Thursday, 13 December 2018

Smitten by bitterns

Brothers Nigel and Jimmy are regular guests of mine whom through the years, have become friends. We certainly have our share of birding excursions in far off lands. In fact plans are being made for another birding adventure next year and if it materializes, it would be my biggest birding trip ever. Anyway, closer to home the brothers were back in Penang for a family holiday and they managed to allocate a day for birding. One of their targets this time was the Scaly-breasted Bulbul and I knew exactly where to take them for this striking forest gem. Upon arrival at the forest surrounding Pedu Lake in Kedah state, we were greeted by sunny blue skies and that is a somewhat rare commodity these days. Then and there I had a very good feeling about today’s trip and my gut instinct was right on the money as I was about to find out.

The fruiting tree was still in full swing and birds were diving in from every corner. It did not take long to locate the first Scaly-breasted Bulbul. Everything about the bird’s appearance shouts attention and it certainly had ours. A little patience yielded better photographic opportunities as the bulbuls started to wander lower down to forage. The lighting condition today was such a stark difference from my last visit here a few days back. Naturally, the images revealed more of the bulbul’s true splendour. I was feeling elated although the Scaly-breasted Bulbul is not new to me. My guests, were overwhelmed.

When we could finally break ourselves free from the hold these bulbuls had on us, we took a slow walk along the access road seeking more denizens of this lush landscape. The grassy patches along the edge of the forest are frequented by the rarest munia species in Peninsular Malaysia. Pedu is the only one of my regular birding sites where the White-bellied Munia is recorded. I could hardly contained my excitement when we came across a small flock right next to the road. The dense vegetation made it frustratingly difficult to obtain unobstructed views. After many attempts and streams of profanity later, one member of the flock alighted on an exposed perch to soak in the warm rays of the morning sun. There was a small gap in the vegetation to allow me my moment of glory and that was more than I could ever wish for.

Nowadays, every Ashy Minivet that I encounter will be given its due attention to ensure that I do not overlook similar but much rarer species. There was nothing unusual about this female Ashy Minivet but she did provide a stellar performance for this group of visiting birders.

A trogon perched at eye level got my imagination running wild and almost had me believing I was staring at the highly sought after Cinnamon-rumped Trogon. But when reality took back the reins, there was no denying the presence of red on the rump. The Scarlet-rumped Trogon may be the most frequently encountered species but it has enough finesse to brighten up any birding excursion. Not that today’s excursion needed any brightening.

Not quite as appealing as the trogon, the Streaked Bulbul still deserves some recognition as it not a common species. It does not usually patronize fruiting trees and prolonged encounters like this one will not go unappreciated.

During my last visit here, our group had an exhilarating encounter with a Giant Forest Scorpion. Today, it was a Spider Wasp living up its namesake. This skilful hunter has just caught a spider of similar size and was dragging its prey off into the forest. Pedu never ceases to amaze.

Raptors were certainly up and about today and I bet it had a lot to do the sunny weather we were enjoying. The first of these predatory birds to cross our path was a Crested Goshawk. It is a beautiful raptor and here in the north, we are not blessed with many encounters. What did I tell you about my gut feeling in the beginning of this post?

The far carrying territorial calls of the Crested Serpent-Eagle echoed through the vicinity on more than one occasion. However, this common but still impressive raptor did not get down low enough for any memorable shots.

Today, the Oriental Honey-Buzzards were everywhere. It is a little late in the season but they still appeared to be on migration. A flock of 5 buzzards taking full advantage of the rising thermals gained our undivided attention.

As we were enjoying the small spectacle, I swore I heard the cries of a Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle. Upon further observation, one of the ‘buzzards’ looked a bit odd and when it took a swoop at a nearby comrade only did I realized it was the Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle that I heard. The concentration of Oriental Honey-Buzzards must have hit a nerve and the eagle took matters into its own wings. The Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle was the fourth and final species of raptor to make an appearance during our visit here.

However, the bird of the day at this site do not rule the skies. It is a docile dweller of the canopy levels with a combination of vibrant colours that makes it one of the most alluring species in the tropical rain forest. The Red-billed Malkoha is not a rare species here and when one is privileged enough to encounter it foraging along the lower levels, it will be a memorable experience. It is not a particularly shy bird but has a knack to stay partly hidden by the vegetation.

Today was indeed our lucky day because it alighted on an exposed perch during its foray out of its comfort zone and for that brief moment, time came to a complete standstill. We found ourselves lost in this Red-billed Malkoha’s mesmerizing beauty. Life can be beautiful at times.

The next location we visited was the mangroves of Sungai Batu and the resident White-breasted Waterhen was the first to greet our arrival.

Inquisitive as ever, the resident pair of Abbott’s Babbler provided some good photographic opportunities as they moved about the vicinity.

Only the female Mangrove Blue Flycatcher presented herself well enough for me to photograph this time.

I have brought the brothers to this spot before but that does not stop them from getting all excited when the Mangrove Pitta hopped into the view. As a matter of fact, it did not stop me either...

The main reason for our visit to this site was for the Forest Wagtail. This adorable migrant did not show itself during the brothers’ last visit here. Thankfully, history did not repeat itself today and ample views were obtained.

From the mangroves, we then tried our luck at the paddy fields of mainland Penang. We were greeted by a splendid view of a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings resting in a sea of green. The distance could not produce any reasonably good images but the encounter certainly provided a moment to be cherished.

On the next patch of paddy field, we were delighted to find a young bird resting much closer to the access road. The afternoon light today certainly complimented the image of this unusually confiding Grey-headed Lapwing well.

A number of Whiskered Terns were present in the vicinity as well today. Graceful and beautiful, it is always a joy to see them float about in search of food. However, it is not easy to capture them in flight. A flock at rest is the best alternative.

The isolated trees within the paddy fields were again alive with starlings. Since it is that time of the year again, we scrutinized the flocks hoping for some Christmas magic. But it was not to be and only the usual Daurian Starlings were recorded. And their memorable performance helped to ease my disappointment of failing to reconnect with the much rarer White-shouldered Starling that I recently photographed here.

The Jungle Myna is relatively common here but the same cannot be said for built-up areas on the island. Stiff competition from the other myna species are reducing the population of Jungle Mynas as a whole in this state. There could be more bad news as the Javan Mynas are inevitably colonizing their way up north.

The Common Kingfisher is a regular winter visitor to the vicinity but can be easily overlooked due to its small size. Do not be misled by the name. Although it is not rare, it does take some luck and effort to see one in the wild. This female bird was hunting from a clean perch at eye level and together with her lovely plumage, made her rather conspicuous and a good subject for photography.

On the other hand, the White-throated Kingfisher can be seen on every visit here. It is not only due to its stunning appearance and larger size. It is by far the commonest inland kingfisher in Malaysia. Usually ignored due to its abundance but today I felt like paying homage to every confiding bird we encounter as a sign of gratitude for the good fortune we have been given today – weather and bird wise.

A small patch of reeds next to the access road provided one of the highlights of the trip. There was a Yellow Bittern was on the hunt and it was not the least perturbed by our presence.

We had to shift our vehicle midway during our observation because of an approaching vehicle. I usually curse under my breath in times like these (although it is no fault of the other vehicle) but this time, it turned out to be a blessing. The slight shift produced a second bittern that was there all this while undetected. I have seen this ‘Kungfu’ pose in the works of others and today, I finally got my own. Bitterns can be confiding at times but today, these individuals were amazing.

Unbelievable as it may seem, there was a third bittern in this very spot and for the second time today (the Oriental Honey Buzzards at Pedu and now this), we found ourselves surrounded by the subject we so passionately seek. There was some Christmas magic in the air after all.

The dreadful weather that has been plaguing our lands of late finally crept up later in the evening. For once, it was of no worry as I was about to conclude the tour. It has been an incredible day despite the lack of any true rarities. A refreshing difference after several trips of difficult and wet birding. The tropics no doubt houses some of the most fascinating and enchanting bird species in the world but the challenges will always be there and you will have to rely on your passion to get you through.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Soaked to the bone

The weather has not been promising of late with heavy downpours a regular feature each evening. To provide memorable birding tours at a time like this will be no walk in the park. My latest guests are from England and forest birds are mostly what they seek for their two-day birding excursion in northern Peninsular Malaysia. The lush jungles of Bukit Wang in Kedah state was the first locality of the day. The weather was not an issue but the birds, were. We had a few exciting but brief encounters that included uncommon species like the Malayan Night-Heron and Bat Hawk but none managed to make their way into my memory card. Lucky for me, this British couple appreciates the experience as much as they do the birds and the ambience shrouding Bukit Wang is impressive to say the least. However, they signed up for a birding tour and my reputation was at stake here. There is one place I can count on in times of need and it is the mangroves of Sungai Bate. The swampy terrain houses a number of exquisite species and it did not take long for the first one to appear. The Mangrove Blue Flycatchers are one of the most obliging species of this stakeout and the pair was just amazing on this gloomy day.

One particular branch seemed to suit their fancy and both took turns to alight and pose on it.

The regal plumage of the Stripe-throated Bulbul has yet to go stale with me (I doubt it ever will) and several images were obtained today without the slightest hesitance. The overcast sky was a blessing in disguise as it blocked out the harsh lighting conditions of midday.

I even fell in love with the images of the commoner Abbott’s Babbler taken today. It could be the lighting or the mere fact that I did not have one single image worth sharing from the morning excursion at Bukit Wang.

The White-breasted Waterhen towers over the rest of the birds present at the stakeout and naturally, it usually gets its way.

When the Mangrove Pitta finally appeared, the reaction of my guests almost vanquished all my guilt from the disappointing morning. Even the White-breasted Watermen had to give way to the king of the block. And his majesty was in perfect form having recovered from his post breeding moult.

Swaying its way to the stakeout, the Forest Wagtails are adorable and striking birds that made the visit to this birding hotspot complete. A mossy latch incidentally provided a fresh backdrop and we pit our photography skills against the constant movement of the birds.

The Malaysian Pied-Fantail is not a regular patron here but its inquisitive nature got the better of it and provided a reasonable shot before continuing with its frantic foraging style deeper in the swamp forest.

A detour to the paddy fields of mainland Penang before concluding day one of this birding endeavour yielded an unusually obliging Grey-headed Lapwing. This locality is one of its strongholds here in Malaysia. But the Grey-headed Lapwing is suspicious of human presence and it does not take much to send an entire flock of these migrants fleeing to a distant patch.

Brown Shrikes are also winter visitors but unlike the lapwings, they occur in a variety of habitats throughout the country. And this one, wrapped things up for the day.

The next morning, we found ourselves at another pristine forest in Kedah state. Pedu has all the potential of a great forest birding site and I was counting on that to compensate for yesterday’s let down. However, the weather was dark and wet upon our arrival. The fruiting fig trees were a hive of bird activities but the poor lighting was a hindrance to photography. The Thick-billed Flowerpecker is one species that I do not have enough images of. Despite present in good numbers, it was near impossible to capture minute and active birds in this condition. As usual, there were bulbuls gorging on the fruits. No amount of gloom can ever drown out the electrifying present of the Scaly-breasted Bulbuls. This poor effort to capture the beauty of the bird does no justice to it at all.

Another fruiting fig tree deeper in the forest held the attention of some of the shy giants that call this place home. The majestic hornbills, despite their large stature, can be frustrating shy. It was a distant shot but to have two species of these amazing birds in one frame is no mundane affair. Both the Oriental Pied and Black Hornbills are common residents here. And this is my first image of the latter despite countless visits to this locality through the years.

There were moments of magic that reminded me why I bother to take the four-hour round trip to this locality so regularly. One was courtesy of a pair of Banded Woodpeckers. It was a prolonged encounter with the loving couple foraging in close proximity to each other. When the birds took a breather from the hunt and rested on a dead tree, we took the time to truly appreciate their striking plumages.

Another highlight of the visit here came in an unlikely form. It was a Giant Forest Scorpion and the name was no exaggeration. We found the formidable creature crossing the access road and did our best to obtain some images before it disappeared back into the lush tropical rainforest. If looks could kill, we would be in deep trouble. The sinister claws, the wicked tail and the overall appearance of the scorpion is just pure evil. However, looks can be deceiving and it is quite harmless if you let it be. The encounter produced mixed reactions of awe and fear. But for me, it was more of the former.

The weather worsened later in the morning with the occasional drizzles getting heavier. I had to make a call and I abandoned the notion of waiting for the weather to improve. I decided to take my guests to a spot with a view to consume our packed lunch. The unobstructed view of Beris Lake must have made quite an impact on the British couple and lunch lasted longer than expected as they soaked in the view whilst enjoying some local coffee. The experiences are just as important to them and there is more to life than just birds – something I often find hard to comprehend.

Our next location turned to be a disaster. For once, I appreciate the gazebos built around the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. A heavy thunderstorm caught us in the middle of our walk around the locality and we had to take shelter in one of these gazebos while the wrath of the storm struck down on us with unforgiving intensity. Cold, soaked and frustrated, we had no choice but to wait it out for almost an hour. When the rain lessened, we started to make our way home but not before swinging by the paddy fields again. There, I found my rainbow at the end of the storm and it was a handsome male White-shouldered Starling. I do not have enough images of this irregular winter visitor and this one, despite the obstructing twigs and leaves, is my best effort to date.

The sight of a Long-tailed Shrike may not be of much significance in the southern half of Peninsular Malaysia. Here in Penang, this beautiful bird is locally extinct and now only occurs here as rare migrants. This record shot pretty much depicts our birding excursion today and the poor shrike, soaked to the bone, provided the ending for our two-day birding expedition. The shrike certainly did not hope for this foul weather at its wintering ground and neither did we. The rain did hamper our efforts to observe some of the alluring bird life found in the forests here but the Greater power at work did provide enough moments to ensure my guests will have treasured memories to accompany them home.