Two Combined Tropical Birding set-departure tours

MALAYSIA: The Amazing Peninsula
11 - 21 June 2008


BORNEO: Broadbills and Bristleheads
22 June
- 7 July 2008

Orange-breasted Trogon, Fraser's Hill/Sam Woods
ORANGE-BREASTED TROGON Fraser's Hill (Peninsula Malaysia)
The first of six trogon species seen on the tour

Leader: Sam Woods

This tour turned out to be the first Malay Peninsula birding for everyone in the group, and for most was also their very first taste of the delights of southeast Asian birding. By taking in the coastal habitats around the chilled out town of Kuala Selangor, the montane forests on Bukit Fraser, and birding the steamy lowland jungles of Taman Negara, they got a great introduction to the many fascinating families and birds of this rich Asian country. By participating in both our mainland leg and then the Sabah tour, the group enjoyed a thorough introduction to southeast Asian birds while on the Peninsula and then added a bunch of specialties once they reached Borneo, that adds a host of endemics both confined to this endemic-rich island, and also some that are only within the Greater Sunda island chain (that also includes Java, Bali and Sumatra). From flashy pittas and pheasants, to strange malkohas, hordes of confusing babblers, with the odd trogon, and strange-looking broadbill thrown in, I am sure everyone left with strong and pleasant memories of this southeast Asian birding mecca. The Peninsula section of the tour alone came up with 263 species, a good number for this waterbird-starved part of the world, with the final trip list for both tours topping 370 or so species.

Highlights on the Peninsula included the stunning Crested Fireback and rarely seen Large Frogmouth at Taman Negara, twenty species of woodpeckers, and a brace of cool montane trogons at Fraser's Hill with both male Red-headed and Orange-breasted Trogons seen near the hill station. On Borneo the highlights were harder to narrow down - the undisputed top trip bird was the glistening Black-headed Pitta that thrilled us into silence on our last morning in Sukau where we stood watching this dazzling bird for 10 minutes in perfect light at close range. Unbeatable. However, the two separate sightings of male Blue-headed Pittas are not to be scoffed at, as this red-backed, purple-chested, electric-blue capped jewel thrush is simply breathtaking. The other two clear highlights from our time in Sabah included a pair of brilliant Bornean Bristleheads, one of the world's true avian oddities and an endemic to boot, birds do not get much more intriguing than that; although the pair of Whitehead's Trogons that we followed along one of the Kinabalu mountain trails also must get a look in at the trip end, as the vivid scarlet male must rank as one of the top trogons out there. The superb Everett's Thrush feeding quietly on a mountain trail on Kinabalu, American Robin fashion, also deserves a very worthy mention. However, it would be a striking injustice not to mention the spectacular male Great Argus (a mind blowing, intricately adorned pheasant with one of the longest tails in the business), that slowly walked off in front of our startled group at Danum, just a short time after pulling in our first gaudy Black-headed Pitta there, during our very first Danum birding session. Quite simply, Borneo at its brilliant best.

We should also mention a good run on nightbirds on the Peninsula, that opened with Brown Hawk-Owl and Large-tailed Nightjar in Kuala Selangor and continued with Barred Eagle-Owl, Brown Wood-Owl and Malaysian Eared-Nightjars at Fraser's Hill, the recently-split Sunda Scops-Owl close to our rainforest resort at Taman Negara, and finally ended in style with Malaysia's rarest and most highly desired Frogmouth - the massive Large Frogmouth. The latter was seen perched impressively in our spotlight on our final night in the jungle at Taman Negara, Malaysia's foremost wildlife park. Night birding was a little slower in Borneo, although 5 different Buffy Fish-Owls during one Sukau night cruise was exciting.

However. the mammals stepped up a gear on Borneo, as by combining night drives at Danum Valley with night cruises along the Kinabatangan River gave us a good opportunity to pick up some of Borneo's best wildlife. These activities allowed us to pick up several Slow Lorises, the odd Malayan Colugo, and several different civet species. The day time stuff was not bad either, with Asia's only ape - the impressive Orang-Utan seen first on our final morning at Danum when a mother and juvenile were observed wolfing down fruits, and later at Sukau when a young male ran for cover shortly before a heavy tropical thunderstorm. An active Binturong or Bear-Cat gorging on ripening figs in a riverside tree at Danum was also good to see, as were a troop of bright orange Maroon Langurs in the same lowland forest, and the huge troops of comical Proboscis Monkeys along the Sungei Kinabatangan were also very entertaining.


Leaving the looming Petronas Towers, one of the Worlds tallest buildings, and the hustle and bustle of the modern Asian city of Kuala Lumpur (KL) behind, we headed for the tranquility and laid back atmosphere of the coastal plain. We drove northwest out of KL and made our way to the relaxed coastal town of Kuala Selangor. This area of secondary woodland, mangroves and mudflats made for a great place to start our southeast Asian birding experience. The distinctive rusty, white-headed forms of Brahminy Kites were a regular feature over this deserted coastal reserve. The mangroves themselves were home to our first of many red-and-blue flycatchers on the tour that seem to abound in this part of Asia, with an obliging male Mangrove Blue-flycatcher (5 further exquisite cyornis flycatchers were seen later on the tours). These open coastal woods also produced a quartet of handsome woodpeckers - first the diminutive Sunda (Brown-capped) Woodpecker was found as we strolled onto the mangrove boardwalk , and then two different species of flamebacks were found hugging the trunks just a short distance from each other - Common and Greater Flamebacks. The run on woodpeckers continued with a number of Laced Woodpeckers also found hiding out in the mangrove, and set the theme for what became a woodpecker-packed tour. In the end, we racked up twenty species on the peninsula alone, that included Asia's smallest (in the form of a tiny barred Speckled Piculet seen at Bukit Fraser), and also Asia's largest, (in the shape of a noisy group of Great Slaty Woodpeckers that rained down bark on us at Taman Negara).
The high-pitched calls of southeast Asia's only representative of the largely Australasian gerygones - Golden-bellied Gerygone or Flyeater - were heard emanating from the mangroves and scrubby fringes of the coastal plain. A short break from the mangrove areas in the middle of the day saw us walking a lightly wooded hill - Bukit Melawati (Bukit means 'hill' in Bahasa Malay), was necessary to pick up a tame troop of Silvered Langurs (Leaf-Monkeys), some of which were carrying bright orange babies, and our target Lineated Barbets feasting on figs. Other notable birds in the Selangor area included several striking Pied Trillers, a number of Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds and Common Ioras, a cute Malay Bronze-Cuckoo, and our first of five Malkohas (a set of strikingly colored Asian cuckoos) seen on the tours - with a fine Chestnut-bellied Malkoha. As we listened to the sound of a Mangrove Whistler calling from deep in the mangrove we scanned some further mangrove banks and found one of our rarest finds on the peninsula, in the form of a huge Lesser Adjutant stork perched up in our scope. Waiting around until dusk for our first night birding session we watched as hundreds of Pink-necked Green Pigeons came into roost on the edges of the woodland and mangrove. As darkness settled our first 'creatures of the night' began calling, with a few Brown Hawk-Owls heard whooping close by. A short period of sweeping with the spotlight picked out a bright pair of red eyes glaring back at us and we all soaked up our first owl of the trip. As we headed back to our van for dinner we came across two separate Large-tailed Nightjars, one of which was followed for some time as it flew around in our spotlight.

Black-and-yellow Broadbill, Taman Negara/Sam Woods

Having done so well on our first day we opted to drive straight to our next venue, (rather then spend more time in Selangor), the magical hill station of Bukit Fraser, set within the low Titiwangsa mountain range in Pahang. This was a former hill station in the colonial times of British Malaya, a welcome cool retreat from heat and humidity of Malaysia's sweaty lowlands. The town has a distinctly British feel, appearing more like a small English country village of old, than a modern Malaysian mountain retreat. However, one look in the gardens around town and there is no doubting where you are, as laughingthrushes, barbets, sibias and mesias thrive in these well-trimmed gardens, and immediately define where you are. In the heart of some of southeast Asia's foremost montane birding destinations. Before we hit the mountain though we stopped along the forested highway along the way and were pleased to hear the distinctive cries of a pair of Black-and-yellow Broadbills beside our lay by. Soon after a pair of these rosy-breasted broadbills gave great views in the 'scope, leaving no one in any doubt what a spectacular little bird this is. In fact this image stayed with us until the end, Bruce stating choosing this first magical experience with this fantastic Asian family as his personal trip highlight. Arriving on the hilltop at Fraser's we set to work on some of the commoner garden species around town - both the handsome Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush and the 'royal' Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrushes being seen extremely well at a feeding station on the edge of town. With time moving on we reluctantly sat down for lunch at our hotel, overlooking a bird table that brought us our first amazing experiences of technicolored Silver-eared Mesias, and the phenomenal Fire-tufted Barbet, a bird that is not found on Borneo and therefore is always a big, impressive target on the Peninsula. After the lunch recess we birded the forested roads around Fraser's Hill that provide easy access to good montane forest, that is loaded with birds, many of which are found within the feeding flocks or 'bird waves' that roam the mountain. We hit our first waves in the afternoon, that held our first Orange-bellied Leafbirds and Gray-chinned Minivets of the trip and our final Fraser's 'laugher' with a noisy group of Black Laughingthrushes moving through the treetops. On our way down a quiet mountain road we came across our first boldly-marked Blyth's Hawk-Eagle cruising magnificently overhead, and a diminutive Black-thighed Falconet on the look out for dragonflies from atop a dead snag. We also found an unusually confiding Lesser Shortwing that fed out in the open on a grass verge, and our first flashy Asian flycatchers, with first a very cute pair of Pygmy Blue-Flycatchers, and the butch blue form of a male Large Niltava sallying for insects by the roadside.

Fire-tufted Barbet, Fraser's Hill/Nick Athanas
Fraser's Hill
(Peninsula Malaysia/Nick Athanas)

Day 3 (June 13) FRASER'S HILL
Just before dawn we made a pre-breakfast walk for a semi-crepuscular species, and one of only two endemics confined to the Peninsula - Malayan Whistling-Thrush. Our stakeout saw us watching and waiting by a roadside as dawn broke, next to a dark mountain gully that these skulking, deep blue thrushes like so much. For a while all we could hear was the calming sound of a rushing mountain stream, then we heard the high-pitched whistles heralding the arrival of the thrush that appeared shortly after feeding right out on the open road. Endemic under the belt, we went back to our hotel to breakfast before sifting through the frequent bird waves on the mountain for the remainder of the day and search for low down skulkers too. We started by walking a short section of trail for a couple of skulkers, both of which lived up to their reputation - first the tiny 'football' form of a Pygmy Wren-Babbler was seen, and a little further down a Streaked Wren-Babbler gave the briefest of views unfortunately. Searching through the flocks up on the hill we found Mountain Fulvettas, Mountain Leaf-Warblers, Chestnut-crowned Warblers, Black-browed Barbets, gorgeous Golden Babblers, Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, Everett's White-eyes, striking White-browed and Black-eared Shrike-Babblers, and misleadingly-named Blue-winged Minlas (the sordidior race in the Malay Peninsula lacking any obvious blue in the wing). It was not all flock fare though, and late in the day we found one of the mountains top babblers - the impressive hulking form of a Large Scimitar-Babbler that allowed rare 'scope views on a number of occasions. A great close to the day was provided by a Brown Wood-Owl that was watched at one of its regular hangouts, perched out on top of a floodlit telegraph pole.

Large Niltava, Fraser's Hill/Sam Woods
Male LARGE NILTAVA Fraser's Hill
(Peninsula Malaysia)

Day 4 (June 14) THE GAP and FRASER'S HILL
The birding around the hill is neatly divided into two general areas - the montane birds that are found along the roads and mountain trails on the top of Fraser's Hill (altitudes of 1100-1300m/ft), and lower elevation birding down around The Gap (altitude around 800m/ft), at the bottom of the hill. The feel of the forest down at the bottom is very different with huge swathes of giant bamboo dominating the vegetation, which can draw in some special species in its own right. Down at the sadly closed down Gap Rest house we began the morning by watching Rufous-bellied Swallows perched on the eves of the former hotels windows (this large red-bellied hirundine is a recent split from Striated Swallow, and is confined to the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra). Not long after we were also enjoying our first looks at a stunning electric blue-and-black male Asian Fairy Bluebird. One of our main targets though was to kick start our trogon list. By the end of the tours we picked up 6 species of trogon, and Fraser's Hill and The Gap in particular were key trogon sites for us, offering two cracking species which were not possible elsewhere on our trip. The first of these is not found up on the hilltop, so we made a foray down lower in search of the most distinctive of the tours trogons. Eventually by walking the quiet road up from The Gap we heard our quarry calling and after a little initial panic all managed to get good looks through the scope if a male Orange-breasted Trogon. The same deserted stretch of road also saw us run into a small party of spectacular Red-bearded Bee-eaters, that included a couple of young birds lacking the striking red and lilac beards of the adults and at least one superb adult bird that perched right over the road in the open for us eventually giving us show stopping views in the process. The huge stands of giant bamboo down at The Gap are an important site on the tour for the appropriately named Bamboo Woodpecker, a singleton of which was seen a number of times, and heard drumming regularly while we were down there. While we tried for better views of the woodpecker we bumped into two male Black-and-white Bulbuls, a scarce bird at the best of times, and a serious rarity around Bukit Fraser. The tour not only had a good run on woodpeckers, but with raptors too and not for the first time we enjoyed a strikingly marked Blyth's Hawk-Eagle gliding overhead. On the woodpecker front, the best 'pecker of the morning was probably the tiny Rufous Piculet found calling softly in a bamboo stand, (that also held another male blue-and-orange cyornis flycatcher - Hill Blue-Flycatcher), a really cool little woodpecker that just loves to hang out in the bamboo down along the Gap road. A fruiting tree close to the lower gate showed constant signs of movement as birds buried themselves in the tree to try and get at the bounty of figs on offer. Among the attendant crowd were Black-browed, Red-throated and Blue-eared Barbets.

Day 5 (June 15) FRASER'S HILL
Having found one of our target trogons at Fraser's we went after the other of the trogon brace the following day. However, before we reached that spot we pulled over to investigate a low movement in some roadside trees, and were quickly confronted with the completely unexpected sight of a huge Barred Eagle-Owl leaving its day roost at 07.30am in the morning! Walking this quiet mountain road through hill forest rich in bamboo we came upon a few bird waves that brought with them some notable new additions to our bird list. Both Greater and Lesser Yellownape woodpeckers were found in some of these, along with further Black Laughingthrushes and Yellow-bellied and Chestnut-crowned Warblers. With such a hive of activity along this road I was on the look out for our final Fraser's trogon - the Red-headed Trogon. After some time sifting through the flock for any 'newbies' and finding a pair of dazzling red-and-emerald Green Magpies within the wave, alongside a couple of Black-and-crimson Orioles in the same feeding flock, we heard a soft trogon alarm call. It was not long before Karen found a rich red male perched close by. Two new trogons in two days always feels good!

Red-headed Trogon, Fraser's Hill/Nick Athanas
Fraser's Hill (Nick Athanas)

A wander down the recently closed New Gap Road (due to a huge landslide that has closed the road for 7 months just a few years after the grand opening!) was initially quiet, although we did see our first amazing Sultan Tits - a giant black-and-yellow tit that is frequently found in some of the Fraser's bird waves, although on this occasion involved a lone, highly vocal, roadside pair. Also along this deserted forested road we found a couple of cool flycatchers, firstly a pair of white-bibbed Rufous-browed Flycatchers feeding along a wet roadside gully, followed by a bright blue male Verditer Flycatcher standing sentry from the top of a dead snag. The other main observation was our first encounter with Malaysia's mighty hornbills, when a loud whirr of wings overhead put us onto a pair of Wreathed Hornbills that tantalizingly over flew a fruiting fig tree we were staking out for just such a bird! By the end of the tours we had notched up 7 different species of hornbills, with multiple sightings of all these hugely spectacular species. We then made our way down the Old Gap Road towards the Gap Rest house for a dusk vigil for some forest nightjars. As the sun sank lower a small squadron of Brown-backed Needletails were found cruising low over the road, and then as the sun sank below the horizon a group of 5 Malaysian Eared-Nightjars emerged, gliding up over the forest canopy where they began calling in earnest.

Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Fraser's Hill/Sam Woods
Fraser's Hill

With just one final hours birding available on Bukit Fraser we checked a forested road for any bird waves, and walked into a pair of very confiding Bay Woodpeckers that remained in the 'scope for over 10 minutes. Other birds came through as the first rays of sunlight hit the hill, and the bird waves became more active, and we had our best looks yet at arguably Asia's finest looking nuthatch, the incomparable Blue Nuthatch, a small roving party of which bustled around an open snag in front of us. Other final Fraser's birds included a flock of bright scarlet male Grey-chinned Minivets and the odd Greater Yellownape.

We then made our way overland deeper into Pahang heading for Malaysia's most popular and famous national park - Taman Negara, one of the finest remaining tracts of primary lowland dipterocarp forest in the Peninsula. After our long-awaited arrival (road works and subsequent road closures hindered our way a little), we had one of those great first bursts of new birds just by checking out trees within our luxurious resort, as we enjoyed a fantastic first birding experience within Malaysia's most eminent lowland forest reserve. On arrival, with the heat of the day still very evident, a lone raptor was found soaring right above our resort, that turned out to be the very scarce Wallace's Hawk-Eagle. The most thrilling of the new additions though was surely the pair of Black-and-red Broadbills hanging out on the edge of the Sungei (river in Malay), Tahan on the edge of our resort. A Black-naped Monarch was also observed nest-building in the same area, and several new flashy malkohas were also seen in this same birdy area, Raffle's and Chestnut-breasted Malkohas. A couple of new woodpeckers were also found in the same corner of our resort - with first a Rufous Woodpecker followed by a superb Crimson-winged Woodpecker. A tree in bloom was also a magnet for spiderhunters, the flurry of birds in this resort tree being dominated by Yellow-eared Spiderhunters, with one or two larger Spectacled Spiderhunters also sharing the same tree. The end of the 'flurry' did not arrive until after nightfall when we picked up our final new bird of the day, in the shape of a superb Sunda Scops-Owl calling in our spotlight, while perched up on a low rainforest vine close to our resort.

Day 7 (June 17) TAMAN NEGARA
This was our first full day in Malaysia's lowland dipterocarp forest. As this is also one of the Peninsula's most popular tourist destinations we opted to avoid the crowds and walk a quiet, seldom disturbed trail, accessed via a short boat ride down the Sungei Tembeling. Before we boarded our motorized canoe we picked up the hulking form of a carrot-billed Stork-billed Kingfisher perched above the river. The trail turned out to be quiet from the tourist crowd, and also unfortunately for us, from birds to some extent with some of the usually expected species being frustratingly silent. Strange metallic calls emanating from the treetops turned us onto a small party of Black Magpies, and this same trail that leads through swampy dipterocarp forest also held a male Red-naped Trogon, and the mornings best find, a bright emerald green male Green Broadbill glowing in the sub canopy. Definitely one of southeast Asia's avian jewels. Sometimes good birds come and feed right within the forest fringed resort we were staying in, as fruiting figs there can be a big draw, in addition to the edge habitat making some of the birds much more visible there. For this reason we spent quite a bit of time in the afternoons birding this area. This day was no exception when we bumped into an 'old friend' from our time in Fraser's Hill - the striking black-and-yellow Sultan Tit, that here in Taman Negara are far less numerous, so were a welcome surprise calling and showing off just in front of our cabins. We also came across another Raffle's Malkoha feeding on the river edge, in company this time with a Black-bellied Malkoha (to bring our trip list to four malkohas, three of which were all seen within the resort!). The pair of Black-and-red Broadbills seemed to be in the process of nest-building as a large hanging mossy nest was found close by. Blue-rumped Parrots can frequently be seen passing and calling overhead, although can frustrate when trying to get a good look. Luckily a few came and perched in some open trees in our resort for us. Up in the fig trees, that were not yet fruiting fully, there were still a few birds - including one of the more fancy bulbuls in the form of a few Gray-bellied Bulbuls, in addition to some Green Ioras. Other areas within the resort held a Gray-and-buff Woodpecker that remained frozen in the 'scope for some time. The Peninsula tour is a dream venue for woodpecker-lovers as Taman Negara is extremely diverse for woodpeckers, holding a whole suite of striking and beautiful Asian rainforest species. During our time in the Peninsula we saw 21 different woodpecker species, most of which were seen in the lowland forests. There was also a noisy party of Oriental Pied Hornbills, our second hornbill of the trip, with a whole bunch more added when we reached Borneo. A short walk up a trail from our accommodation was highly successful in bringing us our first of two encounters with the beautiful Banded Pitta, and was especially noteworthy for the male Rufous-collared Kingfisher that Karen picked up sitting quietly in the forest understorey, a really striking forest 'fisher that can often be found miles from any obvious water.

White-rumped Shama, Taman Negara/Sam Woods
Taman Negara

Day 8 (June 18) TAMAN NEGARA
Another day, another motorized canoe ride to a different section of the trail from the day before. This one a little more successful than the quiet morning we experienced then. In addition to the woodpecker horde that can be found in Taman Negara it is also a boon for babblers, with many species being found on the tours and especially within the park dipterocarps. At the end of both trips we had amassed a staggering total of 42 species of babbler, all of the possible species in the areas visited being seen by at least one person in the group! Although some of them are confusing and some would even say boring (not me!), this is a highly diverse and varied group, from the colorful and noisy laughingthrushes to the more subtle 'tree-babblers', there is something there for everyone's taste. We began the morning by adding a couple of babblers near the trail head, that included a very vocal Large Wren-Babbler (a bird not found on Borneo, so a major Peninsula target for us), that decided to atypically sing from high in a low canopy, rather than hang out in the understorey like they normally do. Shortly after crossing a small forested stream we heard the fluty notes of a Rufous-chested Flycatcher, and soon found a pair of these handsome orange-and-black flycatchers singing from the stream banks. The woodpeckers also continued for us, and one of the best of them all was added early in the morning. The huge trees near the trail head have always been good for producing certain species that rely on these rainforest giants for survival. Some loud tapping above us had us scanning the huge trunks for the culprit, and we soon found a group of three giant Great Slaty Woodpeckers, the largest woodpecker in the Old World. Not too long before we had also added the ivory-billed Maroon Woodpecker to our growing 'pecker list. Our time was spent mixing it up by scouring the understorey for rainforest skulkers and scanning the trees above for canopy dwellers, of which there are many in these lowland southeast Asian jungles. Down on the ground we had another encounter with one of the parks star birds - the dazzlingly beautiful Banded Pitta, a male of which passed by us on several occasions, including across the swampy trail we were strategically positioned on. This same boggy section of trail attracted one of southeast Asia's most distinctive groups of birds - the forktails - as a White-crowned Forktail stopped on the trail several times to feed out in the open. A striking black-and-white flycatcher that feeds on the ground in the manner of a wagtail, surely one of Asia's most interesting avian oddities. Up in the trees above some twittering calls drew us to a small wave of minivets moving through the tall trees, the orange tails of the females leaving us in no doubt that they were the scarce Fiery Minivets (and not the more expected Scarlet Minivet). No less dazzling though was the Banded Broadbill that we taped in overhead as one of our final birds of the morning before we simply had to leave for a fancy resort lunch! After lunch things definitely slowed a little as the heat of the day never really relented, although our relaxing walk around the Tahan clearing area did produce a further few woodpeckers (of course!), with a Rufous Woodpecker, and a red, yellow and green Banded Woodpecker found on the edge of the campsite. The continuing blooming tree still held some Lesser Green Leafbirds, and Yellow-eared and Spectacled Spiderhunters, in addition to a small vocal group of Bar-bellied Cuckoo-shrikes, while the continuing fruiting tree held Asian Fairy-Bluebirds and a bunch of bulbuls, including Streaked, Stripe-throated, Cream-vented, Puff-backed, Gray-bellied and Red-eyed Bulbuls. Darkening skies in the late afternoon promised the storm that was threatening to break at any time, causing a large group of Black-thighed Falconets to gather on a dead snag, where 8 birds were all teed up together, and the distinctive outline of a lone Gray-rumped Treeswift glided low over our resort, before shortly after the rain came lashing down while we were in the comfort of our cabins.

Day 9 (June 19) TAMAN NEGARA
After another hearty buffet breakfast in our cozy rainforest retreat we headed out once more along the Tembeling River to a secluded trail in the hunt for those elusive rainforest interior birds. Before we reached the trail head thought we chanced upon a pair of Common Hill Mynas, the so-called 'talking myna' that is so often prized for aviaries, and for pets in this part of the World. Although better still was a single Large Green Pigeon that crossed in front of the boat as we journeyed to the trail, a scarce and globally endangered pigeon. The interior species always require a bit of digging and effort to tempt out, although when a male Diard's Trogon homes into view it all seems very worth while! This is exactly what happened late in the morning when a calling bird eventually perched up where we could see him really well. Another babbler or two joined the list on this day too, the pair of striking Striped Wren-Babblers headlining this list. Their incessant song drew us to them when they even allowed us to scope one of the pair as it sang back to our playback. Well before then though we heard the excited calls of a small group of Dusky Broadbills coming from the trees above and with a little work managed to line one of these huge 'boat-billed' broadbills up in the 'scope. We continued to add woodpeckers daily to our growing list of species from this impressive family, and this day was no exception when we added one of the largest of the par species, and one of the most recognizable in the form of a pair of black, white and red White-bellied Woodpeckers, that took some time before they relented and gave us the views we were all seeking. Finally, one of these massive well-marked woodpeckers landed on the nearest large trunks to us, where we could watch it climbing up this huge rainforest tree. On our return boat trip for lunch we finally found a pair of another endangered Asian species - the strikingly marked Straw-headed Bulbul, a pair of which was found lurking in some low riverside shrubs. This huge bulbul, with its richly melodic and amazingly loud song, is in decline as their favored habitat - the edges of wetlands, are frequently undergoing devastating developments, that are sadly all too evident when traveling to and from this national park by boat. Back in the resort our light afternoon birding produced a Red-throated Barbet tat finally had come in to check out the fig tree in the resort, that was ripening promisingly by the day. Also coming into to the same busy tree, were a few cracking little Blue-crowned Hanging-parrots that we had seen darting overhead at high speed on many occasions, so we enjoyed seeing some detail on these fancy looking parrots for the first time. Gray-breasted Spiderhunter also put in appearance in the resort, one of an eventual 7 species recorded on the tour, (a clean sweep of these giant 'sunbirds' no less!)

Buff-necked Woodpecker/Nick Athanas
One of 20 species of woodpeckers recorded on Peninsula Malaysia

Day 10 (June 20) TAMAN NEGARA
Our final full day in the Peninsula's lowland dipterocarp forests, where we focused our time on a swampy trail accessed again by way of a short boat ride. Any new woodpecker now was a headline as we approached the twenty species mark on this mainland section alone. The twentieth species was picked up on this day when a Checker-throated Woodpecker was found clinging to a rainforest vine. The final tally for the Peninsula included Sunda and Laced Woodpeckers, and Common and Greater Flamebacks in the coastal habitats of Selangor right at the start of the tour; Speckled and Rufous Piculets, Greater and Lesser Yellownapes, Bamboo, Buff-rumped and Bay Woodpeckers in the mountains; and finally White-bellied, Rufous, Gray-and-buff, Buff-necked, Banded, Crimson-winged, Maroon, and Great Slaty Woodpeckers, and lastly this Checker-throated in the lowland forests. A noteworthy haul of a spectacular bird family, that for guide and group alike was one of the standout features of from this fascinating tour. There can be few other destinations that offer this diverse mix of striking woodpeckers. Bird waves down in these low-lying areas are less frequent than they are in the highlands around Fraser's, so when we picked one up we sifted through the babblers for some more interesting species and found a pair of Spotted Fantails following the flock. Some notable babblers were also seen during our morning on the trail. One of the most striking genus of babblers are the stachyris, and we saw one of the most striking within this attractive genus when a pair of Black-throated Babblers came into to check out our recording. The Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler, was also every bit as interesting as those guys, sporting a fluffy back and bare blue facial skin. The largely ground-dwelling Black-capped Babbler was also pleasantly surprising to those who held the view that babblers are all boring brown jobs! This one sporting a black cap, rich rufous upperparts and a striking white supercilium as he prowled the leaf litter in front of us. Ferruginous and Short-tailed Babblers were also seen along there to top off a babbler-packed final morning on the trails.

Tickell's Blue-Flycatcher, Taman Negara/Sam Woods
Taman Negara

As we'd walked a number of trails over the past few days we decided on a relaxing boat cruise up the Sungei Tahan for our final afternoon within the park. This proved a group favorite, as we enjoyed picking up some cool rainforest species from the relative luxury of our narrow canoe. Drifting down the Tahan with the engine cut was a great way to spend our final afternoon, although we did not relax in our pursuit of new species while doing this. Our reasoning for doing this was to have a shot at some of the riparian birds that are most easily found by doing just such a cruise. In some of the thick bamboo stands Tickell's Blue-Flycatchers were seen, and some low riverside vegetation allowed us to add another Blue Flycatcher, this time a blue-throated male Malaysian Blue-Flycatcher o our growing list of blue-and-orange flycatchers. One of the fussier babblers around Taman Negara is the White-chested Babbler that prefers riparian situations. Its distinctive and loud call was heard emanating from the river bank and we enjoyed views of this stumpy babbler as it hopped around on fallen logs along the shore. Probably the most impressive bird of the afternoon was a majestic Lesser Fish-Eagle pointed out by our boatman, that we watched perched right above our boat as slowly drifted underneath it. Black-and-red Broadbills were also seen again, and were every bit as popular as the first time, some of them being seen tending to their large mossy nests that were hanging over the river suspended precariously from rainforest vines. More Stork-billed Kingfishers were seen along the Tahan, here sporting the brown cap that was missing on he Bornean race birds in Sukau. We also added Blue-eared Kingfisher to the list, a bird we would see many more of by day and night in Sukau on the extension. As we gently made our way downstream we also picked out some of our first Whiskered Treeswifts, some of which were cruising the skies above, while others sallied for insects from large dead snags above the river banks. These superb birds are very striking and always much-appreciated, one of southeast Asia's avian surprises, that were much talked about at the tour end as a top trip bird contender, (although when you are competing with pittas the treeswift realistically never really had a chance!) We also enjoyed more sightings of the strange Straw-headed Bulbul, and found our first perched Black Hornbills loafing by the river. Best bird of the afternoon though was arguably on our return journey when their piercing calls led us to pick up a pair of superb Crested Jays that were crossing the river behind us. With such a relaxing afternoon's birding I put it to the group that with a fine evening ahead weather-wise we should make the most of it and go after my favorite Taman Negara nightbirds - a certain rare species of frogmouth that I'd enjoyed a run on of late. So we dined early and left the resort just as the sun began to sink lower, arriving 'in position' around full darkness. Usually a quick burst of playback causes this particular individual to give its atmospheric call straight back, although on this occasion all we were greeted with was stony, and ominous, silence. We tried intermittently and still received no reply, until I played back some soft contact calls which brought an instant reply from a Large Frogmouth, that evidently from the sound was sitting quite close by. A little moving around and there it was, this giant frogmouth was found sitting magnificently in the spotlight for brilliant close looks of this rare rainforest 'creature'. Although not picked by the group, for the guide anyhow a magic moment, and one considered the top trip bird even by me even if no-one else did! A great finish to our time in Taman Negara.


Large Frogmouth, Taman Negara/Sam Woods
Taman Negara

The largest, and rarest, of the three species on the Peninsula

This was a day of travel as we made our way first back to Malaysia's capital and onto Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo for the start of our next tour. Therefore there really was not much time for birding before departure, although no one could resist a pre-breakfast check of the fruiting tree at the back of our resort that had been looking better and better by the day. Thank God we did so as we pulled out a blinding find on our last morning when a whir of green wings brought us face-to-face with the scarce Jambu Fruit-Dove, a bird that can be exceptionally hard to find away from just such a fruiting tree. Although overshadowed by this rare find, other notable final Taman Negara birds included Black Magpies, Little Green Pigeons, Asian Fairy-Bluebirds, and a Crimson-winged Woodpecker that were right in the resort, and several large groups of Red-wattled Lapwings, White-throated Kingfishers, and a few Oriental Pipits, Blue-throated Bee-eaters, and Dollarbirds on our boat journey out of the park. We also enjoyed the antics of a brace of flowerpeckers - Yellow-vented and Orange-bellied Flowerpeckers as awaited our transfer to the airport.


This was officially the tour arrival day for Borneo (with no activities usually planned), although as the whole group had arrived with me the night before, we decided to give ourselves a morning at Tambunan and kick start our Bornean endemic list, that of course would be one of the focuses on this leg of the tours. This ended up being one of the best days birding of the tour as Tambunan was nothing short of pumping that morning. In addition to the usual common montane birds that we were picking up for the first time on the tour, we also ran into some genuinely rare endemics that were far from guaranteed in Borneo, and therefore Tambunan was a genuine delight to visit as a late add on to the usual itinerary. On arrival one glance at a large dead tree beside where we parked had be grabbing for my telescope, as a pair of the endemic Mountain Barbets had decided to perch up there and make themselves nice and visible for us. Nice start. The reason Tambunan can be so good is the high concentration of fruiting tree species in the vicinity of the center, that a big attraction to frugivorous species. Checking one of the main fruiting trees close to the center, Mary remarked casually she had seen a black and gray bird in there, which set the pulses racing when we realized she had seen a male Fruit-hunter, a rare endemic frugivorous species that Tambunan is fast becoming the place to look for it. Not long later our suspicions were confirmed when the bird returned and fed on fruits allowing good scope looks at this strikingly attractive endemic. Also in the same tree was our second and most common of the trio of Bornean endemic barbets - the attractive blue, green gold Golden-naped Barbet. Just a few trees away an Orange-headed Thrush also popped up for a short time, a definite bonus find as such interior forest species rarely come out to roadsides. In the same fruit-rich area we also found the very distinctive pale-throated local race of Black-crested Bulbul, that many give full specific status as Bornean Bulbul, another endemic. We then made our way down the highway getting our first taste of some of the more common montane residents we would be experiencing later on the tour on Gunung Kinabalu. These included the most striking sunbird of the tour - the vermilion-colored Temminck's Sunbird, the commonest montane white-eye - Black-capped White-eye, and the commonest of the Bornean montane endemics - a bunch of Chestnut-crested Yuhinas (another babbler addition). Venturing lower down the road in pursuit of our final endemic barbet, Bornean Barbet, we were disappointed only to hear it on this occasion, although we did see another Gold-whiskered Barbet in the process. However, our time down lower was far from wasted as bumping into a friend there proved worthwhile for as we were just about to land a Whitehead's Spiderhunter that was coming in closer, a shout of Pygmy White-eye went up and we dropped the spiderhunter for this extremely rare endemic, a small party of which were soon being watched feeding on small roadside fruits. Superb stuff. The white-eye 'bagged', we went back after the spiderhunter when once again we were distracted by a cry of Mountain Serpent-Eagle that went up nearby leading us to a rare perched view of this montane endemic raptor. Calm came back to proceedings finally and we began to search again for the most striking of all the spiderhunters - the endemic Whitehead's Spiderhunter, that for a time called on and off from the forest nearby. Searching the roadside trees led me to a concentration of bright red flowers and soon after I found this superb spiderhunter feeding among them, where it remained for memorable scope looks for some time. We also saw a group of 8 Wreathed Hornbills pass over the forest canopy, a foretaste of the hornbill 'extravanganza' that was to come in Danum and Sukau. Eventually with stomachs grumbling, and the birding slowing down, we headed back into KK for some lunch and relaxation before we headed back into the lowland jungle the next day.

Mountain Serpent-Eagle, Tambunan/Nick Athanas

Our good run from the day before spilled over into the next day, although we did not really realize this until the afternoon. The morning was spent traveling between the Sabah capital and the small southeastern town of Lahad Datu. From there we picked up our transport to Borneo Rainforest Lodge on the edge of the Danum Valley Conservation Area. This is an area of rich primary lowland rainforest in southeast Sabah. Although there is some overlap and familiarity with Taman Negara, this conservation area holds some special, spectacular lowland endemic species, in addition to some cool rainforest mammals. Soon after we left Lahad Datu we were surrounded by some of the forest we had come to see, and our eyes were fixed out the windows for any roadside birds. One such bird came early on, for as I began checking the dead snags virtually the first one I checked had the very bird I was after sitting right on top of it, and we scrambled out of the car to admire the buffy-fronted female White-fronted Falconet, a tiny endemic raptor. A thrilling start to our ride into Danum. The 'raptor run' continued all the way into the lodge as we were traveling at a time when the day begins to heat up, and the raptors pick up a thermal. On the way in we rain into more Crested Serpent-Eagles, in addition to a fine adult Rufous-bellied Eagle, a single Crested Goshawk, a pair of Black Eagles, our only Borneo sighting of Wallace's Hawk-Eagle, and an Oriental Honey-Buzzard. All this raptor 'fare' though was overshadowed by our first amazing encounter with the incredible Rhinoceros Hornbill, one of the most dramatic birds on either of these southeast Asian tours. After a tasty Beef Rendang for lunch at our lodge-the luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge, perched scenically on the edge of a thickly-forested river, a few of us headed out early into the rainforest to seek some special Bornean birds. In particular, I was after the crimson-bellied Black-headed Pitta, that can often be active even in this traditionally quiet time. On arrival at a regular spot we were greeted with silence, although a few quick played calls had the bird up and calling again, and after an off-trail chase we eventually got views of this rainforest jewel moving silently through the damp leaf litter, a great opener to our time in Danum. However, the best was yet to come, for as we walked back to the trail after getting the pitta, we almost ran into a spectacular male Great Argus pheasant, trailing his near meter-long tail behind him. In hindsight a very fortunate sighting, as all the usual dancing grounds were inactive in our time there, making this a tough one to find this year. The afternoon continued with a couple of new hornbills seen along the entrance road a little later - first a female of the scarce Wrinkled Hornbill was found perched by the roadside, before we chased down a calling pair of White-crowned Hornbills, arguably the rarest of the Bornean hornbills. After a little time a black-breasted female emerged and sat in a position where we could line up this bright white-crested hornbill in the 'scope for killer looks at this often difficult to find rainforest bird. A fantastic close to our first Danum day. Our first Danum night drive, when we loaded up on the back of the lode truck and went spotlighting along the entrance road produced the strange form of Malayan Colugo or Flying Lemur (actually completely unrelated to the lemurs, which are endemic primates to Madagascar), tightly gripping the side of a large rainforest tree, while it drank the sap leaking from the bark.

Wreathed Hornbill/Nick Athanas
WREATHED HORNBILL (Nick Athanas) seen first on the Peninsula and also in Borneo
Seven hornbills species were seen on the tours

Day 14 (June 24) DANUM VALLEY
We spent our day walking the forested entrance road to the lodge and making short side trips onto jungle trails off there in response to any calling birds. A dawn breakfast on the lodge balcony was atmospheric. As the sun rose up, with mist hanging over the huge rainforest trees, the regular dawn 'patrol' of Crested Firebacks proceeded past the lodge for their daily dawn 'parade'. This flashy pheasant, that we had first seen on the Peninsula, is quite different here, the Bornean race sporting a dull yellow tail compared to the white-tailed mainland birds. The days star find though was found a little way from the lodge. Checking a known spot for it we quietly played the distinctive call of one of Borneo's endemic pittas, and a soft almost immediate reply came back from the pitta, hiding in the forest gloom nearby. We waited impatiently, and then just moments later, and just a few meters away, Mary picked up the gorgeous form of bright male Blue-headed Pitta. We watched in stunned silence as this bright blue-capped, purple-breasted bird hopped past us, at one time allowing a completely unobscured view of its exquisite plumage. For the guide, for the second year in a row, I did not expect this could be trumped to the title of top trip bird, although the staggering performance of the Black-headed Pitta at Sukau on our final morning blew even this beautiful Bornean pitta out of the water! The red-and-blue flycatcher fest continued at Danum with our final two cyornis species, both key endemics - first a singing male Bornean Blue Flycatcher being found early in the morning close to our scenic rainforest lodge, and much later in the day a calling Long-billed Blue-Flycatcher, a Sundaic endemic, was found a little further afield. A couple of forays off-road onto trails produced a Red-naped Trogon, some good looks at a pair of the strange Rufous-winged Philentoma, the latter species one that frequently has taxonomists divided. Previously lumped in with the Old World Flycatchers, that to me at least appears understandable, the philentomas have since been placed within the largely African family, the Helmetshrikes. Another very different bird from the helmetshrike family was also picked up along the road, a small group of Large Woodshrikes were found making their way through the rainforest canopy. The same trail also gave us our first of the tricky trio of endemic wren-babblers - with a Bornean Wren-babbler that was found bouncing around in the dark leaf litter after a short pursuit off-trail. Around our lodge at lunchtime a small bird wave came through that held a couple of attractive new birds for us - a small vocal treetop party of Scarlet Minivets, and better still the pink-billed Velvet-fronted Nuthatch. A couple of Spotted Fantails backed up this colorful band. Other notable finds included some good looks at the distinctive local form of Striped Tit-babbler, that some split off as a regional endemic, Bold-striped Tit-babbler, that as the name suggests is much more strikingly marked below than the mainland forms . A trip up to the lodge's own canopy walkway, that we had all to ourselves, was a little quiet apart from a few more stunning Whiskered Treeswifts, a small group of Black-and-yellow Broadbills, and a lone powder blue Verditer Flycatcher standing sentry. None of what we were really hoping for though, Bornean Bristleheads.

One of the additional appeals for any visitor to Danum is the other wildlife aside from the array of colorful birds. Right around the lodge we were treated to repeated looks at the handsome Prevost's Squirrel, a colorful black-and-orange rainforest animal that was often seen bounding along the lodge boardwalks, and a less attractive one in the form of their regular Bearded Pig that came in for regular night 'raids' during our stay. The best way of seeing some of the best rainforest animals though is undoubtedly by taking one of their daily night rides. On this day it produced one of their special primates, in the form of the 'primitive' prosimian, Slow Loris, an attractive animal that looks like a strange cross between a cute mouse and monkey.

Day 15 (June 25) DANUM VALLEY
The Bornean Bristlehead is perhaps one of the most enigmatic and most-wanted of all the Bornean specialties. It sits alone within its own monotypic, and endemic family. They hang around in mobs in the treetops in some of the tallest and often argued, oldest rainforests in the world. This quirky bird also erratically produces strange, harsh strangled cries from the treetops (although can be silent for frustratingly long periods), that are often the first clue you have of their presence, as they can sit for long periods and therefore can be difficult to pick up as they feed unobtrusively up in the high canopy. They also seem to occupy large roaming territories and are therefore sometimes absent from some of their known haunts for long periods (weeks or even months). Thus they are far from guaranteed, and always immensely pleasing to get because of this. They are also one of Borneo's taxonomic puzzles, they appear crow-like and they have often been considered part of that less inspiring family. However they are short tailed, with a bright scarlet head with a bare orange-yellow cap offset against the more traditional black crow-like body. When seen rom below as they often are, due to their treetop existence you can sometimes also pick up their bright red feathered trousers, that contrast against the glossy black, crow-like body color. Quite simply a strange and awesome bird, that also has the endemic 'tag' and therefore is arguably even more highly desired. In short this is always a top target on the trip, and with this in mind once again we decided to focus our efforts along the road where we had a good view of some of the surrounding treetops, a pre-requisite for finding this elusive endemic.

However, before we reached the bristlehead's main hangout, we heard a close calling partridge not far from where we had seen yesterday's Blue-headed Pitta, and once again with some soft-playing a Chestnut-necklaced Partridge came walking right past us, across an open patch of leaf litter, where it was clearly visible to everyone from the road. Our morning before at Danum had been strangely devoid of calling trogons, and it seems that many of them were largely silent during both tours, making them more difficult to find than they can be. So it was a little surprising to hear a brace of colorful trogons calling within a short distance of each other along the road before we had even reached the bristlehead spot. First we heard the rapid, descending call of one of the smaller trogons, the striking Scarlet-rumped Trogon, and we found the vermillion-chested male a short time later perched beside the road. While we were still enjoying this bright bird we heard one of the larger species - Diard's Trogon, that some had missed during our final birding sessions in Taman Negara. As this bird chose to sit a little lower than usual, it took a little searching to find him before we finally saw the male perched in the open in the understorey, where he allowed us some crippling 'scope views. We then decided to get ourselves towards the known area for the Bornean Bristlehead, and it was with some relief when we heard the call as we approached the area. I had warned everyone that the bird is most often high in the canopy and can be heard over some distance, making them sometimes hard to locate. On reaching the area we believed the bird had called I played the call back, and the bird then proceeded to make a mockery of my warnings! Unusually for this species one of a pair dropped down low into a small sapling when from our raised position we could scope it almost at eye level, a rare treat for this often neck-straining species. The bird quite literally gave us the best views I had ever had, low down and fully unobscured, before it then returned to its more usual lofty position in the treetops, where it remained on view for some time and we all got repeated, prolonged looks in the telescope of this phenomenal endemic. I think it is fair to say this was close to being the top trip bird, and was certainly the highlight of this day hands down. This same area of roadside produced some other colorful additions to our list - with a male of the endemic Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker, a bright male Eastern Crimson Sunbird, a lone Lesser Cuckoo-shrike, and our fifth and final Malkoha possible of the tour - Red-billed Malkoha. An off-road hike onto a trail though was less successful as a close calling Giant Pitta remained in deep cover and out of sight for us the whole time, although a noisy group of Black Magpies were seen in the trees above this same area. This Bornean race completely lacks the white wing patches of the mainland form. Danum has some great birding and possibilities right around the lodge on occasion, aside form the 'usual' Fireback parade in the morning we also saw one of the regular Black-and-red Broadbills hanging out in the lodge garden shortly after dawn, attracted to the insects that come into the lodge lights, and best of all during lunch a massive Great-billed Heron came strolling past the veranda. Our night hunt for rainforest animals was a little quiet for them although did produce the crimson-bellied form of a sleeping Black-headed Pitta just a few feet from our vehicle.

Bornean Bristlehead, Danum Valley/Sam Woods
Danum Valley

Day 16 (June 26) DANUM VALLEY
With one of our main non-bird targets - the 'old man of the forest', better known as Orang-Utan, remaining elusive to us due to a distinct lack of any fruiting trees, we were pleased to find a huge fig with some notable activity in the crown despite not yet being in full fruit. We staked out the tree for a while in the hope of the red ape, which failed to show. However, the tree was a hive of activity and brought us some new birds and some good looks at others. No less than 4 species of barbet, and 5 species of hornbill visited during our time there along with an assortment of pigeons and a couple of flowerpeckers. Watching fruiting trees like this in southeast Asia can be truly exciting, as colorful frugivorous birds come and go, and you never quite know what will happen next. On stumbling onto this tree, the sounds of a number of calling barbets giving us the first indication that there was indeed a fruiting tree in the area, some large movements in the canopy had us homing in on a Bear-Cat or Binturong (a strange civet, that unusually possesses a prehensile tail that it uses for gripping) that was enjoying the fig feast. Eventually the tree brought us Wrinkled, Black, Bushy-crested, and Rhinoceros Hornbills, and a pair of 'scar-faced' Helmeted Hornbills were also seen in the vicinity close by. Combined with the small group of Wreathed Hornbills overflying the road later in the day this became the first of two separate days on the Borneo tour (the other one being along the Kinabatangan River), where we recorded 6 species of hornbill in a day. On the barbet front checking the frequent treetop movements with a 'scope helped us to find Brown Barbet (the Bornean endemic race tertius is sometimes split off as the endemic Bornean Brown Barbet), Blue-eared, Gold-whiskered, and Yellow-crowned Barbets. The tree also held Thick-billed and Green Imperial Pigeons in good numbers, and a scarce Brown-backed Flowerpecker was also scoped on several occasions feeding on the ripening figs. Away from the fig tree we added our final woodpecker species on the tours, with a pair of Orange-backed Woodpeckers seen along the trail becoming our 21st species of woodpecker seen on both tours combined. We also found the final half of the brace of philentomas - a male Maroon-breasted Philentoma completing the trio of Asian 'helmetshrikes' possible on the tour. Other day highlights included further Velvet-fronted Nuthatches, another Bornean Blue Flycatcher (this time a rich rufous female), another Striped Wren-babbler, and another additional new babbler for the tour, Horsfield's Babbler. Babblers are a big and highly diverse family in southeast Asia that featured very heavily on both tours, with all possible 42 species being recorded.

No one could resist another final night drive and we were glad we did it. We began with a superb Black-backed Kingfisher (a split from Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher) blinking at us in the spotlight, and continued with a pair of Slow Lorises, a tiny Lesser Mouse-Deer, several huge Sambar Deer (Asia's smallest and largest deers respectively), and Red Giant and Thomas's Flying Squirrels.

Our morning flight left very little time for hatching any final plans at Danum. However, on returning from our night drive the evening before we had heard that a pair of Orang-Utans had been found feeding on nuts close to the lodge, and therefore decided we would try before our final breakfast. Walking up the road at dawn we soon entered the mist-enshrouded trail, and heard the telltale signs of a fruit-eater being present - the sound of falling fruit. A short time later there they were-Borneo's most famous resident, a mother and young Orang-Utan, feeding noisily beside the trail just a short time after dawn. The young ape was semi-independent, feeding freely away from his mother, although any big movement she made he quickly mirrored afterwards. We watched them for all the time they would allow until the adult female moved away into the forest gloom with her young ape following closely behind her. We were now truly ready to leave Borneo's lowland forests at last!

We then ate a heart breakfast, transferred to Lahad datu for our flight to KK, and once there hopped back on a bus to head out to the realm of many of Borneo's endemic birds - Mount Kinabalu. On a good day the most prominent feature on the KK skyline is the looming form of Borneo's, and southeast Asia's, highest mountain - Gunung (or Mount) Kinabalu. This 4095m high granite massif is the tallest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea standing high above the surrounding lowlands. The height of this mountain and the various habitats that the elevation gives rise to created isolation for many of the fauna on the higher reaches, leading to a high degree of endemism on the mountain. This is especially true for plans but also for the birds too, and this is where the majority of the Bornean specialties are found. For this reason we spent quite a bit of time birding this fascinating mountain. We could not resist a quick jaunt up the mountain road where we soon found a few of our first targets - the gorgeous blue Sundaic specialty, Indigo Flycatcher, a few Bornean Whistlers, and a very confiding Sunda Bush-Warbler. Later we settled into our Kundasang resort and enjoyed the first of many good Chinese feasts there, that featured over the coming days.

Mt Kinabalu/Sam Woods

The highest peak (4095m) between the Himalayas and New Guinea

Day 18 (June 28) MOUNT KINABALU
After a pre-dawn breakfast we climbed the mountain road the ascends Gunung Kinabalu. Timing was everything for this morning and our early departure got us great looks at an Orange-headed Thrush, a shy and gorgeous citrus-colored zoothera that fed quite happily in the open on the roadside at this early hour. Also less shy at this time was a cute male Snowy-browed Flycatcher that sallied for insects from the verges (yet another blue-and-red Asian flycather!). As we climbed further up this forested mountain road we were surprised by a Crimson-headed Partridge that ran out onto the paved road in front of us, took a look at our van coming towards it, and flew off into the forest once more, a lucky early encounter with this striking endemic game bird. Thrushes were the big feature of the morning though. Before we had reached the top of the road we were getting great looks at another key endemic - Bornean Whistling-Thrush, which like many of the whistling-thrushes seems to be less shy and more active in the half light of dawn and dusk, and can then often be viewed well in the car headlights as we did. However, this is not the most wanted of the thrushes on the mountain. That title must go to the shy and extremely hard to see Everett's Thrush, a bird that like many zootheras likes to feeds in dark damp gullies, that are hard to access and it rarely comes out into the open. For the second tour running though we were truly blessed on this one. As we made our way along a final section of trail high on the mountain, I was confronted with the sight of this orange-breasted thrush feeding out in the open slap bang in the middle of the trail. I quickly jumped back to open the view up to the others, who were soon treated to rare views of this furtive endemic, before it dropped down off the trail and was lost from view. Around the power station the early morning activity is always impressive and brought us our first looks at another high mountain Bornean endemic, Mountain Black-eye, a large white-eye species that is much more common as you climb higher up the mountain. Chestnut-crested Yuhinas, a common and daily endemic also featured, as did Bornean Treepies, a Golden-naped Barbet feeding on fruits by the power station, a our first party of Sunda Cuckoo-shrikes (our fourth and final possible cuckoo-shrike of the tours), and a juvenile Besra lower down on the mountain.

Days 19 - 22 (June 29 - July 2) MOUNT KINABALU and PORING HOT SPRINGS
On these days we split our time between tracking down endemics on the mountain, and descending to the steamy lowlands around Poring Hot Springs to look for any more lowland birds. Poring was particularly for a floristic diversion to see a flowering Rafflesia species (Rafflesia pricii), a group of impressive plants that produce some of the largest flowers in the world.

Rafflesia pricii, Poring/Sam Woods
Rafflesia pricii Poring

On the mountain our best afternoon saw us following a pair of superb Whitehead's Trogons for over half an hour as they called and sallied for insects by the trail, allowing repeated and prolonged views of this cool mountain endemic. In the end we ran into another pair while walking a lower trail on the mountain on another day, although it was a great relief to get this one as they are low density, often silent and still and therefore difficult to find within the sea of forest up on the mountain. We also picked up another of the Whitehead's in the form of a brilliant Whitehead's Spiderhunter that we teed up in the scope as it called from a dead snag high in the trees along one of the mountain trails. This strikingly patterned spiderhunter, with it's highly distinctive call, must be the best looking of all the spiderhunters, a large and strange group of exclusively Asian 'sunbirds'. One of the unmissable avian features on Kinabalu are the frequent bird waves, these often being dominated by endemic Chestnut-crested Yuhinas, Bornean Whistlers, Black-capped White-eyes, Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes, Mountain Leaf-Warblers, and Yellow-breasted Warblers. Although on occasion these also held Gray-chinned Minivets, Black-and-crimson Orioles, Sunda Laughingthrushes, Sunda Cuckoo-shrikes, the dazzling emerald green-and-orange Short-tailed Magpie, and our fifth and final drongo species of the tour - Hair-crested Drongo that can at times act as a flock 'sentinel' up on Kinabalu. Our regular lunchtime stops at a restaurant overlooking the impressive mountain summit, was good this year as blooming trees in the garden were packed out with Temminck's Sunbirds, a gorgeous bright vermillion red nectar-feeder.

Eye-browed Jungle-Flycatcher, Mount Kinabalu/Sam Woods
Mount Kinabalu

As well as the bird scanning the bird waves on the mountain, there are a few ground-dwelling skulkers that are big targets up there. We had excellent views of Borneo's final endemic wren-babbler (there are two in the lowlands and one in the highlands), Mountain Wren-babbler, when a party of 6 or more moved through in the understorey with a mixed babbler flock. Another babbler, Temminck's Babbler was a little more shy, showing to us just once on the mountain (thankfully we picked up another on our return journey to KK). White-browed Shortwings were very vocal and could be heard regularly singing from the roadsides, although it was necessary to track one down by going into the forest and luring it onto open ground within the understorey. A hike up to a higher more stunted forested area on the mountain was necessary to pick up the highly localized endemic, Kinabalu Friendly-Warbler, although the hoped-for Flavescent Bulbuls were strangely absent up there, only to turn up much lower down the mountain a few days later. This small trek also brought us another look at the endemic Crimson-headed Partridge that appeared suddenly on the trail in front of us, and further Mountain Black-eyes that are notably more common higher up the mountain than many of the usual birding areas there. The two species of partridge on Gunung Kinabalu are both fairly common on the mountain, being heard on most days, however getting sight of either of them is a bit more tricky. We also bumped into a highly responsive pair of Red-breasted Partridges, that crossed the trail and moved around us a number of times, completing a good brace of endemic partridges. On most days on the mountain we heard the subtle calls of the endemic Bornean Stubtail. This tiny, near tailless warbler emits a really soft, very high-pitched call that can be difficult to even hear at times as it furtively moves through the undergrowth. After a few sneaky individuals denied us more than fleeting looks, we finally got a couple of great views at this stubby endemic along a few different forest trails. We also ensured we cruised the road a short time after dawn when a number of shy interior forest birds sometimes come out and feed more cop-operatively in the open. This certainly did the trick with Eye-browed Jungle-Flycatchers, several of which were found feeding by the road early in the morning, one of which could be watched as it watched for insects from a roadside crash barrier!

Whitehead's Trogon, Mount Kinabalu/Sam Woods

Having walked many trails and birded the montane road at on Gunung Kinabalu, we decided that we had covered the mountain well and opted to bird Tambunan again on our return journey to KK with the specific aim of finding another Fruit-hunter for someone who had missed the crippling views we had before, and also to try and nail a Bornean Barbet, for which Tambunan is the key site for in Sabah. It turned out to be a fantastic final day in Borneo's Crocker mountain range. On arrival we were confronted with the sight of a magnificent Blyth's Hawk-Eagle perched majestically beside the car. As on our Tambunan day before, a short time after arrival a beautiful male Fruit-hunter popped in to feed on tiny fruits right by where we parked our van, sharing the tree with the endemic Golden-naped Barbet. A number of Mountain Barbets, that we only recorded at this site on the tour, were also in evidence. However, the hoped-for Bornean Barbet was initially silent in the first areas we checked, and despite pursuing several calling birds in other spots we failed to get anything but a poor flight view of a bird leaving a fruiting fig. However, on returning to my favored spot much later in the morning we found that the bird had finally woken up and was calling right out in the open at last, even posing for rare photos, to complete the trio. So on this final highland day we saw all the three Bornean endemic barbets well and also had more views of the massive Gold-whiskered Barbet, to make it four species for the day. A fitting end to our time in these endemic rich mountains. We also enjoyed further views of the striking White-browed Shrike-babbler, Checker-throated Woodpecker, Sunda Cuckoo-shrikes, Gray-rumped Treeswifts, Bornean Bulbuls and added Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike that came through in one of those classic montane bird waves.

We then said our farewells to Bruce who was leaving us for home and the remainder of the group who were going onto Sukau for the extension, enjoyed some relaxing birding around the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, picking up our first White-bellied Sea-Eagles, Oriental Darters, and Pacific Reef-herons, and more White-breasted Woodswallows, Common Ioras, Pied Trillers, Brahminy Kites, Collared Kingfishers and Purple Swamphens.

Bornean Barbet, Tambunan/Sam Woods

After a short flight to the coastal town of Sandakan, in Sabah's southeastern region, we boarded a boat and transferred to our picturesque forest lodge on the banks of the mighty Kinabatangan River. This area in southeastern Sabah is a vital reserve for both birds and mammals, being a notable stronghold especially for one of Borneo's most recognizable primates. Before we reached our lodge we were getting our first looks at these very odd, bulbous-nosed Proboscis Monkeys that are most abundant in the coastal mangroves and riparian situations that the Kinabatangan catchment provides. In fact our ride into the lodge turned out brilliantly as we also saw one of our main target birds before reaching the lodge too, when a shout went up from the front of the boat which drew us to a Storm's Stork perched brazenly on the very top of a tree on the riverbank. This pied, red-billed stork relies heavily on specific wetland areas within rainforest, and has therefore undergone a significant decrease in its population due to the clearance of large tracts of forest for palm oil plantations and timber extraction, leading this stunning stork to now be listed as globally endangered. Luckily for us the Sukau region of the Kinabatangan River is one of its main strongholds, as we found out over the coming days.
The ride in was fairly productive giving us a great taste of what was to come over the following days, and showed off some of the treats in store at Sukau. We saw Blue-eared and Stork-billed Kingfishers (the latter here in Borneo being pale-headed birds, compared to the dark brown-capped birds we had seen on the mainland around Taman Negara), and our first Borneo sightings of Oriental Pied Hornbills (that would be seen daily thereafter). A Rhinoceros Hornbill flashed his bright orange 'horn' at us from the riverbanks, and a small party of Long-tailed Parakeets over flew also. Handsome chestnut-and-white Brahminy Kites regularly cruised above our boat, a bird that was very familiar to us from our time in coastal mangroves in Kuala Selangor on the Peninsula, were good to see in numbers once more.

Once we had checked in we enjoyed more great looks at comical Proboscis Monkeys on an afternoon boat ride, that saw us come to face-to-face for the first time with the most well-endowed dominant male of the troop. He sat there looking deadly serious, sporting a ridiculously long and bulbous 'nose-piece', while the other members of the troop clumsily played all around him, frequently falling unskillfully in the process! After a good feed at the lodge we went out on one of their infamous night cruises, which are most often thought of for the mammals although can be very good for birds too. We found this out when we ran into a superb roosting pair of White-crowned Hornbills close to the lodge. This 'punk-haired' hornbill is arguably the rarest of the Bornean hornbills, although the Sukau area does provide possibly the best chances at getting the species. We were definitely privileged on this tour to have seen them both here at Sukau, and also in the lowland forests of Danum. We also had our first good looks at the monstrous Buffy Fish-Owl, a common owl along the banks of the Kinabatangan and one we would see nightly thereafter.

Drifting silently down a deserted forest-fringed creek, (off the animal rich Kinabatangan River), that is how we started this very memorable day. This area is great for birds and other wildlife, and is the perfect 'chill out' venue for the end of a long birding trip. Not too long later we heard one of our main targets for the day - one of the many Hooded Pittas that hold territories along the Kinabatangan's banks piped up, began calling, and was soon being ogled as it sang from the top of a clearly visible branch. Other birds watched from the comfort of our boat that morning included our third trip Diard's Trogon, and a flashy male Blue-headed Pitta that hopped out in the open along the banks of a small tributary off the Kinabatangan. Although most people were most impressed with the white morph, long-tailed male Asian Paradise-flycatcher, a truly dazzling monarch species. Out the back of our resort a cute Rufous Piculet was found hanging out in the bamboo that they seem to so often favor.

The afternoon trip out to some huge bat caves close to Sukau were very interesting, if not exactly pleasant! The highlight there was seeing the huge never-ending stream of bats leaving these huge caves at dusk, when the local Bat Hawks moved in to try and pick them off as they were emerging to feed. The Bat Hawks did not require a dusk vigil to see them though, as a pair had decided to nest right by the entrance to the caves. So, just after hopping out of the car, we located their large stick nest in a huge roadside tree and also found both the adults perched impressively in the same tree, for unforgettable scope views of this unique raptor. However, their true grace was not appreciated until the bat show later on, when both birds took to the air and plunged menacingly into the bat stream on several occasions. On a few of these the bird was seen taking a bat, which it later returned to the nest with where we could observe the pair tearing their prey apart and feeding it to their well-hidden chick. Another reason for visiting the caves is to see their most-prized asset - the swiftlets. Thousands of these birds nest within the cave complex, of four different species - Glossy, Mossy-nest, and Black-nest Swiftlets, and the most prized of all, Edible-nest Swiftlets. These confusingly similar swifts are best identified by seeing them on their distinctively different nests, all of which were on display at Gomantong. The Edible-nests are most prized, as their nests are comprised entirely of the swiftlets saliva, that is the main ingredient for edible-nest soup, so highly desired by the Chinese. The Black-nests, which dominated the nest colonies within the 'Black Cave' we visited, are also harvested as around 50% of their nests also comprise the saliva that is required, although they require a little more refining to eliminate their other main nest ingredient, feathers. The Mossy-nest Swiftlets nests comprise no saliva at all, and so are left untouched. In recent years the harvesting of this fragile natural resource has been tightly controlled to ensure they only collect the nests, (that they rebuild for each nesting season), during times when the swiftlets are not breeding. The other fascinating thing about these birds is that they are some of only a select band of bird species that are use echolocation to navigate while flying around within the dark depths of the caves. To observe all this interesting activity we walked a short boardwalk around the cave which was truly fascinating, if not pleasant, as the strong smell of bat and swiftlet guano hung in the air, and masses of attendant cockroaches swarmed over this rich natural resource. As I say, not exactly pleasant but a pretty unusual and memorable experience all the same.

The Kinabatangan River is well known as a mecca for hornbills. We got the full treatment on this day, when we enjoyed looks at no less than 6 different species, including the seldom seen Helmeted Hornbill (to add to the Wrinkled, Black, Oriental Pied, Rhinoceros and Bushy-crested all seen perched on this hornbill-packed day). Along with the pair of White-crowned Hornbills and small group of Wreathed Hornbills encountered on our first day there, we ended up picking up all the 8 Bornean hornbill species in our time around Sukau.

Another thrilling sight on this day was watching overhead from the comfort of our boat as a kettle of 11 Storm's Storks rose on a thermal above us. As this is an endangered species, and occurs at low densities throughout its range, it is rare to see such gatherings. A further pair later on during our second boat trip brought the day total to an impressive 13, with 14 seen in total during our time around Sukau. Searching the banks of the rivers also brought us some raptors with more Lesser Fish-Eagles, (by far the commonest of the brace of fish-eagles that occur there), and then later a much larger fish-eagle took off from the bank ahead of the boat, showing a distinctly bi-colored tail. The large size and this striking tail pattern confirmed it as our only trip sighting of Gray-headed Fish-Eagle. A daily feature along the Kinabatangan River was the red-headed, long-tailed forms of Long-tailed Parakeets, for which Sukau is a key site for the species. Right around the lodge during lunch we were able to observe a family of Black-and-yellow Broadbills that gave prolonged views during the heat of the day. Aside from a number of hornbills, including the massive forms of a pair of Helmeted Hornbills sailing over our boat, the afternoon cruise was quit due to an afternoon onslaught of rain. Thankfully just before it rained a hairy red shape moving through the riverside trees brought us onto a young male Orang-Utan, Borneo's true 'king-of-the-jungle' that set off quickly when the first hints of rain began to fall. Another night boat cruise was taken in search of some of the night creatures, that unfortunately were elusive at this time, due to high water levels pushing them to feed elsewhere. However, the birds seen during these night cruises were always entertaining. On this night we bumped into 5 different Buffy Fish-Owls, some of which were absurdly obliging, allowing us to float right up to them in our open-topped 'boat hide'.

Diard's Trogon/Nick Athanas
(Nick Athanas)

This was our departure day, with very little time for birding between packing, taking van rides, catching flights and generally preparing for 'the off'. However, Karen and Mary just could not resist one more short foray out the back of our lodge nestled on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. We were very glad we did. Although not a newbie for us, we got the most sublime views I have ever had of one of Borneo's most dazzling avian jewels, the Black-headed Pitta. The performance this cracking bird gave left no room for any others to get a look in for the top trip bird, initiating comments like 'you just cannot beat that can you?' How right they were. The bird was first heard giving its distinctive monotone whistle a short walk from our rainforest cabins, and then quickly after unbelievably hopped out onto open ground in front of us. What made this so special was that the bird just fed and called in the open for over 10 minutes, when it allowed us views from every side and almost all the while the bird was positioned in just perfect light, that brought out the vivid crimson belly, and subtle glistening blue colors on its sublime body to magic effect. Quite literally it was a breathtaking encounter, that was a fitting note to end on. A shy Bornean endemic showing off out the back of our final rainforest retreat of the trip. Pittas were earmarked at the trip start as highly wanted amongst some of the group, their jeweled plumage lending them their old (and I think), much more attractive name of the jewel-thrushes. These beautiful birds simply leap out of the field guide on your brief flick through and remain in the mind from then on, so it was great to get such a crippling all satisfying look of such a cool representative of this longed-for family at the 'death'. Simply superb. Another male Diard's Trogon hanging out in the trees above the pitta was not to be sniffed at either! On our return car journey we also picked up a couple of pairs of Jerdon's Bazas, a late addition to the trip, and our final new bird for the tour, before we boarded our KK bound plane and connected with our flights for home.

With over 260 birds accumulated on the Peninsula alone, and over 370 species recorded for both tours combined, we were well happy with our return. This included over 30 of the Bornean endemics that were the inevitable focus of our time in Sabah. Aside from the Black-headed Pitta, the turquoise-capped Blue-headed Pitta at Danum, the outrageous Great Argus at the same venue, and the shocking red male Whitehead's Trogon on Kinabalu that we followed for over half an hour, were picked out as some of the obvious highlights. However, the commonest comment in regard to this was that there were just too many top birds to narrow it down. We certainly enjoyed an assortment of colorful pittas, an array of vibrant trogons, and a bunch of brilliant broadbills (Bruce picked the stunning first pair of Black-and-yellow Broadbills close to Fraser's Hill as his personal highlight), to name just a few of the unforgettable memories of the trip. Encountering the 'Great Red Ape of Asia' - Orang-Utan - was also a great, great privilege.