Thursday, 17 October 2019

The commoners to the rescue

Recently, a number of interesting passage migrants were recorded at the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in mainland Penang and I was hoping to catch some of them myself before they carry on with their migration. I reached the locality just before it got bright and was greeted by an eerie growl from one of the trees next to the car park. However, fear did not overcome me but excitement certainly did. It was just the resident pair of Spotted Wood-Owls proclaiming their territory and I am elated that they still lingered on here after all the destruction done to this site by the strong winds last month. I observed the pair’s interaction patiently and unobtrusively. In this light, I knew I could not obtained any reasonable images but it did not stop me from trying. As the sky started its transition from midnight blue to amber, the nocturnal pair retreated deeper into the forest leaving me with nothing but a beautiful memory. And this crappy record shot.

Morning followed shortly after and it was a beautiful one indeed. Blue sunny skies as far as the eye can see. The melodious call of the Black-naped Oriole diverted my attention to a clump of coconut trees just beyond the border of the reserve. A male bird was soaking in the soothing rays of the morning in the golden light. A Black-naped Oriole is nothing to shout about as it is a common bird even in parks and gardens. However, being common does make a beautiful bird any less appealing and I would not be able to forgive myself if I did not even try to capture this encounter with my camera.

It is one of the commonest birds in the country but the Common Myna is full of character. And when a few of them get together, they can raise a ruckus. Anyway, the three of them broke the morning’s serenity from the top of a coconut tree and that was enough to earn them a place in my blog posting this time.

My visit to this local patch of mine reunited me with a girl that I have not seen for a very long time. It is good to know that the lone female Indochinese (Tickell’s) Blue-Flycatcher of this location is doing well. And she is still in the company of a male Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher. Whatever makes you happy, girl...

Here in Air Hitam Dalam, the Olive-winged Bulbul is the most conspicuous bulbul even outnumbering the Yellow-vented Bulbul. Today, a pair of them performed exceptionally well and I gave them the attention they so truly deserve.

My search for interesting passage migrants did not go according to plan – most things do not when it comes to birding. Only the commoner ones were encountered like this rather striking Brown Shrike.

Just as I was about to seek better fortunes elsewhere, a Crow-billed Drongo swooped pass overhead, caught an insect and alighted on a nearby branch to feed. I took my time to enjoy the last encounter for my visit to this local patch. The paddy fields which are to be my next destination will just have to wait as an opportunity of this nature does not come by all that often.

It looked like an adult bird and although I have encountered better looking individuals, a Crow-billed Drongo performing well can always brightened up my day. It is no means a rare migrant but it is uncommon enough to have my undivided attention.

There was nothing unexpected to be found at the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh in mainland Penang. The usual migrants are starting to build up in numbers which is a good sign. A recently ploughed patch produced a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings but this locally common migrant do not usually allow prolonged observations and it was no different this time.

A fellow birder, Khor, has reported the arrival of White-shouldered Starlings to the locality and this uncommon migrant would certainly improve the outcome of this trip. Unfortunately, they were no where to be seen. The Daurian Starlings were back in full force and a humble estimation of the birds present throughout the locality was a hundred strong.

Every Daurian Starling was given a second look not because the species is rare or new to me but for the possibility of the rare Chestnut-eared Starling among them. There was a particular fruiting tree next to the paddy fields that was drawing in the starlings and naturally, I was anchored to the spot for a long time. By now if there is no mention of the Chestnut-eared Starling, you will probably be able to draw your own conclusion of my efforts.

The Daurian Starling used to be called the Purple-backed Starling. This male that was foraging at the tip of one of the tree branches in the full sun shows you exactly how the old name was derived. The striking upperparts of this male starling wrapped things up for the day and although nothing extraordinary was encountered, the commoners have done enough to keep the birder in me satisfied.

Friday, 4 October 2019

It's a fallout!

The state of Perlis is capable of producing birding surprises due to its close proximity with neighbouring Thailand and the fact it houses some of the least explored birding sites in the country. The commencement of the migratory season is always a good time for a trip up to the northernmost tip of the peninsular and together with Hock Kee and Michael, we arrived at the border post of Wang Kelian in good time. I guess it is a blessing that this is not a popular entry point into Thailand. A crowd would have hindered our efforts to try for Malaysia’s first record of the Vernal Hanging-Parrot – a species missing from our checklist despite occurring just beyond the border. There was a healthy numbers of Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrots in the vicinity and every flock was given its due attention. In the end, they were the only parrot species present. The male Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrots are absolutely adorable and striking as well but they hardly provided any good photographic opportunities. And I had to settle for record shots this time.

There is a phrase that I adhere to when it comes to birding and it is known as Murphy’s Law. Out of all the parrots present, a plain juvenile proved to be most confiding and outperformed the better looking adults. Murphy’s Law? You bet it is...

Perlis State Park is not usually part of my birding circuit nowadays as I find the bird activities there relatively low. The revised admission rate for cameras just became another hindrance because it is simply exorbitant. Having said that, this park still has the potential of providing Peninsular Malaysia’s first Fulvous-chested Jungle-Flycatcher as it is found in the forest on the other side of the border. This and the possibility of other interesting passage migrants was good enough a motivation for me to enter the borders of this park again after a lapse of three years.

Luckily, it was a decision I did not live to regret. The number of passage migrants present were overwhelming to say the least. This fallout was like something out of the movies. To be more precise, the movie The Big Year. Although not quite in the same magnitude, it is probably as good as it will get in real life here in Malaysia. Throughout the morning, we saw around 20 individuals of Amur Paradise-Flycatchers. I am quite sure this is the biggest number I have ever seen in a single day and it was almost surreal. On one occasion, we found ourselves surrounded by at least four of these elegant flycatchers. Unfortunately they in turn, were surrounded by branches. It was a vicious cycle. The dense vegetation and the active nature of the birds hampered most of my photographic efforts.

My lucky break came when one Amur Paradise-Flycatcher foraged lower than the others and alighted briefly on an exposed perch. And I obtained, what would be, my best image of this flycatcher phenomenon.

There were a few white-phased males present as well and I have long yearned for a reasonably good photo of one with the long flowing tail and all. To my dismay, all of them were lacking the long streamers.

Even without streamers, the white males are still a feast for the eyes. It is the only passerine with an almost full white plumage that occurs in the forest of Malaysia and it literally floats through the foliage of the forest when in search of prey. Anyway, there was one with the elongated tail feathers but he managed to give me the slip only to be seen by Hor Kee alone.  You guessed it - Murphy’s Law.

As for our quest for the Fulvous-chested Jungle-Flycatcher, it was another futile attempt just like the Vernal Hanging-Parrots in the morning. But the encounters with not one but three Brown-chested Jungle-Flycatchers minutes apart fully compensated our disappointment or mine at least. This would be my third ever encounter after all these years of birding because I do not have much luck with this uncommon migrant. It has a preference for the darkest parts of the forest understorey and inevitably, both my gear and I were put to the test. Judging from the quality of the photo, I do not see the need to elaborate more on the matter.

I managed slightly better images from our second encounter but they were still nothing to shout about. When we encountered the third individual in almost identical conditions, I gave up shooting altogether and enjoyed the moment old school way - through binoculars.

The fallout was not all flycatchers though. We saw a number of Tiger Shrikes as well. The majority seen were juveniles and the absence of the eye mask literally make their eyes pop out. 

There was one adult male and he was still sporting some of his stunning summer plumage. Like all the other passage migrants, these stopovers is where the Tiger Shrike refuel for the remaining part of their migration. And a juicy Katydid will certainly do.

Brown Shrikes were plentiful too and for some of these common migrants, they have reached their wintering ground here in Perlis state.

I did not expect much from the resident species found here in the park as they are far and few. The appearance of male Lesser Cuckooshrike during one of the few small birdwaves certainly had our attention. After all, the almost similar-looking Black-winged Cuckooshrike has yet to cross the border into Malaysia.

On the way back, we swung by the vast open country of Chuping. It was still a little early in the year for this location but we were hoping to catch some passage migrants there as well. The landscape has not changed much from last season and I am most grateful for that.

It was good to see the local population of Little Grebes making a comeback at the lake area. At one time, it was difficult just even to see one here. Now, you can find dozens paddling about without much effort.

It comes as no surprise that to wrap things up for the day was another migrant flycatcher. The Asian Brown Flycatcher may be the commonest flycatcher of all the migrants but we still had to put it under scrutiny to avoid mistaking a rarer species for it because these flycatchers can look frustratingly similar. 

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Unforgettable - Part 2

One of the reasons I do birding from a hide is for the opportunities to experience intimate encounters that would otherwise be near impossible to obtain any other way. However, one still needs to endure long periods in a confined space and occasional boredom from waiting for the magic to begin. The penetrating call of the Black-capped Babbler is very much a part of the sights and sounds of Taman Negara Sungai Relau. However, this terrestrial passerine with its signature walking gait, does not provide good views very often. For this trip, it was one of the most obliging species and I obtained some of my best photos of the species to date – with the aid of a hide that is.

It may not be brilliantly coloured but the boldly marked head region makes it a striking species especially when seen well like this. And the walk never gets old despite all my previous encounters with this babbler.

On most occasions, we saw them in pairs and that further compounded my sense of exhilaration...

Another babbler that helped keep us entertained while we were waiting in our hides for our target birds was the Ferruginous Babbler. Like most babblers, it is more often heard than seen and that is a shame for it is an elegant beauty.

I am sure all of us are familiar with the saying it is not the size of the dog in the fight. The small but feisty Short-tailed Babbler is a very good example. It can get crowded at a stake out sometimes but the Short-tailed Babblers are able to stand their ground while in the presence of larger species. The personality and adorable appearance makes this babbler a delight to observe and photograph.

The White-rumped Shama is another famed songster that has found refuge in this park. The population is doing so well that we managed to capture at least four different individuals that included males and a single drabber female.

As for our target birds, the Garnet and Banded Pitta, the quest did not start off well at all. On the first day, there were no signs of even the commoner Garnet Pitta. We bumped into Dr Chan and his group of Perak birders and he confirmed my worst fear – the Garnet Pitta has not been seen for the past two days. Memories of my failure with this very pitta during my last visit here started coming back to haunt me. We did hear a pair of Banded Pittas on the first day though. They came very close to our hides. In fact, a row of dense undergrowth was all that prevented us from savouring our first pitta of the trip but it offered very little consolation. Luckily, we still had more than 2 days here and it is never over till the fat lady sings, right?

The next morning, we tried for the pittas again. Minutes turned into hours before I heard a distinct melancholy whistle from the undergrowth that could only belong to a Garnet Pitta. Then appeared a glowing red crown from out of the gloom of the forest undergrowth and it hopped among the leaf litter towards our hides. The lighting was far from perfect but it did not matter. What did matter was we were now gawking at a Garnet Pitta in all its glory and it was a spectacular sight indeed.

After our first encounter, there was like a sudden influx of Garnet Pittas. For the remainder of our visit, we recorded no less than 3 individuals. This is the unpredictable factor in birding that I always mention. Two days ago, the Garnet Pitta was nowhere to be seen or heard and now, they were everywhere. We continued to stake out in our hides at strategic locations for our second target the Banded Pitta. Inevitably, we experienced even more encounters with the Garnet Pitta. When seen in gloomy conditions, the brighter the crown of this pitta glows.

However on those occasions when the Garnet Pitta was in good light, it was simply magical. When I photographed my first Garnet Pitta from this location, a whirlwind of emotions ran through my body then. Now 11 years down the road, I was again overwhelmed with emotions when in the presence of this feathered gem of the tropical rainforest. I thought by now I would be better prepared to face the seductive splendour of this pitta but I should have known better. There are still times when I get smitten by even a common species. And the Garnet Pitta (in fact, any pitta) is no common or ordinary species in my book. No, pittas are extraordinary creatures put here on Earth to enrich the lives for those who take the effort to appreciate their existence.

On the final day of our visit to Taman Negara Sungai Relau, we tried one last time for the Banded Pitta that proved elusive thus far. In between appearances by the Garnet Pitta, we saw a male Banded Pitta hopped across our field of view from the hide and disappeared back into his lush domain. There was hardly any time for photography but Kuan, got his second pitta lifer for the trip. Birding can truly test your mental strength at times. The Banded Pittas toyed with our emotions on more than one occasion and in the end, the star bird of this trip was undoubtedly the Garnet Pitta.

To commemorate his double pitta lifer, we had a feast at a local restaurant in Gua Musang. Now, there are fishes and there is the Empurau (also known as the Malayan Mahseer). It is the most expensive edible fish in Malaysia. So exquisite is the meat that the fish is known as “The Unforgettable” (wang bu liao) in Chinese – hence the title of this blog post. Well, the fish was certainly incredible and so was the price. True to its Chinese name, it was a memorable culinary experience. But for me, the memories of the Garnet Pitta and its glowing red crown will probably outlive The Unforgettable.

On the way back from Taman Negara Sungai Relau, we made a little detour to the Kek Lok Tong Temple in Perak state to try our luck with the temple thrushes. Although we missed out on the Blue Whistling-Thrush, the ever-present Blue Rock-Thrush provided a flawless performance.

The females are equally as stunning and helped to welcome my guest for his maiden visit to this famed (birding) temple.

It is good to see the population of Java Sparrows thriving here in the temple grounds. It did not take long to locate them and we found a flock taking refuge in a clump of bamboo. Although our presence did not cause them any alarm, the dense vegetation made it difficult to obtain unobstructed images. 

Thankfully, it was nothing a little determination and luck could not overcome...

There were a few juveniles in the flock as well and I guess it was another successful breeding season. These adorable sparrows concluded this 4-day birding adventure and although all the targets were met, I feel Taman Negara may be starting to lose its lustre and that is a scary feeling. The extraordinary encounters I obtained from the Garnet Pittas this time offer hope still for this location to remain as one of the best birding sites in the country.