I took a drive up north with two birding companions, James and Hor Kee, and our destination was the virgin jungles of Bukit Wang in Kedah state. The weather yesterday morning was just awful and wet but as we were approached the borders of the forest reserve, daybreak revealed clear skies. It was a relief for the group. A colony of nesting Baya Weavers broke the silence with their constant vocalization and soon after, the other residents of this fruit orchard located at the edge of the forest reserve joined in the dawn chorus.
The Raffles’s Malkoha is the smallest of our Malkoha. It may be small but it is just as striking as the bigger species. Birds with preference for the forest canopy have always been a hindrance for photography but today, this handsome male rested for a prolonged period of time right out in the open. It was a sight I rarely encounter for this species and despite the challenging lighting condition, I was determined to make the best out of the situation.
We were still lingering beyond the borders of the reserve when a lone female Wreathed Hornbill came into view. Unfortunately, she was perched at top of the hill and the distance was just too great for my gear. Moments later, the diagnostic hooting notes of the enigmatic White-crowned Hornbill filled the vicinity and it sounded very close. Eventually, we managed to locate a pair and they were resting in a densely foliaged tree. We waited in vain for better photographic opportunities because the pair seemed adamant in hiding themselves at every stop they make as they moved along the edge of the orchard.
The reason for the hornbills’ skittish behaviour soon revealed itself. It was a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and the presence of these omnivorous hornbill certainly hit the nerve of this much smaller but feisty bird. The drongo kept watch on the hornbills like a hawk and will mob them whenever they alighted on more exposed perches. It only relinquished its sentry duty when the hornbills were gone. As frustrating as it may be, I still have to hand it to the drongo for its determination and tenacity.
While we were recovering from the White-crowned Hornbill episode, a Great Hornbill flew across the clear blue sky but at a distance. I do not encounter this species as often as I would like to and this sighting did not go unappreciated.
A female Buff-necked Woodpecker provided what should be for me the highlight of the trip. This smallish woodpecker is strikingly marked and utterly adorable. I do not have many good images of this species despite numerous encounters in the past. Their size and preference for the canopy is to be blamed – as usual. But today, this confiding girl, performed exceptionally and I was smitten by both her beauty and charm.
One of the challenges of forest bird photography is the lighting. Under the cover of the canopy, your skills will be tested. For me and my gear, I am often at the losing end. It is times like this that one truly appreciates the existence of photographic software.
Uneven lighting is another drawback. Here, the poor girl appeared to be wearing a mask...
Luckily, there was a happy ending to the encounter. And on the last perch, everything fell into place perfectly. A Buff-rumped Woodpecker in all its splendour. Lacking the red malar stripe of the male bird was no longer an issue. This female has given me the best encounter with the species to date. A timely reminder as well for me as to why I continue to slog it out in the forest which I often end up empty handed. It is because of moments like this that make birding in the forest such an enthralling experience.
In northern Peninsular Malaysia, the Streak-eared Bulbul often outnumbers the Yellow-vented Bulbul. It has a tendency to be vocal but somehow, I find it hard to have decent views of the bird despite its common status. Like today, a handful were calling and moving about the scrublands. At the end of the day, the only shot I managed to obtain is of one bird preening at the top of a tree. And from the photo, I cannot help but to think it was mocking me with a wave...
We should have made our way into the borders of the reserve but decided to spend some time at the car park area. A decision we did not live to regret. The Macaranga Tree is coming into season again and a brief visit by a pair of Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrots could well be a sign of things to come. So far, we had recorded three species of hornbills and that itself is quite a feat for any locality. A distant call not unlike the yelping of puppies signalled the arrival of the forth species of the day. A flock of five Bushy-crested Hornbills were moving about the top most part of the canopy and this distant spectacle was best enjoyed through my bins.
When the flock flew across gaps in the canopy, I could finally obtain better images. Although it lacks the size and contrasting colours of some of the other hornbills, the Bushy-crested Hornbill is still just as amazing and its presence will conjure a heightened sense of exhilaration. Bukit Wang is proving to be a stronghold for these incredible birds and wherever hornbills roam, you can be sure I will be a regular visitor to the locality.
A Black-and-yellow Broadbill will usually be able to brightened up any birding excursion. Vivid colouration and adorable outlook is a winning combination few can resist. However, the pair present at the car park today was uncooperative with the female offering very little than record shots.
A flock of small birds flitting about the top of a tall dead tree turned out to be Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes. This species is just one of the many striking denizens that call the forest here home. Typically, the canopy level is where it is most comfortable and a few record shots of a male bird singing away was all I have to show for the encounter.
The trail here takes you through some of the most breath-taking forest sceneries in this part of the peninsular. Today’s surprising clear blue sky provided the finishing touch to the blissful aura oozing from this lush landscape. I do not often get myself transfixed on surrounding vegetation when I am out birding but for the forest here, I am more than willing to make an exception.
A Chestnut-necklaced Partridge proclaiming its territory with its far-carrying call was a first record for this location. As significant as this record was, it was only an audio record despite efforts put in to locate this scarce gamebird. A male Orange-breasted Trogon was the only bird along the forest trail captured in my camera’s sensor this time. A little disappointing no doubt but the early half of the morning outside the reserve had already made the trip worth the while. If four hornbills species (and a confiding Buff-rumped Woodpecker) in one morning could not justify the 3-hour round trip, nothing else in this world could.