A Feathered Kind of Race

August 27, 2019
Common Green Magpie (Cissa chinensis) during the 2019 Frasers Bird Race. By Dexter Gamboa.

By Dexter Gamboa

I have waited for over a year to join in this unique marathon. But unlike any typical running event, every maneuver is composed, discreet, and strategic. The sounds of nature matter and the sights are not to be missed. A pair of binoculars and a camera hang around my neck instead of a race bib. The chase is in the numbers, not to the finish line.

It is an annual bird race in an isolated hilly forest around the outskirts of Pahang, Malaysia. A bird race is a contest of spotting and recording the most number of bird species in a given time and area. Started in 1988, I was able to join its 32nd staging in Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia, the longest running international bird race in Southeast Asia.

Fraser’s Hill is a forest reserve area, about a hundred kilometers or a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur. Coincidentally, this year’s bird race, held 22-23 June also took place during the 100th year anniversary of Fraser’s Hill.

I came as one of the three representatives from Haribon, a membership-based BirdLife partner foundation doing biodiversity conservation in the Philippines. Together with my teammates Stephanie and Mark Kenn, we competed with hundreds of bird enthusiasts from countries all over the world.

As we rode the bus traversing the winding roads up the hill, I was filled with excitement at the sight of tall trees and dense forests along the way. To me, this only meant one thing… lots of birds, guaranteed! As we reached the top, we were greeted by the rustic Fraser’s hill clock tower amidst the road.

Vintage houses from around the 1900’s dot the area, giving the place a cozy vibe. Just when we alighted, avian sounds started to fill the air, as if welcoming us. Curious monkeys clinging onto tree branches also snooped from afar.

The race began the next day. In the morning, we met at the staging area where we were briefed about the rules of the race. There were three categories – Novice, Local, and Advanced. Our team joined in the Advanced. Several Malaysian student birders also signed up, joining mostly the novice and local categories.

As we waited for the official start, we engrossed ourselves around various booths that feature eco-clubs, and sell bird watching gears, and local snacks. We also had the opportunity to meet our fellow birders, including two more teams from the Philippines.

Finally, we were called back in and the Fraser’s Hill Bird Race officially started! To complete the race, a full 24 hours were allotted to the participants from noon of June 22 until noon the next day. Our team decided to take the road first, eyeing the trees all over the area. In just a few minutes, we already spotted and recorded our first bird sighting!

One of these is Malaysia’s common resident, the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush (Garrulax mitratus). Hard to miss, it literally makes a laughing-like bird call. Other common species we saw were the Streaked Spiderhunter (Arachnothera magna) and the Long-tailed Sibia (Heterophasia picaoides).

Malaysia’s common resident, the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush (Garrulax mitratus). Photo by Dexter Gamboa.

Afterwards, we went towards Shazan Inn and saw other species of birds there, too. We walked further alongside the road where we would momentarily stop and survey the area for birds. Along the way, we went down the hill towards Jeriau waterfalls. While the trek was long and tiring, it was delightful to see the falls and a few more birds to add to our list.

When we trailed back up, we met what is called a bird wave. A bird wave happens when many bird species show up in flocks within a short span of time. Some of the birds we spotted include the Little Cuckoo Dove (Macropygia ruficeps) and the colorful Large Niltava (Niltava grandis), both male and female. Finally, we got across the Rompin Trail for a final venture before we called it a day.

Long-tailed Sibia (Heterophasia picaoides). Photo by Dexter Gamboa.

After supper, we organized all our bird sightings, named each species, and recorded the time we saw them. At some point during the evening, participating teams had the opportunity to present the avitourism and ecotourism programs in their respective countries.

Come next day, we went mostly along the road and trails like the Hemmant and Bishop Trails. Here we spotted many colorful species of birds such as the Common Green Magpie and the charming Red-headed Trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus).

Red-headed Trogon (Harpactes erythrocephalus). Photo by David Quimpo.

Apart from bird species, we also saw plenty of gorgeous flowers and other fauna like spiders, squirrels, and more playful monkeys along the way. Overall, Stephanie, Mark Kenn and I were able to record more than 30 species of birds.

While we did not place in the race, it was truly an unforgettable moment for us. And since most of the birds we spotted were a first sighting for me (also called a lifer), I felt like a winner. What’s more is we made new friends with delegates from other countries.

I look forward to joining more bird races in the future and to step foot in the enchanting Fraser’s Hill again.