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Racing in Kinabalu For Birds

Mount Kinabalu holds a special place in the hearts of Sabahans, being the tallest mountain in South East Asia, its surroundings host between 5000 and 6000 species of plants, 326 species of birds, and more than 100 mammalian species identified making it one of the most important biological sites in the world. Rightly so, it earned a place in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Site. This is right after we got so pampered in Brunei that we left with a heavy heart not being able to see more of what it has to offer. This will make some of us come back for sure.

The flight was a short 35 minutes to Kota Kinabalu where we were transported to Kundasang shortly after immigration clearance. We met Tengku Adlin, Chairman of Sabah Tourism Board, when Sabah Tourism hosted the welcome dinner in the cool mountain inn. Vegetation changes were prominent as it spans 4 climate zones. As we ascended every 100 metres, we could even see stars at eye level! The following morning began with a wake up call at 4am for a headstart towards Timpohon Gate by 5:30am. This is where climbers usually begin their ascent up the mountain & we were there for its inhabitants! The birds! And did we see birds! It was also 15 degrees C!!

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Indigo Flycatcher

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Participants at race!

Roger Rajah pointed out to me a particular fern (pteridophytes) whose spores are used as the dusting powder for fingerprints in forensics! How awesome is that? There are 600+ species of ferns here & it would not be surprising if scientists find other miracle uses for them. Taking a stroll down the 4km road to the park’s headquarters, there were beautiful plants popping up in the most unusual of places. Apart from finding several swift nests on ledges of a rock cliff, we found a group of foreigners marvelling at a Bulbophyllum orchid by a tree on the side of the road!

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The Borneo Bird Race is not just about the race but a reason to combine expertise from each of the 7 nations participating to document the most number of bird species. It is a melting pot of minds to find the flamboyant & the elusives of Borneo’s avian life, some endemics, while promoting travel within Asia. Known as one of the most hospitable nations, Sabah has a great expanse of natural resources to marvel at, with the Minister citing to keep 65% of the state to be maintained as forest reserve. What a fine example to set for the country! And if these sightings of wild & rare orchids, magnificent birds, superb bugs & awesome mammals are anything to go by, Sabah will be one big wild secret that’s difficult to keep!

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Bornean Whistler, Pale Faced Bulbul, Black & White Flycatcher(?), Mountain Imperial Pigeon.

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Spores for forensics.

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Keeping quiet was imperative although at times I felt like exploding with delight when I see a bird I hadn’t seen before. The teams were concentrating hard to spot the skittish birds & identifying them through Quentin Phillips’ guide book or Susan Myers’. Most of these birds are lifers to them (also to me) & some of them even went into the trails. There were times when there were no birds at all & that’s when we turn to other flora & fauna. What kept the teams apart during the race (they can’t discuss birds), they made it up during bus rides & pit stops! After breaking for lunch, the entourage embarked on a 6 hour road journey through a picturesque inland to Sepilok in Sandakan. Along the way, we even stopped to see the Bornean Falconet! We can stop a bus for a bird! 😀

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What’s camaraderie if Adjudicators like Alim here, doesn’t take a break to fool around by hijacking the gas tank of a mountain porter??? Here, he poses with a backpack belonging to one of his porter friends who were later seen lugging it up Timpohon Gate!

The remarkable Stewards were always on hand to give advice, tips & suggestions on how to spot the birds & rightly so, a few of them have made the Borneo 400 Club! A club that recognises a record of over 400 species sighted!

Don’t miss my next post on Sepilok Forest as I take a weekend break to cover yet another bird race in Fraser’s Hill!

Amazing Encounters in Ulu Temburong National Park, Brunei

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Ulu Temburong sounds like a faraway place owing to its name of being in the depths of the jungle. And indeed, it is as obscure as a hidden treasure tucked away to be found & marvelled at. Nestled in the midst, is Ulu Ulu Resort, by the banks of Temburong River, a terrain of pebbly rocks smoothen by the rapids. The journey begins in the heart of Bandar Seri Begawan, where we boarded the Flying Coffin (fast ferry speedboat) to weave through a Nipah grove along the muddy banks. This is also a place where big crocodiles sunbathe out in the open. The 45 minutes ride led us to a harbour in Temburong where we took another 40 minutes bus ride to a small jetty to embark on another 15-minute ride upriver. This might cause you to grip the side bars along the longish, narrow motorised boat as it tilts & turns. Each boat seats 5 persons, with our plastic bag-wrapped belongings, cruising became the adventure of averting splashes & collision with overhanging branches that sometimes, rests a Kingfisher.

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Surprises at every turn, sightings of perched Oriental Darters, Swifts & the ever elusive Crested Wood Partridge, caused a stir amongst the participants. A flock of 6 partridges flew across the river while our boat was cruising pass, sending all who saw them into squeals of delight. Sightings are rare & to see an entire brood is even rarer. It is no wonder why birders are going deeper into the forests to document birds. Half expecting the legumes to turn into a beanstalk inviting an ogre to descend, the perspective of size is evident in just the roots of this tree. I can’t even be Jack to climb pass the root, let alone cutting down the beanstalk. Not that I was about to cut anything but fantasical things come to mind when you have a vivid imagination.

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Landing at the banks of Ulu Ulu Resort, I felt like I had developed sea-legs & swayed as I disembarked. The gigantic trees (Legumes) structured the banks bowled me over with the towering stature. Every growth has its place in this pristine ecosystem. Birds & butterflies abuzz, each going about its own way. Ice cold pandan-infused lemongrass tea with condiment tray of curry puffs & appam welcomed us at the reception. Just as we attended the briefing, a pair of Whiskered Treeswifts began to mate  outside the room on bare tree, sending the birders into a frenzy. The race hasn’t resumed yet as breaks were an imminent part of the game. How can we contain our excitement when we are prominently situated at the heart of Bruneissic Park??

Thick foliage in tall trees meant that bird photography would be very challenging. The birders (race participants) set off to list their sightings armed with one spotting scope, one camera & 3 binoculars per team. Frequent reference to the Birds of Borneo book proved another challenge as the birds were fast & the lighting didn’t help with the colour identification. Most of these nations had never seen so many variety of birds in one place as they had in Borneo & Brunei seemed to be an undiscovered trove! Little is known about the birds in Brunei & the availability of learned/trained guides is even fewer with Roger Rajah (co-organiser of Borneo Bird Race) being the ONLY licensed bird tour guide operating in Brunei. Throughout the Brunei leg, Roger had been instrumental in providing logistic briefings & assistance to the entourage. Together with Tom Chong, a tour guide who works with Ulu Ulu Resort, they were giving us detailed explanations of every place of interest, cultural practices & customs of Bruneians. What a resource Brunei has in incredible people of passionate pursuits!

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Horned Spider.

Orb Spider eating cicada.

Flowerpeckers (3 – 5cm only) here are not afraid of humans & would come to a proximity of about 1 metre of you. Seeking a perch that they frequented, I parked myself on the boardwalk & documented hundreds of pictures of these tiny, flighty, cheerful birds. I also learnt that they ate guavas & pomegranates! Videos when I get back.

Yellow Rumped Flowerpecker – male

Yellow Breasted Flowerpecker.

Yellow Rumped Flowerpecker – female.

Being so natural, even spiders abound in the walkway to the rooms. A total of 17 rooms that can accommodate 50 people comfortably, we were the only guests at the resort that day. Bugs, cicadas, strange squirrels & the bizarres of bizarres occur naturally & thrive in this environment. We asked the resort to keep webs in its place to allow city bumpkins like me to document insects for the appreciation of all. It’s not every day that we get to see a Horned Spider or an Orb Spider eating its prey & every encounter is a witness of God’s provision of His goodness to the animal kingdom that He has created. Here’s to the bugs & birds!

Tasek Merimbun Hosts More Than Birds in Brunei

The Minister himself is an avid diver who has just taken a great interest in birds, citing the many species’ behaviour as he talked to the participants of the Bird Race. Flagging off the event in a celebration at the Balai Seni Bandar Seri Begawan, the 7 participating nations were given the Bruneian welcome & shown the gallery of photos of Brunei’s fantastic flora & fauna taken by local talents. He expressed that the Bird Race should continue to its second installation next year where they can better document the species of birds to showcase then.

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Birders off to add species to their list!

At one of the booths, the Wildlife Division has an impressive information of several types of mammals, birds & reptiles. Talking to their officers, I got to know that they have the Slow Loris & Maroon Langurs here. Many of the mammals are found in Borneo & Brunei has a beautiful backdrop when you go to Tasek Merimbun to find them. The race flagged off upon reaching the park office, participants were briefed to stay on trail & each Steward (very experienced bird guiding professionals) assigned to each team, would be marking their finds as they go & if needed, proof of photograph would determine the authenticity of the species. There’s really no grounds for cheating.

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Panoramic view of Tasek Merimbun.

Though the forest is a visibly large area, the birds that are in abundance are flighty & sparse. I hardly have any photos to show despite being there for 2 hours. The distraction is really in the landscape. The first leg of the race, progressed with teams getting a glimpse of what the Bornean forest hosts.

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Maroon Langur

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Dinner hosted by Brunei Tourism where we were taken to a cheerfully local place to eat! We love it!

Inaugurating Birders’ Paradise in Brunei

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The vast tropical rainforest-scape in Brunei gives rise to the appreciation & honoring of birds as Brunei has taken the initiative to promote conservation of bird species through the formation of an alliance with Sabah Tourism & Sabah’s most popular bird club, the Borneo Bird Club, led by Cede Prudente & his team of highly experienced bird guides.

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Taking the cue of advocating the love of nature by watching birds, talking birds & learning bird behaviour from bird ambassadors from 7 countries, Brunei Tourism under the Ministry of Industry & Primary Resources is recognising the wealth of their natural heritage in the pristine rainforest around the country. Launching the inaugural Borneo Bird Race, Brunei Bird Watching & the Borneo Nature Festival, this event is history in the making as never before had there been such a commemoration of birdwatching in the fauna-rich country of Brunei.

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The welcome dinner was lavishly appetising & meeting the Ministry officials themselves who are just as passionate serves to fuel us in the coming days. Our first destination if Tasik Merimbun Heritage Park where the 7 nations set out to find feathers of every kind.

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More in the next post as time & internet access allows! (Some group pictures have yet to be sent to us. Please stay tuned!)

Borneo’s Most Happening Event of The Year!

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What do you get when you put a flock of birders, bird photographers & birding enthusiasts in a 130 million year old forest??? An animated pandemonium of ornithologists at the international Borneo Bird Race 2013! We are heading to the heart of Brunei & Sabah for a chance to capture on media, over 680 species of resident & migratory birds, 350 of which are in Sabah! Tell me if that’s not reason enough to be electrified! Birders from Hong Kong, Thailand, Philippines, India, Taiwan, Japan, Brunei & Malaysia will be on the path of flight to congregate for this event.

The pristine forests have been teeming with avian life since the beginning of time & participants will be competing for coveted prizes in the form of cameras & cash from Nikon & various sponsors. Sabah Tourism Board is equally excited to co-host the event at a grand scale as the Bird Race will take off in Ulu Temburong in Brunei before flying over to Kinabalu Park to find montane birds and make the descent to Sepilok, Sandakan for the 5th instalment of the Borneo Bird Festival 2013! Covering coastal regions, freshwater swamps, lowland forests, to the hills and mountain ranges of Sabah, this 10-day expedition will be The Big Year of the East!

I can hardly wait! Preparing my feathers to fly soon!

Will be giving updates on-the-fly from 31 May – 9 June 2013 so follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my FB!

Next, the Bird Photography Contest! Stay tuned!

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