Return of the King
Lim Kim Seng
Every once in a long while, we get really lucky in life. For birders and bird photographers alike, it would be encountering a species that nobody has seen before. It sounds impossible in urban Singapore but it actually happened.
On 2nd May 2018, Ted Lee found it even if he did not realise the importance of his sighting. He posted his photo of a Great Slaty Woodpecker (GSW) on Facebook and every Singapore birder and bird photographer was stunned! It was a bird that had been thought lost to our forests, a bird so scarce that nobody had seen it before in Singapore. Alan Owyong calls this the sighting of the decade. Yes, it was really spectacular in the sense that this really was a totally unexpected, out of the blue sighting.
2018 has been an exceptional year so far for rarities with a string of super rarities turning up – Band-bellied Crake, Booted Warbler, Indian Paradise Flycatcher, and now this. The GSW takes the cake because it was supposed to be extirpated. Our rainforests have been well surveyed and nobody had even come close to a sighting of this legendary behemoth of a bird. It is also noteworthy as the largest living woodpecker species in the world since two larger species, Imperial and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, both from the New World, are supposed to be extinct or on the verge of extinction. It measures up to 50 cm in length from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail and weighs a maximum of about half a kilogram. The GSW is an awesome bird especially when seen close up. It has a big head, big eyes, a narrow neck, a very long chisel-like bill and a stiff, long tail. Overall, it is clothed in dark grey with just a bit of buff on its throat. Males differ from females in having a broad, bright orange malar stripe.
The GSW has a wide global range being found in the Indian Subcontinent south of the Himalayas and southern China south to Southeast Asia as well as the islands of Borneo, Java and Sumatra. It occurs in deciduous and evergreen forests usually below 600 m but can range as high as 2000 m in some parts of its range. Due to its preference for old trees, it is most regular in old growth forest but has also been seen in plantations, mangroves and swampy forests. As such, it is rated as globally vulnerable by IUCN due to the large scale loss of old growth forests in the region in recent years.
In Singapore, the GSW has not been seen since 1950. There were unconfirmed sightings in the 1970s but none since. There are however specimens in the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum including an individual collected in Woodlands in 1904, so it was originally here.
After the report by Ted Lee on 2nd May, I had expected to see birders and bird photographers climbing up the 163-m Bukit Timah to seek the GSW the very next day, on 3rd May. I happened to be leading a group of students on a field trip there and spent some time looking for it near the summit. No luck for me and everyone else who tried that day! To add to my misery, I injured my right knee while descending the hill.
On 4th May, more people tried but most were disappointed as they missed the bird except for Dominic Ng who got there around dawn and managed a photograph of the GSW. I was down at nearby Dairy Farm Nature Park where the most interesting bird was a pair of Greater Green Leafbirds. The pain in my right knee grew and I had to go for acupuncture to relieve it.
On 5th May, which was a Saturday, I was taking a break from birding and relaxing at home but any hope of peace was shattered very early on. My mobile phone kept beeping as whatsapp messages started from 7.00 am. The GSW was back and in view! My phone was still beeping three hours later. GSW still here, reported Kenneth Kee. I had some errands to do and only managed to get to Bukit Timah around noon. I bumped into Felix Wong as he was driving out, the smile on his face sufficient to tell me that he had seen the bird. The climb from the foot was very steep and I was careful not to push too hard, mindful of my knee injury. Sweat was pouring down my back as I huffed and puffed up the hill, each step seemingly harder than the last. Thankfully, I met Toh Yuet Hsin who was also keen to see the bird and we managed to reach the spot where the bird was last seen in good time.
Amongst the half a dozen people there toting binoculars and cameras was Low Bing Wen. He told me that we had missed the GSW by about 10 minutes and that it was probably still around. I scanned every branch carefully but couldn’t see anything. At 12.40 pm, some relief. The GSW called but despite anxious minutes passing by, we could not see it. The minutes ticked by. Nothing! A Chestnut-bellied Malkoha was a welcome distraction until someone shouted, “Woodpecker!” at 1.14 pm. I moved as fast as my injured legs could carry me and stood behind the group of people staring up a thick Shorea curtisi tree. A panicky few seconds passed before I laid my eyes on this giant woodpecker. It was about 15 metres up the tree, perched on a small branch and hammering away, searching for grubs. Elation was replaced by the frantic rummaging of my camera bag and I squeezed off shot after shot.
More people were coming up the hill and they soon showed happy faces as each had their own communion with their holy grail.
At 1.48 pm, we had the GSW in view for over half an hour, an eternity for a rarity, and I was satisfied at last. I had squeezed off 99 still frames, taken two short videos and also made a 30-second recording of its whinnying call. Job done, I descended the hill even as more people seeking this bird huffed and puffed their way up the hill. I heard that the bird was present most of that day and probably over 100 people had seen this mega rarity by then. This was a really special moment in Singapore birding, the return of the king of woodpeckers, and easily the ornithological event of the decade!
All photos by Lim Kim Seng.