Thursday, 20 November 2014

Third time's a charm? (15/11/2014)

Hor Kee came back from Chuping last Sunday with some exciting results and the sighting of the Racket-tailed Treepie was the one that really caught my eye. It has been a decade since my one and only sighting of this enigmatic but scarce northern species. And I have been hunting for a chance to obtain its image ever since. This was my third visit to Chuping this season and I was really hoping for something extraordinary this time. In the end, I dipped out on any would-be lifers and treepies as well but even so, Chuping still provided a memorable trip. I did not only have Choo Eng as my companion this time but Hor Kee as well.

I mentioned in one of my previous posts that the Asian Pied Starling has been officially removed from the Malaysian checklist and they performed well during that visit. Much to my delight, the starlings put on another splendid performance for the visiting birders again. Since this is one of the few places where it is regularly seen, I took as many images as they were willing to provide. 

The status of the Red Collared Dove is also shrouded with uncertainty. Initially, the birds that occur in the Peninsula Malaysia were either escapees or introduced birds. Recently, there is a strong indication that the birds that occur in the northern region of Peninsula Malaysia are natural colonizers from the north. Like the starlings, Chuping is one of the few strongholds for these beautiful doves. Here, they congregate in exceptionally high numbers and for the record we counted no less than 300 of them today.

There are a few other high-numbering sightings as well this trip. The migratory Black Drongo is common in suitable open country habitats throughout Peninsula Malaysia but today in Chuping, it is second only to the doves with an impressive figure of more than 100 individuals. With so many present, you would have thought I would be able to muster a better image than this one. However, the Black Drongo is usually a skittish bird despite occurring in open areas and they are not one that finds strength in numbers.

The Black-winged Kite is a petite raptor also found in open country and scrubland habitats. What it lacks in size and tenacity, it makes up in grace and beauty. A hovering bird is quite a sight and my poor attempt at capturing the moment does it no justice. It is normally found singly or in pairs. However when it comes to Chuping, you can throw the rule book out the window. Along a single electrical cable between two pylons, we counted 17 individuals. 

We also bumped into KC and Swee Yian from the MNS Perak Branch Bird Group shortly after our arrival at the locality. It was great to meet up with them again after such a long time.

A circling Oriental Honey-buzzard caught our full attention. This species with its highly varied plumage can sometimes be mistaken for something else and vice versa. We just wanted to be sure since we are at the hottest spot in Peninsula Malaysia in terms of rare migrants (and temperature).

Raptors ruled the day at Chuping as we stumbled onto the path of migrating Black Bazas. These are probably the last few to pass through as the raptor migration period was already tailing off. 

Among the Bazas, there was also a lone Grey-faced Buzzard and it was my first of the season. The distance prevented me from obtaining better images of this striking species. I guess there's always next time...

The grasslands here play host to wintering harriers every season and it is one of the best places to observe these graceful raptors. The Eastern Marsh Harriers and Pied Harriers are the two species found here so far. Today, the smaller Pied Harrier outperformed its larger cousin. I managed to obtain images of all three of its normal plumage variances. To start things off is this strikingly-marked male quartering his domain in search of breakfast. 

A confiding female did her hunting close to our stationery vehicle for a prolonged period of time. 

The juvenile is substantially different from the adults. Its overall dark plumage also makes it quite recognizable which is something you do not get to enjoy in most juvenile raptors. 

Here is a male Eastern Marsh Harrier and not a female Pied Harrier as I had initially put it down as (thanks, Dave!).

Chuping is also a regular wintering ground for another exceptional raptor. Rare throughout the rest of the Peninsula, the Common Kestrel is undoubtedly one of the star birds of this birding hotspot. Today's encounter was the best so far because we managed to observe a female bird preying upon what looked like an insect. And I managed to obtain the best image of this falcon to date. 

We came across a total of 3 individuals throughout the trip. Unfortunately, this female perched on a dead tree was slightly blocked and our attempt to re-position our vehicle saw our subject gliding away towards the far horizon. 

A small little mammal foraging along the access trail turned out to be a mongoose. Typical of the species, no second chance was given for improvement shots as it scrambled back into cover once it sensed our presence.

My third visit to the Little Cormorants’ pond finally yielded a reasonably close shot. This lone bird was slightly more confiding than usual as it rested among the reeds. So, I guess third time's a charm after all. 

The pond provided another pleasant surprise in the form of a female Pygmy Cotton Goose. This species, together with the Lesser Whistling Duck, are the only resident ducks in the Peninsula. However, the goose is a rarer bird and I have only recorded it on only a few other occasions elsewhere. It was personal new record for this site and a fitting end to another great trip to the great grasslands of Chuping.

As we were on the road heading back to Penang, Hor Kee received a text message from KC. They just had a family of 3 Racket-tailed Treepies at the exact location where we were searching for them just before we decided to call it a day. I guess if it is not meant to be, it is not meant to be...

Monday, 17 November 2014

A chance encounter with old friends (14/11/2014)

Just when I thought I have seen everything there is to see at Air Hitam Dalam, an image of a male Green-backed Flycatcher taken from this locality was posted on Facebook. I have seen this rare migrant only once at another locality a long time ago but with my digiscoping setup at that time, obtaining a photo was simply out of the question. And if that was not enough, a few birders starting posting images of a roosting Large-tailed Nightjar as well. Common as it may be, it is not easy to locate this nocturnal species in the daytime because its cryptic plumage blends perfectly into the surrounding environment.

Both James Neoh and Peng Seng were kind enough to share the location of the flycatcher and nightjar respectively. The first opportunity I had to try and obtain the photograph of both birds came on a beautiful Friday afternoon. I dipped out on the flycatcher despite much effort but the nightjar, which was the secondary target, performed well. Well enough to almost vanquish my earlier disappointment with the flycatcher. 

Although the nightjar was confiding, it was roosting among clumps of Nipah Palms in the swamp with little choice of shooting angles. The harsh lighting at that time was also another hindrance. But it was a memorable experience and I made the best of out of the situation. So, thanks to the guys for their willingness to share. In fact I would to take this opportunity to thank again all those who had in the past, one way or the other, shared their sightings that which some had even ended up as lifers for me. 

This goodwill gesture may seem like a natural thing to do but unfortunately for a small minority, it is not. I don't see the harm in sharing sightings, with the exception of sensitive nesting birds, and knowledge. To me, the wonders of birding are meant to be shared. It does not matter if birding is just a hobby or a profession. I do birding tours on my free time but I do not regard the birds as trade secrets and my fellow bird guides as adversaries. Then again, that is me. But I am truly grateful I am not the only one. Now, back to sharing what I encountered on this trip.

The migratory Black Kites are back in good numbers. Although they are known to scavenge among rubbish dumps in other countries, I have not witness this behaviour here in Malaysia. In fact, I find them to be quite elegant with their graceful flight and slender silhouette. 

At the car park area later in the afternoon, there was a big convoy of cars that has just arrived. I guess it must be the MNS Selangor Branch Bird Group that were having a long trip up north and when familiar faces got out of the cars, my initial guess was right on the dot. This group had a good mix of experienced and new birders. And what better way to catch up with old friends and greet new ones than to share the top performers of this locality with them. As expected, both the Yellow-rumped and Mangrove Blue Flycatcher put on a great performance and the SBBG got to enjoy some warm Penang hospitality courtesy of my feathered friends. 

To wrap up another great trip to this locality for me and the visiting birders was this Buffy Fish-owl that showed itself in the open long enough for everyone to have a good look. For some, this was their first owl sighting in the wild and the excitement on their faces said it all. Who could blame them? Heck, I have been birding for more than 20 years and this sighting still does it for me. I only hope that in the years to come, these new birders will also come to share and contribute towards a better birding community here in Malaysia and I have a good feeling they will. 

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A walk down memory lane (08/11/2014)

It has been a while since my last visit to the mudflats and a free Saturday provided the perfect opportunity to do just that. I had a few hours to kill before the tide was favourable at Bagan Belat. So, it was back to the nearby swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam again. A large raptor sitting quietly at the edge of the swamp turned out to be a Crested Serpent Eagle. It was on a relatively low perch and I could not resist taking a shot despite the fact it being one of the most regularly encountered raptors here. 

When you see a Sparrowhawk, chances are it is a Japanese Sparrowhawk. I am not implying it is easy to see one perched but it is, after all, the commonest of the Sparrowhawks that occur in the Peninsula. Unlike the Crested Serpent Eagle, it is not a regular here and a whole lot shyer. Even at this distance, it allowed me just a couple of shots before it dived into the cover of the canopy.

A momentarily lapse of concentration cost me an image of a roosting Buffy Fish-owl. Before I could react, the huge silent wings of the owl took it deeper into the swamp forest. An Abbott's Babbler that foraged nearby did not help to ease my frustration either. It was so close that its signature "three cheers for you" song was simply deafening. Active and sulking, this was the only shot I managed to take and I swear I could have made out a smirk on its face. 

There are certain families of birds that are in a class of their own when it comes to identification and Leaf-warblers are most certainly one of them. Recently, the Sakhalin Leaf-warbler was split from the Pale-legged Leaf-warbler. According to Dave, the only noticeable difference between the two species is their call (and I thought the Paddyfield - Richard's Pipit split was bad). Consulting Google yielded more or less the same results. Fate would have it that I would cross path with a possible Sakhalin Leaf-warbler on this day and playing back its call on my iPhone was the only way to help firm up its identity. 

The bird was foraging near the ground level of the swamp forest and I, was standing on the elevated boardwalk. The response to the playback was immediate and certainly not lacking of enthusiasm. It flew across the boardwalk in front of me and alighted on a slightly exposed perch among the undergrowth. It even called back. Unfortunately, the shooting conditions were difficult and it was facing me most of the time. It did not occur to me at that time to record its call using my iPhone because I have never practiced that in the field. Now, I realized that it was probably the only way to confirm its identity. Photographic evidence is simply insufficient and response to playback is not conclusive in this case. And this sighting will probably go down as another Pale-legged Leaf-warbler which is by no means a common species to begin with. 

Some of the flycatchers at this locality are also in a class of their own. However, it is not in terms of identification. It is their remarkable tame nature. I know that I have taken numerous shots of this handsome male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher wintering here and so has every birder in Penang. But I have also learned from my years of birding never to take things for granted. What is here today may not be here tomorrow. So, enjoy it while is last. This probably applies to everything else in life as well. Anyway, how could one possibly even turn down a performance like this…

All the attention this winter visitor has been receiving of late did not go down well with the resident male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher. On several occasions, I have witnessed the larger Mangrove Blue Flycatcher chasing away the Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. The thing is I am not sure if this is a normal behaviour everywhere or is it just here where the two species are in close proximity with each other very often. 

The male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher is even more confiding than the Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. Not much effort is required to obtain frame-filling shots. 

The same can be said about his mate as well. That’s my girl…

At mid morning, the coastal mudflats beckons and I was back at the rocky outcrop scanning through the flocks of waders that have amassed there to feed. I did not have much opportunity to use my camera this time as the waders were keeping their distance from the shoreline. One notable sighting today was a lone Grey Plover foraging where else but at the far end. Relatively uncommon in Penang, it is always a delight to come across it in the field. 

A Greater Sand Plover making the best out of life despite its shortcomings. It seemed to fairing quite well.  Feeding and foraging among the other sand plovers is no easy task as they are an aggressive bunch. What does not kill you only makes you stronger. 

Curlew Sandpipers were in their usual numbers and a few did wander close enough to remind me why I bring my camera with me for all my trips. 

Waders can paddle like ducks when they want to but I am not sure if I have ever seen a Common Redshank doing it before.

The number of Red-necked Stints has increased tremendously since my last visit. Yes, I did scrutinize every single one for a Spoonie. And no, I did not find one. When the sun was at its zenith and the temperature soared to even greater heights, I decided to call it a day.

I did make a quick detour to the mangroves and scrublands behind the Telekom Maritime Station just further up north along the Kuala Muda coast. It has been many years since my last visit to this locality and treading along the soggy access trail brought back fond memories of a young birder easily excited by most of the birds he comes across. Other than a gate to prevent car from entering, nothing much has changed here – much to my delight.

The presence of a small flock of Black Bazas made me linger at this locality a bit longer than I had anticipated but in the end, nothing came of it. The Forest Wagtails that were foraging among the protruding roots of the mangroves were way too skittish for any good images either. But overall, it was a another good day thanks to the birdlife at the small patch of swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam that through the years has not stop to excite this now not-so-young birder.