Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Close, but no cigar...(18/10/2014)

Birding at a new location is always an exciting affair and the latest one to enter my now relatively stagnant list of birding spots is the Sungkop Forest Reserve. Located just next to the Bedong Raptor Watch Site, it was discovered by Choo Eng and Kanda while they were conducting this season's count. Together with Choo Eng and Hor Kee, we decided to explore more of this forest reserve before we conducted our raptor count on this warm and cloudy Saturday morning. It is only accessible by foot or 4-wheel vehicle, in which we did a little bit of both, through the network of logging trails. 

Our exploration came to a halt when we came across the loud bell-like calls of the Black Magpies filling the vicinity. Although they are large and vocal, it took a while before they finally revealed themselves as they foraged among the distant canopy level of the forest. After an insane amount of pleading and persuasion, one of them finally glided across the valley towards us and alighted on one of the trees along the edge of the logging trail. 

We only had a couple of hours to spare here before it got hot enough for the raptors to start migrating pass. But Sungkop had one last welcoming gift before we parted for the raptor count - Great Slaty Woodpeckers. It is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and usually occurs in flocks. This time we are most fortunate to have a flock of five in our midst. 

The ruckus that usually accompanies any foraging flock makes the Black Magpies sound like church mice. This flock was not so much foraging but displaying. I really struggled to obtain at least a few images that were sharp and unobstructed. The unforgiving shooting conditions and the constant movement of the woodpeckers are not exactly helping the situation. 

It was a good one at the raptor watch site as well in terms of numbers and species. Unfortunately, the raptors were passing through very high up and well beyond the comfort zone of my photography gear. Here is a big flock of Chinese Goshawks circling in the sky above. This species made up the majority of the raptors passing through today.

The highlight of the count this time was a pale morph Booted Eagle - the first for the season. This species used to a rare migrant but in recent years, sightings of this small eagle have increased. It was fortunate that in this morph, the eagle can be easily identified. At that distance, we will be in a whole lot of trouble if it was a rufous or dark morph individual. 

An exceptionally pale harrier riding the hot air thermals at the far distance got our undivided attention. The harrier is front of us had all the field markings of a male Hen Harrier - that is until we seek confirmation from Dave and Chaiyan (thank you, guys!) when we got home. The pale areas at the base of the black primaries were all that stood in the way between us and our would-be lifer. It turned out to be a rather pale male Eastern March Harrier. Close, but no cigar...

And to wrap things up for this trip, a lone male Oriental Honey-buzzard that we came across first thing in the morning on the way to the raptor watch site. He was probably waiting for the sun to make the conditions optimum for him to carry on with his amazing journey down south to his wintering ground.

Here are the results of our three and a half hour raptor count:
1) Oriental Honey-buzzard - 222
2) Black Kite - 2
3) Rufous-bellied Eagle - 1
4) Booted Eagle - 1
5) Eastern Marsh Harrier - 3
6) Chinese Goshawk - 345
7) Japanese Sparrowhawk - 44

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Roll with the punches (11/10/2014)

This time's birding the focus was on terns and one of the best places in Penang for these angelic waterbirds is the coastline of Kuala Muda. Located at the northernmost tip of mainland Penang, big numbers of migratory terns will rest on the sandbanks near the shore every season. Again, timing your visit with the tide is essential here as well and that task was entrusted to Hor Kee. Unfortunately, the haze was bad morning and that made positive identification of the birds and obtaining sharp images of them a challenge. The terns were present in big numbers as expected but we needed to reduce the distance between us. This was where the adventure began because there was a 20 feet wide canal of water, sand and mud that we had to cross to reach our goal. I guess wading knee deep (in some spots, thigh deep) in mud to get to the sandbanks was bearable for what laid ahead. 

Mission accomplished!

An estimated 400 terns consisting of six different species were present in the vicinity. It was more than enough to get a couple of waterbird junkies high on adrenalin. The Greater Crested Terns towered over the rest and it looked like the earlier inconvenience was worth the trouble. Or so I thought. 

Our joy was short lived. Just we were about to get comfortable, a cockle collector came too close and put all the terns to flight. Well, birding, as in life, sometimes we just have to roll with the punches. 

The majority of the terns were White-winged Terns. Some of them still had traces of their breeding plumage. 

There were hardly any waders around. It has been like this for as long as I could recall. But when a pair of curlews flew overhead, it was just pure instinct to take a few shots. I did not expect much from the shots as the birds were a little too fast and thanks to the haze, the lighting and clarity will be out as well. When I finally got round to checking the images, I was surprised to see that I managed to capture both the Eurasian Curlew and the Far Eastern Curlew in a single frame. The latter is a much rarer species and this image depicts the underwing difference between the two species in which the latter has dark underwings.

The main disadvantage of having the longest bill of any wader is getting it cut off in photographs. This is just a self-preservation thing for me being careless enough to let this sort of thing happen.

The Pacific Reef Egret is uncommon here in Penang. The appearance of a dark morph bird on any outing is a bonus. I have yet to obtain any images that I could be proud of and from the looks of things, the hunt goes on...

Hor Kee spotted an “unusual” white egret flying towards the sandbanks from a distance. It then alighted on the far end of the sandbank and initially, we thought it was a white morph Pacific Reef Egret. Its presence was not welcomed by a Great Egret and the big fellow chased the smaller egret away almost immediately. Once back home, after much scrutiny and confirmation from Dave, we realized it was a Chinese Egret. A globally endangered species, this strictly coastal species winters irregularly here in Peninsula Malaysia and in very small numbers.

Here is a composite shot to show the proportion of the legs of the Chinese Egret compared to the dark morph Pacific Reef Egret.

When the tide finally covered most of the exposed sandbanks, we made our way to the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. The migratory Yellow-rumped Flycatcher has been performing well of late and we wanted in on some of the action. And we were not to be disappointed. The male is a truly gorgeous bird. Enough said…

The resident Mangrove Blue Flycatchers were certainly not going to let this visiting flycatcher hog all the limelight without a fight. And what a fight they provided. The male took the first swing…

And the follow up by the female reinstated them back as the best performers of this little swamp forest.

Flycatchers seemed to the flavour of the day as the young male Asian Paradise Flycatcher that I saw a few weeks back wandered into our path.

Apart from the birds, other wildlife species are also thriving at this birding paradise. A Long-tailed Macaque and her baby wrapped things up for a surprisingly exciting trip despite the lack of good photographs from our muddy adventures at Kuala Muda.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014


Chuping is known for its extensive sugarcane plantation and sugar refinery. It is also a sweet spot for birders as it provided a number of rarities including five first records for Peninsula Malaysia. However, the entire area is gradually being converted into rubber plantation. Once the sugarcane plantations and open grassland habitats disappear, so will the rarities and the rest of the migratory birds that find sanctuary here. It was raining when Hor Kee and I left Penang and in most parts of our car journey through the states of Kedah and Perlis. Chuping being the hottest place in Peninsula Malaysia, managed to keep the rain out but not the rain clouds. 

Raptors are one of the star attractions here and luckily, the overcast sky did not stop them from going about their business today. The first raptors to catch our attention were these Oriental Honey-buzzards undertaking their autumn migration south. This raptor is undoubtedly one of the most varied in terms of plumages and I usually rely on its body shape with its characteristic smallish head for identification. I will not even go near sexing and aging the birds. I am a simple man and I like to keep things simple. We counted only 15 birds which is a small number compared to the spectacle of hundreds that migrate over certain areas elsewhere in the peninsula. 

Harriers winter here in good numbers which makes Chuping one of the best places to observe these graceful raptors. We were fortunate enough to witness a mid-air squabble between two young Eastern Marsh Harriers. The identification of harriers can be confusing at times and these two were confirmed by Dave and Chaiyan after the trip. The individual being chased was second year subadult male and his pursuer was a first year juvenile. 

Unlike most raptors, the difference in the gender of adult harriers is very apparent and the males, I must add, are truly beautiful. This male Eastern Marsh Harrier is a fine example and he performed well for a couple of visiting birders today.

His buoyant flight and strikingly marked plumage set against the limestone outcrops is my definition of poetry in motion. This being the first time I was able to photograph an adult male this close made the encounter even more memorable. 

The Little Cormorant is a rare migrant to Peninsula Malaysia but for the past few seasons, it has been recorded more regularly. I have had two previous encounters with this species before but this is the first I managed to photograph it. There were at least five present at this pond today but none of them were close enough for any really good images. But I love cormorants and I guess a detour to this spot on my next visit is inevitable.

An adult Purple Heron eyeing our vehicle suspiciously as we drove past it along the maze-like network of dirt roads that cut through the plantation. Due to the lack of landmarks and the sheer size of the plantation, you can easily lose yourself here. Apart from the occasional plantation worker or birder, this place is virtually deserted. I have to be thankful my companions have a better sense of direction than me. Otherwise, we will be looking for a way out more than looking for vagrants at this birding locality.

There were quite a number of Zitting Cisticolas present this time and I cannot really recall if this grassland species was this abundant here in the past.

Red-wattled Lapwings tend to give away their presence due to their extremely vocal nature. Their loud calls are usually heard before you actually see the bird. This time it was a juvenile giving out the alarm calls.

It has become sort of a ritual to scrutinize every Paddyfield Pipit that one comes across in Chuping for an off-chance that it could turned out to be the much rarer Blyth's or Richard's Pipit. And to be totally honest, I will still most probably overlook the rarities because to me, the three of them look almost identical. 

No rare passerines were encountered today. In fact, things nearly came to a stand still once it was midday. This young Brown Shrike provided little compensation for the lack of noteworthy birds. 

Is the reign of Chuping as the most exciting birding spot in Peninsula Malaysia coming to an end? Have the rubber plantations caused too much damage to the habitat and driving away the birds? Questions like these pondered our minds as we slowly made our way back home through strong winds and heavy downpour. Hopefully, another visit later in the month will be able to put our worries to rest and produce a couple more first records for Peninsula Malaysia.