Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Glimmer of hope

The Pulau Burung Landfill in southern mainland Penang holds a very special place in my heart for all the wonderful memories it has provided. It is most depressing that in recent years the birding there plummeted to an all-time low. Human intervention at the marshlands surrounding the landfill is one of the main reasons behind this dreadful turn of events. When I received a phone call from Christine if I could assist her conduct a bird survey as part of the EIA for the construction of the second phase of the landfill, I took it on without much hesitation. The second phase will be constructed on the adjacent palm oil estates which honestly, will have very little impact on what is left of the birdlife there. But the scope of the EIA will include the original landfill area as well and if there is anything I could do that may help restore the marshlands back to half its former glory, I certainly would. Nothing may come out of EIA. It is only but a glimmer of hope. But it is better than nothing at all.

The heavens were in our favour. Despite torrential rain for the past few days, we were greeted by sunny weather upon our arrival. The Brahminy Kite may be one of the commonest raptors in Malaysia but to me, it is one of the handsomest as well. This lone bird soaking in the golden rays of morning sun on top of a dead coastal tree provided a good start to our survey. The striking plumage of this raptor set against the clear blue sky was certainly a sight to cherish.

Purple Herons were present in good numbers today. Large herons are becoming a scarce commodity in Penang nowadays and that makes today’s records significant. It is generally a rather skittish bird but this adult bird had total faith that the surrounding vegetation would provide adequate cover and shield it from approaching birders.

The silhouette of a raptor perched on a dead tree in front us caught my immediate attention. It was most unfortunate that the sun was in front us as we slowly made our approach in our vehicle. It turned out to be a pale morph Changeable Hawk-eagle and this impressive predator showed no fear of our intrusion into its domain. I managed to obtain full frame shots from the comfort of our vehicle and this encounter reminded me why visited this locality more times than I could remember in the past (and why I could tolerate the overwhelming stench of the landfill). I know that the phrase a little piece of heaven on earth is so cliché but that was what Pulau Burung was to me at that point in my life. It broke me when it was all taken away from me. I am not sure if this place will ever be the birding paradise it used to be but we have to try.

An all-too-familiar call still echoed through the vicinity and the water birds responsible for the racket are one of the few that has managed to survive here after the onslaught. Red-wattled Lapwings have adapted well to disturbed habitats not only here but throughout the state. Their poise and colours are always welcomed in any birding excursion.

The migrants have started to trickle in and a few confiding Eastern Yellow Wagtails foraging next to the landfill hopefully will be a sign of things to come. This individual was still in partial breeding plumage and provided a much needed lift to my spirit as I reflect upon the days of old I spent experiencing the magical birding moments. I published an article in a nature magazine a few years back about this location and as a closing I wrote, I hope the day will never come when the ballerinas of the marsh (Black-winged Stilts) are force to perform one last time in the presence of angels (Whiskered Terns) before departing from a diminishing paradise and never to return again. Well, that day is certainly almost here.

This new sign erected by the Wildlife Department momentarily distracted us from our survey. I have never seen a wild crocodile here in Peninsular Malaysia before. I have also been birding here in Pulau Burung regularly for the past 2 decades. If there are crocodiles, it would really make my day to see one finally. But it was not my time yet. So, here I am, posting this photo of the “Beware of Crocodiles” signboard taken by Christine…

As we were about to conclude the survey, I took the opportunity to observe the flocks of Lesser Whistling-ducks present at the marshlands. The ducks seemed to have found a true sanctuary living here next to the landfill. In fact, this is probably the last stronghold for this species here in Penang. I guess the security around the landfill indirectly protects them from poachers and with food aplenty, there could be no better place for them to call home.

From Pulau Burung, we headed south to the Sungai Acheh Mangrove Research Center. If not for Christine, I would not have known such a place actually exist in my home state. There is even a small boardwalk that cuts through the mangroves but as it was near the noon hour, not much was seen because the heat was truly taxing. And we also concluded the survey shortly after - naturally. I do hope that the little role that I played in this survey will be able to do some good for the once-inspiring birding hotspot called Pulau Burung. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Days of thunder...

It was a chilly dawn at the car park area of Sungai Sedim. The rainy season has finally arrived to this side of the Peninsular Malaysia and the pre-dawn storm has left its mark on the surroundings. I was a little sluggish than usual and the resident pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills managed to slip past me and flew across the open space of the car park without me even mustering one shot of these majestic birds. Despite the presence of the fruiting tree, the hornbills are very reluctant to feast on the fruits like previous seasons – much to the dismay of the local birders. With nothing else present to keep me at the car park, I made my way to one of the forest trails in search of more feathered denizens. Seeing that the lighting condition was still very bad, a Rufous-crowned Babbler tauntingly perched right out in the open while belting out its territorial song. I guess my quest for my first recognizable image of this tree babbler continues.

Dozens of species came and went but I my camera remained hung over my shoulder throughout that time. Grey-headed, Short-tailed and Grey-throated Babblers teased from among the dimly lighted area of the undergrowth while Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes, Great Ioras and Fiery Minivets danced in the sunlight from the top most parts of the forest canopy. A written description is all that I can offer as photographic opportunities were far and few. A male Green Broadbill finally broke the duck but not before making me sing for my supper. I had to scan through a sea of green to locate a bird that is almost completely green. His persistent calls was my guiding light and eventually, I found him perched in the foliage not to far from the edge of the forest.

A Red-eyed Bulbul abandoned the safety of the forest canopy in order to enjoy a hearty meal on the ground. The temptation of food can get the best of us at times and this bulbul was quite adamant to finish the feast in this precarious position despite my intrusion. Fortunately for me, there was just enough light for my gear to capture the moment as well.

Silence crept into the forest in the late morning and the trek back to the car park was much harder than the trek in this morning. But the sudden absence bird activities left me no choice but to seek greener pastures elsewhere. And that elsewhere this time was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. The weather, as expected, was not promisingly upon my arrival. The ambassadors of this birding hotspot did not greet me like they usually do. I did find one of them, a male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, all fluffed up in the under storey preparing for the testing weather to come.

Along the elevated boardwalk, the constant drumming of a woodpecker diverted my attention to the forest canopy. The male Common Flameback is a striking bird. It did not take me long to locate him perched near the top of a dead tree trunk. The red crest and the contrasting body colours stood out like a beacon in the dark. And the sky has certainly darkened by then. The distant thunder was all that was needed for me to make a haste return to my vehicle. I have no intentions of getting drenched again – I had quite my share of that during work these few days. Rain is an integral part of life and a welcome relief from the sizzling heat of the tropics. But it can also kill off any birding trip thus making it a nemesis to birding in this part of the world. Hopefully for my next excursion, I will myself basking in better weather condition while I pursue my passion.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Still has what it takes...(16/07/2017)

After an incredible trip to Taman Negara, it will take something out of the ordinary to get my adrenalin pumping again. Together with Hor Kee, we set out to the forest that surrounds the mighty Sedim River in Kedah state. This recreational forest is probably the best forest birding site close to home and if there is anywhere that has what it takes to get me excited again, this would be it. Reason being this is one of the few places that I frequent which still has hornbills flying free in the skies above and broadbills deafening the forest with their persistent vocals.

Babblers are certainly well represented in this locality. This family of birds is the main reason why birders have such a colourful vocabulary of swears and curses. Babblers tend to frequent dense vegetation, strongly believe that death will bestow them if they stay still and get a kick out of frustrating their human observers. The one thing that betrays their presence is their call. Most birders have had plenty of practice at recognizing babbler calls because you hear them more often you see them. The Scaly-crowned Babbler is a tree babbler and that makes it a little easier to spot. A pair was rather confiding this time round but the dim lighting and constant movement (what did I just tell you?) proved to be too much for an ordinary mortal like me to obtain any better shots.

This species does have a pleasant whistle and it echoed through the vicinity during the encounter. The scaly crown is not a very prominent feature and caution has to be taken to distinguish it from the similar Rufous-crowned Babbler which we did hear calling later in the morning.

An inquisitive young male Green Broadbill swooped in to have a better look at a couple of birders that were combing through his territory looking for forest denizens like himself. A regularly encountered species here, the Green Broadbill is a mesmerizing bird that can get me all excited even when it is perched almost directly overhead and with the light coming from behind.

Having a good sense of hearing is very advantageous when birding in the forest. No doubt many forest species have amazing plumage colourations and yet they can still easily blend into the vegetation and shadows. Forest kingfishers possess a certain aura of mystery and intrigue that their open country relatives lack. The Dwarf Kingfishers may be adorable and all that but it is the bigger species that truly tickle my fancy. I have been encountering Rufous-collared Kingfishers here since my first visit more than a decade ago. Their mournful whistle is very much a part of the natural chorus that greets every visitor who enters this domain. However, I have come to a stage in my life that I have almost given all hope of photographing this kingfisher. I left Hor Kee to try and locate the kingfisher by himself while I scouted around for other species.

My companion apparently does not share my fate when it comes to this beautiful kingfisher and triumphantly signalled me over. It was a handsome bird and he was not too far from the forest edge either. I cautiously crept closer. When I was within shooting range, sweat started running down from my bare crown, stung my eyes and tried to cloud my vision. But I was a man on a mission. No amount of sweat and leeches will get in my way. I was in an awkward standing position thanks to dense undergrowth and my arms strained as I stabilized my camera for the moment of truth. Lighting was not on my side and a twig slightly blocked my subject but I took the shots. I had a gut feeling if I took one more to the right for an unobstructed view, my subject will inevitably fly and disappear from sight. At times I give in too easily to my desire for better shots. I am not proud of it but I took that step. From the single shot of the kingfisher posted, you can pretty much guess the outcome.

Trogons are another good reason to explore the forest here. A male Diard’s Trogon taunted us from the cover of the canopy level and despite all our efforts, managed to elude our cameras. Our persistent almost paid off when a trogon suddenly alighted on an exposed branch but much to our bewilderment, it was a male Orange-breasted Trogon. The male Diard’s Trogon went on with his vocal performance at the same and that answered a lot of questions regarding our sanity and birding abilities - much to my relief. Anyway, the male Orange-breasted Trogon may not be as visually stunning as the male Diard’s Trogon and the perch was not exactly within my photographic gear’s comfort zone but he provided a good ending to our excursion. Sungai Sedim may not be in the same league as Taman Negara but it is still a birding hotspot in its own right. And it is close to home.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The one and only (8-10/7/2016)

Taman Negara is an odd name for a national park because it basically means national park in Malay and there are a few national parks throughout Peninsular Malaysia. But none even comes close to Taman Negara. Initial I thought someone did not have his thinking cap on when naming the place. But I see the logic now. Years in a creative agency has taught me to pick up stuff like this. Apparently, Taman Negara is the one and only national park in the country to the person who named it and I could not agree more. It is a true natural paradise and worthy of a name of such arrogance. Before this post sounds too much like an ad to promote the place (which is entirely unnecessary as it is awesome and needs no promotion), I better get ask the ad copywriter in me to take a breather. During a two and a half day tour here with Ben, my Singaporean guest, we spent a substantial amount of time in hides. But Ben’s maiden to visit to the Sungai Relau side of Taman Negara would not have been complete if we did not explore the iconic access road that cuts through the forest. And that is what will be covered in this third and final post of the tour.

Along this access road, one species was heard and seen more often than the rest during our visit – the Rufous-tailed Tailorbird. Surprisingly, based on calls it numbered even the commoner Dark-necked Tailorbird. It may sound contradicting but I only managed one shot of this adorable little guy. It is because I simply do not have time for it and it is certainly not the easiest of subjects to photograph. This is, after all, Taman Negara and I had bigger fish to fry - so to speak.

I encounter the Finsch’s Bulbul quite often because it is not uncommon in the forests of Kedah where I usually bird. But to Ben, this was his best photographic opportunity thus far. We came across parent birds attending to a juvenile. Maternal instinct set in and the parents tolerated our presence as they frantically search for more food to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the youngster.

The month of July is within the breeding season for most of our forest birds and that made it a good time to be birding in Peninsular Malaysia’s premier forest site. The Maroon-breasted Philentoma is certainly not a common bird – not to me anyway. So when we came across a female bird foraging along the middle level of the forest, I was just as excited as Ben. Unfortunately, she was not much in the mood to be photographed and I only managed to take one reasonably good shot. The images we took were good enough for a positive identification. And I was actually happy with this image and thought that was the end of it.

The next day, unbelievably, we saw a male bird at almost the spot. And he was a stunner! Unlike the female, he was confiding and tame. The blue upperparts is satin-like which only enhances the appeal of the bird. The maroon on the breast comes alive only in good light and since the encounter took place just next to the access road, we had plenty of opportunity to admire the bird’s namesake. For the life of me, I could not recall this species ever being so well behaved in the past and I guessed it was either the magic of Taman Negara or something else at work.

We found out later that afternoon that my gut feeling about the philentoma was right. He turned out to be a daddy and was attending to a newly-fledged chick. From a safe distance, we observed the chick being fed by the male bird. Unlike most ravenous fledglings, this one appeared very well-mannered and waited patiently for his dad to ‘prepare’ the meal at hand.

After the feeding, Ben lamented that he forgot to capture it on video. I, on the other, could not even remember I can actually shoot video with my current setup. Some birding moments are just more mesmerizing than others. This episode with the Maroon-breasted Philentomas was certainly one of them.

The male provided good photographic opportunities while performing his maternal duties and I felt bad taking advantage of the situation. Who am I kidding? This is the closest and longest encounter I have ever enjoyed with this sultry species and I relished every second of it. This is why Taman Negara is my favourite forest birding site. I first stepped into Taman Negara about 3 decades ago and it was love at first sight. The birding was remarkable then and it is still remarkable now.

If not for the presence of the adult male, I would have had my work cut out for me trying to identify the fledgling. Like most fledglings, it was constantly hungry and the parent birds had their work cut out for them too. Gradually, the youngster move deeper into the forest until the only indication of its presence was the constant chirping.

During one of our walks along the access road, we chance upon a female Trogon that was surprisingly confiding. Upon further scrutiny, she turned out to be a Red-naped Trogon. The presence of a male bird nearby further strengthened my hunch that they were another pair of breeding birds. I could be not be certain at what stage of breeding they were in but it is good to see forest denizens like this trogon continue to thrive under the protection of this national park.

The Rufous Woodpecker may lack the bright colours of some of the other species but there is beauty in simplicity. Uniform rufous brown combined with black barring throughout, will certainly help to blend the bird into its surroundings. And also its somewhat shy nature has prevented me from obtaining reasonably good images although it occurs in my home state of Penang. This male felt it was high time to rectify all my previous frustrations with his fellow kind and gave me one minute of my best photographic opportunity with the species. I could not have asked for more...

Another conservatively coloured woodpecker that I managed to photograph on this trip was the Buff-necked Woodpecker. Although it forages along the middle and lower storey of the forest, its preferences for dimly lighted areas has always being a stumbling block when it comes to photography. My modest gear does not perform well in low light and the fact that I usually shoot handheld only compounds the difficulty. I expected a better image this time due to the close proximity of the bird but yet again, the elements of forest photography got the better of me.

At times, you do not even have to walk far to enjoy the birding here at Taman Negara Sungai Relau. Since the day we arrived, I could not help but noticed a Spectacled Spiderhunter that hangs around the park headquarters. However due to time constraints (you will never have enough time here as there is so much to see), I was able to photograph it on only one occasion. It alighted on a tree in front of me and I do not need any invites to start shooting. It was just after dawn and the lighting condition was a disappointment. But it was way better than my past attempts of shooting at it at the top most part of the forest canopy.

During my last visit here years ago, I had a lifer in the form of a Jerdon’s Baza. This small raptor is reasonably scarce in Peninsular Malaysia and I was overjoyed to be able to add it into my life list. Since then I have encountered this species a couple of times in the forests of Kedah state. When a lone bird was seen soaring high above the forest next to the headquarters, I was slightly overwhelmed by the feeling of nostalgia. All the great memories of my past visits started running through my mind and there were certainly loads of them. The Jerdon’s Baza is a fitting end to another wonderful excursion to good old Taman Negara – the one and only true national park of Peninsula Malaysia.

Friday, 15 July 2016


The drive from Cameron Highlands to Taman Negara Sungai Relau took slightly more than 2 hours. In order to reach our destination at first light, we embarked on our journey well before dawn. The cold mountain air and endless winding road could not dampened my spirit. It has been 7 years since my last visit to this birding paradise and I was savouring all the birding delights that are to come. When we finally reach our destination, the national park looked pretty much the same to me and that was certainly a good thing.

There is, however, one very noticeable difference. A small herd of Bantengs now roam the park headquarters compound. These native cattle are part of some reintroduction program and the freedom that they get to enjoy is because they are as tame as any domestic cattle can be.

The lone bull, although not as huge and intimidating as his bigger cousin the Gaur, is an impressive animal nevertheless. I would certainly not fancy bumping into a wild one in the forest.

Beyond this iron bridge lies Mother Nature’s gift to birders. The forest here is home to a magnitude of beautiful and intriguing species. It is a little piece of heaven on Earth that is more than capable of making a seasoned birder feel like a rookie birder all over again – overwhelmed by new and incredible birding sensations.

Ben and I had two and a half days of pure birding here. Taman Negara has never once disappointed me and it was not about to start now. We put in several hours of hide birding and photography each day and the results were quite satisfactory. This post will feature all the birds we obtained while staking out in the hides. The White-rumped Shama is one of the most confiding species we encountered. Famed for its divine singing abilities, this species is heavily trapped throughout the country. Fortunately for them, they are safe here from trappers as long as they stay within the boundaries of the park. The male not only sings well or also possesses a beautifully long tail. That is why it kills me to see them cramped inside cages. Although the cages used to house shamas are bigger than usual, they still rob these amazing birds of their birth given right – to serenade the natural world with their beauty and song.

We also had a chance to photograph the less impressive female...

And a juvenile completes the family album...

Yellow-bellied Bulbuls are not your typical bulbul. They have a preference for the lower levels of the forest. Being skulkers by nature, good views are somewhat a privilege. However with the aid of a hide and a little patience, we had plenty of that on this faithful trip.

They also have a tendency to behave like babblers with their vocal nature and foraging habits. Lacking the delicate-looking body structures of the canopy bulbuls, the Yellow-bellied Bulbul are certainly built for the treacherous and competitive life near the forest floor.

Being able to observe and photograph any babbler out in the open is already a blessing. And to get it up close and personal as well is beyond words. Babblers that frequent the forest undergrowth like the Short-tailed Babblers are notoriously difficult to observe and photograph. Hide birding can be taxing at times. Fortunately, the antics of these stump-tailed terrestrial birds kept us entertained whenever they were present.

Adorable as they may be, appearances can be deceiving. There is no doubt these birds are full of character. And they can be feisty at times too. These two individuals apparently could not see eye to eye. When all the displaying and threat posturing could not settle the dispute, a more physical approach had to be taken...

I have relatively few encounters with the Ferruginous Babbler despite the fact that they do occur in the neck of woods where I usually bird. Shy and active, most of my encounters are brief or obstructed views. You will not able to truly appreciate its beauty until you have a good look at it in the open. Graceful-looking and with a very pleasant combination of colours, the Ferruginous Babbler is a true hidden treasure of the forest.

The babbler’s upperparts is rusty coloured and much to the agony of birders, blends reasonably well with undergrowth vegetation. Its call like most babblers, is the usual tell tale sign of its present. Here in Taman Negara Sungai Relau, the single note call is frequently heard throughout the vicinity indicating the presence of a healthy population.

Hide birding is not as comfortable as it appears to be. Although you are seated and in the shade, the humidity and heat and as well as the cramped space will get to you sooner or later. And don’t forget the waiting part. Boredom will set in as quickly as the mosquitos and if you are unlucky, leeches too. But the main reason for putting ourselves through all this is a family of birds that undoubtedly is one of the most enigmatic and sought after in the tropics – pittas!

Both the Garnet and Malayan Banded Pitta are present at this birding site. We heard both of them every single day of our visit. The former is supposedly the commoner of the two but we are dealing with wild animals here and things do not always work out according to expectations. We only had one quick glimpse of the dazzling plumage of the Garnet Pitta in the end. However, much to our delight, the Malayan Banded Pitta provided a slightly longer view. Even when it is partly hidden by vegetation, this male made me giddy and quiver with anticipation.

I am not much of a praying person but at that moment, I got down on my knees and said a silent prayer. And it was answered. The male Malayan Banded Pitta hopped into full view. Now, the Giant Pitta may be the most revered of our Malaysian pittas due to its near mythical status but when it comes to aesthetic appeal, the male Malayan Banded Pitta has no equals. The flaming orange eyebrow and midnight blue underparts contrasting sharply with the orange breast bands is a sight that will be eternally embedded into your memory. This may not be my first experience with this alluring bird but it is by far the best.

Two shots was all that I was allowed to take. And just like that, the male Malayan Banded Pitta hopped back into the cover of the undergrowth leaving behind a vivid memory of splendour and beauty. He was not alone. But his mate only offered quick glimpses throughout the encounter. I should be thankful that Murphy sat this one out and it was the duller female that gave us the slip. Birding from a hide may not be my usual cup of tea but for a chance to observe this pitta I would be willing to step out of my comfort zone. Taman Negara Sungai Relau has so much more to offer than just hide birding and the birds we encountered while exploring other parts of the park will be covered in my next post.