Wednesday, 18 May 2022

It is good to be back


My iron steed finally got to stretch her legs with her first interstate journey in more than two years. Almost all COVID-19 restrictions in the country have been lifted this month and hopefully, life will return to be what it used to be. As for me, it is back to the wilds of northern Peninsular Malaysia to make up for all the lost birding time.

Although not much has changed here at the Sungai Batu mangroves, there was one significant difference. The resident Mangrove Pittas, as reported by my fellow birders, have vanished deeper into their swampy domains. This remarkable animal is the star bird of this location and their absence is excruciating difficult to accept. On the other hand, the Mangrove Blue Flycatchers still serenade the vicinity with their beauty and song.

The boisterous Abbott’s Babblers were as prominent as before at the stakeout. The lighting condition was unpredictable today. Passing clouds blocked out the sun intermittently. And I occasionally struggled with my photographic efforts despite the close proximity of the birds.

Rapid movement is one of the main causes for this complication. The Malaysian Pied-Fantail with its signature erratic movements, truly tested my modest setup. A lucky shot during one of the few rare moments when the bird was still provided some extra material for this blog post.

Just because you are out in open spaces does not mean photographing wild birds will be a walk in the park. There will be times when your subject simply refuses to cooperate despite the ideal shooting conditions. Anyway, there is no mistaking a Green-billed Malkoha at this range. And life, goes on.

The resident Crested Serpent-Eagle exhibited its full majesty from the edge of the swamp forest. And this time, it was the distance that prevented better images to be obtained.

Barbets are undeniably vocal and this trait is present in every species including the small and adorable Coppersmith Barbet. The name itself derives from the persistent single note territorial call of the species which is not unlike the sound of a coppersmith at work. I traced the call to a tiny speck at the very top of a dead tree which is typical of the species.

It is not an uncommon bird occurring even in residential areas but good photographic opportunities are hard to come by. That is a shame for the Coppersmith Barbet is a cracking bird. From its lofty perch, it continued to proclaim its territory despite my presence and the encounter turned out to be the highlight of the trip.

The Blue-throated Bee-eaters are back for the summer replacing the wintering Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. Just as spectacular or perhaps even more, a moment is taken to appreciate their return. The electrical cables here certainly make good vantage points for the Blue-throated Bee-eater to launch its aerial assaults.

It is the breeding season for most birds now and the Baya Weaver colonies were buzzing with activities. The males are busy building their astonishing nests and this labour of love is anything but easy. As for the females, life is easy for time being as they linger about waiting to be wooed.

I concluded my feeble Global Big Day effort for this year around mid morning. Other commitments in life seemed to have increased of late. Either that or age have somewhat altered my priorities. But my passion for birding still burns especially when there are birds like the Black-winged Kite to fuel the flames. This poised and efficient hunter wrapped things for the day by resting in full view on an electrical pole along the access road leading out of the site.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

Better late than never


There was only one reason I found myself at the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang for the second consecutive time and it was to attempt for the rare migratory Slaty-legged Crake again. In fact, it could well be my final try as spring migration will draw to a close soon. This species would be a significant addition to my life list and naturally, anxiety was high despite my calm appearance. After all birding is about luck and lady luck has been unkind to me so far.

As I patiently waited for the distinguished visitor to reveal itself, I tried my best not to be distracted by other species present in the vicinity. But a little brown job flitting about the foliage of the forest could not be taken lightly especially at this time of the year. During passage, one has no idea what might decide to make a stopover at one of the few remaining forests in mainland Penang. Upon further scrutiny, it turned out to be an Asian Brown Flycatcher. It may be a common migrant to this part of the world but a confiding individual like this deserves some attention.

The resident pair of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers serenaded the locality with their pleasant territorial calls. The striking colouration possessed by these birds also helped to pass the time during my tedious wait for the Slaty-legged Crake.

There is not much aesthetic appeal to be found on the Abbott’s Babbler but an adult bird with a recently fledged juvenile in tow indicated yet another successful breeding season for this robust undergrowth dweller.

A Blue-winged Pitta in full view would have normally made my day because pittas are such amazing creatures. However, I was a man on a mission today and the stunning beauty of the Blue-winged Pitta did not have the usual influence over my emotions.

I sighed in relief when the Slaty-legged Crake finally strolled into view. It was a young bird as it lacks the colour intensity of the adult birds. Not that it mattered. I was transfixed on the rhythmic gait of the crake. The exhilaration was intense and I struggled to keep my hands steady as I accumulated digital memories of the encounter.

Almost as soon as it appeared, the rare migrant disappeared back into the swampy undergrowth and the performance was over. I managed to obtain the images I wanted but most importantly, acquired a lifer which is a rare thing for me nowadays.

My companion and I decided the explore the surrounding areas but by then, the temperature had started to soar. A lone Dollarbird seemed unperturbed by the scorching heat and took no effort to seek some shade. Inevitably, the harsh lighting made photography of this attractive bird difficult.

April is the best time to catch the Pond-Herons in their breeding plumages before they undergo the journey back north to breed. We recorded all three species on this trip but unfortunately, none were confiding enough for any memorable photographs. This mediocre image of an Indian Pond-Heron foraging in a sea of paddy stalks still managed to wriggle its way into this blog post. Being the rarest of them all has got absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it.

The scrubland habitat was ideal for Red-wattled Lapwings and we found several individuals in the vicinity. The absence of any other notable species cut short our exploration here and we turned our attention to the coast.

The timing of our arrival at Kota Kuala Muda was ideal with the rising tide pushing the waders and other water fowl to the high tide roost. However, it was a case of so close and yet so far. There was no safe walking access to the roost and inevitably, we made our way as far as the sandy beach was willing to take us.

We had some consolation in the form of Common Terns. A few of these graceful coastal terns decided to roost on the beach and they provided the best photographic opportunities here.

One of them has a deformed lower mandible but judging from its overall appearance, life goes on as normal for this determined individual.

Some waders were also found roosting close to shore but the heat wave was too overwhelming for any decent photographs. Nevertheless, the sight and sounds of thousands of roosting water birds is always a breath-taking affair. As Hor Kee did a final sweep of the roosting flocks for any surprises with his scope, I took the time to enjoy the spectacle before we wrapped things up for the day.

Friday, 11 March 2022

Breeding season is here


Heavy work schedule, illogical access restrictions to my usual birding haunts, the ongoing coronavirus situation and perhaps even age have been keeping me away from the field. My love for birding is not fading. That is certain or I would not have found myself wandering about the all-too-familiar river trail in Air Hitam Dalam on my birthday. Spending some time rejuvenating my soul in the morning and a quiet dinner with my dearest in the evening. That is celebration enough for me.

A lone Black-thighed Falconet brooding over whatever it is that the smallest raptor in the world broods about was the first bird to gain my attention.

Among the canopy of the swamp forest, a male Asian Koel prepared himself to defend his territory – a daily routine now as it is the height of the breeding season for this parasitic cuckoo. As expected, his loud and persistent vocalization soon echoed throughout the locality.

Almost rivalling the intensity of the Asian Koel was a pair of Collared Kingfishers. No doubt fuelled by the approaching breeding season, the pair was confiding and courted among the foliage of the riverine trees. And I took a moment to appreciate the performance.

The Common Iora possess quite a range of calls and songs. It did not take me long to locate a pair that was moving about the edge of the forest as they were calling persistently. The striking male did not appreciate my intrusion and retreated into the forest. His mate, startled by his sudden departure, veered through a gap among the foliage at the reason behind the chaos and provided me a brief window of opportunity to capture her image.

As I made my way further along the access road, a pair of pipits scooted away from me and alighted. Now, this family of birds are not the easiest to identify. Come to think of it, near impossible for some species. However, only one will pair up and breed here on Malaysian soil and that is the Paddyfield Pipit.

My attention soon drifted from ground to the nearby bushes as another common resident was preparing for the breeding season. The Yellow-bellied Prinia is a vocal bird and during the breeding season, even more so. And it tends to be bolder and regularly showing off its lovely plumage from exposed perches near the top of the bushes.

A Brahminy Kite on the hunt sent the prinia diving for cover. Although this raptor is rarely a threat to small birds, the sinister shape of a soaring raptor is enough to cause an abrupt end to the prinia’s vocal performance.

It was a colourful conclusion to this short excursion as the last bird I encountered was a pair of Common Flamebacks. The striking couple was foraging at the car park area and I delayed my departure from this local patch of mine – naturally. And to wrap things up for this time is a decent capture of the male with his flaming red crest reminding me just how good it can get when you spend time in the field.

Friday, 25 February 2022

Koel, koel, koel...


The Chinese New Year is a festive time indeed. There are a few sounds that comes to mind during this time of the year like firecrackers, lion dances and, the territorial call of the Asian Koel. The breeding season of this parasitic cuckoo usually coincides and outlasts the celebrations and that is when they really let it rip. For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the vocal abilities of the Asian Koel, the call is loud and unbelievably persistent. Since it parasites on House Crows, it occurs in residential areas where the hosts thrive. It is not unknown for overly enthusiastic males to call right into the dead night to the extend of being labelled a public nuisance. But for me, the Asian Koel’s call (did I mentioned it was loud) and how it is delivered is something to marvel at.

For the past week, I noticed one of the resident male Asian Koels frequenting a young tree just outside the perimeter fencing of my humble residence. He was not exactly being discreet about his location as his territorial call echoed in the vicinity throughout the day. 

His presence gradually got me going against my better judgement and I found myself braving the usual stares when birding near or around other humans. Anyway once the neighbours finally figured out what I was after, I could then document this handsome Asian Koel in peace.

Over the weekend, my casual observation revealed some interesting behaviour. The tree was used as his regular calling point and he guarded this commodity with much aggression. Any bird so much as look in the direction of the tree will taste his wrath and lucky for me, it does not apply to birders. I have seen him chasing off Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Black-naped Orioles and Asian Glossy Starlings that did not know any better.

Like any story, there will always be a girl. All the effort and determination exhibited by the male Asian Koel is to attract a mate for the breeding season. And one finally gave in to his resounding vocals. As soon as she alighted on the tree, he started his game plan.

He repeatedly flew to an adjacent plant, plucked a fruit and offered it to his lady love. All this in one swift and smooth motion. I am quite sure he must have planned this all along. The calling point next to a food source was a good strategy. Heck, he may have even practiced the execution when not bursting out his territorial call. Anyway, I now have even greater admiration for this common but intriguing garden bird.

This male Asian Koel’s courtship was near perfect. I left the love birds to themselves when the evening light began to fail. The next day, he was back at the calling point – alone. I could not be certain now if the outcome was in his favour. At the time of writing, I could still hear his persistent territorial call and occasionally, a female’s as well. Although there is no closure to this tale, I am elated to be given the chance to momentarily wander into the life of these Asian Koels and further enrich my own with the experience.