Sunday 9 September 2018

Not birding in Malaysia


Mrs L and I recently went on a short break to Malaysia and Japan. Ostensibly this was a grown-up holiday, with spa treatments, nice meals and all that kind of thing, but actually I just went birding. Not really. I was a dutiful husband and largely we did the tourism thing and just enjoyed being together. In our daily lives in London we seem to pass like ships in the night, such are the pressures of work and family, so some downtime a deux was really nice. We spent three and a half days in Malaysia, and then a day in Japan on the way home. Japan isn’t on the way home of course, but the way the airline tickets worked out meant that we couldn’t get home from Kuala Lumpur in the required level of comfort so had to look at other options. In the end ‘via Japan’ was an excellent choice, and we both enjoyed it a lot. Despite this not being a birding holiday I did of course take binoculars. Even more remarkably so did Mrs L!

During our Malaysian break we spent the majority of time in the Cameron Highlands, a tea-growing colonial era hill station about three hours north of KL. We did get an evening in KL when we arrived though, and in addition having a nice walk around a night market and eating large amounts of Satay Chicken from street hawkers and going to a roof terrace bar for amazing views of the Petronas Towers, I also spotted a Black-naped Oriole from our hotel room and numerous Common Mynas. Not forgetting of course the Milky Stork that flew over the car on the drive from the airport.

The endemic Cyathea excavata - a tree fern

The best birds were in the forests. The Cameron Highlands rise above the coastal plain to a high point of just over 2000m, and the town of Tanah Rata where we spent most of our time is at 1440m – pretty much identical to the summit of Ben Nevis. At sea level the temperature is 34 degrees and humidity close to 100% - tropical and steamy. In the Highlands it was a much easier 22 degrees with very little of the clamminess of KL – easy to see why the English settled the area as somewhere to grow crops – principally tea - and escape the heat early in the pre-war years. The Highlands are well known for their walking trails – we were cheered by someone we met in KL who asked why we were going there, as there was only nature and stuff! Precisely! Whilst we had enjoyed wandering around the city, both of us prefer the outdoors and so over the course of the next few days we walked a number of the trails. Birds and plants, that is what it is all about, and these days I am probably equally interested in both. Some people see entire landscapes, I see individual elements in a landscape, and tropical forests are remarkable places. The proliferation of immense ferns, both epiphytic and terrestrial, fascinating orchids and all manner of various other plants was incredible and a highlight of the trip. There was even a species of Begonia with iridescent leaves that changed colour depending on how you viewed them. 

Anthurium sp, commonly seen as house plants!

Blue Begonia - Begonia pavonina. Unbelievable.

Whilst there was a lot of relaxing, including tea baths and Malay massages, we spent most of our time walking the trails. They were steep! Anyone who has been birding in a rainforest knows how hard it is to identify unfamiliar species – they are often obscured, high up, but frustratingly vocal! Nonetheless we racked up a nice selection of birds over our hikes. Trail #s 5 and 9  were probably the most profitable, and there was a memorable bird wave which included my new favourite bird, Blue Nuthatch. We spent one morning with a bargain local guide for about £30, recommended to us by our hotel. Mr Attak knew all the birds, but rather entertainingly did not know their english names. He would say things like "the Yellow one!", and then we would have to guess. Luckily I had a field guide in my pocket and so gradually we were able to piece things together. The highlight in terms of rarity was probably the Mountain Peacock Pheasant, a brief sighting one morning on an unguided walk of a bird up towards what is known as the Lutheran Mission between the towns of Tanah Rata and Brinchang where we were staying. As an aside, the Cameron Highlands Resort was extremely nice, and was an excellent base from which to explore the area.

Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush

On our final day we headed north from Tanah Rata and visited a tea plantation. After a cuppa and a slice of cake we drove up to the highest point in Peninsular Malaysia, the peak of Gunung Brinchang. This was in a cloud, but had lots of good birds from the boardwalk, including Pygmy Wren Babbler, Chestnut-tailed Minla, and Little Pied Flycatcher. It was a rather hurried visit because we needed to be back in KL for an evening flight to Tokyo and the traffic in the Cameron Highlands can be rather trying.

Trip List (in rough order seen rather than taxonomic)

1. Milky Stork
2. Common Myna
3. Oriental Magpie Robin
4. Black-naped Oriole
5. Large-billed Crow
6. Glossy Swiflet
7. Asian House Martin
8, Pacific Swallow
9. Tree Sparrow
10. Red-wattled Lapwing
11. Cattle Egret
11. Mountain Peacock Pheasant
12. White-breasted Waterhen
13. Bronzed Drongo
14. Grey Wagtail
15. Paddyfield Pipit
16. Javan Munia
17. White-throated Fantail
18. Black-crested Bulbul
19. Yellow-vented Bulbul
20. Olive-winged Bulbul
21. Mountain Tailorbird
22. Chestnut-capped Laughing Thrush
23. Streaked Wren Babbler
24. Pygmy Wren Babbler
25. Blue Nuthatch
26. Streaked Spiderhunter
27. Silver-eared Mesia
28. Little Cuckoo Dove
29. Mountain Leaf Warbler
30. Fire-tufted Barbet
31. Slaty-backed Forktail
32. Mountain Bulbul
33. Black-throated Sunbird
34. Mountain Fulvetta
35. Everett's White-eye
36. Long-tailed Sibia
37. Barred Cuckoo Dove
38. Chestnut-backed Scimitar Babbler
39. Malayan Whistling Thrush
40. Golden Babbler
41. Stripe-throated Bulbul
42. White-tailed Robin
43. Chestnut-tailed Minla
44. Little Pied Flycatcher
45. Asian Glossy Starling
46. Rock Dove