By Camille King
The Borneo Bird Festival is one of the largest nature festivals in Malaysia. It is an annual event to celebrate the magnificent birds of Borneo. Its objectives are to create public awareness about nature conservation, to promote birdwatching, and encourage eco-tourism activities. Borneo Bird Club, together with the Sabah Forestry Department, organizes the event and is supported by the Sabah Tourism Board. The festival was first held in 2009 in Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok, Sandakan, Malaysia—the venue for almost all of the events. It provides a platform for the annual gathering of nature enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and wildlife photographers.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, there were no festivals organized in 2020 and 2021. The organizers resumed the event in 2022, a two-day event held on October 22-23 in Rainforest Discovery Centre Sepilok, Sandakan, Sabah. The theme of the festival was Return to Nature, which was perfect for the resumption of the festival after a two-year hiatus. They invited the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) to participate by sponsoring three club members.
I enjoy travelling so I volunteered to join the Festival. Being a new member of the WBCP (I joined in 2020), I wanted to experience a bird fair. Helen Ong (also a new member who joined in 2021) and Diuvs de Jesus (long-time member) joined me to represent the club. Mike Lu (President of the Club), led the group. The Borneo Bird Festival sponsored our three night hotel accommodation, all meals and local transport. They also provided an exhibit space and a 15 minute presentation slot because the objective of the trip was to promote the Philippines as birding destination and showcase its endemic bird species.
We flew out from Manila on October 21. It was a two hour flight to Kota Kinabalu for a connecting flight to Sandakan (45 minute flight). Upon exiting immigration and customs in Kota Kinabalu, our entry point into Malaysia, I noticed this Birding Fun Map at the airport.
It goes to show that Sabah tourism and the local government place importance on birds and nature. The same Birding Map was displayed at the arrival area of Sandakan Airport.
We landed in Sandakan on the afternoon of the same day. The organizers made sure that we had transport to get to the hotel. Our tour guide and driver were waiting outside the airport. They were very hospitable and spoke Filipino (Filipino roots because Mindanao is very close to Sabah). After checking in at the hotel, the rest of the afternoon was at leisure. We explored the area surrounding the hotel and went birdwatching.
We were billeted at the Borneo Sepilok B&B.
Asian Glossy Starlings. There were so many of them!
Spotted Doves making more Spotted Doves.
To our amazement, there were even Oriental Pied Hornbills perched on the dead tree outside our rooms.
The official start of the festivities was the welcome dinner and program hosted by the organizers.
We had an early start on the first day. We arrived at Rainforest Discovery Centre at 6 a.m., (5 minute car ride from our hotel) to join the guided birdwalk sponsored by Sony Malaysia. I was so impressed by the rainforest canopy walk. It was really a wow moment with the gorgeous morning light streaming in through the trees.
The Canopy walk is a series of elevated walkways built through the rainforest, 475 meters long with 3 viewing towers. The walkway is 1.5 meters wide and is 27 meters above the ground at its highest point. We were at the same level of the tree canopy and the birds!
In addition to the canopy walkway, there are also trails on the ground for hiking and birdwatching.
The guides were very knowledgeable and helpful so we observed a lot of bird species.
Some of the bird species we observed:
White-crowned Hornbill (female)
Red-naped Trogon (Male)
White-bellied Woodpecker (left) and Black Hornbill (right)
Helen, Diuvs and I enjoyed the guided bird walk extremely. But, we had to set up the club booth, so we reluctantly left the bird walk before it officially ended. The club booth was set up and ready at 8 a.m.
We had club merchandise for sale, namely notebooks, stickers, shirts, books, and button pins.
There was also a free coloring activity.
We welcomed visitors to the booth by offering complimentary snacks of dried mango and cornick. We took turns manning the booth so that we could visit the other exhibits. There were exhibits from different conservation groups like Bird Conservation Society of Thailand, Xplore Gaia, Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre, and Nature Society Singapore. I enjoyed looking at their merchandise. I purchased a Spoon-billed Sandpiper Luggage Tag from the Bird Conservation Society of Thailand.
Camera brands and other optic companies also had booths to display their gear.
The major sponsor, Sony Malaysia, lent camera bodies and lenses for free. Thank you, Sony Malaysia!
The Sony camera bodies and lenses on display. I tried out the Sony 400MM 2.8.
Diuvs borrowed a Sony A7iv and a Sony 200-600mm for a whole day.
We also took turns manning the booth to get some birdwatching in during the day. We really couldn’t resist going to the canopy walkway because it is very beautiful.
Thick-billed Spiderhunter I observed on my own.
Diuvs and I observed this Crimson Sunbird during one of our bird walks.
Left photo shows Helen and me with the Bornean Bristlehead Mascot. Right photo shows Helen, Diuvs and me at the Rainforest Discovery Centre.
Aside from birds, we observed Pig-tailed Macaques and squirrels.
Our most amazing encounter was with the Orangutans in the canopy walkway. It was such a beautiful experience because they were only a few meters away from us.
Diuvs did a presentation about Philippine endemic species in the afternoon of the first day.
There were several food booths around the center. I love food so I tried the Shawarma, coffee and soft serve ice cream.
It was a long and tiring first day but, overall, we were happy with the booth turn-out and all our experiences. For dinner, Robert Ong, President of the Sandakan Borneo Birdwatching club hosted the sumptuous dinner at his Bed and Breakfast in Sepilok.
The activities on the second day of the festival were similar to the first day, however, there were more visitors being a Sunday. There were a lot of kids and local families enjoying the different activities such as tree planting kits for kids, artistic bird make-up and parade competition, drawing competition, junior photo race, zipline, rappelling, and bubbles. What struck me the most was that the festival was not geared solely to birdwatchers and wildlife photographers but to the entire community to participate in and appreciate nature conservation.
The organizers hosted a farewell dinner at a seafood restaurant on our second and last day of the festival. It was a very nice ending to an amazing two days of activities. Two days were definitely not enough.
Thank you, Borneo Bird Festival for having us and congratulations on the successful event! We hope to attend the next one.