It has been nearly three months since I last had the fresh countryside air passed through my lungs. As I made my approach with two like-minded birding companions to a forest reserve in Kedah State, I inhaled deeply to savour the moment. With the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown finally coming to an end, we were able to travel interstate again and the forest sites here in Kedah are far more rewarding than the ones in my home state of Penang. We timed our arrival to coincide with the breaking of dawn. As the mist lifted, the dawn chorus started to fill the vicinity.
Initially, the call was faint and not its signature territorial call. But it was definitely a Helmeted Hornbill – the most amazing hornbill species here in Malaysia and perhaps, even the world. Sadly, it is also one of the rarest. The Helmeted Hornbill has a territorial call like no other but the call does not echo throughout tropical rainforests as often as it used to. We desperately scanned the distant forest canopy for a glimmer of hope. And then, the mist that lingered just above the trees parted to reveal a Helmeted Hornbill in all its glory. It turned out to a female told by the pale throat and she powered across the skyline with her beautiful long tail in toll. It has been years since my last sighting of a Helmeted Hornbill and only heaven knows when I will be given the privilege again. This majestic bird has been hunted to near extinction because it is the only hornbill with a solid casque and this avian “ivory” has a value no poacher can resist. I think I speak for all birders that the sight of a Helmeted Hornbill living free in the wild is beyond any material value.
A pair of Common Hill-Mynas was getting ready to start off the day as well. This is another bird that is in demand in the bird trade. Its charming character and the ability to mimic sounds including human speech is the cause of its downfall. However, it is not endangered like the Helmeted Hornbill and remains relatively common in suitable habitats.
Patches of long grass next to the access road that runs across the forest reserve is refuge to the Rufescent Prinias and their vocal nature makes these warblers conspicuous. One was belting out its territorial call from a lofty perch to enhance its audible reach and it certainly reached our ears.
I did not manage to take as many photos as I had anticipated. Do not get me wrong. The forest was teeming with birds. It is just the lack of good photographic opportunities. Chestnut-necklaced Partridge, Crested Shrikejay and Hooded Pitta are always good records for any birding excursion. And to walk through the forest here again after such a long time was uplifting to say the least.
A pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills was showing their offspring the ways of the world when I crossed path with the family. The young one, as usual, was much more confiding (or should it be naive) and provided time for me to obtain a record shot. Today has been exceptional for hornbills. Great Hornbills, White-crowned Hornbills, a flock of 10 Plain-pouched Hornbills and the fantastic encounter with the Helmeted Hornbill at first light made it 5 species from a single locality.
The Mountain Imperial Pigeon can wander far and wide in search of food. Mostly found in higher elevations, it is not rare to see this stunning pigeon at this low elevation as well.
One of the commonest woodpeckers here is the Banded Woodpecker. Typical of woodpeckers, it is a striking bird despite its status. However, the distance and lighting offered no assistance to help prove my point.
At the edge of the lake, a Black-winged Kite was perched elegantly against a stunning blue backdrop and it was a mesmerizing sight. I cannot recall having seen this raptor here before but it is a welcomed addition to my ever-growing checklist of the birds of Kedah State.
Wild boars do not normally stand their ground and stare back at you. This one did and I know better than to try to find out the reason behind this bold behaviour for it can be a dangerous one if it wanted to. It is also the only big mammal that can still be regularly encountered in Peninsular Malaysia.
Next on today’s agenda is a twitch for a Malaysian first record. You would normally think I would have done the twitching mission in the morning to increase my success rate. Well to be begin with, the twitch took me to, of all places, the semi-open air ticketing building at Kuala Perlis for the ferry shuttle to Langkawi. Time was also no longer an issue as you are more or less guaranteed of not dipping out. A group of birders from Penang while waiting to board their ferry came across some strange-looking sparrows before the lockdown and they turned out be House Sparrows – a species that has been expected to turn up in Malaysia eventually. Anyway, the Records Committee accepted these House Sparrows as genuine colonizers and that made them ‘tickable’ for my Malaysian life list.
As soon as our group entered the building with birding gears and all, we drew the usual stares from the locals. The House Sparrows are known to roost along the structural beams of the building but all we could find were Java Sparrows. These gorgeous sparrows were also recorded by the birders on the day they discovered the ‘rarity’. So, their presence came as no surprise. But their numbers certainly were. Their origin may be in question but the Java Sparrows are settling in very well here.
I thought our twitch for Malaysia’s first House Sparrows would be a short and easy one. However, we could not find a single one within the building. Although the Eurasian Tree Sparrow is a different species altogether, the age-old saying of birds of a feather flock together might still be applied here. I then decided to scrutinize the flocks of Eurasian Tree Sparrows foraging next to the building and it worked like a charm. Almost immediate, I spotted my Malaysian lifer on a grassy patch together with a few Eurasian Tree Sparrows.
The House Sparrow is not new to me. I have recorded it during my visit to Cambodia. Now that I have obtained a record shot, I should be on my way to the next location but I could not. I wanted to spend more time observing this male House Sparrow. Chances are I will not make another trip all the way here for it again. It was relatively easy to follow his movement and I managed to obtain better images while doing so.
I have been to this ferry terminal twice before. I knew there were Eurasian Tree Sparrows present which is typical of built-up areas like this. The question is did I overlooked the House Sparrows then? Being almost the same size and colouration as the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, it is highly possible. This locality is not exactly a place frequented by birders and the birds could have gone unnoticed for a long time.
Once the first House Sparrow revealed itself, we started recording more of its kin. At least 10 birds were seen at the end of it all and some are back to resting along the beams of the building where they were supposed to be in the first place.
A pair of Common Mynas trying to figure out what the fuss is all about...
Our next and last destination took us to the paddy fields just outside the Alor Setar Airport. Last season, a pair of Black Bitterns decided to breed among the patches of dense vegetation and we were hoping to catch them here again.
Unfortunately we did not manage to locate these sleek water birds. And in their stead, a few Yellow Bitterns provided the highlight of our visit here.
One individual was an absolute cracker as it was sporting a full breeding plumage. I assumed it is a male because he was quite a showboat and frequently launched himself after other Yellow Bitterns as part of nuptial displays or territorial disputes.
All bitterns rely heavily on blending into the surroundings as their main form of defence. And facing their threat straight with their head tilted upwards usually strengthens their effort to remain undetected. Not this time though ‘cos I can still see you, bud...
One Pond-Heron was finding it hard to leave our warm Malaysian hospitality and still lingered around instead of making its way back up north to breed.
Unlike most paddy fields in the state of Kedah, there were relatively few Asian Openbills present. Maybe it is just a coincidence. Anyway, this once rare stork wrapped things up for my first interstate birding in months. My country’s fight to overcome this virus may well be ending soon but the pandemic left a devastating aftermath. Some have lost loved ones. Others, their source of income. That struggle, is far from over. I would love to say that I am not affected by the economic crisis we now face. However, I will taking things one day at a time and be thankful for what I have been given.