Recently I attended the 3rd Borneo Bird Festival 2011 held at Sepilok near
The Sabah Tourism Society invited myself and other speakers from the USA,
UK, Hong Kong, Philippines, India, and Malaysia. We were to share ³valuable
information and knowledge about birds, birding² (Borneo Geographic) and
avitourism (birding tourism). Though much of my time was taken up with
preparing the presentation, I did get to do some birding.
Though a bird festival, there was something for everyone and many local
families attended. Paddle boats were available on the nearby lake and many
took advantage of them. Up the hill was a cafeteria and to one side the
The famous Orang Utan Sanctuary was within walking distance of our
accommodation, the Sepilok Jungle Resort, and the Rainforest Discovery
Centre where all the action was to take place, was a five-minute drive away.
The resort owner, Datuk John S. K. Lim, a member of the Sabah Tourism Board
and PATA, had built this homely and comfortable lodge himself.
The gardens at the resort featured many lakes and fascinating plants ranging
from tall trees to minute herbs. The birds were spectacular from the
common Brown-throated Sunbird, and spiderhunters, to a pair of Pied
Hornbills , Crested Serpent Eagle and Borneo Falconet perched high in a
tree. Then there was a little Blue-eared Kingfisher fast asleep on a branch
in the dark near the dining area the staff excitedly showed it to me.
Swifts and swallows were common above many clearings and included House,
Pacific and Fork-tailed. Brown Needletail, and Pacific Swallow. Dollarbirds
were common and raucous.
The rainforest contained some very tall emergents,, many of them
dipterocarps, a family possibly of Gondwanan origin (though not found in
Australia). Borneo has the largest number of species 155. Some plants I
recognised from the Top End, eg a Melastoma, on which we found a
Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker feeding (the fruits resemble and taste like black
currants, and I like them too!). And there were huge-leaved, three-veined
Smilax sp. Butterflies and odonata abounded in the forest and many were
truly magnificent. However, I must admit a little emerald damselfly
literally caught my eye it perched on a leaf for several minutes following
me with its large, beautiful eyes as I struggled to take a decent portrait
(camera wouldn¹t focus).
Our first birds were two gorgeous little kingfishers, Ruddy and Oriental
Dwarf. Anna and John of Singapore were among several
birdwatcher/photographers to peg out this spot, a road above a shady stream
in the rainforest. Anna, not as keen as her husband who had attached
himself to his telescope, had brought along a stool and suggested cheekily
that I take a photo for my research on birding couples. As we watched some
men came along with signposts for the various trails, this one being the
Kingfisher Trail and others the Pitta Track and Woodpecker Avenue. In fact
the signage was very good. There were also posters along many of the roads
featuring the birds.
Through the forest canopy ran a magnificent walkway, and early one morning
we walked there with Hamut, a local guide. He showed us where a sunbear had
climbed twenty metres up a vertical, unbranched trunk, to tear its way into
a beehive. On other walks there we spotted a small flock of rare Grey Slaty
Woodpeckers and Slender-billed Crows, a rather gorgeous Red-bearded
Bee-eater, and two broadbills - the Common Black and Yellow, and the scarcer
Banded. There were woodpeckers, leafbirds,d barbets and bulbuls we feasted
our eyes on delights at every turn. And of course there were more than
Throughout the forest were large nest boxes often many metres up a very tall
tree. One marvelled at the dedication of the staff who placed them in such
difficult spots. Emerging from such a box one night, was a large squirrel.
In fact we saw numerous squirrels Plantain, the beautiful red-bellied,
black Prevost¹s Squirrell, and most spectacular of all the Giant Flying
Squirrel. We watched a pair of them gliding from tree to tree at sunset.
Our most intimate contact came when we met a Giant Squirrel that had made
its home right next to the walkway. For some time it sat in its hollow only
its nose showing. Meanwhile the number of photographers and schoolchildren
grew. We walked away to return an hour or so and the squirrel was perched
outside his home, happily gnawing away at something, and not at all fazed by
the growing crowd.
On our last day we visited the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary.
I was not particularly interested in joining the crowd to watch the young
apes being fed. Instead we wandered through the mob and on down the
deserted walkway. Not another soul was in sight as we walked quietly along.
In the quiet I heard a babble coming from a little hut-like corner formed
from low branches bending down to touch the shrub beneath. Peering into the
dark I saw a bird a little larger than a Sacred Kingfisher sitting quietly
on a twig and singing to itself White-crowned Sharma. It was one of those
rare, often fleeting moments when one is privileged to share the world of
And just a few tens of metres on we encountered another such experience. On
the boardwalk stood one of the sanctuary¹s employees. He hadn¹t seen us and
yet he was conversing, not talking to, but conversing with, someone out of
sight. As we drew closer his companion came into view a young Orang Utan.
Swinging from a vine it seemed to engage the man, its face turned towards
him. Another one of those rare and privileged moments.
Later that afternoon we joined Steve and his friend Wendy, John and Anna and
Bharat on a drive to the Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary situated on the coast
among mangroves. The monkeys were relatively tame, the babies climbing onto
people¹s arms and exploring their watches and jewellery. And a Pied Hornbill
delighted us all as well. The bird was wild, the staff said, but visited
every day to interact with visitors. It perched willingly on people¹s arms,
and I had the distinct impression that it quite enjoyed the company!
A startlingly bright Crimson Sunbird rummaged among ferns that I recognised
- Achrostichum speciosum. Dollarbirds cackled overhead, a smart Magpie Robin
perched on a dead tree trunk and a large Black Eagle gazed down upon us from
the top of a tree. On leaving we walked for a while, sighting more birds
Black-headed Munias, White-breasted Waterhen and Slaty-breasted Rail.
By the last day of the festival there appeared to be at least a thousand
visitors, both locals, and internationals. Certainly not all were
birdwatchers, but of those who came, most were Asian. Having spent most of
my adult life guiding birders, I was pleasantly surprised. Nowhere did I
encounter the surliness or near-hysteria that I¹d sometimes seen when
birders miss a prize tick. Instead the attitude was one of ³oh well, I
might see it later²!
At Sepilok, everyone I met was quite knowledgeable about their wildlife,
from my driver who knew the local butterflies to tiny schoolchildren all
equipped with binoculars donated by Forestry, and carrying signs depicting
the local birds. My landcare group is now thinking of funding the purchase
of binoculars for local school children.
Although hot and humid, the Sabah climate turned out to be cooler and more
comfortable than the Top End. It rained most days and one night there was a
severe thunderstorm and a short power blackout I felt quite at home as we
have such weather during the Top End wet season. One pleasant surprise was
the lack of mosquitoes and leeches. I saw two of the former in five days,
and no leeches.
Michael and I are returning to Sabah next October and we hope to take my
daughter and new grandson. I can¹t think of a better spot for young Elijah¹s
first overseas trip.
My sincere thanks to Carl Clifford for the part he played in getting me to
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow B.A. Grad.Dip.Arts
1/7 Songlark Street, Bakewell NT 0832, AUSTRALIA
Ph. 61 08 89 328306
Mobile: 04 386 50 835
Birdwatching and Indigenous tourism consultant
PhD Candidate (Southern Cross University, NSW)
Interpreter/transcriber, Lonely Planet Guide to Aboriginal Australia
Vice-chair, Wildlife Tourism Australia
For copies of Birds of Australia¹s Top End or Quiet Snake Dreaming, visit
"The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him
to hold in higher regard those who think alike
than those who think differently."
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