Monday, 5 July 2021

A lily-trotting rarity


I have not been out birding as often as I used to but reports of a pair of Bronze-winged Jacanas at the marshlands of Batu Kawan awoken something in me that has been dormant for too long. It was just a matter of time before I made my way to seek out this scarce resident. Unlike in neighbouring Thailand, only a couple of sites in the northern state of Perlis is where this species has been recorded with any regularity in recent years.

It was a gloomy morning and with no signs of the jacanas upon arrival, the atmosphere was less than cheerful for my company and other like-minded birders. A White-browed Crake almost had us fooled when it caused some movement among the floating vegetation. But a Bronze-winged Jacana is just too stunning to be mistaken for anything else.

Migratory Reed-Warblers, as the name implies, find refuge here in the reeds as well. However, they can hide remarkably well if they want to. Today, only the Black-browed Reed-Warbler managed to find its way into my memory card.

When the celebrity birds finally revealed themselves, the joy was short-lived. Perhaps the presence of too many humans did not go well with the Bronze-winged Jacanas and they kept a safe distance throughout our observation. The poor lighting condition only compounded my dismay. Emotions aside, there is no denying the significance of this first state record. Enjoying the true resplendence of this lily trotter will just have to wait another day.

The pair was showing signs of breeding and we were even given a short courtship display. Inevitably, throng of bird photographers came for these beautiful water birds and some were overly enthusiastic and creative in their quest.  Shortly after our visit, Malaysia came under lockdown again due to the pandemic. I guess it was a blessing in disguise as the stricter movement control order gave the Bronze-winged Jacanas a chance to raise a family in peace. At the time of writing, the chicks have long fledged despite all the disturbances the nesting pair had to endure initially.

Without any indications of improvement shots for Bronze-winged Jacanas, I started to give the other species present their due attention. Unfortunately, there were not many around. A lone Asian Openbill was close enough for a record shot but not close enough to evoke anything else.

My best effort today should be of this adult Purple Heron resting all so elegantly among the reeds. It remained unperturbed by my presence and on a trip where good images are hard to come by, this common but striking heron provided the magic.

A good number was present in the vicinity today including juveniles pointing to a successful nesting season. Penang, my home state, is one of the busiest in the country. It is constantly being developed and sometimes at an alarming rate. Call me a pessimist but I can see no happily ever after for the colonies of Purple Herons here. It is just a matter of time before development displaces this wildlife refuge.

The absence of some of the usual water birds today was disheartening and the walk along the access road was long and tedious. A Malayan Pied-Fantail literally stopped me at my tracks when it suddenly alighted on the road not far from me. It was not exactly in pristine condition. Probably had a rough day so far as well but it did well enough to brighten up the day.

Chestnut Munias are the commonest munia species here and a small flock foraging along the edge of the reeds had my undivided attention. Like the Fantail, they were confiding and provided some cheer before the rains concluded the trip.

Three months have past since that gloomy morning with the Bronze-winged Jacanas. Due to the increased severity of the coronavirus in the country, it was my last birding excursion. It is a dark time now and life is shrouded with uncertainties. However, I always believe nothing lasts forever. Not even a global pandemic. To wrap things up for this time is not an image but rather, a cliché quote by Friedrich Nietzsche - that which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Saturday, 15 May 2021

The urban hawk


A bird may be common to the entire country but if you do not come across it often enough it can be considered, in a sense, rare. There are hardly any records of the Crested Goshawk here in Penang Island. I cannot recall having seen one personally except for a fresh corpse in the outskirts of Georgetown City. Recently, a pair was reported to be nesting in a posh neighbourhood in the northern part of the island. I rarely question the ways of nature but the reason for the nest to be built on a lone tree growing from the divider of the main road instead of the safety of the adjacent forest, is beyond my comprehension.

I managed to make a single visit to pay homage to these beautiful birds of prey. This should be the first recorded nest for the island and hopefully, it will not be the last. Elsewhere in the country, the Crested Goshawk has adapted to living in urban areas and that trait alone can ensure the continuality of your existence in the world today. It was the dry season and the fallen leaves left the nest exposed to all the surrounding elements. But the two nestlings, days away from leaving the nest, appeared to be doing absolutely fine.

Another aspect about this nest that got me wondering was the tolerance of the local mob. Flocks of House Crows can be seen loitering about the vicinity but surprisingly, these marauders left the chicks in peace. Perhaps the parents manage to assert their dominance but it will take a whole lot to break the will of House Crows.

One thing that was not unexpected was the presence of birders and photographers at the nest site. Since it was smacked right in the middle of a residential area, we in turn drew the attention of curious onlookers. Although it is not really my cup of tea, I did my best to explain the significance of this raptor nesting here to all that approached me with the same query.

The parent birds did not make an appearance during my observation and I found out later that I arrived shortly after they have fed the chicks. In the absence of the adults, the youngsters make several short explorations of the surrounding areas in preparation of the big day when they will leave the nest for good. They have yet to develop the full aesthetic appeal and living skills of their parents but they certainly had my attention. After all, they are the true reason for my visit here.

Lately, there have been an uproar regarding unethical photography of nesting birds. It is nothing new and has been going since the first day people started nest photography. However the great lengths poachers and photographers used to obtain their goals this time, reignited the issue. My documentation of the Crested Goshawk took place almost 3 months ago and the chicks by now, are out there somewhere terrorizing small birds and mammals on their own in my beloved island home. I am no birding authority. Just a bloke who is passionate about birds and birding. So, here I am thinking out loud. If it has to take installing a barricade to keep your enthusiasm in check, then so be it. Perhaps in time, an imaginary barricade will do the job just as well. By the way, your fantastic images will still garner the same amount of likes even if you post them on Facebook or whatever online social media a few months later. And to conclude my post this time is this young Crested Goshawk that wandered reasonably close to my position.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Knock, knock...

The trip did not start out all that smoothly. There were delays here and there during the journey to Bukit Panchor State Park. When we arrived at the destination, we were disappointed to find the boardwalk flooded from last night’s downpour. However, sometimes things do happen for a reason. As we lingered around the entrance to the boardwalk contemplating our ill luck, the surrounding forest started to come alive. First was the array of calls. Followed by movements among the vegetation. Then a Stripe-throated Bulbul decided to start the morning by calling from an exposed perch and I should have known then that was a sign that today was going to be special despite the locality’s unimpressive record of late.

No, it took a handsome Tiger Shrike in breeding plumage to make me realize that. After a prolonged observation of this Tiger Shrike on the prowl for breakfast, it was a unanimous decision to stay put and wait for whatever else that may pass through here.

A Yellow-vented Bulbul may not be a species that local birders desire due to its abundant nature but you cannot really hold that against it.

It is good to see that the Jungle Myna is still predominant here – for now.

More often heard than seen, the Gold-whiskered Barbet should be the commonest Barbet species here. I was lucky enough to catch this individual as it took a breather among the foliage of the forest canopy. It is an impressive bird and every sighting will not go unappreciated.

Both the Yellow-bellied Prinia and Rufescent Prinia occur here in Bukit Panchor. Their ranges may even overlap but the Yellow-bellied Prinia will not venture into the forest proper and this foraging individual provided a brief moment to capture its image when it alighted on a bare perch.

My attention was immediately diverted when a Buff-necked Woodpecker started to call in the vicinity. This species is not common here in Penang State and when the woodpecker finally revealed itself, there was no shame in not being able to contain my excitement.

We were given ample time to enjoy the encounter and wonderful views. The missing red malar stripe meant that it was a female and her performance today was most commendable.

Several other species came and went but one of the most notable was a Little Green-Pigeon in flight. A pair of Lesser Green Leafbirds was attracted to a nearby fruiting tree. Judging from the images I obtained, the tree was just not near enough for my modest equipment.

The Blue-throated Bee-eaters filled the vicinity with their calls but kept a distance for most of the time. One did alight slightly closer but the lighting condition was most challenging.

There was just something about the trees surrounding us that were drawing in woodpeckers. The Rufous Woodpecker was the second species to be recorded but it was a distant encounter. As the name implies, the Common Flameback is one of the commoner species of woodpeckers in the country. The plumage especially the male with flaming red crest, is amazing and a close encounter like this one can still, very much, rock my world.

When things started to sizzle down, we decided to venture into the forest which was our initial plan. The mass of Bertam Palms is a distinct feature of this park but there are hardly any bird activities among these prickly vegetation at this site.

Birding in this dense and gloomy forest was frustrating as usual. I rarely had any opportunity to raise my camera despite the occasional birdwave or two. This Dark-sided Flycatcher ought to be back in the mountainous regions of northern Asia by now but here it is, testing the patience of a few birders by remaining in the darkest spot of the forest.

From the look of things, the group of Fruit Bats residing at the hut along the access trail just got a little bigger. The paler individuals I assume are young ones and the parents were a little anxious of my presence – a situation that I quickly remedied.

One of the highlights of the day was this 3-inch caterpillar. If memory serves me right, this is the biggest caterpillar I have ever laid eyes on and it was quite a sight. I will not hazard a guess of its true identity. Insects are mostly beyond me and this little mammoth certainly was.

When things do fall in place when birding in the forest, something remarkable will usually unfold. A family of Checker-throated Woodpeckers kept us company for quite a long time from the cover of the forest canopy and initially, I did not think anything significant would materialized from this. Then, one decided to descend from its lofty domain and alighted almost at eye level. This is one of the reasons why we birders endure all those hours wandering aimlessly in the heat and humidity of the tropical rainforest time after time – a chance to experience the alluring bird life found here up close and personal.

The incomplete chestnut colouration on the plumage suggested that it is a young bird but it did not make much difference. I was mesmerized by the presence of this woodpecker for it is a striking bird. The birding excursion here this time was surprisingly fruitful and it just goes to show one cannot truly know what to expect when it comes to birding. And this confiding young Checker-throated Woodpecker certainly played a big role in the outcome of the trip. 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Dancing Egrets


It was looking to be another beautiful morning and since I had a couple of hours to spare, it would be a waste not to spend it out in the field. With limited choices available in my beloved island home, it was back to the Penang Botanic Gardens. Being a weekend morning, the crowd was inevitable. However, the spot that I usually frequent when I am at this popular recreational destination is somewhat off the beaten track so I could bird relatively undisturbed. Along the stream, I noticed two Little Egrets with a whole lot of interaction between them. To my untrained eyes, they appeared to be performing some mating dance as the Egrets moved in synchronize. Then things started turning hostile and dance, became dispute with one chasing off the other. In the end, there was no romance brewing here – just hostility.

The lone Striated Heron did not let all the commotion by the Egrets distract it from what it set out to do – acquiring breakfast.

Food also drew the resident White-throated Kingfisher from its usual lofty perch and provided me with a brief moment to capture its splendour at eye level.

A repertoire of musical notes started to fill the vicinity and it was the contribution of a pair of Oriental Magpie-Robins. I suppose these beautiful songsters have found their sanctuary here as bird trappers know better than to try their shit at a location constantly monitored by park personnel.

This next bird has a wide range of calls and even imitates. The territorial call is sometimes such a disarray of notes it makes it distinct. The bird itself is no less unique. The tail extends into a wire-like appearance ending with a racket shaped feather at each end. The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo may be a common species throughout the country but it is still an exceptional bird.

The migratory Asian Brown Flycatcher, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Silent and dull, it would have gone unnoticed if not for its occasional sallies for insects. Birding at a local patch like this is usually a laidback affair and every bird present will receive some form of attention.

No visit to this landscaped garden is complete without encountering the Crested Mynas. A population has established itself well here and the Mynas hardly take any effort to conceal themselves from humans. Here is just one of the many Mynas that took to the lawns in search of food.

While observing the Mynas, a White-breasted Waterhen wandered into the vicinity in full view. To a certain degree, birds here are quite bold as they are accustomed to human presence. I pretended not to show too much interest and it worked like a charm. But once this photo was taken, my subject knew my true intention and gradually backed away.

Penang Island has the highest density of White-bellied Sea-Eagles and that is something that I can be proud of. Being an island, you can see White-bellied Se-Eagles from literally everywhere and this time, a juvenile soars effortlessly above the gardens. It was hot and sunny and this youngster was taking full advantage of the updraft.

Olive-backed Sunbirds are another common sight here. Although the male lacks some of the radiance of other species, he is still handsome fellow. And the dark orange border below the blue iridescent throat indicates he is a subspecies that occurs in the northern region.

A Brown Shrike that is yet to look prime for the coming breeding season up north was having a little sunbathe above a relatively busy walkway. Unperturbed by the all walkers below and a lone birder, it remained at the perch to be admired only by the latter.

This feisty winter visitor wrapped things up for this short excursion. Most of the species encountered today were the commoner ones but in the end, it does not really matter. It was certainly time well spent and for that, I am grateful.