My 16-day birding and nature expedition to Sabah coast to coast | A panoply of rare birds and exotic plants – Part 1

My 16-day birding and nature expedition to Sabah coast to coast. A panoply of rare birds and exotic plants – Part 1


Why only now?

Why only now that I published the travelogue when I visited Sabah 13 years ago in 2008? Since that time, I have made many trips to Sabah to photograph the birds and wildlife of Borneo. I had written about:

It was only during the pandemic when I started to organize the photo library and the travel journals that I had found images and fond memories of my first 16-day journey to Sabah with Mano that we may have taken for granted before the pandemic. As I wrote this, it brought back many happy memories. We currently cannot visit Sabah as the parks are closed. I empathize with the situation that all birding-related activities have come to a standstill. Covid-19 is affecting the livelihood of the people who are dependent on bird tourism. We are all optimistic about the reopening of the parks. I hope this article gives readers ideas on where to visit Sabah for the next birding trip.

My earlier trips to Sabah in 2007 and 2008

I first visited Sabah in May 2007 for the harvest festival (Gawai Festival) for the indigenous people and a preview of its wildlife organized by Asian Geographic Magazine. I instantly fell in love with the colorful cultures and abundant wildlife. A year later, I visited Semporna in east Sabah for the Regatta Lepa Festival. The lively festival was a yearly event of the gathering of sea gypsies of the Bajau tribe. 

My First 16-day birding and nature trip to Sabah, April 2008 Coast to Coast.

It was not until late April 2008 that I went to Sabah again to explore nature. Mano and I teamed up for a 16-day birding and nature photography expedition to Sabah. Our objective was to explore remote out-of-the-way places for elusive birds of Borneo.

In my quest for birding, this was the lengthiest trip that I had done in Borneo. In our arduous journey, we photographed endemic and elusive beautiful birds and exotic plants of the rainforest of Southeast Asia. The trip took us from the west coast to the east coast, meandering through the remote islands, mountains, and tropical rainforest. 


Day 1: 28 April. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

I flew from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. Mano and I checked in to Promenade Hotel. We had dinner at the Kampung Nelayan Seafood Restaurant with our host. 

Days 2 and 3: 29 April, Mantanani Islands

A majestic view of Mount Kinabalu, 4095 m, from highway A1 to a fishing town, Kuala Abai.

We traveled north along the coast to a fishing town Kuala Abai and took a one-hour boat ride for the Mantanani Islands off the west coast of Borneo. As we approached the islands, the tropical islands looked lush and surrounded by a turquoise blue ocean. There were nine chalets built on the island with a private beach. We were the only guests for the next two nights at Mantanani Island. The dozy sea and the peaceful tropical islands made us want to sit by the beach and relax for the afternoon. However, we were not there to relax but to photograph the Mantanani Scops Owl confined to small islands and a few other islands off the coast of Palawan in the Sulu Sea.

After a brief lunch, we started birding in the heat of the day. We found Grey Imperial Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Pink-necked Pigeon, and Emerald Dove near the resort’s compound. We also saw Christmas Frigate birds circling the sky above us in the late afternoon.

After dinner, we went behind the chalets to look for the owl with the resort manager. Equipped with torchlight, we searched tree branches and kept alert for any calls. We heard faint calls. As we approached, the sound disappeared. Suddenly, the sound reappeared in the opposite direction. We turned on our torches to look for the owl. It was perching quietly in front of us. We ended the evening on a high note as we spotted and photographed the Mantanani Scops Owl.

Mantanani Scops Owl. Matanani Islands, Sabah Borneo
Mantanani Scops Owl. Matanani Islands, Sabah Borneo

The call of the Collared Kingfisher woke us up at around 5:30 am. Mano wanted to see the Tabon Scrubfowl as we had found the mound the day before. Unfortunately, nothing showed up. Once we were back at the resort, we took a 10-minute boat ride to Mantanani Kechil Island. We trekked into the forest to look for Nicobar Pigeon. All we saw was a glimpse of the Tabon Scrubfowl (Philippine Magapode) flashing across the open path not far from the beach.

Children in the Mantanani village exploring the birds with a scope.

After lunch at the resort, we walked to a nearby village where we met with friendly villagers and their children who were curious about what we were observing through the scope and camera. We saw hundreds of Frigate Birds flying above us. After dinner, I wanted to have a second look at the Mantanani Scops Owl, but it rained till 11 pm.


Days 4 and 5: 1-2 May. Kinabalu Park.

We woke up at 5:15 am to try our luck again on the Tabon Scrubfowl. The bird failed to show up before our boat ride to the main island. Our coach took us to Kinabalu Park through scenic highway 22. We checked in to Hill Lodge at Kinabalu Park. In the park, we visited the botanic garden near the park headquarter to explore and photograph the endemic plants of Kinabalu Park.

Kinabalu Park had 1600 species of orchids. One slipper orchid that caught my attention was Paphiopedilum rothschildianum- Gold of Kinabalu. Thankfully, it was in bloom. This plant thrived on a low slope of Kinabalu between 600-1200 m. Now I could see in the comfort of the botanic garden. Other fascinating plants were the pitcher plants such as Nepenthes raja, Nepenthes lowii, and Nepenthes burbidgeae.

Our highlights for the birds in the morning near the Hill Lodge were:

  • Little Pied Flycatcher
  • Indigo Flycatcher
  • Black-caped White-eye
  • Chestnut crested Yuhina
  • Bornean Treepie
  • Temminck’s Sunbird
  • Wreathed Hornbills. 

The national park representative gave us a tour of their different accommodations ranging from 2 bedroom Nepenthes Lodge with a living room (starting at RM490 per night) to 3 bedroom Raja or Kinabalu Lodge with a fireplace (RM 1200 per night). 


Day 6: 3 May. Kinabalu Park to Mesilau

At dawn, we went to Timpohon Gate, the trailhead to the Kinabalu summit. It was still dark and misty when we disembarked from the van. While relying on the car’s headlights to spot birds, we encountered a bird wave. Mano’s sharp eyes spotted a couple of birds foraging on the ground. With his binoculars, he identified one of them as the secretive and shy bird of a mountain endemic in Kinabalu; Everett’s Thrush. I managed to capture a few frames before it flew off. 

Our highlights for the day were:

Very secretive and shy bird- Everett’s Thrush
  • Everett’s Thrush
  • Indigo Flycatcher
  • Short-tailed Green Magpie
  • Chestnut-capped Thrush

At around 11 am, we left for Mesilau, another park entrance rarely visited in Kinabalu Park for the endemic pitcher plants. The local pitcher plant expert was off duty that day. Mr. Sukaibin showed us the way to the Nepenthes raja. We first passed through a small stream with a waterfall then took a steep climb to reach the upper slope. We saw Nepenthes raja growing wild in upper montane vegetation. Nepenthes raja is the largest carnivorous pitcher plant that can hold 3.5 liters of water. Not only we saw the plant, but we also photographed the magnificent flowers of the Nepenthes Raja.


Continues to part 2 to Sipadan, Danum Valley, Sukau and Sandakan.: Day 7 to 16 birding and photo expedition in Sabah.


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