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A Report from

Gunung Kinabalu.Sabah, Borneo, 4th - 10th April 2004,


Dominic Hall and Rinke Kroll.


Contrary to popular opinion espoused by guides such as Lonely Planet, independent travel around Sabah is not difficult. Having flown into KK (Kota Kinabalu) with Malaysian airlines, all further travel was easily accomplished by hitchhiking. On a few comic occasions, we hitched from bus stops, swapping the back seat of a bus for the aircon cab of luxury pickups. If you're pushed for time, walking a few metres away from the bus stop and sticking a thumb out will get you to your destination faster and in more comfort. Getting to Kingabatangan from Poring and from the Kingabatangan to Danum was easy this way: finding buses would have been very time consuming. Of course, you're withholding money from the tourist economy in doing this.

Gunung Kinabablu (Mount Kinabalu National Park).

I spent one week birding here with Rinke Kroll. We found it to be an excellent site - yielding most of the montane and pre-montane endemics and specialities. Some reports have indicated that it is hard work and slow. Whilst not over-abundant, specialities were uncovered with regularity and it never felt like hard work. Working trails at every elevation is key. An altitude gain of 200m is enough to make a discernable difference in the avifauna. Similarly, river trails with steeply vegetated slopes will effect the flora and consequently the avifauna. Ostensibly similar trails, can, with small differences in topography, make big differences to what you will see. It is much less 'slow' than Danum.


I stayed in the park for a couple of nights in the cabins to do some sound recording in the night. Cheaper and more fun (but you have to get up earlier to walk into the park every morning) is to stay at the very friendly Rose's guest house, 200m east of the park entrance along the main road to Sandakan. The park accomdation is only cheap if you stay in the dorms - which can be noisy late into the evening. The chalets are lovely, but are going to cost upwards of 15 per night. Expensive by Sabah standards.

Birding Kinabalu

Trail maps can be found in the Park HQ. For the summit trail, I got permission to climb alone and without a guide. This enables you to bird much more productively. I missed a few pitcher plants though as the guides seem good at finding these.

I'll discuss the area trail by trail.

Bukit Ulu

There are a couple of unique spots on this trail. The upper section of the trail rounds a limestone cliff (containing an unidentified falcon) and enters a dark and cold section of the forest - in the cliff's shadow for much of the day. The ridge that runs alongside the cliff also shields the forest from early morning sun. So there is little activity here between dawn and 10am. Presumably the sunkissed side of the ridge above the Timpohon gate has more feeding insects and more feeding birds. However, the shaded trail proved good for Red breasted partridge and would probably offer up sustained activity when other trails enter the midday lull.

The lower section of trail opens up into level premontane forest with a well-established high canopy and open understory as in lowland dipterocarp forest. Foraging warblers, babblers, and woodpeckers are numerous here and it appeared to be one of the most uniform areas of high altitude dipterocarp forest on Kinabalu's trails. The edge of this forest held Sunda Bush Warbler, which proved more frequent higher up the summit trail, especially around 3400m.

Flavescent bulbul and Black-naped Oriole were more frequent at this height than lower altitude trails.

Silau Silau

Having not birded this trail at a prime time of day I can't say that it wouldn't live up to reputation. Its thick, epiphyte rich canopy and midstorey keep it humid and dark: Whitehead's broadbill were seen here relatively easily, mid-afternoon, on 2 occasions.

The river the trail follows holds White-crowned forktail and probably Sunda whistling-thrush although we found that at Liwagu. We also found our only Eye-browed wren babbler at Silau Silau.

Kiau View

Dryer and steeper sided than the previous trail, Kiau view proved good for barbets, woodpeckers, flycatchers etc. It has a higher proportion of mature canopy trees and emergents and less of a distinct under and mid-storey. It is also relatively hilly, creating small gullies filled with dense vegetation - good for Grey throated babbler. Also common here is Bornean Whistler, Crimson winged woodpecker, Checker-throated woodpecker, Little pied flycatcher.

This trail is also good for Whitehead's pygmy squirrel. We also saw here smaller than usual Prevost's or what was more likely to be Kinabalu Squirrel, which ecologically replaces Prevost's at altitude.

Summit trail

Like miniature orchids, the violet blooms of Lobelia borneensis line the initial climb through to the montane forest. We saw our only White browed shrike babbler here at around 2000m. At around 2300m we I found huge diversity in one tree: treepies, blackeyes, warblers, fantails. Otherwise it could be surprisingly quiet.

Above 2400m the avifauna becomes impoverished in variety but rich in density. Bornean stubtail took me some time to locate around this area: check thick hanging vines about 5 - 15 feet off the ground - typically tree babbler territory. I was expecting it to forage lower, for some reason.

At around 2600, on ultramafic soils, the twisted and gnarled Leptospermum recurvum form beautiful corridors through the cloud forest. Snowy-browed flycatcher is common at this altitude and very bold. As are migrant Eyebrowed thrush - common around Liang liang (2700m). This habitat and elevation also proved good for Kinabalu friendly-warbler, which despite its moniker was ambivalent when it came to pishing. The summit trail intersects here with the Mesilau trail (leading about 6km to the Mesilau resort) to the right: it is worth walking half a mile or so down the Mesilau trail; it is much quieter and perfect habitat for the friendly warbler and home to various pitcher plants.

At the upper limit of full size tree growth endemic rhododendrons take over. Mountain blackeye are everywhere. Island thrush are common above the treeline. Appear much more like the Javan subspecies than the Bornean depicted in Mackinnon, Sunda bush warbler is very common around 3400m.

Above 3500m the rhododendrons disappear and scrub and bare limestone take over. We saw no evidence of Mountain Serpent eagle which was disappointing. The cloud rolls in very early and you need to be high before 7am to have completely uninterrupted views across the canopy.

Liwagu River

Undeniably the richest birding trail. At the upper reaches of the trail we encountered a party of Mountain wren-babbler - 7 -8 in total and very confiding at 1855m asl. Intermittently, bald and golden Tristaniopsis bilocularis project out over the river. At times open and at times densely thicketed, the trail is rarely monotonous. For the most part line of sight is expansive as the path skirts the ridge-side on the north of the river. Without this line of sight I would have missed Whitehead's trogon, which Rinke found while I was examining beetles. Luckily I refound it across the river gorge. Being able to see across the gorge also proves useful for many of the canopy species. We saw more barbets here by tenfold, all Golden-naped however. This is also the only place we saw Fruithunter - relatively common in the canopy above the river.

The river is open and fast flowing and held 2 Sunda Whistling-thrush and Whitehead's broadbill was pretty easy to locate here too.


The open grass area in front of the restaurant is a good place to bird with your feet up. The inimitable and every-present Chestnut-crested yuhina are often joined by Black chinned white-eye, Mugimaki flycatcher (migrant), Ashy drongo, Blue and white flycatcher, Ochraceous bulbul, Temminck's sunbird.

RK saw Everett's white-eye here on the first afternoon. Thinking this bird would clearly prove no problem I didn't bother to look for it as I was a 100 metres back along the track. Of course, I subsequently dipped on it altogether!

In the entrance gate eaves were nesting hundreds of Glossy swiftlet.

Timpohon Road

The metalled road leading to Timpohon Gate is worth birding. By starting here we saw most of the easier birds in the first evening. A good strategy is to hitch a ride to the gate, or as far as you think you can descend then bird the road downhill.

The following were all found in the late afternoon near the road or in the forest edges:

Hill Blue flycatcher
Indigo flycatcher
Mountain tailorbird
Yellow breasted warbler
Mountain-leaf warbler (variable colours, Bornean race is very grey)
Chestnut-capped laughingthrush (common)
Black laughingthrush (G.l calvus - Bornean race should show completely bald head - we saw predominantly juveniles or less distinct races)
Sunda laughingthrush
Bornean treepie
Black and Crimson oriole
Long tailed magpie
Green magpie
Sunda cuckoo-shrike
Little cuckoo dove
Grey-chinned minivet
Poring Hot Springs.

We just spent only one day here. Rinke had heard its nickname - 'Boring hot springs' so we weren't too hopeful. However it proved a useful diversion. The lower altitude producing various new species and incredible views of a female Rufous Collared kingfisher. Unusually for dimorphic species, the female is just as beautiful as the male. We approached to within ten feet where it sat in thick forest, scanning the leaflitter for prey.

The dipterocarp forest around Poring is more disturbed than Kinabalu - but was species rich:

Orange-bellied flowerpecker
Grey breasted spiderhunter
Black and yellowbroadbill - nesting in outer and uppermost reaches of 70m tree
Banded broadbill - uncommon
Striped tit babbler - in palm oil plantation.
Rufous tailed tailorbird
Bluecrowned hanging parrot
Racket-tailed drongo
White-rumped shama
Yellowbellied bulbul
Hairy backed bulbul - (unusual bulbul -resembles a flycatcher physiognomically)
White-tailed blue flycatcher (female)

Poring is clearly a worthwhile diversion from Kinabalu, birdwise. However, the birding is not in pristine montane dipterocarp forest as at Kinabablu. Having been all over the world there is not much that compares to being in Kinabalu's forests.

Kota Kinabalu

There a couple of places worth checking out around the capital, KK:

Likas Bay

Likas wetland sanctuary is a worthwhile diversion from KK (taxi fare RM 8). The boardwalks take you into mangrove swamp with many species of fiddler crab. The large colony of Purple Heron roost over the watershed from the hide. At lower tide, at least 50 Pacific Golden Plover were present, some coming into summer plumage. I didn't bird the road around the mosque - which enables a different view of the mangrove, though this turned up a few different species for others.

The sanctuary is well run and is indicative of Malaysia's drive to change where education and conservation are concerned.

Paula Manukan

I stayed here overnight as I had time to spare before leaving Sabah, I also wanted to be there at dawn to see Tabon scrubfowl. This wasn't necessary as I found three groups of 2 -3 birds easily from the jogging track that runs south along the south side of the island at about 4pm. Whilst relatively aloof they are also very noisy in their foraging so not difficult to locate. An early morning foray added Mangrove blue flycatcher, Emerald dove and a legless lizard.

There is a relatively intact but compact coral reef on the east edge of the island that provided numerous wrasse, parrotfish, angelfish, clownfish, though no turtles - which RK had seen here.

Any questions, please get in touch:

Dominic Hall
83, Upper Tulse Hill. LONDON, SW2 2RA


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