Monday 25 September 2023

Sabah - September 2023 : Part 3

Day 5 - Mt Kinabalu

This was our only full day at Mt Kinabalu, therefore it was important for us maximize our stay here. With my main target the Everett's Thrush already in the bag the previous day, as everyone except for me in the group have yet to see the Whitehead's Trogon, we made this our priority in the morning. We started off early and headed straight to the main road next to Silau Silau trail, this is traditionally the best place to look for the trogons. Things were relatively quiet at first, with a few Grey-throated Babblers to start our day off.

Grey-throated Babbler

We ran into another tour group, and what good timing it was as they were already looking at a male Whitehead's Trogon through their scope! Everyone got a good look and we started trying to find a better spot for photos. Unfortunately, it started raining pretty soon after, and we had to take cover in the van. Heavy rain in the morning is pretty unusual here at Mt Kinabalu, I was slightly worried that the rain will continue on throughout the day.

Whitehead's Trogon - male

As we were having breakfast in the van, Liew went out to look for the trogons again a little up the road, and we soon saw him waving at us to go over. Turns out he found a female sitting right next to the road at eye-levels! I've only previously seen males, so I was quite happy to finally connect with the female of this incredible species.

Whitehead's Trogon - female

While the rain subsided soon after, mist began to come in. But that didn't stop us from enjoying excellent views of the pair for another half an hour! I could look at them all day if I could, as they are arguably the most handsome trogon species in Borneo.

Whitehead's Trogon - male

After this successful early morning start, we headed up towards Timpohon Gate. While it was very quiet in the afternoon the day before, there were people and birds everywhere we looked in the morning. One of the first bird I saw was a Mountain Blackeye up above! It was followed closely by a male White-browed Shrike-Babbler (formerly Blyth's Shrike-Babbler, now lumped again...), a Little Pied Flycatcher and a few relatively cooperative Mountain Leaf Warblers.

Mountain Blackeye

White-browed Shrike-Babbler

Little Pied Flycatcher - male

Mountain Leaf Warbler

As I was scanning through the bird wave, when I spotted a larger bird landed behind all the branches, which I first thought to be a Bornean Treepie due to its upright posture, but as soon as I realize it got a shorter tail, I shouted 'Fruit-hunter!'. Soon, a few more joined in, likely up to over 10 birds in total! Only then did I realize both Captain and Hoiling were at the washroom! I shouted over to them, hoping they will come over quickly. Luckily, the Fruit-hunters stayed, and everyone got satisfactory views of both males and females.


We decided to stay in the area for a while, a pair of confiding Yellow-breasted Warblers gave excellent views, turns out they were building a nest nearby. Liew found us our first Pale-faced Bulbul, a new bird for me, however, I couldn't quite get a good photo! We decided to head over to the platform to wait for them, there we were greeted by a few confiding Bornean Black-banded Squirrels.

Yellow-breasted Warbler

Bornean Black-banded Squirrel

Things went quiet after a while, only a pair of Indigo Flycatchers provided good views near the power station, therefore we decided to head back down hill to look for Whitehead's Spiderhunter. On the way down we tried for both Mountain Wren-Babblers and Bornean Stubtail, both were heard with the Wren-Babbler giving brief views only.

Indigo Flycatcher

We got down to the Nepenthes Lodges just above the restaurant, where Liew said was a good place to look for the Spiderhunter. Nearby, a few Black-sided Flowerpeckers came through, giving excellent views of this good looking endemic. Other than a pair of Penan Bulbul (split from Ochraceous Bulbul), things were very quiet, and we didn't hear any Whitehead's Spiderhunter calling.

Black-sided Flowerpecker - male

Penan Bulbul

A short walk down towards the stream next to Kinabalu Hall yielded a pair of Bornean Forktails, a montane species that is otherwise quite similar to the White-crowned Forktail found at lower elevations. We waited for the Whitehead's Spiderhunter again at another location lower down, but again we got nothing.

Bornean Forktail

We had an excellent lunch at Liwagu Restaurant, after a bit of rest we were back out on the Power Station Road. As we only had brief views of the Whitehead's Broadbill the day before, we thought to give it another try. Our driver dropped us off just above the top end of Silau Silau trail and we walked slowly down, it wasn't long before Liew spotted a male sitting very low down by the road! Later it was joined by the female! Despite having seen this species numerous times, the iridescent green still amazes me!

Whitehead's Broadbill - male

Whitehead's Broadbill - female

I wanted another try for the Pale-faced Bulbul, so we drove back up towards Timpohon Gate, just as Captain said 'How nice it would be if we had Fruit-hunters sitting out here', Liew shouted 'Fruit-hunter!', and we were all scrambling for views. We had over a dozen of these incredible birds at eye-levels, with males, females as well as juveniles all giving excellent views. Almost too good to be true! 

Fruit-hunter - male

Fruit-hunter - female

Fruit-hunter - juvenile

Not long after this amazing encounter, a few Pale-faced Bulbul finally gave good views and I got the photo I wanted. This species was formerly (and sometimes still is) a subspecies of the Flavescent Bulbul, although they look very distinctive.

Pale-faced Bulbul

A super confiding Aberrant Bush Warbler (IOC now lumps Sunda Bush Warbler with this species) jumped right out into the open. We scanned for Mountain Serpent Eagles with little luck, Liew stated in this misty weather it was unlikely that they will be soaring high, most likely just hunkered down on a tree somewhere below. A Kinabalu Crested Agama perched next to the road was a surprising find.

Aberrant Bush Warbler

Kinabalu Crested Agama

We decided to walk the whole way down towards Liwagu Restaurant, birding along the way. A Temminck's Sunbird was about the only bird that reacted to the Sunda Owlet playback. A few White-throated Fantails were also added along the way.

White-throated Fantail

Temminck's Sunbird - male

Liew kept trying for Mountain Wren-Babblers, but they were not very responsive. A Bornean Shortwing added some excitement, as this frustratingly difficult to see species gave extremely brief views, I only managed a super record shot. A Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel provided some good views was about the only other interesting wildlife we got on our way down.

Bornean Shortwing - super record shot of a male...

Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel

For our remaining time here, we decided to focus on finding the Whitehead's Spiderhunter, as this was our only realistically possible species to find in such short time. A few smaller birds came through, including our only good view of the Black-capped White-eye of the day. We sat down near Kinabalu Hall and waited again, this time, we heard is distinctive mechanical call from the direction of the main park entrance! We walked towards that direction, hoping to see it on top of some trees. Surprisingly, we heard a Spiderhunter calling, but it was not the usual call the Whitehead's Spiderhunter makes. Even Liew was a bit confused, as all the other spiderhunters shouldn't be this high up. It took a while to finally locate the culprit, which turns out to be a Long-billed Spiderhunter! We decided to call it a day, and what a day it was with so many good birds in such a short period of time at Mt Kinabalu!

Black-capped White-eye

Day 6 - Poring Hot Spring > Sukau

Hoiling and I told Liew we would love to see a Rafflesia flower somewhere if time permits. Therefore, he suggested we stop by Poring to see if there are any blooming. Before we try for the flowers, Liew wanted to stop by Poring Hot Spring Resort to look for Fulvous-breasted Jungle Flycatcher. After a relatively short drive from Kundasang, Liew took no time and located at least two of our targets, they were however being really shy and did not want to be photographed. I've previously seen this species at this exact same spot years ago, I did not know how scarce this species is back then.

Fulvous-chested Jungle Flycatcher - old photo from 2015

Fulvous-chested Jungle Flycatcher

We stopped by Poring to see if any Rafflesia is in bloom, after asking around, there was just one blooming right now! The locals know tourists will love to see these unique flowers, so they basically find a plot of land where these flowers are present and fence it off, when they do bloom they will charge tourists to see these flowers. The species found here is Rafflesia keithii, a relatively small species of Rafflesia, but endemic to Sabah.

Rafflesia keithii

It was a very long drive towards Sukau, we stopped at Telupid for an early lunch before continuing on towards the river of Kinabatangan. It was around 1pm when we arrived at the pier in Sukau, it took another 15 minutes of boat ride to get to the Borneo Nature Lodge, where we were to spend the next two nights. The lodge is a lovely establishment, while maintaining a rustic atmosphere, rooms were very comfortable. We were greeted by a group of Long-tailed Macaque behind our lodge, I also added our only Fluffy-backed Bulbul of our trip here.

Sukau Pier

Borneo Nature Lodge

Long-tailed Macaque

Hairy-backed Bulbul

After a short rest, we headed out for our first session of river cruise. Before we even got to the pier, Janu our boat operator spotted a snake on the boardwalk, I refound it slithering along the railing, which turns out to be a beautiful Paradise Flying Snake! Luckily, I managed to grab hold onto it before it got away, and took a few photos before letting it go back up the tree.

Paradise Flying Snake

It only took us 15 minutes before our boat stopped again, as we saw a male Orangutan up above. It gave great views as it swung past. Orangutan is probably one of the main target for most tourists here on the Kinabatangan, although they are relatively common here, you are by no means guarantee to see them!

Bornean Orangutan

Other than Orangutans, Pig-tailed Macaques and Proboscis Monkeys are plentiful here, and we readily saw groups of both species.

Pig-tailed Macaque

Proboscis Monkey

Black-and-Red Broadbills frequent these waterways, and we came upon a pair that showed really well. There were a lot of Blue-throated Bee-eaters along the river.

Black-and-Red Broadbill

Blue-throated Bee-eater

The occasional flock of Bushy-crested Hornbills were a pleasant sight, Oriental Pied Hornbills were also plentiful here, we saw many along the river bank. Black Hornbills are slightly less common, although we did run into a few pairs throughout the afternoon.

Bushy-crested Hornbill

Oriental Pied Hornbill

Black Hornbill - female

Liew tried several areas where Helmeted Hornbills been seen recently, we finally hit jackpot when a pair flew in from afar and landed on a large tree not far from us! This was one of my most wanted species here in Sukau, as all my previous encounters with this species was either heard only, or fleeting views that were unsatisfactory. The pair landed right inside the big tree, though blocked by the many leaves, we had a lot of time to look at this remarkable looking species. This Critically Endangered species is probably one of the most threatened species in South East Asia, its solid casque is prized by many and is known as the hornbill ivory. Unfortunately, this is the reason why they are heavily poached even to this day, together with habitat destruction, this species future is not looking bright.

Helmeted Hornbill

Helmeted Hornbill - male

Helmeted Hornbill - female

Another Endangered species we added before we got back to the lodge was a Storm's Stork, with global population probably less than 500 mature individuals, this species is highly threatened due to habitat loss. While remaining population seems stable, the lack of suitable habitats likely means there is very few chances for this species to truly thrive.

Storm's Stork

After dinner, Liew and Janu took us out for a night walk near the lodge. We started off well, with a mother Sunda Colugo with its baby, hanging on the branches just next to the dining area. A quick walk inside the forest found us a sleeping Hooded Pitta.

Sunda Colugo

Hooded Pitta

Things got even better when we heard the call of a Large Frogmouth, of which Janu located soon after, perched perfectly on an over hanging vine. While I have seen this species with Liew in West Malaysia back in 2018, it is no less magical to see it in the flesh the second time round.

Large Frogmouth

We moved onto our next big target, the Oriental Bay Owl. This is a nemesis bird of mine, ever since my first visit to Sabah in 2012, I've wanted to see this unique looking species with my own eyes. I've tried numerous times in Sepilok, in Thailand and in Vietnam, all ended in vain! The erie whistles of the Bay Owl echoed through the forest. Luckily, Liew managed to spot it perched as only a Bay Owl could on a vertical vine, and soon we were having incredibly close views of this amazing looking owl. We took some photos and left it in peace as soon as we could.

Oriental Bay Owl - at long last!

Day 7 - Sukau

Having got the Helmeted Hornbill the previous day, our main remaining target here were the Sabah Partridge and the Bornean Ground Cuckoo. Liew was not particularly worried about the partridge, stating that he is almost certain we will see at least one, he was a bit more cautious about the Ground Cuckoo, although he did say they were quite stable last month. Having dipped on the Bulwer's Pheasant, I know you can never be too sure about these damn birds! Our morning cruise started with the usuals, Black Hornbills, Oriental Pied Hornbills and Bushy-crested Hornbills etc. A Grey-headed Fish Eagle also gave fairly good views.

Black Hornbill - male

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

We arrived at a quieter stretch of river, where we added a few White-chested Babblers, a lovely looking female Malaysian Blue Flycatcher, plus a relatively confiding Blue-eared Kingfisher.

White-chested Babbler

Malaysian Blue Flycatcher - female

Blue-eared Kingfisher

There were plenty of Blue-throated Bee-eaters along the river, which by now we almost ignore. As our boat was moving along, I noticed a bee-eater got flushed by a Blue-throated Bee-eater, its wings were orange and not green. I immediately shouted 'Rainbow!', Liew almost jumped out of his seat as Janu turned the boat around. Soon, we were marvelling at a beautiful Rainbow Bee-eater at close range. This species is predominately an Australasian species, wintering up in Pupua New Guinea and parts of Indonesia, it is a vagrant here on Borneo, with a few occuring every few years. This was an exciting find, as Liew only told me not long ago that this species is yet to be on his Malaysia list!

Rainbow Bee-eater - Sabah rarity!

A flock of Whiskered Tern flew past us, as if to remind us that migration season is well underway. Liew soon found us a pair of White-crowned Hornbills, another highly sought after Hornbill species, both males and females wears a white mohawk, making them quite comical looking.

Whiskered Tern

White-crowned Hornbill - female

White-crowned Hornbill - male

A Crested Serpent Eagle and White-bellied Sea Eagle provided a familiar sight, another Storm's Stork also circled above, riding the hot air current.

Crested Serpent Eagle

White-bellied Sea Eagle

Storm's Stork

After a quick breakfast we were out on the river again, this time Liew wanted to focus on the stretch of river for Bornean Ground Cuckoo and Sabah Partridge. It didn't take that long for the Sabah Partridge to appear, as it was calling merely a few metres away from our boat! We had excellent views of this Bornean endemic.

Sabah Partridge

'Who-Wooo!', it took a while before a Ground Cuckoo finally responded to the playback. Slowly, the call came in closer, when all of the sudden two Bornean Ground Cuckoos appeared on the bank of the river, mostly blocked by the vegetation at first, but a very clear view nonetheless! It is not easy trying to photograph anything on the dark forest floor, with hundreds of leaves in the way, on a moving boat! I did manage to find an opening in the end when one of the bird decided to stop there and call! Simply an incredible encounter of this extremely difficult species.

Bornean Ground Cuckoo - an incredible encounter!

After lunch, Hoiling and I stayed out around the lodge looking for wildlife, and whats better to find not just one, but three Orangutans have come to the Langsat Tree to feed! Langsat is an edible fruit that is sometimes cultivated, and clearly these Orangutans enjoys them as well.

Bornean Orangutan - a happy customer

Since we already got all our major targets in the morning, we decided to try our luck with the Pygmy Elephants that's been seen recently. The stretch of river we went to is relatively quiet for birds, the first remotely interesting bird is a Storm's Stork perched on top of a tree.

Storm's Stork

Proboscis Monkeys were in no short supply. There were also a lot of Green Pigeons around, mostly the common Pink-necked Green Pigeons, but also a few Little Green Pigeons.

Proboscis Monkey

Little Green Pigeon

We saw both pale and dark morphs Changeable Hawk Eagles, the latter especially giving wonderful views. A confiding Stork-billed Kingfisher was also added.

Changeable Hawk Eagle - pale morph

Changeable Hawk Eagle - dark morph

Stork-billed Kingfisher

As the day come to an end, we couldn't find any elephants. A few Oriental Darters were added, while I spotted a Bat Hawk just before we got back to the lodge.

Oriental Darter

Bat Hawk

That evening, we tried once more for the Reddish Scops Owl. We got tantalisingly close to one, but it simply refuses to show itself amongst the thick vegetation. After over an hour of trying, we gave up the search. The only bird we saw that evening was a sleeping Emerald Dove.

Emerald Dove

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