Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Life in the mangroves


It has been quite some time since my last birding excursion. Heavy schedule at work and the absence of tour bookings were some of the contributing factors. A last minute booking for a half-day trip was accepted with much enthusiasm. My guest this time is originally from Australia but now based in Hong Kong as an insect researcher. The predawn thunderstorm was some cause for concern. Gloomy skies greeted us as we arrived at the mangroves of Sungai Batu in Kedah state but at least the rains had stopped by then. For that, we were truly grateful. A flash of colours darted through the undergrowth of the swamp forest as soon as we stepped into this muddy domain. It was the resident Mangrove Pitta and after all this time, the mere sight of this pitta still makes my heart skip a beat. The radiance of the sun may be absent but in its stead, the vibrant beauty of this terrestrial denizen.



The White-breasted Waterhen is probably the most encountered rail in Malaysia due to its confiding nature and common status but it is still fascinating to observe. The striking colouration also made it one of the highlights of the trip for my guest.


While we are at the subject of colouration, the resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers flaunted their way into this birding excursion and their presence certainly did not go unnoticed.



Beauty is not the only trait that makes birds such remarkable creatures. Sometimes, it is talent and ability. The Mangrove Whistler, as the name applies, is an accomplished vocalist. The distinct whip lash note of its song can be heard not only in mangroves but other suitable habitats as well. It is a species I seldom see but to be totally honest, there is nothing much there to see. Its dull colouration may help it blend in with its surroundings but it is its powerful song that makes it exceptional.


The confiding nature of this individual resulted in one of my best images of this species to date. It is also the first time I have recorded the Mangrove Whistler at this location despite countless visits in the past. The mangroves are a vital ecosystem and on this day, it provided immensely for a couple of birders on a quest to observe the alluring bird life here.


A lone Dollarbird decided to use this dead tree as a vantage point to launch its aerial assaults for winged morsels. Shooting against a gloomy sky will hardly bring out the true colours of the subject. However, nothing much can conceal that conspicuous red bill though.


Red Collared-Doves are regulars at this locality and a small flock foraging along the edge of the access road had our attention – naturally. The shooting conditions were again challenging and my images did no justice to the sultry splendour of these doves.


There are always exceptions to the rules of the animal kingdom. Among birds, a few species have their females more strikingly coloured than their male counterparts and even their roles are reversed. The Barred Buttonquail is one such bird. Anyway typical of small gamebirds, the Barred Buttonquail can be difficult to encounter despite being a common species. And a striking female standing right out in the open deserves to be posted regardless of the quality of the image.


My Australian guest enjoying the antics of a pair of Common Flamebacks...


The next and final destination of the trip was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Bird-wise, the locality did not meet expectations and it was a relatively slow visit. Some of the regular residents were on hand to ensure we do leave empty handed. A female Common Iora resting among the foliage offered one of the few photographic opportunities during our visit here. The varied and pleasant song of her mate was what caught our attention initially but he remained hidden throughout the observation.


Most foreign birders are fond of kingfishers here in Malaysia because of the birds’ character and appeal. The Collared Kingfisher is the commonest one at this birding spot and one pair of was in the process of increasing the local population. Crabs form a major part of their diet and this parent bird was bringing food back to the nest located somewhere within the swamp forest. I certainly have had better birding days at this local patch but it still felt great to be able to get out into the field again.


The acquisition of a new motorcycle helped eased my suffering during the non-birding period. Bikes have always been an integral part of my life. They are to me more than just a means of transport. My new bike may not be top of the line automobile technology but it is sufficient to inject a dose of excitement to my daily commuting and weekend escapes. It also serves as a good subject for a genre of photography that I am now beginning to explore.


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

A mid life crisis?


A planned trip to the peat swamp forest of Pondok Tanjung in northern Perak with Hor Kee had to be put on hold because a swollen knee as a result of a Badminton game a few days back. I guess age is catching up on me. And to be in denial is just futile. Anyway, I opted to visit another swamp forest much closer to home and more relaxing. Birding is relatively easy around Penang and the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest is no exception. But things were not looking all that good upon my arrival as I was greeted by rain despite the sunny conditions. I took shelter in one of the gazebos and started checking my messages and email. The loud calls of the White-chested Babbler suddenly echoed through the vicinity and the smartphone was kept back in my bag where it rightfully should be. The rain had almost trickled to a stop by then. I said a little prayer and waited. Some movements among the base of the Nipah Palms caught my eye and soon after, a White-chested Babbler hopped into view. In Irish mythology at the end of a rainbow is a pot of gold. In this case, my pot of gold is a little brown job with a big voice.



I took a stroll along the river trail but it was relatively quiet except for the raucous calls of the resident pair of Collared Kingfishers. A Changeable Hawk-Eagle on the hunt did not go unnoticed and as the raptor circled over the kingfishers, I managed to capture one of them keeping an eye on the formidable predator.


I have birded at this locality countless times throughout all these years and yet, it still has not cease to amaze. I have recorded the Blue-eared Kingfisher here before but nothing more than a glimpse as it darts through the vicinity. Along the elevated boardwalk that cuts though the swamp, the bright colouration of this small but stunning kingfisher stood out from the vegetation. In fact, it looked a little out of place but that is far from the truth. The kingfisher is in its element here. The small stream augmented by the rising tide was the perfect hunting ground. I got down all my knees despite the discomfort and crept closer. Exhilaration has almost taken over my senses. So much for a relaxing morning of birding at a local patch. I only hope that my intrusion will be tolerated.



It turned out to be a young male and he was unperturbed by my presence. For the second time in two months, species of birds that are normally shy and elusive here at Air Hitam Dalam displayed a degree of tameness that can only be the results of a greater power at work. Both the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo and this Blue-eared Kingfisher are beautiful and intriguing birds. I am truly blessed to be given the opportunities to enjoy such intimate encounters.



The lighting conditions was not exactly ideal but the magnitude of this encounter simply overshadowed all other factors including the discomfort that has started to develop in my knee joint.


When the kingfisher finally ventured deeper into the swamp, it was time to haul myself upright again and carry on. One of the reasons I decided to visit this locality was to try and spend more time with the Blue-winged Pitta that has been showing well of late. Unfortunately, it proved to be most difficult to even obtain a decent view of the pitta today. The other species that frequent the stake out of the pitta presented themselves as expected. Most noticeable were the ever inquisitive Abbott’s Babblers.


A few Olive-winged Bulbuls helped to pass the time as I waited for the Blue-winged Pitta. Bulbuls are nowhere close to pittas in terms of colours and charisma but that does not mean they will not have my attention – especially when things are slow.



You know things are really slow when I even have time for the Common Sun Skink...


The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers provided much needed colours and beauty to the stake out. Today, the female was much more obliging than her mate. Although there is sexual dimorphism in this species, the female is just as stunning as the male.


Air Hitam Dalam is home to a number of woodpeckers and although three species was recorded today, only one provide some opportunities for its images to be taken – a female Common Flameback foraging next to the access road.


When one of the big trees here uprooted last year, the negative effect it had on the bird life was quite apparent. Along the outermost elevated boardwalk next to the river, I came across a sight I truly dread. Another big tree had fallen victim but I am not entirely sure of the cause. This birding location has seen better days and I hope this will not deteriorate the site any further.


A bird’s eye view of the closest piece of heaven to home – the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest.


A stroke of good fortune revealed a pair of roosting Spotted Wood-Owls as the noon hour approaches. They strategically chose the highest and densest tree crown for their siesta. My effort to obtain decent images did not go well down with the owls. A lengthy stare from its lofty perch was enough to convince me to abandon all thoughts of an improvement shot. Anyway, this beautiful night predator wrapped things up for the day. On this rare occasion, I was actually looking forward to concluding the excursion and seek the comforts of home to recuperate my ailing anatomy.


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Fascinating predators of the night - Part 2


The virgin jungle of Bukit Wang in Kedah state is home to a number of alluring bird species and I am putting my hopes on a few to reveal themselves for my Singaporean guests. The long drive from Penang was slightly more gruelling than usual and it is probably due to yesterday’s predawn raid to Pedu. As we were about to reach the car park, I spotted a dark object on a tree in a fruit orchard. I stopped for a better look and whatever sleepiness or fatigue vanished into thin air. I was invigorated like no coffee on Earth could for standing on an exposed perch was a Dusky Eagle-Owl. Bukit Wang is one of the few places in Malaysia where this scarce nocturnal predator is known to occur. Lighting was less than favourable and so was the distance but this is the biggest owl in the Malaysia. Just to be able to see it in the wild like this is a privilege to me. It is truly an incredible creature and the encounter, priceless.


We barely got out of the car park area when something big took flight and retreated into the forest. From the jizz, I was quite certain it was another owl. After a careful sweep, I managed to relocate it and it was a Buffy Fish-Owl. Not quite in the same class as the Dusky Eagle-Owl but this common owl is still an impressive bird. Any daytime encounter with owls is an amazing experience and to have two simultaneously is beyond words.


The recreational area of this reserve is very scenic. In fact, I think it is one of the most appealing at all the forest sites that I frequent. The rays of the morning sun cast beautiful shadows and a kaleidoscope of light spectrums pierced through the forest like the brush strokes of an artist. My guest took a minute to soak in the views and so did I.



However once we entered the forest proper, things trickled down almost to a standstill. Birds were far and few. A male Tiger Shrike in his handsome breeding plumage offered some redemption. Resting on a well lighted perch, this migrant will soon make its way back north.


It is logical to assume common forest birds would be easy to locate and photograph. It is true for the first part but as to obtaining photographs, common birds can be just as frustrating. The Dark-necked Tailorbird is probably one of the commonest birds here but this striking male kept himself partly hidden throughout our observation.


My guests still in high spirits despite the slightly disappointing session in the forested area of the reserve...


I decided to have a change of scenery and took my guests to the paddy fields of mainland Penang. Only the commoner birds were encountered until we came across a rather pale Pond-Heron. Another quick look and the whole vehicle shook with excitement. An Indian Pond-Heron in full breeding plumage alone is quite a sign and this one, was hunting. This heron adopts the freeze-and-wait technique and we patiently waited with it. The human observers were starting to get restless when the heron finally struck. It managed to catch a sizeable fish and my guests, a satisfying end to a long wait.


Our final destination for this 2-day excursion brought us to the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. The Spotted Wood-Owl made it three owls in a day but it hid itself among the foliage well today. On the contrary, a male Banded Woodpecker rested on an exposed perch for a prolonged period time. Most woodpeckers are spectacular birds and the Banded Woodpecker is no exception. Sporting a combination reds, greens and character; this common species was one of the highlights of trip.


The Yellow-bellied Prinia was at its usual patch of scrub proclaiming its territory. During the breeding season, this grassland warbler will reveal itself more often than usual and this is the best time to obtain its images.


Night birds were not the only ones monopolizing our memories of this trip. The Blue-winged Pitta was the second pitta species in two days and that again, is a significant moment for my guests. It may be the commonest of all our pittas but it has been driving me insane for the past few weeks as I tried my best to show it to several of my foreign guests but to no avail. Finally, my first reasonable images of the Blue-winged Pitta this season.



As we were trying to obtain better images of the pitta, a female Paradise-Flycatcher passed through the vicinity but not before alighting briefly not too far us. This spring migration has seen several species of these exquisite flycatchers on passage at this location and they included Blyth’s, Amur, Japanese and Indian Paradise-Flycatcher (a first for Malaysia). I took a few shots of her but when she gradually moved on, I let her go thinking that she was neither a Japanese nor an Indian Paradise-Flycatcher. It was a decision I will soon regret. Back home, I was not fully convinced of my own conclusion as all the females are remarkably similar and I showed the image to Dave Bakewell and Philip Round. They think it could be a female Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher and although females are not even close to the resplendent of the males, she could have provided me with my first images of the species. However, I can never be certain of this as she was no longer present the next day.


Shortly after the encounter with the geisha, a splendid Black-and-red Broadbill alighted right in front of us and exhilaration again filled the vicinity. As we were shooting this amazing bird, one of my guest decided to shift to no doubt, a better position. I heard a loud crash and turned around to find my guest without his gear. His gear, which cost a small fortune, had fallen unto the ground – and so did my heart. The broadbill would have been one hell of a conclusion to this rewarding day but this unwanted incident snatched that honour. But even so, there was no denying the last 48 hours held some remarkable moments. Night birds and pittas are two of the most fascinating birds for me and we certainly had a fair share of them this time.


Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Fascinating predators of the night - Part 1

It is now almost routine for me to travel to Pedu in Kedah state way before dawn. The possibility of a Large Frogmouth is something most birders find it hard to resist, especially foreign birders. This striking creature of the night again awed the humans with its presence but provided few good photographic opportunities. Finding night birds in the dark is often difficult and frustrating. Photographing them is even worse. But this one single photo made all the effort of getting here at this hour worth it.


My birding guests this time were from the neighbouring country of Singapore and this is their maiden trip to Peninsular Malaysia. They engaged me for a 2-day photo expedition around Penang and the first destination was proving to be most challenging. A confiding Rufescent Prinia did its best to salvage our visit here. Much to the delight of my guest (and my relief), it knew exactly what was required for a memorable photo shoot.


The Wrinkled Hornbill is one of the rarest of our hornbills and to see a male bird in good light is about as good as it gets. I was given a very small window to capture the moment but thankfully, I managed to obtain a couple of reasonable images before he flew out of view. The head on shot of this impressive bird in the clear blue sky was certainly one of the highlights of the day for me.


Shutter count may have been low at Pedu but our next destination was a different story. The mangroves of Sungai Batu, also in Kedah state, is another one of my regular locations and as expected the birds gave Edward and Teong a very warm reception. The first species recorded was the Abbott’s Babbler. It may not be the most attractive bird around but it still provided an entertaining encounter.


Birders of the north tend to take the Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher for granted because of its constant presence at a couple of sites including this one. However, the beautiful colouration of the bird often makes it a favourite among my foreign guests and for that, it will always be in my good graces.


I do not recall seeing a male Oriental Magpie-Robin at this locality before and that is not a good sign. The population may not be doing as well as I thought. It would a shame to lose this songster here as well to the bird trade.


Of all the rails and crakes that occur in Malaysia, the White-breasted Waterhen is the most often seen. Not only is it bold and common but it also lives alongside humans. The striking colouration makes it rather conspicuous and naturally, a good subject for photography.



I occasionally see this species here at Sungai Batu but it certainly outdid itself today. Being a sucker for waterbirds, the exceptionally confiding behaviour this individual exhibited today was a real treat.


The Mangrove Pitta was sorely missed during my last visit here but it certainly did not disappoint this time. Strutting around the muddy terrain like a model on a catwalk, it had our undivided attention. Despite all the hours I have spent enjoying the pitta’s company, I still cannot take my eyes off it whenever it appears. I guess that is what makes pittas such fascinating and mesmerizing birds.




There is no mistaking the amazing song of the Puff-throated Babbler and like the pitta, it too was not recorded during my last visit. The mischievous behaviour is always a delight to observe and its confiding nature today did not go unappreciated. This adorable and attractive babbler wrapped things up for the first day of our photo expedition. Tomorrow we will be heading to another wild part of Kedah state and that will be covered in my next post.