Monday, 12 November 2018

Nothing like some old school birding

There is a part of me I rarely mention in my postings. Birding is my one true passion but it does not really put food on the table. My life in the often-overrated and insane world of advertising does. Most of the time, I run things from command central and do not get to see our finished products in the flesh all that often. Anyway, I picked up my latest guests from one of the latest hotels to spring up on the island and it so happened that my company was responsible for their signage works. Well, the hotel certainly has one of the trendiest lobbies I have seen here in my home state and I cannot help but to feel proud that we played a role in it.

With the fruiting tree at Bukit Wang still bringing in the birds, I decided to take another trip up north to the locality with my Australian guests. For the third time in recent weeks, I had to wade across the stream to get to the forested area. I expected the Dark-sided Flycatchers to be at their usual haunt and I was right. However, this one looked a bit different and it turned out to be a juvenile bringing the total now to three birds at this spot.

Juvenile birds usually cannot measure up to the beauty of the adult birds. But they sure are adorable and confiding as well. The youngsters went about its routine without any hesitance despite the presence of human birders.

Another drab little bird caught my attention as it scurried about the nearby understorey. Upon further scrutiny, it was a she and one confiding girl if I might add. The Dark-necked Tailorbird may be common throughout the country in suitable habitats but it is no easy bird to photograph.

The fruiting tree was disappointingly quiet upon our arrival. I find this particular fruiting tree a bit odd. The bird species recorded at the tree varies quite a bit the two times I have been here. And this morning, there were no birds at all until a pair of Buff-vented Bulbuls came along later in the morning.

The fruits were far from depleted and yet, it was about as cheerful as a cemetery here. A short while later, a pair of Cream-vented Bulbuls decided to pop in. Unfortunately, the one bulbul I wanted to reshoot never gave me that opportunity today and the Puff-backed Bulbul keeps its place securely in my priority list.

A skulking flycatcher in the forest understorey next to the fruiting tree turned out to be a female Chinese Blue-Flycatcher. When a second bird was heard calling, the encounter was taken to a whole new level. And my hunch was right. The second bird was indeed a male and he was a fine looking bird. When he finally alighted on an exposed perch, he had his back towards us which was his least appealing side.

Patiently we waited. I even said a silent prayer and on this rare occasion, the Almighty heard me. The male Chinese Blue Flycatcher turned around to reveal his true splendour. This was undoubtedly the highlight of the visit here for me. Even the absence of the male Pale Blue Flycatcher was no longer a thorn at my side.

Our next destination was the mangroves of Sungai Batu and the birds here gave my guests a very warm reception indeed. It did not take long for the male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher to show off his vivid colouration and captured our undivided attention.

The Forest Wagtails casually strolled into view and another strikingly marked feathered denizen gets a tick in my guest’s field guide. My guests this time were old school birders armed only with binoculars and field guide. While they were savouring the wagtail visually, I tried my best to capture at least one photo was that does not have a prominent motion blur anywhere on the bird.

I was delighted to see the Stripe-throated Bulbuls again and from the looks of it, this attractive bulbul will be regular feature in the trips to come. The face markings of the Stripe-throated Bulbuls reminded me of the villain Bane from the Batman movie but there is nothing sinister about them. In fact, they are the exact opposite.

With such an array of colours and splendour around, the non-descript Abbott’s Babblers were finding it tough to gain attention. Striking an unusual pose will usually do the trick though...

But when the star bird finally made an appearance, all eyes were on it. I may be somewhat immune to the charm and beauty of the Mangrove Pitta but to my guests, it was magical. My guest even describes the encounter later using that same word. That, ladies and gentlemen, are pittas in a nutshell. Magical creatures that will always evoke a sense of awe and admiration with such magnitude that very few other species can conjure.

The White-breasted Waterhen’s comical appearance is a welcomed sighting to any excursion. And to have one at such close proximity is an added bonus.

Scything through the skies above the adjacent paddy fields, the Dollarbird can still be an impressive sight despite being a common species. However, good lighting is required to capture its iridescent plumage and this image is not quite up to mark.

Our next stop was the industrial park in Kulim. Here, we hunted for roosting Savana Nightjars along the cemented embankment. I knew where the birds usually roost but that knowledge almost got me nowhere as I failed to locate a single bird on the way in. I had to dig deep on the way out. The harsh midday sun offered no comfort to my squinted eyes. Then among the long grass area, I noticed what appeared to be hope nestled among the vegetation. A sigh of relief escaped my lips as hope turned into reality and I began the tedious task of describing the location of the nightjar to my excited guests. To a couple of old school birders, a Savanna Nightjar partially hidden is still a mesmerizing encounter.

Next in line were the paddy fields of mainland Penang. I was feeling a little lucky having recorded my first Greater Spotted Eagle of the season just a few days ago and decided to scan the pylons for any signs of its majestic presence here as well. Sure enough, my second Greater Spotted Eagle of the season was resting on a distant pylon. Distance was a huge hindrance to my photographic efforts but I am just delighted to see this eagle back here for another winter.

There were a number of waders present at the fields today. Several patches were now in a state that was ideal foraging grounds for them. However, nothing out of the ordinary was recorded and the diminutive Long-toed Stint was as rare a wader as I could get.

I have not taken a shot of a Wood Sandpiper for quite some time but it is not a common species in Australia. Naturally, it received a share fair of love and affection from my guests. And I guess their excitement was contagious. Hence, this photo of a resting Wood Sandpiper will take an unexpected place in this post.

Common or not, an adult Purple Heron against a green backdrop is still a sight to behold. Being a sucker for big water birds, a photography opportunity like this will not be shunned.

At the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam, the male Violet Cuckoo proved elusive yet again. Some of the commoner species did provide brief encounters but the highlight for my guests here would be the adorable but deadly Black-thighed Falconet. Unfortunately, a pair of these tiny raptors that was perched on a dead tree did not stay long enough for a good view. But sometimes in life you are given second chances and this time, the falconets remained until all three of us were contented. The distance may be a little too far for shooting something the size of a sparrow. But the falconet is no sparrow and it provided a fitting end to another rewarding day of birding in the north.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Frogmouth Central

We arrived at the first location for the day in total darkness except for a single street lamp to illuminate the way. The Milky Way scattered all over the night sky like tiny diamonds was as impressive as always and together with the small crescent of a moon, provided the prelude to a memorable nocturnal excursion that was to come. My Singaporean guests wanted to experience owling here in northern Peninsular Malaysia and there is no other place that can better the forest surrounding Pedu Lake at the present time.

In no time, we were surrounded by eerie and unearthly sounds that penetrated the cloak of darkness concealing the forest. Instead of fear, there was excitement in the group as they were the calls of a family of intriguing night birds known as frogmouths. All three species that occur here in Peninsular Malaysia were vocalizing in this one area. I had to make a choice on which one to seek out first. And the choice was simple. The Large Frogmouth is just too spectacular for the smaller Gould’s and Blyth’s Frogmouth to compete for attention. With a little patience and luck, we managed to obtain an incredible view of the Large Frogmouth and all the effort leading to this moment was worth the while. Even the fact that only my guest had a photo to show at the end of it all does not make the encounter any less significant. I was happy for him - honest!

After daybreak, we walked along the access road hoping to observe more of the alluring bird life here. Although the forest here have been logged, it is still quite pristine. Huge forest trees reach for the heavens above and lush vegetation covers the under storey making it an ideal and rich ecosystem. Pedu is probably the best and most extensive forest birding site in this part of the peninsular and I hope it stays that way for a long time to come.

A flash of red and black among the green foliage could well be a trogon on the hunt and upon further scrutiny, it turned out to be a male Scarlet-rumped Trogon. Although this is the most frequently encountered species here, it was still exciting to see a male bird – especially when he alighted momentarily on an exposed perch.

The presence of a second bird in the vicinity did not go unnoticed and it was the female bird. However, she was rather shy today and the male was the one only I could photograph. This is not often the case. Murphy will usually make sure that the drabber ones perform much better than the attractive ones.   

Unfortunately, the diurnal birds could not maintain the momentum. Things started to sizzle down after we came across a foraging Red-billed Malkoha. Scurrying along the forest canopy, this beautiful cuckoo provided very little opportunities to capture good images.

A distant Banded Woodpecker hunting on a tall dead tree was more of a visual treat than photographic.

The forest was by no means void of birds but most proved to be difficult to be photographed today. Half a dozen babbler species teased us with fleeting glimpses from the forest undergrowth. An area of long grass at the edge of the forest offered some reprieve. A pair of foraging Rufescent Prinias came into view and despite the harsh lighting, the warblers were a delight to observe.

The mangroves of Sungai Batu soon beckoned and we made our way south to this expansive coastal habitat. The Mangrove Pitta was no where to be seen today but in its absent, a pair of Stripe-throated Bulbuls provided the highlight of the visit to this locality. This is my first record of the species here and it is certainly a welcomed addition to my checklist.

It may not be an uncommon bird but I do not have many images of it. The bright yellow streaks certainly stand out from the rest of its plumage and this is probably one of my best encounters to date.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher was probably the most vibrant species present today. The male was looking exceptionally handsome today as it went about its routine.

The lumbering gait was unmistakeable even from a distance as the White-breasted Waterhen strolled into today’s excursion. It was a young bird judging from the slightly dull colouration. And no doubt, it will bloom into a striking adult one day soon.

It was good to see a number of Forest Wagtails present in the vicinity today. However, the birds were exceptionally restless today. On a normal day, it is sometimes difficult to obtain their images without some part of their body blurred by movement. My photographic skills and patience were certainly put to the test today.

The resident Abbott’s Babblers were their usual laid back selves as they enjoy life here in this swampy landscape and they were the last species to be observed before we ended the visit here.

Our final destination for this 2-day birding excursion was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. The resplendent Violet Cuckoo proved to be elusive again for me. Another cuckoo species provided some compensation when we stumbled onto them in a compromising position. Greater Coucals are conspicuous residents here due to their vocal nature and if all goes well, these two will bring in the next generation to expand the population.

There have been sight records of several cuckoo species at this birding location recently and it came as no surprise when we saw a juvenile Indian Cuckoo on a lofty perch. Lacking the colouration of the adult bird, this youngster was given a second look just in case it turned out to be something else.

The very first image taken by my guests was of a flock of Asian Openbills and it only seemed fitting to end the 2-day birding excursion with a photo of another flock of these charismatic water birds. The diffused lighting from the gloomy sky brought out the storks’ true appeal as they stood in a sea of green. But as we uncoiled for the day, my thoughts went back to the predawn experience that had us surrounded by frogmouths. Now, that was a memory worth revisiting.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Raptors still reign supreme

I have not been back to the grasslands of Chuping since the last migratory season and there is always a sense of anxiety whenever I revisit this unique birding site after a lapse. The landscape constantly changes and it is not because of Mother Nature but man. For years, they have been trying out different crops all over this former sugarcane plantation. The worst of the crops is rubber which unfortunately has covered vast areas. The ongoing construction of an industrial park provides no help at all to the dying landscape. But the one thing that has not change so far are the limestone hills imposing their artistic presence.

For this trip, I had a birding couple from neighbouring Singapore. It only made sense that I took them as far away from home as possible and Chuping, being at the northern tip of the peninsular, would be the ideal choice. It was good to find suitable habitats for birds still in existence here. A pond that was the only regular site in Malaysia to house the scarce Bronze-winged Jacana now houses Asian Openbills instead and a fair number of them were present today.

Barn Swallows are common winter visitors to the grasslands here and a confiding individual resting just next be the access road had our attention despite their abundant nature.

The Rufous-bellied Swallow, on the other hand, is a species that will always have my attention. Locally common only in certain parts of the country, this large and vividly coloured swallow stood out from the Barn Swallows that it was resting alongside. The encounter with the Rufous-bellied Swallow was a much appreciated one as it has been a relatively slow morning so far.

The swallows may be beautiful and graceful in flight but we did not drive all the way here for them. We were after something more majestic which are the true rulers of the skies. The vast open landscape has always been the realm of raptors. Overcast skies almost drowned out our plans. Luckily, the first rays of the sun managed to pierce through the rain clouds later in the morning. And with the available thermal, our quarries started swooping into view. Flocks of migrating Black Bazas were a sight to behold. I find these little raptors to be one of the most striking raptors to occur on our shores and naturally, ample time was allocated to witness this spectacle of nature unfold.

The Oriental Honey-Buzzards, like the bazas, are migrants to this land. As always, the plumage variations that this species is infamous for caused some hesitance from me during identification.

One of the most sought after raptors here in Chuping is undoubtedly the gorgeous male Pied Harrier. I was a little to slow to capture his image this but luckily, my guests were not. The female Pied Harrier is often overshadowed by the former but today, she was all I got to show for harriers.

The sight of this pale harrier floating above the grasslands kicked my imagination into overdrive. And for a minute there, he looked almost like the mythical Short-eared Owl that has eluded me all these years. Almost...

A huge silhouette gliding overhead brought me back down to Earth with a thump. My trusted bins quickly revealed my first Greater Spotted Eagle of the season. I have nothing but total admiration for this majestic predatory bird. Being one of the largest raptors in Malaysian skies certainly has a lot to do with it.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Common Kestrel. It is diminutive but still deadly in its own way. Hovering is a trait few raptors possess and the kestrel has mastered the art of dropping down on its prey in mid flight. Lighting was not on our side but it was the only opportunity we had of capturing of this female bird.

Every raptor that crossed our path was given its due attention for this locality has a tendency to spring a surprise or two. Even a juvenile Brahminy Kite has the potential of being something rare.

However, not all birds with immense wingspans were raptors. Purple Herons are a common sight here as well. These water birds also find food in this vast landscape and this individual lazily flew past overhead during our visit here.

From the open grasslands of Chuping, we made our way to the pristine forest of Bukit Wang. It was not the best of weathers as we were greeted by a light drizzle upon arrival. But it would take than a drizzle and a broken bridge to deny these three visiting birders the chance to observe the alluring bird life found here.

The Dark-sided Flycatcher is truly a creature of habit and I found it on almost the same perch as last week.

And it even invited a friend along this time and we were looking at two Dark-sided Flycatchers at the same spot. I now know that this species is omnivorous as it occasionally fed on the fruits.

The Sooty Barbets would have been a lifer for my guests but unfortunately, the flock did not make an appearance. Surprisingly, a male Pale Blue Flycatcher did and it was a lifer for them as well. I could not be certain if the flycatcher was attracted by the fruits as it did not stay long. And it was frustrating that I could not obtain a better image as I seldom come across this flycatcher.

You can pretty much guess how brief this scarce Puff-backed Bulbul visited the fruiting tree by this image alone. Like the flycatcher, I do not have many encounters with this species and its behaviour today only compounded my frustrations.

The other patrons were much more obliging and I was something I should be grateful for. Armed to the core in birding gear, we made the best of situation and captured some memorable images at the fruiting tree. 

The Grey-bellied Bulbul with its lovely colouration was well received as usual. And even the slight drizzle could not drown out its exquisite beauty.

The Buff-vented Bulbuls were present at the fruiting tree for the longest periods today. They certainly made themselves at home despite the gloomy weather.

Another species of bulbuls that took part in the feast were the Cream-vented Bulbuls. Another drab species, this common bird could not do much to raise the level of excitement.

Only one species of flowerpecker was present at the tree and it was the Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker. It may not be as striking as some of the other species but it presence was a welcomed addition of colours and flair.

There are a few birds that depend on forest streams for their survival. The most noteworthy one is the striking Chestnut-naped Forktail but it managed to elude my efforts to photographing it again. The Grey Wagtail is another attractive species often found in habitats like these during the migratory season and this commoner stream dweller at least provider some photographic opportunities before we finally called it a day and made our way back to Penang.