Borneo Jun 12—30, 2013

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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Orangutans, gibbons, elephants, pittas, pheasants, trogons, pythons, and flying-frogs: Borneo is a quintessential wildlife destination. We experienced all of this and a tremendous amount more on our recent tour. What a great trip!

On our first morning we drove out to Kota Belud to explore ricefields with extensive areas of diverse aquatic vegetation and freshwater wetlands. Scope views of several Watercocks, including males in breeding condition with the bizarre helmet-like frontal shield, were a major highlight. We scoped numerous Cinnamon and a couple of Yellow Bitterns, taped up a couple of White-browed Crakes, compared Whiskered and White-winged Black terns in basic plumage, picked up Oriental Pratincole and Wood Sandpiper, and saw a handful of Javan Pond-Herons in breeding plumage. Other goodies included Wandering Whistling-Duck, Black-winged Kite, Lesser Coucal, Striated Grassbird, Yellow-bellied Prinia, a single Barn Swallow, and flocks of Munias containing three species. A second stop in some scrubby secondary forest turned up the endemic Bold-striped Tit-Babbler, very confiding Ashy Tailorbird, and a fly-over Oriental Darter. In downtown Kota Kinabalu a House Crow was an unwelcome sighting, as this self-introduced feral pest has gained a foothold in Borneo. After a pleasant siesta we spent a relaxing afternoon birding the hotel grounds, enjoying numerous Green Imperial-Pigeons, Pink-necked Green-Pigeon, Collared Kingfisher, the all black local population of Oriental Magpie-Robin, Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker, a family of Blue-naped Parrots, and a flock of Little Terns too mention some.

Orange-headed Thrush at Tambunan

Orange-headed Thrush at Tambunan— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The next morning we were off early to the Crocker Range near Tambunan. This forest site at 1,200–1,400 meters provides access to an altitude where several endemic birds are more easily found than at Mount Kinabalu. We were quickly studying some of the staple montane forest bird species, including flocks of endemic Chestnut-headed Yuhina and smaller parties of Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush. We had superb views of beautiful Bornean Leafbirds and Bornean Bulbul, followed by a very cooperative Mountain Barbet. We picked up a real rarity in the form of a very tame Orange-headed Thrush, a species that is rarely encountered in Borneo and represented by an endemic subspecies. It was a morning of more surprises when we had excellent sightings of Spectacled Spiderhunter and both Red-throated and Brown barbets, all three quite unusual this high up in the hill forest. Other goodies included Mountain Tailorbird, Temminck’s Sunbird, Temminck’s Babbler with a chick, plenty of Ashy Drongos and one of the peculiar local Hair-crested Drongos, a couple of Black-and-crimson Orioles, and the Cinereous Bulbul. Mention should also be made of two Whitehead’s Spiderhunters that were both brief, but some folks were lucky to see this elusive endemic in the scope. We finished up with excellent in-flight views of the scarce Mountain Serpent-Eagle before making the drive to Mount Kinabalu—our home for the next three nights.

At the Timpohon Gate at Mount Kinabalu, the first bird we spotted was a very tame Sunda Bush-Warbler followed by a very tame Bornean Whistling-Thrush. We came across an excellent mixed flock composed of numerous Sunda and Chestnut-hooded laughingthrushes, which also contained a pair of Checker-throated Woodpeckers, a Yellow-breasted Warbler, Short-tailed Green Magpie, Bornean Treepie, delightful Gray-chinned Minivets, Mountain Leaf-Warbler, and several very tame Gray-throated Babblers. We finished by scoping a secretive Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher.

Early the next morning on the forest edge we picked up our first Indigo Flycatcher plus another pair of the beautiful (now endemic, following the splitting of the nearly extinct Javan population) Short-tailed Green Magpie. Up near the gate we had a cracking view of a tame Gold-naped Barbet. We walked the Silau Trail and it was predictably slow, but persistence paid off and we added Sunda Cuckooshrike, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Bornean Whistler, Ochraceous Bulbul, Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Erpornis, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike, and a couple of showy Kinabalu Squirrels. After a siesta we explored the Botanic Gardens admiring pink-fruited Melastomas, a variety of Nepenthes pitcher plants, and dozens of orchids including the fabulous Rothschild’s Ladyslipper. We found a juvenile and adult Bornean Forktail that showed well, and were really wowed by the green magpies again. Some folks opted for a hike into Bukit Ular that produced a responsive Bornean Stubtail and a fortuitous Mountain Black-eye, while others opted for roadside birding, admiring the recently split greenish-glossed Bornean Swiftlet at a nest in the roadside rocks.

Back in the park at dawn, first up was a perched Mountain Imperial-Pigeon in the scope. Next we worked on a Mountain Wren-Babbler that kept upslope, although a handful of the more intrepid participants climbed up the gully and were rewarded with good views. A Maroon Woodpecker also showed. Up at Timpohon Gate the forest was active with birds, mostly species we had already encountered, but the repeat excellent views were well-appreciated. Half the group opted to hike up the Summit Trail for three hours reaching an altitude of 2,250 meters. The trail was busy with trekkers and porters, and the birding was subdued. One excellent stroke of luck was a Red-breasted Partridge that froze next to the trail for a few seconds before erupting into flight. Mountain Black-eyes again showed well. The rest of the group enjoyed roadside birding with Little Pied Flycatcher, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Indigo Flycatcher, and Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher leading the charge with male Temminck’s Sunbirds being almost touchable in a flowering tree. The afternoon proved typically quiet, almost eerily so. At the last minute Adrian found a beautiful male Black-sided Flowerpecker gripping the branches that swirled in the strong winds. It perched in the scope for a good five minutes—a rare event for these hyperactive little sprites.

Our fifth day started with a successful search for the diminutive scarce endemic known as the Pygmy White-eye. Having secured the necessary good views of this pipsqueak passerine, we headed down to Poring Hot Springs. A major surprise was a Red-legged Crake that flew right in front of the bus, legs dangling, before promptly disappearing into the forest edge! After breakfast we had an uphill climb to the Canopy Walkway, which produced some quality birds including Black-bellied Malkoha, Long-billed Spiderhunter, Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle, and another Mountain Serpent-Eagle and Red-throated Barbet, while more standard fare included Red-eyed, Spectacled, and Buff-vented bulbuls, Rufous-crowned Babbler, and Greater Green Leafbird. We followed this by being shown two Rafflesia keithii flowers, one three days old and the other four days old (the flowers typically last for only six days). They are considered to be the largest flowers on the planet and seeing them requires good luck with timing. We then made the long drive to Sepilok and squeezed in a productive hour of birding where we scoped Black Hornbill and Long-tailed Parakeet especially well.

At dawn we were positioned at the Canopy Walkway in the Rainforest Discovery Centre. A great morning session began with excellent views of Fiery Minivet, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Van Hasselt’s Sunbird, Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot, Bornean Black Magpie, and Thick-billed Green Pigeons. We progressed on to Violet Cuckoo (brief), Raffle’s Malkoha, Blue-eared Barbet, Buff-rumped Woodpecker, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Banded Broadbill, Rufous Woodpecker, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Lesser Green Leafbird, and a stunning male Green Broadbill. Also of note were flocks of Rhinoceros Hornbills and a pair of Black Hornbills that kept to the distance. Pygmy Sculptor Squirrel enthralled us with its lightning dashes and aerial acrobatics. At breakfast we watched the Stork-billed Kingfisher—the largest kingfisher in Borneo—with its huge red bill. Brian also came across a male Asian Paradise-Kingfisher. We returned to the BRC where a Creamy Giant Squirrel really showed off well, followed by some Black-naped Monarchs. A fruiting tree gave us the opportunity for a “bulbul” class. We were able to directly compare Puff-backed, Olive-winged, Cream-vented, Red-eyed, Spectacled, Buff-vented, and Streaked bulbuls, often in the scope, and see the key field marks on these fairly non-descript forest frugivores.

The afternoon session proved quite bird-rich back at the RDC. We added several species to our growing tally including Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Gray-and-buff Woodpecker, Bronzed Drongo, and, best of all, the beautiful Black-and-yellow Broadbill, followed by perched male Cinnamon-headed Green-Pigeons. Some folks opted for a more relaxed session, birding the hotel gardens, and picked up Black-and-red Broadbill (making it a four broadbill day) and Buff-necked Woodpecker. We spent two hours on a night walk, first being entertained by the antics of three Orangutans. As darkness fell, we watched Red Giant Flying Squirrels gliding between the giant trees. We searched the boardwalk and the forest interior, finding six species of frogs, three Wagler’s Pit-Vipers, and, at the last minute, a superb Bornean Slow Loris, followed immediately by a Hooded Pitta!

Bornean Elephant on Kinabatangan River

Bornean Elephant on Kinabatangan River— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The following morning we returned to the RDC and birded the canopy walkway and trails. It was quieter than the previous day, but we managed a bunch of new sightings and improved views of various species. Yellow-eared Spiderhunter, Rufous-tailed Tailorbird, Plain Flowerpecker, Purple-naped Sunbird, Hairy-backed Bulbul, and Black-capped Babbler were all new and seen well, while both Orange-backed Woodpecker and Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher flashed through. The hotel gardens produced White-bellied Woodpecker and Oriental Pied Hornbill, plus more excellent views of four small woodpeckers (Buff-necked, Gray-and-buff, Buff-rumped, and Maroon). Then we were packed, showered, and ready to move on to the Kinabatagan River via Sandakan, shopping, and the poignant Sandakan war memorial. We then traveled by boat to Abai Lodge on the Kinabatangan River. Our voyage was punctuated by frequent stops to look at Gull-billed Tern, Lesser Adjutant, Silver Leaf Monkey, bizarre Proboscis Monkeys, a Bearded Pig, and a fine perched Crested Serpent-Eagle to mention a few. We settled into our very pleasant lodge ready for an early morning boat exploration the next day.

Our first of multiple birding trips by “banana boat” was a big hit with all of the participants. We cruised from birds to mammals, reptiles, and plants. Super views of the scarce Wrinkled Hornbill, incredible Rhinoceros Hornbill, Banded Woodpecker, Little and Thick-billed green-pigeons, Crested Goshawk, Oriental Honey-Buzzard, and Chestnut-breasted Malkoha kept us distracted, with the real stars of the show being the Proboscis Monkeys. Exploring the boardwalk at Abai Lodge produced a wonderful pair of Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfishers and our first White-chested Babblers, although again the show belonged to a pair of Orangutans that we observed for ages. In the afternoon we transferred to Sukau Lodge spotting a large Saltwater Crocodile on the way. We had an excellent afternoon where in quick succession we watched four White-fronted Falconets and a pair of Bat Hawks, and had an amazing encounter with the outrageous White-crowned Hornbill. A night cruise was highlighted by several glaring Buffy Fish-Owls, a pair of Small-toothed Palm Civets, and a procession of sleeping birds including Black-and-red Broadbill and Blue-eared Kingfisher. It had been quite a day!

A dawn boat trip made the best of the cool morning. First up was a cracking male Scarlet-rumped Trogon—quite the stunner. A pair of perched Jerdon’s Bazas was followed by excellent views of Lesser Fish-Eagle and then an incredibly tame black morph Changeable Hawk-Eagle—quite a raptor fest! A white morph male Asian Paradise-Flycatcher flipped back and forth into the river bathing, very showy indeed. In between were Malaysian Blue Flycatcher, bug-eyed, muppet-like Black-and-yellow Broadbills, Rhinoceros Hornbills, and a steady procession of beautiful forest birds and primates. Back at the lodge we explored the boardwalk and our good morning session continued. Undoubtedly, the group most loved the cracking male Black and Crimson Pitta. Also of note were Chestnut-winged Philentoma, Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, a great little Rufous Piculet, Chestnut-winged Babblers fluting their blue throat skin, and a handy Ferruginous Babbler. Alan commented, “This is the best day of my life.” My response was, “It’s not even lunch yet!”

The day did get even better when we found two herds of Bornean Elephants in the late afternoon—some 35 animals. We shared some quality time from a respectable distance, photographing them from the boat. One memorable moment occurred when the first herd moved too close to the wildlife researchers’ camp; the elephants panicked and stampeded, trumpeting loudly past us in an awesome display of power. The birding highlight was a male Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle that pursued (unsuccessfully) a squirrel, and then perched out repeatedly for good views of this scarce species. We squeezed in one last night cruise that produced a Slow Loris, Small-toothed Palm Civet, a baby Saltwater Crocodile, and a few tantalizing nocturnal birds heard only including Large Frogmouth. The full moon meant it was unlikely to break cover.

A walk along the entrance road to Gomantong Caves was highlighted by a fabulous encounter with four Fluffy-backed Tit-Babblers that churred and fluted their blue throat skin. Banded Woodpecker, White-fronted Falconet, and nesting Black-and-red Broadbills were also of note, while the first Maroon Langurs were a big hit. The cave was a sensorial experience the group “sort of” enjoyed: guano, cockroaches, giant cave centipede-like creatures, thousands of bats and nesting swiftlets (Mossy-nest, Black-nest, and Edible-nest), all in a massive spectacular cave with powerful odors and sweating, risk-taking workmen. Most important, the swiftlets could be identified on the nest structures and listed with a clean conscience! The rest of the day was spent traveling to the Danum Valley. Two excellent bird sightings were a Short-toed Coucal that gave a rare good view drying off after a thunderstorm, followed by the scarce Black-and-white Bulbul.

Great Argus, Danum Valley

Great Argus, Danum Valley— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our first morning in Danum was superb. Starting with a male Crested Fireback Pheasant, followed by Yellow-throated Marten and a perched male Wreathed Hornbill, things were just warming up. A male Diard’s Trogon gave excellent views, followed by the incredible male Great Argus who “wa-wowed” us on the trail—what a privilege. Next came Striped Wren-Babbler, Banded Kingfisher, and then a beautiful Orangutan encounter—mother and child who swung over us in the forest interior. A night drive was highlighted by the rare Black Flying-Squirrel, a lifer for the leader! We also spotted the Wallace’s Flying-Frog, a rarity in itself, plus a couple of Thomas’s Flying-Squirrels—our thirteenth squirrel species on the tour!

The next day belonged to the Blue-headed Pitta—the male circling around us and perching up for smashing views and photos. Other notables included Bornean Blue, Gray-chested Jungle, and Rufous-breasted flycatchers.  The afternoon was a washout with a massive rain event, yet by the evening we were out again, this time obtaining a great view of the striking Malay Civet, a massive Brown Wood-Owl, and a Red Giant Flying-Squirrel that glided right over us in the light.

The third day at Danum commenced with a roadside walk where a flock of Bushy-crested Hornbills were followed by perched Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, quite a few small passerines including Lesser Cuckooshrike, Spotted Fantail, Gray-headed Canary-Flycatcher, and Streak-breasted Spiderhunter, with a major highlight being a good view of the elusive Yellow-naped Barbet that was found nesting. The afternoon was beautiful as we eventually made it out to the canopy walkway that was alive with birdlife—flowerpeckers, broadbills, minivets, hornbills, and cuckoos, plus a rarely seen Cinnamon-rumped Trogon that showed at close range, while Red Leaf Monkeys provided constant entertainment. A quiet night drive was highlighted by a tarantula!

On our final full day at Danum we caught up with Straw-headed Bulbul, now very much a threatened species. The birds were hungry after heavy overnight rain and we scoped up Red-billed Malkoha, Indian Cuckoo, Dusky Broadbill, and Red-naped Trogon, while being tantalized by a distant calling Helmeted Hornbill. Orangutans were in good form and we observed four individuals including a large male and female with a 10-month-old infant. We finally “cracked” the Bornean Gibbon, scoping a high-roosting pair. The major breakthrough was a scope view of a pair of Bornean Bristleheads before the heavens opened; a lucky break for this elusive, low density canopy endemic.

A final full morning of exploring Danum’s mighty lowland jungle led to us relocating the Bornean Bristlehead that was scoped again. Another lucky break led to us finding a pair of rare Black-throated Wren-Babblers that gave excellent views. Some lucky folks scoped the scarce Helmeted Hornbill, while others renewed their acquaintance with the male Great Argus. In between were Large Woodshrike, Blue-banded Kingfisher, and Chestnut-rumped Babbler. A last hurrah: on the drive out of Danum we found a pair of twin adolescent Orangutans.

We found ourselves back in Kota Kinabalu via a Paddyfield Pipit, and our tour was complete. All the participants remarked what a great tour it had been.