I was having second thoughts about going to Bukit Palong in Kedah when it started to rain just as I drove pass the state border. It was still another good hour’s drive to reach the locality but I decided to follow through with my initial plan. Luckily, it turned out to be the right decision as the trip turned out to be quite rewarding in the end. Upon my arrival, the rain had stopped. The sun was out. And the birds had started their morning repertoires. I took all of this as a good sign and started trekking up the steep access road with much anticipation of what may be in store for me up ahead. The first bird to greet me was a family of Black-thighed Falconets drying and preening themselves on a dead tree.
A male Crimson-winged Woodpecker was busily foraging along a coconut tree trunk. However, he had his back towards me most of the time and this was the best that I could obtain.
The yelping calls of the Bushy-crested Hornbills, which always reminded me of the sounds puppies make, echoed through the vicinity as I slowly made my way deeper into the forest reserve. I followed their calls to a huge tree at the edge of the forest and managed to locate a female blissfully drying herself in the warm rays of the morning sun.
A male was also drenched to the bone from the earlier rain. As he was perched on a slightly lower part of the tree, he provided a much better photographic opportunity. This species is usually rather wary of human presence but perhaps, the rain had made them a little more sluggish and tolerant. Or maybe they were just enjoying their time in the sun too much to be bothered by one birder.
I had to walk further away from the tree to locate the rest of the flock as they had perched at the very top of the tree crown. I find hornbills to be most fascinating and one of the reasons is because they are one of the largest of our forest birds. Unfortunately, it is now getting quite difficult to see them in the field. Deforestation and poaching has had a devastating impact on them. I can only hope the ongoing conservation works in Malaysia will be able to provide these majestic birds with a better future.
A pair of Wreathed Hornbills flew past without giving me much time to focus my camera on them. But shortly after, the diagnostic sounds of the wing beats of another hornbill did not go unnoticed. And I was ready for it this time – or so I thought. Much to my dismay, it flew along the line where there were hardly any gaps in the forest canopy. To add to my misery, it was a Great Hornbill – a species I have longed to obtain good photographs. By the time I was able to start shooting, the window of opportunity for a good shot had already passed.
All was not lost when it alighted among some very distant trees. Now, you must be thinking that it should be pretty easy to locate a 3-foot long bird perched on a tree. Well, trust me – sometimes it isn’t! So, this encounter ended up as another case of so close and yet so far.
Migratory Phyllosopus warblers are one of the most difficult birds to identify. They look remarkably alike and are extremely active by nature. Fortunately, only a handful winters here in Malaysia and at first glance, this individual did not look quite like the usual suspects. Upon further scrutiny, it turned out to be an Inornate Warbler and I haven’t come across one of these for a long time. I tried my best to capture a few images as it is considered a scarce migrant to Malaysia. Surprisingly, I did manage to because it was a little more accommodating than usual for an arboreal warbler.
The piercing cries of the resident Blyth’s Hawk-eagle diverted my attention to the clouds above. I find this species to be one of the most strikingly marked raptors in Malaysia and they even look much better at rest with the crest and all. But I still do not have the good fortune of photographing one perched from a close distance.
The Rufescent Prinia is not uncommon in suitable habitats but its skulking behaviour do made it a tough subject for photography most of the time. A pair was exceptionally vocal this morning and they seemed pretty confiding as they went about their business. I then decided to try my luck by sticking around and wait for a photographic opportunity to present itself. Just when I was about to give up, one of them hopped onto an exposed perch in good light, posed and dived back down into the tall grass. And that was it. I guess expecting a repeat performance would be pushing it a little too far.
During my maiden trip to this locality with Choo Eng, we recorded a Buff-breasted Babbler. If I were to try and describe this bird to you, it would sound something like it is a little bird and it is brown. Little brown jobs, a term used by birders for non-descript birds, are put here on Earth by God to test the identification skills and sanity of birders everywhere. Anyway, the sighting turned out to be a new record for the state of Kedah and at a lower altitude when compared to the other localities where this species is known to occur. At that time, it managed to slip past our cameras. When I came across this bird again and this time foraging along the lower levels of the forest, I was determined to obtain at least a record shot - one way or the other. I cursed and struggled for quite long while but without any success. I even resorted to using manual focusing and that is something I rarely do. The moment of truth came when it rested on a slightly more exposed perch (probably tired from all the taunting and teasing that it has been dishing out to me) long enough for me to fire a couple of shots.
Bukit Palong is a wonderful place – beautiful, wild, isolated, no weekend crowd and most importantly, rich in bird life. But like any other “not-so-protected” forest reserves here, the presence of man and his actions will often leave a lasting impression on the natural environment. Well like what I always say, enjoy it while it last.