A SHOW OF FEATHERS
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2008). A Show of Feathers. Living. November-December 2008. Pages 40-41. ISSN 1800-0746
Gehan silently stalks bird life in one of Malaysia’s national parks.
The faint red light caught a glittering reflection off some beads on the trunk of a forest giant. The shining beads were the eyes of a solitary hunting spider. It hunt using not only its eyes but all eight legs which are sensitive to vibrations of its prey. A stalk and kill specialist, it did not need to invest in a web to trap its prey. We had wandered into its private world. I was on a night walk in the largest protected area of lowland rainforest in Malaysia, the Taman Negara National Park. On this night walk I was remarkably at ease. I was with three members of my team, two of whom were naturalists. I also had two Malaysian guides with me. Somehow the presence of others is always reassuring in the dark, especially in a forest. Much had changed in Taman Negara since my first visit two decades ago. There were now board walks leading to Bumbung Tahan, the nearest hide to the visitor center and Mutiara Resort. The boardwalks have interpretation panels and lent an air of civilization.
On my first visit in my early twenties, my first few nocturnal walks in Taman Negara had been lonely and tense. Later I had persuaded a few other travellers to keep me company. Not surprisingly I did not see much in my first walks. I lacked the technique and ‘know how’, on how to seek nocturnal mammals. At the best of times, mammals are difficult at night in the rainforest. Without the use of a weak red torch correctly held close to the eyes, it is all to easy to scare away or completely miss any animals.
After searching from the board walks with no success, the Tahan Hide gave us better results. Two Sambar, large deer had come out into the open to feed on the lush grass beside a large freshwater pond. We scanned the trees hoping for a slow loris or a flying squirrel. Persistence pays off with searching for animals. But we were too tired and we called it a day.
The day had got off to an amazing start despite an ominous drizzle at dawn. Armed with umbrellas we had set off towards the restaurant when we came across the ultimate rainforest bounty for birdwatchers. A fig tree in fruit was less than a hundred meters from the busy restaurant. An enormous bird peeled away from a tree followed by another, and flew onto a dead tree. These were our first and only Rhinoceros Hornbills of the trip. They are o named because of an upturned horn-like protuberance on the upper mandibles of the birds.
Someone noticed a pigeon on the fig tree. We examined the tree and found several Thick-billed Pigeons. The males have with purple mantles. We stood under the tree and swept it with our binoculars to identify the birds feeding on the fruit or insects on the tree. Gold-whiskered Barbets, dominated by body size the throng of barbets which were visiting the tree. Red-throated, Yellow-crowned and Blue-eared Barbets clamoured for the fruit. Scaly-breasted Bulbuls, Grey-bellied Bulbuls, Red-eyed Bulbuls, etc mingled with the barbets and leaf birds. A pair of Green Broadbills, gave us the first glimpse of a bird family not found in Sri Lanka.
We forgot the drizzle and breakfast as we spent at least two and a half hours under the tree. A troop of Long-tailed Macaques, the commonest primate in Peninsular Malaysia also plundered the fruit. Occasionally squabbles broke out amongst them. A Chestnut-bellied Malkoha visited a smaller fig tree next to the restaurant. We knew that the rate of discovery of birds would not be as high as this once we entered the rainforest. But after such a good start, we could not complain.
The rainforest was slow as expected to yield its birds. A small flock of Chestnut-winged Babblers furtively crossed the trail. The highlight was a pair of Buff-necked Woodpeckers. So immersed were they in their search for insects they seemed oblivious to our presence. Most woodpeckers ferret for insects on the bark of trees. This pair also seemed adept at inspecting leaves for insects. A Raffles Malkoha has all of us straining skywards to pick it out as it foraged in the top canopy. Approaching a pond we had good views of a Blue-eared Kingfisher. Wicky’s sharp eyes found us another forktail, a Chestnut-winged Forktail. Birding in Malaysia’s rainforests is not easy. Walking slowly with eyes and ears attuned for movement and sound is the secret.