Embark on your birding adventure in Malaysia with these tips

The majestic rhinoceros hornbill is the Sarawak state bird.

Having close to 900 bird species, of which 91 are either endemic or near endemic (source: Malaysia – Birdwatching Paradise ebrochure), Malaysia’s expansive rainforests serve as a great destination for birdwatching. In fact, the country is one of the most popular places in South-East Asia for this activity.

Among the endemic birds residing here are the Bornean crested fireback, Malayan peacock-pheasant, black-crowned pitta, friendly bush warbler and white-fronted falconet. These can be spotted in some of the country’s 55 “Important Bird And Biodiversity Areas” or IBAs, based on internationally recognised criteria outlined by BirdLife Partnership, which is a global partnership of conservation groups and organisations that focus on bird conservation and biodiversity.

Some of the IBAs in Malaysia include Mount Kinabalu and the Danum Valley in Sabah, as well as the Central Titiwangsa Range in Perak and Selangor.

Tourism Malaysia, together with Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (Ecomy), are currently working on promoting the country as the preferred birding destination in the region not just for seasoned birders, but for amateurs who are interested in the experience too.

“For folks who want to embark on a ‘birding journey’, you do not have to stray far from home,” said Penang-born Choy Wai Mun, 50.

Choy has been birding for more than 30 years.Choy has been birding for more than 30 years.

Choy has been fond of animals since he was a young boy, and said that it was his love for wildlife that sparked his interest in birding. In fact, he said that it was a single birding trip when he was still a teenager that got him hooked on the hobby.

From there, birding became a weekly routine for him.

These days, though, he is only able to go on a birding excursion once a month, but he makes sure the experience is worthwhile.

For amateurs, he advised: “Start by going to the nearby parks and gardens. You should familiarise yourself with the common birds before venturing further ahead. This is also to see if the hobby really is for you.”

Choy added that “birds are everywhere”, so you really do not have to wander far, or go to particular spots, to find them.

This advice is supported by Afiq Abdul Rahman, 33, who has discovered over 158 species around his home in Sungai Buaya, Selangor.

Afiq started his birding adventure in 2019, when he participated in a bird race held in Putrajaya. “Regardless of where you are, you are bound to encounter some birds. My amazing discovery of birds in my backyard was mostly aided by field guides.”

Hence, Afiq believes a guide book is essential, even more so for individuals who are just starting to get into birding.

Black-tailed godwit gracing the vast skies. — AFIQ ABDUL RAHMANBlack-tailed godwit gracing the vast skies. — AFIQ ABDUL RAHMAN

He said, “Books are the best teachers, as they are packed with information. A guide will not only be handy when it comes to identifying the birds, but it can also gear you up for your exploration.”

Other than guide books, you should invest in a pair of binoculars, too, which allows you to admire the birds from afar. A notebook is also needed to jot down – or sketch – which birds you have seen.

A supplementary “birding tool” is a voice recorder, which is useful for both amateurs and experienced birders. Birds are typically quite talkative, so even if you don’t see them, you are most likely going to hear them.

“Interestingly, these melodious bird calls (or bird songs) are not just soothing to the ear, they can also tell you the identity of the birds. There are apps, such as Merlin, that can help you distinguish the birds through their calls,” Afiq shared.

Chestnut-necklaced partridge is a ground bird.Chestnut-necklaced partridge is a ground bird.

Join a group

There is no better way to learn about birding than joining a group where you get to meet like-minded people and exchange experiences, Choy said. “Organisations like the Malaysian Nature Society and Wild Bird Club Of Malaysia are beneficial, as you can gain a better understanding of the activity from the birding community,” he noted.

Afiq, who is now the secretary of the Nature Sustainable Ecosystem Society (Nest), has first-hand experiences of how becoming a part of a group helped shape him into the birder he is today.

“It has provided me a platform to participate in birding activities, including bird surveys, bird races and even book publications. On top of that, I also get invited to give talks about birds,” said Afiq, who has managed to record a whopping 622 feathered animals in Malaysia.

Nest (www.nestsociety.com) is a non-profit organisation focusing on nature education, largely through data collection, events, bird photography and birdwatching, as well as sharing sessions in schools and with the community.

Like Ecomy, Nest is also working with Tourism Malaysia to promote the country as a premiere birding destination.

Blyth’s paradise flycatcher is among the various birds found in Malaysia. — AFIQ ABDUL RAHMANBlyth’s paradise flycatcher is among the various birds found in Malaysia. — AFIQ ABDUL RAHMAN

Essential tips

One key aspect that should be factored in when you are birding is the colour of your outfit. Both Afiq and Choy agreed that only clothes in neutral or Earth tones should be worn during these expeditions.

“Birds are highly sensitive to the changes in their environment, so it’s important to blend in as much as you can to prevent unwanted attention. An approaching birder will not go unnoticed,” Choy advised.

Afiq recommended wearing green, grey or blue tones, as bright colours like red and yellow tend to spook the birds – and other animals for that matter.

The birders said to steer away from wearing white as it reflects light, which can scare off the birds. They also said that right after dawn and late afternoons are the best times to go birding.

“The birds are most active in the morning. Late afternoons can be quite rewarding as well, as that’s when they feed actively to store up energy for the night,” Choy shared.

“You should also do some research on what types of birds you want to observe before you head out, as the birds you see will vary depending on the habitats,” Afiq said, referring to the fact that Malaysia has various types of bird habitats, like mangroves and montane forests.

Afiq has been birding for over four years now. — AFIQ ABDUL RAHMANAfiq has been birding for over four years now. — AFIQ ABDUL RAHMAN

“Where there is water, there are birds,” Afiq added. “If the place has a river, lake or pond, it means you will most certainly find birds there. The presence of food sources (like fruiting trees) also indicates that it’s the right spot for birdwatching.”

Recounting one of his avian adventures, which lasted over 217 days, Afiq said he spent a few hours every day out in the woods observing the birds.

“On weekdays I did it outside my house after work, while on the weekends, I went into the forest. I recorded many species of our avian friends, such as the grey-breasted babbler, rufous-tailed shama and olive-backed woodpecker,” he revealed.

Some of the places in Malaysia that birders can go to are Fraser’s Hill and Taman Negara in Pahang, Bukit Larut in Perak, the Kuala Selangor Nature Park, and of course, Kota Kinabalu, Tawau and Sandakan in Sabah.

Choy said that one of the most fulfilling birding experiences he has ever had was an encounter with the rare garnet pitta in the pristine forest of Taman Negara.

Choy came across a magnificent garnet pitta on one of his birding trips at Sungai Relau. — CHOY WAI MUNChoy came across a magnificent garnet pitta on one of his birding trips at Sungai Relau. — CHOY WAI MUN

“To see a pitta in the wild is rewarding. The vivid colouration of the bird burning like a beacon in the night is a vision etched permanently into my memory,” he said.

Choy has also gone birding overseas, particularly in Japan, Cambodia and Australia.

Meanwhile, Afiq recommends checking out eBird, a mobile application that has a list of birding hotspots near your location. It can also be used to seamlessly record the birds you see.

If you want to spice up your own birding experience then try going out at night. Birding at night offers a different kind of excitement, said Choy.

“Trekking through the forest with only a torchlight and good ol’ faith to document a large frogmouth proclaiming its territory in the darkness was undoubtedly a great experience,” he shared of his own encounter.

Choy emphasised that while birding is a fun activity, we must not disturb the birds during these wildlife observations. “The welfare of the birds must always come first,” he concluded.

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