Birdwatching at Ulu Muda, Kedah – Trip Report

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Ulu Muda birdwatching

Ulu Muda Forest Reserve is a large area of protected forest located at the extreme north of Peninsula Malaysia, within the state of Kedah. This forest area is well-known for its wildlife diversity. Animals such as the Asian Elephant, Malayan Tapir, Black Panther and Clouded Leopard call this forest home. The forest also boasts impressive bird diversity; therefore, birdwatching at Ulu Muda is a rewarding experience. 

Ulu Muda is famous for being one of the few places in Malaysia to see the Plain-pouched Hornbill. In September 2023, I had the pleasure of going birdwatching at Ulu Muda. This article is the trip report, hopefully providing would-be visitors with an idea of what to expect when going birdwatching here.

Birdwatching at Ulu Muda, Kedah – trip report

In September 2023, I went birdwatching at Ulu Muda along with fellow Birdwatching Asia writer Ashwin and a couple of other friends. Throughout the three-day trip, we stayed at the only accommodation available there – Earth Lodge Malaysia. Our main goal was to see the Plain-pouched Hornbill, which is a lifer for most of us. This bird is the only hornbill in Malaysia I’ve yet to see.

Journey to Ulu Muda

Our journey began at 4 a.m. in the Klang Valley. From there, we took a leisurely 6-hour drive up north, with several pit-stops along the way. We arrived at the Muda Lake Jetty just before noon. Here, we met our guide, Hymeir, who accompanied us throughout the trip. Our destination (Earth Lodge) was located in the middle of the jungle up the Muda River. There was no road access; therefore, we had to take an hour-long boat ride to get there.

As our boat made its way around the lake, we spotted our first birds: the White-bellied Sea-Eagle and Lesser Fish-Eagle. Heading upriver, we saw Red-wattled Lapwings on the sandbanks, with swiftlets, needletails and treeswifts zooming overhead. The riverine jungle scenery was beautiful to behold, and we enjoyed the boat ride despite the hot weather.

River and jungle at Ulu Muda.
Sunny blue skies, fluffy clouds and green jungles make for beautiful scenery.

Birdwatching around the Earth Lodge and an evening cruise

The forest around Earth Lodge was lush, and we saw quite a few birds while resting in the eating area. Babblers, bulbuls, Erpornis and Brown Fulvettas, flitted overhead. Nearby, the cackling laughter of the Oriental Pied-Hornbill was interspersed with the explosive calls of the Great Argus. Additionally, we also spotted three Green Broadbills and a Rufous Woodpecker. Hymeir was trying his best to give us an introductory briefing on Earth Lodge and Ulu Muda, but the birds kept distracting us! Hymeir, being an avid birder himself, joined in the fun!

Around 5:30 p.m., we embarked on a boat cruise downriver from the lodge. We drifted downriver along the current with the engine turned off. This allowed us to immerse ourselves and experience the original soundtrack of the jungle. Listening to the birds chirping and the whooshing sound of the Brown-backed Needletails was an auditory feast!

Ulu Muda Lesser Fish-Eagle.
Lesser Fish-Eagles are common around the lake and river. They can be seen soaring or perched on riverside trees.

The Plain-pouched Hornbills of Ulu Muda

It didn’t take long for us to achieve our primary objective. Not long after starting the cruise, small flocks of Plain-pouched Hornbills flew overhead. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly we saw these hornbills at Ulu Muda. They were easy to identify, as they lack the black marking on the throat pouch (which is present on the otherwise similar Wreathed Hornbill).

Ulu Muda Plain-pouched Hornbills
Two male Plain-pouched Hornbills. Notice the yellow throat pouch, which has no black markings.
Pair of Plain-pouched Hornbills.
Male and female Plain-pouched Hornbills. The female is the one on the right, identifiable by her blue throat pouch.

According to our guide, these birds were flying back to their roosting spots further upriver. The hornbills use similar paths each day: downriver to their feeding sites in the mornings and upriver in the evenings. They can occasionally be seen in massive flocks; in August 2023, Hymeir counted more than 2,000 birds passing overhead!

The Plain-pouched Hornbills are the only migratory hornbills in Malaysia and are usually seen at Ulu Muda between July – October. Ulu Muda is one of the locations where they congregate outside of the breeding season (another location is Belum-Temenggor). Here, the birds are concentrated in a relatively small area; hence, large numbers are seen. You are almost guaranteed to see these birds if you go birdwatching at Ulu Muda during hornbill season.

Flock of Plain-pouched Hornbill
These hornbills flew overhead in flocks of 2 to 10 birds.

In their breeding season, they will migrate to the north of the Thai-Malay Peninsula (Tenasserim). During this time, they disperse widely and no longer congregate in large flocks. Scientific studies are ongoing to further understand the movements of this unique and threatened hornbill.

Unexpected surprise while birdwatching at Ulu Muda

We were more than happy to see the hornbills; however, it turns out Ulu Muda had a surprise for us. Just around a bend in the river, Hymeir alerted us to the distinctive call of the Dusky Eagle-Owl. This is a rare bird in Malaysia; needless to say, we really wanted to see it! We searched around for it, until our boatman spotted one perched high up. Unfortunately, the rest of us couldn’t see it, so we decided to briefly use call playback.

Ulu Muda Dusky Eagle-Owl
This owl was perched very high up a tall tree by the river. The large ‘ear tufts’ give the bird a feline look.

Sure enough, one bird responded by perching on a prominent branch. This huge owl was amazing! The bird was dark overall with paler underparts. The eyes were orange and stared at us like glowing embers. The head is accentuated by large ‘ear-tufts’ which resemble a cat’s ears. The silhouette of the bird also reminded me of a certain comic book caped crusader!

A few minutes later, its partner appeared nearby, and the first owl continued calling. According to Hymeir, they’ve been here for some time but are rarely seen (usually heard only). Our boatman mentioned that it has been months since the last sighting. We could scarcely believe our good luck; thus, we took our time and observed the owls until sunset.

The Dusky Eagle-Owl is rare in Malaysia and is only known from a few locations; consequently, it’s highly sought-after. A pair of these owls recently turned up at Wang Kelian, Perlis and made birding headlines. Photographers and birders across the country have been making their way to Perlis to photograph this elusive owl.

Jungle trail birdwatching at Ulu Muda

The next day, we embarked on a trek through the jungle, heading towards a limestone cave. The trail was roughly 5.5 km one-way but was relatively flat and easy-going. Birding along jungle trails is a bit more challenging, as the forest cover means birds are difficult to spot. However, the forest understory is the habitat of many interesting species.

Babblers are one of the more common types seen along jungle trails. We encountered the Ferruginous, Moustached, Short-tailed, Chestnut-rumped and Chestnut-winged Babblers. The gorgeous Black-throated Babbler was a delightful sighting and a lifer for some of us. We also saw more Plain-pouched Hornbills, Bushy-crested Hornbills, Chestnut-naped Forktail, and the Rufous-winged Philentoma. The call of the Great Argus serenaded us throughout the trek.

Two Pittas

The highlight of the trek was undoubtedly the two pittas. First was an immature Hooded Pitta spotted right next to the trail. The parents probably flew off as soon as we approached, but this inexperienced juvenile didn’t. We observed it for a few minutes as the bird hopped around in the dim understorey. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a decent photo of it.

Not far from the cave was the second pitta, a Malayan Banded-Pitta. This unbelievably colourful bird was a major lifer for us. Like most pittas, this is a shy and elusive bird; therefore, we decided to use call playback to see it. One bird responded briefly, enough for me to see the bird in all its multicoloured glory. Unfortunately, no one else managed to see it; moreover, there was not enough time to photograph it. Nevertheless, I was still overjoyed to tick this pitta off my list!

Other sightings

We did two more river cruises for the rest of our trip (one afternoon and one morning). These cruises were just as rewarding as our first one. Kingfishers, bee-eaters, raptors, hornbills and woodpeckers are common along the forested riverbanks. Notably, we encountered 7 out of 10 hornbills of Ulu Muda! 

On the second-day afternoon cruise, we were fortunate enough to see a mother, Asian Elephant, with her calf. They were feeding on grass along the riverbank, giving us great views. We also spotted otters, langurs, macaques and giant squirrels along the river.

Asian Elephant mother and calf.
Watching these giants grazing by the riverbank was an amazing experience. Notice the small injury on the ear of the adult. This might have been caused by fighting with another elephant.

Additionally, we also did some nocturnal birding around Earth Lodge itself. We heard three species of owls here: the Reddish Scops-Owl, Sunda Scops-Owl and Brown Boobook. However, we only managed to see the Sunda Scops-Owl.

Perched Sunda Scops-Owl
This Sunda Scops-Owl was spotted near one of the Earth Lodge chalets. It was calling persistently; however, we had to search for a bit before finally locating it.

Other birds encountered

In addition to the birds highlighted previously, other notable bird species encountered during our birdwatching at Ulu Muda trip include:

  1. Large Green-Pigeon is generally an uncommon green-pigeon but quite common at Ulu Muda.
  2. Grey-headed Fish-Eagle
  3. Osprey
  4. Scarlet-rumped Trogon
  5. Rhinoceros Hornbill – including one immature bird, identified by its small casque.
  6. White-crowned Hornbill 
  7. Malaysian Blue-banded Kingfisher
  8. Blue-eared Kingfisher
  9. Stork-billed Kingfisher – easily seen fishing along the river.
  10. Rufous-collared Kingfisher – calling loudly behind our dormitory each morning.
  11. Orange-backed Woodpecker
  12. Great Slaty Woodpecker
  13. Slender-billed Crow
  14. Sooty-capped Babbler – this unremarkably drab bird is best identified by its remarkably human-like whistling song
  15. Puff-throated Babbler – a lifer for me!
Stork-billed Kingfisher perched by the river.
The handsome Stork-billed Kingfisher was easily seen along the river. This particular bird allowed our boat to drift quite close by!
Large Green-Pigeon flock
The Large green pigeon is a relatively uncommon species in Malaysia. At Ulu Muda, we saw a good-sized flock on the evening of the second day and morning of the last day.

More Information:

If you’re interested in going birdwatching at Ulu Muda, check out the Earth Lodge Malaysia website for more information. You can also see more photos of the animals and birds seen around Earth Lodge on their Facebook page.

Also, check out my Earth Lodge Malaysia review article to discover my overall impression of the lodge.

Conclusion

Our birdwatching at Ulu Muda trip was a resounding success. Not only did we manage to get our main target, we also managed to spot several more lifers. Seeing the Asian Elephant was a welcome bonus. The whole trip felt like an adventure and a much-needed break from the hustle of city life. Earth Lodge Malaysia was the perfect base for our trip, and our knowledgeable guide ensured our birdwatching experience was memorable.

I would not hesitate to come back again to Ulu Muda and Earth Lodge for more birding adventures in the future!

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