Monday, 22 December 2014

Almost paradise...(20/12/2014)

Dave's Big Year eventually brought him to the forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah where he managed to tick off quite a few more species in his list which at the time of writing, stands at an amazing 564 birds. His visit to the locality was better than usual and I decided to try my luck there as well. A flock of foraging Yellow-bellied Bulbuls started things off for the day. Their preference for the lower levels of the forest provided great eye-level views. Unfortunately, the lighting conditions were terribly challenging the entire trip with the rain clouds threatening to cut short my birding excursion.

Babblers are well represented in this educational forest especially along the access trail that leads up to Gunung Bintang. As always, photographing this family of birds can be frustrating especially the terrestrial species. This Short-tailed Babbler was kind enough to give me a one-second window to focus and take a shot of it in the open. After that, it was back to the undergrowth and the usual fleeting views...

I do not think anyone can ever get bored with the Asian Paradise-flycatcher. The white-morphed male is nothing short of extraordinary. His grace and beauty captures the heart and imagination of birders of all ages and status. I have been trying for years to obtain good shots of the males but somehow or another managed to elude my efforts. This time, I spent 30 minutes stalking, begging, playing dead and every other means I could think of but this image was all I could manage in the end. It was a prolonged and interesting encounter but the image is not what I was hoping for...

The adorable Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher on the other hand was surprisingly accommodating this morning. Its sweet whistling notes can be heard on almost every visit but the bird itself prefers the comfort and security of the canopy levels. This habit makes it difficult for me to obtain good images despite the frequent encounters. 

I also came across a small birdwave and was utterly excited to make out the shape of a trogon in the wave. Naturally, all other species were ignored and the trogon soon revealed itself, or should I say herself, to me as a female Scarlet-rumped Trogon. 

The highlight of the trip must be this flock of inquisitive Hairy-backed Bulbuls. This species behaves more like babblers than bulbuls and is fairly common throughout suitable forested habitats in Peninsula Malaysia.

The Hairy-backed Bulbul gets its name from the supposedly hair-like feathers on its back. I have never once notice this feature in the field and even with rather close-up images like this, the 'hair' remain invisible to us mere mortals. 

Today was definitely a day for bulbuls as a third species found its way to my memory card. The Grey-cheeked Bulbul is not as common as the two other species but it is quite regularly seen in the forest here. With so many different species of bulbuls occurring in this one locality, each have their respective niche to fill to ensure their own survival. That is why it tends to keep to the higher storey of the forest. 

Eventually, rain drops started to fall and although not heavy, it was rather persistent. I reluctantly made my way out of the locality because before the rain, it was very good in terms of birds. On the way home, I turned into the paddy fields of Bandar PERDA in mainland Penang to check if anything was about on this wet and gloomy midday hour. Along the pylons, I found the mighty Eastern Imperial Eagle overlooking its winter domain on this lofty perch. I do not need much reason to take my time to admire this majestic raptor and with the weather showing no intentions of improving, this is possibly the best thing I could wish for to end today’s outing.

And talking about winter, I would to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Gulls galore...

First of all, please do not let my title of this post give you a wrong impression. Gulls are uncommon here in Peninsula Malaysia. In fact, most of them are extremely rare. Of the handful of species that occur in our waters, only the Brown-headed Gull can be considered to be a regular winter visitor. It is locally common at only a few sites and the Bagan Belat coastline in mainland Penang is one of them. Numbering up to 40 strong at times, this species is no stranger to the birders here including yours truly. Now, the second commonest gull around is the Black-headed Gull. Both species are remarkably similar-looking especially in non-breeding plumage but there is one major difference - the latter is a rare migrant.

I was truly excited when Hor Kee found a juvenile Black-headed Gull among the flock of Brown-headed Gulls at the Bagan Belat coastline recently. I had no photographic evidence of my sighting of this species in the past at this locality as well and this individual, that seemed to have settled in quite comfortably here for the winter, presented me with an opportunity to make things right. It took a couple of trips before I finally managed to get close enough for a reasonably good photo session. Upon further scrutiny, I found not one but two juvenile Black-headed Gulls among the flock of Brown-headed Gulls. Christmas came early for me this year!   

The size is probably the most distinct difference for two species at rest but it is only helpful when both are present. When seeking confirmation of the identification of the celebrity gulls later back home, Dave pointed out that if the outermost primaries are completely white below, it is the Black-headed Gull. And that made life a whole lot easier…

Midway through my observation, one of the Black-headed Gulls drifted away from the flock and when for a swim…

In flight, the Black-headed Gull is distinguishable from the adult Brown-headed Gull (left) by the absence of the "mirrors" enclosed within the dark primaries. 

Another adult Brown-headed Gull in flight showing off its signature underwing pattern…

Juvenile Brown-headed Gulls are even more similar to the Black-headed Gulls and they even have the same dark-coloured irises as the latter instead of the pale irises of the adult birds – another characteristic that is used to tell adult gulls apart.

The "mirrors" are also absent from juvenile Brown-headed Gulls. So, it boils down to the outermost primaries again to differentiate young gulls. 

Here is a comparison shot of the juveniles of both species. Young Brown-headed Gull (left) can be lighter built at times and look so similar to the Black-headed Gull that they could have been passed off as siblings. Isn't gull identification such a joy...

This Black-headed Gull making sure I do not put it down as a juvenile Brown-headed Gull by flashing its completely white outermost primaries...

When the initial thrill started to wear off, I diverted my attention to the commoner Brown-headed Gulls. I must admit the adults are quite attractive even in non-breeding plumage. 

The Brown-headed Gulls sensing that the limelight is now on them started to put on a really good show for a very contented waterbird addict. I spend a whole lot of my time scanning the coastlines of Penang for birds and to me, this is about as good as it gets when it comes to gulls. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Patience is a virtue (13/12/2014)

The recent sighting of a Zappey’s Flycatcher (a recent split from Blue-And-White Flycatcher) and a Black-headed Gull, both of which I have seen only once before in the past but without any successful photographic attempts, at the northern parts of mainland Penang helped me to decide for this week's birding excursion. My first destination was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam for a scarce but stunning migratory flycatcher. 

After a thorough sweep of the area, I had to come to terms that the Zappey’s Flycatcher may not be around anymore. Another blue flycatcher that was certainly around was the resident Mangrove Blue Flycatcher. Along a more secluded part of the elevated boardwalk, I came across at least 3 individuals. This was the first male that crossed my path. 

This confiding fellow was the second male sporting a more typical extended range of orange underparts.

A lone female that has been following the males could be the mate of one of them…

A possible third male was seen among the undergrowth about a few feet away from where I observed the first batch of flycatchers earlier on. 

A small fruiting tree just outside the Management Office provided one of the highlights of the trip. Surprisingly, the fruits only attracted two species and apart from a few Olive-winged Bulbuls, there were Lineated Barbets. This barbet is more of a scrubland and mangrove species rather than a true forest dweller and this locality, is one of its strongholds. I have longed to photograph this barbet for quite some time now but without much success as it prefers the canopy levels. But today, the tempting fruits got the better of its security senses and I was presented with the opportunity for a most rewarding photo session. 

In the absence of other species at the fruiting tree, it became the star bird and that held my undivided attention for a good half an hour. And just like that, every bird suddenly took off and it was only me and the fruiting tree left. Thank goodness I have obtained more than enough photos of the barbet before its abrupt departure. 

The Green-billed Malkoha is the largest Malkoha in Malaysia and should be named the Long-tailed Malkoha instead. Like any other malkoha, it does not make an easy subject for photography. Despite its size, it is extremely agile and active. It scurries about the canopy levels like a giant squirrel. I almost lost it when all my efforts so far to capture a few shots were futile as it was always and somehow blocked by the vegetation. Even when it was stationery, it made sure I had something to curse about by resting in a partially hidden position. 

But like the words immortalized by Guns N' Roses in their song, Patience - "...take it slow. It’ll work itself out fine. All we need is just a little patience..." And finally, the Green-billed Malkoha decided to hop onto an open perch for more than 30 seconds with the lighting just about right. I can still recall the first time I saw this species. There was a pair of them and they flew right across the path of a teenage birder on one of his very first MNS organized field trips. Those gravity-defying tails certainly made an impact on his retinal receptors then. 

The swamp forest here is a haven for winter visitors and passage migrants alike. This season itself a few rarer migrants have found their way to this locality and today, I came across a confiding juvenile Crow-billed Drongo. Not really rare but I have yet to obtain any good images until today that is. 

It was following a pair of foraging Plaintain Squirrels - much like the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo's obsession with foraging Long-tailed Macaques. The principles are the same - the foraging mammals will unintentionally flush out prey for the Drongo. And supposedly, the Drongo will keep a lookout for harm in return. However, it seemed quite oblivious to my presence. Or perhaps it knew that this human with the telephoto lens pose no threat to either of them. 

At the mudflats of Bagan Belat, my next destination, a flock of Brown-headed Gulls resting reasonably close to shore was exactly what I was wishing for. Sure enough, I picked out a smaller individual from the lot through my bins. Hor Kee's Black-headed Gull was still around. Unfortunately, the gulls suddenly took flight and alighted on the far end of the mudflats. I am not sure if it was because of my over-zealousness to get closer for a shot or something else but the celebrity gull was now well beyond the reach of my gear. Worse of all, I could not picked it out from the crowd again.

While contemplating of a way to get to the gulls, a passing military helicopter spooked everything present into flight. Well, almost everything. The gulls remained where they were - as expected. 

A flock of Pacific Golden Plovers showing their displeasure towards the big iron bird's intruding and inconsiderate presence. Not that I blame them - the plovers, that is...

A reptile slithering along the exposed mud at a far distance got me all excited. Will this finally be my first wild crocodile? Nah, it was just a monitor lizard doing its best impersonation of a crocodile. I guess spending too much time under the hot sun will eventually get to you. I took this as my cue to leave - before I start seeing Pied Avocets (a dream Peninsula Malaysia's first record for yours truly) foraging at a distance. 

My final destination of the trip was the paddy fields at Kubang Semang. One of the best ways to go round the vast networks of gravel trails is by bike and I was on my faithful iron steed today. She does not only help me weave through the horrendous traffic of Penang Island with ease but takes me places where four wheels simply cannot. Well, you know it was a slow day at the paddy fields when I had the time to photograph my ride instead of birds.