Borneo is one of the wildest regions in Southeast Asia and nothing short of a birding paradise. It is one of life's great mysteries why I have not set foot in Borneo before. An invitation by Nigel to join him and his brother Jimmy for a 4-day birding trip to Kinabalu Park in Sabah changed all that. So, after all these years, the Penang Birder is finally going to East Malaysia. This renowned birding site has the most Bornean endemics and from what I have gathered, not much effort is required to see some of them. In short, we were in for one hell of a birding adventure. As it was my maiden trip to this side of Malaysia, I had to do some homework in preparation for the trip. I am faced with the issue of locating and identifying about 50 species of birds that does not occur here in the peninsular. Age must be catching with me as I found it hard to memorise the names, field identification marks and calls of these would-be lifers. It has been a very long time since I last felt stress before a birding trip within Malaysia and it is no thanks to the twitcher in me. I seek advice from Dave and Hor Kee because unlike yours truly, they have been there before. Dave was especially helpful as he regularly conduct tours to Borneo. And with some additional help from our friend, Google, Nigel and I carefully planned out the trip and hoped for good weather (it has been raining quite frequently in the afternoons of late).
From the airport, our first stop was the Rafflesia Forest Reserve which was about the halfway point of our 3-hour car journey to Kinabalu Park. Randy, our Sabah contact and driver for the trip, did his best to provide a comfortable journey despite having to put up with three occasionally demanding and eccentric birders. Well, maybe just one occasionally demanding and eccentric twitcher. Everyone is familiar with the term first impressions last. Well, the first bird we photographed for our trip to Borneo was this exquisite but extremely confiding Bornean race of the Ashy Drongo hawking for insects near the entrance to the reserve. The trip was certainly off to a fantastic start.
From then on, the lifer and endemic flood gates opened for all three of us. I was like a kid in a candy store. Strange and new bird calls filled my senses. Every single bird that decided to show up had to be scrutinised. I was torn between lifting my camera and my binos. Bornean Treepies, Brown Barbets, Bornean Barbet, Black-capped White-eyes, Bornean Leafbirds and others that I must surely have missed gave us the kind of welcome every birder dreams of. Every single one a lifer but unfortunately, none of them made their way to my camera's SD card. All except for the Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush, that is. A split from the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush of the peninsular, it is now a full species and a Bornean endemic. Apart from the head plumage, the two species are almost identical both in appearance and behaviour.
In Borneo, it gets dark an hour earlier than in the peninsular and we had to wrapped things up at the Rafflesia Forest Reserve earlier than expected. We finally reached Kinabalu Park a couple of hours later and it was an early night for us in order to prepare ourselves for a very early start tomorrow. Yes, it gets bright about an hour earlier – due compensation the shorter evenings. Kinabalu Park is made up of a network of well-marked forest trails and with a main access road, the Power Station Road that runs from the Park HQ to the Timpohon Gate which is the starting point of the trail that leads to the summit Mount Kinabalu. This spectacle of nature is the tallest mountain in Malaysia and stands over 4,000 meters above sea level.
And the sceneries here are simply spectacular. Majestic hills and pristine forests as far as the eye can see...
We arrived at the Timpohon Gate slightly after dawn and before we could even get ourselves ready, we were greeted by a wave of colours and splendour. Kinabalu Park was living up to its reputation as one of the premier birding sites in Borneo.
The Indigo Flycatcher was the first to capture our undivided attention. Despite the fact that it is a commonly encountered species here, I did not get to enjoy much good photographic opportunities with it.
A small bird wave brought in some familiar species. The White-throated Fantail is quite common here just like in most montane sites in Peninsular Malaysia.
I never had much luck with the Snowy-browed Flycatcher back in the peninsular. The presence of a male bird in the wave did not go unnoticed - naturally. I was not satisfied with the images that I have obtained and I should have tried harder but I was too easily distracted. The avian sights and sights were truly incredible. I was in birding heaven.
Yellow-breasted Warblers are quite abundant in Kinabalu Park and almost every birdwave we encountered throughout our stay here had at least a couple of these adorable birds. However, their minute size and hyperactive nature make them a nightmare for photography.
A short fruiting bush had a Golden-naped Barbet under its spell. The barbet gorged on the fruits just meters away from our position and did not seem to mind our intrusion. Barbets are usually birds of the canopy levels. Good fortune presented us with this encounter at such close range. By now, I was truly smitten the natural beauty of Borneo.
Mountainous roads are a favourite haunt for migratory Grey Wagtails. This one was seen foraging in the compound of the power station at the gate. Although I regular encounter this species back in the peninsular, I could not resist taking a few shots as it was more confiding than usual.
Once the bird activity dropped a notch, we did become 'normal' tourists - for a while anyway...
I was glad that we had Randy with us on this trip. Without him chauffeuring us around, we could not have covered so much of the park and Sabah as well. As we slowly birded down the access road, Randy drove down to the Park HQ for some shut eye. But he is always just a phone call away.
However, sleep was the last thing on my mind as I started to familiarise myself with the birds that find sanctuary in this World Heritage Site. A little brown job that was scurrying among the undergrowth tested my identification skills. With a little perseverance and pleading, the bird did revealed more of itself gradually. When it started to call, I was finally sure of its identification. It was a Sunda Bush-Warbler and it made sure that we do not forget this encounter.
It may not be much of a looker but it was certainly full of personality and charm. The dim lighting of the undergrowth was a hindrance to our photographic efforts although the subject was confiding and willing.
I am always amazed at the fact of how all those wildlife researchers are able to differentiate individuals of the same species even when they are not seen together. For example, individual lions in a pride are named and identified with utmost certainty but they look identical to me. Well, we came across a second Sunda Bush-Warbler. I could tell it was a different bird with ease and confidence this time just by looking at the legs...
The Flavescent Bulbul has an uncanny resemblance to the much commoner Yellow-vented Bulbul. If not for my knowledge of this Bornean endemic's existence, I could have easily passed it off as the latter and that would have cost me a lifer.
Anyway, it certainly made its presence felt with constant vocalisation. The call is quite different from the Yellow-vented Bulbul and is one of the factors that made me realise what it was in the first place.
Small and active birds can be a real pain in the neck - literally. Following their movement, regardless with a camera or binos, can really test how dedicated a birder you are. But if all the neck straining can result in a good photo of another Bornean endemic, then it is worth all the effort. The Black-capped White-eye is not uncommon and we have encountered it on several occasions but this is the only decent image I could obtain in the end.
As the name implies, the Mountain Leaf-Warbler calls the mountains of both Peninsular and East Malaysia its home. The strikingly-marked pattern on the head makes identification rather straightforward, which is often not the case for a leaf warbler. I am quite please with how this image turned out despite the torturous pace it put me through to obtain it.
An unfamiliar Drongo was present during one of the birdwaves as we were making our way down to the Park HQ. Upon further scrutiny, we turned out to be a Hair-crested Drongo - another lifer. Although it is not an endemic, it was an exciting record nevertheless.
A small flock of dark, largish birds were making quite a ruckus along the forest edge could be nothing else but Laughingthrushes. I could hardly control my composure when the birds appeared to be unperturbed by my presence. When I finally obtained a good look, the identification was unmistakeable. They were Sunda Laughingthrushes and I was quivering with excitement.
Inquisitive and comical, I was transfixed on the movement of the flock as they foraged for food along the lower storey of the forest. Nothing was able to draw my attention away. Not even a small birdwave that was going on in the canopy level.
We spent hours trekking along the forest trails as well. Kinabalu Park has two endemic partridges and hitting the trails is your best bet to get them. They were high in my most wanted list and we came agonisingly close on a few occasions. The partridges were so close that their calls were deafening. We tried our best but just we just could not even catch a glimpse of these beautiful gamebirds. Other than that, the trails were surprisingly quiet. What a stark contrast from the morning session. Dave did mention that the afternoons could be quiet but I did not expect it to be this quiet. A flock of Grey-throated Babblers, a common species even in my home state of Penang, brought only temporary relief as I was hoping for a mixed flock and a chance to increase my lifer haul.
Running out of ideas on how and where to get those damn partridges…
With daylight fast disappearing, we made one last attempt to discover and enjoy more Bornean avian delights by driving all the way up to Timpohon Gate again. Not long after our arrival, the thickening mist and the failing light threatened to drown out all our hopes. As we solemnly made our way back to the designated car park area, we spotted a male Bornean Whistling-Thrush foraging among the adjacent vegetation and our spirits started to lift.
But little did we know that Kinabalu Park had one last magical performance up its sleeve before we called it the day. Instead of continuing to forage among the vegetation, the thrush flew down to the road and started to hop towards us! Miraculously, I managed to keep my cool and got down as low as possible for a better angle to capture this unexpected turn of events. At one stage, I actually had to reduce the zoom on my lens. That was how close he came.
The reason for his bold behaviour was the scraps left behind by my fellow human beings. He has learned to associate food with the presence of those clumsy biped creatures and foraging around the car park for food is easier than in the forest proper.
The Bornean Whistling-thrush was a fitting end to our first day of birding at Kinabalu Park. It has been a rewarding experience and has certainly exceeded my expectations so far. This is only the first half of my Bornean birding adventure and the next post will be an account of the remaining two days.