Big Year 2015: April Summary

The month started with my first pelagic trip of the year, off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah, and this was followed by a first visit to East Malaysia for 2015, taking part in a Wild Asia HCV assessment of some oil palm estates near Lahad Datu. Highlights of these trips were Long-tailed Jaeger from the boat, and a few birds in Sabah which were good to get under the belt – Wrinkled  and White-crowned HornbillsStorm’s StorkChestnut-necklaced Partridge and Black-headed Pitta among them. Pechora Pipit in Kota Kinabalu and Malaysian Night-Heron in Penang were painful misses.

However, everything came to a sudden halt while I was deep in a palm oil plantation near Tabin Wildlife Reserve when I received news of the death of my father. I immediately flew home to be with the family, and have made the decision to spend an extended time in the UK to be with my Mum and help her sort out my Dad’s effects.

My Dad had been ill for a few years with Alzheimer’s disease, and his health had gradually declined to the point where he was unable to recognise family. He had a quiet but strong faith in God which sustained him in the final difficult years, and I have no doubt he is now in a much better place, so I don’t really grieve for him. But we all miss him of course! He had a great love of nature, and of birds in particular, and also of the arts. He was a fine artist, wood carver, calligrapher, musician (piano and organ), photographer (see the third placed pic here), sailor and many other things. Most people who met my Dad say that I look like him, and there’s no doubt I resemble him in many other ways besides. Certainly many of his passions live on through me. I’ll be happy if at the end of my life I have made half the positive contribution to the world that he made. Anyway – here are some of the pics taken in the last month – dedicated to my Dad, without whom none of them would have been taken!


A Long-tailed Jaeger bombing the terns around an ikan bilis boat, off Tanjung Dawai, 2 April 2015


Common and White-winged Terns, some of the 5,000+ we estimated to be in the vicinity. Off Tanjung Dawai, 2 April 2015


Some of ‘the lads’ hard at work! Off Tanjung Dawai, 2 April 2015


Bridled Tern – another year tick. Off Tanjung Dawai, 2 April 2015


A tiny glimpse into the untold tragedy of annual migration – this Eyebrowed Thrush is one of countless numbers that never complete the journey each season, for many reasons. This one was probably unable to store up sufficient fat reserves to make the sea crossing. Off Tanjung Dawai, 2 April 2015


The last of several Long-tailed Jaegers for the day, this one an adult with full tail streamers. Off Tanjung Dawai, 2 April 2015


Sabahan birder Zaim Hazim kindly met me at KK airport and took me around the local sites for half a day. He dug out a pair of Malaysian Plovers on the baking hot Lok Kawi beach. Sadly, the long-term wintering Common Ringed Plover had already departed for the breeding grounds, but I hope I can catch up with her later this year. Lok Kawi beach, 5 April 2015.


Rufous Night-Herons were dependable at their roost in town. Kota Kinabalu 6 April 2015.


We flushed many snipe from the paddy fields at Penampang. Some of these looked large and pale, possible candidates for Latham’s?? However, all the ones I managed to photograph were, I think, Pintailed. If you think otherwise about this one, please let me know! Penampang, 5 April 2015.


A pair of feral Red Avadavadava… yes – those! Penampang, 5 April 2015.


Chestnut-necklaced Partridges were not uncommon in some of the forest fragments in the estates. Seeing them was another matter! Near Lahad Datu, 7 April 2015.


Crested Jays in one small patch of forest were a nice surprise. Near Lahad Datu, 7 April 2015


A high density of White-crowned Shamas in several estates was a good sign that trapping bans are reasonably well-enforced. Near Lahad Datu, 8 April 2015


Hooded Pittas were rather common in larger forest patches on slopes. This juvenile was particularly accommodating, despite the poor light. Near Lahad Datu, 8 April 2015


Adults were much more wary! Near Lahad Datu, 7 April 2015


A smart Grey-headed Babbler, one of relatively few babbler species surviving in forest fragments. Near Lahad Datu, 7 April 2015

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Estates can be great places to observe mammals. Low’s Squirrel, near Lahad Datu, 9 April 2015


Large Treeshrew. Near Lahad Datu, 9 April 2015


Too bad about the leaf! Malay Civet. Near Lahad Datu, 8 April 2015


Pig-tailed Macaques are always good value for their great expressions. This one was just yawning! Near Lahad Datu, 8 April 2015


Definitely guilty! Pig-tailed Macaque. Near Lahad Datu, 8 April 2015


We disturbed a mother Orang Utan and baby making a bed for the night on the edge of Tabin Wildlife Reserve. 10 April 2015.


Common Palm Civets were indeed the commonest of three civet species seen. Near Lahad Datu, 10 April 2015



A very anxious baby Asian Small-clawed Otter which was momentarily separated from its mother by our sudden appearance. (They were happily reunited shortly afterwards!). Near Lahad Datu, 10 April 2015


Leopard Cats were very numerous indeed in places. Near Lahad Datu, 10 April 2015.

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Buffy Fish-Owl was the only owl species seen; Reddish Scops, Oriental Bay and Barred Eagle-Owls were all heard. Near Lahad Datu, 10 April 2015


A young Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle roosting in oil palm. Near Lahad Datu, 10 April 2015


A pair of large Red-tailed Racers were seen in this one palm two days running. Near Lahad Datu, 9 April 2015


Critical Endangered Storm’s Stork on the fringes of Tabin WR, 9 April 2015.


Wrinkled Hornbill, one of four hornbill species seen. Near Lahad Datu, 9 April 2015


A pair of White-crowned Hornbills flew in at last light. Near Lahad Datu, 9 April 2015


A curious Black-headed Pitta. Near Lahad Datu, 10 April 2015


Blue-throated Bee-eater nests creating a striking impression! Near Lahad Datu, 11 April 2015


The highlight of the trip was this stunning Malay Weasel. It had killed a treeshrew, but then left it in its haste to get away from us. Then it was just a matter of hiding and waiting for it to come back and collect its meal!

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Which it duly did, within 5 minutes!


A brief but memorable encounter!

So April ended prematurely, and my Big Year is paused on 471. There won’t be any additions till June, when I return from the UK, but I am hopeful that the 600 target is still attainable. I know my Dad would have said “Go for it!”




























Big Year 2015: March summary

Another month based mostly in the north of the Peninsula, with visits to sites in Pulau Pinang (Air Hitam Dalam, Kubang Semang, Permatang Nibong), Kedah (Sungai Sedim, Pendang), Perak (Taiping, Bukit Larut), Pahang (Cameron Highlands, Genting Highlands and Taman Negara) and Perlis (Timah Tasoh, Perlis State Park, Chuping). All this travelling added 105 new birds for the year, leading to a nice symmetrical tally of 444 by the end of the month (I think 444 sounds like “die, die, die” in Chinese, which is how it felt at times!).

March aggregate

Here’s an idea of how I’m doing compared to Dennis Yong’s Big Year in 2006. I’m 132 ahead of where Dennis was at this stage in his Big Year, but he had a really big April, with his first visit to Sabah in that month, so I am not lulled into complacency!

March monthly

Dennis’s April total will be hard to match!

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A Great Eared-Nightjar gave great views at Air Hitam Dalam early in the month.

The month really got going during the first day of a Taiwanese group tour on the 7th, when we found a fruiting tree at Sungai Sedim festooned with flowerpeckers, including at least four of the near mythical Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker, as well as a briefly visiting Thick-billed Flowerpecker. We also managed an early morning Blue-banded Kingfisher. Good as it was, the day would have been even better had I managed to get onto a male Asian Emerald Cuckoo seen briefly by Mun and Hor Kee, but then you can’t see ’em all! A few days in Taiping and up Bukit Larut enabled me to whittle down my list of still-wanted montane birds, with Pygmy CupwingSilver-breasted Broadbill, Speckled Piculet and both Siberian and Orange-headed Thrush being added. A male Banded Kingfisher and a very close Malaysian Honeyguide (my third for the year!) were nice bonuses. In Taiping I was pleased to add Grey-capped Woodpecker but frustrated to miss an Oriental/Himalayan Cuckoo seen by others in the group. Cuckoos were fast becoming my bogey bird family!

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The Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers of Sungai Sedim were widely admired while the fruit lasted

A lengthy list of montane specialities recorded at Cameron Highlands by Lau Jiasheng proved too tempting to resist; I drove down late on the 16th and spent the remainder of the night attempting to sleep in the car on the very cold slopes of Gunung Brinchang. All the shivering was worth it as I managed a stunning round-up of scarcities at dawn the next day, including Wedge-tailed Pigeon, Pygmy Blue Flycatcher, Rufous-vented Niltava, Chinese Sparrowhawk and Asian House Martin. Barred Cuckoo-Dove eluded me for the second trip in succession, as did Sunda Cuckoo and Rusty-naped Pitta, both heard but not seen.

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This male Wedge-tailed Pigeon watched me shivering below him just after dawn!

In between major trips, I tried to catch up on gaps that might prove hard to fill later in the year, and I was especially pleased to add Indian Pond-Heron and Korean Flycatcher at local venues.

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Hor Kee found this Indian Pond-Heron locally just about showing enough breeding plumage to be identified.

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Yellow-rumped Flycatcher has been renamed Korean Flycatcher in the new checklist. Either way, it’s a smart bird, especially now that it’s moulting into breeding finery.

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I didn’t see Slaty-breasted Rail till December last year, so I was mighty glad to get it out of the way early this year!

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An obliging Black-and-red Broadbill at Air Hitam Dalam


Another raid on Perlis’s riches with Mun on the 21st proved a success overall, although we missed two of my much-wanted targets – Orange-breasted Pigeon and Dusky Crag Martin (where are they these days?). We scored Racket-tailed Treepie and Thick-billed Warbler (at last!) at Timah Tasoh, and then had an inspired time scouring the isolated mature rubber plots on the hilltops of Chuping for migrants, the pick of which were an adult Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo and an adult male Zappey’s Flycatcher – my 400th species for the year. A showy Grey-capped Woodpecker and a repeat viewing of the Green Sandpiper were nice bonuses.

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Having only heard this on my last Perlis visit, it was good to get a view of this Thick-billed Warbler at Timah Tasoh.

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A nice reprise following three Grey-capped Woodpeckers seen  but not photographed in Taiping, the obliging Perlis bird. I missed this species altogether in 2014.

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It was a real ‘Yeehaa!’ moment when we set eyes on this adult male Zappey’s Flycatcher. Adult male is the only plumage where certain identification is possible on current knowledge, and there aren’t many seen compared to all the females and first years. A triumphant 400th species for the year!

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The Chuping Green Sandpiper. I took this shot during the February visit.

Another short tour saw me at Taman Negara from 23-27th, via Ulu Kali where I picked up Rufous-winged Fulvetta, which had eluded me twice at Cameron Highlands. Even though the National Park was desperately dry and bird activity relatively low, I still managed 43 new birds for the year in three and half days, the pick of which were Crested FirebackCrested PartridgeBlyth’s Frogmouth, Helmeted HornbillMalaysian Rail-babbler and Red-legged Crake. An adult Rufous-bellied Eagle flying over the car on my way back proved to be the last new bird of the month, with plenty of birds still to go back for later in the year. 

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Rufous-winged Fulvettas at Ulu Kali are common and confiding.

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This would set hearts aflutter if it turned up on my lawn in England! Female Siberian Thrush, Ulu Kali.

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Not the best pic you’ll ever see, but a pair of Crested Partridges is not to be sniffed at!

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Forest chook! I’m good-looking and I know it! A male Crested Fireback, Taman Negara

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An overflying female Helmeted Hornbill, Taman Negara.

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One of a party of White-bellied Woodpeckers that entertained daily at Taman Negara.

April is on the doorstep, when I will be turning my attention to the spring seabird passage and spending some time in Sabah (sadly mostly in oil palm rather than in good forest). Other than that, there are still a few scarce migrants I’d be glad to see, so please let me know if you find anything good!

Cameron Highlands: 16-17 Feb 2015

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News from Hor Kee that he had seen and photographed the endemic form of Grey-headed Woodpecker at Gunung Brinchang, and that he had seen the Eurasian Sparrowhawk wintering near Tanah Rata sent me on my first real twitch of the year.

Last year, when news of the sparrowhawk broke in December, I had decided against making the trip. It’s still incredibly rare (this is the 3rd record I know of in Peninsular Malaysia), and records have always been of a single observer sighting, but this bird was evidently hanging around the same area, making it somewhat tempting. The real prize though, was the woodpecker. Surely an endemic species in its own right, it has been seen rarely at just two sites – Gunung Tahan in Taman Negara (a three day hike in the jungle) and Gunung Brinchang at Cameron Highlands. The last sighting prior to this was in 1999 I believe.

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Gunung Brinchang, home of Grey-headed Woodpeckers, site of Malaysia’s first Rufous-headed Robin record, and who knows what else!

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Mossy forest gems!

So after a late night drive to Brinchang, I spent the next two mornings at the summit of the mountain seeing…very little!

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Yellow-browed Warblers were vocal and active.

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As were Mountain Warblers, singing away in the early morning mist.

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I was glad to get great views of a Golden-throated Barbet feasting on fruits. This barbet isn’t seen at Fraser’s Hill, which is too low.

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I spent the afternoon hanging around the valley where the sparrowhawk had been seen, and was genuinely puzzled by this bird foraging high in the canopy for a while. I worked it out eventually – it’s the first time I’ve seen Yellow-vented Flowerpecker at 1550m asl!

My plan was to sit at Strawberry Park and hope that the sparrowhawk would fly by on its way to roost. I got chatting to one of the chefs, who invited me to sit on the balcony of the restaurant. So I sat with coffee in hand and waited…!

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Bingo! At about 5.30pm she came sweeping up the valley and then wheeled around several times to get some height.

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Not the best lighting, as I was looking into the sun, but I wasn’t complaining!

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This was one BIG accipiter! The prominent hooded effect is something I have not noticed on Eurasian Sparrowhawk before. I have seen nisosimillis before, but it’s been a long time! It would be easy to mistake something as big and bulky as this as a Northern Goshawk. However, the obviously square-ended, narrow-based tail and relatively straight trailing edge to the wing identify it as Eurasian.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3896 Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3898

It certainly doesn’t look anything like any of our regular accipiters!

Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3892

A great bird, and one that made the trip worthwhile, despite the disappointment of failing with the woodie!

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There were a few Cook’s Swifts about, with their narrow rump band distinctive even at great distance.

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On my homeward trip I popped in at Kek Lok Tong temple in Ipoh hoping to tick off the trio of Blue Rock Thrush, Java Sparrow and Blue Whistling-Thrush. The latter eluded me, but the other two were easily seen.


Big Year 2015: February summary

I stepped up a gear this month, with visits to Perak (Kuala Gula, Malim Nawar), Pahang (Cameron Highlands, Fraser’s Hill), Perlis (Chuping, Timah Tasoh, Kurong Tengar), Kedah (Sedim and Kulim) and Penang (Penang Hill), seeing 194 new species for the year, adding up to a total of 339. Over half way to my goal of 600 species with just 2 months gone, but getting the second 300 will be very much harder than the first!

The month started well, with a Rosy Starling on my first trip out at Kuala Gula on the 2nd. Malaysian Honeyguide was the highlight of another great visit to Sungai Sedim on the 9th, and I managed to catch up with Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Little Cormorant  at Chuping on the 14th. Hor Kee’s amazing news of both Grey-headed Woodpecker and Eurasian Sparrowhawk at Cameron Highlands on the same weekend sent me on my first real twitch of the year. Sadly the woodpecker was not seen again, but I was very happy to add Eurasian Sparrowhawk to my Malaysia list (my second Malaysian lifer of the month after the starling) as well as a good selection of upper montane species.

Over the Chinese New Year holidays I made a trip to Malim Nawar in the hope of picking up some good stints, but the high water levels frustrated that goal. A return to Kuala Gula failed to turn up the starling again, but some compensation was gained in the form of Greater Flameback, Laced Woodpecker and  Cinereous Tit.

I made good use of our family reunion at Fraser’s Hill from the 23-26th, seeing a good proportion of the montane species there, including Grey-breasted PartridgeMountain Peacock-pheasantMalayan Whistling-Thrush and all the owls. More frustrating was narrowly missing seeing a Long-billed Partridge which came in close but would not show itself. A Chestnut-winged Cuckoo was a great find on a ‘smash and grab’ raid to the ponds at Bidor FRIM substation to see Purple Swamphen. While at Fraser’s, news broke of a suspected Red-backed Shrike in Perlis, so Mun and I spent the final day of the month heading north again. As well as seeing the shrike, whose provenance  is currently under scrutiny, we scored heavily on some good scarcities, including Little Stint, Chinese Egret, Ruddy Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper and  Short-toed Eagle. Other than the missing the woodpecker at Cameron, I failed to connect with an Asian Emerald Cuckoo at Penang Hill, and missed a Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker at Sedim. A Eurasian Hobby hanging around in Port Dickson was tempting, but too far to seriously think of going for. But if it hangs about into March…!

Chuping, Perlis: 14 Feb 2015

With the long spell of dry weather we’ve been having, I thought it might be worth checking out the fringes of the lakes at Chuping, especially as Mun and others had seen Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Cotton Pygmy-Geese and Little Cormorant there recently.

At first light the Pygmy-Geese were immediately obvious.

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There were seven of them, six apparent females and a male, which kept apart from the rest of the flock.

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A female above and the male below. I’m not sure whether he is in immature or adult eclipse plumage. The bill and eye colour suggest the latter.

Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3653

While the male swam around serenely, the females were a quarrelsome bunch!

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Squabbles were frequent, which I suppose may be a sign that hormones are a-stirring!

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Eventually a Common Moorhen arrived to restore a little law and order! Now, now ladies!

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A little more investigation brought my main target of the day into view – a close but wary Pheasant-tailed Jacana.

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Unfortunately I was always competing with the thick lakeside vegetation, and getting a clear shot was difficult. Frustratingly, the bird flew across to the other side of the lake just as Mun, delayed by an accident en route, arrived. Later, the bird flew back, and he was able to get a few reasonably close shots. (His account of the trip is here).

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As we were watching the jacana, we heard the distinctive call of a Manchurian Reed Warbler on the opposite side of the track. The wind was making the tops of the reeds sway around rather wildly, which meant that the warbler kept low. We did manage some brief views with the bins, but no photos. This is the fifth separate spot within the Chuping area that I’ve recorded Manchurian Reed Warbler over the last two seasons – so clearly this is a a wintering site for this globally Vulnerable warbler.

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A Little Cormorant put in a fleeting appearance, and there were several Purple Herons around the fringes of the ponds. However, there was nothing else of note, so we moved to the former sugar cane fields.

Wood Sandpiper_Chuping_140215_IMG_3709

At the effluent ponds we flushed a Tringa which called loudly as it turned and flew over us. The quality of the call was loud and ringing, like Green Sandpiper, but the notes were a repeated pi-pi-pi-pi, like a Wood Sandpiper. I caught a glimpse of thick black tail barring, and both of us felt that the upperparts were rather dark. On that basis, and the fact that a Green Sandpiper had been at this very spot last season, I identified it as a Green Sandpiper. However, the call bothered me, being unlike anything I had heard from Green before, yet seeming to be louder and more strident than typical Wood. We checked the other ponds and eventually came across this distant sandpiper. Through the bins it looked like a Wood Sandpiper, so I took a single photo and we concluded that this must be the bird we had flushed earlier.

Only when I examined the photo on the computer I noticed that the tail barring is indeed very prominent (for a Wood) and the head rather plain, lacking a prominent supercilium. The bill shape seems odd for either species, appearing slightly drooped at the tip, and the legs give the impression of being short. Nevetheless, the lack of prominent dark breast band or solid dark upperwing are not right for Green Sandpiper. So I am puzzled by this bird, and wish we had given it more attention. On balance I still think it was a Wood Sandpiper, but an individual that was less clearcut than most. Any other opinions?

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Resident Aisan Pied Starlings were pairing up, but the Brahminy Starling which was the star attraction last month seemed to have moved on.

The lack of rain had turned the fields into a dust bowl, and indeed, it was clear that most birds had deserted the area. Whereas we usually see dozens of Black Drongos and hundreds of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, our counts for each were in single figures. Perhaps as a consequence, raptors were also conspicuously absent, with one Osprey and a couple of Eurasian Kestrels being the only migrants other than the usual Eastern Marsh and Pied Harriers.

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In the heat of the day I persuaded Mun to accompany me in bashing through the ‘Richard’s Pipit field’. We did hear one, but all the birds we got our bins onto were the familiar Oriental (formerly Paddyfield) variety. This one had a nice streaky crown and apparently pale lores, but the evenly dark ear coverts indicated that it was nothing unusual, and when it took flight, the short tail and call confirmed this.


The rarest bird of the day! An army Hercules dropping paratroopers.

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The birds must have wondered what these strange aliens invading their airspace were. They also attracted quite a crowd of human spectators; the tractors stopped their work in the fields and cars parked along the roadside for a free airshow!

By Chuping’s own very high standards this was a relatively quiet visit, though things might have been very different if we had succeeded in tracking down an extremely furtive brown warbler which we flushed a few times in low scrub early in the day. Still, I was pleased to have seen the trio of pygmy-geese, cormorant and jacana, and to have had very nice views of the latter in particular.

Sungai Sedim, Kedah: 9th Feb 2015

When I last walked the Bintang Trail at Sungai Sedim, in December, it had been very birdy, so I decided to give it another shot. This time it was, if anything, even better, with a total of 84 species recorded (you can see a full list here).

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A few early birds like Diard’s Trogon, Grey-headed Babbler and Chinese Blue Flycatcher got things rolling nicely, but things took off once the sunlight hit the trees, with one fruiting tree attracting a regular procession of bulbuls, including Finsch’s…

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…and Buff-vented, making it difficult to know where to point the camera at times!

Near the start of the upward climb I saw the distinctive chubby shape of a Malaysian Honeyguide. I lost track of it momentarily, but then heard a low ‘growl’ and saw it chasing another honeyguide through the branches! Having seen off its rival, it consented to pose for a few photos, even though the light wasn’t the best.

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As the morning heated up, levels of bird activity continued to be good.

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I added more Chinese Blue Flycatchers (at least five) and this Great Iora moved through as part of a mixed flock.

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I glimpsed a raptor landing in a tree through some thick foliage, and was lucky enough to get a shot  as it flew off, enabling me to identify it as a Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle. The very next bird I saw was a Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle, flying overhead calling repeatedly.

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The strong overhead sunlight by this stage made for some striking patterns in the foliage.

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On my descent I came across a close Red-throated Barbet which was obviously too full of fruit to be bothered about flying off. What should have been a golden opportunity for photos was frustrated by the thick foliage and strong overhead lighting, so these are the best I managed. Still, what a bird! It takes a lot to beat a male Red-throated Barbet!

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I was astonished by the length of its rictal bristles, but I guess that’s how barbets got their name!

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You can see how these would be useful in guiding fruit toward the bill.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3080

There were 20 or so swiftlets flying above the forest canopy. From the full, broad-based tail and very grey colouration I identified these as Black-nest Swiftlets. I saw some at this locality last year, as well as some birds I identified as Himalayan Swiftlets, so I spent quite a bit of time photographing these birds.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3151 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3149 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3085

The extent of tail notch was very variable. I surmised that this was a factor affected by moult (in the case of adults) and feather development (in the case of juveniles).

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3340-41

The two photos above are of the same bird, showing how the deepness of the tail notch is also affected by whether the tail is held closed or spread.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3378 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3376 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3358 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3394

Later I was able to photograph some juveniles (aged by their evenly fresh plumage, with no moult visible in the wings). Against a darker background, the lack of warm tones in the plumage is evident.

Later on in the afternoon I took some photos of Germain’s (in Kulim) to try to make comparisons.

Germain's and Black-nest2 Germain's and Black-nest1

Lighting conditions were very different, so probably not much can be said about the apparent colour differences in these photos. Structurally, they do seem extremely similar too, though in the field, Black-nest seems to have a relatively larger head and shorter neck, broader tail base and possibly broader wings. All of these are extremely subtle and perhaps subjective differences. I admit the main basis for identifying the Black-nest as such was the fact that they were in forest far from any known ‘swiftlet hotels’, though the very grey plumage tones add support to my identification.

Black-nest and Germain's Swiftlet_090215_IMG_3394 and 3548

Juvenile Black-nest (left) and adult Germain’s (right) showing the warmer brown tones of the latter. I have not yet seen any Black-nest with gloss on fresh feathers, as can be seen on Germain’s.

Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3437 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3495 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3513 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3525

Some Germain’s for comparison – browner, subtly slighter in wing and body and with a smaller-looking head.

Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3547 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3548 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3566 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3587

Some more shots showing the upperpart tones of Germain’s.

I have to say that, even though I am confident of the identity of these birds, I don’t think I would be able to tackle a mixed species flock! My working assumption is that all swiftlets on the coastal plains in rural agricultural landscapes are the farmed ‘white-nest’ type, aka Germain’s, and that swiftlets in extensive forested landscapes well away from swiftlet farming activities are more likely to be Black-nest, especially if they are greyer and ‘colder’ brown than Germain’s.

Asian Palm Swift_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3362 Asian Palm Swift_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3375

Asian Palm Swifts are very different in shape – really skinny with a big rounded head and long, deeply forked tail.

Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3352

And finally – a Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel. According to Mammals of South-east Asia these are darker orange in the north of the Peninsula than in the south, which this one certainly is. I wondered how one would eliminate the possibility of this being a hybrid with Black Giant Squirrel, since it has black feet and black in the tail.



Kuala Gula, 2 Feb 2015: Looking Rosy!

Last year a late January visit to Kuala Gula brought rich dividends in the form of Dusky Warbler, Ruddy-breasted Crake and, best of all, a male Shikra. However, I had failed to connect with my number one target that day, Rosy Starling, and I persuaded Hor Kee it was worth another shot this year. The site seems as regular as any for this irruptive species, and has on occasion hosted up to six birds. However, last year was a complete blank, and no birds had been reported so far this season.

Lesser Adjutant_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2914

A number of species are more or less guaranteed at this site, among them Sunda Woodpecker, Little Bronze Cuckoo and Lesser Adjutant, and all duly performed. From a year-list point of view, I was pleased when we got a couple of Ruddy-breasted Crakes, though no photos this time.

Starling-wise, we were drawing a blank though, so we began moving around the site more widely.

Asian Dollarbird_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2847

This immature Dollarbird gave us ample opportunity to play with different camera settings. Up above, we noticed a number of ‘Fork-tailed Swifts’ passing high overhead.

Pacific Swift_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2707

Now that these have been split into several species, they attracted our interest. I summarized what is known about the identification and status of the two species known to occur in Peninsular Malaysia, Pacific and Cook’s Swift, here.

Pacific Swift_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2726 Pacific Swift_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2718

The large white rump patch, brownish head sides and clearly defined white throat identified the ones close enough to see as Pacific, and it seemed reasonable to assume that, as these were clearly moving inland off the sea, they were all migrating Pacifics – about 300 of them.

Pacific and Cook's4

Digging out my old pics of Cook’s Swift from Fraser’s Hill, I’ve put together some montages for comparison. Differences are subtle enough to really only be apparent on still photos (rather than moving birds!). Brown head sides, more clearly defined pale throat, larger (squarish) white rump patch and less obvious pale scaling on the underparts are distinguishing features of Pacific compared to Cook’s.

Pacific and Cook's3

Structurally, Cook’s looks shorter-necked than Pacific. Another way of saying the same thing is that the wings seem to be set further forward on the body of Cook’s, with less head in front, and more ‘tail’ behind.

Pacific and Cook's2

Even when almost directly overhead, the white rump of Pacific is visible, so perhaps it ‘wraps around’ further than on Cook’s.

Pacific and Cook's1

Overall, Cook’s looks slightly more slender and spindly than Pacific.

Interestingly, many of the photos of Cook’s Swift (taken on 4-5 Feb last year) show well-worn flight feathers, whereas all the Pacifics I photographed today appeared to be in fresh plumage. Might there be a moult-timing difference, with Cook’s moulting earlier in the winter than Pacific? Worth looking out for.

Rosy Starling_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2925 Rosy Starling_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2926

It was past midday, and we were giving the mudflats ‘one last look’ when Hor Kee announced that he had found a Rosy Starling! It was one of those moments when time seemed to stand still until I got the scope fixed on the bird, which was singing,  making it an even more surreal moment! I had undoubtedly walked straight past the bird, which was perched in the topmost branches of a dead tree. Fortunately, Hor Kee’s younger ears had picked out the soft warbling song and he had been alert enough to know that it was worth investigating! A long-awaited Peninsular lifer for me, and my first ever adult anywhere. Thanks Hor Kee!

We watched the bird singing for a while, until our attempts at a stealthy approach put the bird to flight. After lunch we returned to the site, and immediately heard the bird singing in the heat of the sun. This time, the bird was singing from a low branch just a few meters above the mud, and it quickly disappeared before we could get any shots. Despite a long wait, the bird did not reappear, so we called it a day, well satisfied with our final bird of the visit!

If you turn the speakers up loud enough, you can just about make out the song in the video below.

<p><a href=”″>MVI 2932</a> from <a href=”″>Dave B</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>