Bornean Bristlehead (Species: Pityriasis gymnocephala)

Bornean Bristlehead, the Superstar Bird of Borneo

Angry Bird was used to be the most popular “bird” in the world, but now most people forget it. Out of 660 bird species in Borneo, do you know which one is the most wanted bird by bird watchers? It’s Bornean Bristlehead (Species: Pityriasis gymnocephala), which is endemic to Borneo. It is so special that it should take over hornbill as the most iconic bird of Borneo. Birders from all over the world consider Bornean Bristlehead a trophy bird and pay thousand$ just to see it.

Group photo of Bornean Bristlehead mascot and Sabah natives
Group photo of Bornean Bristlehead mascot and Sabah natives at Borneo Bird Festival

In Borneo Bird Festival every year, foreign birders who visit the festival would take the opportunity to look for Bornean Bristlehead at the event site, i.e. Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) in Sepilok of Sandakan, one of the most promising places where Bornean Bristlehead shows up frequently.

Bornean Bristlehead on the tree
The nickname of Bornean Bristlehead is Headphone Bird. I think you can see why. It’s also known as the bristled shrike, bald-headed crow or the bald-headed wood-shrike.

Bornean Bristlehead is classified as a Near Threatened rare bird species. Some people catch it and sell it as a pet bird in black market (of course it is illegal). This bird lives in rainforest from lowland to 1,200 Metres asl. It is usually seen foraging in flocks of 5 to 10 in the middle and upper canopy, generally feeding on insects. What makes Bornean Bristlehead so unique is – it is the sole representative of the family Pityriasis (scientific grouping).

Birdwatching at Rainforest Skywalk of Rainforest Discovery Center (RDC)
Looking for Bornean Bristlehead at Rainforest Skywalk of Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok forest

Where to see Bornean Bristlehead?

The Rainforest Skywalk and towers of Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is the best location to see Bornean Bristlehead because it is usually active on middle and upper canopy of the trees in lowland primary or secondary rainforest. There are about 307 bird species in RDC, and 13 of them are endemic to Borneo Island.

Endemic birds of Borneo in Sepilok
Endemic birds of Borneo in Sepilok. The red-headed bird in pictures is Bornean Bristlehead (Nickname: headphone bird)

Bornean Bristlehead is generally scarce but a locally common resident. You need some luck to see it. Some bird watchers can spend hours waiting for Bornean Bristlehead on the canopy walk of Rainforest Discovery Centre. Sometimes Bornean Bristlehead is accompanied by other large forest birds (e.g. babblers, malkohaa, drongos, hornbills, woodpeckers) that form a hunting flock to feed on insects.

Bornean Bristlehead as an icon of Borneo birds
Bornean Bristlehead is the icon of Borneo birds. You can find its pictures in logos of birding community and events

You have to believe in the Law of Attraction. If you keep thinking about one thing, no matter it is good or bad, it will come to you. One day in Sandakan, some birders told me that they saw Bornean Bristlehead in the Sepilok forest nearby. When I rushed to the site, there were already a group of birders and photographers waiting for the bird.

Tour package to Semporna
Bornean Bristlehead on the tree at RDC
Bornean Bristlehead on the tree at RDC. The first time I saw this superstar bird.

In a few minutes, a Bornean Bristlehead showed up on a tree about 15 Metres away from us. It is a fairly active and vocal bird and looks like a crow with head on fire. It was hopping from branch to branch for nearly a minute, until an approaching group of noisy students scared it away. Anyway, I was really happy and took a few photos of this superstar. Please pardon about the poor photo quality, as I didn’t own a bazooka lens like below.

Long camera lens for bird photography
Long camera lens for bird photography. The focal length is usually 500mm or above (about 25x optical zoom)

You just need the most expensive best lens for bird photography, like the lens in pictures above. A good 800mm lens can cost about RM73,000 (about USD17,500)!!! Would you buy a car or this lens?

Birdwatching at canopy walk of Danum Valley
Waiting for Bornean Bristlehead at canopy walk of Danum Valley, the primary rainforest of Borneo.

Besides RDC in Sandakan, another best place to see Bornean Bristlehead is at the canopy walk of Danum Valley in Lahad Datu. I saw it again there, and it was only 10 Metres from me this time. Bornean Bristlehead likes to perch on branches under big leaves, where it can find insects. We were waiting for it early in the morning for nearly an hour, luckily it showed up and checked us out.

Bornean Bristlehead at Danum Valley
Photos of Bornean Bristlehead I took at Danum Valley. I was using a 200mm Tamron lens with a 2x teleconverter.

After Bornean Bristlehead, another rising star is Bornean Peacock Pheasant (Polyplectron schleiermacheri). It’s also an endemic bird of Borneo, and birders had to travel to Kalimantan to see it, before it was recently discovered in the centre of Sabah. I just got a 600mm long lens for bird photography. Hope I’ll get some good shots to show you in future.

Photos taken in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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