Birds of Kinabalu Park – Part 2: Miscellaneous endemics

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Kinabalu Park Birds

The diversity and uniqueness of the birds of Kinabalu Park ensures this place remains a favourite among birdwatchers. In my previous articles, I’ve highlighted several species of endemic birds, including the highly sought-after Whitehead’s Trio. In this second part, I’ll spotlight some additional Bornean endemic species that can be found at Kinabalu Park HQ. 

Head over to the links below to access the previous articles in this series:

  1. The Star Birds of Kinabalu National Park – The Whitehead’s Trio
  2. Birds of Kinabalu Park – Part 1: Common endemics

Birds of Kinabalu Park – Part 2: Miscellaneous endemics

This article will focus on some miscellaneous Bornean endemic species that can be encountered at Kinabalu Park HQ (KPHQ) and Timpohon Gate. Some of these birds of Kinabalu Park are somewhat elusive; therefore, I don’t have photos of them. I’ll update this article with photos accordingly whenever I obtain them.

Once again, the information and photos provided in this article are mainly based on my visits to KPHQ in 2019 and 2023. The excellent Phillips’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo and eBird are the primary reference sources.

Understory birds of Kinabalu Park

The following species calls the dark understory of the forest their home.

Mountain Wren-Babbler

This skulking bird is typically seen moving about in small flocks amidst the forest’s understory. The bird is relatively common at KPHQ; however, its habits mean it’s not easy to spot. Like many other wren-babblers, this cute bird has a rather dull plumage. 

Kinabalu Park Mountain Wren-Babbler
This Mountain Wren-Babbler perched out in the open long enough for me to photograph it.
Bornean Shortwing

A small bird that looks like a miniature thrush. The male is slaty-dark-blue, whereas the female has rufous on its face and underparts. Similar to the Mountain Wren-Babbler, this bird prefers the forest understory. This bird can be tricky to spot; however, its presence can often be detected by its piercing, undulating song.

Kinabalu Park Bornean Shortwing
The Bornean Shortwing is a skulking species preferring the dark forest understory. The photo is of a male bird, indicated by its slaty-dark-blue plumage.

The Bornean Shortwing is closely related to the flycatchers. Previously a subspecies of the White-browed Shortwing, it was recently afforded full species status; hence, it is now a Bornean endemic.

Bird Wave Participants

Bornean Green-Magpie

This luminous green bird is part of the crow family. The bird is delightfully dressed in a bright green body, red bill, chestnut wings, black eye-stripe and striking pale eyes. Reasonably common at KPHQ, this bird often participates in mixed-species feeding flocks (‘bird waves’), especially with laughingthrushes, treepies and drongos.

A perched Bornean Green-Magpie
The striking pale eyes of the Bornean Green-Magpie contrast strongly against the black eye-stripe. This gives the bird a startled expression!

A close relative, the Common Green-Magpie, can also occasionally be seen at KPHQ. This bird is similar in appearance to the Bornean Green-Magpie but is much rarer. The Bornean Green-Magpie can be told apart from the Common Green-Magpie by the following features:

  • Pale eyes (versus dark eyes on the Common)
  • The white part of the wings lacks dark tips (versus dark tips present on the Common)
Bare-headed Laughingthrush

This laughingthrush has a rather peculiar appearance. The bird is black overall, with a coral-red bill. The face and crown are bare (no feathers) and pale yellow. The Bare-headed Laughingthrush will not win any beauty contests, for sure!

Bare-headed Laughingthrush foraging
This Bare-headed Laughingthrush was spotted as part of a ‘bird wave’. I observed it flicking around dried leaves, looking for food.

This bird is uncommon at KPHQ; consequently, it’s on many wanted lists. Indeed, during my 2019 trip there, I only saw one. The Bare-headed Laughingthrush frequently joins mixed-species flocks. Therefore, one way to spot this bird is to examine any bird wave you encounter at KPHQ carefully.

Interestingly, this bird has a mainland relative – the Black Laughingthrush. Both are classified as part of the babbler family rather than the laughingthrush family.

Uncommon Thrushes of Kinabalu Park

The following species are relatively scarce at KPHQ; consequently, they are highly coveted by visiting birders.

Fruithunter

A beautiful thrush with a fantastic name that I’ve only just encountered at KPHQ in July 2023. The male bird is mostly silvery-grey, whereas the female has a rufous tint. As its name suggests, this bird is mainly a frugivore; nevertheless, it occasionally joins mixed-species insect hunting flocks.

The Fruithunter is infrequently seen at KPHQ; therefore, it’s a highly sought-after species. Look for this bird along the Power Station road, especially at fruiting trees.

Everett’s Thrush

The Everett’s thrush lives in the understory around KPHQ, preferring to stick close to the ground. This is a shy bird; consequently, your best bet would be to look for them along quiet jungle trails. Apparently, the Bukit Ular trail is one of the better trails for this elusive species. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to encounter this bird.

More easily heard than seen.

Red-breasted Partridge

This beautiful bird is, like many partridges, shy and difficult to see. Instead, listen out for its loud calls. Pairs of these birds often duet together, especially in the early morning.

At KPHQ, I’ve only heard it around the roads near the entrance areas. During my July 2023 trip, a pair was spotted by others at the gazebos near the entrance. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to see the bird. Needless to say, I have no photos of it!

Mountain Barbet

At KPHQ, the Mountain Barbet isn’t as common as the Golden-naped Barbet. This barbet prefers lower altitudes than the Golden-naped, but they overlap at KPHQ. Like most barbets, this mostly green bird is easier heard than seen. The song is a series of numerous rapid ‘took-took-took’ notes. In between the series, there are hiccup-like notes.

I heard this barbet at KPHQ several times during my trip in 2019, especially around the Kiau View trail and the entrance areas. It’s possible these calls are from birds lower down the mountain slopes.

High-altitude specialist birds of Kinabalu Park

The following species prefer elevations higher than the HQ area.

Pale-faced Bulbul

The Pale-faced Bulbul looks similar to the familiar Yellow-vented Bulbul, lacking only the black eye-line of the ubiquitous lowland species. This bird is only found in Borneo’s mountains and is typically easier to see at higher altitudes. At KPHQ, the best place to see it would thus be Timpohon Gate, located 1800 m above sea level. I was lucky enough to stumble across a pair at Timpohon Gate on the last day of my 2019 trip.

Pale-faced Bulbul at Timpohon Gate
This photo makes it easy to see how the Pale-faced Bulbul gets its name! This bird was spotted at Timpohon Gate.

This bulbul is considered a full species by some authorities (thus, by extension, a Bornean endemic). Conversely, others consider it a subspecies of the more widespread Flavescent Bulbul (for example, eBird). Regardless of its taxonomic status, this bulbul is still a unique bird much desired by visiting birders.

Mountain Black-eye

A small, olive-green bird that specialises in living at high altitudes. This bird is quite common at Borneo’s highest mountains, including the summit trail of Mount Kinabalu. Thankfully, the Black-eye occasionally visits lower elevations and thus can be seen around Timpohon Gate as well. 

I’ve only recently (July 2023) managed to see this bird at Mount Alab Substation (part of the Crocker Range Park). Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain good photos of it!

And finally….

Mountain Serpent-Eagle

Also known as the Kinabalu Serpent-Eagle, this raptor is, ironically, uncommon at KPHQ. It looks very similar to the familiar Crested Serpent-Eagle; thus, the two can be difficult to tell apart visually. The Mountain Serpent-Eagle usually prefers higher altitudes; however, there is some altitudinal overlap. 

One way to differentiate them is to listen for the calls. The Mountain Serpent-Eagle has a call that is quite distinct from the Crested. 

I was fortunate to see this species at KPHQ during my 2019 trip. The bird was seen soaring along a mountain ridge just before sunset. In another session, I also managed to hear one bird calling. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos of this bird (yet).

One thing to note….

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed some birds in the photos above have ‘bling’ on their legs. These colour-coded rings are part of an ornithological study done by a North American university on the birds of Kinabalu Park. The study concluded recently, but some birds still have the rings present.

I will update this info whenever I find out which university was involved and what they were researching.

More information

For more information on birding at KPHQ, check out my Birdwatching at Kinabalu Park HQ articles at the links provided below:

  1. Birdwatching at Kinabalu Park HQ – Part 1: Birdwatching info
  2. Birdwatching at Kinabalu Park HQ – Part 2: General information

Conclusion

Kinabalu Park HQ is blessed with various avian species, many exclusive to Borneo’s mountains. Some of these birds of Kinabalu Park are easily seen; conversely, others are more elusive. Thanks to this diversity, KPHQ is a must-visit birdwatching destination for any birder visiting Sabah.

 


References:

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

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