My 16-day birding and nature expedition to Sabah coast to coast | A panoply of rare birds and exotic plants – Part 2

My 16-day birding and nature expedition to Sabah coast to coast. A panoply of rare birds and exotic plants – Part 2


Day 7: 4 May. Mabul Island/Sipadan Island

Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo

After spending the early morning in Kinabalu Park, we drove back to Kota Kinabalu airport to catch our flight MH 2137 to Tawau. Upon arrival, our driver drove us to Semporna. We took a short boat ride to Borneo Divers Resort on Mabul Island. Most visitors to Mabul were divers to Sipadan Island.

Once we checked in, Samson, the manager, booked a dive course for Mano and me that afternoon so we would be able to dive in Sipadan.


Day 8: 5 May. Sipadan Island

It rained from dawn till 7 am in Mabul Island. We reached Sipadan around 8:30 am for birding. No visitor was allowed on Sipadan Island. However, we had a permit to do bird surveys and photography on the island.

Sipadan Island was a mere 200m wide and 500 m long. Our objective was to look for the Nicobar Pigeon found in small islands around Borneo that feed on fallen fruits on the forest floor. We spotted three fruiting fig trees with high hope to see the pigeon. We saw Green Imperial Pigeon, Black-naped Fruit Dove, Golden-bellied Gerygone but not the Nicobar Pigeon.

In the afternoon, Mano and I dived in Sipadan. It was our first dive in the open sea after the short training the day before. I took my compact underwater camera with me for the dive. Most of the underwater pictures I took were blurry due to insufficient light. As a first-time diver, I felt uneasy as the strong current kept drifting my body away from the boat. It was an unforgettable experience to dive and bird in Sipadan.

We spent the early afternoon visiting another beautiful dive resort built on stilts, the Sipadan-Kapalai Dive Resort. I was impressed by the view of the beautiful blue ocean from the room, including the bathroom.  

In the late afternoon, we returned to Mabul Island to enjoy the setting sun by the beach with Brahminy Kite gliding above the sea near the sunset-gold beach where children were playing by the piers. What a relaxing afternoon.

Although we did not see the Nicobar Pigeon, we got the Rufous Night Heron and Pacific Reef Egret on Mabul Island.


Days 9 to 11: 6 to 8 May. Danum Valley.

We spent the morning with staff from Borneo Diver Resort on an island tour on foot. The highlight was a visit to a school. Part of the classroom was built on stilts by the sea with a spectacular view of the crystal blue ocean. The Bajau tribe would embark and disembark their children from boats to attend school.

By noon we took a short boat trip to Semporna from Mabul Island. We met Calixtus from Borneo Nature Tour that operated the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley. We loaded all our baggage from the boat onto the four-wheel drive to get ready for a 97 KM drive. It took us about 2 hours over gravel and the bumpy road into the lowland tall dipterocarp forest until we reached Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley Conservation Area. The lodge had 31 rooms with a top-rated restaurant that served western and international cuisine. Mano told me about the great selection of food by Chef John S, who made delicious lamp chop, fruit cobbler, red bean dessert, corn porridge, and coconut pudding. We decided to obey our rumbling stomachs and had dinner early.

The next day, we spotted the following birds along the main road in Danum Valley:

  • Dark-necked Tailorbird
  • Asian Paradise Flycatcher
  • Cinnamon Rumped Trogon (female)
  • Blue-throated Bee-eater
  • Black-and-Red Broadbill
  • Diard’s Trogon

That afternoon, I encountered a mature male wild orangutan in the forest about 5 m above the ground, sitting on the branch chewing tree bark. The guide told me that there were about 30 wild orangutans in the Danum area.

After dinner, we joined the regular night-spotting activity organized by the lodge to see nocturnal animals such as owls and nightjars on an open-top bus.

In the early morning, I went to photograph nesting Blue-throated Bee-eater by the river. I did not get the Bee-eater but captured the Oriental Darter. I also took the Spectacled Spiderhunter and Black-and-yellow Broadbill near the lodge. We went to the 260-meter long treetop walk to explore more birds above the valley floor.

After lunch, we trekked to the jungle natural jacuzzi pool to explore the virgin rainforest. We spotted a female Diard’s Trogon and a male Rhinoceros Hornbill. 


Days 12 and 13: 9 and 10 May. Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

At 6 am we were greeted by Black-and-Red broadbill at the lobby before we embarked for the nature trail along the main road. We chanced upon a snake, a Speckle-bellied Keelback, in a puddle of water along the mud road. Although we would love to stay longer, we left Borneo Rainforest Lodge around 8:00 am for Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Speckle-bellied Keelback,

We drove about 77 Km through the logging road. By around 10:30 am, we made a detour to Silam Hill, 635 meters above sea level. We drove for half an hour to a telecom tower at the top. I went behind the fence to get a better view of Darvel Bay from the telecom tower. On the way down, we stopped for a quick lunch at Lahad Datu and arrived at Tabin Wildlife Reserve around 2:30 pm after weaving through the winding road passing through the endless palm oil plantation.

After we checked in, I had a short glimpse of the back of an Asian Pygmy elephant while I was busy shooting Dusky Broadbill and Black Hornbill. I missed the elephant as it disappeared into the palm oil plantation and never turned back.

After dinner, we went for a night drive along the main road on a small pick-up truck with the resort manager and nature guide. We spotted a mouse deer, a Buffy Fish-owl, a leopard cat, and a sambar deer. 

The next day, we had breakfast at the canteen at 6 am and spotted Black-and-Yellow broadbill, adult and juvenile, and Rufous Piculet nesting nearby. Birding was relaxing at the breakfast table between 6:30-7:30 am while sipping our coffee.


Days 14 and 15: 11 and 12 May. Sukau.

We started birding at 5 am along the main road in Tabin. We then drove to the north of Tabin to look for Giant Pitta. Saw Red-bearded Bee-eater and Red Rumped Trogon but did not see the pitta.

We left Tabin at 10 am to reach Lahad Datu around 11:30 am. We had a quick lunch then adjourned to Sukau. We arrived at Sukau around 2:30 pm. Sukau was a gateway to the 560 km long  Kinabatangan River threading through the mangrove forest to the Sulu sea. We have been birding and trekking for 14 days carrying heavy camera equipment and binoculars. I welcome the idea of birding from a boat in the Kinabatangan River.

We wasted no time exploring the Kinabatangan River on a boat. We were privilege to have Cede Prudente from North Borneo Safari. Cede had 20 years of experience and had written four books about wildlife in Sabah. He had a boat with an electric engine instead of two strokes petrol-powered motor. The electric motor was great for photography as it was smoother and quieter to approach wildlife and birds at the river bank. Cede took us to his favorite spots to photograph birds and wildlife. We enjoyed Cede’s company and had a relaxing time having tea and biscuits in the quiet river photographing wildlife till sunset.

The next day, we spent the morning and afternoon traveling along the river looking for birds on an electric boat. We saw Blue-Eared Kingfisher, Stork-Billed Kingfisher, and Rufous-Backed Kingfisher. We also spotted an orangutan on a tree by the river bank and a few families of Proboscis monkeys. I was hoping to spot the Pygmy Elephants, but they did not show up. We ended the day on a boat riding into the glistening sunset horizon. 

Kinabatangan River. I welcome the idea of birding from a boat in the Kinabatangan River.

Day 16: 13 May. Sukau. Sandakan. Kota Kinabalu. Singapore.

We left Sukau at 6:30 am for Sandakan to catch our flight to Singapore via Kota Kinabalu. Cede Prudente suggested we make a brief detour to the newly built Rainforest Discovery Center near the Sepilok Orangutan Center. The canopy walk in the Rainforest Discovery Center was impressive. It was the sturdiest canopy walk I had ever seen. It also had a good collection of local plants. The Rainforest Discovery Center was to be opened by the Prime Minister of Malaysia in June that year. Over the years, The Rainforest Discovery Center became a popular birding area and a must-stop for birders.

Treetop walk at the Rainforest Discovery Center

It had been a lengthy 16-day and enjoyable journey birding in Sabah which I had a chance to explore remote islands and captured rare birds with Mano. We made many wonderful friends along the way. It was my first nature trip to Sabah and the many more trips to come.

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