Friday, 27 November 2015

A sanctuary, really?

For the second day of their tour, Kumar and Sujatha were feeling a little adventurous and opted for a trip up Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill) - the birding site where the journey there itself is already an adventure. Countless hairpin corners await every visitor as the jeep drivers skillfully shuttle visitors up and down the hill. This site not for the faint-hearted but once the jeep drops you off; you enter a birding paradise that can match any premier site in the country on a good day.

Trogons are in their list of birds to see and I felt a little bad about failing to show them any during yesterday's tour. But when I heard an Orange-breasted Trogon calling very closely next to the access road, I knew this could be a chance to redeem myself. With a little patience, we managed to track down the trogon and it was a handsome male. A confiding one as well and my initial worries of another slow morning was swept away by the fine performance of this trogon.

The call of the birds is what usually gives away their presence especially in a dense forest habitat like Bukit Larut. The persistent calling of the Streaked Wren-Babbler from the undergrowth caught our immediate attention. And when it finally revealed itself, it gained our full admiration.

The high-pitched notes of the Pygmy Cupwing (formerly called the Pygmy Wren-Babbler) are one of the characteristic sounds of the montane forest here in Peninsula Malaysia. The new name may take a little getting used to but it certainly suits the bird. Only an adorable bird can carry a name like this and the Pygmy Cupwing is oozing with cuteness. This little ball of feather is simply a delight to observe and all my years of field experience with it have not change that fact.

The dim lighting and misty condition however made it very challenging for photography despite the fine performance by the little guy. Even when it was on an open perch, most of my photos did not turn out well. But it was an amazing encounter nonetheless and one that certainly had us mesmerized.

Bird waves are natural a phenomenon that occur on a regular basis in montane forests. It may be feast for your sense of sight and sound but the sheer number and rapid movement of the birds proves to be too overwhelming for photography most of the time. Out of the dozen species of birds from this particular wave, I only managed to capture an image of this Mountain Bulbul.

It is very unlikely for anyone to miss out on the Streaked Spiderhunter here or any other hill resort in the country. For such a common and flashy bird, I do not have many photographs of it that I am truly proud of. So when we came across one that showed very little fear of our presence while it was indulging on the flower nectar of a low bush, we responded by showering it with lots of love and affection.

The red legs and vividly-marked plumage makes the Streaked Spiderhunter one of the best looking Spiderhunters in Malaysia.  And I am elated I managed my best effort for this species to date.

Even the commonest of birds, like this Pacific Swallow, can sometimes provide excellent photographic opportunities that cannot be ignored....

Bro, check out the rump on that one...

We were scheduled to take the early afternoon jeep down the hill and that gave us time for a visit to the mangroves of Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary. A confiding Brown Shrike was the first bird to greet us as we entered the boundaries of the bird sanctuary.

The sight of an Indian Roller resting on an electrical pole got me feeling nostalgic because I saw this beautiful bird for the first time many years back at this locality as well. Although it is not as rare as it used to be, any sighting of an Indian Roller is still exciting to me. As the name implies, it is common in my guests' homeland of India and nearly every field there will have one it seems.

When we drove deeper into the sanctuary, I was disgusted and saddened by the number of commercial fishponds being excavated. They might as well rename this place to Kuala Gula Aquaculture Center. A lot of the birds may no longer find sanctuary here and neither will I if this goes on unchecked.

By then weather had changed according to my mood and rain clouds started to form followed by drizzles. The only thing that almost lifted my spirit was this leucistic myna because from far it looked like a mysterious starling to me. With the day drawing to an end, we made our way out but this site did provide some pleasant encounters to both my guests and me despite it all. This time's tour was like a roller coaster ride. It had its ups and downs but in the end, it was still an exhilarating ride.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

It ain't over till the fat lady sings (14/11/2015)

One of the things that I fear the most when leading a guided tour is the absence of birds - naturally. Kumar and Sujatha's first day of tour did not start off well. This couple from Chennai dipped out on the roosting Barred Eagle-owls at Kulim that I normally show guests. And I should have heeded the warning. We were greeted by the dawn chorus and clear blue skies at the Sungai Sedim car park. However, apart from the Treeswifts at their usual morning perch and a teasing Scarlet-rumped trogon, there was nothing much about that I could actually show. Three hours had passed and still nothing. It was as though the forest had swallowed every single bird. The stress and anxiety was killing me. I was half expecting Kumar to walk up to me and ask me if there will be birds in my guided bird tour.

Thankfully, that did not happen. Out of desperation, I took my guests on a trail less trodden and at the end of that trail, my prayers were answered - a fruiting tree that was alive with bird activity. At that moment, I could safely say my job was done. With my composure and confidence back to normal, I started to point out the birds starting with this Cream-vented Bulbul.

With only the eye colouration being the most distinct difference between the Red-eyed Bulbul and Cream-vented Bulbul, a confiding Red-eyed Bulbul would probably be the best way I could show my guest the differences. Ask and you shall receive…

A total of nine different bulbuls were recorded at the tree and apart from the sulking Yellow-bellied Bulbul, we managed to photograph all of them. This Hairy-backed Bulbul was almost as difficult and provided very few shots.

By the time the Finsch's Bulbul decided to drop in, the bulbuls at this fruiting tree really had me singing for my supper as I had to differentiate all of them to my client. I could imagine how confusing all these bulbuls are to visiting birders. When not seen well, bulbuls can be confusing to me as well.

The Grey-cheeked Bulbul was being itself today - bulky, vocal and robust. It was certainly hard to overlook it despite the presence of so many other bulbuls.

There are some Bulbuls that certainly do not require much effort to differentiate them from the rest like this splendid Grey-bellied Bulbul.

A pair of Ashy Bulbuls announced their arrival to the fruiting tree with their nasal and persistent calls. This strikingly marked bulbul made our observation at this fruiting all so rewarding.

One of the most photogenic of the bulbuls present today was the Streaked Bulbul. Being slightly more uncommon than the rest, it had our attention the moment it alighted on the fruiting tree. It may lack the colours of some of the other bulbuls but it always projects a sense a grace with its sleek body contour.

The fruiting tree also produced a few species of Leafbirds, Flowerpeckers and Sunbirds. Witnessing such a feast of colours and variety certainly build up our appetites and lunch came soon after that. Our next destination was the paddy fields of Kubang Semang. I drove straight to the spot where the wintering waders were performing well and sure enough, about 40 Grey-headed Lapwings were resting on a flooded field.

As my guests were enjoying their lapwing lifer, I scanned the vicinity for anything else. My senses went into overdrive when I spotted 3 ducks among the lapwings. I could hardly contain my emotions and for the first time today, it was the guide who was quivering with excitement and not his guests. Ducks winter in the hundreds where my guests call home and it will take a whole lot more than three for them to have the same reaction. 

Anyway, upon further scrutiny, the ducks turned out to Garganeys. I felt I needed to justify myself by explaining how uncommon this species is here and that the ones we were looking at was my fourth record in all my years of birding.


Our last destination for the day was the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. Like clockwork, we were greeted by the usual species upon our arrival at the rear car park. Unfortunately, things did not quite pick up after that and this Black Kite was probably the highlight for me at this site. Despite the initial hiccup at the beginning of the tour, we did have a good outing at the end of the day. And it is all thanks to some blind luck and a fruiting tree.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

I can see clearly now the haze is gone (07/11/2015)

Luck plays a major part in birding and it is not only luck with the birds but the other factors as well like the weather. Just last week we had the worse haze pollution ever. Well, clear blue skies are finally back in my beloved homeland and Andy, my latest guest from the United Kingdom, could not have been any luckier. He got to experience birding here for the first time in such beautiful weather. The first location that we visited was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher lived up to its reputation as the ambassador of this site and provided a warm reception upon our arrival. Good morning, bud..

Bird waves hardly ever occur at this birding site but when you have luck on your side, anything is possible. This bird wave that took place next to the elevated boardwalk that cuts through the swamp forest did not have a lot of species in it. But less does not necessary mean dull. Golden-bellied Gerygones formed the majority and at less half a dozen of them took part in the wave. More often heard than seen, this little bird with the big voice grabbed the attention of my guest (and mine) by devouring a green caterpillar at eye level!

The Arctic Warbler is undoubtedly the commonest of all the wintering leaf warblers. However, good views are hard to obtain due to their active nature and preference for the canopy levels. Either it was luck again or the intensity of the bird wave altered the behaviour of this individual. It foraged very close to our positions - sometimes at a mere arm's length. This bold approach by the warbler was so unlike all the Arctic Warblers I have observed before that I took extra precaution to make sure I got the identification right. This photo here is my best effort from the encounter and it is unlikely I will ever get to enjoy another photographic opportunity like this again.

When the bird wave subsided, we continued to explore the rest of the site. It was then that a Buffy Fish-Owl flew across our path. I guess we unintentionally spooked it from its roost. It alighted on the far side of the river and the distance was simply too far for any good photos but the open perch did provide superb views for Andy. I should have taken a record shot of this owl because at the end of the day, we had three species of owls in broad daylight on this trip. That is something that does not happened all that often. The Brown Boobook was the second species. It was seen on its usual roost site and unlike the much larger Buffy Fish-Owl, it is not that easily spooked. In fact it was giving us the stare.

The third and final owl was the Spotted Wood-Owl. I have not seen this species here for quite a long time now. And I had Andy to thank because it was him that spotted it first. This species is by no means uncommon but a daytime sighting like this still does it for me.

The last species to thrill us before we proceeded to our next birding destination was the Stork-billed Kingfisher. Three birds were present and they filled the vicinity with their loud and raucous calls as they were having a territorial dispute. Needless to say, this striking kingfisher received its due admiration.

From the swamp forest we traveled to the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh. There is one particular spot that has been hosting a number of scarce migratory waders for the past week or so. After being forced off-course a few times due to maintenance works along the access trail that cuts through the fields, we finally reached our destination. The Grey-headed Lapwings, being the largest of the waders present, were naturally the first that we took notice of.

There were several stints foraging actively on the exposed mud. Upon further scrutiny, there were a few Red-necked Stints and Long-toed Stints. But the one I was really looking was the Temminck's Stint and we found at least two of them in the vicinity. It may be a dull looking wader but you will never find me ignoring this little peep due to its scarcity here in Malaysia.

There is absolutely no wader that even comes close the elaborate and stunning breeding plumage of the Ruff. Unfortunately, we will never get to see them sporting their breeding plumage here in their wintering grounds in Southeast Asia. This species winters in small numbers here in Peninsula Malaysia and the pair that we managed to locate today, put on quite a good performance.

With the haze gone and the migrants back in full force, it looks like this migratory season is finally in full swing. Uncommon migrants like the Ruff, hopefully, will be keeping me occupied for the months to come.

A mixed flock resting terns wrapped things up for this trip. Terns in winter plumage are not the easiest of birds to identify. However, this flock was quite confiding. We took our time to positively identify them from the comfort of our car and Andy added three more ticks to his list of Malaysian birds and they were Whiskered, White-winged and Little Tern (not in photo). 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Haze gets in your eyes (24/10/2015)

There is usually a sense of excitement as you make your way to a birding site. The further the site is from home, you more excited you tend to be. That is only natural. But today's journey to the forest of Sungai Sedim evokes no such emotions. Instead there was concern and resentment. The haze that has engulfed my country of late did not show any signs of clearing up. And the beautiful scenery that usually welcomes my arrival to this site is now stained by the foul air. And for the first time in all my years of birding, I had to wear a surgical face mask to indulge in this favourite pastime of mine. What is this world coming to...

The forest was exceptionally quiet today. Even the persistent calls of the resident barbets and broadbills did not echo across the vicinity as usual. It seemed as if the gloomy sky and intoxicating haze were chocking the life out of the forest. The rays of the morning sun could not find a way here and a dimly-lit forest will utterly test your sanity and ability as a bird photographer. A confiding juvenile Rufous-winged Philentoma came extremely close while it foraged for breakfast. By right, this should have provided a collection of good images. But not today.

A territorial dispute had a resident pair of Yellow-bellied Bulbuls chasing off an intruder through the lower level of the forest. When the chase was finally over, the intruder had unknowingly alighted on a nearby branch to catch its breath and I tried to make the best of out of the encounter.

When a juvenile Crow-billed Drongo led a bird wave across my path, for a brief moment birding was back to how it is supposed to be. A dozen species of birds held my attention as I determined their identification and observed their behaviour. When the wave finally passed through, deafening silence took over again and the bird activity died down to almost a complete halt. After a while, I gave up and retreated back towards the car park while thinking up a contingency plan.

In Penang, there is one particular site that will usually have something about no matter the time or condition. Air Hitam Dalam has rarely let me down in the past and I found myself back at the swamp forest for the second consecutive Saturday. The annual southerly passage of migrating raptors is well underway but the current air quality kept me back from our usual raptor count site at Bedong. I was quite pleased to see a flock of thirty Black Kites riding the thermals above the car park area. Migrating raptors is truly a spectacle of nature. This particular individual flew lower than the rest which made photography still possible in this shooting condition.

This striking male Korean Flycatcher is gradually getting accustomed to the hospitality here. Seeing him foraging among the canopy level jolted me back to last season. Back then we had a couple of friendly males that provided countless memorable encounters.

The Green-billed Malkoha proved to be a difficult subject again as it move from tree to tree in search of food.

To wrap things up for this hazy day is one of the star birds of this birding site - the Streak-breasted Woodpecker. Its limited range in Peninsular Malaysia is the reason behind its celebrity status and a performing male bird will never be taken for granted.