A Feathery Affair

05 October 2017

Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in Seberang Perai is an unassuming playground for birders searching for Penang’s winged wonders.

Hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the industrial city of Seberang Perai is the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, the only remaining peat swamp forest in Penang. With an unremarkable façade, the forest reserve looks abandoned from the outside; left unkempt to be enveloped by nature. But a stroll along the concrete boardwalks further into the reserve reveals a heartland lush with local mangrove plants and wildlife.

Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest is a prime example of how a book should not be judged by its cover. Strategically located where the Sungai Jarak and Sungai Air Hitam rivers meet, the swamp forest is home to over 150 species of birds, which is considered high in number for an 11-hectare piece of land. It has become a prime pit stop for migratory birds, from temperate countries thousands of kilometres away, between the months of October and June. Some of the migratory birds commonly sighted here are the Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, Orange-headed Thrush, Siberian Thrush and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher.

Although unknown to many Penang Locals, the forest reserve is a popular destination for bird watchers from around the world. Annually, bird enthusiasts flock over from United States, Korea, Japan and European countries, just to catch a glimpse of rare migratory birds. Often, they would spend their time at the forest from dusk until dawn, hoisting heavy camera equipment and dressed in camouflage clothing.

The forest reserve’s 210m suspension footbridge as seen from below

For the thrill-seekers, a permit can be requested from the forestry department to explore the reserve at night. As the sun goes down, senses heighten while the ambience changes and nocturnal creatures come out to play. Members of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), a local NGO of environmental enthusiasts, reported having heard or seen nocturnal birds such as the Large-tailed Nightjar, Savanna Nightjar, Collared Scops Owl and Buffy Fish Owl, just to name a few.

Hum Kim Choy and Ooi Poh Sim, who are also members of MNS Penang, have been chasing birds for the past four decades. “We make an effort to visit the reserve once or twice every week after we are done with our house chores,” Ooi shares. During migratory season, they would frequent the reserve on alternate days.

Hum shows us two coffee table books he co-authored with his wife, Ooi – Winged Wonders in Malaysia and its sequel, Winged Wonders: Malaysian Heritage. Their books have encouraged more people to take up birding and photography as a hobby. “We hope our efforts would attract more youths to take interest in documenting and preserving our prized natural environment,” says Hum.

This forest reserve rich with local treasures can be intriguing even to non-birders. The 210m suspension footbridge, not for the faint-hearted, gives a splendid panoramic view of the wetland. Running alongside the Sungai Perai river is a bucolic dirt path perfect for casual strolls through the forest, and if you are lucky, you may find otters wading in the river or water monitor lizards emerging from the swamp!

The forest reserve’s growing popularity did not go unnoticed by the local municipal council. In fact, it was highlighted as an ecotourism hotspot at the Seberang Perai International Conference on Ecotourism and Conservation Efforts (SPICEC) in November 2016.

Tan Choo Eng, MNS Penang branch chairman

“The Seberang Perai Municipal Council [MPSP] is doing a fantastic job in highlighting Air Hitam Dalam Forest on the global radar,” shares Tan Choo Eng, the MNS Penang branch chairman. As part of the council’s plans to attract more visitors, they have requested the Penang Forestry Department, the legitimate agency managing the forest reserve, to strengthen the suspension bridge and upgrade the concrete boardwalks, while the municipal council will provide more parking bays.

Maintaining the facilities at a forest reserve is no easy feat. Working hand in hand, both MPSP and the forestry department battle a financial challenge to ensure a balance between upgrading facilities and conserving the forest reserve’s existing natural environment.

Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest is also rich with local flora

“It is important that the development plans are kept minimal to protect the existing ecosystem. I strongly believe it is always best to enjoy nature in its natural environment,” Tan affirms. As the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest undergoes a potential facelift, its modest gems await to be discovered.

Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, 13310 Air Hitam, Penang (GPS coordinates 5.455195, 100.452579). Open daily, 8am-5pm. Free entry. Call 04 5391 742 for info. To learn more about the forest reserve’s migratory birds and more, visit www.facebook.com/airhitamdalam.

By Stephanie Kee
Photos by Adeline Chua

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