Monday, 23 April 2018

Two days too late

It started out like any ordinary weekday morning. After checking my emails and messages, I decided to have a quick look at my Facebook. A photo posted by a friend caught my immediate attention. It was a photo of an Oriental Plover – a rare migrant to our shores and a would-be lifer. After obtaining the necessary information, the open country of Kamunting will be my next birding destination two days from now. Dave was about to make a trip to Ipoh on that day and Kamunting was conveniently along the way. Later in the afternoon, I received news from him. Not one but two Oriental Plovers in the bag. And thus began the agonizing wait for the weekend. Two vehicles, four birders, one very plain-looking but rare objective and a vast grassland. Not as vast as the grasslands of Chuping in Perlis but Hor Kee, Nelson, Beng Yean and yours truly still had our work cut out for us.

The most prominent species present were undoubtedly the Oriental Pratincoles. These peculiar but beautiful waders were nesting there and caution had to be taken not too stress them out too much during our search for the Oriental Plovers. The sight of the nesting pratincoles brought back memories of the nesting ground in my home state. Sadly, the site is now nothing but a distant memory.

The next generation of Oriental Pratincoles which in time will grace our world with their graceful aerial agilities…

Normally, where the Oriental Pratincole nests so will the Red-wattled Lapwing. Although not in such high numbers, there were enough of this common but stunning waders around to grab my attention. Come to think of it these birds are natural born attention grabbers with their loud and distinct alarm call and the numbers present does not matter.

I think by now you have more or less have guessed the outcome for my twitch for the Oriental Plovers. If something as rare as this is not mentioned by the second paragraph, it can only spell dip out. Despite a careful sweep for more than 3 hours, we just could not locate the plovers. The trip was not without its highlights and one of them is certainly this – my first ever photo of the Little Buttonquail after all these years.

I was not too disappointed for being too slow to photograph a Barred Buttonquail. The reason being I almost got a clear shot of a male Blue-breasted Quail. Now the latter deserves a lengthy paragraph not only to make up for the crappy image but the bird truly deserves it. Adorable and striking, the male Blue-breasted Quail is one of the most attractive gamebirds in Malaysia. Looking more like a plush soft toy than a real bird, this quail is naturally much sought after. It is not rare. However, to actually see a bird well in the field is often difficult. After all, both quails and buttonquails are the Houdinis of the natural world and their vanishing acts are just as remarkable as the great man’s.

One is bound to come across a Paddyfield Pipit in such a habitat and there were certainly a fair number present. Most were seen in pairs and that saved us the time and headache of trying to determine if they could be some other migratory pipit species.

Common Mynas are one of the most aggressive birds I know. I have witnessed numerous fights between birds of the same species and the majority of these fights involved the Common Myna. These bouts can last for a long time and that can be exhausting. This one lasted about 10 minutes and the loser retreated from the vicinity leaving the victor to enjoy his triumphant moment.

White-headed Munias are not as numerous as some of the other species. However, they seemed to outnumber the rest at this locality. While observing a flock grazing near our position, one of the birds got a little carried away with the feast and wandered very close to our stationary vehicle. But the munia was constantly on the move and photographing the little guy was harder than expected.

Once we were gripped by the possibility of dipping out, desperation set in. We widened our search to beyond the four corners of the grasslands. There are a few former mining pools in the vicinity and these man made wetlands are now home to the local wildlife including birds. It always nice to see an adult Purple Heron although it is not uncommon. The size and colouration makes it attractive species that I still cannot ignore to this day.

The Black-backed Swamphen, on the other hand, is a waterfowl that I do not come across often enough. It is most probably extinct from my home state and this site is probably the closest one to home that I can admire the beauty of the swamphen. It has a preference for the invasive Hyacinth plant and the colouration of this water plant does help to bring out the radiance of the bird. I guess I did not go home empty handed in the end. Of course it would have been great to get the Oriental Plover but things do not always go according to plan. Hopefully, my time will come in the near future and until then, flocks of Pacific Golden Plover will be scrutinized as usual for a chance of an Oriental Plover.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Reliving a sweet memory

A teenage birder was making his way to a birding site one morning and stopped by a 7-11 store for supplies before getting on with his journey. A loud shriek followed by a fury of wings got his immediate attention. A murder of House Crows tormented and chased a bird which was left with no choice but to fly into the store in a desperate attempt to escape its attackers. The teenager immediately came to the aid of the bird which was undoubtedly disoriented and terrified. At first glance, the bird appeared to be a White-rumped Shama to him. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be something much better. It was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo - a species this teenager has been dreaming to encounter in the field.

Without hesitation, he picked up the cuckoo with the intention of setting it free far away from the marauding crows that were still lingering in the vicinity. It was a lucky day for both parties. The teenage human got his much-anticipated lifer and the cuckoo avoided the dreadful fate of being caged for life or worse – ending up in a cooking pot. The teenager’s mode of transport was a motorcycle. His ride had no basket and he, a free hand to carry the cuckoo. The only way he could think of to transport the cuckoo comfortably was to snuggle it in his shirt. He made his way to an isolated road and when the coast was clear, did a quick check on the cuckoo for any obvious signs of injuries. He then placed the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo on his arm and released his grip. It took a while for the cuckoo to realise it was free again and when it did, glided down a small ravine and alighted at the edge of the secondary forest. It uttered a series of harsh notes as if to thank its young rescuer before disappearing into the dense vegetation.

In time, I learned through experience that the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo is shy by nature and often difficult to approach. Twenty years later, that encounter I had as a teenager remained to be my most intimate with this beautiful migrant. That is until I made a last minute trip recently to Air Hitam Dalam in the hopes of obtaining some images of a male Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher on passage. It was midday by the time I arrived and unfortunately, the main reason for the visit was no where to be seen. As I walked the elevated walkway one more time, a rustling of leaves from the lower storey of the swamp forest was the first excitement of the trip. An ungainly bird then hopped into view barely an arm’s length away and it turned out to be a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. I expected it to disappear into vegetation as usual when it caught sight of me but not this time.

It was totally at ease with my presence and I found this behaviour rather odd. Nevertheless, I proceeded to capture its images as the cuckoo continued to hunt and devour all sorts of insects. From the looks of it, this particular patch was teeming with prey. It is no wonder the cuckoo was so confiding. After all, gluttony is a deadly sin that even the shyest species will give in to at times.

This is the closest I have come to a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo for a long time and to add icing to the cake, the encounter was not a brief one. For a moment there, the teenage birder was back and gawking at his first ever Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. One of the best things in life is to be able to relive a sweet memory from your younger years and this time, it was all courtesy of this stunning bird.

As the cuckoo moved about, it will sometimes alighted in places where the lighting was more favourable. Naturally, I obtained my best images of this species to date. The slightly tattered tail did not matter. Neither did the occasional obstructing vegetation. Not when this cuckoo was so unbelievably tame.

I may have missed out shooting the Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher and a Grey Nightjar (which I found out later back home was seen earlier here today) but this episode with the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo formed another memorable chapter of this species in my life. I always believe birding is about moments and not just lifers and rarities. And this moment with the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo rejuvenated me in more ways than one.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Good day, mate - Part 4

It took a moment to acclimatize to the hot and humid conditions of lowland tropical rain forests after three days in Fraser’s Hill. The short trek to Sungai Congkak Forest Reserve’s stakeout point reminded how good we had it up at the hill resort. My Australian guests were on the final leg of their 4-day tour and this would be their last destination. The distant thunder threatened to cut short this last excursion here in Selangor state. But all worries about the gloomy weather and pesky mosquitoes vanished when the first bird of this birding hotspot made an appearance. The Horsfield’s Babbler is not common anywhere in Malaysia. It has been years since my last sighting of the Horsfield’s Babbler and the confiding nature of this individual got me just as excited as my guests. I finally have images of this scarce but drab-looking forest bird and it felt good.

Lowland babblers are generally difficult to observe due to their active nature and preference for dense vegetation. Stakeouts like this is probably the only place you can enjoy intimate encounters with them. The White-chested Babbler occurs in one of my local patches and it took a lot of effort to obtain the handful of images I have of this species. Here, the bird is much more confiding and will occasionally abandoned its skulking behaviour and wander out into the open.

There are two passerines in Malaysia that walk instead of hop as they move about the forest floor. One is the enigmatic Malaysian Rail-Babbler. And the other, though not so charismatic, is the Black-capped Babbler. Like the former, its distinctive call is usually the only indication of its presence. When seen in good light, the Black-capped Babbler is quite a striking bird and I certainly do not come across this all that often.

The reigning star bird of this locality is the Rufous-backed Kingfisher. Amazing colouration makes it a true jewel of the forest but its minute size makes it difficult to locate. I was smitten by its beauty when I made my maiden visit to the location last year. No longer a first timer, I thought I would be able to control my emotions better this time but I was wrong. I was just spellbound. This little kingfisher is truly something else.

Even without eye contact, this image of the Rufous-backed Kingfisher facing away was still a keeper to me.

There were a few newcomers to the stakeout and one of them was a female Siberian Blue Robin. She was still wary of human presence and kept her distance. That was a real shame because although it is not a rare bird, I still do not have any decent photographs of this migratory robin. By then the weather had turned for the worst. When the rain started to trickle down, we knew better than to stay on. So concluded my tour with the Knights. It was a rewarding trip and I enjoyed it as much as my guests.

I stayed over at Victor’s place for the night with the intention of dragging him along for some birding in the morning before I take the long drive back to Penang. He took me to a wader roost in Jeram along the Selangor coastline and we timed our arrival with the rising tide. We were greeted by a spectacle of nature as hundreds of waders were roosting on the sandy shore. It was their high tide roost and the landscape of the beach allowed us to creep right up to them without giving away our presence.

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers present at such close quarters. One of the reasons animals flock together in big numbers is to evade a predator as there is safety in numbers. Sometimes a predator may become disoriented and unable to single out one quarry to pursue.  It has the same effect on photographers as well. When I finally regain my composure, I found that the majority of the waders present were Lesser Sand-Plovers and some were sporting their smart summer plumage.

Red-necked Stints were in good numbers here as well and like the plovers, some were in breeding plumage. At times, these peeps wandered very close to my position. It has been a long time since I last enjoyed such intimate encounters with roosting waders. Most of the roost sites in Penang have shifted to inaccessible locations. I am glad Victor brought me to this location. It was just like the good old days when wader watching was awesome back in my home state.

Despite a careful sweep, there were no rarities among the flock. I was not disappointed. Birding is not always about rarities and lifers. It is also about losing yourselves among the wonders of nature. It is about finding solitude in your main passion in life. It is about discovering experiences that last a lifetime. Even a common species like the Curlew Sandpiper can awe and inspire – especially if it is in its splendid breeding plumage.

Whenever the roosting flock took flight, it was a whirlwind of wings and feathers. The sight and sound of hundreds of birds taking off and alighting back at the same place was breath taking indeed.

This is how you shoot at this wader roost. Camouflaged attire to blend in. On your knees to break the human form, for better photographic angle and to show gratitude to a greater power for the opportunity to experience this rewarding moment.

The waders gradually disappeared with the receding tide. We then combed the rugged shore line for any other birding highlights to add to the visit here.

Like a scene from the Cretaceous Period, three prehistoric-looking beasts were hunting along the exposed mud. Even at this distance there is no mistaking the Lesser Adjutant.

There are a few ways to describe this endangered stork but I do not feel ugly is one of them. Every bird is beautiful in its own way. This stork is one of my favourite birds and that will tell you how I feel about its appearance. Unfortunately, the Lesser Adjutant is getting scarce in my home state and a sight like this is rare to come by.

I guess habitat destruction and human encroachment is to blame. I am always a sucker for large water birds and the Lesser Adjutant being the biggest here in Malaysia, will always have a special place in my heart.

During my drive back to Penang, I made a quick detour Kek Lok Tong Temple for a break and some birding. This temple is a popular birding location and since it is at the halfway point of my drive home, it is a regular pit stop of mine whenever I travel back from the central region. True to its reputation, I was greeted by a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls at the entrance to the temple. The origins of the pair is questionable as native birds are restricted to the north of the peninsular. However, there were doubts about their vocal abilities and aesthetic appeal.

The Blue Rock-Thrush is very much a part of this temple cave. Located at one of the many limestone outcrops throughout Ipoh town in Perak, the temple is an ideal refuge for this beautiful dweller of rocky terrains. As usual, the male is more striking than the female and had my initial attention.

The female does not lag very far from the male in the looks department and received a fair share of affection.

There is another avian resident of this temple cave. One that has somehow managed to evade me on every visit here. The Blue Whistling Thrush is somewhat uncommon as I do not come across it often when I am out in the field. This temple is probably one of the best places to observe and photograph the species. But as fate would have it, it was another failed attempt. To take its place was a surprisingly tame female Asian Emerald Dove. This usually shy member of the dove family provided a fitting end to my interstate birding adventure.