In 1986, Philip Chew found many rare plants and orchids in a regenerated forest at the heart of the Trus Madi range. Together with his brother Jimmy and friend Tam, they pooled their retirement funds and proceeds from sale of their homes to set up the Tras Madi Conservation Area. Their aim was to preserve the biodiversity of the 747 square meters of the conservation area. Their efforts paid off when it was designated as Class 1 forest reserve. In 2006 they were given an operation permit to set up a camp inside the area. The Trus Madi Entomology Camp better known as the Borneo Jungle Girl Camp was born.
The present day camp was a far cry from the first camp which was a single tent. You will be shown videos of how they dragged each cabin on logs from Apin Apin to the site.
Today the Entomology Camp is well known globally as the center for the study of insects and moths in Borneo. Against all odds they had created ” something out of nothing”. Unfortunately Philip passed away and Jimmy is left to carry on with his legacy today.
We ( Wilson Leung and his wife Theresa) were indeed privileged to be able to experience the magic of this world in June 2022 with the help of David Tseu, a Sabah based wildlife guide. Here are some of the more colorful moths and fascinating insects that we saw during our 4 days stay. Credit to iNaturalist for some of the identifications which are subject to confirmation from the experts and notes from Wikipedia.
The Crocker Range has remained my last birding destination in Sabah for some time. When news that the elusive Bulwer’s Pheasant had been seen at the montane hill forests at Trus Madi Forest Reserve, I started to do some serious planning and waited for the borders to open.
I got in touch with David Tseu, a long time nature guide based in Kota Kinabalu, through the recommendation of friends.
A 4 days trip was arranged and together with Wilson Leung and his wife Theresa Ng, a first time birder, we scooted to Kota Kinabalu on the 13 June 2022.
Wilson arranged an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn Express where the ceiling to floor windows look out to a forested hillside. A Blue-throated Bee-eater and flocks of Asian Glossy Starlings were ticked off. A stay at KK will not be complete without a seafood dinner. We chose the Crab House at Sabah Suria and shared two large crabs and grouper soup for RM 230.
David met us the next morning in his spacious 4WD and drove towards Tambunan with a break for breakfast at Gunung Alab Motel, a popular rest stop. The road was winding but thankfully the morning traffic was light.
We reached the Borneo Girl Jungle Camp inside Trus Madi Conservation Area in time for lunch after surviving a 90 mins bone shaking ride on the bumpy gravel logging track for the last part of the journey. Jimmy Chew and his partners have slowly expanded the camp, providing nature lovers with clean, comfortable but basic rooms. The nights are cold as we are at 1,400 meter asl. The big surprise for me was the food here. It was the best Hakka/ Cantonese cooking I ever had in all my jungle birding trips. Sweet and sour kampong chicken for dinner and double boiled Shiitake Mushroom soup for the next evening.
The weather forecast was for thunderstorms for the whole of our stay, but thank god the weatherman was wrong. We had only 2 hours of heavy downpour during our entire stay. Best of all, our birding was not disrupted by the usual morning and evening misty foggy weather.
We did all the birding along the old logging track near the camp. It was easy pleasant birding amidst the cool montane forest. Many of the endemic species that can be seen at Mt. Kinabalu Park are found here. A playful flock of Brown Fulvetta, part of a mini bird wave, greeted us the first morning. The endemic Charlotte’s Bulbul was preening away. It looks exactly like the Peninsular lowland Buff-vented Bulbul as it was a recent split. Theresa alerted us to a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills flying across the valley. It was quite a sight! The Buah Cherry trees and the hibiscus plants at the camp are frequently visited by the Bornean Leafbirds, Red-throated Barbets, Bornean Bulbuls and Temminck’s Sunbirds. Always a treat to be able to photograph such rare birds without too much hard work.
There are several hides along the trail not far from the camp. We spent both mornings and afternoons in two of them. We were extremely lucky to see and photograph all the species we came to see.
Top of the list was the majestic Bulwer’s Pheasant, a most sought after endemic that had eluded many birdwatchers for a long time. A lone male showed up on the third afternoon. These are most probably the first photos of this pheasant taken in the wild by any group from Singapore. Next for me was the Bornean Banded Pitta and the Dayak’s Jungle Flycatcher. The bonus were a family flock of 14 Crested Partridges and the Temminck’s Babblers. Lifers for all of us.
Besides the birds, there were many interesting mammals to keep a lookout for. David’s acute sense of the jungle got us the endemic Red-leaf Langur, Whitehead’s Squirrels and Masked Palm Civet.
The ever changing views of drifting clouds across the mountain ranges and green valleys are just breathtaking. Sunrise and sunsets were even more spectacular. Unfortunately the nights were overcast and we missed seeing the Milky Way.
The day’s action did not end after dinner. We were not prepared for the hundreds of moths and insects when we went to check out the four insect screens set up on a ridge near the camp. None of us have ever seen so many moths, beetles, cicadas and other weird and wonderful insects in our life. From the tiniest to palm size, the moths came in all shapes and colors. We had a great time perfecting our macro photography on them. We could not get enough of this and spent all three nights hoping to see some rare lunar moths, but none showed up.
We left the camp after breakfast on the last morning and made our way back to the Gunung Alab Substation for the Red-breasted and Crimson-Headed partridges, both endemics. They proved to be more co-operative and came out within the first hour. The damp bamboo forest is their preferred habitat.
A family of Snowy-browed Flycatchers also took up residence here and it was nice to see the different plumages of the juveniles and females.
There was enough time to pay a visit to the Mahua Waterfalls about 20 km from Tambunan to do some last minute butterfly photography Some of the endemic butterflies including the Rajah Brooke and the Green Dragons can be found there. Wilson and Theresa booked an overnight stay at the resort outside the waterfalls and we bade them goodbye as David drove me to the airport for my evening flight home.
It had been a very successful and lucky trip, a memorable one as well, We got all our target birds, thanks to David’s local knowledge and experience. We recorded a total of 58 birds ( 14 endemics), 21 butterflies ( 2 endemics), 8 mammals ( 4 endemics), 1 reptile and hundreds of moths and insect species. We were blessed with good weather for all the four days. A big thank you to the staff at the camp for the delicious food and help.
Checklist Trus Madi Conservation Area, Sabah. 14-17 June 2022
Guide: David Tseu
Participants: Alan OwYong, Wilson and Theresa Leung.
Crested Partridge ( Family group of 14 )
Bulwer’s Pheasant (Male).
Little Cuckoo Dove
Asian Emerald Dove ( on way out)
Black and Yellow Broadbill.
Chestnut-breasted Malkoha ( photographed by Theresa)
Plume-toed Swiftlet ( nesting at Mt. Alab Motel)
Crested Serpent Eagle. ( one perched, another in flight)
Barred Eagle Owl
Rhinoceros Hornbill ( pair flying in the valley)
Golden-naped Barbet ( Heard)
Bornean Banded Pitta. ( Both male and female showing at different times)
Bar-winged Flycatcher Shrike
Ashy Drongo (Bornean)
Blyth’s Paradise Flycatcher ( Seen by Theresa)
Crested Shrikejay (Seen by David)
Mountain Tailorbird (Heard)
Yellow-bellied Bulbul ( seen by David)
Sunda Bush Warbler
Oriental Magpie (Black)
Dayak Blue Flycatcher (Family)
Grey-chested Jungle Flycatcher
Snowy-browed Flycatcher ( Family group of 4)
Little Pied Flycatcher
Black-sided Flowerpecker ( photographed by Wilson)
The Trus Madi Conservation Area at the Crocker Range in Sabah is well known among insect and moth lovers as the place to go and see the hundreds of insects of the tropical montane hill forests. The Trus Madi Entomology Camp, better known as the Borneo Girl Jungle Camp was set up in the conservation area primarily to study the insect life there.
Insect screens with special lights to attract the insects were erected at the both sides of a ridge near the camp. On most nights, these screens were swamped with insects, mainly moths of all shapes and sizes, cicadas, beetles, cricket and wasps. April I was told is the peak month.
Every morning the resident Pig-tailed Macaque will make its way to the ridge and pick out the biggest and juiciest cicadas that are still on the screen. It will tear away the wings before biting off its head and then the body. These fruit eating monkeys would not pass off a chance of tasty snack that is rich in proteins as well. We saw some squirrels around but did not see them taking any of the insects.
During the night, another opportunistic raider was on standby. The Barred Eagle-Owl waits patiently at the near-by tree for some of the larger moths and cicadas to fly by before swooping down to pick it up. These insects will supplement their usual diet of rodents and squirrels.
When dawn breaks, the rest of the insectivorous birds would gather at the trees on both side of the ridge to start their day with easy pickings. The Ashy Drongos and the White-throated Fantails will sally out for the smaller flying moths. Flocks of the endemic Chestnut-crested Yuhinas will flush out the rest of the insects for a quick meal. While the Black-bellied Malkohas and the Red-bearded Bee-eaters wait for the larger ones. Even the small tailorbirds were able to pick and choose their food from the buffet in front of them.
This feasting must be a ritual for these birds every morning. Free and easy food in the cool montane air. For the bird watchers and photographers, it is an opportunity not to be missed.
With Wilson Leung, Theresa Ng and David Tseu ( Nature guide).
One of the heart stopping birding moments I remembered was hearing the calls of the Great Argus Pheasant behind my back and seeing them at its “dancing ground” in the Johor Forests way back in the 1997. Last week I experienced the same heart thumping moment when a male Bulwer’s Pheasant, Lophura bulweri, appeared right in front of our hide at the Trus Madi montane forest of the Crocker Range in Sabah.
David Tseu, a nature lover and experienced bird guide who have been studying the habits of this pheasant, made this possible. I came to know about this place and this Bulwer’s last year when Datuk Peter Pang posted photos of it on his facebook page. Due to the pandemic and closed borders, all the nature parks in Sabah were closed to oversea visitors. The wildlife here had their forests for themselves for over two years. When Sabah opened up in in May, Dr. Chan Kai Soon from Ipoh was the first to visit and posted photos of this pheasant. This was enough for me to book my flights to Kota Kinabalu, the nearest jumping off city ( a 4 hours drive) to the Borneo Jungle Girl Camp at Trus Madi. I asked Wilson Leung and his wife Theresa to join me as he has been wanting to go birding with me for some time. I had to thank Eric Tan for the intro to David Tseu and where to bird.
The pheasant was not seen since Dr. Chan’s visit more than a month back, but David was somewhat confident that it is still around. It was a no show on the first afternoon. We had only one more afternoon left and at 4.30 pm a family of the Crested Partridges, Rollulus rouloul, came up at the edges of the stake-out. This was a great sign as the Bulwer’s Pheasant is known to move with them for protection. Sure enough, shortly after David whispered to me ” It is here”.
I could hardly focus my camera on the pheasant standing just a few meters away from us as my hands were shaking. We cannot believe our luck, being so closed to such a stunning looking pheasant, its dark purple speckled body contrasting with its snow white tail. I was savoring every seconds of its presence until it got spooked and ran away. Fortunately it came back after it sensed that it was safe and we had another round of less frantic shooting.
It is locally common in the remote montane hill forest of northern Borneo. But you will need to be at the right area, lots of patience and a dose of good luck to see one as their numbers are low. Since 1998, there were only 19 entries in ebirds with records from Poring, Danum Valley, Maliau Basin and most recently at Trus Madi. It was mission accomplished for my number one target for the trip, thanks to David’s local knowledge and birding skills.
I am glad that the site is under proper management by the owners of the camp, a group of passionate nature lovers and insect experts whose main aim is protect the habitat and the wildlife in it for the younger generations to come.
Reference: Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan