Big Year 2015: November summary

Having passed my target of 600 species in all categories last month, my goal this month was to move past 600 Category A species (i.e. genuinely wild birds occurring naturally in Malaysia). With a combination of judicious planning, spur-of-the-moment twitches and good fortune, I amassed 13 new species this month, moving me onto 619 for the year, of which 609 are Category A species.

In the process, I also managed to clock up 4 new species for my Peninsular Malaysia life list, and I now have less than 10 to go before I can start the PM600 Club!

I spent the whole of the month in Peninsular Malaysia. My travels took me to some plantations north of Raub, Fraser’s Hill, Bukit Tinggi, Kuala Gula, the North Central Selangor Coast, Genting Highlands, KL Lake Gardens, Malim Nawar, Chuping, Kuala Selangor, and the rice fields of mainland Penang, and I recorded 304 species in the month.

I started off leading a private tour with Dylan Edwards to Bukit Tinggi and Fraser’s Hill. To be honest, I had little hope for year ticks (Himalayan Cutia and Long-billed Partridge are never easy), but the ones I saw were not even on my radar!

First off, as we were putting our stuff back in the car at Bukit Tinggi, we noticed some swifts high up, and among them were needletails! First of all, a White-throated came whooshing past, the white triangular throat patch blazingly obvious. In attempting to relocate the bird, I got onto a bird which seemed to have a much less obvious throat patch. Having so nearly ticked Silver-backed Needletail on Mantanani last month, I was cautious about this one, but having asked for the opinions of respected others, I could at last add Silver-backed Needletail to my list with a clear conscience!

needletail sp_0M7A7828


Silver-backed Needletail, Bukit Tinggi – the first I have seen in many years.

Already two year ticks to the good by the 2nd day of the month, the next day I added an even more unexpected one.

We were walking along the Telekom Loop at Fraser’s Hill on a foggy afternoon. The norm of birdless silence was interrupted by the frenzied activity of a bird wave, and suddenly we were faced with a Phylloscopus warbler at eye level in some scrub. The lighting was difficult, but I was immediately struck by the whitish underparts and tried to get as many shots as I could. Very soon the birds moved on and the warbler was gone for good. I could see from my LCD screen that this was one of the ‘greenish’ group, but was it identifiable to species? It didn’t call, nor, when I played the call of Two-barred after it had disappeared, was there any observable response.



The clear, unmarked lower mandible, rather fine bill, supercilium which extends all the way to the bill base, eyestripe of similar colour and tone to the crown, pale, plain lower ear coverts, silky whitish underparts and vent with no sullying on the breast or flanks, or colour on the vent, and the pattern of the greater covert bar all indicate that this is not an Arctic of any description, nor an Eastern Crowned or Yellow-browed. However, the ‘greenish’ complex (which was once considered a single species) is incredibly – well- complex! Without hearing the call, it is probably not possible to eliminate the slim chance that it might be the obscuratus race of Greenish Warbler, but experts with more experience than me of both this and Two-barred considered it a reasonable assumption that this is a Two-barred Warbler, based on the unlikelihood of occurrence of obscuratus on the one hand, and the fact that Two-barred is by far the longest-distance migrant of the two, and the most likely to occur. There have been two previous records of Two-barred Warbler in Peninsular Malaysia, both at Fraser’s Hill. We searched for the bird in the days that followed without success, not surprising given the amount of forest there is to hide in there!

On my way home from this tour, I got news that one of my ‘unofficial support team’, Wai Mun, had found a trio of Garganey on our home patch, so it was a matter of a brief diversion back to the spot where I had picked up Ruff and Temminck’s Stint a week or so earlier, to add my first migratory duck of the year. Thanks Mun!


November was going well – 4 new year ticks on the first 5 days, but I was heading off for a week of surveys of oil palm plantations near Raub next, and what I could I possibly hope to add there? Well, as it happened, a really good bird!

We were driving through a patch of flooded oil palm after heavy rains the previous night and one of the staff in the back of the 4WD banged on the roof for us to stop. He could see ‘a bird’ creeping through the long grass not far from the vehicle. Without asking too many questions Kim Chye and I got out and began to walk toward the area he was pointing at. Up jumped a small bittern with pale coverts and grey flight feathers. It dived into some very thick scrub fairly quickly, and we were unable to locate it again. It had been a brief but clear view of a juvenile Schrenck’s Bittern! Yellow has black flight feathers, and Cinnamon of course has cinnamon. The habitat was typical for a species which, uniquely among the Ixobrychus bitterns, shuns paddy fields and seems to prefer semi-wooded areas. In retrospect we should have climbed up onto the back of the truck and then would probably have got photos, but it’s easy to wise after the event!

My next year ticks were carefully targetted – I joined a dedicated team of monthly waterbird counters to get a couple of birds which are relatively easy to find on the Central Selangor Coast at this time of year, but very hard to find anywhere else!


Spot the Red Knot!


Caspian Tern – a little bit easier?

On my way back from this trip I drove past Kuala Gula in Perak, only to find out later than an Indian Roller and a Eurasian Hoopoe were seen there that  day! As soon as my work schedule would allow, I made an early morning departure from Penang to get to Kuala Gula soon after dawn on the 18th. It wasn’t too long before I located the Indian Roller hawking from telegraph poles around a housing estate.


The Hoopoe was more elusive however, and I decided to try my luck on the coastal bund. As I walked along I heard an unrecognised call, looked up, and saw this!

Black-headed Ibis_0M7A8940Black-headed-Ibis_0M7A8936

Not much of a looker, but a really quality rarity – a Black-headed Ibis. Having missed one in my home state of Penang a few years back, this was a Malaysian lifer for me! The day was about to get better. As I continued my walk, I noticed a bird flying over and past me with a floppy, undulating flight. Through the bins I could see the unmistakable black and white wing pattern of a Eurasian Hoopoe! I watched it as it continued to fly away from me, before it banked slightly and appeared to land in the oil palm plantation. Despite much searching I was unable to locate it again. It would have been nice to see it perched, but I was still more than happy to have got this one, having missed the Tanjung Aru bird last month – and it was my second Malaysian lifer of the day!

Next it was time to give Chuping a visit, with Hor Kee. This has been my favourite rarity-hunting venue over the last few years, and it now regularly hosts a few species which are virtually unknown in Malaysia away from this one spot. One of these is Booted Eagle, and Chuping delivered with distant views of an adult dark morph bird. The photo below is of a juvenile dark morph taken on a later visit.


While exploring the wider area, we bumped into a pair of Bronze-winged Jacanas and an independent juvenile! Although the juvenile was of an age when I would judge extended flights are possible, the presence of a pair and a juvenile at a deserted spot with suitable habitat was more than a little suggestive that the birds had bred on site. If so, this would be a new breeding species for Malaysia! As it was, it was yet another Malaysian lifer!


My last year tick of the month came during another visit to Fraser’s Hill. I was there to attend the inaugural AGM of the Wild Bird Club Malaysia, and at the end of the first day, news broke of a Baillon’s Crake in KL Lake Gardens! I hummed and haa-ed about this for a bit, but when dawn broke to the sound of persistent heavy rain at the Hill, I decided to make a mad dash to KL in the hope of catching the crake!

On arrival, the crake was nowhere to be seen, and I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place. After a while of frantically walking around, I chose a quiet spot, and decided “If I was a Baillon’s Crake, I would choose…that corner there!” I waited and watched, and sure enough, the crake emerged, and went on to give me mesmerising views for as long as I wanted!


So that was the month of November. Next month will be difficult, as there are plenty of family commitments and not too many potential year ticks left, but I will do my best to reach 625. The end of the year is in sight, and with it, the prospect of a good rest!


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