Birdwatching in Sabah

From the latest record 664 resident and migratory species of birds have been spotted in Sabah, with 51 of these species which are endemic to this region. As many as 24 Bornean endemic species are found only in the hill slopes or mountain forests, like the Kinabalu Park and the Crocker Range National Park. With these records of bird species found here, no wonder Sabah is fast becoming the number one bird watching destination in South-east Asia.

What are the most sought after endemic birds? Well, here are some of the names of these special birds, Bornean Bristlehead, Bornean Ground Cuckoo, Golden-naped Barbet, Whitehead’s Boardbill, and Whitehead’s Trogon. One would not want to dismiss, the eight species of Hornbill that roam the forests of the the Kinabatangan river. Parks, reserves, islands and bird discovery centres are all easily accessible, thanks to Sabah good transportation network and the many comfortable accommodations at these places.

Sabah remains warm throughout the year, with temperatures ranging from 23°C to 32°C. The weather is influenced by the wet northeast monsoon from November to March. During this time, birds from the northern hemisphere escape the cold weather by migrating to Borneo via the Philippine island chains. Majority of these migrants are waterbirds, and to a lesser extend some raptors.

Most of the resident birds breed during the end of the monsoon. From May to October, many forest trees are bearing fruits, which in turn attract many fruit-eating birds. This is also the time when these fruit eating birds breed. Paddy birds and open country birds mostly breed during the driest month, which is April in Sabah.

Below are some of the Bird Watching Destinations which are grouped under Sabah’s divisions:

West Coast Division:

Kinabalu Park
Kinabalu Park is Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. This park has a proctected area of 75,370 hectares, which encompass five different climate zones. The lowland rainforest is found in the Poring Hot Spring area (about 550 meters above sea level), and the lower mountain forest is located at the Kinabalu Park Headquarters area (about 1,500 metres). On the eastern side of the park and around the Mesilau Nature Resort (2,000 metres), these areas are covered by mountain forest. Travelling higher up Mt. Kinabalu, the mountain forest will slowly give way to the sub-alpine forest, and eventually one will reach the barren granite summit plateau. Although most of the bird communities reside on the lowland rainforests of Borneo, Kinabalu Park has a surprising number of bird species. 58 mountain birds are recorded and 17 species of them are endemic Bornean species.

The Botanic Garden is the best place to watch birds at the park. Watch out for brids such as the large Bornean Treepie, Ashy Drongo, Laughing Thrush, Short-tailed Magpies, and Temminck’s Sunbird. Other birds seen here are the various babblers and flycatchers. At the Balsam Cafe and Rock Hostel, Flowerpeckers and Sunbirds can often be spotted from the verandah. Tracking on the forest trails in the early morning or late afternoon is going to yeild some good sighting of Bar-winged Cuckoo-shrike, Sunda Whistling Thrush, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, and the iridescent green Whitehead’s Broadbill. Endemic species like the Whitehead’s Trogon, and Whitehead Spiderhunter can be seen occasionally. There are some seven trails around the park and the best of them for bird watching are the Bukit Ular, Silau-Silau and Kiau View trails.

Mount Kinabalu
Kinabalu Park Headquarters

Poring Hot Spring
Poring attracts many visitors largely due to its popular hot spring. Believe for its medical value, visitors love to enjoy a hot bath or just soak their feet on the high sulphuric contain mineral water. Although it is still located within the boundary of Kinabalu National Park, the forests here are mostly of lowland rainforest. Best place to watch birds do take a walk along the Langanan Waterfall.

Exploring the trail towards the Langanan Waterfall, is going to reward birders with species like Banded Broadbill, Bornean Striped Tit-babbler, Diard’s Trogon, Gold-whiskered Barbet, Pygmy White-eye and the Blue Banded Pitta. While in the early morning and late afternoon when most of the visitors have gone, Woodpecker, Barbet, and Sunbird can be seen at times. Two endemic species, the White-crowned Shama, and the Dusky Munia are among the birds which can be spotted feeding on nectar of the flowering plants at Poring.

Poring Hot Spring

Kota Kinabalu Area:

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre (5*59’37 N, 116*04′ E)
Lies on the foothill of Kota Kinabalu most significant is the Signal hill. The Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre (KKWC) is easily accessible from the city centre just three kilometers away. Taking a taxi here is the best mode of transport. The KKWC is a big wetland area, with the mangrove swamp as its most prominent landscape. More than 80 species of birds have been recorded at the KKWC.

Egrets are one of the most common birds found in KK. It is not uncommon to see them scavenging for food at the drainage in and around the city. Six types of egrets reside within the area, including the Great Egret and the Pacific Reef Egret.

Canopy birds like doves, kingfishers, pigeons, and starlings are spotted here by visitors. From October to April, migratory birds such as Common Sandpiper, Greenshank, Redshank, Night Herons and Plover will reside at the KKWC area.

Kota Kinabalu Wetland Centre

Likas Bay
One of the most accessible places to watch birds at Kota Kianbalu is at the Likas Bay. Just 10 minutes by car to the north of Kota Kinabalu, the Likas Bay Park, about 1 kilometre long, is frequently visited by Egrets and Waders especially so during the northern hemisphere winter. Likas swamp is separated by a busy main road from the South China Sea. Look for the Ducks, Gallinules and Moorhens at the fresh-water lagoon.

Mantanani Island
Located on the northwest of Kota Kinabalu, Mantanani Island can be reached by boat about 45 minutes from Kuala Abai Jetty, near Kota Belud. Mantanani Islands, made up of three islands, is a great place for snorkelling and scuba diving, water clarity is among the best in West Coast Sabah. For the Bird watchers the main attraction is of course the endemic Mantanani Scops Owl, found only on this island. The small rocky islet, Lingisan, and Mantanani Kecil, both of these islands are protected bird sanctuaries. These two little islands are home to the Lesser Frigatebird and the Christmas Island Frigatebird, which fly to the Christmas Island at the Indian Ocean for breeding each year. At dusk, it is common to see thousands of Frigatebirds flying into the tree tops of the Lingisan island for the night.

Mantanani Island
Mari Mari Backpackers Lodge

Sandakan Division:

Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan river, with a length of 560km, is the longest river in Sabah. It stretches from the interior of Sabah all the way to its river mouth which opens out to the Celebes sea. Kinabatagan floodplain, the largest in Malaysia, is a refuge to the many wildlife in Sabah. WWF, a conservation organisation, reckons that this is one of the two places on earth where one can watch 10 primate species at a single place. Some of these animals like Proboscis monkey and the Borneo Pygmy Elephants are endemic to the Borneo Island. Lonely planet guide book even mentions that Kinabatangan area is Malaysia’s gift to the world for its wildlife and nature. Many cabins, lodges and resorts are operating along the Kinabatangan River, expecially near Sukau and Bilit. With the good facilities provided by these accommodations watching birds in the forest is just like staying at home.

The most special birds here are the rare Storm’s Stock and the endangered Oriental Darter. Other striking birds seen along the river especially in the morning are the Rhinoceros Hornbill, Helmeted Hornbill, and the Wrinkled Hornbill. Raptors often seen near the oil plam plantations are Crested Serpent Eagle, Lesser Fish Eagle, Buffy Fish Owl, Brahminy Kite and the little White-fronted Falconet. Other birds spotted here are the Great Egret, Kingfishers, and Broadbills. Endemic bird species like Bornean Bristlehead and Bornean Ground Cuckoo are some time seen here.

Kinabatangan Safari
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan

Rainforest Discovery Centre
This is a great new addition to the Sandakan tourist destinations. Set within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, Rainforest Discovery Centre is a huge place. The main attractions here are the canopy walk, the plant discovery garden and the forest trails. Bird lovers will have an extra incentive to visit three towers that mushroom up to the top of the canopy, giving visitors a spectacular view over the surrounding tree tops. Huge canopy walkway on equal height with the tree tops allows photographers to choose the perfect spot to capture that unique picture of exotic birds of Borneo.

Rainforest Discovery Centre is the best place to watch out for the endemic Bornean Bristlehead, which is high on every bridwatcher’s list. Other strikingly colourful birds seen here are the Banded Kingfisher, Rufous-collared kingfisher, Black & Crimson Pitta, Banded Broadbill and the Diard’s Trogon. At RDC there is a good chance to see all the eight species of hornbills found in Sabah. For more detail-description on birds seen in RDC, follow the link below.

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Gomantong Caves
The Gomantong Caves system contains around nine caves and it is the best known limsestones outcrop in the Lower Kinabatangan area. The more accessible cave is the Simud Hitam with its roof soaring up to 90 metres high, and with a well-maintained boardwalk for exploring the cave ecology. Simud Puteh, home to million of swiftlets and bats, is where the valuable bird nests are found. Four types of swiftlets, namely Black-nest, Edible-nest, Mossy-nest, and Glossy, are found residing at these caves. At dusk, millions of bats emerge from the caves, raptors like Bat Hawks and Peregrine Falcons, a dark local species, are usually seen catching bats for meals.

Tawau Division:

Tabin Wildlife Reserve
Located on the south eastern part of Sabah, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is an important birding area. The reserve covers an area of 120,500 hectares of mostly lowland dipterocarp rainforest. It is also the largest wildlife reserve in Malaysia. The forest of Tabin attracts extraordinary diversity of birds, including many rare and endemic species, largely due to its rich abundance food source, the fruit plants. The forests here with its low canopy allow sufficient sun light to penetrate, making bird watching and photography a delightful experience. About 42 indigenous families representing more than 260 species of birds have been recorded here, including the eight species of Sabah’s Hornbill.

Apart from birds, Tabin is also home to the rare and very endangered Bornean Rhinoceros, Borneo Pygmy Elephant, Tembadau (wild ox) and Orang-Utan. A special geological feature at Tabin is the intriguing mud volcanoes that provides mineral salts for the wild animals. Good places to watch birds at Tabin Wildlife Reserve are the Lipad mud volcano, the road to the core area, and around the resort.

Rarely seen species at this reserve are the Jambu Fruit Dove, Large Green Pigeon, White-fronted Falconet, Great-billed Heron, Giant Pitta, and the Strom’s Stock. The more common birds here include the Black & Crimson Pitta, Blue-headed Pitta, Everett’s White-eye, Malaysian Blue Flycatcher, Temminck’s Sunbird and the Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker. Other bird families found here are the boardbill, eagle, falconet, kingfisher, munia, parrot and woodpecker. The eight species of Hornbill in Sabah are Black Hornbill, Bushy-Crested Hornbill, Helmeted Hornbill, Pied Hornbill, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, White-crowned Hornbill and Wrinkled Hornbill.

Danum Valley Conservation Area
Danum Valley Conservation Area with a land mass of 483 square kilometres is the largest undisturbed virgin rainforest in Malaysia. Located near the upper reaches of Sabah’s second longest river, the Segama, Danum Valley is recongnized as one of the most complex ecosystem in the world. Some of the rare and endangered species in Danum Valley include the Bornean Rhinoceros, Borneo Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard and the beloved Orangutan.

The Great Argus Pheasant, which is high on the list of endangered species of Sabah’s wildlife Department, is seen at the Danum Valley from time to time. The striking Crested Fireback Pheasant is often sighted near the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. The endemic Bornean Bristlehead and the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge are also seen at Danum. Other atrractions here include the Black-throated Babbler, Bornean Babbler, Bornean Flycatcher, Diard’s and Scarlet-rumped Trogons. The hornbill and pitta families are also spotted here, and at night watch out for the Buffy Fish Owl, and Brown Wood-Owl.

Interior Division:

Crocker Range National Park
The Crocker Range is the main mountain range in Sabah that divides the west coastal plain and the rest of the state. Crocker Range National Park was gazzetted in 1984, and it is the largest park in Sabah, covering an area of about 140,000 hectares of densely forested terrain. The park area starts from Tambunan and expands all the way to Keningau region, including many steep mountains. This region is also home to the largest flower in the world the Rafflesia. Two main points for bird watching are the Rafflesia Forest Reserve and the Head-station at the Keningau Crocker Range.

Endemic species like the Bornean Barbet, Mountain Barbet, Cinnamon-rumped Trogon, Whitehead’s Broadbill and the Whitehead’s Spiderhunter are often spotted at or near the Rafflesia Forest Reserve. Other birds sighted here are the Sunda Laughing Thrush and the Chestnut-hooded Laughing Thrush. The Rafflesia Forest Reserve has an altitude of about 1,650 metres. At the Keningau Head-station, the Great Argus Pheasant, the endemic Golden-naped Barbet, and several species of hornbill can also be seen here. The world’s smallest raptors, the White-fronted Falconets only found in the far northwest of Borneo, are often seen sitting in pine tree, waiting to make a kill.

Utan Paradise Jungle Lodge

Pulau Tiga Park
Located 48km south of Kota Kinabalu, Pulau Tiga Park is made up of three islands, including the popular snake island. Upgraded to a National Park in 1978, Pulau Tiga was made famous by the popular series called Survivor. One of the unique features of the island is its volcano mud which can be found in the centre of the island. Birds recorded here are the Dollarbirds, Frigatebirds, Hornbills, Magpie Robbins and the White-bellied Sea Eagle. The Tabon Scrubfowl is a domestic hen which lays its eggs on the sand, then covered them with a mound of rotting vegetable and sand, and finally leaving them to incubate under the sun.