Do you want catch sight of migrants from Indonesia crossing over into Malaysia? Then go to Port Dickson this weekend (March 10 - 11).
But we're not talking about people in boats; instead, you have to look skywards to see one of the greatest wildlife migrations in the world.
Every spring, thousands of large birds called raptors fly up to 10,000km over 60 or 70 days, leaving their wintering sites in Indonesia and Australia to head north to their breeding sites in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Siberia.
This great highway in the sky is called the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.
The good news is that Malaysia has a toll-free plaza right smack in the middle of this route – at the Tanjung Tuan (Cape Rachado) Forest Reserve in Melaka, just next to the famous Blue Lagoon beach at Port Dickson. Plus, there is a yearly event here called Raptor Watch that captures this amazing spectacle of nature.
But why this place? If you look at the map, Tanjung Tuan is a hilly promontory or headland that juts out into the sea, making this the narrowest part of the Straits of Melaka between Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia.
While flying, raptors do not like crossing huge bodies of water. Rather, these large, heavy birds prefer land routes which have thermals or hot air currents which can lift them up for hundreds of metres, almost without effort.
As these raptors cross over from Sumatra, they lose altitude as the thermals cool and soon they have to flap away on their wings to stay airborne.
After they cross the Straits of Melaka, the birds will have used lots of energy and will be flying low at the Raptor Watch event site, allowing a good view of these magnificent creatures.
The tired birds will be able to get much-needed rest in Tanjung Tuan and rise again with the thermals generated here. On a sunny day, especially between 11am and 3pm (the best time to watch the migration), be prepared to see many raptors gliding in circles as they ascend an invisible spiral "staircase" of hot air, before continuing their migration.
Tanjung Tuan has been listed as an important location for raptors by the National Geographic Society and BirdLife International. It’s a crucial stopover site as it provides food for the raptors as well as a resting place. For raptors arriving late in the evening, the forests here provides shelter for the night before they fly again next day.
The term “raptors” is derived from the Latin word “rapere”, meaning to “take by force”, reflecting their day jobs as birds of prey.
It’s also the term for dinosaurs like “velociraptors” (creatures with bird-like hips that walked on two legs) – which became the inspiration for the ferocious beasts shown in Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park.
History, forests and views
Having been to Raptor Watch several times over the years, this writer is looking forward to the 19th edition of this event.
Last year, 31,054 raptors were counted by dedicated birdwatching volunteers as they rode the winds and filled the skies over two weeks – 90% of them were Oriental Honey buzzards.
Other species seen were the Black baza, Grey-Faced buzzard, Chinese goshawk and Peregrine falcon. Malaysia has 46 raptor species, of which 25 are migrants.
Raptor Watch has been organised by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) – with the support of the Melaka and Negeri Sembilan State Governments – annually since 2000, and it’s an amazing opportunity to see and learn more about our winged guests.
There is a festive air as hundreds of people come to observe and photograph the birds as they cross the Straits of Melaka. MNS will set up telescopes and binoculars so that visitors can get an even closer look at the birds.
Raptors have very powerful feet with sharp curved talons and strong hooked beaks. Unlike other birds, they have two forward-facing eyes – this gives them binocular vision, enabling them to swoop in on prey from far away.
They also have thick “eye-brows”, but this is not a Japanese cosplay feature. Rather, it’s an adaptation to block light and help the birds focus better, giving them the majestic “eagle” look.
There will also be lots of exciting nature activities for all the family, including a “Nature’s Race”, face painting for children, colouring competitions, guided nature walks and exciting booths to be visited. All these are what make Raptor Watch one of Malaysia’s most famous ecotourism events.
Apart from the birds, there’s lots of nature, scenic views and history to appreciate here too.
This strategic and scenic promontory is believed to be the burial place for Parameswara, the first ruler of Melaka – hence the Malay name Tanjung Tuan.
This is also where Malaysia’s oldest lighthouse is found, possibly stretching back to 1528, soon after the Portuguese conquest of Melaka; hence the name Cape Rachado Lighthouse (or “Broken Cape” in Portuguese).
In 1606, the epic Battle of Cape Rachado was fought in the seas here between a Dutch fleet of 11 ships and a Portuguese fleet of 20 ships. The lighthouse eventually passed over into Dutch control after their conquest of Melaka in 1641.
However, the present building is from British times in 1863, and a new tower with a Measat radar was added in 1990. It is this rich history which makes this headland a small part of Melaka, even though it’s in the middle of Negeri Sembilan.
Precious little forest
While resting in Malaysia, these flying tourists will also “spend” on the local economy, by feasting on abundant local food, such as bees, little birds, lizards and other small animals.
Another important reason that the birds come here is that this is one of the few remaining patches of coastal rainforest on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. In 2002, there was commercial pressure to develop it for tourist resorts, but fortunately the authorities maintained the protected status of the forest.
One crucial reason was the fear that the raptors would divert their traditional migration route and end up crashing into flights at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in nearby Sepang. It won't be fun - for them or us - if these big birds get sucked into jet engines! If you come to Port Dickson, look skywards and you will see planes regularly landing and taking off from KLIA.
This writer highly recommends going through the forest reserve up to the lighthouse - guided walks will be organised by MNS. In fact, Raptor Watch will be a rare opportunity to enter this lighthouse, which is normally closed to the public.
Apart from the amazing sight of raptors arriving, there are spectacular, sweeping views of the sea, reminding me of similar views at lighthouses such as Yeongdo in Busan, Korea, and Nugget Point in New Zealand. On a clear day, it may even be possible to catch a glimpse of Sumatra.
From the lighthouse, there are steep paths (with steps) through pristine forests down to two isolated beaches – this is a raw and rugged Port Dickson as you’ve never seen before.
One beach has a huge rock with a footprint, said to have been implanted by either the Melaka warrior Hang Tuah, Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho or the elusive Princess of Gunung Ledang – depending on which legend you choose to believe in. In some old maps, this place is marked as a keramat or spiritual site.
After years of monitoring the birds, MNS has determined that the peak period to watch the birds is in the middle of March, so Raptor Watch will be held for two days during the second weekend of March 10 - 11.
The festivities will be centred at the PNB Ilham Resort (next to the entrance gate going up to the lighthouse, near the Blue Lagoon beach). The times are from 9am to 5pm on Saturday, March 10, and from 9am to 1pm on Sunday, March 11.