In Search of the Sumatran Laughingthrush

Very very few birders have ever seen the Sumatran laughingthrush in the wild…..and for good reason. Birdlife International report , ‘Garrulax bicolor was originally distributed along the length of the montane spine of Sumatra, Indonesia, from Aceh in the north to Lampung in the south, and was reportedly common. Recent evidence suggests that it has undergone a considerable decline.’ The main cause of this decline is trapping for the cage bird trade, and visitors are most likely to see it in a cage in a roadside stall in the streets of Medan.

Recently birders visiting Sumatra have searched for this species in the south in Barisan Selatan National park because, at the most popular montane birding site in Sumatra, Mount Kerinci, it has not been seen for many years. Even in Barisan Selatan it is extremely difficult to find and most searches draw a blank.

A combination of recent political unrest in Aceh and the popularity of Kerinci has meant that the forests of Gunung Leuser national park have been severely neglected by birders. Travelling in Aceh is for the most part completely safe now, although care must be taken and local advice heeded to avoid localised awkward spots. A steady flow of travellers visit the Alas valley for trekking adventures, looking for orangutans, rafting the dramatic Alas river and just to enjoy the awesome scenery.

In august 2010 I decided it was time to eschew the normal birding itineraries, take a risk and travel to the Alas Valley to look for the Murah (a phonetic rendering of the local Gayo name for Garrulax bicolor). Encouraged by the success of Nick Brickle, who had found the bird near Agusan in 2009, Nick Preston and I contacted Siegfried Klein of the company ‘ Gunung Leuser Trek ‘ who organise treks throughout the Gunung Leuser area , and arranged to search in two locations, Kedah, west of Blangkejeran, and Mt Kemiri, north east of Ketambe.

We started in the montane forest near the village of Kedah ably guided by the redoubtable Pak Jally. Based at the simple but comfortable lodge situated in beautiful forest next to a large river at 1500m we were already within easy reach of the known altitudinal range of the bird. It had not rained for 3 weeks we were told and consequently the forest was quiet. Early forays produced mixed species flocks including endemic Blue-masked Leafbirds, Green Iora, Blue Nuthatch, Grey-chinned Minivets and Chestnut-crowned Warblers, while Large Niltavas hawked in the mid- story. On the first day we hiked up to around 2000m and found a wonderful pair of endemic Red-billed Partridges, the highlight of the day. Well, the avian highlight at least, as arriving back at the river we spotted 3 Orang-utans, a mother with a 2 year old infant and a young male. NO sign of the laughingthrush. Pak Jally was adamant that he knew the bird especially after we had shown him the picture in the guidebook…. NB. ALL laughingthrushes are called ‘Murah’, so it is essential to point out which one you want to see ; although after our visit I think now the guides there know what visiting birders want to look for.

The following day we decided to try a different trail. This was the trail which leads up to the summit of Mt. Angkusan. It takes 2 days to get to the top, but that was not what we had in mind, rather the interestingly named ‘moss forest ‘ near the basecamp on the way. We set out and after a lengthy detour to search in forest near the main river, which produced similar birds to the day before, we came out at the forest edge, passed the tobacco drying hut in the fields and made our way to the trail to Mt Angkusan. On entering the forest here it was immediately evident that the forest was quite different, somewhat more open. Climbing up along the trail we hit a flock of laughingthrushes……some excitement but these were Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes, pretty but not our main quarry. They tend to forage in quite large flocks and here were joined by elegant Long- tailed Sibias. A thorough search of the flock did not reveal any Sumatran Laughingthrushes, which are known to flock with them at times. I decided to play a tape recording of White-crested Laughingthrush, a similar mainly himalayan species from which our bird had been taxonomically separated, as I knew of no known recordings of the Murah. To our delight there was an immediate response! Not far from the mixed flock we could hear vocalisations very similar to our tape and we hurried to the spot where they were coming from knowing that these birds can be very shy. After a few minutes of anxious searching we saw the unmistakeable sign of two black and white birds flying at mid – level through the forest. Fortunately the two birds stopped to perch momentarily and check us out while calling and we got precious views in our binoculars. We had the Murah in our sights. was like getting a jolt of electricity through our bodies. The gamble had paid off. I also managed to get some recordings which must be some of the few recordings ever of this species.

Satisfied we changed locations and drove south to Ketambe and the beautiful surroundings of the comfortable Friendship guesthouse run by the lovely family of Pak Johann and his friendly staff. The view from the bungalows here is simply beautiful with almost perfectly proportioned forested hills undulating beyond the river receding into the distance. We planned a 4 day camping trip to Mt Kemiri in order to look for more of the region’s endemics and to see if we could find the laughingthrush again. Arriving at Gumpang, a small village north of Ketambe, we crossed the river and began a 4 hour walk to our campsite. On hitting the forest edge it was immediately apparent that the avifauna was very different to Kedah. We could hear Black and Yellow broadbill at the forest edge and found Sumatran Leafbird, an endemic which we had not seen, in a mixed flock. We continued in considerable excitement at what else we might find higher up. We made it to the camp at 1400m, a wide circle of open land surrounded by beautiful montane forest, pitched our tents and began preparing for an afternoon stroll while our guides made welcome cups of tea. The forest was quiet but we managed to spy a big Orange – backed Woodpecker and the early evening began to resonate to the querulous calls of the Ferruginous Partridge. Early to bed after a delicious duck stew around the camp fire!

Next day we climbed up the trail leading towards the summit. The maniacal laughing call of the Helmeted Hornbill rang round the forest and in the distance we could hear the deep ‘ ka-wow ‘ of the giant Great Argus pheasant proclaiming its territory. Again the understorey was extremely quiet and no wren babblers, which we were searching for, could be seen or heard. However, soon a movement on the path ahead revealed the stately shape of a deep blue pheasant. The bird disappeared behind a large tree trunk before I could get a good luck…but Nick spotted it again appearing on the path ahead, its red face sealing its identification as the rare hoogerwerfi race of Salvadori’s Pheasant. Indeed some authorities still maintain this as a separate species, Hoogerwerf’s Pheasant. For many years this bird was only known from a single female specimen and here we were staring at an unconcerned male! Another bird that hardly any birders had ever seen. This forest was slow to reveal its secrets, but, boy when it did it produced rarities of a global nature. Incredibly, moving on another 200m I heard what had to be the call of Sumatran Laughingthrush again. Positioning ourselves near the spot where we had heard the calls I taped the birds and played a short snatch back to try to bring them in. There was an immediate response and in seconds three birds appeared practically above my head looking down at me calling . We had amazing views of this super rarity and counted ourselves very fortunate indeed to have seen two of the rarest birds of Sumatra in the space of a few hundred metres and less than half an hour.

Later that evening we sat round the fire listening to the gruff calls of a Barred Eagle Owl and the popping calls of the Sumatran Owlet. Despite trying tape playback neither of these nightbirds showed any interest in us and remained hidden in the forest gloom. Further forays into the forest produced a few nice new birds for us such as the endemic Sumatran and the more widespread Red-headed Trogons. As we headed home towards the comfortable Friendship guesthouse in Ketambe we reflected on our luck at finding our target birds and the many endemic denizens of the forest which were just waiting for future birders to locate them. Our time was up and we bade farewell to Johann and his family boarding the van on our long journey back to Medan.

The avifauna of the forests of Gunung Leuser are very poorly known in comparison with say, Mount Kerinci to the south, and yet they remain in far better condition covering a much larger area. Visiting birders are almost certain to yield new insights into distribution and abundance and they are warmly encouraged to explore the park. It is, however, not easy to access the forests here hence visitors should seek the invaluable help of the guides of Gunung Leuser Trek, with all their experience of trekking and camping in the region, in order to search for the rare resident endemic species…and I thoroughly recommend them.

By Mike Catsis

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