Wednesday 15 May 2019

Kinabalu National Park & Kota Kinabalu - May 2019

Whitehead's Trogon - my personal top target of the trip

Despite having been to Kinabalu National Park twice already, I was still missing the Whitehead’s Trogon, one of the most sought after bird within the ‘whitehead’s trio’. My parents and I decided to go on a short trip together, initially we planned on heading to Okinawa, but since my dad have yet to see any of the montane endemics of Borneo, a trip to Mount Kinabalu seemed more attractive and I get another chance to catch up with my nemesis bird!

Views of Mount Kinabalu

As my third visit to the tallest mountain of South East Asia, I didn't need much pre-trip study. Our plan was to fly to Kota Kinabalu and drive straight to Kinabalu National Park where we will stay for four days before heading back to Kota Kinabalu for the last day to relax and do 'touristy' things.

Day 1 - 5th May 2019

We took a morning flight to Kota Kinabalu on Sunday, everything went smoothly, we rented with Easy-Rent A Car again, their staff was waiting for us at the arrival hall. I highly recommend them for anyone visiting Sabah, their staffs are polite and helpful and cars are usually in good order. We managed to hit the road before 2pm. The drive up to Kinabalu Park HQ is straight forward and easy, we arrived at our hotel around 3:30pm.

We stayed at the Ayana Holiday Resort, a decent little hotel just few minutes drive from the park HQ. Once we dropped our luggage we drove straight to park entrance, entrance fee for non-Malayan visitor is 15RM. Our first stop was around Liwagu Restaurant, an area I’ve always found to be quite productive for common species. Sure enough a flock of Black-capped White-eyes made an appearance.

Black-capped White-eye - juvenile

Things were surprisingly quiet, with only a few birds seen well, the common Indigo Flycatcher were amongst the most ‘showy’. Other birds seen well included a Sunda Cuckooshrike and Bornean Whistlers. We had dinner at the Liwagu Restaurant before heading back to our hotel, where we heard Mountain Scops Owl in the distance.

Indigo Flycatcher

Sunda Cuckooshrike

Bornean Whistler

Mount Kinabalu is also famous for it’s huge diversity in moths. We got a taste of it during our first evening here, with an incredible variety in colours and patterns on display. Best moths were no doubt a Sinna calospila and a Ischyja paraplesius, both incredibly beautiful.

Sinna calospila

Ischyja paraplesius

Acolutha pictaria

Cirrhochrista brizoalis

Barsine euprepia

Barsine roseororatus

Day 2 - 6th May 2019

We headed up to Timpohon Gate at around 5:45am and arrived just after 6am. The morning mist shrouded the gate, Bornean Treepies were the first birds that showed itself. A Maroon Woodpecker showed briefly. Back near the car park area, we spotted a Dark Hawk Cuckoo. We tried looking for the Red-breasted Partridge calling nearby with little luck.

Bornean Treepie

Maroon Woodpecker

Dark Hawk Cuckoo

Once the mist lifted the trees buzzed with birds and Chestnut-crested Yuhinas were amongst the most numerous, they are probably one of the easiest montane endemic to see at Mount Kinabalu. Yellow-breasted Warblers were also active, followed by one of the best species of the morning; a pair of Mountain Blackeyes, feeding on the nectar of a red flower by the roadside.

Mountain Blackeye

A very friendly Sunda Bush Warbler was also added. Blyth’s Shrike-babblers were feeding higher up the tree but gave decent views, smart looking males are always nice to see.

Sunda Bush Warbler

Blyth's Shrike-Babbler - male

We walked up to the power station to get a better look at the birds. There a male Little Pied Flycatcher and White-throated Fantail greeted us on the fence. An Ashy Drongo also hawked for insects from the fence.

Little Pied Flycatcher - male

White-throated Fantail

Ashy Drongo - race stigmatops

Here we also saw more Chestnut-crested Yuhinas as well as many Grey-throated Minivets, both giving eye-level views. A few Golden-naped Barbet feeding on a fruiting tree opposite the power station added a bit of excitement, getting good views of this species is never guaranteed!

Chestnut-crested Yuhina

Grey-throated Minivet - male

Grey-throated Minivet - female

Golden-naped Barbet

Golden-naped Barbet - juvenile

Squirrels are the very common at Mount Kinabalu, at Timpohon Gate we saw many Low's Squirrels and a Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel.

Jentink's Squirrel

Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel

Lower down things were fairly quiet, we tried for the Whitehead’s Trogon along Silau-Silau trail without much success, we only saw a few Bornean Whistlers and Ochraceous Bulbuls, although I heard a Whitehead's Spiderhunter called a few times, it never materialised.

Ochraceous Bulbul

We ended up at Liwagu Restaurant where we saw a pair of confiding Indigo Flycatchers and found a nest of Bornean Whistling Thrush.

Indigo Flycatcher

Bornean Whistling Thrush - nest

After a late breakfast we headed back to the hotel to rest. On the way a raptor glided past over us, I was hopeful that it could be a Mountain Serpent Eagle, but was disappointed on closer inspection that it was in fact an Oriental Honey Buzzard.

Oriental Honey Buzzard

After a mid-day nap, my dad and I headed back up again while mum rested at the hotel. We focused our attention to Silau-Silau trail and 1KM to 1.5KM mark of the power station road, as this is where Whitehead’s Trogons are most likely seen. Bornean Treepies were everywhere. An endemic Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher by the road added a bit of excitement.

Bornean Treepie

Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher

A mixed feeding flock within the trail attracted our attention as we saw a few Hair-crested Drongos and Laughingthrushes. We walked into the trail and soon after I heard the distinctive call of the Whitehead’s Broadbill! While I was searching for the Broadbill, my dad suddenly said “Trogon!”. My heart nearly stopped as I ran over to get a look, sure enough a beautiful male Whitehead’s Trogon perched silently on an open branch. At around the same time the Whitehead’s Broadbill flew towards us and landed on a branch above our heads! Seeing two of the Whitehead’s trio at the same time was quite the experience!

Whitehead's Trogon - male

Whitehead's Broadbill - male

We enjoyed the presence of the Trogon for the next fifteen minutes or so, at one point it caught a caterpillar and perched very close to us, giving phenomenal views that will surely be the highlight of the trip!

Whitehead's Trogon - a dream come true!

After the Trogon melted back into the forest, we returned to the Power Station Road and encountered yet another mixed flock, consisting of Sunda Laughingthrush and Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush. Hair-crested Drongos also showed well.

Sunda Laughingthrush

Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush

Hair-crested Drongo

Later on a few Bornean Green Magpies came through and gave excellent views, one entertained us while it disassembled a cicada right above us.

Bornean Green Magpie

Moths that evening was not quite so exciting as previous evening, but still provided some after dinner fun. A beautiful Omiza lycoraria being the most interesting find of all.

Omiza lycoraria

Cirrhochrista kosemponialis

Parotis laceritalis

Tinoliodes dehanna

Day 3 - 7th May 2019

We again drove up to Timpohon Gate to start our day, a Dark Hawk Cuckoo I presume to be the same bird as the day before was again near the same area, this time giving much better view without the mist. Bornean Treepies were again noisy and showed well. A few Golden-naped Barbets were again feeding in the fruiting tree. The best find was perhaps a Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel which showed well at close range.

Dark Hawk Cuckoo

Bornean Treepie

Golden-naped Barbet

Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel

I kept trying for the Red-breasted Partridge, which I managed a quick glimpse in the end but my dad was not able to pick it up. We drove back down towards Liwagu Restaurant where an Indigo Flycatcher showed again. We decided to walk Silau-Silau trail once again, as mum had missed both the Trogon and the Broadbill the day before. Sure enough, the Whitehead's Broadbill was present near the same area, this time perched for as long as we wished. When we exited the trail we ran into a group of birders from Beijing, we were even able to show them the bird while it remained there!

Indigo Flycatcher

Whitehead's Broadbill - male

Things were dead quiet afterwards, so we decided to go for an early lunch at Ranau. Before we hit the road we stopped at the main entrance to look at the nests of Plume-toed Swiftlets. These swiftlets were once thought to be the endemic Bornean Swiftlets but had since been confirmed to be just Plume-toed. Bornean Swiftlets supposedly resides higher up, so it and the Friendly Bush Warbler maybe my next target here!

Plume-toed Swiftlet

After lunch and a good rest, we make our way back into the park, things were equally quiet. Few common birds showed well, a female Blyth's Shrike-Babbler in particular. Near the parking area of Timpohon Gate we saw two species of endemic squirrels, including Bornean Black-banded Squirrel and Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel.

Blyth's Shrike-Babbler - female

Bornean Black-banded Squirrel

Sunda Tree Squirrel

Lower down the Power Station Road we had a Black-sided Flowerpecker, a species that was quite easy on my previous visits, where they will feed on the Medinella berries, this time I only saw them high up in the trees. A brief walk into the Silau-Silau trail was not particularly productive other than the same Whitehead's Broadbill AGAIN! A few Mountain Leaf Warblers were about the only birds photographable before dark.

Black-sided Flowerpecker

Whitehead's Broadbill - again...

Mountain Leaf Warbler - race kinabaluensis

Mothing was yet again quite productive that evening, with a Eupanacra psaltria hawk moth, Omiza herois and a Ischyja hemiphaea being highlights.

Eupanacra psaltria

Omiza herois

Ischyja hemiphaea

Cerura malaysiana

Belciana biformis

Daddala lucilla

Monodecus admirandus

Urapteroides astheniata

Day 4 - 8th May 2019

Our last morning at Kinabalu National Park started with a pair of Orange-headed Thrush just before sun came out, it was still quite dark when the pair are out feeding by the roadside. A pair of Maroon Woodpeckers showed briefly.

Orange-headed Thrush - race aurata

Maroon Woodpecker

Down near Liwagu Restaurant, a few Bornean Green Magpies showed exceptionally well. We walked through Silau-Silau trail again, hoping to catch the Trogon before we leave but came up empty handed, the trail however was quite productive, giving us good views of Snowy-browed Flycatcher, Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher and Bornean Whistler.

Bornean Green Magpie

Snowy-browed Flycatcher - male

Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher

Bornean Whistler

A Bornean Forktail gave us a glimpse before it fluttered off further up the stream. The same male Whitehead's Broadbill was found yet again on the exact same tree as the day before, by this time I suspect it is guarding a nest nearby, although I looked for the nest without much success. We also added a male White-browed Shortwing, although it was too quick for a photo, we had decent views of it.

Bornean Forktail

Whitehead's Broadbill - one last time!

Before we left the park we had breakfast at the Liwagu Restaurant, where we saw a male Temminck's Sunbird, the pair of Indigo Flycatcher and a flock of Chestnut-crested Yuhina.

Temminck's Sunbird - male

Indigo Flycatcher

Chestnut-crested Yuhina

We checked out by 11am and started our drive back into Kota Kinabalu. Traffic was pretty good and we arrived at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru at around 1:30pm. The resort is very comfortable and is everything you can imagine of a seaside hotel, completed with it's very own private beach. We wasn't keen to do any birding in the heat, so we rested in our room.

At around 4pm when the heat subsided, we saw a large flock of terns outside our window, my dad and I went out to investigate, to our surprise they were nearly all Little Terns! There were a few Whiskered Terns mixed in with the flock.

Terns at Tanjung Aru Beach

Jellyfish found along the beach

We walked out the the main beach to get some closer photos. The terns were resting along the edge of the water and were fairly approachable.

Little Tern

Whiskered Tern - non-breeding

There were also a few Pacific Reef Egrets feeding in the shallows which put on quite a show for us. That evening we even added a Rufous Night Heron by the beach, although we were unable to get a photo of that, it was a great addition to our trip.

Pacific Reef Egret

The incredible sunset at the resort was also an added bonus.

Day 5 - 9th May 2019

Tanjung Aru Beach and nearby Taman Prince Philip is of course itself quite a decent birding spot, I've visited every time I come to Kota Kinabalu and it never seized to surprise me. The main attraction is no doubt the Blue-naped Parrot which are quite common in this area, although they supposedly introduced here, the fact that they are decreasing in their natural range in the Philippines make this feral population itself quite important. We saw plenty of these colourful parrots flying around the park.

Blue-naped Parrot

The other parrot that is quite common here is the Long-tailed Parakeet, small flocks of these can be seen flying around and often feeding on palm fruits. We even caught a pair mating! Asian Glossy Starlings also seemed to like the palm fruits and we saw plenty feeding with the Parakeets.

Long-tailed Parakeet

Long-tailed Parakeet - female

Asian Glossy Starling

Common Ioras and Pied Trillers are both common birds here and not difficult to see. A few White-breasted Waterhens were seen along the edge of the park. Dollarbirds can be found perch on top of dead trees here in the park.

Common Iora

Pied Triller - male

White-breasted Waterhen


White-breasted Woodswallows are very common in the park, we saw a juvenile constantly begging for food up in the tree. Green Imperial Pigeons were hard to miss, I managed to find one sitting on a nest with a single chick! Pink-necked Green Pigeons are also very common here, although getting a good view is not always easy.

White-breasted Woodswallow

Green Imperial Pigeon

Pink-necked Green Pigeon

A few Ashy Tailorbirds were seen, followed by a female Olive-backed Sunbird and later a Brown-throated Sunbird. It was a pleasant morning walk before the weather gets really hot.

Ashy Tailorbird

Olive-backed Sunbird - female

Brown-throated Sunbird - female

Later on the day we also added a Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker at the resort's car park. I did not have my camera with me, luckily my dad was carrying with him his Canon SX60 HS, which I managed a half decent shot of what was my closest encounter with this species to date!

Sunda Pygmy Woodpecker

In the afternoon we strolled around Kota Kinabalu, walking around a few of the tourist attractions, including the Atkinson Clock Tower, supposedly the oldest standing structure of Kota Kinabalu, built in 1905. We also strolled the famous Gaya Street and sampled many Malaysian food. This was actually the first time I walked around Kota Kinabalu city centre despite my many visits to the city!

Atkinson Clock Tower

Wisma Intiutama

Gaya Street

We flew out of Kota Kinabalu very early the next day, as I was unable to get tickets for the afternoon flight. Overall, this trip was far more relaxed than my previous trips to Sabah, as this was aimed as a family/birding trip. Birds were not particularly active at Kinabalu National Park compared to my previous visit on the same month, perhaps something to do with the dry weather, but I am glad my main target Whitehead's Trogon showed up this time, together with unbelievable views of the Whitehead's Broadbill, I will say this short trip was well worth it.

For first time travellers I recommend a longer trip so you get more chances for the targets and endemics, although being such an accessible area it is not difficult to return once in a while to catch up with all the awesome species at Kinabalu National Park.

Field Guide used : 'Phillips' Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo' - third edition

Mobile Plan : You can get a one week 4G Plus plan at the airport for around 20RM

Car Rental : We used Extra Rent-a-Car, which I've used a few times already, staff are very friendly and they can pick up the car other than airport, I highly recommend them. website :

Accommodation : For Kinabalu National Park we stayed at the Ayana Holiday Resort, which we booked through online, it is a fairly simple but nice little hotel, only a minute drive away from the park entrance. For Kota Kinabalu we stayed at Shangri-La Tanjung Aru, not a cheap hotel but worth the price and very comfortable, also very close to Taman Prince Philip therefore good for birding.


  1. As always, Matt, an outstanding report with great photographs. My jaw drops as I move from one picture to the next. I am happy that you got your Whitehead's Trogon, a spectacular bird, but the Whitehead's Broadbill is very appealing too. I hope the government of Borneo protects more of its forests. It seems that I am constantly reading about increased logging there, and the conversion of native forests to palm oil plantations. You do take some great trips!

    1. Thanks David, yes Borneo is constantly under a lot of development and logging pressure, especially the lowland rainforests, luckily most montane forests are still relatively well preserve, I hope it stays that way...