Trip report: Borneo (Jun-Jul 2016) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods. This was a custom tour, with virtually the same itinerary as the main tour and extension.

The small Malaysian state of Sabah, in the north of the island of Borneo, is rightly one of the most popular Asian birding destinations. Its appeal is obvious: Sabah contains all but a few of the 50+ endemic bird species on the island; possesses an impressive mammal list too, including a number of Bornean specialties like Bornean Orangutan and Proboscis Monkey; is small enough to require relatively little travel to cover from one side of the state to the other to include both lowland and highland sites; and boasts some of the best, nature, and birder, -focused infrastructure in the region. The number of bird species that are endemic to the island varies greatly depending on taxonomy followed, reaching 59 at the most liberal, upper level; and most agreeing there are over 50 of them. Importantly, on top of this there is a single monotypic (one species) bird family only found there, the enigmatic Bornean Bristlehead, which clearly won the bird of the tour vote. We managed to record 50 endemics, and see 48 of them in two weeks of birding.

While any Borneo tour inevitably focuses on endemic birds, it should also be pointed out that this list contains some of Asia’s (and arguably the World’s), most stunning birds; we managed to find many of these, including the dashing Blue-banded Pitta, similarly spectacular Blue-headed Pitta; Whitehead’s Broadbill and Trogon, (part of the infamous “Whitehead’s Three”, which we completed with the spiderhunter too);a quartet of White-fronted Falconet sightings; “Bornean” Banded Kingfisher (Black-faced Kingfisher); Golden-naped Barbet, and Bornean Green-Magpie. However, aside from the endemic species, there are plentiful spectacular species that are not confined to the island, like Rhinoceros and Wrinkled Hornbills; Black-and-yellow and Black-and-red Broadbills; Checker-throated Woodpecker, and Rufous-collared Kingfisher. Seeing 3 frogmouths in 3 nights (Blyth’s, Large and Gould’s Frogmouths), was also special and a rare event in Borneo. The final bird list measured 308 species, with 290 of them seen by the group.

While endemic bird species, and an endemic bird family, were clear motivations among the group; many came to Borneo to see orangutan alone, and so were particularly pleased with the mother and baby Bornean Orangutan we watched feeding in a large fruiting fig tree, as we gently drifted below them in a canoe, just off the Kinabatangan River. We did well for mammals, with 39 species identified (plus a few more unidentified bats besides!), which included some stellar species like Western Tarsier, Proboscis Monkey (photo page 3), North Borneo Gibbon, Bornean Pigmy Elephant, Leopard Cat, and Red Langur. Aside from the birds and mammals we also got to see Borneo’s largest flower, the striking Rafflesia keithii, which blooms for just five days.

The tour started off in the state capital, Kota Kinabalu (KK), from where we flew into eastern Sabah, and visited one of the best birding lodges in the world, Borneo Rainforest Lodge, (set within the rich lowland rainforest of the Danum Valley Conservation Area); a fantastic luxury venue that was a highlight all of its own. We remained in the lowlands for our nest stop, at the state-of-the-art canopy walkway at the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok. Continuing our exploration of lowland Borneo, we transferred by boat to a lodge in Sukau, alongside the Kinabatangan River, the state’s longest river, at a total length of 560km/350miles. After also visiting the nearby bat caves of Gomantong, we took a flight back to KK, and then visited two sites in the highlands, Tambunan (in the Crocker Range), and Mount Kinabalu, where the majority of the endemic birds were found, as well as a myriad of squirrels! We were lucky this year to encounter very little rain, except for one afternoon at Gomantong, and very few leeches at all at Danum, which even led some to go birding in the forest in shorts!


1 Bornean Bristlehead (Danum)
2 Blue-banded Pitta (Danum)
3 Whitehead’s Broadbill (Mount Kinabalu)
4 Whitehead’s Trogon (Mount Kinabalu)
5 White-fronted Falconet (Danum, Sukau, and Gomantong)


1 Bornean Orangutan (Danum,Sukau and Gomantong)
2 Western Tarsier (Danum)
3 Proboscis Monkey (Sukau)
4 Bornean Pigmy Elephant (Sukau)
5 North Borneo Gibbon (Danum and Sukau)

Click this link to view the full report in PDF format (4.1 MB file).