Shorebird Watching in Malaysia

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Malaysia Shorebird watching

Malaysia offers a variety of birdwatching ‘genres’, but few are as rewarding as shorebird watching in Malaysia. This country is rightfully well-known for excellent rainforest birding. Nevertheless, Malaysia also offers fantastic  shorebird watching, with an impressive array of shorebirds visiting during the northern winter. Many of these are familiar species; however, several rare and threatened species regularly winters in the country.  This makes Malaysia crucial to their long-term survival,  and great for birders looking to see them.

Shorebird watching locations in Malaysia range from coastal mudflats to inland paddyfields. Some locations are particular hotspots; sheer numbers of shorebirds present an impressive spectacle! Moreover, many of these birdwatching locations are relatively easily visited.

For birdwatchers, it’s thus easy to see why shorebird watching in Malaysia is something not to be missed.

Shorebird watching in Malaysia

This article mainly aims to provide general information on shorebird watching in Malaysia, especially for visiting birders and beginners. Also suitable for anyone just starting to wade into shorebird watching in Malaysia.

Firstly, an important consideration

At some locations it’s possible to get close to the shorebirds. However, getting too close stresses them out and will make them flee. Repeated disturbance might cause these birds to eventually abandon the spot. Therefore, it’s imperative that birdwatchers don’t disturb these birds unnecessarily

  1. Don’t get too close. When approaching, watch the birds for signs of stress. If their posture becomes erect, or they start walking hurriedly, you’re too close. 
  2. It’s often better to pick a spot a comfortable distance away and remain quiet and still. Let the birds approach you by their own volition. You’ll get better views and photos this way.
  3. Wear dull-coloured clothing (or camouflage patterns).
  4. Using a spotting scope will allow you to admire them at a comfortable distance. 

What is a shorebird?

Shorebirds or waders typically refer to birds from the following families:

  • Plovers & Lapwings (Charadriidae)
  • Sandpipers, Shanks, Stints, Knots, Dowitchers, Godwits, Curlews & Snipes (Scolopacidae) 
  • Stilts & Avocets (Recurvirostridae)
  • Jacanas (Jacanidae)
  • Painted-Snipes (Rostratulidae)
  • Thick-Knees (Burhinidae)

Globally, there are other shorebird families; however, only those listed above are found in Malaysia. 

The following water-loving birds are not referred to as shorebirds/waders:

  • Egrets, herons, bitterns.
  • Gulls, terns.
  • Storks.
  • Ducks, Geese, Grebes.
  • Crakes, Rails, Swamphens, Waterhens, Watercock.

What to expect when shorebird watching in Malaysia?

This list focuses on shorebirds that occur in Malaysia. Vagrants are omitted. Threatened species are highlighted in bold.
(NT = Near Threatened; EN = Endangered; CR = Critically Endangered)

Coastal Shorebirds

These birds are primarily found along the coastlines; however, some also inhabit inland areas.

Common species:

  • Common Redshank
  • Common Greenshank
  • Marsh Sandpiper
  • Common Sandpiper
  • Terek Sandpiper
  • Curlew Sandpiper (NT)
  • Broad-billed Sandpiper
  • Red-necked Stint (NT)
  • Sanderling
  • Great Knot (EN)
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Black-tailed Godwit (NT)
  • Bar-tailed Godwit (NT)
  • Eurasian Curlew (NT)
  • Whimbrel
  • Tibetan and Greater Sand-Plovers
  • Kentish Plover
  • Black-bellied Plover
Black-tailed Godwits in Malaysia
A decent flock of Black-tailed Godwits seen in Malaysia

Uncommon/rare species

  • Nordmann’s Greenshank (EN)
  • Grey-tailed Tattler (NT) (common in Borneo)
  • Asian Dowitcher (NT)
  • Far Eastern Curlew (EN) 
  • Red Knot (NT)
  • Little Stint
  • Spoon-billed Sandpiper (CR) – now very rare due to its small global population.
  • Siberian Sand-Plover (EN) – in Borneo
  • White-faced Plover
  • Malaysian Plover (NT) – one of the few resident shorebirds of Malaysia
  • Beach Thick-Knee (NT) – another resident shorebird; however, very rare. Good luck finding this one!
Malaysia shorebirds Nordmann's Greenshank
Several threatened species winter in Malaysia, including the endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank.
Inland / Freshwater wetlands Shorebirds

These birds primarily inhabit freshwater/inland wetlands; nevertheless, some are occasionally seen at coastal mudflats/sandflats.

Common species:

  • Black-winged Stilt 
  • Wood Sandpiper
  • Temminck’s Stint
  • Long-toed Stint
  • Common, Pin-tailed & Swinhoe’s Snipes
  • Greater Painted-Snipe
  • Little-ringed Plover
  • Pacific Golden-Plover
  • Red-wattled Lapwing (resident)
  • Grey-headed Lapwing

Uncommon/rare species:

  • Spotted Redshank 
  • Ruff 
  • Sharp-tailed Sandpiper 
  • Red-necked Phalarope (unique that it’s mainly pelagic; occasionally inland)
  • Pied Stilt
  • Oriental Plover (more dry land than water)

Of course, anywhere you go shorebird watching in Malaysia you’ll inevitably see various non-shorebirds. These include terns, gulls, kingfishers, herons, egrets, raptors, etc.

When to go shorebird watching in Malaysia

  • Migrant birds are typically present from late August until early May.
  • Some species are more frequently seen during the passage migration season (late August – October; March – early May).
  • A small number of migratory shorebirds usually stay in Malaysia during the summer.
  • Resident species are seen year-round.
Shorebirds large flock
Large numbers of shorebirds visit Malaysia during the northern winter. At certain locations, this makes for an impressive spectacle!

Timing for shorebird watching in Malaysia

Understanding how the tides affect coastal shorebird behaviour is one of the most important tips for shorebird watching in Malaysia. 

  • Check the tide charts well beforehand. I usually use tide-forecast.com. Use a location closest to your birding spot. For example, for shorebird watching at Pantai Jeram, I usually refer to Port Klang tide charts.
  • Timing is important to avoid arriving when the birds are already too far out: 
    1. Arrive at the highest tide, and wait for the birds to arrive as the tide recedes. For example, if the highest tide is at 9 am, arrive around 8-9 am. Personally, I prefer this method.
    2. Alternatively, arrive 3-4 hours before high tide, and observe the birds coming closer as the tide rises. For example, if the highest tide is at noon, arrive before 8 am.
    3. Bear in mind that the water rises/recedes relatively quickly due to the flat topography of the mudflats.
Shorebird watching tide chart.
Example of tide charts – from www.tide-forecast.com. On the 13th Feb, the tides will be highest at 8:01am, and lowest at 2:21pm. Ideal for going to the mudflats around 8am, then wait for the birds to arrive as the tide recedes. Note the maximum tide height of 4.9m.
Tide chart alternative
On 18th Feb, the tides are highest at 12:12pm. Thus, this is ideal to arrive around 8 am, and wait for the birds to come closer as the tide rises. Note the maximum tide height of 3.3m. This may mean the water will not cover all the mud (depends on location). Thus, the birds may still be rather far at highest tide. Chart from www.tide-forecast.com

The following tips apply to both coastal and inland habitats:

  • I prefer birding in the mornings, as afternoons frequently bring rain showers.
  • Around mid-morning to early afternoon, the heat haze is significant, impairing your view/photos.

Locations for shorebird watching in Malaysia

This list is not exhaustive; nevertheless, it contains several popular spots. Most of the locations below are easily visited.

I’ll update this list with additional locations as I learn about them. Also, click on the links for more information on the location.

Coastal locations
Shorebird watching mudflat Malaysia
A typical Malaysian mudflat – Kg. Sungai Serdang, Selangor

Peninsular Malaysia

  • Selangor
    1. North-Central Selangor Coast IBA
    2. Morib
  • Penang
    1. Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda IBA (mainland Penang)
      • Kuala Sungai Abdul, near Warung Kulat
      • Boat ride from Sungai Tembus
    2. Kuala Sungai Burung (western side of Penang Island)
  • Johor
    1. Tanjung Piai 
    2. Mersing 
    3. Tanjung Sedeli 
  • Pahang
    1. Kuala Rompin – Kuala Pontian beach

Malaysian Borneo

Freshwater / Inland locations

Peninsular Malaysia

  • Selangor
    1. Sekinchan paddyfields
    2. Tanjung Karang paddyfields
  • Paddyfields of northern Peninsula Malaysia (Penang, Kedah, Perlis)
  • Batu Kawan wetlands in Penang
  • Perak
    1. Chui Chak paddyfields
    2. Ulu dedap paddyfields
  • Malacca 
    1. Sungai Rambai
    2. Sungai Balang
  • Pahang
    1. Kuala Rompin – Selendang paddyfields

Malaysian Borneo

Shorebird watching site tempasuk plains
Tempasuk plains, near Kota Belud, Sabah

Field Guides for shorebird watching in Malaysia

  • A good field guide is crucial to aid identification. 
  • The following field guides are recommended for shorebird watching in Malaysia:
    1. Birds of Malaysia. Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore (Puan et al, Lynx Edicions). Accurate, good quality images. The text entries highlight differences between similar-looking species.
    2. New Holland Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia (Craig Robson). 
    3. Helm Field Guides Waders of Europe, Asia and North America (Message et al, Bloomsbury publishing). Not readily available, but worth looking out for. Detailed images and descriptions of most shorebird species seen in Malaysia.
  • Check out our rough review of some relevant bird field guides at the link below:

Optical equipment for shorebird watching in Malaysia

Spotting Scopes and Binoculars
  • While not compulsory, spotting scopes are highly recommended. The extra magnification will make identifying distant birds much easier.
    1. Budget permitting, go for the premium brands, for example Leica, Kowa or Swarovski. The optics are unparalleled; however, these brands are eye-wateringly expensive!
    2. Affordable options include scopes from SVBONY. These are much cheaper than the premium brands, yet are still of decent quality. Birdwatching Asia currently uses SVBONY scopes:
      • SA405 ED (I use this model)
      • SV406P ED
    3. You’ll need to mount the scope on a decent tripod. Use a ‘fluid video tripod head’ to make your life much easier.
    4. From personal experience, using a scope is game-changing for shorebird watching. If you’re really interested in pursuing shorebird watching, don’t hesitate to purchase one – it’ll be worth it!
  • Binoculars are still useful, especially for flying birds.
scope for shorebird watching
A spotting scope is highly recommended for shorebird watching in Malaysia. This is a SVBONY SA405 HD, coupled with a SVBONY SA409 fluid video head. Mounted on a Manfrotto tripod.
Cameras and digiscoping
  • For photography, cameras with long telephoto lenses are necessary (at least 400mm). 
    1. 150 – 600mm telephotos (from several manufacturers). For example, the Tamron SP 150-600mm F5/6.3 Di VC USD G2.
    2. The new Canon RF 200-800mm F6.3-9 IS USM telephoto
    3. Prime lenses offer the best image quality; however, these are very expensive.
  • As the coastal environment is usually brightly lit, a ‘slow’ lens is very feasible. For example, the Canon 600 or 800mm f/11 compact prime lenses. These ‘slow’ lenses are affordable alternatives to ‘fast’ primes.
  • Alternatively, use a ‘compact superzoom’ or ‘bridge camera’. These provide extremely long zooms, at the expense of image quality.
    1. A popular model is the Nikon P1000. It boasts a 3000mm equivalent zoom!
    2. Sony RX10 Mark IV. Higher end, but well reviewed.
    3. Canon SX70 HS. Budget friendly option.
  • Digiscoping. The art of coupling a phone camera (or small digital camera) to a spotting scope. Results are hit-and-miss, depending on your skill.  
Malaysian Plover digiscoping
Digiscoping a Malaysian Plover.

Apparel and miscellaneous equipment

  • Sun protection is essential when going shorebird watching in Malaysia. It gets really hot, and the birdwatching spots frequently offer little (if any) shade. 
    1. A wide-brimmed hat is your best friend. 
    2. Long-sleeved shirts/t-shirts.
    3. Sun block
  • Additionally, rain protection is also recommended, especially in the afternoon.
  • Consider camouflage patterns.
  • Bring plenty of water
  • A portable/foldable chair is a great idea – sitting down makes scoping out the birds more relaxing!

More information

  1. Common Shorebirds of Malaysia – my article highlighting some common species.
  2. How to choose your spotting scope – an article on Audubon.org
  3. Shorebirds Peninsula Malaysia Project microsite – Plenty of info on the shorebirds seen in Malaysia
  4. Dig deep, a blog run by Malaysia-based bird expert Dave Bakewell. Lots of shorebird information here (and other birds).

Conclusion

Shorebird watching in Malaysia is a rewarding pursuit, considering the diversity of shorebirds wintering in the country. These include several threatened and endangered species, such as the Nordmann’s Greenshank and Great Knot. In certain locations, sheer numbers of wintering birds present an impressive spectacle. Furthermore, most of the shorebird watching sites within Malaysia are relatively accessible. These include several excellent locations near Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital.  

In summary, shorebird watching in Malaysia is an essential part of birdwatching in Malaysia, and is not to be missed. All you need is a good field guide, proper equipment, a little knowledge about tidal patterns, and you’re ready to go! 

 


REFERENCES

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

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