Monday, 20 February 2012

Getting Jiggy ... with a Rail-babbler

Yesterday while birding Panti Forest in Malaysia with Mira and 2 Singaporean birders we heard a distant drawn out monotone whistle. Our unofficial guides (i.e. friends that were super generous to take us and show us around) said that it was a Malaysian Rail-babbler. It is the most sought after species in the area, and typical of desired species they are very difficult to see! This bird is a ground dweller and is the only bird of its genus.

Being birders we all tried to imitate the whistle - with limited success. I think we must have all sounded like out of tune immature Rail-babblers at the very best! Eventually Jimmy, honed his whistle and we could hear the distant whistle of this unique bird become a little less distant.

Wondering what the bird actually looks like? So was I!

Photo from here

OK, it doesn't look totally badass, but it was rare, lives only in a limited region of SE Asia and it was within ear shot.

Listen to the song while you continue reading:

After hearing the song continue to come closer we were all eagerly scanning the forest floor for any sign of this bird. A solid 15 minutes later and we were starting to give up hope. Ju Lin said that the bird is very unlikely to come out of hiding so we would at least have to enter the (leach-infested) forest a bit more. I figured this rare bird was worth the risk of leaches.

I slowly and quietly walked in the direction of the bird while some how impulsively learning how to whistle at the birds pitch. The song of the bird almost sounded like it was coming from a few directions so I was unsure which way to go. I crept down one of the only openings and continued to lure in the bird by whistling after every time it sang.

Eventually I could hear that it was very close by. No more than 5 meters - but knowing how difficult it is to see ground-dwelling birds I wasn't very confident that I would be able to locate it.
A few short and drawn out steps closer to my target and I saw a bit of movement. Locking on with the bins and to my amazement I saw the Malaysian Rail-babbler filling up my field of view while putting on an amazing display.

While singing the bird would crouch down very low to the ground and stretch it's neck forwards as if putting a lot of emphasis into the song. After finishing the whistle (about 2 seconds long) it would stand back up to look in my direction waiting for my reply. I submitted and whistled back to the bird, to which it replied once more. This time I could see the small air sacs on its neck expand to show a bright white display flanked with blue on the sides and a chestnut-red colour at the front of the neck.
What a cracker - as the british would say! I called to the others to come in and see the bird, the Rail-babbler amazingly did not flee but continued to sing its song providing an amazing spectacle.

I did try to film the bird - with very limited success. Evidence at the most.
In the first couple seconds you can hear the song of the bird followed by a poor imitation by me. At first you can see that the bird is crouched down, low to the ground while whistling and then raises its head to look in the direction of us:



This video does the display much more justice. Look at the blue skin on the side of the neck when it expands!



This definitely goes down as one of the coolest experiences I've ever had with an individual bird. There's certainly better looking birds and rarer birds that I've seen. But the combination of having to work for the bird, patience paying off, seeing it perform it's display and having a bird almost communicate with me is a pretty amazing feeling! Not to mention the allure of a sought after species, that is endemic to this region and is more often heard than seen.

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