Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Just when you thought you have seen it all

The usual misty condition at first light injects an enchanting feel to our journey as we made our way to the wilds of Pedu Lake. I was with no ordinary company this time. Ayuwat, Wichyanan and Ingkayut are some of the most knowledgeable and dynamic birders from Thailand. It was an honour to host them for a visit to one of my birding haunts. But the birding had to wait. As we approached the lake systems, I could not believe my eyes. There was traffic congestion ahead and from past experiences, one hardly sees another vehicle here at this ungodly hour. There was a huge cycling event taking place and the participants were taking their time parking their vehicles. Hence, the traffic woe. I guess I have to be thankful our destination is still quite a drive away and the congregation of humans here will have no effect on us. Despite the worrying weather forecast, it was a beautiful morning at Pedu Lake and my companions were soon mesmerized by the denizens that call this forest home.

Not much hosting was required from me. My companions are accomplished birders and most of the birds found here also occur in their country as well. It is impossible for a flock of munias to receive the undivided attention of this group of ours - unless they were White-bellied Munias. Here in Malaysia, this uncommon bird with its characteristic straw-coloured tail is restricted to forested areas and this is the first time I am seeing them at this locality. Unfortunately, the munias were skittish and we could not reduce the distance for improvement shots. My images in the end were far perfect but the encounter was memorable. So much so that I was a little embarrassed I could not contain my excitement better in front of my Thai counterparts.

The birds of Pedu were quite camera-shy today but we did manage to record some interesting species. A small fruiting tree attracted a few bulbuls and that kept us occupied for some time. A flock of Hairy-backed Bulbuls were part of the patrons to the tree.

Another conspicuous species was the Cream-vented Bulbul. Now if I am posting images of common species that are even partly blocked by the vegetation, you know it has been a slow day for photography.

Then came along a confiding male Black-and-yellow Broadbill to save the day. This adorable bird can be exceptionally confiding at times and I just cannot resist its charm whenever it is present. Perched along the middle storey of the forest, it provided tantalizing views and the angle was quite reasonable for photography as well.

Unbelievably, we had a Banded Broadbill calling very close by. And no sooner had the Black-and-yellow Broadbill retreated back into the dense vegetation of the canopy, a female Banded Broadbill came and took his place. Apart from her exceptionally confiding behaviour, one other thing got our undivided attention – the spur-like feather sticking out from her shoulders. Neither of us have ever seen this before. It goes to show that in birding just when you thought you have seen all there is to see of a species, Mother Nature springs up another surprise to keep you intrigued. Pedu, in the end, did manage to provide a taste of birding over this side of the border for my Thai comrades despite the sight lack of good photographic opportunities.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Beginner's luck

Rain was forecast for this morning but luckily, it was not accurate. Bright blue skies greeted us when we arrive at the mangrove belt along Sungai Batu in Kedah state. However, the heavy downpour last night almost ruined my guests’ maiden birding trip to this part of Peninsular Malaysia. There were just enough patches of dry mud for us to continue with our quest to seek out the alluring birdlife found here. And just like my last visit, the striking Forest Wagtail with its signature sway was the first bird to catch our attention.

It took a while for the Mangrove Pitta to show off its splendour this time but better late than never. As usual, it mesmerized my guests with its charm. My guests, who hail from Kuala Lumpur, are relatively new to the world of birding and the Mangrove Pitta is certainly an awesome bird to have under one’s belt.

The resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers was much more obliging this time. We had plenty of opportunities to enjoy their vivid colouration.

This locality still has a small population of Oriental Magpie-Robins and a young female made a brief appearance today. This famed songster has suffered tremendously in the hands of man and it is getting quite scarce in certain areas like my home state of Penang.

The Puff-throated Babbler was sorely missed during my last visit. Fortunately, we managed to record it this time but it was a brief encounter.

Its cousin, the Abbott’s Babblers, were all over the site and I just could not resist taking an image or two.

As we were making our way out, a lone raptor perched majestically on a dead tree caught our immediate attention. It was a young Crested Serpent-Eagle and on this occasion, the strong backlight hindered me from obtaining any better images.

I had no choice but to stop on the road side just short of a few hundred meters from the junction to Air Hitam Dalam. A huge flock of Asian Openbills were in flight and it was a breath taking sight.

Quite of a number of them were circling quite low overhead and I managed to obtain several good images. It is more than four years since the first Asian Openbill appeared in Penang and I am still fascinated by them.

Part of the flock alighted on a tree just beyond the reserve. It is not often you get to say a tree full of storks unless you are here in mainland Penang where the Asian Openbills continue to congregate in their hundreds.

These enigmatic storks are not the only birds taking full advantage of the hot air thermals. The migratory Black Kite is back in good numbers but the lighting condition is a little challenging.

It was nice to see Dusky Leaf-Monkeys chilling along the elevated boardwalk instead of the usual marauding Long-tailed Macaques.

This Greater Racket-tailed Drongo was feeling a little camera shy today…

There are very few birds in this freshwater swamp forest that can outdo the Black-and-red Broadbill. Not only in terms of aesthetic appeal but charm. The resident were exceptionally affectionate today and a brood of young ones will not be too long to take.

I know the broadbills can be exceptionally tame at times and today, they did not disappoint. And with a colour combination that only the Almighty can conjure, the pair provided the perfect ending to this time’s birding adventure.

Checklists of the birds recorded on this trip:
1. Sungai Batu
2. Air Hitam Dalam

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

A lifer is a lifer

This is probably the worst photo I have ever chosen to be used to start off a post - out of focus, wrong exposure and motion blur. However, it is of a female White-tailed Flycatcher and I have been looking out for this species for many years. This encounter completes my life list of flycatchers found in Peninsular Malaysia and that is certainly cause for celebrations despite the absolutely horrid attempt to capture her image. But a lifer is a lifer and this turned out to be the highlight of the trip for me.

I was with a family of birders from Hong Kong and it is just wrong to spend too much time chasing after a better image of what is to them an uncooperative little brown job. It was a half day tour to the forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah state and the gloomy weather truly tested my skills and knowledge as a bird guide. The number of species recorded was lower than usual and I could only pray for a better excursion tomorrow.

A beautiful sunrise greeted our convoy as we made our way across the Penang Bridge the next day and the promise of better weather lifted my burdens for the trip quite significantly. The first destination was the extensive mangroves of Sungai Batu in Kedah. The Forest Wagtail has been performing relatively well since its arrival from its wintering ground this year and inevitably, it was the first bird to greet us. However, it has an issue with staying completely still and the constant body swaying does it affect our photographic efforts.

The one bird that my guests were really looking forward to was the Mangrove Pitta – naturally. When it appeared, it grabbed everyone’s attention. Its plumage was far from perfect and the vibrancy of its colouration was somewhat lacking. I guess its moult has not completed its full cycle. Anyway, much better than the bald-headed look it was sporting a few weeks back.

The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers are back to their usual splendour as well but the pair was a little shy today. Only the male bird provided me with an opportunity to actually have time to squeeze the shutter. However, I am not complaining. If compared to yesterday, today has been incredible so far.

The resident pair of Puff-throated Babblers was sorely missed today. The Abbott’s Babblers did their best to fill the void and these natural performers charmed their way into my guests’ birding experience in Malaysia. When things started to sizzle down, it was time to proceed to our next destination.

We barely had time to gear up after our arrival at the Air Hitam Educational Forest when we were greeted by a spectacle of nature. A flock of Asian Openbills was taking advantage of the thermals and although they were not in their usual big numbers, it was still quite a sight to see how many large waterbirds in flight.

The female Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was her usual confiding self and her performance was certainly a breath of fresh air. The weather today was indeed significantly better today and naturally, so was the birding.

A flash of green at the canopy level diverted our gaze from the sultry looks of the female Tickell’s Blue-Flycatcher. The Lineated Barbet may not be as elegantly built as the flycatcher but being bulky does have its own appeal. This individual chose to rest on any open perch which they occasionally do and we took the time to soak in the view.

The Brahminy Kite may be one of the commonest raptors in the country but to my guests, it is one striking raptor that they do not have the chance to observe back in Hong Kong.

To wrap things up for the trip, the resident pair of Black-and-red Broadbills doing what they do best – mesmerizing my foreign guests with their beauty and manner. I was so relieved with the results of our second tour. Their teenage son somewhat reminded me of my teenage years as a birder and I am glad eventually I did managed to show him the true wonders of birding here in the tropics. 

The complete checklist from this time's birding excursion can be found here:

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Sometimes he works in mysterious ways

Work schedule and tours have kept me away but it was finally time to visit the active fruiting tree at Sungai Sedim in Kedah state. I reached the borders of the park earlier than usual and came across a few night birds – much to my delight. Two were new site records for me but without my torch, there was not much I could do but watch the Spotted Wood-Owl and Large-tailed Nightjar gradually disappear into the darkness. As I waited near the fruiting tree, a Malaysian Eared-Nightjar called and circled the vicinity one last time to signal the break of dawn. However, the arrival of daylight was not as uplifting as I was hoping for. There were hardly any birds on the fruiting tree and that certainly came as a big surprise. I have had amazing results from this tree for the past few seasons and expectations were high. I guess there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to birding. Anyhow, the first bird that captured my attention was this female Greater Green Leafbird.

The vibrant Grey-bellied Bulbuls were shyer than usual and good photographic opportunities were close to none.

The Red-eyed Bulbul were more confiding but they kept to the upper level of the tree most of the time.

James with his group of Hong Kong birders shared my dismay at the fruiting tree. Thankfully, the gloomy atmosphere did not last long. The silence was shattered when James shouted White-crowned Hornbills and a quick scan along the canopy of the forest produced a flock of these enigmatic birds. It was the one species that was missing from my recent Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition at the hornbill capital of Malaysia where all 10 species occur. I find it rather ironic to see it here at one of my local patches in Kedah state instead. Having said that, this site is a known refuge for the White-crowned Hornbill and all my memorable encounters of this species took place here. Due to the distance and the dense vegetation, initially all I could obtain were record shots but that does not rob me of the overwhelming sensation I felt just to observe this beautiful hornbill in its element.

The flock consisting of two females and one male appeared to be in no hurry to move on from the vicinity of the car park. Naturally, neither were the birders. Despite their size, hornbills are shy creatures and seldom tolerate the presence of humans but that is not the case today. Our patience paid off handsomely when the flock gradually moved about the canopy level because we could finally enjoy some unobstructed views. As always, I am drawn towards male birds despite the fact that the female this time is just as stunning.

We were absolutely astounded by their confiding behaviour and the disappointment with the fruiting tree is all but a fading memory now. I would trade one dozen species patronizing at a fruiting tree for a prolonged encounter with a flock of White-crowned Hornbills anytime. Heck, I would probably trade them for any kind of encounter with this hornbill.

As we were in the car park area on a weekend, our presence and gaze attracted the attention of the other visitors to the park. During our observation of the hornbills, they occasionally flew from tree to tree. Every time they took flight, the group of birders will get all excited and the other visitors were left amazed and mouths agape. Some do not even know that hornbills exist and yet, they are now watching one of the rarest hornbills in Malaysia putting on a spectacular aerial show. Usually, it is the male that leads the way...

Follow by the two ladies. The lighting today was ideal and made my task of capturing white and black birds flying in the sky a lot easier.

One last photo of the White-crowned Hornbills that turned my birding excursion around today is of one the females. She came the closest to the human observers and provided them with a moment they will cherish for a long time to come.

A change of scenery may be required to keep the momentum going and when the hornbills left, I decided to venture into the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam in mainland Penang. As soon as I entered this birding haven, the loud calls of the Common Flameback filled the vicinity. A family of three birds were on the hunt and the constant vocalization of the young one made it easy for me to locate the woodpeckers among the dense foliage. Only the adult male allowed his image to be taken and even the dim lighting and my poor attempts could not supress his striking colouration.

The forest here is also home to the smallest raptor in the world. A title in which the Black-thighed Falconet shares with its Bornean cousin, the White-fronted Falconet. Due to its diminutive size and preference for the tallest trees in which to perch, it is often overlooked. One was resting typically on a tall tree when I chanced upon it. This time however, the perch was reasonably close to the elevated suspension bridge. The entrance to the bridge was a long way away and there is no guarantee the falconet will stay around but for this striking and adorable raptor, it was worth the risk. I rushed as quickly as I could onto the suspension bridge and head towards my quarry. A quick scan along the canopy after catching my breath drew a grin on my face. The falconet was still there and looking fairly relaxed.

In fact, it even started to preen and stretch and I tried to stabilize myself as good as I possibly could on the suspension bridge while enjoying the performance. The Black-thighed Falconet is still very much a gem of a bird to me despite its common status. The lighting was quite harsh as it was midday but I liked how the images turned out in the end. I do not have many images of this tiny raptor that show the finer details of its splendid plumage and this close encounter certainly did.

When I was back on the ground, the characteristic calls of the Black-and-red Broadbill drew me back into the swamp forest again. It is almost impossible to overlook these striking birds as they moved about the gloomy lower storey of the forest. A pair was seen and they appeared to be rather affectionate towards to each other. I was rather please to obtain a few images of the two love birds in a single frame.

As there was nothing much about, I discreetly followed the broadbills as they forage leisurely in their swampy domain. They were unperturbed by my intrusion and allowed me to peer into their world. The experience was interesting and somewhat soothing. It has been a rough week at the office and these forest denizens were the perfect therapeutic treatment for my mental health.

Lighting condition was as still as challenging as the falconet. Despite their confiding nature I had to struggle to get the exposure right. There was a moment during the encounter that I just hung my camera back upon my shoulder and savour the broadbills through my bins. This was how I started out almost 30 years ago and I am grateful I have not forego my birding roots. Anyway, big and colourful bills were the flavours for this time’s birding excursion and it turned out to be a rewarding one despite the disappointment at the fruiting tree.