After an amazing time in the lowlands, our attentions switched to the highlands of Sabah, and we headed in the direction of Borneo’s largest peak, Mount Kinabalu, in the Crocker Range. The first of these days was spent at Tambunan, while the second saw us right on the flanks of the mighty mountain of Kinabalu itself. I have to admit, my favourite Borneo site is in the lowlands, (Danum Valley), as I am as big a fan of the mammals as I am the birds, and that is also where the pittas are found, one of the great bird families of the world, and one for which Borneo is a hotspot. However, the highlands have their own appeal, and for birders with an entirely avian slant, this is where they wish to be, for this is where the highest number of Borneos’ endemic birds occur.
In particular, there are a trio of species all named after an English explorer, John Whitehead, who conducted surveys in Southeast Asia in the late 1900s, which led him to discover the enormous “Monkey-eating” Philippine Eagle in those islands, and the spectacular Whitehead’s Broadbill on the island of Borneo. Later, two further species were named to commemorate John Whitehead, which have now become famous amongst visiting birders looking for key endemics: Whitehead’s Spiderhunter and Whitehead’s Trogon. They have become famous, variously named as the “Whitehead’s Trio”, or “The Whitehead’s Three”, because they are striking and beautiful birds, but also difficult to find; it is entirely possible to miss all three of them. Therefore, as a professional bird tour leader these are a set of quintessential “pressure birds”.
So we started out at Tambunan, for our endemic “Gold Rush” as it were, when a surge of endemics was to be expected on our first day in the highlands. In the top of my mind was of course this triumvirate of endemics. To illustrate how difficult they can be, we arrived at Tambunan at dawn, arguably the best place for the Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, although it took us until well after lunch to actually see it. Thankfully, we traced it to a flowering vine, where it sat preening, with our scope lined on it, for five whole minutes. Curiously, this same vine also attracted another endemic spiderhunter, with a Bornean Spiderhunter frequenting the same tangle, and causing some notable false alarms prior to the arrival of "Sir" Whitehead!
In our first two days in Borneo’s highlands, we enjoyed the usual sudden stream of endemic birds and recorded 25 of these key species! At Tambunan, the “Barbet Capital of the Highlands”, we quickly scored Mountain, then Bornean, then Golden-naped Barbets, completing the five endemic barbets of Borneo (we also saw another Brown Barbet, a new Bornean endemic, following a recent split). Tambunan opened up the wound of endemics that bled out steadily on our first mountain day, with regulars like Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush, Chestnut-crested Yuhina, Bornean Leafbird, Bornean Bulbul, and Bornean Treepie standing alongside other rarer ones, like Pygmy White-eye and Bornean Forktail. Non-endemics in this first Crocker Range site also included the vivid red Temminck’s Sunbird, the subdued Sunda Cuckooshrike, a very cooperative Dark Hawk-Cuckoo (just recently split from Large Hawk-Cuckoo in the latest, August 2016 updates to the Cornell/Clements list); and a fine male Orange-breasted Trogon.
Our first morning on Mount Kinabalu, opened with our usual dawntime slow drive up the road, hoping for birds feeding on the road, emboldened to feed in the open in the half-light; this paid off when we had prolonged views of both Orange-headed Thrush, and the endemic Bornean Whistling-Thrush. Our good form continued when we entered a forest trail, quickly saw a Crimson-headed Partridge, which was shortly after followed by the other of the endemic brace of partridges on the mountain with Red-breasted Partridge too. This all would have been fine and dandy alone, but then, just moments after the second partridge scuttled by, a bright green bird flew up into a tree nearby, and there is no other bird that boasts this iridescent green on the mountain; there just hours into our first morning on the mountain was a Whitehead’s Broadbill! In the end we realized there were 3 of them, which soon enough melted back into the forest and were gone, but not before all of got to see them.
The rest of the day was overshadowed by this bird, but we did get cracking looks at Mountain Wren-Babblers, one of which approached to within 10 feet, and watched an a amazing flock with Bornean Green Magpies and Bare-headed Laughingthrush within it; and also made time to visit Borneo’s largest flower Rafflesia keithii. This massive flower measured 78cm across, and flowers for just 5-day, and unpredictable, periods. We were lucky to observe it on its second day, before the fourth day that generally sees the flower blacken and start to wither.
Having opened with such a stellar two days in the highlands, it was all set for crawl to the finish line, with only a small, discrete set of endemics left to find. Of course, one of the remaining ones to find boar the name of that famed 19th Century naturalist (the tormentor), Whitehead’s Trogon…
(Big thanks to Chris Sloan for the broadbill photo shown here, and to Michael Todd for getting us those memorable looks at the Whitehead's Spiderhunter!)