All aflutter over Borneo Bird Race
THE sharp granite ridges atop Mt Kinabalu are silhouetted across a blue dawn sky over Sabah, scything through the thin white clouds that are slowly trying to obscure the mountain.
Driving into the park, it looks every bit like the tail of a dragon that one local legend contends is protecting a pearl within.
It is an appropriate place to begin what is known as the Borneo Bird Race 2014.
Deemed a sacred place, the words "kina balu" mean "resting place of the dead". So, over the years, locals never disturbed or cut any of the trees or animals from the area, as they did not want to offend the mountain spirit, and thereby kept the area virtually pristine.
It is truly a beautiful sight.
Kinabalu Park, in Sabah, is undoubtedly one of Malaysia's eco-treasures, covering 754sq km, and is the country's first UNESCO World Heritage site.
It is one of the premier birding destinations in Borneo, ranked in the world's top 10 destinations for birding, and home to more than 33 endemic species of birds.
It is the kick-off point for the Borneo Bird Race, which is now in its second year and has nine teams from around Asia competing for the coveted Bornean Bristlehead Trophy, won last year by the Philippines, who are keen to go back-to-back.
This year, the teams will cover the forests from Sabah to Brunei and Sarawak, more than 1000km, with necks craned high in search of more than 200 species of birds in a bird Olympics of sort.
The teams, consisting of three members each, must correctly identify each bird they see each day over three legs and record the information in a logbook with a marshal overlooking each team to ensure legitimate sightings.
Everybody is excited as they exit the bus in Kinabalu Park, as not only is the prospect of spotting endemic birds they have never seen probable, it is likely they could see a new bird not known to science.
Borneo Bird race organising chairman Cede Prudente explained: "Every month there are three new species of bird, mammal or insect found in Borneo, making it very exciting for birdwatchers, who may just be the first to document a previously unseen bird."
It doesn't take long for the teams to get into competition mode, when breakfast is interrupted by a Babbler chirping in a tree overhanging the veranda - coffee and toast are dropped and replaced with cameras attached to bazooka-sized lenses that are deployed and aimed in the direction of the melodic sound.
The race has yet to start and already these guys and girls mean business.
One hour into the daily six hours of competition and there are already plenty of smiles around, as many birds in the area are coming in close and singing loudly.
Some of the smaller birds, like the golden-naped barbet, come in so close you have to step back to get the picture in focus - they flit from branch to branch, then they are gone.
During the waiting period for another bird to be spotted, the teams denote which bird they saw by reading guides and discussing features of the bird.
It's hard for some to hold their excitement at seeing something so beautiful and colourful for the first time, but they clinically assess which species was seen before moving to another area.
"We are competing but the main prize is the satisfaction of seeing birds we haven't seen before," said Masato Nagai, from Japan, who won the overall prize with his teammates.
Birdwatchers, such as Nagai, can focus their efforts to look for hornbills, broadbills, pittas, storks, kingfishers, and nearly 40 species that occur nowhere else in the world.
The Borneo Bird Race is run in conjunction with the Borneo Bird Festival, held in Sandakan on the east coast, which has been going for five consecutive years.
Together, they are raising awareness, both locally and internationally, of Sabah as a top-class birdwatching destination for professionals and amateurs.
The Bird Festival is held at the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sandakan that has fantastic canopy walks and lookouts that are as high as the tallest trees, for the young and old to wander and see birds, apes, mammals or orang-utan nests in the canopy.
Two of the objectives of the festivals are to educate locals about the conservation aspects of Sabah, as well as promote the area to Malaysian and overseas birdwatchers.
Birdwatching is a growing niche market in eco-tourism and with more than 20 million birdwatchers worldwide, it is a target group that many natural areas in the world are competing for - catching a percentage of that market is the goal of many tourism boards across the globe.
What separates Sabah from the others is the diversity of birds and the variety of habitats on offer in a small area.
And when you've seen enough birds, head to the coast and explore the coral reefs. The fish are pretty colourful, too, but that's another story.