Wing On Life

Jun 22, 2009
*Special to asia!

Last year, my bird watching buddy and I decided to visit Frasers Hill a clear 2 weeks before the annual Bird Race. I know you're thinking of feathered creatures with sweatbands and batons on a track but no. The birds don't race, the people do. It's a contest to determine which group of birders (as people who spot birds are affectionately referred to) can spot the most number of birds over a given period.

The Frasers Hill Bird Race attracts some of the most serious, competitive, and sometimes passionate people on the planet who not only like looking at birds, but enjoy being able to idententify them through their flight patterns, songs, and of course, looks. Some of them also enjoy getting into debates with other birders about how some birds within a species are so different and how sometimes a bird's identity cannot be ascertained. The subject is birds, the venue is the forest, the activity is as aggressive and ambitious as any other sport.

In the early 20th century, English folk who resided in the territory of Malaya sought refuge in the cool mountains of Frasers Hill, 1200m above sea level. The temperate climate reminded them of home. They shaped the hills into images of ye'olde English countryside, complete with cobblestone roads, Tudor style homes, and a church. An escape from the humid tropical world that existed below.

Back then, the 70 million year-old mist forests and its thousands of feathered and furred residents were probably of less significance to them. Today, the English have left but the last pine tree remains (rising temperatures have severely impacted the reproductive successes of the native pines). Now, locals make the journey up the mountain along its precarious one-lane route for a reprieve from the heat and a chance to hear if not see some of the most beautiful birds on the planet. People like me.

All birders have a wishlist. It's a list you develop before you go on a bird trip. At the top of the list last year was the Sultan Tit, a yellow and black-coloured, sparrow-sized critter with a confident crest on its crown. This year, it's the Blue nuthatch. Also a small bird but with curious behaviour - it creeps up and along the trucks and branches of tree, plucking off insects. Its movement is similar to a woodpecker, but it doesn't hammer its head through the bark. I saw my first nuthatch in an ancient forest in East Indonesia. The Velvet-fronted nuthatch has a brilliant-coloured orange beak and legs, and bright blue feathers on its back and wings. I remember when I first saw it, squinting through a pair of binoculars, I didn't think it as fascinating until my guide began to describe its behaviour and distinct traits to me. Thanks to his enthusiasm, I learned to appreciate its uniqueness in the environment, and now I'm helping to impart that same enthusiasm he shared with other people I meet, some of whom have no clue about birds other than they lay eggs in a nest and have feathers.

So the GREAT THING about going after the Bird Race instead of before, as we did last year, is that you get to get tips on where to find what, and most importantly ye'ole settlement of Frasers Hill is up and running in full order (streets, shops, and hotels tend to close just before the race to allow for last minute repairs and renovations). I also finally understood how they planned the dates for the bird race. It's timed according to the fruitation of trees. How brilliant. Not only were people in full swing, but nature was as well. Flowers were in bloom, so the butterflies were out, fruits were in season so everything else was out and about. From Silver leaf monkeys to bugs and birds. Day and night.

Unfortunately, there is one creature that doesn't rely on the season to be active. I've not encountered a leech anywhere on my torso, but the leeches I've picked up under my chin and on my ankles and arms have created enough of an annoyance and phobia to have me do a visual sweep of myself every three minutes for any advantageous annelid that might be hitchhiking on my skin.

When a birder says they've spotted a "lifer" it doesn't mean that they've sighted a fugitive that's supposed to be serving a life sentence. In birder terminology, a "lifer" is the first time a birder has sighted and identified a particular species for the first time. This year, I spotted several lifers. Mountain Imperial Pigeon. A big fat pigeon the size of a chicken. Makes a call that reverberates beneath the canopy. What was more special was that this year I spotted two - a pair in a tangle of leaves and twigs used to make their nest.

Fire-tufted Barbet. This one came by with sheer luck. Some people pointed at some bird that just flew out of the canopy. I looked up and to the left of where the were looking and spotted the Barbet sitting quietly on a branch. Absolutely still. It was an array of colours. Without a doubt, the tuft of red at its nose is certainly what gives the bird its name. Bright green and yellow feathers cover its body. I took just one picture and it was instantly a perfect shot. Right angle, right time, right light, right subject.

Then there was a Mountain fulvetta. Another little brown job with reddish cheeks. An active one that hopped about the trail chirping at us, coming up so close I couldn't get a photo with my telephoto lens. It stayed with us as we squatted in a tiny shelter along the trail that harboured plenty of mosquitoes. The area was dry and relatively free of leaf litter, which made leech spotting easier. For 20 minutes the fulvetta chirped, hopped, and fleeted as a drongo broke the canopy to get to the other side of the trail.

When on Frasers, you don't always have to go into the forest to spot stuff. Driving along the roads from one trail entrance to another, we spotted more Silver leaf monkeys, Long-tailed sibias, Black-throated sunbirds, and an Indian cuckoo following a flock of sibias around. Cuckoos are parasitic nesters. This means a after she mates, a female cuckoo will find the nest of any other bird, big or small, to lay her little egg into. Once the cuckoo chick hatches, which is usually rather fast, it kicks out the other eggs or chicks in the nest and forces its host to adopt it. An inter-species adaptation that has made cuckoos the choice bird for eradicating other pest species, particularly crows, in cities or countries where gangs of crows cause a nuisance to residents.

A flying lizard, striped squirrel, forest snail, and flowerpecker later, we scooted out of the trail and headed off to the our accomodation. A block of flats built by a Malaysian telecommunications company that is right at the end of the road. Quiet. Picturesque. A great spot for spotting wildlife at dusk.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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