Our last four birding trips had been to the New World, and previous trips included Africa and also the Indian subcontinent. We thus had a craving for South-east Asia, and I had found the infrastructure and birding possibilities on Malaysian Borneo to have mouth watering potential on a family holiday there in 2005. This all pointed to a trip to Peninsular Malaysia, depending on the specific birding potential there. We thus paid a visit to one or two of the appropriate stands at the British Birdwatching Fair, and additional research made the decision for us. The location of the area throws up a blend of species from the Indian subcontinent, migrants from northern and eastern Asia, and new or larger exponents of families such as broadbills, babblers, bulbuls, pittas, etc.
The itinerary brought up some interesting ideas. In essence, we had a week, and it was obvious that the major site that had to be visited was Fraser's Hill, with its massive potential for higher altitude species. Taman Negara caused us a bit of a problem. Some reports said that it had a good species list, but that the forest birding involved made it frustrating, and in some cases, disappointing. The view we took was that as well as the actual birds, we wanted a forest encounter, and the outcome was that we were very happy with both the birds and the experience. There were also some other sites which reared their heads, such as the Genting and Cameron Highlands, but they offered a similar type of habitat to Fraser's Hill, so we opted for a look in to Kuala Selangor, and its coastal / mangrove opportunities. We found this blend to be perfect, and while our main goal is quality of birds and to enjoy what we see rather than size of list, we felt that about 190 species for a week in what is essentially forest birding is more than fulfilling. The location of the three sites also meant that there wasn't much traveling involved, with the longest journey being 3 hours from Fraser's Hill to Kuala Selangor.
As with many equatorial locations, the concept of dry and wet seasons is more of a comparative statement than a factual one. February and March are more accurately termed the drier season, and this was the reason for our March trip. There is an argument for going a little later, say in May, since this is when many of the birds are singing, making them easier to locate. However, although we were lucky with the rain, since it only actually poured during a few hours on our first day, and for an hour on the last afternoon, when it rains it rains torrentially, making birding either difficult or impossible. When we arrived at Fraser's Hill, we were informed that we were fortunate to have missed four days of this type of weather.
Another consideration here is the activity of the pests, namely mosquitoes and leaches. Mosquitoes were present during our visit, but presented a minor irritation. At Taman Negara, there are some Malaria transmitting beasts, and so prophylaxis with proguanil / chloroquine is advised. Leaches have the potential to be a major problem, particularly in the closed forests after rain. We came across birders who had numerous plasters on their bodies, since leach bites often include an anticoagulant, leaving a constant streaming of blood for some hours. We had invested in leach socks and sprayed them with 50% deet, which is a definite recommendation.
The flights we had were very near perfect. This is based on the fact that we used Amsterdam as a hub, which is a superbly efficient airport, and the flight times from Newcastle / Amsterdam / Kuala Lumpur meant that we arrived in Malaysia early morning (touch down at 7am, in the car at 8:15am, and at our first site at 11:40am), yet left just before midnight (giving us what amounted to an extra days birding on the last day!). KLM / Malaysia airlines also offered top class service, with the food on the latter being amongst the best I have experienced (includes Malaysian breakfast, which has to be tried if offered!). The airport is conveniently located well outside of the city of Kuala Lumpur, meaning that you do not have to taste the mayhem of city driving.
For car hire, we booked on the internet direct with National Car Rental. I aimed for a larger and well known international outlet for various reasons, and not many of those names that are worldwide operate in Malaysia. However, the price and package (including insurance) from National can be recommended. We were given an almost new Proton Wira 1.5L automatic which served our purposes beautifully. The roads in Malaysia are very well maintained, being almost pothole free, and the signposting is generally very good. Even the minor roads seem to be well maintained.
This reserve, which means "Nature
Reserve" in Malay, is huge in area, and boasts a species list of around
350. It is set in the lowlands of central Malaysia, and the prime habitat is
dense rainforest. This means that the birding can be quite sporadic and very
tiring physically, but time spent here can be very rewarding. The reserve used
to be accessible only by boat, but there is also now a road which can be used
to gain entry. However, I would strongly recommend staying the night before in
Jerantut (leave the car here), booking the river and transfer to the jetty at
the office within the sister hotel of the Hotel Sri Emas, and enjoy the birds
and tranquility from the 12 seater motorised boat.
The accessible part of the reserve is at the confluence of the Tembeling and Tahan rivers. There are two choices of accommodation - the Mutiara Resort, which is situated within the reserve itself, or cheaper accommodation on the opposite bank of the river. Although more expensive, the former is situated within the prime birding area, with a good number of species within the grounds of the resort itself. At either end of the resort are entrances to the forest trails. The one at the western end leads to the Bumbun Tabing trail, which follows the course of the Tahan river. This can be very productive, although we didn't have the time to walk the 3km to the hide. The swimming area (Lubok Simpon) has good potential for viewing kingfishers. At the eastern end of the resort is the Bukit Teresek trail, which also branches off to the canopy walkway. We found this section to be both busy with tourists and also quiet for birds. However, on the route to Bukit Teresek is the Jenut Muda trail, which eventually joins up with the river walk. This is both quiet and also much better for birds. Leach socks are a very good idea on these trails. Between rooms 89 and 90 is the entrance to the Bumbun Tahan, or swamp hide. This is really worth spending some time at. You can sit for hours, often without any other people to disturb the peace, and watch many species come and go in the forest clearing that the hide overlooks.
Fraser's Hill (Bukit Fraser)
This has to be one of the prime birding areas in Peninsular Malaysia. It consists of a resort area within the highlands, set at just over 1000m. Thus, it offers a wide selection of highland species, without quite entering the montane habitat. The time when a rotating one way system used only one road up to the area seems to have passed, since the New Road up was in service during our visit. Temperatures are also a lot cooler than in Taman Negara and Kuala Selangor, although sun protection is still advised. We had read that the area is usually shrouded in mist, but we encountered little to trouble us, and were also lucky in missing the rain, which would render some of the trails tricky to negotiate.
Much of the birding can be done from the well maintained road system within the resort, including productive areas such as the Telekom loop and roads down to The Gap. The use of a car is also recommended, since the distance between the trails can be up to 2km. The trails seemed to be all open and negotiable during our visit, with none really challenging. Two extra recommendations are also worthwhile - the Julai Hotel is a must at first light, when 20-30 species visit the small car park in front of reception, and the waterfall an hour before dusk, when there are no tourists, and the possibility of Slaty-backed Forktail and Malaysian Whistling-thrush is high.
For those wanting some expert advice, or even some
field guidance, Durai is a well known character at Fraser's Hill. He has an
intimate knowledge of the area and its birds, and will guide birders while
asking for nothing in return (hence a donation to the Information Centre where
he is based is appropriate). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many guides lump this with Fraser's Hill, since it is the area at the bottom of the 8km access roads to the resort. However, it does contain a different range of species to the former, being set at a lower altitude. It can be covered in two ways - staying at the Gap Resthouse which is now open again and apparently very cheap with good food, or driving down from Fraser's Hill. We did the latter, which gave the benefit of still being available to see the Gap birds, but also stirring up one or two nightjars in the car headlights on the return journey back up again. From The Gap, it is also worth walking up the Old & New roads, as well as along the main road towards Raub (which we did on the first day without seeing a great deal).
With the birding at Fraser's Hill being so good, we left late on the last full day to pigeonhole the penultimate day for Kuala Selangor and the rice fields to the North, thinking that it would be very hot and offer a limited range of birds. We were pleasantly surprised to find that, although it was hotter here than other sites, it certainly wasn't unbearable, especially early morning when there was peak activity. In addition, the birding here, especially at the Kuala Selangor reserve, is stunning, and we could quite easily have spent a few days here. The reserve is located adjacent to the River Selangor, where is opens out into the sea at the Straight of Malacca. The entrance and visitor centre is much more modern than we expected (entrance fee 4 ringgits). The meat of the reserve consists of a circular loop, which encircles 2 lagoons, and has a large concrete tower hide overlooking the central one. The trees which lined the circular loop held a wide range of birds on our visit. From the path adjacent to the sea is a recently constructed concrete boardwalk through the mangroves, which is a must, since this is where the mangrove specialities such as Mangrove Blue-flycatcher and Pied Fantail can be seen. We also had four species of woodpecker from here.
About 15km north of Kuala Selangor is the rice fields area. We were possibly just a week or two too late for the bulk of the migrating raptors, so just looked around some of the small fields to the East of Tanjong Karang. These still produced some good birds, including White-breasted Woodswallow. However, to do this area properly, the larger fields around Sekinchan are the targets, but we decided to head back down to Kuala Selangor for a second visit given the time we had left. It has to be said that a car is almost a must for this site, since the rice fields can go on for some kilometres.
Hotel Sri Emas (Jerantut) www.taman-negara.com/contactus.htm
Jerantut is half an hour by bus from the jetty at Kuala Tembeling, where the boat leaves for Taman Negara. If the 9am transfer is taken, staying overnight at Jerantut is recommended. There seem to be a few hotels in the town, but this one is the most well known. At 30 ringgits for a room, it is very cheap and basic, but more than suitable for its needs. In addition, the sister hotel over the road, where we had our room, is also the location of the boat transfer booking office (although we had booked our river transfer on the internet with the Mutiara Taman Negara), where you can pay the low cost of the bus ride to the jetty (the bus leaves from outside of this building). The car can either be left outside of the hotel, or can be driven to the jetty and left there for a small fee.
Mutiara Taman Negara Resort www.malaysiaforestresorts.com/index.html
Although much cheaper accommodation is available in the village across the river (easily reached by on demand boats for 1 ringgit), we paid the extra for this more convenient location (price about 450 ringgits for 2 for one night, which included breakfast and an evening meal). The benefit is birding on the doorstep. We had a meal at one of the floating restaurants across the river, which was even cheaper than the low prices in the resort restaurant, although the cuisine is more Chinese than Malayasian and, to my mind, not as interesting. Accommodation is in the form of spacious cabins throughout, and all have impressive air conditioning. Beware of taking optics straight from this environment to the humid air outside in the morning, since condensation can be a problem.
Shahzan Inn (Fraser's Hill) www.journeymalaysia.com/highfrasershahzan.htm
There is a reasonable variety of accommodation around Fraser's Hill, with the Silverpark and Fraser's Pine Resort looking large and busy. The Puncak Inn still seems to be the budget option, and we were told that it has now rectified the moist bedding problem. However, we plumped for the slightly more middle class Shahzan, and weren't to be disappointed (especially at 125 ringgits per night including a hearty breakfast). The meals are also very good here, and again inexpensive. Since the hotel was mainly empty during our visit, we were allowed to check out late afternoon on our last day (5pm) giving us a chance to freshen up and pack before leaving for the next destination. A tip is to try to get a room on the 3rd floor, since there is a rear car park opening on to this level. Another option is the Jelai Hotel, which has the benefit of good birding in front of the reception each morning. However, the management seemed reluctant to cook food to the few guests there.
De Palma Inn (Kuala Selangor) www.depalmahotel.com/kuala_selangor.htm
There seem to be two options for Kuala Selangor - this hotel or the cabins within the reserve. The latter seemed to be much better kept than we had expected, and are situated at the head of the first of the trails. However, at 142 ringgits for 2 for one night (again including breakfast), and being only 5 minutes drive from the park entrance, the cabins of the De Palma are also a good choice. The curries in the restaurant are also recommended, and another bargain at 10 ringgits. As with all the other hotels used, the air conditioning adequately coped with the outside heat.
For identification, "A field guide to the Birds of South-east Asia" by Craig Robson (New Holland) is probably the best.
In addition, "The Birds of Fraser's Hill" and "The Birds of Taman Negara" by Morten Strange have good quality photographs of the birds which can be expected at both sites, with additional tips on the areas to cover when there.
"A Birdwatcher's Guide to Malaysia" by John Bransbury (Waymark) is an excellent reference for the sites. It gives reasonable directions and good maps of the sites themselves, although some, such as that of Kuala Selangor, are now out of date.
We used two maps for getting around in the car. The
Freytag and Berndt 1:600000 map of Malaysia is the better for driving between
sites, but we also found the Periplus map of Peninsular Malaysia had a good
road layout of the motorways around Kuala Lumpur.