A recent trip to Malaysia, in the Genting and Berjaya Hills area, was one of the most enjoyable birding photography trips I have ever been on. I’d heard that a particular type of pheasant, no less than a Mountain Peacock Pheasant, may be seen and photographed – if you are lucky. I was told that attending the place where these somewhat secretive birds at times frequent, may yield results and produce a sighting of this species, and the proximity to photograph this beautiful bird. IF you are lucky.
The bird is classified as vulnerable to extinction and is thought to have populations receding owing to reduction of habitat. It is mainly found in the central highland regions of Malaysia and whilst there have been reports of it being seen in Southern Thailand, these reports have yet to be validated.
I decided to go to the place where these birds were reported and ‘wait it out’ to see if this bird emerged. It was very early morning when I arrived and I got the camera equipment all set up, and a hunting chair was set up to provide a “little comfort”. I had no idea how long the wait would be for the bird to make an appearance, nor even if that appearance would be made at all. I wasn’t alone upon arrival as a fellow bird photographer was already settled, presumably also in search o the Mountain Peacock Pheasant.
Light levels were not great as the sun was being filtered by upper tree canopies and distributing light in small intensely lit patches that were being caressed by dark patches of shadow. A mosaic of lit and unlit undergrowth and fallen foliage lay before me, and I was noticing that my camera’s metering was somewhat challenged to make sense of this tricky lighting. I scanned the forest floor and nearby perches in an effort to get an idea of light levels, preemptively. It took a mere 7-8 minutes before evidence of a bird became apparent.
I kept hearing an alarm call, a ‘tsck, tack’, and had no idea what species of bird this might be. Then suddenly a gorgeous bird flitted onto a branch in front of me and then almost immediately onto a nearby perch – a log that had been sitting partially across a walkway through the forest.
It was a pretty bird, a male White Rumped Shama, and it proceeded to dine freely and readily on some mealworms that the other birder must have placed to attract birds… I hadn’t noticed these mealworms previously.
This wasn’t a bird I was familiar with and it proceeded to hop down into fallen leaves a little nearer to my seat. It was picking up mealworms with a level of voracity that I found a little surprising… surely this bird was not going to devour a mouthful like this? The bird flew off, then the ‘tsck, tack’ call was repeated and back he came again, for another mouthful.
I thought that the alarm call must have something to do with a nearby nest and no sooner had I had this thought, than a fledged White Rumped Shama came into view. The female was not evident and never put in an appearance; perhaps she was still tending more recent nestlings that had yet to fledge, whilst the male was in attendance to both this fledgling and the female as well, hence the beak-fulls of mealworms. I was most pleased to see this bird… it was active, a new species for me and very beautiful. The male continued to flit around, grabbing further beak-fulls and then temporarily disappearing on his distribution mission.
These forays were always short affairs, returning to the scene and returning to serve the appetite of his hungry fledgling (sadly when shots of the two were available they were always in dark shadow and I got no clear shots of the feeding activities. I did get to watch this though, despite the low light, so happy days 🙂 .
Around an hour later the fellow birder left, having seen no other birds than the Shama to this point. I wondered if this photographer had ‘local knowledge’ and perhaps he knew that the pheasants were not going to make an appearance. Maybe they were ‘early morning birds’ and past 10.30am, they were unlikely to show. Doubts began to enter my mind; there were countless other species I could be photographing, many in close proximity too. The Clash’s famed tune began playing in my minds’ playlist… “Well c’mon and let me know – Should I stay or should I go?”
I stayed and had the intention to do so for another hour and then go get something to eat. I’m glad I did. I saw a briefest flash in the undergrowth to my left. And then nothing. Then another, but whatever was moving was indistinguishable. Then nothing. Hmm. I wondered if this patient approach would be rewarded.
Suddenly, a shape appeared next to a tree and this bird must have been super stealthy as before it emerged I’d had no sign of its’ presence whatsoever. I saw this through my viewfinder and the shutter button finally began to get a workout to compensate for the recent period of inactivity. The birds’ tail was obscured behind the trunk of the tree, but nonetheless i was in the presence of majesty – that much I COULD see. Finally. I was elated.
If my viewfinder had human qualities, more light would have been apparent at this juncture, as like me, my lens must surely have been smiling widely. The bird scurried and in the low light conditions, was extremely difficult to shoot without motion blur or switching to ISO levels that would have produce low image quality through the resultant noise. Another pheasant appeared, then another, and another and finally another. 4 in total. I thought I was dreaming or maybe hallucinating. A whole family of Mountain Peacock Pheasants. Out for the day and out to play… and in front of me! Yehey! Happy Days indeed! 🙂 .
However, I was struggling to photograph these birds. Firstly they were foraging through the fallen leaves and branches. Through the fauna that once proudly graced higher altitudes and have since been replaced by canopy anew. They’d located easy pickings. They had discovered remnants that the Shama had left behind (despite his obvious motivation and appetite). They moved fast and I had no shutter speeds fast enough to grab the action. With ISO’s already in excess of 2500 and shutter speeds of 1/250, this was insufficient to prevent the motion blour I saw later on my computer screen, during post processing.
Additionally, I had gone armed with a 500mm f4 lens and a 1.4x teleconverter. A 300mm f2.8 would have been sufficient and a 70-200mm f2.8 would have been perfect at times. Alas I had neither with me.
Nonetheless, there were instances where a bird would break off from the group (a group of pheasants is referred to as a bouquet, a nye or a covey… the latter is accepted as correct, though in reality this is best applied to a group of partridges).
When a bird not only ‘broke off’ from the main group and moved a little further away, I then could get a few shots that at the very least, give me some pleasure and a reflection upon this morning that I will forever cherish.
Boy these guys were pretty. I got to be in their presence for almost 20 minutes and took care not to make a sound during this treat.
Eventually one of the pheasants that had split from the main group ventured into some shafts of sunlight and it quickly became even clearer just how pretty those birds are. The spots on the back of the bird are quite iridescent. Stunningly pretty.
There’s some real good news about these birds. It was once feared that a planned road in the highlands of Malaysia would further impact their habitat; thankfully this road is no longer planned and the project has been shelved. Further great news is that there are official breeding programs for these pheasants underway both in Malaysia and North America. These are official and with a remit to further introduce more of these birds back into the wild – and that’s a mighty fine thing!
I got to see these birds ‘in the wild’, as the photographs above are not ‘introduced’ but naturally occurring birds. How lucky was I to see these? The birds disappeared with the same lack of fanfare with which they arrived. They scurried, almost in single file, back into the deeper reaches of the forest and in exactly the same place from which they had emerged.
My treat was done for that morning. And what a morning that was! As a boy in the UK, pheasants are aplenty. They’re beautiful, but not rare or particularly outstanding. Never before had it crossed my mind to think ‘how pleasant, to see a pheasant’. But this day, I definitely did.
Happy Days 🙂 .