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Encounters With Raptor Watch

by Mr.Toh Hon Leong / November 28, 2020

The Flyway

We are hikers, but very often, our paths cross with the Raptor Watch enthusiasts. These bird fans converge onto Tanjung Tuan in early March every year. Usually, they arrive with binoculars and cameras with huge expensive lenses, exactly like tourists on an African safari.

As hikers, we often wonder "what is so interesting about watching birds fly or land?" They probably wonder why we are wasting energy charging up and down the cliffs of Tanjung Tuan. I talked to my friend, Dr Yee, from Malaysia Nature Society, pertaining to Raptor Watch. He helped me to understand why our priorities and focus in life can be quite different. Dr Yee is a biologist and nature lover, whereas we are a bit of exercise fanatics. "To each his need, from each his power," is what my school motto says. The discussion with Dr Yee was most enlightening. He explained that bird watch is not geeky or quirky.

Every year in early March, hundreds of Nature lovers venture to the cliffs, beaches and jungle of Tanjung Tuan. Their main intention is to watch the migratory raptors descending from the sky into the forest of trees. Tanjung Tuan has been gazetted as a sanctuary, dedicated to the preservation of wildlife. It is a very important stopover for migratory raptors to feed and rest, before they continue their flights the next day. "We have often watched the African animal migration on TV," says Dr. Yee. "This is a raptor migration."

Raptor Watch at Tanjung Tuan

"There are a few invisible bird highways in the sky, called flyways," he continued. The flyway passing over Malaysia is called the East Asia-Australasian Flyway of about 10,000 to 12,000 km. Migratory raptors use this flyway from northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere in Autumn (August to November) and from the southern hemisphere to the north in Spring (February to April). Volunteers record thousands landing in Tanjung Tuan every year. I only saw a few solitary birds circling to land during hiking. "Can you imagine the bird flyway is right above the roofs of our homes," joked the good-natured biologist.

The raptors fly without navigational aids, such as compasses or GPS. They rely on the sun, stars and magnetic field to keep themselves on the flyway. One wonders what happens if they get blown off course by strong winds. Guess, they are smart enough to sense bad weather. Birds are sensitive to pressure changes and hunker down before a storm. And we think, we are the smart ones.

These migratory birds have their breeding grounds in Siberia, China, Korea, Japan and Kamchatka. As the temperature drops in Autumn, the birds start their migration to the south in search of feeding grounds, which are also known as wintering grounds. In spring, the birds reverse their flights to return to their breeding grounds for the important task of procreation and ensuring the continuation of their species. It's fulfilling a built-in animal instinct of transmitting their genetic code.

"Food and nesting sites are the main reasons for the migration," said Dr Yee. Omnivorous birds do not need to migrate because they can rely on seeds during winter. Raptors are predators and need to catch insects, rats, rabbits, small birds, lizards and small animals for food. Such sources of food become scarce in the snow of winter, hence the migration to warmer regions. Apparently, northern habitats are more conducive for breeding and food is more readily available in spring and summer when the flowers bloom and insects are plentiful. It results in the exodus from the south to the north in spring.

The raptor flights take 60 to 70 days each way. The migratory raptors don't really fly like the little birds we see in our gardens. Whereas the little birds have to flap their little wings, the mighty raptors just spread their wings to catch the rising hot air (called thermals) as well as take advantage of the monsoon winds to carry them to their destinations. They soar and glide in the wind, flapping their wings when the wind becomes unflavourable. Stronger overland thermals and food are the main reasons most flyways are inland, rather than across the open sea.

It's tiring for raptors to fly over water because of low thermals over water and therefore weaker uplift draft. Flying from Sumatra to Tanjung Tuan tires the raptors. The high elevation, trees and strategic location of Tanjung Tuan as a promontory or cape make it a perfect place for rest and food. Birds landing at Tanjung Tuan include oriental honey buzzard, Black baza, Japanese Sparrowhawk, Chinese Goshawk and grey-faced buzzard. "Join us during Raptor Watch," urged.

Oriental Honey Buzzard

I was supposed to join in the Raptor Watch carnival earlier this year, but the event was cancelled due to the MCO. We have noticed the carnival atmosphere many times, while hiking. Many colourful stalls were set up along the road leading to the lighthouse, and they were selling goods ranging from food, drinks, T-shirts, binoculars, bags and outdoor equipment's. The bird enthusiasts were further away at the cliffs and beaches watching the sky to welcome our bird tourists, without travel documents.

Stas during Raptor Watch

Raptors are predators. Such birds are characterized by hooked beaks and powerful feet with sharp curved talons. Raptors are also equipped with binocular vision, enabling them to judge the distance or depth of a prey. Both their eyes are located in the front, just like the owls and humans. In contrast prey animals, such as an antelope, have monocular vision, with eyes located on both side of the head. It enables 360-degree vision but lacks depth.

We had the privilege of watching a demonstration of an eagle, which is a raptor, catching a rabbit on the shore of Issyk Kul Lake in Kyrgyzstan. It was a family business. The father carried the eagle up a hill, while we waited with his daughter in the plain below. At a signal, the daughter released a white rabbit. The eagle, which was about 300 meters away saw its prey. It flew and swoop down on the frighten rabbit, which could not find a hiding place. The sharp talons sank into the neck of the rabbit, which died with very little struggle. We were merely witnessing a prey-predator relationship, but it wasn't a pleasant experience. Holding the eagle for a photo was more fun. I remember we have to wear thick leather gloves. The talons appeared menacing.

Eagle demonstration at Issyuk Kul Lake, Kyrgyzstan

Raptors are solitary birds and hunt individually in their own territories. They congregate together only during migration. The apparent flocking together is not a form of cooperation, but due to season and wind dynamics. The falling leaves of autumn dictates that they "look for greener pastures" before winter sets in. The birds are compelled to share air space, as they migrate south for warmth and food. Like the flowers which bloom in spring to produce seeds, raptors return to their breeding grounds to procreate. The aim of both plants and birds is to reproduce a new generation which will eventually take their places.

The Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary is sitting on very expensive real estate. Every millionaire dream of having a house on the cliff by the sea. Tanjung Tuan is such a location. There are lots of political pressure to grab this lovely area for commercial purposes and turn it into the equivalent of Beverly Hills. It is far better as a sanctuary to serve millions of ordinary folks like us, than to serve a few rich billionaires. The raptors are helping us to maintain status quo, because if the birds were to alter their rest and food area to a location nearer the airport, plane disasters may occur. Let us all be beware and let us welcome the raptors as our guardian angel and sanctuary protector.

Allure of Tanjung Tuan

Raptors also indicate the well-being of our planet. If their numbers were to dwindle, it would mean that pollution, climate change and loss of habitats are taking a toll on them and on us too. I sincerely hope readers feel lightened as much as I do. We hope our guardian angels will help us to preserve Tanjung Tuan as a sanctuary until eternality. Let's save this tropical paradise for future generations of humans and raptors. Let not the rich deprive the poor.