I was really looking to this 4-day birding tour with my regular guest Ben as we would be exploring the pristine forest of Taman Negara Sungai Relau in Pahang. It has been 7 years since my last visit to this birding haven and that is an awfully long time. As it was the Malay New Year, the national park will only be opened on the second day of our tour. Since Cameron Highlands was along the way to Sungai Relau, I decided to let Ben experience birding there at the mossy forest of Gunung Brinchang – the highest point in Peninsular Malaysia that is accessible by car. I was expecting a crowd at this popular hill resort during our overnight stay but it cannot be all that bad or so I thought. It was a very long holiday break with Hari Raya, Heritage Day and Penang Governor’s Birthday. My intention of showing some of the montane species to my Singaporean guest could blow up in my face as the hill was overrun with visitors. Traffic congestion is the last thing any birder would want to face during a birding excursion.
This montane forest has been heavily marred by development and agriculture. I am not sure how much more Mother Nature can endure this onslaught. It is truly disheartening to see what has become of this locality.
Fortunately, there is enough left in this old girl to provide a couple of birders with some memorable experiences. The access road up Gunung Brinchang is one of the few places left where the natural environment has barely suffered under the hands of man. And it is along this mossy slope that we had some decent birding.
There are a few montane specialists that find refuge here. Although we missed out on all the rarer species, the commoner Golden-throated Barbet took centre stage and provided one of the main highlights. It was a close encounter but the constant movement of the bird and the harsh lighting made it difficult for me to capture better images.
We came across several birdwaves throughout the day but one particular wave had the birds coming towards us quite low and sometimes below eye level because we were overlooking a ravine. The Grey-chinned Minivet is not an uncommon bird but there is nothing common about the male’s remarkable plumage. His vivid red and black plumage is easily one of the most outstanding in the avian world. I can spend hours ogling at him especially when he is not flitting about his usual domain among the forest canopy. This is the kind of encounter that is responsible for keeping my passion for birding alive after all these years. This is also the kind of encounter that justifies the usage of profanity to describe this fucking incredible moment.
I do not like to see Blue Nuthatches in a bird wave. I get so enthralled with their antics and beauty that I usually miss out on all other species that come along. I have tried for years to get some decent images of this species but their hyperactive nature and preference for the canopy levels have always got in the way. Well, today was my lucky day. Following the minivet’s encounter, this oddly beautiful bird made sure that my adrenalin stayed at this heightened level.
Typical of nuthatches, they like to crawl upside down along tree trunks and branches. Yes, that makes them a delight to observe but a real hassle to photograph. None of my images had the bird right side up in the end. That would have been a killjoy normally. This time, however, I am elated to have finally obtained some reasonably good images.
We are spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodations here in Cameron Highlands. They come in all shapes and sizes – from posh hotels to basic dormitories. De’ Native Guesthouse was highly recommended by Hor Kee and it was not hard to see why. It is located conveniently within Tanah Rata but secluded enough to escape all the activities of the township. The guest house was rather basic but it serves its purpose well enough. And the surrounding environment, serene and lush.
Most of all, birding around the guesthouse was good. The compound will usually have a few of the common birds loitering around. One of them is the Everett’s White-eye. These birds greeted us almost every time we walked around the compound but being small and active, obtaining good images is a tall order.
The distinctive whistle of the Lesser Shortwing filled the vicinity throughout the day. We were fortunate enough to get this adorable species out in the open on one occasion and some of our best images of it were obtained. The Lesser Shortwing is common at most hill stations but their skulking habits among the dark undergrowth make them challenging subjects.
Sharing similar habitats and habits, the White-tailed Robin is another alluring resident of the montane forest here. A lone female foraging along the road leading to the guest house in the late evening wrapped things up for us for the day. Despite the holiday crowd and ongoing habitat destruction works, Cameron Highland turned out to be a good start to the tour. Our next destination is Taman Negara Sungai Relau – the main objective of the tour. That will be covered in my next post. Any visit to Taman Negara deserves a post of its own.