Birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo.

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Kinabatangan River BirdwatchingSabah is often regarded as the premier birdwatching destination in Malaysia. Some of the best birding can be found in the numerous parks and forest reserves scattered throughout the state. Birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River is often considered one of the best and a must for anyone interested in birds, wildlife and nature. 

Birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River offers a unique experience, unlike any other birding location in Malaysia. By taking a boat cruise along the river, visitors can encounter many bird species, including Bornean endemics and species rare elsewhere.

Moreover, non-avian wildlife abounds, including crocodiles, proboscis monkeys and Bornean elephants. This article aims to provide helpful information for anybody interested in birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River.

Birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River

This article is mainly based on my recent experience birdwatching at Kinabatangan River (June 2023). I was based at Bilit (Bilit Adventure Lodge) for this trip, but the information provided here should also broadly apply to those based in Sukau.

How is the birdwatching experience at the Kinabatangan River?

Birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River provides an experience like no other in Malaysia. Basically, you will take a boat cruise from your hotel and search for wildlife/birds along a stretch of the river. Typically, there are morning and afternoon cruises. Each resort will have its own departure times but broadly follow the same pattern (morning and afternoon cruises).

For example, at the Bilit Adventure Lodge, morning cruises start at 6 am, and afternoon cruises start at 4 pm. These cruises last 1 – 1.5 hours, sometimes longer if plenty of wildlife is seen. Additionally, some resorts offer a night cruise option for an extra fee.

sunrise at the river
The river looks amazing at sunrise!

On these cruises, a guide will help you look for birds/animals of interest, and the boatman will slow down or stop if a viewing/photographic opportunity presents itself. The bird encounters are typically birds perching on riverside trees and those overflying the river. Occasionally, a bird may allow the boat to approach quite close, giving you great photo opportunities.

Kinabatangan River cruise
On the river cruises, you only need to relax, look out for wildlife and enjoy the scenery!

Also, don’t forget to look out for non-bird wildlife; you might be lucky enough to see a Bornean Elephant!

Between the morning and afternoon cruises, you can rest, have lunch, or take some time birding around your hotel area. Depending on where you stay, there might be a nearby jungle trail to go birding.

What birds can you see there?

The Kinabatangan River is exceptionally rich in birdlife. Some of the birds you may see there include:

  1. The endangered Storm’s Stork.
  2. Eight species of hornbills.
  3. Raptors such as the Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, Jerdon’s Baza and the Bornean endemic White-fronted Falconet.
  4. Kingfishers and Oriental Darters are common
  5. Pittas and sleeping birds can be seen on night walks.
  6. If you’re lucky, you might glimpse Kinabatangan birds’ ‘holy grail’ – the Bornean Ground-Cuckoo!
Kinabatangan River Stork-billed Kingfisher.
The Stork-billed Kingfisher can easily be spotted along the banks of the Kinabatangan.
Flying Storm's Stork
The Storm’s Stork is one of the main targets for birdwatchers to the Kinabatangan River. They can be elusive at times.

For more information on the birds of Kinabatangan River, check out the links below:

  1. Storm’s Stork at the Kinabatangan River

Look for future articles detailing my experience birding there and highlighting some of the birds I saw during my trip.

When to go to the Kinabatangan River?

You can visit the Kinabatangan year-round; however, the monsoon season (November – February) will increase rainfall and the possibility of flooding. A great time would be during the non-rainy season, especially when there are fruiting trees.

How to get to Kinabatangan River?

The starting point for the Kinabatangan is Sandakan, a city on the eastern coast of Sabah. Most visitors will likely arrive via Sandakan Airport. There are multiple flights a day to Sandakan (via several airlines) from Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. Roads also connect Sandakan; you can drive or take a bus from Kota Kinabalu.

The usual access point for the Kinabatangan is one of these two locations: Bilit or Sukau. These are small villages where most of the accommodations are located. Both locations take about 2 – 2.5 hours to drive time from Sandakan.

Public transport going to Bilit/Sukau is difficult; instead, arrange with your accommodation of choice for pickup from the airport or Sandakan town (this is usually included if you book a package with a tour company).

Alternatively, you can also self-drive. Bilit/Sukau can be reached using the main trunk road that connects Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, Lahad Datu and Tawau (AH150). The route isn’t well signposted (look out for directions to Kg. Sukau / Bilit), and the road quality can be rough at certain places. Using a navigational app will be your best bet.

Where to stay at Kinabatangan River?

Bilit has fewer accommodation options than Sukau; correspondingly, Bilit is less crowded. Sukau has more budget-friendly options; nevertheless, you can probably find accommodations to suit your needs in either of the two locations.

The boat cruises from both Bilit and Sukau broadly cover the same stretch of the Kinabatangan River, so you won’t miss out if you choose either. 

Examples of accommodations in Bilit include:

  1. Bilit Adventure Lodge (I stayed here. Click the link to check out our review of the lodge!)
  2. Bilit Rainforest Lodge 
  3. Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort
  4. Nature Lodge Kinabatangan 
Bilit Adventure Lodge.
I stayed at the Bilit Adventure Lodge at the Kinabatangan River.

At Sukau:

  1. Sukau Rainforest Lodge
  2. Borneo Nature Lodge 
  3. Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge
  4. Sukau Backpackers B&B. 

There are also homestay-type accommodations at Sukau.

  1. Sukau River Homestay 
  2. Sukau Riverside Homestay
  3. Sukau Menanggul Homestay 

How to go birdwatching at Kinabatangan River?

For birdwatchers, a birdwatching-specific cruise is preferable (as opposed to the regular cruises, which aren’t bird-specific). This is easiest if you book your trip using one of several birdwatching tour agencies available in Sabah. Most of these will have tours that cover the Kinabatangan.

Alternatively, some resorts/hotels may offer a more customised cruise if you arrange directly with them. For example, during my stay at the Bilit Adventure Lodge, we arranged with the hotel directly for a birdwatching-specific cruise. We had a bird guide joining us; moreover, our birdwatching cruises lasted up to 4 hours.

Additionally, we visited some locations that are more bird-rich, such as the Menanggol and Tenegang rivers. We also took time to look for the ground cuckoo, something not usually done on the regularly scheduled cruises.

Kinabatangan River boat cruise.
The river cruises will take you along pristine stretches of riverside jungle.

Even a regular scheduled cruise from your hotel can be very rewarding, as the Kinabatangan is exceptionally rich in birdlife. It’s worth noting that the boat cruises are absolutely fantastic for medium to large species (green-pigeon to stork-sized birds); on the other hand, these cruises are sub-optimal for smaller species such as bulbuls, flycatchers or babblers.

I found it quite difficult to identify small birds from the boat; additionally, ground-dwelling birds (i.e. partridges, pittas) can be very challenging to see. This is likely due to the distance from the boat to the riverbank, the dense vegetation along the river, as well as the movements of the boat.

The dense jungle along the river
The heavily forested banks of the Kinabatangan can be very beautiful, especially early in the morning or late afternoon.

Alternatives to boat cruises?

Land-based birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River is limited. Your hotel may have an area to go birdwatching, depending on where you stay. At the Bilit Adventure Lodge, for example, there is a fantastic jungle trail nearby where we did some birding.

Also, don’t forget to check with your accommodation of choice whether a night walk is possible. The night walks are a fantastic way to see nocturnal wildlife, in addition to sleeping / roosting birds! For example, at the Bilit Adventure Lodge, the night walks take place along muddy jungle trails led by a local guide.

Leech socks and Wellington boots are available for rent at MYR 10 each (these are absolutely essential). We spotted roosting flycatchers, kingfishers and a pitta during these night walks!

Bilit Adventure Lodge night walk.
Night walks involve leech socks, wellington boots and a sense of adventure! Many wildlife can be seen during these walks.

General Information for visitors to the Kinabatangan River

  1. There are limited options for convenience stores or food outlets at Sukau (none at Bilit). There are no ATMs present. Make sure you buy everything you need before departing for Sukau/Bilit.
  2. The distance between Sukau and Bilit is about 14 km by road.
  3. There is a small health clinic and police station at Sukau.
  4. The climate is generally warm, with rain showers possible at any time of the day. Make sure you bring waterproof gear/raincoats while on a cruise!
  5. A wide-brimmed hat (and sunblock) is essential as it can get very sunny during the cruise (the boats are usually uncovered)
  6. There are crocodiles in the river. Needless to say, don’t swim in it!

    Kinabatangan River Saltwater Crocodile.
    Look out for Saltwater Crocodiles as you cruise along the river. If the water level is low, they can be basking on the riverbank.

Kinabatangan is also part of the Asian Bird Fair 2023 post-tour activity; therefore, anyone attending the event in Kota Kinabalu as a delegate can choose your post-tour to several places around Sabah for birdwatching.

The Asian Bird Fair is being held in Kota Kinabalu from 13-17 October and is the third time that this prestigious fair has been held in Malaysia. Kinabatangan is also one of the sought-after destinations for birding and wildlife from worldwide visitors.

Conclusion

Anyone interested in booking a Kinabatangan birdwatching tour can contact us at Birdwatching Asia. We can also assist you even if you are interested in birding around the other popular places of Sabah Borneo.

The Kinabatangan River is a biodiversity hotspot that boasts a dazzling array of wildlife, many of which are endemic to Borneo. Many of Borneo’s highly sought-after birds can also be found here. The lush, forested riverbanks of the Kinabatangan provide a scenic backdrop as you cruise along looking for wildlife.

What’s more, the Kinabatangan is relatively easily accessed and has a selection of accommodation options to suit any budget and requirements. All in all, birdwatching at the Kinabatangan River is a unique and unforgettable experience that is a must for anyone interested in birds, wildlife and nature.

For more information on visiting the Kinabatangan River, check out the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary page on the Sabah Tourism website. I will update this post from time to time with links to additional articles detailing my experience birdwatching there.

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