A group of Singaporean birders made a short week long trip to Sabah to locate some of the toughest Bornean endemics. Most of us had birded the circuit here before and hence the trip focused on locating birds we had missed on previous trips. At the pinnacle of it all was to locate the Bornean Ground-cuckoo, my personal top S.E.A bird as well as several other species in a target list which included the likes of Storm's Stork, Blue-banded Pitta & Hose's Broadbill. Overall it was a pretty successful trip for all involved although expectedly most of these mythical birds were not encountered, partly due to the short duration of the trip.
A huge thank you goes out to several people for making the trip a success, most importantly to Andy Mears & Rob Hutchinson for all the information and data that they willingly shared with us before the trip. On the trip itself, a shout-out also to Peter Ericsson & Sam Woods whom we met on Mount Kinabalu, and whom were kind enough to text message us with their findings when they went to the Rafflesia Reserve for a day-trip just before we arrived.
Kinabatagan River- 4 days/ 4 nights
Poring Hot Springs- 1 night
Mount Kinabalu- 2 nights
Tambunan- 2 nights
1. Kinabatangan River:
Summary: The focus of the entire trip. We stayed for 4 days and 4 nights in Robert Chong's Jungle Camp with the near singular goal of encountering the mythical creature known to all birders that inhabits this region. After some rather frantic and last minute phone calls to Robert, we were relieved to have successfully scheduled the trip during a time when he was available. In the process, we became the 1st group of Singaporean birders to have seen the BGC.
1. Bornean Ground-cuckoo - Ever since I saw Bjorn Anderson's famous picture on OBI in 2003, this bird soared to the top of my target list for the region. To have finally locked eyes with it through binoculars must have been 1 of the most surreal experiences ever. However, it was brutally tough to find. Unlike most of the recent successes enjoyed by birders here, we spent 3 whole days in the Menaggol & Tenaggan Tributaries with absolutely no sign of them whatsoever. Eventually, Robert took us to 1 of his special sites where we had to battle leeches and the dry and thus noisy forest floor over 2 days before all of us got any sort of look on the bird. Ding Li was rewarded the best for his patience when he decided to return to the same site on our final morning and spent 2 hours having a pair of them wandering around him. The group has promised Robert not to openly reveal where this site is because while there are at least 2 very consistent calling birds there, they probably are not very accustomed to people yet and the only reason we were taken there was because the rivers did not have a single calling bird. Furthermore, the fact that the "battle" is done over land means that you are always disadvantaged.
2. Storm's Stork- This species was undoubtedly one of my longest running "bogeys" for the region. With a combined total of more than 200 trips to Panti and other parts of the Malay Peninsula over a period of 5 years between Ding Li and I, we still had nothing to show for it. Hence, it was a "shock and awe" experience to encounter them in good numbers daily at this site, especially a high count of 6 in a single tree on 1 morning. Although the stronghold of the species here in the region, Robert is worried that it is certainly declining here as well due to unknown reasons as apparently just a mere decade ago it was a frequent site to see dozens soaring in the skies in the late morning. Now, Robert says just to see 5 on a single tree is a rarity.
Other Highlights (including non-avian ones):
3. White-crowned Hornbill (another bogey bird down)
5. Flat-headed Cat
6. Great-billed Heron (supposedly a rarity upriver)
7. Red-throated Barbet
2. Poring Hot Springs:
Summary: BORING HOT SPRINGS anyone? A totally wasted evening and morning of birding was spent at this site. Despite having both the calls of the Hose's Broadbill & BB Pitta, no sight or sound of these legends were apparent, even despite encountering a nearly fully ripe figging emergent 3/4 of the way up Langganan Trail. To make things worse, even the better birds of the park like Banded Pitta & Crested Jay failed to show, and very little else seemed to be around. No highlights here.
3. Mount Kinabalu
Summary: Good birding as usual in this park, although some abnormally strong winds were present throughout our stay here which greatly hampered birding as mixed flocks were few and far between. Many of the specials listed below were not encountered by everyone because due to the differing priorities, we split up during our time here. We met Peter Ericsson and his friend as well as Sam Woods (killing time before his Sabah Tour) during our stay here.
1. Everett's Thrush - Probably the pinnacle of Mount K birding, this elusive species was encountered by Ding Li, Felix & Gim Cheong at 1st light on Bukit Ular Trail. Thereafter, Felix recorded what he believed to be the contact call of the species and upon playback of the then unknown call was greeted by the sight of a pair of these birds on a low branch at eye level, almost certainly a big achievement for him considering it was his first overseas trip to the region.
2. Whitehead's Trogon - Ding Li will probably have my head for this but he missed it yet again despite it being his 2nd time here. A pair was showing well at the 2500m marker on Liwagu Trail but on the day in question only Gim Cheong saw and photographed a male before it was promptly flushed by hikers. No sign of it at the usual SST but then again apart from this pair none of the Trio were even calling anywhere on the mountain. Congrats to Peter Ericsson on his life bird.
Tawny-breasted Parrotfinch - 1 just below the steps at the upper part of Liwagu Trail
Mountain Wren-babbler - Many thanks to Sam Woods for pointing out a vocal party of 5-7 birds at the upper end of BUT. 1 of my bogeys from my 1st trip and excellent views were had.
Mountain Blackeye - Another 1st trip bogey, this time there were dozens around the Timpohon Gate early in the morning, probably attracted to the flowering trees there.
Mountain Scops-owl - 1 calling bird was seen every well on both nights by the road at the entrance to SST. Surprised that this stake-out was still active since 2005. Grats again to Peter for nailing another bogey bird.
4. Tambunan, Rafflesia Reserve
Summary: A relatively new addition to the birding circuit, mainly for the presence of birds rare on Mount K like the barbets. Many thanks to Peter and Sam for the gen, which ultimately aided us in seeing most of the birds here. Strong Winds hampered birding here greatly as usual. Despite much effort, we dipped the Serpent-eagle and Spiderhunter here. The latter because in the most bizzare of scenarios the Rafflesia Reserve was closed for almost the whole weekend for no good reason except for a phrase on the blackboard at the entrance that read "No Flower Blooming". To make things worse, when they did open it for a few hours on Sunday, the staff actually didn't have the key to unlock the gate into the forest trail. Eventually, Ding Li and Felix did find a way around the fence, but overall it was a weird and frustrating experience. A boom of fruiting trees at the entrance to the park meant that great views of all the important fruit-eaters here were gained.
1. Mountain & Bornean Barbets - Mountain Barbet is almost locally abundant here. With at least 8-12 birds within 200m up and down slope of the reserve, probably due to the fruiting trees here. Bornean was far less common although great views of at least 3 birds were had.
2. Fruithunter - A mega-bird for all, even for me having seen it 5 times in Mount K on my last trip. Thanks to gen from Sam & Peter, we paid close attention to the trees around the reserve and were eventually rewarded with stunning views of a pair together with a juvenile for at least an hour feeding on ripe berries at eye level by the roadside. Simply breathtaking!
3. Whitehead's Spiderhunter - Ding Li was rewarded for finding a way into the trail proper with a BVD of this much-wanted species high in the canopy briefly. However, it is nowhere common and given the total lack of any Spiderhunters along the road or around the reserve despite the boom of flowering and fruiting trees 1 wonders how some birders noted that this species seemed common here. A massive and frustrating dip for Ping Ling and I, having come so close to the Trio only to fall 2 steps back.
4. Kinabalu Leafbird - A recent split from the Blue-winged and easily seen by the road, the colours on this species are much richer than their lowland cousins and at certain angles look like a certain hosii Broadbill! The females in particular are right up there in beauty with their male counterparts save for the yellow around the face and throat.
5. Bornean (Black-crested) Bulbul - Another recent split and surprisingly difficult to find. A few in a mixed flock were the only ones we saw, not seen by all.