Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Deadly sin

When news broke out that the fruiting trees at Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest in Kedah state is finally in season, the choice of location for my birding excursion was crystal clear. I arrived at the location high in spirit and full of enthusiasm. But what greeted me at the revered fruiting tree felt like being stabbed in the chest – twice. A family had decided to camp right underneath the tree and they had a little camp fire going no doubt to prepare breakfast.

All the commotion and smoke almost made me end my excursion before it even started. But birders can be a determine lot. Even downright stubborn. And the sweet sound of singing Cream-vented Bulbuls at the tree was all the convincing I needed to carry out my initial plans for the day. The bulbuls were certainly in a joyous mood. In between feedings, they belted out short burst of their pleasant call. I do not blame them. Life is beautiful for frugivorous species like the Cream-vented Bulbul when trees come into season. And not even a bunch of irritating humans can ruin the moment for them.

Of all the bulbuls that occur within the borders of this park, the Finsch’s Bulbul will always be the one that comes to mind first for me. Although my first sighting of the Finsch’s Bulbul is from the pristine forest of Taman Negara, it is here at Sungai Sedim that I enjoyed the most encounters.

Although it is not strikingly coloured, the prominent yellow throat makes the Finsch’s Bulbul rather unmistakeable.

It was a cloudy day here in the interior of Kedah state and the subdued lighting was much appreciated. At times when the sun managed to pierced though the dense clouds, it was too harsh for my liking and there was the issue with shadows. I guess apart from being stubborn, we birders can be demanding as well.

From past experiences, the Buff-vented Bulbuls are usually the most conspicuous species at this fruiting tree. Today, only one came and for a surprisingly brief moment. Even the common Red-eyed Bulbuls were rarely seen and throughout the day, I only managed one single record shot.

An unusual bulbul momentarily diverted my attention from the fruiting tree. At first I did not know what to make of it. I do not mean to toot my horn but this moment of uncertainly rarely happens to me. Not at this location with a bulbul anyway. A better look with my binoculars revealed the truth almost immediately. A Red-eyed Bulbul with some strategically placed shadows almost got the better of me.

The Spectacled Bulbuls were slightly better behaved but most of my photographic efforts were hampered by the harsh lighting and foliage. I could not think of a reason for this shy behaviour from these bulbuls species and even the family of campers should not be able to keep them away.

As for the Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, the present of the campers could be the reason for their hesitance to linger long at the fruiting tree. Past experiences again have shown that it is much less confiding than most other bulbul species at a fruiting tree.

It is difficult to overlook Black-headed Bulbuls not only because of their stunning appearance but their distinct vocalizations. Unfortunately, they were yet another species that was reluctant to join in the feast. I used to think that gluttony was a deadly sin very few could resist but I may change my mind after today.

And Murphy’s Law will certainly make sure that one of the most spectacular bulbuls in the world, the Scaly-breasted Bulbul, shows up just long enough to have you yearning for more long after it has departed from the vicinity.

The elegant Streaked Bulbuls will not be denied of the succulent food available and threw caution into the wind. They descended from the adjacent forest without much hesitation and their presence certainly did not go unappreciated.

The beautiful plumage of the Grey-bellied Bulbuls finally added some colours and splendour to the vicinity. By now the campers have gotten used to my presence and stopped their periodic peering from behind the tents. And I guess the birds in turn have gotten used to the campers as well.

The bulbul of the day was none other than another sleek species. Not as common as some of the other species, their fearless behaviour took my heart away. This is by far the most prolonged encounter I ever had with Cinereous Bulbuls at a fruiting tree. Inevitably, it also provided the most photographs of this species that I can remember.

The Cinereous Bulbul is not exceptionally striking but its beauty lies in subtlety. The ashy plumage, flashing white throat and distinct facial markings all contribute to making this species one of my favourites from this family of birds. And the Cinereous Bulbul made it eleven species of bulbuls recorded today.

Another family of birds that cannot resist the temptation of the fruiting tree here is the flowerpeckers. Minute, adorable and striking; these forest denizens are a delightful bunch to observe. Or so I thought. I noticed something different about their behaviour. Restless and unaccommodating, it was so unlike my previous experiences here. Even the commonest species, the Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker, made very brief visits and I could only obtained a single record shot.

I could hear the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker throughout my visit. I saw them darting about too. But like the previous species, they rarely lingered at the tree long enough for me to obtain any reasonable images.

I was about to blame the campers again when the true culprits disclosed themselves. The deadly sin of gluttony brought out the worst from the Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers. I cannot be sure if it was just one individual or a team effort but this species was chasing away any other flowerpeckers that visited the tree. And the chases were not half-hearted attempts. They were out for blood.

I have seen flowerpeckers getting possessive at fruiting trees before but the Yellow-vented Flowerpecker took it to a whole new level today. Since it was so dominant, one would assume I will have ample photographs of this bully but that was not the case. Most of the time, it loitered deep among the foliage in the gloom overwhelmed with a sense of guilt for its unruly behaviour.

Surprisingly, the male Crimson-breasted Flowerpeckers were still able to feast in leisure most of the time.

Perhaps they were equally as aggressive. Or they timed their feedings when the bullies are preoccupied with others. Whatever the reason may be, the Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker is a gorgeous representative of this family of birds – second only to the elusive Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker that appeared at the fruiting tree for one season only.

The inconspicuous Plain Sunbird made a brief visit to the fruiting tree. As the name implies, the male lacks the resplendent colouration that this family of birds is renowned for. A small metallic green patch on his forehead is the only indication of this family trait.

Whether it was coincidental or intentional, a female Ashy Minivet appeared in the vicinity briefly. I did pay attention to her details, as I do to all Ashy Minivets, because of the possibility of overlooking similar but rarer species of minivets. When I was about done at the fruiting tree, the family of campers started to prepare for lunch. I took that as my cue to leave before I subject myself to be shrouded in smoke again.

Friday, 21 February 2020

The magic of fruiting trees

Pittas are one of the main targets for Joe’s maiden birding trip to Southeast Asia and for the his second day out with me, we travelled south to the foothill of Bukit Larut in Perak state where he stood a very good chance of bagging his second pitta of the trip. We arrived at the wettest spot in Peninsular Malaysia well after sunrise as the stakeout where the migratory Hooded Pitta frequents is in a gulley with poor lighting. With the current dry spell, there was little worry of the weather turning bad even here in Rain Town. The shooting condition was challenging but when the pitta hopped into view, there was no denying its electrifying presence. After obtaining the mandatory images, both of us paid homage to this striking species by admiring it through our binoculars. I always maintain that a certain degree of intimacy is lost when you only view the bird through digital images. That is why I make it a point to see the birds through my binoculars.

It did not take long for the others patrons to make an appearance at the stakeout. It was unfortunate that a couple of the regulars were absent this time but when there are beautiful forest jewels like the Orange-headed Thrush performing well, the disappointment was a little easier to take in.

The Siberian Blue Robin is not an uncommon winter visitor to Peninsular Malaysia. The male is especially striking and my love affair with this adorable migrant started when I first laid eyes on one along of a forested trail up in Penang Hill. At that time, I have just started go on birding trips on my own. While most teenagers would be recovering from hangovers on a Sunday morning like that, I was gawking at one of my most exciting lifers in the middle of the jungle. I guess back then I was more easily satisfied because the encounter today left me yearning for more due to the lack of any good photographic opportunities.

As soon as we started to explore the rest of the foothill, we came across a small tree that was a centre of bird activities. It turned out to be a fruiting tree and I knew we hit the jackpot. Yesterday, Joe shared with me the almost unreal experience he had at a fruiting berry tree in Costa Rica where almost 40 species were recorded. Well, this is no Costa Rica but a dozen species is still an incredible sight. The Asian Glossy Starling is a common species occurring even in gardens and parks. But it is a striking a bird best view in good lighting. That is when its true splendour will be revealed. I have no complaints about the lighting condition but the density of the foliage of this small tree proved to a big obstacle to all my photographic efforts here. 

Bulbuls formed the majority of the birds patronizing this fruiting tree. The Red-eyed Bulbul is one of the commonest in Peninsular Malaysia. Naturally, there were a number of them gorging on the fruits. Joining them at the feast were Spectacled Bulbuls, Buff-vented Bulbuls and Cinereous Bulbuls. You can say it was a crowded little tree and we were enjoying every minute of it.

Not all the bulbuls here were dull looking like the Red-eyed Bulbul. In fact, one species was the exact opposite. Claimed to be the most attractive bulbul in Malaysia, the Scaly-breasted Bulbul is truly gorgeous.

Whenever they appeared on the fruiting tree, every other species is momentarily out of the picture. All eyes will be on the Scaly-breasted Bulbuls for they cast a spell very few birders can resist.

I will say it again. The obstructing foliage hampered my photographic efforts. I swear to God it appears as if the Scaly-breasted Bulbuls were doing it intentionally. Taunting us with close views but always with some vegetation in between. And the frustration was starting to take its toll on me.

On the other hand, here is the drab Red-eyed Bulbul almost on the same perch but right out in the open. Murphy’s Law or Sod’s Law – call it what you want but it was certainly present today. But this is birding and the challenges we face, though swore upon, makes us into the birders that we are.

Another attractive bulbul that decided to grace the fruiting tree with its radiance was the Black-headed Bulbul. Distinctively coloured and vocal, this species is one of the most conspicuous denizens of our forests as it is not uncommon species.

A single female Greater Green Leafbird joined in the feeding frenzy. Leafbird populations are dropping due to illegal trapping for the bird trade and that is depressing. This family of birds not only looks great but sings just as good. She definitely had my attention during her short visit to the tree.

The fruiting tree literally shook with the arrival of the barbets. It was a small tree and the branches, thin. Most barbets as you know are quite big birds. Four species abandoned the safety of the forest canopy to indulge at this low elevation and both guest and guide were grasping for air at the sight of these spectacular beauties of the forest. Unfortunately, I failed to capture any images of the Blue-eared Barbet, Yellow-crowned Barbet and Gold-whiskered Barbet. They were restless and tend to feed near the centre of the tree where the branches are at their thickest. I faired better with this male Red-throated Barbet. They may not excellent photographs but I am delighted to at least have one species of these often concealed residents of the forest canopy in my memory card.

We continued our quest for birds along the foothill and came across a few more fruiting trees. I was surprised at the lack of flowerpeckers so far here today. Only the Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker and Yellow-vented Flowerpecker offered glimpses of their vivid colouration as they made brief visits for the fruits. Little did I know good old Bukit Larut had something up her sleeves that would make up for the lack in numbers. We spotted a flowerpecker nearby one of the fruiting trees but it was backlighted. But once it started its distinctive sway, I knew which species it was immediately. Further scrutiny not required. No other flowerpecker here in Peninsular Malaysia has this adorable habit of wagging its tail from side to side except for the scarce Thick-billed Flowerpecker. We managed to manoeuvre around the tree and gained the favour of the lighting condition. I am not sure if Joe was just as exhilarated as yours truly. Let’s face it. Apart from the tail wagging, there is not much to shout about the Thick-billed Flowerpecker aesthetically. But for me it is rare enough to get my pulse racing and this one single image that I managed to obtained from the encounter, should be my best effort to date.

All barbets that occur here in Peninsular Malaysia are generally green in colour except for one - the Sooty Barbet. However, I did not expect it to be the barbet that my guest wanted to see most of all among the whole lot. Being different can sometimes be a good thing.

Joe’s interest lies not only in birds. Other wildlife fascinates him as well. Flying lizards are not uncommon in the forests of Malaysia. But seeing one glide for the first time was an intriguing experience for him. Luckily, Singaporean birder Andrew and his group were at the right place to see where the lizard landed. Evolution has provided the lizard with the ability to blend well with its surrounding and locating one in its natural environment can be tedious.

As expected, we came across a few more species of bulbuls at the fruiting trees. The Cream-vented Bulbul may lack the colours of some of the more attractive bulbuls but its confiding nature melted our hearts away.

In terms of aesthetic appeal, the Grey-bellied Bulbul is a strong contender for second place. Its contrasting and vivid plumage colouration was tantalizing to the eyes. And at such close quarters, the experience was incredible.

A flock of Streaked Bulbuls announced their arrival at the fruiting trees by being utterly vocal. Though it may not possess the same appeal as the Grey-bellied Bulbul, it does have an aura of elegance. Couple that with its uncommon status, the Streaked Bulbul is a worthy candidate to conclude our visit to the foothill of Bukit Larut.

To most Malaysian birders, the White-throated Kingfisher is a common bird and often taken for granted. However to a foreign birder like Joe, it is an absolutely incredible bird. The bright colouration and larger-than-life personality demands attention and I have lost count the number of times my overseas guests are smitten by its charm. A confiding individual at the Taiping Lake Gardens naturally had Joe’s attention and no effort was spared to obtain images of this stunning bird. Set against the picturesque landscape of the gardens, I have no doubt he got the images he desired. As for me, I decided to capture the moment when birder and bird formed a momentarily alliance with the latter providing an encounter that will be treasured by the former. (Just in case you missed it, the kingfisher is near the top left corner of the photo)

Our next location of the day was the landfill of Pulau Burung in mainland Penang. I am not sure that the sight and odour from the biggest dumpsite in Penang is the type of experience my guest savours but the birding here certainly was. The Lesser Whistling Ducks were in their usual big numbers. Here within the borders of the landfill, the ducks have found their sanctuary as this is probably their last remaining stronghold in the state.

Black-winged Stilts are such sultry creatures that they still do it for me after all these years. Like the Lesser Whistling Ducks, the marshland surrounding the landfill is one of the few sites left for the resident population in Penang.

Every time I visit this locality, I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of Cattle Egrets present. This species is now one of the most abundant water birds in the state. If a species can adapt to scavenging at rubbish dumps, it will thrive in this day and age. And the Cattle Egret is living proof. Some of the birds present today have moulted into their full breeding plumage and they look just amazing.

Although water birds are the main attraction, species with different lifestyle preferences also seek refuge here. The Blue-tailed Bee-eater is a regular winter visitor here and their graceful aerial sallies are common sight this time of the year. When at rest, it will then impress you with its beautiful plumage. What else can one ask for?

Day two of Joe’s birding adventure here in northern Peninsular Malaysia has exceeded expectations. It was a relief for me. For a seasoned birder like him, it will take more than the usual to impress him and impress him we (mostly the birds and not me) did. To conclude the excursion, I needed a species that will sweep Joe off his feet one last time. He did mentioned that he would love to see an owl. It was a reasonable request and so we made one last stop at a modest park in the suburbs of Bukit Mertajam. This park is home to a pair of Barred Eagle-Owls and it did not take long for me to locate one half of the pair roosting in one of its usual spots. Unfortunately, the chosen perch had the owl obstructed by a few unsightly branches. Unlike yours truly, the Barred Eagle-Owl was a notable lifer for Joe and God knows when he will ever come across one again. Birders are not unknown for their unflinching determination and Joe’s resulted in full-framed, unobstructed shots of this nocturnal predator. And I could not have wished for a better way to call it a day.