Once again, I’m walking along a mossy, cloud forest trail. Without a doubt, this is my preferred habitat. I’m on the Malaysian peninsula, about 3˚ north of the equator, but at Fraser’s Hill some 1 200 metres above the steamy lowlands. It has been raining off-and-on all morning, nothing heavy, just drizzle really. With the tripod and scope slung over my shoulder I’ve been walking the Telekom Loop for the past five hours and I’m now in urgent need of some sustenance in the village – sweet & sour pork and rice, again, no doubt.
About half a kilometre before the village, I see a partially hidden path going up the hillside: the ‘Kindersley Trail’. This being my last morning here, I thought to check it out, even in my exhausted state, and even though it was almost midday when bird activity is traditionally very low. Still, several of the special birds I’d hoped to see at Fraser’s Hill had eluded me over the past three days, and when might I ever get back?
The trail became very steep and very narrow quite quickly. I removed the tripod and scope from my shoulder and hid them in some undergrowth (to be retrieved on my way down). Twice I slipped and sprawled, twice my backpack got snagged on a rattan palm. Twenty minutes in, and – not for the first time on this trip – I wonder what on earth I’m doing here? But a pair of White-throated Fantails appear before me, pirouetting on a slender branch, fanning out their tails into a half-moon, only to disappear into the dim forest interior. But then, suddenly, there are birds everywhere. I am in the middle of a ‘bird wave’ – insectivores of many species, moving through the forest on a broad front to disturb and snatch up their prey. A Lesser Racquet-tailed Drongo, perhaps a dozen Mountain Fulvettas, two Greater Yellow-naped Woodpeckers, a Chestnut-capped Laughing-Thrush. And then, right in front on me, a species I had longed to see – Blue Nuthatch! It clawed its way down a tree trunk, probing into the moss and lichen, then flicked its wings and darted up into another tree. It was upside down, hanging onto the bark with its long claws, then did a backflip to land on a mossy stump. It was such a dark indigo-blue overall, with flashes of ultramarine, azure and cobalt. What a restless but dazzling little bird.
Within a few minutes, the forest around me went quiet again. The bird wave had moved on. Five minutes earlier, or later, and I would have missed it all. With that unique elated feeling of having found a special quarry, I retraced my steps and headed back to the main road. Then, as I approached my hidden belongings, a gorgeous Rufous-browed Flycatcher landed on a mossy branch above the hidden tripod. It gazed at me for a while with its warm, dark-chocolate eyes then flew quietly up the trail.
Fraser’ Hill was opened up in 1922 as a retreat from the hot lowlands for British colonists. The site was named after Louis James Fraser a solitary, Scottish pioneer who had begun a tin-ore mining enterprise here in the 1890’s; he also set up a gambling and opium den for his Chinese workers (to profit further from them!) then disappeared without trace some years later. Today, Fraser’s Hill is a very popular birding destination on the itinerary of most international travellers and the site of the local Malaysian Nature Society’s annual ‘Bird Race’. Over 250 bird species occur in the forests around the village of Fraser’s Hill, with over 80 being endemic to the Sunda region and 36 species being classified as endangered.
Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia, April 2005.