Friday, 27 March 2020

Reaping rewards from the reeds - Part 1

The break of dawn today seemed more radiant than usual as the sun rose above the massive ongoing development on the horizon. Not much of a dawn chorus at the marshlands of Batu Kawan though. That was fine because song birds were not in the itinerary today. An exceptionally dark coloured bittern was and I decided to adopt the wait-and-strike approach used by this family of water birds to get what they seek. If it is good enough for the bitterns, surely it must be good enough for me.

I positioned myself strategically where I last hit the jackpot at this birding hotspot. One of the reasons I am constantly drawn to this locality is the birding conditions (apart from the abundance of water birds) where the hunt takes place from the comforts of your vehicle.

With my mobile hide in place, it did not take long for the first bird to stroll into view. Maybe stroll is not quite the word to use for the Ruddy-breasted Crake’s hasty pace. Scoot is more like it and with the sun barely up, my modest photography setup was struggling to keep up.

Crakes are known to be most active at first light. So, I really have no right to be swearing. But my only companions today were the birds. I guess there was no harm venting out my frustrations verbally. As for the Ruddy-breasted Crakes (yes, more than one), they could not be bothered by the profanities streaming out of this huge metal box and just carried on with their lives.

One of crakes wandered close to my position during the encounter. If not for some obstructing vegetation, it would have been my best effort of the day for this usually elusive marsh dweller.

The White-browed Crake is another regular here but I found it to be shyer and tends to keep a distance. Except when the urge to terrorize the Ruddy-breasted Crake arises again. That is when all hell breaks loose. Similar in size but not in character, the former will be chasing the latter all around the stakeout but these pursuits do not last long. When the dust settles, in this case water and mud, both parties will commence to feed again. This aggressive behaviour exhibited by the White-browed Crake was new to me but then again, I hardly had any field experience before with crakes of different species feeding so close to each other.

Next to my stationary vehicle, there was a bunch of low lying vegetation. I have noticed the Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler skulking around during all of my excursions here so far. Today was no different except that I did not have to make sure my foreign guests have had a good look at the bird first. No, today was all about me and I wholeheartedly attempted to obtain some reasonable images of this sneaky fellow.

It seems that this warbler is a creature of habit and will always forage in a particular spot but as fate would have it, that particular spot consists of a spider web of dead twigs. Coupled with the poor lighting of early morning and the active nature of the subject, photography was tough despite the close proximity.

Throughout my time at the stakeout, the Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler (I can only assume there was only one individual) teased me a number of times during its forays out in the open. When the lighting improved, the cursed twigs were still an issue but I am happy with the images that I managed to obtain. For here in Peninsular Malaysia, this is one of the ultimate skulkers of the birding world.

One of the things birding has taught me is to always expect the unexpected. I was so used to the routine of the Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler that I almost ignored the appearance of the much rarer Dusky Warbler. I could almost tell from behaviour that it was a different bird because it was not as skulking. Both warblers are migrants to Malaysia but there are relatively few confirmed records of the Dusky Warbler. This scarce migrant prefers to winter among vegetation next to bodies of water. And here at the marshlands of Batu Kawan, the habitat is absolutely ideal.

My last encounter with the Dusky Warbler was years ago and today, I finally managed to obtain images of this plain but distinguished winter visitor. The term Little Brown Job (LBJ) suits it perfectly but even so, the brief encounter today was one of the highlights of this birding excursion. Waiting for the birds to come to you from your vehicle beats doing it from a stuffy hide but it is still a strain. However, there are things that you can achieve that would be difficult with normal birding strategies and documenting a Dusky Warbler is a good example.

Another LBJ was seen skulking around but this time, it was among the reeds on the far side of the stakeout. I could tell it was one of the smaller Reed-warblers but effort was required to ascertain its identity. Black-browed Reed-Warbler would be the usual candidate as it is commoner than the Manchurian Reed-Warbler. After further scrutiny, my initial hunch was right but the Black-browed Reed-Warbler did not provide any opportunities for improvement shots.

I actually found myself surrounded by warblers at the stakeout today and none more conspicuous than the rowdy Oriental Reed-Warbler. It is a big bird when compared to the other warblers here and much to my delight, it was not taking any effort to conceal itself. Announcing its return to the stakeout with a series of harsh notes every single time, it was impossible to even overlook this common migrant.

My mobile hide probably played a role for its confiding behaviour and I enjoyed my best encounters with the Oriental Reed-Warbler to date. Completely disregarding my intrusion, it went about foraging without hesitation. It was a series of prolonged observations as the bird will take short breaks somewhere hidden from view before joining me again. Thanks to the good lighting condition, I was able to follow the movements of the bird reasonably well with my modest photographic equipment and obtained a number of good images.

The Oriental Reed-Warbler explored every nook and crevice in the vicinity and from what I can see, there is no shortage of food here. And this should explain my good fortune and rewarding encounters with warblers here.

Another warbler that held my attention today was a male Common Tailorbird. Renowned for their sewing skills, these warblers build cup nests by literally sewing one big leaf or two leaves together. As the name implies, the Common Tailorbird is the most often encountered representative of this genus of birds because it has adapted well to survive alongside Man. You can hear their persistent calls in gardens, parks, orchards and as well as scrublands, marshlands – you catch my drift, right?

The dried twigs next to my stationary vehicle was a regular spot for the tailorbird as well, returning to forage time and time again. Unlike a certain skulker, this handsome male preferred the top most twigs where my view was relatively unobstructed. He was also a natural in front of a camera and I even had to restrain myself from being too preoccupied with him and risk missing out on other rarer species.

I know that it is a common species and appearance wise, there is not much to boast but to me every bird has its own appeal. And this obliging Common Tailorbird certainly has his. Just look at that tail!

One of the commonest warblers in Peninsular Malaysia is the Yellow-bellied Prinia. It occurs in a wide variety of habitats but scrublands and reed beds are where it thrives. The relentless vocalizations of the prinia is usually the first indication of its presence. With a little patience, you can be rewarded with decent views as well. As expected, the marshlands of Batu Kawan has a healthy population of Yellow-bellied Prinias. However it only appeared once at the stakeout and the moment it stopped for breather, I made sure I had something to show at the end of it all.

My vehicle had parked itself at the stakeout long enough for the birds let down their guard. A Spotted Dove just dropped down on a perch right in front of me and started to coo out his territorial call. I am assuming it is a male as the sexes are identical but generally, only male species are capable of such careless behaviour. It was only when my continuous shutter clicks broke the silence did he realized there was a frigging human in the vehicle and flew off immediately.

I could hear the feverish calls of the Plaintive Cuckoo throughout my visit here today. Even if the sexes were not dimorphic, I still would have guessed this individual that wandered across my field of view was a female because generally, only female species are capable of exhibiting such finicky behaviour. And she looked suspiciously at my vehicle the whole time. One shot was all that I could muster before she retreated back to the dense vegetation.

As the morning got warmer, the crakes were back to their normal elusive behaviour but that did not signal my time at the stakeout was coming to an end. There are not so many egrets to be found living of this locality which was a bit of a surprise. The adjacent mangroves will probably harbour more of these elegant water birds and the only egret that made it to my memory card today was a Little Egret that dropped in briefly at the stakeout.

Some of the Pond-Herons are starting to sport their summer plumages in anticipation of the journey back to their breeding grounds. This lone bird that hunted in the vicinity showed just enough of its breeding colours for me to safely conclude that it was a Chinese Pond-Heron. Regardless of what some may claim, there is no way to differentiate Pond-Herons in non-breeding plumages. For these birds, you will not lose any credibility if you put your records down as Pond-Heron spp. until they start revealing their splendid breeding plumages. Better that than having the local eBird reviewer barking you to provide supporting evidence amend your record.

Although the bittern hunting technique worked like a charm today, I was disappointed again by the elusive Black Bittern. At one point during my wait, a male Cinnamon Bittern flew across and alighted deep among the reeds. I did not give it much thought after as that is usually the end of it when it comes to this stunning water fowl. About half an hour later, I could not believe my eyes when the male Cinnamon Bittern slowly stalked his way to the edge of the reeds until he was in plain sight. I guess it really took a bittern to catch a bittern after all.

Although it was not the bittern I was hoping for, this male Cinnamon Bittern was a good enough compensation. My earlier conclusion that the stakeout was rich in food was reaffirmed by the bittern. The availability of food here drew him out from reeds and into the open. Minutes later, he found success but I was too slow to capture the entire hunt.

After gulping down his prey, he lingered around to show off his splendour before gradually disappearing into his watery realm again. When things finally started to quiet down at the stakeout, I decided to explore the rest of the marshlands here.

The visit here has been exceptional so far and it reminded me of the glory days at the marshlands of Pulau Burung. It is depressing what the place has now become and through the years, the wound may have healed but the scar remains. I wrote an article about this site a long time ago and the ended with this sentence, I hope the day will never come when the ballerinas of the marsh are forced to perform one last time in the audience of angels before departing from a diminishing paradise and never to return again. Well, that day certainly came. Anyway, to find out how I fared for the remaining half of the trip will be covered in the next post. And if I have to break a half-day excursion into a 2-part post, you can pretty much guess the outcome.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

That magic moment

I have been blogging for slightly more than a decade now but at the start, I was not sure anyone would be interested in what a bald bloke has to share about his passion for a peculiar pastime called birding. Apparently, there are and it warms the heart to receive a compliment or two through online interactions and in real life. The best compliment will be the ones where readers thank me for enlightening them about birds and birding. I always believe that birding is sharing and through my blog, I get to do exactly that. Anyway Kieron is one of my regular readers and when I was given the chance to guide this British birder, I was both excited and anxious. Excited because I finally get to meet the person who has been quite a source of encouragement for my blogging endeavour. But what if the Penang Birder does not live up to expectations and I unintentionally sugar coat my blog post to such a degree that it is far from reality? That was my reason for the anxiety.

The Mangrove Pitta of Sungai Batu, my saviour on so many of my birding excursions, was one of his main targets. Naturally, we found ourselves at the swampy domain of this remarkable bird at first light. Early is the hour and most of the feathered denizens found here have only started to stir like this Abbott’s Babbler puffing up and preening away before commencing on its morning foray for food.

The bubbly call of the Yellow-vented Bulbul will always be a part of the dawn chorus here and throughout most built-up areas in the country. This common species is new to neither of us. Not even to my British guest because Kieron is married to a local lass and spends a couple of months here in my home state annually. However the bulbul was performing so well, it certainly deserved a little recognition.

Hopping leisurely along the muddy terrain, the Mangrove Pitta made its grand appearance finally. When in full view, few can rival the charisma and beauty of the Mangrove Pitta. And judging from Kieron’s reaction, I can safely say my blog is not all sugar coating. In fact, experiencing it real life is incomparable and way beyond any words and digital images. All five sensory organs will be exposed to the exhilaration of the encounters and your emotions, at times, will you leave breathless. However, it is not always sunshine and roses. There will be times when your patience and sanity are tested. You will undergo the same sensations but for all the wrong reasons.

Luckily, Sod’s Law had no role to play today and the celebrity bird lingered in the vicinity for a long time but one can never get enough of a pitta especially a pitta lifer.

There was one bird that I wanted to show before we headed to the next locality and it was the migratory Forest Wagtail. The adorable sway of the wagtail has a way to keep you mesmerized on its every move and today, it provided yet another memorable encounter.

At the Bukit Wang forest reserve in Kedah state, we headed straight to the active fruiting tree I discovered yesterday. My intention of obtaining better images of the Red-crowned Barbet was shattered as the subject was no where to seen near the fruiting tree today. The only sure thing about birding is there is no such thing as a sure thing. I had to settle for bulbuls like this Cream-vented Bulbul. My guest, on the other hand, was elated with the number of bulbul species present at this one single tree. The Cream-vented Bulbul is the most prominent species at the tree today and we had more opportunities to capture this common resident of the forest.

Usually in flocks and behaving more like babblers, the Hairy-backed Bulbuls are an intriguing species. But like all bulbuls, it cannot resist the temptation of the tantalizing fruits and will abandon its natural fear for humans at the feast. The dense foliage remained our main nemesis. It was not easy trying to follow their movements on that tree let alone photograph the birds. But sometimes in birding, a magic moment will come when the subject, after all the swearing and struggles it made you go through, alights on an open perch. That magic moment when everything seems to work in your favour.

Making only brief visits, we did not really have a good chance to observe the Spectacled Bulbul. Its unflattering plumage probably enable it to go unnoticed at times.

The same applies to the Red-eyed Bulbul and the absence of the thin yellow eye ring is one of the main field identification marks that separates the two quite similar looking species.

I know being birders we are naturally more observant than others. However, if there are stunning denizens like the Grey-bellied Bulbuls around, we are often distracted. And duller species can and will get ignored. Birders are humans after all.

A pair of Lesser Green Leafbirds swooped down from the safety of the forest canopy to join in the feast. Initially, I thought the male was a Greater Green Leafbird. But the more I look at his images back home, the more uncertain I became. The smallish bill and indistinct yellow tinge to the lower border of the black face mask were my concerns. Anyway after consulting my birding mates, we came to a conclusion that he was indeed a Lesser Green Leafbird. It may come as a surprise but the females of these two species are much easier to identify (this is a self-preservation thing).

When we could finally pulled ourselves away from the fruiting tree, we were greeted by other residents of this birding paradise. A foraging flock of White-bellied Erpornis will rarely be overlooked due to their vocal and confiding nature. I find these birds to be quite appealing despite the lack of any vibrant plumage colourations. I guess it must be the wicked crest and personality.

Well, the male Green-backed Flycatcher certainly does not lack vibrant colours even when observed in the dim lighting of the forest understorey.

The Chestnut-necklaced Partridge is rare, spectacular and charismatic. I will be doing a article for the Malaysian Naturalist magazine about proposing this birding site to be gazetted as an Important Bird Area. The partridge is classified as globally vulnerable and I am certain it will be featured in the article.

For the rest of day, we spent time birding back in mainland Penang. Daytime sightings of nocturnal birds are a class of their own and if it is a huge owl like this Spotted Wood-Owl, it is an incredible experience. The owl was roosting on its favourite spot at the edge of the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam and despite the distance and lighting, it still made our day to come across such a fascinating species.

A first winter male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher, told by his blackish uppertail coverts, was seen hunting in the undergrowth within the borders of the park.

No doubt I wished it was a mature male with his striking beauty but in life, we do not always get what we want. But the confiding nature of the youngster certainly earned him a place among the highlights of the trip.

I have been waiting for the opportunity to revisit the marshlands of Batu Kawan since my recent visit there for the first time in years. It was a memorable visit and I hope to have the same good fortune today.

If this male Yellow Bittern was a little more hidden, there is a big possibility that the both of us could have missed him altogether. But Lady Luck was on our side and the hunting bittern tolerated our intrusion into his semi-aquatic domain.

About a stone’s throw away, we came across a second male Yellow Bittern. Although this bittern was closer, he chose to hunt among a bunch of dried branches making it a photographic nightmare for us.

While we were preoccupied with the Yellow Bittern, I caught sight of a stalking dark shape in the corner of my eye. Like a burglar making a hasty escape, it was a male Black Bittern and he certainly did not appreciate our presence. Luckily, he paused just long enough for this image to be taken before disappearing among the tall reeds – for the rest of our visit here. I have not come across this beauty of a bittern for ages and this is my first ever photograph of this elusive water bird. For me this encounter, however brief it may be, was the highlight of the day.

Now for something much easier to spot and photograph – an Asian Openbill. A number of these unique storks have taken refuge here and it comes as no surprise as we found plenty of Golden Apple Snail eggs within the marshlands. With food aplenty and habitat ideal, the storks have found their paradise. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be a permanent home. With the rapid pace of development in the surrounding areas, I am afraid it is just a matter of time before this haven joins the long list of former birding sites in the country. Anyway, I will be enjoying it while it lasts. And enjoy I did with this absolutely confiding young Asian Openbill taking breather after feeding.

One of the reasons I am drawn to this locality is the presence of Ruddy-breasted Crakes. Here, they seem to be a little less elusive and we did manage to come across one. But as fate would have it, the crake remained partially hidden most of the time despite a prolonged observation.

Today, it was the White-browed Crake that rose to the occasion. Strutting about the marsh in search of food, this little crake allowed us to peer into its often secretive world and it was quite a show.

Its diminutive size and the heat wave occasionally made photography challenging. Constantly on the move, it was not an easy subject to follow either. But there were those magic moments when things just fell into place for my guest and I.

Snipes may not be as secretive as crakes but they have frustrated me often enough. Furthermore, there is the identification dilemma between the Swinhoe’s Snipe and Pin-tailed Snipe where everything boils down to what the outer tail feathers revealed when tail is fanned out. And that honestly, is just too complicated for me. I am a simple man and I like to keep things simple – even in birding.

Nevertheless, it was exhilarating to observe a ‘Swintail’ Snipe for such a prolonged period of time and at such close proximity. I am not sure if it is just me but in recent years, I found that the number of wintering snipes in Penang state are on the decrease and I rarely come across them as frequently as I used to.

Apart from the water birds, some of the other residents did play a part to make our visit to this birding hotspot complete. The most memorable for me was this confiding Chestnut Munia resting in a sea of green. Munias, due to their numbers and habits, are considered as pest by farmers. The birds are also targeted by trappers for the bird trade where they will be sold for the so-called merit releasing practices. Life is tough for these seed-eaters and inevitably some species like Chestnut Munia are becoming uncommon. That is most unfortunate because I find it to be a rather stunning bird.

It was a good day of birding and I am glad to be able to share quite a number of magic moments with Kieron. With the COVID-19 pandemic tightening its deadly grip around the globe, Kieron will be my last foreign birding guest for now. But the birding I suppose, will still go on for me but with less frequency as the entire country came under a 14-day movement control order at the time of writing. Social distancing is a term that is constantly being used nowadays due to the pandemic. Venturing into some wild and Godforsaken locality in search of birds far away from most human populations to me is a good form of social distancing and one that I have been practicing most of my life.