Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Buffy the fish slayer

Owls, no matter the size or status, will always have a special place in my heart. I am sure I do not speak for myself as these nocturnal birds are both mysterious and beautiful. With traits like these you are bound to garner lots of admirers. Anyway, there is a little recreation park just outside Bukit Mertajam township in mainland Penang called Bukit DO that surprisingly houses not one but two species of large owls. For one reason or another, I never got round to visit the site until now. Both the Barred Eagle-owl and Buffy Fish-owl have been showing well of late and the thought having two of these owls at one locality is just too tempting to resist. I had some time to spare on this particular Saturday and since I was in the area, I might as well give it a try. With some pointers from Hor Kee and James Neoh, I found myself at the base of a huge tree where the Barred Eagle-Owls frequent. This place is a popular recreational venue. It was almost two in the afternoon when I arrived at the locality but there were still a number of walkers present. And when you carry gear like mine and constantly stare upwards, you are bound to attract unwanted attention. Once again, I would like to stress I am not antisocial but I do prefer to do my birding in peace. It is also probably why I have not visited this site till now. Despite a careful sweep of the area, I could not locate the owls. Although this species is not new to me, I cannot help but to feel a little disappointed.

Just down the road the Buffy Fish-owl has apparently taken up refuge. Lucky for me, it did not take long for me to locate it. The lighting was disappointing but I am glad the quick visit here was not a total washout. The Buffy Fish-owl is easily the commonest of our large owls but I have yet to grow tired of being in its presence.

I moved to flank the owl in my effort to obtain a better image and was rewarded. A small gap in the vegetation was my saviour. The owl, now unobstructed and in much better lighting, was an impressive creature to observe and photograph. I was also at a comfortable distance for the owl as it soon lost interest with this cumbersome human trespassing into its territory.

Some movement from a nearby branch turned out to be a second owl that was there the whole time and yet, managed to slip past my radar. I guess I was too preoccupied with the first owl to take notice of it and it was a youngster judging from the paler colouration. My day certainly just got a whole lot better…

Initially, it was suspicious of my presence and peered at me from its slightly hidden perch. I tried to appear to be as harmless as possible and slowly repositioned myself to capture its images.

Gradually, its suspicion grew into curiosity. Much to my surprise, it flew and alighted on an exposed perch in front of me. I took a step back. This may not be a good thing. The parent bird surely must be watching this intently. Owls are very capable of inflicting harm to humans and the unfortunate case of an ornithologist losing an eye to his main passion in life is a grim reminder. A quick glance at the parent bird revealed no such intentions and I continued to soak in this memorable experience. Owls are truly remarkable birds and I am glad to have visited this modest location for its nocturnal inhabitants. The encounter left me feeling hopeful for bird life that has found a way to survive within such close proximity of humans. It may not be their preferred choice but it could well be the only one left for some of them.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Starling Central

It was a gloomy morning at Sungai Sedim when I started off my first birding excursion for the year. Definitely not the kind of start one wishes for. I am not sure if it was the cold air or the coming rains but the birds were not out and about. I had to work hard to show some forest denizens to my British guest, Rod. It was not a total let down as we did managed to experience some of the bird life here but it could have been better. A lone Crested Goshawk perched aloft a tall dead tree provided the only photo from this locality for me. As the raptor gazed towards the approaching rain clouds with a sense of uncertainty, we birders knew what had to be done and it was to seek better pastures elsewhere.

A detour to check on the Barred Eagle-owls of Kulim has become part of the routine after any visit to the forest of Sungai Sedim. The weather improved very little and the light drizzle made this roosting owl even more sluggish. A quick glance over the shoulder to make sure what these humans were up to was all the owl was able to muster. And it was back to sweet slumber from then on.

The waders at Bagan Belat have certainly found a new area to roost and feed. My last visit here was a disappointment as the regular thousands of roosting waders were absent. The outcome today was the same and the magic of Penang’s only Important Bird Area could be drawing to an end. The foul weather trailed us all the way to Air Hitam Dalam. The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher did his best to try brightened up a gloomy day and despite the rain, performed admirably for a couple of visiting birders. The last destination for the day was the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh in mainland Penang. Even from a distant, the pale colouration of the White-shouldered Starlings stood out like a beacon in the dark as they foraged among a clump of medium-sized trees in the middle of the fields. After the umpteen time, I was elated I managed to capture the images of this rare migrant. It may not be what one would consider to be a quality shot of this handsome male but I am not complaining. The day was finally turning around and so did the weather.

A drab-looking starling was next to held my attention and I knew it was the juvenile Rosy Starling that has been entertaining birders for the past week or so. For the second time this season, the Rosy Starling firmed took its place in my birding excursions. One thing that I have noticed about this scarce migrant is its preference to forage on the ground and often enough it can be seen together with mynas and not other starlings. However, its choice of company this time is somewhat questionable – a Brown Shrike.

Unfortunately, the one starling that I was really hoping to see remained elusive. A careful and tedious sweep of the flocks of Daurian Starlings present could not produce the desired male Chestnut-cheeked Starling. The sky began to darken again and rain was emanon. A lone female Daurian Starling that stayed back at a berry bush instead of joining others of her kin at a roosting tree found her way to my memory card.

A number of Pink-necked Pigeons were also present at the locality. They continued to feast on the berries despite the rain drops that have now trickled down from the heavens above. This species may be the commonest of our green pigeons but the male is undeniably striking. It would have been a sin if we did not spend time observing the water birds that were present today as well. Temminck’s Stint, Grey-headed Lapwings and Black-winged Stilts may be regular migrants here but they certainly deserve some affection. 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Ending the year with a bang

I do not fancy birding where there are lots of people. I prefer the onslaught of leeches and ticks than the stares and ridicule of those who cannot come to terms why a fellow human being can be into birding. Anyway, when another juvenile Malayan Night-heron decided to spend its winter in a landscaped garden at the Penang Botanic Gardens for the second consecutive year, no amount of human irritation could have kept me away. This was not a regular birding excursion. It was a quick visit to this popular tourist destination specifically for this uncommon migrant. Today is New Year’s Eve and as expected, the road leading into the gardens was congested. I took my faithful iron steed and that saved me the frustration of getting stuck in traffic. Unlike last year, it took me, James and Kevin (whom I bumped into at the locality) quite a while to find the bird. I had to admit that at one point during our search, the thought of dipping out on this one as well did creep in. But all ill feelings evaporated when we caught sight of the heron strolled out of hiding and positioned itself underneath a dense clump of bamboo.

The bird showed very little fear of man – just like the one last season. Gradually, it started to hunt and we just made ourselves comfortable and waited for the heron to present better photographic opportunities. In which it did – much to our delight.

This particular spot in the gardens could be a regular wintering location for this heron. I do not spend much time here. I have stated the reason at the starting of the post. Through the years, there may have been others before the discovery of the first one last year. The environment is ideal and food is definitely abundant judging by the rate of the heron’s successful acquisition of prey. Well whatever the reason, I feel blessed that this island home of mine, despite all the destruction to its natural habitat, is still able to provide sanctuary to intriguing birds like the Malayan Night-Heron.

I thought that by now I would be used the sight of a Malayan Night-heron foraging on an open lawn. Last year, I made several short trips here to spend time with the first juvenile. But no. It is still exciting to see it up close and personal. This year has been a roller coaster ride in terms of birding. There are just as many ups as there are downs. But I am glad to able to end the year on a high note and it is courtesy of this confiding Malayan Night-heron.

I would like to wish a Happy New Year to all my followers and readers. 

Thursday, 29 December 2016

A little Christmas cheer is better than none

Paddy fields are one of the very few man made landscapes that are actually beneficiary to birds as well. During the migratory months, these expanse of open country habitats provide sanctuary to countless birds. Here in Penang, we are truly blessed that the paddy fields on the mainland are not only birding hotspots but easily accessible by car as well. This season, one particular migrant stands out from the rest and it is the White-shouldered Starling. This scarce migrant is not new to the area but usually occurs singly and records are far and few. This year, at least a 10 birds are present and a whole lot of birders got to see it for the first time. I have seen this species before in the past and also the ones here this season. Despite the fact that they are showing well, I still do not have any good images of this species to this day. Since Christmas is almost here and all, I was hoping my luck might change. But in the end, the only starling that found its way to my memory card was this Daurian Starling. The White-shouldered Starlings were present alright and I even got them in my sight but somehow, some way they managed to elude my camera’s sensor. And at the time of writing, I found out that James Neoh, whom I bumped into at the site, even managed to photograph a Chestnut-cheeked Starling in addition to the White-shouldered Starling. The former is a long, sought-after lifer for me. So much for the magic of Christmas...

There is one raptor found in Malaysia that has my utmost admiration and respect – the beautiful but deadly Peregrine Falcon. The ones that occur in the paddy fields here are of the nominate race and they occur in the locality only during the migratory season. Their presence, however, are not so welcomed by other birds that form the diet of this formidable falcon.

I missed the actual kill and by the time I managed to relocate the falcon, it had a feral pigeon clenched firmly in its talons. The stoop as the falcon goes in for the kill makes it the fastest bird in the world. There is no shame in admitting I was simply too slow to follow its movement. Anyway, the falcon settled down on one of the pylons to saviour the meal to come. It was a distanced observation but I would not miss it for the world. Some Christmas cheer for me after all...

A little effort was required to seek out some of the wintering water fowls but not that many were present today. I was delighted to come across a couple of Temminck’s Stints foraging together with the commoner waders. This site is one of the few places where this scarce peeps is regularly recorded in Malaysia.

The graceful Black-winged Stilts also winter here regularly and their presence provide additional charm and beauty to the surroundings. End of the year may be the holiday season but it is also the busiest time of the year for me. Work as expected had been taxing these past few weeks. Spending time out in the field will certainly do me some good. A pair of Black-winged Stilts foraging on a flooded patch of paddy field is a picture of total bliss and no other revitalizing treatment can come close to this.

A small flock of Asian Openbills spiralling down to rest on an isolated patch caught my immediate attention. The storks have chosen their resting spot well as it was inaccessible from any direction unless you can fly. So, I had to be contented with this record shot of the resting flock.

A confiding Brown Shrike wrapped things up for this time. Being a migrant, this feisty little guy spends its Christmas in the tropics each year and it is commonly encountered here where the paddy fields provide refuge from the bitter cold up north. Merry Christmas, bud...

Friday, 23 December 2016

A partridge in a pear tree - Year 2

The discovery of the elusive Chestnut-necklaced Partridge last year in the wild interiors of Kedah state is one of the most exciting birding news up north. Through my years of birding I have come to terms with the fact that most of our rare forest birds do not have happy endings waiting for them. However, the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge proved to be an exception for now and they are doing just fine going into the second year of their discovery. With the aid of a hide and a little patience, I was transported into their realm once again. Together with James Neoh, the two of us enjoyed yet another memorable and fascinating performance.

The location this time was slightly brighter than previous encounters and this enabled the true splendour of the partridge to shine through the lush green landscape where it calls home. It was a prolonged and intimate encounter. I even had the privilege to put down my photography gear and just bask in the presence of such an intriguing creature. It was very accommodating of our intrusion and you rarely get to say that about gamebirds found in this region of the Malaysian rainforest.

The birders were the ones to retreat away from the encounter this time and the partridge quietly watched us packed up to leave from a hidden corner of its domain. I am not sure if it was the reassuring presence of the partridge or the jungle air was exceptionally refreshing and revitalizing today. Everything was just blissful and beautiful. I can only hope the resounding territorial calls of the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge will continue to echo through the locality for many more years to come and amazing encounters like this are more than just figments of imagination.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those celebrating a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Here we go again...

The grassland at Chuping is constantly changing due to the agricultural activities of man. This year the birding area around the sugar mill have lost most of its appeal as the rubber tree saplings have now grown tremendously. Further up north, there are development plans in the works but for now, it is fruit farms and other less destructive crops. Here, the birds can still find refuge but to a lesser degree. I found myself back at this locality for the second successive Saturday to observe and admire its rich and spectacular bird life while it last. This Long-tailed Shrike greeted the new day with a series of territorial call whilst on an exposed perch. Now that is a certainly a splendid way to start off a birding excursion.

Chuping is now the only place in Malaysia where the rare and stunning Bronze-winged Jacana is regularly encounter. However, it is a shy bird and difficult to approach. Perseverance is a virtue in birding. After countless attempts for decent shot since its discovery here last season, I finally managed some reasonable images of this waterbird.

In the neighbouring pond, we caught sight of a Little Cormorant sunning itself after the morning hunt. I saw it on this very perch last week.  It is not so much its favourite perch but the only suitable one in the locality.

My companions for this trip, Victor and Sanjeevi, are rather new to this birding paradise. So, it was quite an experience for them.

Another species that was still frequenting the same spot as last week were the Red-throated Pipits. As usual, these birds are frustratingly difficult to observe and photograph. But when one decided to post so elegantly on some dried branches, it certainly did not go unnoticed. True that it may be slightly far away but this is a Red-throated Pipit and this is at most times as good as it will ever get.

A gathering of Black Drongos on one of the many isolated trees in the grassland caught our attention. Apparently this spot held a considerable amount of prey as the birds were frequently seen making short sallies from the tree and back. They even forgo their usual wariness of human approach and allowed us to enjoy the encounter from close range.

Raptors will always be one of the main highlights for any excursion to Chuping. This time, the Osprey provided the best photographic opportunity when it was seen soaring overhead. The harsh midday lighting hampered my photographic efforts. But there is no denying the grace and beauty of this elegant raptor that has made Chuping one of its regular wintering grounds here in Malaysia.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Man, not another dip out...

This year, the Wild Bird Club Malaysia held their AGM at Changlun in Perlis making it feasible for me to attend as it was not too far from home. The meeting will commenced in the evening and together with a few other birders, we decided to visit the neighbouring grasslands of Chuping for some birding in the morning first.

This was my first excursion to the site this season and raptors still rule the skies – much to my delight. This Oriental Honey Buzzard lazily flapping across our field of view made me realize how much I miss this birding hot spot.

It was a good day for raptors. Eurasian Kestrel, Pied Harrier, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite, Brahminy Kite, Changeable Hawk-eagle, Osprey, Short-toed Eagle and Common Buzzard – that is a pretty impressive list from a single site. However, good photographic opportunities were certainly lacking. A recently fed Greater Spotted Eagle provided the best raptor image for the day as it rode the thermals above us.

The grasslands of Chuping is one of the best places in Malaysia to observe the Red-throated Pipit. It is a scarce migrant throughout the country except for this site. Today, there were easily a hundred birds present. Despite the big number, this pipit is usually wary of human presence and I have tried countless times to try and capture good images through the years but without success. It has an uncanny ability to disappear into its surroundings and you will only realize its presence as it makes its getaway. However, on this fateful day, a male decided not to behave like a Red-throated Pipit and remained stationery long enough in the open for us to capture his image.

The Manchurian Reed Warbler also winters here in Chuping. This species is one of the latest additions to the Malaysian checklist and still rightfully holds a celebrity status. The call is usually the only indication of its presence and decent views are hard to come by. It is not called a Reed Warbler for nothing and it has perfected the art of hiding among this vegetation. A 2-second windows was all it was willing to offer to have its image taken but I finally have a shot of this little brown job that actually resembled a bird.

Birding is not only about rarities. Not all the time anyway. The Barn Swallow occurs here in the hundreds and their graceful sallies are a common sight indeed. But a confiding individual in good lighting and against a smooth background deserves some love and affection.

The AGM later that evening went smoothly but my thoughts were distracted. Days before the AGM, news broke out of a Short-eared in Langkawi. From Changlun, Langkawi was not all that far. This owl is a vagrant to our shores and a lifer to most. Dave made his intentions clear about having a go at this beautiful bird. And I, give in to temptations too easily – especially when it comes to rare lifers. Dave, Wilbur and yours truly found ourselves on the first ferry to Langkawi the next day. The only other way to get there is by air. That made logistics an issue. It was a long weekend and this island being a popular holiday destination is bound to be crowded. Luck was on our side as we managed to rent what appeared to be the last car at the jetty. Anticipation was high as we geared up for the hunt. I was anxious as well. This migratory season has not being exactly kind to me - having to dip out on two consecutive twitches. What hand will dear Mother Nature deal me this time?

The very first bird that grabbed our attention in this sweeping landscape was a subadult Rosy Starling foraging among Common Mynas. This is only my third ever sighting and I guess our target of the day will just have to wait. It is not much of a looker when compared to the stunning adults but its scarcity made it irresistible nevertheless.

It was a tedious 5-hour search. We tried everything that we could think of. No bush was left unexplored and no stone unturned but the owl was no where to be seen. Even when Sofian (the man who discovered the owl) came and helped us search, it was to no avail. Having to be cautious of the herds of Water Buffalos that were present and the blistering heat did not improve the situation either. The Short-eared Owl is now my third successive dip out for a mega rarity. Quoting the famous words of Col. George A. Custer it’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up, I will live to bird another day.

On a brighter note, my last birding trip to Langkawi was many years back and one of my targets back then was the Red-wattled Lapwing. Unbelievable as it may seem, there was a time when this tropical island paradise was the only place where you are most likely to see one. So, seeing them here again brought back sweet memories of my first ever Red-wattled Lapwing. In a small way it did help ease the disappointment.

Among the Red-wattled Lapwings was a lone Grey-headed Lapwing – another species that used to be rare in my home state of Penang.

With the obsession for the owl starting to lose its grip on us, we were then able to appreciate the other bird species found at the locality. The bird life here is quite diverse and this site would be the type of location I will frequently explore during the migratory season if it was located in Penang. The majestic White-bellied Sea-eagle is common here which comes as no surprise. This striking adult bird flew literally overhead and turned out to be the only predatory bird to make its way into my memory card. The Short-eared Owl was another painful miss. The twitch for the owl, however, was an experience. The packed ferry shuttle service to the island, the frantic acquisition for a rented car, a mega rarity at stake and a whirlwind of emotional conditions made it a memorable one in the end as it reminisces those hardcore twitching endeavours of British birders. On this rare occasion, it was the experience and not the bird that made a lasting impression.