Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Best in Penang...(25/06/2016)

After weeks of weekend work, I finally found myself some free time for my usual Saturday birding. Although it was only a half-day affair, the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam once again live up to its reputation as one of the best, if not the best, forest birding site in Penang State currently. The majestic form of the White-bellied Sea-eagle greeted me as soon as I trekked onto the access road after first light. My intention to obtain better images of this raptor was dashed when a couple of morning walkers marched past. I do not have anything against morning walkers and I am sure there is a perfectly logical explanation as to why some of them have to clap hands as they walk (apparently there is and Google states the Chinese believe it helps to improve blood circulation). The eagle, as big as it may be, found the hand clapping unbearable and took flight. Google was right. The hand clapping got my blood moving alright and I did not even have to do the clapping myself...

I found a Yellow-bellied Prinia out of its comfort zone as it was belting out its territorial call. I guess the breeding season is the cause of this behaviour. This prinia is common throughout the land but it has a tendency to hide among tall grass and good views do not come along often. It is the call that usually gives away its presence. The call can be easily learned as you will certainly have plenty of opportunities to hear it in the field.

Air Hitam Dalam provides refuge for only one species of Malkoha and the silhouette of one flying overhead could only be that of a Green-billed Malkoha. Many years back, it shares this domain with the Raffles’s Malkoha. Unfortunately, I cannot even remember the last time I heard the latter’s mewing call here.  

This species tends to move for cover as soon it alights but not today. A second Green-billed Malkoha took the same flight path and I can only assume they are a pair. However, instead of hopping into the vegetation, it took a minute to soak in the soothing rays of the morning sun on an exposed perch. And that was all I needed to obtain a shot of this alluring bird in the open. The effects of the golden lighting completed the encounter. This image alone was worth the trip. Any others after this would be added bonuses.

The Crested Serpent-Eagles of Air Hitam Dalam are usually very tolerant to human presence. Unlike the Sea-Eagle, it will take a whole lot more than clapping of hands to get on its nerves. It was taking a breather in a shady part of the canopy when it caught my attention and there it remained for the rest of morning.

Along the river bank, the raucous laughter of the Collared Kingfisher can be heard on almost every visit. The bird itself can be easily seen as well. Being the commonest coastal kingfisher in Malaysia, I often do not give it as much attention as I should.

As the mid-morning temperature started to soar, I retreated to the boardwalks where the canopy of the forest provides much welcome shade. The melodious song of the Mangrove Blue Flycatchers can be heard throughout the forest. The dominant pair that resides near the rear car park will usually provide good photographic opportunities. Here, the male is vocally proclaiming his territory on a broken Nipah frond.

The boardwalk provided another highlight before I called it a day. The trilling call of the Ruddy Kingfisher will evoke excitement even in the most seasoned birder. As for me this time, I hastily abandoned my photo session with the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and cautiously stalked my way towards the direction of the call. With every step I took, my heart beat a little faster. And then I caught sight of my quarry and I have no recollection about the rate of my heartbeat anymore. It was on an exposed perch just next to the boardwalk and the Ruddy Kingfisher once again allowed me to enter its secret little realm and for that I am truly grateful.

The Red King was humble enough to permit my efforts to capture his image from different angles. The encounter lasted about a few minutes but it seemed much longer to me at that time. And just like that, it called one last time before flying deeper into the forest. The silver lining on its back glowed with a torch allowing me to follow its movement. Where it alighted next was partially blocked by the vegetation. But it not matter. The earlier perch was perfect to me and the experience, priceless.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Babbling over babblers (28/05/2016)

Birding in the tropical rain forest can never be short of surprises. You can walk the same forest trail for years and yet, it still has something interesting for you to enjoy. The forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah is undoubtedly the best forest birding site that is easily accessible from Penang. It is still a healthy ecosystem and the presence of hornbills is proof of that. Although Hor Kee and I did not encounter any of these majestic birds on this trip, some of the smaller residents did keep us entertained for the entire morning. Babblers are well represented in the forest here. Most will have quite distinctive calls and songs which can be heard throughout the vicinity. Locating these active and skulking birds is another matter altogether. Chestnut-winged Babblers are one of the commoner babblers found here. Despite bumping into them a few times during our visit, the sneaky babblers only gave us this brief moment to photograph them.

A small birdwave brought in Brown Fulvettas. There is not much I can elaborate about the Brown Fulvetta apart that it is brown and it is a Fulvetta. But it does have a beautiful song that pierces through the dense vegetation of the forest like the rays of the morning sun.

The forest is not only a kaleidoscope of sounds but colours as well. The Grey-headed Canary-Flycatcher is an attractive bird and as the name implies, is an accomplished songster of both lowland and montane forests of Malaysia. We came across an individual that was hawking from a low perch but the lighting condition was a killjoy. My gear struggled in the dim lower storey of the forest and this is one of those rare moments that I question my preference to shoot without a tripod.

The Black-and-Yellow Broadbill is about as colourful as it gets for birds. But the call, although unique, is far from beautiful. It sounds more like an insect than a bird and delivered in a magnitude that almost rivals the deafening call of the cicada. Although it does forage closer to the ground level occasionally, the forest canopy is where it finds refuge and that is where you are most likely to see them. Perched 50 feet above the ground is not what one would consider to be a good photographic opportunity but a record shot is better than none when it comes to broadbills.

As far as peculiar calls go, the Sooty Barbet is one bird that will certainly come to mind. If one is not familiar with this species, you would not imagine a bulky bird like this will have a call that is not unlike the squeaking a tiny shrew. The call once learned will give away the presence of this barbet as it forages along the canopy level. It was the call that diverted my attention to a dead tree stump where 3 birds were exhibiting a very keen interest on a tree hole. Nothing much came out from the encounter except for a photo that managed to have all the birds in a single frame.

On the way back, we took a little detour to check on the resident Barred Eagle-Owl of Kulim Hi-Tech Park. During my last few encounters, the owl was resting on a low perch and that provided some very exciting moments and great images. This time, however, it was resting at the top most branches and even almost gave us the slip. I am happy to see that it is still around and the distance, although disappointing, could not deny me of a good ending to this birding excursion.

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Red King (30/04/2016)

While I was away in Japan, I have been keeping a close tab on one of my local patches – the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. The reason or should I say reasons for this keen interest is because both the Ruddy Kingfishers and Blue-winged Pittas are back in the limelight at this little patch of birding paradise. I have grown a little accustomed to starting off my birding at 5 in the morning courtesy of the early daylight hours of my Japan trip and it came as no surprise I reached Air Hitam Dalam way before the break of dawn. Without the aid of the tropical sun, any attempts at capturing the two birds beneath the forest canopy will be futile. So, I chilled and took the time to enjoy the breaking of a new day for a change. Sometimes I do wonder it is right to call my birding endeavours a hobby. The last I checked, hobbies are something that you enjoy doing to help you relax and revitalize yourself. Well, I enjoy my birding and it does more than just revitalize but I am not too sure about the relax part. Relaxing is hardly the word I will use to describe birding. It is usually hectic, frustrating and stressful especially when things do not go your way. So birding is not a hobby to an old school birder like me. It is a commitment. It is an obsession. It is a way of life.

Once it got bright enough, I began my missions for the day. The Blue-winged Pittas were calling but they were not ready to show themselves yet. Thus I ended staring at nothing but swamp vegetation for a considerable amount of time.

I decided try my luck (and to get over the disappointment with the pittas) along the elevated boardwalk. A pair of Olive-winged Bulbuls were the first birds to greet me here…

 I did not have to walk far when I picked out the all-too-familiar calls of the Ruddy Kingfisher and it sounded very close. I proceeded towards my target cautiously and there, perched right out in the open, was the Red King of Air Hitam Dalam. The Ruddy Kingfisher is back to reinforced his reign over these lands. Best of the all, it was very confiding and I could not have asked for a better way to start off birding here in Malaysia again after being away for almost 2 weeks.

The Ruddy Kingfisher seemed adamant of making that perch as its platform to project his persistent territorial calls. I decided to let it be and turned back where I came from. Just a few strides later I bumped into the complicated pair of Mangrove/Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers and they were as confiding as usual. They appeared drenched and probably did some skinny-dipping before our encounter. I could not blame. I myself was struggling with the heat and humidity as well. A very stark difference from the cold and dry Japanese spring.

When I returned to the kingfisher spot later, I could only hear its calls but it did not take me long to relocate it. Pretty hard to be inconspicuous when you are red and your surroundings, green. The Red King had decided by then to continue its territorial calls from a higher perch. Perhaps to help carry its intentions further.

When the diagnostic calls of the Blue-winged Pittas started to echo through the vicinity again, I immediately focused my attention on getting my second target bird of the trip. With a little perseverance, a single bird did finally come into view. Pittas are the one bird that I can never get tired of. Their colours and personality are always a delight to observe. Although only one decided to come out from hiding, it was still a great moment. It too was relatively confiding as long as I did not cross into its comfort zone. And I made myself comfortable on the ground as I knew it was going to be a long session.

The Blue-winged Pitta is now a regular to Air Hitam Dalam. It is a nice addition to the site – there is no doubt about it. However the other pitta of the swamp forest here, the Mangrove Pitta, has not shown itself for a few years now. I am not entirely sure it is the Blue-winged Pittas’ doings but the latter is the more adaptable and tougher of the two.

After my rewarding encounter with the pitta, I decided to explore the open gravel road next to the river. There, I accidentally startled a Greater Coucal. For a second there it was just as stunned as I was. Luckily, I recovered quicker than the cuckoo and managed to squeeze a few shots before it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Just when I thought I have seen everything there is to see here, Air Hitam Dalam sprung a little surprise for me. I have not seen a wild boar here before and this young one was coming down trail totally unaware that it is being watched. When it finally caught my scent, its pace quickened considerably and disappeared into the forest a few second later.

As I was making my way back to the car park, a Ruddy Kingfisher suddenly flew across my path and flashing its tantalizing silver-blue rump along the way. Naturally, I aborted my plans to call it a day and followed the trilling calls of the red king back into the forested area of the elevated boardwalk. The kingfisher stood out like a sore thumb among the swamp vegetation but unfortunately, it was not the best location from which to photograph.

Then again, this is the natural habitat of this kingfisher after all. And like my earlier encounter, it provided a prolonged view for me (and a few other birders this time) ample time to admire and bask in the beauty of this uncommon species. Long live the king…

Monday, 2 May 2016

One for the road

On our second last day in Japan, we decided to visit Ueno Park on the outskirts of Tokyo. Come to think of it, it is more like our last day because we have to catch a very early flight home tomorrow and I hope Japan will provide a memorable parting gift to me by providing a few more lifers. Apparently, Ueno Park is a great place for waterbirds especially ducks but the trip did not start off well. Dark clouds and occasional drizzle threatened to spoil our plans for the day. As we got off the train and made our way to the park, not only did the weather not improved but strong winds decided to join in the foray. And I fear that my birding excursion at Ueno Park will be short lived. I intended to spend more time at the lake area for the waterbirds and with the current weather, it could well be my sole salvation.

The first bird that greeted us as we walked along the access trail that cuts through the lake was this lone Grey Heron. I am aware of the saying that the grass is always greener on the other side but I find the Grey Herons here in Japan more attractive than the ones back home in Malaysia. Perhaps happy birds tend to be more appealing. This one certainly does not have to worry about its home being destroyed in the name of development and it certainly does not need to look over its shoulder every minute just be sure to be there is no catapult or gun-totting human sneaking up on it.

I have been trying to obtain good photographs of the Great Cormorant ever since I saw my first one a few days back. Each time I tried the distance between me and this fascinating waterbird was just too great. When I saw one drying itself just next to the trail, I said a silent prayer and approached with caution. I cannot be certain if it was the prayer or this individual was confiding but I was elated that I managed to obtain the type of photos I have been dreaming of.

I took my time with the cormorant and captured a few more images to satisfy my obsession. Thanks, bud...

Yours truly enjoying his last day out in the field for this trip...

My presence near the water’s edge did not go unnoticed. It is quite certain that the birds at this lake are used to human handouts despite the presence of notice boards that forbid the feeding of birds. A flock of Tufted Ducks made a bee line to my position and they appeared like birds with a mission. I was a little taken aback from this bold behaviour.

A few years ago, I had to drive 200km to see my first ever Tufted Duck in Malaysia. Today, I had to actually step back in order to get the whole duck into frame easier. At this close, one can truly appreciate the true beauty and vibrancy of the Tufted Duck. They even had my wife’s attention for quite a long while. It is not surprising. The striking black and plumage with a tinge of iridescent on the face would have won over anyone. And let’s not forget the wicked tuft of a crest...

The female Tufted Ducks lacks the striking colours of the male birds and the crest. I did intentionally ignore them but they were greatly outnumbered by the males.

Although the main bloom is over here, there are still some traces of how spectacular it must have been – much to the delight of my better half. At least I did not made feel so bad for exposing her to nasty weather so that I can spend some time to observe and photograph birds.

There is a small island in the lake and it is full of reeds. Not surprising I saw some of the commoner rails like this Common Moorhen foraging at the edge of the reeds.

A few Eurasian Coots were also present and I took a few shots of the one that was resting nearest to where I had position myself. To be honest, I expected to find more waterbirds. There is a notice that depicts at least half a dozen species of ducks that supposedly occur here but so far, I have only seen one. Anyway, that is birding and this unpredictability can sometimes truly test your mettle as a birder.

One bird that you will not miss at this lake is the Black-tailed Gull. Found in good numbers and having literally no fear of humans, shooting this species was a walk in the park. I do realise that is only a bleeding gull but it is one bleeding beautiful gull. Did I mention it has three colours on its bill?

The short concrete poles that hold the rope barrier at the water’s edge is one of their favourite perches. Shooting a predominantly white bird can be a challenge especially in strong light. Today’s overcast sky was a blessing in disguise as it made the exposure rather ideal.

Judging from the number of Black-tailed Gulls present here, I assume life is good for these highly adaptable birds as well. I think it is safe to say it is good for all the other bird as well.

There were quite a number of Black-headed Gulls present on these poles as well but inevitably, they were overshadowed by the much larger Black-tailed Gulls. It was only recently that a couple of Black-headed Gulls started to winter regularly in Malaysia along the northern shoreline of mainland Penang. So, seeing them in such numbers takes a little getting used to. I even have the liberty to pick and choose which one I want to photograph and I decided to get obtain the plumage differences found in the gulls present. Here is a juvenile...

This is an adult in winter plumage...

Despite a careful search, I failed to find one in its striking summer plumage. The closest were a few individuals that were starting to moult into summer plumage.

I expected to see Spot-billed Ducks as they are quite common throughout Tokyo. I guess they like to make an entrance and came fashionably late to greet me.

I thought the Tufted Ducks were determined when they zeroed in on me like crocodiles on the hunt but the Spot-billed Ducks, took a step further. They left the water and walked right up to me!

There were very few “land” birds present due to the strong winds and drizzle. A few White-cheeked Starlings were foraging on the grassy patches. The weather conditions probably made the starlings a little sluggish and I got some decent close up shots that were not affected by motion blur. The amount of white on the head region of the males seem to vary and I am not sure if it is age related. Some have just enough white to appear normal to me.

Some have nearly completely white heads and the black piercing eyes give them a slightly eerie look.
I enjoyed observing these starlings as I do watching the mynas back home. Starlings and mynas are closely related and I feel some starlings appear and behave more like mynas than starlings. The White-cheeked Starling is one of them. Full of character and mischievous, they are the best remedy to get over gloomy skies like today. This is the first time we experienced rain in Japan. I thought I left the rain back home when we left tropical Malaysia. Looks like I was wrong.

To wrap things up for my excursion to Ueno Park and since it will be my last bit on birding in Japan, I present to you one of the commonest birds in Japan – the feral Pigeon. This is yet another bird that will approach you and not the other way round. They will stroll between your feet and even stop and beg for food – much like a cat or a dog. I find it cute but I could not give in to their antics. They are a feral species and if their population is not kept in check, the native birds will be affected.

I bet this one just had a hearty breakfast...

My wife and I spend eight days exploring Tokyo and Kyoto and their surrounding areas. The cold climate, high standard of living and the language barrier are some of the drawbacks that we faced. However, the drawbacks are quite insignificant compared to all the memorable and wonderful experiences we obtained during our short stay here. And I was a real happy man. The birding was incredible. Some of the encounters were truly remarkable. But time flies when you are having a good time and soon, it will be back to the humid and pest-infested birding in my beloved tropical Malaysia.