Trip report: Malaysia and Borneo (June 2008) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods.

This is a combined report for both our Malaysia and Borneo set-departure tours.

This tour turned out to be the first Malay Peninsula birding for everyone in the group, and for most was also their very first taste of the delights of southeast Asian birding. By taking in the coastal habitats around the chilled out town of Kuala Selangor, the montane forests on Bukit Fraser, and birding the steamy lowland jungles of Taman Negara, they got a great introduction to the many fascinating families and birds of this rich Asian country. By participating in both our mainland leg and then the Sabah tour, the group enjoyed a thorough introduction to southeast Asian birds while on the Peninsula and then added a bunch of specialties once they reached Borneo, that adds a host of endemics both confined to this endemic-rich island, and also some that are only within the Greater Sunda island chain (that also includes Java, Bali and Sumatra). From flashy pittas and pheasants, to strange malkohas, hordes of confusing babblers, with the odd trogon, and strange-looking broadbill thrown in, I am sure everyone left with strong and pleasant memories of this southeast Asian birding mecca. The Peninsula section of the tour alone came up with 263 species, a good number for this waterbird-starved part of the world, with the final trip list for both tours topping 370 or so species.

Highlights on the Peninsula included the stunning Crested Fireback and rarely seen Large Frogmouth at Taman Negara, twenty species of woodpeckers, and a brace of cool montane trogons at Fraser’s Hill with both male Red-headed and Orange-breasted Trogons seen near the hill station. On Borneo the highlights were harder to narrow down – the undisputed top trip bird was the glistening Black-headed Pitta that thrilled us into silence on our last morning in Sukau where we stood watching this dazzling bird for 10 minutes in perfect light at close range. Unbeatable. However, the two separate sightings of male Blue-headed Pittas are not to be scoffed at, as this red-backed, purple-chested, electric-blue capped jewel thrush is simply breathtaking. The other two clear highlights from our time in Sabah included a pair of brilliant Bornean Bristleheads, one of the world’s true avian oddities and an endemic to boot, birds do not get much more intriguing than that; although the pair of Whitehead’s Trogons that we followed along one of the Kinabalu mountain trails also must get a look in at the trip end, as the vivid scarlet male must rank as one of the top trogons out there. The superb Everett’s Thrush feeding quietly on a mountain trail on Kinabalu, American Robin fashion, also deserves a very worthy mention. However, it would be a striking injustice not to mention the spectacular male Great Argus (a mind blowing, intricately adorned pheasant with one of the longest tails in the business), that slowly walked off in front of our startled group at Danum, just a short time after pulling in our first gaudy Black-headed Pitta there, during our very first Danum birding session. Quite simply, Borneo at its brilliant best.

We should also mention a good run on nightbirds on the Peninsula, that opened with Brown Hawk-Owl and Large-tailed Nightjar in Kuala Selangor and continued with Barred Eagle-Owl, Brown Wood-Owl and Malaysian Eared-Nightjars at Fraser’s Hill, the recently-split Sunda Scops-Owl close to our rainforest resort at Taman Negara, and finally ended in style with Malaysia’s rarest and most highly desired Frogmouth – the massive Large Frogmouth. The latter was seen perched impressively in our spotlight on our final night in the jungle at Taman Negara, Malaysia’s foremost wildlife park. Night birding was a little slower in Borneo, although 5 different Buffy Fish-Owls during one Sukau night cruise was exciting.

However. the mammals stepped up a gear on Borneo, as by combining night drives at Danum Valley with night cruises along the Kinabatangan River gave us a good opportunity to pick up some of Borneo’s best wildlife. These activities allowed us to pick up several Slow Lorises, the odd Malayan Colugo, and several different civet species. The day time stuff was not bad either, with Asia’s only ape – the impressive Orang-Utan seen first on our final morning at Danum when a mother and juvenile were observed wolfing down fruits, and later at Sukau when a young male ran for cover shortly before a heavy tropical thunderstorm. An active Binturong or Bear-Cat gorging on ripening figs in a riverside tree at Danum was also good to see, as were a troop of bright orange Maroon Langurs in the same lowland forest, and the huge troops of comical Proboscis Monkeys along the Sungei Kinabatangan were also very entertaining.

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