To be able to share your home state with the largest nightjar in the world is a true privilege and Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang is one of the best places in Malaysia to observe the colossal Great Eared-Nightjar. Most of my birding buddies in Penang have taken the effort to capture its images at night and it is one endeavour I have put off for too long. Of late, quite a number of outstanding images of the Great Eared-Nightjars taken here have surfaced in social media. That was my wake-up call and I finally made it a point to try and obtain its images.
It was the night before the start of the Hungry Ghost Month. I managed to wrap things up at the office on time and that itself was a sign from above. This could well be my last chance to undertake the task for at least a month as hunting for a nocturnal creature in the dead of the night when the gates of the underworld are open may be not be the wisest thing to do and it certainly will not go down well with my better half. Traffic along the Penang Bridge was horrendous as expected but I was on my trusted iron steed and soon found myself at the edge of a freshwater swamp forest watching the sun go down beyond the horizon. But I was not alone. A troop of Long-tailed Macaques were making their way to their evening roost but unlike humans, they do not have technology to help them see in the dark. Thus, I will not be expecting any mischiefs from these marauders this time round.
Just as the last signs of daylight slipped into the abyss of night, a familiar silhouette floated gracefully overhead follow by an eerie 3-note whistle. The first note is often inaudible unless in close proximity and tonight, this introductory note was crystal clear. A second bird appeared soon after and the locality came to life with the presence of these majestic birds. I could not even feel the torment of the blood-hungry mosquitos anymore. I was lost in the moment. Then came the climax of this nocturnal affair. According to my sources, there was a certain dead tree in the locality that the Great Eared-Nightjars will alight briefly before disappearing into the night. I had positioned myself as best as I could upon my arrival and true enough, one of the birds landed and sent my senses into overdrive. This is closest I have ever gotten to a Great Eared-Nightjar and it was electrifying. I struggled with my camera, torch and composure. Through the chaos, I managed to hold down my shutter and prayed for at least one of the shots fired to turn out good. And just like that, the nightjar was gone. I have been told that you will usually get only one chance at capturing its images and you better make it count.
But the Great Eared-Nightjars were not quite done. Much to my delight, one came to the perch again. It is not a rare bird here in northern Peninsular Malaysia. I have had many encounters prior to this. All creatures of the night are shrouded with an aura of mystery and nocturnal birds like this Great Eared-Nightjar captivates beyond words. The ears may give it a slightly diabolical appearance but the intricate patterns of its plumage is remarkable. The large size only reinforces the spell it has on me. When it flew off for the second time, it was for good. I then started to feel the mosquitos again and retreated hastily from the onslaught. However, nothing could ruin this night as it was nothing short of magical. Owling is one of the most frustrating aspects of birding but at times, when the stars are aligned just right like tonight, it can be one of the most rewarding.