The aim of this four month trip was certainly focused on finding a good number of endemics within three Asian countries, but not exhaustively so (see my Taiwan and Philippines report here http://www.travellingbirder.com/tripreports/view_birding_tripreport.php?id=285). There were many other fantastic birds that I spent time chasing and a good deal of the trip was also spent diving with whale sharks and other great creatures. Where else can you surface from having just swam with turtles and sharks to see Pied Imperial Pigeons and Black-naped Fruit Doves as I did on one day at Sipidan Island.
This report as is often the case, but more precisely so (hopefully), is intended to provide some update on any existing gen where possible and to provide some that doesn´t seem to be readily available. I will try not to cover any existing info even where it pertains to accommodations and other related miscellanea. I have also made no attempt to fully list all the endemics or specials I saw, I am glad to say there were too many! For these reasons I have kept it very short and to the point.
Danum Valley Field Centre
Our stay here was very successful and we managed to find almost all of our targets, along with some surprises.
We had always intended to stay in the campsite but our plans were almost scrapped when a group of university students booked out the first camp, and the second camp was closed off due to renovations. After finding out that the renovations were not yet underway, and that the problem was only rotten floor boards between the kitchen and sleeping area, we managed to convince management to allow us to stay anyway (as long as we didn´t hold them responsible for any injuries we might have sustained by falling through the boards!).
This meant we were to have the entire campsite to ourselves for our full stay. It´s a great little campsite, surrounded entirely by forest and lies at the end of a quiet little track , far from disturbance. Just before the end of the road through the field centre compound, the road turns up to the left, between the rest-houses and the VIP rooms. It then passes a small water tank (good area for Brown Barbet and Silver-rumped Swift) and passes through the forest (Rufous-winged Philentoma) until it stops right at the end of the camping shelter.
Around camp itself there were some good birds and we saw both Blue-headed Pitta and Black-headed Pitta from our dining table. I called the Blue-headed in closer using my laptop and watched it for a few seconds through the foliage. Crested Fireback walked through camp most mornings and evenings and a pair of Brown Wood-Owls sat in the dead branches above the walkway to the kitchen area or in surrounding trees. We were only here to observe them on one occasion as it rained on a number of evenings and we were out walking when it didn´t.
Along with these species there were a number of other birds that we recorded in and around camp including Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler, Rufous-fronted Babbler, Maroon-breasted Philentoma (at the trail entrance), Tailorbirds, Short-tailed Babbler, Black Magpie, Crested Jay, Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo, Lesser Cuckoo-shrike, Black-and-yellow and Banded Broadbill, Blue-eared Barbet, Asian Black Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Grey-rumped Treeswift, Raffles Malkoha. On the mammal front, we saw Bornean Gibbon (seen calling in a large tree above camp) and Maroon Langur as well as the resident Bearded Pig.
There is a trail leading from the far end of the kitchen, passing through some productive forest, and that gave us many species during our stay. Follow the trail all the way up until you come to a junction but approach quietly as this is where a Great Argus has his dancing ground. Taking a left will lead you down to the compound. Instead, take a right and walk a short distance till you reach the top of the ridge. This is a good spot for Banded Broadbill, and a little further down before you reach a small gully, Striped Wren-Babbler can be coaxed in for close views with a little playback.
Most of the other good birding to be had is on the Grid Trails where most birders spend the greater portion of their time. While there is a good deal of gen regarding these trails, the birding is quite unpredictable and we had a few surprises.
Notable of which was a Malaysian Honeyguide calling right above our heads one day - Turn North at W10 N0 and continue rising to the top of a ridge where you come to a very open understory in the forest. We were so excited at the time we cannot remember if it was at W10-N2 or N3, but the bird was quite conspicuous by call (remember that the bird calls from quite low down) and was perched right above the marker. If anybody finds the bird on a future trip please let me know which marker it is.
Between W10-N0 and W15-N0 we had Bornean Wren-Babbler as well as Rufous-collared Kingfisher. Along the first few hundred metres of trail heading North from W0-N0 there are a few small streams, two of which held Chestnut-capped Forktail. Large-billed and Bornean Blue-Flycatcher were only seen on the grid trail system
While we had great birds in general on these trails, and of course wonderful views of Orang-utan, we saw a number of good species elsewhere:
A short way up the road from the bridge leading to the grid trails there is a small ´education centre´ overlooking the river. Beside the balcony is a tree that was in fruit during our stay, and which provided many species at close range including a plethora of Bulbuls like Streaked, Grey-bellied and Black-and-white Bulbul, Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker and various other fruit eating birds. Scoping across the river provided our best perched views of Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot in a flowering vine and scrub along the river bank below yielded Yellow-bellied Prinia and Dusky Munia. In the low shrubs lining the road behind the centre we regularly saw Purple-naped Sunbird.
Another productive area of mostly secondary forest was the road into Danum. Many of the Spiderhunters, Sunbirds, Flowerpeckers, Barbets and more can be seen along the roadside and a trip there during early hours of the morning can be very rewarding. Round the biggest bend on your way out of the compound there is a very large, smooth-trunked tree over the road that held Bat Hawk until around 11am every morning. The Bizzare Bornean Bristlehead made an appearance on two occasions in the first patch of reasonably closed canopy forest along the road, where White-crowned Fantail also sat in the road for great views. Nearby, we had fleeting views of a Chestnut-capped Thrush that provided much excitement.
NB* A night drive (MR110, max 6pax) is a must along this road for mammal enthusiasts and we had great sightings of various mammals during our stay.
Leading from the other side of a small bridge below the restaurant, are few trails including the nature trail and Tembaling Waterfall trail. There are a few small towers, a large Fig tree and a couple of animal wallows. We had the most success on the Tembaling trail during our stay but did not bother with the towers.
Keep to the left once you cross the river and head to the Tree Platform. Shortly after passing the platform, take the trail to Tembaling and keep climbing till you pass a small sign beside the trail marked ´Plot 7´. Shortly afterward, look for the ´Plot 8´ sign up to the left and a short distance in from the trail. Climb up to the edge of the ridge behind the sign and play tape for Black-throated Wren-Babbler here. This is where I had my only views but cracking ones at that! Just a short way up from this we saw our first Rufous-tailed Shama, but were to see a few along the same trail, later on in the day. It was also along the top end of the ridge on this trail where we were happy to add Bornean Yellow Muntjac to our mammal list.
Worth mentioning as it had some good bird numbers and a very active Great Argus that allowed much closer approaches than many of the other individuals.
Transportation to the centre goes in and out on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays and costs MR50 per person for the return journey. We took all our own food and payed MR20 to rent a cooker for our stay. This meant we weren´t tied to the meal schedules which would have made birding difficult. If you wish to ´camp´ you won´t need a tent, in fact their long A-frame shelter has 20 stretchers and plenty of room, a big kitchen area, flushing toilets, dining tables and a cupboard for goods. It´s all open-sided and I was never without binoculars while under cover. Reservations and details can be sorted out by phone or email to the various numbers provided in reports and on their website www.ysnet.org.my/Maliau/index.htm. Alternatively, you can visit the office in Lahad Datu(not recommended without prior notice). It´s just near the airport runway where many of the long distance buses stop (just around the corner from the gas station), most taxi drivers and locals know it.
Gunung Emas Highlands Resort Tree Cabins (Barred Eagle-Owl)
Along the road to the Rafflesia Center there is a roadside hotel (km52) with some cabins built in to the trees in the forest across the road. We decided to stay here (MR50/double) and scope out it´s birding potential. Though basic, these cabins provided for some relaxed birding after the slog of the grid trails at Danum. It also provided an introduction to the higher altitude birds, and a few species that would prove to be elusive later.
One such species was the Whitehead´s Spiderhunter. We saw the bird perched atop the trees in the garden, while watching from the restaurant balcony. It was fairly regular and shared the garden with most of the other specialities we were to see here including a single Mountain Black-eye, Black-sided Flowerpecker, Little Pied Flycatcher, Indigo Flycatcher, Mountain Tailorbird, Sunda Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crested Yuhina, Bornean Treepie, Black-breasted Fruit-Hunter, Golden-naped Barbet, Little Cuckoo-Dove. Although we didn´t spend much time here (poor weather), it shows a little potential and lies just a few kilometres from the Rafflesia center for Bornean and Mountain Barbet along with other specials. We also had a great surprise here in the form of a Barred Eagle-Owl. We had great views of a bird perched just below our cabin one evening. I lost my notes where I had written the cabin number (7?) but it was all the way up the stairs and first in the row of cabins on the left.
To get there, take a Tembunan bound bus from the terminal area at the back of town along Jln Padang, not the main long-distance terminal located out of town. Almost all buses make the stop at Gunung Emas anyway, and from here it´s a short hitch or a long wait for a bus with an empty seat, in order to get to Rafflesia. The return to KK is less difficult as the buses usually have spare seating.
Kinabalu National Park
Well covered in other reports and not worth much extra mention though I do have a hint for those on a budget or without reservation. Yes, the accommodation in the park is quite pricey (Sutera Sanctuary in Wisma Sabah, KK) and does book up quickly but it is not the only option. There are a few lodges within easy walking distance from the gate that provide another option. We stayed at Rina Ria just 500m down the road from the gate, in a big room (MR80) with a great view of the valley, for less than it would have cost for two dorm beds within the park.
Of course, this meant we had to pay the entrance fee when entering the park everyday, but is was worth the extra comfort. It also put us close the the restaurant just outside the gate which serves good food and sells supplies at much more reasonable prices than inside the park. I had no trouble entering the park just before dawn from where I ran up the hill to the various trails seeing some great stuff along the way. There is no need to do this tough climb on foot though, you can jump on the shuttle or thumb down one of the many cars that pass throughout the day.
The only birds of significance that I saw in places not mentioned in previous reports were the Whitehead´s Trogon and Bare-headed Laughingthrush. The Trogon was in the forest just below the 1000m marker on the Kiau View Trail and the Laughingthrush was in a large mixed flock that passed by the km 2.5 marker early most mornings.
Nature Lodge (Kinabatangan)
The Kinabatangan is another area well covered by existing literature but most of it has focused on the same areas. Sukau is the standard choice for birders, and for good reason, but it´s not in a price range that everyone can afford. We weren´t short of many species by the time we started this leg of the journey but we wanted try and get them while exploring a new area of the river. Nature Lodge was our choice and it certainly holds some potential for those on a tighter budget, but be advised that they are not yet accustomed to catering for birders and their guides do not know much about their identification. They do however, like other lodges, provide access to habitat both on foot and by boat though you may be with others if you don´t make special arrangements. We found Storm´s Stork on various occasions and a good selection of other species considering we had no prior information or special guidance.
The area is not regularly birded and it´s definitely not about to offer everything that most birders are after, but it is quite comfortable, affordable and it offers a nice introduction to the birds of the Kinabatangan while still holding loads of Proboscis monkeys and other wildlife.
Their website is http://www.nasalislarvatustours.com/.
We made a day trip to this tiny but deservedly famous island off the west coast of Borneo near Semporna. The trip was intended to be just a diving one (the island is considered one of the best in the world) but the birds put in their own appearances. After surfaces from a magical dive, a flock of Pied Imperial-Pigeons and Black-naped Fruit-Doves flew into a fruiting tree right beside the shore. Lesser Frigatebirds are ever present and the enigmatic Nicobar Pigeon is known to occur on the island. There have also been reports of Grey Imperial-Pigeon.