It had been in the planning stages for best part of 2 years in one form or another but finally, the long overdue visit to Sabah went ahead. During the 3 week visit, we intended to grill some of South - East Asia's best known birding sites with the sole intention of seeing as many species, endemics, hideous rarities and most importantly, Pittas as we possibly could. Simple really...until you read all the previous reports describing "ridiculously hard birding", "did not see a single bird for 2 hours", and "knowledge of calls essential". Birding these sites is very difficult and often a lot of hard work can result in little or no reward. However, with a decent amount of effort, chances are that eventually you'll see something really, really good.
Four of us were undertaking the mission: myself, James Gilroy, Mark Baynes and Simon Mahood. A motley collection of recent and current UEA birders (latter term perhaps no longer applicable to MB who is far more interested in the frogs these days than American Robins on Scilly).
So what were we hoping for and expecting? Much research was done by all (well JG actually) and we had pinpointed the birds we most wanted to see, what they called like, and how to see them. (This excludes MB who didn't even know that his plane stopped in Dubai on the way over, never mind a sound knowledge of Wren Babbler song).
Pittas were top of the list. Six species were realistically available, although we decided we would be happy with any three of these - any more would be an achievement. Ultimate target was Giant Pitta - surely one of the world's classic grippers: stunning looks, unbeatable weirdness and phenomenally difficult to see. Priority then had to go to the endemics - the exquisite (and near-impossible) Blue-banded, the mind-blowing Blue-headed, and the highly range-restricted Black-headed.
To be fair, when Pittas are present, other species are pretty superfluous to requirements. However, you can't look at Pittas all the time, so our other target species included the weird Bornean Bristlehead, the Whiteheads trio, a handful of Barbets, endemic Wren-babblers, and other bits and pieces such as Mountain Serpent Eagle and the pheasants. On top of this, we compiled a list of megas - species we knew were available, with some extreme fortune. This group included Malaysian Rail Babbler, Black-brested Fruithunter, Everett's Thrush, Bulwers Pheasant, Hose's Broadbill and the unknown Bornean Ground Cuckoo amongst others. So, armed with a copy of Mackinnon and Phillips, a mini-disc player and a sturdy pig-stick (see later) we headed off to the leech infested forests of Sabah.
NOTES ON SITES VISITED
This was to be a 3 site trip. We also managed a morning around Likas in Kota Kinabalu as a "list boosting" exercise.
PORING HOT SPRINGS (PHS)
We spent 2 days at Poring (due to time constraints), the main reason being, unashamedly, to see Blue - banded Pitta. This species associates with bamboo, which can be found between about 1.7km and 3.4km on the Langanan Waterfall trail. As with most Pittas however, if they aren't calling then you've got no chance - there are probably only 2 or 3 pairs along this stretch. Other potential goodies here include Bat Hawk, White-fronted Falconet, Cinnamon-rumped and Orange-breasted Trogons, Blue-banded and Rufous-collared Kingfishers, Bornean Barbet, Banded Pitta, Crested Jay, Bornean Blue Flycatcher, and also a good selection of Spiderhunters, Cuckoos and Flower-peckers.
Birding here is very hard work, especially the Langanan and Waterfall trails, which are extremely steep constantly as well as hot and humid (well it is a rainforest!). It is worth walking these trails as far as the waterfall as most species are seen along them, and the waterfall is quite impressive as well. Hose's Broadbill was seen here in 2000. Birding around the baths and football field can also be productive for the edge species. There is also a canopy walkway which is an experience (imagine a weak ladder and a few pieces of string and your not far off). Birding from the walkway isn't that productive - largely because any sane person wouldn't open their eyes, or let go of the flimsy ropes, until their feet were firmly back with the leeches.
The hostel is RM12 per person per night (about 5 Ringitt to £1 Sterling) and is perfectly adequate with showers etc. The restaurant is reasonably priced and serves a variety of food although the portions can be a little on the skimpy side. Water and snacks can be purchased from the shops across the road (But for Heavens sake don't buy any "fish bites"! Trust me). Getting to Poring is straight forward by bus or taxi from KK, Ranau or Mount Kinabalu HQ. We actually hired a taxi from KK as were arrived at 4.30pm local time and considered it necessary to get an extra mornings birding. This taxi cost RM250 but others, and the bus, would be much less expensive. The journey from KK takes 2 hours upwards, depending on whether you've got an insane driver or just a mad one.
We felt that 2 or 3 days is enough time to bird this site. The vast majority of species here can be seen either at Danum or Mount Kinabalu so spending more time at Poring seemed a little pointless. It must be included, however, as it offers the best chance at the incredible Blue-banded Pitta.
Four days and five nights were spent around the park in search of the disproportionate number of endemics it holds. We were however, well aware that this may not be long enough and it takes most people a week to get a decent haul. Targets included Mountain Serpent Eagle, Red-breasted and Crimson-headed partridges, a number of owls, Whiteheads Trogon, Spiderhunter and Broadbill, Mountain, Golden-naped and Bornean Barbets, Bornean Treepie, Bare-headed Laughingthrush, Bornean Stubtail, White-browed Shortwing, Eye-browed Jungle flycatcher, the extremely dull Bornean Whistler and Black-sided Flowerpecker. This list deliberately excludes Mountain Blackeye, Friendly Warbler and Island Thrush which require a trip to Laban Rata, as due to the time constraints we decided to sacrifice these in favour of a better chance of the "proper" rares lower down. On the subject of megas, Everett's Thrush was top of the list closely followed by Whiteheads and Bornean Spiderhunters and Black-breasted Fruithunter (a nest was found last year but was not available this time, so once again this species becomes a "no chance" bird). There is also the enigmatic "Bornean Frogmouth" - treated variously as an endemic species or a subspecies of Short-tailed Frogmouth (suffice to say, few people are faced with the dilemma of where to place the tick).
Birding here is a little easier than the lowlands but still requires serious walking and effort. It is also not as hot or humid, making life a little more pleasant. Probably the best area is the top end of the Silau - Silau trail - pretty much everything can be seen along here, although the forest is very dense in places. We spent a lot of time on the extremely long and steep Liwagu trail and found it to be just as rewarding as anywhere else. Everett Thrush has been seen on the Bukit Ular trail but, being a Zoothera, these are ridiculously hard and extremely rare. Some species, such as the Stubtail and Wren-babbler, probably require a tape of their song. Kiew View trial, around the Timphon gate and the road to the power station are also good areas. With many species however, covering a lot of ground and listening is the way to proceed here.
We stayed in the Medang hostel which was RM12 per night and has showers, a kitchen etc and were fine. However the bathroom was a bit of a mess and not up to the standard we expected of Borneo's Primary nature reserve and tourist attraction. We had to get rapidly accustomed to the quirky local custom of post-meal spitting! The two restaurants are exactly the same as at PHS, but 1RM more for everything. Getting to the HQ is easy buy Bus or Taxi from KK or pretty much anywhere else; we got a taxi from PHS for RM80.
Four whole days is definitely not enough time to "clear up", although we almost managed it. We did still miss some species that are apparently easy (3 of us dipped Velvet fronted Nuthatch for example). Given no time limits, a week would have been a much better idea.
A site that needs few introductions; we spent 13 days and 14 nights here, and believe me, you need all the time you can get. There are too many target species to list here but a select few are the Pittas, Bornean Bristlehead, Bornean and Black-throated Wren-babblers, Great-billed Heron, Bat Hawk, a whole host of Hornbills, Cuckoos, Broadbills, Flycatchers, Babblers, game birds, Kingfishers, Raptors, and a possible 16 Woodpeckers including the fantastic much sought-after Great Slaty. Bulwer's Pheasant has been recorded here, as has the Rail Babbler and Chestnut-capped Thrush, although we couldn't really hope for these, as they are extremely rare.
Birding here is very difficult - you can, literally, wander the forest for 3 hours and not see a single bird. Most species can be picked out on call but will still remain almost impossible to see unless they venture within a few feet of the trail. Tape luring did work with a lot of species but requires patience and a bit of tact rather than a constant repeat. We did find that some species were completely unresponsive however. In 14 days, we didn't even hear the supposedly "easy" Bornean Wren-babbler, let alone see it. The Nature and Waterfall trails are good for Great Argus and partridges along with Kingfishers and Banded Pitta around the 2km mark. Everything can be seen around the grid system. However, the constant use of the nearer grids by researchers and tourists appears to have had an effect on the birds. Species which were seen regularly around, for example, W5 N0, are no longer common and appear to have been "pushed back" by the human presence. Because of this, we found that the areas around W15 N0, W10 S5 and W5 N10 were far more productive. The Rhino and Elephant Ridge trials were also productive and are walkable (contrary to some reports). They are however very long and tough walks, especially Rhino ridge which is apparently the place for Blue-banded Pitta at the highest point. The Perwina trail is also worth a go, as far as the "perfect" river about 1.5km along. Unfortunately, this river is about still about 4.5km from the suspension bridge entrance, and so needs a full day. The open areas are also good for raptors, stuff flying up the river and any edge species. A morning along the entrance road is also a good idea. Wear leech socks and trousers at all times, enough said (some could have done with leech proof underwear, naming no names SM. Ouch!)
DVFC is not a cheap place to stay (although it is positively peanuts compared to its sister the Borneo Rainforest Lodge!). We had 2 campers at RM22 per night and 2 people in the hostel and RM45 per night. Camping is under wooden "shelters" or on the grass and although the "bathroom" is not a nice place to be, more acceptable amenities are just a minute's walk away near the badminton court. The hostel is basically new and is comfortable and generally very nice with a clean bathroom and bunks separated by walls and curtains. I was impressed with the hostel. Food is a further RM45 per day and is made up of breakfast RM12, Lunch RM10 and Dinner RM23, you can pick and choose what you take but make sure to tell people (like the cook). Alternatively, on a budget, you could bring all your food with you or forage with the orang utans. On top of this is a RM30 entrance fee and RM60 for return transport from Lahad Datu. A night drive is about 1.5 hours long and cost RM110 but is well worth it when you see a giant squirrel gliding out of a tree! In total, my personal cost for the 2 weeks here was around RM1200, or £240. You will need to get to the office in Lahad Datu; from the airport (easier to fly from KK) turn right on the main road and then left through the Shell garage and keep left, about 300 meters.
There is no way of saying how much time to spend at Danum and you will always miss something.
Bookings must be made through Peter Chong firstname.lastname@example.org. Also note that the whole bill must be settled in CASH at the end of your stay and they seemed to refuse to break this down by person (this caused absolute chaos between four university students who apparently can't add up simple sums).
LIKAS BAY BIRD SANCTUARY
A wetland reserve located just outside KK which we visited in the hope of a Red- necked Stint or something similar. Other species that can be seen here include Yellow and Cinnamon Bitterns, Collard Kingfisher, Pacific Golden Plover and a few raptors. The reserve has a walkway around it which takes about 45 minutes if your quick. The park costs RM10 to enter and can be reached by any taxi in KK.
ITINERARY AND TRAVEL COSTS
12th Midday flight from London Heathrow to Brunei via a brief stop in Abu Dhabi
13th Arrive Brunei then a 3 hour wait for a short flight to Kota Kinabalu. Arrive at 4.30pm local time
which was just enough to get a taxi to PHS. Night at PHS.
14th to 15th Two whole days birding PHS
16th Morning at PHS then a taxi to MKNP, afternoon birding and night at MKNP.
17th to 20th Four whole days to bird MKNP.
21st Morning at MKNP then a (cheap RM10) taxi back to KK, spend the night there.
22nd Morning Flight from KK to Lahad Datu and drive to DVFC.
23rd to 4th April 13 days Birding DVFC
5th Ride back to LD and flight to KK, night in KK.
6th Morning at Likas 17.30 flight to London via Dubai this time
7th Arrive back in London at 6.30am local time and moan about how cold it is
All flights were booked through WildWings. Royal Brunei airways were used for the main flights and were very good. Costs were £575 from London to KK, plus £51 travel insurance for the month. Internal flights were with Malaysian airways and were £45 for the return.
Taxis around KK are generally inexpensive with a short ride from the city centre to the airport being RM7-10. There are loads of Taxis around KK but make sure to agree a price before departing.
The two nights we spent in KK were in the Diamond Inn near the long distance bus station. The double rooms were comfortable with nice bathrooms and there appeared to be no need to book. The price was RM65 for a room (or about £6 each).
A copy of the Birds of Tropical Asia CD-ROM is also essential, as it has calls of most species involved. We transcribed most of the important calls onto Mini-Disc. This was particularly useful as tracks can be individually named via the LCD screen - meaning there is no need for a separate list of track numbers in the field.
DAY TO DAY ACCOUNT
This section is quite long so skip to the systematic list if you just want to know what we saw!!!
DAY 1: 12th March 2002
JG, SM and myself met up as planned in Heathrow Terminal 3 looking cleanly shaven, tidy and ready for a lot of exercise (none of these being traits that lasted long). MB had serious work commitments and would meet us at MKNP on Sunday (we hoped) thus missing PHS and a day up the mountain. The long, nasty flight to Brunei became a whole lot more bearable when we realised we were the only ones on the plane.
DAY 2: 13th March 2002
A long wait at Brunei airport produced nothing more than a few swallows and then a short hop to Kota Kinabalu, arriving at 16.30 local time about 23 hours after we left Heathrow. Customs were quickly cleared and a taxi was hired to take us on the 2 hour trip to PHS. An early meal and bed.
DAY 3: 14th March 2002
Up bright and early to have a look around the football field and baths. Common birds soon become apparent in the form of Magpie Robins, Dusky Munias and the unfeasibly tiny Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. More interesting species include Greater Racket Tailed Drongos, White-crowed Shamas, a lone Black-headed Bulbul and some rather large insects. A quick trip back to the shop to purchase some water and dubious snacks produced a smart Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, watched for some time behind the reception building.
The trail leading to the waterfall is inconspicuous and takes a bit of finding amongst the vast masses of Malaysian bathers but we were soon rewarded. Literally the first bird we saw, about 25 meters into the forest was a very attractive White-crowned Forktail. Despite being in a stream no more than 2 feet wide and 15 feet long, it took a very cunning strategy involving about 20 minutes of running about before we all got good views of the thing. This was a common trait with all forktails - and indeed most species in the forest. A steep climb up the hill recorded Crow-billed Drongo and a few Bulbuls but these were overshadowed by a cracking Golden-whiskered Barbet which was very obliging - a trait which is certainly not common in barbets. Other goodies were a Buff necked Woodpecker that might as well have been on our shirts it was so close, and an even better male Black-naped Monarch. A smart Daird's Trogon was soon flushed and then showed well, as did a rather loud group of three Red-bearded Bee-eaters after much effort trying to pick them out high in the canopy.
At this point it was already becoming obvious that most species moved in flocks, and periods of 30 minutes or so without seeing a bird the norm. The next such group, about 1.5km along the Langanan trail, produced (with some relief) our first Green Broadbill, a smart male, a brief Red-throated Barbet and an elusive Sooty-capped Babbler. The next 2 hours were bird-less, only producing a Ferruginous Flycatcher near the waterfall. The waterfall at PHS is 120m high and is pretty impressive. It would have more impressive if the 2000 Hose's Broadbill were still around! Lunch was taken and the already weary feet bathed in the pools under the waterfall. A pleasant spot, which will be remembered for the view, and the small fish that were continually biting our feet! Its about 3.5km from the baths to the waterfall and is very steep all the way. The leaflet and map you are given states this as a 1 hour 45 minute walk... for a super fit Malaysian hill climber riding a mountain goat. For us mere birders, it took at least 3 hours.
A lot of time was spend around the 3km mark with a tape of Blue-banded Pitta to hand. Or it would have been had JG not mysteriously lost it. Improvisation was required and although Black-headed Pitta did sound a little similar we could not tempt any Pittas into calling.
A Sunda Whistling Thrush was the first bird of the trek back, followed by SM's excited call of a stunning Orange-breasted Trogon, perched in a tree just off the path. The bird was a male, and looked nothing like its unflattering portrait in Mackinnon and Phillips. Vivid orange with crisp makings all over. The only other bird seen was an Orange-backed Woodpecker.
After a quick change of footwear we were out again looking around the reception area and the football pitch. A massive cicada was a highlight, along with 3 species of sunbird and a curious Spectacled Spiderhunter. The bushes near the reception seem to be particularly good for these. The road beyond the football pitch produced a pair of Black and Yellow Broadbills and a couple of Maroon Woodpeckers, which are easily located by their harsh call. This little area seemed to be quite useful for the edge and secondary birds with a few species of bulbul, several sunbirds and a male Blue and White Flycatcher.
A good first day was the consensus and was capped by a nice meal (or 2 in some cases) and an early night in preparation for tomorrow's all-out flogging of the waterfall trail.
DAY 4: 15th March 2002
SM's had the excellent idea of rising two hours before dawn in order to get deep into Blue-banded Pitta country. Unfortunately only JG decided to bring a torch (a rather feeble one at that), which posed a few problems following a trail in the pitch black. After much fumbling and tarantula-dodging, sunrise found us disappointingly far from the bamboo sites.
A female Siberian Blue Robin, a boring Little Cuckoo Dove and the endemic, but really boring Chestnut- crowned Yahuina were the first birds. At around the 1.8km mark on the Langanan trail, JG, leading the line, whispered something under his breath. This was later translated into "There's a Banded Pitta on the track" or descriptive words to that effect. At this point all hell broke lose. For starters the track is not wide enough of 2, people let alone 3, and also JG is about 6 foot 2 (myself and SM aren't). Luckily I got on the bird immediately by picking up its supercillium, which looked like it was on fire. After several hair-curling bouts of "vocal tribute", we realised that SM was screaming at us for directions and hadn't actually seen the thing yet. A few tense seconds followed and thankfully great views were had by all, before it bounded off into the forest. Strangely, we did not record another bird for about an hour, possibly related to our brains having been deep-fried by our first adrenaline pumping encounter with pitta.
Eventually we bumped into a bird we could not miss in the form of the same Orange-breasted Trogon that we saw yesterday. Apparently the bird had not moved, although now it had a small lizard in its beak, which it refused to eat with us watching so we moved on.
Another fruitless tape session for Blue-banded Pitta was called off quite quickly after a total loss of hope, and a Blue-winged Leafbird was the only species of note up to the waterfall where again, lunch was taken. This time we decided to take the upper fork of the trail to get back. Yet another bird-less hour passed through a more montane habitat until we stopped for a drink around a fallen log.
Myself and SM were busying ourselves trying to avoid the inch long ants that we had inadvertently sat on, when JG divulged that something was moving around in the undergrowth only a few yards off the path. A casual scan of the tangle revealed the fiery apparition of another Banded Pitta, just three yards away! A pair were feeding happily right next to us. These proceeded to show very well for about 10 minutes before wandering slowly off down the slope below us. Brilliant. A Blyth's Hawk Eagle was also seen soaring over the forest.
The next couple of hours were quite productive with species such as Long-billed Spiderhunter, Scarlet Minivet, Large Woodshrike and an unexpected Rufous-tailed Shama being added to the list. We also encountered an enormously huge wasp, which was probably being radar-tracked by local airports. The walk back to the hostel yielded little else.
An afternoons birding around the canopy walkway area (where JG had seen Crested Jay on a previous visit) was quite rewarding with Blue-eared Barbet, and Crested Serpent Eagle. A couple of Banded Pittas were also heard from the walkway, but no Crested Jay. The walkway itself is basically a load of rusty ladders and some string suspended 40m from the floor - not for the faint hearted. It costs RM5 for the "experience".
Today also saw the addition of Tiger Leech to the "things that have sucked my blood" list. Myself and JG being bitten. We found these beasts to be relatively scarce at PHS but still require a bit of looking out for - a quick check of the boots every 20 minutes or so was usually enough to locate any potential bloodsuckers.
A meal of chicken and mushrooms (and rice of course) washed down with a celebratory "Pitta" beer was again followed by an early night.
DAY 6: 16th March 2002
Up early again to look around the football pitch - our taxi was leaving at 9.30am and therefore no time was available to do any serious trail. This turned out to be a good move as quite a few new species were seen, especially in the fruiting trees at the back of the pitch near the camp site. Our first Brown Barbets with their bright red legs were the highlight along with a flock of 5 Scaly-breasted Bulbul which, despite being bulbuls, are actually quite smart. Black-hooded Oriole and Black-winged Flycatcher Shrike are also added and the ever present Flowerpeckers, Drongos and Spiderhunters.
A piece of advice: don't buy any fish bites from the shop. These disgusting "crisps" were mistaken as food items by a confused JG (not a shop expert) and provided an interesting breakfast experience. They tasted like dry Herring scales or something similar. Striated Grassbird and Collared Kingfisher are the only birds to note during the 1.5hr journey to MKNP.
Checking in at the reception and a short walk to the hostel, bags are dumped quicker than you can say "Whiteheads trio" and we set off up the power station road for our first try at Montane birding. Birding is a lot easier here as most species are at higher densities and generally the forest is not as dense as in the lowland. "A bit easier is", of course, still bleedin' difficult in Sabah terms.
The power station road is a good place to start as it allows reasonably easy viewing and is a nice trail to follow. After about 10 minutes we bumped into our first flock: mainly Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes along with 3 Maroon-breasted Orioles, Bornean Treepies and a Chequered-throated Woodpecker. Of more interest however were the 8 Bare-headed Laughingthrushes: odd looking birds which a lot of character and a very distinctive call. They are quite easy to miss, especially given a short stay. Another "phenomenon" about the park is the eagerness of the locals to take photos of every Westerner they see. Myself and JG were caught up in a group of 8 such people who would not let us go until a photo had been taken from every possibly angle and light condition. It was suggested that they thought I was some kind of celebrity, Jeff Capes was mentioned. Anyway we soon reached the top entrance to the Silau - Silau trail and decided to give it a go, as almost all target species in the park can be seen around this area, including, we hoped, the Fruithunter pair which were present last year (as if!).
Many common species are present: Indigo Flycatcher, Pied Fantail, Black-faced White-eye, Yellow-breasted Warbler and the extremely dull and boring Bornean Whistler. A little further on revealed a pair of Short-tailed Magpies. These vivid birds look little like their illustration (no mention of the electric blue and the head for example). A lengthy attempt to see the annoying Crimson-headed Partridge (which were calling constantly and seemed to be following us around) ends in failure, but ticks keep flowing with White-browed Shrike Babbler, Sunda Cuckoo Shrike, Grey-chinned Minivet and Mugimaki Flycatcher along the Menpaning trail.
By this time it was getting dark so we decided to head to the restaurant and bed, with the task of absolutely having to see something good tomorrow in order to fully grip the imminently arriving MB. A brief chat with some American birders raises hopes considerably as they report a Whiteheads Trogon on Silau - Silau earlier in the day. These hopes are quickly dashed again however when they also tell us they had Sumatran Treepie and Green Magpie around one street lamp at dawn. For those of you who don't recognise these species, the Treepie is endemic to Sumatra (odd that) and the Magpie has only been seen only a few times in Sabah and never at MKNP. Brief views are exchanged on the apparent fallibility of field guides in the States before sleep.
DAY 7: 17th March 2002
Up well before dawn, making as much noise as possible to wake the other people in our room (who kept us up all night) and then off up the power station road. Torch lighting reveals a few fire-flies but little else until 2 are seen "together" on the roadside. Dismissing these as invertebrates, we walked on only to flush a nightjar from the verge. All too brief views were followed by some more frustrated "verbal tribute". A quick consultation with the field guide immediately identifies the species as a Grey Nightjar, a migratory species which is recorded from all elevations in Sabah but is very rarely seen. That used up our luck for the day.
Well that's what we thought anyway. 30 minutes later dawn was breaking on the Bukit Ular trail, near the power station. In a moment harking back to the first Banded Pitta incident, JG, once again leading the group, mutters a softly spoken string of expletives and almost falls over. Not knowing what an earth was going on and being a good 20 yards behind the other two because I'm too fat, I simply ran up the hill and literally into the back of JG. At this point a bird bounced across the path and everything became clear. No more than 30 feet away was a stunning Everett's Thrush foraging happily on the path in full view. A second soon appeared, and the pair fed unconcerned before us for what seemed like hours. Looks of disbelief were freely exchanged, along with some colourful celebratory language. At one point, one of the birds perched up on a fallen branch at some 20 feet distance. The individual then proceeded to do something that Zootheras really shouldn't do: it raised its wings directly skywards. For about a second, the full Zoothera underwing pattern shimmered through three still shaking pairs of binoculars: an unbelievable sight. The conversation that followed covered many topics, including how mega Everett's Thrush is, how rare Everett's Thrush is, how good looking Everett's Thrush is, and so forth. The illustration in Mackinnon and Phillips does it no justice. It was also amazing how easy they were to see, given the trouble I had seeing a Siberian Thrush on Scilly in a plantation no bigger than a Vauxhall Astra, never mind the largest mountain in SE Asia. This pair was originally found in 2000 - before then, no one dreamt of seeing one. Since their discovery only a handful have successfully connected, and this species remains very rare and elusive.
After some aimless wandering we concluded that the MKNP part of the trip was effectively over - it couldn't get much better. The lure of further goodies eventually tempted us back to birding, and with high confidence we pressed on up the trail towards the power station. It wasn't long before the next good bird: a group of at least 2 Red-breasted Partridges which were seen briefly by myself and SM but unfortunately missed by JG who had fallen over again. These scuttled off into the undergrowth and failed to reappear despite calling a few times.
The next hour was spent birding around the power station and the forest nearby which seemed to be a good area. A Golden-naped Barbet fed in exposed bushes for some time, Ruddy Cuckoo Dove and Mountain Tailorbird were also seen. Other good species were Flavescent Bulbul, Scarlet Sunbird and our first Ashy Drongos. The long walk down the hill produced little other than a confusing Grey Wagtail, but was livened up lower down by a total of 5 Little Pied Flycatchers which are rather like Pieds just exponentially better. Half way down JG located a Spiderhunter perched on a tree some 100 yards away. Although we all saw it, only JG got his Swavoskis on it for a fraction of a second before it departed. The bird was almost certainly a Bornean but, unfortunately, was UTV (untickable view) for everyone. Very annoying, as this was certainly another "mega", had it been Bornean or Whiteheads.
We rounded the corner towards the entrance to the Silau - Silau trail to be greeted by a harsh "cackling" that was instantly recognized by all. 2 Whitehead's Broadbills flew across the road right in front of us and showed well for the next 10 minutes. These stunningly green birds perched high in the canopy and eluded us for some time before a decent viewing angle was found. The males are retina-burning bright. Another thing that strike you about this species is their size, much larger than Green Broadbills (and any other broadbills for that matter) and easily as big as a Jackdaw.
So it couldn't get any better and it was only 9.30am! A few more commons down Silau - Silau and a really nice group of Pygmy Blue Flycatchers later, SM calls a Raffles Malkoha perched 15 yards from the path. This call was ridiculed throughout the remainder of the trip because the bird was immediately re-identified as a female Whitehead's Trogon, as soon as anyone else saw it! A beautiful bird by any stretch of the imagination - we wondered how good the males must be. We also made plans to look for Sumatran Treepies around the lamp-posts next morning. The Trogon sat quietly for a few minutes in full view before diving into cover and not reappearing.
By this time a bit of lunch was in order, and a long chat about how this was the best mornings birding ever. Barred Warblers and Wrynecks on the Yorkshire coast were firmly consigned to the "dross bin". A Chilli dog and beer later we headed up the Kiew View trail with the ridiculous notion of finding a Whitehead's Spiderhunter and completing the trio in one day. Right. Apparently this trail (and especially near the chalets) was a decent bet for this species.
Ultimately (and unsurprisingly) this search proved fruitless, just another Golden-naped Barbet and a male Mugimaki Flycatcher for consolation. We then twigged that the presence of a female Whitehead's Trogon on Silau Silau probably meant a male would be around the same area, so we walked back up to the lower entrance to the trail. In passing we ran into a recently arrived MB who was already moaning about the length of the flight. His jet-lag was greatly improved by the barrage of smugness he faced as we relayed in detail the mornings list! Only one bird was seen on Silau-Silau, and thankfully it was a good one. The tricky Crimson-headed Partridge briefly forgot its elusive nature and casually wandered along the trail with us for a few yards, before crossing the stream in full view and vanishing into the vegetation on the other side. Another difficult species on the list.
Little else was seen during the remaining hour of light, so an early tea was taken and an attempt at seeing some owls. We decided to try the power station road as it's the most "open" area and held plenty of dead snags were owls may perch in view. Despite the constant calling of a Mountain Scops Owl, the bird could not be tempted into view by the tape and eventually the search was called off. We went to bed with the goal of walking the Liwagu trail then next morning.
DAY 8: 18th March 2002
High hopes for today: a long trail that no-one ever walks, great weather, and extra pair of eyes (when not "on the frog") and high confidence after yesterdays exploits. Result: not a single bird for the first 2 hours.
The first good bird of the day did eventually come however in the shape of a group of Bornean Stubtails. These great birds showed well on a slope below, up about a third of the way along the 5.5km trail. This is a definite candidate for character of the trip. No tail, no body, just 2 legs, a head, a whacking great supercillium, with an ear piercing call which would give dogs nightmares. The next hour of so was much better, producing no less than 6 (yes six) separate Whitehead's Broadbills, a brief Mountain Serpent Eagle, 2 Little Pied Flycatchers and a pair of Short-tailed Magpie. A short rest by the river revealed a White-browed Shortwing which was taped out from the undergrowth and put on a good performance. A nice bird actually (it was blue, honest, despite protestations from some quarters. A scarlet macaw would probably look black through MB's antique bins).
What followed was definitely one of the ornithological highlights of my life. Leading the group by about 20 yards I flushed a large, dark bird from beneath my feet. Originally baffled by its identification, the beast perched up no more than 15 yards away and gave a strange piercing call. Looking with the naked eye I immediately identified it as a Crested Jay (not really a MKNP bird, and a tricky one after dipping at PHS). I called "Crested Jay!" to the rest of the group, who lead by the ever energetic SM, broke into a canter to make up the ground. Turning back to get my bins on the bird, another flushed from almost the same spot and flew to an overhanging branch above the path. My mind processed it as another Jay as it was a similar size. However closer inspection (using bins this time) revealed it to be a female Black-breasted Fruithunter!!! I turned to the group, who were now about 10 yards away (these 2 finds and proceedings, no joke, were covered by about 3 seconds) and called "Fruithunter!". The leisurely canter now broke into a full blown sprint and all were quickly looking at the bird as it sat, seemingly oblivious, only yards away. The Jay was forgotten. No one spoke a word (that can be printed here) for about the next 5 minutes. Luckily, the Jay was then re-located and seen equally well. After about 15 minutes of Fruithunter admiration, it flicked up into a nearby tree where it was joined by a beautiful silvery male. Unfortunately, both then left before I could get anyone else on the male. Unbelievable stuff. A debate was then opened as to what on earth Fruithunters actually are. Thrushes? Possibly. JG suggested they were actually tree-pittas, and you could see the similarities, legs placed far back for example.
The long, slow and sweaty climb up towards the power station yielded little more than some excellent photo opportunities and our first, and indeed last Mountain Barbet. As with all Barbets, this species simply sits in the canopy of the most densely foliated tree it can find and calls without moving thus rendering the bird invisible.
The afternoon produced another first - rain. Up to now we had been lucky but the last few hours of light more than made up for this imbalance with some of the heaviest rain I have ever seen. Unsurprisingly, few birds were seen with a group of 5 Bare-headed Laughingthrushes and a couple of Snowy-browed Flycatchers being the only species of note.
Early tea was taken and by which time the weather had cleared up so we headed out up the power station road to look for the owls. This session was unceremoniously called short when SM, seemingly for no reason, fell to the floor screaming. A close inspection of his face with the torches revealed an actual hole below his right eye, which was already swelling up and was bleeding heavily. It was obvious he had been stung by something far too mean for us to mess with. We turned around and gingerly headed back to the hostel. The culprit was never found, but we all had an image of the air-traffic controller's nightmare wasp at PHS. Whatever it was, we were not going to risk running into it again for the sake of a Scops Owl.
DAY 9: 19th March 2002
A brief foray onto the "veranda" coincided with a fly over Black Eagle, which provided some spectacular hilarity for onlookers as three birders hurled themselves back into the room to scramble for bins. The dash back to the verandah ended in good views for myself and SM, whilst the rain and lack of shoes resulted in a loss of traction and consequent 10 yard skid for JG. Fortunately he still got the bird from his finishing position, lying prone beneath the verandah railing with bins stuck to face. MB of course, didn't even get out of bed.
Eventually we ventured out onto the Kiew View trail which was very quiet with our only new species being Oriental Cuckoo! A smart Black-sided Flowerpecker was a bit more like it. I walked the trail and was soon provided the next tick on Silau-Silau: the endemic Eye-browed Jungle Flycatcher, the only one of the trip. JG and SM however, walked a little way up the Liwagu trail and scored a brief male Whitehead's Trogon. Unfortunately the rain does not relent for the remainder of the day and any thought of birding is called off in favour of some much needed rest and an early start tomorrow.
Mt Kinabalu showing well, a trait far from common in any of the avain species dwelling below
DAY 10: 20th March 2002
Out at 5.30am with the intention of getting to Bukit Ular for 6.30am so MB could unblock the Everett's Thrush. Luckily, the rain had stopped. Unfortunately we dipped (cue extra smugness), seeing nothing other than a pair of Whitehead's Broadbills (which by now appeared difficult to avoid) and a brief Mountain Serpent Eagle gliding low through the forest.
A brief look around the power station yields absolutely nothing so we are soon at the top end of the Liwagu trail, facing a stiff 5.5km walk to the entrance gate. A short distance down the track we heard something that we had heard before, a mysterious song that had been noted several times previously. No tape or voice description fitted the sound. It was somewhat rashly suggested (by JG) that it must be new species. We finally managed to get on one of the rapidly moving birds, revealing itself as a Mountain Wren-babbler. It sounds nothing like the tape recording. The flock contained about 4-5 of these smart birds which showed well in the undergrowth.
The highlights of the next 2.5 hours were few and far between. Most notable was a stonking Collared Owlet which was originally flushed from the side of the trail and then showed well on an exposed branch. Oddly enough, we saw another doing exactly the same later in the day. Yet another pair of Whitehead's Broadbills and a bonus dead one on the trail (probably taken by the Owlet we reckon!!!), and a further 5+ Mountain Wren Babblers were the only other records.
By this point (and indeed for the last 2 days) we were getting extremely concerned about our chances of a male Whitehead's Trogon, which had quickly become the main target for the mountain. Luckily we got the answer about 1.5km from the end of the trail as we rounded a corner to see a beautiful male, perched at head height no more than 15 yards away. Unfortunately the bird flew about a second after I had got my bins on it, and it was not re-located during a serious search of the area for the next hour. We did produce another 2 female Trogons and an animated male Pygmy Blue Flycatcher.
A quick note on the Liwagu trail itself. It is walk able at birding pace in about 6 hours but is very hard going in places near the power station. It is however a great trail and is more scenic than the others nearer the HQ, and undoubtedly less disturbed.
Realising that this was our last day up the mountain and we had seen far more than we could ever have hoped for in a short 4 days we retired early to the bar for a few celebratory beers. A quick species check from my notes (I was actually the only one who bothered to take notes!) revealed a total of about 145 species to this point, and with the more diverse lowlands to come, a trip list of some 250 species was certainly attainable.
DAY 11: 21st March 2002
In an attempt to improve on the brief views of male Whitehead's Trogon, MB, SM and JG decide to have another go at Liwagu trail. After half an hour MB finally answers his critics and pulls out a cracking male perched on the far side of a deep valley. Proving that he still has the skills, the 'scope is rapidly trained on the bird and great views are enjoyed by all. For me, a nice lie in and a smart male Mugimaki Flycatcher are the only things of note in the morning (not that I would rather have seen the trogon of course! Doh!).
The Slow drive back yielded very little other than a few Magpie Robins and an impressive Brown-backed Needletail, seen by myself and JG.
DAY 12: 22nd March 2002
Up early again to catch the 9.30am flight to Lahad Datu and from the airport, and a short walk to the DVFC office.
The ride into DVFC was uneventful and we are soon approaching our accommodation. Myself and MB (the ones who have finished Uni and have jobs) in the comfortable hostel, JG and SM (still at Uni and with no jobs) in the cheaper camping site. Rucksacks are quickly dumped and we meet up near the suspension bridge to admire the Silver-rumped Swifts zooming about underneath us. The melee was interrupted periodically by the appearance of a Brown-backed Needletail. These are the B52s of the swift world - they fly fast and straight, cutting swathes through the crowded flocks of smaller species, really impressive. Standing on the bridge, it does not take long for the first few good birds to appear. 3 Dusky Broadbills showed well in the top of a nearby tree, along with a group of 4 White-bellied Woodpeckers. This latter species can be very tricky on the trails. An ever present pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills glided past doing an excellent impression of what Pterosaurs must have looked like 60 million years ago. These Hornbills are good value and I remember being shocked by just how big they were.
DAY 13: 23rd March 2002
An early morning on the grids is called off due to the lack of any leech socks and the heavy presence of leeches on the trails. We would wait for the shop to open at lunch time. Instead we wandered around the entrance track and the field center, which proved surprisingly good. The best bird was undoubtedly a Great-billed Heron near the bridge, another species which is very easy to miss. Also recorded were Chestnut-bellied Malkoha, Little Spiderhunter, Slender-billed Crow, 7 Bushy-crested Hornbills and a cracking Buffy Fish Owl found roosting in a bush near the bridge. JG and SM also score with female Great Argus, Siberian Blue Robin and Rufous-tailed Jungle-Flycatcher around the campsite. The entrance road produces (at last) Raffles Malkoha 6+, Broadbills, Dollarbird, Large Woodshrike and a smart Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker. 13 species added in the morning we return to the shop and buy some leech socks (RM15) and after lunch head out onto the grids.
In the next 4 hours we saw a total of 11 birds!!! Unfortunately, most of them were common, such as Yellow-bellied Bulbul and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird. A parting of ways (always a mistake) on the way back saw JG, SM and MB taking a separate path back down the grids. My route was unproductive. On the other route, SM was surprised by a large bird flushing from his feet behind a buttress root. Initial impressions suggested a sky-blue night heron - it could only be one thing: Giant Pitta! MB, at the back, had not seen it, and it was several seconds before the shocked SM and JG could articulate the nature of the sighting. The ensuing search was unsuccessful, but did produce views of a Black-headed Pitta in the growing darkness.
Not a bad first day, a few good species and an area staked out for Giant Pitta already. Unsurprisingly dinner involves rice again.
DAY 14: March 24th 2002
A decent effort on the grids this time as we are out before dawn to get in position. Unsurprisingly we head straight back to the area where the Giant Pitta was seen yesterday, N5 - W3. The beast is heard calling almost immediately in the same area. The sound is met with plenty of fear and confusion. Do we hold our ground and try to tape it out, or do we crash in after it and risk booting it to Poring? A long tape session and a few tentative forays into the forest prove fruitless, and the bird falls silent. However, serious compensation appears in the form of a stunning Black-headed Pitta which shows on and off at about 10 yards range for 20 minutes. Additional new species in this area included Horsefield's Babbler, Spotted Fantail and the curiously named Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler. Eventually we give up on the Pitta and start to wonder if our chances of this elusive species have gone already. Up to lunchtime on the grids we also recorded Crimson-winged Woodpecker, Moustached Babbler and the annoyingly common Scaly-crowned Babbler. The latter is one of those birds that has the ability to look like every other species in the world given poor views, and was a source of much confusion through out our stay at DVFC.
After lunch and a rest we had planned to go back onto the grids. However, JG had been up the Waterfall trail and bought back news of 2 Giant Pittas calling along that trail. The grids were quickly cancelled and the four of us wandered up the Waterfall trail with renewed optimism of bagging this "pressure-releasing mega". Another frustrating few hours followed as, again, the birds called to the tape but stubbornly refused to show. At times it seemed they were no more than about 10 yards from us, though their position in the tangle was impossible to judge. A weird Bornean Black Magpie, a brief Wreathed Hornbill and a female Red-naped Trogon for JG were the only other species of note.
DAY 15: 25th March 2002
Another early start, this time on the Waterfall trail, oddly enough, in the same area as yesterday. The whole morning was spent hearing, but not seeing, Giant Pitta. A smart Striped Wren-babbler and a Crested Fireback were some consolation. An extremely brief view of a pheasant that appeared to have large white tail feathers also promoted an extensive search but failed to reappear. MB found a large pig wallow containing a Wallace's Flying Frog nest, and was therefore happy for the rest of his life. The rest of us also picked up a Ferruginous Babbler and a Rufous-tailed Shama.
After the previous Giant Pitta dips we decide to spend the afternoon on the grids again in the hope of finding one in more acceptable terrain (i.e not dense enough to hide a Rhino at 5 yards). Things start well at W5 - S1 when we flush a Black-Headed Pitta and a quality pair of Rufous Piculets near the river. Another good Woodpecker tick also appears in the form of a Grey and Buff Woodpecker. No sound of any Giants however, so we retire to the suspension bridge for dusk. This time we are actually on the bridge at about 6pm, just in time to see the resident pair of Bat Hawks fly out of roost. Strange birds these - large, Marsh Harrier size but look like a cross between a Harrier, Long-tailed Skua and a Peregrine! Anyway, another good species out the way and we would return to look at them again.
Dinner involves rice.
DAVE 16: March 26th 2002
Up early again, this time with the express intent of getting up to the Elephant Ridge and Perwina trails and search for Blue-Banded Pitta. MB, moaning as usual, decided not to join us. From this point on, he elected to direct his attentions to frog-spotting around pig wallows - a strategy that regularly brought him into close contact with the fearsome Bearded Pigs. These monstrous animals are regularly encountered on the trails, and thankfully are not aggressive. Given their mammoth size, they could easily make a mess of an unwary birder.
The day began well for the rest of us with a group of 5+ Short-tailed Babblers. This species calls constantly and is reasonably easy to see, given favourable vegetation. They are full of character and have a great crest, which seems to rise when calling (again looking little like their illustration in the field guide).
Little else was seen up to W15 N0 when yet another Giant Pitta was heard calling not too far from the track. We immediately dumped our bags and quietly crept into the forest for about 15 yards to a more open area. A short burst of playback brought rigorous response, which seemed to remain distant and mysteriously stop. A sudden movement was the greeted by another chain of expletives from JG, who had just seen it running along a nearby log. These words were then matched by myself and SM as the bird loomed out of the shadows right in front of us. Taking off from behind the log, the Giant Pitta took a short flight into a nearby tree and landed in full view about 20 yards away!! And here it sat, quite happily calling for the next 15 minutes. The bird was a stunning male, gleaming blue on the back and subtle tan underneath with those intricate facial markings. After three days of solid effort and no return, the relief was unbelievable. Again, no one spoke for what seemed like hours until the beast finally retired into the jungle leaving us to remove the large numbers of leeches now attached to our legs. Needless to say though, we didn't care. Our Pitta viewing was briefly interrupted by a pair of fly-over Helmeted Hornbills, the only ones we saw.
In hindsight, we were very lucky to see this Pitta as mysteriously, we did not hear a single one after this. It seems that all the Pittas have set calling periods, which begin and end abruptly. For example, at this point we were starting to get concerned about the supposedly common Blue-headed, which we hadn't even heard yet!
This situation was rectified to some degree later on the elephant ridge trail when SM picked out a juvenile Blue-Headed Pitta close to the trail. Technically, and by the books, this species should not be up at this elevation. It refused to be anything else, however, despite serious effort to turn it into a Blue-banded. So this sought-after species was "on", but we knew we would have to see an adult male for the full experience. The walk up to the Perwina trail was uneventful, a couple of Striped Wren Babblers the only highlight. However, the trail was quickly ear marked as the place to see Bulwer's Pheasant. The terrain is a lot more open and looked very good for ground-dwellers, although it would be extremely difficult to be up this far by dawn due to the distance involved.
The Perwina trail also produced absolutely nothing and the only highlight of the walk back to the suspension bridge was a Drongo Cuckoo along Elephant Ridge.
The day was a poor show species-wise, but no one really gave a monkeys given the Pitta incident. An afternoon on the Nature trail was more productive with Yellow-crowned Barbet, Bornean-Blue, Malaysian Blue and Red-tailed Jungle Flycatchers all being new species. After Tea (rice), myself and MB also recorded a Buffy Fish Owl eating a lizard in the lights outside the hostel.
DAY 17: 27th March 2002
After yesterdays exploits a relaxing day was had by all, birding the entrance track, around the field centre and the Nature trail. In total a few ticks but nothing really good. Oriental Honey Buzzard and Changeable Hawk Eagle are seen soaring around over the forest and a smart pair of Purple-throated Sunbirds are around the campsite. An juvenile Wallace's Hawk Eagle was present on a nest in a tall tree about 1.5 miles from the entrance.
The highlight of the day though (after a meal of rice) was a night drive. These are expensive at RM110 but are worth every penny. They last about 1.5 hours and you get a driver and another guy with a very powerful torch and amazing eye-spotting skills. You will be extremely lucky to see a Clouded Leopard which was our target, but we soon saw a Civet curled up in a tree. Bizarrely we also found a Crested Fireback roosting on an overhanging branch. The main species however was Giant Flying Squirrel. We saw 3 of these unfeasible large bundles of fur, which look very unsafe jumping around tree-tops - possibly a bit over confident due to the table cloth attached to their limbs. We were lucky and saw one fly some distance from the top of a dipterocarp. Great animals.
DAY 18: 28th March 2002
A full walk of the nature and waterfall trails in the morning yielding very little in terms of numbers but a few good species. Olive-backed Woodpecker was the best bird and another "tricky to see" species on the list, along with Whiskered Treeswift and White-crested Babbler. No sound of any Giant Pittas however although SM did see a brief Banded at the 2km mark. The waterfall itself is a bit pathetic but the pool frogs around it provided some entertainment. After lunch a brief Red-crowned Barbet was seen along with another Grey and Buff Woodpecker around the field centre.
The afternoon was spent looking for anything around the grids and started well with a group of 4 White-fronted Falconets at W0 N2 which were perched high in a dead tree but showed well. Another individual was seen a bit later along with a male Large-billed Blue Flycatcher.
Walking along a clearing at W0 N7 we spotted a largish bird perched on a dead snag in front of us. Myself and JG at the front immediately realized that the bird was a Bornean Bristlehead. Confusion ensued, as in our excitement neither of us really managed to get the message to SM or MB before the bird flew off. An unmistakable bird, we were left with only its harsh, grinding see-saw call, and a desire for better views.
We wandered back early to try and see the Bat Hawks again. On the way, we heard another Black-headed Pitta calling at W0 N6. A few dodgy looks at each other and a more careful listen raised a few eyebrows. The call was longer and more draw out than a Pitta, with no change in pitch or rising inflection which we had been hearing regularly around the grids. A quick consultation with the tape concluded without doubt that we were actually listening to a Malaysian Rail-Babbler! Now this really is a species we thought we had no chance of. Unfortunately, it was 5.30pm by now and the light was starting to fade quickly. Given no other option, we played the tape and crossed every part of our bodies we could think of. The bird instantly responded to the tape and began to come closer but after 20 minutes it stopped and was not heard again. Now getting very dark and with no torches on us we left - but this one was not over yet
DAY 19: March 29th 2002
Unsurprisingly, the whole morning was spent around W0 N6 playing a tape of the Rail-Babbler, but without success. However, a few other goodies included Wallace's Hawk Eagle, Finch's Bulbul, Violet Cuckoo and a flock of Brown Barbets. Disappointed, we left for lunch and gave up on the whole Rail-Babbler idea.
Again, birding around the field centre proved useful, especially the flowering tree we discovered behind the badminton court. This one tree held 2 Thick-billed, 7 Yellow-eared, 2 Spectacled, 1 Streaky and 4 Little Spiderhunters along with a Streaked Tit-Babbler and a Rufous-tailed Tailorbird! Not bad for one tree. A brief wander to the camp site also produced a Chestnut-necklaced Partridge. SM called another Raffles Malkoha flying down the river which this time turned out to be a Stork-billed Kingfisher! We decided to show him a picture of Raffles Malkoha and then reminded him that we had actually seen quite a few.
Afternoon on the grids again for myself, JG and MB produces nothing more than a Banded Broadbill at W5 S4. SM, on the other hand, returned to the Bristlehead site and, a little distance from the initial sighting, found a group of 7 Bornean Bristleheads which showed well for a few minutes. This record was immediately rejected (Raffles Malkoha not ruled out) but secretly we were all highly envious of his superior "rarity radar".
DAY 20: 30th March 2002
Another attempt at Blue-Banded Pitta, this time along the Rhino Ridge trail (apart from MB who spent another day looking for frogs and cornflakes around the field center). This morning was a lot more lively than the rest with many birds seen - unfortunately Black-capped Babbler the only new one but 3 Red-bearded Bee-eaters and 6 Striped Wren Babblers were also well worth seeing. We walked the trail from the W5 S10 end, which seemed logical given the gradients involved. The Rhino Ridge contains the highest point around the field centre end of Danum valley at 1600 meters. However, most of the climbing is done in one 500 metre section of trail - it takes a lot of calf muscle strength to ascend. A female Banded Pitta was seen well near the top, at one point, hidden all bar its head behind a tree route which produced a brilliant image as it moved its head around and flashed its supercillium. A Temminks Babbler was also seen around this area.
We approached the sign post of R25 having seen very little else and picked up the call of a Pitta distantly down the slope. Was this the beast? The situation was good, about 1300 meters up (Black-headed don't get much above 800m) in an area with bamboo and on a slope: this must be a Blue-banded Pitta calling! About 20 minutes and a very professional stalk later we managed to get to within about 15 yards of the bird, which was still calling but hidden in dense vegetation. Another 5 minutes later I caught a glimpse of a crimson chest gleaming through the tickets, everyone got on it and it was a Black-headed Pitta. JG declaimed the situation: "this is the lowest point in my birding life". I knew what he meant - this bird was completely out of place, at the wrong elevation and in the wrong microhabitat. We were convinced this was going to be the Blue-banded, but it wasn't to be.
Worse was to come however as only 200 meters later at R23, another Pitta was heard, brilliantly stalked again, and indeed, was another Black-headed Pitta. This was getting silly, what are these Pittas doing up on Rhino Ridge? We attempted to console ourselves by the fact that Black-headeds are very nice birds. It's hard to be annoyed at any pitta for long.
The walk to the very scenic water pool was quiet, but a Black Eagle over the river was a good record, and the Banded Broadbill from yesterday was still present. We decided to try Rhino Ridge again later, as this really did look good for the desired Pitta.
Back on the grids at W5 S5, SM flushed a Dairds Trogon and chased it into the forest for a better look, booting a woodpecker as he went in. The latter immediately aroused suspicion, as it was about the size of a Fin Whale. Luckily it landed on a nearby tree, joined by another and showed well for a few minutes. They were Great-slaty Woodpeckers - excellent beasts, especially their outrageously big feet, which actually seemed to hamper them as they bounded up the tree. This was a good end to the walk with a quality species that we could easily have missed.
W5 S2 also produced a brief Chestnut-naped Forktail which, in classic forktail style, perched in view for a length of time measurable only in picoseconds, but was enough for another tick.
A lunchtime amble around the campsite by JG produced a Blue-banded Kingfisher, prompting a sprinted twitch attempt by the ever eager SM. Unfortunately the bird was flushed just before he arrived - by an Orang-Utan! Good views of the "old man" were some compensation. The nature trail in the evening turned up a Large-billed Blue Flycatcher and a smart male Dairds Trogon.
The boys have got the Forktail surrounded, but views are still hard to come-by.
DAY 21: 31st March 2002
Another frustrating morning on the grids yielded precisely no ticks but 2 White-bellied Woodpeckers and a Whiskered Treeswift were good value.
Meeting MB at lunch (he had been whining about the grids again and hence gone up the Waterfall trail) he reported having great views of a male Blue-headed Pitta at about the 1.6km mark! This was more like it. I'll also point out here that none of us had even heard a Blue-headed yet. Lunch was quickly devoured and myself, SM and JG headed off up the trail (MB, moaning about the long walk, refused to come along and show us were it was).
Thankfully we found the right area and a rendition from the tape got the bird calling immediately and we chased in after it. This proved pointless however as the forest was far too dense to get through at this point, so we tried plan B - to get it to come to us using the tape. To our amazement, this worked, and after about 10 minutes the bird came out of the dense stuff and performed for all, sometimes down to less than 10 yards. The bird eventually sauntered off back into the forest and we headed back feeling a little more pressure was off - another essential in the bag, and what a bird!
The walk back produced another 2 ticks: Great Argus (a brief female) and Hill-blue Flycatcher (a smart male), Also a Green Broadbill and a Black-capped Babbler showed well around the tree platform.
By this time it was only 3pm so we wandered back onto the grids. Again, no birds were seen, literally, but the Rail-Babbler appeared to be in full song again around the W0 N5 point. Much earlier in the afternoon this time - we had a chance. Using the tape and some cunning stealth skills, we followed the bird for almost an hour, eventually tracking it to a stream with some short vegetation on the other side. There was no way the bird could have moved through this area without us seeing it, but somehow, it managed. Anyone that has tried to see a Rail-Babbler before will no doubt agree that they are an absolute nightmare! On a few occasions we got to within 5 yards of the bird but never saw it. The main problem appears to be the direction its call is projected from. You could not pinpoint its position to within about 20 yards, even at 25 yard range. At one point we thought it had legged it up the slope, so we moved, it then called from its original position, obviously not having moved at all, so we moved back, and then it did move but didn't sound like it, so we lost it. Basically a very frustrating experience. At least we knew the bird was still around and hence we would be making another effort to see it.
The Bat Hawks were again seen in the evening but no one really cared: we were all gutted about our failure with the Rail-Babbler. We decided however that we would have another go at Blue-banded Pitta along the Perwina trail tomorrow as, surely; we had more chance of seeing this than the invisible Rail.
DAY 22: 1st April 2002
The day started well with a brief fly past from a Brush Cuckoo along the river near the suspension bridge. This was a species we heard daily but found very difficult to actually see. We tried the grids first - the long hard walk up to W22 produced not a single bird! Thankfully the Elephant Ridge trail was a little livelier with a Green Broadbill, Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher and the unimaginably dull and boring Brown Fulvetta (our first sighting).
A brief Blue-banded Kingfisher was also a good tick, this time around the river on the Perwina trail. This river is well worth a visit despite the lengthy c4.5km walk to get there. Basically it's a "perfect" river situated in the forest and we spent quite a lot of time here, messing around and generally not doing anything. Other species seen around this area were Black-naped Monarch, 2 Striped Wren-Babblers,Lesser Fish Eagle and an all too brief Chestnut-naped Forktail which I actually got my bins on this time.
After about an hour we decided we really should be trying to see some birds and began the walk back towards the grids. This was shortly interrupted by another Pitta calling quite distantly on a ridge to the left of the path. So off we go again, piling into the forest after what surely, this time, must be Blue-banded Pitta. The search was briefly called to a halt when MB spotted a Kingfisher perched at head height no more than 20 yards away. Fully expecting it to be a Blue-banded we all scuttled round to get in line with MB's bins and after about 2 seconds realised the bird was actually a male Banded Kingfisher! This is a really tricky species at Danum and one we thought we would miss. More importantly however they are absolutely stunning creatures, large with vivid colours and great patterning on the front - well worth seeing. We quickly turned our attentions back to the Pitta in question - to cut a long story short, we didn't see it. After a while of playing the tape it started to move away and eventually over the ridge.
The only other bird of note during the rest of the day (!) was at the W22 point at the top of the grids where there is a large log to sit on. JG had wandered away and unknowingly booted a Crested Wood Partridge from the side of the track, which thoughtfully fluttered past myself and SM and dived into some thick vegetation. It was to elude JG for the next 20 minutes when we finally managed to drag him away from the search.
DAY 23: 2nd April 2002
Early morning we decided that 2 days in a row up Perwina trail is a bit too much like hard work and we settle for a more relaxing walk around the grids looking for Wren-Babblers. We were lead to believe that both Bornean and Black-throated were relatively easy around the grids but thus far we had heard neither despite random tape playing in likely habitats.
SM, hoping to chance on the Rail-babbler, went for a wander in the dense vegetation between W0 N6 and the river. The babbler didn't appear, but he did discover a group of Hooded Pittas close to the trail. JG, who was nearby, also got good views of up to three birds. We found these birds to be very tape responsive but still extremely difficult to see.
Much of the day was spent around the clearings at W0 N6 and W0 N5 looking for anything that was around - a strategy that worked well. Simply sitting in an area where you can see the canopy with a scope produced a number of ticks. Most notable was the cracking Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, which we were prepared to dip after inexplicably missing it at MKNP. Also on the list were Both Ioras, Lesser Cuckoo Shrike, lots of Fiery Minivets, Black-winged Flycatcher Shrike, and a whole host of Barbets, Bulbuls and Drongos, nothing outstanding but a good variety. SM and JG also had good views of Oriental Pygmy Kingfisher over a nearby stream. The river also turned up a Great-billed Heron, presumably the same individual as before, and a Long-billed Spiderhunter.
Towards the evening a Bat Hawk is found roosting in full view behind the hostel. This is something we had been looking out for as other people had mentioned them roosting around this area, but this was the only time we saw them in the trees.
DAY 24: 3rd April 2002
Yet another attempt at the Perwina trail, another early morning. The ridge produced a grand total of 5 birds. Thankfully one of these 5 was a stunning male Blue-headed Pitta which briefly joined us on the trail about 500 meters along from W22. The other 4 birds were a Brown Fulvetta and a group of 3 White-bellied Yuhinas, all of which were incredibly dull.
The Perwina trail started a lot better, with only 150 meters covered before we heard the first Pitta and once again dumped the bags and began stalking the beast. Having got much closer to where we thought the bird was, JG noticed some movement over to the right. A few seconds later the bird re-appeared, followed closely by another 2. We still couldn't quite work out what they were on these partial and brief views and could think of nothing that fit the description. Very large (appeared about barbet size!), ground dwelling and overall dark plumage. Eventually one ventured into the open far enough to see clearly that they were Black-throated Wren-babblers. A quick rendition from the tape brought them closer and they showed well for about 10 minutes. Classy birds, strikingly large and bulky with intricate plumage patterns.
About 10 minutes later and we had located the Pitta, and, unsurprisingly, it was yet another Black-headed Pitta. Annoyingly, only about 200 meters further along the trail another Black-headed Pitta was heard, stalked and then given abuse for not being a Blue-Banded. Little else was seen along the Perwina trail or around the river, and there was no further sound of any Pittas so we headed back early to have another go at the grids which produced nothing better than a Green Broadbill, to end a disappointing day, although the Wren-babblers were a good tick.
DAY 25: 4th March 2002
Our last day at DVFC and a final push for the desired Pitta, this time up Rhino Ridge. A desperate MB decided to throw caution to the wind and join the rest of us in the hope of unblocking those missing pittas. The only birds seen on the walk through the grids to W10 S5 was a smart male Crested Fireback on the trail and a few Short-tailed Babblers.
The long hard climb up the ridge was equally dull with virtually no birds being seen and certainly none of any interest after two weeks at Danum. MB was in luck, however, when JG noticed a gleaming supercilium bobbing along the track ahead. A quick shout and sprint got MB in place just in time to see a pair of Banded Pittas cross the trail. In an unusual rush of activity, MB leapt down the trail after them at a speed none of us had ever witnessed before (ignoring his bag, vaulting tree roots, big rocks etc.) and vanished into the thick tangle some 50 yards ahead. We didn't see him again for at least an hour.
The reason myself, JG and SM did not move after the Pittas was because of a far more interesting call coming from the other side of the track down a steep slope. JG originally called it as a Black-headed Pitta but it sounded somehow different. The call was slightly longer and more drawn out with a distinct change in pitch mid way through and less inflection at the end. It was undoubtedly a Blue-banded Pitta, and a call we had definitely not heard before at either PHS or DVFC.
We proceeded to dive into the forest and about 100 yards down a steep slope towards the call, which was getting closer all the time. The forest here is a bit more montane than lower down and hence a little more open with easier access and viewing, so our hopes were high. After 20 minutes of stalking we pinned the beast down to a much denser patch of vegetation about 15 yards away and decided to wait for it to show. However, at this precise point the bird stopped calling. Five minutes passed with no further sound so as a last resort we played the Black-headed tape, not knowing if the bird would challenge it, run away from it or simply ignore it completely. Ultimately, either of the latter two arguments appeared to be true - an hour passed with no sign or sound. A Rufous-chested Flycatcher was little consolation for JG and SM on the way back to the trail. The bird was lost, and we despairingly headed back to see if MB had survived the Banded Pitta chase. Thankfully he had excellent views of them feeding and indeed the birds were still in the area, so we all had a good look. As this was our last day, and hence last chance at everything, we decided to stick it out for a bit in the area with the hope that the Pitta would start calling again. An hour and a lot of rain later we gave up and headed back down the track. We would have to return home with stories of only hearing one of the most sought after Pittas, and coming so close.
The walk back to the grids produced little of note apart from a Rufous-tailed Jungle Flycatcher and 2 Black-throated Wren-babblers which were far more elusive than the group yesterday. I headed off to W0 N6 and, thankfully, got a flight view of a Hooded Pitta near the river. This species generally seems to be very elusive and hangs out in the absolute densest undergrowth it can find.
DAY 26: 5th April 2002
Up bright and early to pack and head down to the reception to settle the bill. Bags are quickly transferred into the van and we continued to the airport. A boring 2 hour wait and a short flight later and we are soon back in the Diamond Inn, dump the bags and spend the evening eating McDonalds, Pizza and generally any other western dish we could find.
DAY 27: 6th April 2002
The morning is spent around Likas Bay bird Sanctuary not seeing a great deal - a few Yellow Bitterns are quite smart, but little in the way of waders aside from Pacific Golden Plovers.
Unsurprisingly lunch consists of about 12 cheeseburgers for no money at all before we set off to the Inn to pick up our bags and head to the airport for our 17.50 flight, which passes without too much bother. We land at the ever freezing Heathrow in shorts and t-shirts, and with all other warm garments carefully stowed in our bags.
General consensus suggests that this was a great trip with many excellent species, both avian and otherwise being seen. The atmosphere and scenery of Borneo will not be forgotten for a long time, nor will the experience gained from the trip as a whole.