BORNEO BIRDING TOUR: SABAH, MALAYSIA: DETAILED ITINERARY
Note: our 2019 tour ends at Kota Kinabalu.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Day 1 Our tour begins in the late morning at Kota Kinabalu in Sabah in northern Borneo, where we will overnight. Surprisingly modern, the city was completely rebuilt after Allied bombing in the Second World War and has grown greatly in recent decades.
Interesting forest habitat with endemic birds is too far away for a visit today, so we will look for birds on the outskirts of the city, where there still remain some areas of tidal mudflats, wetlands and grasslands. Here we should find Malaysian Plover , while more widespread species we may well see in these habitats include Purple and Striated (or Little) Herons, Javan Pond Heron, Eastern Cattle, Great, Intermediate, Little and Pacific Reef Egrets, Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns, Wandering Whistling Duck, Black-shouldered Kite, White-browed Crake, White-breasted Waterhen, Black-backed Swamphen, Common Moorhen, Long-toed Stint, Black-winged Stilt, Oriental Pratincole, Whiskered Tern, Spotted and Zebra (or Peaceful) Doves, Lesser Coucal, Glossy Swiftlet, House Swift, Asian Palm Swift, Collared Kingfisher, Blue-throated Bee-eater, Sunda Woodpecker, Pacific Swallow, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Pied Triller, Striated Grassbird, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Malaysian Pied Fantail, Paddyfield Pipit, White-breasted Wood Swallow, Asian Glossy Starling, Olive-backed Sunbird, Eurasian Tree Sparrow and Chestnut Munia. We may also find Watercock, a species only recently confirmed to be breeding in Borneo, Buff-banded Rail (another recent colonist) and possibly Greater Painted-Snipe.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Day 2 This morning we will make an early start for the Crocker Range to the south of Kota Kinabalu. The Crocker Range shares many of Borneo’s montane endemics with Mount Kinabalu, but this area, lying at middle altitudes, offers better opportunities for seeing a few endemic species which are often harder to find at Kinabalu itself. In particular, we will be looking for such endemics as Bornean and Mountain Barbets, Bornean Leafbird, Bornean Bulbul, Bare-headed Laughingthrush and the uncommon Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, and we will also have a first chance to find the stunning Whitehead’s Broadbill and the tiny endemic Pygmy White-eye (or Pygmy Ibon), a species so small and drab that it can easily be overlooked. There is even a real but slim chance for the Mountain Serpent Eagle. Other species we may find here include Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Ruddy Cuckoo-Dove, Temminck’s Babbler and the Sundaic-endemic Cinereous Bulbul.
Afterwards we will drive to Kinabalu Park, situated high on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, for a five nights stay. We should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Days 3-6 The immense bare granite massif of Mount Kinabalu (4101m) towers high above the forests clothing its lower slopes. Although the summit is frequently cloaked in low cloud and mist, it is generally visible in the early morning, allowing stunning views. Mount Kinabalu is a naturalist’s paradise – an island of montane forest amongst a sea of cultivated lowlands. Millions of years of isolation have resulted in a high degree of endemism amongst the fauna and especially the flora – over half the plant species above 1000m are endemic, and there are perhaps 600 species of orchids on the mountain and no less than nine species of the extraordinary pitcher-plants.
Two-thirds of Borneo’s endemic birds are found here, one of which, the Friendly Bush Warbler, is found only on Kinabalu and neighbouring peaks. With increasing altitude, there is a succession of different forest types. Above 1200m true montane forest commences; initially dominated by oaks and chestnuts with a dense ground cover, this gradually gives way to cloud forest characterized by gnarled, stunted trees (including many rhododendrons) encrusted with mosses, lichens and orchids nourished by the frequent mist and high rainfall. Finally, above the treeline, there is an open subalpine zone of bushes and dwarf shrubs below the formidable crags and gigantic rock buttresses of the summit.
Around the park headquarters, situated at 1563m (5128ft) in the lower montane zone, the climate is pleasantly temperate and there is an excellent network of roads and forest trails. Over the next few days birdwatching at Kinabalu will take on a familiar pattern, with the majority of species being fairly conspicuous and easy to see from the roads, but a minority (including some of the most sought-after) being more or less confined to the trails, where the pace is much slower, and birds rather harder to find.
A notable feature of the area is the noisy flocks that appear at first light at the roadside. These flocks typically contain endemic Chestnut-hooded and Sunda Laughingthrushes, Ashy and Hair-crested Drongos, Indigo Flycatcher, White-throated Fantail and dozens of endemic Chestnut-crested Yuhinas and Black-capped White-eyes.
We will make a particular effort to find the more retiring endemics, including the shy Crimson-headed and Red-breasted Partridges, the vivid, electric-green Whitehead’s Broadbill, the sedate and unobtrusive Whitehead’s Trogon, Fruithunter (or Black-breasted Fruithunter, once thought to be a triller but now considered to show close affinities with the thrushes), the vociferous Mountain Wren-Babbler and the diminutive Bornean Stubtail (with a song so high pitched that it is barely audible).
On one morning we will start along the steep summit trail into the upper montane or ‘cloud forest’ zone. Eventually we should find the endemic Friendly Bush Warbler, a bird which often lives up to its name as it can be enticed to within a metre or so (too close for binoculars), as well as the endemic Pale-faced Bulbul, Sunda Bush Warbler and the endemic Mountain Black-eye.
Additional endemics we will be looking for on Kinabalu include Bornean Swiftlet, Golden-naped Barbet, the stunning Bornean Green Magpie, Bornean Treepie, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Bornean Forktail, Everett’s Thrush (more likely to be heard than seen), Bornean Whistler, Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher, Black-sided Flowerpecker
Other species we may well find include Black Eagle, Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle, Little Cuckoo-Dove, Sunda Cuckoo, Crimson-winged, Checker-throated and Maroon Woodpeckers, Sunda Cuckooshrike, Grey-chinned Minivet, Ochraceous Bulbul, Black-and-crimson Oriole, Grey-throated Babbler, Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler, the skulking White-browed Shortwing, Mountain Leaf and Yellow-breasted Warblers, Mountain Tailorbird, Indigo, Snowy-browed and Little Pied Flycatchers, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and Temminck’s Sunbird.
The sulphur springs at Poring Hot Springs at the base of Kinabalu are a popular general tourist attraction. While Poring is a known site for the endemic Hose’s Broadbill, the chances of encountering this very rare bird here are exceedingly slim. It is, however, a good spot for the endemic Bornean Banded Pitta and there is a slim chance for the elusive Blue-banded Pitta.
The only mammals we are likely to encounter on Kinabalu are a variety of squirrels (including the tiny Whitehead’s Pygmy Squirrel) and tree shrews.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Day 7 After some early morning birding at Mount Kinabalu, we will drive southeastwards to Sepilok for an overnight stay.
This afternoon we will explore the Rainforest Discovery Centre in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, one of Malaysia’s best known sanctuaries. There is a truly impressive canopy walkway at the RDC. Spanning 347 metres, this 2-metre wide walkway is up to 25 metres above the ground in places and runs between two ascent/descent towers (no need to climb some rickety old ladder here!). It offers some wonderful canopy birding and the RDC is a good place to see Bornean Bristlehead, a species in its own monotypic family and one that can be tricky to see.
There is also a good trail system here and we are going to enjoy encountering many lowland species for the first time. The RDC is a good spot for the lovely Rufous-collared Kingfisher.
Those who wish can do a night walk this evening, with a fair chance of encountering Bornean Tarsier, the goggle-eyed Slow Loris, Lesser Mouse Deer and Malay Civet.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Day 8 After some more birding at Sepilok, we head southwards to the Lower Kinabatangan Conservation Area for a three nights stay beside the Kinabatangan River.
En route we will visit the famous Gomantong Caves, which are surely a glory of Malaysia. This huge cave system, penetrating far inside a massive limestone outcrop, is probably the largest in Sabah and is the home of literally millions of swiftlets and bats. Leaving the bright sunshine behind, we will enter a cool world of perpetual darkness with its own very different ecosystem ranging from tiny mites to spectacular long-legged centipedes. Inside the cavernous, cathedral-sized main cave we will be able to watch Black-nest, Mossy-nest and Glossy Swiftlets, and perhaps Edible-nest Swiftlets, on their noticeably differing nests, the only really safe way to tell them apart! Ropes suspended from the roof of the cave and flimsy bamboo scaffolding have been used for a thousand years to collect the nests of Edible-nest and Black-nest Swiftlets for soup, although nowadays the nests can only be collected after the breeding season.
At dusk, clouds of bats emerge from the caves like swarms of mosquitoes and several Bat Hawks are usually in attendance to prey on them; indeed this is one of the most reliable places to see this interesting and elusive raptor. They are often accompanied by one or two Peregrine Falcons of the rather dark local race, and it is surprising how similar these two raptors can appear in flight, as the Peregrines catch bats too.
The small forest reserve surrounding the caves is rich in birds. Here we shall be hoping to see Black-throated Babbler in particular, amongst a range of species. We also have a first chance for Bornean Orang-utan.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Days 9-10 While based at our riverside lodge, we will explore some of the shadier and quieter stretches of Kinabatangan and other local rivers by boat in search of the extraordinary Proboscis Monkey, which is endemic to Borneo. As well as this bizarre creature, surely one of the most unlikely simians of all, we are likely to find Silvered Langur (or Silvered Leaf Monkey) and Long-tailed Macaque, and we also have another chance for Orang-utan.
The flood-plain forests at Sukau hold a wealth of birds and we will be looking in particular for the highly localized Wrinkled Hornbill, the rare and enigmatic Storm’s Stork, the uncommon Jerdon’s Baza, the rare and retiring endemic Bornean Ground-Cuckoo (which takes both persistence and luck to see) and the endemic Dusky Munia. We will also have another chance for the strange Bornean Bristlehead here.
Amongst the other species we may well see at the Kinabatangan are Oriental Darter, Black-crowned Night Heron, Lesser Adjutant, Brahminy Kite, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle, Crested Goshawk, Green Imperial Pigeon, Little and Thick-billed Green Pigeons, Emerald Dove, Long-tailed Parakeet, Blue-eared and Stork-billed Kingfishers, Oriental Pied Hornbill, the huge Great Slaty Woodpecker, Rufous Woodpecker, Black-and-red Broadbill, Asian Red-eyed, Black-headed, Cream-vented and Olive-winged Bulbuls, Common Iora, White-chested Babbler, Malaysian Blue Flycatcher, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie-Robin (of a distinctive, near-black form), Crimson Sunbird and Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. We also have a good chance of seeing Hooded Pitta, a characteristic species of the riverside forests, and scarcer species may include Grey-headed Fish Eagle.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Day 11 After a last early morning at Sukau we will travel to the Lahad Datu region. We will spend a total of four nights at the famous Danum Valley Conservation Area. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Days 12-14 The Danum Valley Conservation Area contains some of the most accessible untouched lowland rainforest in Sabah (and indeed in the whole of Borneo), only matched by Taman Negara National Park in West Malaysia. Gigantic trees (some reaching over 80m tall, creating the tallest canopy of any rainforest), clambering lianas, spectacular butterflies, strange-looking insects and a bewildering variety of birds are all integral features of this superbly-balanced and stable environment – the end-product of millions of years of evolution. Rainforests are the richest habitat on earth and those of South-east Asia are the richest of all. There are more tree species here than in Amazonia and this floristic wealth has a profound influence on the avifauna.
Many bird families reach their greatest diversity in rainforests such as this, different species adapting to different modes of life whether in the sunlit canopy or on the gloomy forest floor. Our lodge is situated near the banks of the Danum River and is surrounded by forest. As dawn breaks an ethereal mist hangs over the trees, but as the sun slowly rises this starts to lift, and the chorus of broadbills, babblers, bulbuls and endemic White-crowned Shamas is soon joined by the superbly evocative bubbles and trills of Bornean Gibbons as each of the local family groups greets the new day with their song. The numerous flowering and fruiting trees around the lodge attract a good variety of birds, and in just a few minutes we can access an excellent network of trails which will lead us deep into the shade of the forest, where sound becomes an all-important means to locate birds.
Danum Valley hosts a superb selection of species, and we have an excellent chance of finding many of the local endemic specialities. These include the gorgeous Blue-headed Pitta, a bird which very much lives up to the old name for the family of ‘jewel thrush’ as it bounds over the forest floor. In contrast, the distinctive Black-crowned (or Black-and-crimson) Pitta sits calling in the deepest shadows, glowing like a hot coal. A bit harder to find are the stunning Blue-banded Pitta and Bornean Banded Pitta. With just a bit of luck we will find a Bornean Ground Babbler walking like a miniature rail over the ground, whilst its close relative, the stocky Black-throated Wren-Babbler, ascends into the trees to scold us.
Amongst other Bornean endemics we will be concentrating on during our visit are White-fronted Falconet, Bornean Black Magpie, Bornean Blue Flycatcher, Bornean Spiderhunter and Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker.
The greatest prize here is the strange endemic Bornean Bristlehead (now elevated to its own monotypic family), and we will hope to hear its strange whistles and growls coming from the canopy and then catch sight of a party of these strawberry-headed enigmas moving through the tree tops.
The most spectacular of Danum’s birds are surely the hornbills, and the raucous trumpeting of Rhinoceros Hornbills as a party flies overhead should become a familiar sound. Helmeted Hornbills are also very vocal, giving a succession of ‘toohoop’ notes culminating in a manic ‘chop-your-mother-in-law-down’ crescendo, but they are often much shyer and harder to get views of. Other hornbill species at Danum include Bushy-crested, Wreathed and Asian Black.
Another vocal species is Great Argus, whose call can be heard from well over a kilometre away. This largest of all the pheasants is usually difficult to see, but occasionally one of the Danum males becomes surprisingly tame, making for a better chance of seeing this improbable bird with its outrageous train of elongated wing feathers.
During our stay at Danum Valley we will also have the opportunity for several nocturnal excursions, and have an excellent chance of finding Buffy Fish Owl and Brown Wood Owl, and a pretty good chance for Barred Eagle-Owl.
Amongst the many other species we may well encounter here are Crested Honey Buzzard, Crested Serpent Eagle, Rufous-bellied and Wallace’s Hawk-Eagles, Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot, Violet and Plaintive Cuckoos, Raffles’s, Red-billed and Chestnut-breasted Malkohas, Greater Coucal, Brown-backed Needletail, Silver-rumped Spinetail, Grey-rumped and Whiskered Treeswifts, Diard’s, Red-naped and Scarlet-rumped Trogons, Rufous-backed Kingfisher, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Dollarbird, Gold-whiskered, Red-throated, Yellow-crowned, Blue-eared and Brown Barbets, and Buff-rumped, Buff-necked, Grey-capped, Grey-and-buff and Orange-backed Woodpeckers.
Passerines include Black-and-yellow, Banded and Green Broadbills, Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, Lesser Cuckooshrike, Large Woodshrike, Fiery and Scarlet Minivets, Green Iora, Lesser Green and Greater Green Leafbirds, Grey-bellied, Spectacled, Puff-backed, Grey-cheeked, Yellow-bellied, Hairy-backed , Streaked and Buff-vented Bulbuls, Asian Fairy-Bluebird, Greater Racket-tailed and Bronzed Drongos, Dark-throated Oriole, Crested Jay, Slender-billed Crow, Rufous-fronted, Black-capped, Short-tailed, Ferruginous, Horsfield’s, Sooty-capped, Moustached, Rufous-crowned, Scaly-crowned, Chestnut-rumped and Chestnut-winged Babblers, Striped Wren-Babbler, Bold-striped Tit-Babbler (restricted to Borneo and Java), Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler, Brown Fulvetta, White-bellied Yuhina, Rufous-tailed Shama, White-crowned Forktail, Dark-necked, Ashy and Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds, Sunda Blue (or Large-billed Blue) and Verditer Flycatchers, Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch, Maroon-breasted and Rufous-winged Philentomas, Spotted Fantail, Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker, Plain, Plain-throated, Red-throated, Ruby-cheeked and Purple-naped Sunbirds, Little, Spectacled and Yellow-eared Spiderhunters, and Common Hill Myna.
We should also find some of the scarcer or harder to see species of wider distribution, which include the secretive Chestnut-necklaced Partridge, Crested Fireback, Jambu Fruit Dove, Banded Bay and Drongo Cuckoos, Blue-banded and Banded Kingfishers, Olive-backed Woodpecker, White-crowned Hornbill, the strange Dusky Broadbill, Black-and-white and Finsch’s Bulbuls, Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler, Chestnut-naped Forktail, Rufous-chested Flycatcher, Thick-billed Spiderhunter, and Thick-billed and Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers.
Many mammals inhabit Danum Valley and some of the species that we are likely to see during night excursions are Greater Mouse-Deer, Sambar Deer and Thomas’s and Red Giant Flying Squirrels. We should also see a number of the scarcer species, which include Common Giant Squirrel, Black Flying Squirrel, Bornean Pygmy Elephant, Lesser Mouse-Deer, Common Palm, Masked Palm, Banded Palm and Malay Civets, Binturong, Leopard Cat and Malay Weasel.
The reserves also have one of the largest populations of Bornean Orang-utans in Borneo and we should see these magnificent apes in their forest kingdom, a truly thrilling sight. Other regularly observed primates include Sunda Pigtail Macaque, the beautiful Maroon Langur (or Red Leaf Monkey) and Bornean Gibbon.
Borneo Birding Tour (Sabah, Malaysia): Day 15 After some final birding at Danum Valley we will drive to Lahad Datu airport, where our Borneo tour ends this afternoon.