Great-billed Heron in Malaysia

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Malaysia Great-billed Heron

The Great-billed Heron is a scarce species that is only reliably seen in certain locations within Malaysia. The rarest of Malaysia’s resident herons, this bird is consequently much sought-after. Its scarcity means that many Malaysian birdwatchers have yet to see it, myself included.

Great-billed Heron in Malaysia

I believe that every lifer ticked has a story worth telling behind it, no matter how trivial that story might be. This is what makes birdwatching so meaningful. This is indeed true with the Birdwatching Asia team’s encounter with the Great-billed Heron in Malaysia. Our search for this rare heron turned out to be an exercise in frustration, yet ultimately successful and satisfying. 

Our encounter with the Great-billed Heron in Malaysia

I’ve hitherto not had the chance to seek this species, until an opportunity presented itself in April 2024. The Birdwatching Asia team decided to participate in the  Panti Bird Race being held on 27-28 April 2024. Consequently, we needed to travel to southern Johor, which is also where the heron is best seen. This happy coincidence provided us the chance to finally tick this bird off our list. Asking around and internet research revealed a very promising location: Sungai Melayu, located near Johor Bahru.

Our search begins

We visited the recommended spot at Sungai Melayu  on the 25th afternoon. The location was a small road that leads to a small fishing jetty. Birding here yielded, among other birds, a Mangrove Pitta at close range, which was amazing (the pitta was my lifer). Yet, the heron remained elusive, giving us only a tease. A large, dark, heron-like bird was glimpsed flying low over the mud. Was this the Great-billed? Or was it the Adjutant that we’d already seen earlier? Unfortunately, this bird was gone no sooner after we spotted it; thus a positive ID was impossible. Close, but no cigar.

13 hours later….

We tried the same location the next morning, again without luck. An Osprey flew close by, giving my best view/photos of one in Malaysia. This was very welcome, but ultimately not why we were there. After an hour, we decided to try our luck with the boat tour, which was on the opposite side of the river. 

The opposite bank

A 20 minute drive later, we arrived at Kampung Sungai Melayu, the starting point for the boat tour. While waiting for the boatman, we scanned the jetty on the far bank of the river, which we visited earlier. Inevitably, not one, but two Great-billed Herons were foraging right next to the previous jetty! Unfortunately, the view was poor; they’re merely two, grey silhouettes in the distance. We could only just make out the details through our binoculars. Good photos were impossible due to the distance and heat haze.

Herons in the distance
Our first views of the herons was not so good!

Needless to say, the frustration was palpable. I kept thinking we should’ve been more patient and waited there instead. In my mind, by the time the boat is ready, these majestic birds would undoubtedly have flown-off. Any chance of good views and/or photos will be long gone by then. The birds strutted around, fishing and displaying, seemingly mocking us from the far bank….

Frustration turns into satisfaction

Thankfully, the birds continued foraging even as we approached them in the boat. Thanks to the skill of our boatman (Mr Saad), we were able to get very close to the birds. They continued fishing, oblivious to our excited chatter and camera shutter clicks. Consequently, we were able to photograph and observe the pair to our hearts content! 

Breeding plumage Great-billed Heron
The white plumes on the back and lower neck indicates that this bird is in breeding plumage.

The herons were magnificent, resplendent in their breeding plumage, with elegant white plumes on their back and lower neck. Additionally, short white plumes adorned the head. Their namesake ‘great-bill’ was evident – noticeably robust and dagger-like. Stalking the shallows, their fishing attempts were less than successful, though. Several strikes were observed without any fish caught. 

Stalking Great-billed Heron
The heron employs a curious tactic to stalk its prey. It tilts its head sideways at an angle!

We were entertained by the pair for more than 15 minutes. Mission complete, lifer ticked, frustration long forgotten. Satisfied, we continued on the tour leaving the pair to continue their hunt. We were hoping to follow this up by spotting the even more elusive Ruddy Kingfisher. Spoiler alert – we failed. Next up, the Panti Bird Race!

Photos of the heron:

More photos of the birds we encountered at Sungai Melayu, Johor.

Take-off Great-billed Heron
This one took off when we got too close……
Flying Great-billed Heron
…..subsequently flying very low over the water to join its partner nearby.
Heron standing in shallow water
The long neck, robust bill and white throat patch is clearly evident in this photo.

Information on the Great-billed Heron in Malaysia

A search on the internet yielded limited information on this species. This is possibly an indication of its scarcity and shyness, making it a difficult species to observe and study. Instead, the information in this section is mostly derived from several field guides.

Description:

  • Large heron, bigger than the Grey or Purple Heron.
  • Uniformly dark grey overall. Lacks any obvious markings or patterns (asides from the whitish plumes).
  • Whitish throat area.
  • Robust, dagger-like bill that is black/dark in colour.
  • In breeding plumage, white plumes appear on the back and lower neck. Also, whitish head plumes.
  • Has a humorous Malay name – ‘Pucong Lembu’. Literal translation – Cattle Heron! Probably refers to its calls (see the next section). 

Behaviour:

  • Favours quiet shorelines and islands; occasionally seen inland along main rivers.
  • Usually seen singly, or rarely, in pairs. Thus, we were lucky to encounter a pair at Sungai Melayu.
  • Apparently rather shy, unlike other large herons in Malaysia. Nevertheless, the pair we encountered at Sungai Melayu was anything but!
  • Forages along the water’s edge, especially during low tide.
  • Utters deep, roar-like calls during breeding season. Our boatman described these calls as reminiscent of tiger roars. Have a listen at Xeno-Canto and decide for yourself!

Range:

  • From the Thai-Malay peninsula, across the Indonesian archipelago, Palawan, down to northern Australia. 
  • Generally uncommon throughout.
  • Based on eBird sightings, quite readily seen in Singapore and Darwin, Australia.
  • Classified as Least Concern by IUCN.

Where to see the Great-billed Heron in Malaysia?

  • Generally, it’s uncommon to rare  in Malaysia. 
  • Theoretically, it ranges throughout the coasts of Malaysia. However, in reality it’s quite local, and only regular at certain areas. 
  • According to eBird distribution maps, within Peninsula Malaysia, the heron is most commonly seen along the southern coast of Johor. Locations along the Johor Strait is the most reliable:
    • Sungai Melayu (this spot is quite reliable)
    • Tanjung Piai National Park
    • Other possible spots: Forest City, Sungai Danga, small islands around southern Johor.
  • In Malaysian Borneo, inhabits large rivers, islands and coasts, but still very uncommon. Most sightings have been in Sabah:
    • Kinabatangan River
    • Danum Valley

Confusion species

This heron is quite distinctive in Malaysia when seen well. Nevertheless, mis-identification is possible when views are poor or fleeting. Confusion comes from the Great-billed Heron’s closest relatives – the Purple and Grey Herons. To a lesser degree, the grey morph Pacific Reef-Heron is also in the mix.

  • The Great-billed Heron has a black/dark bill, whereas the Grey, Purple and Pacific Reef usually have a yellowish one.
  • The Great-billed Heron is uniformly dark grey, lacking any black marks, streaks or lines (unlike the Purple or Grey Herons).
  • The Pacific Reef-Heron may also be uniformly grey; however, it’s much smaller and shorter-legged than the Great-billed Heron.
  • In breeding plumage, the Great-billed Heron has white plumes on the back and lower neck. The other herons lack this.
Comparison of herons
Comparison between the four heron species.

Conclusion

Our mission to see the Great-billed Heron in Malaysia turned out to be a mini adventure in itself! Thankfully, we were ultimately successful in our objective. Observing this uncommon bird in nature was truly memorable, and worth the effort. Moreover, it’s heartening to know that the bird is still reliably seen in southern Johor. Hopefully in the future, we’ll get to encounter this handsome heron elsewhere in Malaysia.

 


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 South-East 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.

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