Australian Ornithological Services Pty Ltd
Birding Southern Peninsula Malaysia
14 May to the 24 May 2000
Panti Forest is situated about two hours by car from Singapore and about 25 kilometres NE of the small town of Kota Tinggi. It contains one of the largest areas of tropical lowland rainforest remaining in southern Peninsula Malaysia. Testament to Panti's size and richness is that many of the large mammals, that are becoming rare elsewhere, can still be found here.
It still supports Asian Elephant, Malayan Tapair and Malayan Sun Bear. Tigers are said to occur here but there does not appear to be any recent evidence.
Panti is also home to a host of Hornbills, Trogans, an incredible 15 species of Woodpecker and a breathtaking array of Babblers and Bulbuls. It holds such delights as Malaysian Rail Babbler, Garnett Pitta and five species of Broadbill.
The birding at Panti is hardwork but the rewards are great. Initially, I had intended to spend half my time here and then go up to Fraser's Hill but realized after a couple of days that my work was cut out for me at Panti. After 10 days I had come nowhere near exhausting the possibilities. While the number of new birds dropped towards the end, some were still being seen. Amazingly, I could go back to the same area for several consecutive days and see different birds each day; many species I saw only on one occasion. It's conceivable that you could bird the area for a month and still be seeing new birds.
I birded two trails only - the so called 270 km trail and the 267 km or Bunker Trail. I spent half a day on the 270 km Trail as there was so much to see on Bunker. The birding on the 270 km Trail is not as good as it reportedly had been prior to the demolition of a large swathe of forest for a gas pipeline. Bunker Trail takes its name from the WWII concrete bunkers on both sides of the main road at the start of the Trail. There are trucks working the road, six days a week, to and from the sand quarry at the top of Bunker Trail. While these are a nuisance they do not have a serious affect on birding. There are quite a few side trails and you can bush bash -I did both quite a bit, and while I did reasonably well on the skulking birds it probably cost me quite a few Hornbills. In hindsight I perhaps should have spent more time working the road and less time in the forest. The other disadvantage of birding the jungle, particularly the swamp jungle are the voracious mosquitoes. These devils don't have any trouble biting through a shirt, particularly a sweat soaked one, and seemed to be especially vicious anytime I was stalking a skulking bird! The humidity in the afternoon was near intolerable. There was thunder most afternoons but it rained only on two occasions and then just briefly.
The locals told me that May and June are the best months to bird this part of Malaysia as the monsoon rains have finished and many of the birds are breeding. True, there was a lot of breeding activity while I was there.
It is difficult to pick out a highlight but I think the Malaysian Rail Babbler did it for me. I saw three of these beauties including a male displaying not five metres from me. After he called he inflated two air sacs in his throat that showed as two brilliant white patches either side of the throat. These sacs were invisible when not inflated.
Other highlights included the skulking Gannet Pitta. Also right up there are the Woodpeckers. I managed ten species in Panti including six species in one location. The woodpeckers must move around. Where the forest abounded with woodpeckers on one day - there would only be a couple of birds present a day or two later. What a great family they are - from the Checker-throated and Banded down to the Buff-rumped and Grey and Buff - looking like little clockwork toys. However, the cutest was the diminutive Rufous Piculet, working away madly on a stem of bamboo grass, only a few metres from me. Other outstanding birds included the incredible Rhinocerous Hornbill being buzzed by Drongos; the amazing Broadbills: the uncomely Dusky, the Banded and the Green. The Dusky and the Banded have raucous calls while the Green has an unusual, subdued call.
Also impressive were the Trogans of which I saw two species: the Scarlet-rumped and Cinnamon-rumped. Two other species of Trogan, the Red-naped and Diard's, also occur in Panti. The Scarlet-chested was reasonably bold but the Cinnamon-rumped was shyer and difficult to see. Its habitat, the mosquito infested swamp forest, did not help. Both had quite loud monotonous calls.
The Red-bellied Bee-eater was a favorite. This species blends in well in the rainforest; it has a raucous call reminiscent of a Dollarbird.
Kingfishers were hard to get; Banded was heard on several occasions but wasn't sighted. Black-capped gave me a couple of tantalizing glimpses while the only satisfactory views obtained were of the delightful Rufous-backed Kingfisher.
In total, four Malkohas species were seen including three at one location.
Cuckoos were also hard to see. I called in the aptly named Large Hawk-cuckoo. Flying like an Accipitor, it landed close by
Violet Cuckoo afforded me one good look. Plaintive Drongo and the more familiar Little Bronze Cuckoo were also seen.
A Whiskered Treeswift sitting on a nest the size of an Australian 20 cent piece, with a single egg almost the size of the nest, was a memorable sight.
I spotlighted nearly every evening and while I didn't see one owl, I saw some excellent mammals such as Small-toothed Palm Civet, Malay Civet Cat and Slow Loris.
Raptors were scarce. I saw a beautiful pair of Crested Serpent Eagles; a pale phrase Changeable Hawk Eagle - a massive bird spotlighted on several occasions. Glimpsed what may have been a Falconet flying over; and also a dark falcon flying over at dusk may have been the elusive Bat Hawk. A pair of Crested Goshawks were seen feeding small young in a nest. I had spotted the dilapidated nest with a low sitting bird one evening and returned at sunrise the following day. Already the male had brought a kill back to the female and she flew to the nest to feed the young. She emerged about an hour later and perched with her mate in the tree. Brilliant!
I saw 16 species of Babbler and 13 of Bulbul and a few more bulbuls remain in question. I doubt that I anywhere near exhausted these two species which are hell to identify. The Babblers seem to fill every niche with some, such as Horsfield looking and behaving like pittas while others, such as Ferruginous, behave like Flycatchers. They have great calls, some musical and thrush-like, i.e. Rufous-crowned, while some of the small guys, such as Black-throated Babbler and Fluffy-backed Tit Babbler have big deep voices. They are a great family of birds. The Bulbuls, however, are another matter. I was beginning to dread seeing another 'brown' bulbul!
I had been told before I arrived at Panti Forest that it is better than Taman Negara. Not having experienced Taman Negara, I can't compare, but I can say that Panti Forest is excellent for birds and mammals. There is a lot of development occurring; however, I think that if the locals saw the economic/tourism value in retaining the rainforest, its chances of survival would be greater. Go there!
I thank Sonnie Wing for putting in a morning with me and helping with identification problems; also Kenneth Kee, Lim Kim Chuch and Subaraj Rajathurai for helpful advise, and the great bunch of Singaporean birders at Panti Forest who sorted out some birds - and kindly fed me.
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