BIRDWATCHING, a hobby that involves observing (or photographing) birds in their natural habitat has suddenly experienced a boom over the last two years. What used to be a favourite past time for bird lovers in the country now appears to be an activity that has attracted anyone with a decent camera to photograph the subject matter.
This has caused numbers to swell at popular well-known bird watching sites in the country. With inter-state travel now permitted, the number of birdwatchers is expected to grow as people find the activity refreshing as it gives them the opportunity to get out there for some fresh air and activity.
We caught up with bird guide Cheong Weng Chun on how the pandemic has affected his livelihood since local and international birdwatchers were unable to travel during the numerous lockdowns. We also asked him about birdwatching and the sudden emergence of more birding enthusiasts in the country and how these groups should behave when out in the field. Cheong is a member of the Wild Bird Club of Malaysia and Malaysian Nature Society.
- How long have you been a bird-guide? Can you tell us what a bird guide does?
I started guiding birdwatchers and bird photographers while working in Taman Wetland Putrajaya for 5 years. That was back in year 2003. I only obtained my nature guide license in 2007 after I left Taman Wetland Putrajaya. Most people will think that a bird guide role is very simple. Personally, I think it is more than just bringing the guests to the birding spots and finding the birds. We would need to advise them how to locate the birds and how the birds behave. Personally, the thing that is most important to me is the safety of my guests. Therefore, we need to keep reminding them about safety and also to be considerate to other birdwatchers and photographers.
- As a bird guide, how badly have you been affected by the pandemic?
It’s been more than 1.5 years since my last birding assignment with overseas guests. Trips booked for year 2020 and 2021 are either postponed or cancelled. I was frustrated and disappointed. My guests were disappointed too because they were very eager to visit Malaysia for birding. This pandemic is indeed challenging for many of us – mentally and financially. My income depends solely on birding assignments. I had no choice but to quickly get rid of things that are considered liabilities.
- How have you managed to pull yourself through the pandemic with no tourists? (and income)
I managed to take a few of my KL-based guests for day trips – for that I am truly thankful for their support. However, with the interstate travel restriction, there are limited places to explore. Apart from guiding, I did a few bird illustrations for t-shirt printing and helping out a few mini projects at Ecotourism & Conservation Society Malaysia (EcoMY) just to ensure that I stay relevant in this industry.
- You recently “volunteered” to coordinate groups for a birding site in Selangor. You meet them at the site, bring the group to the location and even helped birdwatchers get their “star” bird. Can you tell us why you did this?
For over 20 years, I have observed many changes that took place among the local birdwatchers and bird photographers. Birdwatchers have their set of birding ethics which may not necessarily be applicable to bird photographers.
Since the pandemic is not over yet, we need to adhere to a certain set of rules to protect everyone. Prior to this, many birders have been shooting together in big groups, neglecting all the necessary precautions and SOPs. Many a time, when there is a “star” bird, everyone will start to hog a specific spot or try to get as close as possible to the bird. There was a case in Kuala Lumpur not too long ago when the local authority had to act upon reports / complaints made by the public and cordoned the area. Although birders still visit the spot on a daily basis, one thing I observed was, they do not cross the tape that had been placed at the location. It means, birders can follow rules and can be considerate IF the rules are established.
Together with a few birders, we chanced upon a “star” bird recently in Selangor. Many birders considered it a “star” bird, and I enjoy seeing happy faces among birders after they ticked this bird off their wish list.
After a short discussion with some friends, I decided to carry out an experiment to see how well birders can respond to rules and instructions. My academic background is on parks and recreation management; therefore I am interested in observing the behaviour of recreation users, conflict of recreation users, and zoning of areas for recreation uses.
- What did you discover from the week’s birdwatching groups? Have the people been relatively well aware of their responsibilities when out photographing birds?
From the period of my observation at the site, I can say, birders can follow rules. Although I have stressed that group should be limited to 10-12 pax, many birders still turned up as they do not want to miss the opportunity to take photographs of this bird. I can’t stop them from coming but I do hope the situation allows them to understand why I insist on a small group. There are cyclists, hikers and the local residents around; we need to be considerate so as not to disturb others using this trail. Sometimes, when the bird shows up, not all birders will get the best view to take photos. It is especially harder when they need to go deeper into narrow trails. I’ve also mentioned to everyone the do’s and don’ts at the site.
- What should a birdwatcher (veteran or new) do or not do when they are at a location to capture the beauty of a bird or birds? Are there any guidelines to follow to avoid disturbing the bird or surroundings?
I think many birders want the best photo and probably as close as possible. Many of them are aware of the birding ethics. However, we need to keep reminding ourselves that we should always keep a distance from the bird. Forget about using playback (recording of a bird call) if you do not know how to control it. You will not only disturb the birds but may also offend other people around you. Avoid cutting branches or plucking leaves that are supposed to provide cover / protection for nesting birds.
- Is the one week initiative the first and the last for you? Are you planning to do more of such excursions to inculcate good habits among birdwatchers?
There will be more small projects in the future, not necessarily in Selangor. And I hope many more new birdwatchers and photographers will enjoy the hobby for the long term.
- What do you hope to achieve in the mid to long term with this initiative?
Hopefully, we can establish a set of rules that can be introduced, implemented and enforced locally to protect the birds and birders.
- Inter-state travel has been lifted and eventually international travel is going to be lifted too. Are you going back to bird-guiding?
Definitely. I still need to carry out the trips that have been postponed previously.
- What’s your advise to those thinking of getting involved in birdwatching?
Join a small active birdwatching community. Invest in a decent pair of binoculars, camera, and a field guide (you really need one). It is fine to make a few mistakes when you start birdwatching. No one is perfect. We just need to learn from our mistakes and make improvement from time to time.
Want to find out more about birdwatching? Join the Wild Bird Club of Malaysia group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1712198665683364