Kinabalu Park

Kinabalu Park, located in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that is a haven of biodiversity and inspiring landscapes. The park is located within 90 kilometres from Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah.

Most folks come here to tackle Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia’s tallest peak at a dizzying 4,095 metres, and the 28th highest peak in Southeast Asia. We had already conquered this beast years ago. So this time, we’re here to kick back, enjoy the cool climate, feast our eyes on the scenery, and make friends with the unique Bornean birds and other wildlife.

After a two-hour drive from Gunung Alab, we checked into our hotel, the J Residences, and made a beeline for the park administration office to enquire about the park fees. Entry is 50 RM per person per day for foreigners and 10 RM for locals, and only cashless payments (credit or debit card) are accepted.

Despite the official park hours being 8am to 5pm, we were thrilled to find out that we could enter as early as 5am when the ticket booth opens. Driving in was possible up to the carpark near Liwagu restaurant, but not all the way to Timpohon Gate. However, we later heard through the grapevine from fellow birders that we could simply request a permit at the permit office, which would allow us to drive all the way to Timpohon Gate. Alternatively, we could book a ride on the shuttle bus from the park office to Timpohon Gate for 9 RM per person.

After we had exhausted all our questions, we were ready to leave but got sidetracked by a flurry of activity in a fruit-laden tree right outside the park admin office. We got our first glimpse of the Bornean Treepie (Dendrocitta cinerascens), showing off its long tail and making quite a racket with its raucous calls. This flashy bird is part of the crow family and is one of Borneo’s many beautiful endemic birds.

Another local endemic we encountered at the park entrance was the Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush (Pterorhinus treacheri), who reminded us of his doppelgänger that we met at Fraser’s Hill – the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush.

One of the most conspicuous and vocal birds in Kinabalu Park, the Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush is always the first one to wake us up with a tune that could charm even the grumpiest night owl out of bed.

Lost in the world of the laughingthrushes, I was suddenly interrupted by a rather big bird that swooped in and perched right in front of me. It was the Little Cuckoo-Dove (Macropygia ruficeps)! While we’d crossed paths with this dove before at Fraser’s Hill, this time it decided to give us the full photoshoot treatment – front view, back view, side view, you name it.

Just as the dove took off with its partner, our attention was drawn to a Black-sided Flowerpecker (Dicaeum monticolum), who was busy stuffing his face with berries. This tiny blue blob also has a doppelgänger – the Fire-breasted Flowerpecker – who lives over at Fraser’s Hill.

Before I could get enough of the flowerpecker, a family of three Indigo Flycatchers (Eumyias indigo) flitted into a neighbouring bush. Their dazzling blue outfit was such a sight that I couldn’t help but focus all my attention on this charming little gem of a flycatcher…

…and his adorable kid.

We were pleasantly surprised to score so many stunning birds right at the park entrance on our first evening, even before officially kicking off our birding adventure inside the park itself.

With three full days of birding bliss planned at Kinabalu Park, we started our first day’s exploration bright and early at 6am. Feeling slightly adventurous, we decided to hoof it from our hotel – the J Residences – a mere 400 metres from the park gate. Getting in was a breeze – we snagged our tickets at the entrance booth, swiped our credit card, and off we went. On day two, we opted to hop onto the shuttle bus from the park headquarters to Timpohon Gate and then leisurely stroll along the 4km road back down. By the third day, we had the system down pat. We drove in, parked at Liwagu Restaurant, and spent the day ambling up and down the main road.

Strolling along the boardwalk from the park entrance on our first morning, our first avian encounter was with the Sunda Laughingthrush (Garrulax palliatus). Though not as ubiquitous as their Chestnut-hooded relative, the Sunda Laughingthrush is no less charming. With his pale blue eye-ring, he looks positively angelic, melting our hearts with his sweet and innocent appearance.

Further down the road, a duo of Temminck’s Babblers (Pellorneum pyrrogenys) were happily hopping through the undergrowth. They seemed totally unperturbed by our presence, wholly focused on their quest for the juiciest grub. Despite their cooperative demeanor allowing ample photo opportunities, the dim lighting was my arch-nemesis, leaving me with just a few halfway decent shots.

A few steps ahead, the Bornean Whistling-Thrushes (Myophonus borneensis) were having a family outing on the boardwalk. They were the most agreeable characters we met, striking poses in the bush, on the fence rail, and even on the ground!

At the start of the Power Station Road leading to Timpohon Gate, there was a guard tent and a barrier, effectively stopping unauthorised vehicles from sneaking in. Beyond the barrier, we bumped into a group of birders, eyes glued to the dark mysterious forest. They excitedly clued us in on their earlier sighting of the Whitehead’s Broadbill (Calyptomena whiteheadi), a bird high up on every birder’s wanted list. We joined the hunt briefly, but alas, we were no match for the leaf-shaped, leaf-coloured master of disguise. Undeterred, we sauntered down the road, keeping our eyes peeled for any feathery friend.

Although we dipped on the Whitehead’s Broadbill, our spirits soared when we stumbled upon another Bornean gem, the Whitehead’s Trogon (Harpactes whiteheadi), right around the 1 km mark. And not just one, but three! We were treated to the sight of the dashing male with his flamboyant red cap…

…and the fashionably modest female in her understated brown ensemble.

Part of the famous Whitehead’s Trio, the Whitehead’s Broadbill, Whitehead’s Trogon and the Whitehead’s Spiderhunter are undoubtedly the three most highly sought-after avian celebrities at Kinabalu Park.

Our quest for the third Whitehead – the spiderhunter – took us on a wild-goose chase to find his favourite pink flowers of the Wightia borneensis tree. While we didn’t locate any accessible flowering Wightia borneensis trees during our visit, we were incredibly lucky to chance upon a random Whitehead’s Spiderhunter (Arachnothera juliae) feeding on some random red flowers high up in the canopy along Power Station Road (somewhere near the 1.5km mark). He graced us with his presence for just a few seconds before vanishing, leaving us wanting for more.

Another popular Bornean endemic is the Everett’s Thrush (Zoothera everetti). This shy bird is notorious for lurking in the shadowy undergrowth of quiet jungle trails. Seasoned birders gave us a hot tip: if you want to spot this elusive creature, be at the 1.5 km mark along Power Station Road by 6am. That meant setting off at the ungodly hour of 5am before sunrise! That proved too challenging for us, so no surprises – we didn’t find him on our first two days.

Luckily, we met a local birder who let us in on another secret spot: the road above the stream between Liwagu Restaurant and Kinabalu Hall. So, at 6am on Day 3, we drove right to the spot. Lo and behold, there he was, silently foraging along the side of the road, completely oblivious to our presence or just not caring. We were thrilled to watch him hop along the pavement, flip over leaves, gobble up worms, all the while inching closer to us with each hop. We enjoyed a glorious 10 minutes of uninterrupted bird-watching bliss until a car came roaring through and scared the thrush away.

During our three-day birding bonanza at Kinabalu Park, we were delighted to spot other Bornean endemics like the dazzling Bornean Green Magpie (Cissa jefferyi)…

…the constantly chattering Chestnut-crested Yuhina (Staphida everetti)…

…the camouflage master Golden-naped Barbet (Psilopogon pulcherrimus)…

…the adorable Bornean Whistler (Pachycephala hypoxantha)…

…the cheeky Penan Bulbul (Alophoixus ruficrissus)…

…the graceful Bornean Forktail (Enicurus borneensis)…

…the endearing Eyebrowed Jungle Flycatcher (Vauriella gularis)…

…and the majestic Mountain Serpent-Eagle (Spilornis kinabaluensis).

We also had the pleasure of meeting some equally charismatic feathered friends, such as the Maroon Woodpecker (Blythipicus rubiginosus)…

…the Yellow-breasted Warbler (Phylloscopus montis)…

…the Black-capped White-eye (Zosterops atricapilla)…

…the Temminck’s Sunbird (Aethopyga temminckii)…

…the Mountain Tailorbird (Phyllergates cucullatus)…

…the Sunda Cuckoo (Cuculus lepidus)…

…and the Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus).

Let’s not forget the furry critters! We were lucky enough to spot a few: the Borneo Black-banded Squirrel (Callosciurus orestes)…

…the Tufted Pygmy Squirrel (Exilisciurus whiteheadi), looking comical with his strange white ear tufts…

…and the Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel (Ratufa affinis), who was playing hide-and-seek, stubbornly sticking to its spot behind the thick leaves.

On our last night at Kinabalu Park, we joined a merry band of birders on a night tour to hunt for nocturnal critters around the park. Although the weather forecast looked promising, the dark skies decided to play a prank, unleashing a stubborn rain that wouldn’t let up. Already committed, we soldiered on with the tour at 7pm. We followed the tour guide on a slow drive up Power Station Road, stopping at Kiau Gap View to embark on our soggy walk through the relentless rain armed with umbrellas and torches.

We were informed by our guide that chances of spotting owls and mammals in the rain were close to zero. However, the wet weather turned out to be perfect for frog hunting. Our guide introduced us to the Kinabalu Horned Frog (Pelobatrachus baluensis), endemic to the mountains of Northeastern Borneo. This frog is easily recognisable by its quirky “horns” above its eyes – actually just skin extensions – that helps it blend in perfectly with the leaf litter on the forest floor.

The Kinabalu Horned Frog sports a varied wardrobe ranging from green, brown to reddish-brown, complete with intricate patterns and designs – the ultimate camo for a game of hide-and-seek in the forest. They hang out near slow-moving streams and rivers, where leaf litter, mossy rocks, and ground vegetation offer perfect hideaways and hunting grounds.

A bunch of lizards and geckos were out and about, completely unfazed by the wet weather. The one that caught our eye was the Balu Bow-fingered Gecko (Cyrtodactylus baluensis), showing off its elaborate pattern like we’d never seen before.

Just as we were about to call it quits and retreat to the car thanks to the never-ending rain, our tour guide’s phone buzzed with exciting news. A Malcolm’s Pitviper had been spotted! We promptly did a U-turn and headed to the scene, joining a captivated group marvelling at this rare and venomous beauty.

Take a peek at our trip report for the full list of birds we spotted during our Sabah adventure.

Number of birds observed: 100 species
Number of lifers: 43
https://ebird.org/tripreport/244395?view=photos