Birding in Borneo: Paradise Lost? Ruth Remembers An Amazing Trip And More



Whiteheads Trogons Borneo 2018 BOC

One of the real stars of the forests in Borneo - male Whitehead's Trogon.



Forest birding in Borneo is often an all-or-nothing experience. We had walked up the narrow trail for over an hour without seeing or hearing a single bird, not so much as a ‘tzeep’ or a wingflap. Then suddenly we heard a whistling call: a very special trogon. Our bird was out there somewhere, not far away, but where was it? We scanned through the bewildering array of tree trunks trying to catch a glimpse of movement, bending and twisting to peer through the dense vegetation. I have a bit of a reputation as a trogon-spotter, a strange sixth sense for finding these elusive, silent beauties and I really, really wanted to be the first to catch sight of our bird.

Then with a sharp flurry of wings, a flash of scarlet exploded into view as a Whitehead’s Trogon landed right in front of me. Adrenalin surged through my body and my heart pounded so hard that I couldn’t speak. That is the effect of seeing an amazing new bird for the first time. It doesn’t matter how many birds you may have seen, every new bird is a very special encounter. I hissed to alert the others without spooking the bird, and they rushed over to share the spectacle. This handsome male Whitehead’s Trogon sat on a branch at head height, a glorious glowing extravaganza of bright red, rich ginger, dense black and pale grey. He didn’t move, apart from swivelling his head slowly from side-to-side in an owl-like manner as he surveyed his surroundings. Then with a flash as sudden as his arrival, the trogon swooped off his branch and disappeared, leaving only a red comet trail burned into my memory. It was time to breathe again.

Proboscis Monkey male Borneo 2017 2

Sadly much of Borneo's amazing wildlife is being pushed towards extinction by us - proboscis monkey.



As we had flown over the island at 35,000 feet, Borneo had looked at first glance like paradise below us. Looking a little closer at that lush green carpet, however, we realised it wasn’t quite the Garden of Eden we’d imagined. Those neat corduroy stripes were not the natural forest that once covered this beautiful island but row upon row of oil palms. The primary forest has been logged in Borneo on a large scale firstly for its hardwood, then to make way for rubber plantations and more latterly for oil palms. The oil from the fruit of these trees has made its way into almost every element of our lives, used in everything from shower products to snack foods and even cars. Vast swathes of natural forest have been cleared to make way for these unnatural plantations, which are rich in oil but poor in wildlife. Borneo’s primary forest and its special wildlife in the lowlands are squeezed into protected areas that are often too difficult to cultivate commercially due to the nature of the landscape.

Sunda Frogmouth Borneo 2017 1

This is a real bird, honest, the Sunda Frogmouth - not an escapee from The Muppets show.



An example of this could be seen in the Kinabatangan Wetlands near the northern coast of Borneo. Gliding along the Kinabatangan River in our boat, we could be forgiven for thinking that every inch of Borneo teemed with wildlife. An iconic orangutan was wedged comfortably in the fork of a large hardwood tree. Proboscis monkeys preened each other as they lounged amongst leafy branches overhanging the river bank. A bizarre Sunda Frogmouth sat as motionless as a statue half-hidden amongst the low riverside vegetation. Rhinoceros Hornbills crashed around at the tops of fruiting trees and a Storm’s Stork circled overhead. So much exciting wildlife to see and all in such a concentrated area.

But looking a little closer, we realised that the natural forest was only a few feet thick as the serried ranks of oil palms pressed in close behind. These species weren’t living cheek-by-jowl along the forested river banks through choice but through necessity, there simply was nowhere else left for them to live.

Whiteheads Broadbill Borneo 2017 2

A tricky bird to photograph and see - Whitehead's Broadbill - fantastic!



It’s not all bad news in Borneo however. We visited the mountainous area of Kinabalu National Park and stepped back in time into a forest paradise which is home to some very special birds. The landscape here is too steep for cultivation and it has been protected as a national park and a World Heritage Site because of its amazing biodiversity. It’s a breath-taking place to visit – literally as your birdwatching starts here at 6000 feet – and if the altitude doesn’t take your breath away, the birds certainly will. Birdwatchers come here mainly to see the ‘Whiteheads’, a trio of endemic birds named after the British explorer and naturalist John Whitehead. Apart from the scarlet-and-white Whitehead’s Trogon, there is also the emerald-green Whitehead’s Broadbill, a skulking denizen of montane forests, and perhaps the hardest to find of these three tricky species, the heavily-streaked Whitehead’s Spiderhunter which wields its impressive decurved bill to probe deeply into flowers for their nectar and prise out any lurking insects.


THE bird of our Borneo adventures has to be the totally weird and amazing Bristlehead!



Seeing my first ‘Whitehead’ had a profound effect on me, and there was huge satisfaction of catching up with all three of these very special birds. And while I enjoyed the ease with which we were able to see the incredible species along the Kinabatangan River, I was very conscious that my gain was very much their loss, both in terms of their habitat now and their security for the future. It made me realise that paradise in Borneo is not yet completely lost but that it is fragile, and it needs our ongoing help to protect it.

Ruth Miller

This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine the UK's most popular bird magazine, Ruth writes a monthly article.

Lockdown Walk 18 January 2021 Yes The Great Orme Llandudno

Just a quick round-up of yesterday’s walk, it was a grim looking day with drizzle and strong winds early morning so a shorter walk on a sheltered route was decided upon. Turn left out of the door we took the path up through Heulfre Gardens, on the southern sheltered side of the headland. Very few birds about but a Sparrowhawk shot past, then out along the path known as Invalids Walk towards the west shore of Llandudno, a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were visible in the low water channel off the beach. Re-tracing our steps we then headed up the wooded hillside above Heulfre Gardens. A Peregrine Falcon cruised over just above tree top height and it looked as though it was checking us out. Goldcrests and Coal Tits showed off and a gang of Long-tailed Tits were a joy to watch. At a viewpoint high over looking Llandudno the views were spectacular, the coast to the east, Conwy Valley to the south and the mountains of Snowdonia to the south-west. A male Sparrowhawk circled up from below us and treated to us wonderful eye-level views. Peering down into the bay off north shore Llandudno we could make out the Great Northern Diver on the sea along with Great Crested Grebes and Shags. Back down the steep hill, following the tram tracks, and back home, a decent exercise walk with the up hills.

At home looking out of the window a male Blackcap popped up in the ivy that clings to our small yard wall and we watched it was joined by two “brown capped” Blackcaps – female or immature birds – lovely to see three of these birds here. Looking up from watching the Blackcaps we noticed a swan flying west over the town, luckily the scope was right there by the open window and it showed a Whooper Swan! A wonderful bird to see from the living room window and a new bird for 2021! The wonderful thing about watching birds you just never know what will pop up next.

Not a lot of bird news in North Wales on 18 January…

Rose-coloured Starling Amlwch, Anglesey – John D

Snow Bunting Horton’s Nose, Conwy John R

Slavonian Grebe Beddmanarch Bay, Anglesey - Len

Long-tailed Duck, 3 Slavonian Grebes Inland Sea, Anglesey - Norman

Of course a wonderful way to see more birds is to join one of our Birdwatching Trips and learn a lot about the birds you are enjoying too. We have tours suitable for all from beginners to experienced birders that are seeking particular species. Just drop us a line here and we can arrange a perfect custom tour for you!

info@birdwatchingtrips.co.uk

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds with you as soon as it is safe.





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