Birding and Bird Photography in Penang

On Penang Island 
Air Itam Dam and Bukit Penara Forest Reserve are easy birding areas. The forest reserve has a jeep track up a small hill. The Crimson, Olive-backed and Brown-throated Sunbirds are easily found and photographed in these areas. Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, the Asian Paradise Flycatcher, White-rumped Shama and Black-naped Monarch are common here. Around the dam are White-bellied Sea Eagles and White-throated Kingfishers. Bulbuls found here include the Olive-winged, Yellow-vented and the Black-headed. Fluffy-backed and Tit-babbler are common along the Bukit Penara jeep track and along the circular dam road.

The Penang Botanic Gardens, one of South East Asia’s oldest botanic gardens, and its adjoining Penang Municipal Park (formerly known as “Youth Park”) is an easy birding area. Crimson Sunbird, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Thick-billed Green Pigeon and Asian Fairy Blue Bird are easily photographed here. It is also possible to bird at the lower part of the jeep track up Penang Hill with some hiking involved.

The more adventurous can choose to hike down the jeep track to the Penang Botanic Gardens. A one-day hike from Penang Hill through Bukit Laksamana (Federal Hills) Forest Reserve to Teluk Bahang Forest Reserve is also possible with prior planning, as the hike can be rather long.

Penang Hill is a perfect for a full day's birding activity due to its cooler temperature. A variety of birds can be seen here, for example the Rufous and White-bellied Woodpecker, Velvet-fronted Nut-hatch, Chestnut-breasted Malkoha and various Bulbul species, including the Red-eyed, Black-crested, Black-headed and Grey-bellied. Birding along the summit road, Jalan Tuanku Yahya Petra, is the other alterative. Also down along the less explored tracks and trails including the upper and lower tunnel road and viaduct road. The migratory Orange-headed Thrush can be found along these trails and be sure to keep a lookout above as migratory raptors are known to pass this hill. Ginger and Banana flowers will attract the Little Spider-hunter.

The Teluk Bahang Forest Reserve houses the State Forestry Museum and has a small collection of birds and animals. It is a pristine area with an accessible forest located near the tourist areas of Teluk Bahang and Batu Feringhi. Birds found here include the Greater Rackettailed Drongo, Green Broadbill and the Moustached and Short-tailed Babbler. There are small ponds and a small stream near the forest's entrance where the stork-billed Kingfisher and little Heron can be found. There are numerous well-marked trails inside the forest reserve.

The Penang National Park is Penang's largest forest reserve but the smallest Malaysian national park. It has the highest concentration of White-bellied Sea eagle in the world. The Scarlet-backed and Orange-bellied Flowerpeckers, the Olive-winged Bulbul, the Collared and Stork-billed Kingfishers are very common along the coastal stretch of this park. Less commonly found are the Ruddy and Blue-eared Kingfisher, Red-throated Sunbird and the Pacific Reef Egret. Other raptors commonly found here are the Crested Serpent Eagle and the migratory Oriental Honey Buzzard.

Sungei Burung in Balik Pulau, on the west side of Penang island provides opportunity for watching waders and shorebirds. Most of the waders found in West Malaysia are also found here, including the Common Redshank, Common Sandpiper, Whimbrils and various Terns and Gulls. At the mangrove areas, birds like the Copperthroated Sunbird, Dollarbird, Common and Black-capped Kingfishers and Golden-bellied Gerygone can be found. Changeable Hawk-eagle, Brahminy Kite and migrant raptors are also possible. All three species of lowland Bee-eaters nest here.

Alternatively, one can wader watch at Gurney Drive. The extensive mudflats attract various waders and large number of Great Egrets to this spot. Another wader watching site is the stretch between Jalan Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, Jelutong Expressway to Batu Uban.

Other possible birding areas on the island include Bukit Relau Forest Reserve and nearby metropolitan park including Jalan Tun Sardon, Teluk Tempoyak, Bayan Lepas area near the Penang International Airport, and the Bukit Gemuruh Forest Reserve. The forest and orchard areas between Gertak Sanggul and Pulau Betong in the southwest of the Island, including Bukit Genting are also possible spots.
Mainland Penang (Seberang Perai) 
Air Hitam Dalam is an educational forest reserve at Sungei Dua, Seberang Perai Utara of riverine mangrove and peat-swamp habitat. Mangrove Pitta, Mangrove Flycatcher, various Woodpeckers and the Black and Red Broadbill is an extremely popular birding spot for visitors from near and far, including overseas.

Flocks of migratory Grey-headed Lapwings and Black-winged Stilts, Pond Herons, resident and migratory raptors, freshwater waders like Temnick Stint, long-toed Stint, Little Ring Plover and the Ruff frequent the paddy fields on Penang’s mainland, at Kubang Sembang, Permatang Pauh.

Penang State IBA (Important Bird Area) is located at the coastal stretch from Teluk Air Tawar to Penaga and Kuala Muda area. During the winter seasons, thousands of migratory waders and shorebirds including globally threatened or endangered birds like the Chinese Egret and Spoon-billed Sandpiper use this IBA as a stopover or as winter feeding grounds on the extensive mudflats and nearby mangroves. 

Byram Wetlands and nearby coastal mangroves are the stretch of coastal habitat on the southern part of mainland Penang, as well as where the Byram Forest Reserve is located. It is the breeding ground for Lesser Whistling Tree-ducks and Bee Eaters, as well as an area for easy birding from the car. Migratory birds including the spectacular Chesnut-winged Cuckoo, the Pheasent-tailed Jacana, and the Red-necked Phalarope, which is rarely seen in Malaysia, can be seen around here.

Bukit Panchor Forest Reserve in Seberang Perai Selatan is the only major lowland forest reserve in mainland Penang. Most of the state rared forest birds are found here, including two species of Trogons, and some species of Woodpeckers and Broadbills.

Bukit Mertajam Forest Reserve (sometimes known as Tokun) and the adjoining Bukit Seraya Forest Reserve is Seberang Perai Tengah’s forest reserve, although it is more of a hilly habitat. The Bukit Juru Forest Reserve houses some mangrove coastal habitat and it is easily accessible. Migratory raptors can be seen thermalling over the hills during peak autumn, including the Black Baza. The mangrove pitta and the laced woodpecker can be found at the nearby riverine mangroves.

Other birding areas in mainland Penang are the Barren and Scrublands at Penanti to Mengkuang area, where there are nesting colonies of Oriental Pratincole.

Spend your mid to late afternoon at the Penanti breeding ground, where all three species of our resident lowland Bee-eaters, and the breeding Red-wattled Lapwing can be seen here. On the way back to Penang, stop by at the Mengkuang Dam breeding grounds of the Oriental Pratincole.

Owls and Nightbirds Watching 
Owls and nightbirds watching can be done at Sedim (Kulim, Kedah), Air Hitam Dalam and Bukit Panchor Forest Reserve, as well as locations in between these areas. Owls and nightbirds like the Frogmouths and Nightjars, including Javan and Goulds Frogmouth, Oriental Bay Owl, Brown and Spotted Wood Owl, Barred Eagle Owls and also the spectacular Great-eared Nightjar can be seen here.

It is easier to catch the enigmatic Oriental Bay Owl, Buffy Fish-owl, Brown Hawk Owl and the Collared Scops Owl on Penang island rather than on the mainland. The Large-tailed Nightjar is common on the Island and try to be the first to photograph the Savanna that has begun colonizing the island.

Image credit: Malaysian Nature Society