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…
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.
Lack 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!
No 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.
The breast-spotting was made up of blackish drop-shaped spots against a white background – not much evidence of brown anywhere.
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!
This 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.
This 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.
Thanks 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!