Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Birding at Tabin

Tabin Wildlife Reserve at approximately 121,000 hectares (300,000 acres) is the largest wildlife reserve in the state of Sabah, Borneo. No where is it more true where birders can say, “Species are common here, but individuals less so.” Comparing this rainforest and the Tabin Wildlife Resort to our other birding destinations in South-east Asia, we found this to be the perfect mix of good birding, superb accommodations, and delicious food. And besides the birds, we frequently encountered Gibbons, Bearded Pigs and an array of spectacular butterflies on our walks on the dirt roads that run through the reserve.

Until the early 1970s, the Tabin was covered by primary dipterocarp forest, but then was intensively logged until the mid-1980s. A core area forest of about 8,600 hectares (21,500 acres) was left intact. In 1984, Tabin was gazetted as a wildlife reserve. Today, much of the remaining forest is early to mid-secondary growth with trees averaging 20m to 40m in height. Most of the area surrounding the reserve has been converted to plantations, primarily Oil Palm and Cocoa. The nearest town is Lahad Datu, about 50km to the SW or approximately 90 minutes by vehicle. For birders, this is all good news, since it makes Tabin accessible and provides a variety of habitats in which to see birds.

Birding at Tabin is easy. We had our best luck by walking along the dirt road each morning that runs north from the Wildlife Department, located about 1km from the Tabin Wildlife Resort. Ask your guide to pick you up in a vehicle at 6am at your Cabin, and then drive you to entrance to the Mud Volcano trail; however, instead of heading into the forest, simply walk along the main road. You will be looking into secondary forest with many tall trees. We found the best birding to be between about 6:30am and 11am, with a peak from 7-9am. It is often foggy in the early morning, until about 7:00am. The heat of the day begins to build by 10am, but fortunately a cooling sea-breeze usually picks up by about 10:30am. We recommend that you bring along a liter of water (per person), and a piece of fruit. The Tabin Wildlife Lodge can prepare a boxed breakfast or lunch for you, making it possible to get a quick start on the trails in the morning.

We spent many happy hours walking along the mostly level 26 km road. Our strategy would be to walk slowly in one direction after the guides dropped us off. We would arrange with them to retrieve us at a certain time (usually sometime between 11am and 2pm). We found we could easily walk about 8-12km from the drop-off point looking for birds before the Resort truck came for us, and we were driven back for lunch. Mosquito or insect repellent was not necessary, and so long as you remain on the road (or nearby), shorts and a t-shirt combined with light-hiking shoes were ideal attire. We always packed an umbrella to protect us from the occasional passing shower. We preferred 10x binoculars to any other magnification.

Overall, at least 259 species of birds have been recorded here. We found Tabin particularly good for certain groups of birds: Babblers, Broadbills, Hornbills and Raptors. Since much of the forest along the road is in various stages of regeneration, bird watching (and bird photography) at Tabin offers some distinct advantages over better-known destinations: the birds are lower in height, since the trees are not as tall as in a primary rainforest; there is more light that penetrates the forest to ground level (great for photographers); and there are more species of birds here because of the juxtaposition of several habitats.

For example, we found raptor nests (including Blyth’s Hawk Eagle and the rare Wallace’s Hawk Eagle) in the tallest trees of the forest facing the nearby Oil Palm Plantation. We saw 10 raptor species of the 157 bird species we recorded in our two months investigating the reserve (Feb-March 2005). We also found all 7 Hornbill species in this part of Borneo, with the Observation Tower at the Mud Volcano being the best place to comfortably sit and watch for them. Babblers are especially common, since many of them like to forage in the dense understorey of the forest. Altogether, we found 12 babbler species at Tabin. Finally, we found 7 Kingfisher species such as the Banded Kingfisher that likes to hunt in the forest, and the tiny Black-backed Kingfisher that often perched in and around the Resort’s dining area.

For hard-core birders who want to see the rarer species such as the Pittas (four species observed here), a trip to the primary forest of the core area will be necessary. You will need to arrange with the Tabin staff a support team to accompany you into the primary rainforest, and plan on needing one day each to travel in/leave the forest. This area would also be the best place to look for the very rare Bornean Bristlehead. On the other hand, those birders keen on using tapes of bird calls via large speakers to attract nocturnal owls and frogmouths into view will find the Tabin Wildlife Resort an ideal base.

You will be able to take advantage of the numerous electrical outlets on the grounds of Resort to play recordings (or make recordings of bird calls) for hours. Also, the staff will be able to drive you to remote locations at night to try recorded calls at different locations. Similarly, digital bird photographers will be pleased with the resort’s facilities, since processing images on your laptop computer in the rooms is easy and safe. We were very pleased with how well the Resort’s facilities (and staff) enhanced our workflow, and we highly recommend the digital approach to capturing the best images during your stay at Tabin.

Practicalities: The distinct advantage of the Tabin Wildlife Resort to any other birding destination in the area is/are the accommodations. The Chalets in the forest and the Cabins above the river have air-con and hot water that work perfectly, and provide a much-needed respite from the humidity and rigors of the rainforest. Both you and your equipment will appreciate the opportunity to dry-out and cool-off after long walks. (One caveat though: set your room air-con to 25° Celsius; any cooler and you will cause condensation to form on your binoculars and camera equipment when you venture out into warmer air.)

We particularly enjoyed the spacious, clean rooms that have been built with lovely, local hardwoods. The views from the Cabins into the trees that arch over the river are especially nice, and it was possible to see Pied Hornbills, Malaysian Blue Flycatchers, Arctic Warblers and Red-rumped Trogons here (among others). Anyone with a spouse who is not a keen birder (or rainforest enthusiast) should take note: one of you will be perfectly happy birding while the other remains at the Lodge in your comfortable room, or enjoying coffee/tea in the dining area with splendid views of the forest and small river nearby.

Tabin is a Wildlife Resort that can please a couple with quite different interests.

Courtesy of: New Sabah Times 'In' Sites - Sabah Travel and Leisure Guide

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