Sabah – October 2013
Easily accessible, with a good infrastructure and well managed protected areas, Sabah is a prime destination for Ecotourism in South-east Asia, and yet i had never visited the place until now.
So with a little bit more than 2 weeks in hand, i wanted to make the most of my time there in terms of Birdwatching and photography, and i just chose the reputedly most rewarding locations : Kinabalu park, at the foot of mighty Mt Kinabalu, with a day trip to nearby Poring Hot Spring, Sepilok (i only visited the Rainforest Discovery Center there), Kinabatangan River and Danum Valley (i stayed at the Field center).
Kinabalu is a must-go place for the mountain specialties, including some spectacular endemics : Whitehead’s Trogon, Broadbill and Spiderhunter (the “trio”), Fruithunter, Crimson-headed Partridge, Everett’s Thrush and a few others. But nothing comes easily, and it takes a few days of walking up and down the various forest trails to tick a majority of the targets, knowing that you’re bound to leave a few behind you ! The highlight for me was definitely a close-up sighting of the stunning male Whitehead’s Trogon, which for me is neck-to-neck with Ward’s Trogon for the distinction of most Handsome bird in its genus. The day spent at Poring Hot Spring, an hour drive from Kinabalu Park was rather productive : that’s where i finally found the Whitehead’s Broadbill along with a nice selection of lower mountain birds. But no hints of the much desired Blue-banded and Bornean Banded Pittas…
Next stop was Sepilok, near the town of Sandakan. At the edge of the Sepilok Nature Reserve is the Rainforest Discovery Center, a well-managed park which most attractive feature is a huge canopy walkway, allowing to see the forest, and its inhabitants, from above. There is also a fine network of trails, and the 2 full days i spent there were certainly not excessive. It actually took me until the last minutes of my stay to finally see the main target here, the unique (single in its family) Bornean Bristlehead.
Then Kinabatangan River, where i wisely followed Chris Hill’s advice to stay at Robert Chong’s Kinabatangan Jungle Camp, and use him as a guide for birdwatching. Kinabatangan has become a major ecotourism destination, and more than 20 lodges have sprouted along the river between the villages of Sukau and Bilit. Orangutan is the star, and a couple of cruises will certainly reward you with at least one sighting, but the supporting cast is impressive too : Proboscis, Red and Silver Leaf Monkeys, Long-tailed and Pig-tailed Macaques for the large primates, but also a chance to see the Bornean Pygmy Elephant. At night, small wild cats (mostly Leopard and Flat-headed) and Malay CIvet cat roam along the banks, but there is an outside chance of the very elusive Clouded Leopard, the largest cat on Borneo. And of course you have the birds : 8 species of Hornbills, numerous raptors and water birds, including the endangered Storm’s Stork, for which the Kinabatangan basin is probably the last stronghold. But Robert has made its reputation mostly on one bird : the super shy Bornean Ground Cuckoo, which he has been able to show to many visiting birdwatchers for the last 10 years. We tried hard on this one, spending the best of 3 days to look for it, imitating or playing back its call for hours in wait for a response. On the last morning, with only 2 hours left on the clock, we finally heard a pair calling from deep inside. As it became clear that they would not come to the edge, as the forest was quite degraded in the area, i decided to dive in. And after 30 minutes of carefully advancing toward their presumed location, playing the tape intermittently, i was stunned when one bird glided down and landed on the ground, 15 meters from me, but right behind a large tree trunk ! Of course i was very eager to get a shot of the bird, and this one could have been fantastic, but cameras don’t shoot through trees yet… First i decided to wait, expecting that the bird would ultimately come into view one side or the other. But after one long minute, it had not moved at all. So i made my own move, very slowly sliding to the left with the cam in hand, but as soon as half the head was in view the bird ran for cover and disappeared… One sighting no picture, half full, half empty glass.
FInally, i spent 5 nights at the Field Center, in the heart of Danum Valley conservation area, a 2 hours drive from the Eastern Sabah town of Lahad Datu. The Field Center is mostly catering to scientists and researchers, but with patience and tenacity you can be allowed to stay as a visitor. The other option to experience Danum Valley wilderness being the ridiculously expensive Danum Rainforest Lodge, i was quite happy to be able to sneak in the Field center (which is not cheap either by the way, but still a third of the price of the lodge). Danum has it all : Orangutans, Bornean Gibbons, Elephants, and even a small population of the critically endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros. And birds of course, pretty much all the lowland forest birds of Borneo can be found in Danum. Among them, Pittas were a major target for me : no less than 6 species of pittas are resident in Danum. But in this season Pittas were fairly silent, and i could just hear (and see) 2 species : Hooded and the endemic Black-crowned. I also had several views of the Blue-headed, another endemic, as i repeatedly flushed it from the trail but never heard its call ! And the 3 hardest species, Giant, Banded and Blue-banded stayed elusive.
Overall it was a fantastic birding, and nature, experience. I saw over 200 species of birds, almost 100 in Danum alone, and got many nice pictures. But i left so many behind that i am bound to a comeback trip soon !