I got Sepilok wrong. I’m big enough to admit that. In fact, I suspect a lot of birders do, based on the reading I did before I went to Borneo. To a lot of people its a brief stop between the endemic-fest that is Mt Kinabalu and the river action of Kinabatangan. To plenty others it is a beuatifully accessible patch of lowland rainforest, the perfect location to pick up a host of lowland birds. I didn’t pass up on a long stay here because I thought it would be a waste of time, I simply had to chose between either hitting two locations briefly in my last week in Borneo or doing one thoroughly. I picked one, and I picked Kinabalu. In retrospect I would have picked trying to hit both, but perhaps that would have been unsatisfying too. It isn’t worth worrying about too much. At any rate, my brief visit to Sepilok showed me that it is a worthy destination in its own right.

We arrived at our hotel, the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, after a long day driving from the mountain. Despite the glacial pace of the staff when we arrived (they did at least bring us nice glacially cold drinks) and the musty smell of the rooms I found the place to be delightful. Cute (if musty) cabins in attractive but not over-manicured gardens, and most importantly after a long trip there was a pool as well as attractive ponds.  Re-charged with a gin and tonic and a dip, the gardens held a few common but attractive birds, particularly sunbirds like the Thick-billed Spiderhunter, the Plain-throated Sunbird and the stunning Crimson Sunbird. By the pools a White-breasted Waterhen skulked, as rails are wont to do, and from bushes a Blue-throated Bee-eater snatched insects.

Common IoraCommon Iora in the gardens

Things took a jump in excitement when we set out after dark. Sepilok is a spotlighter’s dream, and our hotel organised a trip for us with a warden from the Orangutan Sanctuary. We were barely through the gate when we saw our first viper, and a few more steps before we were shown a sleeping Black-headed Pitta. I’ve mentioned before how much I love pittas, so this was a trip highlight for sure. But the finds didn’t end there. We also managed to find several more snakes, spiders, as well as a terrifying tail-less scorpion and even more terrifying scorpion. We heard, but didn’t see, a Brown Wood-owl, and best of all a massive cat-sized Red Giant Flying Squirrel and a rabbit-sized Sunda Stink-badger. I don’t know much about stink-badgers, except that they are possibly closer to skunks than badgers, but seeing any of the poorly known carnivores of Asia’s forests is always a privilege.

ViperA pair of mating vipers

Black-headed PittaSleeping Black-headed Pitta!

The next morning… I planned to get up early to go to the Rainforest Discovery Centre. I planned this, but I was tired and lay about in bed instead. It happens. A slower start with a cup of tea watching the gardens means I didn’t get as many birds as I might have in the forest, but a host of lifers including a Buff-necked Woodpecker, a Lesser Green Leafbird and a flock of Long-tailed Parakeets made the breakfast memorable. The late start meant that I didn’t get to the RDC till later, and there wasn’t much around by that point. A flock of Bushy-crested Hornbills and a lovely Asian Fairy Bluebird were slim pickings for a morning of birdwatching, especially at a site that can have as exciting birds as the outstanding Bornean Bristlehead, Giant Pitta and a range of other pittas, trogons and babblers.

Giant SquirrelThis Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel was one of the highlights of Sepilok’s Rainforest Discovery Centre. It is hard to tell, but it is massive!

So go to Sepilok, and if you can, stick around. There’s a lot to see and perhaps you’ll do better than me!

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.