Birding in Borneo: Paradise Lost? A Wildlife Adventure

Mount Kinabalu Borneo

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.

Whiteheads Trogons Borneo 2018 BOC
The stunning beauty, an endemic and range restricted Whitehead's Trogon - wow!!

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.

Sepilok orangutan feeding Borneo 2

Orangutan are one of just so much wildlife being pushed out by vast oil palm planations.

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 2

The amazing muppet-like Sunda Frogmouth photographed from a boat on the river.

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.

Not the best photo by any means but a totally mega bird - Bristlehead!

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.

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.

Whiteheads Spiderhunter 1 Borneo 2018

Whitehead's Spiderhunter another wonderful endemic bird we enjoyed.

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

Ruth writes a monthly column in the UK's most popular birding magazine Birdwatching do get a copy.

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