Borneo is reputed to be the third largest island on earth, and is subdivided politically into three countries. The largest area, in the South of the island, belongs to Indonesia, and the smallest, though richest, is Brunei. The third subdivision is the northern territory ruled by Malaysia. This is further subdivided into two major states – Sabah and Sarawak. Since the Malaysian section of Borneo is the most easily accessed destination for tourists, we chose there as our holiday.
The original reason for choosing Borneo was the opportunity to see Orang Utans in as near a wild setting as possible. Since 1964, the Orang release scheme on the island has had a major base in Sepilok to the North-east. The aim is to rescue illegally captive and orphaned animals to be eventually rehabilitated into the wild. The final stage of this process mainly occurs at Sepilok, where the liberated individuals are still presented with a limited supply of food, and this next to viewing platforms for public consumption. We found one of the best packages was with The Travel Collection (www.travelcollection.co.uk), a subsidiary of Kuoni, who had a 10 day offering in Sabah. This included accommodation in a wonderfully situated medium class hotel, with only a sparsely populated village and the sea as boundaries, various trips to the local environment (the hotel abuts a mangrove forest which is the preserve of wild otters, fireflies, and numerous birds), and a further nights stay with included walks in Mount Kinabalu National Park. We also added 4 nights to the trip, which was spent on the outskirts of the capital, Kota Kinabalu, in the rather luxurious, but not expensive, Shangri La Tanjung Aru hotel. Also worthy of mention on this package is that a lengthy transit stop in Brunei occurs in both directions (up to 12 hours). This seems to be a fairly common occurrence with Brunei Airlines flights to Borneo. We hired a room at the Orchid Hotel, only a stones throw from Brunei airport, and within this time a walk in the vicinity found a small range of initially new birds to me, which would become common throughout the trip, such as Zebra Dove, Olive-backed Sunbird, Pied Triller, Glossy Swiftlet, Yellow-vented Bulbul, and the best views that I would have of Grey-rumped Treeswift.
No private transport, apart from walking, was used at all during the trip. Many birds could be seen in the areas visited as part of the package, including hotel grounds, mountain forests, and even the Orchid Farm visited one afternoon. Three specific birding outings were made:
Mount Kinabalu National Park. We stayed overnight in one of the park’s local hotels, and before breakfast, our tour guide, who also had an interest in birds, took us for a 2 hour walk along the tarmac road through the park. This was from the entrance point of the park, and we walked for about 600m, where the road was bounded by forest with occasional clearings for park buildings;
Sabandar Bay area. A small village was situated just outside of the hotel grounds. There were two roads through the village. I took the quieter of the two early one morning, where many of the houses were either alongside marsh, or even had marsh as part of the property. There were also some more lightly wooded areas here;
Kota Kinabalu Bird Sanctuary. This is a mangrove based bird reserve within the city, and is a remnant of the once extensive habitat found in the area. It has now been preserved, with a very well kept circular boardwalk and hides running through the centre.
Sabandar Bay hotel. This hotel is used by Travel Collection presumably because it is reasonably priced (including in house meals, which averaged around £3 for a main course), and its excellent local wildlife base. This hinges on the mangroves which are adjacent to the hotel, and the package included boat trips to look for otters, fireflies, and birds. The bulk of the organisation was conducted by Wildlife Expeditions (e-mail email@example.com ), a company that seems to be found throughout Sabah, and who have to recommended for both their pricing and superb organisation. There are also a couple of very enthusiastic birders within their ranks – Preema was based mainly at the hotel, and Jason at Kota Kinabalu. Between them they have compiled a list of birds seen in the hotel area, and this is available at the Wildlife Expeditions office. Some birds are seen regularly in the hotel grounds, including Oriental Magpie-Robin, White-breasted Woodswallow, Olive-backed Sunbird, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Asian Glossy Starling, and Black-faced Munia.
Shangri La Tanjung Aru Hotel. This is one of the two Shangri La hotels in Sabah, and is situated to the South of Kota Kinabalu, adjacent to the airport, and is a lot more reasonably priced than would be expected when the high standard of the establishment is considered (around £60 per night for a room). It is predictably a lot more urbanised than the Sabandar Bay, although the seafront was good for Gull-billed Terns, and a narrow park area adjacent to the beach turned up a different set of regulars as compared with the latter hotel – Common Iora, Green Imperial-pigeon, Pied Fantail, Chinese Crested Mynah, and Blue-naped Parrot being examples. The hotel also runs its own shuttle service to the 5 islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park. For a small charge, the boat takes only minutes to reach these nearby jewels, each of which has some superb snorkelling available, as well as a small collection of approachable birds. I only saw Rhinocerous Hornbill on Gaya, with White-breasted Babbler, Plain-throated Sunbird, Pechora Pipit, and Mangrove Blue-flycatcher only on the very much smaller Sapi.
October is at the beginning of the rainy season in Borneo, and it likes to keep its promise. We had no major problems with the weather, mainly because it could almost be predicted – bright sunshine in the morning, clouding over in the afternoon, and then a good deluge late afternoon or evening. Strangely, the only time this habit was broken was on the day of our return, when the cloud and rain began in the morning. Temperatures are definitely hot, however, being in the 30’s every day. The only time we touched on “cool” was during the night in the mountains (probably at least 15°C).
Mosquitoes are not a major problem, but they do occur, particularly when entering the forests. Since Malaria is also a problem in northern Borneo, antimalarial protection is a must. Smaller sand flies can also be an irritation. Another potential nuisance, which we didn’t encounter, is that of leeches. Any dedicated birding trip, which is likely to delve into the wetter environments, is bound to encounter these beasts. Apparently a sprinkling of salt, or flicking them in their direction of crawl, should remove them quite sharply.
The best identification book by
far is “A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali” by
McKinnon and Phillipps. The major drawback is that it was published in 1993,
and is currently out of print. Getting a copy can be almost impossible, since
even the internet sites have waiting lists of people wanting a copy. I picked
up one of only 2 at the British Birdwatching Fair, where one of the smaller
second hand book companies had persuaded Oxford University, the publishers, to
print a couple on demand.
The guides to the birds of South-east Asia only cover peninsular Malaysia, and many of the species needed are not featured. However, a minor salvation was the discovery of a much leaner identification guide called the “Pocket Guide to the Birds of Borneo”, compiled by Charles Francis, and published by the Sabah Society, Kota Kinabalu. This was readily available in Borneo, but I also found some copies in the UK. There is very little text, and the illustrations are only adequate, but it will do if McKinnon proves ultimately elusive, and is also handy for the pocket when travelling light.