Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia

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Malaysia Eurasian Curlew

The start of the northern winter season heralds the arrival of the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia. This impressive shorebird stands out from the crowd due to its large size and long bill. Indeed, the Eurasian Curlew is one of the largest shorebirds found in Malaysia. Thankfully, this sizable shorebird is relatively easily seen along the mudflats that fringe Malaysia’s coasts.

Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia

An encounter with the Eurasian Curlew

On a trip to Pantai Jeram in Selangor, I was privileged to experience a close encounter with a Eurasian Curlew. I arrived at the beach early in the morning, just before the highest tide. Wasting no time, I chose a quiet spot, set up my gear, and started observing the shorebirds. There were thousands of shorebirds resting along the shore, impatiently waiting for the tide to recede. The sight of innumerable birds roosting and flying together was really something to behold.

After spending 3 hours looking at various Shanks, Stints and Sandpipers, I was about to head home. All of a sudden, a large bird landed amongst the flock – a Eurasian Curlew!

Malaysia Eurasian Curlew on mudflat
The Eurasian Curlew is an eye-catching bird due to its large size and long bill.

As soon as it arrived, its size alone demanded attention. I duly obliged, of course! I was sitting quietly by the shore with my camera; therefore, the bird didn’t perceive me as a threat. Subsequently, it approached until it came within 25 metres from my position. The bird remained oblivious to my presence while striding across the mudflats, probing the mud and looking for food.

Malaysia Eurasian Curlew probing in mud
The bird was methodically probing its long bill into the mud, looking for food.

At one point, the bird snatched a mudskipper right off the mud. Later, it was seen probing deep in the mud, subsequently pulling out a small crab and swallowing it whole. Its foraging antics entertained me for the better part of 20 minutes! 

This enchanting encounter was the closest I’ve seen the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia. This encounter is the inspiration for this article, hopefully encouraging readers to go out and seek this superlative shorebird.

Eurasian Curlew swallowing crab.
The bird pulled out a small crab, deftly manipulated it with its bill, and subsequently swallowed it.

Information on the Eurasian Curlew

Identifying the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia

Unlike many shorebirds in Malaysia, the Eurasian Curlew is relatively straightforward to identify. Look out for the following features:

  • Large size, much larger than other shorebirds. It literally stands out from the crowd!
  • Long, gently down-curving bill. The base of the lower bill is pink, while the rest is black. However, bill colour is often obscured by mud.
  • Long, greyish legs that are often caked in mud.
  • Upperparts brownish-grey, with bold, dark streaks.
  • Pale underparts, with fine streaking along the neck and breast.
  • Shows a bright white rump that is visible when flying/flapping (this is important).
  • In-flight, the underwings are primarily white, with no barring (also important).
Eurasian Curlew size
The Eurasian Curlew dwarfs the nearby Common Redshanks!
Flying Eurasian Curlew
As can be seen in this photo, the Eurasian Curlew has mostly white underwings.
Eurasian Curlew flock
These Eurasian Curlews clearly show their bright white rumps while flying.

Behaviour

The behaviour of shorebirds often helps with identification:

  • The Eurasian Curlew forages on the mudflats during low tide. Usually, it appears when the tide has retreated well from shore (more mudflats exposed).
  • Forages singly, in pairs or in small groups are often seen together with other shorebird species.
  • Forages steadily and methodically on the mudflats. It probes the mud frequently using its specialised bill (often probing all the way to the face!) 
  • They’re occasionally seen in flocks flying along the coast as they commute between roosting and feeding areas.
  • The call is loud and piercing and apparently onomatopoeic. It’s often transcribed in field guides as ‘coor-lee’.
Eurasian Curlew large flock.
The Eurasian Curlew is occasionally seen in large flocks flying along the coast.

Confusion Species

There are two confusion species for the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia, both of which are its close relatives.

Far Eastern Curlew

This bird looks almost identical to the Eurasian Curlew; therefore, positive identification requires good views or photos. Look out for the following features on the Far Eastern Curlew:

  • The rump is brownish/rufescent (instead of white). This feature is visible in-flight or when the bird flaps/stretches the wings.
  • The underwings are brownish and densely barred (instead of white without barring). This is usually only visible in-flight.
  • It’s larger and has a longer bill compared to the Eurasian Curlew. However, these features are subtle and difficult to appreciate in the field.
  • The Far Eastern Curlew is much rarer in Peninsular Malaysia than the Eurasian. Conversely, in Malaysian Borneo, the Far Eastern is more common.
  • Check out this post from the Shanghai Birding blog, which has pictures comparing the two.
Eurasian Curlew vs Far Eastern Curlew
The Eurasian Curlew (right bird) shows a white rump in-flight compared to the brown rump of the Far Eastern. Also, the Eurasian Curlew is noticeably paler overall.
Whimbrel

The Whimbrel is a common shorebird often seen together with the Eurasian Curlew. Thankfully, they’re relatively easy to distinguish:

  • The Whimbrel is noticeably smaller than the Eurasian Curlew.
  • Shorter, down-curved bill.
  • The head pattern of the Whimbrel is distinctive. Unlike the Eurasian Curlew, the Whimbrel has an obvious white supercilium (‘eyebrows’) and a dark stripe above the ‘eyebrows’. Also, a dark stripe runs through the eye and a white stripe along the top of the head.
Curlew and Whimbrel comparison
Side-by-side comparison between the Eurasian Curlew and Whimbrel.
Size difference from Whimbrel
The size difference between the Eurasian Curlew and Whimbrel is apparent from a distance. The larger birds are the Eurasian Curlews.

Habitat of the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia

The Eurasian Curlew prefers mudflats and muddy coastlines. These areas are often associated with estuaries and mangrove forests.

Range and Distribution

As the name suggests, the Eurasian Curlew is found throughout the Eurasian continent. According to BirdLife International, it breeds across Europe east to Russia and Siberia. In winter, it disperses southwards and winters across South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Far East, the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East. Most populations are migratory; however, the Eurasian Curlew resides in certain areas, such as the British Isles and Ireland.

The curlew at Hong Kong
This photo wasn’t taken in Malaysia but from Hong Kong in 2014! This was the first time I personally saw this species. Photo taken at the Tsim Bei Tsui mudflats, which overlook the famous Mai Po Nature Reserve.

Where to see the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia

Peninsular Malaysia

The Eurasian Curlew is commonly seen along the mudflats and muddy shores lining the west coast of the peninsula:

  • The North-Central Selangor Coast IBA (MY011). Covering the north coast of Selangor (Port Klang northwards), this stretch is an important wintering ground for many shorebirds. Accessible places to see the Eurasian Curlew (and other shorebirds) include:
    1. Pantai Jeram 
    2. Pantai Remis 
    3. Sungai Sembilang 
    4. Sungai Janggut 
  • Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda IBA (MY003). Similar to the previous IBA, but covering the northern coast of mainland Penang state. Accessible areas include:
    1. Kuala Sungai Abdul (near Warung Kulat).
    2. Boat trips from Sungai Tembus.
  • West coast of Penang Island, such as Kuala Sg. Burung.
  • Tanjung Piai National Park, Johor.
  • Beaches around Mersing, Johor (on the peninsula’s east coast).
Curlews flying past Kuala Sg. Burung
These Eurasian Curlews were spotted at Kuala Sg. Burung, Penang Island. The white, unbarred underwings are clearly seen in this photo.
Sg. Buloh Curlew
This bird was seen on the mudflats near Bagan Sungai Buloh, Selangor. This location is part of the North-Central Selangor Coast IBA; however, it’s only accessible by boat.
Malaysian Borneo

According to the Phillipps’ field guide, the Eurasian Curlew is a rare passage migrant in Malaysian Borneo. Using eBird, possible locations to see them include:

  • Bako-Buntal Bay IBA (MY037) near Kuching, Sarawak. One of the best places in Malaysian Borneo to see migratory shorebirds. Check out our article on birdwatching at Buntal Bay.
  • Kuala Abai, near Kota Belud, Sabah. This is close to the Tempasuk Plains birdwatching area.
  • Beaches near Kg Tinagat and Kg Batu Payung, Tawau, Sabah.

When to see?

The Eurasian Curlew is a migratory bird visiting Malaysia during northern winter. Therefore, the best time to see the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia is from Late August until April/early May. Nevertheless, small numbers remain in Malaysia year-round.

Curlew flock
A large flock of Eurasian Curlews

Conservation Status

According to BirdLife International, the Eurasian Curlew is considered to be Near Threatened (NT) globally. Certain populations of this bird have declined drastically, including those in the UK and Ireland. In Malaysia, the species is ‘Totally Protected’ in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak only (not protected in Sabah).

Threats to this species come mainly from habitat loss, both in its breeding grounds and wintering sites. Here in Malaysia, the coastal mudflats are becoming increasingly disturbed (e.g. construction works, destruction of mangroves, urbanisation). Should these activities continue unchecked, the future of the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia (and other shorebirds) looks bleak.

Other threats include hunting, pollution and climate change. 

Additional Information

For more information on the Eurasian Curlew, check out the following links:

Additionally, check out our articles linked below for more information on  shorebird watching in Malaysia:

Conclusion

An encounter with the Eurasian Curlew in Malaysia never disappoints. The combination of large size and long down-curved bill gives this stately shorebird an attention-grabbing appearance. Despite being relatively common, it’s well worth giving this bird extra attention – the Eurasian Curlew certainly deserves it!

 


REFERENCES

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.

Robson, C. (2005). New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of Southeast Asia (Concise Edition). New Holland Publishers, London, England.

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.

MNS Bird Conservation Council. (2021). A Checklist of the Birds of Malaysia. 2020 Edition. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Nature Society. (MNS Conservation Publication No. 22)

BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Numenius arquata. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/eurasian-curlew-numenius-arquata on 06/12/2023

 

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