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Bird watching in Borneo

06/01/2017

Alfred Russel Wallace, the Victorian naturalist, is to Borneo as Charles Darwin is to the Galapagos. Arriving in 1854, he spent the next eight years studying this tiny fragment of the Malay archipelago, and he collected an eye-watering 125,000 different specimens. In his best-selling book, The Malay Archipelago, which is still in print more than 150 years on, he wrote of his encounters with pygmy elephant and Sumatran rhinoceros, orangutan and proboscis monkey. But in this rainforest paradise it was the birds and the butterflies which most captured his imagination, and whether you are an amateur bird watcher, or a serious naturalist, you too will be struck by the beauty and diversity of avifauna in Borneo.

Eastern Sabah is a mixture of pristine rainforest and coral islands, and this mixture of habitats inevitably attracts a variety of tropical canopy-dwelling and wetland birds. One of the finest places to stay is the Tabin Wildlife Resort, which has 20 chalets, some on stilts above the river, and others set into the hillside. The salty residue from the active mud volcanoes attract some 200 species of birds, including many which are rare and/or endemic to this region. You are in a prime location to spot Tabin’s eight species of hornbill — black, white-crowned, rhinoceros, wreathed, oriental pied, wrinkled, bushy crested, and helmeted —which often sit in pairs on the barer branches of the trees. There is a bird hided looking out onto the Lipad River, and as the forest canopy here is not too dense, you can easily see and photography its most colourful feathered residents. At Tabin you also have the chance to take a night safari to spot the rainforests nocturnal creatures and birds.
Our favourite spot for watching waterbirds is the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, however. In the heart of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, the lodge is reached by a two-hour boat ride along the Kinabatangan River. One of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, Sukau is immersed in its rainforest environment, and it is carefully designed to be eco-friendly: rainwater is solar heated for use in the bathrooms, the river boats have electric motors, and waste is segregated for re-use and recycling. Along the river you can expect to see oriental darters diving beneath the surface of the water to catch fish, crested serpent eagle, blue-banded kingfisher, and egret watching on. Hornbill and brahminy kite circle over head.
To the southwest of Eastern Sabah, you can explore the archipelago of Batang Ai. These rivers, rainforest, and mountains are inhabited by the Iban tribe, and the landscape is nothing short of spectacular. There are orangutan, slow loris, and maroon langur in the trees, and above them all swoop the rhinoceros hornbill, which the Iban believe is God’s messenger on earth. Stay at the the Batang Ai Longhouse Resort, accessible only by motor launch across the lake, and you can then explore the pepper and palm oil plantations, fish hatchery, and waterfalls, in addition to the tropical rainforest and waterways. Five of Borneo’s hornbill species can be seen here, as well as the great argus pheasant, crested and crestless fireback, 15 species of bulbul, 17 species of babbler, shama, flycatcher, cuckoo, trogon, and tree swift.
Borneo boasts some of the finest safari lodges outside of Africa, and the bird watching opportunities are sublime. At the end of your jungle adventure you can also treat yourself to a few days spent relaxing on the beach, snorkelling and diving to see the creatures on the coral reef, such as glass fish and lion fish. The hawksbill turtle lay their eggs on the same beaches.

Article written by:
Shari Burton
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