One becomes accustomed to the birds of their own country and the chirping can eventually become background sounds competing with the cacophony of modern times. Perhaps in the quiet hours of the approaching day they get front stage. But with Langkawi bird watching the diverse population of birds makes it possible to see and hear birds at all hours of the day, although there is definitely more bird social interaction during the cooler times of the day, such as morning and late afternoon/early evening.
Reading bird field guides are great for the more scientifically inclined bird enthusiasts, but the average curious individual would do well to indulge in an actual bird watching or nature tour. It only took one enthusiastic naturalist and a few interesting tales, to have me immediately purchasing a field guide and a pair of binoculars in my quest to become a ‘birder’. I’ve since replaced Florida seagulls and robins with magnificent Brahminy Kites, glorious Hornbills and many more of the 200-plus species of birds residing in Langkawi, including those popping in for a rest during their migrations. Far too many to cover in a BLOG, here’s just a teaser of the fascination world of bird watching in Langkawi.
The Brahminy Kite starts the list as it’s considered by many to be the namesake of Langkawi: helang-eagle, kawi- reddish-brown. And although it’s not actually an eagle, the Brahminy Kite certainly looks like the eagle of my American homeland and joins the other birds-of-prey in the raptor family. Hunters by nature, their natural diet of fish and small animals keeps them healthy and numerous in Langkawi, ensuring their continued importance in the balance of Langkawi’s eco-system.
There’s an interesting old tale from Papua, New Guinea that’s passed through Southeast Asia. It’s about a mother who left her baby under a banana tree while working in a field, the baby floating towards the sky crying as it magically transformed into a Brahminy Kite and flew away. That may sound a bit mythical, but adult Brahminy Kites not only have distinct brown and white coloring, they can also be identified by a very distinct call, which sounds… like a baby crying.
WHITE-BELLIED SEA EAGLES
It may take a novice some time to spot the difference between a Brahminy Kite and a Sea Eagle, because both birds have similar coloring as juveniles. A young Sea Eagle could be mistaken for a young Brahminy Kite and visa versa. Seeing them either scouring the land and sea for prey can be quite the National Geographic moment, especially when witnessing the sudden plunge to earth and the rapid departure of either bird carrying its wiggling prey through the skies. The real deal is much more amazing than a ‘staged’ feeding and isn’t that rare of an opportunity.
In Malaysia, not only is the White-Bellied Sea Eagle the emblem for the state of Selangor, it’s also known as ‘burung hamba siput’, or slave of the shellfish. Their loud callings are believed to be a warning to shellfish of the changing tides; even the novice will be able to distinguish their call that sounds similar to the geese-like ‘honking’.
The Baya Weavers leave their calling cards all over Langkawi in the form of intricately woven grass baskets of tremendous diversity. But take a closer look and you’ll see that those amazing constructions are actually nests. These talented-feathered architects will actually construct a nest in hopes of luring a mate. Of course they use a variety of building supplies, including sticks and leaf fibers, so lots of creative potential. If turned down, this Romeo of the bird world will throw the nest to the ground and build another one and hopefully the new design will convince his potential future mate that he is the one!
EDIBLE NEST SWIFTLETS
Speaking of nests, another unique nest builder would be the Edible-Nest Swiftlet. Their nests are built almost entirely of saliva and the main ingredient of bird nest soup. These bird nests have been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years! Supposedly rich in nutrients and wondrous health benefits this ancient Chinese secret is out, and with it comes a billion dollar import-export industry.
Throughout Langkawi and the rest of Malaysia, one might come across a building with massive chirping sounds, ‘tweeters’, emerging from it. For the unsuspecting, an Alfred Hitchcock movie might immediately come to mind but fear not, this is the modern day bird housing of the bird-nest industry replacing their natural cave nesting preference with abandoned (or intentionally abandoned) urban buildings. The bird call recordings can go on for hours inviting all to the latest open house.
One of the most colorful (literally) of the Langkawi bird population is the Kingfisher. These funny little birds can be seen easily and quite frequently due to their colorful plumage. There are eight species of Kingfisher in Langkawi, some resident and some migratory but all with unique coloring showing no preference between sexes. Since they generally live near water and wetlands, they can easily spotted waiting for their next meal of fish, frogs, insects and even crabs.
So what’s the legend behind Kingfishers? Well, there are more than one and they span the globe from American Indians to the Dusin tribes of Borneo. Oral history having a way of morphing into multiple interpretations, here is one tale. The Kingfisher’s coloring has been credited to a biblical tale of a Grey Kingfisher being one of the first birds to leave Noah’s Ark in search of land. Flying too near the sun his breast got burned brown and being struck by lightening created the electric blue markings.
Last but not least, the mighty Hornbill is another prominent face representing the magical tropics of Malaysia and their calls are the epitome of a tropical soundtrack. Often mistaken by new comers to the region as Toucans, Hornbills are often the poster birds of Eco-tourism due to their important role in the rainforest eco-system. Of the ten species of Hornbills residing in Malaysia, three species can be found in Langkawi; the permanent residents would be the Great Hornbill and the Oriental Pied Hornbill while the Wreathed Hornbill visit during the dry-season. Due to their large size their nesting of choice is usually in the hollows of very large trees, thus their census is a direct indicator of rainforest health.
You can find Hornbills in various trees in the morning as well as late afternoons/early evenings and to watch them is one of those, ‘Wow!’ moments. Their numbers have been threatened in the past, due to their ‘golden jade’ or ‘yellow ivory’ (bills) which once was valued higher than real ivory. Their bills have been use in tribal arts and those past artifacts are still circulating in the lucrative International Tribal Arts industry today.
Historically Hornbills have also had mystical importance, their calls sometimes seen as a sign of changes to come. Their black and white tail feathers are also believed to give power and courage, which is why the Iban warriors of Borneo included them in their ceremonial dances. Fortunately this in the past and Hornbills are now protected in Malaysia and they can continue their important roles in the eco-system.
Out of over 720 species of birds in Malaysia, over 200 reside in Langkawi. And although not everyone is going to run out and get a field guide and binoculars like I did, the experience of bird watching will most likely take you to another level of nature appreciation.
*photos by Ian Roberts courtesy of Dev’s Adventure Tours
*photos by Sofian Zack courtesy of Langkawi photographer Sofian Zack
Interested to try some Langkawi bird watching for yourself?
A knowledgable nature guide will have you talking the talk in no time!
Independent Guide: Wendy Chin
@Langkawi Nature Guide (Facebook)
T: 011-2323 6728
T: (01) 9590 2300