Lionel Cartlidge recalls his encounter with the world’s largest pheasant in a steamy forest in Malaysia
It has been my privilege and pleasure to have travelled the world for the last 40 years in pursuit of my hobby of nature watching, mainly – but not exclusively – birds. It is by no means an unusual pastime and there are others in Dorking & District U3A who devote time to it.
I suppose I have been particularly single-minded in my search, so that I have visited every continent (with the exception of Antarctica, as yet) and scores of countries. I am very fond of the rainforest of South and Central America and have spent a lot of time there, and there are a number of days around the world which come sharply to mind.
I remember being in a small boat tied to a tree in the Brazilian varzea (or drowned forest) with pink river dolphins surfacing close by. I recall the sight of the giant Harpy Eagle landing in a tree across a clearing in Venezuela. I have stood silent, upon a peak in Darien (to borrow from John Keats) and I have seen the strange Shoebill stork spread its wings on an African lake. One of my most memorable trips was to find birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea and another was to search the tussock grass of Tierra del Fuego for Dotterels and Seedsnipe – but these are for another time.
This time I will describe my rather embarrassing encounter with a Great Argus, the world’s largest pheasant: the male measuring up to 79in with a tail like a bustle up to 56in long. Despite its size it is more readily heard than seen and few people have witnessed the spectacular mating display. Malaysia’s Taman Negara national park is where I decided to hunt for it. The conditions I like least are heat and high humidity which were already severe as I entered the forest. I enjoyed a view of another speciality, the huge Rhinoceros Hornbill, before I began to react to the humidity. My glasses steamed up and I slid gracefully on the slick mud of the narrow and steep trail as I progressed into the forest. Conditions were so unpleasant that I wondered whether to turn back and prop up the hotel bar.
I reminded myself that birding is not always easy and my limited capacity for self-discipline came to the fore. I reached a steep section of the trail and my feet slid from under me and I lay in an untidy and hot heap on the ground. At that precise moment a male Great Argus stepped on to the path and seemed to glance at me with derision as I lay peering myopically through my steamed-up spectacles at the huge and spectacular bird. So I claim to have seen the Great Argus or, at least, half-seen it. My unusual horizontal position did not stop me from entering my sighting as a new bird on my list that evening.
Being a birder of mature years has some advantages if one is retired and financially able to travel to distant places, but now and again I am reminded that it would have been better to have done it 40 years ago.