Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A misty affair (18/04/2015)

Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill) is the closest montane birding site to home and it always will have a place in my heart. My very first few montane birding experiences was at this hill resort and it also provided me a number of great lifers including my first hornbill. Every time I inhale the aromatic fragrance of the Eucalyptus Trees around the former Speedy Bungalow, flashbacks of my birding adventures here as a teenager will fill my thoughts. However one of the letdowns of this site, depending on your tolerance towards the smell of diesel-powered exhaust fumes and high-speed hairpin cornerings, is the jeep ride which happens to be the only mode of transportation that ferries visitors up and down the hill. Inconsistencies in terms of quality birding is another reason why Bukit Larut is often not considered to be one of the premier montane sites in Peninsula Malaysia. My latest visit here did not start off well. Hor Kee and I were greeted by heavy mist and gloomy weather upon our arrival. 

The unfavourable lighting condition made photography even harder than it already is in a tropical rain forest. We recorded a good number of birds but shooting them was another thing altogether. A confiding male Orange-breasted Trogon was one of the highlights of the trip. Despite the fact that he was on an exposed perch, my photos did not turned out as well as I hoped they would. At least I have a few images to show for the encounter. This is more than I can say for the shy male Red-headed Trogon that was calling persistently from hidden perches throughout our visit.

The resident male Hill Blue-Flycatcher was just being difficult and it was a frustrating encounter. Despite being extremely vocal, teasing glimpses and distanced shots were all that he was willing to offer today.

The Rufous-browed Flycatcher restored our faith in the locality (and our sanity) by performing a whole lot better than its more colourful cousin. Being drably-coloured and having a preference for the dark domain of the forest undergrowth, its thin penetrating whistle is usually the only thing that gives away its presence.

We were delighted to see a handsome male Siberian Blue Robin still here in his wintering ground. It was a short encounter and one miserable shot was all I could muster before he disappeared into the undergrowth.

In most hill resorts, the persistent calls of the Black-browed Barbet can be heard throughout the day. To see the bird, effort is required as it blends well with the foliage of the canopy levels. To see bird at eye level, luck is required as well. And to compose it well in your shot may be asking for a little too much.

The barbet's call may be very much a part of the sounds of the forest but there is one sound that is noticeably disappearing from the forest. And that is the sultry song of the White-rumped Shama. Cursed with the ability to belt out remarkable repertoires of heavenly notes and with the looks to match as well, this songbird is heavily trapped for the bird trade. The population in Malaysia is on the decline and sadly, even wiped out from a few localities. The pale colouration on the underparts of this male bird suggests that it may be a young bird. Like most youngsters, he tend be a little too bold for his own good. Lucky for him, we are firm believers that caged birds will never sing as well as free birds. And the shama wrapped things up for this slightly mediocre birding excursion. 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

What the heck is he shooting at? (09/04/2015)

The Malayan Night-Heron is a rare migrant to Peninsula Malaysia. I have had only two previous encounters before this but both were not that rewarding in terms of photography. All that changed when a fellow Penang birder, Seng Chee, informed me (the perks of being helpful and willing to share knowledge and information with other birders) of a tame juvenile at the Penang Botanic Gardens. I used to envy those photographs of the Malayan Night-Herons from Taiwan where the birds will forage confidingly in gardens and parks because the herons that winter here are certainly do not behave like that. Or so I thought. The day after the tip-off, I weaved past the rush hour traffic after work on my trusted iron steed and found myself face to face with the heron on an open grass area on the outskirts of gardens. Please do excuse the language but it was f*#king unbelievable. I never once thought I will ever get to experience an encounter with such a tame Malayan Night-Heron in Malaysia let alone my home state of Penang. And to think I even dipped out on the heron during my vacation in Taiwan a few years back.

Fortunately, there was still some sunlight left in the evening sky and I quickly made myself comfortable on the grass and clicked away. I was as close as possible to the heron without having to reduce my zoom lens. It was a full-framed affair.

It was not the least bothered by my presence. Neither did it care about all the other visitors to the gardens that occasionally strolled past quite close. In fact, I was more concerned about them because I did not want them to accidentally spook my subject away. All the heron cared about was the highly-nutritious earth worms!

At one time, the heron wandered towards me and I had to reduce the zoom of the lens in order to fit the whole bird into frame. It was a good thing I was seated with my gear propped up by my knees because I was trembling with excitement. This encounter will certainly become one of my all-time best. What can better a rare waterbird performing exceptionally well? Life can be truly beautiful at times...

When the light started to fade, I noticed a few Crested Mynas foraging in the vicinity also. I guess they were there all this while but were overshadowed by the heron.

One last image of the juvenile Malayan Night-Heron that graced my home state of Penang with its beauty and grace. I am not a big fan of head shots but I guess I can make an exception for this distinguished visitor. The encounter would have been perfect if it did not take place is such a "public" area. I had to put up with curious onlookers and noisy evening walkers. Most of them do not even notice the bird in front of me. They are just curious of what this bald bloke sitting on the grass is photographing. Once, I even had to stop a human from trying to get closer to the heron in order to get a better shot with his smartphone. On second thoughts, if the heron were to show up in an isolated area, there is a very good chance its presence will have gone unnoticed. I guess nothing in birding and life can be perfect. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Size doesn't matter (04/04/2015)

Birders here in Penang are blessed to have Air Hitam Dalam. I have been birding at this site since the first day it opened its door to the public which was more than two decades ago. Although there is a drop in bird species and the size of this small reserve has been much reduced, it still remains as one of the best. Where else in Penang or even Malaysia can one regularly encounter and observed nocturnal species in broad daylight like this Brown Boobook showing off its mystical beauty on an exposed perch like this.

The Boobook was not only out in the open but it was confiding as well. This is certainly not my first encounter with this species but there is just something about it that I find so fascinating. Maybe it is because it is the first owl that I saw in the wild many moons back when I was still a teenager. I do not know. But all I do know is that all owls are truly special and I will always be fascinated by them.

It is kind of ironic I had to worry about the direction of the sun when photographing a night bird - not that I am complaining though.

The Olive-winged Bulbuls were also showing well today. It is now peak breeding season and the bulbuls are lot more confiding than usual. This individual perched on the rope barrier of the elevated boardwalk lacks most of the olive colouration on its wings but does not appear to be a young bird.

This man made structure is a favourite perch for a pair of these bulbuls. All I had to do was to be still and wait for them to come round again. The lighting and distance was favourable but the only slight letdown was the artificial perch. Well, you cannot have your cake and eat it all the time.

Of late, I have been seeing a lot more of the Laced Woodpecker here than the usual Streak-breasted Woodpecker. There are only very subtle differences between the two species and positive identification can be quite a challenge if the birds are not seen well. Anyway, this male Laced Woodpecker provided excellent views but the strong backlight made photography difficult.

The Asian Openbill is no longer a regular at my usual birding spots in Penang. Here at Air Hitam Dalam, they used to roost in huge numbers. I was lucky to have a few juveniles flying over this morning and the lighting was quite ideal for shooting these unique storks in flight.

There is no way to mistake a Forest Wagtail for anything else due its striking plumage. However, it tends to keep close to cover which makes it a challenging subject to photograph. The constant movement of the bird does not help the situation either.

The Malaysian Pied-Fantail is usually not a good subject for photography either - much like the Forest Wagtail. This individual managed to catch a dragonfly for breakfast and I was hoping this substantial prey will weigh down my subject long enough for me to capture a few images. At the end, of the stream of images that I shot, only one turned out good enough to be shared.

Just last week there were records of some splendid birds coming from the vicinity of the rear car park. The Ruddy Kingfisher, Black-And-Red Broadbill and the migratory race of the Asian Paradise-Flycatcher just to name a few. Unfortunately, none of them were recorded this trip. The migratory Blue-winged Pitta was also heard calling from the nearby vicinity but stayed well out of sight. But I did get one species that I was hoping to see - the male the Korean Flycatcher in breeding plumage.

The throat and upper breast region now has an orange tinge and it is a sign that he is ready to fly back north to breed. You handsome devil!

The new checklist by Clements replaced the old name of Yellow-rumped Flycather with Korean Flycatcher. I am no scientist but I still prefer the old name because it describes the bird perfectly and I am sure it is not the only flycatcher in Korea. Here you can see him backing up my opinion.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatchers are residents and will breed within the boundaries of this reserve. The superstars of this hotspot, you are almost guaranteed to see one on every visit.

The car park is usually the center of bird activity at this birding hotspot. It is just a small area and can only accommodate about 10 vehicles and the passengers with all their gear comfortably at one time. All you need to do is wait for the birds to come. You will even get to enjoy skulkers like the Abbott's Babbler.

Birds are not the only animals present at the car park. The Common Sun Skink is regularly recorded and like the birds, has grown accustomed to human presence. In good lighting, the iridescent colours make this reptile an appealing subject as well.

Air Hitam Dalam is also a great place to catch up with birding friends. It is very popular with the local birders including yours truly and on any given weekend you are bound to bump into another bird person. For this trip, I met no less than 5 different groups of birders. Hor Kee, James Neoh and Zo Cozy were among them. If that is not enough, this site is almost next door to the coastline of the Teluk Ayer Tawar IBA. I did sneak off for about an hour to the IBA when the tide was right but there was nothing noteworthy about except for a Brown-headed Gull in breeding plumage. The distance was too great for any good shots but I did take a record shot before I returned to the car park of Air Hitam Dalam for a couple of hours of pleasant birding before I finally called it a day. 

Monday, 30 March 2015

Why, Murphy? (28/03/2015)

The mystery of the male hybrid Red-backed Shrike has yet to be solved and on this beautiful morning, Hor Kee and I were back at the UniMap Guesthouse compound to try and obtained more images of the shrike - hopefully with his moult completed. Unfortunately, he was no where to be seen. Thus began our trip with a considerable amount of Murphy’s Law involved. After a futile search, we diverted our attention to the adjacent mudflats where a number of Javan Pond-Herons were foraging. Although the herons were foraging at a distance, the good lighting helped me in obtaining some reasonable shots.

Any attempts to try and reduce the distance were met with much resistance.

Most of the Pond-Herons that are showing partial or full breeding plumages here are Javan Pond-Herons. This is probably one of those rare occasions where they outnumber the more numerous Chinese Pond-Herons.

The Chinese Egret and Little Stint that were recorded on the last trip were absent this time as well. Luckily, there was a lone male Swinhoe's Plover to keep us occupied. Although this species is not recognized by everyone as a full species, I feel that it should be. The male Swinhoe's Plover was among a flock of Kentish Plovers, the species that some consider it to be a race of. Well, based on appearance alone, you be the judge. It is the second peep from the left.

This is the best image I could conjure up in the end showing the side profile of this uncommon wader that seems to have a preference to winter along the north-western coastline.

We decided to check out the rest of this stretch of mudflats that goes all the way to the Kuala Perlis jetty. As we were making our way to the car, we saw a parent Malaysian Pied-Fantail attending to a juvenile bird and it reminded me of those single parents trying to control a hyperactive child at a departmental store. The only difference here is this parent is just as hyperactive as the child!

At least two Black-capped Kingfishers were seen along the coast here. These beautiful but shy birds are getting ready for the passage back north to breed. Despite the approaching breeding season, they are still as skittish as ever.

Timah Tasoh was our next destination and we were lucky enough to stumble upon a fruiting tree. This year, I have the good fortune of enjoying quite a number of fruiting trees and the birds that came with them. Despite the absence of rarities at this tree, it was still a rewarding encounter thanks to the adorable Coppersmith Barbets.

My only qualm was the tree is very sparse and the harsh mid morning sun does not compliment the images well. There is little much I can do about the back lighting and since I have had little luck with this common but attractive species in the past, I made the best out of the situation.

Although there are more than enough fruits for the two pairs Coppersmith Barbets present, squabbles occasionally erupted and one bird will end up being chased by the other around the vicinity.

A flock of Large Woodshrikes announced their presence with their signature vocalizations. Photography was a challenge as the flock was on the hunt and was constantly moving about.

For the second trip in a row, I crossed path with the diminutive Grey-capped Woodpecker. Perhaps this species is doing better here than in my home state of Penang. This pair was foraging along the canopy level of the scrubland trees and was not really in the mood to be photographed.

A female Plaintive Cuckoo taking a breather from the overwhelming hot and dry weather that we have been experiencing here for the past month or so. With the sun at its zenith, there was no better time for us to seek some shelter, food and a cold drink to rejuvenate before proceeding to our final destination for the day - the grassland of Chuping. 

The Green Sandpiper and Racket-tailed Treepie again got the better of my camera. However, I did not feel much disappointment for missing the latter again. Perhaps, I have accepted the fact that I will never ever photograph a Racket-tailed Treepie. However, Chuping has so much more to offer than just a couple of rarities. A flock of eleven Little Cormorants resting at their usual haunt is one fine example of the magic of this locality. This is by far my biggest count of this recent colonizer.

One of them eventually alighted on the near side of the pond for some reason that I have yet to fathom because this species is relatively shy. Although this was the closest I have ever been to a Little Cormorant, I still could not obtain the type of images that I have been wishing for. This is Murphy's Law at its best. I will not dwell on this any further and the photo says it all.

Foraging along the floating vegetation was the same Pheasant-tailed Jacana that we have been recording here for the past few months. The encounter would have been much sweeter if the Jacana was a little more tolerant of our presence and foraged a little closer. It is has even started to moult into breeding plumage. Now, it would have been quite a sight to see it in full breeding plumage because it is one of the most stunning water birds in the world.The heat wave also affected the outcome of most of my images at Chuping. The result appeared like the subject was out of focus and there was blurred movement. None of which are welcomed in any photograph.

Well, at least the jacana was still within reasonable reach of my camera. Our first record of a Ruddy-breasted Crake in Chuping satisfied only the birders in us.

The heat wave together with the harsh lighting made today one of the most testing days in terms of photography in Chuping. There were around 80 Eurasian Moorhens present at the ponds and that figure was another highlight of the trip. But due to the shooting conditions, I only have this one image that I can be proud of.

The Little Grebes are also in their usual numbers and with their breeding season in full swing, they are a lot more tolerant to human presence.

I then decided to drag Hor Kee to that faithful copse that provided such a rewarding experience during my last visit. For our efforts, the only thing worth mentioning is that we heard the Collared Kingfisher again. Although it is mainly confined to the coastal areas, it is not unheard of for it to occur far inland.

One of the highlights of our trip this time was a dark-morphed Booted Eagle. This scarce winter visitor has been recorded a little more regularly in recent years and most of the sightings are from the northern region including here in Chuping. The height at which the eagle was soaring was beyond my gear’s comfort zone and the harsh afternoon sun only made it worse. But it is still my best image of it to date.

Do not be fooled by the Plain-backed Sparrow's name. If you are not familiar with the species, you might envision it as another little brown job. But the male Plain-backed Sparrow will rock your world if seen well. I am quite ashamed to use this image. It does no justice to the bird at all although it was quite near to our vehicle. I should have done better but this was my best shot.

The female is no push over in the looks department as well but incomparable to the handsome male. Naturally, her image turned out better than the male’s. Here you go. Murphy's Law at work again. But one thing Mr Murphy could not deny us was this one last rewarding birding trip to a little state up north called Perlis - until the commencement of the next autumn migration that is.