The anticipation of my second day of birding in central Peninsular Malaysia got me all worked up and I made my way downstairs full of zeal and excitement. Like the first morning, breakfast was all ready and waiting for me – courtesy of Foo’s wife, Connie. I must admit I was truly being pampered on this trip. The drive to Bukit Tinggi in Pahang took slightly more than an hour but the winding journey was made shorter by Foo’s excellent driving and his awesome ride.
Bukit Tinggi is yet another tourist destination and is usually crowded on weekends like today. However through his connections, Foo managed to get us in way before the permitted entry time. This is the second time I have been to this hill resort but the first visit was a casual trip. Today, was a different story. I was on a mission and a remarkable gamebird was my target.
A short trek from the Botanical Gardens and we reached the spot where the renowned Mountain Peacock-Pheasants of Bukit Tinggi frequent. It looks like any ordinary patch of montane forest but the memories and experiences that birders far and wide obtained here are anything but ordinary. This pheasant is only found in the main range of Peninsular Malaysia and no where else in the world. Prior to the discovery of the pheasants here, this endemic has an almost mythical status. Elusive and scarce, it is rarely encountered in the field. I have seen it on two occasions in the past and they were only glimpses of its true splendour. It has been three years since the discovery and one of the reasons I chose to finally have a go at the pheasants now is to avoid a crowd when shooting. But fate would have it that I had to share the location with a group of half a dozen mainland Chinese birders and their local guide. They came shortly after we had settled down and waiting for my second target bird of the trip to start its performance. I may sound selfish and perhaps I am but I would very much preferred to enjoy my moment with the pheasants at total ease and solitude. Anyway, we did our best to accommodate the group.
A couple of hours later, a stream of continuous shutter clicks from the direction of my new found companions broke the silence. I knew that the pheasant has finally decided to show itself but from where we had positioned our hides, I could not see a thing. It is a good thing the pheasants here are accustomed to all this attention. Any other gamebird would have turned tail and disappear right back into the forest. Slowly, I could almost make out the shape of the pheasant foraging just behind the undergrowth. There was nothing I could do but wait. And it was one of the longest minutes I had to endure in my life. The intensity of the moment was unbelievable. If my heart were to beat any faster, I fear it would have broke through my rib cage. When this amazing creature finally showed itself completely to us, I took a few seconds to awe at this magnificent creature before commencing with the photo shoot.
It was a handsome male. The blue-green ocelli sparkled like jewels whenever they caught the few rays of the sun that have managed to pierce through the dense canopy. The chestnut colouration interwoven with intricate fine markings make this bird a true wonder of the natural world. Its near mythical status is no exaggeration. It is so beautiful that at times, it seemed unreal. It was like a secret passageway to a fantasy world was breached once upon a time allowing the Mountain Peacock-Pheasants to cross into our world and grace us with their poise and beauty for all eternity.
The mere presence of the pheasant drowned out everything else. The hide I was in became my own little private world and at that moment in time, it was just me and the pheasant. And all these astronomical feelings was the doings of a single male bird. Other birders have encountered pairs and even families of this pheasant here but I can only dream of such good fortune and privilege.
The whole encounter lasted about 5 minutes. During that time, the pheasant hardly stood still. The dim lighting offered very little reprieve for my modest photographic gear. The long tail that had me spell-bounded proved to be a double-edged sword as it was challenging to keep the entire bird in the frame. Naturally, I wanted more. The group left immediately after the performance. I decided to stay and wait for the pheasant to return.
While waiting, the other species present finally had my attention like this male Oriental Magpie Robin. For the second consecutive day, this species has appeared at my target birds’ location.
The Buff-breasted Babbler occurs in hilly forest and is not often seen as it tends to keep itself well hidden among the undergrowth. I have several failed attempts to obtain its image in the past. This confiding individual changed all that. In terms of appearance, there is not much I can elaborate on this non-descript species but that does not mean I did not relish the encounter. I finally managed to obtain some reasonably good images of this little brown job.
Active and small, it was a tough subject to photograph despite its confiding nature...
I was disappointed when the pheasant did not return after a couple of hours. On the other hand, that made the earlier encounter even more precious to me. As I was about to pack up, this Common Treeshrew scurried into view and was just asking to be photographed. Naturally, I obliged...
From Bukit Tinggi, we travelled to the adjacent hill of Genting Highlands. Well known for its casinos and theme parks, this hill resort is naturally another popular tourist destination. However, those attractions are of no concern to me. The Important Bird Area (IBA) of Awana along the lower slopes is. IBAs here in Malaysia are not given their due protection. Awana, as many other IBAs, is under threat by human activities. That is a real shame because it is certainly a very beautiful and a regular birding site for birders in this region including Foo.
The Collared Owlet here has performed well on numerous occasions in the past but not today. Today it was quite adamant of taunting us from the dense foliage of the forest canopy with its diagnostic calls. No amount of pleading will get it show itself and a flying Great Hornbill finally diverted our attention away.
A fruiting tree only yielded a pair of Fire-tufted Barbets. This species is undoubtedly the most impressive of all our barbets. The challenging lighting condition and the height of the tree robbed us of any great images despite the confiding nature of our subjects.
After such an exhilarating morning with the pheasant, it would take something truly spectacular to reignite my excitement. A small flycatcher hawking along the forest edge awakened my senses but after further scrutiny, it turned out to be only an Asian Brown Flycatcher – the commonest of our migratory flycatchers. Not quite the spectacle I was hoping for.
Foo was a little puzzled as to why we have yet to come across the Orange-bellied Leafbird. This beautiful forest jewel is a common sight here. I have been to this site only once before a few years back and I obtained one of my images of this species courtesy of an exceptionally confiding individual. I know what it feels like when you fail to show a regular species at your local patch to a visiting birder. A handsome male on our way back saved Foo the agony. And Foo’s pet bird was a great way to wrapped up things up for this weekend of outstanding birding and great companionship in the heart of Peninsular Malaysia. I owe the success and rewards of this trip to Foo. Without him, photographing a certain migratory ground bird and an endemic game bird will still be very much in my bucket list.