The Raptor Watch - Tanjong Tuan, Port Dickson

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The Malay peninsula is almost the last land mass before the raptors proceed over to the Islands of Indonesia. Many larger raptors, mainly the Eagles would find the hunting ground here good enough and stop their migration here. That's the reason why we could see Greater Spotted Eagles, Steppe Eagles and Marsh Harrier in Malacca an a point further south in Sungei Balang.

The bulk of the smaller Raptors continued on the way led by large numbers of Oriental Honey-Buzzards. These birds when they fly further south cross the Malacca Straits via many points along a coastline of over 30 km long from Sungei Pelek in the north to Tanjong Tuan in the south. At the widest point the landmass of Peninsula and the of Sumatra is well over 73 kilometers apart.

However in the spring migration the birds have less choice but to follow the narrowest part of the main seaway inside the Strait of Malacca at Pulau Rupat in Riau Peninsula and Tanjong Tuan in Port Dickson. Facts found on the internet claims that the Straits of Malacca is narrowest at the Philips Channel in Singapore at 1.5 kilometers. Perhaps, many birds are, but doing it at their own leisure pace and that act did not attract any attention. Then why would this crossing at Tanjong Tuan that dramatic and phenomenal?

Tanjong Tuan or previously known as Cape Ricardo is on the border of the States of Negri Sembilan and Malacca. In fact, the land protrusion is already within the border of the Malacca State. It is a very obvious sharp cape supporting a low hill of 274 meters high. It is the only lone hills on the coast for many kilometers of coastlines. The hills is heavily forested and retaining what is left of a tiny marine park as well. This is one spot that creates turbulence, updraft and a forest for resting.

On the Indonesian side, Rupat Island is a good size estuary Island with mangrove forest, and the portion of the island near the strait, converted to farmland. Its hinterland is perfectly flat of mangrove forest with no high grounds. It is perhaps its environment favors well for the birds to roost as well as awaiting for the right condition to bring them across this long sea journey. The tip of this Island and that Tanjong Tuan is 37.5 kilometer apart.

During migration, with the long journey Raptors hardly waste their energy flying, instead they rise to the optimum altitude with the help of thermal and the then prevailing winds would help them to glide to their next destination. In this crossing of the Malacca Strait the bird would wait for the morning sun to heat up the land and surround on Rupat Island and then ride the thermal to ascend to the ideal height, as usual glide across. This is a rather long sea journey and the sea do not create and up drafts. So often the winds carrying the Raptors across may subside, the raptor then drops in height and forced to use their wings to bring them across to complete their epic flight.

It is for this reasons, this ideal weather conditions occurs within a short period of time and during this small openings of time large numbers gathered each morning to awaits that ideal happening, right amount of thermal to lift them to heights over 2,000 meters and the strong westerly/south-westerly winds blowing consistently for a long while to bring them across the wide expanses of water in the Malacca Straits etc.

Believe it or not this set of condition occurs each year within the couple of weeks around the Easter time like clockwork. So the timing for the enthusiasts and holiday makers alike to gather and enjoy this spectacle is orchestrated by the Malaysian nature Society.

Not all that is going on each year is fun and joy. Behind the scene would be a group of dedicated individuals who have volunteered their time to be on duty to count and record the birds making the passing. They are all spread out along 8 kilometers of coastline for a period of 50 days. The official day chosen as Raptor Watch Day would be a weekend, like the Raptors, when it is estimated to be the peak day with the highest number of crossing.

The unknowing public and visitors are all oblivious to the hard work and research gone into setting out a date for them to participate in this important get together.

Port Dickson is a fantastic place to watch Raptors as the horizon is wide open with no obstructions and more often then that good weather t this period. No haze and clear sky the tiny dots or mass of dots would give ample notice that Raptors are flying in. It both the luck of those watching and that of the raptors. With good persistent strong wind, the raptor would be making landfall at high altitude. Only specks of black dots reaching shore. They then rest and allow the thermal above the land to do the job of bringing them higher. Then they gather in large number of about 20-30 birds and head north immediately. Just capitalizing on the good weather and the winds to bring them closer to home.

Then on the same morning, certain batches making the passing run out of luck. The bird would have to flap their wings hard to make to land. They would be coming in low, fully exhausted and by the time they catches the thermal, would make a couple of circles and then down into the woods at the cape for well earned rest. There would be a good number of birds which did not complete the journey. Exhausted from prolong flapping, would drop into the sea and perished.

Some information about this unique cape. The low hill is like a pinnacle at the sea front of the cape. Rises sharply up to 274 meters peak with steep slopes on 3 sides. The remaining side of lesser incline a road meanders up. The whole area marked green on this sketch is still pristine forest on slopes and lowland.

On top this pinnacle, sits the lighthouse and on the lower end of the slope, a jungle trail from the sea meets the road half way. Then, in this jungle environment, birds of the forest like Malkohas, Drongo, Kingfishers and bulbul are easily spotted.

In the forest edge and air space, the locally stationed Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Sea-Eagle patrol the sky. Also present at the forest edge are Barbets and White-thighed Falconet.

There would be the birds arriving half exhausted targeting the cape and heading for the Lighthouse. Seen at eye level the sight brings lot of excitement. There would the chance to see the tired birds clearly, make pictures while they circle above the forest beside the Lighthouse. The Raptors watchers parked them selves against the retaining wall outside the compound of the lighthouse. Exposed in the heat of the sun, waiting and experiencing what the birds should be getting.

 Peeping far into the horizon for those specks of black from this vantage point. This is a better spot for good chance of seeing Raptors coming at sea level height and also arrivals that hits the shore some half kilometers away up north and south.

Many who do not wish to make the short hike join the crowd at the compound of the resort. Some leave the crowd to hunt for sight of impending arrivals

 I find that is a time wasted and futile attempts. It would take about 15 minutes from first sighting far out at sea time arrivals within view of the binoculars.

At the level of the shoreline, no matter how low the Raptors has fallen in height in their flight path, it is still some meters up and are always arriving overhead. Anyway because of the long wait, I need some shade and a stool to rest my legs.

Then back to the scene at the Lighthouse.

These 2 pictures here show the 2 way up the hill. On the left, up a paved roads and the last stretch, steps to access the Lighthouse.

Right:- the condition of the trail from the shore that meets the paved road midway. Through this way, there are chances of meeting up with forest birds. 

So much written about the more serious issue of raptors and Raptors watching. Following would be the social events organized by Malaysian Nature Society riding on the theme of Raptor Watch

The number of Bird Watchers in the country is diminishing and takes tremendous amount of effort to get new members interested in this sport. Though Raptor Watching is an exciting events, it is not easy to lure the crowd from the populated Klang valley to do that 100 over kilometers drive to Port Dickson.

Get the people interested, give  them a good time and then slip the topic of Raptors

Bravo to the dedicated people who volunteered!

I too have difficulties in understanding why so much obstacles stands in the way of ordinary people in finding time to engage in such a nice hobby. The turn out each year is encouraging and lot's on interest shown as well.

Happenings at Raptor Watch  
  • Raptor watching. Best viewing time is between 11am and 2pm
  • Guided walk at the Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve and depending on the tide, at the reef flats and mangroves
  • Nature Sketch workshop by artist Teh Yew Kiang
  • Batik, Face and Fridge Magnet painting
  • Raptor Glider Competition
  • Raptor Migration Game
  • Book signing by novelist Glenda Noramly
  • Lucky Draw: Two return tickets to Jakarta courtesy of KLM airlines
  • Bird photography exhibition and tips on digi-scoping by Ooi Beng Yean
  • Exhibitions by the Malaysian Nature Society, Asian Raptor Research and Conservation Network, Forestry Department, Wildlife and National Parks Department, Marine Parks Department and Traffic South East Asia
  • Exhibition on binoculars and telescopes by Leica, Minox and Swarovski
  • Talks: Bird Migration (by Glenda Noramly of MNS), Shorebird migration (David Li of Wetlands International), Wildlife Trade (Traffic South East Asia), Tiger Conservation (Dr Kae Kawanishi) and Conservation of Coral reefs
  • Documentary screening: The Belum-Temenggor Forest Complex
  • Bring along a picnic basket for an afternoon by the beach!  
  • The series of pictures that follows shows the size of the crowd as well as the participation level. Mind you all these are city dwellers and most of them driven down to Port Dickson and stayed for night to catch the morning show.

    On the left, vendors help to bring up that festive moods with display of optics, books and tour packages.

    Other on the right give display to the crowd while waiting for more arrivals and in between arrivals of the Raptors. So far the weather was good on most event days.

    A reason why the raptors had chosen to fly across

    Here is a different type of gatherings. Birders from the region to get together. One of those rare occasions that they could have face-to-face exchanges other than the internet. Lots of notes to compare and sharing experiences.

    Below, there are those who were convinced and start by getting involved by topping up their collections of books and scouting for the appropriate equipments. Not missing out on the real exercise with guidance from the more seasoned birders on site.

    Last but not least are the other hobby of photographing the Raptors. There were batches of Raptors that came flying in rather tired and taking a breather in the sky above the compound. Here they were seeking the new thermal and deciding on their next course of actions.

    It is a good show, I prefer the watch Point at the Lighthouse, though very hot but it is having a front row seat. Though sounding like sadist when I talk about the excitement in seeing  some poor birds were flapping their wings feverishly to get to the forest, but I really admire the birds' adventurous spirit to make this trip. yes, It is called upon them through the genes but the struggle and the risk involved in this long arduous trip.

    Overall, the gathering at Tanjong Tuan each year had being productive as that's the only time that we get so many birders from malaysia and Singapore to be there at the same time. Lots of "Hellos" and catching up to do.

    I also hope there should be some inquisitive souls who were there and get bitten by this bird watching bug within this short time and started taking an interest in birds.