Sacred way to kings “Down Under”

on 10th November 2008

The sighting of Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus Sanctus) at River Kitabatangan’s village of Sukau, Sabah (N. Borneo) in November 2006, made history for the peaceful village; as the first recorded species sighted of that area.

I became the first privileged birder-digiscopist cum Avian Writer in Malaysia, graciously chosen and honoured by King Ceyx – the mythological king of kingfishers to hold the sighting cum digiscoping record for this vagrant (a bird status to mean an accidental rare and irregular sighting of nationally or regionally) species.

It came about in quite a mysterious way as I lay resting in bed after our morning birding session at the oxbow lakes. Lunch was not until 1pm and I was restless. It was simply that strong urge, that voice in me…. telling me to get out of bed and to walk my DGScope.

I obeyed and so I did and walked the narrow, tarred road with a euphoric feeling of anticipating something good to come.

Along the river edge, I came close to some kampong (village) houses with a large, opened field beside where rows and rows of Malaysia’s golden crop were basking under a clear November sky.

A kingfisher-like bird was seen gleaning for insects on the field. From a tree perch, the species was observed to be making several sorties onto the ground and splayed its wings.

‘An insectivorous kingfisher here in Sukau? Why not eat fish instead?’

The bird looked a bit different from Collared Kingfishers (Todiramphus chloris) commonly seen in Peninsula Malaysia. It has buff plumage on flanks, breast and belly and a noticeable buff too on the neck to determine a male species.

The release cable on my camera went into action from about 100 feet distance with no flash, no sound. The first shot was recoded at 1313hs.10th. November 2006.

The boys with big toys were waiting for me at lunch and wondered where I went. I finally turned up with the million dollar image taken from my humble Meade telescope. It was down graded earlier on the motorised, moving boat to the likes of my astringent mother-in-law’s 1900 Thermos flask.

There was much excitement over lunch amongst the bird-photographing group with Lodge proprietor-renowned photographer, Cede Prudente at the helm and decided on a visit to the site.

With luck still at hand, we found our vagrant avian visitor that evening and again the next morning.

What issued was a short, rare opportunity and exciting sighting for the photographers.

It was also to be the first and last time the Sacred Kingfisher was to be seen at Sukau …well at least for now.

Today, as I look back and question my decision as to why I chose to keep exact location of the bird unknown, in speech and in writing from amateur birders and photographers then, I can confirm that it remains one of the wisest decisions I have ever made in my continual passion as a birder and digiscopist.

I know the kampong dwellers would have appreciated me for keeping their five feet width roads clear from the nuisance of constant obstruction by the many cars and 4-WDs of birdwatchers and photographers that would turn up to scout the bird.

My decision also spared the Sabahan folks the headaches of intrusion by strangers into their private lives when amateurs of sorts gathered for long periods of time within or just outside their properties. It is common practice in many places, when upon an unusual bird sighting is made and source made known, enthusiastic birders and photographers near and far would descend in hoards, probably put up hides, resorted to camping and having a field day picnic waiting to observe and photograph the ill fated bird.

So too Cede Prudente, our host and bird guide be placed in an uncomfortable position, ever having to be so apologetic towards his neighbours for inconveniences caused by his clients, and perhaps too provided opportunities for complaints by some envious, numerous competitors close by.

More than ever, the vagrant perhaps having been blown off course during migration period, having arrived from an arduous flight across the ocean, would be feeling lost, exhausted and needed refuelling and rest badly. I was positively and fiercely possessive in that manner in keeping the welfare of the bird’s priority at heart.

Should the bird be further subjected to being chased around by an army of photographers with their bazookas and hoods the size of baking tins?

I believe that one in the millionth chance sighting was meant just for me with a little bonus for the initial group. King Ceyx would have said so.

Somehow, marathon Sacred Kingfisher never made front page in the local bird Malaysian bulletin for whatever reason. Perhaps the bird was not as colourful as their Peninsula cousins or the quality of my identification images were too poor to be considered.

Or perhaps, the bird was overlooked, a little grudged by those who went looking for the bird in vain, for I chose to zip up the bird’s exact location in my official birding reports. Or perhaps…. it was destined that the fated Sacred Kingfisher found the custodian dragon in me, to feel safe, to be kept like an ace card in my sleeve.

The bird was waiting and wanting the appropriate, exclusive time and at my calling, to be showcased in style on an ideal platform that spans the oceans instead of being content waddling in billabongs – a native Australian word to mean, a stagnant pool or watery hole.

On this 2nd anniversary of sighting, it is no better time than now to showcase Sukau’s Sacred Kingfisher on BESG’s chosen platform it deserves to our entire readers world wide and to parade this amazing bird in different views (above).

My journey did not end here….

I decided to take on to challenge my birding mission further by looking Down Under, homeland of Sacred Kingfishers, many, many kilometres away from home to search them out with my digiscope in the wild and to seek the sanctorum way.

By divine intervention or whatever one chooses to believe, I was sent a guardian angel to accompany me.

And yes, I did find a male species along Queensland’s coastal mangrove fringes at Tweed Heads area during my trip in March (above).

And yes, King Ceyx did show me the righteous way to the sanctuary of the Sacred Kingfishers n another follow-up visit (above).

And yes, if there is one in a million chances to see a rare bird, I want to be that one person with the millionth chance.

And yes… I do have that luck, chance and faith to see that million, a fraternity gift I believe given and favoured by the Gods whoever one perceives the powerful Unseen one to be….

And YES, I do need readers like you to appreciate reading, enjoying and encouraging me. I say ‘Thank you’.


If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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