Big Year 2015: December summary

The final month arrived with 619 on the scoreboard. I set myself what I thought would be a realistic target of 625 by the year’s end, given that there were not too many more ‘easy targets’ available. During the month I stayed in Peninsular Malaysia, but travelled almost the full length, as I went north to Perlis, south to Johor, and had other out of state excursions to Malim Nawar, Perak, and Langkawi, Kedah, while squeezing in a few visits to mainland Penang. I managed to record 286 species, which included four Malaysian lifers (moving my Peninsular Malaysia life-list to 595) and no less than 13 year-ticks; a haul which exceeded all hopes!

This meant that my final Big Year total was 632, of which Category A (naturally-occurring) species comprised 621.

My first trip was to Malim Nawar, where up to six White-shouldered Starlings had been regularly sighted. It wasn’t long before I got on to these, perched on some netting over empty fish-ponds.

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Juvenile White-shouldered Starling singing

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Adjult (left) and juvenile White-shouldered Starlings

I had just taken these photos when some workers came along to start working in the area, flushing the starling flock, and I never saw them again. Having just driven two and a half hours to be there by 8am, I was suddenly extremely grateful that I hadn’t slept in for ten minutes!

This winter has been a good one for this species, with up to ten turning up in Singapore, and others reported at Kuala Gula and Rawang, at least. It was also an addition to my Malaysian life list. I believe I saw one back in the 80s in KL, but I can’t find my notes to confirm this, so had kept it off my list till now.

Next up was four days in Langkawi, where I hoped to clean up on the Big Four – Brown-winged Kingfisher, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Black-hooded Oriole and Oriental Scops-Owl. All but the last are restricted to the Langkawi Islands alone in Peninsular Malaysia. Last year I managed to clean up on all of them, but this year was a huge disappointment, with only the easiest – the kingfisher – being added to my list.

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Frustratingly, both the eagle and the owl were regularly sighted within days of me leaving, but, having endured four days of frustration, I was unwilling to return and possibly repeat the experience!

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Presumed Sakhalin Leaf-Warbler

Other birds I saw on Langkawi included several presumed Sakhalin Leaf-Warblers. Until recently, the tail-pumping, skulking leaf-warblers with a distinctive ‘tink’ call which winter in the north of the Peninsula were assumed to be Pale-legged Leaf-Warblers. However, response to playback of the song of both Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf-Warblers has without exception so far, elicited a strong response to the song of Sakhalin and no discernible response to that of Pale-legged. Added to this, the contact call of these birds is lower-pitched than that of recordings of Pale-legged on the breeding grounds. This is most easily appreciated when the audio recording is converted to a sonograph. Calls of known Sakhalin Leaf-Warblers are lower-pitched than those of Pale-legged, so it seems likely that most (or all?) of the birds we get in Peninsular Malaysia are Sakhalin.

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Good numbers of Asian House-Martins were seen daily around the summit of Gunung Raya.

Visits to Pendang and Kurong Tengar failed to produce hoped-for Black Bittern or Dusky Warbler respectively, so post-Langkawi despondency was setting in fast! A visit to Chuping produced the ‘usual’ scarcities like Short-toed and Booted Eagles, but nothing new.

However, things were afoot further south, as news broke that Paul Wu had found at least one Small Pratincole at Sungai Balang in Johor. That’s a VERY long way from Penang, but on the other hand, Small Pratincole was a Malaysian lifer and a wader to boot – very tempting! Additionally there were still quite a few potential year ticks that I’d missed earlier in the year in Johor, so I decided to make the long journey south, and to spend a few days visiting some of the areas I’d explored earlier in the year.

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One of three Small Pratincoles at Sungai Balang

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Bald but happy! Lesser Adjutant, Sungai Balang

The pratincoles were found with a minimum of fuss and proved to be very docile, so much so that I didn’t actually see them in flight, but I wasn’t complaining! The next few days were very rewarding, as I picked up three much-wanted birds I’d missed earlier in the year – Brown-chested FlycatcherShort-toed Coucal and  White-necked Babbler.

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Brown-chested Jungle-Flycatcher – an unexpected late bonus!

While attempting to get views of the babbler, I managed to see the best bird of the trip – a White-fronted Scops-Owl – accidentally flushed from a day roost. It landed in partial view, allowing me to take some shots, but was very wary and eventually flew off. This was not only a year tick and a Malaysia tick but a world lifer!

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White-fronted Scops-Owl

Before anyone asks, I’ve decided not to divulge the location of the owl, as it was clearly very sensitive to disturbance, and is of such rarity that it would be likely to attract a lot of attention from birders and photographers. The welfare of the birds comes first!

Back in Penang, I received news from Mr and Mrs Hum that they’d sighted an Imperial Eagle on the mainland. Rashly deciding to try for it at the end of a working day, I was soon stuck in traffic across the bridge. While cursing my poor judgment, I noticed a Black-collared Starling flying across the road! This is a feral species in Malaysia, but one that I’d searched for several times in Penang and had given up all hope of seeing. In the event, I missed the eagle, but was still able to add one more to the list.

There was an inevitable lull over the Christmas period for me, but this was abruptly brought to a close by news from Chuping on Christmas Day that Swee Seng and Carol had discovered Malaysia’s 2nd Citrine Wagtail among the many Eastern Yellow Wagtails there. Plans were swiftly made with the result that, early the next morning, Hor Kee, Chiung and I were heading north.

What followed was an arduous day of firstly trying to find flocks of wagtails, and secondly, sifting through them time and again. Despite a couple of fleeting views of the Citrine Wagtail, it wasn’t till about 5pm that I was finally able to photograph it on the ground.

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Bronze-winged Jacana in the early morning sun

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A Short-toed Eagle overhead

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An adult Booted Eagle

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Finally…after 8+ hours of searching – Citrine Wagtail!

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Citrine Wagtail (top left)

Later, when I went through my photos, I found that I’d photographed it in flight too, but I didn’t realize it at the time!

This got me to 629, and I really thought that might be the final total. On our drive that day, Hor Kee and I talked about what future national firsts might be possible. At some point we got talking about gulls, and I advised him to check the Brown-headed Gull flock at Teluk Air Tawar carefully for the outside chance of a Slender-billed Gull, as they occasionally turn up among the thousands of Brown-headed Gulls in the Inner Gulf of Thailand.

I had a major surprise the next afternoon when I got a message from Hor Kee with three photos of a gull he had found at Teluk Air Tawar which was clearly … a Slender-billed Gull!! 

I was in place the next morning at dawn, even though the tide was low and not conducive. Indeed, when I arrived there were no gulls in sight. Soon I was joined by Swee Seng and Carol, who had got as far south as Taiping the night before when they got the news and decided to make a U-turn! Before long we began to see a few gulls offshore, and at about 8.15am the bird we were hoping for flew in and joined a growing roost of Brown-headed Gulls on the mud.

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1st winter Slender-billed Gull – first for Malaysia!

It spent an hour in the roost, mostly preening, and then took off and flew north out of sight, rather ominously. It did not return at high tide during that afternoon, and as far as I know, it hasn’t been seen since.

While watching the gulls, I suddenly realised I could hear Red-whiskered Bulbuls calling behind me. This was a species I had tried and failed to see repeatedly during the year, and it was the only Malaysian bulbul species not yet on my year list. Within minutes I had located a pair tucking into a ripe fruit at the top of a tree – finally!

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Red-whiskered Bulbul

Since my luck was in, I decided to try for the Imperial Eagle again. Back in January, an adult Imperial Eagle was one of the first birds I had missed in the year, so I was particularly eager to get this one back. With a little effort and a lot of luck, I succeeded in locating the bird on a distant pylon, and Imperial Eagle became my 632nd and last bird of 2015.

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Imperial Eagle

632 species is exactly 50 more than the previous record Malaysian Big Year, set in 2006 by Dennis Yong. Hopefully it won’t be 9 years before someone attempts another one. In a succeeding post I will include the full list of species I saw, and reflect on what I learned through the process of attempting a Big Year. But for now, a Big Thanks to everyone who helped and accompanied me through the year, and especially to my long-suffering wife and daughters. I promise I won’t do another Big Year in 2016!

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4 thoughts on “Big Year 2015: December summary

  1. Congratulations! Your planning and work throughout the year really paid off. You really broke 600 by a good bit – quite an accomplishment. It’s been fun to hear how some of the birds (and you) were in the right place at the right time.

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