Hawk-cuckoo hunt: Air Itam Dalam, 13 Feb 2014

I’ve often said that cuckoos and blue flycatchers are my ‘weakest suits’ when it comes to bird id. That fact is linked to two others – that I probably don’t spend as much time as I should in forest habitats, and that (as a consequence) I don’t see that many of either. In fact, Hodgson’s Hawk-cuckoo has been a rather embarrassing gap in my Malaysian list for a long time. So when I heard of the presence of two birds at Air Itam Dalam, and knowing their tendency to hang around for a while, It was time to go on the hunt!

I decided that a dawn start would give me the best chance of success. There were a few birds about; one of the resident Spotted Wood-owls in its daytime roost giving me the sleepy eye…

Spotted Wood-owl_Air Itam Dalam_100214_IMG_2169Asian Brown Flycatcher_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2429An Asian Brown Flycatcher performed at eye level, and a more elusive Dusky Warbler was my ‘bird of the day’, although it refused to be photographed.

But after a couple of hours I had drawn a blank as far as cuckoos were concerned, and was ready to concede defeat, when I bumped into Colm and Rachel Ó Caomhánaigh, who told me that the hawk-cuckoos had not been seen along the boardwalk (as I had assumed) but in the ketapang trees at the back. In fact, as we were speaking, Rachel pointed out the unmistakeable shape of a hawk-cuckoo flitting from one teak tree to another. The hunt was back on! Excusing myself with a haste bordering on rude, I headed to where we had glimpsed the cuckoo. I soon reconnected with it, peering at me warily from behind a branch.

Large Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2465I started checking off the features of Hodgson’ Hawk-cuckoo – narrow subterminal tail band – check…

Large Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2494Lack of white nape spot – check. Paler first tertial – check. So it must be one then! I headed back to the car to collect the scope, but at the same time, there was a niggle in the back of my mind. Somehow this wasn’t what I had been expecting. Why was the bird so streaky? And it looked pretty big – or large…! With a sense of disappointment, the penny dropped. I had been looking at a Large Hawk-cuckoo!

Large Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2508No pale tip to the bill – check! Although I felt a bit of a cuckoo myself to have been fooled, I consoled myself with the fact that I don’t often get chance to observe migratory Large Hawk-cuckoos, so settled down to watch.

Large Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2514Having realized my mistake, it became difficult to see  how I could have made it in the first place. This bird was indeed large, long-bodied and long-tailed.Large Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2530

The breast-spotting was made up of blackish drop-shaped spots against a white background – not much evidence of brown anywhere.

Large Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2538It was not difficult to see how hawk-cuckoos got their name when it flew, with its amazingly accipiter-like wings. The tail was strikingly long and full.

Eventually the bird was spooked by a passing cyclist, and flew off into the forested area. I carried on my walk along the edge of the teak plantation, and before long, came across two more hawk-cuckoos!

Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2583This was more like the England manager’s namesake I was expecting! The pale tip to the bill, small size and compact structure immediately announced that this was not a Large. Furthermore, the relatively narrow subterminal (dark) tail bar, lack of white nuchal spot and pale upper tertial ticked all the right boxes for Hodgson’s.

Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2590This is the second bird, showing rather heavy brown-tinged streaking on the underparts. This, coupled with the other features mentioned for the upperparts, eliminated the possibility of Malaysian Hawk-cuckoo. There’s an excellent photo guide to the identification of Hodgson’s and Malaysian Hawk-cuckoos by Con Foley here, well worth a read.

Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo_Air Itam Dalam_130214_IMG_2592Thanks very much to Mr and Mrs Hum for letting me know about these birds (they were the original finders of all three), and to Colm and Rachel for literally pointing me in the right direction! Now I know a little more about hawk-cuckoos!


7 thoughts on “Hawk-cuckoo hunt: Air Itam Dalam, 13 Feb 2014

  1. Congrats Dave! Now all Ayer Itam Dalam needs for a complete set of Malaysia’s Hawk-Cuckoos is the Moustached (that is, if Dark Hawk-Cuckoo is not a species in its own right yet). the trees where the Cuckoos have been frequenting are Sea Almond or Ketapang rather than Teak trees.

  2. sir, i am having a doubt . the flycatcher mentioned in this post is Brown breasted flycatcher ? as per my observation the paler legged one in brown breasted and darker legged one is asian brown is it correct?

    • Hi Harikumar, thanks for your sharp-eyed observation. I think Brown-breasted generally does have much paler legs than Asian Brown, but Asian Brown seems to have some variation in leg colour (check the images on OBI). If this was a Brown-breasted, the bill would be longer and have pale cutting edges to both mandibles. The sharply demarcated black tip to the lower mandible is, as far as I know, never found on Brown-breasted.

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