Big Year 2015 Final Checklist

Non-Category A species are highlighted in yellow.

Big Year 2015 Final Checklist

Total seen: 632 (77.8% of all species on the Malaysian list)
Total Category A seen: 621 (79% of all species in Category A of the Malaysian list)
Additional species heard only: 6

I managed to see all the Malaysian representatives of several groups, including:

Babblers (excluding wren-babblers)



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.


Juvenile White-shouldered Starling singing


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.


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!


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.



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.



One of three Small Pratincoles at Sungai Balang


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.


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!


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.


Bronze-winged Jacana in the early morning sun


A Short-toed Eagle overhead


An adult Booted Eagle


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


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.



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!


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.


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!

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!