Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Bakelalan Bird Watching Trip Report

Birding Trip Report Bakelalan Sarawak

One of the few places that has been getting some bird watching attention is no other than the highland village of Bakelalan in Sarawak, Borneo. For the serious bird watchers, this is my Bakelalan bird watching trip report, done in November 2018. 

First of all, Bakelalan or Ba'Kelalan is a Lun Bawang tribe village, located in the northeast highlands of Sarawak, Malaysia. It is also in the district of Lawas, which can be easily accessed from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah or Miri in Sarawak.

Getting here is quite the challenge, but then again, not difficult. However, for bird watchers or photographers, you can take a flight or even drive overland passing the famous Paya Maga Wetlands. 

Bird Watching Trip Report For Bakelalan

Bird Watching Bakelalan
Birding in Bakelalan is combined with some adventure and amazing outdoors.
My bird watching expedition here was actually a cross border initiative, one that involved the Sarawak Tourism Board and the Borneo Bird Club from Sandakan Sabah. 

This was more of a bird watching inspection trip in order to initiate cross border bird watching tourism between the two states of Malaysia Borneo. 

Our journey started from the town of Lawas, where the Borneo Bird Club flew in from Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu into Miri, and then caught a MasWings flight into Lawas. 

I was the only one that flew in from Kuala Lumpur into Miri, and then caught the similar flight into Lawas, where we all met up to continue our journey overland using a couple of 4x4 off road vehicles.

Lawas Bukit Demaring Look Out Point
Bukit Demaring view point, on the way to Bakelalan. 
From Lawas, it takes around five to six hours overland through old logging roads, which is not that bad, considering we left as early as 7.00 AM, and to reach Bakelalan by 1.00 PM. 

Along the way, we made a couple of stops to admire the majestic view of the Maligan Highland Range, which is highly recommended for anyone using this route.

One particular stop is called the Bukit Demaring view point, where you can see the beautiful highland range stretch as far as your eyes can see. 

One main stop was for lunch, at a small licensed logging camp where there was a local cafe serving coffee, tea, noodles and even rice.

Birding Paya Maga
The signboard at the entrance of Paya Maga IBA in Lawas.
Paya Maga IBA in Sarawak

Alone the way, we passed the much talked about bird watching spots called Paya Maga, which is an Important Bird Area or IBA.

Paya Maga was designated as an IBA back in 2010, and it is here where you can spot the endemic Black Oriole, which many birders want to see or photograph. 

For this trip, we did not do any bird watching in Paya Maga, as our mission was purely to explore Bakelalan and its surroundings. Hence, we stopped to take photos of the entrance area only.

Salt Factory Bakelalan
Me (the writer) attempting to make some natural salt at the Bakelalan Salt Factory.
Visiting the Bakelalan Salt Factory

As we got closer to Bakelalan village, we made a stop at the Buduk Bui Salt Factory, which is recommended for anyone wanting to see how the local highland salt is processed. 

Bakelalan is home to a number of natural salt wells, and the natural salt water is pumped into a processing hut, where it is boiled over wood fire until the salt is formed. 

This part of the tip was more of an understanding of what the Lun Bawang people do in the highlands.

Again, the locals here are a farming and agriculture society, hence it is good if you can pay a visit to the Bakelalan salt factory when you are here.

Bakelalan Buduk Nur Village
The village of Buduk Nur seen from a nearby hill in Bakelalan.
Buduk Nur Village in Bakelalan

We arrived in Buduk Nur around 2.00 PM, the main village in Bakelalan where the small airport is located at. Here, we met our host and bird guide called Cikgu Sang, or Teacher Sang, who is actually a school teacher in Bakelalan. 

After meeting his acquaintance, we adjourned by foot to his beautiful home located smack in the middle of the village. At his home, we were welcomed by his wife - Julia Sang, and were treated to some home cooked food. 

Stories about bird watching filled the air while many questions were being thrown at Cikgu Sang, namely about one elusive bird called the Dulit Frogmouth (Batrachostomus harterti).

This is the one endemic bird that can only be seen around Bakelalan, and many bird watchers and photographers from around the world come here to see this nocturnal bird. 

On our arrival day, we just hung out at Cikgu Sang's lovely home, settled into our simple and comfortable rooms, and just prepared for the following day of bird watching.

Birding from the local roads around Bakelalan, with Andrew Saini, Cede Prudente, CK Leong and David Tseu.
Day One - Birding in Bakelalan

When we started out early in the morning, we took two 4WD's towards a hillside road which was on higher elevation, overlooking Bakelalan. This was a supposedly new road linking Bakelalan to Bario, the sister village.

Reaching our stop, we gradually made our way down on foot and also checking the birds in the canopy tops. A number of spiderhunters, flowerpeckers and mid sized birds were spotted.

The walk was easy as it was downhill, and with the cooling weather, it made it fun and enjoyable. This is one of the plus points of bird watching in the highlands.

In the afternoons, we just chilled out at the Cikgu Sang's beautiful homestay exchanging birding information and casual talks among the group.

Sarawak Black and Crimson Oriole
A Black and Crimson Oriole perched behind some leaves.
Come 4.00pm, we head out to one of the most common sites where the Dulit Frogmouth is usually spotted. This is about 10 minutes drive from the main village of Buduk Nur.

After the sun sets, our callings start, and we wait with excitement. No response, and we call again. Still no response, and after about 30 minutes, we move to another spot to repeat the call.

Well, Cikgu Sang did mention that the Dulit Frogmouth may be nesting or with a baby, hence it may not show at all. Hence we decided to call it a night and head back.

Bird Trip to Bakelalan
The trek up and down Pa' Sarui Hill in Bakelalan. Buduk Nur is in the distance. 
Day Two - Birding in Bakelalan

Same as day one, we started early with the trucks, and this time around we went to Pa' Sarui Hill and its vicinity. This is also where the famous Bakelalan Owl House is located at.

The journey here requires you to walk through paddy fields and then cross a small stream which then leads to the beautiful stand-alone wooden house.

Once you reach the Owl House, there is a trail from the back which leads you up to Pa' Sarui Hill, which also doubles as one of Bakelalan's best view point.

Ba' Kelalan Owl House
Owl House in Bakelalan
There were a number of birds spotted along the trek up, while at the peak, there were less birds there. But as a bonus, the majestic view was incredibly beautiful, especially in the late morning.

The trail up is considered medium, but I would not recommend this trail if you have knee or walking  issues. Please take note of this before going up Pa' Sarui view point.

At the end of the day, the journey up the hill, spotting  some birds and seeing the amazing scenery was good enough for our group.

By lunch, we had gone back down and headed back to Cikgu Sang's home, and after that, we were invited over next door to see the last traditional Lun Bawang Longhouse, which was quite an experience.

Sarawak Birding in Bakelalan
Crossing streams to look for the Dulit Frogmouth in Bakelalan.
Day Three - Birding in Bakelalan

Our final day of birding saw us going back to our original spot from day one, to see if we could spot one of the much sought after birds - Hose's Broadbill.

With luck on our side, after some calling, a couple of them did show up, but they landed in the thick bush, hence we managed to spot them through our binoculars.

As for bird photography, luck was not on our side due to the thick bushes. However, we were pleased to know that they are in fact there.

Our night session was the final one where we went out to look for the Dulit Frogmouth. This time, Cikgu Sang took us deep into a secluded area, crossing three streams and quite a bit of trekking.

Dulit Frogmouth Birding Bakelalan
The journey to seek the Dulit Frogmouth in Bakelalan.
Reaching the spot, we set up gear and waited for dusk, and started calling. Within minutes, a response was heard in the distance. When it got pitch dark, the Frogmouth calls were closer, but high up in the canopy.

Luck was not on our side, as with multiple calls from the Frogmouth, we still could not spot it. But it was just there, about 10 meters up in the canopy.

Well, I can say that the Dulit Frogmouth is found in Bakelalan, and it doesn't mean that you will be guaranteed to spot it. One theory was that it was the breeding season, hence they don't really show themselves.

My next trip to Bakelalan will guarantee that I will be seeking this endemic bird of Borneo, which is apparently spotted in a number of places around Bakelalan.

Ashy Drongo Bakelalan
An Ashy Drongo spotted in Bakelalan.
List of Birds Spotted in Bakelalan

Below is our checklist of birds that we spotted in Bakelalan over the three days of exploring this beautiful highlands of Sarawak.

1) Hose's Broadbill
2) Black and Crimson Oriole
3) Oriental Honey Buzzard
4) Bat Hawk vs Rhinoceros Hornbill
5) Bornean Bulbul
6) Bornean Leafbird
7) Cinereous Bulbul
8) Bornean Barbet
9) Black Thighed Falconet
10) Whitehead's Spiderhunter
11) Boobook
12) Whiskered Treeswift
13) Yellow Vented Bulbul
14) Blue Eared Kingfisher
15) Cattle Egrets
16) Barn Swallows
17) Eurasian Tree Sparrows
18) White Breasted Woodswallow
19) Chestnut Hooded Laughing Thrush
20) Temminck's Sunbird
21) Red Necked Phalarope
22) Little Cuckoo Dove
23) Verditer Flycatcher
24. Mountain Serpent Eagle
25. Mountain Barbet
26. Blue-eared Barbet
27. Little/Malaysian Bronze cuckoo
28. Dusky munia
29. Chestnut Munia
30. Spotted Dove
31. Grey-rumped treeswift

Bakelalan Minivet
A male Scarlet Minivet with an insect catch.
Ba' Kelalan Birds
The female Scarlet Minivet with another insect photographed nearby.
As a bonus, during our birding, we actually did manage to spot some mammals which are listed below;

1) Tufted Ground Squirrel
2) Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel
3. Bornean black-banded squirrels

Bakelalan Location
The location of Bakelalan in Sarawak.
Where Is Bakelalan? 

Bakelalan is a highland village located in the Maligan Range in northeast of Sarawak, Borneo. The village is also the closest to the border of Kalimantan, Indonesia.

For the locals, Bakelalan is located nearer to Miri, Lawas or even Brunei. From Kota Kinabalu, it will take you about 9 hours to drive there, while from Bandar Seri Begawan, it will take less than seven hours drive.

Bakelalan Trip Report
Spotting birds in Bakelalan, Sarawak.
How Long To Spend In Bakelalan For Bird Watching? 

A common question that bird watchers will be asking, and most think that they can just travel in and out for this part of Sarawak.

In reality, the optimum time to spend in Bakelalan for bird watching would be four days and three nights. This will ensure that you get to spot the birds that you came for.

While many birders will want to also spot the Black Oriole, the trip will be broken up into two sections, one at Paya Maga, and the other at Bakelalan for the Dulit Frogmouth.

Lapangan Terbang Lawas
Kevin from the Sarawak Tourism Board, and Rona Sultan from Heart of Borneo Tours does a weight check at the Lawas Airport check in counter.
 How To Get To Bakelalan? 

The best way to get to Bakelalan in Sarawak is to fly into Lawas, and then fly from Lawas to Bakelalan. This journey will require you to take two or three planes.

Please note that there are only two or three flights from Lawas to Bakelalan per week, hence you need to time your flights for the trip to Bakelalan.

Flying From Kuala Lumpur: Fly into Miri (Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia), then connect to Lawas with MasWings, and from Lawas, connect to Bakelalan with MasWings.

Flying From Kota Kinabalu, Sabah: Fly into Miri ((Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia), then connect to Lawas with MasWings, and from Lawas, connect to Bakelalan with MasWings.

Ba' Kelalan Driving There
Driving back to Lawas from Bakelalan, a long journey but worthwhile in many ways.
Driving to Bakelalan

This would be an easier option, but time consuming as you may end up spending around 10 hours from Miri, Brunei or Kota Kinabalu.

However, driving gives you the flexibility to stop and enjoy the local lifestyle along the way and even do some adhoc bird watching.

Some bird watchers may prefer to do it this way as you can also make a stopover at the famous Paya Maga IBA, spending the night at the Merarap Hot Spring Resort.

Driving From Kota Kinabalu: From KK, you drive all the way south, pass Sipitang to the Sindumin Checkpoint. From there, drive to Lawas town, and is around four or five hours drive to Bakelalan using the old timber roads from Lawas.

The total time without checkpoint and stops from Kota Kinabalu: 7 Hours, but with checkpoint and stops, we are looking at around nine hours drive.

Driving From Brunei: From Bandar Seri Begawan, you drive to the Tedungan Immigration Post, then head to Limbang town, and to Ujung Jalan, then to the Mengkalap ICQ, and then to Lawas. From Lawas, its a 4 to 5 hour drive to Bakelalan.

The total time without checkpoint and stops from Bandar: 6.5 hours, but with stops and so on, it will take you easily 8 to 9 hours drive.

From Miri: Head to Sungai Tujuh Checkpoint, then to the Tedungan Immigration Post, then head to Limbang town, and to Ujung Jalan, then to the Mengkalap ICQ, and then to Lawas. From Lawas, its a 4 to 5 hour drive to Bakelalan.

The total time without checkpoint and stops from Miri: Eight hours drive, but realistically, it will take you a good 10 to 12 hours drive.

Bakelalan Birding Cikgu Sang
Our cross border team with Cikgu Sang (4th from right) and Julia Sang (3rd from right) with Rona (Right).
Conclusion

Bakelalan is truly one of the hidden bird watching destinations of Sarawak, and is slowly getting some recognition for some of the endemic birds found here.

Serious bird watchers have already started to come here since 2015, and over the last few years, more birders have been making their way here.

While the accessibility may not be commercially feasible, it makes the entire birding experience more memorable. I have also done an article about the many things to do in Bakelalan when you are there.

With some of the notable Sabah bird watching guides exploring this destination, it is now easier for them to bring in bird watchers who want to experience birding in both Sabah and Sarawak.

Hopefully this Bakelalan bird watching trip report will provide additional information about this exotic birding destination, and a huge thanks goes out to the Sarawak Tourism Board for making this happen.

Plus I would also like to thank Cikgu Sang and his beautiful wife Julia Sang for the kind hospitality during our stay there. And also to Rona Sultan from Heart of Borneo Tours for making our trip smooth and memorable.

If you have questions, please do ask them in the comment form, and I will do my best to answer them. 

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