8 Feb 2024

SOUNDS OF NATURE: HORNBILLS AT DUSK

It is said that the wing beat of a great hornbill can be heard more than a half mile away! These incredible birds are not only a wonder to observe, they are also incredible seed dispersers.  

Long-standing WWF supporter and story contributor David Waterhouse writes to us on his search for the enigmatic bird in Malaysia’s highland rainforest. He hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature, he can inspire others to protect it forever, like he plans to – through a gift in will.

By six-thirty, a thin veil of evening mist had started to form over the jungle-covered ridge across the deep valley. Already, the lofty fishtail palms were turning darker as the light faded. In the deepening gloom, their great long beads of fruit seemed to hang like giants’ dreadlocks beneath the forked fronds. In twenty minutes, it would be quite dark and the huge, strange birds I was hoping to see had not yet made an appearance. 

I was standing in a nursery garden on the edge of the scattered settlement of Fraser’s Hill (a mountain village on the Titiwangsa Ridge in Raub District, Pahang), which is perched precariously on a vertebra of west Malaysia’s spinal cord. 

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Great pied hornbill, (Buceros bicornis), bird photographed in flight in Hong Bung He, Dehong, Yunnan, China

In the mellow twilight glow, which still lingered on the ridge tops, a pair of squirrels scolded each other and flicked their tails as they scampered around in the treetops. High overhead, a small party of mountain minivets appeared, each bird emitting tiny flashes of scarlet or sulphur and ebony in the last rays of light. 

Gradually, all fell silent for a while except for the distant sound of a rushing stream in the valley below. Then, the pulsating, throaty calls of hidden long-billed partridges rose from the shadows in the thicket far below, as they have done each evening since time immemorial. Before being lulled completely by their monotonous throbbing, I heard a fire-tufted barbet somewhere off to my right starting to call. The notes seemed to be hammering on the still air, each falling faster and faster until finally slurring into a metallic cicada-like buzz as if the bird had been transformed into a noisy insect. 

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Great hornbills males battle in the air over territory , Western Ghats, India © Sandesh Kadur / Silverback/Netflix

After a few more minutes of silence, a huge bird appeared. It cruised unhurriedly below me like a pelican, gliding majestically with upturned primaries and sporting a pale yellow bar across its broad pied wings. It was the first time I had set eyes on a wild great hornbill and I was not disappointed. Casually, it came in to land with all the nonchalance of long habit. Tilting its great lemon-coloured bill skywards, it grunted deeply so that it sounded more like a great ape than a bird. Only a few seconds later, the bird’s mate swept around the hillside along the same flight path. The newcomer perched in a tree not far from its spouse. As darkness fell, the prehistoric-looking pair slipped into the huge crowns of their roost trees and became lost to view. 

Hornbills are no ordinary birds. The more I saw and heard about them, the more fascinating they seemed. The pair I watched that evening had glided quietly into view, but when they leave their roost trees in the early mornings, they gain speed and height by beating the air with powerful wing strokes, which sound for all the world like steam locomotives pulling out of a station. On a still morning, the sounds can be heard from far away. 

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Great pied hornbill, (Buceros bicornis), bird photographed sitting on a tree on its nest in Hong Bung He, Dehong, Yunnan, China © Staffan Widstrand / Wild Wonders of China / WWF

As the light faded entirely and the first bats appeared in the eastern sky, I was still standing on the narrow nursery path, staring beyond the forest-cloaked hills that rolled before me, deep into the state of Pahang. The sounds of dusk had ceased completely, leaving the forest to the creatures of the night. 

David Waterhouse is committed to connecting people with the natural world and doing everything he can to ensure it is protected for all to enjoy.

As well as sharing his experiences in nature with others, David regularly contributes to the work of WWF-Australia and other wildlife and environment protection groups. David has also chosen to make nature a part of his legacy by including a gift in his Will to WWF-Australia.  

If, like David, you value nature and wish to include its protection in your future legacy, please contact us at giftsinwills@wwf.org.au, or find out more about including a gift to WWF-Austalia in your Will.