|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Western Sarawak, from Kuching 24th July – 1st August 2011,
We made a one one-week visit to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, Borneo in late July 2011. This was on the back of almost three weeks spent in Sabah and, in contrast to the plethora of trip reports and birding information available for the latter, I could find almost nothing on birding around Kuching. (Sarawak as a whole seems to get very little coverage, with the partial exception of Mt Mulu. This is in eastern Sarawak, actually very close to the Brunei / Sabah borders and we did not attempt to visit it). For that reason, I present some basic information on three birding destinations that are easily reachable from Kuching.
Getting there and where to stay
We flew into Kuching from Koto Kinabalu, Sabah. Air Asia has several flights per day on that route; Kuching is also easily accessible from other hubs such as Kuala Lumpur and, presumably, Singapore. The airport is about 20 min south of the town centre which, for anyone familiar with the monotonous concrete grid of Koto Kinabalu, is really quite a revelation: Kuching is genuinely a very attractive and interesting city to stay in, having all the expected atmosphere, culture and great food typical of southern Asia but also a friendly and relaxed ambience. Kuching is on the banks of the Sarawak River, about 20 km from its mouth and the centre is very easy to walk around, with a distinct café culture. It also lies between several really quite significant national parks, the most distant only two hours travelling and one of which, Khubah – the best for birding – is only 25 mins by taxi from the riverfront. We booked into a hotel near the river (Harbour View Hotel www.habourview.com.my) and did a couple of day trips, plus 3 overnight trips (staying one night in each of three different national parks) from there. There are hotels to suit any taste in Kuching; we found ours in the Lonely Planet and booked it before arrival, although there were plenty of other places to try once we got there.
Accommodation in the National Parks
We visited three national parks, all of which are documented in any travel guide: Bako, Gunung Gading and Khubah. We stayed one night in each, using National Park Service accommodation (the only practical option at any of them). Staying overnight is essential to get a proper feel for the place and to enjoy some peace and quiet (especially at Bako, which is the most popular and busiest of the parks we visited). The standard of accommodation was basic but fine; the charge was merely nominal in each case. The tricky bit is booking in advance; this is a good idea at any of them, and essential at Bako; we booked one month ahead and, even so, were lucky to get a bed. To book ahead, you must visit www.sarawakforestry.com or http://ebooking.com.my and complete the online form or email them (firstname.lastname@example.org) to tell say what you want. Getting a response took quite a while and we were told that to confirm we had to pay cash one week in advance by visiting the National Park and Wildlife booking office (telephone 248088; fax 248087) in Kuching (located within Sarawak Tourism Complex and next to the Visitor’s Information Centre, all directly across the river from the Astana). Paying cash in advance is clearly not possible if you are coming from overseas, so we ignored this request and just turned up at the office in Kuching on arrival; they had kept our booking and were quite happy to take the money there and then on the morning we were leaving for Bako. A few other people who turned up at the office on the same morning hoping to stay at Bako without reservations left disappointed.
I highly recommend Yeo, a bird guide I found by browsing through leaflets at Kuching Visitor Information Centre (see above) on the first morning. A gripping shot of Blue-banded Pitta fully exposed helped his brochure stand out and he was very helpful on the telephone. We enjoyed an action-packed half-day at Khubah (see below). Yeo is totally clued up birder and really knows his stuff; he also does trips all over Sarawak and Sabah. As well as Khubah, he frequently takes people to the Bornean Highlands, a resort on the Sarawak / Kalimantan border where there is a fair chance of finding Pygmy White-eye and even Rail-Babbler! He can be emailed at yeo @ catcityholidays.com or catcity @ streamyx.com (omit spaces if emailing) or reached via his company’s website http://www.catcityholidays.com .
1 Bako National Park
Getting there and set-up: This involves taking a bus or taxi from Kuching to Bako Bazaar (c30 mins) and then getting a boat from there (c30 mins more, to the Park Headquarters). Providing you have a voucher for accommodation, and probably even if you don’t, the boat is reasonably priced and easy to arrange at the jetty; they seem to depart regularly for most of the day. The accommodation is no more than a 5 min walk from the jetty at Bako and there was a reasonable cafeteria selling good meals. At least during our visit, the weather was humid and the sun very strong; doing the trails was pretty hard going and the heat probably didn’t help bird activity.
Things to see: Although Bako is easily the most popular national park in western Sarawak, this is not due to its birds. The main interest here are the Proboscis Monkeys (at least three family groups) and Bearded Pigs, which are both easy to see early and late in the day, close to the HQ but generally before or after the vast majority of day-trippers. We had far better views of either here than we had in Sabah, including of the monkeys stalking through the mangroves soon after dawn. The pitcher plants are also pretty special with several species abundant and very obvious once you get onto the nutrient-poor kerangas on the plateau. Another highlight at Bako was the night walk we booked at the HQ; this got us up close to many amazing bugs, plus pit-vipers and several frog species. There are also some fantastic sea stacks, and an incredible sunset every evening.
Bird activity was very low throughout, verging on non-existent on the kerangas. What few species appeared were all during the early morning and around the accommodation and jetty. The most notable were Pink-necked Pigeon, Grey-rumped Treeswift, Common Flameback, Asian Fairy-Bluebird, Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike and Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher. Two Red-crowned Barbets appeared in the largest dead trees at the jetty. Finally, White-bellied Sea-Eagles were obvious from the boat.
2 Gunung Gading
Getting there and set-up: This is the most distant national park from Kuching that we visited; it took about two hours on the bus to the small town of Lundu, and then a short taxi ride of about 3km to get us to the park headquarters. There are cooking facilities in the accommodation (but no food on sale); we walked back down to Lundu and found a restaurant. Gunung Gading is a well-forested hillside in the far west of Sarawak; the HQ is at the base and the few trails are steeply uphill from there. There are some amazing waterfalls for swimming in and you can go all the way to the top on the summit trail, but that would be long and unforgiving walk. The park is famous as a site for Rafflesia but these do not flower in summer, so we saw no evidence of them here. We also saw almost no evidence of any other tourists.
Birds to see: The forest here is similar to Khubah, i.e. good quality hill forest and much birdier than that at Bako. Although we saw some birds on the upper trails, (of greatest note, Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher and Olive-backed Woodpecker near to Waterfall #7, plus sensational views of Brown-backed Needletails and Grey-rumped Treeswifts skimming the canopy above the viewpoint clearing) most were close to the HQ, including in a large fig at the gate, along the stream in the campsite grounds, plus from the Rafflesia boardwalk just above the campsite; activity was really high here for several hours even at midday when we arrived. The dried streambed below the boardwalk here looks really good for species such as Blue-eared Kingfisher and perhaps forktails; going really easy could produce the goods but we only had a narrow miss with a kingfisher. Amongst a wide range of common Bornean forest birds, the most interesting species here included Orange-backed Woodpecker, Banded Kingfisher, a calling trogon that was probably Diard’s, three species of broadbill vocalising (but only Black-and-Red seen: by the campsite), Streaked and Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, Grey-headed Babbler, Chestnut-crested Yuhina and Rufous-winged Philentoma.
3 Khubah National Park
Getting there and set-up: I’ve left the best to last. This site, only 25 mins from downtown Kuching has some really excellent and accessible forest. I visited it one morning with Yeo (see above) and we had a very productive time; I then returned myself three days later and stayed overnight in the park accommodation. The set-up is similar to Gunung Gading; Khubah is north-facing hill-forest with the park HQ and chalets close to the highway at the base of the hill; a wide track leads steeply uphill and trails branch off from this including one leading, eventually, to Matang Wildlife Centre where rehabilitated Orang-Utans are released. Again, there is no café in the park but a reasonable family-run restaurant about 1 km walk back down the main road (towards Kuching) is fine for grub in the evening.
Birds to see: Loads, including some rather tricky species. Inevitably, Yeo’s local knowledge really helped here, as he had a few awkward things pinned down really well and was well-tuned in to all the calls. These included Bornean Blue-Flycatcher (singing regularly in the dark interior from the main track; eventually appearing half-way up the hill), Rufous-collared Kingfisher (across from the Park HQ at dawn), Rusty-breasted Cuckoo (calling each morning from the main track, but needs a tape to bring it in) and Chestnut-naped Forktail (scan ahead on the main track in the early morning, especially a little bit below where the Rayu trail meets the main track); forktails frequently appear on the shadiest stretches along the main track to pick through the leaf-litter; they can be ‘scoped from a distance or approached very closely in a vehicle. This really seems to be a good way to view this notoriously fickle and paranoid species. Never mind any of the above, however; they all pale into significance against the main target of any visit to Khubah: the fabulous and near-mythical Blue-banded Pitta. This shockingly lurid denizen of the forest floor breeds each year; April – May is the best time to see it as then they can be quite tape-responsive. No such luck in late July; we had two giving their eerie, hypnotic whistles faintly for over an hour from the main track opposite the start of the Waterfall trail but no amount of peering or skulking led to a glimpse. The uphill slope and dense ground cover was not conducive to any sort of view here, so we then walked the Waterfall trail, only to find another calling about 500m in. Here, on a more open slope and looking downhill, we had a better chance of seeing it but we still needed some 45 mins of motionless staring before it finally materialised on a massive log about 15m from the wooden steps we were sitting on. Between this and a more prolonged second view among buttress routes a little further down, where it paused to call continually for several minutes, this constituted easily, and amidst some stiff competition, the best bird from a month in Borneo. It was still calling continually in the same place three days later, but on that occasion did not emerge from the gloom.
Other species seen included Banded Kingfisher (Waterfall trail, with a feeding flock), three species of barbets including Red-crowned, both Banded and Crimson-winged Woodpeckers very close along the main track, up to three Rufous Piculets in a day, three species of malkohas, Green Broadbill (common on voice, but only one seen), Asian Fairy-Bluebird, Lesser Green Leafbird, Chestnut-backed Scimitar-Babbler (the only one I saw in Borneo), Scaly-breasted and Grey-bellied Bulbuls, White-rumped Shama, the obscure Brown Fulvetta, Chestnut-crowned Yuhina, and Purple-naped Sunbird. Finally, Great Argus are quite common in the park; I heard them calling strongly each day but no amount of creeping along the trails led to a view of one.
Other things to do around Kuching
There are plenty of other places of interest, including other national parks, close to Kuching; the Visitor Information Centre has all the details. We made the visit out to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre one afternoon; there is some reasonable forest here and we had Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike and Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, as well as six Orangs at spitting range. Finally, the town park (‘Reservoir Park’), a short walk from the waterfront or Sarawak Museum was a nice place to spend an hour or so one afternoon. Birds here included great views of Pink-necked Green-Pigeons and flycatcher-shrikes again, plus Scarlet Minivets and both Brown-throated and Crimson Sunbirds.
If you require any further information, please contact the author at ojcampbell25 @ yahoo.com (omit spaces if emailing; same with other email addresses in this report).