Highlands birding, Malaysia-style
They say 6000 ha of ancient Malaysian jungle was cleared to build the Genting Highlands gambling resort in the hills just north of Kuala Lumpur.
It opened nearly 50 years ago and has become one of the world’s largest hotel, gaming and recreational complexes – 1800 m above the steamy heat of the Malaysian lowlands.
The access highway that zigzags up Mt Ulu Kali is a truly impressive engineering achievement. But as the resort’s gaudy new architecture and tatty old apartment blocks reveal themselves through the low cloud and mist, it is easy to wish back the forest that stood there for 100 million years.
Enter James Bond?
But my reason for being in the area was not to visit the resort’s 20,000 sq m of gaming tables. The objective was a military radar station – enter James Bond? No, something more prosaic: the wire-fenced perimeter is a great place to find Malaysian mountain birds.
Access is via a narrow, winding road to the left below the resort, where there is sufficient remnant mountain forest to sustain a surprisingly rich population of local birds and other wildlife.
The early morning conditions were extremely challenging: cold, damp and with heavy mist shrouding everything. But local guide Cheong Weng Chun – an excellent KL-based birder with whom I have shared several adventures – was optimistic the weather would improve.
It didn’t. But thanks to the wonders of ISO technology, I could call on four extra f-stops and get ridiculously sharp hand-held images with my 500mm at very low shutter speeds.
What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was the popularity of the radar station site. Despite the hour, a phalanx of photographers was already in place at one of the prime observation spots. And they had come fully prepared: big lenses, Better Beamer flashes, bird call apps being played at max revs and lots of meal worms.
Standard for Malaysia
Not my scene at all, but apparently standard for Malaysian bird photographers. And given that they had already called in some very good species – all ‘lifers’ for me – it would have been churlish to stomp off in protest.
No room for the tripod, so I settled in at ground level where most of the meal worms had landed and marvelled at the unfolding ‘floorshow’, including: chestnut-crowned laughing thrush, Siberian thrush, large niltava (a glorious blue flycatcher), Siberian blue robin, snowy-browed flycatcher, mugimaki flycatcher and bar-throated minla – not forgetting a very confident Malaysian bush shrew.
We saw many more species on our way back down the track, including my favourite for the day, a pygmy wren-babbler in some bracken – pictured here thanks to the keen-eyed Mr Cheong and Canon technology.
If you are ever in the vicinity of KL with a morning to spare and you are not too squeamish about the local birding techniques, check out the Genting Highlands radar station and environs.
Story & pictures © Natural Images 2017