Birds of merapoh
On World Migratory Bird Day 2020, we celebrate the immense birdlife of Malaysia
by exploring the birds of Merapoh.
World Migratory Bird Day 2020
In a country with 834 bird species, Taman Negara is one of the premier birdwatching sites. Sitting on the western fringes of the national park is Merapoh, a town where humans are vastly outnumbered by their feathered friends. From great birds of prey to dainty passerines and just about everything in-between. There’s a multicoloured world of discovery hovering in the kampung’s skies.
For those who don’t know, you can check out a description of Merapoh in our ‘Connecting People with Nature’ piece on the small Malay town. Biogeographically, it lies in an area known as Sundaland which is characterised by its humid climate, maritime influence, limited seasonality and tropical evergreen rainforests. Most importantly, Sundaland contains an amazing number of natural habitats, from mangroves to swamps to forests; all of which birds love. In addition to this, Merapoh is built atop land that is geologically limestone, forming stunning caves that certain bird species find irresistible.
And so... [From my time in Merapoh in February]
… as you walk around Merapoh, your eyes follow the flurries of colourful wings and your ears tune into the orchestra of bird calls. Being an orang England (English person), I cannot help but laugh at the staggering amount of birdlife here, as I catch the green of two broadbills chasing one another through the roadside vegetation. It’s amusing to think that there are dedicated birders currently in nature reserves around the UK, concealed in birdwatching huts and clutching elaborate binoculars, when I am simply out walking to the local shop and seeing such an array of exotic birdlife.
Yesterday, driving back from the Sungai Relau entrance to Taman Negara, my gazing-out-the-window daydream was interrupted by the brilliant blue of the white-throated kingfisher as it flew off into an oil palm plantation. When we returned to our accommodation, we saw a black hornbill leap off a tall palm tree and flap its majestic wings in the direction of the nearby river. You see, in Merapoh, you don’t need your binoculars to birdwatch.
The unofficial national bird of Malaysia is the rhinoceros hornbill. A black plumage that becomes white on its tail, it is rather a regular-looking bird until you meet its beak. Hornbills as a family of birds are characterised by their distinctive long, down-curved beak, which is supported by a unique structure of neck vertebrae. The rhinoceros hornbill’s is stranger still; sporting a large horn-like extension from the top of its beak that melts from a bright red to a golden yellow. It steals the show. The mesmerising ‘casque’, made up of the same material as our fingernails, acts as an amplifying mechanism by resonating the bird’s calls.
Rhinoceros hornbills are large birds, with the adults weighing from 20-30 kg. The indigenous Dayak people of Borneo have always regarded the rhinoceros hornbill as the chief of all birds and if that’s not enough to convince you of their majesty, they also feature on the Malaysian 5 Ringgit note! Hornbills are stoic creatures and seeing their heavy wings flap smoothly across the endless sky is a sight to cherish for a whole lifetime.
Diurnal, being the opposite of nocturnal, simply means ‘of or during the day’.
Providing access to one of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests, Taman Negara, there are hardly many better places to observe birds accustomed to forest canopy life than in Merapoh. Other than the hornbills, darting among the trees in the daytime you’ll find barbets, woodpeckers, doves, broadbills, bulbuls, trogons, babblers and many, many more. All the while, up above are the birds of prey: eagles, hawks and falcons, perching atop dead trees or circling the skies as they scan the great forest.
Clockwise from top: black-and-yellow broadbill, black-naped monarch, oriental pied hornbill, drongo-cuckoo, red-bearded bee-eater, scarlet-rumped trogon. Photos by Izereen Mukri, Malayan Rainforest Station.
Some of the densest birdlife is found along rivers, an easy hunting ground for insect-eating birds. Flowing through Merapoh is a beautifully tranquil stream, sheltered from the town and passing motorbikes by thick walls of vegetation. The only sounds here are the flow of water, the hum of insects and the tweet of birds. Most of the birdlife in Merapoh will appear by the riverbanks at some point or another, but particularly river-inclined are the region’s kingfishers and flycatchers.
You might think that the night’s daily fall would provide some rest from birdwatching activities, but as the diurnal birdlife of Merapoh heads to the nest, many species are only just waking up. Local hotels and travel centres frequently offer night walks in Taman Negara, hoping to spot some of the forest’s more elusive inhabitants. Active at night are the many species of owl such as the brown hawk and oriental bay, along with the more bizarre frogmouths, onto whom it looks as though a camera’s fisheye lens has been applied, and other nocturnal birds such as nightjars and night herons.
Of the 644 bird species that have been observed in Peninsular Malaysia, 232 are migrants, simply using the land as a stop-off point on a far greater migration. For these travellers on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, places like Merapoh are a much-welcomed petrol station and cosy roadside B&B on their journeys to and from breeding sites around Siberia and wintering sites in Southeast Asia and Australia. Migratory birds rely on these resting spots to complete their migrations and thus their conservation is crucial for hundreds of bird species.
Many of the bird species found here in Merapoh, only some of which I have mentioned, are confined to the biogeography of Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo, and are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss. Year by year, more species get uplisted on the IUCN Red List, getting ever closer to that desperate classification of no-return: “extinct”. But, at least for now, upon entering a small town beside Taman Negara, we can still say “Welcome to Merapoh! A place where you can leave your binoculars at home.”
Clements, J. et al. The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World.
Davison, G. and Yeap, C. C. A naturalist’s guide to the birds of Malaysia including Sabah and Sarawak.
Robson, C. A field guide to the birds of South-East Asia.
Wells, D. The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsular. Free download!