Raptor Watch. We have been organising this public event for 9 years now. Bird-watchers have been observing this phenomena for more than 30 years but the birds have been performing this ritual for millions of years.
Every year in March, a bird festival is held over one weekend at a place called Tanjung Tuan in Melaka and near the seaside resort town of Port Dickson. This event is held in conjunction with the annual migration of raptors or birds of prey from their wintering grounds in Indonesia and Australia back to their breeding grounds in Siberia, China, Korea and Japan. Over a three month period, several hundred thousand raptors will pass through this spot at Tanjung Tuan.
Tanjung Tuan is special to these birds for three important reasons. Firstly, this is the shortest distance between Indonesia and Malaysia (or mainland Asia). These migratory birds first major obstacle in their long journey is to cross the open water of the Straits of Melaka. It obviously is an advantage to them to chose the shortest distance across the Straits and that is to fly through Tanjung Tuan.
Secondly, these birds would benefit from having food and shelter after making the crossing and Tanjung Tuan is the only place on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia which has a coastal forest which can provide them both. It also has a mangrove forest and a small coastal reef.
Finally, these raptors are large birds. The Oriental Honey Buzzard can have a wingspan of up to 6 feet. They are heavy birds and flapping their wings to fly would be tiring and use up too much energy. Instead, these birds are experts at riding hot air currents and soaring and gliding. Tanjung Tuan is the only place in the whole of Peninsular Malaysia that has a cliff face which encourages the formation of hot air thermals which greatly helps the birds on their onward journey.
Tanjung Tuan is one of the most protected areas in Malaysia as it is a protected forest reserve, it is a protected marine conservation area and it is a protected historical heritage site. Yet about 10 years ago, there was reason to believe that all that “protection” was due to be withdrawl in favour of building condominiums and holiday homes. In order to raise public awareness and support for the birds and for the protection of the site.
Over the years, the event has grown from a small event with just a few hundred people in attendance. This year’s event was attended by about 3,000-4000 people. Apart from watching the raptors fly in, we have some 25 exhibition booths, games, guided tours of the forest, mangroves and the corals, hourly talks about nature and even a few cultural and musical performances.
It is also no longer just a local event. We have visitors from U.K., U.S.A., Australia, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Apart from public awareness, there is a serious scientific effort to actually count the number of birds going through Tanjung Tuan. Raptors are top in the food chain and changes in their population can be a good indicator of the health of the ecosystem.
This was how I spent my last weekend.