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!

Grey-breasted-Babbler_IMG_8000

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!

Great-billed-Heron_IMG_8823 Great-billed-Heron_IMG_8829

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.

Bamboo-Woodpecker_IMG_9196

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.

Amur-Paradise-Flycatcher_IMG_9283

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.

Amur-Paradise-Flycatcher_IMG_9265

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.

Amur-Paradise-Flycatcher_IMG_9240

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!

Rusty-naped-Pitta_IMG_9497

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.

Dusky-Crag-Martin_IMG_3648 Dusky-Crag-Martin_IMG_9995

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).

Far Eastern Curlew_IMG_3907 Asian-Dowitcher_IMG_3889

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!

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