Thursday, 1 October 2015

Here we go again (26/09/2015)

With the migratory season coming into full swing, we decided to do a site recce up north to plan out our own "migration routes" for this season to check out all the wintering grounds there. My companions this time were Choo Eng, Hor Kee and Tulsi (a raptor specialist from Nepal currently doing a course at our local university) and the grasslands of Chuping in Perlis was our destination. We noticed some significant changes to the site but there is still hope. Some portions of the grasslands remain just the way they were last season.

It was a little too early to expect encountering anything out of the ordinary. However, there is now a huge heronry right in the middle of the grasslands. Hundreds of Black-crowned Night-herons and Purple Herons were seen nesting and resting at that patch of reed bed that is that well beyond harm's reach.

There was not much migrants encountered this trip but this confiding female Siberian Stonechat, hopefully, is a sign of things to come. Doing her little balancing act on a strain of grass, she had us transfixed on her every move as we observed her from our stationery vehicle.

Just like my last trip to Sungai Sedim, male birds appeared to be lacking in courage. He remained much further away from our vehicle during our observation. Or maybe he was a little reluctant to be photographed as he has almost moulted all of his striking breeding plumage. 

In the absence of notable birds, we had plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of these lands. The view of limestone hills set against beautiful blue skies and soothing green grasslands is like gazing onto the canvas of a piece of art. Who am I kidding? I didn't travel all the way here from Penang just to soak in the scenery. I am here for the birds. It has always been the birds for me and will always be…

It is good to see resident species still able to call this place home despite all the looming threats of converting the grasslands into rubber estates. The highly vocal Red-wattled Lapwings will never go unnoticed.

Indian Rollers are scarce on the western side of Peninsular Malaysia. So, to see pair is an exciting record regardless of the distance and the lighting condition.

To wrap things up for the day was this female migratory Brown Shrike having some trouble with the locals - a Garden Fence Lizard. Neither was big enough to overpower the other. Eventually, the shrike just hopped onto the next fence pole. End of conflict. Life goes on. If only it was this simple for all species that share this Earth to settle their differences - including us humans. 

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Showdown at Sedim Recreational Forest (19/09/2015)

I got back from Borneo only to find out that the fruits on the ‘Hornbill Tree’ at Sungai Sedim in Kedah are finally bringing in the birds. Naturally, I was at the base of the tree just after dawn the following Saturday intently listening for the locomotive-like wing flaps of approaching hornbills. After all, hornbills are one of my all-time favourites. It took them a while but they did show up eventually and it was a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills - a mother and her son. However, instead of gorging on the fruits, the pair rested for long periods among the foliage. 

With hardly any action at the ‘Hornbill Tree’, I diverted my attention to the 'Bulbul Tree' which was just on the other end of the car park area. My companions for the trip, Choo Eng, Nelson and Hor Kee, had already proceeded to that tree earlier on. The 'Bulbul Tree' has been feasted on by a countless number of birds for the past few weeks and surprisingly, the fruits are not completely depleted yet. The availability of food has made the Hairy-backed Bulbuls forgo their natural instinct and foraged right out in the open. 

I had my gear on a tripod for a change because I did not expect much walking for this trip if everything goes according to plans. 

As the tree is not as "crowded" as it was a couple of weeks back, I finally had the time to give the nondescript Spectacled Bulbul its due attention. It has been a regular patron to this fruiting tree since day one and will probably continue until do so until not even one fruit is left. 

Contrary to popular belief, not all bulbuls are dull-looking birds. A few species are as striking as any bird could possibly be. Take the Grey-bellied Bulbul for instance. The slaty grey head and underparts contrasting sharply with bright mustard upperparts are a combination of colours that only divine powers are capable of conjuring up. And a true delight for any birder to experience. 

Being slightly more confiding than usual on this slightly hazy morning, it provided one of the highlights of trip as I managed to obtain some of my best Grey-bellied Bulbul images to date. 

The Orange-bellied Flowerpecker is not uncommon here in Peninsular Malaysia. In fact, it is one of the most widespread species ranging from forests to built-up areas. The male is a cracking bird and I have been trying to obtain good images of him for quite some time now.

Fruiting trees are probably the only time when you can photograph flowerpeckers including this species, at a close distant and without any swearing. Beautiful as these birds may be, they can truly frustrate photographers with their preference for the canopy levels and their canning ability of moving away just as you press the shutter but not at a fruiting tree. Here, you can shoot to your heart’s content.

This male Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker was not so tempted by the fruits and made a brief appearance only. 

When Hor Kee spotted a flock of five White-crowned Hornbills perched on a distant tree, our morning just got a whole lot better. Birds have excellent eye sight and this flock had theirs fixed on the fruits of the 'Hornbill Tree'. The only problem was there were Rhinoceros Hornbills on the fruiting tree and the latter are certainly not the sharing type. 

So, it was down to strength in numbers against strength in size. Trouble was brewing at this little patch of birding paradise and we were caught smack right in the middle of it. We waited anxiously for the White-crowned Hornbills' next move. Unexpectedly, it was a female that broke the deadlock as she gliding into a nearby tree. Instinctively, the rest of the flock followed. However, size does matter in this case and the smaller White-crowned Hornbills abandoned their cause and retreated back into the forest moments later. 

The presence of the White-crowned Hornbills did not go unnoticed by the Rhinoceros Hornbills. We should actually thank the former because as soon as they left, the latter finally started to feed. Rhinoceros Hornbills may be one the commonest hornbills in Peninsular Malaysia but they are majestic, beautiful and impressive. And that horn of a casque from which its name is derived, does it for me every single time.

Again, it is the female that seemed to be bolder than the male. With disregards to our presence, she occasionally foraged quite low on the tree. This is probably the closest I have ever been to this remarkable creature. The last time this tree bore fruits was five years ago and back then, I only managed to observe and photograph the White-crowned Hornbills (not that I am complaining). This time, it was the Rhinoceros Hornbills to shine and boy, did they shine...

Or should I say she, because the young male was quite reluctant to forage down low or in the open for a long time. Once they had their fill, they retreated back to the foliage of the tree crown to rest. Humans are not the only ones guilty of committing the seven deadly sins. Greed and gluttony are certainly present in this pair as they guarded the tree from any other would-be patrons. 

We had one last look at the 'Bulbul Tree' before calling a day and Sungai Sedim was kind enough to present to us a nice farewell gift in the shape of a Gold-whiskered Barbet. This barbet is common throughout the country in suitable habitats. Being a typical canopy level dweller, I do not have many decent images of it despite of its status. It is no hornbill but the encounter was still one that contributed to the success of this trip. 

An inquisitive Rufescent Prinia peered at us from its grassy domain as we made our way out and wrapped things up for this time. We headed for a much-anticipated late lunch and unlike the Rhinoceros Hornbills, we graciously left the eatery after having our fill...

Monday, 21 September 2015

My Bornean birding adventure - Day 3 & 4 (13-16/09/2015)

On our second day at Kinabalu Park, we left the warmth and comfort of our chalets room well before dawn. A short pre-dawn birding yielded only a heard record of the Mountain Scops-Owl. We headed towards Timpohon Gate again because we were hoping for a repeat performance of yesterday's events. On the way up, we stopped and offered a British birder that we met yesterday at the gate (I never caught the man's name). He has been here nearly a week and for the past few days, he has only one bird on his mind - the Friendly Bush-Warbler. So, the man walks at 4:30am from Kundasang (a small town just outside the park) to Timpohon Gate which is easily a 10km uphill journey just to see a little brown job. And people say that I'm insane...

At Timpohon Gate, the forest came alive with the sweet serenade of bird calls after the mist and darkness lifted. Upon first light, we got our first birds for the day. A flock of Sunda Laughingthrushes has also learned to forage for scraps at the car park area but the lighting condition was challenging for any form of photography.

The Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrushes are regulars to the gate every dawn to feed off the insects attracted by the lights at night. This laughingthrush is the commonest of them all here in Kinabalu Park and we recorded them every day.

Although my target for this trip is to see as many endemics as possible, a pair of Mountain Imperial Pigeons resting on a roadside tree was too good a photographic opportunity to pass. This pigeon is not uncommon in montane forests throughout Malaysia but I have had very few opportunities like this.

One thing I have learned from my years if birding is never to take anything for granted and I took a number of shots of this stately pigeon before we moved on.

How hard can it be to photograph something big, loud and usually occurs in flocks? It should be a walk in the park or so I thought. But in the natural world, not everything is always what it seems. The Bornean Treepies have been terribly shy despite their size and has successfully eluded my camera's sensor for the past couple days. When my one and only good opportunity presented itself, I had to make sure I did not squander it...

The birding has been exceptional at Kinabalu Park. I managed to obtain quite a high number of lifers including some extraordinary endemics. But if I were to name one species that stood out slightly more than the rest, it would be the Whitehead's Broadbill. Named after the scientist who first discovered it, this broadbill is like a bigger version of the Green Broadbill and naturally, a Bornean endemic. As impossible as it may sound, the Whitehead's Broadbill is more strikingly plumaged than the Green Broadbill which is already a jewel of the forest itself. I can throw in all kinds of bombastic words to describe the beauty of the Whitehead's Broadbill and all the emotions it has conjured from deep inside my soul when I first laid eyes on it but it will still do very little justice to the bird. And neither will my photos...

Apart from the broadbill, there are two other endemics named after the man - Whitehead's Trogon and Whitehead's Spiderhunter. I dipped out miserably on these two but I should count my blessings for not being denied of all three. The encounter remains so vivid in my thoughts although it is now nearly a week since my return from Borneo. I guess some memories are meant to last a lifetime.

Having lost the battle to the partridges yesterday, we were determined not to let it happen again today as we moved into the forest trails by mid-morning. Barely 50 meters into the trails, my ears picked up the far-carrying cries of a Crested Serpent-Eagle but it sounded strange. Peering through whatever small gaps in the canopy, I could make out two raptors circling overhead and my initial guess of the call was correct. They were indeed Mountain Serpent-Eagles. I have been looking up in the skies for this endemic raptor since the very first day we arrived at Kinabalu Park. Of all times, it decided to show itself when I am almost enclosed by the forest vegetation if the trail. Instinctively, I ran out of the trail as fast as I could. Unfortunately, human legs tend to be slower than the mighty wings of an eagle and by the time I got out into the open again, this was all I have to show for the encounter.

After catching my breath, it was back to the trails - again. Some movement among the undergrowth caught my immediate attention and I was left breathless again. A pair of Mountain Wren-Babblers was on the hunt and I was directly in their path. The undergrowth was a difficult place to obtain good views let alone photographs. At the end I managed a few record shots but it was another exciting encounter. Just in case you are wondering, the partridges got the better of me - again.

Unlike yesterday, the trails provided several noteworthy moments and bumping into this inquisitive Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher was certainly one of them. This little brown job reminded me of the Rufous-browed Flycatcher of the peninsular. Frequenting the under storey of the forest, this flycatcher sometimes behaved more like a babbler than a flycatcher. It was confiding and seemed to ignore my presence as it went about its daily routine. But I found it difficult to capture it well.

In life, sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for your time to come. Before disappearing further into the undergrowth, the flycatcher alighted momentarily in front of me in full view. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of Kinabalu Park. My only regret is that why did I wait more than two decades to finally make a visit to this side of my country.

A birdwave combing through the edge of the forest trail brought in the usual birds. There was a Bornean Whistler in the wave and I did not manage to photograph it yesterday when we saw it in a birdwave as well. But today, the whistler made up for yesterday's arrogance and I, for one, will not be holding any grudges.

On one occasion it came very close to my position. Unfortunately, the light was coming from the wrong direction but that is wildlife photography. You just have to roll with the punches. But even the strong backlight could not deny the Bornean Whistler for the beautiful bird that it is. It definitely deserves all the admiration it received from me and I am betting, from other birders as well.

We were so grateful and thankful for the good weather yesterday because by mid-afternoon today, the sky darken with rain clouds and the bird activity dropped significantly. This Flavescent Bulbul was the last species we recorded before the skies finally gave way to the surging rain.

We took shelter from the rain back at our accommodations, J Residence. I usually do not babble much on the accommodations during my birding trips but I think I will make an exception here. J Residence is located about 300 meters from the entrance to Kinabalu Park. From the front gate, you descend steeply to the office/reception building.

Further down the slope are about 8 semi-detached chalets with verandahs that come complete with coffee tables. Some of the chalets have full length glass panels on the front and the side with breathtaking views of the surroundings. Nigel made the right choice by choosing this place over the others and he even managed to get the chalets with the best views!

But the true reason why I love this temporary home is because of the birds. It is always the birds for me. While waiting out the rain at our verandah, I managed to obtain an additional three more endemic lifers! The Pygmy White-eye and the Bornean Spiderhunter just would not stay still long enough for their images to be taken. The only reason I managed to photograph this Chestnut-crested Yuhina is because it came in a big flock. Better odds…

Imagine waking up to a Bornean Treepie in all its glory just outside your verandah. If this is not living the good life, I do not know what is.

I always have a soft spot for puppies especially those with mischief written all over their faces. These two adorable rascals belong to one of the staff at J Residence. I made it a point to play them for a while at the end of each day and they are partly responsible why this trip such a memorable one.

The resident cat also received a fair share of my affections. I do sympathise her because living with the pups can be a little stressful at times. But she still puts up with them patiently and let them have their way most of the time. That's a good girl...

On the fourth and final day, we decided to head to Kota Kinabalu before dawn and do a couple of hours of birding before catching our flight home. At first light, we reached the entrance to the Kota Kinabalu Wetland Center (KKWC) only to find the gates close. A closer look at the signboard says that it will only be open at 8am and that will be an hour-long wait for us. Maybe it is just me but if you are running a wildlife reserve, shouldn't it be open at the time when the wildlife is most active and easily seen? Lady Luck has blessed us throughout the trip and just outside the boundaries of the center, a flock of Green Imperial Pigeon were only starting to stir on a tall dead. This species is scarce back home in the peninsular and to see a flock here at the outskirts of the capital city of Sabah was a privilege to me.

I guess these majestic pigeons are not uncommon here judging on how used they are to human presence. And they certainly helped past the time while we waited for the center to open. 

This may not be the best image of the Bornean race of the Oriental Magpie-Robin but it was the best that I could do. I find the Bornean race to be more attractive than the race found in the peninsular. The Bornean birders probably feel the way about the peninsular race. That is only human nature.

We even helped ourselves to another lifer in the form of a Rufous Night-Heron. Although the one that provided us the best views was a juvenile bird, it was still a lifer nevertheless.

We thought about trying our luck further north along the coast but to our horror, Randy's truck just will not start. It was a case of a flat battery. While Randy waited for assistance to arrive, the rest of us paid the tickets and went into the KKWC. I guess we were meant to visit the center. The boardwalks that cut through the mangroves were very scenic but there were hardly any birds. Even the observation hide yielded only some Pacific Golden Plovers and a juvenile Changeable Hawk-Eagle. All was not lost when we managed to obtain one last lifer for our trip to Borneo - the Bold-striped Tit-Babbler. Another recent split from the Pin-striped Tit-Babbler (formerly known as just the Striped Tit-Babbler); it was just a little too active for any photographic attempts. But it was a great way to wind down for a fantastic trip. As I bid farewell to Borneo, the numerous lifers that we obtained are destined to become reflections of wings and inspiration for a long time to come.

Here is the list of lifers from our trip. Bornean endemics are indicated with an asterisk.
1.  Brown Barbet* - Rafflesia Forest Reserve, Tambunan
2.  Bornean Treepie* - Rafflesia Forest Reserve, Tambunan
3.  Mountain Barbet* - Rafflesia Forest Reserve, Tambunan
4.  Bornean Leadbird* - Rafflesia Forest Reserve, Tambunan
5.  Chestnut-hooded Laughingthrush* - Rafflesia Forest Reserve, Tambunan
6.  Black-capped White-eye* - Rafflesia Forest Reserve, Tambunan
7.  Golden-naped Barbet* - Kinabalu Park
8.  Flavescent Bulbul* - Kinabalu Park
9.  Hair-crested Drongo - Kinabalu Park
10. Sunda Laughingthrush - Kinabalu Park
11. Bornean Whistling-thrush* - Kinabalu Park
12. Sunda Bush-Warbler - Kinabalu Park
13. Indigo Flycatcher - Kinabalu Park
14. Bornean Whistler* - Kinabalu Park
15. Black-sided Flowerpecker* - Kinabalu Park
16. Mountain Serpent-Eagle* - Kinabalu Park
17. Whitehead's Broadbill* - Kinabalu Park
18. Mountain Wren-Babbler* - Kinabalu Park
19. Mountain Black-eye* - Kinabalu Park
20. Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher* - Kinabalu Park
21. Chestnut-crested Yuhina* - J Residence, Kundasang
22. Bornean Spiderhunter* - J Residence, Kundasang
23. Pygmy White-eye* - J Residence, Kundasang
24. Rufous Night-Heron – Kota Kinabalu Wetlands Center
25. Bold-striped Tit-Babbler* - Kota Kinabalu Wetlands Center