Borneo Aug 12—30, 2016

Posted by Machiel Valkenburg


Machiel Valkenburg

Machiel Valkenburg was born in 1982 in a southern province in the Netherlands where, encouraged by his parents, he began birding at an early age. During his teens he studie...

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Most of our group arrived early in Kota Kinabalu before the tour began, giving them time to relax from their long travels to this magnificent island. The first two nights were spent at the lavish Shangri La Tanjung Aru Beach Hotel. Around the grounds of this superb resort, our first birding was done amidst great tropical scenery. Common birds like Zebra Dove, Oriental Magpie-Robin, White-breasted Woodswallow, and Striated Heron were found easily, and the Sunda Pygmy-Woodpecker was wonderfully seen by Bert and Heike. Our first outing together started early, as did most days on this tour, with a visit to the coastal wetlands near Kota Belud. In the rice fields, Intermediate, Little, and Cattle egrets were very common, together with the gorgeously-colored Javan Pond-Heron. In the top of some bushes we found small groups with Scaly-breasted and Chestnut munias showing well, and a White-breasted Waterhen paraded past us giving excellent looks. Large fields of reed and swamp proved very interesting, as we birded them for over two hours, obtaining excellent looks at Yellow Bittern and Cinnamon Bittern, but also Lesser Coucal, Collared Kingfisher, Striated Grassbird, and Pied Triller, which gave excellent views for the entire group. In the afternoon we found the gorgeous but introduced (from the Philippines) Blue-naped Parrot, together with several Green Imperial-Pigeons.

Chestnut-crested Yuhina

Chestnut-crested Yuhina— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


We left the city of Kota Kinabalu behind us and headed towards Mt. Kinabalu and the Kinabalu National Park by way of the Crocker Range National Park. During the drive up to the top of this mountain range, we stopped to stretch our legs and were welcomed by the first primate: Long-tailed Macaque, which was accompanied by a group of striking Chestnut-crested Yuhinas, our first endemic. When we arrived on top, loads of calls surrounded us, and soon one of the main targets of the tour flew by—the enigmatic Whitehead’s Spiderhunter. This striking bird flew by quite a few times, but failed to perch for us. We had more luck with the Brown and Mountain barbets, Bornean Bulbul, and Bornean Leafbird (all endemics), who all showed themselves in the scope, some longer than others. At the Rafflesia center, Oriental Honey-buzzard and Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle soared over while a Black-and-crimson Oriole was scoped. After lunch in an authentic Malay café we birded a wonderful spot where White-throated Fantail, Gray-chinned Minivet, Bornean Green-Magpie, Ashy Bulbul, Mountain Warbler, Yellow-breasted Warbler, and Little Pied Flycatcher all revealed themselves at close distances. In the evening we arrived at our luxurious lodges which overlooked Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain between the Himalayas and the Snow Mountains of New Guinea; we stayed here for three nights.

Indigo Flycatcher

Indigo Flycatcher— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg




In the Kinabalu National Park our aim was to see most of the mountain endemics, as all places visited after would be in the lowlands. As in most mountain-birding, you visit different gradations of altitude, which render different species, as is the case here on Borneo. During our two full days of birding we visited several places over and over again, which every time gave new or better views of the birds present. At the foot of the mountain, where our lodges were located, we had first-rate views of Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Bornean Green-Magpie, Bornean Whistler, Hair-crested Drongo, Gray-throated Babbler, noisy Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrushes, and the superb looking Yellow-breasted Warbler. In the middle section of the mountain we visited several dark trails and birded along the main road up. Some trails proved very interesting and others very silent. We had amazing views of a Bornean Stubtail, which came in very close at a distance of four feet; on the same trail we also stood eye-to-eye with a Crimson-headed Partridge! At a small stream we flushed a Bornean Forktail. In this thick forest we found the beautiful Checker-throated Woodpecker, Common Flameback, Indigo Flycatcher, and exquisitely-colored Gray-chinned Minivet. 

Several of the best birds of the trip were found here; it started with A-class views of a female Fruit-hunter followed by a couple of Whitehead’s Broadbills. These poison-green birds gave walkaway views to everybody’s content; what an amazing bird! Wow! In the early morning this is the place to search for Everett’s Thrush, which we naturally did, and we succeeded cum laude! For about 20 minutes we watched a bird feed along the road at a distance of about 40 feet. It was accompanied by a male Orange-headed Thrush, which is less rare but very attractive. At the end of the main road true montane forest commences at ca. 9,000 feet. In the past it was possible to climb further up, visiting the subalpine area, above the tree-line, but since last year’s earthquake accident with a group of mountaineers it has been closed. At this altitude we found many endemics like the Golden-naped Barbet, which gave outstandingly good views while it was feeding on a small tree. The endemic Pale-faced Bulbul perched for us and showed itself magnificently while a small group of Mountain Black-eyes and Temminck’s Sunbirds fed in the top of a high tree. After hearing of a flowering Rafflesia near Poring Hot Springs, we decided to make a visit. We were lucky to find a flowing plant, as they only flower for about five days in a cycle of six years! The flower was fresh and flowered for the second day. At Poring we did some birding and found many Gray-rumped Treeswifts, Silver-rumped Needletail, a single Waterfall Swift, and a Crested Jay that was heard only.


Fruit-hunter— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


We ended our days in the mountains and departed for the Sepilok Forest Reserve, which is undoubtedly one of the very best lowland forests of Borneo. We all enjoyed our two-night stay in the delightful Sepilok Nature Resort very much. While enjoying our flavorful meals we also were able to continue birding. Here we found Oriental Pied Hornbill, Stork-billed Kingfisher, and many Glossy Swiftlets. Sepilok is famous for its Orangutan rehabilitation center and for having an amazing canopy walkway. On the first morning we came across a female Orangutan with a two-year-old child. The impact of this meeting on our group was enormous, as several of us had this mammal high on our wish-lists. The young Orangutan was very curious about all those people with binoculars and did not lose sight of us while his mother carried him away to safer heights. On the avifaunal side we did well with viewings of Red-naped Trogon, Black-and-yellow Broadbill, White-bellied Erpornis, and Black-capped Babbler. Birding at the carpark was more than splendid with viewings of Plain, Red-throated, Crimson, and Olive-backed sunbirds and Long-billed and Spectacled spiderhunters all at close range. An evening walk produced no less than three species of Flying Squirrel (Black, Thomas’s, and Red Giant) and a sleeping Hooded Pitta!

Next we headed for Sukau and the Kinabatangan River area by way of the Gomantong Caves Forest Reserve where we enjoyed watching millions of bats emerge and be hunted by a Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle, Crested Serpent-Eagle, and an extraordinary Bat Hawk. In Sukau we explored the forest-lined creeks by boat, and this gave us close-up views of several interesting riverine species such as Diard’s Trogon, Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher, Blue-eared Kingfisher, the endemic White-fronted Falconet, Dusky Broadbill, Bold-striped Tit-Babbler, White-chested Babbler, and Malaysian Blue-Flycatcher. Common birds included Buffy Fish-Owl, White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Brahminy Kite, Blue-throated Bee-eater, and Ashy Tailorbird. One of the rarest birds seen during this trip was right here at the largest river of Borneo. We saw two individuals of the endangered Storm’s Stork perched in a dead tree. Birdlife International estimates the count at 260–330 mature individuals. In addition to good birds we also enjoyed the fantastic service of the Sukau Rainforest Lodge where the dinners overlooking the river will remain in our memories forever. Another group of birds worth mentioning are the hornbills. On the best day in Sukau we saw no less than seven species of hornbills (Helmeted, Rhinoceros, Bushy-crested, Black, Oriental Pied, Wreathed, and Wrinkled). Just before dusk the Proboscis Monkeys searched for places to sleep along the river, giving us fantastic views of this weird-looking primate.


Orangutan— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


The next part of the tour can surely be called the “dessert” of our trip. We visited the Danum Valley and had a lot of time to explore it thoroughly; for five nights this was our home. Around the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, which is arguably the best lodge in all of Asia, we found loads of interesting trails, all having their own specialties. During every evening we made either a night-walk or night-drive in search of birds or mammals. On the grassy fields near the staff quarters, the gorgeous Crested Fireback was seen fleeing away from us. Bob was very fortunate to come across a male just outside of his lodge. We walked several trails in search of the jungle jewels of this world: pittas! We were lucky to have excellent views of a male Blue-headed Pitta, which came in shortly after calling it. The Black-crowned Pitta was seen by a few and needed much more work; this fantastic skulker always stayed in dark scrub and revealed itself on a few occasions, showing a little of its colorful plumage. While searching for pittas we were very fortunate to get looks at a female Great Argus crossing the road; a perched Spotted Fantail showed wonderfully as well. Large groups of babblers and bulbuls are always interesting, and sometimes they came really close, giving us the opportunity to study them well. The river is also full of life; an Oriental Small-clawed Otter was hunting and gave a little show, which all of us enjoyed. The taxonomically interesting Great-billed Heron was present as well, together with a couple of Straw-headed Bulbuls and Plaintive Cuckoos that were foraging on the wet fields along the river. In the garden of the lodge, the Rufous-tailed Tailorbird was common, as were the Yellow-breasted, Yellow-rumped, and Orange-bellied flowerpeckers. Sometimes we found the endemic Streaky-breasted Spiderhunter as well, foraging together with the flowerpeckers; all are so colorful! Around the lodge we saw several Orangutans, Maroon Langur, and a family of Long-tailed Macaques. In the mornings we heard the calls of the Bornean Gibbon several times; unfortunately we were unable to locate them.

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Rhinoceros Hornbill— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


One of the main reasons to visit the Danum Valley is the high chance of coming across the delightful Bornean Bristlehead. We had the good fortune of meeting a small flock of these birds. After hearing the call of a Black Magpie, we decided to play for the Bristlehead. These birds are known to flock up together during a feeding frenzy, and that was the case this time. Soon after playing the song, the first of this magnificent species appeared right above us, giving quick but unsatisfying looks. The group moved towards the main road, and so did we. We quickly found them again on the main road where we excitedly scoped one perched bird, giving all of us extended views of the most sought after species of Borneo!

On our last morning in the park we headed out for the park entrance where loads of birds were actively feeding on the many moths available. We found a Black-eared Barbet, which gave very satisfying scope looks, and at the same moment a Banded Broadbill was discovered. In the next tree a Black-and-red Broadbill showed well in the morning light. In the top of a dipterocarp tree we found a pair of Scarlet Minivets feeding; they moved rather quickly and unfortunately we were unable to scope them for all. Two Black Eagles soared over while a White-fronted Falconet dug down from his post to catch a giant Atlas Moth; what an amazing end to an amazing tour! 

The highlights of the evening activities were, for sure, the very close Large and Gould’s frogmouths, the many sightings of Brown Wood-Owl, the intriguing Barred Eagle-Owl, the rare and tiny Western Tarsier, and the sighting of a foraging Small-toothed Palm Civet.

We left the Danum Valley and drove to the small airport of Lahad Datu where a one-hour domestic flight brought us back to Kota Kinabalu. After a lovely farewell dinner, we all said our goodbyes and made our way back home!