Walking quietly along the forest trail, my eyes are trained on the undergrowth. I’m hoping for that telltale sign of a pitta or a wren-babbler flicking leaves about in search of beetles or worms. Perhaps a flycatcher, or maybe a fireback pheasant making its own way along the trail.
I know that most of the bird action is happening high above in the forest canopy, or along the sunlit clearings, but this morning I am in search of recluses and skulkers. Suddenly, a flash of colour appears before me. What appears to be a hand-painted toy has dropped to the ground ahead of me! But this is no toy, it is a bird and one that I’ve seen several times before.
But what is a Black-and-yellow Broadbill doing here in dark understory? – it is a species that favours the canopy and the sunlight! Luckily, it is distracted and doesn’t pay much attention to me, so I am able to watch it pull at a string of lichen on a fallen branch. Okay, it makes sense now, it is gathering nesting material. I move forward a little, so the broadbill stops what it is doing and flies onto a low perch to look at me, an unexpected intruder in its world. Now, I can see this dazzling little jewel in all its splendour – a ridiculously luminous turquoise bill, snow-white collar and pink underparts. And, as if that is not enough, it has a pair of glowing yellow eyes – it really does look like a toy, or a feathered clown! After a moment, the broadbill returns to its task, gathering the lichen in its bill before disappearing into the forest.
Meanwhile, what must be the broadbill’s partner is calling up above. An urgent trill, rising to a crescendo then ending abruptly – one of the most distinctive calls of the Bornean rainforest.
Danum Valley, Sabah (North Borneo), Malaysia. October 2011.
BROADBILL FACTS: there are 15 species of broadbill – confined to Asia and Africa; eight species occur on the island of Borneo with two of these being endemic. Africa has three species of which the African Broadbill is most widespread. Most members of the family are insectivorous, but the predominantly green-plumaged members of the genus Calyptomena are berry-eaters. All broadbills make pendulous, purse-shaped nests that are draped from branches overhanging water or forest clearings, and disguised to resemble flood debris or dangling epiphytes.