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Monday, November 2, 2009

The Raptor Watch - a yearly event at Tanjung Tuan/ Port Dickson.

By Cynthia Lobato (published in Borneo Post MNS column April 2009)
Photo credit Cynthia and Hans

The Raptor Watch (RW) weekend fell this year on 14 and 15 March at Tanjung Tuan in Port Dickson. This event has been high on my list to participate in - and at last I made it.

RW, organized by the Malaysian Nature Society HQ (MNS), is a festival to celebrate the return of the migratory birds of prey (for example eagles and hawks), better known as raptors, on their journey back to their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere. RW is a public event meant to raise awareness about the conservation of raptors and their habitats.

During the spring migration you can see thousands of raptors flying across the Straits of Malacca. Having to use a massive amount of energy to fly across the Straits, the raptors will be flying low at the event site, making it possible to have a good view of these magnificent birds.

Tanjung Tuan is noted as an important birdwatching area because it is an important stopover site for migratory raptors after crossing the Straits of Malacca from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The primary forest on this cape provides food for the raptors as well as a resting spot. For raptors arriving late in the evening, it provides shelter for the night before they take off for flight the next day.

Without Tanjung Tuan, many raptors may never make it back to their breeding grounds, due to exhaustion and lack of food. Tanjung Tuan has been a forest reserve since 1921, when 80.97 hectares were gazetted as the Hutan Simpanan Cape Rachado. However 16.19 hectares were degazetted in 1969 for public use. On 5 January 1971, the remaining 60.70 hectares were gazetted as a wildlife sanctuary.

Since it is well known that the best time to see raptors is between 11 till 3p.m., we went uphill to the lighthouse on Saturday morning around 11 a.m. This is the oldest still functioning lighthouse in Malaysia. It is 94 m above sea level you have a magnificent view across the Straits and can even see Sumatra on a clear day.

The best time is late morning because the birds wait until the island of Sumatra is heated up by the sun. It is then that the warmed air rises up strongly; the birds use these thermal currents to gain height by just spreading their wings. They are carried upward by the air currents.

We were surrounded by a group MNS volunteers, who were counting the birds to keep complete records. The counting of the raptors flying over Tanjung Tuan started in 2000 and is undertaken from around the middle February to the end of April. There also were groups from Japan and Thailand watching and helping to count the raptors.

We waited and waited and waited, but there were no signs of any birds. We could see that it was raining in Sumatra, cloudy and very windy, and got worried that they couldn’t fly that day since they need good weather and little wind At 4 p.m. the only raptor we had seen was a resident White-bellied Sea Eagle sitting on her nest. As there was not much action we left hoping that the next day would be better.

On Sunday at noon we were again at the same spot and the volunteers who were there much earlier had not seen any birds, but the weather was good with a clear sky, wind speed 0, visibility 38 km, 60% cloud cover and 34oC.

Suddenly a yell sounded and there they came.It was spectacular!! The volunteers counted at least a thousand birds. Everybody was excited and cameras were clicking, binoculars and telescopes were pointing at the birds flying above and below us. When the birds began to circle high above us, we caught at least nine in one picture.

One of the birders told us that the raptors were also using the hot air that comes from the ships to gain height and through the telescopes we could see this happening. They fly in large flocks catching thermals, which take them to greater heights.

The biggest group of migratory birds we saw were the Crested Honey Buzzards (Pernis ptilorhynchus) in Malay, Helang Lebah. Their habitat is forest, heavily wooded areas, open country (during migration), and they feed on bee and wasps’ larvae and from time to time little frogs and other small reptiles

Breeding is throughout northern temperate Asia, India, and Southeast Asia, discontinuously to the Greater Sundas and the Philippines. Another raptor that we saw was the Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes), Malay name: Helang Baza. The Black Baza normally eats beetles but also consumes other animals such as bats, small mammals, lizards, other birds and tree frogs.

The Black Baza breeds in the lower Himalayas from Nepal to Szechwan and southern China. It typically spends the winter in southern India, Sri Lanka, and parts of Malaysia and
Thailand. Avoiding open country and rainforest, its preferred habitat is drier seasonal forest.

Also seen that day were Brahman Kites, Fork Tailed Swifts, Changeable Hawk Eagles and Grey-faced Buzzards. Other raptors seen are rare, including Chinese Goshawk, Japanese Sparrowhawk, and Peregrine Falcon. Total raptor count that day was 1960.

You can find all the information on www.raptorwatch.org
I must admit that it was very much worth going and maybe, if possible, I will go again and hope to see more people from Sarawak at this spectacular event that only happens in March.

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