Trip report: Peninsula Malaysia and Borneo (September-October 2011)

Guided by Sam Woods. This was a custom tour.

This private tour was arranged by John and Karen with some very specific objectives in mind: to pick up three possible new families for them, as part of a wider quest to see all of the world’s bird families, to rack up as many lifebirds for them as possible in this, their first, venture into Southeast Asia, to target as many Bornean endemics in a visit to that island, and to track down as many mammals in the process too! We achieved all these objectives, due to some extraordinary luck, undeniable persistence, dedication, and field skills on behalf of Karen and John, and due to a lengthy trip in the region. We racked up 40 Bornean endemics and more than 50 mammal species.

This being a bird tour I should, by rights, first talk of the birds, but this was a tour where mammals often took center stage, and it would be a travesty NOT to highlight them. Over FIFTY MAMMAL SPECIES were seen, a remarkable testament to the quality of Borneo as a mammal watching destination, and to the persistence and doggedness of John and Karen to put in the hours to find them. The clearly voted highlight of the entire tour was indeed mammalian, and not avian, and was universally agreed upon by both John and Karen and myself. When you see a Clouded Leopard in broad daylight, and get to gaze into its magnetic stare for some two hours, even pittas have a hard time getting a look in. The rarity and quality of the sighting made this impossible to beat by any bird! Borneo is the best region for mammals in Southeast Asia, and arguably, all of Asia for that matter. We were blessed with extraordinary luck on this tour, where we bumped into herds of Bornean Pygmy Elephants on no less than three separate occasions – twice we found herds (of twenty or more animals) around Sukau, and then finally a large animal blocked the road into the marvelous Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Indeed, the latter site, the most luxurious of our lodgings on the whole tour, provided some extraordinary opportunities to view mammals. In addition to the Clouded Leopard, and the en route elephant, we also enjoyed a very friendly troop of Red Leaf-Monkeys munching leaves that were visible from the lodge bar, a bug-eyed Western Tarsier on our opening night close to the lodge, a family party of Bornean Gibbons, a grizzled Binturong feeding in daylight within a large fruiting tree full of barbets, and at least nine different Orangutans!

The tour covered the very best sites in West, or Peninsula, Malaysia, followed by the best birding areas within the Malaysian state of Sabah, in the north of the island of Borneo. Our tour began in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, which comes with one of the most distinctive skylines in Asia, virtue of the enormous PETRONAS Towers, one of the world’s largest buildings. Our first birding came within the steamy lowland jungle of Taman Negara, West Malaysia’s flagship national park, and Southeast Asia’s version of the Amazon: It comes with incredibly avian diversity and creates hunger within visiting birders that can rarely be satisfied with just a single visit. This self-declared “oldest rainforest on Earth” is one of Asia’s premier birding sites, and we racked up some fantastic lowland species there, including several of John and Karen’s priority birds: Malaysian Rail-Babbler and Large Frogmouth. The rail-babbler performed splendidly as it circled us, dipped its neck down to the ground, and gave out its high-pitched whistle as it did so, affording excellent, and memorable views. Other highlights from Taman Negara were a gorgeous male Banded Pitta that bounced past us as we glared intently at the leaf litter that left us in no doubt we were watching one of the world’s most beautiful birds, a troop of Crested Firebacks (a flashy forest pheasant), which walked under the blind we were stood in, regular Black-thighed Falconets (a tiny, tiny raptor) near our comfortable air-conditioned cabins, the rare Jambu Fruit-Dove right within our resort, a spectacular male Great Argus (an even more flashy forest pheasant which boasts a tail of nearly 140cm/59in long), four species of dazzling trogons, including the rare Cinnamon-rumped Trogon, a hornbill-laden tree with at least eleven Wrinkled Hornbills and two massive Rhinoceros Hornbills perched alongside them, and a brace of brilliant and beautiful kingfishers with both a male Banded and Rufous-collared Kingfishers showing up on the same memorable morning.

After this prolonged stint in the Pahang lowlands to open the tour, we moved west and up into the hill dipterocarp forests around the old British hill station of Fraser’s Hill. By splitting our time between there and The Gap at its base we covered a range of altitudes, and subsequently racked up a range of birds, from the rare Rusty-naped Pitta seen along the forest trails on the mountaintop, to the boldly-marked Chestnut-naped Forktail seen near the base there was plenty on offer, and almost all of which were different from those seen at Taman Negara. Other highlights included a Brown Wood-Owl seen in town at night, a resplendent Red-bearded Bee-eater hawking insects along the road at The Gap one afternoon, a further two trogon species, with Red-headed Trogons found up on the hilltop, and the very different Orange-breasted Trogon found down near the foot of the hill, and the outlandish Fire-tufted Barbet, most memorably seen from the restaurant table, during our final lunch, visiting the hotel garden. More than anything though up on the hill is the highlight of seeing waves of birds passing by in feeding flocks that are a sight to behold, one of which held among them half a dozen or so of the unique Blue Nuthatch. A bewildering variety of birds came to us in this area from Black Laughingthrushes to Silver-eared Mesias to Bamboo Woodpeckers, which made it abundantly clear why this a favoured haunt of Southeast Asian birders who frequently return time and again to bird within these rich hill forests, walk among the old British buildings and past the famous red post box that give this site a truly different feel to the rest we visited on the tour.

Lastly, on the Peninsula anyway, we traveled westwards to the plains and mangroves of Kuala Selangor in the coastal Malaysian state of Selangor. The standout bird of the visit was a striking Barred Eagle-Owl found sitting in the open (seemingly taunting Sam for NOT bringing his camera out with him that day!), in broad daylight, just after dawn. In the mangroves specialties came in the form of Mangrove Whistler and Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher, and a reminder that we were there in migration season, when north Asian breeders were moving south to winter, came in the form of a Siberian Blue Robin that bounced along the boardwalk ahead of us.

Then we left West Malaysia behind, having racked up 300 species, and flew to the island of Borneo, and the Malaysian state of Sabah. We started our exploration of this endemic and mammal rich island, with a visit to Sepilok, in the lowlands of eastern Sabah. Famous among Eco tourists for the Orangutan rehab center which affords wonderful looks at these animals, we avoided that completely (safe in the knowledge we were going to track down wild ones later on the tour), and instead visited their cutting edge, modern canopy walkway. The reason for our visit was simple: this is currently the best place in the world to see the endemic species, Bornean Bristlehead, a one-species family that John and Karen needed in their quest for seeing a member of every bird family on the planet. A frustrating first visit left us empty-handed, but a second trip up on their walkway led Karen to find a flock of these strange forest birds appropriately enough from the well-named “Bristlehead Tower”. The other major highlight from Sepilok came at night, when we venture out after a prolonged tropical downpour and came face to face with a remarkably tame Oriental Bay Owl.

From there we traveled to Sandakan boarded a boat up the mighty Kinabatangan River, to Sukau, a rich area of riparian forest for both birds and other wildlife. It took us little time at all to see this first hand. News came through on arrival at our luxurious, riverside lodge of a herd of Bornean Pygmy Elephants and so we raced successfully to them. A glittering Hooded Pitta watched foraging in the dark leaf litter, multiple Buffy Fish-Owls, and a host of hornbills came to us in this area. This included a group of the scarce White-crowned Hornbill, along with a large crabby male Orangutan that vented his anger at us by breaking large branches to impress us. Which he did, of course! However, our final moment of magic at Sukau was perhaps the best of all: a gorgeous Black-and-crimson Pitta posed repeatedly behind our lodge, leaving us both with memorable photos, and lasting memories of this endemic deep purple, electric blue, and scarlet “jewel-thrush”, (the old name for the pitta family).

Our final venture into the lowlands of the tour came in the Danum Valley Conservation Area, an extremely rich and diverse area of dipterocarp forest also in eastern Sabah. Our base for exploring this famous Asian birding site was the extraordinarily luxurious setting of the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. We enjoyed some truly exceptional luck here with both the aforementioned mammals, and the birds. The lodge is arguably one of the single best sites for pittas in Borneo and we understood this firsthand following our visit. One morning we got to see two different spanking male Blue-headed Pittas that gave everything but the leopard a run for its money on this tour, and after a difficult and slippery hike we managed to find a brilliant Blue-banded Pitta (thanks in no small part to our excellent lodge guide).

Although the lion’s share of the Borneo endemics are located within the highlands, these lowland sites offered some too, and we duly picked up White-fronted Falconet (before we had even arrived at the lodge), Bornean and Black-throated Wren-Babblers, multiple glistening male Bornean Blue-Flycatchers, and yet more Bornean Bristleheads. Other highlights included a male Large-billed Blue-Flycatcher (a scarce and declining Sundaic endemic), and a male Blue-banded Kingfisher fishing behind John and Karen’s lodge cabin.

Our final leg of the trip saw us visit the endemic-laden highlands of Borneo, by combining visits to Tambunan, with trips to higher elevation sites up on Mount Kinabalu. At the lower altitudes around Tambunan we found a brace of endemic barbets, though Mountain Barbet proved tougher than my previous visits to the area, while the diminutive Bornean Barbet performed with aplomb, observed calling at length on our ‘scope. Persistence also yielded the wonderful Whitehead’s Spiderhunter probing rich red blossoms in the forest canopy too, while the Bornean Leafbirds, having just recently been elevated to full species rank, were numerous in our visits there also. Up on Mount Kinabalu we enjoyed one of my most productive mornings on the mountain I had ever experienced opening with half a dozen or so Bare-headed Laughingthrushes (an increasingly scarce endemic montane species), with both endemic partridges seen (a male Crimson-headed Partridge being preceded by a good show from a Red-breasted Partridge), a couple of very confiding Bornean Stubtails, a showy party of Mountain Wren-Babblers to complete the triumvirate of endemic wren-babblers on the tour, and best of all a fantastic family of FIVE Whitehead’s Trogons that lingered for some time along one of the trails near the HQ. At the end of it all the tour closed with a final lifebird for Karen and John, in the form of a Malaysian Plover (sitting alongside a vagrant Common Ringed Plover no less) watched from the dry and comfort of our vehicle during a heavy tropical downpour on our final afternoon. An ironic finish considering how little rain we had actually experienced, with little affect to our birding from the weather, from this tour that was time just before the onset of the wet season.

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