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.
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 roundabouts and on inquiring, Shifu explained that Kundasang is famous for its fresh harvest and the roundabout 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.
Mountain Black-eye’s soon flew in, but they kept to the top canopy depriving us of clear views. Shifu then led us to the platform over the Timpohon Gate hoping for better views and on mapping their flight path, we realized that they were using a nearby tree to rest while moving between their favorite far away trees. But soon, they got wary of our movements and stopped perching on the nearby tree as well. Realizing that the Black-eye’s would not return and the morning activity rapidly dwindling, we returned to the hotel for breakfast.
After a filling breakfast consisting of improvised sandwiches and juice, we started our drive back to the Kinabalu Park. However, midway, our vehicle started loosing power and we were forced to pull over. The engine seemed starved of fuel and both Rishi and Shifu agreed that it was a chocked fuel or air filter that was causing the problem, most likely from our earlier rice field outing. However, the engine shortly regained power as if nothing happened and we continued our drive to the Kinabalu Park and jumped on the trail system as soon as we got there.
For the next two hours we kept silently walking the trails hoping to catch any movement or sound, but none of our senses were able to break into the jungle’s camouflage. To add to our challenge, clouds began to envelop the forest and it started to get dark. We still pushed on and just when frustration was creeping in, we heard the calls of the Mountain Wren-babblers. Deciphering the call route, Shifu concluded that the birds would most probably cross the road and we doubled up exiting from the Silau-Silau trail just in time to catch a glimpse of the first of the wren-babblers crossing the road. Gradually all birds crossed over and started foraging in the roadside bushes and we finally got an opportunity to take a few pictures of these birds.
Clouds were thickening by now and realizing that it would rain anytime, we retraced our way back via the Silau-Silau trail. However, bird activity was almost down to zero and we only encountered a mixed flock of Bornean Green Magpies, Chestnut-hooded and Sunda Laughingthrushes on the way back.
Rain only got heavier by the time we reached the HQ Canteen and since we had nothing better to do, Shifu went to the town to get the vehicle checked and returned in an hour to confirm that the culprit was indeed the fuel filter.
Weather was still not very conducive for birding, but Shifu tried to cheer us up and told us that the Partridges are usually more active in the rain and we should try for them. So, we were back walking the trails, but the next three hours drew a complete blank, not a whiff of the partridges or for that matter, any other bird!! However, we did see a Treeshrew and got some fantastic views of a cute Whitehead’s Pygmy Squirrel along the way.
By 1700 Hrs, it was almost dark and we decided to head back to the hotel.
24 August 2017: Day 4 (Kinabalu Park)
We followed our usual routine today and started off for the Kinabalu Park at 0600 Hrs driving straight to the Timpohon Gate. Just before the gate, we spotted an Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher (Bornean Shade Dweller) along with a Snowy-browed Flycatcher.
A Whitehead’s Broadbill was again seen at the Timpohon Gate while a Blyth’s Shrike-Babbler and a Chestnut-crested Yuhina were seen flying around in the nearby branches. However, we did not spend much time here and went straight to the platform above the Timpohon Gate and waited for the Mountain Black-eye’s. Soon enough, we heard the calls of the Black-eye’s and they started perching on the nearby tree. We were careful this time not to scare them away and were rewarded with some great views of this bird.
Apart from the Mountain Black-eye’s, a Golden-naped Barbet nicely showed up and a Sunda Bush Warbler was spotted along the roadside bushes next to the gate.
We walked a bit further down and no sooner did we enter the Bukit Ular trail, Anjana froze and directed our attention towards the undergrowth where an Everett’s Thrush was calmly sitting. The bird remained there for a while and we did not miss the opportunity to take a few pictures of the bird.
Shifu then heard a White-browed Shortwing calling and we started to follow the call, eventually pinpointing the location. But there was a distraction, a Stubtail calling from the other side!!!
We soon spotted the Shortwing in the undergrowth to our left and a Stubtail to our right, and the best part was that both of them had not detected us till now. While we could see the Shortwing, getting a picture proved difficult, so Anjana went for the Stubtail, exactly when the Shortwing decided to cross the trail in the open and Rishi excitedly tried to grab Anjana’s attention scaring both the Shortwing and the Stubtail away!!!
While Shifu and Anjana wanted to bury Rishi there and then, we all were still very happy with the sightings. 🙂
After a quick lunch at the HQ canteen, we resumed birding and drove upto Rajah Lodge where the Pink Medinella bushes were attracting several Black-sided (Bornean) Flowerpeckers. However, Shifu noticed a blooming Mistletoe tree and explained that the Whitehead’s Spiderhunter loves Mistletoe flowers. Shifu had not even finished his statement when he excitedly quipped: I hear the Spiderhunter, followed by there it is!!! A Whitehead’s Spiderhunter flew in from the forest and perched on the Mistletoe tree giving us excellent scope views and even a few pictures.
Other birds seen in the area were Grey-throated Babblers and a Temmink’s Sunbird along with a couple of butterflies and a snake.
We then moved back to the trails and as usual walked and walked till evening, but without adding any new species except a Mountain Leaf Warbler and a Black-sided Flowerpecker that was seen next to the park HQ feeding on the Pink Medinella bushes.
Back at the hotel, Shifu also showed us a Long-tailed Shrike with a completely black head that was spotted in the field behind the hotel.