Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A fluffy weekend indeed

The access road up the Air Itam Dam in Penang Island was recently reopened after a major landslide. Although I do not expect anything out of the ordinary here, I still decided to pay the locality a visit when I found myself with a few hours to kill on a Saturday morning. As my iron steed took me up the ascending windy road, I was greeted by huge concrete retaining walls where once were patches of secondary forest. Thankfully, the repair works were confined to the lower reaches of the hill. The access trail up Bukit Penara looked almost like how I remembered it and I started my trek up with rejuvenated spirit.

The frantic call of the Malaysian Hawk-Cuckoo is rather distinct and it stopped me in my tracks when I heard it calling from the ravine below. A brief view was all it offered this time and as I was still recovering from the disappointment, another distinct call gained my undivided attention. It took some effort as the Green Broadbill is small and blends in well with its surroundings. But as soon as I spotted the female, her mate started to call from the adjacent tree. The morning just got a lot more interesting.

The Green Broadbill is the last remaining broadbill species to occur on the island and that makes it a distinguished species for me. Unfortunately, the male was reluctant to show himself well and all my efforts were in vain. The drabber female, on the other hand, was quite showy.

There are many amazing songsters in the avian world and the White-rumped Shama is undoubtedly one of them. Cursed with both good looks and voice, it is heavily trapped for the bird trade and the population here in Penang is dwindling. This pair was checking a dead tree trunk for a nest site and hopefully, they will find a more suitable one that is not so exposed.

Babblers are not that well represented on the island. The one species that stands out for me here is the Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler. For today, this stunning species turned out to be the main highlight. There is nothing not to be liked about this babbler except for its preference for the dense undergrowth which can be a major hindrance to observation and photography. But it is a visit to a local patch on my own and time was not a restriction. I patiently followed the babbler and took whatever photographic opportunity that was provided.

The saying good things come to those who wait could not have made any more sense than in this moment. The Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler is a loud, adorable and striking species and I am truly grateful it has managed to endure living here in Penang Island despite all the looming threats.

When vocalizing, the blue skin on the neck was quite obvious and together with its body movements made it quite a performance indeed. In fact, the entire encounter was incredible. Looks like the Pearl of the Orient has not lost all its glitter just yet.

The next day, I had a half-day excursion with a Singaporean guest and our first destination was the mangroves of Sungai Batu in Kedah state. It has been weeks since my last visit to the locality and it warms my heart to be greeted by the territorial call of the Mangrove Pitta upon our arrival. It did not take long for the star bird to reveal itself and my guest could not have asked for a better way to start off the tour than with a Pitta as a lifer.

The inquisitive Abbott’s Babblers further improved the quality of the visit with their adorable presence.

For most, the Crested Serpent-Eagle is a common raptor that is usually taken for granted. But when seen well, it is still a beautiful and majestic bird of prey. A lone individual was perched in good light at the edge of the mangroves and since it was confiding, the raptor was given its due attention.

At the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam, it was disappointingly quiet despite the favourable weather. The only encounter worth mentioning from this site was a Crested Serpent-Eagle looking fluffy and adorable as unbelievable as it may sound. Anyway, this sighting helped prove my earlier statement of it being a common raptor.

The last destination of the day was the paddy fields of mainland Penang. With the breeding season almost in full swing for most of the water birds, some of the egrets were looking gorgeous in breeding plumages like these Cattle Egrets.

This is the only species that sports some colouration on its plumage and that makes this smallest of the egrets truly stand out from the crowd.

A full breeding plumaged Intermediate Egret will sport blood red eyes. I guess this individual is still considered to be in partial breeding plumage despite the presence of the body plumes.

The final bird of the day is another water bird but is far more enigmatic than any egret. The Asian Openbill is a common sight nowadays around mainland Penang but my fascination for this peculiar stork is far from over. A couple of birds resting on a bund was confiding enough this time to allow our vehicle to make a close approach. For my guest, it was a much-anticipated lifer. As for me, the Asian Openbill was a great way to finish off this short excursion around my usual birding haunts.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Cambodia: Land of the Ibis King (Part 2)

This was to be our final day at Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary and also our last day of birding in Cambodia for we fly back home first thing tomorrow morning. We travelled further for this morning’s birding and the forest at this end of the sanctuary looked more like home with its lush and tall vegetation. We headed towards a river where the majestic Black-necked Stork is known to occur here on rare occasions. Upon arrival, a big black and white bird took flight and Mardy, our guide, reigned me back to reality before my imagination got the better of me. The bird turned out to be a Woolly-necked Stork and when it alighted further down the river, it provided us with our first view of this species grounded.

The stork did not linger in the vicinity for long and would not have been Cambodia if it did. Anyway, this lookout point was productive with several species recorded. But the majority of them were distant observations. A few familiar species were recorded like this striking Black-crested Bulbul basking in the morning sun.

A Chestnut-headed Bee-eater decided to hunt near our position and it was welcomed by my companions who reside beyond the range of this lovely species.

We were also presented with front row seats to an aerial performance courtesy of a pair of Green-billed Malkohas. Twisting and turning in mid-air with their long tails in toll, these cuckoos revealed a side to them that I did not know existing. Before I could react, the performance was all but over and the malkohas were casually gliding across the river.

It was no doubt hot and sunny throughout our stay in Cambodia but the lighting has been exceptional most of the time. Today was no different and I even attempted shooting Crested Treeswifts that were patrolling the area.

This is probably the worst photo you will ever see of a Heart-spotted Woodpecker. With a name like that, you know the bird will be nothing less than spectacular. And it was. You just have to trust me on this.

I would have been elated if I had not encountered the Brown Fish-Owl back home just last year. The one we came across today was more for the birder in me due to the distanced and obscured view.

Another short lived encounter with the White-shouldered Ibis took place near a grassy area within the forest. It may not be sufficient compensation but a Golden-headed Cisticola added yet another lifer to the trip.

A group of lumbering birders sent this Brown Prinia up a tree for cover which was not an unusual course of action even for a grassland bird.

We headed back to the lodge for one last meal before we checked out. The lodge may appear to be a modest type of accommodations but the meals provided throughout our stay deserves some praise. I am not particular with food when I am out birding but to have something that not only fills you up is an added bonus.

This map gives you a rough idea of what you can expect to see...

While waiting for lunch to be served, a Rufous-winged Buzzard made an unexpected appearance just outside our chalet. I was in perfect position but the chosen perch had several obstructing branches. It was unfortunate and frustrating. And the buzzard was having none of my desperate attempt to creep round the branches and took flight almost immediately.

A roosting Collared Scops-Owl was a nice addition to our Cambodian list. However, the midday lighting was harsh and the apparent heatwave further hampered our photographic attempts.

There was one encounter today within the grounds of the lodge that left me near the state of ecstasy. Woodpeckers certainly provided much colours and excitement to our trip so far but none really provided any excellent photographic opportunities. Not until a White-bellied Woodpecker came knocking when I was seated inside a permanent hide next to our chalet. This striking species also occurs in Malaysia but all my previous encounters are incomparable to this one.

It was a handsome male and his confiding nature blew me away. I am sure he was aware of my presence in the hide because it was difficult to contain one’s excitement when you have a White-bellied Woodpecker in all its glory perched no more than a stone’s throw away. Much to my delight, he was unperturbed. This is one piece of memory from Cambodia that I am definitely taking home with me.

Birding here has certainly being memorable especially in the dry dipterocarp forest. It was a new and interesting experience for me. The dry and dusty condition was another aspect that made the trip memorable as it is very much a part of this testing terrain.

Because of the intense heat, drinking water never tasted this good…

There was one last plan to execute before we depart from this location and it was to the ibis pond for one last shot at the Giant Ibis. I know we had great views of this extraordinary species yesterday and we ought to be grateful. But we travelled a long distance for the Giant Ibis and since we still have a fighting chance for something more, we decided to take it. We approached the hide with utmost caution. Then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose and a number of large water birds departed from the pond with much haste including the Giant Ibis. I had to pick my heart up from the dusty forest ground. It certainly looked like a lost cause now because the chances of the Giant Ibis returning were slim. It was likely that we will be spending our last few hours here observing less significant species like this Vinous-breasted Starling.

A pair of Green Bee-eaters tried their best to brighten up the occasion. I have been birding long enough to know that things do not always go according to plan and luck, above all, determines your fate. If this is how things will come to end for our Cambodian trip, then this is how it will end. We just have to accept it and be thankful for all the wonderful moments we have enjoyed so far.

I tried my best to conceal my disappointment as minutes turned into hour. I felt my life force regenerated when a pair of Woolly-necked Storks alighted on the 'significant' dead tree. It was a torture to refrain myself from immediately photographing the storks but we learnt our lesson well from our encounter with the Giant Ibis yesterday. It was not too long of a wait and we soon found ourselves admiring this fascinating species hunting frogs at the pond.

It was our last hour at this site and the Woolly-necked Stork may not be the main reason behind the long wait. But it was still a memorable and exhilarating encounter. The Woolly-necked Storks somehow reminded me of ladies sporting fur scarfs (not that I agree with this fashion apparel) with their downy neck feathers and slender appearance. There is even a tinge of red at the tip of the bill much like lipstick. And just like any lovely ladies, they certainly knew how to gain your undivided attention.  

The arrival of the storks attracted a number of Pond-Herons that seemed to appear out of thin air. It was most likely that they were here all this while but I was just too focused on the task at hand.

It was an amazing sight as the pair of Woolly-necked Storks hunted in leisure and provided one of the main highlights for our Cambodian trip. In fact, it was a good enough finale for this 5-day birding adventure.

But Cambodia and its amazing fauna weaved its magic one last time for our group of four. A large dark water bird alighted just beyond the open area of the ibis pond. I froze and hushed my fellow companions. The Giant Ibis was back and it was almost too good to be true. It remained hidden from view for a good half hour and if not for Mardy who also caught sight of its arrival, I would have seriously considered that it was my imagination playing a cruel trick on me. I held my breath when the enormous ibis cautiously walked towards the pond. I thought fighting my urge to shoot for the Woolly-necked Storks was difficult but this was really killing me. When the ibis finally settled down and started to forage, I started documenting one of the most testing and intriguing encounters for my trip to the Kingdom of Wonder.

The lighting may not be flattering and the distance from the bird was at the borderline of my modest photography setup’s comfort zone. But I was enjoying every moment of the encounter. The Ibis King went about searching for food in total ease now and I got down on my knees in the presence of this magnificent animal and tried to shoot from the lowest angle possible.

Human birders were not the only ones excited with the arrival of the Giant Ibis. The Pond-herons, as expected, were up to their passive pirating behaviour again.

What was not expected was the sudden formation of clouds that helped diffused the harsh lighting of mid-afternoon. How can I, a mere mortal, now doubt the existence of a greater power when I am here experiencing a series of miracles unfolding before my very eyes?

From utter disappointment to unbridled jubilant, the Giant Ibis of Tmatboey toyed with my emotions and sanity before presenting me with an experience of a lifetime. After all this is its domain and we were just guests or if you want to be crude, intruders to this harsh but surprising bird-rich land. We could just as easily ended up with nothing but a fleeting glimpse of a retreating Giant Ibis. And for that, no words can describe my gratitude.

Now, more than 2 weeks since my return to homeland, I can finally conclude my blog postings of this incredible trip. I am in awe of the bird life in Cambodia and the memories will forever be cherished. No doubt the birds especially the large and rare water birds were the main highlights for me. In the end, I94 species of birds were recorded of which 54 were lifers. But the country, the landscape and the people also played a role to make this trip complete. Rugged and rustic, the village of Tmatboey may not be everyone’s idea destination for a dream vacation but it houses of some of the most enigmatic bird species on the planet. To me, that is heaven on Earth.

Finally, there are my companions Nigel, Jimmy, Kok Siong and of course Mardy (our outstanding guide) all whom I got to share this awesome chapter of my birding life with. Well, until my next birding adventure abroad. The Penang Birder signing out for now.

Checklist of the birds recorded