Thursday, 5 March 2015

So close and yet so far...(28/02/15)

Perlis may be the smallest state in Peninsula Malaysia but it is certainly not short of surprises in terms of birding. Recently, more than a handful of Malaysia’s first records were discovered here in this northernmost state and it now has a reputation of being a twitcher’s paradise. The Universiti Malaysia Perlis Guest House is a small resort located in a particularly unknown area called Kurong Tegar and it was here that a Thai birder, Piyapong Chotipuntu, discovered what looked like Malaysia’s first Red-backed Shrike. Immediately, plans were made and strategies formed to try and relocate this vagrant the following weekend. And together with Dave, I made my way to my first twitch of the year.  

At first light, we started the search and it did not take long for us to come face to face with Malaysia’s first Red-backed Shrike. As it is a first record, I have no field experience with this species before but lucky for me, I had Dave and he was not truly convinced. The plumage was odd for a male Red-backed Shrike and this species is no stranger to hybridization which only made matters worse. So, we took as many shots as possible hoping that they will be enough to confirm his identity later. We needed a shot of its tail fanned out but the shrike had no intentions of making things that easy for us. Once we got back home, Dave studied the photos and did the research. I, mostly seek help from birding friends and experts. At the time of writing, the true identity of the shrike is yet to be confirmed but it is almost certain to be a hybrid because there are just too many inconsistencies for it to be a pure Red-backed Shrike.

There is a particular heap of cut branches that has become his favorite vantage point. We decided to spend quite some time there as the shrike will frequently return to this perch. Here, we managed to obtain the best images of this rare visitor.

When the sun was finally up, the shrike retreated into the compound of the resort and continued his morning hunt. We were allowed to enter the resort compound and we continued our efforts to obtain more photographs.

Eventually, we left the shrike in peace and proceeded to check out the surrounding areas especially the adjacent estuary. As made our way through the scrub, there were quite a number of Streak-eared Bulbuls present. Here in northern Peninsula Malaysia, this species is just as common as the Yellow-vented Bulbuls and both species seems to be doing well living next to each other.

When you are in Perlis, you should not take any species for granted. Not even the ever-abundant Eurasian Tree Sparrows because the similar-looking House Sparrow could be the next species to go into the Malaysian checklist. But nothing out of the ordinary about this Eurasian Tree Sparrow though. Except maybe the fact that it a little too close to the mudflats and risk getting stuck…

There were a number of waterbirds present on the small patch of mudflats next to the river mouth. Even at this distance, I could make out that some of the Pond-herons here were Javan Pond-herons. As we got closer, we counted 10 of these scarce migrants foraging at this locality and that figure alone was an exciting record.

We noticed a few egrets foraging at the water's edge and Dave commented that this habitat looks good for a Chinese Egret. And just like that, a partial breeding plumage Chinese Egret strolled into his field of view. I immediately diverted my attention to this globally endangered egret. It was unfortunate that it was not in full breeding plumage because this species is truly a sight to behold.

Chinese Egrets in all stages of non-breeding plumage is not easy to identify. They look very similar to the white-phased Pacific Reef-egret and it will take a discerning eye to tell them apart. Little Egrets sometimes sport a pale lower mandible, much like the non-breeding Chinese Egret and confusions arise when the legs and toes of the former are discoloured by mud or hidden from sight. Anyway, here is a comparison shot depicting the slight difference of their body structures with the Chinese Egret on the right.

And the rarities did not end there. Remarkably, this small patch of mudflats also had a Little Stint and a Swinhoe’s Plover – both rare migrants to Malaysia. As the rare peeps were a little to far away for my camera, I decided to turn my attention to a flock of Kentish Plovers. Some of the males are in their breeding plumages and look absolutely stunning.

Seeing that we were on a roll, we flogged the adjacent mangroves for other rarities that might be lurking. I guess expecting a Brown-winged Kingfisher or even a Black-hooded Oriole was pushing it a little. Although this part of Perlis is probably the closest you can get to the Langkawi Islands by land, it is still a very long shot as there is very little or no evidence of these two species occurring anywhere else in Malaysia except Langkawi. Nevertheless, we were rewarded with a brief view of the sexy blue back of a Ruddy Kingfisher as it darted past us and disappeared into the mangroves. In the end, we had to settle for an easier subject which was a confiding Mangrove Whistler. The whiplash calls of this species are usually the only telltale signs of its presence. Good views are hard to obtain and unobstructed photographs, even harder. So, it will do…

Since we have traveled all the way here from Penang, it only made sense to do a quick round of the other birding hotpots here in Perlis. Timah Tasoh was our next destination as the lake and surrounding scrublands can sometimes hold little surprises that can brightened up any birder’s day. However, nothing much of real interest was present today. Our only consolation was superb views of a pair of Bronzed Drongos. In good light, the iridescent markings do make this little drongo an object of admiration.

The grassland at Chuping was scorching and dusty. But it would be a sin to give this site a miss as we were just a few kilometers away. So, we decided to make it the last leg of our Perlis excursion. It was a decision that we certainly did not live to regret. A small flock of Oriental Pratincoles finally gave us a reason to stop and do some birding instead of trawling along the grasslands that was almost void of bird life.

It was a very warm and bright afternoon. Not the sort of lighting condition that you wish for in a photo shoot. But despite it, we managed to capture some really good images of this enigmatic wader. The confiding nature of the flock no doubt played a big role for the result of this encounter.

During our last trip here, we flushed a sandpiper from one of the ponds that had Dave, because of the brief view we were given, reluctantly dismiss a Green Sandpiper for the commoner Wood Sandpiper in the end. A visit to the same pond was inevitable and again, a slightly dark sandpiper was flushed. But this time it landed on the far end of the pond instead of doing a disappearing act like the last time. It was a Green Sandpiper after all – just as we had suspected. The Green Sandpiper may not be much of a looker but its rare status was enough to garner our admiration. We left the ponds some time after because the sandpiper showed no sign that we can improve on our images. Both of us thought the Green Sandpiper is a great way to end a truly rewarding trip. So we thought…

A quick scan on the towering pylons over the grassland produced something that made me feel a little light headed. It has been many years since the last I saw this raptor in real life and now, I finally have a chance to capture its images. The Short-toed Eagle has been sporadically recorded here in Chuping over the past two seasons but somehow, it has always managed to elude me.

I cannot believe that our last bird for the trip turned out to be another rarity. Unlike the earlier rarities, this was a magnificent bird of prey. We were running a little late as I have a family dinner later that evening but I was enjoying a Short-toed Eagle and that was a strong enough reason to risk the wrath of my better half. When it took flight, it circled back twice before flying away – much to our delight. It could be making up for all those time that it let me down in the past. Or it just wanted to have a better look at those humans standing under the hot sun covered with dust but with a wide grin on their faces.

So, here concludes our birding adventure to the beloved state of Perlis. One last shot of the Short-toed Eagle to wrap things up this time. With one “first” record for Malaysia, a handful of rare migrants and just enough time to make it back for a family dinner, this trip was certainly up there among the best for me.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A good start to the Year of the Goat (21/02/2015)

This year my Chinese New Year celebrations are a little more extensive than usual. Lucky for me I still had a free morning for birding but with the time constraint, I could not afford to travel far and it was down to my usual haunts again. Seeing that Dave had a very exciting excursion at Sungai Sedim in Kedah recently (check out his blog posting here), I decided to try my luck there as well. Who knows, maybe the Year of the Goat will bring some good fortune to this Penang birder. It seemed quite appropriate that the first bird to catch my attention during this Chinese New Year excursion was a male Chinese Blue Flycatcher. It is an uncommon migrant to forested areas in Peninsula Malaysia and a great way to get things rolling. However, his preference for the gloomy lower levels of the forest made photography difficult.

The Ang Pow (red packet) I received from Sungai Sedim this year was when I came across a fruiting tree teeming with birds. Bulbuls formed the majority of the patrons and curiously the usually common Black-headed Bulbuls were no where to be seen this time. The equally common Red-eyed Bulbuls, on the other hand, did not even bother to conceal themselves at all in my presence.

The Cream-vented Bulbul is another commonly recorded species here and its pale iris is what usually distinguishes it from the Red-eyed Bulbul.

Gradually, the rest of the birds accepted me being there and returned to take advantage of this heaven-sent food supply. Looks like I am not the only gaining a few extra pounds during this festive season. The usually elegant-looking Ashy Bulbul may not be anymore by the time they are done judging from the way they were gorging on the fruits.

Sungai Sedim is one of the few strongholds of the uncommon Finsch's Bulbul and being extremely vocal, their loud nasal calls announce their arrival each time they return to the feast like a welcoming band.

I recorded a total of 12 different species of bulbuls on this fruiting tree but not all were tolerant of my presence and some even avoided my photographic attempts. The Buff-vented Bulbuls were certainly not one of them and provided me with some of my best images of this common species to date.

It is undeniable that most bulbul species look quite similar to each other in the field and sometimes you have to pay a little more attention to the finer details to get the identities right. For the Grey-bellied Bulbul, I do not think it is necessary at all.

Being one of the most striking of all our bulbuls, it stood out from all the shades of brown and grey that were present. Naturally, I was smitten by its beauty and paid more attention to it. I am only human after all.

But there is another whose beauty equals or even surpasses that of the Grey-bellied Bulbul and it is the Scaly-breasted Bulbul. Usually found in the canopy level, good photographic opportunities are hard to come by. The feast was a little too much for it to resist and I finally managed to obtain really good shots of this forest denizen from almost eye level.

The intricate patterns of the underparts as well as the contrasting colours of the upperparts make this bulbul one of the most beautiful birds of the tropical rainforest.

The Streaked Bulbul dropped in for a short while only but luckily I managed to capture one shot before its abrupt departure. Perhaps the tree was a little too crowded for its liking.

Foraging among the shadows was a small flock of Hairy-backed Bulbuls. I was certainly spoilt for choice this time round and waiting for these skulking bulbuls to come to more open areas simply did not cross my mind. There were just too many distractions around.

The adorable flowerpeckers were also in good numbers at the fruiting tree and a total of 5 different species were present. The Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker is commonly found in the forest here and it comes as no surprise to find one gorging on the fruits.

The similar-looking Yellow-vented Flowerpecker is not often encountered and the presence of a single bird did not go unappreciated.

There is always a sense of anticipation whenever you come across a fruiting tree because you never know what might show up next. Deep inside, you always keep your fingers crossed for a rarity to come along and today, one did. It was a gorgeous male Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker and I have only seen this species once before at Maxwell Hill in Perak. It has been so long that I almost forgot the whirlwind of emotions that swept through me when I saw this species for the very first time. But when I saw the piercing red breast again today, it all came back to me and what a rush it was! Unfortunately, he was very shy and took flight as soon as I pointed my camera at him. And that was the last I saw of him.

My failure to obtain even a single shot of the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker was a very bitter pill to swallow. Luckily, a rather confiding male Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker was there to help ease my disappointment.

Almost just as striking as his rarer cousin, he certainly did not mind my presence as he helped himself to the fruits. I guess some are more easily seduced by food than others.

A pair of Dark-throated Orioles was also wary of my presence despite my best attempt to keep myself inconspicuous throughout my observation at the fruiting tree. The pulling power of the tantalizing fruits got the better of the male bird and he did come for a quick bite before returning back to the cover of the canopy levels.

I have recorded the Plaintive Cuckoo from this location before but only from the adjacent fruit orchards. When a small cuckoo alighted nearby the fruiting tree, I was certainly not expecting a Plaintive Cuckoo. Did word got round of this Chinese New Year banquet and has it even reached beyond the borders of the forest?

The Plaintive Cuckoo may be a little out of place in the dense forest but the migratory Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo is right at home here. I could have easily walked past it when I made my way out of the forest if not for a pair of Little Spiderhunters that mistook the cuckoo for a real raptor and were mobbing it. Their persistent calls made me stop to look and only then did I realize the presence of the cuckoo. I may not be aware of its presence initially but it was certainly aware of mine.

A little bit of stalking got me slightly closer and I managed to take a few more shots before the cuckoo glided out of sight. Although I did not get to meet up with some old friends like the Malaysian Honeyguide and the Wallace's Hawk-eagle, it was still a great way to spend a Chinese New Year morning - among other feathered friends that have always been an important part of my life.