Borneo Bird Festival Experience

BY Hannah Mohd, 5th Dec 2019

What started as a habit to memorize birds and their names for fun, I had developed a wonderment towards feathered beauties, turning my curiosity into appreciation for them over the years. Bird watching is still a relatively new world for me, and I was eager to nurture this recently discovered interest of mine. It amazes me that out of 673 species of birds that are found on the island of Borneo, more than 400 species can be found here in Sabah. So when Sabah Tourism Board sent an invitation to go to the 11th Borneo Bird Festival 2019 as part of the media, I seized the opportunity to attend the festival for the first time. It would also be my first time going to the event venue, which is the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok.

Attending the festival was memorable and eye-opening, I have learned so many things that made me appreciate Sabah and more. From the journey of going there until the final day, it was a fulfilling experience for me.

Going There

The journey to the festival began in Kota Kinabalu International Airport, where myself and a small group gathered for our flight. The group comprised of individuals that are skilled and knowledgeable in travel, tourism, and photography; including two representatives from Sabah Tourism Board. After a quick introduction and briefing, we boarded the plane and head for Sandakan, the nature city of Sabah.

Borneo Bird Festival Experience @ Sandakan 2019
Empire Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan, Sabah

Once we have arrived in Sandakan, we were taken to Empire Seafood Restaurant, an eatery famous for its delectable and savory dishes. We enjoyed a wholesome dinner while getting to know each other and shared a few laughs. We were happy to have met prominent members of Borneo Bird Club and local senior nature guides as well as operators of renowned attractions in Sandakan who dined together with us. With our stomachs full, we then took a half-hour drive to Sepilok Jungle Resort, our accommodation throughout the festival. After settling in, we anticipate for the festival to commence the next day.

Borneo Bird Festival Begins

On the day of the launch, the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement. This year, the festival returns to its home ground at Rainforest Discovery Centre, a venue that I learned was a favorite among bird enthusiasts. The festival is a joint collaboration between Borneo Bird Club, Sabah Tourism Board, and Sabah Forestry Department. It is held in Sabah every year and rightfully so, because of the rich bird communities that are found in this region. The aim of the festival is to celebrate the birds of Sabah, create awareness on bird conservation to the public, promote bird watching and highlight ecotourism activities in Sabah.

Launching of the Borneo Bird Festival 2019 @ Sandakan
11th Borneo Bird Festival 2019 Launching Ceremony

During his speech, Assistant Minister for the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment, YB Assafal P. Alian who officiated the festival mentioned how organizing events such as this puts a spotlight on bird watching in Sabah and contributes to it’s tourism industry significantly. President of Borneo Bird Club, Dr Robert C. Ong addresses the hard work of the club’s members over the years that lead to the ongoing success of the festival in his speech. The launching was definitely interesting as it introduced what the festival is all about. After the handing of mementos to YB Assafal P. Alian, it officially begins.

Events for both Bird Enthusiasts and the Public

There is an array of events that can be enjoyed by everyone. I could see birders, photographers, nature guides, families, students, and festival-goers of all ages gathering and having a great time. The main event is the much-anticipated Sabah Bird Race. The rules of this race is simple, participating teams have 2 days to spot as many birds as they can and identify them in Rainforest Discovery Centre. The team with the most birds seen wins. In previous races, there was only one category for people to participate in, and that’s for 18 years old and above. This year however, the race opens to bird enthusiasts that are 17 years old and below, allowing students and young talents to join the event. Another highlight is the Bird Photo Race, where instead of spotting and identifying birds, participating teams have to photograph as many birds as they can and the team with the most bird images wins. Catering to all attendees, other events at the festival were the Bird Photography Contest, Bird Mimic Contest, Coloring Contest, Artistic Bird Make Up Competition, “Name That Bird” Challenge, Sketch Walk with Charles Mawan, Drawing Competition, Beyblade Competition and Cake Decorating Competition.

Drawing Competition at the Lakeside Pavilion in RDC
Drawing competition at the Lakeside Pavilion in RDC

A variety of workshops and talks were conducted at the festival, covering photography, art, and conservation. Among the talks that were awe-inspiring were from Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and 1StopBorneo Wildlife; we learned how the bears are rehabilitated up until their release, as well as the birds that reside in a more uncommon area of Sabah which is Tawau Hills. It was also wonderful to be able to know about the birds of other countries, as speakers discussed how bird watching is like in Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan. Novice photographers were in for a treat too, as CANON conducted a Basic Photography Workshop open to all.

Representative from Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre
A Representative from Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Exciting Booths and Stalls

True to their aim, the booths and stalls accommodates to both bird enthusiasts and the public. There were booths by conservation organizations, wildlife travel establishments, birding and photography equipment providers, local artists, international agencies, and more. If you have an interest in bird watching, it is a great place to expand your knowledge and passion; for the public, the booths are just as exciting!

Booths providing useful information on conservation
Booths providing useful information on conservation

We checked out a range of quality binoculars used by avid birders and learned about the importance of picking the right one. For photographers, CANON had a booth where they displayed some of their best gear ideal for any types of photography, be it wildlife, nature, portrait, and more. Photography is an essential part of birding, and beginner birders are able to explore their interest further. CANON held a fantastic photo exhibition of that was mainly to create awareness and showcase our lovely nature and wildlife. Amazing scenery, flora and fauna come to life through vivid imagery taken by photographers who are devoted to nature and the environment. Visitors of the festival need not worry about food and drinks as there are stalls and food trucks at Rainforest Discovery Centre. We also visited booths that sold handicrafts made by locals and even bought a few to bring home.

Local Artist Charles Mawan
Local artist Charles Mawan at the Art Corner

Guided Nature Walks in Rainforest Discovery Centre

This was the most exciting part – going for guided nature walks with the group! Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) did not disappoint, we understood why it is a favorite place for bird enthusiasts and festival-goers alike. On the first day, we woke up early for the 6.00am walk and had an unexpected alarm at Sepilok Jungle Resort – the remarkable calls of the Bornean Gibbons. Our amazement was brief as we had to leave for our nature walk, but we were still thrilled to have heard it. 

Into the rainforest to spot feathered beauties in RDC
Into the rainforest to spot feathered beauties in RDC

We gathered at RDC’s car park and met with our experienced nature guide during the festival, Ronny. It was very lively as participants of the Sabah Bird Race and Bird Photo Race were waiting for the race to begin, and Ronny explained during his briefing that the car park is the best place to start in the morning for bird sightings. True to his words, within minutes a Wallace’s Hawk Eagle was spotted right in front of us and we were glued to our binoculars. And then almost immediately, the call of a Rhinoceros Hornbill was heard and one perched on a branch behind us. After enjoying the sight of the two, we barely made ten steps ahead when a flock of Bushy Crested Hornbills flew over in front of us. Pacific Swallows were flying nearby too, and a pair of Blue-throated bee-eater was spotted not long after that. We saw all of these beautiful birds within 10 minutes! When we went into the nature trail, we also saw Banded Woodpecker, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot, Olive-backed Sunbird and Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker, which is endemic to Borneo.

Rhinoceros Hornbill
Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)

Our second nature walk was on the same day in the afternoon. Sightings were still as spectacular as in the morning, as we saw not only birds but also mammals and primates. This time, our nature guide Ronny brought us to a nature trail leading to the canopy walk where we went up the Bristlehead Tower. Among the species we saw were Giant Squirrel, Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo and Hill Myna. But the highlight for me was seeing the Red Giant Flying Squirrel in flight above our heads and a juvenile Orangutan building a nest. 

The canopy walk at RDC
The Canopy Walk at Rainforest Discovery Centre

Our third and final nature walk was on the second day of the festival early in the morning. Since it was the last day, I was hoping to see my favorite type of birds, which were broadbills. Going through the car park and into the nature trail, I was very happy when I recognized its call and Ronny said, “Black and Red Broadbill, there.”

Black and Red Broadbill (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos)

It’s black and red feathers and its beak, a pop of turquoise was stunning to see. Already satisfied for seeing a broadbill for the first time, I recognized another call. It was a Black and Yellow Broadbill! Ronny located the bird and pointed out where it is and we looked into our binoculars. Pinkish chest, black and white feathers, and its beak a striking turquoise as well. It was a morning of colorful birds, because we also saw the vibrant Rufous-backed Kingfisher on the trail. If that’s not enough, the same juvenile Orangutan we saw yesterday also crossed trees only about 15m away from us, giving a superb ending to our nature walk.

Winners of the Highlight Events

The Team from Tabin Wildlife Resort Won First Place in the Sabah Bird Race
The Team from Tabin Wildlife Resort Won First Place in the Sabah Bird Race

Before we left for Kota Kinabalu, we were able to witness who the winners of the Sabah Bird Race were. A total of 12 teams, both local and international, competed in the race. Late in the afternoon, we waited for the results. At a record breaking of spotting and identifying 126 species for only two days, the team from Tabin Wildlife Resort won first place! And also to our surprise because we didn’t know he entered the competition, Matthew Albanus, a freelance photographer who was a part of our group won third place in the Bird Photography Competition. 

Freelance Photographer Matthew Albanus Won Third Place in the Bird Photography Competition
Freelance Photographer Matthew Albanus Won Third Place in the Bird Photography Competition

Awaiting the Next Borneo Bird Festival

Borneo Bird Festival is an exceptional event that shows what bird watching is like in Sabah and is welcoming and inviting to all, whether you are a birder or not. I had a great adventure, and I look forward to attending again next year to see more birds! If you wish to know more about Borneo Bird Festival, click here!

Group photos @ Borneo Bird Festival

Photography by Charles Ryan, Hannah Mohd & Tracia Goh