A teenage birder was making his way to a birding site one morning and stopped by a 7-11 store for supplies before getting on with his journey. A loud shriek followed by a fury of wings got his immediate attention. A murder of House Crows tormented and chased a bird which was left with no choice but to fly into the store in a desperate attempt to escape its attackers. The teenager immediately came to the aid of the bird which was undoubtedly disoriented and terrified. At first glance, the bird appeared to be a White-rumped Shama to him. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be something much better. It was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo - a species this teenager has been dreaming to encounter in the field.
Without hesitation, he picked up the cuckoo with the intention of setting it free far away from the marauding crows that were still lingering in the vicinity. It was a lucky day for both parties. The teenage human got his much-anticipated lifer and the cuckoo avoided the dreadful fate of being caged for life or worse – ending up in a cooking pot. The teenager’s mode of transport was a motorcycle. His ride had no basket and he, a free hand to carry the cuckoo. The only way he could think of to transport the cuckoo comfortably was to snuggle it in his shirt. He made his way to an isolated road and when the coast was clear, did a quick check on the cuckoo for any obvious signs of injuries. He then placed the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo on his arm and released his grip. It took a while for the cuckoo to realise it was free again and when it did, glided down a small ravine and alighted at the edge of the secondary forest. It uttered a series of harsh notes as if to thank its young rescuer before disappearing into the dense vegetation.
In time, I learned through experience that the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo is shy by nature and often difficult to approach. Twenty years later, that encounter I had as a teenager remained to be my most intimate with this beautiful migrant. That is until I made a last minute trip recently to Air Hitam Dalam in the hopes of obtaining some images of a male Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher on passage. It was midday by the time I arrived and unfortunately, the main reason for the visit was no where to be seen. As I walked the elevated walkway one more time, a rustling of leaves from the lower storey of the swamp forest was the first excitement of the trip. An ungainly bird then hopped into view barely an arm’s length away and it turned out to be a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. I expected it to disappear into vegetation as usual when it caught sight of me but not this time.
It was totally at ease with my presence and I found this behaviour rather odd. Nevertheless, I proceeded to capture its images as the cuckoo continued to hunt and devour all sorts of insects. From the looks of it, this particular patch was teeming with prey. It is no wonder the cuckoo was so confiding. After all, gluttony is a deadly sin that even the shyest species will give in to at times.
This is the closest I have come to a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo for a long time and to add icing to the cake, the encounter was not a brief one. For a moment there, the teenage birder was back and gawking at his first ever Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. One of the best things in life is to be able to relive a sweet memory from your younger years and this time, it was all courtesy of this stunning bird.
As the cuckoo moved about, it will sometimes alighted in places where the lighting was more favourable. Naturally, I obtained my best images of this species to date. The slightly tattered tail did not matter. Neither did the occasional obstructing vegetation. Not when this cuckoo was so unbelievably tame.
I may have missed out shooting the Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher and a Grey Nightjar (which I found out later back home was seen earlier here today) but this episode with the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo formed another memorable chapter of this species in my life. I always believe birding is about moments and not just lifers and rarities. And this moment with the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo rejuvenated me in more ways than one.