Thursday, 15 November 2018


Air Hitam Dalam is a just little patch of forest in northern mainland Penang that happens to be the best birding site closest to home. The migratory season usually brings some goodies to this local patch of mine but this season, it has been exceptional so far. Unfortunately, I neither had the time nor the good fortune to enjoy the bounty. Black-backed Kingfisher, Violet Cuckoo and Zappey’s Flycatcher managed to elude me during my visits here. These birds are not lifers and they are not rare. However, they are uncommon enough to get me visiting a forest site during the hottest part of the day – twice (including this trip). Of the three birds, missing the exquisite male Violet Cuckoo (just to rub in the salt, others have seen the whole damn family on several occasions) pained me the most. On this visit, I went to where he was more likely to show and waited.

Naturally, he gave me the slip again. But I faired slightly better today. I got the juvenile Violet Cuckoo momentarily at the top most part of the canopy miles away. Better than nothing I guess...

While waiting for the Violet Cuckoo, another cuckoo did come my way and it was an impressive Green-billed Malkoha. I must have made myself unobtrusive enough to have this usually shy bird forage so close to my position. If not for the lighting and vegetation, this would have been a very nice capture.

A mix troop of Silver and Spectacled Langurs kept my mind off the cuckoo momentarily. The Silver Langurs were a bit shyer but it was still interesting to observe this inter-species behaviour between two mammals. This Spectacled Langur, on the other hand, was certainly living a carefree life here.

I decided to move from the spot before I was totally overwhelmed by boredom and took a slow walk next to the river. Not much was about due to the time of the day except for a foraging male Common Flameback. It may be the commonest woodpecker in the vicinity but an adult male like this one deserves some attention.

The rising temperature does bring out a family of birds from hiding and they are the raptors. A handful of species were recorded today but only one provided any real chance of capturing a decent photo and it was the migratory Black Kite. This site plays host to these northern migrants again this season and will continue to do so if there are no drastic changes to the surrounding environment.

I was not the only one who took noticed of the raptors. The presence of predatory birds certainly did not go down well with the resident Large-billed Crows and they went on a mobbing spree until most of the raptors were beyond their air space.

I casually wandered back to the Violet Cuckoo hoping for a miracle which did not come my way. Frustrated and fatigued, I was about to call it a day when a Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo alighted just in front of me. It was not the cuckoo I was hoping for but things being the way they are, this was a much welcomed encounter.

This common migrant is often bold and confiding. When it shifted position, it flew towards me and not the other way round. I was taken a back and once I regained my composure, I took a few more shots despite the strong back light hampering my efforts.

The Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo lingered in the vicinity for quite a long period of time. Another trait this species has shown to me before.

Since there was nothing else about, I decided to follow the movement of the cuckoo. It was relatively easy as it was foraging at a leisurely pace. Then a second bird came into view and for a moment, I thought I was seeing double. If it was any other day, this would have gotten me all excited. However, the Violet Cuckoo has given me quite a bitter pill to swallow and it would take more than this to remedy my situation.

A brownish bird was flitting about the nearby understorey and my fascination with the cuckoos came to an abrupt stop. It turned out to be a Paradise-Flycatcher and with all the recent splits, identification is no longer straightforward. Even worse when the bird is a juvenile or female like this one in front of me. Upon further scrutiny, I felt that this Paradise-Flycatcher is somehow different from the usual Blyth’s and Amur Paradise-Flycatcher. A quick check with my mates through our group chat (the wonders of modern technology) revealed that it was indeed a Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher.

I have only a couple of encounters with this scarce migrant and this juvenile naturally had my undivided attention. It certainly lacks the resplendent of the adult male and God willing, one day I will have the privilege to observe him in the flesh. Until that day comes, I just have to be contented with this youngster who was performing well indeed.

There was an Asian Brown-Flycatcher foraging nearby but it did not possess enough finesse to divert my attention for long.

The Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher remained in the vicinity long enough for Hor Kee to make a beeline to this locality from home (and at the time of writing, so did Dave). Together with a couple of other birders, we enjoyed the companionship of this no doubt latest attraction to this modest birding locality. Being much rarer than the Violet Cuckoo, this young Japanese certainly made this ad-hoc trip a memorable one in the end.

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.