I’ve never done a ‘Big Year’ before, and I didn’t plan on doing one in 2014. But after a number of tours to Peninsular and Bornean Malaysia, in late November I counted up how many species I’d seen in Malaysia since the beginning of the year, and found to my amazement that I had reached 541 species. A quick check back through the archives revealed that Dennis Yong had scored a total of 582 birds seen in 2006. Even though the taxonomy of Dennis’s list differed quite a bit from Clements v6.9 (2014), which is what I use, I decided to take Dennis’s total as my goal for the year.
After publishing my intent on Facebook, I rechecked my list more carefully, making sure I could put a date and location to each species. This revision had a sobering effect, as I discovered that a number of ‘common’ species which I had assumed I must have seen did not have the requisite details. The revised total was 526, with less than 6 weeks to make up the numbers!
A list of ‘targets’ was quickly drawn up, as well as the favoured sites for each species. I mentally divided the list into ‘should get’ (italicized in the list below), ‘could get’ and ‘theoretically possible but unlikely to get’, and then looked at what sites I would need to visit. That’s when reality kicked in! Less than 6 weeks, and those 6 weeks included 2 family birthdays, a wedding anniversary, Christmas (and time needed to shop for presents) and an open house to organize and host. How badly did I want to beat Dennis’s total?!
If I valued my marriage, kids and sanity, clearly I was going to have to ditch Johor as a possibility! I did have a two day tour to Bukit Tinggi and Fraser’s Hill lined up in late November, I could manage a boat trip from Tanjung Dawai, and apart from that, it was a question of taking my chances around the north.
A visit to nearby Kuala Muda to a low tide tern roost netted me two of my ‘gap birds’ (species I would have expected to have seen by now), Greater and Lesser Crested Terns. The former included a colour-ringed bird, which I subsequently learned had been tagged in 2007 at Penghu Island, Taiwan, as an adult.
So, not just any old Greater Crested Tern, but a bird at least 7 years old, and the first colour-ringed record from Malaysia to boot!
A short detour en route south to picking up my tour clients at KLIA took me to Ulu Kali, where I caught up on some upper montane birds: Rufous-winged Fulvetta, Chestnut-tailed Minla and Golden-throated Barbet, with the added bonus of an Olive-backed Pipit. The Bukit Tinggi/Fraser’s Hill tour was a successful one for my clients, and I managed to add Speckled Piculet, Large Woodshrike, White-tailed Robin and Eyebrowed Thrush.
Driving back to Penang I took in further diversions to Payah Indah, where I dipped on Cotton Pygmy-Goose, but picked up Lesser Coucal, which I had somehow contrived not to record previously, and then to Ipoh, where Blue Rock-Thrush was easy, and Java Sparrow was added at the last moment, as I was driving away from the site!
In the next few days I made some evening excursions, picking up Sunda Scops Owl and Brown Boobook but missing Oriental Bay Owl and Red-whiskered Bulbul. I also spent a whole day out on the ikan bilis boat, seeing very few birds, and only one new year-bird – Black-naped Tern,
I managed a day’s birding at Sungai Sedim in the first week of December, and there were plenty of birds about, including new year-birds: Pale Blue and Chinese Blue Flycatchers, Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo and an unexpected bonus of Pin-tailed Parrotfinches.
The same day I went looking for a Black-headed Gull reported at Bagan Belat, but failed to connect, which meant that a return trip the following day was needed.
I can’t believe I twitched a Black-headed Gull (a very common bird in the UK)…twice!
My beloved family agreed that a 4-day family holiday to Langkawi was a great idea, despite knowing full well that they wouldn’t see much of me (or maybe because … no!).
Apart from these, which I managed to photograph, I also added Black-hooded Oriole (the third of the Langkawi Big Three, and another I had tried many times to see previously), Slaty-breasted Rail, Ruddy Kingfisher and Pacific Reef Egret.
One that got away was a subadult male probable Zappey’s Flycatcher. On current knowledge, only males showing some colour on the throat can be separated for certain from Blue-and-white. I looked and looked for a newly moulted feather, but there were none!
Despite doing very well in Langkawi, by the time I added up the total (564) and the number of potential birding days left in the year, it was obvious I was not going to break Dennis’s record. There was a pivotal moment when I found out the day we got back from Langkawi that a Eurasian Sparrowhawk had been seen 2 days in a row on the same perch in the Cameron Highlands. To give myself the best chance of seeing it would have meant leaving at 3 a.m. the next morning, with the additional possibility of adding Barred Cuckoo-Dove and Rufous-vented Niltava. However, I would have to be home in time for a wedding dinner the same evening. After discussion with my family, I decided not to go. It was a decision I was glad to have made the next day when I developed an agonizing toothache which required an immediate visit to the dentist! Still, it meant that my attempt on Dennis’s total was officially over – a strange mixture of relief and frustration!
Once Christmas was over and done, I decided to try to at least get a bit nearer to that mythical 582, and set off in the early morning of Dec 28th to Perlis and other points north. Peering into persistent heavy rain as I drove in the pre-dawn darkness, I questioned my sanity not for the first time! Finally, common sense prevailed; I pulled off into a service stop, checked the forecast, found it was for a week of heavy rain (why hadn’t I thought of checking last night??) and decided to sleep till daylight, then turn around and go home. At first light I drove north to the first place I could do a U-turn. This happened to be the Pendang junction. I remembered seeing some interesting looking marshes in Pendang on a previous visit, so, despite the continuing rain, decided to check these out before heading home.
Literally my first bird of the day was this Black Bittern, a bird so rare it was in the ‘theoretically possible but unlikely’ category. This immediately put a different complexion on my mood, plus, the rain seemed to be easing. I decided it wasn’t that much further to Chuping, so I might as well go take a look, and then assess the weather!
As I drove along a rough track at Chuping I found myself confronted by a bird whose colour scheme I did not immediately recognize. A quick look through the bins solved the mystery – a Brahminy Starling. Taking a couple of shots through the windscreen for insurance, I then slowly tried to manoeuvre myself into position for a better shot. The bird was extremely wary however, and flew off and over some tall grass out of sight. As the species is on Category D of the Malaysian list, I was not too bothered about trying to refind the bird. This proved a mistake, as I later found, from reading Wells and in conversation with fellow birders in Thailand, that it is more likely to have been a genuine vagrant, especially as one turned up in Petchaburi Province on 24 Dec 2014 (Ingkayut UjungKulon in litt.)!
My first two new year-birds of the day had not been on my radar at all, but the third was very much a target – a (dark morph) Booted Eagle. This bird has a deformity on the leading edge of the right wing, enabling me to recognize it as the same bird as one I saw on Dec 26, 2013. It was carrying a very long-tailed lizard, though I couldn’t be certain of the species.
The same spot yielded a Thick-billed and Yellow-browed Warbler, a Greater Spotted Eagle, and a number of Oriental Honey-Buzzards and Eyebrowed Thrushes. Not only that, but the rain was easing and the sky clearing – things were looking up!
A visit to the Little Cormorant ponds in the hope of seeing Cotton Pygmy-Goose was frustrated by the track having been rendered impassable by the recent rains, and by the fact that a small shanty ‘village’ seems to have been set up on the bank of one of the lakes – new ‘workers quarters’. No sign of either cormorants or Pygmy-Geese.
So, next stop Timah-Tasoh, where the effects of the rains were also obvious as I splashed my way around the usual trails. No Pygmy-Geese here either, but all was not lost, as I got more good views of Eyebrowed Thrushes, a 4th year-tick of the day in the form of a pair of Racket-tailed Treepies, and a frustrating Phylloscopus warbler which was a good candidate for Japanese Leaf Warbler, only it did not call!
A visit to Bukit Jerneh in late afternoon failed to produce any Dusky Crag-Martins, but there was some recompense in the form of a prolonged ground skirmish between two Crested Serpent-Eagles – quite a spectacle!
A 5th year-tick of the day was this Barn Owl, which I went for after dinner following precise directions from Choo Eng. I was very glad it didn’t take long to find – it had been a long day!
The next morning I visited Bukit Wang. This was the first clear day after several days of rain, and perhaps as a consequence, the place was alive with birds – the best I have ever seen it. There weren’t too many year-ticks around, but I really enjoyed myself!
There were 2-3 of these Leaf-Warblers at one spot. In the ‘old days’ we would have called them Pale-legged leaf-Warblers and moved right along. But recent ringing data in the Inner Gulf of Thailand suggests that Sakhalin Leaf-Warbler outnumbers Pale-legged by quite a margin. When I played the songs of both species, they showed no response to that of Pale-legged but an immediate and vigorous response to that of Sakhalin, flying towards and past me each time I played even one phrase of the song softly. So clearly, these were Sakhalin Leaf-Warblers. The question is, are we getting any Pale-legged?
There were two female Green-backed Flycatchers in the same area.
And at least two Chinese Blue (Blue-throated) Flycatchers singing away lustily. The song of this species is much stronger and more melodious than most blue-flycatchers (unusually for migrants from the northern hemisphere, they seem to have no qualms about singing in their wintering grounds). The brownish flanks are a good field character, and some males (like this one) have blackish ‘face sides’ – not sure if this is a marker of immaturity.
It wasn’t just the migrants that were in form – residents were showy too. I’ve never even heard a Malayan Banded Pitta at this site, let alone seen one. This male was approaching me slowly, when…
…a female bounded into view much closer. It seemed to be saying “Look at ME! Look at ME!” I swiftly refocused!
She hopped up onto a painful-looking rattan and gave me a beady-eyed glare!
This low-flying Rufous-bellied Eagle was determined to get in on the act too!
Eventually, bird activity began to die down, and I began thinking about what other year-ticks I could get. I hadn’t yet found any Red-throated Pipits at Chuping, so headed back there for the tail end of the day.
Find the habitat; find the birds! By looking for suitable patches of recently ploughed fields, I soon found a decent flock of pipits. Not a great photo, but this was my 572nd, and, as it turned out, last bird of the year. The day ended on a high, as I managed to find at least 2 Manchurian Reed-Warblers at a spot we didn’t visit last year.
I went to bed that evening with great plans for the last day of the year, but at 3.30 the next morning I awoke with a very obvious viral infection, and it was soon clear that I would do well to get home as soon as possible!
So that was that – 572 species in 2014 – ten short of Dennis’s total, which just goes to show what a decent benchmark he set in 2006. I believe 600 is do-able, but it needs planning and year-long dedication, as well as quite a bit of travel to all four points of the compass! All the best to anyone who wishes to attempt it – I don’t think it will be me though, at least not in 2015!
For those who are interested, here’s my full species list, with locations and dates.
Among the many who offered info on various sites and species, as well as helping me to get to them, special thanks to James, Rob and Mike of Birdtour Asia, Mun, Choo Eng and Hor Kee in Penang; Aidi, Irshad, Sofian and Wendy in Langkawi, and not forgetting Sumes of Wild Asia, who sent me her excellent articles on Dennis Yong’s Big Year, as well as his full list. Since I’m on a roll, it would be very remiss of me not to mention Daphne, my wife, and our two daughters, Catherine and Rebekah, who are the best and most supportive family ever!