Friday 24 February 2017

Sabah - February 2017 : Part 1

Bornean Green Magpie - one of the exciting endemic found on Mt Kinabalu

It wasn't so long ago that I last visited Sabah, and I thought I wouldn't be visiting again this soon. A few months ago, Captain suddenly suggested a quick trip that covers Mount Kinabalu and Sepilok all within a week, it was an enticing offer, and a cheap flight by Cathay Pacific finally persuaded me to once again set foot on Borneo.

Having been a few times, I dare say I've became quite familiar with the birds there and barely did any pre-trip studying. I did flpped through my Borneo field guide a few times but I knew the few species I missed on previous trips and was determine to at least get a few of those ticked off my life list!

11th Feb

It was a shame that our five men crew was cut short to four as Yuen suddenly could not make it due to personal reasons. So, Captain, Hailey, Alfee and I set off together.

Evening flight to Kota Kinabalu

The flight time was an odd one, we met at the Hong Kong airport at around noon and took a late afternoon flight to Kota Kinabalu. It was already 7:30pm when we got everything sorted, the pre-booked car was already waiting for us, we got to the arranged accommodation in KK and settled in for the night.

Nana Marina Court - self service apartment

My stomach had been feeling funny before the trip, which was a bit worrying, I didn't have enough appetite for the late evening meal, it was fortunate that my illness slowly cleared off in the next few days and never affected my birding ability!

12th Feb

We started off early for a morning walk around the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre which Captain had been to many years ago, according to him he found a Lesser Adjutant there last time. But seems that much had changed and the surrounding areas had became much degraded.

Wooden boardwalks at KK Wetland Centre

The wetland offers some chance to find the few mangrove species in Sabah, but birds were far and few between. Egrets were the predominant species here. Collared Kingfishers called constantly and made an appearance every now and then. A distance Green Imperial Pigeon and Pink-necked Green Pigeon wasn't all that impressing though.

Intermediate Egrets & Little Egrets

Collared Kingfisher

Green Imperial Pigeon

Pink-necked Green Pigeon

After a Blue-eared Kingfisher zipped past and not gave a perched view, we gave up in looking for birds in the mangroves and went back near the entrance for a few common garden birds. A Brahminy Kite drifted past above and later a White-bellied Sea Eagle as well.

Mangroves overlooking disturbed habitats

Brahminy Kite

Back near the garden, we got a Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker, it preferred to be at the tree top and never ventured down. Malayan Pied Fantails jumped around constantly but was too quick for any photographs, while a familiar Asian Brown Flycatcher hawked for insects above.

Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker

Asian Brown Flycatcher

Olive-backed Sunbirds were quite active. A few Brown-throated Sunbirds were making themselves difficult for photos. A single female Orange-bellied Flowerpecker was the most obliging bird there, while an Ashy Tailorbird gave us a good run around the garden but finally everyone got a decent view.

Olive-backed Sunbird - male

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker - female

Ashy Tailorbird

Showered and refreshed, we had lunch at a nearby mall from our accommodation before heading up the winding road to Kinabalu Park HQ. The drive was not particularly eventful, the slow traffic slowed us down considerably, but we got to the Ayana Holiday Resort near the park HQ by 4pm. The small resort is situated at a nice place, but the steps that leads down to the lodges was a killer! I would not recommend this to anyone with weak legs nor the faint hearted! It was fine just walking the stairs, but its another matter walking up and down with luggages! On the plus side, the cats at the resort were cute and friendly though.

View from the Oceanus Waterfront Mall

Ayana Holiday Resort - friendly cats but a lot of stairs...

Seeing that we still got two hours of sunlight we thought we should not waste it and headed up the park. We didn't drive up too far and soon encountered a flock of beautiful and endemic Bornean Green Magpie and Bornean Treepies. They provided plenty of good looks and even some decent photographic opportunities! Alongside were a few Sunda Laughingthrushes, a common but not always easy to photograph species. A trio of Orange-backed Woodpeckers were also there to entertain us.

Bornean Green Magpie - clowns of Kinabalu!

Bornean Treepie

Sunda Laughingthrush

Orange-backed Woodpecker

Other common birds we either heard or saw but at a distance, including Bornean Whistler and Mountain Leaf Warbler, I thought we did quite well given the limited time that afternoon. We gathered near the park entrance where there's a BBQ stand selling roasted chicken wings and kidneys etc, we all got a taste of some delicious BBQ before a rather mediocre dinner at the restaurant outside the gate. The mist prohibited us from searching for owls up the trail, but there were plenty of interesting moths that kept me occupied, not that I know what they really are though......

Bornean Whistler

Mountain Leaf Warbler

BBQ stands outside park HQ

Various Moths of different shapes and sizes!

13th Feb

I didn't manage to get much sleep that night, but woke up early before dawn and we drove up to Timpohon Gate while the moon was still out. Two large birds flying across in the distant (well spotted by Captain) which turned out to be Wreathed Hornbills! Our second bird there naturally were of course the few Bornean Whistling Thrush which come to the gate to feed. It was a bit windy there which seems to have affected the smaller birds, making them much more difficult to spot.

Moon as taken with Canon EF 500mm F/4 IS II

Glimpse of the summit!

Wreathed Hornbills - our only pair of the trip

Bornean Whistling Thrush - they will never fail to show around Timpohon Gate

Seeing that birds were not too active near the gate, and the two endemic Partridges unwilling to show, we headed down hill to see what was there, where we found a few Sunda Laughingthrushes near the rubbish dump feeding. There were also a female Mugimaki Flycatcher near the gate, a wintering flycatcher that we are very familiar with, it's an interesting experience to see them at their wintering ground. A few Chestnut-crested Yuhinas also made an appearance briefly.

Sunda Laughingthrush

Mugimaki Flycatcher - female

Chestnut-crested Yuhina - another Mt Kinabalu specialty

The best bird there was a single Golden-naped Barbet which came down very low to feed! A species you hear much more often then you see, it's great to see this beautiful mountain endemic up close.

Golden-naped Barbet - personally one of the prettiest Barbet out there

Otherwise, things were a bit quiet, with smaller birds consisting of mainly Mountain Leaf Warblers, Yellow-breasted Warblers, Black-capped White-eyes, White-throated Fantails, Bornean Whistlers and Chestnut-crested Yuhinas, but none of them really showing well. A few Little Cuckoo Doves fed along the power station road. While the other more interesting find was a single Maroon Leaf Monkey sitting right above the road.

White-throated Fantail

Little Cuckoo Dove

Maroon Leaf Monkey - one of the very few primates we saw on this trip

We tried our luck by Liwagu Restaurant by mid morning, there we found a very tamed Indigo Flycatcher, along with another female Mugimaki Flycatcher. We also caught up with a few closer Mountain Leaf Warblers and Black-capped White-eyes.

Indigo Flycatcher - a species that is always photogenic

Mountain Leaf Warbler

Black-capped White-eye

A short walk down hill had us looking at another familiar looking Flycatcher that is wintering here, a male Blue-and-White Flycatcher. We even saw a single Eye-browed Thrush, and we all had a feeling of being at Tai Po Kau! A male Little Pied Flycatcher that came along bursted that bubble right away.

Blue-and-White Flycatcher - a familiar species that will be returning on spring passage soon

Little Pied Flycatcher

As we were scheduled to head to Sepilok in the afternoon, we didn't really spend too much time birding before needing to check out and go on the long drive towards Sepilok. We stopped at Ranau for lunch where we spotted a colony of Glossy Swiftlets near the town centre, the balcony of the buildings were littered with bird droppings and stank terribly, I can't quite imagine how you could live in the building like that!

Forests make ways to oil palm plantations...

Glossy Swiftlet - a large colony at Ranau town centre

We didn't stop much for birding, but along the way we added a few common species including White-breasted Wood Swallows and Chestnut Munias. Hailey spotted a Striated Grassbird which I didn't manage a photograph, but got a decent flying view. I also spotted a probable Changeable Hawk Eagle in the distance.

Chestnut Munia - a common roadside species

White-breasted Woodswallow

After a long drive, we finally arrived at Sepilok Jungle Resort, of which I immediately heard the call of the Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker, a burst of playback bought a pair down closer, the male was especially impressive with it's bright red crest. Surely one of the most charismatic small woodpeckers out there!

Entrance of Sepilok Jungle Resort

Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker - what a crest on that thing!

We got settled in and decided to walk around the resort premises. A pair of very friendly Stork-billed Kingfishers at the small lake greeted us, these were the tamest I've seen of this usually easily spooked species. Robert the chef greeted us at the restaurant, a big friendly fellow whom had a good reputation as a part time bird guide for guests at the resort. He quickly gave us a briefing about some birds found near the resort and we arranged a time to bird with him in the morning the next day. The funny thing was that the moment he saw us he threw a bunch of bread into the lake which attracted not only the fish, but the Stork-billed Kingfisher that flew to a close branch to everyone's surprise! Easily the best place to photograph this species in all of Sabah!

Restaurant area at the lodge

The BFK - Big Friendly Kingfisher (Stork-billed Kingfisher)

We continued our little quest around the resort, as we walked past a rain shelter Captain exclaimed "Parrot!", what he actually saw though and could not really connect the word to his mouth is that he was looking at a Red-bearded Bee-eater, which in some sense looked like a green parrot I suppose. Although not a lifer for me, I've never seen them in Sabah so it's nice to catchup with one here. It was so confiding that I had to walk back a few feet to fit the bird in frame! The stunner gave us all the time we wanted and we decided to leave it in peace after getting some good photos.

Red-bearded Bee-eater - it can be my new best friend!

We didn't see much else around the resort, except a few Crimson Sunbirds feeding in a flowering bush. A male Magpie Robin of the local endemic subspecies pluto was also foraging around the muddy creek, this subspecies lacks the white belly or outer tail that we are so familiar with.

Crimson Sunbird

Oriental Magpie Robin - pluto

Robert caught up with us and decided to show us something. He led us through a doorway and within the small room was a Buffy Fish Owl, it was probably injured before and Robert had been feeding the bird with fish. Otherwise it looked healthy, and Robert said he should be able to release the bird very soon.

Buffy Fish Owl - get well soon

Back outside, a few Black-and-Red Broadbills rested near the lake, I managed a few shots before they flew up to the trees to roost. And that perfectly sums up our day, with a great mixture of highlands and lowland species all in one day, it's not surprising that this was the day we got most species recorded in one day with 70 species.

Black-and-Red Broadbill

14th Feb

We met Robert at 6:30am by the restaurant, we quickly got geared up and started a walk behind the resort premises. The mud tracks lead to some disturbed secondary forests mixed with oil palm plantations, not exactly what you would expect to be good for birding. Robert led us to a part of the plantation with damp mud, and we soon saw a juvenile Hooded Pitta flew past. The Pitta didn't show well though, only giving fleeting views. We tried for half and hour without much luck, so Robert and us moved onto other birds.

Robert leading us through the plantations

Things started off slowly, and most birds didn't want to show, including a White-bellied Woodpecker which called close-by, but was spooked away before we got any good look at it. Things picked up pace when we got a few Bornean Black Magpies at close range, giving very good views. A single Greater Coucal lurked in the distance.

Bornean Black Magpie - one of the lowland endemics

Greater Coucal

A Black-and-Yellow Broadbill called close-by and we soon called them in with a few burst of recordings and a pair showed very well at fairly close range. Although I've seen them so many times they never fail to impress!

Black-and-Yellow Broadbill - you just can't get bored with these birds!

Around the same spot, we called in yet another bird, this time a White-crowned Shama, a northern Borneo lowland endemic. It unleashed it's powerful and melodic song right before our eyes, and gave great views for as long as we wanted.

White-crowned Shama - another of the lowland endemics

We walked further along the track and spotted a pair of confiding Buff-necked Woodpeckers, both cooperated and perched for prolonged period of time for everyone to enjoy. Just ahead, Robert pointed to me a Hooded Pitta in the distance, and I quickly fired a few shots before the bird flew off again, I only got a record shot of the bird. Robert told us that a pair had been breeding around this area and actually showed us the nest, the female was residing inside and you could just about glimpse it through the hole.

Buff-necked Woodpecker

Hooded Pitta - subspecies mulleri with all black head

Around 8:30am we went back to the resort and enjoyed a spot of breakfast, it was unusual for me to actually have breakfast while birding as I usually just plough through it with a cereal bar or some biscuits, but a good rest and a cup of tea was more then welcomed. We were also welcomed by a male Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. After breakfast we drove straight to the Rainforest Discovery Centre where we would spend the rest of our morning.

Orange-bellied Flowerpecker - male

Birds were surprisingly scarce, Robert told us that February is usually quieter, as most birds are busy nesting, while it's too early that not that many young birds had fledged. Our first interesting birds were a pair of Scarlet-rumped Trogons, but only the female gave any decent views, and even that didn't come close to what amazing views I had the last time I visited!

Scarlet-rumped Trogon - female

Many birds were heard but never showed, even the usually common Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher eluded us! (we only heard a single bird) We got a few Hairy-backed Bulbuls but nothing much. After walking through a somewhat empty Kingfisher trail, we decided to head towards the ridge trail to try our luck, a few Rhinoceros Hornbills from afar gave a rather distance view, we saw little else along the way and only added a single Buff-vented Bulbul.

Hairy-backed Bulbul - why is it's back hairy? I don't get it...

Rhinoceros Hornbill - looks impressive even at a distance

Buff-vented Bulbul

As we turned around at the ridge trail we heard the call of the Rufous-collared Kingfisher, a target bird of mine! This species had eluded me several times at RDC and on my last visit I got a heard only record. We followed the call and soon got quite close, Robert told us to stay put while he went into the jungle a few meters and try look for the bird. A few minutes later he signalled us to come forward and we soon locked our eyes onto a beautiful male! It kept calling to it's mate which was out of view, but I was more then happy to just see the male. The bird later flew to an even better perch for everyone to get some decent photographs. This species had been a dream bird of mine for so long that finally nailing it felt fantastic!

Rufous-collared Kingfisher - no doubt the bird of Sepilok for this trip! All thanks to Robert!

On the way back we got a single Rufous Piculet which showed very well for us, it was probably nesting in the area and went back and forth. By then we thought we were agitating the bird so we soon left it in peace after taken our fair share of photographs.

Rufous Piculet

Before we departed RDC we picked up a Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel, they really are huge and apparently can grow up to 31inches!

Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel - trust me, it's BIG!

We had lunch back at the resort, which added a male Brown-throated Sunbird and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker at the restaurant. A Stork-billed Kingfisher was also there as usual.

Brown-throated Sunbird

Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker - endemic subspecies nigrimentum have much darker belly

Stork-billed Kingfisher - always so friendly!

After a short rest and we headed back out to the Hooded Pitta nesting area on our own hoping for a better look. A few scattered rain shower came along, but luckily not quite enough to soak us through. We waited for nearly two hours without seeing much of anything, only I got a glimpse of a Pitta at a distance but the bird never came close. A few Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds were the only other species we got at that spot. Back at the lodge we added a single Crimson-winged Woodpecker, with not much else we decided to give up and try our luck at RDC.

Rufous-tailed Tailorbird

Crimson-winged Woodpecker

Things weren't that much more exciting at RDC, but at least we picked up a few more common species, including Purple-naped Sunbird, White-bellied Epornis and Green Ioras. But none of them gave good views for photographs. A bit further along we got a Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo which perched close-by. We also got a more familiar species in form of a Grey-streaked Flycatcher which we happily added onto our trip list.

Purple-naped Sunbird

Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo

Grey-streaked Flycatcher

A pair of Black Hornbills came close but stayed within cover. I've always remembered the amazingly close views I got the last time I visited and really thought this doesn't do the species justice, but a view of the birds were better then none.

Black Hornbill - can you spot the male?

Back in Kingfisher trail, we came across a Spectacled Bulbul and a few Chestnut-winged Babblers which came close, these energetic little birds are always good fun to watch, especially when they call and puff up their throat to reveal their blue skin underneath.

Spectacled Bulbul

Chestnut-winged Babbler

To spice things up a little more, Alfee spotted a Blue Flycatcher bathing in a nearby stream, this one gave us a good guess around whether it was a male Bornean Blue or a female Malaysian Blue Flycatcher, but in the end we settled with it's identity as a female Malaysian Blue due to the lesser extent of orange on the belly, but a nice bird to see none the less.

Malaysian Blue Flycatcher - female

We went back up to the canopy walkway hoping that some Hornbills may reside there, although we got none of those in the end, a pair of juvenile Wallace's Hawk Eagles were spotted near the Trogon tower, exactly where I saw a really confiding one just over a year ago! Although the view was nowhere as close as the last one it was great to see them breeding here year after year.

The guys all focusing on the Hawk Eagle above...

Wallace's Hawk Eagle - and it looked back right at us

15th Feb

We headed out early morning and stationed ourselves on the Bristlehead Tower, there were of course no Bristleheads, this wasn't the best time of the month for them, in fact the tower produced very little else. There was even a bit of rain early on.

Bristlehead Tower in the rain

We continued on the platform after the shower stopped, the Wallace's Hawk Eagles were still where we left them last evening. The lack of birds had us worrying that our RDC tour maybe a bit of a flop!

Wallace's Hawk Eagle

It wasn't until we saw a few Green Ioras and played a recording of their calls that birds started to appear, the recording certainly attracted more then just one species, and soon more species joined in. Most prominent were a few Black-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, which came very close for everyone to take a good look, one of the male even took a large caterpillar for breakfast. A single Ruby-cheeked Sunbird made an appearance while a great looking male Black-naped Monarch also brightened up the morning.

Green Iora

Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike - male

Ruby-cheeked Sunbird - male

Black-naped Monarch - male

We encountered yet more rain, so we took shelter back at Bristlehead Tower and saw a flock of Busy-crested Hornbills afar, a juvenile was amongst the flock and took interest in an adult raiding a nest. Also around the tower was a single Van Hasselt's Sunbird, which is still one of my favourite Sunbird species in Borneo! A Blue-eared Barbet made a brief appearance before flying off into the distance. A Brown-throated Sunbird was spotted feeding near the restaurant.

Bushy-crested Hornbill

Van Hasselt's Sunbird - the colours on this bird is simply stunning!

Blue-eared Barbet - a quick look at this small Barbet

Brown-throated Sunbird - male

After the rain cleared off we headed down into the trails, but things were quiet to begin with. We were just in time and encountered a bird wave and met Robert who was taking another birder out birding that morning. A pair of Raffle's Malkoha showed briefly, the male was a brilliantly coloured as always. A few Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike along with a single Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrike came along, and they brought with them a few larger birds which I recognised as Large Woodshrikes, a new bird for me in Sabah although I've seen this species elsewhere before. A Little Spiderhunter came along briefly, I was surprise by the lack of these usually common species everywhere, I guess we were simply here at the wrong time.

Raffle's Malkoha - male

Large Woodshrike - a new bird for me in Sabah

Little Spiderhunter

While we were still looking at the Large Woodshrikes feeding in the proximity, Robert came along and signalled us to follow him. We all obeyed and around 100m up the Ridge trail he led us to the spot where he found a pair of Red-naped Trogons! They were as obliging as always, giving us all the time we needed to observe them closely. The male was as beautiful as ever, and have I ever mentioned before they are one of my favourite Trogon species?

Red-naped Trogon - male

Red-naped Trogon - female

Nothing much was seen after the Trogons, so we headed back to the lodge to ready ourselves for yet another trip back to Mt Kinabalu. As we left the car park we saw a Copper-throated Sunbird perched nicely next to our car.

Copper-throated Sunbird - male

We ate lunch at the resort's restaurant where we were greeted again by the friendly Stork-billed Kingfisher, a male Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker also gave great views. A female Oriental Magpie Robin was also present. And with that, our time at Sepilok ended, it was a bit short to sample this wonderful birding spot but given the time we had I thought we did alright, although truth be told it was nowhere as birdy as last time I was here.

Overall habitat of Sepilok Jungle Resort

Stork-billed Kingfisher - one last look at this magnificent looking bird!

Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker - even closer this time

Oriental Magpie Robin - pluto female

We didn't stop much along the way, although we managed to spot a single Storm's Stork that drifted by the road as we drove along and a brief stop again had a few Woodswallows. A near 4 and a half hour drive had us arriving back at Ayana Holiday Resort and a very sunny Mt Kinabalu! We decided we were a bit tired for birding, so we rested up in the lodges and had an early dinner at Liwagu Restaurant inside the park. We stopped by the park entrance before dinner and observed a flock of 40 Eye-browed Thrush overhead, no doubt a very common wintering species here.

White-breasted Woodswallow

Sun filled Kinabalu Park

To be continued...


  1. Great report, Matt. very entertaining reading with a stunning array of species. Now I want to go to Sabah!,

    1. Thanks David, Sabah is a wonderful place for birds, people are friendly and food are great as well! Highly recommend it! Although as with most tropical birding you have to work hard for the birds.

  2. I really like the BFK and there's plenty of other good stuff here too.
    Must get back to Sabah.

    1. We are blessed to be so close to Sabah, and flight tickets to KK nowadays are so cheap!

  3. Fantastic blog, made me feel I was actually there with you all!

    1. Thank you John, an exciting place for birds which I highly recommend!

  4. Hi Matthew! What an amazing trip!! Would like to know le, how could u drive up to the Kinabalu Park before sunrise? Isn't it a gate ? bcuz i think u said u lived outside the park~ planning to visit there~! cheers!

    1. Hi! Yes there is a gate, but you can actually drive up there before sunrise, there is nothing to stop you, as long as you pay the entrance fee when you come down past the gate.