Thursday, 9 April 2020

Home sweet home?

I found myself staring at a 28-day partial lock down as a strict Movement Control Order was laid down in place by the Malaysian government. That is a long time to go without birding. To help me keep my sanity and feed my often insatiable appetite for birding, I challenged myself to come up with a post for my blog and all the contents must be obtained from my home balcony. It would be a difficult one because a few years back, the management decided to chop down every single tree that is in plain sight from my balcony but I figured the challenge might do me some good. I could walk around the compound in order to obtain better images but with all the neighbours home-bound, I will draw even more stares and attention than I usually do. This home quarantine has made me slightly temperamental and I certainly do not need to subject myself to unnecessary stress. Nope, this post was an accumulative effort of a couple of hours each day over a period of one week from my balcony and my housing area is not exactly what one would consider as good for birding.

The most prominent species of bird here is not even a wild bird. Feral Pigeons thrive living alongside humans. Some of these pigeons do possess a striking resemblance to the wild Rock Pigeons but apparently, the only pure Rock Pigeons in Malaysia are the ones found at Batu Caves in Selangor state.

These pigeons multiple rapidly and often successfully. So much so that they are considered as pests by some. I noticed that the pigeons have started to pair up again or are trying their best to do so. Subtlety plays no part in courtship and this amorous male is prove to that.

Somehow Feral Pigeons have a way of earning the affections of non-birders and will receive handouts regularly from them. Every morning without fail, the pigeons will descend from the rooftops and gorge themselves on the offerings courtesy of my neighbours.

Now, the Spotted Dove is a truly wild bird and it is also doing well – not only here but throughout the country. Unlike the Feral Pigeons, it takes no interest in the handouts. It could be pride or it could be survival instincts but the Spotted Dove rarely exhibits the ridiculously bold behaviour of those feral birds.

With the absence of trees in front of my balcony, a row of lamp posts is the most strategic perch for photography. It is amazing how your perception of things can change when there is absolutely no choice to the matter.

The adorable Zebra Dove shares a similar fate with the Spotted Dove. Both are popular cage birds but despite of that, the wild populations are still doing well. A pair was getting very comfortable with each other at a building rooftop across from mine. It came as no surprise as it now the breeding season and most of the birds here were showing signs of that.

Being smaller, it was much more challenging to capture decent images of the Zebra Dove and its numbers here are much lower as well. The closest this dove ever came to my position was when it alighted on the perimeter fencing. For a species that is often obliging in normal times, I surprised even myself when a sense of achievement briefly developed within me after obtaining this far from ideal image. Or maybe it is just my cabin fever acting up again.

The sweet bubbly call of the Yellow-vented Bulbul is very much the dawn chorus of this bustling neighbourhood in the outskirts of Georgetown City. Here, it is convenient living because everything is literally at our doorstep. Everything except good birding, that is.

Anyway, the Yellow-vented Bulbul is another success story because it has adapted well to life among humans and this trait alone will almost ensure you of your existence in this world. The Mohawk does earn the bulbul some points when it comes to appearance but the bird does not linger close often enough for good photographic opportunities.

The resident pair of Common Mynas can be seen strutting around the vicinity except during the hottest parts of the day. Although abundant in the country, Common Mynas are full of character and can be a delight to observe.

Like most myna species, it is very adaptable and opportunistic. However here in Penang Island, the Common Myna faces stiff competition from the Crested Myna. There are certain localities where it is significantly outnumbered but the Common Myna still remains as one of the commonest birds on the island.

Being somewhat of a Penang Island specialty, the Crested Myna was an introduced bird that has been accepted into the national checklist. Apparently, the tropical island ambience suits it well and the population is blooming here and nowhere else in the country. A pair moved into the neighbourhood about a year back and they have been a regular sight since. It says a lot about one’s character if you are able to compete and even better the likes of a Common Myna.

During my challenge, this species provided the best photographic opportunities. Beggars cannot be choosers and I took those opportunities with much enthusiasm. I cannot recall the last time when this locally common species stirred up such exhilaration.

Due to the Crested Myna’s status here in my home state, it is usually taken for granted by local birders. Occasionally, I am guilty of this too and it is unfair to the bird. Sporting a sultry black plumage and an absolutely wicked crest, it is a stunning bird. And this time-at-home period opened up my eyes to the beauty of the Crested Myna again.

The lamp posts again provided the magic (I cannot believe that I actually wrote that) for my photographic efforts. From the looks of it, the birds here are fond of these manmade perches as well. The Feral Pigeons are harmless but they are cumbersome. The facial expression of this Crested Myna says it all when a pigeon decided to squeeze in on the perch.

Clumsy as it may be, the pigeon still has the mentality to practice social distancing which is more than I can say for some of my fellow humans...

Asian Glossy Starlings can form huge flocks to roost but unfortunately, not in this neighbourhood. This week their numbers were relatively lower and although most of us have been requested to take a break from work, I can see Murphy is still hard at work maintaining his law. Then on one beautiful morning, a lone individual alighted on a water pipe of the unit above mine. The perch was hideous and obstructing but thankfully, it could not obscure the true radiance of an Asian Glossy Starling.

Back when I was an easily excited teenage birder, I used to travel all the way to the fruit orchards in the southern part of the island to watch Dollarbirds and their aerial displays. At that time, it was a sight very foreign to me and I found these birds to be remarkable. Anyway, a lone individual will usually come round in the evenings and I was that teenage once again as I marvelled at the Dollarbird’s presence and occasional sallies. The backdrop of brick and mortar may not be as appealing as the lush greenery of the orchards but at least this common bird gave me something to look forward each evening.

Being married to a birder has enriched my wife’s knowledge on birds including their calls. And when it comes to bird vocalizations here in the city, the Asian Koel has no rivals. Loud and unbelievably persistent, the territorial call of this parasitic cuckoo is a regular sound in my neighbourhood. Inevitably, my wife has had ample opportunities to learn the calls. To actually see the bird, on the other hand, requires effort and luck as it often keeps itself concealed. A fruiting palm tree was the only reason I managed a few record shots during my challenge and even then, the Asian Koel rarely gave in to the temptation.

One other bird that she has learned to recognize by call quite efficiently is the White-throated Kingfisher. It will announce its arrival by filling the vicinity with its tremulous call and needless to say, striking appearance.  My wife still has to go to work during this lockdown period because she is attached to a private hospital. Although she is not really on the frontline, the risk is very real for her. Whenever I see the White-throated Kingfisher in this difficult time, an uneasy feeling creeps in. My better half is the only thing that makes sense in this world other than the birds. Everyone should be fighting this war but from what that I can see, it is not the case. She is out there doing her battle and I am proud of her. My only concern is that I cannot be there to protect her.

The vibrant colours of the Black-naped Oriole is a welcomed sight here. Its beautiful song is a reminder that the world is not such a gloomy place after all. Some might find solitude in religion and others in music but for me, it is always the birds. The Black-naped Oriole has a preference for trees when alighting and that puts me out of luck except for a few rare occasions.

I hate to admit it but the king of the block is the marauding House Crow. There is a reason why they are called a murder of crows. Although I am not terribly fond of this species, I have to respect its intelligence and tenacity. Nothing is safe when these birds have their eyes locked on it. Luckily House Crows are not capable of killing everything at will but they certainly have mastered the art of harassing and tormenting their victims.

However for several months each year, this ruthless king will be temporarily dethroned. For there is one that can strike fear even in the hearts of the hardiest House Crows. The Peregrine Falcon has a cosmopolitan distribution and in Malaysia, it occurs as both migrant and resident. The migrants will usually winter in concrete jungles where it reigns supreme. Even the House Crows do not mess with this deadly predator and that is one of the reasons why it is my all-time favourite bird (apart from the mighty Harpy Eagle of South America). For me the Peregrine Falcon is the most exciting bird to be found from home and through the years, I have seen it on several occasions. During the challenge, fleeting views in flight (it is the fastest bird in the world) was all that was given. A stroke of good luck produced this distant image of the Peregrine Falcon looking over its kingdom from a lofty perch. It was an unworthy shot for such an amazing bird but it was the one shot I wanted the most for this post.

There is one more raptor that makes me feel blessed I can enjoy it from the comforts of my balcony and it is the majestic White-bellied Sea-Eagle. Penang Island has the highest density of White-bellied Sea-Eagles in Malaysia and they are also one of the largest eagles around. The sight of these eagles soaring effortlessly on those huge wings is very impressive indeed and even after all these years, it still takes my breath away.

I stay relatively close to the coast and this raptor can be seen regularly making its way out and back from the sea. Evenings will usually have the White-bellied Sea-Eagles returning and occasionally, with fish securely in their talons.

I am elated I managed to obtain enough content for a decent blog posting despite all the drawbacks. In fact, I rather enjoyed the whole challenge. The birds, regardless of status, still continue to thrill and amaze. Surprisingly, the sunsets here can be quite lovely at times. Something that I usually do not take notice of. To quote from an antihero lead character in a movie that has some relevance to what we are facing today - enjoy the little things. And that I shall.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Reaping rewards from the reeds - Part 2

Still using my vehicle as a mobile hide but abandoning the bittern approach to hunting, I drove slowly skirting the marshlands of Batu Kawan in search of more birds. Yellow Bitterns are undoubtedly the commonest of all the bitterns here. They are usually more confiding as well and it is not too difficult to approach them especially if you do it using a vehicle.

The lighting conditions and obstructing vegetation often foiled my attempts for better images of this species as usual.

With years of experience, you will be able to master the art of field craft to enable you to approach birds easily – in your dreams, that is. A lot will ride on luck and the mood the birds are in. Most of the time you can and will be outdone by the birds, trust me. But sometimes, when the birds are obliging enough and Lady Luck is by your side, you will get what your heart desires.

Unlike the bittern, I found the Eurasian Moorhens to have little tolerance for human presence. It took some effort before I managed some reasonable images but these lovely and graceful birds are worth the trouble. This birding hotspot has a good number of Eurasian Moorhens and I encountered them a few times throughout the trip.

I thought they were shy on water but on dry land, they are even worse. When out of its element, this water bird is likely to feel particularly vulnerable which is understandable. God forbid if it lets a birder enjoy fetching views of its awkward gait. Or worse, post the images on his blog for all to see.

The next dweller of this marshy realm stopped me at my tracks. For when it comes to beauty, the Grey-headed Swamphen is utterly gorgeous. Boasting a plumage of shades of purplish-blue and not to mention a striking red bill and frontal shield, this water bird is certainly a feast for the eyes. This individual was resting openly at edge of the marsh when our paths crossed and with the lighting much in my favour, today’s birding excursion provided yet another treasured encounter for me.

It is not an uncommon species but I do not come across it often enough in my usual birding locations here in northern Peninsular Malaysia. This locality and its vast reed beds is probably the last stronghold of the Grey-headed Swamphen in Penang state but that did not make it easy to encounter one. This was my fourth visit here and the first time I actually got to see the bird.

Purple Herons, though common, are another spectacular water bird that is thriving here. Unfortunately, I did not have much luck with the adults today.

The juveniles lacking the vibrancy of the adults are still impressive. Despite its towering stature, the Purple Heron can be relatively shy at times. Young birds have a tendency to be bolder and that offered some compensation for their duller appearance.

A confiding juvenile Purple Heron right out in the open may not be that exciting to most. But for me, a sucker for water birds especially the big ones, the youngster’s performance certainly did not go unappreciated.

This photo depicting a pair of Asian Openbills perched over the marshlands somehow reminded me of my amazing trip to Cambodia. Well, this is certainly not Cambodia – not even by a long shot. But for a place located within of one the most rapidly developing states in the country, it is heaven sent.

Asian Openbills are the most numerous of the big water birds found here in the marshlands of Batu Kawan. I have come to learn from previous trips that they are exceptionally bold here as well. And I cannot help but to take a number of images of these unique storks - again.

With a diet that consists primarily of snails, I thought that the Asian Openbills have it made. There were plenty of Golden Apple Snails judging from the eggs deposited throughout the vicinity. It was not until I started following foraging storks that I realized it was not a walk in the park for them. It took effort to fill their stomachs - just like every other bird species. I must have observed at least three individuals but not even one ended its foray with success.

I rarely use a tripod for my photography and that is a major hindrance when shooting videos. That is why I usually keep my crappy clips for my own viewing. Anyway, one Asian Openbill was hunting so close to my vehicle that it would be a shame if I only took still images. Luckily, I could brace my gear against the window sill of my vehicle and it provided the support I needed for a decent video capture. The day just keeps getting better.

On the opposite side of the access road from the marshlands lies a big area of mangroves. A network of shallow tidal canals weave their way among the exposed roots and one such canal ran quite close to the access road. I invested some time here because of the presence of foraging waders. There were no exceptional species present but birding is not always about rarities. Poise and sensual, the Black-winged Stilt is one of my favourite waders. This lone male was not perturbed by my presence and continued his daily routine in full view.

Smaller but no less elegant was the Marsh Sandpiper. This individual was obtaining its striking breeding plumage and soon, it will probably be able to give the stilt a run for its money. I have not used these words in a long time - reflections of wings and inspiration...

A preening ‘Swintail’ Snipe had my undivided attention as I saw an opportunity to confirm its identity. Or so I thought. I took a lot of images with emphasis on the tail region especially when fanned out. Back home, I sent my best efforts to my man Dave only to be disappointed again. The images did not quite show the outer tail feathers well enough and without that, it is impossible to tell the Swinhoe’s Snipe from the Pin-tailed Snipe.

I normally keep my post light but since I have touched on the subject, do allow me to attempt to finish what I started. These two images were taken with permission from Dave Bakewell’s posting on snipe identification. The title of the article is Keep Calm and Study Snipes. Well, calm is not exactly what I feel when it comes to identifying these snipes. It is, please excuse the language and no disrespect to the author, fucking frustrating. Anyway, here is a Swinhoe’s Snipe with its tail when fanned out for a positive identification...

And here, a Pin-tailed Snipe. Go knock yourself out. On a more serious note if you are interested to know how to truly differentiate the two snipes, here is Dave’s informative article.

Although this trip was predominantly for water birds, the land birds did play a part to make this birding excursion complete. I have not noticed any other munias present here apart from the Chestnut Munia. It could just be a coincidence but whatever the reason may be, I am glad this species has found refuge here because I do not think it is doing well in other localities. A pair of these seedeaters was drawn to some dried mud on an area of red earth. I guess the mud was actually some vegetation unintentionally dragged out from the marsh and the munias were picking out edibles.

The red earth and heatwave barely complimented the stunning colourations of the Chestnut Munias well and I waited in vain for them to improve the situation for my photographic efforts.

A pipit flew across my moving vehicle and alighted just next to the access road. It did not budge as I rolled slowly next to it and such confiding behaviour usually belongs to only one species. Even without lifting my binoculars, I knew it was a Paddyfield Pipit, the commonest and only resident pipit in Malaysia. However, it has been an amazing day and it could not hurt being a little more optimistic. Perhaps there was still one more moment of magic left for me. A few photos later the bird in question, now standing all so elegantly on a tiny mound, was indeed a Paddyfield Pipit. I know I may be demanding at times but any bird, regardless of status, performing this well certainly deserves some loving.

With summer fast approaching, this Blue-tailed Bee-eater should be starting its migration back north soon. A skilled aerial hunter of open country habitats, it usually tolerates intrusion as long as you hide your human form. I did exactly that resulting in a prolonged and rewarding observation of a common but attractive winter visitor.

As I was about to part ways with Blue-tailed Bee-eater, it was joined by another. There was one more moment of magic left for me after all. The second individual was also looking its best and all prepped up for the breeding season.

Just when I thought I have seen everything there is to see, something unexpected took place. When returning from its flying assault on insects, the bee-eater misjudged the strength of a twig and landed clumsily. In fact, it almost fell from the flimsy perch and held on to whatever pride it had left belly up. Now, that is something you do not see very often with this agile bird but mistakes do happen. Just like the Japanese proverb, even monkeys fall from trees.

As a closing for this surprisingly long post for a visit to a local patch, the species selected to do the honours was not my typical choice. It is not even a bird but a lotus flower. I came across a few in bloom as I made my way to back the harsh reality of life. Somehow the sight of this bright flower in a dull landscape captivated me. Normally, flowers do not have such influence over me but it is not exactly normal times now. I took it as a message from Mother Nature. True we are now plagued by a lethal element but even in our darkest hour, there is always hope and it will shoot up from the most unlikely places to make our world beautiful again. Until then, stay home and stay safe to all. The Penang Birder signing out for now.