Hornbills are one of the most fascinating and majestic birds of the forest that naturally, have a very special place in my heart. With their massive stature and loud wing beats, hornbills in flight is a marvel of nature and I am always humbled by their presence. So when Andrew invited me to be one of the guides for the upcoming Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition (RBIHE) 2017, I accepted it in a heartbeat. The Royal Belum State Park houses all the 10 hornbill species that occur here in Malaysia and it is where you have a very good chance to see the migratory Plain-pouched Hornbills at this time of the year. Flocks of up to 3,000 birds have been recorded here before and that would certainly be a phenomenal sight.
There were about 40 participants for this year and the majority were international delegates from Asia. I timed myself to arrive at Pulau Banding early in the morning to enjoy some birding before the start of the expedition. The participants had to make their way from Kuala Lumpur and I had ample time to wander around this locality for the first time.
You know that you are truly in the wilds when the local rubbish dump (birders certainly know where to enjoy the best sceneries) is being patronized by wild boars instead of the usual stray cats and dogs.
I trekked into the only forest trail I could find and it was reasonably good with a variety of bulbuls leading the way. I did not have much opportunity to use my camera throughout the morning until I came upon a large clump of bamboo. There are a few species of birds found in Malaysia that have a penchant for bamboo vegetation. Its sweet whistling call was the first to catch my attention and it did not take long before I had a pair of Yellow-bellied Warblers in sight. I come across this species relatively often as it is found in one of my usual birding haunts but it seems to have a fetish for frustrating bird photographers there. Today however, one was belting out its territorial call from a surprisingly low perch and provided me with my best image to date.
With the noon hour fast approaching, I made a hasty retreat to the Pulau Banding Jetty to meet up with the rest of the participants whom are expected to arrive soon. But I was held back on the way by another common warbler that was performing well. The Rufescent Prinia replaces the common Yellow-bellied Prinia in forested areas and it is almost as abundant. Anyway, this particular individual was exceptionally confiding and I just could not break away from the encounter.
Feeling patriotic with Independence Day about a week away.
Pulau Banding Jetty – the gateway to hornbill heaven...
The Royal Belum State Park is one of the oldest forests in the world and it is certainly one of the wildest in Peninsular Malaysia. The lush landscape is frequently shrouded with mist and numerous partially submerged dead tree trunks can be seen artistically reaching towards the heavens. In short, it is breath taking. Very little has changed here since my first visit back in the 1994 during MNS Penang’s first exploration trip into this once restricted area and for that, I am most grateful.
The best way to get around this massive park is by boat. In fact, our accommodation for this expedition were houseboats. For a hard core birder like me, very little is required to make my stay comfortable. The boathouse actually has more facilities than to my liking. But that is me.
This is not the first time I stayed in a boat house. My first hornbill expedition to Royal Belum was back in 2003. Although I only managed to see 3 very distant Plain-pouched Hornbills flying across the sky at that time, it was still an experience. Being in a houseboat again after all these years brought back good memories. Here is a photo of a younger me taken during that expedition - overly enthusiastic, studded ears and all.
We anchored at Sungai Kenarong – our base camp for the next few days. And once you are so deep inside Royal Belum, the only time humans lift up their smartphones is take capture memories of this incredible place. For the next couple of days, it was just us and Mother Nature in all her glory.
Evidence of the presence of a much mightier mammal around base camp squashed any prior intentions for nocturnal excursions along the forest trails. Coming face to face with Asian Elephants in the night is not something anyone would fancy. However, a predawn stroll along the water’s edge produced a Buffy Fish-Owl hunting discreetly not far from our temporary aboard. I was not expecting much and left my camera in my room. As usual, exciting encounters will usually take place when you are ill-equipped to capture any images.
The second day was when we got to work. We were divided into small groups and boarded small speed boats to go further into the interiors of the park. I was assigned to lead the group consisting of delegates from India and Brunei. Having half a dozen enthusiastic birders with photographic gear on a shallow and light vessel may not seem to be a very good idea and it was the perfect way to cover more area and to literally chase after hornbills.
Sungai Kejar was the northern most point we ventured to and Sungai Tiang, the eastern most. The weather was perfect during the morning but in the late afternoon, the sky open up and drenched us to the bone. I found myself in one of the most uncomfortable situations in all my years of birding. Cold, battered and wet, we had to brace ourselves as our tiny boat met the torrential storm head on. And what lasted minutes felt like an eternity.
The participants of the RBIHE consisted of delegates from all walks of life but brought together by a mutual passion – their love for the natural world. Among them, one stood out. It was not because he was the only Caucasian but he was none other than Noah Strycker. For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the name, he was the birder who broke the world record last year for seeing the most number of bird species (6,042 species to be exact) within a calendar year. Now, you know.
The main target for the RBIHE was the nomadic Plain-pouched Hornbills. My group managed to record a total of 101 birds throughout the day. It was not an outstanding figure but definitely better than my last count here. Obtaining good photos here in Royal Belum was real hard work. The constant rocking of the boat and a few easily excited group members made it even more challenging. These are my best efforts of the Plain-pouched Hornbills and I am quite please with the results considering all the factors.
We hardly came across perched Plain-pouched Hornbills and on the rare occasions that we did, the birds were miles away...
A total of 9 species of hornbills were recorded during this RBIHE and the only one missing was the enigmatic White-crowned Hornbill. My group only managed 3 species – the ever present Oriental Pied Hornbills and this confiding male Black Hornbill. This was the closest we ever got to a hornbill during our stay here in Royal Belum. The Black Hornbill may not be as impressive as the other larger species but it is an amazing bird nevertheless.
Apart from hornbills, raptors were the only birds that I managed to capture. Their sheer size and preference for resting on exposed perches make them rather conspicuous indeed. Despite its name, the White-bellied Sea-Eagle can occur deep inland and here along the network of rivers and stream, this majestic raptor is a common sight.
The White-bellied Sea-Eagles share their home here with 2 smaller Fish-Eagles. The Lesser Fish-Eagle is the most encountered raptor during our expedition and I can safely assume that this is one of its major strongholds. However, it is a shy bird and often very difficult to approach. Did I mentioned that bird photography is tough here in Royal Belum?
A juvenile Lesser Fish-Eagle provided one of the highlights of the trip by being unbelievably confiding as it hunted for food. Perhaps due to its tender age, the eagle showed very little fear of our presence and I obtained some of my best images for the trip.
Slightly larger and similar looking is the Grey-headed Fish-Eagle. Throughout our time here, I only managed to see it a couple of times. As we were making our way out of Royal Belum on the final day of the RBIHE, we came across a lone bird resting on a dead tree. I have had little experience with this species in the field and the few minutes we had it in view as our boathouse cruise past was my best encounter with the Grey-headed Fish-Eagle so far.
From this angle, the photo turned out somewhat like a drawing. It was certainly not done intentionally. When it comes to birds that are uncommon to me, I usually do not take much notice of the background unless it is a glaring, bright sky.
To wrap things up for the RBIHE, a resident Peregrine Falcon proudly looks over its domain from a lofty perch. Peregrine Falcons are one of my favourite raptors and despite the distance, I still took the effort to try and obtain its image. I find that this photo captures the essence of this state park - wild, beautiful and mesmerizing. Hopefully, the hornbills of Royal Belum will continue to roam free and provide everlasting memories to all those who wander into this jungle domain of theirs.