Fraser’s Hill was still as quaint and as inviting as I remembered. We arrived at Jelai Resthouse just in time to crash in on Mr. Woo’s talk on binoculars. We were offered Minox and Leica binoculars (‘bins’ in birding lingo) to use and were told not to part with them for the entire course – a very generous offer by Schmidt Marketing since each could cost over RM6,000. Over the next 3 days, each of us had a foreign object permanently attached to us – our borrowed bins.
After a sumptuous al fresco dinner, we assembled back indoors for our first theory session. Little did I know that the anatomy of a bird could be segmented with such detail and precision. A keen interest in ornithology requires much patience and an eye for details. For a great number of species, 2 species might only be told apart by a slight variation in the marking on its plumage, therefore it is a basic building-block of bird-watching skills to know how to note the different physical characteristics of a bird.
All the bird biology left us a little exhausted, and we were ushered back to our rooms for an early slumber.
6:30am - an insane hour to be waking up on a Saturday morning, but the fresh crisp air and the sound of the melodious birds was a good enough reason to wake up. Armed with my bins and notebook, I was ready for my first practical session at…. the Jelai Resthouse driveway? We were told that the birds at Fraser’s Hill were friendly and co-operative but this lot gave it a new meaning. Within the surrounding greenery of the driveway we were able to spot many feathered friends big and small, colourful and bland - perched close and long enough for us birder-wannabes to note their intricate physical markings.
Practical sessions also meant that we were able to put theory into practice: “on the tall and skinny tree – 2 o’clock” and “chestnut crown and vent, short yellow bill, white orbital skin…” were some of the phrases commonly heard amongst the crowd as we practised our birding lingo. Of course, after years of emceeing for Raptor Watch, it was second nature to shout out “Raptor overhead!” when a majestic Black Eagle (Ictinaetus malayensis) came soaring above us during breakfast.(John's Field Lesson #1: How NOT to point at the bird)
Bird ogling did wonders for our appetite. After feasting on a hearty breakfast, we were guided by the dedicated and seasoned birders in identifying the birds we had just seen. It was an amazing first session with over 12 species sighted in 2 hours! We knew we were in for an exciting time over the next few practical sessions. We were introduced to various bird-watching spots, which included… the rubbish dumpsite? The coming sessions over the 2 days brought us more ‘lifers’ – a birding term denoting the first time that the bird species is sighted by the birder. Being a newbie, almost every bird I saw was a lifer.
Unbeknown to me then, I had actually embarked on a beautiful journey of recording every lifer in my field guide – like a treasure hunter seeking jewels and gems in the wilderness. My life has changed in many subtle ways. Armed with the imparted know-how, I am now inclined to search for winged beings in the trees and in the skies as I go about my daily chores.
The dedicated volunteers of the Bird Group have done an amazing job in educating us in the basics and in sharing their passion and enthusiasm with us. They were also always quick to emphasise the importance of bird and habitat conservation. With over 700 species of birds found in Malaysia (including migratory species), we should take pride and play a more pro-active role in their conservation.