Last Updated on 3 March 2024

After having heard much about Langkawi and its diverse wildlife ranging from waterbirds in the marshlands and mangroves to forest-dwelling species, we decided to make a holiday out of a visit to the island situated 30 km off the mainland coast of northwestern Malaysia.

Approximately 900 km away from Singapore, the journey to Langkawi involves a 12-hour drive and a ferry ride. Instead, we opted for the more convenient option of a 1.5-hour direct flight to Langkawi International Airport. As a small island, Langkawi is easily navigable by self-drive, with the entire drive from one end to the other taking no more than an hour. Equipped with a rental car from the airport, we embarked on our island exploration, aiming to discover as many wildlife species as possible in every corner.

Among the top destinations for birdwatching is Gunung Raya, the island’s highest peak. At an elevation of about 881 metres above sea level, we were somewhat torn whether to call it a mountain or a hill. Nonetheless, driving up to the peak was a breeze along the well-paved and winding main road.

The driving route along Jalan Gunung Raya is approximately 13 km and can be covered in about 20 minutes without stops. At a birding pace, our journey took a total of 3 hours, allowing us to relish the early morning bird chorus and observe some of the mountain birds indulging in their breakfast.

Shortly after commencing our ascent up the mountain road, we paused at a lay-by where we saw an eagle-shaped bird perched on a high branch. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realised it was the Mountain Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus nipalensis), a species renowned for being challenging to locate and one of our primary targets.

Ranging from the Himalayas to India and Southeast Asia, the Mountain Hawk-Eagle can be easily found in Thailand and other northern Southeast Asian countries. However, Langkawi is the southernmost region and the only location in Malaysia where this bird-of-prey can be observed.

Our excitement was palpable as the eagle turned out to be the first bird we encountered on our drive up Gunung Raya! As I tried to contain my enthusiasm while trying to find a better vantage point, the eagle silently took off and we never saw it again.

Reeling from the disappointment of the too-brief encounter with the Mountain Hawk-Eagle, we were quickly distracted by a group of hornbills hanging out in pairs on a neighbouring tree. It turned out to be a family of Great Hornbills (Buceros bicornis), looking great indeed with its massive bill decorated with a prominent yellow and black casque.

Halfway up the mountain, we encountered another type of hornbill, the Wreathed Hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus). We were fascinated by the peculiar ridges (also known as wreaths) accessorising its bill and casque and the yellow goiter-like throat sac in the male…

…and the blue throat sac in the female, draping like an elaborate scarf. Both the male and female Wreathed Hornbills were resting on the same tree, hanging out like a loving old couple.

On the way down the mountain, we accosted a solitary Crested Serpent-Eagle perched in a tree, surveying the mountain slope. As we attempted to approach for a closer look, the eagle suddenly launched into the sky, riding the thermal currents of the warm morning air, all the while calling as it soared.

The other birds we saw or heard on the mountain included the White-bellied Sea-Eagle, Oriental Pied-Hornbill, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Dark-necked Tailorbird, Arctic Warbler, Pin-striped Tit-Babbler, Abbott’s Babbler, Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, and Ruby-cheeked Sunbird. We also saw a pair of Dusky Langurs, one of the most common monkeys in Malaysia.

We were happily watching them while they were happily stuffing their faces full of leaves.

If not for the company of the birds and mammals, the breathtaking scenery alone makes the journey to the summit of Gunung Raya worthwhile.

We undertook paddyfield birding one early morning, and immediately got hooked. Over the course of several days, we visited three different paddyfields in search of various species of paddy birds.

Our hikes brought us around the rice fields of Bohor Tempoyak…

…Kampung Kedawang…

…and Kampung Kuala Muda.

Early morning at sunrise around 7.30am is the best time to embark on a birding excursion, when the golden rays of the sun cast a warm glow on the expansive yellow-green fields.

Scanning the grass in the fields would inevitably reveal many of its inhabitants…

…some bold and photogenic like the Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus)…

…others shy and skulky like the Watercock (Gallicrex cinerea).

Less numerous than their Red-wattled cousins is the Grey-headed Lapwing (Vanellus cinereus), which we managed to see only because they were flushed out of their hiding place by some disturbance. The pair of them flew one circuit around the paddy, before settling down in a far corner out of sight.

The Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) – more common here than the Lesser Coucal – is often found in open habitats, including grasslands and paddyfields. It was a treat for us to encounter the Greater Coucal perched in the open, unlike in Singapore where they are less numerous and often elusive and in hiding.

Huge gatherings of Baya Weavers (Ploceus philippinus) are a common sight, weaving in and out of the rice paddies together with their munia friends. The weavers and munias feed on grains and grass seeds, which can be found in abundance in the paddyfields.

Also a common sight in the paddyfields and grasslands are the Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus coromandus).

When we saw how every cow had a dedicated attendant stationed by its side, diligently tending to it like a butler, it suddenly dawned on us how the Cattle Egret got its name! Fascinatingly, they like to forage close to grazing cattle and feed on insects stirred up by the movement of the animals.

Our main goal at the paddies was to spot the Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti), and we were fortunate to succeed during our first paddyfield outing at Bohor Tempoyak. Unfortunately, we didn’t encounter them again during our subsequent paddy excursions.

The duo of Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters we observed that morning seemed quite content resting on a protruding branch, while their cousin, the Blue-tailed Bee-eater, was working very hard catching bees.

The marshland behind Bon Ton Resort and the nearby mudflats at Cenang Breakwaters house a good population of waders and marsh birds.

On our first visit to the Cenang Breakwater mudflats, we were thrilled to encounter a sizable gathering of more than 30 Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus). It was just past noon when we visited and the stilts were having their mid-day siesta. Suddenly, a heron glided low over the water, stirring the drowsy stilts. In an instant, the flock of stilts took flight and vanished into the horizon.

Our attention turned to a pair of Little Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius) foraging on the mud, accompanied by a Wood Sandpiper, Striated Heron and a Little Egret.

On our second visit to the Cenang mudflats, we were stoked to meet the Plain-backed Sparrow (Passer flaveolus), our lifer and one of our key target species. The Plain-backed Sparrow can be found mainly in the northern regions of Peninsula Malaysia, and are not as numerous as their common cousin, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow. We had heard that they could be spotted in the paddyfields, but our previous paddyfield trips proved unsuccessful in locating them. So we were elated to finally encounter them on our last day in Langkawi.

Over at the marshland behind Bon Ton Resort, we were equally delighted to meet the Grey-headed Swamphens – a total of 10 of them. This was another paddy bird that had eluded us in the paddyfields. Typically known for being skulky and secretive, the family of Grey-headed Swamphens was uncharacteristically strutting around the mud that day, frolicking and foraging out in the open.

Also roaming freely around the marsh was the Common Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus), who was foraging with his best buddy, the White-breasted Waterhen.

We made a brief visit to the Kisap Rubber Plantation one late afternoon, hoping to spot the rare and elusive Black-hooded Oriole. The last sighting of the oriole recorded on ebird was in 2016, so our expectations weren’t too high.

A network of paved roads traverse the rubber plantations at Kisap, and within the limited time that we had, we managed to stroll along a brief section. The narrow roads were lined with tall rubber trees and the rubber plantations were dotted with cows, who were accompanied by their Cattle Egret butlers. We figured the cows were allowed to graze there as a natural means of weed control. The cows consume the weeds while the egrets feast on their fleas. What a wonderful symbiotic relationship!

Although we didn’t manage to see the Black-hooded Oriole, we did meet two lifers, the Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)…

…and the Greater Flameback (Chrysocolaptes guttacristatus).

We were also fortunate to encounter two pairs of Dusky Langur mothers nursing their babies. One of our favourite primates, the Dusky Langurs are such chill and unassuming creatures. Their white spectacles and thick pink lips give them a comical appearance. The babies are especially adorable – they are born with an orange coat of fur that gradually darkens as they mature into adulthood.

While we were observing the pair, mommy langur suddenly picked up baby langur and turned it upside down to inspect its butt. Satisfied with what she saw – or didn’t see – mommy langur put baby langur back upright and continued nursing.

Daddy soon joined them and posed for a happy family photo.

Our Number One target bird that we were really hoping to see was the much talked about Brown-winged Kingfisher (Pelargopsis amauroptera). The last sighting recorded on ebird was along Sungai Menghulu. So we decided to take a stroll there one late afternoon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the celebrity kingfisher. But alas, it was not to be.

We had heard that the mangroves at Kubang Badak BioGeo Trail was the best location to find the Brown-winged Kingfisher, so we headed there one morning with much hope and anticipation.

We walked up and down the road lined with mangrove trees and staked out the jetty of Kubang Badak, scouring the mangroves for anything brown or orange. As the mangrove trees were naturally dotted with orange/brown leaves, everything looked to us like the Brown-winged Kingfisher. Whenever we scanned each orange/brown leaf with our binoculars/camera, we were disappointed every time. We did hear at least one – if not three – Brown-winged Kingfishers calling from afar, but not one was willing to show itself.

We departed with some consolation gifts, the Common Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis)…

and a pair of very obliging Collared Kingfishers (Todiramphus chloris).

On our last day in Langkawi, we decided to make a second visit to Kubang Badak for a last-ditch attempt to find the elusive kingfisher. It was a pleasant and cloudy afternoon. We sat down at the jetty armed with a book in hand, waiting to hear the call of the kingfisher.

Suddenly, the loud and distinctive “ki-ki-ki-ki-ki” call of the Brown-winged Kingfisher emanated from the mangrove forest. We immediately sprung into action and headed straight for the source of the sound, which came from the mangrove trees beside the main road leading to the jetty. Lo and behold, there he was, perched low on a mangrove root, looking very satisfied after having just gobbled his prey. The natural habitat of this kingfisher is subtropical and tropical mangrove forests, and crabs and fish are his favourite food.

After meticulously cleaning his bill, he flew in closer to where we were standing and stared intently into the mangrove waters, looking for his next meal. The Brown-winged Kingfisher can be found along the north and eastern coasts of the Bay of Bengal, in countries such as Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. In Malaysia, this kingfisher can be found only on the island of Langkawi, and is classified as Near Threatened.

Sporting a chunky scarlet dagger-shaped bill and bright orange body cloaked with chocolate brown wings, the Brown-winged Kingfisher is quite a sight to behold. In an obliging mood that day, he turned around and allowed us to take a peek at his bright blue underpants, leaving his adoring fans dizzy with excitement.

Besides hiking and birdwatching, we did other touristy things, such as taking a mangrove boat tour at Kilim Geoforest Park. After sieving through the tons of mangrove boat tour offerings on the internet, we finally chose to go with Junglewalla for their sustainability efforts and low impact tourism. While the majority of other tour companies engage in activities like eagle feeding and monkey feeding during boat tours, Junglewalla claims to not condone such practices.

We embarked on our boat ride from Tanjung Rhu jetty, and the boat brought us on a 2-hour journey to visit the mangrove wildlife around the Langkawi UNESCO Global Geopark and admire the limestone cliffs and fiords around the Andaman Sea.

Just as our boat was setting off from the pier, we were excited to spot a pair of Pacific Reef Herons (Egretta sacra) hunting by the beach.

The boat made stops around the mangrove forests and our guide introduced us to some of the fascinating wildlife that inhabit the land, such as the many species of mangrove crabs…

…some armed with curious-looking weapons standing ready for a battle…

…and the mysterious mudskippers, also known as “walking fish”, as these amphibious fish are able to survive prolonged periods of time both in and out of the water.

Although our environmentally-friendly boat does not engage in unsustainable practices like eagle feeding, we still saw many eagles – mainly the Brahminy Kites (Haliastur indus)…

…and the White-bellied Sea-Eagles (Icthyophaga leucogaster) – because the boats in front of us were throwing chicken parts out into the water and the eagles came in droves to pick the chicken from the water surface. Our guide explained to us that the feeding actually made the eagles fat, unhealthy and lazy – like if we were to eat fried chicken everyday – and the eagles would gradually lose the necessary skill to hunt for their own food.

The other touristy thing that we did was to take the cable car ride up Gunung Machinchang. Known as one of Langkawi’s top tourist attractions, the cable car experience is notorious for its large crowds and lengthy lines. To avoid the masses, we planned our visit on an early weekday morning and arrived at the SkyCab station just after opening time at 9:30 am, fortunately encountering minimal queueing.

Upon reaching the summit, hordes of visitors were already swarming all over the observation platforms. In the midst of the crowd, we admired the breathtaking vistas and spent some time gazing into the lush forest surrounding the platform. Out of the corner of an eye, I saw a flash of movement in a nearby bush, which turned out to be a Long-tailed Macaque.

While tracking the movement of the monkey, our attention was suddenly drawn to a tiny blue bird hopping on a jutting rock. It turned out to be a Blue Rock-Thrush (Monticola solitarius), actively moving in and out of his “cellar”, retrieving various tasty grub from his hidey hole to munch on.

Unfortunately, I had left my Olympus spy gear at the foot of the mountain, not anticipating any bird action in such a touristy locale. I only had my tiny pocket-sized Canon Powershot with me, which at least allowed me to take some record shots of the birds we spied on.

In the cafe atop the summit, seeking refuge from the scorching sun, our attention was drawn to a peculiar bird. A quick online search revealed it to be an Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius). It was calmly perched on a tree adjacent to the platform, totally unconcerned with the crowds milling about. We later found out that it was an escapee from the petting zoo at the foot of the mountain! It was a delightful treat to observe it while savouring our ice cream cone at the cafe.

Check out our ebird trip report for the complete list of locations visited in Langkawi and birds encountered: