Ben is one of my regular guests and when this avid Singaporean birder wanted to visit Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill) in Taiping, Perak for some weekend birding, I was ready to accommodate until I found out that the hill resort was closed for road works due to landslide. Luckily, the caretaker of the Nest Bungalow, Mr. Lee, managed to make the arrangements for a couple of hardcore birders to go up and spend a night up on the hill. The jeep ride up the hill can be taxing for newcomers because of all the hairpin corners and the aroma of the diesel-powered transports. However, Ben took everything well in his stride. Halfway up the hill, we almost had to cancel our plans if this fallen tree was any bigger. Well, it seemed like Lady Luck was on our side and it did not take long to remove the obstacle that was lying between us and our destiny.
Once we completed the rather tedious hike up to the Nest Bungalow to unpack our luggage and birding gear, we hit the jeep track leading up to the summit of Bukit Larut. That is, after we took a minute to soak in the view from the bungalow. It was certainly a bright and beautiful morning. Taiping is the wettest area in Malaysia and sunny skies are somewhat of a privilege at times.
Bukit Larut is where I saw my first hornbill. I can never forget the first time I heard the locomotive-like wing beats of these magnificent birds. Until now I still get all excited when I hear them. To see and photograph a perched hornbill at a close distance is something that does not happen very often. Despite their enormous size, hornbills are shy creatures. To start things of for this birding excursion was this male Rhinoceros Hornbill in all his glory resting among the foliage of the canopy level not too far from the jeep track. The distance was just about right for photography but unfortunately, confiding as he may be, he was resting in the shade with the sun in front of him.
He did not seem to mind our presence but we tried in vain to find a better shooting angle. This is one of those times that I feel like just putting my camera aside and enjoy the moment through my bins which I did after trying out all other possibilities for a better shot.
We came across several birdwaves along the jeep track. Dozens of species foraging vigorously together always get the adrenalin pumping but can be a little too fast and furious for photography. Bukit Larut this time has certainly exceeded my expectations. While observing one of these birdwaves, I picked out a true forest jewel resting unobtrusively in the canopy of the forest. It was a Long-tailed Broadbill and it appeared to be quite comfortable in that position. I quickly signaled Ben over and both of us enjoyed prolonged, stunning views of this extraordinary bird.
The closure of the hill for the past few weeks could have been a factor in the high level of bird activities along the jeep track. Without annoying humans about, the birds may start to find the forest edge attractive and safe again. In short, it was a blessing in disguise. I cannot remember the last time I saw a Long-tailed Broadbill so confiding at such close proximity.
As lunch time drew closer, dark clouds started to form. All meals were provided at the bungalow and usually fresh from the stove. So, we still needed to make our way back to the bungalow regardless of the weather condition. At the bungalow below ours (the former famed Speedy Bungalow) we came across a fruiting tree. An adorable Black-browed Barbet was gorging on the fruits and lunch will just have to wait as it is not easy to see this canopy-loving species at eye level.
The Ochraceous Bulbuls were also present at the fruiting tree but by then, the lighting condition has changed dramatically from the sunny skies of morning.
A lone Dark-sided Flycatcher alighted on a nearby banana tree while we were still at the fruiting tree. It has no interest in the fruits but the fruits also attracted insects which were what it was after.
By the time we were finished with lunch, it had started to pour. Taiping was living up to its reputation as the district that rains more often than the sun shines. The dining area is an open porch with just a roof over our heads. It was the perfect location to wait for birds to move through the forest on a rainy day while enjoying a warm cup of tea - us enjoying the tea and not the birds…
This male Black-throated Sunbird's urge for nectar was about as relentless as the torrential rain. He was constantly going round the flowering plants within the compound and from what I can see it will take much more than rain to keep him from getting his 'fix'.
I was expecting our birding excursion to come to a complete standstill but a flock of Mountain Bulbuls decided to pay us a visit and we sprung back into birding mode. This species is the commonest bulbul that occurs in hill stations of Peninsula Malaysia and it is no different here at Maxwell Hill.
Another bulbul that was unperturbed by the rain was the Ashy Bulbul. Not as common as the former but it was regularly seen during our stay here. The fruiting tree at the bungalow below may have something to do with their regular presence.
This male Mugimaki Flycatcher was still looking smart despite the wet conditions. Unfortunately, we did not manage to relocate this striking species when the weather improved.
When the rain finally subsided, in came the mist and it was back to the comforts of the dining table and another cup of tea...
Just when we thought it was a good time to take a quick nap, the characteristic sounds of hornbills in flight burst into the vicinity followed by what sounded like the yelping of puppies. The Bushy-crested Hornbills have arrived! Despite being partially concealed by the heavy mist, we tried our best to obtain some photographs of this family of three - two adults with a recently fledged juvenile.
When the mist lifted, only the youngster was in sight. Both the parents bird have shifted to the topmost part of the canopy to dry off. This, and the flock of Wreathed Hornbills seen earlier, was the third hornbill species for the day. And that is an achievement by itself. Despite the weather conditions being unfavourable at times, this trip to Bukit Larut will go down as one of the best.
The setting sun produced such an array of mesmerizing colours that even a hardcore birder like me took the time to appreciate and that is something that I do not usually do when I am out birding.
This is a typical 4-dish meal by the caretaker-cum-cook of the Nest Bungalow, Mr. Lee. It may not be much but to a couple of hungry birders that just came back from an evening of birding under a blanket of mist, this is as good as it will get as far as we were concerned.
As I was about to call it the night, Bukit Larut had one little surprise left for me in one of the most unlikely places - the bathroom. A small dark-coloured tree frog was taking shelter there and naturally, I took a few shots of it using my iPhone. Although birds are my one true passion, other wildlife does evoke interest as well. I did not know what species it was until I got home and consulted Muin, a birding friend who studies reptiles and amphibians for a living. How cool is that? Anyway, thanks to him I now know that it was a Pied Warty Frog and apparently, it is not that common as he has not seen it before in the wild. Is there no end to this amazing place?
It was another beautiful morning the next day. However, we only had the morning to bird as we need to follow the jeep down before noon. We decided to visit the fruiting tree at the bungalow below again because it was too good of an opportunity to be missed. And the Black-crested Bulbuls were thinking just the same thing. Striking and comical at the same time, it was a delight to observe them feasting on this natural buffet.
The bulbuls were truly gorging themselves with the fruits...
I swear to God I even see them momentarily immobilized due to too much eating...
With more than enough food to go round and the soothing rays of the morning sun hitting the tree at certain areas to provide a much-anticipated sunbath after a wet and chilly night, these bulbuls are truly living the good life. This image says it all...
As we were waiting for our ride to arrive, an Oriental Honey-buzzard flew low overhead to bid us farewell. This species is highly variable in plumage and the root cause of much confusion and misery when it comes to raptor identification. At first glance, I thought this juvenile bird was an Osprey!
From the cool montane forest, we made our way to the hot mangrove forest of Kuala Gula which was a short drive from the foothill. Nothing much was about but we did take the opportunity to taste some of the seafood there for lunch. I had a contingency plan if things did not work out at Kuala Gula. Ben mentioned that the Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was one of his target birds and I know just the place to go where you are almost ensured of one - the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang.
As expected, the Yellow-rumped Flycatcher performed well. The hour-long drive from our last location was certainly worth it. I am truly going to miss this little guy come summer.
This Green Crested Lizard was taking a little siesta in the sun on the same tree as the flycatcher and it finally got our attention when the flycatcher moved on.
To cap things off for this fantastic trip, we came across a pair of roosting Brown Hawk-owls. They could not have chosen a better location to roost as it was quite hidden and surrounded by vines. For us, they could not have chosen a worse location as there were no way we could obtain any good images.
Are you done yet?