West Malaysia birding trip 2–17 March 2002

report by John van der Woude  -  www.jvanderw.nl 

See also: 
- Maps
- Photos of sites: directly or via thumbnails
- Sounds
Species list

This was our first birding destination in tropical Asia, after several trips to Middle and South America. West Malaysia was recommended to us by other independent birders as a good and easy introduction to S/SE Asia.  West Malaysia is a full tropical country with nice habitats not far from each other and from the capital Kuala Lumpur, and with good roads and other infrastructure. We rented a car in order to make the most of these two weeks, and actually West Malaysia was a good area for two weeks for the two of us (Nollie and me). We had dry and sunny (and hot) weather nearly till the end, which means that we had no leeches (not even one!), but also missed some birds, especially pitta’s. But as nearly all birds were new to us, we didn’t mind too much about missing some (there will be more trips to Asia), and I think we saw a lot of birds just because of the good light conditions.

Of course we couldn't help to compare this trip with our trips to South America. We suppose now that on a trip of a few weeks to SE Asia  you’ll have less species (and probably less birds) than in South America, but the birds in SE Asia seem more colorful. Green Magpie and Long-tailed Broadbill are some of the most stunningly colored birds we have ever seen. Also you may have several Asian birds which are rarities in NW Europe, like Terek Sandpiper, Siberian Thrush and the abundant Arctic Warbler. We were happy with our trip total of 240 species (including 6 heard only). Only 21 were not a lifer for us. We got, amongst others, four malkoha species, seven swifts, both treeswifts, four trogons (the best link to South America), eight kingfishers, five hornbills, eight barbets, eleven woodpeckers, five broadbills, twelve bulbuls (despite being not our favorite family), two niltavas, three laughingthrushes, thirteen babblers (including Cutia which is the tempting bird on the cover of the Malaysian field guide), two minla’s, two nuthatches, six sunbirds, three orioles, three minivets, three fantails, five drongo’s. We had one endangered species (Nordmann's Greenshank), one vulnerable species (Malayan Peacock-Pheasant), and a surprising 25 near-threatened species (most in Taman Negara).

Our trip scheme was as follows (see also itinerary at the end of this text): first a day at the cape where the yearly raptor watch was held, then two days Fraser’s Hill & The Gap (forested hills), then four days Taman Negara national park (lowland rainforest), again two days Fraser’s Hill, two days Kuala Selangor and Tanjung Karang (coastal habitats), and finally Cameron Highlands, especially the Brinchang mountain, for the higher altitude species (and for the scenery – tea gardens amidst forests). As said, the distances are not big, and because of the rental car we could bird every day, and do the longer distance driving during the hottest hours of the day, with airco. The car was also convenient on most of the sites themselves, like for birding the Old and New roads between The Gap and Fraser’s Hill, or for driving on the hot hours around the rice fields and the open coastal habitats of Tanjung Karang. Of course the car was useless during our stay in the rainforest national park, but the car made it possible to bird the morning before we went into the park and the morning before we left the park. It’s a pity only that they drive on the wrong (left-hand) side of the road in Malaysia… Other remains from the British period were more welcome, like the possibility to speak English at most places, the Indian food, the hill stations (Fraser’s Hill).

Our preparation for the trip was based on trip reports from the internet (like at www.birdtours.co.uk), Bransbury's Birdwatchers Guide to Malaysia, Wheatley’s Asia book, Jelle Scharringa’s CD-ROM Birds of Asia (see www.birdsongs.com), the two field guides I had bought (West Malaysia, and the Robson for SE Asia), and an e-mail contact with Glenda Noramly (Malaysian Nature Society), who organizes the raptor watch. We had booked accommodation only for Taman Negara N.P., and we had no difficulty in finding accommodation elsewhere. There is clearly an overcapacity in hotel rooms, probably due to a mismatch between rising expectations some years ago and the following cooling down of the economy. Asking for a reduced room rate is quite accepted (except at Taman Negara resort), and in fact at the reception desk we often got a leaflet with these reduced rates. Forty percent off during weekdays (less in weekends and public holidays) is not uncommon, except at the cheap hotels of course. We mostly skipped breakfast and took some biscuits etcetera and plenty of bottled water out in the field. It was light from 7 a.m. till 7.45 p.m. We often took a few hours off during the hottest part of the day, which are from about 1 to 4 p.m.

The raptor watch at Tanjung Tuan is held yearly by Malaysia Nature Society (www.mns.org.my), apparently at the first weekend of March. Tj. Tuan is a forested cape protruding into the Strait of Malacca. The raptors, for 99% Oriental (Crested) Honey Buzzard, fly in from Sumatra during the middle of the day (from 11.30 a.m.). We went here straight upon arrival at KL international airport in the early morning (after we got money from ATM's and rented the car). In  fact I had also chosen this raptor watch because it would offer us some initial birding not far from the airport (about 60 km). Except the raptors (hundreds) we also had nice introductory birding in the forest on the cape and especially at the Guoman resort golf course nearby (Dollarbird, Richard's Pipit and several common species). We stayed in the Guoman hotel for the night, and had a very luxurious room for 200 ringit (about 60 euro) for our first night of the trip.

Fraser’s Hill is a famous birding destination, and yearly a bird race is held here in June, even with international teams. Fraser’s Hill (Bukit Fraser) is a village at 1500 m altitude, amidst moist forests. At the base of the hill is The Gap (a pass at 800 m altitude in the mountain range, along the main road) and this is also reported as a good birding site. There are two roads now between The Gap and Fraser's Hill (the New Road is finally ready), so there is free traffic now in stead of the alternating one way use of the Old Road. The New Road is for going up, the Old Road for going down, and we birded nearly half of our time along these roads. Km 3-5 of the New Road (km posts counted from above) is a good site, with barbets, Slaty-backed Forktail, Wreathed and Helmeted Hornbill, and also our only sighting of a group of Siamang (gibbons). Our other sites in Fraser’s Hill were the Telekom loop (Jalan Girdle), the area around The Gate (= start of the Old Road) and the Lady Maxwell road. The latter was extremely rewarding (with a long lasting bird wave, as they call the mixed species flocks in Asia), on a late afternoon excursion with Mr. Durai of the local nature education center. He is a real birder and enjoys taking birders out to the best spots. He can be contacted at durefh@hotmail.com or locally by asking for his office. He is not asking a fee for his guidance, but proposes to do a donation for the nature education on schools, which we did of course. They have a web site where, at www.wwfmalaysia.org/fhnec/trails.htm, I had found a detailed map of the Fraser's Hill area.

Traditionally Fraser's Hill was birded mostly from trails, but gradually the attention has shifted to the roads, so it seems. Once only we tried the famous Bishop's trail, but we were soon stopped by the remains of a landslide. The Lady Maxwell road parallels the Bishop's trail in part, and this road gave us plenty of birds, like Oriental Cuckoo, Long-tailed Broadbill, Mugimaki Flycatcher (first year males; for this one you need the Robson field guide), Large Niltava (a pair), Mountain Leaf-Warbler, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, Green Magpie, Black-and-Crimson Oriole (a pair). We walked the Hemmant trail to get from the center of the village to the L Maxwell road, and had some nice birds there as well, like Rufous-browed Flycatcher and Golden Babbler. The Telekom loop road gave us a.o. Verditer Flycatcher, Cutia!, Blue-winged Minla. At the start of the Old Road (the former Gate) we had a huge bird wave one early morning, with Blue Nuthatch, Sultan Tit, and many others. At the Old Road we ticked Black Laughingthrush (a noisy group), Striped Tit-Babbler, Great Hornbill, White-hooded Babbler and others.

Accommodation in Fraser's Hill is varied. We stayed in the Quest hotel (former Merlin; a bit run down now), Silverhill (strange apartment blocks) and finally Temerloh bungalow, where we had a nice cottage (70 ringit). Pine Resort is probably the best place (250 ringit though; pineresort@yahoo.com), and we had our best meal of this village in their restaurant (and this was not expensive). The main shop is near the Gate (of the Old road) and they sell cold beer. The Gap rest house (hotel & restaurant; phone 09-3622227) is probably good value for money both for accommodation and food. It is on the main road but there is little traffic, because there is a faster road now from KL to the interior. But when staying at The Gap you would miss the late afternoon bird waves at Fraser's Hill, unless you don't mind driving down in the dark. Anyway, thanks to the construction of the New Road (in itself a good birding road, esp. the upper part) you can do nice combinations of both sites. We used the Gap rest house once for a late breakfast, after birding the Old Road down and before going up the New Road.

Going down from the Gap to the East you descend through lush foothill forest habitat. At a small stream (at the post K.Lumpur 108/ K.Lipis 78) we had Chestnut-naped Forktail, and later at the same spot Whiskered Treeswift. Further on we had Dark-necked Tailorbird, and several flowerpeckers. At the foot of the hills is the town of Raub. Here is petrol (none at the Gap or Fraser's Hill), and on the way back from Taman Negara we stayed here in hotel Seri Raub (c. 90 ringit; fax 09-3559837), situated in the town center and right above a small and quiet plaza where a colorful food market was held early the next morning (a Sunday market). 300 m further East along the main road is the lively Chinese restaurant Sin Choy Lee with very tasty, fresh and cheap food, big bottles of beer, and a swallow roost in front.

The tropical rainforest of Taman Negara national park is a lowland area, but this does not mean a flat area (as we use to think as people from the Netherlands). The trails are often steep, especially away from the rivers, and often covered with tree roots. In the four days we stayed here we did not go very far from the resort, there was enough to bird nearby, and in this I followed the advice from other trip reports. Apart from some birding at the resort, we mainly birded the Tahan river trail (the side river) and, splitting from this, the Jenet Muda trail going up the terrace with incised streams. There was a fruiting fig tree 20 m after the start of the Tahan river trail (it starts behind the campsite, with White-rumped Shama), with Gold-whiskered and Red-crowned Barbets, many Thick-billed Green-Pigeon, the incredible Green Broadbill, Greater Green Leafbird, etc. Further on along this Tahan river trail we had Raffle's and Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, Banded Kingfisher (at the Tabing hide, the farthest point we got in this park), Scarlet-rumped Trogon, Maroon and Buff-necked Woodpecker, Dusky and Black-and-red Broadbill, Grey-bellied and Puff-backed Bulbul, Rufous-chested Flycatcher (sitting above a side stream), Sooty-capped Babbler, Black Magpie (at the bathing place), Spotted Fantail, Black-naped Monarch, and Asian Paradise-Flycatcher (Tabing hide).

Along the Jenet Muda trail we had a.o. Diard's Trogon (shy), Oriental Dwarf (Black-backed) Kingfisher, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Buff-rumped Woodpecker, Hairy-backed Bulbul, Abbott's Babbler, the beautiful Black-throated Babbler, Brown Fulvetta, Crested Jay, Dark-throated Oriole, Scarlet Minivet, etc. Several of these did we see at the two small clearings where the trail crosses a forest stream. The famous Great Argus lek is near the far end of the J Muda trail, halfway a long climb up from a stream (the second one). Look for a 3 m wide circular sandy spot cleaned of leaves, at your right hand side and directly adjacent to the trail. It's call "Oh! Wow!!" is heard from far (and not only here), and that's also exactly what you want to exclaim when you see the bird. I think this male Great Argus was the longest bird we have ever seen, two meter long. We also did the short Swamp loop behind the resort and had a wonderful close view of Malayan Peacock-Pheasant, and a Malaysian Eared-Nightjar at the Tahan hide to the right of the Swamp loop. At the resort itself we had, amongst others, Lesser Coucal, Blue-eared Barbet and two sunbird species.

The resort's chalets are good but rather expensive (230 ringit) and the restaurant is also expensive. For dinner we mostly went to the floating restaurants on the other side of the river, as most of the guests of the resort seemed to do as well. Crossing the river is easy and costs only half a ringit pp. We tried several of these small  restaurants, and our favorite (for quality and atmosphere) was Rumbia. At these floating restaurants, the prices are only a fraction of what you pay in the resort's restaurant, and the quality is good. Only, none has beer. For this you will have to go to the resort's restaurant, where one pint costs 15 ringit (worth three meals at the river...). The shop at the resort has a good array of drinks and biscuits etc. We drank a lot of water here, it was so hot during our stay that even the airco in our chalet could not cope with the heat. See www.mutiarahotels.com for more info about the resort, and for making reservations. Tahan village, at the other side of the river (behind the floating restaurants), has much cheaper accommodation, as we learned from several birders here. They stayed in the Tahan Guesthouse, also with airco. It would be worthwhile to find out how you get there, and how to make reservations. 

Normal electricity (220 V; for reloading cameras etc.), phone boots and the village nearby make the resort quite different from what we are used in South American jungle lodges. The trip to the lodge, however, is about the same: a 2-3 hour long river journey with some kingfishers and a few waders, etc. Finding the jetty is easy: follow the big white signs for Taman Negara all the time while driving through Jerantut town and out of it to the North. There is a guarded parking place (5 ringit per day) at the jetty, and we also had a nice chicken rice meal at the small restaurant which is closest to the office where you check in.

Kuala Selangor and Tanjung Karang is a good area for coastal lowland birding and for birds of open and half open areas in general. The Kuala Selangor reserve consists of marsh, semi-dry woods and mangroves. The office/shop at the entrance opens at 9 a.m. but you are allowed to enter earlier and pay when you come back. Entering the reserve is done via a sort of sluice system, apparently to prevent people driving in on mopeds etc. The parking place is also worth a good check, like for the White-bellied Sea-Eagle on top of the telecom tower. Bring plenty of water to drink, this is a really hot place. Birding however went well until at least 11 a.m. and from c. 5 p.m. The mangroves are not accessible: both boardwalks are totally broken. Hence also the mudflats are not accessible here, so we were glad we had an alternative at Tj. Karang (see below). 

Inside the K.Selangor reserve we saw most birds along the main trail, which goes for only 600 m from the entrance through open forest to the central marsh. From the hide here we had Watercock, and several passerines near the hide, like Ashy Minivet, Ashy Tailorbird, Ashy Drongo (there was a lot of smoke in the sky...), Forest Wagtail, Pied Fantail and our first civet. Around the marsh is a low dike and this was also rewarding, if alone for the sight of Slaty-breasted Rail walking on the dike. Where the low dike goes between the marsh and the mangrove forest, you have the best view on the egrets etc. of the marsh, and we had some mangrove birds as well, despite the lack of the boardwalks: Sunda Woodpecker, Chestnut-bellied Malkoha. We also did a side trail left from the main trail into the forest, and had our only Black Baza here, a sighting of the often heard Red Junglefowl, and Laced Woodpecker.

To get to the mudflats of Tanjung Karang, follow the main road North out of K. Selangor for c. 15 km. After the large bridge in Tj. Karang, go left at the sign Medang Seleri. Follow this road till the very end, and drive or walk the track on top of the dike towards the left. After some 300 m there is a sandy gap in the mangrove zone and here you can walk (30 m) to the border of the mudflats. Here we had Mongolian (Lesser Sand) Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Marsh Sandpiper and Nordmann's Greenshank!

A totally different habitat near Tj. Karang is Sawah Sempadan, which consists of small-scale rice fields with clusters of trees around the many small farms. Here we had Cinnamon Bittern, Chinese Pond-Heron, Brown Shrike (several), Scaly-breasted Munia, White-breasted Wood-Swallow. To find this lovely area, go right before the large bridge in Tj. Karang (as seen from K. Selangor), and follow this road for about 3 km, where near a café two roads split off to the right. We followed the second one till the far end.

For accomodation in K. Selangor we had chosen the recommended De Palma Inn (dpks@po.jaring.my), where we had a nice chalet for 110 ringit, including a strong airco. They also have a restaurant, but we happened to be dining in  the '99' restaurant in the town center, as recommended in some trip reports. Again, this is a simple but busy place so the food is fresh. After our afternoon in Tj. Karang we had a meal in the KFC there, because we wanted to see the fireflies (their famous synchronous flashing) on the way back, at Bukit Belimbing. This was nice, but just something to do as supplementary; it should not interfere too much with your trip plans. The c. 4 km road to B. Belimbing leaves the main road opposite where a few large isolated apartments blocks were being constructed (plus a sign visible only when you come from K. Selangor).

From Tj. Karang North along the main coastal road towards Sekinchan are large-scale rice fields but here we saw very little, except two large groups (c. 100 each) of White-winged Terns, in search of fields being flooded. Should you like to go to the Cameron Highlands from K. Selangor, it is best to take this coastal road North, and via Teluk Intan towards Bidor on the central highway.

The hill forest habitat of the Cameron Highlands is comparable to Fraser's Hill but the Brinchang mountain makes the difference I think. Gunung Brinchang is 2032 m high, and right near the top the forest becomes much lower, with ericaceous elements. Here, along the last 2 km of road towards the top, we had most of the special birds of this altitude: White-tailed Robin, Golden-throated Barbet, Rufous-vented Niltava, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Snowy-browed Flycatcher, and we also got a Siberian Thrush, a great rarity in Holland, and a busy group of Streaked Wren-Babbler in a dark bush. The road up G. Brinchang starts shortly to the left after Brinchang village, at a sign which is a bit hidden by a street market.

Cameron Highlands is much more developed than Fraser's Hill, so the forest is more broken, although partly (and best visible along the road up G. Brinchang) by nice tea gardens. For accommodation and food there is more choice than in Fraser's Hill. We had the new hotel Casa de la Rosa (htlcasa@tm.net.my) between the villages Tanah Rata and Brinchang, and this was good value for money with 180 ringit. We had chosen this luxury place as these were the last days of our trip. The South Indian restaurant Bunga Suria in Tanah Rata is a must, and the food gave me wonderful memories of a trip to that otherworldly region many years ago.

We did not explore much of the other birds here besides those of the Brinchang mountain, but I think the situation at Fraser's Hill is a bit more favorable. Cameron Highlands is much busier, and this will increase because there will be a fast new road from Ipoh soon. Nevertheless we had nice birds at the short trail to the Parit falls (from near the rebuilt New Garden Inn) after the first rainy night, with Green Magpie and Golden Babbler. We also did a short walk on the side road behind our hotel, and met a huge bird wave with a.o. Fire-tufted Barbet, Mountain Bulbul, Silver-eared Mesia, Black-eared Shrike-Babbler, and a Yellow-browed (Inornate) Warbler.  But the Brinchang mountain birds really were our goal here (besides the scenery) and after our good luck in seeing them nearly all in one morning, we might as well have left the Cameron Highlands that afternoon and spent the last morning of our trip at e.g. Kuala Gula, a  mangrove reserve NW of Ipoh. But we didn't like to rush on our last two days.

We had a night flight back from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and we spent the late afternoon hours at Templer Park between Rawang and the N rim of Kuala Lumpur. There are two entrances, and only one really had the sign Templer Park. Here we had a Crested Goshawk standing at its nest above the campsite, but we soon understood that this was not the place that had been recommended to us. So we went to the entrance some 3 km further North, with a long Malay name on the big sign above the entrance, and here we found the promised rainforest trail going left after the offices behind the first parking place. The park was full of people on this Saturday evening but the trail was empty and looked promising. However, we found very little in this last hour. This would certainly be a nice little site to start with on a trip to West Malaysia.

Driving to the airport right through Kuala Lumpur was an experience in itself, because of the awe-inspiring enormous buildings in all sorts of architecture. Largest of all however seemed to be the airport building itself. This new airport has apparently been built for a bright future. We heard and read that Malaysia is expecting enormous numbers of Chinese tourists in the near future - for them it is about the nearest full tropical destination.

Fri 1 March - departure Amsterdam 1200
Sat 2 - arrival 0730 at KLIA and on to Tanjung Tuan raptor watch, late afternoon at Guoman resort
Sun 3 - morning Guoman resort and Tj. Tuan, afternoon on to Fraser's Hill, late afternoon birding there
Mon 4 - Fraser's Hill & The Gap
Tue 5 - morning Fraser's Hill & The Gap, 1000-1300 stiff drive to Tembeling jetty, boat 1400 to Taman Negara, late afternoon birding there
Wed 6 - Taman Negara
Thu 7 - Taman Negara
Fri 8 - Taman Negara
Sat 9 - morning Taman Negara, boat 1400 back, night at Raub
Sun 10 - morning birding between Raub and The Gap and up New Road, afternoon Fraser's Hill
Mon 11 - Fraser's Hill & The Gap
Tue 12 - morning Fraser's Hill, afternoon on to Kuala Selangor, birding in reserve late afternoon
Wed 13 - Kuala Selangor reserve & Tanjung Karang
Thu 14 - morning Kuala Selangor reserve, late morning & early afternoon Tj. Karang, then from 1400 on to Cameron Highlands via Teluk Intan.
Fri 15 - morning Gunung Brinchang, late afternoon birding behind hotel
Sat 16 - morning Parit falls trail Cameron, 1300 on to KL,  birding Templer Park late afternoon, flight 2315 from KLIA
Sun 17 - arrival Amsterdam 0620