Burung Burung: Choose Your Own Tunes to the Birds of Borneo

Welcome to the burung burung, the birds of Malaysia and Indonesia! Handily, the word for "bird" is burung in both Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. To make a noun plural, just say it twice.

Since birding is all about the audio, I wanted to give you guys a few options. Click on a link below for background music while you scroll through the photos:

c) I actually want to read the captions (no link, just read along in silence, that's cool)

This post covers Borneo (both Malaysian and Indonesian), Peninsular Malaysia, and the smaller islands of Pom Pom, Perhentian Kecil and Penang. For Lombok, see Birdwatching on Lombok: Tracing Wallace's Path. If you want more details including a map, date, scientific name and nearby sightings for each photo, check out my iNaturalist page.

Thanks to Lisa and Ari for the tunes, and to the anonymous kindness of iNaturalists for many of the identifications. Enjoy!

Perhentian Kecil

Nation: Indonesia
State: Terengganu
Island: Perhentian Kecil, off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia

Collin and I spent time on this small island to scuba dive with healthy corals and get our first taste of Malaysian food. A few birds made themselves known, too.

And our first bird is... a mystery! Some kind of Old World flycatcher, family Muscicapidae, probably a migrant.

The underbelly view. Can any ID this bird?

Pacific reef heron, our fishing bird.

Asian glossy starling. That evil red eye though!

Pulau Penang

Nation: Malaysia
State: Penang
Island: Pulau Penang, off the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia
City: Georgetown

Better known for magnificent street food, Penang didn't disappoint for nature. Collin and I slogged up Penang Hill and, for some reason, took another strenuous walk the next day through Taman Negara Pulau Pinang (Penang Island National Park). Birds earned with buckets of sweat.

Either a Malaysian or a Hodgson's hawk-cuckoo.

Yellow-vented bulbul with beak to the sky. Such a fabulous pose for this most ordinary of birds.

Greater racket-tailed drongo. That twisted black feather hanging below the bird is part of the tail!

White-throated kingfisher. A pair hopped across the slanted palm trunks at dusk.

Olive-winged bulbul. I didn't know I'd seen this species til I was writing the blog post. Sometimes I snap a photo of a drab bird and lose track for months. Always fun to discover Asian lifers from a couch in Los Angeles.

A white-bellied sea eagle carrying a fish!

Click on the photo for a magnified view of the fish in the talons.

Dark-necked tailorbird. This bird gets its name from the way it sews its nest using plant fibers or spiderwebs as thread.

Spotted dove. A typical park bird with a popping collar.

Kuala Lumpur

Nation: Malaysia
State: Selangor
Island: the continent of Asia
City: Kuala Lumpur

One of the birdiest sites of all was, curiously, an urban park known as Perdana Botanical Gardens. Amid a bustling city of millions, this green space was almost deserted, save for the savvy birds who don't mind the din of bus traffic.

Oriental magpie-robin. This bird gave me the perfect pose, in the dappled shade of a mossy branch.

Feral pigeon. "You know me!"

Blue-throated bee-eater. "Yes, I eat bees!"

Blue-tailed bee-eater. I was ecstatic to photograph two different species of bee-eater, one just down the path from the other. It's hard to tell them apart from far away, but once I looked at the pictures, I could tell that one had a bright blue cheek and the other did not. (Check it out -- you can tell, too!)

Common myna, also known as Indian myna. This is the bird I've met everywhere from South Florida to Madagascar, Malaysia to Indonesia, but never in its home of South Asia. This one's have a particular kind of hair day.

Javan myna. Oddly similar to the common myna, but a black Elvis-style hair swirl instead of a naked yellow face mask.

Zebra dove. A head-bobbing park favorite.

Black-bellied malkoha. I'd never heard of this kind of bird before! The name comes from the Sinhala word, mal-koha, meaning "flower cuckoo." Indeed, they are large members of the cuckoo family. And in case you're wondering, Sinhala is the language of the Sinhalese people, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka.

House crow. A charmingly smart bird with a grey cape.

Tanjung Tuan

Nation: Malaysia
State: Melaka
Island: the continent of Asia
City: Port Dickson
Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve

The day after Collin left Malaysia, I met a new wonder-friend, EeLynn Wong. She took me to the Malaysian Nature Society's annual Raptor Watch festival, where I met enthusiastic young environmentalists, learned ten ways to reduce my plastic use, and supported this grassroots effort to prove the value of nature to the local governments and businesses.

White-rumped shama. This bird, native to Southeast Asia, may be familiar to visitors of Hawaii, where it was introduced intentionally in 1931 as part of an effort to "supplement the native fauna." The things we do for fun.

Dozens of Oriental honey-buzzards swirl on thermals during Raptor Watch. They migrate  through this little forested peninsula every year because it's their first landfall after a long flight across the Strait of Malacca from the island of Sumatra. This Strait has been an important geopolitical waterway for thousands of years, but it might have been exhausting buzzards for hundreds of thousands!

An Oriental honey buzzard close up.

Crested goshawk. Note the accipiter shape, curved trailing edge to wing, dark banded tail, and dark wing tips. Thanks to @johnhowes from iNaturalist for the ID.

The Malaysian Nature Society has been fighting to protect this forest reserve from development for decades. In a successful attempt to prove the economic importance of nature, they've grown the annual Raptor Watch festival into an international tourist attraction, filling up hotels for miles around and funneling customers to local businesses.

Large-tailed nightjar. SUCH A WEIRD BIRD. It sleeps on the ground all day, relying on its leaf-like camouflage for protection. This mama was incubating one creamy-white, brown-splotched egg.

Tasik Kenyir

Nation: Malaysia
State: Terengganu
Island: the continent of Asia
Lake: Tasik Kenyir

Tasik Kenyir may look like a pristine lake, but it's actually a sprawling dam reservoir used to produce electricity. A bit late in the game, I begged my way onto a Malaysian Nature Society trip to visit this lake with a dozen young Malaysian families and a few retirees. We splashed through waterfalls, encouraged a river of fish to nibble our toes, and ate sunset dinners aboard our houseboat, all while keeping an eye out for birds of course.

A brown raptor. That's all I got.

A crow. Maybe another house crow, but maybe a large-billed crow?

I spent three days living in a klotok, that blue houseboat, with families from the Malaysian Nature Society.

My sleeping nook on the klotok deck.

Fraser's Hill

Nation: Malaysia
State: Pahang
Island: the continent of Asia
Town: Bukit Fraser (Fraser's Hill)

My wonderful high-school friend, Nithya Menon, hopped over from her solar energy company in Cambodia for a weekend visit while I was living in Kuala Lumpur. She hadn't seen a forest in too long, so we took a combination of trains and cars to the historical site of Bukit Fraser, or Fraser's Hill, a Scottish tin-ore trading post from the 1890s. Today the site retains some colonial roots, but the most striking feature was its high-elevation vegetation. Moss-laden pines juxtaposed tree ferns, and the constant blanket of mist gave a prehistoric feel.

Either a Malaysian or a Hodgson's hawk-cuckoo.

Rufous-browed flycatcher. My non-birding (but wholly spectacular) friend Nithya and I were climbing a road through morning fog when we came upon a semi-circle of intent birders, wearing camo and aiming their telephoto lenses at a mossy branch. Being a sheeple, I pulled out my camera and pointed it at the same spot. That's how I found their elusive target flycatcher!

A cuckoo of some kind?

Chestnut-capped laughingthrush. I love this bird's style and its apt name.

Verditer flycatcher. A queen of the cool Malaysian hill pines and tree ferns.


Nation: Indonesia
State: Kalimantan Barat (West Kalimantan)
Island: Borneo
Town: Sukadana

The town on Indonesian Borneo where I lived for a month, volunteering for the path-breaking Planetary Health hospital, Alam Sehat Lestari. Out of all that time, only one bird photo worth sharing! We did see more birds, I promise, but our focus was more on the watching than on the recording.

White-chested babbler. A little brown job flitting across the floor of the mangrove forest.

Alam Sehat Lestari doctor, Alvi Muldani, takes a look through the mangroves with binoculars.

Bella Jovita, a visiting medical student and my housemate, offers advice on how to take the best photos for Instagram.

Tanjung Puting

Nation: Indonesia
State: Kalimantan Tengah (Central Kalimantan)
Island:  Borneo
Tanjung Puting National Park

Everyone at Alam Sehat Lestari told me, "You absolutely MUST visit Tanjung Puting!" It's a national park in the south-central region of Kalimantan where wild orangutans still thrive. The park is famous for its population of rehabilitated and released orangutans, some of which can be seen easily when they visit viewing platforms for daily feedings. Between 1971 and 1995, around 200 wild-born orangutans, rescued from poachers or pet-owners, were released here. That may not sound like a lot, but for an endangered great ape, it makes a difference. Perhaps more importantly, this reserve allows Indonesian police to enforce existing laws against trade of orangutans. (Previously, with nowhere to put confiscated orangutans, the authorities were very limited in their ability to take action.) Yes, I got lots of orangutan photos, but today is for the birds!

Black hornbill. This hefty fowl is a major distributor of durian, giving it the Malay name of durian burung, or "durian bird."

Oriental pied hornbill. One of the smaller hornbills, and definitely the most common, but I was still thrilled every time I saw it streaking stiff-winged above the river like a modern pterodactyl.

Sooty-headed bulbul. Like the more abundant yellow-vented bulbul, but with a solid black hat.

Swiftlet houses. A booming fad in Borneo, these multiple-story, wood-and-concrete dormitories are used to farm wild swiftlets. Why? Because these birds build nests out of their own saliva, thereby creating an expensive ingredient in Chinese bird's-nest soup. Wild populations, which build their nests in caves, have been over-harvested, paving the way for the swiftlet farming industry. (I later met a conservationist group called Hutan that guards the remaining wild caves day and night to prevent poaching.)

Edible-nest swiftlets. Yes, that's their real name! They're also known as white-nest swiftlets, or burung walit in Bahasa Indonesia.

In a strange nexus of bird, art, and capitalist entrepreneurship, these swiftlet houses became a varied display of trompe-l'oeil architecture. (Sometimes the windows and balconies were painted on; other times they were constructed but fake.)

Pom Pom Island

Nation: Malaysia
State: Sabah
Island: Pom Pom, off the north coast of Borneo

I lived on this small, reef-fringed island for two weeks as a volunteer with the Tropical Research and Conservation Center (TRACC). My main purpose here was to meet corals, but I met a few feathered friends as well.

Malaysian pied fantail. This bird hopped around our camp's trash pile, investigating cardboard and aluminum. It boldly attacked anything black-and-white, from a woman wearing a certain T-shirt to the fat, furry cat that hung around. I wonder if it thought these black-and-white intruders were competing males?

Not a bird, but my favorite friend in the garbage pile! This is a purple hermit crab, Coenobita brevimanus, previously misidentified as a coconut crab. It can weigh up to 0.5 pounds. This one is living in a soup can, probably because all the large snail shells in the area were collected as souvenirs to sell to tourists.

Eurasian tree sparrow. (Yeah, a flat-sand island of only 2.3 kilometers circumference doesn't have a lot to offer in terms of bird life.)


Nation: Malaysia
State: Sabah
Island: Borneo
River: Kinabatangan
Town: Sukau

I was invited to visit Sukau, my final stop in Malaysia, through a connection I made on the Malaysian Nature Society Facebook page. Ravinder Kaur, a PhD student at Universiti Malaya, is already an award-winning hornbill conservationist. Her coworker, Helson Hasaan, graciously hosted me for a week of hornbill research on the Kinabatangan River with his nonprofit, Hutan, which means "forest" in Malay. In one of those strange coincidences, Hutan turned out to be a conservation partner of the Woodland Park Zoo, located a mile from my childhood house. While our foci were the hornbills, I sighted many smaller birds as well.

Helson, a dedicated hornbill conservationist who let me tag along on all his science for a week.

Plain-throated sunbird. Imagine a glossy blue back.

Pacific swallow. Standing on a snag in the river.

White-bellied sea eagle. Pretending, quite convincingly, to be a bald eagle.

Who dat?

Crested serpent eagle. Don't you wish your eye matched your face like this?

Gray-headed fish-eagle. Unlike the other raptors perched high in the canopies of emergent trees, this shy bird took off when our boat approached.

Wallace's hawk eagle. Yes, named after that Wallace (but not discovered by him.)

Either a lesser fish-eagle or a gray-headed fish-eagle, of the genus Haliaeetus. But which? No clue.

Purple heron. A stripey, colorful version of Seattle's familiar great blue herons.

Great egret. The same kind you can find, well, pretty much everywhere.

Dollarbird. These massive-mouthed insect-vacuums emerged at dusk over the river.

A flock of lesser adjutants roosting in a riverside snag. These storks stand over three-and-a-half feet tall!

Rufous-tailed tailorbird. My homestay cultivated a small family-farm of oil palms in the backyard. While industrial palm oil is the bane of Bornean biodiversity, I was excited for the chance to see what birds visited an oil palm plantation. I took this photo out my bedroom window.

I don't know what this is, but he liked the oil palms too.

Black-naped monarch. The light blue chest was more impressive in person.

Green imperial-pigeon. You can't see much color in this photo, but I can certainly relate to wearing green plumage every day.

Greater coucal. I watched this bird shuffle from branch to branch, looking rumpled as ever.

Nest of a black-and-red broadbill. Snags and sticks poking out of the river, like this one, were often draped with these woven creations. Safety in exposure!

The crowning sightings of my time in Borneo were the hornbills, but I'll save those for a post unto themselves. Until then, I leave you with this, the Kinabatangan River at sunset.