Adri Constantino, Mark Villa and Ivan Sarenas represented the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines in the 1st Borneo Bird Race and took home the grand prize! Here is Adri’s account of their wonderful experience.
The 1st Borneo Bird Race
text and bird photos by Adri Constantino
Borneo Bird Race photos by Cede Prudente
When I read Sabah birder Cede Prudente’s email about the upcoming Borneo Bird Race and Bird Festival, I immediately volunteered to join the WBCP contingetnt. Though, I had’t been to Borneo before, I was very much excited to go to see the Borneo Pygmy Elephant and the Orangutan and of course, Borneo’s birds. Even with my excitement, I was the third member in line, with Peter Stevens, the first member to show interest. Unfortunately, Peter had to back out and after a couple more team shufflings and with just a few weeks remaining, Team Philippines was formed with myself, Ivan Sarenas and Mark Villa.
And so with our binoculars, Borneo bird books, and cameras, we flew to Brunei, a tiny but very progressive country blessed with lots of oil and good forest. Just a short walk from our hotel, I had my first lifers. Ivan and I got really excited when we saw 2 Grey-rumped Treeswifts, a species very rare in the Philippines, perched on a distant tree. And then, few meters later, we saw about 20 birds in one tree.
The following morning, the first Brunei Nature Festival was launched and in the afternoon, the 1st Borneo Bird Race was officially launched. Six other teams joined the race, with teams coming from Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, India, and Japan. The first site was Tasek Merimbun, a lake surrounded by forests. Our strategy was simple: to find and identify everything that moves. We had our roles: Mark and I were the spotters, as there was a rule that at least 2 birders should see the bird for it to make it to the birdlist, Ivan was the photographer, and he was to take a photo of everything with feathers. No need for another member to see what Ivan sees, as his photo will be enough for the bird list. A fourth member from the Borneo Bird Club acts as steward and birdlist-keeper: he is not allowed to find and identify birds for us. We were allowed to bird up to around 5 pm, too bad no owling!
Next day, we were off to Ulu Temburong National Park, site of Brunei’s largest chunk of old growth forest. It was an adventure getting there, as we rode fast long boats without outriggers, skillfully maneuvered in a winding river surrounded by excellent lowland forest.
We stayed at Ulu Ulu Resort, located within the national park and just around the resort, we spotted hornbills, barbets, broadbills and many more birds. Late in the afternoon, we went up their canopy walkway and added some more birds to our list. The following morning, the sight of a family of Rhinoceros Hornbills gliding from the canopy greeted us, a perfect way to start the day. This time, we birded on a boat and went to the several tributaries adding tailorbirds and babblers and swiftlets and needletails to our list. Later on, we found out that some teams went again to the canopy walkway and were able to add a lot of birds to their list! We were saddened as we were in the top positions until the previous night but we never lost hope and we just focused on winning the Sabah leg. The Brunei leg of the race ended at lunch time and we headed back to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital for the closing and awarding of the Brunei leg. We were checked-in at the prestigious The Empire Hotel, Brunei’s most majestic hotel. During the awarding, Wild Birds Taiwan, won the Brunei leg and we ended up fourth place, with 12 birds short of the top spot.
From Brunei, we flew to Kota Kinabalu and then transferred to Mt. Kinabalu Heritage Hotel & Spa. The following morning, we started the Sabah leg and birded Mt. Kinabalu, one of Asia’s tallest mountains. Birding here was like birding in Mt. Polis in the Mountain Province. We had cool weather, excellent birds, and just roadside birding with occasional entry into trails. We did well here, ranking 1st among the teams and getting one of the highlights of the trip – the high elevation Borneo endemic Whitehead’s Trogon. Due to time constraints, birding here was short as we had to travel a long ways to Sepilok, a lowland forest birding site. Along the way, we stopped for another Borneo endemic: the Bornean Falconet, similar to our Philippine Falconet. Everyone saw the bird. We arrived in Sepilok just before night-time and checked-in at the Sepilok Bed and Breakfast Resort, a short five-minute walk from the Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC), one of the best lowland birding sites in Sabah.
The following day was a big day, we had one whole day of birding RDC, where a lot of the lowland forest birds can be seen. We had a good start as just outside the gates was a fruiting tree, teeming with several species of bulbuls and barbets. Later on, we birded the canopy walkways, looking for trogons, barbets and broadbills, and the most-coveted bird, the icon of the race – the Bornean Bristlehead. All teams made a pact: if any one team finds the Bristlehead, that team will share the find with all the other teams. For the other birds, it was all fair game. The race was very competitive, yet still very fun and enjoyable with other teams helping other teams. A lot of times, the desire to share a good new bird to others is just overwhelming, and the race as forgotten, even for a brief time.
We birded and birded the whole day, even in full, midday sun. After lunch, we headed out in the parking area, as the forest trails were quiet and got lucky with a couple of thermalling raptors and resting waterbirds added to our list. Around 5 pm, all the teams submitted the bird lists, we hung out at the canopy walkway and observed Red Giant Flying Squirrels, gliding from the tree to tree. On the way out of RDC, we spotted an Oriental Darter, another lifer, now very rare in the Philippines, a nice way to end a long and tiring but enjoyable bird race.
Excitement was mounting as the following day was a free-day with excursions to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and special visit to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. We knew we did well, we felt good, but we did not know if we won. In the afternoon, during the launch of the Borneo Bird Festival, the winners were announced. We were awarded two trophies, one for winning the Sabah leg and one for winning the overall champion of the 1st Borneo Bird Race! Seeing new birds, experiencing other cultures, meeting new friends, establishing networks, winning the Borneo Bird Race – a very unforgettable first time in Borneo.
Next time, I will see that Bornean Bristlehead and the Bornean Pygmy Elephant.