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Borneo : Trails & tribulations (1 Viewer)

And so I decided to go to Mesilau on my last morning at Kinabalu. This is the other entrance to the summit trail, not far from the Timpohon Gate as the eagle flies, and about 20 miles by road around the mountain.

And a lovely place it is at the Nature Centre, at just over 1900 mtrs. Forest and mountain all around and a lot quieter than Kinabalu Park. Quite a few birds too: Blue & white flycatcher, Mugimaki flycatcher, Golden-naped barbet, Sunda cuckooshrike, Yellow-rumped flowerpecker and two Wreathed hornbills overhead.

A Grey-chinned minivet added colour, and an Eye-browed thrush went over. A Little pied flycatcher - always welcome - flitted about low down.

And it was while I was there that I became aware of the several Swiflets that were around. Many of these were Mossy-nest swiflets, but there was another species too. And the more I got views of these birds the more I became convinced that these were BORNEAN SWIFTLETS. Smaller and paler-backed and shorter winged, I tried for ages to get some colour on their backs - but eventually got glimpses of a pale green sheen on the lower back.

These birds seemed to be investigating the Centre's building - and once or twice I heard them call a "cheer cheer" type call: just right for Bornean & dissimilar to the more typical Swiflet calls of the Glossy-nest swiftlets which also occasionally called. They had pale bellies and darker throats: in fact every feature chimed with Bornean - I'm happy to put my id online and make the claim.

I was watching these Swiftlets from time to time when my eyes were drawn to a movement high up by the mountain. Not one, but two Mountain Serpent-Eagles were in the air! They soared briefly then flew along a ridge before landing in the trees. I estimate they were less than a kilometre above me - so around the 2,500 - 3,000 metre mark - almost at the treeline. So, not the closest of views, but views of this rare and exclusive raptor nonetheless!

So, I'd managed to get two difficult endems at the last - that and the beauty of the place made the journey to the coast bright & breezy, and so off I set for my final destination.

With great timing I happened upon the ferry quayside within ten minutes of the boat's departure. It was strange to be on the coast and in the heat. A kingfisher - probably a Common - called unseen by the breakwater.

A few minutes later I was on Manukan Island.

After checking in & dumping my stuff I went for a quick snorkel. I would have stayed longer - but the 'reef' is largely dead & the fish were few & disappointing. So off into the forest to see what I could see.

Mangrove whistlers were singing - and showed well enough - but these I'd seen before. Bulbuls of two types refused to show themselves - in fact almost every bird on the island was very shy. I put up some Pied Imperial pigeons - they too were singing. And so too were Grey Imperial pigeons - with their strange oscillating song. Eventually I managed a good view of one in a tree - tick number one.

Collared kingfishers made a din from time to time. A Lesser coucal crept away at my approach. A Mangrove flycatcher gave a brief view very low beneath the thick tree cover. But the sun was setting and my main quarry was proving elusive, so it was with some relief that the first Tabon scrubfowl finally put in an appearance. I retired to change for dinner - a very civilised affair including my first wine of the trip.

I had the morning before I left the island - so went out before breakfast again. Before long a bird got up from the path and landed nearby. Only a White's thrush! According to when Myers wrote the guide this was the fourth ever Borneo sighting of White's thrush - I'd found a Mega!!

Scrubfowls were easier in the morning - and I saw three. They were also calling/singing their cat-like spooky call. Another view of Pied and Grey Imperial pigeons, as well as singing Pink-necked green pigeons - and their song is really strange! Pied fantail, Sibe blue robin, Brown-throated sunbird all showed before breakfast.

At the restaurant Crimson sunbirds & a probable Bar-bellied cuckoo-shrike plus Zebra dove, & two Pacific reef egrets (dark phase) flew along the beach.

Finally, while waiting for the boat back to the mainland a pair of White-bellied sea-eagles put on a display. And they attracted a Peregrine (callidus).

Well, that was the trip - 51 ticks (right on target!) I'd seen 7 Hornbills (four of which were ticks), Four Pittas (all ticks and two endems), two Trogon ticks, Bristlehead, Honeyguide, Mountain blackbird & Mountain serpent-eagle...not too shabby. Add to that Orang Utan & Bornean Pygmy Elephants. Oh, and did I mention I met Sir David Attenborough?!

But I'd dipped several endems too: the Ground Cuckoo, the Falconet, two other endem Pittas, Hose's broadbill & Whitehead's Trogon, Fruithunter, Everett's bloody thrush; & two endem Babblers. And of course all the Frogmouths plus a few other endems. You can't win them all, though, so all-in-all quite a success.

I should end by saying that I usually manage some kind of misadventure while on my foreign trips - but this one I managed to come off unscathed! I'd done several hundred miles of travel on some sometimes dodgy roads - and the underside - especially the front dam of the car was fairly knocked about and badly marked. When I took it back I feared the worse - but I parked it nice and close to the car in front. So, when the guy came to check it over it would have been very awkward for him to get between them to see the front edge. And so I got away with that with a handshake & I made my way to departures.

And, by the Grace of God I boarded a plane that didn't go missing that same week.

Thanks for reading.

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10km ?! The helipad is below Laban Rata at 6km.

Anyway, I wish I'd known that - that's a first on that gen I've heard.

According to Google, Paka Cave is at 3,192m. According to BirdLife, the altitudinal range of Everett's Thrush is 1,200-2,300m.
Hi Larry. Greys look very much like Greens. When I saw them I really checked them out. Were it not that v they were singing I might have dismissed them as Green.

Hi Chris - I see you're looking. You & your book were often in my mind during my trip.
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Sorry, Frogfish, but more to come!

Six am the next morning & I crossed the lovely suspension bridge & headed straight up the 'W' Trail. (W for west). A few things were calling & singing, mostly hidden. Babblers obliged every now & then: Moustached & Ferruginous adding to the trip list.

Right to the top until the trail petered out, and started back down.

Approaching a 'crossroad' a movement to my left again: another Blue-headed pitta male bobbing along the forest floor, unconcerned at my presence he continued across the path and into the jungle beyond, still clearly visible in the sparse undergrowth.

Then his mate joined him & both hopped around for a few minutes until disappearing! A cracker of a start. At a stream a Black-backed kingfisher perched obligingly for a short while. I turned left up another promising trail from where a strange noise emanated. I knew what it was, and it was a tick.

However Honeyguides are a lot easier to hear than to see! This one was in full glorious & curious voice at the very top of a tall tree. To see the crown I had to stand underneath & look directly up. A pain in the neck; and I still couldn't see the bird.

Minutes passed. The song continued. My back protested. Then the songster changed perches - and not too far from the first - I had seen it move & now could get a view - albeit of the underside only.

A short time later another songster sang from a huge tree, but this time it wasn't going to show: Chestnut-capped thrush. Though I waited for a glimpse it just wasn't to be & I left with its song still in my ears.

An immature male Red-naped trogon replaced the song a little later - this bird still had a female-type throat colour. Orange-backed woodies & Chestnut-bellied malkohas shared tree space next.

Then down at the next stream a pair of Chestnut-naped forktails showed off for a while. Though the morning had produced just one new bird for me I wasn't complaining at the day so far.

I decided on a lunch break - a little unusual for me - and had a Grey-headed fish eagle pass along the river as I ate. Then it was back along the Coffin trail to see what I could see.

Things were quiet again post-noon, though Black-headed pittas were singing at intervals along the way. A prolongued stare into undergrowth rewarded me with another brief ground & flight view of this little jewel.

Another male Great argus crossed unconcerned as I made my way along the trail right at the end. I began the return. The forest here didn't look overly promising, but you never know what might turn up. And turn up it did.

A movement ahead. Whatever it was was not far away, in front of a buttress root, so, though hidden had to come into view no matter what. A pitta made its entrance!

I was watching, ostensibly a Blue-winged pitta, drinking it in from not far off when a thought occurred: this bird had chestnut crown sides! Didn't that possibly make it something other?! It hopped closer and stood still for so long that my arms ached as I took it all in, its crimson undercarriage, its blue wings, its head markings. Eventually it vanished and I reached hungrily for my field guide.

My suspicions were confirmed.


I'd found a FAIRY PITTA! A rare thing for SE Asia and little mentioned in any report. Though not the most beautiful of the Pittas I'd seen, this find was, to me, incredible - I'd not given the possibility of seeing one in Borneo much thought. A real bonus and yet another Pitta!

I floated along to a clearing where huge trees poked above lesser trees and watched the top-most branches while I lay on my back in the sun.

Wrinkled hornbills were hunting small squirrels. Asian fairy bluebirds flew in. The Oriental Honey buzzard circled. Red-throated barbets & Ruby-cheeked sunbirds came & went. Then, along with a pair of Velvet-fronted nuthatches, I was watching a Buff-rumped woodpecker - one of the last woodies I needed! (just Bamboo to go?) A Hair-crested drongo sallied forth high up as I made my way back to HQ.

Hi Halftwo- congratulations, this is potentially the first confirmed record of Fairy Pitta for Sabah!

Do you by any chance have a photograph to document the record officially? If so please post on this thread so that the sighting is documented and gets the attention it deserves. (There is some new work being done on pittas at present and your record should be included- do PM me and I'll put you in touch with the author.) You should certainly write up your record in detail to support the sighting; as you mention in your post, Blue-winged Pitta does occur in Sabah and needs to be carefully ruled out. It too shows warm brown lateral crown stripes; the key features with Fairy are the very much more restricted extent of white in the primaries, the darker colour of the lateral crown stripes contrasting strongly with the much paler creamy-buff underparts, and the colour of the rump and wing coverts (pale azure blue).

Historically Fairy Pittas' wintering grounds have always thought to be fairly localised (See: http://orientalbirdclub.org/brachyura-pittas/:)

"Although it has been established that north-west Borneo is an important wintering area for Fairy Pitta, there are few records and it appears to be localised in its non-breeding range. There are no confirmed records from Sabah, only one record from Brunei (and the only record from Indonesian Borneo is a specimen from Riam, South Kalimantan. (My bracket, see below)). In the 1970s, however, Fairy Pitta was a relatively common bird in Sarawak. Nevertheless, since that time, Fairy Pitta populations must certainly have declined in China, whilst elsewhere within its breeding range, it is reported to have become very rare.")

However, there are few wider Bornean records/specimens at all in fact- the ones that do exist (9 specimens and similarly few sight records) are mostly from Sarawak. Hence any new documented sightings are particularly important.

There has now been a 2nd record from Kalimantan (seen and photographed by a Murung Raya Expedition as recently as Jan 2011, at the Mohot River (Bukit Batikap National Reserve), Murung Raya,) and there's a much older one (19th century) from Brunei. Most Bornean winterers are thought (based on relatively small size of the specimens) to be mainland (southern?) Chinese breeders- it remains unclear where Japanese birds winter- perhaps they move SW to winter in S China, which would explain the occasional winter record in Hong Kong.
Hi Chris.

Thanks for your input. Very interesting - I hadn't realised the significance of my sighting, and was only informed from Myers and trip reports.
Unfortunately I don't do photography of birds, so only my personal obs. to give account of the record.
I'm very happy that it was Fairy - I got excellent views - though not in flight. What struck me was the obvious super between face mask and crown, and the chestnut crown sides - I didn't see the central crown stripe though.
The unders were pale and there was no discernible contrast between them and the chin. The wing pattern too was right.

Who should the record be submitted to?


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I've just checked and there are no winter records of Fairy Pitta from Hong Kong. It is an almost annual spring (April/May) and autumn (september) passage migrant in very small numbers with a single July record from 1967.

The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society Recorder will be able to supply a complete list of records (plus those for Blue-winged Pitta) should this be helpful for the research you mention.

There is also a nice range of pix by plugging "pitta" into the search engine for the HKBWS forum: HERE. The video of the Blue -winged Pitta at Futian is especially awesome.


PS great find Halftwo!
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Hi Larry. Greys look very much like Greens. When I saw them I really checked them out. Were it not that v they were singing I might have dismissed them as Green.

Unfortunately they weren't that active the time of day we went, so we didn't get a chance to scrutinise that many, (which were defo Greens). Oh well, one day..... Borneo needs a good few visits methinks :smoke:
What age were the Hooded Pitta on the nest do you think? Heading to Sabah next week, going to Sepilok/Kinabatangan/Danum mainly, main interest is pittas. So wondering if they will be sticking around for a while yet?
Just caught up with reading about your Borneo adventures H - absolutely amazing. My excitement at having caught up with the Coues's at Macclesfield now seems somewhat diminished !
I am no expert on pittas, but is it really the case that there no documented records of Fairy Pitta in Sabah? (as stated by Lambert 1996). Mann's Bornean checklist states for Sabah that there are four localities, of which one, Mawau, is based on a specimen "thought to be this species". More crucially, another locality, Lumbidan, is mentioned by Sharpe (1879) (see here http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/35127#page/306/mode/1up for relevant page). Here, P. nympha is listed under one of its synonyms, P. oreas (http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/14501101#page/344/mode/1up), and Sharpe specifically mentions having compared a specimen sent by Low to the then BM(NH) that he compared with the type of P. oreas (from Taiwan, current BMNH 1898.11.10.380). None of this takes anything away from the significance of the current sighting, but unless the ID of these specimens has been or can be disproved, then it means there are documented records from Sabah, just not recent ones. Maybe there is something in Mees's paper in 1977 that I've missed?
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