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Sabah with Sarawak extension

19 September–2 October 2024
Pre-tour extension from 12 September 2024

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, with Mount Kinabalu in Sabah supporting many of the 50+ endemic species including Whitehead’s Trogon, Whitehead’s Broadbill and Fruit-hunter. The rainforests host Bornean Bristlehead, Proboscis Monkey and Orangutan. A Sarawak extension offers Dulit Frogmouth and Black Oriole.

Day 1 Overnight flight from London to Kuala Lumpur.

Day 2 We will arrive in Kuala Lumpur and transfer to a flight to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, where we will be welcomed by our Malaysian bird guide and driver and transfer to our hotel. Depending on our arrival time, there may be time to enjoy some introductory birding nearby. Overnight in Kota Kinabalu.

Day 3 We will leave Kota Kinabalu early this morning and head southeast to the Rafflesia Forest Reserve in the Crocker Mountains. Named after the dramatic Rafflesia keithii, a parasitic plant that produces the world’s largest flower (up to 1m across), the reserve lies at a lower elevation than the nearby Mount Kinabalu massif and is home to a number of birds we might not encounter elsewhere. Specialities include Bornean, Gold-whiskered and Mountain Barbets, Bornean Bulbul and Bornean Leafbird, with Crimson-headed and Red-breasted Partridges, Blyth’s Hawk-eagle, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, the brilliantly-green Whitehead’s Broadbill, Pygmy White-eye and Streaky-breasted and Whitehead’s Spiderhunters also possible. After a picnic lunch we will head northeast to the magnificent Kinabalu National Park, where we will stay for three nights at Kundasang.

Days 4–5 The bare granite massif of Mount Kinabalu towers above the surrounding rainforest and, at 4,101m (13,454ft), is southeast Asia’s highest peak. So important is the mountain that it is incorporated in the state flag of Sabah. Hopefully during our stay here we will get the opportunity to see the top, but it creates its own weather systems and is frequently shrouded in cloud. The park is also a World Heritage Site, the first in Malaysia, and boasts a huge range of endemic plant and animal species. With increasing altitude, lush lowland rainforests give way to forests of montane oaks, rhododendrons and conifers, culminating in the alpine meadow plants and stunted bushes of the summit zone. Kinabalu’s splendid isolation has led to the evolution of a fabulous array of endemic species, which, together with the variety of habitats, has blessed Kinabalu with perhaps the richest floral diversity of any area of its size in the world. We will be based close to the park entrance in an excellent location to sample Borneo’s endemic birdlife, two-thirds of which occur in the park. Following a major earthquake several years ago, the path to the top was destroyed and although now open again, access is limited to those who are on the overnight climb to the top with experienced mountain guides. This does mean that one or two endemic species such as Bornean Swiftlet and Friendly Bush Warbler may not be accessible, as we would need to climb for a couple of hours to see them and, at present, this is not permitted. Should the rules change, however, we will make an attempt! In the mornings we may either start at the park headquarters at the bottom or, if the weather is clear, drive straight to the top car park to maximise the good visibility. A feature of the mountain is the large, mixed flocks of birds found first thing in the morning, and we may encounter Ashy and Hair-crested Drongos, Bornean Treepie, Chestnut-hooded and Sunda Laughingthrushes, White-throated Fantail and flocks of Chestnut-crested Yuhinas and Black-capped White-eyes. Despite its bright red belly and crown, the endemic Whitehead’s Trogon can pass unnoticed as it sits quietly beneath the canopy, which also harbours Golden-naped Barbet, Checker-throated and Maroon Woodpeckers, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Fruit-hunter, Mountain and Yellow-breasted Warblers, Black-and-crimson Oriole, Mountain Black-eye and the emerald-green Bornean Green Magpie. Bornean Whistling Thrush is relatively easy to see at the top car park but the shy and retiring Everett’s Thrush is much more difficult and is normally only seen in the early morning half-light as it feeds on the roadsides. Black-sided Flowerpecker often feeds on the ornamental flowers around the park headquarters whilst the furtive Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher lurks in the shadows. Other flycatchers we will look for include Indigo Flycatcher as well as Snowy-browed, Pygmy and Little Pied Flycatchers. Given clear weather, raptors soaring overhead may include the widespread Black Eagle and the much rarer Mountain Serpent Eagle. A trail follows the small stream down the mountain, and on the rocks Bornean Forktail can be found. In the nearby vegetation, Bornean Shortwings feed unobtrusively, only occasionally revealing their whereabouts by their loud song whilst parties of Grey-throated Babblers move from bush to bush. Other species we may encounter during these days include Little and Ruddy Cuckoo-doves, Sunda Cuckoo, Sunda Cuckooshrike, Blyth’s Shrike-babbler, the furtive Mountain Wren-babbler and Mountain Tailorbird, Bornean Stubtail, with a song so high-pitched that it’s difficult to hear, the much easier Bornean Whistler and Sunda Bush Warbler, Grey-chinned Minivet, Pale-faced and Penan Bulbuls and the gorgeous Temminck’s Sunbird. Among more than ten species of squirrel, we may see Giant Squirrel and the endemic Kinabalu Squirrel. In the evenings we will look for the recently-split Sunda Owlet.

Day 6 After an early breakfast, we will drive to Poring Hot Springs, which is situated at a lower altitude near the foot of the mountain and has a markedly different avifauna. Resident specialities include the dazzling Banded Kingfisher and the very rare Hose’s Broadbill. As elsewhere on this remarkable island, the range of possible birds is amazing, with Rufous Woodpecker, Moustached, Short-tailed and White-necked Babblers, Fulvous-chested Jungle Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Warbler, Everett’s White-eye, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker and Bornean Spiderhunter among a host of lowland rainforest species. After lunch we will travel to Sepilok, a 4–5 hour drive away on Borneo’s northeast coast, stopping to bird along the way. Two nights in Sepilok.

Day 7 The Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok is world-famous for its successful Orangutan rehabilitation project and protects a large patch of tall secondary forest. The area is superb for birds, and exploring the trails here we might encounter shy forest jewels like the endemic Black-crowned Pitta, Rufous-collared Kingfisher, Black-backed Dwarf Kingfisher and the gorgeous Diard’s Trogon. Sepilok’s canopy towers and walkways offer wonderful treetop panoramas to look for the monotypic endemic Bornean Bristlehead as well as Green Iora and Greater Green and Lesser Green Leafbirds whilst in the grounds of our lodge, Sunda Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Prinia and the endemic Dusky Munia can all be found. Mammalian highlights could well include Orangutan, Slow Loris, Bornean Tarsier, Lesser Mouse Deer, Malay Civet and flying squirrels. After dinner we will look for Oriental Bay Owl.

Day 8 We will enjoy some morning birding at Sepilok and the chance to pick up new species before heading inland to visit Gomantong Caves – the largest birds’ nest caves in Sabah, famous for their huge numbers of swiftlets and their edible nests. Four species of look-alike swiftlet breed in the caves: Black-nest, Edible-nest, Mossy-nest and Plume-toed Swiftlets, which are most reliably distinguished from one another by the differing structure of their nests! The caves are also home to a large colony of Wrinkle-lipped Bats and we may also see a Bat Hawk perched patiently, waiting for dusk to start his hunt. The forest around the cave entrance can also be good for birding, with species like Rufous Piculet and Rufous-chested Flycatcher. From Gomantong we will continue to our next lodge, on the banks of the serene Kinabatangan River, where we will stay for two nights. The Kinabatangan is the longest river in Sabah and is said to boast the greatest concentration of wildlife in the whole of Borneo. The main channel is lined with forest on fertile alluvial terraces; behind these are extensive, low-lying forested swamps, which are usually waterlogged and flooded. Within these swamps, scattered hills and lakes dot the otherworldly landscape. Two nights in Borneo Nature Lodge.

Day 9 We will spend the whole day in this superb area, exploring the river and creeks by boat. We will be making a special effort to find the elusive Bornean Ground Cuckoo, one of the island’s most mysterious and seldom-seen endemic birds. Cruising along the river and its tributaries, we will look for all of Borneo’s hornbill species that are found here, including the bizarre Rhinoceros Hornbill as well as Black, Bushy-crested, Helmeted (increasingly rare), White-crowned, Wreathed (highly localised) and Wrinkled Hornbills and Oriental Pied Hornbill. From the boat we also have good chances to spot the rare Storm’s Stork along with a variety of forest raptors including Brahminy Kite, Crested Goshawk, Jerdon’s Baza and the rare Wallace’s Hawk-eagle. Other birds we may encounter include Long-tailed Parakeet, Green Imperial Pigeon, Little, Pink-necked and Thick-billed Green Pigeons, Asian Emerald Dove, Great Slaty Woodpecker, Hooded Pitta, the remarkable Black-and-red Broadbill (that builds its nests like hanging baskets above the water), Common Iora, Blyth’s Paradise Flycatcher, Oriental Magpie-robin (pluto endemic black subspecies), Red-eyed, Black-headed, Cream-vented and Olive-winged Bulbuls, White-chested Babbler and Crimson Sunbird. Riverside mammals to watch for include the bizarre Proboscis Monkey, Silvered Leaf Monkey and Long-tailed Macaque. The elusive Bornean Pygmy Elephant, a small subspecies of Asian Elephant, and Orangutan are present too, and we should see the aptly-named Mugger Crocodile lurking on the banks. The lower reaches of the Kinabatangan are outstanding for birds, with Lesser Adjutant, Oriental Darter, Black-crowned and Nankeen Night-herons, Blue-eared, Ruddy and Stork-billed Kingfishers and Blue-throated Bee-eater to enjoy. Overhead, we will scan the skies for soaring White-bellied Sea Eagle and Grey-headed and Lesser Fish Eagles. In the evenings we will keep an eye open for Buffy Fish Owl.

Day 10 This morning we will have an early breakfast and enjoy some morning birding around Borneo Nature Lodge before making the two-hour journey to Lahad Datu, where we will take lunch. We will then head west on the main road before turning off on a track for the two-hour journey inland to the fabulous Danum Valley Conservation Area, our base for the next three nights. The lodge is set deep within primary rainforest above a bend on the Danum River. Birds are abundant in the garden alongside a host of exciting butterflies, including several species of magnificent birdwing. The lodge was established to show that tourism can help to protect this magnificent area, and it has excellent forest trails and a wealth of birds and wildlife, including many Bornean endemics. Three nights in Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

Days 11–12 The pristine rainforests of the Danum Valley contain trees up to 80 metres tall with clambering lianas and are exceedingly rich in birds. Our luxurious lodge is located in the middle of this superb primary rainforest, and excellent birding begins right outside the doors of our rooms which overlook the Segama River. Here, Brown-backed and Silver-rumped Needletails swoop low over the water, Grey-rumped and Whiskered Treeswifts hawk over the trees and Great-billed Herons can sometimes be seen feeding on the river banks. The nights are pleasantly cool here, with very few biting insects and, as the sun slowly rises, the chorus of babblers, broadbills, bulbuls and the endemic White-crowned Shama is joined by the evocative bubbles and trills of Bornean Gibbons as each of the local family groups greet the new day with their song. Bornean Crested Fireback can be seen furtively creeping around the lodge at first light, and in the distance we may hear the call of the shy Great Argus, the world’s largest pheasant, from up to a kilometre away. Sometimes a male Argus becomes semi-habituated and, if this is the case, we won’t miss the opportunity to visit its lek. An extensive trail system gives access to some of the region’s more elusive forest dwellers, while the amazing canopy walkway offers a unique insight into the lives of creatures that would otherwise remain hidden in the treetops. Danum is probably the best area to look for some of Borneo’s trickier species, although there is a local saying, ‘one trail, one bird,’ so we will have to work hard! No fewer than six species of pitta occur, including Blue-headed and the black-crowned race of Garnet Pitta. Among a host of sought-after Bornean endemics, we have chances to see White-fronted Falconet, Bornean Wren-babbler, Bornean Blue Flycatcher, Bornean Black Magpie and Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker. The secretive Sabah Partridge can be found here, although we will be lucky to see it, but more widespread southeast Asian species include Crested Honey Buzzard, Crested Serpent Eagle, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot, Jambu Fruit Dove, Banded Bay, Plaintive and Violet Cuckoos, Square-tailed Drongo-cuckoo, Raffles’s, Chestnut-breasted and Red-billed Malkohas, Greater Coucal, Malaysian Blue-banded Kingfisher, Oriental Dollarbird, Lesser Cuckooshrike, Large Woodshrike, Buff-rumped, Buff-necked, Grey-capped Pygmy, Grey-and-buff, Olive-backed and Orange-backed Woodpeckers, Blue-eared, Brown, Red-throated and Yellow-crowned Barbets, Red-naped and Scarlet-rumped Trogons, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Banded, Black-and-yellow, Dusky and Green Broadbills, Fiery and Scarlet Minivets, Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Maroon-breasted and Rufous-winged Philentomas, Verditer Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Black-naped Monarch, Sunda Blue Flycatcher, Chestnut-naped Forktail, Spotted Fantail, Crested Jayshrike, Slender-billed Crow, Bronzed and Greater Racket-tailed Drongos, Ashy, Dark-necked and Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds, Black-capped, Chestnut-rumped, Chestnut-winged, Ferruginous, Horsfield’s, Rufous-crowned, Rufous-fronted, Sooty-capped and Scaly-crowned Babblers, Black-throated and Striped Wren-babblers, Bold-striped and Fluffy-backed Tit-babblers, Sunda Scimitar Babbler, Dark-throated Oriole, Black-and-white, Charlotte's, Grey-bellied, Finsch’s, Grey-cheeked, Hairy-backed, Puff-backed, Spectacled, Streaked and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Common Hill Myna, Brown Fulvetta, White-bellied Erpornis, Rufous-tailed Shama, Plain, Brown-throated, Red-throated, Ruby-cheeked and Purple-naped Sunbirds, Spectacled, Thick-billed and Yellow-eared Spiderhunters and Thick-billed, Yellow-breasted and Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers. Some of these species are more difficult than others, but our days at Danum are sure to be filled with great birding! Nocturnal excursions may be rewarded with sightings of Barred Eagle-owl or the endemic race of Brown Wood Owl, a possible future split, together with Gould’s and Large Frogmouths. Danum is also outstanding for mammals, and possible highlights here might include Bornean Bearded Pig, Greater Mouse-deer, Sambar Deer, up to five species of civet including Common Palm, Masked Palm, Banded Palm and Malay Civits, Malay Weasel, Common Giant Squirrel, Black and Red Giant Flying Squirrels, Bornean Loris, Clouded Leopard, Leopard Cat, Sunda Pigtail Macaque, Red Leaf Monkey and Binturong; if we are really lucky, we might even encounter the tiny Western Tarsier. We also have further chances for Orangutan, with the largest remaining population in Borneo being here, and Bornean Pygmy Elephant.

Day 13 After breakfast this morning, we will bid farewell to the Danum Valley and drive to the coast at Lahad Datu. Here, we will catch a domestic flight back to Kota Kinabalu, where we will break for lunch and (time permitting) a spot of local birding for Blue-naped Parrot. We have a late-afternoon check-in for our return flight to Kuala Lumpur and onward overnight connection to London. From Kota Kinabalu, those taking the extension to Sarawak will make the two-hour journey to Beaufort for an overnight stay.

PRE-TOUR EXTENSION (order of itinerary currently being amended)

Day 14 We will make an early start in order to reach Klias Wetland Reserve near the Sarawak border for first light. The lowland peat-swamp forest here is a rare habitat nowadays and the protected fragment at Klias is home to several localised, habitat-specific species. We will be searching in particular for Hook-billed Bulbul, Red-crowned Barbet, Grey-breasted Babbler and Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker. Additional species we are likely to encounter today include the endemic Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker, Chestnut-bellied and Red-billed Malkohas, Grey-rumped Treeswift, Long-tailed Parakeet, Common Hill Myna, Grey-and-buff Woodpecker, Red-naped and Diard’s Trogons, Plume-toed Swiftlet, Oriental Magpie-robin, Asian Palm Swift, Collared Kingfisher, Blue-throated Bee-eater, Pacific and Barn Swallows, Ashy Tailorbird, Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, Chestnut-rumped and Grey-hooded Babblers, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Pied Triller, Malaysian Pied Fantail, White-breasted Woodswallow, Black Hornbill, Pink-necked Green Pigeon, Olive-winged Bulbul, Asian Glossy Starling, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Spotted and Zebra Doves, Greater Green Leafbird, Plain-throated, Olive-backed and Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds and Chestnut and Dusky Munias. Later in the day we will cross the border into Sarawak for an overnight stay in a comfortable hotel in Lawas.

Days 15–16 We will first return south on the main road before diverting onto a long-disused logging track farther south to Paya Maga, where we will make a 4km (two-hour) walk higher into the hills and each participant will have one porter to carry their luggage. The walk can be muddy/wet in places, but our camp at around 1000m (3300ft) is actually a large cabin in which tents are erected for privacy. There are also proper toilets and (cold water) showers in a separate block, so it certainly can’t be described as rough camping, and our team will carry any heavy gear for us as well as cooking meals. The recently-rediscovered endemic Black Oriole is a regular visitor to the area around the cabin. As it’s at a generally lower elevation than Ba’kelalan (our next destination) and has more rainfall, the forest at Paya Maga contains a subtly different avifauna, including a higher volume of fruit-eating species. However, there is a lot of overlap in species, so we have two chances to see many of the key birds, notably, Hose’s Broadbill, Blue-banded Pitta, Bornean Banded Pitta and Bornean Frogmouth have all been seen regularly here. Additional species we may expect to encounter at Paya Maga include Blyth’s Hawk-eagle, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle, Asian Emerald Dove, Raffles’s and Black-bellied Malkohas, Banded Bay and Plaintive Cuckoos, Whiskered Treeswift, Helmeted, Rhinoceros and Wreathed Hornbills, Yellow-crowned and Brown Barbets, Blue-crowned Hanging-parrot, Maroon-breasted Philentoma, Bar-winged and Black-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, Black-naped Monarch, Slender-billed Crow, Red-eyed, Buff-vented, Cream-vented, Finsch’s, Spectacled, Scaly-breasted, Streaked and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Grey-headed and Bornean Black-capped Babblers, Bold-striped Tit-babbler, Everett’s White-eye, White-rumped Shama and Grey-breasted and Yellow-eared Spiderhunters. With good fortune we may also encounter one or more of the scarcer or shyer species of the area such as Crested Partridge, Great Argus (usually only heard here), White-crowned Hornbill, White-necked Babbler or even Malaysian Rail-babbler.

Day 17 After an early-morning walk out of ‘camp’, we will board the 4x4 vehicles again and travel farther south along a well-maintained logging track to Ba’kelalan at 975m (3200ft) in the Kelabit Highlands close to the border with Kalimantan, where we will stay for three nights. Short stops along the way could well produce species such as Red-bearded Bee-eater, Dark Hawk-cuckoo and Brown-backed Needletail. We should arrive at Ba’kelalan in plenty of time for some initial exploration of the area. Large tracts of excellent sub-montane forest are a feature of the area and these are now accessible along recently-constructed but little-used roads that span a wide altitudinal range. Three nights at Ba’kelalan in a guesthouse with shared facilities.

Days 18–19 The forests around and above Ba’kelalan are home to Dulit and Bornean Frogmouths and Hose’s Broadbill and we will be concentrating on any of these Bornean endemics that we did not see at Paya Maga, as they are either very difficult or impossible to see in other areas in Borneo that are visited by birders. In addition, an excellent variety of other Bornean specialities occurs in the area, including Bornean Banded Pitta, Blue-banded Pitta, Whitehead’s Broadbill, Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, Pygmy White-eye, Bornean, Golden-naped and Mountain Barbets, Bornean Leafbird, Bornean Bulbul, Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush, Bornean Spiderhunter, Bornean Treepie, Chestnut-crested Yuhina, Black-throated Wren-babbler and Mountain Serpent Eagle, several of which are easier to see in Sarawak than elsewhere. More widespread species that we are likely to encounter here include Oriental Honey-buzzard, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Thick-billed Pigeon, Waterfall Swift, Orange-breasted Trogon, Banded Kingfisher, Philippine and Little Cuckoo-doves, Blue-eared and Gold-whiskered Barbets, Banded, Olive-backed and Orange-backed Woodpeckers, Banded, Black-and-yellow and Green Broadbills, Black-thighed Falconet, Cinereous (Green-winged) Bulbul, Black-headed Bulbul, Lesser Green Leafbird, Large Woodshrike, Sunda Cuckooshrike, Scarlet Minivet, Crocker Jungle Flycatcher, Indigo Flycatcher, Dayak Blue Flycatcher, Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Golden-bellied Gerygone, Rufous-fronted and Temminck’s Babblers, Black-and-crimson Oriole, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Ashy and Hair-crested Drongos, Crested Jay, Temminck’s Sunbird, Plain Flowerpecker, Little Spiderhunter and Paddyfield Pipit. In addition to the endemic frogmouths, other nightbirds present include Malaysian Eared Nightjar, Sunda Scops Owl, Barred Eagle-owl and Brown Boobook, although a certain element of luck is required with some of these species. Crimson-headed, Ferruginous and Red-breasted Partridges all occur, but are hard to see in the impenetrable forest. There is even a very slim chance of coming across the extremely rare Bulwer’s Pheasant in the surrounding hills.

Day 20 After some final birding at Ba’kelalan we will take a flight back to Miri, which will connect with a flight to Kuala Lumpur for our overnight international flight back to London.

Day 21 Arrival back in London at the end of the tour.

General Information Borneo can be hot and humid, with rain likely at any time. The tour pace is moderate, with generally easy walking except for the extension where there is a longer walk to Paya Maga and back. There are some health requirements, which should be referred to your GP. Insects can be a problem at times and repellents are recommended. Visas are not required for EU citizens.

Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 6; maximum group size: 10 with 3 leaders. Extension minimum number 4; maximum group size 8.

Photo gallery Birdfinders visited Borneo in preparation for this wonderful tour and took some great pictures of some of the superb birds to be found on this endemic-rich island.

Blue-banded Pitta

Blue-banded Pitta

Recommended books available from NHBS