Sabah, Borneo - October 7th - 21st
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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, 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.
Weather and pests
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.
After a fairly smooth sixteen hour journey, we landed at Brunei airport just after 10 o’clock in the morning (local time). It took a little time to run through the usual processes here, despite having no luggage to reclaim since that was checked all the way to Sabah, and we eventually caught a taxi to the Orchid Garden Hotel to arrive at the doorstep around midday. This establishment was to be used as a stopover, since we had almost 12 hours in transit in Brunei before meeting our last flight to Kota Knabalu. The Orchid Garden is handily situated only about 5 minutes from the airport, and is located right next to what looked like the major sporting stadia of the country. After having a delicious stuffed roti with dahl for lunch, I foraged around the greenery in the hotel surrounds for birds. The area seems quite open, with plenty of vegetation, despite the housing and road network throughout. In the 2 hours that I spent wandering, it’s likely that I unearthed most of the common species that could be found. Most obvious were numerous Yellow-vented Bulbuls, diminutive Zebra Doves, and raucous juvenile Asian Glossy Starlings. Directly in front of the hotel was what looked like a swimming pool complex, surrounded by a small manicured plot of flowering plants. Along with Tree Sparrows here were Olive-backed Sunbirds. Soaring around the hotel were small collections of swifts, which proved to be mainly Glossy Swiftlets, but amongst them were the much larger scythe shaped Grey-rumped Treeswifts. Adjacent to the football stadium was what was to become a very busy Ramadhan market. Just opposite here, and in the slightly more open habitat just beyond were some very interesting oddments such as Pied Triller, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Pied Fantail, and small collections of Black-faced Munias. I also startled a fairly large monitor lizard from the grass.
Otter watching trip – 1
The time had been chosen to coincide with low tide, with the boat trip being in the mangroves adjacent and just to the South of the hotel. We took a short walk along the beach, and then cut through the dry forest to find the jetty after only 100m or so of walking. After donning our life jackets, we stepped down into the motorised boat to look presumably for the more diurnal of the two otter species present here, the Hairy-nosed Otter. The Short-clawed Otter is apparently more of a nocturnal beast. We were aware of the fact that otters are difficult to see, and more likely to be missed than to be spotted. The one and a half hour “cruise” through the mangroves was very enjoyable, no doubt helped by the lack of any appreciable number of biting insects, and the rain forecast kept at bay. Most obvious birds along the waters edge were Little Egrets, interspersed with small numbers of Great White Egrets, Striated Herons, and Common Sandpipers, the latter more often seen in flight than bobbing along. The outing was also predictably good for kingfishers, the most obvious being the very large Stork-billed Kingfisher, and although seen a few times in flight, it was much more reluctant to stay perched as we approached quietly in the boat. We did steer quite close to one bird which was sat about 5m above the water. There were very few passerines in the mangroves, apart from a handful of Common Ioras. Collared Kingfishers were either seen flying briefly across the water, or calling from the depths of the vegetation. Only 2 other species of note were seen. A White-breasted Waterhen was very elusive amongst the mangrove roots close to the edge of the mud, and further into the mangroves, raiding one of the man made pens, was a Rufous Night-heron. These are very uncommon in the area, so it was pleasing to see this unplanned visitor keep returning to the same stockade on our return, and even perch on the perimeter fence before moving on.
Otter watching trip – 2
Since we missed otters on our first trip into the mangroves, we returned for an afternoon search. Despite this again being unsuccessful or otters, it did turn up one or two new birds. Part of the reason for this might have been that we took a different route – this time we headed downriver towards the sea, and then turned into a smaller channel adjacent to the Rasa Ria resort golf course. Collared Kingfisher replaced Stork-billed as the most common kingfisher this time – only one of the latter was seen as we exited the boat. A pair of Chinese Egrets was also identified feeding on one of the exposed mud banks. They closely resemble Little Egret, apart from yellow-olive legs. After a short stroll along the sand on the opposite side of the channel to our hotel, our initial return in the boat found a Dollarbird perched at the top of one of the bare trees above the mangroves.
Otter watching trip – 3
Not so much out of desperation, but more for enjoyment and as a break in the day, we decided on a third and final otter search. The route we took was that of the first trip – upriver into the mangroves, and the chances of seeing any otters seemed even less when the guide proclaimed that the tide wasn’t favourable. As the channels narrowed, we had ticked off Stork-billed and Collared Kingfishers, as well as an elusive Yellow Bittern, which was so much smaller than the earlier Cinnamon Bitterns. Passing one of the mangrove dwellings, we picked up a Hairy-nosed Otter quite close to the boat, feeding on the mud amongst the mangroves. It didn’t seem in the least perturbed by our presence, and stayed only 5-6m away for some time, before reappearing in the adjacent stream. Not content with showing us its swimming abilities there, it made its way to the main river and again continued its pose for about 5 minutes at only 20-30m distance. During this time, a Collared Kingfisher was contentedly perched on a branch nearby, with a second fishing a short time later. After the otter had left, a second Yellow Bittern appeared in the mangrove roots alongside the boat.
Mount Kinabalu – day 1
This was the first of two days in the mountains, with a stay in Kinabalu Mountain Lodge overnight. We left the Sabandar Bay hotel at 8am, breaking the 3 hour journey by stops at a couple of gift shop extravaganzas along the way, and eventually reached the main target of the day, which was Poring Hot Springs. This was quite an enjoyable experience, being in the main a tourist fest of laid on entertainment set in the mountains around a natural sulphur spring. The general activities, such as canopy walkway, hot bathing, waterfall, etc, were all in one reasonably small area, and it was surprising to see how sanitised the hot springs themselves are, with the sulphured water emanating from taps and feeding into baths. The first outing was a steep walk for about 300m up the forested hillside to the canopy walkway. This was billed as a different way to see the forest, and had the potential of observing various types of indigenous fauna and flora. When we arrived as a group of 17 people, there was understandably more focus on the height and safety of the walkway, which was 50m above the ground in some places, and balancing on the well built, but seemingly precarious, footways. This was quite an experience in itself, and looking down was nerve-wracking. After completing all 3 walkways, Jason the guide called me back on to the walkway about 5-10m to point out a Black-and-yellow Broadbill feeding just above on a tree limb. He’d seen this from the first pathway hopping from branch to branch. As we descended at the back of the group, he also found a stunning Green Broadbill, which was a little distance into the trees, but showed all the characteristic markings, and was surprisingly the first green coloured broadbill that he had ever seen. Once at the bottom, we had a short walk along to the waterfall, before scoffing a very welcome packed lunch, before we made a short bus ride to look for the remaining Orang Utan which had been rehabilitated in this area. This is very much a hit and miss affair, which didn’t apply to the Long-tailed Macaques, which were just at the end of the car park when we arrived, but no sign of the great ape. In the clearing above the car park, we did see some interesting birds, the first of which was a flock of about 12 Dusky Munias, which is endemic to the island. While waiting for the non-obliging Orang Utan, we also spotted a pair of white bellied Oriental Magpie-robins and a single White-browed Shama. Not content with this excitement, we stopped on the way back to the Mountain Lodge to spy a single blooming Rafflesia flower, which is reputedly the largest flower in the world. One lucky entrepreneur found this specimen on his plot of land, with another flowering and dying the previous week, so he set up a little viewing area, charged MR20 for a peek, and made rice while the sun shone.
Mount Kinabalu – day 2
This was our second day at the mountain lodge, and before the mornings frivolities began, our guide Jason, who is a keen birder, took two of us on a birding walk down one of the tracks in the National Park before breakfast. We made a 2 minute hop in the bus to the park entrance, and covered about 400-600m of the tarmac road in the 2 hours. This track descended through the forest, being interspersed by open areas for park buildings, and occasional accommodation. Early morning was almost bereft of people, apart from the odd attendant staff, and one other group of English birders being led by a Chinese guide, and it was only on our return up the walk that we passed some of the guides and load bearers preparing for the climb with the accumulating masses at the entrance to Mount Kinabalu National Park. The 2 hour birding experience was very rewarding, with a glut of new species, and very few times when no birds were evident. This was a big improvement on the previous day, when the aforementioned group of birders reported very little to be seen. The walk started off fairly quietly, despite adding a pair of Yellow-breasted Warblers and a Little Cuckoo-dove, which was skulking in the foliage, to the list, until we came across the first clearing where one of the park buildings was situated. A single Hair-crested Drongo started off the melee, and while watching it, a Bornean Treepie kept alighting on the tarmac surface alongside it. When we tried to approach a little more closely, we noticed a sizeable collection of Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes feeding on the fruiting trees next to the park buildings, with a pair of shy Sunda Laughingthrushes a little further in. Our only woodpecker of the day then appeared, and despite Jason calling out the more expected Checker-throated Woodpecker, closer inspection revealed a buff throat and barring on the flanks which proved the bird to be a much more unlikely Crimson-winged Woodpecker. Jason apparently had to promise some of the footage to his friends to prove this. A few tens of metres further on, and the best clearing was reached, where 10-12 small accommodation units were situated, with good views of the trees on the surrounding hillsides. Close in birds along the small avenue of bushes included a couple of Mountain Warblers, a male Temminck’s Sunbird perched at the apex of one of the shrubs, and two species of Flycatcher – 2 Little Pied and a few more Indigo. We scanned the trees on the slopes for some time, and this unearthed flyby Mountain Imperial-pigeon, a pair of Sunda Cuckoo-shrikes, 2 pairs of Grey-chinned Minivets, and a pair of Velvet-fronted Nuthatches. With time progressing, we made our way back towards the bus. As we passed the last of the park buildings before the entrance, we attempted to track down a calling barbet, which revealed itself after a few minutes of thorough searching. The Golden-naped Barbet turned out to be perched in the open on one of the conifers.
After breakfast, the group was taken on a 1½ hour walk through the forest, and some predictably quiet forest birding ensued. However, there were one or two more Mountain Warblers and a female Grey-chinned Minivet before entering the forest proper. We then came across a pair of Bornean Whistlers, and most stunning of all, 3-4 Black-capped White-eyes seemed to be attracted by our presence, when they proceeded to feed almost at our feet. The only other bird of note, while we were walking through the orchid garden, was an extremely brief flying forktail, which couldn’t be identified specifically.
This was the trip we had planned for to see Orang Utans being fed at Sepilok, which is the major rehabilitation centre for this primate on the island. We left the hotel at 4am, and caught an internal flight to Sandakan, there to be bussed straight to Sepilok. After a short and very informative film about the centre, we were led by a guide to platform 1, which is the only public viewing area in the centre. Orang Utans have been rescued from illegal captivity since 1964, where over 700 have been released since then. It has been estimated that there are currently over 250 animals in the greater Sepilok reserve, mainly now living in the wild once more. We stood at the back of the viewing areas for some time, and were rewarded by the appearance of a female with its baby in the bushes directly behind us, which was unusual, since they normally enter using the ropes provided. Over the next hour, another 8 Orang Utans of various ages made their way to the feeding platform. It was pleasant not only to see rehabilitated Orangs in an almost completely natural setting, but the characters of each individual also shone through. The only birds here were a few Ashy Tailorbirds, but this paled in comparison to seeing the Orang Utans.
After lunch, we were transferred to the jetty in Sandakan for a boat trip around the mangroves. The main target was Proboscis Monkeys. We sped past various water villages at some rate of knots, reaching the selected area after about an hour and a few Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Sea-eagles. We had already passed one or two small groups of Long-tailed Macaques, and a single Oriental Darter sunning itself. We were then lucky enough not only to see a close troop of Proboscis Monkeys, but also a further group of 3 large males right next to the boat. There was no sign of any kingfishers on the way out, but the return found a glut of 4 Collared followed by 5 Common Kingfishers. This was in addition to 3 more White-bellied Sea-eagles, and at least another 15 Brahminy Kites, with a kettle of 10 in the air at one time. Just as we approached the jetty, another White-bellied Sea-eagle circled the harbour before landing in a nearby tree.
Sabandar Bay village
The birds around the hotel were interesting, but could be quite limited, so I took a morning walk through the local village, taking a left fork in the road away from the usual exit track. This also eventually leads to the main road, but this part of the village found many of the houses to be either surrounded by water, or are adjacent to marsh. This and the surrounding vegetation made ideal birding habitat, as opposed to the much drier gardens along the other fork. New birds started to appear almost as soon as I took the left fork, initiated by a stunning Common Flameback, which obliged by landing on a bare tree to the other side of a small marsh. It sat and preened here for some time. Following a skulking Pied Fantail, a subadult Cinnamon Bittern paraded across one of the smallholdings. This was immediately following by a juvenile Plaintive Cuckoo posing well on a low bush, before hopping a little closer and flying off. Continuing down this lane stirred up water birds from the marshes, including Pintail Snipe and Wood Sandpiper, and a family of White-breasted Waterhens. The dog leg to the right near the end of the lane was a particularly good spot for bird activity. A singing bird in the distance proved to be Striated Grassbird, which was quite a surprise for this area, even more so when a second individual appeared closer to. 2-3 Lesser Coucals were discovered here, the first sunning itself in the open and revealing its dull black (and diagnostic) head. Also at this spot was a group of 3 young Nutmeg Mannikins, another species I hadn’t expected to find in Borneo – the question of a feral population may have arisen. Now heading towards the main road, I took a diversion across the marshes to the left, and found a very large Great-billed Heron amongst the Great White Egrets, which were only seen in flight, and where the size difference was apparent. Back on the road again, and some difficult to pin down, if not noisy, passerines turned out to be Striped Tit-babblers, these seeming to have the slight yellowish caste on the upper breast of the northern Borneo population. I was about to turn around here and head back, when I approached a much closer singing Striated Grassbird among the numerous Spotted Doves on the wires. The land had now become farmland interspersed by small dwellings. Heading back towards the hotel was largely uneventful, but did add Brown Shrike, Pied Triller, and superb views of Collared Kingfisher, which was perched for some time on a fence post between houses.
As soon as we arrived at the Tanjung Aru Shangri La hotel on the Monday afternoon, we toured the hotel, and stumbled across the jetty from which the boat tours left. We decided there and then to book the shuttle to Gaya and Sapi islands the next day, which are two of the five islands in the National Park situated just off the hotel. We left at 9am, and a very short boat ride found us on Gaya, which is the largest island of the group. Of the five tourists on the boat, we were the only ones who left to tackle the forest walk. As we were docking at the jetty, a Rhinoceros Hornbill was seen flying across the forest canopy. As soon as we emerged from the jetty, a small flycatcher was seen, and was most likely Asian Brown Flycatcher. We completed the 1.9km of the walk in just over an hour, and although this was very interesting with bats, skinks, and exotic vegetation, no more birds were seen.
We then made the short crossing to Sapi Island, which was the main target for snorkelling and some relaxation. This only covered a tiny area, and we were located on the beach along with the usual toilets, souvenir shops, café, etc. The small beach is well shaded by trees, and is backed by the hill of the island, with wall to wall trees. This seemed at first to be fairly quiet, but a little exploration to the rear of the food area, while avoiding the stench of discarded food which the only Long-tailed Macaque on the island like to pick its way through, birds started to appear, adding up to a nice little selection. First to be seen above the recliner mats and beach towels was a small group of Olive-winged Bulbuls, which often came down to the rubbish bins to feed, and a few pairs of Plain-throated Sunbirds. Best spot of all was the base of the trees to the rear, and birds included foraging White-chested Babbler, Pechora Pipit, Rufous- or Scaly-crowned Babbler, and a pair of Mangrove Blue-flycatchers, with the female clinching identification. An Oriental Magpie-robin was also in this area, and a single Rufous-tailed Taylorbird put in a late appearance. At least 2-3 Arctic Warblers were busying themselves feeding low down in the leaf litter and trees overhead. On the offshore rocks, a dark phase Pacific Reef-heron sat motionless for at least half an hour.
Kota Kinabalu Bird Sanctuary
After phoning ahead and discovering that it wasn’t possible to enter the reserve until 8am, I resigned myself to a slightly later lie in and catch a taxi from the hotel at 7:15am. After waking up far too early, I decided on a wander around the hotel and adjacent park area. This was most definitely a good idea, since the early morning light was exquisite as it hit the Asian Glossy Starlings and Crested Mynahs. While watching these, I found my first Green Imperial-pigeons, also benefiting from the light, perched at the top of the tall trees which lined the avenue between the road and the sea. The lack of any waders on the seashore was disappointing, but the singing Oriental Magpie-robin and displaying Pied Fantails were ample compensation.
The porter at the hotel summoned a taxi at 7:15, and we ground our way through the morning traffic to the sanctuary, arriving just short of 7:45. After spending 15 minutes staring at the litter strewn river adjacent to the sanctuary, picking up Common Sandpiper and Kingfisher as I waited, I marched my way through the gates at 8:01. I was the first visitor to arrive, and also found my first Pink-necked Green-pigeons next to the visitor centre. This was presumably a favoured spot, since it was the only group I saw during the morning. After paying the MR10 entrance fee, I completed 2 circuits of the boardwalk. Birds are a little few and far between around the mangroves, with Little & Great White Egrets predictably the most common. At the bird hide, which looks over a more open expanse of marsh, there is a small heronry for Purple Herons, with a few birds in residence. Most of the boardwalk is through thick mangroves, interspersed occasionally by more open areas containing mud and open water. I did climb the observation tower, but the only notable sighting was group of school children who threatened to spoil the calm of the walk. However, I traversed this group without any unnecessary violence or aggression. The last few hundred metres of the trail, which runs adjacent to the same narrow river mentioned earlier was perhaps one of the most lively for passerines, particularly numerous Ashy Taylorbirds, as well as a mobile Yellow-bellied Prinia and female sunbirds, which looked like Plain-throated. Apart from 1-2 Collared Kingfishers, the only other birds of note in the mangroves were regular Pied Fantails and a couple of Common Ioras. With 20 minutes or so left before the taxi returned, I had been pondering at the lack of snakes, when I looked over the boardwalk to find 2 different sized Dog-faced Water-snakes. The smaller snake seemed to take sport from aggravating the larger individual. Only other noteworthy sighting was a pair of Java Sparrows which flew on to overhead wires as the taxi approached the hotel on return.