Ever since my first trip to what is now Panti Bird Sanctuary, Johor, I have been fascinated with the Rail-babbler. Now six years later I have seen the Rail-babbler on a number of occasions, usually just brief glimpses of the bird walking away through obstructing foliage. But I’ve been quite lucky twice. Once in May 2010 a pair of Rail-babblers simply walked past my vehicle allowing leisurely viewing and several photos taken from inside the car.
And then again in late April 2011, I was on the Bunker Trail waiting to see what might show itself. It was already noon, quite hot and the bird activity had slowed down. There had been several Rail-babblers calling in the forest nearby, but I hadn’t felt like bashing in after them. Then I realized one was calling very close. There was a small trail. I decided to leave my camera on the main Bunker Trail and just walk in with binoculars to see if I could spot the bird. Not more than 3 or 4 paces into the trail I heard the familiar clicking sound of the contact call and the bird walked right across the path. A voice inside of me said “Darn, no camera.” So I left the bird and walked back for my camera knowing full well the bird would be gone when I got back.
When I returned I could still see the bird, walking slowly through the undergrowth, I followed for less than 30 meters. The bird then crossed a small stream and stopped in a sheltered spot between several trees. I was now just 10 meters away, standing up, completely in the open and making no attempt at concealment. The bird then lowered his head till his neck almost touched the ground, inflated his gular sacks, and let out a long slow whistle. I thought that was pretty amazing. When he repeated this behavior for the next 15 minutes. I was speechless!
The bird stood in one spot. As it prepared to call, it crouched with head lowered and tail cocked downwards. As it crouched, the pale blue gular sacs were exposed. The bird appeared to gulp three times in quick succession, then, with bill pointed slightly upwards, the ventrioloquial montone call was uttered, without the bill being visibly open. As the note went on, the gular sacs gently inflated, as if the sound was being produced by the air being forced into the sacs. The head and tail were slowly raised and the wings slightly spread. As the note finished, the sacs were quickly deflated and the bird resumed a ‘normal’ posture, before repeating the process.
My friends were a few hundred meters away, but I couldn’t very well call out for them to come over as surely the bird would be spooked, so I did the next best thing and took these pictures. As you can see he spreads his wings partially when calling. I understand that when calling in front of a potential mate he will spread his wings even more and also fan his tail. I know quite a few people who have had terrific views of the Rail-babbler, someday it will be your lucky day too!
Watch a short video at this link: Rail Babbler calling on YouTube
Notes: A version of this article appeared in Suara Enggang, the quarterly bulletin of the Malaysian Nature Society bird conservation council. Vol 19/3 September 2011