Monday, June 7, 2010

West Malaysia: Fraser's Hill - On to the Birds!

Fraser's Hill is, of course, famous as a birding spot - a fact that is now celebrated by signs like these, posted at suitable locations.
Mind you, some of the signs betray a certain lack of awareness of the actual birdlife of the area. Notice that the featured bird of this sign is a Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), a bird that is not only native to Mexico and Central America but belongs to an entire family completely absent from the Old World. Maybe the signmakers thought it was a hornbill?

Anyway, the best place to get on close terms with the birds of Fraser's Hill is, oddly enough, the parking lot of the Jelai Highlands Resort Hotel. The hotel lights, left on overnight, bring in insects, and the insects bring in, first thing in the morning, a whole range of mountain birds. Eileen and I stayed there the first time we came to Fraser's Hill, but on this trip the whole place seemed deserted. Perhaps a business opportunity for an enterprising birder?

Here is an insect that survived the morning breakfast rush, getting ready to pass the day on the overhang in front of the hotel entrance. It's an Indian Moon Moth, or Indian Luna Moth (Actias selene), a widespread Asian species that is apparently a favourite with moth fanciers, who raise the insects from commercially-bred (or collected?) cocoons.

My Nikon was telephoto-free thanks to an encounter with the pavement at Tanjung Tuan, so at Fraser's I had to rely on my video camera instead. This is no handicap at Jelai, so I am including here, for the first time in my blog, some video clips to go with my photographs. The subject of this one used to be known as the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush, but after some taxonomic contortions it has been rechristened the Spectacled Laughingthrush (Rhinocichla mitrata).

This was once known as the Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush (Garrulax erythrocephalus), but after a split of that "species" into four separate entities the Fraser's Hill birds are now called Malayan Laughingthrush (
Garrulax peninsulae).

The two laughingthrushes are only part of the array of babblers (Timaliidae) visiting the parking lot at Jelai. Here is my favourite, the beautiful Silver-eared Mesia (Leiothrix argentauris).

At the smaller end of the babbler size scale are the active, warbler-like fulvettas (
Alcippe and related genera). In some parts of southeast Asia identifying fulvettas can be a real challenge, but not at Fraser's Hill where this bird, far from its confusing relatives in Indochina, is clearly a Mountain Fulvetta (Alcippe peracensis).

Also at the small end of the scale is this Buff-breasted Babbler (
Trichastoma tickelli), a normally shy bird that emerged from the undergrowth for a few seconds.

Larger and more spectacular (and much less shy), but still a babbler, is the Long-tailed Sibia(
Heterophasia picaoides), which has the rather un-babbler-like habit of visiting flowers (in this case Australian bottlebrush trees (Callistemon sp.).

This last bird from Jelai is also the first of a series of flycatchers (Muscicapidae). Fraser's Hill hosts both resident flycatchers and migrants from further north in Asia. This is a migrant: a male Mugimaki Flycatcher (Ficedula mugimaki), presumably getting ready to depart to his breeding grounds in Siberia or northeastern China.

This is a resident species, a Verditer Flycatcher (Eumyias thalassina), seen from our apartment balcony. The peculiar word "verditer" refers to the bird's particular shade of blue; verditer is a bluish or greenish carbonate of copper.

Finally, these charming little creatures are Rufous-browed Flycatchers (
Ficedula solitaris), clearly getting ready for a round of nesting. Unlike most flycatchers, this is a bird of the forest understorey (and it was a lifer for me, hurrah!).

For me, much of the pleasure of birding is the company you keep. Birders on Fraser's Hill who feel the same way should recognize this face: Mr. K.S. Durai has been helping birders there for over twenty years, and is an authority on the local flora and fauna. I had met him there on my first visit, and it was good to see him again.

The next best thing to accompanying and old hand like Mr. Durai is introducing someone new to birding. Eddie Yap guides trekkers in the area as a break from his main profession, designing batik fabrics (he is a member of the World Batik Council). Birds, though, were new to him, and with Bing and I to point them out, he became one of the most enthusiastic newbies I have met.

One of the birds we were able to show Eddie was this Bronzed Drongo (
Dicrurus aeneus) sitting on its nest in the forest.

Nearby was another nest, this one of a Long-tailed Broadbill (Psarisomus dalhousiae), but unfortunately the bird was not in attendance. It is a typical broadbill nest: an untidy ball of fibres suspended from a twig, very difficult for a predator to approach without setting the whole structure a-tremble.

A row of bottlebrush trees brought in Orange-bellied Leafbirds (Chloropsis hardwickii); their colour palette brought out the artist in Eddie, who was astonished at the way nature matches or exceeds our human capacity for design.

Sometimes birds turn up that you don't expect. On our first day, Bing found this Collared Owlet (
Glaucidium brodiei) on the Telekom Loop, where it was sending the local songbirds into a frenzy. Both the photo and the video were taken down the barrel of Bing's spotting scope without the benefit of a digiscoping attachment, so they are hardly ideal, but I couldn't resist posting them. Note in the video the way the bird's white breast patch expends at each note -- providing, I presume, a visual signal to enhance the vocal one, a possibly useful adaptation in this mostly day-flying owl.

A nearby auto garage has been taken over for years by a colony of Glossy Swiftlets (Collocalia esculenta - despite the species' Latin name, its nests are not the edible kind). I was delighted to learn later on that the garage had once belonged to a pioneer of Southeast Asian bird photography, the late Loke Wan Tho, whose 1959 album of black and white photographs, A Company of Birds, was my first introduction to the avifauna of the region -- long before I started spending time here.

An elegant English tea for Eddie, Eileen and Bing -- an appropriate way to end a visit, for birding or other things, to this very Anglo-Malaysian spot!