Borneo Aug 01—19, 2009
Posted by Susan Myers
Borneo is without doubt one of the best and most enjoyable birding destinations in the world, and this tour again lived up to high expectations. There were many, many birding, wildlife, and natural history highlights, of course, but there was also the pleasure of experiencing this wonderful island.
Borneo is quite rightly regarded as one of the great storehouses of our planet's incredible biological diversity. Charles Darwin called Borneo, "one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse made by nature herself." What a fabulous summation of this remarkable place! It succinctly conjures an image of a Henri Rousseau jungle painting. In reality, much of the rich and verdant rainforest of Borneo has been lost forever, given up to our greed for fuel and comfort. This third largest island in the world is rapidly being taken over by oil palm plantations and timber companies. The Malaysian state of Sabah in the north harbors the largest remaining tracts of lowland and montane rainforest in Borneo. From here the towering spinal mountain range dominated by Mount Kinabalu emanates, and the teeming, complex rainforests still fan out below to the lowlands and ultimately to the coast. The wildlife of this remarkable island is incomparable. With a host of enticing birds (including 51 endemics), a charismatic mammal fauna, many strange and unusual reptiles, the world's largest flower—the rafflesia, and the largest collection of carnivorous pitcher plants, it's not surprising that naturalists are irresistibly drawn to the island.
We visited the three major birding and wildlife sites of Borneo: Mount Kinabalu, the Kinabatangan River, and the Danum Valley. Mount Kinabalu is one of those truly memorable mountains that seem to burst from the ground. It dominates the west coast and is pivotal to the identity of the local people. The cool montane forests on the slopes of Kinabalu and the surrounding Crocker Ranges are home to most of Borneo's endemic species. By contrast, the meandering passage of the lazy Kinabatangan River feeds the low-lying swamp forests that harbor rambunctious troops of the unlikely proboscis monkey, herds of gentle Bornean pygmy elephants, and a vast array of wonderful birds including eight species of hornbill. Here we had a couple of sightings of the amazing red ape, the truly wild orangutan. To complete the picture, we traveled to the remote Danum Valley, one of the largest remaining stands of primary forest in Borneo, where luxuriant forests host a dazzling cast of pittas, babblers, trogons, barbets, broadbills, and many other mouthwatering goodies!
We started on the plains of the Kota Belud area where we enjoyed some open country birding before heading up to the Crocker Ranges via Tambunan and the spectacular Mount Kinabalu. We spent the next few days in cooler climes tracking down some of the very special Bornean montane endemics. Of special note on Mount Kinabalu and at Tambunan were many outstanding and rarely seen birds, including breathtaking views of Whitehead's Broadbill, Mountain Wren-Babbler, Bornean Stubtail, Fruit-hunter, Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher, and more.
At Sukau and Bilit we took it easy, as we boated around the Kinabatangan River and its tributaries. In this magical area we had more wonderful sightings including Lesser Fish-Eagles, seven species of hornbill including mass gatherings of the spectacular Rhinoceros and the rare Wrinkled hornbills, Stork-billed Kingfishers, and that improbable endemic primate, the proboscis monkey. Our change of plans with our stay at Bilit proved to be fortuitous, as we had some amazing encounters with large numbers of a variety of species of hornbill—something that I have not seen before, even though I have been to Borneo over 30 times now. In addition, it made it possible for us to have our incredible experiences with a herd of elephants and a mother orangutan with young.
Danum Valley is one of the premier birding and wildlife destinations in Asia, so our long stay here offered a rare opportunity to experience the intricacies of this most complex of ecosystems—the Sundaic tropical lowland rainforests. Every day brought new discoveries. Certainly there was never a dull moment here! There were just too many amazing birds, mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and other insects to detail them all, even in this full list of sightings, but some of the more memorable moments included a couple of great sightings of brilliant Blue-headed Pittas; cooperative Crested Firebacks in the gardens; cute and close White-fronted Falconets; unprecedented close views of Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrots; all five species of malkoha; a sensational Gould's Frogmouth (maybe a first for a VENT Borneo tour!); another VENT first—a stunning male Rufous-collared Kingfisher; and a tricky Black-throated Wren-Babbler. Of course, there were also roosting Brown Wood-Owls, numerous woodpeckers, hornbills, spiderhunters, and babblers, as well as remarkably close Bornean orangutans and maroon leaf monkeys. The backdrop to all this was, of course, the simply amazing and beautiful forest itself.
Finishing off at Mabul, we were rather frustrated by ridiculous bureaucracy and disappointed not to be able to go to Sipadan, but as Kaaren says, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade! We had some truly memorable wildlife experiences here with a pair of beautiful yellow-lipped sea kraits, a crocodile fish (good spot Diane!), many green sea turtles, island fruit bats, and lots of other exceptionally colorful sea creatures. And on our last day at Tawau Hills, a pair of White-crowned Hornbills obligingly gave us a fitting and very memorable send off.