Tuesday 19 May 2015

Trip Report: Sepilok RDC - May 2015 (Part 1)


Rainforest of Sepilok RDC

After having visited Sepilok as a stop over location to Kinabatangan in 2012, I have found this site worthy of revisiting. The few hours we spent there were quite productive, with Diard’s Trogon, Broadbills and Hornbills all easily seen, the morning left me quite amazed with the variety of bird this small site offers.

Ariel view of Sandakan area

Sepilok is located just roughly 20 miles from the town of Sandakan, it is famous to tourists for two places; the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC). The latter is where my interest lies, where the famous canopy walkways have been regarded as the best place to see the endemic Bornean Bristlehead. The site also offers a range of other lowland rainforest species such as Diard’s Trogons, Red-naped Trogon, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Banded Kingfishers, Rufous-collared Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher,  Hooded Pitta, Black-and-Crimson Pitta and much more.

The forest at RDC is part of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the centre take up a small portion of the northern part of the forest reserve, there are trails going deep into the jungle but a special permit is required. There’s a 15MYR entrance fee for entering RDC for none Malaysian visitors. However the ticketing office don’t usually open until 8am, which is way past the best birding time. The way around this is to enter the park before ticketing office opens and get the ticket on your way out.

Getting around:

Trail map of RDC

RDC is only a 30 minute taxi ride from the town of Sandakan, and it is all walking by foot inside the forest, so there really isn’t much to worry about. The only concern for visitors staying at Sepilok is how to get from your accommodation to RDC, if you decided to stay at Sepilok B&B like me you will not have to worry at all, as it’s only 400m up the road from RDC, but there are a few other accommodations which is a bit further away, but most will only take you 20 - 30 minutes walking to get there. Taxis can be arranged by the accommodation back and forth RDC. Trails within RDC are all fairly well marked, most are wide gravel trails, with a few narrower forest tracks, most trails are no longer then a few kilometres long, I found all trails pretty easy going and there isn't a lot of steep climbs.


Looking out from dinning area at Sepilok B&B

There are plenty of resorts to choose from at Sepilok, but I chose to stay at the Sepilok B&B, which is the closest accommodation there is to RDC. It is a very rustic B&B which feels more like a hostel. I stayed at the First Lodge, which offers beds or rooms at a fairly reasonable price, the rooms were adequate but don’t expect anything fancy, there is a ceiling fan and private bathroom inside the room. They do offer some more comfortable rooms and lodges with A/C, which are more expensive. Rooms were not particularly clean but were acceptable. the restaurant offers a range of food, they were OK and price was fairly reasonable, drinks were however a little more expensive. Staffs were friendly and helpful in general.


As usual for any lowland rainforest, expect cooler mornings and evening around 26 degrees, mid-day is extremely hot and uncomfortable at 32 degrees. Rain should be expected in the afternoon, though I didn’t see a spot of rain during my entire stay at Sepilok. I heard from the locals there’s been a bit of a draught, which likely have affected the birds as well.


View from the Bristlehead Tower

It is quite straightforward to bird at RDC, there are a number of trails to choose from as well as the famous canopy walkway. I usually start my day off at the canopy walkway as it’s the brightest place in the morning and the birds are usually more active at the canopy early. Around mid-morning I will head down and loop the trails a few times depending on where the birds were calling. Kingfisher trail was particularly productive during my stay, this could be the result of the draught, so the birds were more active near water source. By noon I will usually head back to the B&B and take a cold shower to cool off from the mid-day heat. Sitting at the balcony of the lodge in the afternoon can be quite effective and some good birds do come through every so often. I usually head back out to RDC at 3:00pm when the scorching sun subsides slightly and walk along the trails and canopy walkways until sunset. My daily routine seemed pretty effective and it also saved me from the worst of the tropical heat.

Day 1: 8/5/2015

Took the 8:30 flight from HK to Kota Kinabalu and arrived at 12:30pm. Air Asia flights now is the sole operator at KKIA Terminal 2, and it’s a good thing I arrived at T2 because it is much closer to Tanjung Aru beach. I stored my luggage at the airport and headed out for an hour of birding at the Taman Prince Philip.

Main attraction here is obviously the Blue-naped Parrot, which have now colonised the area and can be seen around the park. They are very noisy and hard to miss. This endangered species is native to the Philippines and some small islands off the coast of Sabah, it is under threat from trapping and habitat lost in it’s natural range. Tanjung Aru is likely to be the best place to see this species.

Blue-naped Parrot

Other birds seen here were common parkland birds such as Brown-throated Sunbird, Pied Fantail, Javan Myna, Magpie Robin, Common Iora, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Zebra Dove and Spotted Dove. There were a few Dollarbirds up on the treetops and I also saw a few Blue-throated Bee-eaters. White-breasted Woodswallow is very common here. I found a few Collared Kingfishers and managed to get some good shots. I saw a few Pink-necked Green Pigeons but they only flew past and didn’t stop.

Javan Myna

Oriental Magpie Robin (adamsi)

Zebra Dove

Spotted Dove

White-breasted Woodswallow

Collared Kingfisher

Out at the beach there were a few waders, including a single Common Sandpiper and a small flock of Grey-tailed Tattlers. A Great Egret flew past out at sea.

Common Sandpiper

Grey-tailed Tattler

I was on the 5:00pm flight to Sandakan, I did saw quite a few Cattle Egrets from the plane before take off. The flight was very short and I was on a taxi to Sepilok by 6:30pm! The taxi ride was suppose to be short but we hit some rush hour traffic and was stuck in it for nearly an hour. I didn’t arrive at the B&B until 7:40pm. I checked in and called it an early night after dinner.

Day 2: 9/5/2015

I wasn’t able to get much good sleep, this could be due to the fried noodles I ate for dinner was way too salty and it left me quite thirsty throughout the night. I woke up at 5:30am and heard a lot of birds singing outside my room already. I quickly got changed and headed out. It was still pretty dark in the forest, so I stationed myself at the Bristlehead tower and waited. A male Black Hornbill made an appearance, it sat on a tree for quite some time allowing prolonged views. A female Lesser Green Leafbird came close to the canopy walkway. A Black-and-Yellow Broadbill nest was spotted near the Trogon tower, the canopy walkway was the best place to observe this canopy dwelling species.

Black Hornbill

Lesser Green Leafbird

Black-and-Yellow Broadbill

As there wasn’t much else seen at the canopy walkway I decided to head down to the trails below, I descended from the Bristlehead tower and immediately heard wood knocking sounds close by, after looking around I saw a Buff-necked Woodpecker pecking away at a tree stump close to the ground, it later flew out and perched in the open. I headed up Belian trail and saw a pair of Rufous Piculets foraging with a few Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker, the latter is a Borneo endemic.

Buff-necked Woodpecker

Rufous Piculet

Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker

I went past Hornbill tower and through Drongo House to the Broadbill tower, where the call of Black-and-Red Broadbill attracted my attension, but they didn’t show. I however noticed a female Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker pecking near the canopy. Using playback brought it down to eye-level and I got some really good views of the bird. These birds have such crazy crest!

Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker

Headed down to the Kingfisher trail and saw common birds such as Red-eyed Bulbuls and Buff-vented Bulbuls. A single Purple-naped Sunbird made a brief appearance. A Crested Serpent Eagle drifted past. I heard a movement in the undergrowth and saw something moving, I just managed to glimpse the creature as it hopped over the stream, a Mousedeer! It went away very swiftly and out of sight, but I was glad I saw it. I decided to give Pitta Path a try and found a pair of White-bellied Woodpeckers foraging together, this is the second largest woodpecker species in Borneo, only second to the Great Slaty Woodpecker, an exciting lifer! I didn’t go too deep into the trail and headed back, on my way out I saw my second Borneo endemic in form of a White-crowned Shama singing it’s beautiful song. I also got a very confiding Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher which showed well.

Purple-naped Sunbird

Crested Serpent Eagle

White-bellied Woodpecker

White-crowned Shama

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

Back at Kingfisher trail I got a Buff-rumped Woodpecker, yet another lifer! I also got various Bulbul species within the trail such as Buff-vented Bulbuls and Red-eyed Bulbuls. There was a small flock of Chestnut-rumped Babbler, they were very curious birds and responded eagerly at the sound of playbacks. While heading back to the B&B I saw an Intermediate Egret standing by the driveway.

Buff-vented Bulbul

Red-eyed Bulbul

Chestnut-rumped Babbler

Intermediate Egret

A refreshing cold shower and a bowl of soup noodle was very much welcomed. I saw a few Brown-throated Sunbirds, Magpie Robin, Little Spiderhunters, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker and Common Ioras in the garden, later I got a Brahminy Kite together with a Changeable Hawk Eagle circling just above the lodge.

Brown-throated Sunbird

Little Spiderhunter

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker

Brahminy Kite

Changeable Hawk Eagle

Rested, I headed back out in the afternoon, I saw Grey-rumped Treeswifts and numerous Glossy and Mossy-nest Swiftlets at the lake. My luck struck at Kingfisher trail in the form of  a beautiful male Scarlet-rumped Trogon! I first heard it’s call and brought it in with playback. It gave prolonged views in the open and I was able to observe in awe of it’s beauty. I have seen this species before at Kinabatangan but the view was nothing like this! Other birds seen were Chestnut-winged Babblers and Purple-naped Sunbirds.

Grey-rumped Treeswift

Mossy-nest Swiftlet

Scarlet-rumped Trogon

Chestnut-winged Babbler

It was quite late in the afternoon when I headed to Belian trail and heard the call of the endemic Black-and-Crimson Pitta. Having seen this species 3 years ago at Danum Valley with very obscured views, I really wanted to get a better look at this species. I stationed myself by the trail and played the recording. I waited for around 15 minutes when a bird came closer and closer, as I scanned the thick undergrowth for the bird, the Pitta suddenly hopped into view! The red belly and bright blue wing patches really pops out from the forest floor. It gradually moved closer and soon came into full view at extremely close range! I had to walk backwards a few feet to fit the whole bird in frame. The Pitta gave excellent views for about 15 minutes then headed back into the dark undergrowth, it’s haunting call echoes through the forest. What a bird! Decided this was the perfect place to end my day, I headed back to the B&B and called it a day.

Black-and-Crimson Pitta

Day 3: 10/5/2015

I was up early again and headed out before 6:00am. A flock of Hill Mynas were singing loudly behind my lodge and I found them on top of a tree. There was a fruiting tree behind the lodge where I stayed and flocks of Green Pigeons congregated to feast on the ripened fruits, namely Pink-necked Green Pigeons but also many Thick-billed Green Pigeons. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo was spotted singing from a perch by the access road.

Hill Myna

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

Up on the Bristlehead tower I listened out for any unique calls of the Bristlehead but heard nothing. I however got a very confiding group of Green Ioras and Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds. A Black-and-Yellow Broadbill was spotted just above, it caught a large beetle and was attempting to swallow it whole, it eventually managed to get it down. It certainly left me wondering how the bird must have felt with such a large beetle inside it’s stomach…

Green Iora

Ruby-cheeked Sunbird

Black-and-Yellow Broadbill

A Red-naped Trogon turned up at the canopy walkway and gave great eye-level views. It was a beautiful male, much more mature then the bird I saw a year ago at Poring. Amazing bird! A few Puff-backed Bulbul dropped in for a quick visit.

Red-naped Trogon

Puff-backed Bulbul

Down at Kingfisher Trail, a few Olive-winged Bulbuls showed well, they differ from Red-eyed Bulbuls from their streaked ear coverts. A pair of Diard’s Trogons were spotted, but they stayed within cover and quite far away. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo made itself presence with its metallic call. Near Drongo House I saw a Spectacled Spiderhunter, but it was too quick for any photographs. The rest of the morning was pretty uneventful and only a Black-and-Red Broadbill was seen on the way out by the lake.

Olive-winged Bulbul

Black-and-Red Broadbill

A few Copper-throated Sunbirds were spotted at the flowers by the car park. A pretty large species of sunbird with longish tail, they do look all black from afar, but when you get a chance to look at them close up their colours shines through and in good lighting they were such a beautiful birds!

Copper-throated Sunbird

I spent a few hours resting and sitting outside the lodge. Nothing much was seen but a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbill did visit the fruiting tree behind the lodge, I managed to snap a quick shot of the female before they flew off.

Oriental Pied Hornbill

Headed back out to RDC late afternoon. The first interesting bird I saw was a Rufous-bellied Eagle at the Hornbill tower, a very handsome raptor and definitely one of my favourite raptor in South-east Asia. A few Feiry Minivets flew past in a distance, the females are very distinctive with red tails and yellow bellies. A Lesser Green Leafbird was a little closer to the tower.

Rufous-bellied Eagle

Lesser Green Leafbird

Not much else was seen the whole afternoon except a pair of Bat Hawks that circled around the Trogon tower at dusk. They gave exceptional views at quite close range; much closer then the time I saw them outside Gomantong cave. This amazing raptor actually specialize in hunting bats, their large eyes enables them to see well even late at dusk, they certainly looks the part too, I’ve always thought they resembles Batman (or is it the other way round?). A single Drongo Cuckoo called from a tree opposite the tower. I decided to call it a day as the sun sets lower and headed back to the B&B.

Bat Hawk

Drongo Cuckoo

To be continued...

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