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The Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit

The University of Montana

Borneo 2012

This project is part of a larger study of geographic variation in avian life history. Work focuses on locating nests, monitoring nest fate, measuring developmental periods and growth rates, video-monitoring of parental behaviors, measuring egg metabolism and banding and following color-banded pairs through successive reproductive attempts. This work is conducted in Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo

SE ASIAN STUDENTS, especially Malaysian (but from anywhere in SE Asia), interested in learning to conduct these kinds of field activities are strongly encouraged to apply (we will train). U.S. STUDENTS: please note that nests are difficult to find in this environment and only highly experienced assistants are sought with most of the U.S. assistants hired on this project being ones that gained experience on the Arizona project first. We strive to hire a roughly equal number of SE Asian and American assistants.

Kinabalu National Park 

Kinabalu is a large (186,000+ acres) national park in the northeastern tip of the island of Borneo. It is an outlier, a huge massif, isolated by a depression north of the Crocker Range which forms the North-South backbone of Borneo. We work in mid- to high-elevation (1450-1900m elev) montane primary forest. This is a wet environment (rain most days) although the rain is typically in the afternoons and evenings. This extensive area of forest contains a large percentage of Borneo’s endemic birds as well as many small mammals and the occasional Pig-tailed Macaque or Maroon Langur. The centerpiece of the park is 4,095m Low’s Peak. 150+ hikers per day ascend the peak and consequently, there are many hotels, two restaurants and shuttle buses running in the park throughout the day. Our work area is in genuine montane primary forest, however it often doesn't feel as remote as it really is. Kinabalu Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Near the entrance to the park is a small town, Kundasang, where we live in a rented house. The town has most of the facilities we need on a daily basis, food, internet, an ATM (fickle), pre-paid phone card shops, and the largest and most diverse produce market in Borneo!  However, we make periodic runs to Ranau, which is the nearest large town with a semi-modern super market and essentials like “Hair Saloons”, ice cream shops and other amenities. We typically travel as a group to Ranau once per work period.  Because we have worked here for a while, we are well-known within the community of Kundasang, and the people are very warm and hospitable. People working in the tourism industry speak some English, but very few of the other locals speak English.


We live in a rented house in the village of Kundsang, a 10 minute drive from the park entrance. The house itself changes from year to year, depending on how much room we need, what is available, etc. Typically it is a “homestay”, that is, there is a family living on or near the property, but not in the house, who takes care of the place for us. We hire a cook who will cook one large meal for us everyday. This meal will take place immediately after work. In past years we have paid RM 7 per meal per person. At the current exchange rate this means $2.25 per meal, and about $55 per month. Having someone prepare meals for us has several advantages. First, we have a hot, substantial meal ready when we return from the field. Secondly, it eliminates the problem of 12 people trying to cook lunch simultaneously with two available burners. I should mention the food is generally PHENOMENAL. A typical meal is curry chicken, steamed fresh vegetables, fresh fruit and an enormous amount of steamed rice or noodles. We have not had any strict vegetarians to this point, but the amount of veggies, rice and fruit in each meal should make it possible. We are also usually offered a laundry service for about $3 per load. There is also a laundry place in Kundasang for a bit cheaper. Water from the tap is OK for cooking but we typically boil some every night for daily drinking. The crew shares 1 refrigerator, so obviously space is limited to essential items like milk, butter, jam...etc.

Each person will be responsible for a “domestic task” which can include keeping the vehicle clean, maintaining and preparing cameras/tapes for each day in the field or boiling water for the next days work. These tasks will rotate each work period.

Work Schedule and Conditions

During each working period one group trip will be made to Ranau in order to purchase groceries. Kundasang is only a 5-15 minute walk from our house, depending on specific location. However, folks are discouraged from heading down into town until all work-related tasks are completed for the day.

During breaks, which are either 2 or 3 days, assistants have the option of staying at the house, or traveling around Sabah to see some of the sites within striking distance of Kinabalu Park. There are some amazing places to visit including the Kinabatangan River, Danum Valley Field Centre, Mabul and Sipidan islands, as well as the city of Kota Kinabalu which has a lively nightlife, great food, nice hotels, and great beaches/snorkeling.

In an effort to test hypotheses we are engaged in descriptive and experimental activities. Descriptive activities include: nest searching and monitoring to determine nesting success and clutch size; videotaping activities at nests to determine parental attentiveness and feeding rates; measuring egg mass, nestling growth and development; banding and recapturing breeding birds to determine renesting rates and adult survival. Assistants are responsible for participation in each of these areas of work. The supervisor or a graduate student will perform experiments on your plot depending on which species you find. Beginning the first day of work, assistants will be trained how to search for and monitor tropical bird nests. Skilled nest searchers will need less instruction. We will also have reviews of nest monitoring methods, accurate data recording, and nest videotaping protocol. See protocols entitled MY11 Egg & NSTL Measurement Protocol, MY11 Nest Card Protco) . PLEASE PRINT THESE OUT AND BRING ALL WITH YOU TO THE SITE, but read them several times BEFORE arriving at the field site.

Soon after the beginning of the field season, each assistant is given their own plot to work on for the remainder of the project. Assistants will be working independently during at least seven hours on their plots. Plots vary in size from 20 to 80 hectares and range in terrain: some are fairly flat, but most are mountainous and can be very steep. Each nest that is found must be checked every 1 to 2 days to determine if it is still active (with eggs or young) or if it failed. Additionally, nests that are near changes in stages (i.e. incubation day, hatch day, fledge day) MUST be checked every day, or even TWICE a day. Careful attention to nest checking is critical for providing information necessary for successful completion of the project. In addition, detailed notes of nest status at EACH check are vital. Previous studies suggest that humans have little influence on predation probability, but we always want to guard against adding biases, so great care is to be taken near nests. Following daily fieldwork, everyone is expected to spend 1 to 2 hours doing some record-keeping paperwork, such as making copies of your daily nest checks and egg/nestling measurements. Record-keeping work is expected to be completed by 5:00 p.m. daily so that activities for the following day can be prepared. Occasionally you will be asked to return to your plot after lunch for an experiment.

Personal Equipment
As mentioned above, this is a very wet environment! Rubber boots or high-top gore-tex hikers are essential. In dry years rubber boots are a bit overkill, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you have big feet (size 10 or larger) you will want to purchase rubber boots in the states as they are not commonly available in Malaysia, otherwise, just buy them there. Also, be sure to bring rain gear. Gore-tex is nice but does not work well in downpours, which can occur quite frequently. My recommendation is to bring rain gear made out of ripstop nylon, rubberized nylon, or PCV. A great option, used by many of our field-techs, is the Helly Hansen “Voss” jacket and pants ($60 for the set @REI). They are available all over the web and REI usually has them in stock. The sturdy rubberized nylon also makes a good sitting pad to keep you dry when measuring nestlings…etc. We recommend getting a slightly over-sized jacket so that you can wear it over your backpack and binoculars, this set up works better than getting a backpack cover. We have been using this brand over the years because it is effective in downpours and it lasts long (particularly important in a forest full of spiny plants); we highly recommend you consider it. Having the appropriate rain gear can make the difference between being miserable in the field and having a good field season, so we highly encourage that you bring a good set. Quality rain gear is extremely hard to find in Malaysia, and if you do find it, you will pay excessively for imported stuff. Also, bring plenty of socks and clothes to keep from having to wear wet ones in the morning when you wake up. Smart-Wool, or other non-cotton socks are the best options as they tend to be more durable and better when wet than cotton. Additionally, average temperatures for the park are between 16 and 17 degrees C and range between 14 and 19 degrees C. Thus, it can get quite cool especially if you are wet from the rain. So, be sure to bring some warm clothes. It is a really good idea to bring the types of clothes that can keep you warm even while they are wet and ones that dry out fast such as synthetic fleece sweaters or long-sleeve dri-fit shirts. It is also a good idea to bring waterproof binoculars, as non-waterproof binoculars WILL get ruined. Having quality optics is essential, some low-quality brands that advertise being waterproof simply do not cut it in the tropics. See the equipment list of other items that you should definitely bring.

There are relatively few problems with insects at the site, there are some biting flies, especially after a hard rain, but they are more of an annoyance than anything else. They are also remarkably slow and easy to kill…which is convenient. We have encountered 2 species of poisonous snakes at the park, and everyone is encouraged to be vigilant about looking out for these critters. They are both rare in the park (3-5 sightings per year) and are not aggressive. However, stepping on one of these guys would be a bad decision, so it is something to keep in mind while bush-whacking.  There are also some stinging wasps in the park, we carry an Epi-pen in the vehicle as well as at home, but if you know you are allergic, you should have one on you at all times.

It is also a fairly good idea to bring a round or two of antibiotics with you for cases of stomach problems or other infections that you may pick up while in the field. Malaria pills are not necessary while at Kinabalu as it is at high elevations and there is no malaria; however, if you are planning on traveling to the lowlands after the field season or on a break you will want to consider this precaution.  There is a detailed run-down of medical issues and recommended vaccinations on the CDC website here: General “over the counter” type medications are available in Kota Kinabalu, but NOT up near the field site.

Travel Tips and Communications

While in airports and cities always be aware of your luggage, money, and personal identification. For a ton of useful information on Malaysia customs, city maps, and more, refer to one of the many travel guides available on the market. One that is particularly good is the Lonely Planet Travel series.

The local currency is the Malaysian Ringgit, and getting money from ATMs is pretty easy in most developed areas, including very close to our house, in Kundasang. It is recommended that everyone bring some cash as well, as a backup if your ATM card gets lost or corrupted. It is also very important to inform your bank of your travel plans. Many banks will shut down ATM cards when they receive charges from a foreign country. You want to avoid this issue at all costs.

NOTE: Please make sure your debit/credit cards are up to date and will not expire when in Malaysia. Getting mail there is an absolute battle, and not reliable or fast.

Mountain in Borneo
Kinabalu National Park
Blackcapped White Eye
Black Capped White Eye
Collecting Blood Sample
Collecting Blood Sample
White Throated Fantail
White Throated Fantail

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Missoula, MT 59812