Birding the Kinabatangan River

Steve BrennerBirding, Mammals, Photography, Trip Reports1 Comment

The phrase ‘jungle river cruise’ is tossed around a lot these days. Every morning at the old office water cooler, somebody just keeps on talking about that excellent jungle river cruise they took years ago. Well, I decided to try my hand at such an experience in Borneo on the Kinabatangan River, and boy was it worth it.

For starters, there was very little energy expended by my feet, as all of the work was done by either the current or a motor. Secondly, while myself, Tom Thalhuber and Ryan Steiner are trying to fill out our Borneo bird lists, we need to start checking off the 8 hornbill species present. We soon found out, given the incredible rate at which core forest is being lost to oil palm, particularly along the river, certain species would be harder to come by than others. All that said, it was an solid trip for birds, and an even better trip for primates. The highlight was on our first boat trip on Friday afternoon, yielding an adult male Orangutan within the first 15 minutes. This was probably the biggest target for our entire crew (even a crew made up of 7 bird nerds). Getting an extended look at this fantastic ape in its natural environment, munching away at a termite nest, was truly unforgettable.

Orangutan male at the Kinabatangan (photo by Steve Brenner)

Orangutan male at the Kinabatangan (photo by Steve Brenner)

Delicious termites (photo by Steve Brenner)

Delicious termites (photo by Steve Brenner)

But this is a birding blog after all, and our boat was filled with a bunch of birders, so we got the orangutan ‘monkey off of our back’ pretty early in the trip so we were free to focus our attention on the river birds. There are two kingfishers that are very common along the river, the Stork-billed and Blue-eared, and over the two day trip we cashed in mightily with these guys. The color on tropical kingfishers is rather staggering, with metallic blues and oranges aplenty. Plus, approaching from the water, we could get pretty darn close to these little guys.

Blue-eared Kingfisher (photo by Steve Brenner)

Blue-eared Kingfisher (photo by Steve Brenner)

On the next morning trip, we knocked off Storm’s Stork, Purple Heron and Black-and-red Broadbill, as well as a surprise visit from a Bat Hawk gathering nest material. There are some serious caves within 30km of the Kinabatangan, but apart from the spattering of Aerodramus nest-swiftlets foraging over the river (downright brutal to ID if not at their nesting sites, especially on a boat), you would have no clue that you are near massive limestone formations. While the Bat Hawk was a nice pickup given our location, the broadbills stole the show with their precarious nest placements over the river, not to mention their downright face-melting beauty.

Black-and-red Broadbill carrying nesting material (photo by Steve Brenner)

Black-and-red Broadbill carrying nesting material (photo by Steve Brenner)

The following afternoon and early morning did provide a multitude of hornbills, with Rhinoceros, Oriental pied, and Black being the heavy hitters, including a cameo from a pair of Wrinked Hornbills. No luck with Helmeted or White-crowned, but I have 2 more months of field work to try and find those guys. As a group, the hornbills like to fly straight across the river, make a ton of noise, and get behind enough foliage to make photos difficult, but a few rhinoceros hornbills were cooperative enough for some quick shots, and one Oriental pied seemed to enjoy the roof of our hostel. There comes a point when you just decide that hornbills are essentially dinosaurs and that makes them even cooler.

Rhinoceros Hornbill (photo by Steve Brenner)

Rhinoceros Hornbill (photo by Steve Brenner)

Oriental pied Hornbill, waking up in the gutter (photo by Steve Brenner)

Oriental pied Hornbill, waking up in the gutter (photo by Steve Brenner)

The most sought after target bird for me personally was on the small end of the size spectrum. In fact, it’s one of (if not the) smallest raptor in the world. Plus, it’s an endemic. The White-fronted falconet was definitely in my top 3 birds I wanted to see while in Borneo, and the Kinabatangan is one of the best places to see them in the world. I had my eyes fixed on every snag along the river, and sure enough, I got on a tiny little speck perched on a branch about 20 meters into the forest. We managed to get our boat to double back and boom! A male falconet was staring us down. Despite the fact that he was a little inland, not to mention he’s a 15cm bird in a 20 meter tree, it was still the highlight of my trip. Seriously, this falcon is so tiny but so incredible awesome and unique. It’s hard to think of falcons smaller than kestrels, but they apparently exist.

Bigfoot-esque photo of White-fronted Falconet (photo by Steve Brenner)

Bigfoot-esque photo of the coveted White-fronted Falconet (photo by Steve Brenner)

Pittas continue to allude us, as do a few key spiderhunter species, but hopefully with a few more travels to the lowlands we can continue to rack up the totals. And even if we don’t, can you really complain about a few days surrounded by monkeys?

Long-tailed Macaque living the dream (photo by Steve Brenner)

Long-tailed Macaque living the dream (photo by Steve Brenner)

  • Wow, that’s an awesome falconet indeed. Congrats on your awesome birding luck so far!