A First Time Birdwatchers Guide to Sabah
If you are a beginner or new to birding, cities like Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan would be the optimum places where you can experience this with ease. Because of the modern infrastructure and availability of experienced bird guides, beginners will find it hassle-free and convenient in many ways.
Sabah is also well-known as an avian and wildlife hotspot in this part of the world, offering a wide range of nature experiences that can be done solo, as a couple or even as a family.
What kind of choices is available for birdwatching?
For the first-timer birder, you have several options, which is fantastic because there is no pressure like signing up for a severe 9-day bird tour or not knowing where or how to start. A great place to start is visiting the main Sabah Tourism Board information counter in Kota Kinabalu city.
Once you walk in, friendly information staff will greet you at the counter, where they will help answer any questions that you have. The staff are well-trained in all areas; therefore, you need not worry about communication issues. Plus, the staff are also multilingual in English, Bahasa Malaysia and even Mandarin.
You can inform them that you are a beginner birder or interested to do some simple birdwatching, and they will assist you with your questions. Options include either doing solo birding or engaging a bird watching guide. The staff will provide you with relevant information through brochures on birdwatching or from the specific tour companies.
What Kinds of Birds can I see in Sabah?
Generally, you get the best of all worlds when you experience birdwatching in Sabah, which means that you can choose the type of birding location, which ranges from the city to islands and from the rainforest to the mountains.
Sabah’s geographical advantages make it attractive to search for various bird species you may be interested in spotting.
The multiple terrains to spot birds include;
- Upper montane forest birds (1,800m-3,500m)
- Montane forest birds (900m-1,800m)
- Hill and submontane forest birds (300m-900m)
- Lowland rainforest birds
- Peat swamp forest birds
- Freshwater swamp, river, lake and paddy fields bird
- Secondary forest birds
- City birds
Birding Locations for Beginners in Sabah
With 688 bird species found here, 54 species are endemic to Borneo, and 33 species are endemic to Sabah. Every autumn, at least 10 million birds migrate to Malaysia and Borneo from Northern Asia, with even more birds migrating from Australia to escape the winter months.
With these birds stopping or passing through, birders have several locations that they can choose, and most of them are a stone’s throw from the main cities of Sabah. Below is a list of these places;
Birding around Kota Kinabalu
Kota Kinabalu or KK is the capital, and most likely, your port of entry into Sabah. This stunning coastal city provides several areas to experience birding by yourself or with a hired bird guide. The locations below can also be accessed by renting a car and self-driving or taking a ride-hailing service.
Tanjung Aru Beach & Prince Philip Park
This place is probably the most comfortable location for birding around Kota Kinabalu as it is located just by the beach. There is a bit of walking to do therefore you should come prepared. Overall, there have been around 15 to 20 species of birds spotted around here.
Bird to spot include the Blue Naped Parrot, the Crested Myna and the Java Sparrow, Green Imperial Pigeon, Pink Necked Green Pigeon, Olive Backed Sunbird, Brown Throated Sunbirds, Zebra Dove, Pied Thriller and Dusky Munia.
Kota Kinabalu Wetland Ramsar Site
Known as the KK Wetlands, it is one of the places to spot shorebirds or water birds. You can also see lowland, coastal and secondary forest birds here. To date, there has been 90 species of resident and migratory birds documented here.
This site acts as a green lung and buffer zone for the city and doubles as an educational site for mangrove biodiversity. KK Wetlands also comprises 24.2 hectares, and a couple of the vulnerable water birds to spot here include the Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes) and the Lesser Adjutant (Leptoptilos javanicus).
Located at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park and a 15-minute boat ride from KK, this beautiful island offers a decent viewing for seabirds. If you plan a trip to Manukan Island, keep your eye out for the various waterbirds spotted around here.
Bird species include the Philippine Scrubfowl, Cuckoo-shrikes, Pied Triller, Thrushes, Oriental Magpie-robin, Old World Warblers, Arctic Warbler, Flowerpeckers and the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. You can visit here for a half-day, full-day or overnight trip as there is also the Manukan Island Resort for lodging.
Sabah Museum Botanical Gardens
A lesser-known location but still offers several birds to spot is the botanical gardens around the Sabah Museum. This place offers 17 hectares of botanical gardens, and typical city birds are easily spotted here.
Expect Oriental Magpie-Robins, Warblers, Flowerpeckers, Common Myna, Spotted and Zebra Doves, Pidgeons and House Crows. A bonus would be to visit the museum and learn about Sabah’s unique history.
Penampang Paddy Fields
One of the lesser-known places for visiting bird watchers to Sabah, the Penampang paddy fields are heaven for wintering waders and waterbirds in Sabah. An unofficial checklist shows there are over 40 bird species found here.
Some of the exciting birds to see include the Plaintive Cuckoo, White-browed crake, Red-billed Starling (Sturnus sericeus), Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava) and Black-collared Starling (Gracupica nigricollis). The best time to visit the paddy fields for birding is also from November to January, during the peak of the migratory season.
However, you may need the services of a bird guide to visit this place as there are specific locations where you can easily spot more birds.
A famous birding site just two hours drive from Kota Kinabalu is the UNESCO World Heritage Kinabalu Park covering 75,370 hectares. The landscape and terrain here offer birds that come from lowland rainforest to sub-alpine.
This beautiful montane site creates the ideal environment for a variety of species, 17 of which are endemic to Borneo, which includes Whitehead’s Trogon and Whitehead’s Broadbill Whitehead’s Trogon and Whitehead’s Broadbill.
To date, there has been 326 bird species recorded at Kinabalu Park, which is quite an incredible number for beginner birders. Required time to spend here is a minimum of half a day or spending a night or two at the beautiful mountain lodges here.
Poring Hot Springs
If you plan to visit Kinabalu Park, then Poring Hot Springs should also be on your list along the way to the national park. This place is especially rich in lowland birdlife, which is a stark contrast to the mountainside birds.
There is no official documented bird count done here, but we can expect at least 200 plus bird species around here. Recent sightings include Banded Broadbill, Diard’s Trogon, Gold-Whiskered Barbet, Pygmy White-eye, Blue-banded Pitta and other raptors, bulbuls, broadbills, babblers and flowerpeckers.
Birding around Sandakan
Sandakan is known as the nature city of Sabah, located on the east coast and one of the best places for birding, even for beginners. The number of nature reserves, conservations and parks provide an almost complete experience for birdwatching here.
Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC)
The RDC is hands down one of the best places in Sandakan, perfect for all kinds of birders, including beginners. The entire centre is a rainforest haven created for nature lovers and has one of the best modern canopy walks in the world.
The RDC is also a pristine lowland dipterocarp and Mangrove forest with an astounding 300 bird species recorded in the area. The main steel canopy walkway or treetop walk stretches almost a kilometre long and provides mid-level bird viewing. There are also various trails available to spot ground birds.
The massive centre is located about 23 kilometres from Sandakan City, and you can visit this place by yourself or engage a bird guide from one of the Sandakan tour companies. Here, you can also expect to spot one of Sabah’s endemic and star birds called the Bornean Bristlehead.
What is Required for Beginner Birding in Sabah?
Birding in Sabah can be done in many different ways, and it is entirely up to the birder. Some want to spot birds with their naked eye, while some may choose to bring along a pair of binoculars. And some prefer to photograph their sightings, and hence camera equipment is needed.
For binoculars, a standard 8×42 type is more than enough because they are bright and have a wide field of view, making it easier to find birds and follow them in flight.
For cameras, an average mirrorless camera with a 150mm telephoto lens is more than enough to capture beautiful bird photos. Please note that point-and-shoot cameras or smartphone cameras will not get you the images you want.
For apparel, outdoor and light clothing is recommended for most bird locations unless you head to the mountains or hills where slightly thicker clothing is required. A good pair of walking or trekking shoes would also make it a comfortable experience.
You can also purchase the ‘Pocket Guide to the Birds of Borneo’ from the Kadaiku souvenir shop at Sinsuran Complex in Kota Kinabalu for bird identification. It is an essential but practical guidebook for beginner birders in Sabah.
Moving around Kota Kinabalu can also be done by renting a car and self-driving to the places mentioned above. If you are unable to drive, you have the option of taking a ride-hailing service to these places. Alternatively, you can hire a bird guide for the day, and they will bring you to these places.
When is the Best Time for Birding in Sabah?
Overall, for the optimum birding experience, May to October is the best time because of the fruiting season, and this is when Borneo’s fruit-eating birds breed.
Heavy downpours take place during the monsoon season from October to February. Still, Sabah can be visited all year round, with a varying climate between the island, rainforest, and mountain environments.
For more information, you can contact Sabah Tourism Board through their information counter at most major cities or by calling them at +60 88 212121 or emailing them at – helpdesk.sabahtourism.com.