Despite being surrounded by jungle wilderness where the exotic and slightly outrageous-looking Oriental Pied Hornbills were a common sight, the prospect of birding on my return trip to Phnom Penh felt more exciting, fuelled by a feeling of discovery and old-timey exploration, in the unlikely setting of the urban wilds. In particular, I was crossing my fingers for a glimpse of one rather more ordinary little songbird with a rusty orange-red cap and greyish back. None other than the newest bird species in the world had been found on the outskirts of the capital city – the identity of the Cambodian Tailorbird was announced as recently as the end of June of this year. Previously confused for its close cousins, the Dark-necked and Ashy Tailorbirds, it wasn't until Simon Mahood of Cambodia's Wildlife Conservation Society investigated and DNA tests were done that its status was confirmed. I hadn't been sure I would be able to get to see it – my initial inquiries through birdingpal.org and the Wildlife Conservation Society resulted in an offer of directions, without the promise of a guide. Fortunately, instead of having to stumble around in the suburbs on my own, independent birder Senglim Suy came to pick me up at my hotel in Phnom Penh at 6 am.
It took us only about 45 minutes – driving through the city, out past a small assortment of makeshift homes along a dirt road, and on to an area of floodplain shrub land, where the raised red dirt road divided two large low fields filled with bushes. We walked a few paces before Senglim began to play a recording of the Dark-necked Tailorbird call on his phone. I had been preparing myself for disappointment – if it was only newly discovered, I had thought, it must be hard to see. But as with most things, it had been there all along, its distinctiveness going largely overlooked. Within minutes, some irritated orange caps arrived, flipping their tails up and down, calling back to the intruder in their midst. Senglim pointed and I tried to follow them as they flitted from one branch to the next. Slowly I got a better a look at first one, then several of the tailorbirds who flew right up to the edge of the roadside to scold the new competitor. They came out in force – curious, vocal and hard to miss.
Senglim told me about the drama of the bird's discovery, and his personal efforts to protect bird species in Cambodia. Instead of binoculars he had invested in a long-range lens with which he has been shooting images of bird species across the country. Now with close-up shots of over 100 species, he is working towards putting together a photography book of at least 400 of the 600 species in the country. He has set up the self-funded non-governmental organisation 'Birds of Cambodia Education and Conservation', to photograph birds and educate students about bird life. All of this is in his spare time – his regular job is in the international development field – as a research assistant for USAID on community health programming.
It was a perfect morning for birdwatching – overcast skies, not too hot, and lots of species in easy view in the low lying shrubs and wetlands bordering the dirt paths where we cruised along on the motorbike. If only more birding outings could be so effortless and comfortable. One of the few stopover spots between Cambodia's largest lake, Tonle Sap, and the mighty Mekong River, this area offers habitat for all kinds of species. We saw long-legged Jacanas (Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed) striding across the water on lily pads, long-necked Oriental Darters towering elegantly on bare branches over their fishing waters, an on-cue sighting of a White-shouldered Kite mid-hover, colourful Blue-tailed and Little Bee-eaters and striking White-throated Kingfishers. Senglim got excited when we caught a rare glimpse of the small shy Barred Buttonquail scurrying across an area of miniature sand dunes at the roadside.
It was with a sense of familiar frustration and discouragement that I heard that the area is slated to be cleared in less than five years for the construction of the National Stadium. It's owned by a rich man intending to get richer. Right now it's a big expanse of aquatic plants, shrubs, trees, water and soil, mainly undisturbed by people. Where will be left for all the tailorbirds and their neighbours to go?
Perhaps in part due to the awareness that none of it was likely to be there if I did have the chance to return, I didn't want the morning to end, though I had a noontime bus to catch and the sun was beginning to make its presence known, moving out of the clouds around 10 am. Watching the tailorbirds had felt extraordinary and ordinary at the same time – it was certainly a coup to be one up on most competitive birders, a rare event for me, and more so it was striking to realise how something relatively non-descript could become glamorous, when given the status of novelty. Perhaps still more than that, it was a reminder of how many more things there are to uncover, in observing those little differences from what we take as common place and understood. In this way it's a similar analogy for travel – the dramatic and exotic are expected to amaze, but often it's the things that appear similar but turn out to be quite different that are the biggest surprise.
Footnote: From the blog of Simon Mahood himself: (June 26, 2013)
I hope that this experience has taught me to question everything, to look at everything as if for the first time, evaluate it and not lapse into probability based identification. I now believe more strongly than ever that you almost always see only what you expect to see. Inattentional Blindness is rife in birding. When I could not conceive that the Cambodian Tailorbirds were a new species they looked rather like Ashy Tailorbirds, then gradually they looked like Dark-necked Tailorbirds, then….. Looking back at the photographs from 9 June 2012 it is so obvious that they are neither Ashy nor Dark-necked Tailorbirds, but initially I just couldn’t see what those birds really were. … Without wishing to unravel a whole new world of string, I think that you should expect to see rare birds, unexpected birds and even birds which haven’t even been conceived of yet. Unless you expect them, you will look at them but not see them, even if they drop into your garden…
** Cambodian Tailorbird photo courtesy of http://cambodiabirdingnews.blogspot.com