The Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok, Sabah, is a fantastic destination for birdwatchers. This nature preserve is famous for its amazing avian biodiversity, including rare endemics such as the Bornean Bristlehead. Therefore, it’s easy to see why birdwatching at the Rainforest Discovery Centre is a highlight for many birders visiting Sabah.
Thankfully, the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is easily accessible, located a mere 30 minutes away from the airport or town. Moreover, the facilities provided on-site are top-notch.
This article aims to:
- Provide relevant information on visiting the RDC, especially for first-timers.
- Give an idea of what to expect when birding here.
- Provide a list of suitable accommodations nearby.
Birdwatching at the Rainforest Discovery Centre
The information presented in this article is mostly derived from my own experience visiting here in 2020 and 2023.
Where is the Rainforest Discovery Centre?
The RDC is located at Sepilok, near Sandakan, Sabah. The RDC is:
- 17 km from Sandakan Airport – about 30 minutes drive time, depending on traffic.
- 25 km from Sandakan town centre – about 35-45 minutes drive time, depending on traffic.
- 2 km from the world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
How to get to the Rainforest Discovery Centre?
Getting to the RDC from the airport or Sandakan is easy by using e-hailing apps or taxis. If you’re using a rental, simply search for ‘Rainforest Discovery Centre’ using Google Maps or a similar navigational app.
Some hotels within the Sepilok area include pickup from the airport, so check with your hotel before arrival. Then, it’s a simple case of making your way from the hotel to the RDC. Moreover, certain hotels are within walking distance of the RDC!
Weather at the RDC
Being located in the extreme lowlands, the RDC is frequently hot and humid, with rain showers possible at any time. When visiting the RDC, don’t forget to bring the following:
- Light, breathable clothing.
- Sun protection, as it can get sunny on the Skywalk
- Waterproof gear (i.e. raincoat, drybag) in case it rains.
- Insect repellant is useful, although mosquitoes and leeches aren’t a major issue here.
How is the Birdwatching experience at the RDC?
Birdwatching at the RDC is relatively easy. Traversing the Skywalk is a breeze for anyone, and the jungle trails are flat and well-marked. There are no steep uphill or downhill inclines. Simply walk along the paths/skywalk and look/listen for birds! Remember to bring along plenty of drinking water.
The best time to go birdwatching is early morning (6-10 am) and late afternoon (3.30-6 pm). It can get really hot during midday; consequently, there is much less bird activity during this time.
There are no bird feeding stations within the RDC, as this practice is strongly discouraged here.
What birds can you see while birdwatching at the Rainforest Discovery Centre?
The birds that can be seen here are typically resident lowland forest species. Additionally, during the northern winter, visiting migrants add to the already dazzling array of avian species found within the RDC.
The Rainforest Skywalk is an impressive 620 m long metal canopy walkway. This structure is solidly built and very stable while providing a birds-eye view of the surrounding jungle. You can bring your heavy camera/tripods without any problems; therefore, the skywalk is an excellent place for bird photography.
There are three towers positioned along the skywalk. These are the Bristlehead Tower, Trogon Tower, and the Hornbill Tower. The towers provide an even more elevated platform to observe birds and wildlife.
The Rainforest Skywalk allows birders to easily see species that normally frequent the jungle canopy. These include (bird names in bold indicate Bornean endemics):
- The Bornean Bristlehead. The unquestionable star bird of RDC (and Borneo). Many come here to see it, and many have failed (myself included!). This enigmatic bird frequents the RDC and the surrounding areas; however, actually seeing one requires a massive dose of luck. You can potentially see them anywhere within RDC; however, the skywalk is probably your best bet for these canopy-dwelling birds.
- Hornbills such as the Rhinoceros, Black, Oriental-pied, Bushy-crested and the White-crowned.
- Raptors such as the Crested Serpent-Eagle, Rufous-bellied Eagle and White-bellied Sea-Eagle. The Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle can often be easily seen here.
- The Black-and-Yellow Broadbill often builds its nest near the walkways.
- Fruiting trees often attract the Red-eyed, Cream-vented, Streaked and Charlotte’s Bulbuls. If you’re lucky, you might encounter the recently discovered Bornean endemic Cream-eyed Bulbul.
- Bornean Black Magpie. These all-black birds are very noisy and conspicuous.
- Migrant flycatchers include the Grey-streaked, Asian Brown and Dark-sided Flycatchers.
Photos of birds seen at the Skywalk
The RDC is criss-crossed by a number of well-maintained jungle trails. In contrast to the skywalk, these jungle trails provide opportunities to see birds that frequent the understory. Several of these trails follow small streams, which often attract an assortment of birds.
Some of the birds you can encounter along jungle trails include:
- Pittas, such as the Western Hooded Pitta, Blue-headed Pitta and the Black-crowned Pitta. Pittas are shy and secretive birds; therefore, you’ll need some luck to spot them!
- The Sabah Partridge is a Sabah endemic species.
- A variety of babblers frequent the understory. Common ones include the Grey-hooded Babbler, Chestnut-rumped Babbler, Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler and the Sooty-capped Babbler.
- White-crowned Shama. This excellent songster is difficult to see outside of protected areas due to trapping for the cage bird trade.
- Trogons. At the RDC, you can see the Diard’s (common here), Red-naped and Scarlet-rumped Trogons.
- The Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfisher and the Rufous-collared Kingfisher frequent the trails, especially near streams. On the other hand, the Stork-billed and Blue-eared Kingfishers are easily seen at the lake near the entrance. Also, listen out for the wailing calls of the Bornean Banded Kingfisher!
- Woodpeckers, including the Grey-and-buff, Buff-necked, Buff-rumped, White-bellied, Orange-backed, Great-slaty and Maroon Woodpeckers. The Rufous Piculet is common, and the rare Olive-backed Woodpecker is also possible.
Pay attention to the streams along the jungle paths. Small birds often bathe in these streams in the afternoon, which makes for fantastic photographs!
Photos of birds seen along the trails
Anything else other than birds?
A resounding yes! The RDC is home to countless other species of flora and fauna that’ll surely excite nature lovers.
You can spot the following animals within the RDC:
- Orangutans are occasionally seen along the Skywalk. If you’re lucky enough to see one, keep your distance.
- Prevost’s Squirrel and the Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel.
- The Red Giant Flying-Squirrel can be seen from the skywalk at dusk.
- Pig-tailed Macaques roam the RDC compound. If you encounter a macaque blocking the Skywalk or trail, it’s best to find an alternate route. The alpha males can get aggressive around people.
- Pit vipers can occasionally be seen coiled around the metal railings of the skywalk.
- Various nocturnal animals can be encountered during the guided night walk (see below).
RDC night walk
The night walk is a must for anyone visiting the RDC. The rainforest comes alive after dark, with a different set of animals becoming active. These walks are guided by experienced park rangers, and last around 2 hours. During these walks, visitors may encounter:
- Western Tarsier
- Sunda Stink-Badger
- Slow Loris
- Various insects, reptiles and amphibians.
- For birders, owls such as the Sunda Scops-Owl, Brown Boobook and the Oriental Bay-Owl are possible. Sleeping birds are often seen as well.
- Plant Discovery Garden. Located near the entrance, this garden contains a multitude of plant species that will surely make plant lovers happy.
- Flying squirrel zipline, located at the main lake.
Public facilities at the RDC
The RDC has excellent facilities located within its compounds:
- Public toilets are located throughout the RDC.
- The Keruing Cafe is located near the start of the Skywalk. This restaurant is a great place to relax between birding sessions.
- Gazebos and shelters dot the park, providing shelter from the sun or rain.
- A souvenir shop is located within the new visitors centre.
- The Kabili Theatre is a mini theatre for talks and presentations. A bigger hall (the Rainforest Hall) is located within the visitors centre.
- Muslim prayer rooms are located at the new visitors centre.
- Signages throughout the park are excellent, so you’re unlikely to get lost. There are also numerous educational signs providing visitors with information on the flora and fauna seen within RDC.
Fees and opening times
The ticketing counter closes at 5 pm; therefore, you’ll need to register for the night walk before this. Additionally, take note that except for the guided night walk, all visitors are required to leave the RDC by 6 pm.
There are no accommodations within the RDC; nevertheless, there are several hotels located in the vicinity.
Within walking distance:
- Sepilok B&B (400 metres from RDC). Low to mid-range accommodation with dormitory options available. I stayed here during my trip in 2020. Decent rooms, with plenty of birds in the surroundings.
- Nature Lodge Sepilok (600 m from RDC). Similar to the B&B, it also with dormitory options.
- My Nature Resort (700 m from RDC). High-end accommodation is located adjacent to the Forest Reserve.
- Borneo Sepilok Rainforest Resort (900 m from RDC). Newly completed low to mid-range accommodation.
These hotels are more than 1.5 km away from RDC. You may need to take a hotel shuttle service or e-hailing/taxi to get to the RDC. Walking is certainly possible and usually takes 20 – 30 minutes (or longer if birding along the way).
- Sepilok Jungle Resort. Low to mid-range resort nestled within lush surroundings. I stayed here while attending the recent Borneo Bird Festival 2023. The resort area has plenty of birds; thus, this resort is popular with birdwatchers.
- Sepilok Forest Edge Resort
- Sepilok Nature Resort
For more detailed information on where to stay near the RDC, check out our ‘Where to Stay in Sepilok?’ article.
The Borneo Bird Festival
The RDC also plays host to the Borneo Bird Festival, an annual event that celebrates everything bird-related! Co-organised by the Borneo Bird Club and Sabah Forestry, the 13th iteration concluded recently (21-22 October 2023). For more information on this festival, head over to the following links:
Additional information and links
For more information on going birdwatching at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, check out the following links:
- The RDC page on the Sabah Tourism website
- MySabah.com has additional useful information on visiting the RDC
- List of species that can be seen while birdwatching at the Rainforest Discovery Centre via eBird.
Birdwatching at the Rainforest Discovery Centre is a must for any visiting birder. An exceptional diversity of birds, combined with excellent public facilities, make birdwatching here easy and rewarding. The chance to see the Bornean Bristlehead alone is well worth the entrance fee!