Borneo: Broadbills, Bristleheads, and Mount Kinabalu

Borneo is an island that boasts verdant tropical rainforests, rich both in birds and mammals, many of which are only found there. One of the major draw cards is the spectacular endemic birds like Blue-headed Pitta, Whitehead’s Trogon, and the unique Bornean Bristlehead, in a family all of its own. Also within the long list of endemics is one of the smallest raptors on Earth, the tiny White-fronted Falconet, and the shocking green Bornean Leafbird. However, other amazing birds like Rhinoceros and White-crowned Hornbills often steal the thunder from these endemics, as they too are a sight to behold. Borneo boasts an impressive list of 8 species of hornbill alone. The mammals are also reason enough to visit. This is arguably the best country in Southeast Asia for mammal viewing; healthy lists of primates and squirrels are a major feature of this tour, including the “Red Ape”, Bornean Orangutan, and the comical, bulbous-nosed Proboscis Monkey, not to mention the unique Bornean Pygmy Elephant. To add to all of that, Borneo is home to one of the largest flowers on the planet, the Rafflesia. The island boasts both tropical lowland forest parks, and montane forests on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, the largest mountain between the Himalayas and the island of New Guinea. Thus, while the birder may come for a list of endemic birds that exceeds 40 species, there is plenty to see for the more casual birder-come-general naturalist. By basing the entire tour in the modern Malaysian state of Sabah, we also do this in comfort, with very good accommodations throughout. In particular, the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley, ranks as one of the best lodges in all of Asia.

*Please note: Sometimes it may be necessary to switch the order that we visit sites, due to availability at some of the lodges/hotels.

Day 1: Kota Kinabalu. We arrive at Kota Kinabalu International Airport, and transfer to a hotel in Sabah’s small capital city.

Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker is a common Bornean endemic
Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker is a common Bornean endemic (Ken Behrens)

Days 2-5: Kota Kinabalu to Danum Valley. On the morning of day 2, we’ll take an early morning flight to the tiny town of Lahad Datu, in the east of Sabah, from where we’ll drive into Borneo Rainforest Lodge, where we’ll stay for four nights. The lodge itself is often one of the highlights of the trip for many; it is a wonderful setting, the accommodations and food are superb, and the lodge property is shrouded in tall rainforest with high diversity of both birds and mammals. The avian possibilities are mouthwatering; the site offers the best chance to find Borneo’s sole endemic monotypic bird family, the Bornean Bristlehead, and a host of other exciting birds like Blue-headed, Black-crowned and Bornean Banded Pittas, a long list of hornbills, including the enormous Rhinoceros Hornbill, and one of the world’s smallest raptors, the endemic White-fronted Falconet.

Bornean Bristlehead is perhaps the top avian target on this tour. It is in a monotypic family that is endemic to Borneo
Bornean Bristlehead is perhaps the top avian target on this tour. It is in a monotypic family that is endemic to Borneo (Ken Behrens)

Other outstanding birds occur, such as Black-and-red, Black-and-yellow, and Banded Broadbills, Diard’s, Scarlet-rumped, and Red-naped Trogons, and the forest dwelling Banded Kingfisher. The garden of the lodge sometimes attracts Bearded Pigs and civets, and more regularly holds frugivorous birds like the endemic Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker. Some of the rarer inhabitants of the rainforest include Blue-banded Pitta and White-crowned Hornbill. Mammals are also a big feature of our time here, and we have a good chance at seeing a wild Bornean Orangutan, which sometimes even build their night nests near the lodge. Other notable animals in the area include flying squirrels, tarsier, Philippine Loris, and two species of minuscule mouse-deer. Night drives from the lodge will be undertaken to try to track down some of these, along with nocturnal birds like Large Frogmouth and Barred Eagle-Owl.

Bornean Crested Fireback has a funny little tufty crest
Bornean Crested Fireback has a funny little tufty crest (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Danum Valley to Sepilok. After a final morning in Danum Valley, chasing whatever we still need, we’ll hit the road after lunch for another area of lowland forest, Sepilok, arriving in the early evening. Two nights will be spent in Sepilok. At night, we’ll go in search of owls, like the scarce Oriental Bay Owl and more regular Brown Boobook.

The dapper Whiskered Treeswift is easily found at Danum
The dapper Whiskered Treeswift is easily found at Danum (Sam Woods)

Day 7: Sepilok. An entire day will be spent birding the primary lowland forests and surrounding habitats of Sepilok. The area hosts one of the finest canopy walkways in the world at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, a 347m-long (1140ft), 25m-high (85ft) steel structure. There are two well placed observation towers on this too, allowing great chances to find canopy birds at eye level, such as Black and Bushy-crested Hornbills, green-pigeons, Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot, and raptors like Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle and Oriental Honey-Buzzard. There are also easy trails at ground level to explore too, and between birding the forest trails, spending time watching from the observation towers on the walkway, and birding the secondary habitats just outside of the forest, a long list of birds awaits. A healthy list of woodpeckers occurs, with Asia’s largest, Great Slaty, as well as Orange-backed, Rufous, Gray-and-buff, Buff-necked, and Banded Woodpeckers. The flowering shrubs at the forest, when in bloom, attract spiderhunters and sunbirds, including Coppery-throated and Crimson Sunbirds, and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. Black-crowned Pitta, Rufous-collared and Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfishers, Rufous-winged Philentoma, are all found along the forest trails. On this night, we’ll undertake a night walk within the reserve to look for mammals like flying squirrels, civets, or if we are lucky a Philippine Loris or tarsier.

Rufous-collared Kingfisher, a gorgeous forest-dwelling kingfisher
Rufous-collared Kingfisher, a gorgeous forest-dwelling kingfisher (Ken Behrens)

Day 8: Sepilok to Sukau. After another morning in Sepilok, and lunch in Sandakan, we’ll take a speedboat to our next site, Sukau Rainforest Lodge. The boat ride will take us along the mighty Kinabatangan River, part of which is an important wildlife sanctuary, and is notable for its diversity of primates in particular. On the way to the lodge, we might see Proboscis Monkeys frolicking on the banks, groups of abundant Long-tailed Macaques in the mangroves, or Silvered Langurs foraging on forest leaves. We’ll also keep an eye for Great Crested Terns, White-bellied Sea-Eagles or Brahminy Kites as we make our way up the river. On this day, there is usually time for a short late afternoon private boat cruise, by canoe fitted with an electric motor that allows close approach to mammals and birds. If there is news of any herds of Bornean Pygmy Elephants in the area at the time (they are not always present as they roam widely), we’ll be sure to head straight there. At night, we will take a night cruise, where we might find sleeping birds like Stork-billed or Blue-eared Kingfishers, although our main focus will be to track down a Buffy Fish-Owl hunting from the riverside trees.

The Kinabatangan River is home to Proboscis Monkeys, Bornean Orangutans, and Bornean Pigmy Elephants
The Kinabatangan River is home to Proboscis Monkeys, Bornean Orangutans, and Bornean Pigmy Elephants (Sam Woods)

Days 9-10: Sukau. We will have two full days to explore this magical area, which is comprised of flooded forests. During this time, we’ll traverse the main river, the Kinabatangan, and its tributaries by way of motorized canoes, making this a very relaxing part of the tour, with less leg work than the other parts. While birds will be at the fore, so will mammals too, as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is especially famed for its species richness of mammals, and primates in particular. Proboscis Monkey, Red and Silvered Leaf-Monkeys, Pig-tailed and Long-tailed Macaques, Bornean Gibbon, and Orangutan, are all found here, and some trips see them all! On the bird front, there is also plenty to look for. Sukau is the richest area in Borneo for hornbills, so we’ll be on the lookout for White-crowned, Rhinoceros, Oriental Pied, Bushy-crested, Wreathed, Wrinkled, and Black Hornbills during our river cruises.

The portly Proboscis Monkey is easy to find along the Kinabatangan River
The portly Proboscis Monkey is easy to find along the Kinabatangan River (Iain Campbell)

The forests lining the banks of the rivers also provide the best chance for the rare and endangered Storm’s Stork, and the giant Lesser Adjutant also frequently features too. While we check the treetops for standing storks, we will also be on the lookout for raptors; Lesser and Gray-headed Fish-Eagles, Jerdon’s Baza, Rufous-bellied, Changeable and Wallace’s Hawk-Eagles, and Crested Serpent-Eagle all occur. Black-and-red Broadbills nest overhanging the rivers, Malaysian Blue-Flycatchers forage along the banks, while electrically colored Hooded Pittas stalk the forest floor, as does the very rare Bornean Ground-Cuckoo, for which this is the best site available.

White-crowned Hornbill crossing the Kinabatangan River
White-crowned Hornbill crossing the Kinabatangan River (Sam Woods)

On one afternoon, we’ll visit Gomantong Caves, which will give us a chance to stretch our legs off the water, and visit this strange location, where the nests of the swiftlets are sustainably harvested for bird’s nest soup. Edible-nest, Black-nest, Mossy-nest, and Glossy Swiftlets nest in the caves alongside thousands of Wrinkle-lipped Bats. As the first three swiftlet species can only be safely identified by their nests (e.g. Edible-nest Swiftlet has an all-white nest made entirely of its saliva), this will be vital to adding them to our list! While at the caves we’ll linger until dusk to watch the funnel of bats emerge, and their most infamous attendant predator, the Bat Hawk.

No visit to Borneo would be complete without seeing a wild orangutan
No visit to Borneo would be complete without seeing a wild orangutan (Sam Woods)

Day 11: Gomantong to Kundasang. Having come into Sukau by boat, on this day we’ll leave by vehicle overland, giving us a chance to stop and bird in the jungles around Gomantong Caves more extensively, where species like Chestnut-necklaced Partridge, Black-crowned Pitta, Green Broadbill, Violet Cuckoo, Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher, and Banded Broadbill all occur. It is also home to a host of other lowland forest birds like many babblers and multiple woodpeckers, cuckoos, and bulbuls, and so can be used to focus on what we are still missing during our last time within the lowland jungles of Borneo. We’ll take lunch in a hotel in Sandakan before departing for Kundasang, our base for exploring the montane forests of Mount Kinabalu in the coming days. Four nights will be spent in Kundasang close to the entrance of Mount Kinabalu National Park, a World Heritage Site.

Rhinocerous Hornbills on Borneo sport a curlicue casque
Rhinocerous Hornbills on Borneo sport a curlicue casque (Ken Behrens)

Days 12-14: Mount Kinabalu National Park.Mount Kinabalu reaches a height of 13,450ft/4100m, making it a popular destination for tourists looking to conquer this peak, the largest in Southeast Asia. Oddly though, few of these visitors use the forest trails, meaning these are often left just for birders! Although the peak is at a breathless elevation, our birding will focus on the headquarters of the park, located much lower at around 4920-6100ft/1500-1860m. While the overall diversity of bird species is lower on the mountains, the proportion of endemic species is higher, and the park supports many birds only found in Borneo. Noisy and vocal flocks of Chestnut-crested Yuhinas roam the montane forests, Golden-naped Barbets are vocal and easy to hear, and are best looked for around any fruiting trees, when they can be very approachable. Mixed feeding flocks hold Chestnut-hooded and Sunda Laughingthrushes, Bornean Whistler, Checker-throated Woodpecker, Black-crowned White-eye, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, the shockingly bright Bornean Green Magpie, (one of the tour’s standout birds), and often Jentink’s Squirrels too. The mountain is especially rich in squirrels, and holds one of the world’s smallest, Whitehead’s Pygmy Squirrel and one of the largest in the Giant Squirrel too, as well as the endemic Bornean Black-banded.

Bornean Green-Magpie is an electric endemic
Bornean Green-Magpie is an electric endemic (Ken Behrens)

Checking the road at dawn can be a good technique for finding endemics like Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher, Bornean (White-crowned) Forktail, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, or Orange-headed Thrush. This is also a good time for Indigo Flycatchers and Bornean Treepies to emerge from the denser parts of the forest and forage around a small power station in the higher reaches of the birding areas. The highest part of the road is where some of the specialty species can be found, like Mountain Black-eye, Pale-faced (Flavescent) Bulbul, and the rare Fruithunter. The forest floor is home to the tiny Bornean Stubtail and vocal White-browed Shortwing; while fruiting trees around the headquarters are the place to find Black-sided Flowerpecker, and the impossibly bright red Temminck’s Sunbird. Some of the rarer species found on the mountain include the scarlet Whitehead’s Trogon, emerald green Whitehead’s Broadbill, boldly marked Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, the strange Bare-headed Laughingthrush, and the elusive Everett’s Thrush. In secondary habitat just outside the park, we will search for another Bornean endemic, the Pygmy Ibon (White-eye). If we receive news of a Rafflesia flower in bloom (one of the largest flowers in the world, measuring up to 31 inches/80cm in diameter), we will drive downhill to Poring Hot Springs to see it. These three nights will be spent close to the park.

Mount Kinabalu is home to the majority of the endemic birds on this tour
Mount Kinabalu is home to the majority of the endemic birds on this tour (Sam Woods)

Days 15: Mount Kinabalu to the Crocker Range. After some final birding on the mountain, we will depart for Tambunan in the Crocker Range, several hours away. There might be some time in the afternoon to start birding in this area. The night will be spent in a simple guesthouse in Tambunan, close to the birding areas.

Temminck's Sunbird is the most common highland sunbird
Temminck's Sunbird is the most common highland sunbird (Ken Behrens)

Days 16: Tambunan to Kota Kinabalu for DEPARTURE. On this day we will focus on finding our final montane birds before returning after lunch to Kota Kinabalu to catch evening flights out. Although this is the final day, there will be some key targets in this area; some lower-elevation species that are only possible here on the tour. Among these are a group of endemic barbets: Bornean, Mountain, Bornean Brown, and Gold-faced Barbets. Bornean Bulbul and Bornean Leafbird are two further specialties that are readily found here and nowhere else on the tour. It is also a site for the rare and elusive Whitehead’s Spiderhunter. Orange-breasted Trogon and Long-tailed Broadbill are also occasionally encountered in this area. Other possibilities include Sunda Cuckooshrike, Dark Hawk-Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Cinereous Bulbul, Black-and-crimson Oriole, and Golden-bellied Gerygone. Looking out for raptors regularly yields Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle, while the endemic Mountain Serpent-Eagle requires some luck to find. In the afternoon, after returning to our hotel to clean up and check out, we shall drive to the Kota Kinabalu airport to catch evening flights out (7pm or later).

There are now 5 endemic barbet species in Borneo; this is the Golden-naped Barbet
There are now 5 endemic barbet species in Borneo; this is the Golden-naped Barbet (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are required (breakfast will typically start at 5:00am or 5:30am), as the best birding activity is often early in the morning. On the days in Danum, Sepilok, and Sukau, which are very hot, there will be some downtime at lunchtime.

Two field breakfasts are taken on this tour (days 2 and 16). No field lunches are required; these will be taken at the lodges or at local restaurants. There are two long drives on this tour, of 5 hours between Danum and Sepilok on day 6, and between Sandakan and Kundasang on day 11 (of around 4 hours). There are drives of around 2 hours on three other days of the tour. A few hours of the tour will be spent traveling on rough, unpaved roads coming in and out of Borneo Rainforest Lodge (days 2 and 6).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult. There is a lot of trail walking required on this tour, especially at Danum Valley and Mount Kinabalu. Most of the trails are not difficult, but the trails can often be slippery and muddy (a walking stick helps a lot). There is one particularly steep hike on one day at Danum (around 4miles/6km round trip), and one or two of similar length may be taken while at Kinabalu, depending on local bird news.

CLIMATE: Hot and very humid in Danum Valley, Sepilok and Sukau, with temperatures typically ranging from about 75°F(24°C) at night to about 90°F(32°C) in the middle of the day. At Mount Kinabalu and Tambunan daytime temperatures are usually around 20°C/68°F, but can drop to as low as 15°C/60°F at night. Borneo has a wet tropical climate, with rainfall possible at all sites, especially at Mount Kinabalu. Typically, this falls in short, heavy downpours in the afternoons.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent; all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, 24-hour electricity. Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley is one of the best lodges in Asia. Wi-Fi is technically available at all of the sites except Tambunan, but can be unreliable sometimes at Danum and at Mount Kinabalu in particular. Air-conditioning is not available for the four nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge but there are excellent powerful ceiling fans. The intended lodges/resorts we traditionally use at Sukau and Sepilok do have air conditioning, although sometimes these are not always available, as they are very popular.

WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year-round. We often run the set-departure tour in June-July because resident birds are very vocal and many endemics are relatively easy to find, but this is definitely not the only time you can go. We have run successful custom tours later in the year in September-October also.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Photography is quite tough on this tour in general, aside from at Sukau, where some of the mammals like Proboscis Monkeys, Crab-eating and Pig-tailed Macaques can be quite approachable by boat.

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, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 15; one-way domestic air ticket from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu on day 2; meals from dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 16; lodges will include at least safe drinking water and some include tea/coffee; when eating at restaurants that include no drinks, reasonable non-alcoholic drinks will be provided for that meal; safe drinking water only between meals (usually available at a designated spot in the lodge – if not it will be provided for you); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 16; local bird guide at Sukau and Danum Valley; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (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 in a suitable vehicle with local driver; two night drives at Borneo Rainforest Lodge (sometimes shared with other guests); boat transport between Sandakan and Sukau on day 8 (may be shared with other lodge guests); private daytime boat transport in motorized canoes for the group while at Sukau; one private night boat cruise at Sukau (extra cruises can be paid for on site); entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters in city hotels (if you require their services); flights other than the two one way flight listed above as being included; 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; other items or services not specifically mentioned above.