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Birds of Malaysia: Covering Peninsular Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo and Singapore by Chong Leong Puan, Geoffrey Davison, Kim Chye Lim. 2020.  Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides Collection. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. ISBN 978-84-16728-30-5 (flexicover). 416pp

Review by Frank Lambert

This field guide is a very welcome addition to the bird guides of the Southeast Asian region.  It is one in a series of Lynx and BirdLife International Field Guides that has already covered the nearby countries of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Like these guides, Birds of Malaysia is up-to-date and user-friendly, and available as a soft, flexible cover or in hard back. Apart from the three authors, the text was prepared by Alex Berryman, Chris Bradshaw and Tim Marlow, whilst the artwork is the product of 29 artists.

 
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Whilst not appreciated by all, Malaysia comprises the Peninsula, sandwiched between Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south, plus the States of Sabah and Sarawak. These two States form East Malaysia and are part of the huge island of Borneo. This guide naturally also covers the birds of Singapore, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula but for some reason, the authors did not include Brunei. This seems like an inexplicable oversight because Brunei is not only a very small country with no endemic species, but it is entirely surrounded by northern Sarawak except along its coastline. Any birders visiting Brunei can therefore use this guide there, although the maps exclude this small country.

The guide covers 847 species of which five are endemic to Peninsular Malaysia (Malaysian Crested Argus, Mountain Peacock Pheasant, Malay Partridge, Malay Whistling-thrush and Malay Bullfinch), and another 15 are near-endemic; whilst more than 60 species are either Bornean endemics (of which several are only currently known from Malaysian Borneo) or near-endemics. Unlike the endemic birds of Peninsular Malaysia, some Bornean endemics also occur in Kalimantan (this being the name for Indonesian Borneo).

 
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The endemic Mountain Peacock Pheasant (©John Howes)


Almost all Bornean endemics can be found in East Malaysia, and Sabah is the main or only Bornean destination that the vast majority of birders ever visit, so for many birders, this book is essentially sufficient to cover the species and subspecies they are likely to encounter on their trips to Malaysia or Borneo. Indeed, the only Bornean endemics that are known to be confined exclusively to the Indonesian part of Borneo (Kalimantan) are two species recently discovered in the isolated Meratus mountains of South Kalimantan, Black-browed Babbler Malacocincla perspicillata, known to science from only one specimen, and some potential species that are known only from the Maratua Islands.

It should also be emphasized that three monotypic families are most easily found in Malaysia, making the country an essential destination for ‘family collectors’, these being Bornean Bristlehead (Pityriasidae), Crested Jay (Platylophidae) and Rail-babbler (Eupetidae). Aside from endemics, Malaysian forests boast an impressive collection of pheasants and partridges, hornbills, owls and frogmouths, trogons, barbets, woodpeckers, broadbills, pittas, babblers and flycatchers, as well as good numbers of wetland species, including Storm’s Stork (easily encountered in Sabah). Some migratory species that winter in Malaysia, such as Siberian Blue Robin and Tiger Shrike are generally easier to see here than on their breeding grounds.

 
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In recent times, birders visiting Peninsular Malaysia or Singapore have primarily relied on Craig Robson's Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia (updated in 2008) or Alan Jeyarajasingam’s 2012 Field Guide to the Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, whilst visitors birding both Peninsular and East Malaysia required two guides, relying on several possible Borneo field guides that cover Sabah and Sarawak but not anywhere in mainland Asia. Robson’s excellent book, whilst comprehensive, is not very user-friendly, lacks maps and mixes species from all of the region on the plates. This can prove frustrating for anyone who has little or no previous experience of the region. Jeyarajasingam’s guide does not reflect recent taxonomic views and the illustrations are relatively poor, although it does cover 673 species that he recognised, pointing to the richness of the avifauna in this outpost of Southeast Asia. Recent bird field guides that cover Borneo, such as those by Susan Myers (2016) and Quentin and Philipps (2014) are generally very good, but obviously not comprehensive if you are visiting Peninsular Malaysia as well.

Hence this new field guide will be much appreciated by birders visiting both parts of Malaysia because they no longer need to carry two different guides. The guide includes 851 species and is in the format of the increasingly familiar Lynx and BirdLife International design. In particular, the inclusion of clear distribution maps alongside the illustrations, and the text opposite the relevant plates, makes this very practical in the field.

 
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The book starts with a comprehensive summary of the historical to present day sources of information on birds in Malaysia and Singapore. Surprisingly, this introduction neglects to mention anything about the efforts made by various researchers who have focused their efforts on Malaysian birds (including at least one of the authors), nor the contributions made by the many sound recordists who have made their sound recordings publicly available on Xeno-canto and hence enhanced our knowledge of distribution and voice. Records on eBird, which is mentioned, are in contrast often unverified and almost impossible to challenge (indeed, anyone examining eBird in detail will quickly realise that it contains a significant number of errors). A short discussion of the taxonomic approach (this book follows that of Lynx-BirdLife International), Geographic Scope, Climate, Habitats and Bird Conservation in Malaysia follows.

The section on Bird Conservation is relatively long, and includes a list of threatened species. Personally, I find such lists fairly unhelpful, especially since they regularly change, and would rather that field guides used the space in some other way. I find it a little bizarre that the introduced Java Sparrow, Pale-bellied and Javan Myna are all listed here as Vulnerable. In their native range of course they are threatened, but it would have been better to have left introduced species off the list: Javan Myna, for example, is known to be outcompeting and replacing some native myna species. The fact that these taxa are listed as threatened in a book on Malaysian birds could be wrongly interpreted or used in some erroneous way.

 
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The last part of the introductory section briefly describes fifty Birding Hotspots and key birds that occur in them. There is a hotspot location map in this section that is reproduced inside the back cover that is presumably meant to help with planning a trip. More comprehensive coverage of many of the hotspots in Sabah and Sarawak are to be found in Quentin and Phillipps (2014).

Following this Introduction, before the Species Accounts, there is a section on Using the Field Guide which is essential reading for those unfamiliar with this field guide series. Reading this section is important because this field guide includes separate accounts and illustrations for taxa that have been assigned to Subspecies Groups. The treatment of taxa in Subspecies Groups will help keen birders and listers differentiate between groupings of various closely-related taxa, some of which might be split in the future. As a result, this field guide has, for example, full accounts for three subspecies groups of Brown Shrike that occur in Malaysia (all of which are illustrated); two distinctive subspecies of Hill Blue-flycatcher that seem likely to be split (“Hill Blue” and “Dayak Blue”); two subspecies groups of Eyebrowed Wren-babbler (“Sunda” and “Malay”) of Black-capped Babbler (“Malay” and “Bornean”), and of Western Hooded Pitta (“Western Hooded” and “Chestnut-crowned”).

 
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Western Hooded Pitta (©Con Foley)

In some cases, such groupings can be seen as a stepping-stone towards recognising certain taxa as good species, and I am sure this will eventually be what happens in a significant number of cases, but for the last pair mentioned here (Western Hooded Pitta) detailed research recommends that these remain as subspecies, albeit relatively distinctive ones. Whilst splitting has become very familiar in recent times, some taxonomic revisions have resulted in lumping. White-crowned Shama, often considered as a full species and Bornean endemic, is here treated as a member of a subspecies group of White-rumped Shama.

Another feature of this Lynx Field Guide series is the inclusion of QR codes for every species account. Scanning the codes takes the reader to webpages of images, videos and sounds of the species involved. Also enclosed with the book is a unique code giving access to a free download of a full Checklist of the Birds of Malaysia from the publisher's website. This is a very useful checklist, with columns to fill in with the birds you have seen at different sites.

 
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As mentioned above, the Species Accounts have the text opposite the paintings, with the range maps alongside the relevant images. I personally like this format, but designing a field guide of this nature is always going to present a few unsolvable problems, such as fitting all of the text for a species opposite the illustration and map without compromising on providing the reader with all the necessary identification information. Hence in a few instances, we find that the text for some species runs over to the next page. This might annoy some users but is obviously difficult to avoid in a guide of this nature.

One thing that seems totally unnecessary however, is sticking to a taxonomic order that results in species that are easily confused occurring on different plates. Surely Silvery Pigeon deserves to be shown alongside the species with which it is most easily confused, namely Pied Imperial Pigeon, rather than four plates apart. Malay Honeyguide is rather bulbul like, and hence would be better shown with the bulbuls instead of the very different barbets. Another very good example is of the tiny Golden-bellied Gerygone, which is not only depicted alongside various orioles but also shown as being almost the same size. If it was so large, it would certainly be easier to see, but in fact it is similar in size, habitat and behaviour to a leaf warbler and it is hard to understand the logic of not illustrating it alongside them, even though not closely related. Similarly, Spectacled Bulbul is illustrated alongside several distinctive, brightly coloured bulbul species instead of with the dull species that it most resembles, such as Red-eyed Bulbul.

 
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Rigorously sticking to taxonomic order has also resulted in closely related species appearing on different plates, something that could probably have been largely fixed with some careful planning. For example, Indian and Chinese Pond-herons are on one plate, but Javan Pond-heron is on the subsequent plate, along with the only illustration of a non-breeding pond-heron. Similarly, the superficially similar Yellow and Schrenck's Bitterns could have been shown together rather than on separate plates. Instead of showing all six species of Muscicapa flycatchers on a single plate, four are shown with taxa of Shama, whilst the other two are with strikingly-different niltavas. Blyth's Pipit is on the Wagtail plate, whilst Forest Wagtail is on the Pipit plate. This might make sense in a book on taxonomy, but it really is nonsensical in a field guide! Whether this is a result of editorial inflexibility or having scientists rather than birders as authors is impossible to say, but one hopes that this issue might be resolved in subsequent guides in the series. This book has all the makings of an outstanding field guide, but the apparent inability to diverge from present taxonomic order means that it fails to reach its full potential.

The text on identification is carefully crafted and packs in all the information that one requires to identify the vast majority of species that one might encounter. Indeed, the inclusion of introduced species such as Hadada Ibis and Painted Stork, along with six mynas, five parrots (all established in Singapore), Eastern White-crested Laughingthrush and Java Sparrow, as well as a selection of hypothetical and potential species makes this a very comprehensive piece of work. Hypothetical species include both Baltic and Mongolian Herring Gulls, both of which are illustrated, whilst Tricolored Grebe, White-faced Heron, Northern Long-legged Buzzard, Black Kite and Japanese Robin get full species accounts. Surprisingly, the guide also includes species that are already extinct in Malaysia, for example Green Peafowl, White-winged Duck, Sarus Crane and White-shouldered Ibis and three species of vulture that are all extinct in peninsula Malaysia. Unless reintroduced, most of these are not going to suddenly turn up, although the possibility of vagrant vultures is not impossible. For completeness, the guide even has a full species account for Blue-wattled Bulbul, even though this is more likely a hybrid than a separate species.

 
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As well as being very comprehensive in the selection of species it includes, this is also very up-to-date. Hence it not only includes Cream-eyed Bulbul, described by Shakya et al. in 2019, and one vagrant species first documented in Malaysia in 2020 (Grey-sided Thrush), but the guide also recognises the recently split Malaysian Crested Argus, surely one of the most difficult of all pheasants to find and observe, and Malay Bullfinch (split from Brown Bullfinch), both of which are endemic to the mountains of Peninsular Malaysia.

 
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Despite the meticulous work, like every field guide, some factual mistakes have crept in. For example, Oriental Cuckoo is shown as a scarce to uncommon winter visitor, but evidence to date suggests that this applies only to the almost indistinguishable Himalayan Cuckoo since there are no confirmed records of Oriental Cuckoo from Peninsular Malaysia (D. Bakewell pers. comm.). Evidence of it's occurrence in Malaysian Borneo also needs verification so it should perhaps have been included as a hypothetical species.

As with any guide using illustrations from a diversity of artists, the quality of paintings of some groups are evidently different to those of others. This is not something that I’m particularly concerned about in this book, because the general standard is high, but looking at a group I know well, the illustrations of pittas are a little disappointing, with, for example, the Fairy Pitta having a very odd short bill and being too dark below. What is less forgivable perhaps, is the fact that no immature pittas are illustrated, even though they are very different from adults. This lack of illustrations of immature birds also applies to some other bird groups in the book. One example is the Malacopteron babblers, for which immature birds can pose an identification conundrum for the inexperienced observer. It would be useful to include more illustrations of immature birds in subsequent guides in this series.

 
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Taxonomic changes have led to the adoption of various new English names that may not be familiar to many birders, such as Double Zitting Cisticola (Zitting Cisticola) and Purple-naped Spiderhunter (previously a sunbird). Crested Jay, briefly in the same family as shrikes, is now in its own family Platylophidae, with it's old, more familiar English name instead of Jay Shrike. Other taxa have also been given new English names that may well upset some users, including for example White-browed Reed-warbler. Since everyone in the region has been calling this species Manchurian Reed-warbler ever since I first visited in the 1980s, it is somewhat confusing to arbitrarily give such a species a new English name.

Differences in taxonomy and English names between Lynx’s Birds of the Indonesian Archipelago, which covers Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), and the present book might well also cause some confusion. For example, Eaton et al. have Roving Cuckooshrike Coracina sumatrensis as the species in Borneo, whilst this is Bar-bellied Cuckooshrike C. strata, in the present book. Umber Flycatcher Muscicapa umbrosa is treated as a full species by Eaton et al., but is a subspecies of Asian Brown Flycatcher M. daurica in the Brown-streaked Flycatcher M. (d.) williamsoni subspecies group in Birds of Malaysia. Such differences are partly the result of a rapidly changing taxonomy, but also reflect differences in opinion between various contemporary taxonomists.

 
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The endemic Bornean Bristlehead in Sabah, Malaysia (©Nigel Voaden)

 

Writing this review in the midst of a pandemic seems a little surreal, but it is worth pointing out that, to date, Malaysia and Singapore have done a remarkable job in curtailing the spread of Covid-19 within their countries, and are likely to be welcoming tourists back well before many other popular birding destinations become safe to visit again. Hence, if you are making plans for some post-pandemic birding, Malaysia is certainly a destination to consider, and for anyone visiting this alluring country, this is certainly now the best birding guide to take with you, combining practicality with an up-to-date text and a user-friendly interface. It should be added that not only does Malaysia have a very high standard of tourist infrastructure, but it boasts some of the best and most-easily accessible protected areas in the Sundaic region, including Taman Negara National Park, Fraser’s Hill, Danum Valley, the Kinabatangan River and Mount Kinabalu National Park, as well as some of the best forest birding on the planet, placing both Peninsular Malaysia and the Bornean state of Sabah among the most desirable destinations to visit within the Oriental Region.

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