Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Oh, what a bill! (16/05/2015)

I woke up to the sound of the alarm on my iPhone and the rhythm of the falling rain on the roof. I was in a solemn mood as I contemplated on the fate of my birding plans for today. By the time I got myself ready, the rain almost dwindled to a stop and the dawn chorus started to fill the surrounding areas of my humble abode. Although the chorus consisted mostly of the bubbly calls of the ever-common Yellow-vented Bulbuls, it was music to my ears and all the motivation I needed to head out the door for my next birding adventure. The hilly forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah was the choice location this time and it was a beautiful morning there unlike the gloom weather back home in Penang.

A handsome male Rufous-winged Philentoma was busy establishing his territory from the lower storey of the forest with his mournful disyllabic whistle. As confiding as he may be, the poor lighting condition was simply too much for my gear to overcome and I had to settle for these slightly mediocre images.  

Before I started bird photography, I would be absolutely delighted to be able to record three species of Trogons on a single trip. A female Red-naped Trogon provided flitting glimpses as she moved along the canopy level but I did not have the chance to even focus my camera on her. This female Scarlet-rumped Trogon, on the other hand, was sitting still for a prolonged period of time but there was only a narrow gap among the foliage to photograph her.

It was an all-ladies affair for the trogons as the third and final species was also a female. The female Diard's Trogon is one of the most striking of all the female Trogons. She was calling from deep within the forest when our paths crossed. Almost at eye level, it would have been a reasonably good shot if she was just a little closer. None of the trogon images today were good enough by any standard and I cannot help but to feel a little disappointed.

The Orange-backed Woodpecker is probably the largest woodpecker you will get to encounter here at Sungai Sedim. The male of this species is also one of the most vibrantly coloured woodpeckers in Malaysia. Usually vocal by nature, this woodpecker is conspicuous whenever it is present. However, good photographic opportunities are not easy to come by. Take this male for example. He stopped just long enough for me to take a single shot before he disappeared back into the forest.

Apart from game birds, only two other birds actually walk on the forest floor in Malaysia. One is of course the enigmatic Malaysian Rail-babbler and the other, the Black-capped Babbler. The former is on my list of birds that I need to shoot before my time on Earth is done but no such luck today. It was the latter and it is nevertheless, a bird that I would love to shoot as well. I anticipated the path that the bird will take and waited at a slightly more open area of the undergrowth. However, instead of the babbler, this butterfly came along and happily alighted not too far from where I was lying in wait.

One of the most widespread and adaptable birds in Malaysia is the White-rumped Munia. Its habitat ranges from the paddy fields of the lowlands to the primary forests of the mountains. With such an impressive range of habitats, it comes as no surprise that the population of this little seed-eater is doing well. This lone individual was foraging on a small tree as I was making my way back to the car park. It was already midday and I was drenched to the bone in my own sweat and dripping blood from multiple leech bites on my legs. I guessed I had enough of birding along forested trails for the day.

With the weather still holding well, I decided to do some afternoon birding at Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. This locality is now probably the hottest spot for bird photography. Even at this hour, I was greeted by a few birding friends at the car park area. I did not linger at the car park though. I wanted to see if anything was about from the stretch of elevated boardwalk that cuts through the swamp forest. To come across a confiding Black-and-red Broadbill just beyond the boardwalk was more than I could ever wish for. In birding, sometimes wishes do come true…

Unlike my previous encounter, it seemed like the broadbill was not going anywhere soon. And neither was I, naturally. It foraged, preened and danced among the foliage of a particular group of trees in the vicinity. As for me, I made myself comfortable and soak in the moment. And of course, took as many photos that this amazing and adorable creature would allow me to.

The two-toned bill of this species is really something else. Just look at it. It is turquoise on the top and yellow on the bottom. All the other broadbills have one-toned bills. There is no other bird in Malaysia that has a bill like that. The very first time I saw the Black-and-red Broadbill, it was along the lower slopes of Cameron Highlands. Only part of the head was visible but one good look at the bill and its identity was revealed.

The lighting conditions put my gear and my photo-taking abilities to the test. The dense foliage was another major hindrance as most of the time, the broadbill was slightly obstructed. But an up close and personal encounter like this is somewhat of a novelty to me. So, almost the entire afternoon was dedicated to the broadbill and it was time well-spent indeed.

A male Ashy Tailorbird did wander close to where I was observing the broadbill. By then it has been more than an hour and I could managed to drag myself away from the latter and shower the tailorbird with some attention.

This is a picture of true bliss and contentment. A Collared Kingfisher indulging in a late afternoon sunbath.

A walk along the river trail produced nothing much but this flying shot of the resident Brahminy Kite. This common but striking raptor wrapped things up for this time and it was another rewarding excursion courtesy of a couple hours of sheer birding pleasure with a confiding broadbill at my favourite site in Penang.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Rainy days are back (10/05/2015)

There is one thing about enjoying the wonders of Mother Nature and that is you have to take whatever she decides to offer you in your stride. The southwest monsoon has commenced and rainy days are back in western Peninsula Malaysia. Lightning is the last thing you want when you set off on any birding trip especially one with a foreign guest. Billy is his name and he hails from Ireland. With the weather starting to turn against us, our best bet would be Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. This locality has yet to disappoint even in the gloomiest of weathers. A few mischievous Abbott's Babblers were the first to greet us upon our arrival at the car park.

Billy is no stranger to this land as it is his third visit to Malaysia. In fact, he has been to every continent on Earth to photograph wild birds. Penang is just part of this time's 6-week birding adventure to Southeast Asia. I feel proud that Penang is in his list birding sites. It looks like my home state is starting to gain more recognition among the international birding community.

The Olive-winged Bulbuls performed admirably today and it was much to Billy's delight because this species is new to him. It was about then the first rays of the sun managed to pierce through the rain clouds. And the magic of Air Hitam Dalam began to weave its way into the heart of my foreign guest.  

Loud and large, the Stork-billed Kingfisher certainly made its presence felt. This species is always a favourite among foreign birders and it is not difficult to see why.

Most birders and bird photographers alike will have a wish list when they go for a birding vacation. The Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher happens to be in Billy's. And if there is any place where you are almost guaranteed to see this species, it will be Air Hitam Dalam.

The Black-and-red Broadbill teased our camera sensors from the dense foliage of the canopy level. So did the Streak-breasted Woodpecker. Fortunately, we managed a few reasonable shots of the latter. Well, one of us did anyway and it was not me.

When the noon hour was at hand, we decided it was time for lunch. On route to satisfy our hunger, we made a stop at the bee-eater colony in Penanti. At this time of the year, the Blue-throated Bee-eaters will be the star attraction of this modest little birding site. These aerial hunters provided a memorable performance and this species also happens to in Billy's wish list. The overcast sky was a blessing in disguise as we were able to experience the bee-eaters without the harsh lighting of the midday sun.

The arrival of the rain ended our photo session with the bee-eaters. A nearby eatery provided lunch and a place to wait out the rain. When the rain started to ease, we did a little detour for the roosting Barred Eagle-Owl behind the Kulim Hi-Tech Park before heading to Sungai Sedim in Kedah for the afternoon session of birding. The owl was a lifer for Billy. So despite the obstructed view, the detour was still a good call.

When we reached the entrance to Sungai Sedim, it started to pour again. Lugging loads of birding gear along a forest trail in a tropical storm should not be part of any birding tour. Reluctantly, I had to think of a contingency plan and it was back to the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Unfortunately, the storm followed us all the way there and we had to take shelter under the roof of the public toilet at the car park. It was a cruel twist of fate when a Blue-winged Pitta suddenly made an appearance and foraged at the other end of the car park in the rain. Birding lenses, big or small, are not waterproof. And we had no choice but to enjoy the pitta from our shelter.

When the rain finally went away, so did the Pitta. We moved our car to a strategic position to use it as a hide and hoped for the Pitta to return. But it did not and we had to settle for this Brown Shrike instead. I was a little surprise to record both the Brown and Tiger Shrike at this locality today because they should have undertaken their journey back north by now. Rain is an integral part of tropical Asia and can have devastating effects on your birding plans. I guess we were lucky to still get to enjoy a rewarding one in the end. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Once upon a time...(25/04/2015)

My latest visit to a little piece of birding heaven located at mainland Penang in Malaysia that goes by the name of Air Hitam Dalam is one that will be remembered for a long time to come. With my former favourite, the marshlands at Pulau Burung 'destroyed' by my fellow human beings, this birding site has now reinforced its position as my new favourite in Penang. The magic of this locality has even found its way to this migratory Forest Wagtail and the latter has certainly joined the ranks of top performers here.

It is one of the most confiding Forest Wagtails I have ever encountered before and I made it a point not to take it for granted as it will be heading back to its northern breeding grounds soon.

Usually, you will have to be on your belly to get half this close to a Forest Wagtail. But here, it is not necessary. Just go down on your knees and enjoy the show.

While being spellbound by the wagtail's performance, an inquisitive Olive-winged Bulbul dropped in to have a better look at what was going on. What’s up?

The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers were being confiding selves - as usual. With the migratory Korean Flycatcher now gone, they do not have to share the limelight with any other tame flycatchers for the time being.

There are a few sought-after species that this site is famous for and one of them is the resident Ruddy Kingfisher. Most of my encounters with this species took place here and this time of the year is the best time to observe this elusive kingfisher. However, it did not perform as I had expected. It exceeded my expectation…

This image is almost too good to be true. A ravishing Ruddy Kingfisher on an exposed perch with a relatively clean background and well within the reach of my gear is not something I expect to happen. But it did and I had to pinch myself just to make sure I was not dreaming.

What are the odds of having another encounter of similar magnitude later in the same day? This time the kingfisher was at eye level and had its back towards me. I was trembling with excitement and without the aid of a tripod, shooting it in the dim understorey of the swamp forest was no easy task. But today is no ordinary day and one of the shots turned out great despite all the factors that were against my favour.

Air Hitam Dalam is a haven for kingfishers and I was reminded of that today. The mighty Stork-billed Kingfisher receives its due respect and admiration whenever it is present. It was taking a breather under the shade of a large fig tree when I came across it and much to my surprise, it did not disappear into the swamp forest like usual.

At the other end of the size spectrum, there is the migratory Black-backedDwarf-Kingfisher but it is elusive by nature and a fleeting glimpse was all I had today. The Collared Kingfisher is the commonest kingfisher of them all at Air Hitam Dalam and unlike the Dwarf-Kingfisher, it is almost a guaranteed species on any visit. Its raucous calls and confiding nature makes it difficult to be overlooked.

Woodpeckers also find sanctuary within the borders of this educational forest. This Banded Woodpecker that was foraging along a densely-foliaged tree was quite tolerant to my presence. Perhaps the foliage provided it with a sense of security. Unfortunately for me, it was a hindrance to my efforts of trying to obtain unobstructed images.

The Black-naped Oriole is without doubt one of the most stunning of our common birds in Malaysia and is a common sight even from built-up areas. There are usually a handful of them present here but because of their status, this beautiful bird is often ignored. The oriole’s bright colour and melodious calls have attracted my attention even before I started birding. Although the impact of its presence is more subdued nowadays, it still feels good to be greeted by one when I open my balcony doors in the morning.

There are only three species of babblers that regularly occur here. At the present time, the Abbott's Babbler is the most conspicuous one with its persistent vocalization and confiding nature.

Cuckoos are a fascinating family of birds. They come in all shapes and sizes and some are truly spectacular. However, they are generally shy and good photographic opportunities have to be earned. The Green-billed Malkoha is one of the biggest cuckoos in Peninsula Malaysia. It grows to a staggering two feet in length and the long tail is more than half the body length.

The Chestnut-winged Cuckoo may not have the malkoha's size but it is a striking species. Two of them were present today and they led me on a wild goose chase around the locality. Through sheer persistency and luck, I eventually managed to obtain an image that I quite fancy. This cuckoo is a migrant and it has taken me almost this whole migratory season to capture its image. I guess I can live with the strong back light and obstructing vegetation.

Whilst stalking the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo along the elevated boardwalk, a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo alighted on an exposed perch just in front of me. Although it is a common bird, it would have been a sin if I did not stop to appreciate the encounter.

In fact, I was so impressed with its confiding nature that I took the time to observe and photograph it. As a result, I let my initial quarry slip deeper into the swamp forest but it was a decision that I do not regret. A bird in full view is worth two in the bush - especially if it is performing so well.

When I was about to call it the day, something propelled me to stay back and take one last walk around the boardwalk. Call it intuition. Call it luck. Call it whatever you want but as soon as I stepped onto the boardwalk, I can just barely picked out a distanced sound that is not unlike the bleating of a goat. I knew what it was and I have been trying my best to photograph it for the past few visits to this locality but without success - the Black-and-red Broadbill! I have crossed paths with this amazing bird a number of times before here and as well as other sites in the past but I have yet to obtain its image until now. When I finally managed to track it down, it was a brief encounter and I only managed to take a few shots from the same angle. But sometimes, it is the circumstance and the bird involved that makes some encounters stand out more than others. The broadbill’s decision to finally show itself to me after weeks of disappointment was like a fairy tale ending to this trip. But will the alluring birdlife at Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest live happily ever after? That is a question only time can answer.