Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Malaysian Rail-Babbler, Bucket List Bird!

A Day at Bukit Panti in search of one of my most wanted life birds.

Sunday, April 16

Let's just say that the alarm went off much too soon.  A 4am alarm when you've got no more than five hours sleep, after flying for almost 24 hours, is never welcome.  This Easter I left New York on Friday (Good Friday) morning, and flew 15 hours to Hong Kong.  Then I changed planes and dropped down to Singapore (another 4 hours), arriving late evening Saturday and getting into bed at the hotel about 11pm local time.  Five hours later, it was time to go birding!

I was staying at the Fullerton Hotel in downtown Singapore, a sprawling imperial structure (I think it was the Post Office in the old colonial city) now converted into a fancy business hotel.  As usual, I arrived looking something like a business man, but early the next morning, dressed as a bird bum, I waved away the doorman's attempts to get me a taxi and waited for my ride - Lim Kim Chuah, my Singapore birding mentor - who was picking me up for a day-trip to Johor Malaysia and a chance at one of my most wanted birds on earth.

The early start was deliberate because we wanted to be at the Gunung Panti Forest Reserve (a couple of hours North of Singapore in the Malaysian State of Johor) before dawn so that we could try for some night birds.  The drive therefore was mostly in the dark, and once we'd dealt with the border crossing bureaucracy, it was pretty much a straight shot to our first stop, an unpaved forest road, where we started birding about an hour before first light.

Target number one was BLYTHE'S FROGMOUTH, a tiny member of a family that I generally think ought to be bigger (I was raised on Potoos, what can I say?).  We stopped in the dark and soon heard one, then another Frogmouth respond to our tape recording and, when a truck passed us, I even saw one in flight in the lights.  Then a larger bird zipped over our heads, then passed again, this time so close I could hear the rush of wind on it's feathers as it passed within inches of my head.  The third time it came by I ducked, it was that close.  Then finally, it came over higher and we saw the silhouette against the slowly lightening sky ... BAT HAWK!  I'm guessing that we had a cloud of insects around us, and that bats were feeding close to us as a result, the hawk, being bigger, was the only part of this dark-covered food chain that we could see.  So calling Blythe's Frogmouths, a dawn chorus of White-handed Gibbons, and a close Bat Hawk ... it's very rare that I have started my day so perfectly.

Chestnut-breasted Malkoha and Pale-Blue Flycatcher

As the light came up, we moved further down the road to a sort of camping area which allowed access to the forest, and we spent the next hour or so building a solid list of forest birds.  Our main target here was a Rufous-backed Dwarf Kingfisher that Kim Chuah had seen building a nest in the earth walls of a small man-made pit on a recent visit.  The kingfisher wasn't there when we arrived so we went off birding and circled back a second time, then a third time before finally connecting with it.  In the meantime, we saw plenty of other birds in the area.  Gray-chested Jungle-Flycatchers and Black-and Yellow-Broadbills were busy building nests, while the tops of trees gave us a good range of larger perched birds including Thick-billed and Little Green Pigeons, Black Hornbill, Red-bearded Bee-eater, and Large Woodshrike.  A Pale Blue-Flycatcher played hard to get for a while, calling but remaining well hidden before finally showing itself, and with a little effort, the canopy also gave up Green Iora, Lesser Green Leafbird, and Chestnut-breasted Malkoha among others.

Black-and-Yellow Broadbill starting to make a nest
Back on the main road, the serious work of trying to find me a Malaysian Rail-Babbler got underway, but while we searched for the star, there were plenty of other birds to keep us busy.  Highlights for me included a couple of Wreathed Hornbills, an impressive White-bellied Woodpecker and a couple of super-cute Buff-rumped Woodpeckers.  There were also White-bellied Epornis (an odd Old World vireo), Yellow-breasted Flowerpeckers and a more or less constant volume of calling birds that included Great Argus Pheasants, three Trogon species, a dozen babblers, and a Malaysian Banded-Pitta.

Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker and Blue-winged Leafbird

Mammals were also in evidence.  In addition to the White-handed Gibbons there were Long-tailed and Pig-tailed Macaques, Banded Leaf-Monkeys, and Slender Squirrels.  We saw Asian Elephant tracks (as close as I ever get to this species in the wild) but never could identify a large animal we heard snorting in the undergrowth early in the morning (I voted for "heard only" Malaysian Tapir but Kim Chuah wasn't buying it ... although he has seen tapirs along this road before).

7-inch long Millipede sp.
We also heard Malaysian Rail-Babblers, although at one point when we bumped into another guide with another UK birder/client, we wondered if perhaps we had been hearing each other's tape recordings.  Twice we bushwhacked into the forest to get closer to calling birds but on both occasions they stopped calling as we got closer.

By the afternoon we had ended up on the Old Road (on the advice of young British birder who was hiking the road and had said he'd seen the bird there in the morning).  Plenty of birds there including great views of Whiskered Treeswift and Malaysian Hawk-Cuckoo, but the Rail-babblers were not cooperating and, just after the other birder/guide left we reluctantly started to work our way back toward the park entrance.

Then Kim Chuah heard a close bird, and in no time we were out of the car and creeping stealthily towards what sounded like a pair of calling Malaysian Rail-Babblers.  We got closer and played a little tape, and the birds continued to respond.  Finally they seemed very close so we crouched down, stayed very still, and listened.  The birds seemed to be incredibly close, just out of view perhaps thirty feet in front of us behind a small mound.  Then, out of nowhere, we heard  a "chuck" sound, and turning around slowly, saw two Rail-Babblers not thirty feet away from us, but behind us!  We'd been completely fooled by the eerie sounding ventriloquists.

What followed wasn't pretty.  The birds started to walk slowly away from us back into denser cover, while I fumbled with my camera, tried to compensate for the low light in the forest, and didn't get a single in-focus shot.  It was still a magical moment though, and a memory I'll long treasure.  I have always wanted to see this species (as do many, many birders) so finally meeting them, up close and personal, was a true privilege.

My best effort at a Rail-Babbler and a much better shot by Lim Kim Chuah
(used with permission)

Once the birds left, we made our way back to the road, and called it a day .... how could it get any better than that?  We stopped for lunch at the town of Kota Tinggi just as the heavens opened and torrential rain pretty much killed the possibility of more birding that day in any case.  The food was great, although my enthusiasm was slightly dented with the discovery of several very plump leeches who were enjoying their own lunch inside my shirt, and a couple more inside my leech socks!  Once they were removed of course the bite marks bled like crazy for hours (and itched for a week).  For  a while I was a little concerned that the border agents at the Malaysia-Singapore border might have an issue with my blood-soaked shirt, but they seem to take such things in stride.  So back safely in Singapore at the end of the day I had great memories to savor.  A truly wonderful day in the forest.

Whiskered Treeswift

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