We hope to get at least one sighting of a rare Orang-utan during our time in Borneo. Photo: Susan Myers
Borneo is quite rightly regarded as one of the great storehouses of our planet’s incredible biological diversity. Charles Darwin’s famous description, “one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse made by nature herself,” although often said incorrectly to have been inspired by Borneo, is in fact perfect for Borneo. Although much of the rich and verdant rainforest has been lost to palm oil plantations and timber companies, the Malaysian state of Sabah in the north harbours large remaining tracts of lowland and montane rainforest. The towering spinal mountain range dominated by Mount Kinabalu emanates from here, and teeming, complex rainforests fan out below to the lowlands and ultimately to the coast. The wildlife of this remarkable island is incomparable. With a host of enticing birds (including 48 endemics), a charismatic mammal fauna, many strange and unusual reptiles, and the world’s most diverse collection of carnivorous pitcher plants, it’s not surprising that naturalists are irresistibly drawn to the island.
We’ll visit four major birding and wildlife sites: Mount Kinabalu, the Kinabatangan River, Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Danum Valley. Mount Kinabalu is one of those truly memorable mountains that seem to burst from the ground. It dominates the west coast and is pivotal to the identity of the local people. The cool montane forests on the slopes of Kinabalu and the surrounding Crocker Ranges are home to most of Borneo’s endemic species. By contrast, the meandering passage of the lazy Kinabatangan River feeds the low-lying swamp forests that harbour rambunctious troops of the unlikely Proboscis Monkey, herds of gentle Bornean elephants, and a vast array of wonderful birds including eight species of hornbill and the strange Bornean Bristlehead. Our chances of seeing the amazing red ape - truly wild Bornean Orangutan - are high here. Next we’ll travel to the lowland forest of Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the island’s east. One of the highlights of Tabin is the active and mineral-rich mud volcanoes, which attract wildlife for their mineral intake and present an ideal platform for wildlife observation and birdwatching.To complete the picture, we’ll travel to the remote Danum Valley, one of the largest remaining stands of primary forest in Borneo, where luxuriant forests host a dazzling cast of pittas, babblers, trogons, barbets, broadbills, and many, many other fabulous birds and other animals.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Kota Kinabalu. Night in Kota Kinabalu.
Day 2: We’ll depart Sabah’s capital city, known locally as KK, and almost immediately find ourselves climbing in altitude as we head toward the Crocker Ranges and the impressive massif of Mount Kinabalu.
The area of the Crocker Range National Park we pass through is at a slightly lower altitude than Mount Kinabalu and is a good place to locate a handful of endemics and other specialities that are difficult to find at Kinabalu. With a little luck we may encounter the monotypic Mountain Blackeye in addition to Mountain Barbet and the rather uncommon but attractive Bornean Barbet. If we’re a bit more fortunate, we may also see the peculiar Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, or the diminutive Pygmy White-eye, our first Bornean endemics! Some of the other birds we may encounter include Jerdon’s Baza, Mountain Imperial-Pigeon, Ruddy and Little Cuckoo-doves, Gold-whiskered Barbet, Bornean Leafbird, Pale-faced Bulbul, Orange-headed Thrush (uncommon), and the flaming Temminck’s Sunbird. Night at Mount Kinabalu.
Days 3-5: Mount Kinabalu is so central to the identity of Sabahans that it is featured prominently on the state flag and is the subject of innumerable folktales. It is also the key to Borneo’s incredible biodiversity, for it’s here in these mountain ranges that most of Borneo’s endemics evolved. Birding in the cool climate and verdant forests is a real pleasure as we stroll the trails and road in search of a host of great birds, including Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Bornean Whistler, Mountain Serpent-Eagle, the rather elusive Whitehead’s Trogon, Golden-naped Barbet, Checker-throated and Maroon Woodpeckers, the fabulous Whitehead’s Broadbill, Sunda Cuckoo-shrike, Grey-throated Minivet, Ashy and Hair-crested Drongos, Black-and-crimson Oriole, Short-tailed Green Magpie, Bornean Treepie, the delightful Mountain Wren-Babbler, Grey-throated Babbler, Sunda, Chestnut-capped, and Bare-headed Laughingthrushes, White-browed Shrike-Babbler, large flocks of Chestnut-crested Yuhina, Mountain Leaf and Yellow-breasted Warblers, Mountain Tailorbird, Sunda Bush-Warbler, White-throated Fantail, the endemic Eye-browed Flycatcher, plus Indigo, Snowy-browed, and Little Pied Flycatchers, Bornean Whistler, Black-sided Flowerpecker, and Black-capped White-eye. There is always the possibility we could encounter some of Kinabalu’s more elusive species such as Red-breasted and Crimson-headed Partridges, Fruithunter, Everett’s Thrush, and Bornean Stubtail.
We’ll also visit Poring Hot Springs, part of the Mount Kinabalu National Park but at a slightly lower altitude than Mount Kinabalu, and with a different set of birds; we may see Banded Kingfisher, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, Short-tailed Babbler, Malaysian Blue-Flycatcher, Rufus Woodpecker or Bornean Spiderhunter. If we are really lucky we might spot the very rare and elusive Hose’s Broadbill. In addition, there’s a chance we’ll see a Rafflesia in flower. Nights at Mount Kinabalu.
Day 6: After some morning birding at Mount Kinabalu we’ll head south to the Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s longest. The reserve protects many excellent birds such as Grey-headed Fish-Eagle, Oriental Darter, Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, Rhinoceros Hornbill (always a big hit), Stork-billed Kingfisher, and maybe we’ll see soaring Lesser Adjutants or, even better, Storm’s Stork. On our way to our lodge we’ll stop in at Gomantong Cave, a huge limestone cavern that is home to literally millions of swiftlets and bats. The nests have been collected sustainably for the food industry in China for hundreds of years, and it’s quite a spectacle to witness the emergence of staggering numbers of swiftlets at dusk, especially when they are being pursued by Bat Hawks and Peregrine Falcons! Night at Bilit Rainforest Lodge.
Days 7: Today we’ll explore this fascinating area with its wide central river and many narrower, meandering tributaries. These forests are simply full of kingfishers, hornbills, broadbills, bulbuls, and many others. It’s a wonderful place for primates with numerous large troops of the Proboscis Monkeys as well as Maroon Leaf-Monkeys and Long-tailed Macaques conspiring to keep us entertained. There are many, many birds to look for here, but of particular note are the special ones, such as Lesser Fish-Eagle, Bornean Ground-Cuckoo, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Hooded Pitta, and many species of kingfisher and woodpecker. This is one of the best places for Bornean Pygmy Elephant and with luck we might come across a herd of 50 or more cavorting in the river. Night at Bilit Rainforest Lodge.
Day 8: After a final morning boat trip we’ll head to our next birding destination in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Our lodge is nestled in the midst of the rainforest and we’ll have plenty of opportunity to spot some of Borneo’s special lowland species – both birds and mammals. Bornean Gibbons are often quite confiding here and Blue-banded Kingfisher can sometimes be found in the adjacent river. We’ll also do a night drive in search of nocturnal animals such as Leopard Cat, Colugo or Red Giant Flying-Squirrel. With luck we may find Brown Wood-Owl or Bornean Tarsier. Night at Tabin Wildlife Resort.
Day 9: We’ll have a full day to bird this very rich area. Our birding will mostly be along the roads and we’ll use the reserve’s open jeep to explore. The greater openness of the forest at Tabin makes some birds easier to see than in the Danum Valley, especially raptors, hornbills, and canopy flock species. We’ll spend some time on the Mud Volcano Trail where the mineral sources often attract mammals and some birds as well. Tabin is one of the best places to find the unusual Bornean Pygmy Elephant, a subspecies of Asian Elephant, and Asian buffalo or Banteng. Over 300 species of birds have been recorded from Tabin so we’ll be busy! Night at Tabin Wildlife Resort.
Day 10: After a final morning of birding at Tabin, we’ll proceed overland to the famed Danum Valley in Borneo’s heartland. There is no doubt that Danum Valley represents one of the most important, not to mention magnificent, nature reserves in Asia. It is simply brimming with luxuriant forest and amazing wildlife, although, as with most lowland tropical rainforests, finding some of this elusive wildlife can be a challenge. En route to our lodge there is a chance for some good birding too. We’ll spend the next four nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, located on a bend in the Segama River, where the nights are cool and there is a notable absence of biting insects. This is one of the most delightful lodges in Asia, or anywhere for that matter, and there is the added bonus of some great wildlife viewing opportunities right on our doorstep. Night at Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Days 11-13: We’ll need every day here to find and enjoy the amazing array of birds in this wonderful area. We’ll spend much of our time birding along the quiet entrance road to the lodge, as well as entering the rainforest on the well-maintained trails in search of more elusive ground dwellers.
The list of birds we’ll be searching for is impressive and exciting: Bat Hawk; Jerdon’s Baza; Crested Fireback; Great Argus; Pink-necked and Thick-billed Green-Pigeons; Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot; Banded Bay Cuckoo; five species of malkoha; spectacular Diard’s and Red-naped Trogons; deep forest–dwelling Black-backed Dwarf and Rufous-collared Kingfishers; the totally bizarre Helmeted Hornbill; many species of barbet; Rufous Piculet; up to ten species of woodpecker; Blue-headed and Black-and-crimson Pittas—two of the most beautiful members of this notoriously difficult-to-see family; Green Broadbill; the endemic Black-throated Wren-babbler (Danum Valley is a babbler lover’s heaven!); the shy Crested Shrike-jay; Bornean Black Magpie; and Long-billed Spiderhunter, to name but a few.
We’ll also make a special effort to find some of Borneo’s most elusive specialities, such as Chestnut-necklaced Partridge, the spectacular endemic Bornean Ground-Cuckoo, Oriental Bay Owl, Blue-banded Pitta (elusive and rare), Bornean Wren-Babbler, and with a bit of luck the incomparable Bornean Bristlehead.
On at least one evening we’ll take an extended night safari from the lodge along the entrance road in search of mammals and nightbirds. We usually encounter Sambar Deer, Giant Red Flying-Squirrel, and Buffy Fish-Owl, but there is always a possibility of some scarcer creatures such the unlikely-looking Malayan Colugo, Bornean Tarsier, Banded Linsang, Gould’s and Large Frogmouths, Brown Wood-Owl, and Bornean Pygmy Elephant. Nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Day 14: This morning we’ll cap off our birding at Danum Valley with an early morning stroll along the road and perhaps something incredibly rare and exciting. We’ll then drive back out through the forest and logging concession and eventually back to so-called civilization for our short return flight to Kota Kinabalu. This evening we’ll enjoy a farewell dinner together, where we’ll reflect on a fabulous trip to one of the world’s greatest birding destinations! Night at Kota Kinabalu.
Day 15: Participants can depart from Kota Kinabalu any time this morning.
Updated: 23 November 2020