Hank Aaron, Edmund Hillary, Billy Mitchell: record holders and champions of their respective fields. While a big day of birding isn’t exactly the same as reaching the summit of Everest or holding the highest score in Q*bert, the task of racking up as many species as possible in 24 hours can be daunting in its own right. Make the birding location a tropical island with limited bird distribution knowledge, and you got yourself a decent challenge. If there were only 4 young field biologists up to the task…
Enter the Borneo Big Day Squad. Me and three of my co-workers/fellow birdaholics set out to establish a number for a big day on the island of Borneo. To our knowledge, there has been no ‘official’ (or at least commonly known) number of species acquired on the island in one day of birding. In fact, we are not even aware of a big day attempt in the country of Malaysia, let alone on the island or in the province of Sabah. So right off the bat our planning was difficult and expectations were a mystery. What number would constitute a ‘good’ big day? How many species can we really expect to be in our area in late March? What the hell does migration look like here? How many habitats can we hit that are different enough to yield high species diversity, but still be within driving distance of each other? So many questions, so little time. Anyway you shake it, this was going to be fun. Who would attempt such a blindly optimistic and ridiculous big day? Meet the squad:
Andy “The Franchise” Boyce – A 6 year Borneo veteran, Andy is the Michael Jordon to our 90’s Bulls. With a Sabah life list in the 400s and the most experience with Borneo birds by a mile, Andy’s golden ears and location knowledge were essential. Plus, the dude can drive stick shift down twisty mountain roads and still spot a slow loris. Also the tallest member of the team. Coincidence?
Ryan “Daniel Bryan” Steiner – Ohio’s famous birder wonder-kid, Ryan brought the second most Borneo experience, a helluva lot of birding chops, and everyone in Malaysia thinks he is WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan. He still might be. With super in-depth field mark precision, stellar ears, and the team’s strongest beard, Ryan and his pair of Leica ‘binnies’ spotted tons of species for us. Easily our Scottie Pippin.
Tom “Midtown” Thalhuber – Known around Borneo for having the deadliest 12 to 15 foot jump shot in Kundasang, Tom is the bander extraordinaire on our research team. Every squad needs a guy who will sacrifice his hat while traveling 80 km/hr in a car in order to spot a White-bellied Sea Eagle for the day’s total. Plus, he saved our necks and pulled out a Common Redshank at sunset with that classic Minnesota politeness. 90’s Bulls doppelganger: Tony Kukoc.
Steve “Mr. Milano” Brenner – Blogger, list-keeper, DJ, and cookie supplier. All I’m saying is that every time I take a bag of milano cookies birding, the list looks good.What more could anyone ask for? Plus, I was featuring the second best beard on the team. Definitely the Steve Kerr of the outfit.
The route formalized pretty quickly based around a few key factors. First and foremost is location. We could really only bird the province of Sabah and reach areas within roughly a two hour driving radius around our research location, Kinabalu National Park. Secondly, the tropics can be a hell of a place to try and pick out cryptic species, particularly in the lowlands. Our birder ears were collectively pretty strong, but given that our work area is in the highlands, our lowland song ID’s were limited. We weren’t going to try and stretch ourselves beyond rock solid ID, and time is always a factor on big days. Lastly, we really wanted to see some cool and different stuff, regardless of the final number. So, with a tentative plan in action, we set our estimated route time, and studied up. With some decent estimations, we figured we could break 100 species in one day at the tropics. Our personal goal was to crack 120 and hopefully hit 130, seeing that this number was slightly above what we expected to see safely. In reality, beyond the species Kinabalu Park and counting on a handful of shorebirds, we had no idea what to expect. We set the date for Sunday March 22nd and we were off.
Poring Hot Springs – An excellent patch of rainforest in the mid to low elevation range with easy trails and the closest lower patch of habitat for many miles and hours. While larger, lower, and more species rich patches of rainforest exist in Sabah, they are pretty isolated unto themselves, so reaching different habitats would be difficult if we started in those areas. Plus, if you have to catch a dawn chorus somewhere, you might as well go low. The pre-dawn hours were fairly productive with singing cuckoos (Plaintive, Buff-banded, and Indian) and a frogmouth, but the morning was a tad frustrating. We had barbet calls and flycatchers down solid, but trying to ID a wave of jungle birds flying through the canopy in limited light did not produce huge numbers. While we could have stayed many more hours, we had to keep moving. A fair start to a big day, but not overwhelming.
Notable Birds: Blyth’s Frogmouth and Red-naped Trogon made the morning.
Total Species: 40
New Species: 40
Big Day Total: 40
Morning Drive from Poring to KNP (745am – 830am)
Nothing too eventful or unexpected here: mostly we knocked off layup road birds like Cattle Egret, Barn Swallow, and Woodswallow. The clutch moment was when Andy remembered a stakeout for some Pygmy white-eyes alongside the road. Score.
Notable Birds: Unexpected Gray Wagtail and pygmy white-eyes.
Total Species: 11
New Species: 7
Big Day Total: 47
Kinabalu Park Headquarters – Our home turf, and our bread and butter. Our ears have been tuned into the bird life at this place for two months, so picking up anything that would chip was a cakewalk. Throw in our excellent knowledge of the layout, terrain, and hotspots for certain tougher-than-usual species (i.e. Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, Pygmy Blue Flycatcher), and we were settling into a nice groove. Our real saving grace was how well we cashed in on the very sporadic and unreliable birds of the park. Black and crimson oriole, White-bellied Erpornis, and Besra are birds you maybe come across once every two weeks, and we managed to sweep them. We finished with a flyby dark morph Changeable Hawk-Eagle as we were exiting. We crushed this location, and in very speedy time. The day was looking up.
Notable Birds: Large Hawk-Cuckoo (dark hawk-cuckoo), the entire Whitehead’s Trio, and continuing vagrant Siberian Rubythroat.
Total Species: 52
New Species: 50
Big Day Total: 97
Drive from KNP to Lok Kawi Beach (11am-1pm)
A long and hazardous drive down the mountain ending with big city traffic. Not much to see here, but you have to pick up Asian Glossy Starling somewhere.
Notable Birds: Grey-rumped Treeswift
Total Species: 14
New Species: 7
Big Day Total: 104
Lok Kawi Beach – The only productive coastal shorebird habitat on the west side of Sabah. Just south of Kota Kinabalu, this raggedy beach produces some seriously cool shorebirds for us North Americans. We scouted this area earlier in the weekend, so we knew exactly what to expect and more importantly, how to safely separate greater vs lesser sand plovers and Malaysian and Kentish plovers.
Notable Birds: Great Crested Terns still hanging out offshore.
Total Species: 14
New Species: 11
Big Day Total: 115
Kota Kinabalu Waterfront, Likas Wetlands – This hour was our biggest audible of the day, but a productive one. Having dipped on reef-heron and sea-eagle at Lok Kawi, we needed a chance to get these easier birds as well as hope for some more heron and hopefully night heron action at the wetlands. Night herons were a miss, but we were able to get the only countable House Crows on the island in KK as well as some unexpected passerines at the wetlands.
Notable Birds: Bold-striped Tit Babbler, Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher.
Total Species: 19
New Species: 10
Big Day Total: 125
Late Afternoon (345pm-410pm)
Jason’s Waterfowl Hotspot – Another scouted specialty, this little marsh literally off the side of the road provided some very cool species that are tough to find anywhere in Borneo: waterfowl. Wandering whistling duck, Garganey, and Cotton Pygmy Goose (probably the biggest rarity of the day) were the targets and we got bonuses by finally picking up Black-crowned Night-Heron and Pink-necked pigeon. The day was rolling and we had one major stop left. It was at this point that we realized our chance at 150 was possible.
Notable Birds: Cotton Pygmy Goose
Total Species: 11
New Species: 10
Big Day Total: 135
Tempasuk Plain – Probably the coolest location on the whole trip, this area is a mix of rice paddies, flooded fields, and grasslands. With a habitat makeup unlike the majority of our day, this spot was critical to reaching high big day numbers. Bitterns, shorebirds, pratincoles, and peregrines. It was a spectacular finish. Having already exceeded expectations, we were going into this location hoping to crack the 150 mark. Once we passed that with Buff-banded Rail, everything else was just a bonus.
Notable Birds: Common Redshank, Bank Swallow, Little Ringed Plover
Total Species: 45
New Species: 29
Big Day Total: 164
Kinabalu Park – Ending where we live and work, our final bird was the always loveable Mountain Scops-Owl. Exhausted but triumphant, we returned to our homestay to crack a beer and get some shut eye.
FINAL BIG DAY TOTAL: 165
Below is our full list for the Borneo Big Day. We feel that our number is good, but potentially breakable. Any other route seems ridiculous, but we are hoping others try to break the record soon! The more birders we can get out there, especially to the less well traveled areas of the island, the more we can understand about birds in the area (not to mention cooler birds for everyone). Endemics are noted with a * (some are considered endemics that the Clements taxonomic system has yet to recognize).
Wandering Whistling Duck
Cotton Pygmy Goose
Black-crowned Night Heron
Black-winged Kite (Black-shouldered Kite)
Mountain Serpent Eagle*
Grey Plover (Black-bellied Plover)
Pacific Golden Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Great Crested Tern
Large Hawk-Cuckoo (Dark Hawk-Cuckoo)
Banded Bay Cuckoo
Square-tailed Drongo Cuckoo
Cave Swiftlet (Bornean Swiftlet*)
Gold-faced Barbet (Gold-whiskered Barbet)
Blyth’s Shrike Babbler (White-browed Shrike Babbler)
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
Asian Paradise Flycatcher
Bornean Green Magpie* (Short-tailed Green Magpie)
Flavescent Bulbul (Pale-faced Bulbul*)
Mountain Warbler (Mountain Leaf-warbler)
Little Pied Flycatcher
Asian Glossy Starling
Eastern Yellow Wagtail
Tree Sparrow (Eurasian Tree Sparrow)