Saturday, 15 May 2021

The urban hawk


A bird may be common to the entire country but if you do not come across it often enough it can be considered, in a sense, rare. There are hardly any records of the Crested Goshawk here in Penang Island. I cannot recall having seen one personally except for a fresh corpse in the outskirts of Georgetown City. Recently, a pair was reported to be nesting in a posh neighbourhood in the northern part of the island. I rarely question the ways of nature but the reason for the nest to be built on a lone tree growing from the divider of the main road instead of the safety of the adjacent forest, is beyond my comprehension.

I managed to make a single visit to pay homage to these beautiful birds of prey. This should be the first recorded nest for the island and hopefully, it will not be the last. Elsewhere in the country, the Crested Goshawk has adapted to living in urban areas and that trait alone can ensure the continuality of your existence in the world today. It was the dry season and the fallen leaves left the nest exposed to all the surrounding elements. But the two nestlings, days away from leaving the nest, appeared to be doing absolutely fine.

Another aspect about this nest that got me wondering was the tolerance of the local mob. Flocks of House Crows can be seen loitering about the vicinity but surprisingly, these marauders left the chicks in peace. Perhaps the parents manage to assert their dominance but it will take a whole lot to break the will of House Crows.

One thing that was not unexpected was the presence of birders and photographers at the nest site. Since it was smacked right in the middle of a residential area, we in turn drew the attention of curious onlookers. Although it is not really my cup of tea, I did my best to explain the significance of this raptor nesting here to all that approached me with the same query.

The parent birds did not make an appearance during my observation and I found out later that I arrived shortly after they have fed the chicks. In the absence of the adults, the youngsters make several short explorations of the surrounding areas in preparation of the big day when they will leave the nest for good. They have yet to develop the full aesthetic appeal and living skills of their parents but they certainly had my attention. After all, they are the true reason for my visit here.

Lately, there have been an uproar regarding unethical photography of nesting birds. It is nothing new and has been going since the first day people started nest photography. However the great lengths poachers and photographers used to obtain their goals this time, reignited the issue. My documentation of the Crested Goshawk took place almost 3 months ago and the chicks by now, are out there somewhere terrorizing small birds and mammals on their own in my beloved island home. I am no birding authority. Just a bloke who is passionate about birds and birding. So, here I am thinking out loud. If it has to take installing a barricade to keep your enthusiasm in check, then so be it. Perhaps in time, an imaginary barricade will do the job just as well. By the way, your fantastic images will still garner the same amount of likes even if you post them on Facebook or whatever online social media a few months later. And to conclude my post this time is this young Crested Goshawk that wandered reasonably close to my position.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Knock, knock...

The trip did not start out all that smoothly. There were delays here and there during the journey to Bukit Panchor State Park. When we arrived at the destination, we were disappointed to find the boardwalk flooded from last night’s downpour. However, sometimes things do happen for a reason. As we lingered around the entrance to the boardwalk contemplating our ill luck, the surrounding forest started to come alive. First was the array of calls. Followed by movements among the vegetation. Then a Stripe-throated Bulbul decided to start the morning by calling from an exposed perch and I should have known then that was a sign that today was going to be special despite the locality’s unimpressive record of late.

No, it took a handsome Tiger Shrike in breeding plumage to make me realize that. After a prolonged observation of this Tiger Shrike on the prowl for breakfast, it was a unanimous decision to stay put and wait for whatever else that may pass through here.

A Yellow-vented Bulbul may not be a species that local birders desire due to its abundant nature but you cannot really hold that against it.

It is good to see that the Jungle Myna is still predominant here – for now.

More often heard than seen, the Gold-whiskered Barbet should be the commonest Barbet species here. I was lucky enough to catch this individual as it took a breather among the foliage of the forest canopy. It is an impressive bird and every sighting will not go unappreciated.

Both the Yellow-bellied Prinia and Rufescent Prinia occur here in Bukit Panchor. Their ranges may even overlap but the Yellow-bellied Prinia will not venture into the forest proper and this foraging individual provided a brief moment to capture its image when it alighted on a bare perch.

My attention was immediately diverted when a Buff-necked Woodpecker started to call in the vicinity. This species is not common here in Penang State and when the woodpecker finally revealed itself, there was no shame in not being able to contain my excitement.

We were given ample time to enjoy the encounter and wonderful views. The missing red malar stripe meant that it was a female and her performance today was most commendable.

Several other species came and went but one of the most notable was a Little Green-Pigeon in flight. A pair of Lesser Green Leafbirds was attracted to a nearby fruiting tree. Judging from the images I obtained, the tree was just not near enough for my modest equipment.

The Blue-throated Bee-eaters filled the vicinity with their calls but kept a distance for most of the time. One did alight slightly closer but the lighting condition was most challenging.

There was just something about the trees surrounding us that were drawing in woodpeckers. The Rufous Woodpecker was the second species to be recorded but it was a distant encounter. As the name implies, the Common Flameback is one of the commoner species of woodpeckers in the country. The plumage especially the male with flaming red crest, is amazing and a close encounter like this one can still, very much, rock my world.

When things started to sizzle down, we decided to venture into the forest which was our initial plan. The mass of Bertam Palms is a distinct feature of this park but there are hardly any bird activities among these prickly vegetation at this site.

Birding in this dense and gloomy forest was frustrating as usual. I rarely had any opportunity to raise my camera despite the occasional birdwave or two. This Dark-sided Flycatcher ought to be back in the mountainous regions of northern Asia by now but here it is, testing the patience of a few birders by remaining in the darkest spot of the forest.

From the look of things, the group of Fruit Bats residing at the hut along the access trail just got a little bigger. The paler individuals I assume are young ones and the parents were a little anxious of my presence – a situation that I quickly remedied.

One of the highlights of the day was this 3-inch caterpillar. If memory serves me right, this is the biggest caterpillar I have ever laid eyes on and it was quite a sight. I will not hazard a guess of its true identity. Insects are mostly beyond me and this little mammoth certainly was.

When things do fall in place when birding in the forest, something remarkable will usually unfold. A family of Checker-throated Woodpeckers kept us company for quite a long time from the cover of the forest canopy and initially, I did not think anything significant would materialized from this. Then, one decided to descend from its lofty domain and alighted almost at eye level. This is one of the reasons why we birders endure all those hours wandering aimlessly in the heat and humidity of the tropical rainforest time after time – a chance to experience the alluring bird life found here up close and personal.

The incomplete chestnut colouration on the plumage suggested that it is a young bird but it did not make much difference. I was mesmerized by the presence of this woodpecker for it is a striking bird. The birding excursion here this time was surprisingly fruitful and it just goes to show one cannot truly know what to expect when it comes to birding. And this confiding young Checker-throated Woodpecker certainly played a big role in the outcome of the trip. 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Dancing Egrets


It was looking to be another beautiful morning and since I had a couple of hours to spare, it would be a waste not to spend it out in the field. With limited choices available in my beloved island home, it was back to the Penang Botanic Gardens. Being a weekend morning, the crowd was inevitable. However, the spot that I usually frequent when I am at this popular recreational destination is somewhat off the beaten track so I could bird relatively undisturbed. Along the stream, I noticed two Little Egrets with a whole lot of interaction between them. To my untrained eyes, they appeared to be performing some mating dance as the Egrets moved in synchronize. Then things started turning hostile and dance, became dispute with one chasing off the other. In the end, there was no romance brewing here – just hostility.

The lone Striated Heron did not let all the commotion by the Egrets distract it from what it set out to do – acquiring breakfast.

Food also drew the resident White-throated Kingfisher from its usual lofty perch and provided me with a brief moment to capture its splendour at eye level.

A repertoire of musical notes started to fill the vicinity and it was the contribution of a pair of Oriental Magpie-Robins. I suppose these beautiful songsters have found their sanctuary here as bird trappers know better than to try their shit at a location constantly monitored by park personnel.

This next bird has a wide range of calls and even imitates. The territorial call is sometimes such a disarray of notes it makes it distinct. The bird itself is no less unique. The tail extends into a wire-like appearance ending with a racket shaped feather at each end. The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo may be a common species throughout the country but it is still an exceptional bird.

The migratory Asian Brown Flycatcher, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Silent and dull, it would have gone unnoticed if not for its occasional sallies for insects. Birding at a local patch like this is usually a laidback affair and every bird present will receive some form of attention.

No visit to this landscaped garden is complete without encountering the Crested Mynas. A population has established itself well here and the Mynas hardly take any effort to conceal themselves from humans. Here is just one of the many Mynas that took to the lawns in search of food.

While observing the Mynas, a White-breasted Waterhen wandered into the vicinity in full view. To a certain degree, birds here are quite bold as they are accustomed to human presence. I pretended not to show too much interest and it worked like a charm. But once this photo was taken, my subject knew my true intention and gradually backed away.

Penang Island has the highest density of White-bellied Sea-Eagles and that is something that I can be proud of. Being an island, you can see White-bellied Se-Eagles from literally everywhere and this time, a juvenile soars effortlessly above the gardens. It was hot and sunny and this youngster was taking full advantage of the updraft.

Olive-backed Sunbirds are another common sight here. Although the male lacks some of the radiance of other species, he is still handsome fellow. And the dark orange border below the blue iridescent throat indicates he is a subspecies that occurs in the northern region.

A Brown Shrike that is yet to look prime for the coming breeding season up north was having a little sunbathe above a relatively busy walkway. Unperturbed by the all walkers below and a lone birder, it remained at the perch to be admired only by the latter.

This feisty winter visitor wrapped things up for this short excursion. Most of the species encountered today were the commoner ones but in the end, it does not really matter. It was certainly time well spent and for that, I am grateful.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Birding blues...


At first light, I found myself soaking in a spectacular sunrise and the overwhelming aroma of the biggest landfill in the state. With the restriction of interstate travel still very much in place, there are limited choices as to where Hor Kee and I could venture to and I guess Pulau Burung is as good a site as any here in Penang. Anyway, the Asian Koels dominated the dawn chorus this time as it is still breeding season for these parasitic cuckoos. Despite being for than a foot long, they have a remarkable ability to stay out of sight. Hence, an image of the sunrise...

We scanned the larvae-infested lakes hoping for any uncommon migrants but there were none to be found. As usual, the flocks of Lesser Whistling-Ducks filled the locality with their presence and whistling calls. Of late the weather has been sweltering but at this hour, the sun’s penetrating rays have yet to reach their full potency and provide the much desired golden hues for photography.

The Little Grebes were also in good numbers today. Beautiful and adorable, they will always have my attention whenever they wander within the comfort zone of my gear. The lakes surrounding the landfill here is probably the only remaining wetlands in the state that is still rich in bird life. And that is something I am most grateful.

For a species so elegant, the call of the Black-winged Stilt leaves much to be desired. Judging from the vocalizations today throughout the vicinity, the Stilts have found sanctuary here again and are thriving. After all these years, I still find it hard to resist their charm.

Crakes are usually difficult to see well – usually. This morning, we had at least 3 White-browed Crakes that frequently abandoned their skulking nature and provided good views. Despite fortune being in our favour, the Crakes are small and active birds. Following their movement was not easy and only a handful of the images turned out reasonable.

The Javan Pond-Heron is a regular migrant and every season (around this time of the year when it is identifiable), a number will be recorded especially from the northern states of the peninsular. This individual, stalking at the edge of the lake, was only in partial breeding plumage but with enough traces of its true identity.

A foraging male Olive-backed Sunbird momentarily diverted my attention from the water birds. A few of the trees next to the lake was in bloom and the nectar addict was having his sugar fix. The lighting was harsh and the hyperactive Sunbird hardly provided any photographic opportunities.

Red-wattled Lapwings are a regular feature here. These striking waders prefer the grassy river bank to forage and rest. As long as you stay in your vehicle, your presence is usually tolerated and all hell will not break loose.

A relatively confiding snipe shared the foraging ground of the Lapwings today. Although good views were obtained, it remained to be just another “Swintail” Snipe at the end due to the lack of evidence to proof otherwise.

The Greater Painted-Snipe is an intriguing species that I sorely lack field experiences. Its somewhat crepuscular and shy nature is the reason why. Today, however, we came across 3 individuals and 2 were in the open. Naturally, all were the duller males. To have a spectacular female in full view would have been phenomenal but things like that do not often take place in the real world. Anyway, one of males appeared to be absolutely relax in this untypical behaviour and the lighting condition was the only let down of this memorable encounter.

We left the Painted-Snipe to his morning siesta and heads towards the nearby state park of Bukit Panchor. Spring will see the Blue-throated Bee-eaters replacing the Blue-tailed Bee-eater here in Peninsular Malaysia. The former being a breeding visitor and the latter, a winter visitor. A few of these striking birds were seen hunting near the park entrance.

I cannot really recall my last visit to this locality and that would make it years. One thing about this location is that the habitat may be pristine enough but there are less birds here than you would normally expect. But it was not like this always. Once upon a time, the forest here was home to some truly incredible birds like the near-mythical Giant Pitta and you could also hear the far-carrying call of the amazing Great Argus on a regular basis. Once upon a time...

I do have to admit that the vegetation here is dense and it is not the easiest of sites to bird. We did come across some birds and a few bird waves but almost everything eluded my camera. A pair of Checker-throated Woodpeckers were foraging quite close to the access trail and provided a rare opportunity for me to actually put my camera to use. You know that I am scraping the bottom of the barrel when an image of this quality is included in my blog post.

A flock of White-bellied Erpornis exhibited little fear of our presence which is quite typical of the species. Being inquisitive and charming, it normally brightens up any forest excursion. And one even stayed still long enough for its image to be taken.

One of main highlights our visit here shares the sky with the birds but it is not a bird. A hut that was initially built to provide shelter for weary trekkers has been taken up by group of fruit bats (if any reader happens to know the exact species, please enlighten me). These winged mammals have a bad reputation which is totally uncalled for. I find these nocturnal creatures intriguing and like all other wildlife, deserves our respect and admiration.

On the way out of the park, a Stripe-throated Bulbul was exceptional vocal along the forest edge. By that time, it was blistering hot but it did not deter us from taking some time to appreciate this lovely bird before calling a day. The birding today may not have been exceptional but it is always good to be able to just get out into the field.