An elang ular bido, or crested serpent-eagle, flew past, seemingly oblivious to the newly burned farmland below. Although only an hour’s drive south of Calang, the capital of Aceh Jaya regency in Aceh, the terrain comprised verdant hills and forest stretching farther than the eye could see.
From a distance, the sound of a kuaw, or great argus pheasant, could be heard. The male was singing this morning to signal that it had prepared a place for mating.
Bird observer Tedi Wahyudi said that the sounds of the males were frequently heard until noon. According to Tedi, the kuaw is hard to find in the wild. Watchers learn to spot the bird by looking for its nests, which are built in shrubs.
“In the mating arena, we can see a lot of feathers left behind by a pair after breeding,” said Tedi. It was difficult to spot the kuaw due to its keen smell and propensity for flight at the slightest disturbance.
By sound alone, however, the species appeared healthy. Other birds began crowding the air. Two field guides from the Aceh Jaya ranger community examined their bird-watching manuals as a huge bird landed before them for a brief moment.
A delighted Tedi said that the birds were bubut besar, or greater coucal — easy to find, since they fly low and perch on shrubs to feed on insects.
Crouching and speaking in whispers to avoid disturbing the tree dwellers of the forest, watchers feasted their eyes on a , or cream-vented bulbul. “It has a fairly slim body.
In Sumatra, its eyes are whitish and in Kalimantan they tend to be red. In Java, it’s only found in some places and Bali has none,” murmured Tedi, calling the species underappreciated by birdwatchers.
Other birds emerged and moved haphazardly, making it hard to take snapshots. The rangers kept watching through binoculars, whispering now and again to show the direction in which the birds moved.
Eventually, several species with dazzling plumage emerged. In one broken tree, a takur tutut, or red-crowned barbet, was bathing, its head showing up occasionally, making it a target for those with binoculars or cameras.
On one branch, a couple of kirik-kirik biru, or blue-throated bee-eaters, eyed their prey — huge flies nesting in the tree where they perched. Meanwhile, a cirik-cirik kumbang, or red-bearded bee-eater, was perched nearby.
After crouching for almost two hours, members of the group noticed a kucica kampung, or oriental magpie-robin, singing piercingly while perched on a twig.
This bird, said Tedi, was getting scarce due to large-scale hunting. Families of starlings and bulbuls entertained watchers with melodious songs as we hiked through the Krueng Sabee forest.
Another species of bird, locally called the merbah cerukcuk, or yellow-vented bulbul, was spotted waiting for its mate in a shrub. By noon, a pair of rangkong hornbills, the largest of the birds found since that morning, flew past. “Julang emas,” remarked Tedi, using another local name for the birds. While peering through binoculars, he pointed to the yellow pouch on the neck of the male and the blue pouch of its female partner.
According to Tedi, the species usually appears in pairs or in small flocks. Although the two birds spotted then disappeared behind a hill, another species quickly appeared: a kangkareng hitam, also known as a black hornbill, which settled in a nearby big tree, assuming a posture for snapshots before flying off.
“Like the other hornbills, this species also uses the hollows of large trees to nest. Male hornbills gather food for their mates in the nests and when the females are hatching, the males cover the hollows with mud, leaving holes for feeding the females,” Tedi said.
Radinal, a wildlife monitoring officer of Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Aceh, said that the health of local birds was a bellwether for the ecological health of the forest. “The more bird species are found in a forest zone, the healthier is the forest’s condition,” he said.
Birds, according to Radinal, play a major role in the ecosystem by spreading seeds from trees so that young plants grow to replace old ones. Some are also part of the food chain, he adds: “There are those living as predators, such as eagles, and those that become their prey.”
Krueng Sabee is part of a series of forest areas in the north of Aceh. “This zone is a protected forest that we usually call Ulu Masen,” Radinal said.
“Based on hidden camera observations, we’ve recorded at least 18 protected bird species throughout the zone. Krueng Sabee is just a small part of the ecosystem of Ulu Masen.”