When we’re not exploring the ocean, we’re looking high into the sky at another very different, but equally fascinating, natural population of Borneo. The birds of Borneo include resident and migratory species, with up to 688 logged here to date. 60 of these species are endemic to the island, which means that you won’t see them anywhere else on the planet!
Fantastic Birds of Borneo
Borneo’s lowland forests are home to 8 Hornbill, 18 Woodpecker and 13 Pitta species. Hornbills are culturally important in the region, especially so for Dayak communities in neighbouring Sarawak. Here in Sabah, we frequently spot these magnificent birds along the Kinabatangan River and within the Rainforest Discovery Centre. However, they’re not just symbolically important; they are also vital seed dispersers for fig trees across the area.
Annually, Borneo is visited by a multitude of bird species from temperate climates that migrate to spend winter here. The majority of migrants are waterbirds but there are also raptors such as the Japanese Sparrowhawk and the Peregrine Falcon. Forest visitors include the Siberian Blue Robin and Blue-winged Pitta.
As an experienced or keen bird watcher knows, the morning is great for spotting. The dawn chorus anywhere on the planet is a wonderful natural phenomenon and the Sabah region is no different. Prominent early birds that you’ll spot are the wide range of Pitta species, including the Hooded Pitta, Black-crowned Pitta and Giant Pitta. And you’ll certainly hear the Woodpeckers amongst the soundscape!
Night treks will reveal yet another dimension to the bird population of the region. Sights of the Buffy Fish Owl on the Kinabatangan river are memorable. Like most species of owl, these birds predate at night so witnessing them in action will be a highlight for any keen naturalist.
Where to Find Them | Birds of Borneo
Sabah is home to a range of protected locations which are home to many of Sabah’s bird species – Kinabalu National Park, Danum Valley Conservation Area, Tabin Reserve. Alongside these, we’ve highlighted three of the most popular bird watching locations easily accessible from Sandakan. Towards the East of Sabah are three fantastic locations to witness and experience the vast bird population of the island.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre
This environmental education resource sits at the edge of the Sepilok Forest Reserve. It has evolved from its late 1990’s incarnation of an purely education centre to being a fully equipped visitor destination. Whether your interest is flora or fauna, mammal or birdlife, you will find it here. The established trails make navigating this part of the lowland rainforest extremely accessible. In addition, the canopy walkway and observation tower are ideal for those seeking a glimpse of the many bird species to be found in this area. See if you can spot the Crested Jay, the Bornean Bristlehead and Scarlet Minivet.
This is the second-longest river in Malaysia. Despite the upper parts of the river being affected by logging and deforestation, the lowland forests and mangrove swamps are a sanctuary to a huge range of both birdlife, mammals and reptiles. Ones to keep your eyes peeled for here are the Malaysian Flycatcher, Oriental Pied Hornbill and the White-fronted Falconet. You may even see a Storm Stork – the rarest stork of all with a current estimation of fewer than 500 remaining in the wild.
These limestone caves sit on the Kinabatangan River and are home to colonies of bats as well as the millions of Swiftlets that are famous among birdwatchers! Indeed, the names of the two parts of the cave system: the Simud Hitam (Black Cave), and above this the Simud Putih (White Cave) refer to the main type of nests produced by these iconic swiftlets. Different types of Kingfisher and Asian Fairy-bluebirds are also a couple of great spots here.
When to Find Them
Bird exploration tours operate year-round. So the best time for you will depend on which species’ you are eager to encounter. The widest range of visiting birds are prominent from August to February. September and October are the ideal time to spot migrating arrivals. Weather-wise, April to October is usually drier than November to March and the driest period of late June to early August is a great time to look for native birds.
The ecology of our skies is as important as that of our oceans. Southeast Asia is a region of particular ecological interest because of its high endemicity. Endemic species are native species of wildlife that are unique to a defined area. These uncommon species could not exist without native forest buffers, which conservation initiatives seek to preserve.
Hunting is causing some hornbill species to decline or become locally extinct. This issue is exacerbated by the birds’ slow breeding rate and the fact that they do not breed if there are no suitable cavities in large trees. Five of Borneo’s eight hornbill species are now listed as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Bird tourism tours playing their role in supporting local conservation by undertaking their activities in a sustainable manner. In addition, the locations that we visit request a conservation fee to support their work in protecting these vital species of bird.
Capturing the Moment
So once you’ve paid your conservation fee, which allows you to video and photograph the birdlife within your surroundings, how should you go about getting the best shot?
You don’t have to shell out on top of the range kit that you’d expect to accompany a National Geographic journalist. Equip your DSLR with a telephoto zoom lens with a 300mm, or even 400mm will be sufficient to achieve really striking wildlife shots.
Some form of tripod will keep your camera steady for periods within a bird tour where you can be stationary for a longer stretch of time.
To enable you to shoot at a faster shutter speed, an aperture of f/4 or f/5.6 is ideal. This will provide a stronger shot, keeping up with a subject in motion.
At least 1/500 sec or even better 1/1000 sec will prevent camera shake and make sure you can work with sudden movements.
Enable continuous autofocus. This means that the camera will keep focusing and is ideal for shooting images of birds of prey. So for breeds such as Owls and Kingfishers, which look great in motion, this will help to achieve the perfect shot.
It can be hard to distinguish birdlife when the background of a shot is busy. So consider what the background maybe when you decide which angle to attempt to capture your bird.
Composing a picture of a bird in flight can be challenging. Aim to frame the bird in your viewfinder including space to fly into. This will make it less likely that you’ll miss the moment!
With so many bird species that you could experience during your stay in Sabah, each and every trip is unique. We hope that whichever birds greet you on your tour, you experience wonderful moments and take away some breathtaking photographs!