Trip report: Borneo (Jul-Aug 2019) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods. This was a custom tour, using an itinerary very similar to recent set departure tours.

Borneo. This large, Southeast Asian island has a kudos all of its own. It maintains a huge, longstanding appeal for both first time visitors to the region, and experienced birding travelers too, making it one of the most popular choices of Asian birding destinations. The lure of Borneo is easy to grasp; it is home to an ever-increasing bounty of endemic birds (as taxonomy moves forward, this list creeps up year-on-year), and among these are some of the most-prized bird groups in the region, including pittas, broadbills, hornbills, trogons, and 12 species of woodpeckers to name a few. And then, to top it all, the island boasts a monotypic endemic bird family too, the enigmatic, and scarce, Bornean Bristlehead, which is just scarce enough to unnerve guides on each and every tour.

To add to this avian pool of talent, is an equally engaging set of mammals, making the island one of the best destinations in Asia for them too. Last, but not least, is the more than decent infrastructure in Sabah, (the only state visited on this tour), a Malaysian state that encompasses the northern section of Borneo.

While the birding was challenging at times, the rewards we reaped from our considerable efforts in the field were colossal; the bristleheads were easier than they have been in a while, and steadied nerves of guide and participants alike within a few days of the tour opening. This was at the exceptional Borneo Rainforest Lodge, (in the lowland jungle of the Danum Valley Conservation Area) that was a highlight all of its own, ranking as one of the best lodges in the region, understanding birder’s needs very well.

Danum also yielded other, beautiful endemics like Black-crowned (-headed) and Blue-headed Pittas, the latter of which is often touted as one of the best of this entire, dazzling family. Other highlights there, included Borneo’s most famous animal, Bornean Orangutan (photos page before, Rob Rackliffe), just a short walk from the lodge, as well as y fortunate sightings of Western Tarsier (a living Gremlin) on two night drives.

Danum was our first destination, and we remained in lowland forest for the next two sites too, with first Sepilok and its modern, impressive canopy walkway, then Sukau, where river trips were taken along Borneo’s longest river, the Kinabatangan and its neighboring tributaries. This brought us its premier avian prize, with the entire group getting prolonged views at the rare Bornean Ground-Cuckoo from the boat, the clear winner of the bird-of-the-tour votes. Explorations by boat within the forests bordering these rivers also came up with the much-wanted White-crowned Hornbill (which was one of the complete set of 8 hornbills seen during the tour), and a pair of the rare Storm’s Stork perched in the treetops above our boat, and a Scarlet-rumped Trogon was extremely popular from the boardwalk just behind our riverside lodge. The primate diversity of these same forests is legendary, and among the hundreds of these seen during our stay were, plentiful Proboscis Monkeys, orangutan, along with Sukau’s flagship mammal, and the final piece of the “Borneo Big Five”* we were seeking, Bornean Pygmy Elephant, seen by torchlight from our boat along the main river.
*(Note: Borneo’s Big Five = Orangutan, Bornean Pygmy Elephant, Proboscis Monkey, hornbill and crocodile; all of these were seen during our time in the lowlands of Sabah).

After our time at these three lowland sites, we moved into the endemic-rich highlands, and specifically, the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo’s highest mountain at 4095m/13,435ft. The birding there, (as usual), required time and patience to dig out a sizable list of endemic species, which were headlined by excellent views of both Crimson-headed and Red-breasted (Hill) Partridges (photo page 34, Rob Rackliffe) on the same morning…Other standouts within the same montane forest, was a long look at the retiring Everett’s Thrush (photo page 28, Rob Rackliffe) shortly after dawn, a stunning pair of nesting Whitehead’s Broadbills (photo page 1, Rob Rackliffe) seen on three consecutive days, a gaudy scarlet male Whitehead’s Trogon (photo page 29, Rob Rackliffe) , and exceptional perched views (and photographs), of a Mountain (Kinabalu) Serpent-Eagle (photo page 3, Sam Woods), one of the more difficult local endemics to find. We were also extremely fortunate with the weather on the mountain, which is famously unpredictable, but we were able to see the distinctively-nobbled peak of Mount Kinabalu bathed in sunshine and framed with cerulean skies on several occasions, that brought our smartphones into action to capture these memorable moments.

Lastly, came another montane forest site, Tambunan, in the Crocker Range. An incredible first few hours of birding there during a sunny afternoon, had us turning this way and that as an area of high activity, (encouraged by an extraordinary amount of fruiting trees present at the time), produced Bornean and Mountain Barbets and the striking Bornean Leafbird.

A final mention should to go to nightbirds; we were lucky to see SIX species of owl, including an Oriental Bay Owl found silently perched by the road during a night drive at Danum, a site which also gave us Blyth’s and Large Frogmouths (photo below, Rob Rackliffe); and the first of at least seven different Buffy Fish-Owls. Barred Eagle-Owl frustrated us, and just as we decided our chances had passed us by, one of these impressively-horned owls was found at Mount Kinabalu. The same individual, quite bizarrely, flew right into the restaurant there one night, swooping low over the heads of the group, and then, somewhat startled, settling onto one of the nearby seats, before it was rescued by restaurant staff and taken back into the forest!

Top 5 BIRDS of the tour:

1. Bornean Ground-Cuckoo Sukau

2. Whitehead’s Broadbill Mount Kinabalu

3= Oriental Bay Owl Danum Valley

3= Bornean Banded Pitta Danum Valley

5. Whitehead’s Trogon Mount Kinabalu

Top 5 NON-BIRDS of the tour:

1. Bornean Orangutan Danum Valley, Sepilok & Sukau

2. Western Tarsier Danum Valley

3. Bornean Pigmy Elephant Sukau, Kinabatangan River

4. Borneo Rainforest Lodge Danum Valley (well-deserved entry of its own here!)

5= Proboscis Monkey Sukau, Kinabatangan River

5= Whitehead’s Pigmy Squirrel Mount Kinabalu (below)

Borneo Jul-Aug 2019 FULL report in PDF format (LOW RES VERSION; 9.5 MB file).

Borneo Jul-Aug 2019 FULL report in PDF format (HIGH RES VERSION; 18.9 MB file).