Tioman Island: 17-23 Nov: Why go to a tropical island during the monsoon?

Tioman Island is shaped remarkably like a chicken drumstick, and sits about 40km east of the coast of Pahang (its position is approximately indicated by the green arrow above).

A few years ago I came across a remarkable report on the sadly now defunct Travelling Birder website by Petter Olsson, of a visit he made to Tioman from 22 – 26 Nov 2009. He wrote: “I decided to spend a couple of days out on Tioman Island to search for migrating birds. Unfortunately the weather was really bad with heavy rain all day the first two days, but the last two days on the other hand were terrific with sunshine and no wind.”

That heavy rain for two days was not really ‘unfortunate’ – it was what made the last two days of his stay truly remarkable. He saw:

5 Blue Whistling-thrushes of the nominate caeruleus race (a potentially new record for Malaysia)

1 Dusky Thrush (a potentially new record for Malaysia)

1 Taiga Flycatcher

10 (!) Siberian Stonechats

4 Black-browed Reed-warblers

2 Lanceolated Warblers

1 Yellow-browed Warbler

2 Radde’s Warblers (new record for Malaysia)

1 Richard’s Pipit (a potentially new record for Malaysia)

35 (!) Olive-backed Pipits

1 Red-throated Pipit

1 Yellow-breasted Bunting

1 Black-headed Bunting (a potentially new record for Malaysia)

Of the FIVE potential ‘firsts’ he saw in just two days (24th and 25th Nov), he didn’t take detailed notes on the whistling-thrushes or Richard’s Pipit (not realizing how rare they were) and so did not formally submit the records, the Radde’s Warblers were accepted by the Records Committee, the Black-headed Bunting was accepted as Black or Red-headed Bunting, and the Dusky Thrush was KIV’ed as ‘probable’.

The key to the remarkable numbers and diversity of rare birds was the weather. Those two days of bad weather (most likely strong NE winds coupled with heavy rain) were likely the result of a weather system which had first pushed the birds into our air space and then forced them to take shelter at the first available land they could find.

Ever since reading that report, I have been dreaming of making a similar trip, but circumstances prevented it becoming a reality till this year. I had been hoping to get a team of 5 or 6 birders to join me, as in a situation like this, more eyes means more birds found! In the end, there were just the three of us – myself, Rafi and Simon Buckell, who took a few days off from working on nearby Pulau Tengah to join us.

In the weeks leading up to the trip I was checking the weather maps here regularly, and seeing promising weather conditions – 20-30km NE winds and heavy rain – just what we were hoping for!

The day finally arrived, and Rafi and I arrived on the daily Berjaya flight from Subang. Landing was an experience in itself as this picture shows – if I had opened the window I could have picked a few coconuts on the way!

We were soon checked into to our cheap and clean accommodation at Cheers Homestay (on the map, it is just south of the airstrip – the blue inverted ‘T’), and, despite the worryingly clear blue skies and absence wind or rain, we were eager to start exploring right away…!

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