Big, beautiful and brimming with life, Borneo is a “biological treasure chest,” says Court Whelan, Chief Sustainability Officer with Natural Habitat Adventures.
“Growing up, watching nature documentaries, getting into biology, Borneo was so high on my list because it set the bar for what real tropical wilderness could look like,” adds Whelan, who’s also led Nat Hab expeditions on the island—Asia’s largest—since 2017. “And I can tell you: Each and every expedition leaves me more and more satisfied with what I discover.”
It’s no wonder: Among its leafy coasts, labyrinthine mangroves and lush rain forests—among Earth’s oldest—Borneo shelters myriad species, including more than 5,000 flowering plants, 3,000 trees and 200 terrestrial mammals, such as pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and endangered orangutans.
And while those orangutans are typically what first draw travelers to the island, once people visit, “they open up that big treasure chest of all the other amazing things about Borneo,” explains fellow Nat Hab Expedition Leader Brad Josephs. This includes rare flora and fauna finds ranging from nature’s largest bloom (the monster corpse flower) to “flying” lemurs and frogs, along with an immense trove of avian species—700-plus (including more than 50 endemics) by some counts—that makes Borneo one of the world’s top spots for birding.
So, which birds can you hope to see on Nat Hab’s Wilds of Borneo: Orangutans & Beyond adventure? How can you distinguish a female rhinoceros hornbill from a male? What’s the secret to achieving a beautiful “bokeh” effect while photographing a black-and-red broadbill? And what are Nat Hab and our travel partner World Wildlife Fund doing to help ensure Borneo’s forests remain friendly for our feathered friends? Grab your best binocs and field notebook, and let’s get birding. It’s time to add to your life list!
Birds in the Bush: A Few of Our Favorite Finds in Borneo
Must-see number one: Borneo’s national bird, the rhinoceros hornbill, is “absolutely extraordinary,” says Whelan. A frequent motif in Bornean art and dance, the rhino hornbill sports a long yellow bill below an orange-red, pompadour-esque casque that contrasts with its shiny black-and-white plumage. Males’ irises are red, and females’, white.
Look for these iconic birds while boating the Kinabatangan River and its network of floodplains, one of the many birding meccas in Sabah, the Malaysian state of northern Borneo (other parts of the island belong to Brunei and Indonesia). While bird watching here, you’ll also find the rhino’s more conservatively clad cousins, bushy-crested hornbills (draped in dark-brown plumage save for bare bluish skin around their eyes), along with Borneo’s six other hornbill species. Endemic ground cuckoos and Bornean bristleheads, vacationing ruddy kingfishers and even endangered Storm’s storks are also known to frequent the floodplains.
Bonus: The Kinabatangan floodplains are ideal for photographing birds in flight, says Whelan. Keep your head up and camera poised for soaring Brahminy kites (Borneo’s version of bald eagles), which look especially sublime from below (unless you’re a fish).
Night cruises along the Kinabatangan allow travelers to sidle up along sleeping birds like stork-billed kingfishers, shawled beneath bright blue remiges (wing feathers). “They really don’t mind us coming up, shedding a lower-intensity light on them, just for a few minutes, to get a few pictures and enjoy their beauty,” says Josephs.
“The nighttime sounds of the river are fantastic,” Josephs adds, as is the chance to glimpse one of his favorite nocturnal species, buffy fish owls, known for their “gorgeous golden eyes.”
Farther south in Sabah state lies the Danum Valley and the Danum Valley Conservation Area, “a pristine … blanketing rainforest full of biodiversity,” says Josephs, where more than 325 bird species have been recorded. Highlights include flashy blue-headed pittas, more modestly colored giant pittas, Bornean wren-babblers and, on an especially good day, critically endangered helmeted hornbills.
A stay at the secluded Borneo Rainforest Lodge and strolls across surrounding canopy walkways provide bird’s-eye views of the densely vegetated valley. Likely sightings include black-and-red broadbills (maroon underparts match nicely with a black breast-band), great slaty woodpeckers (the world’s largest woodpecker species), endemic white-crowned shamas and migrating fairy pittas with aquamarine sequined wings.
Visits to places such as Bako National Park, Selingan Turtle Island, Semenggoh Orangutan Center and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary offer additional opportunities to spy more birds of Borneo—and the island’s other wildlife stars. Just remember: Keep your life list at hand—it’s likely to fill up fast. Extra points if you spot a spectacled flowerpecker, identified as a new species in 2019, or a black-browed babbler, recently rediscovered in Borneo’s rain forests 172 years after it was first seen.
For the Birds: Borneo’s Avian Conservation in Action
Sadly, the birds of Borneo face a staggering number of threats, landing scores of the island’s avian species on the IUCN Red List, including many with vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered status.
Chief among those threats, according to WWF, are the illegal wildlife trade; extractive industries such as precious hardwoods, rubber and coal; and hunting (despite its status as vulnerable, even Borneo’s iconic rhinoceros hornbill is often hunted for its meat and tail feathers). Rapid deforestation—74% of Borneo was covered in forest in 1985, compared to only 33% in 2020—and ever-expanding palm oil plantations are also decimating critical avian habitats. This is especially concerning, given the natural role Borneo’s birds play in dispersing seeds for fruit trees while growing its forests.
To reverse the tide, WWF works with local communities and governments in Borneo, pressing for responsible forestry, sustainable agriculture and increased transparency to ensure a safe future for all the island’s species. One of WWF’s largest successes, the Heart of Borneo project, helped preserve stretches of Bornean rain forest larger than the state of Kansas.
For the Birders: Bird-Friendly Organizations, Citizen Science & a Handy New Map
How can you help? For starters, by eschewing illegally harvested hardwoods and products made with palm oil. Contributing to organizations such as WWF and the World Land Trust, whose efforts include working with local partners in Borneo to restore hornbill habitats, also helps, as does traveling only with conscientious, eco-first travel providers. Nat Hab, for instance, designs its itineraries in conjunction with WWF and offsets all carbon emissions from each trip, proceeds of which help fund WWF’s efforts.
When you go: Consider contributing to citizen science programs during your trip. By using apps such as iNaturalist, developed by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, travelers can help scientists identify the birds of Borneo and map their distribution. To date, iNaturalist users have logged nearly 500 species across the island.
And before you leave: Be sure to check out Nat Hab’s packing suggestions, including binocular specs for optimal wildlife viewing and ideas for water-resistant daypacks (your camera equipment will thank you). This colorful new birding map created by Tourism Malaysia Sabah and the Sandakan Borneo Bird Club will also give you an in on additional birds to seek out while in Sabah, including the Kinabatangan floodplains and Danum Valley.
For the Birding Photographers: Pro Tips on Getting the Perfect Shot
Now, about that bokeh, or pleasing background blur that really makes birding pics pop. Achieving that look involves a two-step process, says Whelan, also an accomplished wildlife photographer, who details the method in his article, “The Best Settings for Bird Photography.”
Start with a wide-open lens aperture (e.g., f/2.8 or f/3.5) and then “maximize the distance between the bird and the background and minimize the distance between your camera and the bird,” Whelan advises. “Thus, part of the strategy in getting great bird shots is to find an open branch with a clear background behind it.”
Among Whelan’s other pro tips: Practice while at home and, once you’re out birding in Borneo, dial your camera settings in ahead of the shot. Then be prepared to simply wait until the right opportunity arrives. It may take time, but “when the real deal is in front of you, you’ll be ready to get that fantastic shot.”