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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Borneo: Sabah

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

2018 Narrative

In Brief: This year we had another successful tour of the amazing island of Borneo - really, you can’t go wrong. This tropical hothouse is home to an astounding array of diverse flora and fauna. We had a great trip this year and we were particularly successful on Mount Kinabalu, an area that at times can be quite difficult. One cause for celebration was our successful completion of the Whitehead’s Hat Trick! At our first birding spot, we had a brief look at a wonderful Whitehead’s Spiderhunter feeding in a flowering tree. Later, a happy encounter with the honeymoon couple Paul and Georgia French, helped us find the trogon – or should I say trogons as we saw a male, female and a youngster with incredible looks. We later found a rather flighty pair of broadbills feeding in a fruiting tree but we eventually got quite good looks.

In Detail: Our tour of this fourth largest island in the world concentrates on the northern state of Sabah where the Sundaic biodiversity reaches its zenith. As usual our birding journey started on the mid montane slopes of Tambunan reached after a very early morning start from Sabah’s bustling, and ever growing, capital of Kota Kinabalu. We arrived just on dawn to be greeted by our crew who had left even earlier in order to bring us our very welcome picnic breakfast. While we feasted we looked over the forest as birding activity gradually escalated. By mid-morning we were enjoying some great birding in delightful weather, which was also very welcome in this area that is often subject to wet, cloudy conditions. As so much of Borneo’s mid montane forest has been converted to farmland, this was our only opportunity on the tour to find some of the specialists of this fascinating and beautiful ecoregion. Our targets included a number of endemics, including Mountain Barbet, Bornean Barbet, Bornean Bulbul, and Bornean Leafbird. We found all of these, except the Bornean Barbet which was strangely silent. Added bonuses were many though as we had our only views of the pretty Black-and-crimson Oriole, Dark Hawk-Cuckoo, the newly split Cinereous Bulbul (from Ashy), and the jewel-like Temminck’s Sunbird as well as the first of many Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrushes and Little Cuckoo-Doves.

As midday approached we headed to Kundasang at the base of the mighty Mount Kinabalu for lunch, followed by our first birding session in the montane forest of the national park. We had a great start with a lovely Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher, little flocks of Chestnut-crested Yuhinas, dapper Bornean Whistlers, some sparkling Bornean Magpies and raucous groups of Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrushes - a nice haul of fancy endemics.

Over the next few days we explored the forests of this important area. To quote the WWF “The Borneo Montane Rain Forests can be likened to montane islands in a sea of lowland dipterocarp forests. This isolation has produced a unique and diverse set of montane species. Of Borneo’s endemic bird species, twenty-three (73 percent) are montane. There are more than 150 mammal species in montane forests, making this ecoregion globally outstanding for mammal richness, and it is the most speciose montane rain forest found in the Indo-Pacific region. Despite this wealth of diversity, large tracts of Borneo’s montane forests have not been explored to catalog the flora and fauna.” Over the next few days we birded along the Jalan Kinabalu (Kinabalu Road) which leads up to the Tomohon Gate, as well as taking brief sojourns on the various trails. Despite some minor disappointments our stay on the mountain could only be described as an outstanding success! Aside from the more commonly encountered endemics such as Bornean Whistler, Golden-naped Barbet, Bornean Whistling-Thrush and Bornean Treepie, we found many thrilling endemic species and subspecies. One highlight was a stunning family of Whitehead’s Trogons! And further along the road we found the Whitehead’s Broadbills, with their improbably green plumage; the very high pitched song of the Bornean Stubtail alerted me to its presence and with a bit of encouragement we revelled in amazing looks at this ultra-cute little bird; Mountain Blackeyes flitted around the treetops; and while they put up a good fight we eventually managed to nail them down. A short detour down the Silau Silau trail in search of the very shy Bornean Forktail was at last successful although they did play a good game of hide and seek. On the roadside we enticed a little group of Mountain Wren-Babblers to come closer and pocket-sized Black-sided Flowerpeckers flitted in and out of our binocular view. As always, we also picked up some great mammals - a host of fascinating squirrels included the standout endemic Whitehead’s Pygmy Squirrel with its extraordinary ear tufts. And lastly, we had some fun friend encounters. We bumped into Paul French from Sunbird who was honeymooning with his wife Georgia she helped us find the Whitehead’s Trogon. Very much appreciated! A side trip to Poring Hot Springs was fun, albeit hot. Our reward was a Fulvous-chested Jungle Flycatcher – a new bird for the Wings Borneo list.

Moving on from the mountain we headed east to Sepilok where we enjoyed a fascinating night walk in the lowland forest, which started off with a daylight sighting of the Bornean form of Banded Kingfisher as well as some huge Red Giant Flying Squirrels venturing out from their dens at twilight. This was followed by a relatively relaxed morning birding from one of the canopy walkway towers. It started off slowly but by mid-morning we had seen a Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle; some entertaining Brown Barbets; that most unlikely of woodpeckers, the Grey-and-buff; and a little group of Black-and-crimson Broadbills with their startlingly blue bills.

Our next stop was a brief visit to the smelly Gomantong Caves with its huge colony of swiftlets and insectivorous bats. We found the former on their nests, which is the only way to identify a threesome of very similar species, and the latter as they streamed out of the cave at dusk only to be picked off in overly dramatic style by a pair of agile Bat Hawks. On the walk in we found the gorgeous Black-headed Pitta, not to mention Maroon Philentoma and Long-billed Spiderhunter.

The next three days were spent exploring the Kinabatangan River and its tributaries by boat, complete with electric motor for those quieter moments. As always, this linear reserve was a hornbill bonanza as we recorded Oriental Pied, Black, Rhinoceros, Bushy-crested, White-crowned, Wrinkled and Wreathed - that’s seven of the eight species found in Borneo! Another highlight was a sighting of five soaring Storm’s Storks and a pair of Jerdon’s Bazas, always a scarce raptor. Many of our bird sightings were made possible by the skills of our expert boatman Jeddi, a member of the indigenous group known as the Orang Sungai, the “river people”. Of course, there were many other notable sightings - Violet Cuckoo, Rufous Piculets, Black-naped Monarch, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, and Malaysian Blue Flycatchers and so on. Pot-bellied Proboscis Monkeys cavorted in the treetops overhanging the river banks, providing much entertainment, and a large male Orang Utan feeding in a fig tree was an exciting find.

For the last leg of our birding journey, we travelled southwards and inland to the incomparable Danum Valley Conservation Area, a 438 square kilometres tract of relatively undisturbed and very rich lowland dipterocarp forest. It doesn’t matter how many days one spends in this outstanding wilderness, it’s never enough! But we made the most of our time here, not only enjoying the delightful accommodation, but of course exploring the avian and other delights of the remarkable lowland rainforests. Most of our exploration was done along the so-called entrance road to the lodge which provides a great vantage point for wildlife exploration. As we were serenaded by distant gibbons in the early mornings, we birded up and down the roads occasionally venturing on to the canopy walkways strung between the improbably tall Koompassia emergent trees. A variety of exciting mammals were also thrilling - on our night forays we found a pair of improbably fast Slow Lorises; as well as Thomas’ Flying Squirrel and a very attractive Leopard Cat. A daytime sighting a weird Malayan Colugo with baby was very exciting. At other times during the day we frequently found the endemic and very pretty Maroon Leaf Monkeys, often close to the lodge and, best of all, we met with four different Bornean Orang Utans during our explorations. Birding was, not surprisingly, equally thrilling. We found handsome Crested Firebacks near the lodge. The normally scarce Red-billed Malkoha showed a number of times, as did some of the easier to find malkohas - Raffles, Black-bellied and Chestnut-breasted. Although they required a little more work and head scratching, at least one pitta did show up as we ticked off a stunning Blue-headed Pitta. On one of our night walks a Large Frogmouth was a crowd favourite – what an incredible job Andrew did of finding that! This was followed the next day by a small group of Bornean Bristleheads that initially rebuffed our attempts but did allow us memorable looks in the end. This bizarre member of its own monotypic family is so intriguingly unusual that it always vies for bird of the trip. A suite of woodpeckers including Rufous, Crimson-winged, Buff-necked and Maroon was topped off by a last morning group of Great Slaty Woodpeckers.

On our return to Kota Kinabalu we found ourselves with some spare time so went to check out Longkawi, an area of tidal flats, as well as a coastal forest area. Here we tracked down a nice little set of shorebirds and some coastal species, like Collared Kingfisher and Pink-necked Green Pigeons but, even though they’re introduced, a pair of Blue-naped Parrots was a lovely way to bid farewell to the wonderful island of Borneo!

Susan Myers

October, 2018

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