Plain-pouched Hornbills in flight photo by Jasmin & John Steed
Other photos and text by Ian Hall
19th August 2008
It was five o clock in the evening and all the day’s heat was pouring out of the red earth of the bola sepak pitch. I had my umbrella to provide shade from the sun but it was awkward to hold binoculars and monitor a telescope with only one free hand.
Luckily the evening hornbill flight does not really get going until 6pm but we had to be there at five to ensure that the count included the early birds. Kim Chye saw them first, flying back and forth just beyond the horizon. It was as though they were psyching themselves up for crossing the lake.
The lake had not always been there. It began to form in 1978 after the construction of a dam for hydro electric power. That is the ostensible reason. I have heard an anecdote that the lake also helped to flush out communist insurgents and take the legwork out of jungle patrols along the Thai border. The hornbills and the Jahai people have been there long before the communists and the lake. Both have been forced to adapt their lifestyle to the changed environment.
Roslan our Jahai guide and boatman does not remember a time completely without the lake, but as a young boy he grew up watching its gradual advance.
“My parents and grandparents moved the village many times” he explained in a matter of fact way, “higher each time until we settled at Chuweh”.
Our observation post for the hornbill count is at another small settlement called Tebang, a little to the north of the larger Jahai village of Chiong.
“When I first came here in 1998 the birds used to fly right over the village. Now they have moved further away because they don’t like to cross the open areas where the forest has been cleared for rubber trees” recalled Kim Chye.
From our vantage point we can see two flight paths; one crosses the lake about 1km to the north of Tebang and the other stays over dry land a similar distance to the south, beyond Chiong. With the two observers both using telescopes it is possible to count all the birds that pass within this extended field of view. I take the northern flight, Yian takes the southern and Kim Chye takes notes.
They are big birds, about the size of a goose and tend to fly together in a ‘V’ formation to take advantage of the slipstream of the leader. Like cyclists in a peleton they constantly rotate the hard work in the lead, making them difficult to count. Despite the challenge you very quickly get a feel for the flock size and learn to estimate at a glance, flocks of up to 20 individuals.
The next challenge is to master the different scales at which they present themselves. Most of the time I used binoculars for spotting and a telescope for counting; not forgetting of course to zoom back out to the naked eye just in case any were trying to sneak by at close range. It is mind boggling work (especially if the birds are seen against a jungle background) and works wonders for your binocular and telescope handling.
Yian and I called out numbers in rapid fire while Kim Chye did his best to scribble them down whilst keeping half an eye out for any others that we might have missed. For an hour the hornbills streamed past, all heading towards an imaginary point beyond the horizon. By 7pm the flood of heat from the earth abated to a trickle and the flow of hornbills had reduced to a few stragglers against the dusk sky. The call of the Great Slaty Woodpecker returning to roost was our cue to relax concentration and make our way back to Chuweh
At Chuweh we were accommodated in the grandly named Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Hornbill Conservation Program Field Station. MNS commissioned the villagers to build it for the princely sum of 1000 ringgit. It is entirely constructed out of forest products; saplings for the posts, bamboo for the walls, rotan for the roof and in a nod to modernisation, rough sawn boards for the floor. The building is expected to last 2-3 years although under the heavy tread of city folk it has already developed an alarming list towards the lake.
During dinner prepared by Roslan’s wife, I lost a lot of face by being the only person not to crunch on the fish head. Luckily attention was quickly diverted by the important task of totting up the day’s tally of birds.
“beep beep – beep – beep beep” went the calculator, expertly thumbed by Yian our Chekgu matematik as I read out the numbers.
The grand total came to a whisker over 2300 birds!
“A record for this year” declared Kim Chye
“Almost the same number as the counts from the early days” said Yian
Over 2,365 individuals in flight were counted on 25 November 1993. Apparently they have not been seen again in these numbers until now. This is good news for a species that was not known to exist in Malaysia until 1998.
The Plain-pouched Hornbill was previously thought to be confined to the Myanmar/Thailand neck of the Malay Peninsula and not extending as far south as Malaysia. Not only was the new record significant, but the numbers were unprecedented anywhere else in the world. That these numbers have remained static for the last 10 years suggests that their habitat is still intact.
Following a successful campaign by MNS, the Perak State Government has gazetted half of this habitat as a conservation area (Royal Belum). The other half (Temengor Forest Reserve) is still designated a production forest and is gradually being logged and converted to agriculture. The State Government also plans to develop a strip of land 1km to either side of the East – West Highway (HW 4 on the above map) for acacia plantation. This would bisect the habitat in two with the possible result that it can no longer sustain populations of large animals.
We know very little about the habits of the Plain-pouched Hornbill but it is certain that they roost in large numbers in Temengor during July / August and that they rely on the entire Belum – Temengor Forest Complex for foraging. No one has yet found where they nest and it is also not clear where they roost at other times of the year.
The MNS Hornbill Conservation Program is urgently trying to answer these questions. Of most pressing need is to identify roost and nest sites so that these can be immediately protected. In the longer term it is hoped to adopt the Plain-pouched Hornbill as a flagship species to campaign for protection of Belum – Temengor as a contiguously forested area.
“I believe that this is something which is of interest to everyone, not just bird watchers. You cannot help but be moved by the sight of thousands of birds and the sound of their wings” said Kim Chye.
We were up again at 4am for the morning flight. We had barely set foot in the sticky mud at the lake shore when the whoosh of many wings announced that work had started. The morning observation post is on the northern flight path, right at the point where they cross the lake. The trees on the lake shore block out half of the horizon in the direction in which the birds come from. There is no warning save the wingbeats which are heard a few seconds before they’re right overhead.
At this proximity it’s possible to distinguish the blue gular pouch of the females from the larger yellow/white pouch of the males.
“12” I shout “5 male, 7 Female”
Yian scribbles frantically to keep up with the numbers called by me and Kim Chye.
“There’s quite a lot in this group” remarked Kim Chye, the master of understatement, as he counted out flocks totalling 150 birds.
Another whoosh whoosh of wings and fleeting black shapes between the trees announced more birds on my watch. The noise rose to a crescendo and I didn’t know where the birds are going to appear from first. Then someone pushed the ‘surround sound’ button and the air was filled with pulsing bodies and outstretched necks. “Holy shit!” I gave in to a moments panic before I tuned out the background distraction and started counting.
Forget about counting sheep and try hornbills. I slept well those four days in Temengor.
Eco-tourism with the Jahai is possible for small numbers of independent and responsible travellers. Contact me if you are interested to see the rainforest from the perspective of the people who know it best. I’ll try to put you in touch with the right people.