Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Counting raptors?

October is always an exciting time of the year as the migratory season comes into full swing. It is also time to catch raptors on autumn migration. Bedong is small town in Kedah state where migrating raptors passed through each year. There is a particular hillock in the middle of a palm oil estate where these migrating raptors can be observed and counted. It is definitely not in the same league as some of the other renowned raptor count sites in this region but it is the nearest one to home and that accounts for a lot. However for a rewarding raptor count, hot and sunny weather is an absolute requirement. The Bedong site has changed considerably since my last visit and the ever-growing palm trees now threaten to block our view of the migrating raptors. But the trees were the least of Hor Kee and my worries. The looming thunder clouds were…

It was almost mid morning and yet, no sign of the life-giving rays of the sun. Our raptor count on this overcast Saturday morning was turning be a lost cause. Then the characteristic calls of the Blue -tailed Bee-eater echoed through the vicinity and that is always a good sign. Both of us immediately stare into the heavens above. Migrating bee-eaters are good indicators of approaching raptors and true enough, a lone dark morph Oriental Honey Buzzard leisurely glided into view. And it was surprisingly low.

Oriental Honey Buzzards usually form part of the majority seen during raptor counts here but today, we counted only two. I hope that they are a little late this year or have taken another route south. Got be positive in life sometimes...

Small groups of Japanese and Chinese Sparrowhawks periodically passed through but they were way too far for any photographic attempts. The biggest flock of raptors recorded today was a flock of 30 Black Bazas. My pathetic attempt to capture these striking raptors does them no justice. The poor lighting and distance was just too much for my gear to cope.

By lunch time, things came to a complete stop. Raindrops started to trickle down. It was fortunate that we heeded Mother Nature’s warning and made out way out there and then. Not long after we got into our vehicle, the heavens opened up. The torrential rain washed my SUV clean as we needed to go off-road to get to the count site. But it could not wash away my disappointment as my first raptor count of the season ended with less than 100 raptors. After lunch, we head towards the paddy fields of mainland Penang hoping for some waders to lift our spirits. It has stopped raining by then and the gloomy sky could work to our advantage as we need not deal with the harsh lighting of midday.

The newly ploughed patches were ideal for waders and it did not take long for us to find one teeming with waders. The Long-toed Stint is a small bird and its intricate upperwing patterns blend in well with the environment. A stationery bird can sometimes be overlooked and I am sure we did today. Those that we did managed to pick out numbered up to a staggering 150 birds.

A small number of Little Ringed Plovers were also present and these little guys usually try to be as inconspicuous as possible.

Talking about being inconspicuous, snipes are also back at their wintering ground here. Being masters of camouflage, they are often overlooked. And when that fails, they will fly off to the next cover when threatened. However, this individual did neither although its cover was blown. Another thing that struck us was its plumage. Snipes are a nightmare to identify and we pretty much agreed that this one was a Common Snipe but there is just something about its plumage that did not appear quite right. I suspect the reason it was so confiding was to allow us to obtain good images and torment us later when it came to confirming its identity.

Egrets were aplenty at the paddy fields today. Among all the freshwater egrets, the Intermediate Egret is the one that usually gets the most attention especially from my foreign guests. Although I was not hosting any guests today, it does not mean I do not give the egret any attention at all.

Other than the egrets, there was a big number of Purple Herons present as well. I cannot recall the last time I recorded this many here. Two adult birds standing next to each in the open is certainly not something you see often.

Flocks of Daurian Starlings will usually receive my undivided attention as I do not want to overlook the almost similar but much rarer Chestnut-cheeked Starling which has a tendency to hang out with its commoner cousins. But the only other starling species in this flock are a few Asian Glossy Starlings.

To wrap things up for the day was this flock of Grey-headed Lapwings exhibiting its usual suspicion of approaching humans – birders in particular. 

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Winged Orca...

I took Tom out on two birding excursions last year and the birds must have made quite an impression on him because I receive an email from this American birder again enquiring about a third trip. There is only one problem. He is a very experienced birder with several trips to this region including the ones to Penang. It will be quite a task to keep his third visit interesting and the torrential rain forecasted for that day did not help lessen my burden one bit. He has a preference for forest birds and naturally, we found ourselves at the best forest site you can find around Penang at the break of dawn – the Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest in Kedah. The first bird to greet us was a male Grey-rumped Treeswift getting ready for the day ahead together with dozens of his compatriots at the ‘Treeswift Tree’.

As we were making our way up the Gunung Bintang access trail, the warm rays of the sun slipped through the rain-drenched foliage of the forest. A sunny morning is a rare sight this week and it was a much welcomed change. The cheerful call of the Grey-headed Babblers echoed through the forest undergrowth followed by a brief appearance. And my guest celebrated his first lifer of the trip.

Despite the good weather, things were rather slow at Sungai Sedim. The overnight downpour could be the reason behind this. However, a second lifer for my guest flew into view and it was a juvenile Red-naped Trogon. There was not much opportunities for photography during the encounter but at least we managed to obtain a record shot. It was more than I can say about a handsome adult male that decided to show himself later. Looks like Murphy is back in town again…

A change of location might change our fortune just like what it did for my last excursion. It was certainly worth a try. At the car park just before we reach our vehicle, a Malayan Birdwing floating about a flowering plant prolonged our stay at this recreational forest. It was an impressive male, told by the yellow marking on his upperparts, and he did not take much notice of our presence. Just in case you are wondering, you can find out just about everything nowadays as long as you ask Goggle nicely and I still know squat about moths and butterflies. I guess the absence of feathers makes a whole lot of difference for me. But species like the Malayan Birdwing when seen up close, the intensity of the colours and intricacy of the patterns can be mesmerizing.

We made our way to the paddy planting district of mainland Penang as open country birds and waterfowls do not shun away during the hottest time of the day and that made it the best location to visit. There were quite a number of recently ploughed areas. The combination of shallow water and mud is like a magnet for water birds and birders alike. The Grey-headed Lapwing is new to neither of us but this attractive wader still received its due admiration. About 50 birds were present throughout the vicinity but are difficult to approach as always - even by car.

Apparently, the Wood Sandpiper is a rarity in America which is definitely not the case here in Malaysia. It is probably the commonest wader in freshwater habitats and paddy fields like these are its preferred wintering ground. I guess it was a little puzzled as to why these birders are showing it so much love...

This young female Brown Shrike was exceptionally confiding and could well be a recent arrival. The steel post that she chose to be her vantage point may not compliment the photo much but that is how it is sometimes. Anyway, she was too busy hunting for food to be bothered by our presence and we decided to spend a little more time with this common migrant. 

Eventually, something on the ground caught her eye and it was a grasshopper. The kill was quick and deadly. My gear could not keep up with the action. By the time I finally muster a shot, the prey was well within her digestive system.

From the paddy fields, we headed towards Air Hitam Dalam which was to be the final destination of the day. The ambassadors of the site, the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, gave a warm welcome to my American guest. He remembered this species well from his previous trip with me. The flycatchers here have a tendency for that.

Mother Nature’s version of the Thinker. A Long-tailed Macaque in deep thought...

Call me paranoid but there is always a cause of concern when I see something like this spring at one of my favourite birding haunts. If it is one of those build and then left to rot facilities, so be it. But if they are planning to upgrade the place or something else, then I will be very concern. But I do sincerely hope that for once, they do not fuck things up and kill off another great birding location.

A big flock of 30 Black Kites circling the sky above the swamp forest was quite a sight and naturally caught our attention. These migratory raptors are just back from their wintering grounds up north and are enjoying the commencement of their annual tropical holiday. Little did they know that their fun in the sun was about to come to an abrupt stop and the threat came from an unlikely source – a juvenile White-bellied Sea-Eagle. You can see the eagle at the bottom left of the photo, stalking the flock. I was not expecting anything from it initially and from the looks of it, neither did the kites.

I have always considered the majestic White-bellied Sea-eagle to be a gentle giant that is often harrassed by smaller birds. Well, there is nothing gentle about the intentions of this juvenile. It was almost sinister. The black and white colouration and predatory movements somehow reminded me of the deadly Orca closing in on a school of dolphins. I was transfixed on the big raptor and eagerly waited for the spectacle to unfold. One thing is for sure, I will never see the White-bellied Sea-eagle in the same light again.

It was bright and sunny and that was good thing. In this condition, I managed to capture some of the action shots reasonably well. The kites were too agile for the eagle to do any real harm to them. It appeared like the presence of this big flock of kites did not go down well with the eagle and the latter was just venting out its anger. The eagle chased after several individual. It would twist and turn after the kites but was unable to make any physical contact throughout the entire episode. The Black Kites winter here annually in big numbers and the White-bellied Sea-eagle, a permanent resident. These two species have crossed paths many times before. I just cannot figure out what triggered this violent behaviour from the eagle. Well whatever the reason may be, it was a memorable experience.

When the eagle has had enough, it flew off to a nearby tree to rest. Feathers were ruffled but peace was finally restored. And the graceful kites flew about in leisure once again but in smaller numbers. I guess the eagle somewhat got its way in the end.

Being the smallest raptor in the world does not come without its bad points and frame filling shots of the Black-thighed Falconet remains a privilege most bird photographers have yet to enjoy.

On the way out of Air Hitam Dalam, we came across a flock of resting Asian Openbills on some isolated trees in the middle of the paddy fields. Although I have seen them in bigger flocks, the numbers here were sufficient to capture the interest of my guest. It was a relief to see these storks frequenting back at their usual spots and this encounter was a great way to end another rewarding birding excursion in this part of Peninsular Malaysia.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Old school birding

I get a fair share of guests who are old school birders and Barry, my latest guest who hails from Canada, is certainly one of them. I was a birder long before I took up bird photography. So, I can relate to the fact that all the gear Barry needs for a birding trip is his faithful binoculars. Today also happened to be the final day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival and that usually spells rain in the daytime. Chinese believe the rain is meant to cleanse the roads in preparation for the chariot procession at night. We were almost drenched to the bone when we wondered out of our vehicle at the mangroves of Kuala Gula in search of Milky Storks that is a part of Barry’s bucket list. The trip was off to a bad start. The location did not live up to its name as a bird sanctuary and the only ‘Milkies’ we saw were in a cage within the compound of the Wildlife Department.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher also happened to be in his list and I know exactly where to take him after the disappointing visit to Kuala Gula. As we making our into the flycatchers’ swampy domain at Air Hitam Dalam, a spectacle of nature that I have not witness for a long time stopped us at our tracks. A flock of about 200 Asian Openbills were riding the hot air thermals in the sky above. I was getting a little worried that these storks have abandoned their intentions to settle down here in Peninsular Malaysia. The sight of this massive flock was a relief to say the least.

The male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher did not disappoint as usual. His friendly nature and striking colours made quite an impact on my guest. Barry travels a lot in his line of work and he has seen a considerable number of bird species. It would take something less ordinary to impress him and the Mangrove Blue Flycatchers here are anything but ordinary.

Barry enjoying his second lifer of the trip – a female Streak-breasted Woodpecker. This is probably the most reliable locality for this northern speciality in Malaysia. The differences between this species and the commoner Laced Woodpecker are so subtle, I had to work a little extra to convince my guest. The woodpecker, being a female, was playing hard to get - naturally.

The last leg of today’s tour brought us to the muddy shorelines of Penang’s only Important Bird Area (IBA) – Teluk Ayer Tawar. The tide has started to rise upon our arrival and I could make out waders moving about on the huge expanse of mud and sand.

However, it was not the birds that had my immediate attention but this building that was still under construction. It looks modern and posh and totally out of place here. You are surrounded by scrub and all creepy-crawlies of all kinds. The air is stench with overwhelming mud odour and for half the time, a bleak coastline greets your view. The noise pollution caused by the thousands of migratory waders that winter here each year will drive you insane. This is no place for such an innovative and classy building. Please leave this modest location to the local residents and the birders. You deserve so much better – really…

Now that I have gotten that out of my system, back to the birds again. The mere sight of the number of waders present was breath taking. Although the tide was a little far, we could still scrutinized the flocks for any rarities. As time passed, the tide pushed the waders closer. The adorable Broad-billed Sandpipers were the first to come close enough for some decent shots. Oblivious to all the looming threats their wintering ground is facing, they went about having a good time in this tropical paradise.

Small waders are usually more confiding and this Terek Sandpiper foraged quite close to our stationery vehicle that is now our mobile hide. I am not sure how to describe it but Terek Sandpipers are very soothing to look at – upturned bill and all.

The Common Redshanks due to their big numbers and moderate size is quite conspicuous. Having a tendency to shout your lungs out every chance you get is bound to attract attention to yourself also. I find that they tend to get used to your presence faster than any of the other moderate-sized waders and forage quite close at times.

Whimbrels are usually wary birds. This individual flew close to shore to avoid the rising surf and soon realized its mistakes when it could make out two human forms within this lug of steel that sits on four wheels. I managed to take a few shots before it made things right again and foraged further away from the shoreline.

The main reason for our visit here is the endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. After a careful sweep, we failed to locate one. It is probably too early in the season but one has to be optimistic at times. The next best thing was probably the small flock of Asian Dowitchers foraging nearby. This species, unfortunately, is also on the endangered list. Like the greenshank, the area is one of the main wintering grounds for these endangered waders. Hence, the IBA status but I guess that does not mean much to most.

The dowitchers forage by probing their long bills into the mud quite frequently. It is delightful to watch but challenging to obtain sharp images. Especially now that the rain clouds have started to form again and threaten to block out all traces of the ever-essential natural light I rely so heavily on for photography. The absence of the usual scorching heat here at the mudflats is a nice change despite certain drawbacks. The cool breeze that day also made our wader watching session this time a lot more comfortable than usual. Go deep or go home...

It is a dog-eat-dog world out there on the mudflats. Once you obtained your prey, you better consume it with haste or run away to consume it in leisure because there is always another wader lurking nearby and ever ready to snatch away your hard earned meal. When we were satisfied of our visit to the beach, I took Barry for one last detour and that was to Kulim Hi-Tech Park for his third and final lifer of the day – a well hidden roosting Barred Eagle-owl. And that, I would say is a great way to end a day’s birding despite not having that many photographs to show for it at the end.