Sabah – Broadbills, Pittas and a Cuckoo
Bob Vaughan (May 2014)Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest of the many bird rich islands found off South East Asia. Sabah is part of Malaysia and forms Borneo’s NE tip, more importantly it has Borneo’s highest peak, Gunung Kinabalu, an impressive craggy igneous intrusion reaching just over 4000 metres above sea level.
This is important because, due to the changes of sea-level in geologically recent times, most of the endemic Bornean birds are found at higher levels. I joined a Zoothera expedition to Sabah because it is the best place for the Bornean Bristlehead. I was of course interested in supporting local efforts to avoid Borneo being turned into a huge oil-palm plantation, though I admit to being a little late. The difference between ego- and eco-tourism is a fine one, but support for the extraordinary wildlife in this wonderful place is critical. Of the 50 or so birds endemic to Borneo at least five are very rare to near impossible, then there are the many endemic mammals including 13 primates such as the endangered Proboscis Monkey and Bornean Orangutan.
We landed in the resort of Kota Kinabalu and headed into the foothills of the mountain. The most famous targets here are Whitehead’s trio: the Broadbill, Trogon and Spiderhunter and we managed to see none of them; however we did see Whiteheads Pygmy Squirrel with lovely white-ear tufts. That might sound disappointing but in three days we managed 24 endemic birds in the rather wet weather including Everett’s Thrush, the three endemic Barbets and the charismatic Bornean Stubtail bouncing around on a twig.
Next destination was Sepilok, an Orangutan rehabilitation centre next to a chunk of forest. The drive was through open country and endless oil-plantations, with few interesting roadside birds amongst the many Javan Mynas. One exception was the tiny and beautiful White-fronted Falconet but in my haste to get out of the bus and back down the road I forgot my camera!
Sepilok has a very solid canopy walkway and every time we went up there we saw Bristleheads!! They were at some distance in the canopy but they are certainly different, black and crow-like with orange-red heads and bills that can only be described as stonking
There were plenty of other exciting birds, many Hornbills and a few Trogons or maybe you’d like the just so cute Black-and-Yellow Broadbill
Sepilok is also where the plethora of Bulbuls started, a dozen different species all subtle variations on a theme – give me Babblers any day.
Kanabatangan next, here we took a small eight-seater boat to our riverside lodge, parked our bags and off out again down the swollen river for Storm’s Stork
We were lucky to see a group of Bornean Elephants foraging on the banks of the river, they are currently thought to be a small sub-species of Asian Elephant and of course endangered.
Then there was a leather bag stuck to a tree, quite motionless and bat-like, apparently this is a colugo:
Next morning we took an early boat trip down a tributary listening for the near mythical Bornean Ground-Cuckoo, a large but shy bird with cryptic green, grey and blue colouring. We heard one calling quite close to the bank and glimpsed a running shadow, backing-up the boat Nick saw it on a log in the dense understory and, leaning desperately right over, I saw the long dark blue tail and green body and greyish head. A heart stopping moment as with its spectral colouring it moved like a ghost out of sight. That left three of the party without a glimpse so we disembarked and pushed through the swampy leech infested foliage. The bird called once or twice, and I managed a tail but couldn’t get the others on it. It must be one of the few ground dwelling birds best seen from a boat. No picture of course, but here’s old big nose from just downstream:
On to Danum Valley, a large undisturbed lowland dipterocarp forest conservation area, 50 miles from the nearest town and a major wildlife paradise. The Rainforest Lodge here is a wonderful place to visit, the Field Centre may be cheaper, but the lodge is by the river with superb food and easy trails. Having said that the steep up-hill trek for the Blue-Banded Pitta was energy sapping, and the famous suspended walkway was not for the feint hearted. Some say I bottled half-way, but not until I had nailed Yellow-eared Spiderhunter.
Danum Valley is Babbler heaven, lots of diversity skulking in the bushes, difficult to see well sometimes but always worth it. I haven’t any photographs of these, more time and a bigger lens with a lower f stop would’ve helped. Black-capped Wren-babbler would have been good, perched out for a few seconds. A question, why are Dusky Broadbills so-called?
The Valley was overwhelming with the animal life was just as fascinating as the birds, flying squirrels, civets and both mouse deer on the night drives. Then there was the Least Pygmy Squirrel, all of three inches patrolling an enormous 200 ft stand-alone tree:
On our last morning we heard a Giant Pitta calling from the other side of an open area where a large tree had fallen, this is not an easy bird to see I was told. I looked at the dense undergrowth and nodded, too much cover, daft to go in there, no bird would stick around while we bashed on through. Of course we set-off, but with strict instructions to sit down very quietly when we got close. The bird continued to call and so we noisily approached and sat quietly amongst the leeches for ten minutes. It moved, so did we - and again. On the fourth try we were bashing on through when the guide saw it run across the ridge ahead! I saw a small tail on quite large dark blob disappear over the edge. We stopped and it came back, running fast like a quail along the ridge to get behind a log. I was a bit surprised, as it was a female. We somehow got back to the trail where the local guide had just seen a Great Argus walk across, and there was this huge intricately patterned tail shining in the sunlight as it calmly walked away.
Yes, I want to go back, it is rather wet, but with just 36 endemics seen there are still a few to go. My Kinabalu Serpent Eagle picture is quite poor, so have the non-endemic Blyth’s Hawk Eagle instead.