safely when there is no traffic on the opposite side of the road. So do factor in the slightly longer travel time, even if GoogleMaps show that it is clear traffic all the way.

The Administration building of the Mahua Rainforest Paradise

The main dining hall (right) and our dormitory (left) at the Mahua Rainforest Paradise

We finally reached our destination at the Mahua Rainforest Paradise just after 6 pm and after waiting a bit for the staff to get back to the place (they had left for the day as it was after their working hours). We got to our dormitory and settled in before heading out to Tambunan town for dinner. The drive to town is about 20 mins and there were limited food outlets to choose from. But those that we managed to find, had decent food and priced reasonably to meet expectations.

Dinner at a kopi tiam at Tambunan town

As in many Malaysian small towns, being able to converse in Bahasa Malaysia is often an advantage, although some of the Chinese kopi-tiams have staff who can speak Mandarin. After making another pit-stop at the local provision shop for our lunch the next day, we made our way back to our accommodation.

A standard bedroom comes with 2 single beds. There are blankets and bath towels, but bring your personal toiletries like bodywash, shampoo and toothbrush.

Our dormitory-style accommodation.  Toilets and baths are centrally located

Our rooms were clean and spartan, but it was surprisingly cold at night, (estimated in the 16-18 deg range) and the ceiling fan was not even needed! The common bath/toilets were clean enough, and thankfully, there was at least one bathroom with hot water! Other than that, expect the odd spider, moth or bee to share your accommodation, as they are attracted to the lights in the dormitory.

Day 2 (Sun 31 Mar) - Mahua Rainforest Paradise

Early morning view towards the Mahua Waterfall entrance building

The next day, we woke up to the sound of rushing water (our dorm was just next to the river) and chirping birds outside. The cool morning air was refreshing and despite being just past 6 am, the sun was out and shining bright already. We had our breakfast and prepared ourselves to go out and enjoy a day of butterfly-hunting with our cameras.

The ranger station and entrance to the Mahua Waterfall.  In the foreground is our puddling ground

By mid-morning on Sunday, the carpark was full of vehicles and picnickers heading for the Mahua Waterfall

We decided to take it slow and stayed within the grounds of the Rainforest Paradise and to look for puddling butterflies. Reminiscent of our Chiang Dao carpark (but certainly not as good!), there was enough activity to keep us busy for a few hours. We just focused on two puddling areas where many species of butterflies came down to feed. Also, as it was a Sunday, many local picnickers visited the waterfall, so we avoided getting in the way of the crowd at the waterfall.

A Mycalesis sunning itself

Although butterfly activity cannot be compared to what I had experienced at Chiang Dao, there were enough species coming down to puddle to keep us engaged for most of the day. The early morning butterflies that caught our attention were Lycaenids like the Udara sp. that started puddling. There was a Mycalesis that came down to sunbathe with its wings opened (and we encountered it again daily in the early morning hours displaying the same habit).

This thirsty Crow decided to drink from our mineral water bottle

There were a couple of large "Crows" coming down to puddle. Amongst the Danainae, we only saw these Crows, a Tirumala sp., a Yellow Glassy Tiger (Parantica aspasia) and the White Tiger (Danaus melanippus) making occasionally appearances.

A puddling Appias pandione whiteheadi

Amongst the Pieridae, we first encountered the skittish Appias pandione whiteheadi and trying to get a good shot of the species was challenging. Although there were several of them, they were always on the move. Then there was the Orange Gull (Cepora iudith hespera) that also appeared.

Two different Mapwings - Cyrestis maenalis and Cyrestis nivea

As the sunshine warmed up the puddling areas, two different Cyrestis visited the damp puddling areas. In a way, it was fortunate for us that it had rained the last couple of days and the puddles in the carpark remained until our final day. Both C. nivea and C. maenalis were observed. Although skittish, they were easy to shoot once they settled down to puddle.

The endemic Kinabalu Bluebottle puddling

Just before noon, our first Bornean endemic species appeared. The Kinabalu Bluebottle (Graphium procles) visited the puddling ground. This species is reportedly an endemic of the Crocker Range lower montane area and Mahua Waterfall area is precisely such an area. At about 1,400 m above sea level, the Mahua area falls in that elevation where this endemic butterfly is common.

Different views of the Green Dragontail puddling

Another Papilionidae, the Green Dragontail also appeared just around noon. As with all previous encounters of this species (and its close cousin the White Dragontail), the sight of this dragonfly-like species is always breathtaking as it flits around with its rapidly vibrating wings. After awhile, it settled down to puddle, giving everyone a chance to photograph it.

A variety of Lycaenidae greeted us

As the day wore on, several more common Lycaenids appeared. The Common Line Blue, Silver Royal and others fluttered around the damp puddling ground and kept us busy. We called it a day around 4 pm and washed up before heading back to Tambunan town for dinner. It gets dark pretty early here and by 7pm, it was pitch dark already. After dinner, it was an early night for us, as we got our batteries charged (both human and camera equipment) and ready for the next day.

Day 3 (Mon 1 Apr) - Mahua Waterfall

Bright blue skies and warm sunshine greeted us on the next day. After our morning coffee and breakfast, we were ready to make our first trip into the Mahua Waterfall trail. As it was a weekday, there were very few visitors and we practically had the whole place to ourselves. The short walk to the waterfall was pleasant and safe. Paved footpaths and steps made it easy to walk around although the mosses and wet areas may be slightly slippery at times.

The Silky Owl perched on a leaf.  It was surprisingly common at the Mahua Waterfall area.

However, before we made our journey to the waterfall, we were greeted by the Big Eyed Jungle Lady or Silky Owl (Taenaris horsfieldii occulta). Fluttering by slowly but always on the move, this species was surprisingly common in this area and we saw several of them over our stay at Mahua. However, as they often perch in very dark shady areas and are skittish, photographing them is another matter.

The Himalayan Jester 

Walking into the waterfall trail, the streams of sunshine penetrated the lush canopy at certain parts of the trail, and there was regular butterfly activity stirring in the cool humid forest. The first butterfly species that held our attention for quite some time was a friendly Himalayan Jester (Symbrentia hypselis balunda). As it puddled on the wet area outside the rest room, we had many opportunities to shoot the upper and underside of the butterfly.

Views of the forested paths and walkways that led to the main Mahua Waterfall

This was our first visit to the Mahua Waterfall, and the 'thundering' sound of water cascading from about 17m above into a shallow pool seemed quite therapeutic amidst the greenery of the forests that surrounded us. Over at the waterfall area, the air was cool and humid whilst the area was generally under shade except for the noon hours where the sun was directly overhead.

The Malayan Oakleaf

Throughout the forest trail, we spotted many forest-dependent butterflies like several Maplet (Chersonesia) species, Banded Yeoman, Vagrant, a couple of Sailors, and many Lycaenids that were skittish and difficult to shoot. The locally common Malayan Oakleaf (Kallima limborgii) appeared several times, and I was amazed to see how big this species was, compared to the ones I saw in West Malaysia and Thailand.

Amongst the lurkers in the forest understorey, we also spotted a Common Evening Brown, a Malayan Owl, a Yellow Barred, many Striped Ringlets and several individuals of the Malay Red Harlequin. Hunting down the Malay Red Harlequin was challenging, as it flits around like the typical Riodinid amongst the thick undergrowth.

A Club Beak puddling

Mei Yee demonstrates how to get a low angle shot of the Papilio acheron

The endemic Papilio acheron puddling

We came out into the carpark's puddling grounds again in the mid-afternoon as it was getting too dark in the forested trails for much butterfly activity. Out in the open there was more activity and we spotted several Bornean Mormon (Papilio acheron) another endemic of Borneo, puddling. Two other species - a Club Beak (Libythea myrrha) and a Black Rose (Papilio antiphus) joined in the fun.

Jonathan prones to shoot the endemic Kinabalu Swordtail

Right towards the end of the day, we spotted another endemic, the Kinabalu Swordtail (Pathysa stratiotes) puddling. Although not a pristine individual, we met the species again, several times in the next few days. This endemic is one of the prettiest Papilionidae amongst the Swallowtails, and considered not rare in Borneo.

A Night Market (Pasar Malam) in Tambunan Town

We called it a day just after 4:30pm, washed up, and headed back to Tambunan town for dinner again. This time, we sampled the char koay teow from another shop but decided that we should be eating healthier than this! After stocking up on more bread, water and this time, even eggs for our breakfast, we headed back to our dormitory and much needed rest.

We will complete this travelogue with more butterfly shots in Part 2 next weekend!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Loh MY and Jonathan Soong