Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai, Malaysia – trip report

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Tanjung Dawai pelagic birding

In early May 2024, I had the chance to go pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai, Malaysia. Organised by the Wild Bird Club of Malaysia (WBCM), I joined 17 other participants on an exciting trip looking for rare birds. 

Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai, Malaysia – trip report

In Malaysia, pelagic birding is very niche. Trips are limited to chartered boats from a select few locations. Moreover, the optimal season is very short, lasting only 3 to 4 weeks per year. Naturally, when WBCM announced a trip to do pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai, I immediately signed up. A trip like this offers the best chance in Malaysia to see birds such as shearwaters, pelagic terns and jaegers. Many of these offshore birds are rare/vagrants; consequently, excitement is high!

Pre-pelagic preamble

Tanjung Dawai is located on the north-west coast of peninsula Malaysia, within the state of Kedah. Therefore, the trip began with a long drive north from Kuala Lumpur to Alor Setar. The next day started very early. I woke up at 5 am and joined a few others to search for the Brown Fish-Owl, a rare species in Malaysia. We made a beeline to the spot where it’s usually seen – Gunung Keriang, Alor Setar. Happily, this mission proved unproblematic, as the owls appeared almost on cue at 7 am. Satisfied, we then made our way to the starting point for the pelagic trip. This was at Sg. Udang Yan jetty, an hour’s drive away.

Journey to jetty 

The journey to the jetty took us past scenic countryside dominated by paddyfields. Large numbers of herons, egrets, stilts and Asian Openbills populated the wet fields. In the distance, the imposing Mount Jerai towers like a monolith above the otherwise flat terrain. Several White-winged Terns in breeding plumage welcomed us as we arrived at the jetty, a preview of things to come.

Cast off!

After a quick safety briefing, we finally embarked on our voyage at 9 a.m. The weather was perfect: sunny skies and minimal winds. Our party was split into two boats, each carrying nine passengers. Fortunately, my boat was also carrying a tenth passenger—eminent Malaysian birdwatcher Mr Neoh Hor Kee. Vastly experienced in birding, Mr Neoh provided invaluable information regarding the birds seen during the trip.

The plan was simple enough – follow the anchovy fishing boats, the hotspot for seabird activity. As these boats rein in their purse seines, the hungry seabirds eagerly snap up any escaping fish.

Anchovy fishing vessel
One of the many anchovy fishing vessels that we followed.

First finds

Our speedboats headed off into the blue, powering effortlessly through the waves. As we approached our first fishing vessel, we spotted our first birds. Various terns were thronging the vessel, looking for an opportunistic morsel. A Lesser Crested Tern was the standout, gracefully cavorting and wheeling above us. I’m pretty sure it was mocking us, laughing at our ungainly metal vehicle while it effortlessly sailed the wind.

Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai Lesser Crested Tern
The Lesser Crested Tern in-flight is the epitome of elegance.

As our speedboat slowed and stopped, the effect of the waves intensified. This is when seasickness often raises its ugly head. I hoped the medication I took earlier would do its job. I needn’t have worried though, as the next sighting was a better seasickness cure than any pharmacological potion….

Shearwater sighting  

Suddenly, a cry came out from our boatman – ‘Itik laut!’ This is the local name for shearwaters, and translates literally as sea duck. Looking around, I immediately spotted two Short-tailed Shearwaters, floating on the water’s surface. I could scarcely believe our luck as we were barely 40 minutes into our trip! 

We observed the black birds as they bobbed on the water looking for food. It wasn’t difficult to see why the locals named them ‘sea ducks’. Additionally, their tubenoses gave them a very distinctive appearance. And their flight style is truly amazing. They effortlessly skim the surface with stiff wings, inches above the water. Occasionally, a wingtip slices through the waves without impeding its trajectory whatsoever. Shearing the water indeed! 

Floating Short-tailed Shearwater
It wasn’t difficult to see why the locals call them ‘sea ducks’! Check out their tubenose, a hallmark of the taxonomic order that they belong to.
Feeding Short-tailed Shearwater
The shearwaters lunge and dive into the water as they search for food.

These birds are very seasonal visitors to Malaysian waters, restricted to only a few weeks in May. According to Mr Neoh, ‘shorties’ typically don’t routinely pass through Malaysian waters during migration. Rather, these birds likely stray far off their regular migration routes.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Short-tailed Shearwaters, though. I encountered these so-called muttonbirds during a pelagic trip off Wollongong, Australia, in 2013. Nevertheless, it was still surreal to see them in my home country!

Terrific terns

Throughout our journey, we spotted large numbers of terns. They’re among the most common seabirds in Malaysia; appropriately, they’re numerous here as well. The flocks flew between the many fishing vessels, and we followed them in turn. Our total tern tally – 9 species, including a rare one.

White-winged wonders

White-winged Terns are a common and familiar sight in Malaysia. They’re usually seen inland in their smart but unspectacular non-breeding plumage. However, during our pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai trip, they were mostly in their full breeding plumage.

And what a sight they were, resplendent in striking black-and-white. Their jet-black body contrasts sharply with their silvery-white wings and tail. With their fluttering flight, they gave off the impression of flashing strobe lights alternating between black and white.

Hundreds of them followed the fishing boats, providing us with a spectacular display of grace and elegance. It’s hard to describe it in words, and even the best photos don’t do them justice. Being there certainly gave me a newfound appreciation for these common migratory birds.

Breeding plumage White-winged Tern
An adult White-winged Tern in full breeding plumage is breathtaking!
Flock of White-winged Terns during pelagic trip off tanjung dawai
Flocks of White-winged Terns thronged around the fishing vessels. Their flapping wings give the effect reminiscent of flashing strobe lights.
Plumage comparison White-winged Terns
The difference between their breeding and non-breeding plumage is stark. The bird on the extreme right is the non-breeding plumage.

Common customers

Other terns were also present in numbers. Common Terns were indeed common, while Bridled Terns stood out with their powerful, elegant flight. The birds periodically plunge dive into the water, subsequently flying off, invariably with a fish in their beak. The Little Terns were the most extreme example, plunge-diving from a spectacular height. In contrast, the White-winged and Whiskered terns prefer to pick fish from the water’s surface.

Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai Bridled Tern
The Bridled Tern is a pelagic species rarely seen close to shore. Unlike many terns, it has dark-coloured upperparts.

Rosy rarity 

Amongst these common species, a rarity lurked. And we wouldn’t even have noticed it, if not for Mr Neoh. While looking at a flock of Common Terns, Mr Neoh excitedly pointed out the hidden treasure – a Roseate Tern! 

The Roseate is similar to the more numerous Common Tern; nevertheless, there are several subtle differences. The Roseate is slimmer and more gracile. In breeding plumage, the Roseate appears paler overall. It also has bright red legs and a forked tail with long streamers. A rosy tinge may occasionally be seen on its body, hence the name.

This bird was a major lifer for me and many participants. Despite being a wide-ranging bird, the Roseate Tern is quite rare in Malaysia. It breeds in Malaysia’s waters, but only in very small numbers. Primarily seen along the peninsula’s east coast, a sighting at the Malacca Straits is always exciting.

Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai Roseate Tern
This is the only decent photo of the Roseate Tern that I was able to obtain. It was near our boat only for a short while.

Heading home 

All too soon, it was time to head back. As we returned to the mainland, we checked on the fishing vessels closer to shore. We added the Great Crested and Black-naped Terns to our list, but no rarities. Unfortunately, we didn’t encounter any jaegers, noddies or boobies. Nevertheless, the day’s bird haul was still impressive. The Shearwaters and Roseate Tern was probably already worth the time and money spent on this trip! 

We disembarked at the jetty at around 2.35 pm. Everyone was happy and satisfied, seasickness long forgotten. Final stop, a ‘mee udang’ (prawn noodles) stall, just next to the jetty. The excellent meal there perfectly ended our pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai adventure.

Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai – final bird species tally

  1. White-winged Tern
  2. Whiskered Tern 
  3. Bridled Tern 
  4. Common Tern 
  5. Black-naped Tern 
  6. Roseate Tern 
  7. Little Tern
  8. Lesser Crested Tern 
  9. Great Crested Tern 
  10. Short-tailed Shearwater 

Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai – miscellaneous stats

The track of our pelagic birding
Our birding GPS track is courtesy of eBird.
  • Total time spent at sea: 5 hours 35 minutes 
  • Distance covered: 37 nautical miles (68 km) 
  • Furthest distance from land: roughly 7.5 nautical miles (14 km)
  • Longest time spent loitering around one fishing vessel: 45+ minutes
  • Most numerous species: White-winged Tern
  • Bird photographs taken by participants: thousands 
  • Tern puns used: too many 
  • Number of numb buttocks: 18 pairs
  • Happy and satisfied participants: 18

More photos from our pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai trip

Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai speedboat
One of the speedboats that we used for our pelagic trip.
Pelagic trip boat
View from the boat I was on. Thankfully, the boats have a roof. Otherwise, we would’ve been fried to a crisp under the hot sun!
Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai Common Tern
This is a Common Tern in non-breeding plumage.
Pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai Great Crested Tern
This Great Crested Tern has an anchovy caught in its bill.

More information

Interested in joining a similar trip in the future? Check out the Wild Bird Club of Malaysia, and consider joining as a member. They organise various birdwatching trips throughout the year, including day and multi-day trips. 

For more information on some of the birds seen on this trip, check out the articles below:

  1. Terns of Malaysia – Part 1 (info on the two crested terns)
  2. Terns of Malaysia – Part 2 (info on the White-winged and Whiskered Terns)

Conclusion 

Our pelagic birding off Tanjung Dawai excursion was possibly the most unique birding experience I’ve had in Malaysia. It was exciting and rewarding in equal measure. The Shearwaters were fantastic, and the Roseate Tern was the cherry on the cake.

I look forward to joining more pelagic birding trips in Malaysia.

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