The joy of birdwatching in Malaysia

Birdwatching at Temenggor lake in Perak. — Photos: ANDREW SEBASTIAN

Andrew Sebastian goes birding any day of the week, whenever he feels like it. For this avid birdwatcher and naturalist, it is both a job and a passion and the lines are very much blurred. He never leaves home without his trusted Leica binoculars and camera, even when on “regular” holidays where birdwatching isn’t on the agenda – at least, not initially.

“I never know what I will find, ” he says.

So who would imagine that once upon a time, this man thought birdwatching was “crazy”?

“I was into trees and frogs. Always thought birdwatching was crazy, until I saw a red-coloured bird sitting on a fence in Fraser’s Hill (Pahang). It was the Red-Headed Trogon and I was smitten! Never had I imagined a bird so colourful and majestic, ” he relates of this day 19 years ago.

   The Red-Headed Trogon female in Fraser’s Hill. — THOMAS SIMONThe Red-Headed Trogon female in Fraser’s Hill. — THOMAS SIMON

Today, Andrew, 49, describes birdwatching as a lifestyle, saying that it provides opportunities to free the mind.

“Getting to actually see birds, rare or otherwise, becomes a privilege. Some of my regular birdwatching spots are Taman Negara, Fraser’s Hill, Temenggor Lake, Kuala Selangor, Kenyir Lake, Bukit Tinggi and Krau Wildlife Reserve. I have a few species that I would love to someday see, like the endemic Crested Argus, ” he says.

The founder and chief executive officer of Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (Ecomy) has been leading birdwatching tours for 18 years now. He is a firm believer that birdwatching is an activity for all age groups and it teaches oneness with nature.

   The Rufous-winged Fulvetta.The Rufous-winged Fulvetta.

He points out that globally, birdwatching and bird photography is valued at over US$6bil (RM25.6bil) and it is a fast-growing niche ecotourism product.

“In Malaysia, birdwatching is spurred by local clubs and individuals. The growing number and reach of the e-media platforms means that wonderful images and videos of our interesting birds have ‘viraled’ its way into the lives of Malaysians. For foreigners, Malaysia has always been an appealing country to visit due to our unique birds and easy access to our many birdwatching spots, ” he explains.

   The Great Hornbill is one of the largest of its kind.The Great Hornbill is one of the largest of its kind.The majority of Malaysian birdwatchers fall into the middle age or older category, while the mainland Chinese market is probably the youngest, he adds. It is not uncommon to see birdwatchers in their 30s make their way to our shores.

“As far as facts and positive perception goes, Malaysia has an amazing range of biodiversity. We are one of the 12 megadiverse countries in the world. Collectively, these countries are home to over 75% of all known species of plants and animals. We have over 65 endemic bird species in Malaysia, 240 species restricted to the sunda region and about 800 species in total. Malaysia is truly independently recognised by international travellers as a birding paradise, ” says Sebastian.

And that is why, to him birding is something that never gets old.

“Watching and photographing ‘very difficult’ birds gets my adrenaline pumping. Something I look forward to every year is watching flocks of hornbills fly in formation over the skies of Temenggor Lake in Perak, when they are on migration. I remember once we were out on the lake on a boat watching the hornbills, and elephants came along and were swimming across from us! That was quite a moment, ” he recalls.

Have bird, will travel

It is no secret that birdwatchers can be a really enthusiastic bunch who travel far and wide in search of birds.

Lim Bing Yee is surely one of them.

   This Brown Fish Owl was the highlight of Lim’s recent birdwatching trip. — WILBUR GOHThis Brown Fish Owl was the highlight of Lim’s recent birdwatching trip. — WILBUR GOHWhen the restriction on interstate travel was lifted during the movement control order here, she leapt into action and went off to Kedah in search of the Brown Fish Owl.

Speaking to her a day after she returned from her trip, it was obvious that she was riding high from having sighted the bird.

“It is always a thrill to see a bird for the first time, some people even do a little dance when that happens. I have seen around 493 of all birds in Malaysia. We specifically planned this Kedah trip to see if we could catch this owl, so what a joy to see it!” she relates.

Born and raised in New Zealand, Lim, 60, has been living in Malaysia for the last four decades.

A nature buff who enjoys long treks in the jungle, her introduction to birdwatching started during a fateful trip to Fraser’s Hill in Pahang, back in 1995.

“A friend who was a birdwatcher with the Malaysian Nature Society showed me the Little Pied Flycatcher. I thought it looked like a big bumblebee and was amazed that a bird could be so small. That piqued my interest and from that point onwards, my eyes were more open to birdlife, ” she relates.

Lim started off knowing nothing much about birds, but was transfixed when she first saw them magnified through a telescope.

“Every detail can be seen and it is just beautiful. The colours, the calls, all the different names you learn... once you get out there, you realise there is a whole world of birds you can now explore, ” she says.   The striking black-and-white Little Pied Flycatcher that started Lim’s birding journey. — WILBUR GOHThe striking black-and-white Little Pied Flycatcher that started Lim’s birding journey. — WILBUR GOH

And explore she did, so much so that she has a long list of favourite birdwatching destinations in Malaysia, with more to add to the list in due time.

Some of them are Kuala Selangor Nature Park, Sekinchan rice fields, Port Dickson Lighthouse, Fraser’s Hill, Cameron Highlands, Kek Lok Tong, Danum Valley and Ba’kelalan.

She finds time to go birdwatching about three times a month on average now, whether it is a trip with fellow birdwatchers – who are called “birders” in the birdwatching fraternity – or introducing friends who are novice birdwatchers to birds in their own backyards.

“Birdwatching teaches me patience. The city is such a busy place and I need those breaks where you are out in the fresh air and just lose yourself in the stillness of nature. It also forces you to go out and travel in search of birds, especially those that can be found only in specific locations.

“You discover a lot of the country that way and it is thrilling if I do see a bird I have not seen before. Of course, it is still nice to see birds that I have already seen and to identify them in the field, ” she says.

Lim has a soft spot for birds from the Flycatcher family and hopes to add more from this family to her bird list, as well as some Bornean specialties like the Hose’s Broadbill and Blue-banded Broadbill in Ba’kelalan, Sarawak.

A treasure hunt

Like many other birdwatchers, Thomas Simon kept a record of birds he had sighted because he was determined to see as many birds as possible in his early days of birdwatching,

But today, he has done away with the list and has embraced living in the moment to the fullest – at least, as far as birding is concerned.

“It is all about going out and enjoying the surroundings and if I am lucky, I get to see beautiful birds. This gives me a lot of pleasure, ” he says,

   A Black-Crested Bulbul at Fraser’s Hill.A Black-Crested Bulbul at Fraser’s Hill.Thomas has a soft spot for rare birds and does not mind hiking for days on end just for the chance to get a glimpse.

“I would describe it as ecstasy, that feeling you get when you finally see a rare bird. I travel to birdwatch, yes, but I try to do other things during the trip too. Together with a few friends, we agreed that the perfect trip for us now is one-third birding, one-third makan and one-third culture.

“So I think I am quite a lazy birder now, but a very good birdwatching tourist, ” he laughs.

Thomas, 61, might call himself a lazy birder, but it is clear that his enthusiasm knows no bounds.

Before his retirement this year, he used most of his annual leave days on birdwatching trips and has travelled to many far-flung places in search of elusive birds.

In recent years, he travels abroad at least twice a year, on top of several local trips. He brings his binoculars, his camera (with the 100-400mm lens most of the time) and sometimes even his scope.

“My favourite birding site in Malaysia is Fraser’s Hill, which is also known as a birding hotspot. My next favourite place is Kinabalu Park in Sabah, ” he says.

Prior to his birdwatching days, he used to go trekking up mountains. It was on one of those trips to Ladakh in India, where the sighting of a colourful Hoopoe first got him interested in birds.

“In the mountains, I also saw my first Bearded Vulture in the distance. But I have to say that the Hoopoe was the trigger of my interest in birdwatching as it is a very attractive and unusual bird, ” he says.

Thomas speaks fondly of this trip in 2007, commenting that mountain climbing and trekking are activities with a shelf life, but birdwatching is “for all ages and can be done anywhere”.

No lists for sure, but Thomas has a dream of seeing all Pittas, Torgons and Birds Of Paradise.

“These birds are not easy to find, but there is immense satisfaction when you do see them.

“Birdwatching is like a treasure hunt. You are looking for treasures that are these birds which are wild and free flying. And of course, birding is also a good reason to see places where many have not been, ” he says.

To really enjoy the beauty of birds, Thomas recommends patience and a pair of good binoculars.

“It is the most important thing you need if you are interested in this hobby and want to take up birdwatching. It makes all the difference in the world when you can observe birds like it is a photoshoot by National Geographic, as opposed to dark, grainy images. A good pair of binoculars will last you a lifetime, ” he says.

No age barrier

As for patience being cultivated during birdwatching, Jason Teo has a tale to tell.

He once waited for 30 days – for a full six hours each day – to spot one bird, the Spectacled Flowerpecker, in Brunei.

“This species is very special because it was just officially described last year. You start the day full of hope, and end each day with disappointment... repeat this 30 times! When I finally saw the bird, it was like winning the lottery, ” he says.

   Teo once camped out for 30 days before managing to sight the elusive Spectacled Flowerpecker. — BERTRAND TANTeo once camped out for 30 days before managing to sight the elusive Spectacled Flowerpecker. — BERTRAND TAN

Kuching-born Teo has always been interested in various wildlife – starting with arachnids and insects, then slowly finding his way to birds.

“At first, I just found the birds really pretty. When I was 15, I especially liked birds that are large, bright and colourful, like the Scarlet-rumped Trogon. Over time, it was the birding community and the high diversity of birds in Malaysia that has made me a devoted birdwatcher today, ” he muses.

While birdwatching is an increasingly popular hobby among Malaysians, it is mainly an activity that attracts retirees and senior citizens more than other age groups.

Teo, who is 25, concurs, saying that he estimates there is no more than one young birdwatcher for every 20 senior citizens who are birders.

“In Kuching, there are only three extremely devoted young birdwatchers that I know. But when I go birdwatching with others, I am usually not the youngest in the group – there are two others who are younger than me, ” he says.

Nonetheless, he would like to encourage younger people to give birdwatching a go, especially as he believes in the benefits of this activity.

The majestic Osprey has large and curved talons to catch fish. — JASON TEOThe majestic Osprey has large and curved talons to catch fish. — JASON TEO“Being in the forest frequently helps with stress, teaches you about life and how to be humble. I never fail to realise how small I am when I am next to a large tree. I believe there will be fewer depression cases among young people if they were to take up this hobby, ” he muses.

“What I find most rewarding about birdwatching is how much you learn along the way. Whether it is about the birds or the vegetation around you, you will always learn something new whenever you go birdwatching, ” he says.

For those new to birding, Teo recommends starting with identifying the birds in your backyard and please don’t hesitate to ask experienced birdwatchers for help.

“No one will laugh at you, we will actually be pleased, because it reminds us how we first started. Like me, I could not differentiate Zebra Pigeon, Rock Pigeon and Spotted-neck Pigeon when I started!” he says.

Borneo is a hotspot for birdwatchers and when Teo travels to see more than just the birds in his vicinity, he sets aside at least a few days to maximise his chances of sighting some elusive ones.

“To complete the Malaysia bird list, one must always travel. I strongly prefer to stay a few days when I travel as some of the best and rarest birds come out at 6am, and most places (like national parks) only open their gates at 8am, ” he says.

Whenever a vacation itinerary looks flexible enough to accommodate birdwatching, he lugs his birdwatching gear – all 9kg – along with him.

“My list is pretty long, but what contributes the most weight are my 8X42 binoculars, camera with a 500mm lens and a sturdy tripod, ” he says.

The birds topping the list of what he hopes to see next in Malaysia are the Bornean Peacock Pheasant and Bornean Banded Pitta (which are both endemic to Borneo) and the Mountain Peacock-Pheasant (endemic to Peninsular Malaysia).

He finds it hard to narrow down his favourite birding spots in Malaysia as he relishes in the fact that each location has its own unique habitat and birds.

But a hidden gem? His university campus, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).

“I counted more than 100 bird species throughout my study there, ” he concludes.

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