Tuesday 19 May 2020

The New Jet Fighters of Langkawi - Asian Openbills

Langkawi welcomes a new species member in her list of feathered friends back in 9th November 2019 which is the Asian Openbills Anastomus oscitans. My first sighting of a huge flock flying above us was back in late October 2015 when I was with my birding friends at Khao Dinsor Chumphon, Thailand for raptor watch.
Asian Openbills Langkawi
Asian Openbills when they fly in big flock and thermalling. Dont't they look like jet fighters to you?

I was awed but didn't get to see the whole bird until I was in Perlis in April 2019 with Jane Miller. These gigantic stork is considered a migrant for Peninsular Malaysia but they have stayed longer.
Asian Openbill in Perlis

When I first saw the E-Bird submission of this species for Langkawi, I couldn't believe it. Upon my request, Esteban Martinez followed up with a record shot of seven individuals perched on a tree and therefore, it is confirmed. Congratulations to Esteban, a foreign visitor, for sighting this new record for Langkawi. What a lucky find for being at the right place at the right time! That tempted me to look for these birds too! As I had a second session of  birdwatching tour with Ruth and Simon Smith on the next day, 10th November 2019, it didn't take much effort for me to convince them to search for these birds too! And so we followed the location marked by Esteban, which was close to Langkawi International airport. On a very hot afternoon, we found ourselves walking on a path in between the airport and a scrubby field. After 30 minutes we turned around. No Asian Openbill but we managed to see two Black Drongos which are migrants too. And of course, birds fly! I wanted another chance. Again, it didn't take much effort for me to convince Ruth and Simon to give ourselves another try. We drove around and ended up on this village road close to the airport. Simon was driving and I was scanning. And then some huge birds perched on on a tree caught my eyes. SSSssssssssTTTTtttttOOOOOoooPPPPPPPP! We rushed out of the car with our equipment and click, click, click. There were eight of them!
Langkawi Birdwatching
Photo courtesy from Ruth Smith

I can't describe my feelings on how we were constantly out there looking for any new species and it takes one tourist to find a rare or new species. To console me, Simon Smith told me it is Sod's Law. There I learned a new term.
Can you spot the smile on my face? :) Photo credit by Ruth Smith

Posted on my Instagram on 1oth December 2019

In Malay, this bird is known as Upih Paruh Sepit from the awkward looking closed bill with a small slit pincer shape which is adapted to cut open  the operculum of snails. The distribution of Asian Openbills covers Indian subcontinent, Central Thailand, Cambodia and Cochinchina (Vietnam), however, it is vagrant to Malay Peninsula at that time it was recorded.

The first official sighting was an adult in a harvested sugar plantation in Chuping, Perlis on 1st and 2nd March 2008. Thanks to Dave Bakewell and Terence Ang for the first record info. I was informed that they can still be seen in Perlis even when it is off the migratory season. Have they decided to stay on due to the right condition that has been provided for them in our Peninsular Malaysia? Singapore has also recorded thousands of Asian Openbills in December 2019. According to Dr Yong Ding Li, an ornithologist at BirdLife International, the drought and the dry weather in countries like Thailand could have reduced the number of snails. You can read the news link here.

These huge storks are indeed a sight to behold especially when hundreds of them thermal in the sky and looking for suitable perches. They are particularly more active flying around in the hot afternoon and late afternoon due to the rising thermals.

This is how they look like close up in flight.

Can you see the opening when the bill is closed?

When I was with Dr Ken Ng and family on their birdwatching tour, we saw a bigger flock in the second week of January 2020.
Are you able to count them?

As at my blog post now, they are still here in Langkawi. I bet they are very happy to conquer the skies with much lesser air traffic, planes flying in and out of Langkawi due to Covid-19 pandemic.
Birds migratory check with Mandy and we saw Asian Openbills on 18th May 2020 with Gunung MatChincang as a backdrop

On 18th May 2020, we headed out to check on any remaining migratory birds. The Oriental Pratincoles, Blue-Tailed Beeeaters were around and surprisingly, Whiskered Terns in breeding plumage. We counted at least 70 individuals of Asian Openbills and will they continue to stay on this island for good?

Here's a video compiled during our separate days of observations:
(If you are unable to view the video on the phone, you can click on this link)

1. Jeyarajasingam, A. (2012). A Field Guide to The Birds of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. New York, NY: Oxford University Press