Monday, 21 April 2014

Rules are meant to be broken (19/04/2014)

Owls are creatures of the night. During the day, they roost inconspicuously away from sight. When night falls, they begin stir and that is when their day truly starts. Or so it seems. Air Hitam Dalam, a small patch of freshwater swamp forest at the northern end of Penang state, is where owls do not adhere to the rules. It is not unusual to see these nocturnal predators up and about in broad daylight. My latest encounter really left me amazed and bewildered at the same time. It was an extremely confiding Brown Hawk-owl calling non-stop right out in the open. 

Eventually it did come to its senses, slightly anyway, and retreated to a shadier perch where it continued with its persistent calling. This went on throughout the morning and it finally sizzled down to a stop at noon. 

During my observation, it did shift about a few perches and totally ignored human presence - birders, photographers, day-trippers, anglers, workers alike. The Brown Hawk-owl is not uncommon in Malaysia. It even occurs within human settlements. I have many past encounters with this species but never one so prolonged. Never so close. This individual was so tame that I initially thought it was an escapee. 

In the end, it provided me with one of my best and most memorable owl encounters. Owls have always been one of my favourite groups of birds. They are beautiful, mysterious, elusive and deadly. What is there not to like?

Although the trip belonged to the owl, the other birds present also performed well. The Asian Openbills are now sporting their smart breeding colours. 

The Spotted Wood-owl is also regularly seen here in the daytime. If it was any other day, I would be a little excited to find one. But today is certainly not any other day and the performance by the smaller hawk-owl will be extremely difficult to beat.

Air Hitam Dalam is the best place in the world if I should be so bold, to see Mangrove Blue Flycatchers. But don't just take my word for it – take his…

Now, there are flycatchers and there are paradise-flycatchers. To me, the latter is just simply out of this world. Divine is probably a better word to describe the white-phased males with their elongated tail feathers and all. I guess observing one dancing about the sunlight in the canopy level is the closest I will ever get to seeing angels. Unfortunately, even my best attempt this morning does not do any justice to this stunning creation of God and it is not due to lack of trying - just lack of luck. 

The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo also possesses elaborate tail feathers but it is no angel. Tenacious by nature, God have mercy on anything that incurs its wrath during the breeding season which is about now and that includes even large raptors.

A Crested Serpent-eagle not taking any chances and keeping well clear of the drongo…

This locality also happens to be the best place in Malaysia to see the Streak-breasted Woodpecker. One of the resident pairs did make a brief appearance and was given its due admiration and respect. 

The Common Flameback may not be as rare as the former but it is nevertheless another striking denizen of this swamp forest. 

Most of the migratory passerines would have undergone their spring passage back north. So, I was quite delighted to see this handsome breeding plumage Tiger Shrike still present at the locale. 

Due to the presence of quite a number of sought-after species here of late, it can get a little crowded at times. Baiting is a common practice for photographers looking for the perfect shots and the Tiger Shrike certainly did not pass on a chance for an easy meal. I do not have anything against baiting as long as the birds are not put in harm’s way. From what I see, the birds get fed and the photographers get their shots. I am no ornithologist and this is just my point of view. In the case of this Tiger Shrike, he looks like he could use some extra ounces before he partakes on his tedious journey back north. 

A Greater Coucal foraging out in the open is not a common sight and it was a fitting end to a great trip. 

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sometimes things do go according to plan (18/03/2014)

While guiding a couple of nice folks from Singapore last Saturday, I flushed what can only be a Eurasian Woodcock at one of the access trails at Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest in Kedah. The Woodcock being a mega rarity, meant that there was no way I could submit a sighting report based on a 5-second observation. So, I lamented the incident to my mates and Dave, in turn, had a go at trying to relocate the woodcock two days later. Unfortunately, there were no signs of the bird but on the way back to Penang, he made a spontaneous stop at a patch of wetlands within the Kulim Hi-Tech Park in Kedah. And there, he found his third Green Sandpiper of the season.  

There have only been a handful of confirmed sightings of this rare wader in Malaysia prior to this season and with the locality not even an hour’s drive from home, it was only a matter of time before I find myself stalking a Green Sandpiper at the break of dawn. With Dave’s detailed description of the location of the wetlands and the sandpiper, I had very little difficulty in finding both. In fact, the sandpiper was snoozing at one the possible spots indicated in Dave’s description. Thanks, Dave!

As the day got brighter, it decided it was time to start foraging and started moving about. However, it was rather wary of my presence and it took some time for it to finally get used to me. Using my car as a hide, I made myself comfortable and just enjoy the moment. Against a backdrop of factories this is not where one would consider an idyllic setting but to me, it is always about the birds. Always have and always will be.

Eventually, the sandpiper did wander and forage quite close to my position but the access road is elevated from the wetlands below. So, the closer it got, the steeper the angle of my photos became. Nevertheless, it was a fine performance that earned my up most appreciation.

Showing off its signature dark underwing. One of the distinguishing features between the Green Sandpiper and the much commoner Wood Sandpiper.

There are a few Wood Sandpipers about as well and one of them was foraging quite close to the celebrity bird. On a few occasions, I managed to capture both species together in a single frame and a direct comparison showed that they are not that similar after all.

There are quite a number of other waterbirds present today but the species that struck my fancy the most was the Greater Painted-snipe. Elusive and crepuscular in nature, these unique waders are a welcome find anytime. As least three of them were seen but the distance prevented me from obtaining any really good shots.

Long-tailed Shrikes are much commoner south and here in the northern end of the peninsular, it can be considered rare. I have always found this species to be notoriously skittish and you can imagine my joy when this individual allowed me to take a few shots from a reasonable distance before it glided away. The shrike provided a fitting finale to a short but memorable excursion. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

Going cuckoo over a cuckoo (08/03/2014)

For the past few years, bird species all over the world are going through some major changes. There have been a lot of 'splitting' and 'lumping'. Here in Malaysia, it is mostly splitting. One good example is the Malaysian Hawk-cuckoo splitting from the Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo. Identification of adult birds is pretty straightforward and being a migrant and the rarer of the two, I have not seen an adult Hodgson's yet. Juveniles are a different story altogether - they look almost the same. In the past, I did not pay that much attention to details whenever I come across young birds because they are, after all, the same species. When the split became official, I could not be sure if I have actually seen a juvenile Hodgson's before. And with the identification being anything but simple, there is still a missing tick next to Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo in my life list. 
When my fellow Penang birders started recording not one but two juvenile Hodgson's at Air Hitam Educational Forest, I feel like I have been given the chance to finally make things right. It did not take me long to hit the dusty access road that cuts through this rather unique birding spot in search of the Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo. 

The Asian Openbills have started roosting at this locality in big numbers as well. At this hour, the storks are just starting to stir as they prepare themselves for the day ahead. 

Within minutes of my search a silhouette of a medium sized cuckoo perched on one of the Ketapang trees heightened my senses because these trees are where the Hodgson's was seen. I thought to myself this is too good to be true and, it was. The cuckoo turned out to be only an Indian Cuckoo. I took a few record shots as the lighting was still poor at that time and carried on. 

A second cuckoo shortly after got my blood pumping again. And yet again I was disappointed when it turned out to be a second Indian Cuckoo. I was actually at this very area in early February and the only cuckoo I saw that day was a Large Hawk-cuckoo. Am I destined to miss out on this lifer? 

The presence of morning walkers and anglers got me a little worried as they have the potential to being party poopers. However, a lone angler who could not decide where to settle down and cast his luck spooked another cuckoo from its perch but this time, it worked to my advantage. The cuckoo alighted in front of me and a quick glance with my bins produced a grin on my face. The angler just presented my lifer on a silver platter. But there is no happily ever after to this fairy tale. As soon as I focus my camera on the cuckoo, it took off deeper into the forest. A photograph of a Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo would have made it complete. It was performing well just a few weeks back and this is Dave's account of the encounter. But I guess if you have everything your way, it would not be birding.

The next couple of hours were spent combing the vicinity in search of the one that got away. I held my breath every time I come across a cuckoo but they turned out to be Indian Cuckoos - every single time. Patience stretched and sanity truly tested but in the end, no sign of the Hodgson's. As I reluctantly accepted my fate, I gave the two Indian Cuckoos their due admiration and attention. Lucky for me they did not hold a grudge and fly off just to get back at me for ignoring and cursing them earlier on. In fact, I managed to obtain my best Indian Cuckoo photos to date. 

But the day is far from over. A casual stroll towards the swamp forest next to the old car park swept me off my feet - literally. I had to drop on all fours and commando-styled my way closer to the forested side of the car park. There, perched on one of the pillars of the collapsed boardwalk, was a Ruddy Kingfisher hunting for breakfast. 

The resident Ruddy Kingfisher is one of the celebrity birds of this locality. A small population of these relatively rare kingfishers here has been keeping birders captivated through the years including yours truly. This species is well known for its beauty but not for being gracious. Today, it is probably as confiding as it will ever get and it was quite a struggle just to contain my composure. A truly beautiful bird. A truly memorable experience. 

Seated on the tar surface and with a 2-foot tall curb shielding me, I guess I was somewhat slightly concealed from view. That is when the second moment of magic transpired. While being mesmerized by the kingfisher's performance, something colourful hopping about the swampy ground caught my attention immediately. I have been brought up to be especially vigilant of colourful things hopping about the ground and I guess the same applies to most birders living in the tropics. If you have not already guessed it, I am talking about Pittas. This patch of swamp forest is home to a small population of Mangrove Pittas but much to my delight, it was a migratory Blue-winged Pitta - my first record for this site. 

The smaller bill and paler coloured crown stripe separates the Blue-winged from the Mangrove Pitta. Eventually, it came quite close and even foraged at the base of the kingfisher's elevated perch. Flicking through the leaf litter and looking surprisingly comfortable in my presence, this was certainly one of my best Pitta encounters. 

The shooting condition was far from ideal and most of my shots did not come out as well as I hoped. But somehow, it did not really matter that much as well. A pitta providing memories that will last a lifetime - it does not get any better than this. 

The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher is another striking denizen of this swamp forest. This locality is one of the best places to see this species and the sweet whistling notes of its territorial call is a common sound especially with the breeding season approaching. Again, my position made the resident pair comfortable enough to forage reasonably close by. 

When everything finally subsided and I was back on Earth again, I decided it was time to move on. As I stood up and turned around, I startled a Forest Wagtail and it quickly scooted off in the opposite direction. I have a funny feeling that it was having a ball making funny faces behind my back all this time.