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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Borneo: Sabah

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

2023 Narrative

Day 1, May 13: We started our birding tour of Sabah with a short orientation meeting followed by a delicious dinner at Dynasty Chinese Restaurant. No thoughts of partying on though, keeping in mind our very early start the following morning!

Day 2, May 14: Today we dove in headfirst with a 4.30 departure from our hotel for the drive eastwards to the Crocker Ranges. After a quick breakfast in the forest and a visit to a hide, which turned out to be a little disappointing, we proceeded a bit further to the Tambunan area where we spent the morning birding very successfully along the roadside. We had some fine views of most of our hoped-for mid-montane species, including Bornean Leafbird, Bornean Bulbul, and Mountain Bulbul, and a particularly well-received Long-tailed Broadbill. Continuing our journey, we stopped for lunch in Kundasang before heading to Mount Kinabalu for some afternoon birding. But that was thwarted by particularly heavy rain and fog, so we returned to Kundasang and checked into our hotel.

Day 3, May 15: Another quite early start this morning with a 5.30 am breakfast, although it seemed like a sleep-in after yesterday’s effort! As is often the case at Mount Kinabalu, we were greeted by a glorious sunrise as we made our way to the national park.

After our driver, John deposited us at the top of the road known as the Timpohon Gate (this is the entrance to the climbing route to Mount Kinabalu Peak), we worked the area searching out many exciting birds. The undoubted highlight was a gorgeous Fruithunter. This shy and scarce endemic is always a highlight of a day birding on the mountain, and we were thrilled to find it with the help of a couple of local birders who’d located them just prior to our arrival. After this, we soon located delightfully noisy Sunda (Aberrant) Bush-Warblers, Bornean Treepies, and Gold-naped Barbets. Later, we bumped into another friend of mine who’d just located a Sunda Collared Owlet. What a find! This was followed almost immediately by a sensational male Whitehead’s Broadbill. It was difficult to know which way to look! [After many, many years of hearing the owlet, it was my first actual sighting. A life bird for the leader!] Later we (well, some of us) heard the super high-pitched calls of the Bornean Stubtail, a charming little bird with a big character, that soon showed up and allowed us wonderful views.

Just before lunch, we took a stab at finding the (usually) elusive Bornean Shortwing at a small bridge on a trailhead. To our great delight, a charmingly cooperative male came right in, and we were all able to get brilliant views of this handsome forest floor dweller, now rightly classified as an endemic. A search for the Bornean Forktail proved fruitless, maybe they were nesting, but another call from a friend alerted us to the presence of a Whitehead’s Broadbill in another area of the park. Despite our best efforts and not surprisingly, the bird had flown the coop by the time we arrived. “Never give up!” is a birder’s motto though so we continued birding and searching, and to our great joy we at last found a stunning male bird that allowed us to ogle it for quite some time before melding back with the green of the magnificent montane forest. What a brilliant day of birding!

Day 4, May 16: Returning to the Timpahon Gate this morning, we again birded downhill all the way! The road leading down from the gate certainly repays many visits and we weren’t disappointed with the many additions to our list. As we drove up, we spotted a Dark Hawk Cuckoo that allowed us some fleeting views. This was followed by delightful Grey-chinned Minivets, a gathering of Pale-faced (Flavescent) Bulbuls, and great views of Bornean Whistling-thrushes. A short exploration of the Silau Silau Trail in hopes of Bornean Forktail was less successful for the bird but the beautiful forest scenery made the effort well worth it!

After a visit to the very moving, and beautifully done, Kundasang War Memorial honoring those who perished on the so-called “Death Marches” of World War II, we drove to another part of the Kinabalu National Park known as Poring Hot Springs. On the way, we made a short stop to go see one of the wonders of Borneo – the incredible Rafflesia flower. This entrance to the park is at a much lower altitude and the heat came as a bit of a rude shock! But after a tasty lunch, we hit the trails again and enjoyed some excellent birds including the rather rare Fulvous-chested Jungle-Flycatcher, as well as other more widespread lowland species like Rufous Piculet, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Lesser Green Leafbird, and more.

Day 5, May 17: After a short morning visit to the park, we packed up and made our way eastwards towards Sandakan. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at the delightful Sabah Tea Plantation where we picked up a few tea souvenirs and enjoyed some lovely scenery. After checking in to our charming lodge, The Forest Edge Resort, we made a brief exploration of the gardens which yielded a gorgeous Hooded Pitta - what a fabulous yard bird to have! After a delicious dinner, we relocated to the famous Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) for a night walk with a local ranger, which proved to be a trip highlight with fantastic sightings of some great birds – Black-crowned Pitta, Rufous-collared Kingfisher and Sunda Scops Owl – but even better, some wonderful mammals. It was just amazing to see a Slow Loris right out in the open, which we were able to watch at length, and then a Bornean Tarsier with a baby. Wow!

Day 6, May 18: This morning we set out at dawn to station ourselves at the Trogon Tower on the RDC canopy walkway and waited for the birds to come to us. Our patience was rewarded with visits from Raffle’s and Chestnut-breasted Malkohas, Brown Barbets, Bornean Black Magpies, Banded Woodpeckers, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, Greater Green Leafbirds, and more. Later we got word that the elusive and highly sought-after Bornean Bristleheads had made an appearance and we were able to catch up with this amazing bird albeit briefly. As we made our way back to breakfast, we were thrilled to come across a pair of simply gorgeous Diard’s Trogons a wonderful conclusion to an excellent morning.\

After breakfast, we packed up and set off again - with a brief stop for some nesting Baya Weavers en route - to our next destination, the Kinabatangan River. We made a quick river crossing, then checked into our lodge, took lunch, rested up in the heat of midday, and later, guided by our expert boatman Jedi, explored the river in search of hornbills and other wonderful Bornean critters. We had another memorable afternoon with a remarkable seven species of hornbill, as well as the endemic White-fronted Falconet, an impressive Peregrine Falcon, not to mention a troop of Bornean Pygmy Elephants and many Proboscis Monkeys. It’s been many years since we’ve recorded the elephants on the WINGS tour so what a memorable experience to see them up close as they fed and played on the riverbank. 

Day 7, May 19: We had another excellent day on the river with two cruises, morning and afternoon, to the Tenegang and Menanggol rivers, quiet tributaries of the Kinabatangan. So many great birds! Today we had outstanding views of two species of stork – Lesser Adjutant and the globally endangered Storm’s Stork. The Kinabatangan is the world stronghold for the latter, and we were especially lucky to observe a congregation of eight birds perched all together on the treetops in an open location on the riverbank. We were treated to sightings of many species of bird of prey (Crested Serpent-Eagle, Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, Changeable Hawk-Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Brahminy Kite, Grey-headed Fish-Eagle), kingfisher (Blue-eared Kingfisher, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher) and more hornbills (Rhinoceros Hornbill, Bushy-crested Hornbill, Black Hornbill, Oriental Pied-Hornbill), as well as broadbills (Black-and-red Broadbill, Black-and-yellow Broadbill), flycatchers, babblers and more. The Kinabatangan River is truly an exceptional place to bird.

Day 8, May 20: A quick birding walk around the lodge before breakfast and then we bid farewell to the delightfully located Bilit Rainforest Lodge to make our way to Tabin Wildlife Reserve. After a very bumpy ride to the remote lodge located on the edge of the reserve, we took lunch and rested in the considerable heat of the day before heading into the forest for the afternoon. We connected with yet more exciting birds, but the undoubted highlights were a stunning Scarlet-rumped Trogon, and a small group of Dusky Broadbills. They may not be as brightly colored as their congeners, but their enormous bright pink bills and entertaining behavior always make them a firm favorite. After dinner, we set off on a night drive and to our surprise spotted a Malayan Night-Heron roosting in an Oil Palm – a scarce bird at the best of times and most unexpected at this time of year. Our excellent run of luck with mammals continued as we encountered another Slow Loris, Malay and Common Palm civets, a gorgeous Leopard Cat, and a diminutive Lesser Mouse Deer – as cute as the name suggests.

Day 9, May 21: Continuing with our pattern of morning and afternoon birding sessions, we hit the trails of Tabin again today with still more malkohas, barbets, hornbills, broadbills, bulbuls, and babblers keeping us on our toes. A very close Bornean Ground-Cuckoo teased us mercilessly and eventually got the better of us, although a zippy Hooded Pitta did its best to distract us. Before dinner tonight we embarked on a dusk drive. As we waited at the reserve entrance, we kept watch over a huge snag and waited for its resident Giant Red Flying Squirrel (every bit as amazing as its name) to emerge and climb up to the highest point of its abode and then to glide right over our heads. Unforgettable! We also made a stop to try for the incredibly cryptic Blyth’s Frogmouth and our efforts were rewarded with a great view of this most unusual nightbird.

Day 10, May 22: Another successful morning of birding finished off our very successful, not to mention enjoyable, stay at this largest reserve in Sabah. Heading back to Lahad Datu, we were grateful to be reacquainted with made roads again, but this wasn’t to last long as we changed vehicles for our journey on more bumpy roads to the fabled forests of Danum Valley. Considered by many to be the premier birding lodge and destination in Southeast Asia, we headed to Borneo Rainforest Lodge with great anticipation. After lunch, we commenced our avian explorations of this fantastic primary lowland rainforest area. And even on our short preliminary outing, we encountered a bewildering and exciting array of remarkable birds – birds such as Whiskered Treeswift, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler, Bornean Ground-Babbler, Bornean Blue Flycatcher and more.

Days 11 - 13, May 23-25: Our days at Danum Valley were filled with much excitement! We had Rhinoceros Hornbill flying over the lodge as we ate breakfast every morning; a pair of incredible Helmeted Hornbills frequenting a fruiting tree for days on end; daily Black-and-yellow Broadbills; a plethora of bulbuls; many fabulous babblers including Black-capped Babbler, Short-tailed Babbler, super cute Striped Wren-Babblers, shy Black-throated Wren-Babblers, and many more; musical White-crowned Shamas and Brown Fulvettas; a bunch of excellent flycatchers, sunbirds, flowerpeckers, and spiderhunters; and two elegant species of forktail -  White-crowned and the much scarcer Chestnut-naped. A Sunda Scimitar-Babbler feeding a big fat baby Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo was a surprise as was a rare sighting of the rather drab Finsch’s Bulbul. A remarkable highlight of our stay here was a close and cooperative male Great Argus on his dancing ground who almost deafened us with his repeated “oh wow” calls. And what fun we had tracking down and getting superb ground-level views of that stunning Blue-headed Pitta!

As usual in Borneo, the mammals refused to take a back seat, and we were thrilled with sightings of mischievous Maroon Leaf-Monkeys, a glide overview of the cryptic and strange Malayan Colugo, smart Prevost’s Squirrels zipping around the trees, too-cute-for-words Plain Pygmy Squirrels and various civet and deer species. Of course, one of the most hoped-for sightings on any visit to Borneo is Orang-Utan, and this year was a bumper one with a total of six individuals seen including a male, female, and babies. But without doubt, our number one sighting was a Clouded Leopard found having a mid-morning snooze in a tree right next to the canopy walkway. This enigmatic cat is rarely seen and is considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Bornean mammals!

Too bad that eventually, we had to leave – a stay at Danum Valley never seems to be long enough. We struggled with a few things this year, probably due to the hotter and drier than usual weather – pittas were relatively scarce and even many of the barbets didn’t show terribly well. But it’s never possible to see everything on a single trip to this remarkable island and overall, we had an amazing trip with many sensational highlights.

Many thanks to you all, and to Andrew, John, Jedi, Pol, and Rayner for a fabulous tour of fabulous Borneo!

Susan Myers

June 2023


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