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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Borneo: Sabah

Mount Kinabalu, Kinabatangan River, Tabin Reserve, and the Danum Valley

2022 November Narrative

13 November: Our birding tour of Borneo began in style this evening with our meeting and dinner in the Chinese restaurant at our hotel.

14 November: We left the Promenade Hotel in downtown Kota Kinabalu, known to the locals as KK, at the ungodly time of 4.30 am. While I don’t normally start a tour at such an extreme hour, it’s a necessary evil to get to our one and only mid-elevation site at dawn to catch up with some important birds. We arrived at our birding destination at 0600 to be met by our amazing ground team who had gone ahead of us to prepare our breakfast in the field. As we enjoyed our sumptuous feast, which included tropical fruit delicacies such as rambutan, mangosteen, guava apple, and some weird type of banana, we were entranced by the awakening forest around us. Soon we were making our way down the road listening for the many higher-elevation specialties to be found in Borneo. Our main targets included Bornean Bulbul, Bornean Leafbird, Bornean Barbet, and Mountain Barbet. The first two showed brilliantly and we were able to enjoy excellent, prolonged views. Unfortunately, the barbets were less cooperative although we did hear and glimpse Mountain Barbet.

By mid-morning, the cicadas had taken over and the birds had gone quiet, so we boarded our bus for the journey to the legendary Mount Kinabalu, at 4,101 m the highest peak between New Guinea and the Himalayas. But first, we stopped in the small market garden town of Kundasang for a delicious lunch after which we checked into our comfortable and characterful hotel, the Pine Garden Resort. Later we made the first of many trips into the Kinabalu National Park with some leisurely roadside birding allowing us to connect with some of the more common montane species. In the evening we were treated to a sumptuous Asian-style meal, where we shared several delicious dishes, in our own private dining room (it was actually the bar and we were relegated to it by our wish to drink beer or wine, which isn’t allowed in the otherwise halal * restaurant).

[*Halal is an Arabic word that translates to “permissible” in English. The term is particularly associated with Islamic dietary laws and especially meat processed and prepared in accordance with those requirements.  Pork may not be consumed by Muslims (the Quran forbids it) but certain other foods must also comply with halal. The source, the cause of the animal’s death, and how it was processed must all conform to Shariah Law.  Shellfish and other seafood are considered halal, but alcohol and other intoxicants are not.]

15 November: Our first full day of birding on the legendary Mount Kinabalu, which is so important to the people of Sabah that it is featured on the flag, was an outstanding success. We started with a very early breakfast at our hotel from where we drove the short distance to the park to begin our adventures in Asian montane birding. Since the advent of the Covid pandemic, many things have changed - some for the better. There are now restrictions on the number of vehicles that are permitted to use the main road that leads to the famous Timpohon Gate.

We had such permission, of course, and our driver deposited us at the top of the so-called Power Station Road and followed us periodically as we slowly wandered down the quiet road, with frequent stops for some very special birds (and snacks). While being serenaded by the two endemic partridges (Red-breasted and Crimson-headed, which we never did catch sight of) we soon encountered a number of Borneo’s endemics, notably Bornean Whistler, the stunning Bornean Green-Magpie, noisy Bornean Treepies, flocks of Chestnut-crested Yuhinas, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, and diminutive Black-sided Flowerpeckers. Sensationally, we encountered the best-looking trogon in the world, Whitehead’s Trogon four times! A very fun time was had tracking down a noisy but stubborn pair of cute Mountain Wren-Babblers and, to top off a memorable day of birding, we encountered a pair of Everett’s Thrushes feeding on the lower section of the road. Now, this may not be Borneo’s best-looking bird, but it is certainly one of its most elusive. Or at least it was until the recent Covid-induced quiet of the last two years. Clearly, the closure of the road to any and all traffic has been a good thing for the bird life.

16 November: Our morning started early again as we made a return visit to the Timpohon Gate in search of a few species we’d missed the day before. We caught up with colorful Golden-naped Barbets, the tiny and almost inaudible Bornean Stubtail (a personal favorite) and fabulous Bornean Forktails. The undoubted highlight of the morning, however, was a pair of Fruithunters - an elusive species with contentious taxonomic affinities that can be so easily overlooked with its sluggish habits and unobtrusive vocalizations.

In the afternoon we drove to nearby Poring Hot Springs for our first taste of lowland birding. This popular resort area attracts local visitors who take to the hot springs and the waterfall. Our interests lay elsewhere, of course, as we sought out some excellent birds including the rather drab Fulvous-chested Jungle-Flycatcher, only to be found here on our trip, as well as three species of malkoha, massive Gold-whiskered Barbets, and an entertaining little group of Buff-rumped Woodpeckers. The highlight of our visit to Poring may not have been a bird, though – quite possibly it was the (in)famous Rafflesia, one of the largest and reputedly the stinkiest flowers in the world.

17 November: For our last day in Kinabalu National Park we headed back to the Timpohon Gate in search of various endemic and near-endemic birds that had thus far escaped our attention. Apart from the usual suspects (still great birds!) - Grey-chinned Minivets, Sunda Bush-Warbler, Penan Bulbul, Yellow-breasted Warbler, Grey-throated Babbler, Temminck’s Sunbird, and more - we had some great sightings of birds such as Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Pale-faced (Flavescent) Bulbul, and the remarkably weird Bare-headed Laughingthrush. Amazingly, we found yet two more Whitehead’s Trogons which posed beautifully for our cameras. Later at our lunch spot, we had the good fortune to spot a scarce Blyth’s Hawk Eagle circling before we feasted on yummy pizza for lunch.

18 November: Driving across the island to the east coast we arrived at our next destination, the Kinabatangan River, in time for lunch. After a short break aimed at avoiding the heat of midday, we boarded our river boat for some explorations of this longest river in Sabah. Expertly skippered by our boatman Jedde, we headed upriver to an area known to be a favorite haunt of various species of Borneo’s incredible hornbills. Jedde belongs to the Bornean tribal group known as the Orang Sungai, which translates literally as River people. He was probably driving a boat before he could walk, and it shows! One of our first bird encounters was with a remarkable congregation of almost 20 Lesser Adjutant storks - the most I or Andrew have ever seen here. The Kinabatangan River attracts enormous numbers of birds and as we cruised down this beautiful verdant river we spied big numbers of Purple Herons, Green Imperial Pigeons, and hornbills. On this outing alone we recorded seven species of these bizarre behemoths. Satisfied with a fine and relaxing afternoon’s birding, we motored back to our jungle lodge whilst enjoying this delightful setting.

November 19: Our predawn departure from the lodge saw us heading downriver to begin our exploration of the Menanggol River, a tributary of the Kinabatangan. As the dark lifted, we could see that the skies were very overcast, and soon enough we were donning our raincoats and shaking the water out of our binoculars. Nevertheless, we were not to be deterred! We soon lured in a pair of Black-and-red Broadbills which cavorted about us as we admired their remarkably broad, remarkably blue, bills. Startlingly high numbers of Long-tailed Parakeets jetted over our heads as we motored quietly along the narrow river bordered by lush green rainforest trees dripping with pot-bellied Proboscis Monkeys.  As we chased a handsome Lesser Fish Eagle up the river, we paused to take in views of White-chested Babblers, Malaysian Blue-Flycatchers and Ashy Tailorbirds.  Stocky Stork-billed Kingfishers repeatedly crossed our path, as the more diminutive Blue-eared Kingfisher treated us to a lesson in game fishing. Sightings of the clown-faced Storm’s Storks were most welcome given their Endangered status with an estimated population of a mere 330 individuals. The rollicking calls of a Sabah Partridge caught our attention and as we nosed into the forest edge, a single bird strutted past us allowing close-to-perfect views.

We sped back up the Kinabatangan, with Jedde expertly guiding our vessel around submerged logs and over to more bird sightings. After lunch we again headed out on the river this time to explore the Oxbow Lake and the Tennagang River, another tributary. As usual the afternoon was a lot quieter, but it did prove to be a good day for raptors with nine species recorded. A pair of Bat Hawks attending a nest was a very welcome sight.

November 20: We met at 0500 for a pre-dawn boat trip in hopes of finding the Buffy Fish Owl and the Gould’s Frogmouth but no luck on either. As we traveled down the Kinabatangan, we stopped to admire a cute baby Estuarine Crocodile, before pulling into the Tenaggang Tributary. We motored along here for a couple of hours connecting with a few birds here and there, but it proved to be very quiet. Returning to our riverside lodge, we had breakfast and then left for the short river crossing to board our bus to Lahad Datu in Sabah’s central east. We arrived at about midday, checked in with the Tabin office located in town, then transferred to a smaller vehicle for the bumpy ride into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. A short, introductory afternoon of birding with the lodge’s expert naturalist Pol, was fun with the undoubted highlight being a little group of tiny bulbous-headed Grey-and-buff Woodpeckers.

November 21: Our full day of birding in Tabin Wildlife Reserve lived up to our high expectations. Riding the open jeep into the interior of the reserve, we spent most of the morning on foot slowly birding our way along the forest track. Raptors again showed well, with sightings of the resident Crested Serpent-Eagle, a superb dark morph Changeable Hawk-Eagle (what a ridiculous name!), plentiful and handsome Wallace’s Hawk-Eagles, and some majestic Black Eagles, amongst others. Supersonic Brown-backed Needletails were an unexpected and impressive sight. A remarkable pair of Red-bearded Bee-eaters held our attention and, yes, more hornbills because you can never have enough hornbills. Stratospheric Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots (everyone’s favorites!) at last showed themselves at something approaching eye level, as hulking Dusky Broadbills showed up…and then something remarkable happened. Later, Pol and Andrew and I heard something that immediately caught our attention - could it be? Yes! Bornean Bristleheads! Only the second time they’d been seen at Tabin, and we saw them remarkably well indeed. To top off a very, very memorable day of birding we lured in one of the world’s most beautiful birds, the Bornean Banded Pitta. This jewel of the forest seemed to almost glow as he hopped around us on the forest floor. And as if it couldn’t get any better, our night drive yielded a tiny and elusive Blyth’s Frogmouth and at the other end of the scale, an enormous Barred Eagle-Owl.

November 22: Although not quite as exciting as the previous day, a pre-dawn outing at Tabin was well worth the early wakeup call with a fine Purple-naped Spiderhunter and a pair of Black-and-red Broadbills, amongst others. After brekky, we made our way out of Tabin back to the pirate town of Lahad Datu for the final leg of our journey. A long but not unpleasant drive took us to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, one of the premier lodges in Asia located right in the heart of a huge area of primary lowland rainforest. After a sumptuous lunch (the desserts were a really big hit!) and a short rest, we were soon out on foot again, in the company of one of the lodge’s excellent naturalists, my friend Reyner, in search of the many special birds and other animals to be found here. With limited time we didn’t gather a huge list, but we made an excellent start with a nice selection of the more common birds. But maybe the highlight was the little troop of very handsome Maroon Leaf-Monkeys that often hangs out around the lodge. 

November 23: As to be expected in this birdiest of birding sites, we had a wonderful day exploring the vicinity of our very comfortable lodge. Stepping out after our dawn breakfast (the staff here are super accommodating for us birders) we were soon getting acquainted with seemingly tame Bornean Crested Firebacks, a very fancy pheasant, whilst being serenaded by various species of incessant barbets. While Black-throated Wren-Babblers teased us from the undergrowth, we did manage to spy some other little skulkers like the very cute Black-capped Babbler, noisy Short-tailed Babblers, and the magically named Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler. And amazingly, we had another encounter with a group of noisy Bornean Bristleheads. What a treat! After dinner we boarded the electric buggy for a night drive, which proved to be a mammal bonanza with sightings of two truly remarkable animals – the Sunda Colugo, a unique Order of gliders found only in Southeast Asia, and the endemic Horsfield’s Tarsier, the world’s smallest primate.

November 24: Continuing our explorations of Danum Valley, this morning we borrowed the lodge’s 12-seater electric buggy to ferry us to the lodge entrance with a plan to walk and bird our way back to the lodge. Distractions were many, however - White-crowned Forktails cavorted ahead of us forcing us to stop to admire them; a pair of Jerdon’s Bazas flew rapidly past; and Blue-headed Pittas teased us from the undergrowth. We eventually made it to our starting point but just as we commenced chasing around a few things, we got a call over the radio. Orangutan! ???? Well, I’m afraid the birds are going to take a back seat to one of the world’s most amazing animals so with great urgency we jumped back on our trusty vehicle and drove back as fast as was safely possible to the lodge. At first, we couldn’t find him but thinking about the most likely place he could have gone we were relieved to find him feeding in a nearby tree. Watching him at close range and then rapidly retreating when he descended to the ground was undoubtedly a lifetime highlight of wildlife watching!

November 25: Our final full day of birding in Borneo didn’t disappoint with a surprise Besra shooting through, no doubt in pursuit of its preferred prey - small forest birds. We caught up with two species of trogons, the Red-naped and the superficially similar Diard’s. We were able to note the differences between the two, Diard’s with its purple facial skin and pink hind collar. We did well with woodpeckers today, with four species seen well, including the tiny Rufous Piculet. But the most fun was had with the deceptively drab-looking Bornean Black Magpie. In fact, this is a fantastic bird, not least because it has such an unusual song. After much effort and patience, we eventually got great looks at this enigmatic endemic. Most notably however was an all too brief look at a Chestnut-capped Thrush feeding on the side of the dirt road in company with some Siberian Blue Robins.

November 26: After another fine early morning bird outing, we returned to the lodge for our first breakfast in daylight for many days! At the tiny Lahad Datu Airport we got in some bonus birding with a number of new additions to our list including some neat Buff-banded Rails and a Striated Grassbird, the world’s biggest warbler. A fine way to finish off a fantastic birding adventure!


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