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!


Pulau Mantanani: 26 October

Pied-Triller_0M7A7151Today was my last on the island, so I made sure to take some photos of some of the few resident passerines on the island, like Pied Trillers, which are extremely common.


Pacific Reef-Herons are relatively common too – I only saw dark morph birds.


Migrant-wise, not much was new, though I did find a Taiga Flycatcher in a previously unexplored area, and had a (or the?) Ashy Minivet in flight once again.


I counted 6 Arctic Warblers but no Japanese Leaf Warblers.

Blue-and-White-Flycatcher_0M7A7580There were at least 9 Blue-and-White Flycatchers – some which were overnight stayers, like this first year male, and others which were obviously fresh arrivals.


I found 2 stunning adult males on the Point which were feeding like mad, and very tame, either too tired or too hungry to be bothered about me.


Blue on blue! I wondered whether this bird was the ‘intermedia’ race because of the blue on the lower breast. On the other hand, the light was so bright, it was hard to be sure whether this might look black under ‘normal’ lighting conditions. The bird’s wings are raised in the lower photo because it was having difficulty staying on the branch in a strong headwind.


This didn’t stop the other male from deciding it was time to continue his migratory journey towards the mainland. It was a sobering sight to see such a tiny bird, weighing just a few grams, taking off into the teeth of a strong wind over a rough sea. Amazing!


There were two female Blue Rock Thrushes.


And not many other flycatchers – single Dark-sided, Grey-streaked, Narcissus and this Asian Brown.


Some female Christmas Island Frigatebirds.


And some Lesser Frigatebird shots – the top four are of adult females, then a subadult and a male at the bottom.


These images of a Chinese Egret were taken the next day at Tanjung Aru, KK. I was there all morning in the hope of seeing a Hoopoe which was being regularly sighted there, but in the end I had to leave and catch my flight Hoopoe-less! Needless to say, it was seen shortly after I left, but I couldn’t complain about my haul in Borneo, and on Mantanani in particular!

Anyone interested in joining me for a repeat trip next November?

Pulau Mantanani: 25 October 2015

Today was principally memorable for a good amount of ‘vis mig’ (visible migration) which peaked in mid-morning. Most of this was made up of raptors (1 Oriental Honey-Buzzard, 11 Grey-faced Buzzards, 3 Chinese Sparrowhawks and 17 Japanese Sparrowhawks, but it also included small numbers of Red-rumped Swallows, Pacific Swifts and, more noteworthy, single overflying Black-naped Oriole and Ashy Minivet, both mega-rarities in Borneo. There also seemed to be a fresh arrival of flycatchers, with 1 Asian Brown, 8 Grey-streaked, 13 Blue-and-White, 3 Narcissus and 1 Taiga (the latter a lingering bird). There were reasonable numbers of Arctic Warblers too, with a single Japanese Leaf Warbler, and some of the longer-staying migrants like Brown Shrike and Chestnut-cheeked Starlings.


As soon as I left the house at daybreak I noticed this Grey-streaked Flycatcher on the washing line! A hopeful sign?

I started the morning at the football field, and decided to try to get better shots of some of the long-staying birds. Once I located them, I crept up and spent over an hour in close proximity to the group – very nice!


This juv Yellow Bittern had been around since Day 1, but now seemed rather weak. I discovered it had a wound on one wing and was reluctant to fly.


The two juvenile Pacific Golden Plovers seemed to quickly get used to my presence.


The three Little Ringed Plovers even more so; they were happy to feed within a few feet of me.



Five Red-throated Pipits remained, and were more confiding than on previous days.


While photographing the pipits and waders, I noticed this Arctic Warbler foraging in a bush behind them!

Soon things started getting busy overhead, and I had my ‘hands full’ trying to record the raptors which rapidly appeared and then flew over.


A male Oriental Honey-Buzzard got things going


Grey-faced Buzzards arrived singly or in small groups, some accompanied by Chinese Sparrowhawks



Male (top) and female Chinese Sparrowhawks



Some of the Japanese Sparrowhawks. All appeared to be juvenile birds.



Red-rumped Swallows – once considered a great rarity in Borneo



A rather ragged Pacific Swift. The brown head is a good distinguishing feature from Cook’s. The rump patch does not look particularly large.



I tried getting some photos of the resident swiftlets. According to the literature, these are Germain’s, but I got the impression that these were longer-winged, with a more rakish outline and more powerful flight than the birds I see in the Peninsula. Subtle perhaps, but I’d like to learn more, especially now that another swiftlet sp has been found on Balambangan Island.

The oriole and the minivet occurred within a few moments of each other. I got poor photos of the oriole as it flew directly away from me. I heard the minivet first, and then saw it in flight distantly, but was not able to relocate either bird.

After lunch I went to the west end of the island, where I got poor photos of  a Tabon Scrubfowl.


There were not many birds in the forest (and lots of mozzies!). However, I did manage to find one secretive bird there…


It took me a while to figure out what it was in the gloom; it eventually revealed itself to be a 1st calendar year male Narcissus Flycatcher, a new plumage for me!



An adult male and 1st calendar year female Narcissus Flycatcher were at the opposite end of the island.



There were lots of plumages of Blue-and-White Flycatcher on show today! At the top is an adult female, then a 1st year male, and two adult males at the bottom. The lower bird might be the ‘intermedia‘ race, as it seems to have quite a bit of blue in the throat and upper breast.


Two Blue-and-White Flycatchers!



For completeness, another Grey-streaked (top) and a Taiga Flycatcher


There were at least 5 Arctic Warblers. This one is typical – slightly yellowish supercilium, dusky spot at the tip of the lower mandible, etc.


But what about this one? Rather ‘colourless’ and it has a strikingly extensive dark tip to the lower mandible, something I’ve noticed on photographs of known Kamchatka Leaf Warblers, such as this one and this one, as well as on the illustration of the species by Ian Lewington in Rare Birds of North America. Unfortunately it didn’t call, so must only remain a ‘possible’.


Lastly, I thought it must be great to be on a fishing boat followed by frigatebirds rather than terns!

Pulau Mantanani: 24 October 2015

Today was Mike and Yann’s last day on the island, which meant that I would have to compensate for losing two pairs of sharp eyes for the last few days of my stay! Having missed Metallic Pigeon on the first day, Yann concentrated on the west end of the island, and was successful not only in seeing a Metallic Pigeon but also getting some very close photos of Tabon Scrubfowl. Meanwhile, Mike and I focused on turning up new migrants. Two sightings of Pied Imperial-Pigeons were  a new island tick and a much-wanted year tick for me – relief! We also had a Chinese Egret foraging in the bay on the north-west coast.

It was soon clear that not much new had arrived, so it was mostly a matter of seeing the same birds from the previous days. Having said that, we did manage to dig up a Tiger Shrike, which we had not seen before. There were two ‘that got away’ today. Yann had brief views of a possible Dusky Warbler, and when I went to look for it, I glimpsed a small dark brown rail or crake deep inside  a dense tangle of undergrowth. Oh well! Can’t nail down everything!


One of the two ‘old’ Taiga Flycatchers still present was still foraging on the beach


Or in the nearby casuarinas


One of five Grey-streaked Flycatchers, enjoying scenic views on the beach too!


The same Grey-streaked Flycatcher


A juvenile Dark-sided Flycatcher was also on the beach!



Two of these were possibly fresh in since yesterday.



Structurally, they are very different from Grey-streaked, looking tubbier and smaller-billed.


Looking huge by comparison, there were 5 Asian Brown Flycatchers.


The bill is the largest and broadest of the three.


There were also a couple of Blue-and-White Flycatchers present, and I managed to get reasonably close for the first time today.


The tone of the blue looks quite different depending on the lighting. It’s the same bird in both photos.



Six Red-throated Pipits were still on the football field.

There were five Arctic Warblers and a Japanese Leaf Warbler still about, but no sign of the Willow Warbler.


Four Sand Martins were counted…



But only 1 Red-rumped Swallow.


Raptors continued to move through in small numbers from mid-morning.


There were four Japanese Sparrowhawks…


Including this one hunting from a perch


3 Grey-faced Buzzards (pic) and 2 Chinese Sparrowhawks


Two of the three Kentish Plovers still present on the Point.


Frigate birds are a constant feature, and today they were a bit closer than usual. A nice comparison of adult male Lesser…


…and Christmas Island Frigatebirds



Some more Lesser Frigatebirds…



The size difference is always obvious when the two species are together.


And some Christmas Islanders!

Pulau Mantanani: 23 October 2015


South beach at dawn


Our homestay.

The day dawned bright and sunny, with little wind, after a clear night. Initially, it seemed like there was not much about, and we guessed that birds had taken advantage of the clear night to move on. However, when we got to the football field – which still had several rainwater pools – we found two juvenile Pacific Golden Plovers, 2 Little Ringed Plovers, a small flock of 8 Red-throated Pipits and several Eastern Yellow Wagtails.


The football field


Red-throated Pipit with Eastern Yellow Wagtail


Red-throated Pipit


Juvenile Pacific Golden Plover


Yellow Bittern

We then decided to work the scrubby bushes around the field, and before long Mike called our attention to a warbler which had just emerged into some dead branches at the edge of a bush. It was immediately obviously something new, and we cycled through a couple of possibilities before quite quickly realising we were looking at…a Willow Warbler! This is a species all of us are familiar with from Europe, but it was not exactly what we were expecting to see in Borneo! The bird sat motionless, other than repeatedly flicking its tail, as we edged around to get a better angle. As we did so, a Japanese Sparrowhawk made a dash for the warbler and pulled out at the last moment as it became aware of us. The warbler froze, apparently in shock, for several minutes, enabling us to get lots of photos before it eventually flew off to an adjoining bush. We took a few moments to compare notes and revel in the rush of adrenaline at having found a ‘mega’ rarity, reflecting that our attention had probably also saved the Willow Warbler’s life!



We then spread out to try to relocate the bird, and almost immediately I flushed a largish, long-tailed, sand-coloured passerine which flew low to the next bush. It wasn’t ringing any bells, and when I got the bins onto the streaky-crowned head, I was still completely flummoxed as to its identity – till I saw the slightly bulbous, conical bill, and the penny dropped – Black-headed Bunting! The bird sat motionless in the bottom of the bush for a short while, enabling Mike and Yann to get onto it, before flying on, and once again we conferred, and checked our cameras, to make sure we weren’t hallucinating! Two megas in a matter of minutes, and suddenly I had moved from 598 species for the year to the magic 600! All buntings are rare in Malaysia, only five species have been recorded. This was about the 5th Black-headed Bunting record for the country, and my first bunting of any description.

Black-headed-Bunting_0M7A4565 Black-headed-Bunting_0M7A4598

We continued checking the bushes around the field, and though we could not relocate either the warbler or the bunting, continued to turn up new birds, including several Brown Shrikes and a Taiga Flycatcher. Grey-faced Buzzards and Chinese and Japanese Sparrowhawks migrated overhead, and there were a Pacific Swift and a number of Red-rumped Swallows and Sand Martins too, both rarities in Borneo. A small flock of 10 Chestnut-cheeked Starlings perched in a casuarina tree nearby. Having exhausted possibilities at the football field, we walked eastward toward the point, seeing Blue-and-white, Grey-streaked, Asian Brown and a second Taiga Flycatcher on the way. At the point itself, we came across our fifth flycatcher species of the day – a stunning male Narcissus!


Brown Shrike


Sand Martin


Taiga Flycatcher


Pacific Swift


Adult (R) and juv Grey-faced Buzzard


Male Chinese Sparrowhawk


Juvenile Chinese Sparrowhawk


Male Narcissus Flycatcher


East Asia’s answer to Blackburnian Warbler!

We returned to the football field after lunch but found it quiet, and then moved to a new area where we located another flock of 7 Chestnut-cheeked Starlings and a Japanese Leaf Warbler – a striking individual with pale lemon yellow underparts.


Japanese Leaf Warbler


An Arctic Warbler for comparison, feeding on the ground.


Arctic Warbler foraging on the beach


White-breasted Woodswallow feasting on a dragonfly


Where bird names get confusing! The grey bird on the left is an Eastern Yellow Wagtail, while the yellow bird on the right is a Grey Wagtail!


Grey Wagtail preening

Moving to the west end of the island in late afternoon, we sat down to watch the frigatebirds gather to roost. As we sat watching, suddenly a needletail flew into the bay. Its squat, compact shape indicated that it was either White-throated or Silver-backed, and as it banked against the dark forest behind, there was no pale throat visible, suggesting it was the latter – another potential first for Borneo! However, at that moment, the Peregrine which we had seen perched on a nearby dead tree earlier powered into view, easily overhauled the needletail and knocked it into the sea! After a couple of failed attempts, the falcon plucked the doomed swift out of the water, but was then in turn chased down by a second Peregrine, forcing it to release its prey (which still appeared to be alive). The second Peregrine caught the needletail in midair and flew off with it. At that moment, a large stingray broke the water surface where the needletail had been moments earlier, leaping high in the air and falling back into the water with a mighty splash!


Sequence 1 shows the Peregrine with needletail in talons being chased down by the second bird


This shows the moment when the prey changed hands. The swift appeared to be trying to fly at this point.


Seconds later this Stingray broke the surface where the needletail had been just a few moments before!

Wow! What a spectacular finale to what had been an amazing day! Or not quite, as we continued to watch and count an estimated 5200 frigate birds (Lesser and Christmas Island) congregate over Linggisan Island like a massive bee swarm, before settling down to roost at last light.


Frigatebirds gathering to roost


The local name for frigatebird is “linggisan” – hence – Pulau Linggisan!

Our passerine count for the day included 5 Brown Shrikes, 7 Sand Martins, 12 Red-rumped Swallows, 1 Willow Warbler, 9 Arctic Warblers, 1 Japanese Leaf Warbler, 8 Grey-streaked Flycatchers, 2 Asian Brown Flycatchers, 9 Blue-and-white Flycatchers, 1 Narcissus Flycatcher, 2 Taiga Flycatchers, 17 Chestnut-cheeked Starlings, 28 Eastern Yellow Wagtails, 7 Grey Wagtails, 8 Red-throated Pipits and 1 Black-headed Bunting!

Pulau Mantanani: 22 Oct 2015

I first visited Pulau Mantanani Besar in October 2012, and a description of the physical aspects of the island can be read here. Some of the birds I saw then can be seen in the posts following that one.

Yann Muzika, Mike Turnbull and I booked this short trip to follow the second Sarawak tour. We had arrived in Kota Kinabalu overland from Lawas amid sometimes torrential rain the previous night and had booked a KK to Pulau Mantanani transfer through the operator which organized our homestay – Blue Life. The van picked us up from our hotel at 7.30am and the drive to Kuala Abai took about 1.5 hours. There was then a bit of a wait for our boat, which gave us chance to scan the harbour. There were a few Whiskered Terns and some waders roosting in the mangroves and nearby mudflats. Once our boat left the shelter of the harbour, the crossing was pretty rough. Visibility was poor and the boat was bouncing around so much that using bins was out of the question. Still, we got lucky when a Brown Booby passed very close to the boat. The boat crew seemed pretty incompetent, and things got a little worrying when the captain asked if any of the passengers had a compass! Yann did, and as a result we eventually found the island! If you’re making this trip at this time of year, be sure to get everything well waterproofed (and bring a compass)!

When we arrived on the island, no-one seemed to know where our homestay was, and there was no-one there to meet us. However, we eventually found a lad with a sort of motorbike tractor who was willing to ferry us somewhere he thought was near where we wanted to go. While he filled up with petrol, Yann hopped off to chase up a briefly glimpsed accipiter, while Mike and I stayed on the trailer. As a result, Mike and I had views of a flock of eight Metallic Pigeons which drifted towards and over us, apparently landing not far off, while Yann missed them. Had we realised how rare these would turn out to be, we would certainly have made more of an effort to relocate them. Eventually we were on our way, needing to duck frequently to avoid getting decapitated by low branches. We arrived at a ramshackle building which we were assured was ‘the place’. It was padlocked and appeared empty, but we unloaded and sat down to wait. In a short while, our man, Otong, arrived apologetically from the direction of the jetty, which he had rushed off to when he saw our boat arriving, so we had neatly missed each other!


Walking through Kampung Padang


Kak Ipah’s homestay

I was glad to learn that the padlocked building was not the homestay. Instead, Otong took us a short distance to “Ipah’s Homestay” – home of Kak Ipah and Abang Arjini, in Kampung Padang. We had the whole upper floor of the house to ourselves, and the accommodation was simple but perfectly adequate. After a good lunch prepared by Kak Ipah, we set off to explore, heading westwards toward the forested ‘tail’ of the fish-shaped island, where we hoped to find more pigeons. I must not forget to mention that the following photos were taken using the new Canon 100-400 IS MkII lens, kindly lent to me by Yann. What a lens it is, as these pics demonstrate!


Grey-streaked Flycatcher – the first of many – back view.


Front view of the same bird.

One of the nice things about Mantanani is that there are very few resident passerines. This means that any bird you see in the bushes or trees has a very good chance of being a migrant. Our first was a Grey-streaked Flycatcher foraging in some casuarinas along the beach. We discovered that this belt of trees fringing the south side of the island was the best place too look for flycatchers. Our total for migrant passerines that afternoon was 1 Brown Shrike, 3 Arctic Warblers, 1 Asian Brown Flycatcher, 3 Grey-streaked Flycatchers, 3 Blue and White Flycatchers, 1 Blue Rock Thrush, 2 Siberian Stonechats (quite a rarity in Borneo), 10 Eastern Yellow Wagtails and 6 Grey Wagtails. Only later we realised that the storm of the previous night had probably resulted in quite a ‘fall’ of migrants,otherwise we might have spent more time searching for them.


Another Grey-streaked Flycatcher, on a more photogenic perch!


A pair of Blue-and-White Flycatchers. Passerines don’t normally migrate in pairs…


‘Philippensis’ Blue Rock-Thrush


One of two Siberian Stonechats perched at the top of casuarina trees.

However, our main focus was on getting the island’s rarer residents, and it wasn’t long before we were enjoying excellent looks at the first of these – Grey Imperial Pigeon. There were many calling at the western end of the island, and they were not too hard to spot. It was a different story with Metallic and Nicobar Pigeons – neither of which put in an appearance. We flushed a couple of Tabon Scrubfowl during our walk through the forest – in flight looking like outsized junglefowl. These also proved to be common and rather easy to see over the coming days.


Grey Imperial-Pigeon

It soon became apparent that the resident White-bellied Sea Eagles had other raptors for company. An Osprey sat on an offshore sandbar, and a juv Grey-faced Buzzard moved around the trees, frequently calling. Japanese Sparrowhawks seemed to be everywhere – we estimated five birds – but there could have been half as many, or twice as many! A calidus race Peregrine sat on a dead tree (exactly where I’d seen one three years previously), and, in an adjacent tree, we were surprised to fined a female Eurasian Kestrel feeding on something.


A distant Osprey on an offshore sandbar


Japanese Sparrowhawks – seemingly everywhere!


Eurasian Kestrel feeding on…something.


pond-heron sp – this lens was such a joy!


Yellow Bittern giving us the eye

We spent some time watching the frigatebirds as they began to congregate overhead prior to going to roost, estimating 700 Lesser and 20 Christmas Island, but not finding a Great despite much scanning.


A cartwheel of frigatebirds!


Juv Christmas Island (L) and female Lesser (R) Frigatebirds


At first I hoped this might be a Great, but it has very faint axillary spurs so I think must be a juv Christmas Island.

As the skies grew dark we decided to beat a retreat before the heavens opened. The rain did start, forcing us to take shelter (and some liquid refreshment!) at the Mari-Mari Resort, where we met resident birder Wesley, who filled us in on the status of some of the commoner species. Once the rain had stopped and dusk had fallen, we went to a spot he recommended for Mantanani Scops Owl and within minutes had a pair very aggressively responding just above our heads, and at times too close for pictures! How on earth did I manage to miss these in 2012?


One more of the amazing Mantanani Scops-Owl

Thus ended our first day on the island. We were all happy with our haul – I had had a massive nine year ticks, which included 4 world lifers (the scrub fowl, the owl and the two pigeons) – I can’t remember the last time I had four new birds in a day!

Big Year 2015: October summary

I ended September on 585, a new Malaysia year record, with high hopes that the next month would get me to my next goal – 600 species in a year. My travels took me to Sarawak and Sabah, with some additional birding in mainland Penang and Kuala Selangor Nature Park. The net result was 339 species recorded, of which 21 were new for the year, taking me to 606 by the end of the month!

I started off on a twitch for a Dusky Warbler reported from Kuala Selangor on Oct 4th. Failing to find that, I moved to Sungai Janggut in the hope of seeing Caspian Tern and Red Knot coming out of the high tide roost at Kapar. Although this also proved a fool’s errand, I did see a few Lesser Adjutants which provided some photogenic moments.


Next up was the first of two tours in two weeks to eastern Sarawak. I made a quick couple of visits to Lok Kawi beach before the tour, but failed to find the Common Ringed Plover which has turned up there for at least the previous nine winters . 585 was becoming a hard number to move from! The first tour was a success for the participants, but pretty poor for year ticks. I had expected to have netted five or six by this time, instead of which I had managed just one – a newly arrived Blue-and-White Flycatcher. Suddenly, 600 was starting to look a long way away! During the course of the week I managed to show my 5th client of the year a Bornean Banded-Pitta without actually seeing one myself – and I was fast running out of chances. A full report, with photos, of the week can be found here. Here’s one of my favourite birds and photos of the trip – Dulit Frogmouth.


The following week was a repeat of the first in terms of itinerary, but fortunately, not in terms of new birds for the year. I managed two more year ticks – including, at last, Bornean Banded-Pitta (the other was Siberian Blue Robin). A full report of that trip is here.

In a little over two weeks I had managed to creep up to 588 for the year, and things were not looking good for me reaching my target this month. All this changed most wonderfully over the following four days however, when I visited Pulau Mantanani off the north coast of Sabah with Mike Turnbull and Yann Muzika. In fact, the trip was so wonderful it deserves a day-by-day blog account in its own right. For now, here’s just a summary of year ticks. On the very rough sea crossing to the island, we pulled out an unexpected bonus in the form of a Brown Booby. This was followed almost as soon as we had set foot on the island by a flock of eight Metallic Pigeons, and by the end of that first day on the island, I had added NINE year ticks to my tally – in addition to the booby and the pigeons, these were Tabon ScrubfowlLesser and Christmas Island FrigatebirdsGrey-faced BuzzardGrey Imperial-PigeonMantanani Scops-Owl and Grey-streaked Flycatcher!


Grey Imperial-Pigeon


Grey-streaked Flycatcher


Mantanani Scops-Owl

If the first day was good, the second was even better in terms of quality. I had a further six year ticks, including Willow Warbler (a first for Borneo and only the second for South-east Asia!), Japanese Leaf Warbler, Narcissus Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher, Chestnut-cheeked Starling and Black-headed Bunting (about the fourth record for Malaysia). After much soul-searching I decided not to count an almost certain Silver-backed Needletail which was killed by a Peregrine before we could make 100% sure of the identification (more of this in a future blog post)!


Willow Warbler


Japanese Leaf-Warbler


Narcissus Flycatcher


Taiga Flycatcher


Chestnut-cheeked Starlings


Black-headed Bunting

The rest of the trip brought only one more addition – Pied Imperial-Pigeon – a bird I was glad to tick off, having failed to find it several times around my home state and on pelagic trips. To say that I was happy with my haul of 16 year ticks from Mantanani would be a considerable understatement!

I just had time before the month ended to squeeze in an early morning trip to Kubang Semang, in my home state of Pulau Pinang, where I added two scarce waders – Ruff and Temminck’s Stint – bringing the end of the month total to 606, and into uncharted waters.

Following Dennis Yong’s 2006 approach, I have included species from all four Categories on the Malaysian list (i.e. including birds which occur solely as a result of human intervention). My next target is to reach 600 species from Category A alone. So far I have 10 non-Category A species on my list, so I hope to reach a ‘clean’ 600 by the end of next month!

Here are the stats comparing my year to date with Dennis Yong’s 2006 Big Year.

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