Birds of Mantanani Island

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Mantanani Island Birds

In October 2023, the Birdwatching Asia team went on a trip to see the birds of Mantanani Island. Our main goal was the  Mantanani Scops-Owl; however, we’re well aware of the plethora of bird species found there. The island is especially well-known for being a waypoint for migratory birds; therefore, many migrant species, including vagrants, are possible.

Birds of Mantanani Island 

The Mantanani Islands comprises Pulau Mantanani Besar, Pulau Mantanani Kecil and Pulau Lungisan (Pulau = Island). They are designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) – MY032. Additionally, the islands are also designated as a bird sanctuary by the Sabah government. These designations highlight the importance of these islands for various seabirds, and as a crucial stopover point for migrating birds.

Mantanani Islands map
The Mantanani Islands

This article aims to:

  • Highlight some of the birds of Mantanani Island, including some unique island specialists.
  • Show the importance of these islands for birds.
  • Hopefully inspire readers to go visit these spectacular islands!

The information and photos provided in this article comes from our trip to Mantanani Island on 17-18 October 2023. The main reference material used is the excellent Phillips’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, the Birds of Malaysia by Lynx Edicions, and eBird.

The star bird of Mantanani Island

Undoubtedly, the Mantanani Scops-Owl is numero uno in terms of birding targets here. This unique owl only lives on small islands between north Borneo and southern Philippines. In Malaysia, the owl is exclusive to the Mantanani Islands. Head over to the link below to read about our encounter with the owl.

Frigatebirds of Mantanani Island

Many of the birds of Mantanani Island are special, none more so than the frigatebirds. These oceanic wanderers congregate at the Mantanani Islands to roost in their hundreds, even thousands. Lungisan Island serves as their primary port-of-call. This roosting spot is one of the most important frigatebird roosting sites in Borneo. However, none of the frigatebirds actually breed in Malaysian waters.

Frigatebirds are magnificent pelagic birds which typically live their lives on the wing. Their wing design and body shape means their aerial ability is unparalleled. Indeed, they use their exceptional manoeuvrability to steal food from other seabirds, a behaviour known as kleptoparasitism. Another interesting feature of frigatebirds is their throat pouch. The bright red pouches are only found among males, which they inflate and use during courtship displays.

Three frigatebird species are found at the Mantanani Islands. All three are similar looking, differing slightly in size and adult plumage patterns. Juveniles are difficult to distinguish. Making identification even more challenging, all three will flock together! Interesting tidbit: the locals refer to the frigatebirds as ‘Burung Lungisan’. This directly translates into ‘Lungisan bird’, likely referencing the frigatebirds’ preferred roosting spot. 

1) Christmas Island Frigatebird

This globally vulnerable frigatebird only breeds at Christmas Island, located in the eastern Indian Ocean. When not breeding, they disperse widely. In Malaysia, they’re regularly seen at the Mantanani Islands, and occasionally at Tioman Island in the peninsula.

Male Mantanani Island Christmas Island Frigatebird
The adult male Christmas Island Frigatebird has a white belly patch and lacks white ‘armpits’. The red throat pouch is barely visible in this photo.
Female Christmas Island Frigatebird
The female Christmas Island Frigatebird shows  white ‘armpits’ that’s angled forwards. The breast and belly is white, extending until just before the tail. Compare with the female Lesser Frigatebird (see below), which has a black belly.
2) Lesser Frigatebird

This is the commonest frigatebird at Mantanani Island (and Malaysia). They’re often seen in large flocks, wheeling through the skies with amazing grace. During our trip, we saw more than a hundred of them  before sunset, effortlessly surfing the wind as they headed back to their roosting spot.

Mantanani Island Lesser Frigatebirds
This photo shows both the male and female Lesser Frigatebirds. The male (top) is identified by white ‘armpits’ on an otherwise black body. The female shows a white breast, white ‘armpits’ and a black-ish belly.

Other locations to see this frigatebird in Malaysia include:

  • Islands off the east coast of Sabah (Selingan, Mabul, Sipadan, etc)
  • Tioman Islands, including the ferry ride to/from the mainland.
  • Tanjung Penyabung near Mersing, Johor
  • Pelagic trips off Mersing.
  • They’re occasionally seen at spots along the Straits of Malacca (e.g. Tg. Tuan).

Check out the eBird profile page for more information.

3) Great Frigatebird

The Great Frigatebird is uncommon at the Mantanani Islands. The adult males are all black, whereas the females resemble other female frigatebirds.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see any despite looking hard for one.

Pigeons of Mantanani Island

The pigeons are some of the more interesting birds of Mantanani Island. Many of these pigeons are island specialists; therefore, they are typically not seen at the mainland. 

1) Grey Imperial-Pigeon

This pigeon specialises in living on small, forested islands between Borneo and the Philippines. They are reasonably common at Mantanani. It looks similar to the Green Imperial-Pigeon, which occasionally occurs at the islands. Look for the Grey’s smaller size, duller upperparts and lack of chestnut under the tail.

Mantanani Island Grey Imperial-Pigeon
The Grey Imperial-Pigeon is quite skittish and typically flees when approached.
2) Pied Imperial-Pigeon

Another island specialist Imperial-Pigeon. These pigeons are distinctively plumaged in black and white. They roam widely from island to island looking for fruit, occasionally visiting the mainland. Surprisingly, we didn’t see any during our trip!

3) Metallic Pigeon

Yet another island specialist, this bird is a cousin of the ubiquitous Rock Pigeon; however, it’s quite scarce in Borneo. The Metallic Pigeon is more commonly found from the Philippines to the Pacific islands (Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, etc). We were certainly fortunate to see this species on two occasions during our trip!

Mantanani Island Metallic Pigeon
Similar to the Grey Imperial, the Metallic Pigeon is relatively shy. This terrible photo is nevertheless still enough to identify the bird. Note the overall dark body and whitish throat patch.
4) Nicobar Pigeon

The amazing Nicobar Pigeon is very rare at the Mantanani Islands. There are veteran Sabah birdwatchers who have yet to see this bird there, despite years of searching. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t encounter one. 

Other pigeons found at the islands:
  • Pink-necked Green-Pigeon
  • Asian Emerald Dove
  • Zebra Dove, Spotted Dove and Rock Pigeon are typically found around the villages.

The Philippine Megapode

This bird is noteworthy for being part of the scrubfowl (Megapode) family, the only one found in Malaysia. Megapodes have an interesting way of incubating their eggs – they build mounds of leaf litter! The heat generated from the decomposing leaves incubates the eggs. These birds build their ‘compost heap’ mounds by scratching the leaf litter with their powerful legs. After hatching, the chicks are immediately able to fend for themselves without any parental care.

At Mantanani Besar, the Philippine Megapode is frequently encountered along the jungle trails and village edges. These ground-dwelling birds are quite shy and usually flee quickly. Nevertheless, there’ll be a few that are more willing to show themselves! Also, listen out for its wailing, cat-like meowing call (which they use quite frequently).

Mantanani Island Philippine Megapode
The Philippine Megapode is a chicken-like bird common throughout the islands. This individual was foraging out in the open, providing us with great views. Note the robust legs and feet, which it uses to build its mounds.

Migratory birds of Mantanani Island

As noted previously, the Mantanani Islands are an important stepping stone for birds on migration from the north into Borneo. Accordingly, a variety of migrant birds are potentially seen here. These include (but not limited to):

  • Migrant flycatchers, such as the Blue-and-White, Narcissus, Asian Brown, Dark-sided and Grey-streaked Flycatchers. 
  • Migrant starlings, especially the Chestnut-cheeked Starling. Look out for vagrants like the Rosy Starling.
  • Grey Wagtail and Eastern Yellow Wagtail.
  • Arctic Warbler 
  • Migrant cuckoos and Dollarbirds (some dollarbird populations are migratory).
  • Migratory raptors, such as the Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, Grey-faced Buzzard, and Chinese and Japanese Sparrowhawks.
  • A variety of migrant shorebirds, including the Grey-tailed Tattler, Whimbrel and Common Sandpiper.
  • Rare and vagrant species are also possible.

Keep in mind that these migratory birds are best seen during the southbound passage migration season (September until November). 

Photos of migrant birds seen during our trip:
Mantanani Island Chestnut-cheeked Starlings
The male Chestnut-cheeked Starling is identified by his chestnut cheeks, nape and breast. This group was spotted perching amongst the more numerous Asian Glossy Starlings.
Mantanani Island Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine Falcon is a powerful raptor that hunts other birds. The falcon utilises tall man-made or natural objects as a vantage point for their hunts.
Mantanani Island Grey Wagtail
A variety of small migratory birds use the islands as a stopover during migration. This Grey Wagtail, for example, is probably en-route to mainland Borneo.
Mantanani Island Cattle Egret
Most Cattle Egrets at Sabah are migrants; however, some are seen year-round.

Miscellaneous resident birds

Undoubtedly, the best time to visit the islands is during the passage migration season. However, there are a few resident birds of Mantanani island that are seen here year-round. These include:

  • Black-naped Tern. These are elegant, white terns that breed on offshore islands, such as the Mantanani Islands. They’re common here, and are usually seen flying over the sea or perched on the coral sand.
  • Bridled Tern. These  larger terns  are usually seen offshore. They’re easiest to see during the boat ride to/from the island.
  • White-bellied Sea-Eagle.
  • Egrets and herons. Some species are seen year round, whilst others are migratory.
  • White-breasted Woodswallow.
  • Asian Glossy Starling.
  • Pied Triller. 
  • Ornate Sunbird (formerly the Olive-backed Sunbird) and the Brown-throated Sunbird.
Photos of resident birds seen during our trip:
Black-naped Tern
The Black-naped Tern is an elegant species commonly found on small islands.
Great Egret
The graceful Great Egret is always a welcome sight!
Asian Glossy Starling flock
Asian Glossy Starlings frequently perch in large flocks. In this photo, there’s also one Chestnut-cheeked Starling, one Pink-necked Green-Pigeon and one White-breasted Woodswallow. Can you spot them?

Birdwatching at Mantanani Island

Birding here is straightforward. Most birding will be done at Pulau Mantanani Besar, the only inhabitable island. The island is criss-crossed by a network of jungle trails; therefore, access to most parts of the island is possible. Simply walk along the trails while looking and listening for the birds. 

Most importantly is timing your visit to coincide with the southbound passage migration season. As stated previously, this season is usually from September until November. Don’t forget to bring the field guide.

Of course, visiting the island during the rest of the year is possible. The island residents, the scops-owl, pigeons and frigatebirds can be seen during these times. Other activities at the island include snorkelling, SCUBA diving, and enjoying the beauty of the picture-postcard-perfect island. Note that from December until February is the monsoon season, which typically brings higher winds and more rain.

Conclusion

The birds of Mantanani Island certainly make the islands special. They include unique island specialists, oceanic wanderers and a variety of migratory birds. Undoubtedly, a trip to see the birds of Mantanani Island should be high on any birder’s wish list.


References:

Phillipps, Q. & Phillipps, K. (2014). Phillips’ Field Guide To The Birds of Borneo. Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan (Third edition). John Beaufoy Publishing, Oxford, England.

Puan, C.L., Davison, G. & Lim, K.C. (2020). Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore. Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Fregata andrewsi. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/christmas-island-frigatebird-fregata-andrewsi on 29/11/2023

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