Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Up close and personal (19/07/2014)

As soon as I got down from my bike, I was greeted by one of the best good mornings I could have asked for - a Blue-winged Pitta foraging in full view. Pittas are usually secretive birds but here at Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in northern mainland Penang, this pair of Blue-winged Pittas has become rather accustomed to human presence and bold. However, the lighting was still a little dim at that time and good shots were hard to come by.

Reluctantly I left the car park, and the pittas, and made my way to the boardwalk that cuts through this swamp forest in search of better prospects.

It was here along the boardwalk that I heard faint but distinct calls of the Brown Hawk-owl. Although it was not calling as frequently as my last encounter with this species here, I still managed to trace the call back to the source. The reason for the less persistent calling is because the bird was getting ready to roost.

The angle was a little steeper this time but it was still a delightful and memorable experience. The owl was just as confiding as the last time but with its feathers all puffed up for 'the day', it certainly looked much more adorable. Sweet dreams, bud...

The Jungle Mynas nest in holes among the trees and this year looks set to be another successful season. This juvenile bird is proof of that.

The mynas are not the only ones that are increasing the local population here. The Mangrove Blue Flycatchers are also doing very well. This young male gave me a model-like pose from the shadow of the under storey. The photo came out reasonably well despite the lighting condition.

While I was been distracted by the performing flycatcher, a curious Plaintain Squirrel came quite close to investigate what was going on. This species is also doing very well at the locality and on every visit you are bound to bump into one or two of them.

The second most common bulbul in Malaysia is the Olive-winged Bulbul. Although it sometimes overlaps with the commoner Yellow-vented Bulbul, it thrives in more rural and "greener" habitats. Despite the abundance of this species, I do not have many images of it in my database. I was pretty excited to manage a few good shots today and it does not really matter if it was perched on a man-made structure.

It was great to be able to shoot Greater Coucals that are not trying to get the hell away from you for a change. This pair sunbathing in the open was quite accommodating at first. But then one of them gradually felt uncomfortable with my presence and disappeared into the undergrowth.

As I was about to stand upright, the other coucal decided to put on a performance and I for one is not about to turn down an offer from this large but shy cuckoo. So, I got back down into my crouching position and enjoyed the show.

When you gotta go, you gotta go...

I went back to the car park area at noon and not surprisingly, the pitta was there to greet me again. As it is much brighter now, I was able to capture much better images of it as well.

The pitta was not alone. Moments later a juvenile Mangrove Blue Flycatcher came into view. I could see from what I assumed are the parent birds among the nearby vegetation, trying to keep the youngster in check but to no avail.

Being young and rebellious, it came ridiculously close a few times.

I was about to chow down lunch when I caught sight of an unfamiliar bird foraging near the under storey of the swamp forest. A quick glance through my binos revealed that it was a stunning Red-whiskered Bulbul. And this is the first record for me at this site. It is possible for it to be a feral bird because this species is a very popular song bird. It behaved very much like a wild bird to me. It sure the heck was not feeding from the palm of my hand. It was rather wary of my presence and difficult to approach. Anyway, it was a good bird to wrapped things up for another fine trip at this birding hotspot.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

A sign from above (05/07/2014)

I have to admit I am not much of a football fan but when it is my favourite team, Brazil, playing Columbia in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, it was something not to be missed. The game kicked off at 4 in the morning here and by the time I saw Brazil got through to the semis, it was almost time for my Saturday birding. Unfortunately it had also started to rain and I have no choice but to brood at home until the weather improves.

As I was contemplating about calling off my birding excursion, I heard the characteristic song of the White-rumped Shama. As it was not coming from the direction of any of the neighbouring units, I decided to peer over my balcony and investigate. A male White-rumped Shama is rather unmistakable and there was one, flitting about the line of trees within my apartment compound. I am certain he is an escapee and although this may not be his habitat of choice, it is sure the hell better than his prison cage. I wanted to capture him enjoying his new found freedom but he was gone before I could set up my camera. Stay safe and stay free, bud...

I took this as a good omen and packed up for my birding trip as planned - this and the fact that it has finally stopped raining. I decided to visit the nearest local patch to my home for a couple of hours as I left the house later than usual. Bukit Gambir is a mixture of scrub, secondary forest and fruit orchards and it has been years since my last visit. 

Yellow-vented Bulbuls are one of the commonest species to be found here and it did not take me long to find one among the scrub vegetation next to the access road. Due to their ability to adapt and thrive near and within human settlements, this species can be found in nearly all habitat man has ventured into and left his trail of destruction. It used to be survival of the fittest but survival of the most adaptable seems to make more sense nowadays. 

The growl-like calls of the Pink-necked Pigeon coming from the canopy level is good enough a reason for me to stop and search. These pigeons are not the most nimble of birds and they soon gave away their presence. Pink-necks are the commonest of the three Green-pigeons that occur in Penang Island and again, it is because they are adapting well to life alongside man. The more colourful male was a little wary of my presence but his mate treated me just like an old friend and posed for my camera. That's my girl!

I never had much luck in capturing images of the Black-naped Oriole despite the fact that it is a common bird. Its musical call and bright colours make it rather conspicuous even to normal folks. I remember seeing this yellow bird long before I started birding and the population in Malaysia seems to be maintaining itself quite successfully. This male alighted on one of the trees next to the pair of Pink-necked Pigeon and I managed to take a couple of shots before he moved on. 

There were plenty of banana trees scattered all over the fruit orchard and a number of them were flowering. A good chance to catch a Little Spiderhunter I thought to myself. And whoosh, something flew overhead and alighted on a banana flower in front of me. It was not a Spiderhunter as hoped, but a male Plain-throated Sunbird. Close enough I guess...

One of the reasons that I am still drawn to this local patch after all these years is because it is home to the Asian Paradise-flycatcher. I have yet to obtain images of the male bird that I can be proud of and I was hoping that my good fortune will see my wish fulfilled today. Imagine my excitement when I did manage to come across this species - a pair foraging along the middle storey of the forest. But I guess my luck has finally run out because I came agonizingly close to capturing the brown-morphed male bird only to be defeated by his energetic pace and the dense surrounding vegetation. The female, on the other hand, did stay still long enough for me to take a few record shots.

A fruiting scrub helped to ease my earlier disappointment with the flycatcher. The little blue berries are quite nice to look at and all but it was what that was gorging on them that got my undivided attention - Scarlet-backed Flowerpeckers. Against all odds, it was the more attractive male bird that came close to me this time. Absolutely striking and adorable, this little bundle of feathers and colours still evokes my senses every time. 

I almost forgot. Here's the duller female...

The nest of the Baya Weaver is an architectural feat that unfortunately has drawn too much attention from the wrong crowd. I just cannot understand why humans need to decorate their homes with the homes of others. I do not blame the nest collectors because it is simply a way to make a little extra. If there are no demands for the nests, it would be pointless for the collectors to carry on. Bukit Gambier used to have colonies of nesting Baya Weavers. Sadly, that is a thing of the past. Like today, I only came across one nest and it was still a "bachelor’s pad". At this stage, this unfinished nest is where the male will sing, dance and beg for a willing female to accept as him as a mate. Once that is accomplished, he will finish up the nest and start a family.

I was a little anxious about how the bird life was fairing at this locality because development projects are starting to creep into its boundaries. The good news is this local patch still provides sanctuary for the birds and I still have a place close to home that can satisfy my addiction for birding. The bad news is, for how long?

Monday, 30 June 2014

It can't rain everyday...(28/06/2014)

Motivated by Adolph's excellent post, I was back again at the forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah. The first half of the morning was relatively quiet and I was beginning to brace myself for yet another barren outing. And then, all of a sudden, I found myself smacked in the middle of a big birdwave. The wave was like a ray of sunlight on a gloomy day and I could certainly do with a little sunshine right about then. In between trying to record every species that were present, I managed to capture a few record shots as well like this young Grey-breasted Spiderhunter taking a breather from the feasting. 

Velvet-fronted Nuthatches are adorable little birds that scamper around branches and tree trunks like miniature squirrels. They are a joy to observe but a pain to photograph. Their constant movement and the harsh lighting condition really tested my gear. These are probably some of the better shots that I managed to obtain in the end.

The Great Iora is the rarest of the 3 Ioras found in Malaysia. It has been quite a while since my last sighting of this species. This female was too preoccupied with the wave that she did not take much notice of my presence and came relatively close. However, the dense foliage that provides her food and sanctuary keeps her well hidden most of the time from me. 

During bird waves, some birds can go into a feeding frenzy and become exceptionally bold and just simply disregard human presence. This male Dark-necked Tailorbird came really close but it also moved off really fast. 

I caught a flash of brilliant green from the corner of my eye and soon found myself looking at the all too familiar shape of a Green Broadbill flying directly towards me. It landed almost directly overhead and allowed me to press the shutter a couple of times before it disappeared into the vegetation. I could not be certain if it was participating in the wave or just curious of all the action that was going down. It was most unfortunately that it alighted against the sun and I did not have the luxury of time to adjust my exposure accordingly. As expected, it was a striking male bird - Murphy's Law at its best. 

It seems like I keep on bumping into Green Broadbills of late (not that I'm complaining) and my second encounter for this trip was this relatively confiding female bird. However, the lighting conditions and distance prevented me from obtaining better images. 

Sungai Sedim offers sanctuary to a few species of Trogon and the commonest of them all is the Scarlet-rumped. Common it may be but dull it certainly is not. A male Scarlet-rumped Trogon (on second thoughts any male trogon) is a sight that will overwhelm the retinal receptors to a level rarely achievable in normal everyday living. Naturally, I gave him the attention and admiration he truly deserves.  

Feed me!! Looks like the resident Pacific Swallows have their ‘hands’ full with the next generation of swallows…

Despite missing out on photographing a flying Helmeted Hornbill, my spirit was still high as I made my way to the canopy walk. How could I miss a bird that has a 3-foot long tail? Well, there were hardly any breaks in the dense canopy where the big guy took flight and by the time I ran to an open area, the hornbill was nowhere to be seen. Despite its enormous size, the Helmeted Hornbill is extremely elusive and shy. In my lifetime, I have only seen it a handful of times in which I only had my camera with on two occasions. The photo below is my best effort so far. A bird in full view just after dawn in Merapoh Taman Negara a few years back. Unfortunately, I still had my camera's exposure at yesterday's setting and the shot turned out terribly underexposed. It was a careless mistake - one that has continued to haunt me till this very day. 

Anyway, the Tree Top Walk at Sungai Sedim is the longest canopy walk in the world. It is almost a kilometer in length and the highest section is over 200 meters above the forest floor. It is no doubt an impressive structure but it has yet to give me any truly memorable encounters. But the view is always breathtaking…

Since today is my day in the sun, I did not end up totally empty handed from my tree top walk. Here are some of the birds that I managed to shoot and despite being on their 'level' for a change, they were sometimes still beyond the comfortable reach of my gear.

Red-eyed Bulbul...

Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike...

Ruby-cheeked Sunbird...

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The flying jewel (21/03/2014)

My luck with forest bird photography did not improve much from my last excursion as I ended up with another “one-bird” trip. This time it was at the forest of Sungai Sedim in eastern Kedah state. Forest birding is indeed very challenging and forest bird photography, even more so. But it is only in the forest that one will get to witness some of the true wonders of the natural world – like the stunning Green Broadbill. Since I do not have anything else to post for this trip, I will dedicate it to the Green Broadbill.

The Green Broadbill occurs in both primary and secondary forests of Southeast Asia. Occasionally, it might wander into adjacent orchards and plantations as well. It is not a rare bird but typical of the genus and like most other denizens of the forest, it is more often heard than seen. The call, like the bird itself, is rather unique and that makes identification rather straightforward. What is complicated is the fact that the bird is about the size of a leaf, has colours like a leaf and the tendency to remain still among the leaves at the canopy level. Successfully locating a Green Broadbill among a sea of leaves is an achievement all by itself. Obtaining reasonably good photographs is another matter altogether. I will not be going into detail about the habits and characteristics of the bird. This will be more like a personal account of this fascinating and beautiful species.

I recorded my very first Green Broadbill at Air Itam Dam in my home state and it was the year 1990. In fact, the Green Broadbill is the only broadbill to occur in Penang Island. Its unique call was the first thing that caught my attention. At that time I was still quite new to birding and did not know that this call belonged to the Green Broadbill. Intrigued, I slowly trace the call to its source. Then a "leaf" suddenly took off from the tree in front of me and darted through the forest. In a blink of an eye, it was gone but the image of the striking emerald green plumage remained fresh at the back of my mind till this very day. A little homework helped me identify this forest gem on wings. Determination and luck helped me obtain better views of this species at this locality in the years to follow after that faithful day. 

Throughout my bird photography life (which is after more than a decade after being converted into birding), I have successfully captured images of the Green Broadbill only on a handful of occasions. Not exactly a record I can be proud of but it is the honest truth never the less. Here is a male bird in his comfort zone - at the very top of the canopy level and well away from any intruding birders. This image was my first of this species and was taken at Merapoh Taman Negara back in 2009. 

My next photographic opportunity, if I can call it an opportunity, came about 2 years later. The forest at Sungai Sedim in Kedah is one of the strongholds of this species and it has been recorded here on a regular basis. Despite all my efforts, this was the best I could manage of a male bird foraging at the very top of the canopy level.

In 2012, the confiding nature of a female bird absolutely took me by surprise. Green Broadbills are omnivorous by nature and the availability of food at a fruiting tree was the reason for her memorable performance. But her mate was not as obliging and remained partly hidden most of the time. This encounter took place at Bukit Palong in Kedah and I made an entry into my blog about that trip entitled The Natural Bird Magnet. 

My latest Green Broadbill encounter took place last Saturday at Sungai Sedim again. It was a male bird, in all his glory, belting out his territorial call from a relatively low and exposed perch. The breeding season must have made him a little bolder than usual and I was lucky enough to enjoy his performance before he hopped back into the cover of the canopy. My only qualm is that I did not have time to adjust the exposure on my camera before he disappeared from view. But it is by far my best effort and I guess it will do – for now.