Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Fortune favours the bold (Part I)

During the non-migratory season, I occasionally struggle to provide memorable birding excursions for my visiting guests. When Ed first contacted me, I told him that 2 full days would be sufficient for birding around Penang in the month July. Without the aid of migratory birds to conjure up additional magic, it only seemed logical. But he had negotiated 3 days of birding out of the 2-week planned family vacation to Penang and understandably, he was determined to make full use of those days. I had my reservations. I will be stepping out of my comfort zone. But then again fortune favours the bold and I carefully planned out the itinerary for this Scottish birder. On the first day, I took him deep into the heart of Kedah state for his maiden birding excursion in Malaysia. The forest surrounding Pedu Lake was a good way to start off the tour and one of its frequently heard but rarely seen inhabitants got both the guest and the host all excited shortly after daybreak - the Black-capped Babbler.

The lighting condition may be downright horrible for photography but this fascinating bird has rarely revealed itself to me long enough for its image to be taken. That was not the case this time. Not one but two birds performed admirably. The walking gait, striking head patterns and shy nature make the Black-capped Babbler a fascinating species to observe and God willing, photograph.  Forest birding depends a lot on luck and my guest this time must possess some kind of a built-in rabbit’s foot as we were very lucky on several occasions during the days of his tour.

One does not expect to see a Red-billed Malkoha foraging on the ground as this cuckoo spend most of its life along the canopy level of the forest. This was the lowest I have ever seen it and I have to use up every ounce of self-control to refrain myself from trying to get closer for a better shot as my guest had his bins locked on the bird. Ed is an old school birder and I did not want to risk spooking off the bird before he has had a good look. And an eye-level Red-billed Malkoha is certainly worth a good look.

The bird gradually moved higher into the forest vegetation and before it disappeared completely, I managed to squeeze off one last shot. A Red-billed Malkoha is quite a feast for the eyes and although the images obtain were far from perfect, I am not complaining. I did not have many opportunities to use my camera here in Pedu but it was certainly not a slow day. One of the highlights of the day included a singing female Asian Emerald Cuckoo and even without any images to show, this totally unexpected encounter was a great way to wrap things for the day.

On the second day, we found ourselves at the virgin jungle of Bukit Wang in the state of Kedah again. There is not much pristine forest sites left in my home state of Penang and I am most grateful that this neighbouring state still does. One of the best things that can happen during a forest birding excursion is the discovery of a fruiting tree being patronized by birds. As soon as we got down from the vehicle, a Macaranga Tree in full bloom received our undivided attention. A host of spiderhunters took no effort to remain inconspicuous. The seemingly endless supply of fruit can momentarily alter the behaviour of even the shyest of species. The Spectacled Spiderhunters are large birds and they make full use of this physical attribute to monopolize the tree.

At the receiving end are the smaller Yellow-eared and Grey-breasted Spiderhunters. So effective were the bullies that I did not manage to shoot one single shot of the former. The latter did get to feed occasionally and it was during those brief periods of serenity that I obtained this shot.

The smaller sunbirds present are mostly ignored by the spiderhunters. Only two species came for the fruits when we were present. The Plain and Red-throated Sunbirds zipped about the tree at such velocity that it made photography rather challenging. The poor lighting condition at the time was no help either and that was a shame because I do not have many photographs of the male Red-throated Sunbird. Subtle differences distinguish it from the much commoner Plain-throated Sunbird and its preference for forested habitats often keeps it out of sight. The tantalizing fruits brought them out into the open and we were grateful for this good fortune.

Only a few bulbul species were attracted by the fruits of the Macaranga Tree and it was slightly disappointing. The Red-eyed Bulbuls were by far the commonest species present.

A confiding Spectacled Bulbul provided something to cheer about as it gorged on the fruits of a broken branch that was lying in the ground.

A flock of 4 Wreathed Hornbills flying above the car park area broke the trance the fruiting tree had on us and we finally started to make our way into the forest reserve. Hornbills are such amazing creatures that even a distant flock in flight is able to evoke feelings of awe and fascination.

The far-carrying territorial call of gibbons is a prominent feature in the Malaysian rainforest. Even more so here in Bukit Wang. Unfortunately, these primates are extremely sensitive and shy. Good views are not easily obtained. That is the reason we took our time to observe this lone White-handed Gibbon hanging out at the top most part of the forest.

A flock of foraging White-bellied Erpornis is hard to miss due to the constant vocalization of the birds. Although it is conservatively coloured, it has that certain mischievous vibe to it and is a delight to observe. One bird was rather inquisitive of our presence and came close to satisfy its curiousity and we the birders, enjoyed splendid views of this adorable bird.

The single note call of the Malayan Banded Pitta stopped us dead at our tracks. The male bird was the first to reveal himself as he flew clumsily low across the access trail. He was so close that I could make out his striking form even without the aid of any optical equipment. His mate follow suit seconds later. I have been birding here since 2010 and this is my first encounter with the resident pair of Malayan Banded Pittas. We were lucky to be at the right place at the right time to catch them crossing the trail. But I guess there is a limit to our luck. I tried every trick in the book to relocate them but to no avail. The Malayan Banded Pitta is a forest gem with unparalleled beauty. Both of us continued to stare into the lush vegetation. Both hoped for a miracle that never came. It will take time for logic to finally kick in again.

However, there is a God after all. Before we could take a step, this birding haven provided another exhilarating experience. I always seem to have good luck with the Black-and-yellow Broadbill here in Bukit Wang. Today a male bird, told by his unbroken black collar, surprised us with his exceptionally confiding nature by alighting almost right in front of us. From every angle, he is a sight to behold. Cute, colourful and charismatic; this broadbill can light up even your darkest hour. It almost made us forget the failed attempt to relocate the pittas just moments ago – almost.

But unlike the pittas, he remained in view longer than we could ever have wished for. The cicada-like call of the bird was overwhelming at this distance and he was quite adamant in giving us both a visual and audio treat. This little bird has certainly stole the limelight and his performance, impeccable. He was undoubtedly one of the highlights of trip and I will remember this encounter for a long time to come.

On the way in this morning, I noticed a clump of flowering bamboo next to the access trail and I casually mentioned that it looked good for Pin-tailed Parrotfinches but none were present or so I thought. On the way out, I carelessly trudged past the bamboo clump only to flush a small flock of parrotfinches. 

After cursing myself, I realized that the birds were still in the vicinity as I could hear them. I knew then that the birds would return. So, we patiently waited at a safe distance and let nature take its course. Pin-tailed Parrotfinches can be quite nomadic and they are known to travel far and wide in search of flowering bamboo. The presence of two bungling birders will not keep them away from their feast. True enough the flock returned and the dull clump of bamboo suddenly came to life with an array of colours and splendour.

Due to the unpredictability of flowering bamboo, I have enjoyed very little field experience with this species. Birding with a pure birder is usually executed in a quicker pace but our excursion came to a complete halt here. Time literally stood as we lost ourselves in the presence of finches. I even momentarily forgot I had a guest with me but lucky for me, he was just as mesmerized by the flock which by then was gorging on the feast at hand. This particular clump of bamboo was relatively low and we were blessed with almost eye-level views of the spectacle.

The males, with their extraordinary plumage, received most of my attention. It is not called a parrotfinch for nothing and despite the challenging conditions, I am happy with the images obtained from this remarkable encounter. To conclude a visit to any birding site with a flock of Pin-tailed Parrotfinch is about as good as it gets. I would very much like to think that field craft and experience play an important role in the success of any birding excursion but luck is very much a part of the equation and I believe Ed is one lucky devil. Due to the amazing results we enjoyed during this 3-day tour, a second blog post is required to cover the rest of the tours. 

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Moments - one year later

My encounter with the enigmatic Malaysian Rail-Babbler last year in the wild interiors of Kedah has been regularly haunting my thoughts for the past year or so. I failed to relocate the bird despite numerous trips to the locality ever since that faithful day. The bird has been steadfast to its true self of being an elusive forest denizen. I have been to the site in Pahang state where this species has been performing superbly for all to cherish but nothing beats a bird that is found through your own efforts. I stated in my posting of the Kedah bird that I was grateful for whatever that was given to me during that encounter. However, my heart yearns for more. It yearns to listen to its mournful penetrating whistle and observe its walking gait one more time. And during my last visit to the locality with Hor Kee and James, my heart got what it desired.

Around same area, we heard the unmistakable whistle of the Malaysian Rail-Babbler. Initially, I was a little doubtful. Not a single peep all this time and this locality is even part of my usual guided tour circuit. It just goes to show if a forest bird does not want to be found, it can literally vanish into thin air. We immediately setup our hides as gently as possible along the abandoned forest trail and waited. That was what we did the last time. And it worked like a charm - again.

This particular spot was poorly lighted compared to our previous encounter. My modest photography gear and my sanity was pushed to their limits. My gear constantly could not lock onto the fast movements of the bird. Not a word of profanity escaped my lips on this occasion. It was beyond that. I was almost in tears. It did wander briefly into a spot where the sun managed to squeeze through the dense forest canopy and I was in seventh heaven. This highly-terrestrial bird may not have much colours to boast but it oozes with charisma. Couple that with its elusive nature, the Malaysian Rail-Babbler is one of the most intriguing birds in Malaysia – if not the world.

Despite the drawbacks, this encounter was another life-changing moment. It lasted longer than the previous encounter and this time, the Rail-Babbler called several times in full view. The inflated blue skin on the throat is only visible when the bird is calling. And to be able to see that was itself a privilege in my book. After the encounter, I watched it strolled back into the cover of the undergrowth with a heavy heart. But absence makes the heart grow fonder and I have certainly fallen head over heels over this bird. And if it takes another year to bask in its presence again, so be it. Because very few things in life can overshadow an intimate encounter with a Malaysian Rail-Babbler.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

When life gives you lemons...

The sweeping waters of the Sedim River is just as awe-inspiring as it was during my first ever visit to this locality more than a decade ago. Despite being gazetted as only a recreational forest, Sungai Sedim has not changed much through the years and for that, I am most grateful. I still have a birding site near Penang where the wing beats of the majestic hornbills regularly echo through the vicinity and forest denizens foraged among the lush vegetation as well. Too many sites, even those gazetted with a higher status, have been devastated under the wake of Man. Way too many...

The persistent call of the Rufous-collared Kingfisher stopped me at my tracks. I have very few good images of this forest kingfisher despite the fact that it is regularly recorded here. On numerous occasions during my visits to this location, I have failed to see the bird despite tracking the call almost back to the source. This time the call sounded very close and I slowly inch my way forward with ab overwhelming sense of anxiety. And just beyond the first layer of vegetation, I saw him. Perched on an exposed vine, this male bird was proclaiming his territory. I threaded carefully as it is I who has trespassed into his domain. However, it is not out of fear but respect for the king. Besides, any sudden movements and I would have blown any chances of capturing his images. The lighting may not have been perfect to bring out the true colours of the kingfisher but the encounter certainly was.

Woodpeckers are remarkable birds and the commoner species are often taking for granted. At first glance, the Buff-necked Woodpecker may appear to be dull-coloured and its preference for the dimly lighted parts of the forest is no help to its aesthetic appeal. I was fortunate to come across this pair foraging on the edge of the forest where the sunlight was able to reveal the fine patterns of the birds. The male with the red moustache was leading the way and provided very little photographic opportunities.

His mate, on the other hand, moved at a more leisurely pace and allowed to me capture more than one single image. She may lack the additional facial colour of the male but her obliging behaviour certainly helped me look past that.

I came across two other species of woodpeckers today. The Maroon Woodpecker only offered a glimpse of its ivory bill as it darted across a gloomy ravine. The Checker-throated Woodpecker faired only slightly better by briefly showing off its namesake to me before disappearing from sight.

Sungai Sedim has always been a stronghold for babblers of all shapes and sizes. Of the dozen or so species encountered today only one was confiding enough to allow its images to be captured. But it did not come easy. Taunting me from the safety of the middle storey of the forest, the Moustached Babbler made me work very hard for its images. I had to crawl, crouch and curse my way to a couple of mediocre images.

It did provide one shot that was relatively exposed and knew that this is as good as it gets for today.

My gawky attempts for the Moustached Babbler attracted the attention of one of the locals. I only realized later I had an audience when I turned around and saw a pair of puffy white eyes looking back at me. The Dusky Leaf-monkey is the predominant monkey species here. A welcomed change from the usual marauding Long-tailed Macaques.

Apart from babblers, a least a dozen species of Bulbuls also call this forest home. The Grey-bellied Bulbul is certainly one of the most attractive of them all but its preference for the canopy levels often prove difficult for its true splendour to be captured by camera.

As I was making my way back to the car park, I caught sight of the all-too-familiar silhouette of a kingfisher perched among the dense vegetation not too far from the access trail. A quick look through my trusted binos resulted in my second Rufous-collared Kingfisher of the day. The lighting was much better this time but as fate would have it, there was only a tiny window between two branches where I could photograph the bird without any obstructions. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons make lemonade.

The checklist of birds recorded today can be found here.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Feathered Gargoyle

Predawn birding can be exhilarating. It brings out the primeval instincts in you. Hunting in the dark and overworking all your senses in order to cope with the challenging conditions.  But it can also be boring with nothing but the sound of crickets to keep you company. The forest of Pedu is one of the few localities here in northern Peninsular Malaysia that has a proven record for owling and there is where I made way to for my latest nocturnal excursion with two other companions – Hor Kee and James. The last time I visited this locality at this ungodly hour was 2 years ago. Our efforts to locate the Large Frogmouth proved futile again whereas its smaller cousin the Blyth’s Frogmouth, rose up to the occasion just like that faithful trip back then. A pair filled the vicinity with their eerie calls and naturally, they got our undivided attention. When I think back to my Boy Scout days of all those campfire stories about encounters with supernatural beings sitting on trees in the forest, I guess these nocturnal birds are one of the reasons behind them. The call which I described to be not unlike the wailings of a banshee in my earlier post and the sinister look can certainly scare any non-birder senseless. Although it is not easy to actually see these feathered gargoyles in the wild, just imagine a non-birder coming face to face with this in the forest at night...

But for this trio of birders from Penang, it was a sight that they were hoping for. This female Blyth’s Frogmouth was perched on a low branch at the edge of the forest while her mate remained hidden close by. As we slowly edged closer, she remained unperturbed. I do not have many encounters with frogmouths. Perhaps it is because I do not go out owling as often as I should. But this confiding female provided one of the best owling encounters for me. She may look terrifying to some but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me and I reckon most birders, she is absolutely beautiful.

A few more images from this fantastic encounter before I carry on with the rest of the trip...

It was a bright and sunny morning. The landscape of lush greenery set against the beautiful blue sky was a breath taking sight. The birds were certainly out and about but most did not provide good photographic opportunities.

Among the forest canopy, I caught sight of a pair of Lesser Cuckoo-shrikes. This species is not a common bird as I do not come across it very often in the field and I took my time to relish this encounter.

Deep inside I wished for the pair to come closer in which they did eventually. But only to fly overhead...

The diagnostic call of the Black-capped Babbler can be heard on every visit here but to obtain good views is another matter all together. However, today the call sounded really close and it was next to a forest trail. We set up our hides and hoped for the best. Moments later, it strolled into view. Apart from the Malaysian Rail-Babbler, this species is the only other passerine in Malaysia that walks and that makes it special in my book.

Anyway, I was only allowed one single shot before it disappeared back into the forest which it calls home. And we were left watching the sun trying its best to penetrate through the dense foliage of this tropical rain forest for the rest of our time in the hide.

Our next destination of the day was the mangroves of Sungai Batu to spend some time with the star bird of this locality – the irresistible Mangrove Pitta. As usual, it took a little while to gain the trust of this beautiful swamp dweller. Our patience were duly rewarded with another starling performance...

The supporting cast did their part to further enrich our visit here with the resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers leading the way. Today, both sexes were very obliging. The female with her whitish eyes lores mesmerized us with her sultry beauty.

The male with his intensified plumage colouration charmed us with his rugged looks.

To wrap things up for this rewarding but taxing trip (I guess age is catching up with me), was a confiding Abbott’s Babbler. It may lack the colours of the flycatcher and all babblers have a certain charm to them and this common species is no different.