Big Year 2015: September Summary

This month I had a two-week tour of Peninsular Malaysia (with Todd Pepper) with a potential of 27 year ticks on paper. Of these, I managed to get 12 (there are few ‘easy’ ticks now), which was enough to ease past Dennis Yong’s Big Year record of 582, set in 2006. By the end of the month I had reached 585, with 15 to go to reach my next target – the Big Six Double Zero! Despite the low number of year ticks, I managed to record 330 species in September.

The month kicked off in Johor, where there was a host of potential new birds. The four days spent there yielded only 2 new birds disappointingly, though one was a Malaysian lifer, and no less than the logo bird of the PM 500 Club – Grey-breasted Babbler!


Having got untickable views of one in Panti, we found this one ourselves in some remnant heath forest on the east coast. It’s a bird I’ve wanted to see badly in Malaysia over the last ten years or so, so this was a special moment. Good to know that they’re hanging on at a few spots.

The other was Great-billed Heron – a bird I had hoped to see in Sabah but missed earlier in the year. Thanks are due to Mun’im for the gen on this one!

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A bit distant but good value when it was spooked by the Water Monitor in the lower picture!

These apart, Johor was a bit disappointing, due perhaps partly to the stifling ‘haze’ coming from forest fires in Sumatra. I missed the two ‘Cinnamons’ – trogon and pigeon, as well as Brown-backed Flowerpecker, White-necked Babbler and Olive-backed Woodpecker.

At Bukit Tinggi we managed to claw back one of these – a surprise male Olive-backed Woodpecker being so vocal he was just begging to be noticed!

Next up was Fraser’s Hill. Again, there was a nice suite of potential year ticks to be found, although none of them easy. We picked up Bamboo Woodpecker relatively painlessly – my last woodpecker, other than the still-elusive Grey-faced – at the Gap.


Something which had not even been on my radar at the beginning of the year was the newly-split (in the Clements checklist) migrant form of what used to be Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, now elevated to full species status as Amur Paradise-Flycatcher (the resident form is now known as Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatcher). We had great views of a male Amur in a large mixed feeding flock at the lower end of the Old Road leading up from the Gap.


The bird can be aged as an adult by the all dark bill (first years show a variable amount of pale colouration at the base). From below, it can be distinguished from Blyth’s and Japanese by the glossy, evenly black head which is clearly demarcated from the much paler breast.


From above, the upper part colour is suffused with maroon – quite different from the chestnut of Blyth’s, but rather similar to the purplish maroon of Japanese. In fact, in shade, it can look very like Japanese from above, making a good view of the underparts desirable.


In shade – hard to tell from Japanese!

Large Scimitar-Babbler was a species I had missed on previous visits to Fraser’s this year, and history seemed to be repeating itself when we heard a pair distantly calling which refused to be lured toward us the first couple of days. However, on our third day, we fortuitously bumped into a pair at a spot I had not seen them before, and they gave us great views, albeit in very poor light.

Rusty-naped Pitta is not a species I would consider a ‘given’ in any year list, and especially at Fraser’s Hill, where the birds are probably ‘burnt out’ by playback of the calls. We heard birds at three locations, and at the third, surprisingly, we managed quite decent looks at a bird over several minutes. I even managed to fire off four frames, of which this is the least bad!


We missed a couple of other tricky birds at Fraser’s – no Marbled Wren-Babblers (will I miss seeing them two years in a row??) and no Himalayan Cutia (a dose of good fortune is always needed with these as they’re nomadic) and no Plain Flowerpecker at the Gap. We also, amazingly managed not to see Rufous-bellied Swallow – a Peninsular Malaysia endemic needed by Todd – the significance of which will become apparent later!

Taman Negara was our last venue, and I had four species firmly in my sights, all missed during a trip in April – Malayan Peacock-Pheasant, Malayan Banded and Garnet Pittas, and Large Wren-Babbler. Just three of these would get me past Dennis’s record total, so I was hopeful! We got off to a great start, with a young male Malayan Peacock-Pheasant strutting its stuff on our first evening.

The next day was September 14th – was it to be the day the record would be broken? I knew there was a good chance of both Garnet Pitta and Large Wren-Babbler – the only question was, which would be the ‘record-breaking species’? As it turned out, we took an age to see a Garnet Pitta (ignoring a pair of duetting Large Wren-Babblers in the process!). Finally we spotted the elusive pitta 30 feet up a tree – the record-equalling species. By this time the wren-babblers had stopped calling, and would not be tempted to start again, so we had to go looking for another pair. Finally, at just before 10am, we laid eyes on a nice foraging Large Wren-Babbler, and I was able to text Daphne to tell her that there was a new Big Year record for Malaysia! The celebrations were nearly brought to an end shortly afterward by the realisation that my GPS had fallen off its attachment in the jungle somewhere. However, by retracing our steps, and with the help of Todd’s sharp eyes, we managed to retrieve it, so all was well!

The following day, a very furtive Malayan Banded-Pitta brought the total to 584, but we were still unable to find a Rufous-bellied Swallow for Todd. My trusty unofficial Penang support team member, Neoh Hor Kee, had let me know of some limestone caves in Pahang which had Dusky Crag-Martins, a few days earlier. Todd didn’t need Dusky Crag-Martin, so I had discounted the lengthy detour. However, as I thought about it, I realised that any limestone outcrop that has Dusky Crag-Martin MUST surely have Rufous-bellied Swallow as well! So it proved, and Todd was happy with his swallows, while I was over the moon to finally see the crag-martins, having searched for them without success on several occasions in Perlis earlier in the year.

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A full trip report, with many more photos, should soon be available here.

I paid a couple of visits to the mudflats of Teluk Air Tawar on mainland Penang at the end of the month in the hope of scoring a Red Knot, without success (the best birds were Far Eastern Curlew and Asian Dowitcher – see below), and went on yet another failed twitch for Red-whiskered Bulbul (the only bulbul I haven’t yet seen), so things ended there, on 585, which is, coincidentally the same as the total number of species I’ve seen in Peninsular Malaysia ever (the year list includes East Malaysia).

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Next month I’m off to Sarawak again, and then Sabah, and hoping that enough northern migrants will have arrived to enable me to get to 600. Watch this space!

Big Year 2015: August Summary

August began where July left off, midway through a successful tour of Sabah. Thereafter, during a visit to Kuala Lumpur to celebrate my daughter’s graduation, I managed to pick up three feral species (Dennis counted these in his 2006 Big Year, but I hope to set a new ‘clean’ record of Category A birds this year). I made a couple of arduous drives north to the beautiful wilds of Pedu Lake, and ended up looking out at my beloved Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda mudflats on the very last day of the month. These travels resulted in a total of 29 new species for the year – not bad considering this is month 8, and an accumulated total of 573 for the year, which is one more than I managed in the whole of 2014!

New Sp per month Aug

Apart from the two months when I was in the UK, I’ve managed to at least keep pace with Dennis’s monthly totals for most months.

Aggregate total Aug

Almost there! Just 9 more species needed to equal Dennis’s record!


A few shots of some of the amazing places I visited in August – the incredible Kinabatangan River, Sabah…

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The spectacular, smelly and slimy Gomantong Caves, Sabah – essential visiting for three swiftlet species.


Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley, Sabah.


As mentioned in the July summary, I full write-up of the tour and some of the best photos are in the tour report here, so I will add little here, except some of the photos which never made it into the report.


We were able to watch Red-throated Sunbirds feeding in the same tree as Brown-throated at Sepilok rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC).


The canopy walkway at RDC enables great looks (and photos!) of canopy-dwelling species like this Green Iora.


This Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler at RDC seemed genuinely curious about us!


Borneo’s latest endemic has pinched the name of Brown Barbet (in Clements). The Peninsular form has been renamed Sooty Barbet.


This infant Orang Utan totally stole the show as it fed on fruits alongside its mother at Gomantong Caves.


As usual, the Kinabatangan River provided lots of raptors – this one a Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle drying off after an overnight shower!


Jerdon’s Bazas were even more numerous. We saw three roosting in one tree.


A day-flying Bat Hawk was a treat!


Both Fish-Eagles gave good views – this is a pair of Grey-headed.


Lesser Fish-Eagle


Sabah endemic White-fronted Falconet


A family party of falconets.


There are still good numbers of Wrinkled Hornbills along the River


Tony going in for a spot of iPhone photography. Can you spot his target?


Chestnut-necklaced Partridge of the ‘graysoni’ race, or Sabah Partridge if you follow HBW/BirdLife. It is certainly a distinctive taxon. This bird gave us stunning views for over an hour.


Oriental Pied Hornbills getting lovey-dovey!


I was pleased to get this shot of a Cream-vented Bulbul. Most CVBs in Borneo have red eyes (on the Peninsula the iris is white), which makes them more of a challenge to tell from Red-eyed. The underparts are much paler than that species, the eye tends to be blood-red rather than orange-red, and structurally, CVB is slighter than REB.


Some of the star night birds of the Kinabatangan… Brown Wood-Owl


A very accommodating Oriental Bay-Owl!


Large Frogmouth showing its surprisingly yellow mouth.


Not a great shot, but I was amazed at how much white there is in the wing of the muelleri race of Hooded Pitta.


In the steamy forest of Danum we found this tiny Rufous-chested Flycatcher belting out its high-pitched song.


Not rare, but always good to see! Banded Broadbill.


The pittas of Danum Valley. Bornean Banded and Giant eluded us, but we saw the others well. This Blue-headed seemed to dig and dig and dig, till he was almost out of sight!


Black-headed Pitta – great views in appalling light! Just before the rain started.


Blue-banded Pitta – this one reminded us what pittas are all about – dazzling but difficult to see!


A rather large male Orang Utan at Danum – we saw 18 individuals throughout the fortnight!


A much appreciated male Helmeted Hornbill on the last morning of the tour.


A Buffy Fish-Owl behind my room!


The last bird of the tour was this stonking male Sunda Frogmouth.

Making the most of a weekend in KL, I decided that a quick morning in the Lake Gardens should easily ‘clean up’ the foursome of Painted Stork, Hadada Ibis, Golden-fronted Leafbird and Great Myna. Several sweaty hours later I had only seen a pair of ibis, and had to face the fact that maybe urban birding is no pushover! By lunchtime on the second day I was walking around downtown Petaling Jaya scouring the monsoon drains and coconut palms in the midday heat for any sign of mynas. Having taken several hours to get there (dragging my long-suffering family along for the drive), it was at this point that I realised that I would be more successful looking for signs of madness! But, eventually, at the third attempt, we got the myna, and managed a glimpse of Painted Storks while stuck in the evening traffic of Shah Alam. Three out of four targets would have to do. I won’t bore you with more stories of failed attempts at seeing more urban escaped convicts – namely Black-collared Starling and Red-whiskered Bulbuls – suffice to say that I still haven’t seen any!

Pedu was a decidedly more attractive proposition, and I made two trips there in the month, with the primary targets of Plain-pouched Hornbill and Giant Pitta. I didn’t get a sniff of either, but some compensation was had in the form of Orange-breasted Pigeon and Black Magpie (Clements doesn’t split the Bornean from the Peninsular forms, which is a relief, because I’ve missed it so far in Borneo this year!).

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At last! Black Magpie in the bag!

And so to my final two year ticks of the month – a Gull-billed Tern and a Sanderling at Teluk Air Tawar this morning.

Sanderling 310815_IMG_3478I was particularly happy to see the latter, as it will save me a trip to Mersing or Tanjung Aru later in the year! I think it is only the third Sanderling I’ve seen in Penang.

So, having surpassed my 2014 total, it’s all gravy from now on. Next in my sights is Dennis’s record of 582, and after that, hopefully, 600. My ultimate goal would be to see 600 Category A species by Dec 31st (my current total for Cat A is 563).

Here’s a list of what I still haven’t seen but could conceivably see. If you have any detailed, recent information on any of them, please let me know!Aug 2015 yearticks

Big Year 2015: July Summary

I started the month in the highlands of east Sarawak and finished it in Kinabalu National Park in Sabah. In between I had a week of survey work in the Tawau area of eastern Sabah, and a single visit to Sungai Sedim in Kedah. These perambulations netted me 253 species in the month, of which 32 were new for the year, bringing me to 544, exactly 50 species ahead of where Dennis was at this stage in 2006.

The month began as I was coming to the end of an exceptionally productive Birdtour Asia tour of east Sarawak and west Sabah. Our last couple of days netted us some quality birds in the form of Ferruginous Partridge, strutting its stuff across a road in front of us, the less spectacular but extremely restricted-range Hook-billed Bulbul, and a world lifer in the form of both male and female Sunda Frogmouths.

The following week I was surveying oil palm plantations in eastern Sabah, where new birds were markedly less numerous. I picked up just a single new one for the year – White-bellied Munia, but these can be tricky in Peninsular Malaysia, so I wasn’t complaining! I did entertain the idea of visiting some of the islands off Semporna for rare pigeons and the like, but decided to heed local advice that the security situation in the area didn’t really warrant taking the risk.

Back home I managed a single trip out in the ensuing two weeks, and decided to visit Sungai Sedim, Kedah, where Rufous-tailed Shama and Pin-tailed Parrotfinch had been seen recently. I didn’t manage to see either of these, but was well pleased to catch up with three potentially tricky species – Rufous-backed KingfisherLong-billed Spiderhunter and Red-throated Sunbird.

Then it was time for my next Sabah tour, which proved, like the Sarawak trip earlier in the month, to be exceptional! A write-up of the trip, which extended into August, is here. It has plenty of photos in it, which I won’t reproduce here, but I’ll add a few below which didn’t make it into the report.


Mount Kinabalu summit. Awesome!



Two of the seven Whitehead’s Broadbills we encountered.


This young male Whitehead’s Trogon looks bright…


…till you see an adult (sadly, more distant)!


This Mountain Serpent-Eagle perched for over 10 minutes was a personal highlight.


Not a great photo but great views of two Malay Weasels on the same day. That makes three I’ve seen in the Park and five overall (a certain tour leader who can’t be named but has the initials JCE still hasn’t seen any!).


Pale-faced Bulbul – the berries helped!


Golden-naped Barbet showing why it is so-named.


We kept bumping into these – seemingly easier to see now that there are fewer visitors to the Park.


Bornean Stubtail and bling!

Big Year 2015: May-June summary

I spent the whole of May and the first week of June in the UK after my father’s funeral. Despite the idyllic weather and enjoyable temperatures, I was eager to get back and crack on with the Big Year by early June. I had missed a long-staying Malaysian Night-Heron in Penang, as well as the bulk of spring seabird passage, which probably cost me 4-5 species. Of more immediate concern just prior to my return were reports of an unprecedented invasion of Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoos from the Austral region to the Peninsula. This is a bird which had only been recorded three times in West Malaysia before this year, and now they seemed to be popping up everywhere. But the question was – would they stay??

And the answer was…



No worries mate! I decided to make good use of jet-lag to get an early morning start my first day back (10 June), and after an anxious hour, managed to catch up with these two birds at Pulau Burung. A third was subsequently found there, as well as about 15 others up and down the Peninsula. A useful article postulating reasons for this invasion was posted on the Singapore Bird Group webpage. It was good to get my year total, stuck on 471 for almost 2 months, ticking over again!

My next priority was to get out to sea as soon as possible in the hope of catching any straggling shearwaters, jaegers or wandering terns. A long, hot day at sea ensued, on 13 June, with very little to show for the effort. The sole exception was a couple of Roseate Terns. By all accounts this has been a poor year for spring seabirds, so it was some consolation that I probably hadn’t missed that much. Since we still had a few daylight hours left, Hor Kee, Mun and I dropped in at stretch of mangroves along the Sungai Merbok, where we ‘jammed in’ on at least three Mangrove Pittas and a Copper-throated Sunbird. I missed the pitta altogether last year, and there have been no easy birds in the north of the peninsula this year, so this was a real bonus!

Roseate Tern1 Mangrove Pitta

I had a couple of weeks before setting off to lead a Birdtour Asia group into the mountains of eastern Sarawak, so spent a few days at Sungai Sedim picking up a few omissions such as Diard’s Trogon, Ferruginous Babbler and Rufous Piculet. The Penang ‘Gang of Four’ (Choo Eng, Mun and Hor Kee and I) also pulled off a very effective dawn raid on 20 June to Panchor State Park, picking up a handy trio of Oriental Bay Owl, Gould’s Frogmouth and Sunda Scops-Owl before breakfast!

Oriental Bay Owl Gould's Frogmouth Sunda Scops Owl

At last it was time to head over to Borneo again; the trip was all that I could have hoped for and more. Highlights were many, but it was especially cool to tick off Dulit Frogmouth as my 500th bird of the year, and to pick up two lifers – the poorly-known endemic race of Rufous-tailed Jungle-Flycatcher (surely a good split from the Philippine form) and Sunda Frogmouth. A full write-up of the trip is here. I ended the month on 512 species for the year, and back on track in comparison with Dennis’s ground-breaking Big Year of 2006.

Monthly totals Aggregate totals

I have two visits to Sabah lined up in July, where there are a potential 50 or so year ticks waiting. My latest total is 521, so I’ll be very happy to get past 550 this month!

I’ll end with a few pics from the fantastic Sarawak tour.

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Male ‘Bornean’ Banded Kingfisher, aka Black-faced Kingfisher

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Female Wreathed Hornbill. We had a wonderful evening watching over 40 hornbills of 4 species flying to a communal roost, and an aerial dogfight between a Helmeted Hornbill and a Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle!

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Black Orioles, mythical a few years ago, now never fail to show

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They still present a photographic challenge to capture all the colours!

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Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle overhead

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Bornean Barbet – easy to hear, tricky to photograph!

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Bornean Frogmouths performed exceptionally well.


(Sunda) Ashy Drongo

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Continuing the series of barbets in flight! Mountain Barbet.

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Not much to look at but as rare as hens’ teeth! Rufous-tailed Jungle-Flycatcher.

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It’s not often I put bins on a bird in Malaysia and have no idea what I’m looking at! That was my first reaction on seeing this bird. We worked it out eventually, and with much excitement!

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Red-crowned Barbet – always a favourite!

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Male Sunda Frogmouth – rather good!

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Not the best looker, but highly-prized nonetheless – Hook-billed Bulbul

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Female Sunda Frogmouth – very obliging

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No neck strain for this one!


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We got two of the Whitehead’s trio – this is the spiderhunter

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A record shot of the broadbill, which we saw much better than this shot suggests! This was after seeing a pair of Hose’s Broadbills earlier in the day!

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They’re not supposed to do this! A Ferruginous Partridge doing an impression of the chicken that crossed the road.

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And belting out its song from cover.

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The contest for Bird of the Tour was over the moment THIS appeared! Blue-banded Pitta – BOOM!

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Sunglasses advised!

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A Tree Nymph. Never get tired of these!

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torquatus race Oriental Honey-Buzzard giving a passable impression of a Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle or serpent-eagle.

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Chestnut-bellied Malkoha

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An obliging Bornean Bulbul


We found the pot of gold at the end!

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!































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.

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

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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.