Borneo Aug 01—19, 2015
Posted by David Wolf
Borneo! The very name conjures images of steaming jungles and towering trees, odd and wonderful wildlife found nowhere else on earth, strange carnivorous plants, and exotic and unfamiliar birds. Our 2015 tour experienced all of this and much more on our visit to this unique island, the world’s third largest. We ranged from the cool and wet heights of Kinabalu, the highest mountain between New Guinea and the Himalayas, to the primeval rainforests of the Danum Valley. In between were other lowland forests and explorations by boat of the lower Kinabatangan River region. All combined they made for a very successful trip, complemented by many delightful meals, good accommodations, friendly people, and our very talented local guides, Adrian Chin and Hazwan Suban.
Our first excursion from the modern and attractive city of Kota Kinabalu took us to a remnant coastal peat swamp forest, a specialized environment with poor soils that are flooded and saturated at times, but also dry enough to burn. Here we glimpsed our first macaques and gained an introduction to the lowland avifauna. Our best finds were the Black-bellied Malkoha that we followed down the trail and the beautiful big Red-crowned Barbets that needed a lot of coaxing before they finally came into view. Nepenthes pitcher plants, typical of this habitat, were studied along the boardwalk, while the many colorful butterflies delighted us. A late afternoon bird walk back at the Tanjung Aru Resort was highlighted by a long study of a Blue-naped Parrot feeding on Casuarina cones, but also yielded great looks at the Sunda Woodpecker, Pied Triller, and Common Iora, typical coastal garden birds that we would not see again.
Crested Fireback, digiscoped— Photo: David Wolf
The second day found us creeping up through the foothills of the Crocker Range, only to have the weather catch us as the rain began. Before long we found ourselves held up by a muddy landslide across the road, but though it was cleared within an hour, the rain had not stopped, so we sat and enjoyed coffee and tea in a local café as we waited it out. Eventually it did stop as we visited the Rafflesia Center (no flowers in bloom, but a nice display), and here we found our first mid-elevation mountain birds, including endemics like the Mountain Barbet, Bornean Bulbul, and the male Black-sided Flowerpecker practically at our feet as it fed on melostome berries. Several lively mixed-flocks produced birds like the Gray-chinned Minivet, Bornean Whistler, Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrushes, a male Black-and-Crimson Oriole, active Chestnut-naped Yuhinas and more.
Dawn the next day found us at the edge of the gorgeous montane forest at Kinabalu National Park, with a shy Bornean Green-Magpie foraging in the open, the endemic Eye-browed Jungle-Flycatcher jumping out of the forest edge and landing on the ground nearby, and a pair of shy and scarce Bald-headed Laughingthrushes bounding through the mid-story. As we explored further, we discovered that squirrels of many sizes were abundant here, including the tiny Whitehead’s Pygmy-Squirrel with its fancy white ear tufts. The squirrels were more conspicuous than most of the birds, but steadily we dug out more of the specialties, even as the fog, wind, and rain made viewing conditions difficult much of the time. Golden-naped Barbet, Checker-throated and Orange-backed woodpeckers, Bornean Treepie, Sunda Laughingthrush, Indigo Flycatcher, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Mountain Black-eye, and Temminck’s Sunbird all appeared through the course of the day. Unfortunately, the wet weather persisted through the next morning, so that afternoon we drove downhill to the Poring Hot Springs in the foothills and got out from under the rain. A big treat here was a chance to see the amazing Rafflesia in bloom. This parasitic plant is one of the wonders of the botanical world, producing the world’s largest flower, a big fleshy mass, and though it takes nine months for the bud to develop, the flower only lasts for less than a week. We were lucky to see this especially nice specimen! Poring itself provided us with a variety of barbets, bulbuls, flowerpeckers and more. Finally, on our last morning on the mountain, the weather improved, and we were delighted to see that the many small birds in the mixed-flocks actually had some color. Commonly heard—but rarely seen—Crimson-headed Partridges crossed the trail in front of us, and a final walk inside the gorgeous forest produced one of the very finest birds of the mountain, a stunning male Whitehead’s Broadbill that just sat and sat for us.
Now it was time to start our explorations of the lowland forests, at the Sepilok Forest Reserve. We began on the wonderfully sturdy canopy walkway, where birds appeared in quick succession, many of them at eye level and almost all of them new to us. A favorite was the colorful little Black-and-yellow Broadbill, but our first hornbills, the Black, caused the greatest excitement when they flew through the tall trees and landed. As the day warmed up, we descended the walkway to explore the shadier forest trails, where a stunning Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher sat still at close range for a long time, and Raffles’s Malkohas and babblers foraged in the viny understory for insects. We learned that bulbuls are abundant and diverse in these forests, not only providing the dawn chorus, but also swarming in the small fruiting trees, the many look-alikes guaranteed to confuse. Here too were numerous spiderhunters—we picked out four species for sure—and several sunbirds. An afternoon visit to the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Center, an excellent facility that prepares captive and orphaned animals for release back into the wild when possible, gave us a wonderful introduction to these captivating creatures. A second morning at Sepilok yielded yet more special birds of the lowland forests. Shortly after daybreak we saw four species of woodpeckers in quick succession and then tracked down our first trogon, a male Red-naped. Even better was the incredible pair of Rufous-collared Kingfishers that posed in the shady understory for a lengthy photo session. This forest species is heard often, but rarely spotted—thanks Hazwan! We also found a nice mixed-flock of forest insectivores, including the striking Black-throated Babbler, though some of the group were distracted by the troop of Pig-tailed Macaques moving slowly through the forest at the same time, the male a huge and somewhat fearsome baboon-like monkey.
After a big lunch in Sandakan, we boarded the boat to begin the next phase of our explorations, up the lower Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s largest. As we crossed the bay at Sandakan, a magnificent White-bellied Sea-Eagle circled slowly overhead, and then we entered a maze of channels through the mangrove forests, with Lesser Adjutants strolling on the tidal mudflats. It wasn’t long before we were in the main course of the river and our first Proboscis Monkeys greeted us. This amazing and rather comical creature is one of the iconic animals of Borneo and here, in the heart of their favored habitat, we were to see them often and in abundance, including the six troops seen before we even got to Abai Lodge! Here, and at Sukau Lodge a little farther upriver, we would spend our mornings and late afternoons on very productive (and refreshing) cruises by boat, watching all the while for wildlife along the riverbanks and side streams. Monkeys of four species were abundant, and the antics of the weird-looking baby Long-tailed Macaques were especially amusing, while the Maroon Langurs (aka Red Leaf Monkeys) seemed relaxed in comparison. Notable birds appeared one after another, from endangered Storm’s Storks to a variety of raptors, including both Gray-headed and Lesser fish-eagles, to skulkers like a stunning Hooded Antpitta and sneaky White-breasted Babbler. One especially memorable late afternoon cruise produced 5 species of hornbills, including 7 of the giant Rhinoceros, a tight flock of 9 Bushy-crested that chased a Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, and a surprise Wreathed that flew across the river against a colorful sunset. Night walks and a night cruise gave us a chance to see some of the smaller nocturnal prowlers, while it was downright strange to see our first Malaysian Blue-Flycatchers and Black-and-red Broadbills on their night roosts, plus the Blue-eared and Stork-billed kingfishers that allowed a close approach and incredibly bold Buffy Fish-Owls near both lodges.
From Sukau we left the river behind, boarded our van, and drove to the Gomantong Caves, finding a nice selection of birds along the entry road. The cave itself was full of small cave specialists, from insects and arthropods to bats and 4 species of swiftlets, each with a distinctive nest, but it was also a rather smelly and messy experience not savored by all! From the nearby town of Lahad Datu, we then made our way down the long road to the Borneo Rain Forest Lodge in the heart of the Danum Valley, the forest and trees becoming more impressive with every passing kilometer. We arrived at this incredibly beautiful site along the Danum River after a midafternoon shower, as the towering trees dripped and the mist rose, and we weren’t here long before a Bornean Gibbon was spotted high up in an emergent tree on the opposite hillside, a very fortuitous beginning to our time here. Though we would hear wonderful choruses from these shy apes daily, we never saw another one.
Since we had not yet seen an Orang-Utan in the wild, this became our top priority. We had barely started out from the lodge our first morning here before we got word that a male had been located nearby. Moving quickly, we were soon watching this incredible animal as it slowly swung through the mid-story and moved away from its night nest to forage. In the following days we would accumulate three more sightings of this magnificent animal, unfortunately now an increasingly rare sight except in a few very special places like Danum.
These towering forests, some of the oldest and richest on earth, provided us with a wealth of other sightings too. At times birds were abundant and obvious as they came in and out of the fruiting trees to feed, while at other times it took patience and persistence, but every day brought its rewards. Certainly one of our best finds was the enigmatic and unique Bornean Bristlehead, seen at length in the giant trees along the entry road on two different days, but we also thrilled to birds like the giant hornbills, Blue-throated Bee-eaters, a Green Broadbill, gorgeous Black-headed Pittas, and the rare Straw-headed Bulbul. Mixed-flocks with a variety of broadbills, babblers, malkohas, and others roamed the forest interior, perhaps not as exciting as the more colorful and conspicuous birds, but just as important a part of this complex web. Night drives were highlighted by a fabulous Leopard Cat that strolled down the road in front of us and a cute Slow Loris feeding in a fruiting tree, while one evening at the lodge we had not even left the dinner table before a Sambar Deer was spotted in front of the deck and a Brown Wood-Owl came to hunt around the lights. On our final night here it began to rain heavily after midnight, and dawn was a bit discouraging, but we were not through with Danum yet, for just after breakfast the group found a stunning pair of Crested Firebacks parading around under the boardwalk to the rooms! We followed them with cameras in-hand for 15 minutes or more, the rain let up, and we departed on a final hike through some very tall forest downriver. Here we were enchanted by a responsive pair of Striped Wren-Babblers sitting side by side, but the grand finale came as we worked our way back to the lodge, when a well-known old male Orang-utan named “Abu” was found slowly and methodically feeding just beside the trail. It was a humbling experience to watch him at length, as he ignored us, and a fitting conclusion to our very successful Borneo tour.