Discover the birds of Malaysia with Chong Leong Puan

Malaysia is one of most ornithologically diverse countries on Earth, and its combination of continental tropical species on the peninsula and those inhabiting north Borneo, makes it one of the most important countries for the conservation of restricted-range species. Thus, the publication of our Birds of Malaysia: Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore, which treats all these species, each with its own distribution map, can serve as an important tool for conservation. It can help local birders and ornithologists, as well as foreign visitors when travelling opens up again. As co-author of the field guide, Puan explains to us about Malaysia’s birds and birding spots and his impressions on preparing the book.

How did you begin your birding career in Malaysia?

I would not consider myself having a birding career, but I am just someone who likes birds and enjoys birding while conducting research on Malaysian birds. Growing up in the northern part of Kuala Lumpur, birds have never been strangers to me since I was a kid. There were ex-mining ponds around where I lived, and I vividly remember that Common Moorhens and White-breasted Waterhens were very common; I would often see them outside my window and the latter called loudly in the evening when I was about to go to bed. Back then, I only knew these birds by their names in the Hokkien dialect referred to by my mother. Due to my interest in nature, I chose to do a degree in forestry and I first learned about birding about 20 years ago when a group of birders from the Malaysian Nature Society conducted a birding trip in the university I was attending. Looking through the spotting scope for the first time, I realised that the birds appeared more interesting and beautiful than when seeing them at a distance. Since then, I became more aware of the birds around me and started to buy field guides and a pair of binoculars using my pocket money. At the same time, I was being taught about mist-netting, useful for many understory birds that are hard to be seen. In a way, many of my lifers came from mist-netting – the Sunda Scops-owl, Diard’s Trogon, Crested Jay, Malay Honeyguide, etc. – observing a bird in hand and watching it in the field are two different feelings and experiences. I would often look a species up in books before and after seeing and catching it. Over time, my interest toward birds grew, and I ended up pursuing a PhD by studying birds, and here I am.

What would you highlight that your recent field guide to Malaysia offers to visiting and local birders?

Many features in this field guide make it practical in the field or suitable as a beginner’s guide to know more about Malaysian birds. Indeed, our intention was to include as much documentation as possible about local ornithological development and ecological knowledge on Malaysian birds. For instance, the book starts off with comprehensive and up-to-date accounts about ornithological history and development in the country. It also covers extinct, potential, and hypothetical species that are normally excluded from other field guides. Whenever possible, we included little “stories” about certain species throughout the book.

On ecological knowledge, we produced maps that could not only give a quick grasp on the potential habitat and elevation to find a species, but also indicate its niche and habitat segregation. For instance, when you look at the maps side by side for Hume’s vs Swinhoe’s White-eyes, Grey-breasted vs Bornean Spiderhunters, and all three fantails, the maps clearly show differences in their habitat type or elevation. Information on subspecies distributions is also available in this book.

For both local and visiting birders, the book describes 50 birding sites in Malaysia and Singapore and what species to look for at the sites. I like that the book comes in full colour, even the text, and the layout allows one to quickly and easily go through the text and find information on, for instance, taxonomic family, identification, voice, etc. The common names of a species are inserted directly next to a plate and next to the text (on the opposite page). Whenever a bird family is mentioned, the number of extant species in the world and in the region covered in this book is immediately presented. There is also a quick index at the back of the book, in addition to other indices, that allows readers to find a species (or a group of species) easily. What’s more, this book features QR codes and local names in Malay that are either commonly used or the latest!

Throughout the book, we tried to keep the information as up-to-date as possible, including changes in taxonomy as well as nomenclature that follow that of HBW and BirdLife International. Readers will find the latest information about each species, especially on the rare and new records that come with details on sightings (dates and locations). Recently described species such as the Cream-eyed Bulbul and Spectacled Flowerpecker, as well as the Malaysian Crested Argus that has recently been upgraded to species rank, can also be found within. We made an effort to ensure all plates are realistic and show as many details for identification as possible.

Depending on whether you use the book at home or in the field, this book comes in two types of cover – the hard cover suits the former whereas the soft cover (with a rubbery texture) suits the latter.

What did you learn during the process of preparing the book?

While I have co-authored some books on birds before, this is the first time for me to participate in the production of a field guide! The whole process – from preparing the checklist, text, species status, plates, maps, local names, indices, each of which with its own challenges – was interesting. I had never imagined that I would have a chance to do this, and honestly, it was tougher than I expected. For that, I am thankful to the Lynx team for their guidance throughout the journey of the production.

I have to say that one of the toughest tasks was to produce the species distribution maps. My co-authors and I have referred to data from multiple sources, e.g. all publications and eBird in order to produce the maps. In doing so, we went back and forth to revise the maps so that they are representative for each species. The same goes with the plates. The process reflects how little information is available for certain species as well as how local knowledge towards birds and birding has evolved and developed in the sense that we have more information than before. To confirm the status of a species for Malaysia (either Peninsular or Bornean Malaysia) and Singapore is another tough task.

This book was born during the COVID-19 pandemic, an unusually tough time for many including the production team from Lynx Edicions and the authors. We are truly grateful for the positive spirit and encouragement from the publisher that kept us working towards completing the book. Despite living in three different parts of the world, my co-authors and I were spending long hours working and coordinating among us. It got better and better over time. Many friends helped to make this happened too by providing essential information needed on different species.

This field guide is innovative by offering QR codes, allowing the birders to check photos, videos and sound recordings. Do you find these helpful?

Yes, this feature is simply amazing. It allows direct and quick access to eBird without the need to search for it on an internet browser, when internet access is available. It saves time!

We are aware of the growing number of local photographers in Malaysia, especially in some areas. Do you think the book would be of much help for that kind of reader?

Many sightings and new records have been made and validated through photographs. In fact, it is through the contribution of these photographers that we have more information about both local and migratory species in Malaysia and Singapore, and most of these records are included in the book. I think the downloadable checklist and the detailed plates will assist photographers in searching for their lifers and expanding their photo collections, especially with the taxonomic revision of the species and subspecies featured in this book.

Let us know your thoughts about how this book could help for conservation purposes, especially in Borneo, an area where the habitat is being lost at a dramatic speed.

We actually highlighted why endemism is high in Borneo at the beginning of the book. With the understanding of this, as well as additional knowledge on habitat segregation and the latest information on taxonomy for most species, I hope this book will lead to more appreciation and encourage more research to be carried out on many little-known species. With the status of many species and subspecies being revised, especially those from Borneo, ecological research and conservation measures are critically needed. It is worth mentioning that the book also includes a section on threatened species in the Introduction.

What do you hope to see in terms of development of birding activities in Malaysia?

I encourage more birders, either local or visiting, to get involved in research and conservation. This can be done through collection and contribution of detailed information on birds, either on behaviour, vocalisation, diets, etc. In my opinion, research findings on birds in Malaysia are still very limited over the last 30 years and many species are still understudied. At the same time, many birding sites are prone to land conversion or development projects. With so much left to do and so little time, all birders, photographers, enthusiasts, and researchers should work towards contributing to protecting birds and their habitats.

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