I was just updating the Records Committee website earlier this week and I discovered that I have found, or been involved in the finding of, a national ‘first’ for Malaysia every year but one since 2006 – with a total of eight in all. Just for the record – here they are!
2006 Small Buttonquail. Alamander Estate, Kulim, Kedah. 10 July 2006
This was an odd record in every way. The finding of it was odd, for a start. I was on my way home from a birding trip when I saw a large flock of Oriental Pratincoles and Brown-backed Needletails feeding on emergent winged ants. I pulled over and walked across a large area of bare earth which had been cleared to make way for a housing estate. On my way back from observing the needletails and pratincoles, I flushed a tiny buttonquail, which I eventually managed to photograph. I had no idea what it could be at the time, but I eventually concluded, after consulting my Robson, that it must be a Small Buttonquail, formerly known by a name so odd it was a dream-bird of mine in my youth – Andalusian Hemipode! Oddest of all was its presence in northern Peninsular Malaysia. Robson records that it is a ‘scarce to local resident’ no closer than Central Thailand, but that it is ‘subject to some movements’. Subsequent observations at the site found at least 4 birds to be present, and breeding was noted, before the last record on 2 July 2008, after which the habitat became unsuitable. Being close to a building site, there was a suggestion that the birds may have been introduced by migrant labourers. However, it is also possible that the species occurs at low densities in similar habitat (which is scarcely visited by birders) closer to home than Central Thailand. Their exact status remains a mystery.
2007 Rosy Minivet. Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve, Perak. 1 January 2007
The year 2007 was barely 10 hours old when Tan Choo Eng and I set eyes on a strange minivet with pale yellow underparts, which we identified as a Rosy Minivet, in a flock of Ashy Minivets, as we birded around a logging camp close to the Thai border. The flock moved rapidly and we had a hard time keeping the bird in sight long enough to get photos and notice salient details. We relocated the flock and the bird later in the day, and Choo Eng came back and photographed a male at the same site on 11 Feb. A fuller account of our visit is here, and a here’s a better photo of the original bird by Choo Eng.
There has been one accepted record of the species since this record.
2008 – a blank year!
At least as far as national firsts was concerned. However, this was compensated for somewhat by publishing, with Peter Kennerley, the first paper on a mysterious bird which we began by calling White-faced Plover. The paper, Field characteristics and distribution of an overlooked Charadrius plover from South-East Asia, appeared in BirdingASIA 9. Later, we renamed it Swinhoe’s Plover in recognition of the taxon’s original discoverer, Robert Swinhoe (in 1870!).
The latest news on this plover is that it is in the process of being recognized as a full species by HBW and BirdLife, with a threat listing of DD (Data Deficient).
2009 Pied Avocet. Kampung Buntal, Sarawak. 10 Jan 2009
This is one first I cannot truly claim to have found – that honour goes to Daniel Kong, who excitedly gestured to me to take look through his scope when I arrived at Kampung Buntal at the beginning of the field component of a wader workshop. I found myself looking at a familiar bird in an unfamiliar setting! Pied Avocets are ‘ten a penny’ back in the UK where I grew up, but seeing one on the windswept coast of north Borneo in the company of a Malaysian Plover was truly exciting! The bird stayed for one more day. Since then, there has been one more record – in Sabah. Peninsular Malaysia still awaits its first.
2010 Blyth’s Pipit. Chuping, Perlis. 7 Jan 2010
I nearly missed this one altogether! Choo Eng, Hakim and I were driving slowly along a track in light rain at Chuping with the windows down when we heard an unfamilar call. We stopped and I looked back in the direction from which the call came and saw this pipit. I took about half a dozen shots, but the bird didn’t strike me as being anything other than a Paddyfield Pipit (I could make excuses, like I was craning my neck at an awkward angle, and looking through the camera viewfinder etc!). The bird then flew off, making a very Paddyfield Pipit-like call (to my ears). Dismissing this bird as not being the originator of the odd call, I got out of the car and wandered about for a while in the rain, flushing it several more times, but hearing nothing other than what I took to be Paddyfield Pipit calls. Eventaully I got back in the car and we drove on. It wasn’t till a couple of weeks later when I was reviewing my photos on the computer monitor that I realized that the bird did not really resemble a Paddyfield Pipit at all! Full details of the differences are here. Although I was glad to have clinched this first, I also kicked myself for not realizing what I was seeing at the time, thereby missing a great opportunity to study the bird at more length. We went back to look for it later but were unsuccessful. It remains the only record for Malaysia.
In contrast to the other firsts, which were generally unforeseen, this was a more expected but nonetheless satisfying end to a birding conundrum that Choo Eng and I had been working out for a few years. Ever since we had started hitching rides on the local anchovy boats going out from Tanjung Dawai, the fishermen had been telling us about ‘little black ducks’ that arrive in offshore waters in May and June most years.
We had figured out what they must be, but they had eluded us until I took this solo trip, when I saw several ‘ducks’ and was able to confirm their identity as Short-tailed Shearwaters at last. Since then, we’ve been able to confirm that they are annual migrants occurring in small numbers off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia in May-June.
2011 Little Gull. At sea, off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah. 13 Oct 2011.
If the Short-tailed Shearwaters were expected, this little beauty certainly wasn’t! I wouldn’t have even gone on the boat that day had not Gerry Brett, visiting from Thailand, asked me to take him out. I was thinking I might be able to show Gerry a few hundred terns and possibly a Whale Shark if we were lucky (we were!), but this apparition in my bins in late afternoon was so ‘impossible’ that, even though I recognized it immediately, I struggled to put a name to it! Our views were brief but conclusive, and one minute of magic had suddenly made the whole day worthwhile! This was not only a first for Malaysia, but just the second for the whole of South-east Asia, and probably the rarest of the rarities I’ve found so far.
2012 Citrine Wagtail. Chuping, Perlis. 23 Jan 2012
This was almost a Blyth’s Pipit anniversary visit. Same place, same month, but another year on and another first for Malaysia! On our drive north, Hakim and I talked about the possibility of finding one of these. On arrival, we came across a field full of Eastern Yellow Wagtails and set about unearthing a Citrine. This one didn’t give itself up too easily, and it was a long time before we were confident that this extremely worn individual was indeed what we were hoping it would be! A long overdue and rather expected addition to the national list. More photos and a longer account here.
2013 Oriental Skylark, Chuping, Perlis.21 Nov 2013
I left it rather late in the year to nab this national first, and again, it was largely due to the help of Choo Eng. Chuping was once again the venue. I had spotted an unidentified lark in a large ploughed field, but it required calling in the cavalry, in the form of Choo Eng, James Ooi and Kit Wan, to relocate not one, but three of the beasts, and identify them, on further scrutiny and hearing of the flight call, as Oriental Skylarks!
Where will it be, and what will it be? I have a few hunches! Chuping may be nearing the end of its ‘useful lifespan’ as a top rarity-finding destination, so I suspect a visit to an east coast island may be required this year. However, I’m still hoping that Chuping will be good for one more first before the end of this winter period. Lesser Kestrel anyone?