Sabah

Background:
After our marathon road-trip across India and a few short trips thereafter; the plan was to wait out the monsoon season at home and take some much deserved rest. However, the nomads in us were soon yearning for another adventure and to escape the Indian monsoons, the world map was spread out to scout for potential destinations.

With its ancient rainforests and an an impressive array of wildlife, the island of Borneo soon captivated our imagination and coupled with the availability of several on-line trip reports and tour operator itineraries, we got the confidence to easily pull this trip off independently in the short timespan we had for planning.
Planning phase:
Politically divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, we zeroed in on the Malaysian part of Borneo, primarily owing to a speedy eVisa program and its strong focus on tourism.

Within the Malaysian Borneo, we choose to visit the state of Sabah due to its well developed wildlife centric infrastructure, several protected area’s and the ease of travel within the state.

Major Airports: Kota Kinabalu (Sabah’s Capital), Sandakan, Lahad Datu

While digging for more information over the the web, a chance visit to http://borneobirds.com/ captured our attention and an exploratory mail was promptly responded by CK Leong.
We soon realized that we were dealing with an experienced birder and gradually our trust and respect grew stronger and we started referring him as Taiko (Big Brother).
After understanding our needs, Taiko came up with a crisp and balanced itinerary along with a reasonable price. The benefit of having Taiko with us far outweighed the small cost saving that we could have achieved by going independently and as such, we promptly accepted Taiko’s offer.
Based on the itinerary finalized with Taiko, we booked our flights with Air Asia and ended up extending our stay by four days as the total cost of flight + accommodation was cheaper than flying out earlier. Our final itinerary was as follows:
Aug 20, 2017: Flight Delhi – Kuala Lumpur – Kota Kinabalu
Aug 21, 2017: Arrival at Kota Kinabalu, 1205 Hrs
Aug 22, 2017: Kota Kinabalu – Kinabalu Park
Aug 23, 2017: Kinabalu Park
Aug 24, 2017: Kinabalu Park
Aug 25, 2017: Kinabalu Park – Crocker Range (Gunung Alab/Rafflesia Forest)
Aug 26, 2017: Crocker Range (Gunung Alab/Rafflesia Forest) – Crocker Range (Keningau)
Aug 27, 2017: Crocker Range Park – Maliau Basin Conservation Area
Aug 28, 2017: Maliau Basin Conservation Area
Aug 29, 2017: Maliau Basin Conservation Area
Aug 30, 2017: Maliau Basin Conservation Area – Kota Kinabalu
Aug 31, 2017: Free
Sep 1, 2017: Free
Sep 2, 2017: Free
Sep 3, 2017: Free
Sep 4, 2017: Kota Kinabalu (1410 Hrs) – Delhi (2200 Hrs)
We did not plan anything for our free days and kept all options open till the very end.
Birding with CK Leong:
A walking encyclopedia on the Birds of Sabah, we quickly elevated him from “Taiko CK” to “Master Shifu” after being completely blown away by his skills and knowlege. Shifu’s vast birding experience and in-depth knowledge of bird behavior & habitat ensured that we got to see the birds without disturbing either the bird or its habitat. Needless to say, we would have surely missed out on many birds if Shifu was not with us. Apart from birding, Shifu managed all our accommodations and ensured that we were served the best possible vegetarian food wherever we went.
21 August 2017: Day 1 (Delhi – Kuala Lumpur – Kota Kinabalu)
After an overnight flight and a two hour layover at Kuala Lumpur, we arrived at the Kota Kinabalu airport at 1200 Hrs. Immigration formalities were quick and a short taxi ride got us to the Casuarina Hotel by 1300 Hrs. While the birds were still active in the afternoon, we had lunch at the in-house restaurant and took a much needed nap before walking down to the Tanjung Aru beach for some birding.
Thick-billed Spiderhunter and a Brown-throated Sunbird were spotted within the hotel premises while birds like the Zebra Dove, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Chestnut Munia, Javan Myna, Asian Glossy Starling and the Yellow-vented Bulbul were all spotted perched on the power lines and the surrounding bushes along the road leading to the beach.

A couple of Plantain Squirrels were also observed foraging in the nearby trees.

Once inside the beach park, it did not take us long to spot the Blue-naped Parrot that was seen perched on a Casuarina tree.

Other birds spotted during the evening were several Long-tailed Parakeets, Green Imperial Pigeon, Pink-necked Green Pigeon and White-breasted Woodswallows.

The beach was clean and pretty lively with many locals and tourists enjoying the sun and the sand while the nearby food court seemed like a popular hangout with the locals. However, we soon returned to our room and slept early since we had an early start the next day.

Accommodation: Casuarina Hotel
A small, no frills hotel with the only advantage being its proximity to the Tanjung Aru beach. Rooms were a bit run down and we felt that the whole place required an overhaul. However, considering the price and especially the convenience of birding nearby, an overnight stay was not much of an issue.

22 August 2017: Day 2 (Kota Kinabalu – Tempasuk rice fields – Kinabalu Park)
Shifu picked us up from the hotel at 0500 Hrs and we proceeded to the Tempasuk rice fields in Shifu’s workhorse, a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser reaching by 0630Hrs. Soon we stopped to have a closer look at a few Stints feeding nearby which were identified as Long-toed and Red-necked Stints.
Before proceeding further, Shifu prepared some hot coffee and treated us to some delicious Cheese buns and walnut bread. All filled up and energized, we continued scanning the fields while driving slowly and stopping whenever something interesting was spotted.
In the next two hours, we spotted several birds like the Javan Pond Heron, Scaly-breasted Munias, Long-tailed Shrike, White-breasted Waterhen, Common Sandpiper, Darter, Wandering Whistling Ducks, Cinnamon Bittern and the Black-backed Swamphen. Other interesting sightings for us were a pair of Pied Trillers and the different looking Yellow-bellied Prinia’s from their Indian cousins. We also got an opportunity to see the nest farming of Edible Nest Swiftlets along with a Buff-banded Rail that Shifu told us is slowly expanding its range into Sabah.

Shifu had timed the morning session perfectly as after 0830 Hrs, the heat and the extreme humidity made birding almost impossible and we then commenced the next leg of the drive towards Kinabalu Park.
We reached Kinabalu Park in about two hours and started birding right away crisscrossing the well laid out trail system. In the next two hours, we managed to spot several common Kinabalu birds like the Bornean Whistling Thrush, Ochraceous Bulbul, Bornean Whistler, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, a soaring Blyth’s Hawk Eagle and even got some great views of the sensitive Bornean Forktail.

After a quick lunch break at the HQ canteen, we decided to drive up to the Timpohon Gate, however, Shifu stopped much earlier as he wanted to investigate a fruiting tree on the roadside and as soon as we got out of the vehicle, Rishi almost shouted, Broadbill and Shifu calmed him down and added Whitehead’s. However, Shifu had other things in mind and while we we were busy observing the Broadbill, Shifu was concentrating on a call he had heard and soon called us over and pointed upwards and said Fruithunter. As the Whitehead’s Broadbill was perched calmly, Anjana decided to take a few pictures of the Fruithunter first, however, soon a movement in the roadside bush caught her attention and Anjana exclaimed: Pale-faced Bulbul!!!
While the Bulbul vanished into the bushes soon after giving a brief appearance, the Whitehead’s Broadbill and the Fruithunter remained in the area offering prolonged views.

It was still not over as a mixed flock of Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush and Bornean Green Magpie noisily announced their presence followed by a lone Golden-naped Barbet quietly feeding on the fruiting tree. Among all the action, a Yellow breasted Warbler was busy working on its nest, a Bornean Treepie was spotted high up in the canopy while Indigo and Snowy-browed Flycatchers were seen among the lower branches.

Apart from all the birding action, we also saw a Jentink’s and Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel apart from a Crested Green Lizard.

We remained in the vicinity of the fruiting tree till fading daylight eventually made us call it a day and proceeded to Kundasang to check-in at the Cottage Hotel.
The first thing we noticed about Kundasang were the elaborate vegetable statues that adorned the many round-abouts and on inquiring, Shifu explained that Kundasang is famous for its fresh harvest and the round-about decoration is a way for the local administration to showcase its heritage.

Impressed, we reached the Cottage Hotel and checked in to our simple, clean room. We soon joined Shifu at the in-house restaurant for dinner and were surely glad to be in the vegetable capital of Sabah as we could finally enjoy some vegetarian dishes for dinner.
23 August 2017: Day 3 (Kinabalu Park)
We were off to the Kinabalu Park at sharp 0600 Hrs and drove straight to the Timpohon Gate where we waited for the birds to wake up while warming ourselves up over a steaming hot cup of coffee that Shifu prepared for all of us.
Birds slowly started to emerge and we managed to spot a few new species like the Little Cuckoo Dove, Grey-chinned Minivet, Black-capped White-eye, Yellow-breasted Warbler, White-throated Fantail and a flock of Chestnut-crested Yuhinas.