Borneo: Broadbills and Bristleheads
Mountain forests and lowland jungles.
Few destinations are as shrouded in mystery as Borneo. Ever since the first colonists crossed its steamy jungles, tales of narrow escapes, “wild and woolly men”, and the fearsome Dyaks, who brought the heads of their enemies back to their longhouses, have emanated from this island and filtered through to the west.
The good news is that the head-hunting fad is long over, but in Borneo birders still might lose their minds! There is no doubt that Borneo supports some of the richest ecosystems on earth. Tropical rainforests once covered the entire island, and the tracts that remain support an exotic profusion of flora and fauna. The birdlife is rich and sensationally gaudy, with many endemic species ranging from trogons and broadbills to black-eyes and bristleheads.
During this exhilarating trip we explore the island’s most pristine recesses such as Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea, where many of the island’s most sought-after endemics await. While birding we also have a great chance of locating some outlandish wildlife such as the magnificent Bornean Gibbon, Proboscis Monkey, and the king of the Bornean jungle, Orang-utan.
Day 1: Kota Kinabalu. We arrive at Kota Kinabalu International Airport, and transfer to a hotel in Sabah’s small capital.
Days 2-6: Mount Kinabalu National Park, Tambunan Rafflesia Center and Poring Hot Springs. We will leave the capital for Kundasang, our scenic base in the mountains, just outside Kinabalu Park. This is a great central location for exploring both the high altitudes of the park itself, the nearby Tambunan Rafflesia Center, and the much lower elevations of Poring.
Mount Kinabalu NP: The forests on this 13,500 ft. (4100 m.) mountain support most of Borneo’s montane endemics, including the amazing trio of Whitehead’s Trogon, Whitehead’s Broadbill, and Whitehead’s Spiderhunter. We’ll explore the wide diversity of trails that stem off from the headquarters in search of endemics such as Golden-naped Barbet, Bornean Whistler, Eye-browed Jungle-Flycatcher, Bornean Stubtail, Chestnut-crested Yuhina, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Bornean Treepie, Bare-headed Laughingthrush, Mountain Black-eye, and Black-sided Flowerpecker. While searching for these we may encounter other special forest denizens such as Indigo Flycatchers, Black-capped White-eyes, Sunda Laughingthrushes, Checker-throated Woodpeckers, Short-tailed Magpies, White-browed Shrike-Babblers, Black-and-crimson Orioles, and White-browed Shortwings.
Tambunan Rafflesia Center: This exciting site has been added as it has come to prominence in recent years as the place to see the trio of endemic barbets, with Bornean, Golden-naped, and Mountain Barbets all occurring there due to an unusual concentration of fruiting tree species right in the vicinity of the center. These trees are also a big draw for other frugivorous species, and can sometimes attract Fruit-hunter and a duo of cool bulbuls, Cinereous and Bornean Bulbuls, or even Bornean Leafbird and Whitehead’s Broadbill. There is also a real chance of picking up a Mountain Serpent-Eagle passing overhead. While there we will check with the reserve staff to find out if there are any rafflesias in bloom; the distinctive red-and-white flowers that produce the largest blooms in the plant world.
Poring Hot Springs: On at least one of the days we will drop down the mountain slopes to Borneo’s lowland jungle. Although only a short distance away from Kinabalu Park, Poring is over 3280 ft. (1000 m) lower in elevation, and is dramatically different in nature. A whole host of specialties are available here including the rarely seen Hose’s Broadbill, White-fronted Falconet, Bornean Blue-Flycatcher and the delightful White-crowned Shama. Other lowland forest gems include Rufous-collared and Banded Kingfishers, a horde of malkohas and trogons, woodpeckers, broadbills, and even the possibility of the odd hornbill.
Day 7: Kundasang to Kota Kinabalu. We will still have most of this day to explore whichever of the three above areas still deserves further attention, before returning to Kota Kinabalu for the night.
Days 8-11: Danum Valley. After a morning flight to Lahad Datu, we drive into the luxuriant Danum Valley conservation area. This is no doubt one of Borneo’s finest naturalist hideaways, nestled in pristine lowland dipterocarp forest. A mind-blowing checklist looms, with the dazzling endemic Blue-headed Pitta the major headline. However, there are a further five pittas, including the substantial Giant and fiery-glowing Black-crowned. Backing up the merry pitta band is the endemic and eagerly-sought Bornean Bristlehead, which will hopefully appear during one of the morning searches. While we look, we will surely come across other fabulous species including Great Argus, and Rhinoceros, Helmeted, Bushy-crested, and Wreathed Hornbills amongst a host of forest passerines that make Danum Valley one of the best birding sites in Asia. Birds are not the only attraction; this area is one of the best in the world to see the giant Orang-utan, as well as Bearded Pig, Slow Loris, Flying Lemur, Red Giant Flying Squirrel, and many other fantastic creatures.
Day 12: Danum Valley to Kota Kinabalu. We will have a final, full morning to bird the area around the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, chasing after any missing lowland species, before a final farewell lunch at the lodge. After another of their fine spreads, we will leave for the airport and flight back to Kota Kinabalu for an overnight stay.
Day 13: Departure or start extension. We’ll head for the airport, where those joining the extension will fly to Sandakan, and others catch flights home.
Kinabatangan Extension (4 days)
En route to the Kinabatangan River, we’ll explore the Gomantong Caves where Mossy, Glossy, and Edible-nest Swiftlets have bred for centuries. The Kinabatangan River is a magical wilderness where hornbill calls announce the dawn as we cruise up its still, glassy waters. Indeed this area is the very best place in Borneo for hornbills, with all Bornean species found here, including the rare White-crowned Hornbill.
Through morning mists and oxbow lakes, a wealth of birds and wildlife such as Asian Elephant and Proboscis Monkey may be seen. Birding is stupendous, with Hooded Pitta occurring along with the more commonly seen Bornean endemic pittas. Other specialties include the rare Storm’s Stork, and globally threatened Straw-headed Bulbul, and a host of other entertaining species that includes Green Imperial-Pigeon, Pink-necked Green Pigeon, Blue-eared and Stork-billed Kingfishers, the huge Great Slaty and White-bellied Woodpeckers, and Black-and-red Broadbill.
With luck, the scarce Lesser Adjutant, Jerdon’s Baza, or Gray-headed Fish-Eagle may grace us with a star appearance. We’ll also stop at the Rainforest Discovery Centre near Sepilok, now the easiest place in the world to see Bornean Bristlehead.
CLIMATE: Hot and humid at Danum, cooler at Mount Kinabalu. Rain is likely.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate. As with most rainforest tours, there is quite a lot of walking required. Most of the trails are easy, but some of the mountain trails are more difficult.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to superb, with private facilities throughout. Borneo Rainforest Lodge is one of the best lodges in Southeast Asia.