Bird Photography / Birding / Malaysia / Rainforest

Masked Finfoot| Early sighting in 1992| Malaysia


Masked Finfoot | Early sighting in 1992|Malaysia

Masked Finfoot | Early sighting in 1992 | Malaysia

In the early 90’s, not much was known about the Masked Finfoot (heliopais personata), an aquatic bird, except for its distribution in eastern Indian subcontinent, Indochina and Malaysia. There were a few reports of its early sighting in Taman Negara, Malaysia.

This article is to share about Masked Finfoot early sighting in 1992 in Malaysia.

In April 1992, I was new to bird photography. On my first trip to Taman Negara, Malaysia, I encountered the Masked Finfoot swimming in the Sungei Tahan (Tahan River) while on a boat ride from Taman Negara Resort to Lata Berkoh waterfall led by Mano Tharmalingam from Kingfisher Tours. In the recent Covid-19 lockdown, I found the original 35mm slides of the Masked Finfoot which was the highlight of our trip in Taman Negara back in 1992.

That morning, 28 years ago, we departed from the Taman Negara Resort to Lata Berkoh for a day trip through a smaller river, Sungei Tahan. A mostly tranquil and scenic 1-hour boat ride upstream along the tan coloured river, the river was about 4 lanes wide. Lined with huge and luscious Dipterocarp trees overhanging on both sides of the river, we were nicely shaded from the hot tropical sun. As the boatmen skilfully navigated along the sometimes turbulent rapids, Mano with his sharp eyes spotted the Masked Finfoot skulking at the edge of the river. I was seated on the third row of the 5-men boat and thought it was just a duck. Only until Mano told me that it was a rare bird and it was above the water showing its lobed greenish feet that I quickly captured the bird on camera.

I had my 400 mm f/5.6 manual focus lens with ASA 200 slide film, focusing on the Masked Finfoot. Mano asked the boatman to manoeuvre pass the bird then let the boat drift downstream with the current where I took my first shot. I wound my camera ready for the next shot, but the strong current had distanced us from the bird. I asked the boatman to propel forward again, then turning off the motor to let the boat drift with the current. I took my second shot. What made this picture special then, was seeing the feet of Masked Finfoot exposed above the water, uniquely greenish and lobed. 

Masked Finfoot. Early sighting in 1992. Malaysia

Masked Finfoot rare bird sighting  in 1992 Malaysia
Masked Finfoot. early sighting in 1992. Malaysia.
Showing its lobed greenish feet.

Recently, Mano told me that he first sighted the Masked Finfoot in 1977 and had several sightings each year till March 2005. The picture I captured could be the first image of the bird exposing its greenish lobed feet.

You can never step in the same river twice.” 

An ancient philosopher Heraclitus once said

Today with better camera technology evolved with high ISO, quick autofocus in low light and excellent image stabiliser, better images can be captured. However, the behaviour of nature may not be what it once was. Overtime, sightings of the Masked Finfoot has been less frequent and regular. In Indonesia, the bird was reported in Sumatra & Java with only one record (BirdLife International in 2001). In Malaysia, the Masked Finfoot was sighted in FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia) in 2004 to 2005; and in Ipoh in 2012 at an ex-mining pond by Connie Khoo. The bird was also spotted in Singapore a few times, from year 2000 to the last one in 2010 at Seletar Reservoir.

We were privileged to have crossed path with the elusive Masked Finfoot in the early days of 1992 in Malaysia.

As millions of people across the region have retreated indoors to combat Covid-19 pandemic, wildlife has re-appeared more frequently. I hope to see the Masked Finfoot again.


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