Borneo: Birding with a Camera (BwC)

This is a Birding with a Camera Tour (BwC). We try to balance seeing as many birds as possible while also trying to take great photos of them. We still target endemics and other specialties. We will also try to see and photograph other animals if any are around. Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for a traditional Birding Tour, you should check out our Borneo: Broadbills, Bristleheads, and Mount Kinabalu tour.

Borneo is a bird photographer’s dream; a large island with steamy jungles and waterways which play host to some of the strangest creatures on Earth. From the “Old Man of the Forest”, or Orangutan, to the portly, bulbous-nosed, Proboscis Monkey, to large flashy hornbills with bright orange casques; Borneo has plenty to offer the intrepid souls that explore the island. This tour visits the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo, which comes loaded with a circuit of of high quality eco-lodges, and which rightly prides itself on its substantial ecotourism potential and excellent facilities.

Day 1: Kota Kinabalu (Borneo). After arrival in Sabah’s capital, the sleepy city of Kota Kinabalu, you will be transferred to a local hotel for the night. The tour starts with a welcome dinner on this night.

Day 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu. The first destination of the tour will be the distinctively shaped Mount Kinabalu, which can even dominate the skyline of the capital on clear days. Endemic birds dominate, as we walk the misty mountain trails. We hope to encounter some of the many very cool birds that are endemic to the Bornean highlands such as the White-head’s ha-trick: trogon, broadbill and spiderhunter, and some of the many other great birds that are present here. This night will be spent close to the park entrance.

The
The "Old Man of the Forest", Orangutan (Iain Campbell)

Days 3-4: Mount Kinabalu. These days will be spent on this scenic mountain. Early mornings around the start of the Summit Trail in particular, can be good for large, photogenic birds like treepies, whistling-thrushes and drongos as they feed on insects attracted to the lights during the night. Thereafter we will hit some of the more challenging trails, walking and birding and hoping for some cooperative trogons, wren-babblers, flowerpeckers, or sunbirds. Night near Mount Kinabalu NP.

Day 5: Kota Kinabalu to Borneo Rainforest Lodge (Danum Valley). On this day we’ll take a flight south in order to visit the Danum Valley Conservation Area, where we will stay 3 nights in one of the best lodges in all of Asia, the famous Borneo Rainforest Lodge, perched on the edge of the Danum River, and surrounded by tall, pristine primary rainforest. We will be hoping that some of the large fig trees are bearing fruit at this time, as they can attract some of Borneo’s most famous residents, notably the Red Ape, or Orangutan, as well as an array of fruit-eating birds, such as the dramatic Rhinoceros Hornbill. Three nights will be spent within this fantastic lodge, giving us plenty of time to shoot a variety of subjects in this large conservation area.

Black-and-yellow Broadbill is fairly common around Borneo Rainforest Lodge
Black-and-yellow Broadbill is fairly common around Borneo Rainforest Lodge (Ken Behrens)

Days 6-7: Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Early mornings right around the lodge can be good to take in the resident group of Crested Firebacks (a stunning pheasant), as they patrol the grounds at this time. At night there will be options to take nightwalks and put your macro to use, as a myriad of rainforest bugs and frogs, such as Wallace’s Flying-Frog, can be found by prowling the jungle with our experienced naturalist guide. There will also be opportunities to take part in one of the famous night drives out of the lodge for larger subjects, such as Thomas’s and Red Giant Flying Squirrels, “Flying Lemur” (Malayan Colugo), or Bearded Pig. During the daytime, your local guide will also use playback to attract in some of the flashier rainforest birds like Black-and-yellow and Black-and-red Broadbills, trogons, or one of the attractive blue-and-red flycatchers that occur in the area, to name but a few. These two nights will again be spent at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

Day 8: Danum to Sepilok. From Danum we will travel north, by road, to Sepilok, a tourist center, with great lodges which serve the main tourist attraction nearby, the famous Orangutan rehabilitation center. However, our focus will be the ground-breaking Rainforest Discovery Centre, which comes with wide open trails for easy access to the rainforest for seeing canopy birds and for photography; and a world-class canopy walkway. The latter is the centerpiece of this reserve, which allows eye level views of birds such as hornbills, trogons, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and broadbills. The quality construction of the walkway means that there is plenty of space for enjoying the canopy birds. We will be hoping for some fruiting trees to be present in the area, as these can attract a procession of frugivorous birds, as well as animals like squirrels. The night will be spent in Sepilok, just a few minutes drive from the Rainforest Discovery Centre.

Sukau is a great site for getting crisp flight shots of hornbills
Sukau is a great site for getting crisp flight shots of hornbills (Iain Campbell)

Day 9: Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre. A full day will be spent at the centre so that we have plenty of time to explore the many easy trails, and the canopy walkway, which is the reserve’s most heralded facility. The walls of the restaurant on site are decorated with many fantastic images taken right within the reserve, and illustrates the enormous potential of the place. Another night will be spent in Sepilok.

Day 10: Sepilok to Sukau (Kinabatangan River). The finale to the tour is perhaps the best part of all; a visit to the primate and bird-rich Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. The Kinabantangan River is flanked by lowland rainforest, interspersed with ox-bow lakes, mangroves and swamps, and is home to some of the most desirable photo subjects of the tour: Orangutan, Proboscis Monkeys,and Crab-eating and Pig-tailed Macaques, as well as all 8 species of Bornean hornbills. This is also the best area on the island for the amazing and rare Bornean Pygmy-Elephant. We will be staying at a high-end lodge, right on the banks of this enormous river. The choice of lodge has been made not only for the comfort of the lodge, which has won a number of eco-tourism awards, but also for the transport available. We will be mostly traveling around by motorized canoe to traverse the various waterways in the sanctuary. The canoes crucially though, come equipped with smaller electronic motors to allow a quiet approach when needed, vital when on a photography tour to get those incredible, intimate close-ups of subjects such as Proboscis Monkey families, a Blue-eared Kingfisher fishing along the river bank, or a fish-eagle standing sentry above. At night, there will also be the option to take a night cruise to search for roosting birds such as Stork-billed Kingfishers, and photograph the local Buffy Fish-Owls, which are surprisingly abundant and approachable near the lodge. We will travel into the lodge by speedboat.

The comical Proboscis Monkey is a major target for our lenses in Sukau
The comical Proboscis Monkey is a major target for our lenses in Sukau (Iain Campbell)

Days 11-12: Sukau and Gomantong Caves (Kinabatangan River). Two full days will be spent coasting the waterways of within the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, tracking down both the many avian, and mammalian, targets in the area. There will be options to go out at night too for further night cruises. On one afternoon we shall visit the Gomantong Caves, home to millions of bats, and thousands of nesting swiftlets, which use echolocation, like bats, in order to navigate within the dark recesses of the caves. We will wait until dusk on this day to ensure we take in the awesome sight of the emerging “funnel” of bats, which often fall prey in these photogenic moments to a handful of waiting Bat Hawks.

Day 13: Sukau to Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu. Although we will have come in to the Kinabatangan by boat, for the exit from there we shall drive out, passing again by Gomantong Caves, which shall give us another chance for a final session there, so that we can try to connect with the various hornbills, barbets, broadbills, and other birds, as well as animals such as Red Leaf-Monkey and Pig-tailed Macaque. Thereafter we shall pack up and drive to the city of Sandakan, to connect with a short domestic flight west across Borneo back to Kota Kinabalu on the west coast, where you can then connect with international flights out.

The handsome Green Iora inhabits lowland forest
The handsome Green Iora inhabits lowland forest (Iain Campbell)

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EXTENSION OPTION

Fraser’s Hill Extension (6 days)

Running before the main tour, this extension starts and ends in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Peninsula Malaysia, which connects directly with Kota Kinabalu in Borneo for the main tour. Being based on the Peninsula and visiting one of the best mountain birding areas in all of Southeast Asia, this extension offers some very different birds to see and photograph, with many of these species only possible on the extension. Similarly, many of the birds and animals on Borneo are only possible or likely on the main tour (e.g. Orang-Utan, Proboscis Monkey, Red Leaf-Monkey, Crested Fireback), making these sections perfect compliments to one another.

The flashy Fire-tufted Barbet is only possible on the extension
The flashy Fire-tufted Barbet is only possible on the extension (Iain Campbell)

Day 1: Kuala Lumpur. After arrival in Malaysia’s capital, we will transfer you to a hotel near the airport for the night.

Day 2: Kuala Lumpur to Fraser’s Hill. An early start will see us drive out of the hustle and bustle of the city, up into the hills of Pahang, and the tranquil setting of Fraser’s Hill. This area has been a long-favored hang out for both birders and keen photographers alike. It is common at weekends to meet a handful of Malaysian photographers perusing the area, on the hunt for the latest photo opps; a growing community of which exist within the country. By lunchtime we will check into the wonderful Smokehouse Inn, the most comfortable lodgings on the mountain, which are akin to an old English inn, and which comes equipped with a garden full of blooming shrubs that my just attract some of the birds we are hoping to see shoot. Four nights well be spent on the mountain.

The Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush is common in the gardens at Fraser's Hill on the extension
The Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush is common in the gardens at Fraser's Hill on the extension (Iain Campbell)

Days 3-5: Fraser’s Hill and The Gap. A good road network both on the top of the hill itself, and at the bottom around “The Gap” allows easy access to forest birds right from the road. The roads on the hill weave their way past gardens which attract birds like Streaked Spiderhunters, Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes, and Fire-tufted Barbets. There are plenty of avian subjects to keep us busy on the hill, including exciting possibilities such as Red-headed Trogon, Silver-eared Mesia, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Black-throated Sunbird, Red-bearded Bee-eater, and Golden Babbler. Cruising the road down to The Gap offers us chances of lower elevation species such as hornbills like Rhinoceros and Great, as well as a chance to bump into flocks that could hold exciting birds like Sultan Tit and Long-tailed Sibia. Down at The Gap itself, the nature of the forest changes, as it becomes wetter and more humid and birds like Rufous Piculet, Black-crested Bulbul, and a series of barbets become possible, especially if one of the large figs is in fruit.

Day 6: Fraser’s Hill to Kuala Selangor and Kuala Lumpur; fly to Borneo. We will depart from Fraser’s Hill, but ensure we visit the mangroves and coastal scrub at Kuala Selangor, before we head off to Kuala Lumpur airport to connect with flights to Borneo, for the main tour. A short stop at Kuala Selangor is necessary so we can spend time shooting the habituated troop of Silvered Leaf-monkeys which have long taken up residence in the area. If we are lucky we may also spot a young monkey, as they are vibrant orange colored, in stark contrast to the silvery-gray adults. Being a lowland site, there are plenty of other lowland birds we may track down here too including Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Oriental Magpie-Robin, or Collared Kingfisher. In the afternoon we shall take a flight out of Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah, in northern Borneo, where we will meet up with the participants of the main tour.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary (typically around 6:00 am) on most days since we need to take advantage of the best light and bird activity, and we also will be active in late afternoons and evenings where possible, however there is almost always some downtime in the middle of the day (when it is often hot, and the birds are less active). There is relatively little travel on this itinerary and only one day of long driving on day 8 (about 5.5 hours broken up by a lunch stop).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. At Mt. Kinabalu and Danum Valley there is a lot of walking involved, on roads and hilly forest trails – you should be prepared to walk 1-2 miles (1.6-3.2 km) on some days (with your camera gear). Along the Kinabatangan, we will be in boats much of the time which does not require much physical exertion. On the extension it is a bit easier as we will spend a lot of time on flatter open roads or using the vehicle to look for fruiting trees and other good locations.

CLIMATE: Hot and humid at Sepilok, Sukau and Danum (mostly 74°-88°F, 23°-31°C) and very humid, but cool on Mount Kinabalu and on the extension at Fraser’s Hill (mostly 50°-68°F, 10°-20°C). Rain is likely, often in the afternoons in the form of thunderstorms, but one can also have tropical systems that create rain for longer periods.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. Sabah is one of the best-developed areas is Asia for eco-tourism. All accommodations have private, en-suite bathrooms, full time hot water, and 24-hour electricity. Air-conditioning is not available for the four nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge and for the three nights at Sukau, however these are both top-notch lodges and the rooms have good fans.

EXPECTATIONS: Sabah is fun province to travel in with easy transport network and great food. We can expect to see nearly 300 species of bird on this trip, and are likely to be able to photograph more than 75 species. For a forested destination there is plenty of wildlife and we can expect to see many mammals, reptiles and insects, some of which are very photogenic.

GEAR: Binoculars are essential. Your leader will have a scope. Because the light is low, and we’ll be spending times in forests, a faster lens is best, as is a full-frame camera. Using a prime 300 f2.8 or f4 (with and without teleconverter) works well, and a 100-400 mm zoom can also be great for both birds and mammal photos. There is also a myriad of opportunities to take landscape photos and also there are some opportunities for cultural photography of temples and/or people. Macro photography and nocturnal photography will be limited as there are only a handful of subjects we target.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas are not currently required for citizens of the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Visas are currently required only of a few nationalities, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; it’s always a good idea to double check six weeks before the tour, or ask our office for help

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 12 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 13 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available at mealtimes; Tropical Birding tour leader from the morning of day 1 to the afternoon of day 13 if taking only the main tour, if taking the extension please request more info from our office regarding guiding arrangements; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on arrival and departure day respectively (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 13 (and to day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to birding sites, parks and reserves mentioned in the itinerary; one night drive at Danum; several boat trips on the Kinabatangan River at Sukau; domestic flights on day 5 and day 13.

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); international flights; domestic flight between Peninsula Malaysia and Borneo (if you are joining the extension); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.