Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Nightbirds steal the limelight

The Nine Emperor Gods Festival usually brings rain to the lands here and this year is no different. Daily thunderstorms in the evenings were a slight worry as I picked up my British guests from a boutique hotel in the heart of Georgetown City. The first destination of the day was the mangroves of Sungai Batu in Kedah state. The weather was surprisingly pleasant and I led the way into this swampy domain with rejuvenated confidence. A handsome male Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher was the first bird to greet us and being relatively new to birding in the tropics, the vivid colouration of the flycatcher certainly captured my guests’ attention.

My guest had their hearts set on seeing a pitta for this trip and this is one site where you stand a very good chance. The Mangrove Pitta was their first pitta in the wild and the performance by this locality’s celebrity bird certainly swept my guests off their feet. I remembered my first ever pitta sighting well and it was a Blue-winged Pitta in the middle of a rubber estate. It was a brief view for the younger me unlike what my guests were enjoying – a prolonged intimate encounter that will last a lifetime.

As the natural illumination increased so did the level of bird activity. The resident Abbott’s Babblers will usually be able to inject a dose of excitement to any visit with their charming and inquisitive nature. Something on the ground had this one on full alert. This is a posture one does not usually see this species adopting and it will make a nice addition to my rather comprehension collection of images.

Judging from the confiding nature of this Forest Wagtail, it is safe to assume that it is one of the individuals that wintered here last season. It is always a challenge to photograph this species due to its constant movements. But there is no denying the fact it is a striking species and I am elated of its return here.

The Blue-tailed Bee-eaters were also back for the winter and their graceful sallies after flying insects are always a welcomed sight. A few were seen resting and preening on a dead tree and this image shows the difference between an adult and an immature.

There were a flock of Red Collared-Doves on the same dead tree but our presence did not go down well with them. The flock took flight leaving only one male bird that took his sweet time to depart.

The best encounter from this visit to the mangroves was a lone Little Cormorant resting on a wooden stake overlooking a commercial fish pond. This species is starting to establish itself in the northern half of the peninsular and the number of sightings are increasing. This is by far the closest I have been to a Little Cormorant as I find it to be shy by nature here. I have a soft spot for water birds even more so for those I do not across all too often like the Little Cormorant. Even the less than ideal lighting cannot influence the exhilaration of the encounter.

The second destination of the day was the hilly forest of Sungai Sedim. The current spell of rain and wind left a trail of destruction along my favourite access trail of this recreational forest. The number of birds recorded was lower than usual and it was truly a let down when compared to first locality. This Ferruginous Flycatcher could have save the trip here if it was perched a little lower.

As we heading towards the next birding location, we made a little detour for the roosting Savanna Nightjars at the Kulim Hi-Tech Park. The remarkable camouflage of this nocturnal bird never cease to amaze my guests. Today, despite a careful search, only one was recorded. And for that I was most grateful.

A quick swing to the paddy fields did not yield anything out of the ordinary but it was nice to see the migratory Grey-headed Lapwings and Daurian Starlings back for the winter. There was a moment of suspense when we spotted a Barn Owl perched outside one of the nesting boxes provided by the farmers to entice these biological pest controllers to breed and multiple. Unfortunately, it hopped back into the nest box before we could obtain any better images.

The last destination of the day was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Again, the birds were not showing well and I had to dig really deep to provide my guests with one memorable encounter. A third record of a night bird for the day and it was a roosting Spotted Wood-Owl. Nestled unobtrusively among the canopy of one of its favourite roosting trees, it managed to elude detection until the very last minute. Undoubtedly, it was a great way to end the visit to this local patch.

On the way out of the reserve, flocks of Asian Openbills were seen flying in from the adjacent paddy fields. These enigmatic storks flew quite low overhead and it did not take long for us to locate them. Hundreds of Asian Openbills resting on a patch of paddy field is an amazing sight. As I slowly drove towards them, the anticipation of the experience that was to come was overwhelming. However, life do not always go according to plan. A passer-by, no doubt amazed for the sight of storks, over zealously got out from his car in an attempt to capture the spectacle with his mobile phone. A flurry of wings and feathers later, we were left staring at an empty patch of paddy field. I was dumbfounded. A stream of nasty deeds to be executed on the passer-by flow through my thoughts. But no matter what, it will not undo what is done even if I castrated the guy. My guests managed to rack in one more lifer and appeared to quite content. The Asian Openbills were a great way to wrap things up for the day. Despite the slightly lower than usual number of birds being recorded, my guests were in high spirits as we made our home. But not before I gave the passer-by an evil eye when our paths crossed briefly.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

A sky full of raptors

Dipping out on the Oriental Plover last season at the grassland outside Taiping in Perak state left a devastating blow to my spiritual well being. It was a deep wound that may have healed as time passed. But the scar remained. An invitation by Hor Kee (who suffered the similar fate) to check the grassland again as this migratory season commenced, was accepted without much hesitation. The sight of 50 Pacific Golden-Plovers (a known associate of the distinguished Oriental Plover) upon our arrival at the locality sent a stream of adrenalin through my veins with such vigour that left me lightheaded. However, the exhilaration was short lived. Upon further scrutiny, there was no Oriental Plover among them.

We scouted around the remaining areas of grasslands but without success. It was relatively slow in terms of birding. A Long-tailed Shrike calling from a lofty perch provided some compensation. Although this species is not uncommon in this part of Peninsular Malaysia, it is a species that rarely occurs back in my home state of Penang. Of all the shrikes found here in Malaysia, I find the Long-tailed Shrike to be the most appealing. Its distribution may have an influence on this matter.

A Spotted Dove that alighted near our stationary vehicle received some unexpected attention as there was basically nothing else about.

From the flat grassland, we made our way to the vantage point atop Scott’s Hill to try to eradicate another disappointment from last season when we spent at least two excursions staring at empty blue skies during the peak of raptor migration.

Our faith in the locality was restored when we saw a flock of about 100 Chinese Sparrowhawks riding the thermal as they make their way south for the winter. This flock alone had more migrating raptors than the whole of last season at this site. During our 2-hour observation, this species formed the majority and several flocks were recorded.

Most of the migrating raptors were high up in the sky and photography was almost a lost case. Record shots like this of a lone Japanese Sparrowhawk were aplenty.

Even the larger Oriental Honey-Buzzard passed through at great heights...

Except for one but it was heading the other direction and in no particular hurry. It was, after all, the resident race of the Oriental Honey-buzzard and it provided the best raptor images of the day. Soaring gracefully just above the tree line, it had our undivided attention. Unlike its migratory counterparts, resident Oriental Honey-Buzzards are not exactly common raptors.

However, not all the resident raptors recorded today were as confiding. A pale morph Changeable Hawk-Eagle flew past about the same altitude as the migrants.

Another highlight from this brief raptor count came in the form of Rufous-bellied Eagles. An adult swooped down at a juvenile in mid-flight and although it was not a vicious attack, the display of aerial agility was spectacular. My modest gear could not capture the true essence of the bout but it was an exciting experience nonetheless.

Evolution has made the Brown-backed Needletail aerodynamically perfect and trying to photograph the world’s fastest bird is no walk in the park. However, today the lighting condition was ideal and this one was cruising a leisurely pace. I took the opportunity to capture a few images of which one turned out reasonable. This wonder of nature was the last bird we recorded before we made our way to the last destination of the trip.

Both residential and commercial developments have been sprouting up like wild mushrooms in Batu Kawan ever since the Second Penang Bridge was opened to public. Inevitably, a significant area has lost its charm as birding localities. A newly discovered wader roost near some major developments including a much-anticipated one by a Swedish-founded furniture company. This rose among the thorns was where we headed before calling a day.

I always have a soft spot for waterbirds and I just wanted to check out the site before it is too late. An expanse of mud and water may not appeal to normal folks but no one ever said birders are normal folks. This bleak landscape plays host to several species of birds and that to me makes it irresistible.

It is heartening to see big waterbirds like the Grey Heron still has a place to call home here in Penang state. The lighting was harsh at the time of our visit and not much hope was put into the outcome of the images taken there.

Overall, this new site certainly has potential and pushes all the right buttons for me. A return trip at a more ideal time will not be too far in the future. A foraging Long-toed Stint made sure of that.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Every cloud has a silver lining

My latest birding excursion could not have kicked off any worse. It was a predawn trip and I was greeted by cold night breeze and persistent drizzle as I made my way to my parked vehicle. Chilled to the bone and anxious, I had to put on my game face as I picked up my Sabahan guest from his hotel. The drive to Pedu took longer than usual due to the weather condition. It had stop raining by the time of our arrival. For a moment there, I thought things were finally starting to turn round. Unfortunately for all our sweat and blood (courtesy of the resident leeches), we only managed to hear a Gould’s Frogmouth. The only consolation for this nocturnal affair was the exceptionally mesmerizing view of the Milky Way and this is coming from someone who is not really into stargazing.

As daybreak approaches, there was only one thought in my mind and that is hopefully the diurnal birds will perform better than their nocturnal counterparts. Unfortunately, it was nothing other than wishful thinking as the skies opened again and we had to seek shelter from the downpour. This cold and miserable weather returned intermittently throughout the morning and we had to make do with what was provided by Mother Nature. I was still wallowing in disappointment when I should have been more focus and inevitably, it was my guest who spotted the first bird of the trip. It was a handsome male Red-bearded Bee-eater resting on an exposed perch along the forest canopy. Lighting may not have been ideal but it was a great species to get the ball rolling.

We followed the movements of a pair of Chestnut-breasted Malkohas as they hunted for food. As expected, the pair moved at a rapid pace and the dense vegetation was no ally to us. Our perseverance paid off when the female alighted on an exposed perch long enough for her photograph to be taken. The angle of the shot may not compliment her true beauty but it was the best that I could managed.

The forest surrounding Pedu Lake is a known stronghold for malkohas. Three species on a single trip is a slightly modest number. The Raffles’s Malkoha proved to be impossible to photograph today. The Black-bellied Malkoha, on the other hand, provided some excitement by resting partly concealed at the topmost part of the canopy.

Flowers are not exactly my cup of tea but birding was undeniably slow today due to the weather condition. And the vibrant colours of this wild ginger flower momentarily distracted my attention from birding.

There was a brief moment when the rays of the sun broke through the rain clouds to reach Earth. I should have took it for a sign from above because what was to follow was nothing less than divine intervention. A clump of small trees were fruiting and that will usually yield some birds. True enough, a pair of Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds were having a feast. The male is an exquisite bird with a combination of colour that is simply remarkable. I do not consider this species to be an easy subject to photograph but today, it proved me wrong. The male alighted on an eye level perch and was extremely confiding. I was elated and so was my guest.

When he hopped off the perch, I thought that the performance was over. Unbelievably he alighted on an even closer perch and I, was in shock. Thankfully, I managed to snap myself out of it and fired a series of continuous shots. Four hours of struggle and frustration with the weather, the birds and so forth. And along comes this resplendent creature to lift our spirits and rejuvenate our souls. People often ask me what it is about me and birds. This is exactly what it is about me and birds. What an encounter. What an experience of a lifetime.

When he shifted for the second time, I thought this must be it and he will return back to the cover of the canopy. He proved me wrong after by alighting on the next adjacent branch. However, he was getting restless and that was apparent in my slightly soft images. Not that it matters because this male Ruby-cheeked Sunbird had already made my day. Even the returning drizzle could not dampened my spirits.

The female was less obliging. Perhaps I was too captivated by her mate to notice her. Anyway, I am most grateful Sod’s Law had no part in this encounter which is not usually the case. And it was the drabber one that shunned away from my camera.

And a few Plain Sunbirds that were also patronizing behaved more typical of the forest sunbirds I know and good photographic opportunities were totally absent...

When the weather turned again for the worse, we took our leave. We arrive at the mangroves of Sungai Batu only to find the gloom had follow us all the way here. Feeling invincible after the episode with the sunbird, we pushed on. The first bird to greet us was the Mangrove Pitta – the star bird of this muddy domain. It appeared that the recent breeding season had taken its toll and the pitta was not exactly at its finest. The head region was again in moult and the colours somewhat subdued – just like the previous season. But it was a lifer for my guest and any lifer in the form of a pitta is magical. Even if the bird is in moult.

The resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers braved the testing weather to help spice up our visit here. Unlike the pitta, the flycatchers were in prime conditions. The male looking very smart indeed as he rested at the edge of the swamp in between foraging sessions.

The female still maintained poise and elegance despite getting down and dirty on the muddy forest floor.

As the raindrops grew in intensity, we prepared to call it a day. But not before a pair of Abbott’s Babbler had played their role in salvaging the day from a total disappointment. Despite all the challenges faced, the day ended better than I had anticipated – much to my relief. And I owe it all to the stellar performance of a tiny but electrifying male sunbird that left even a seasoned birder like me in disbelief.   

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Flower-related turf war

Consecutive days of storm washed away any plans for birding this weekend. However, a visit to somewhere within the island of Penang was still viable. The Relau Metropolitan Park is a green area that I have not visited before. This park is located next to a residential area and as expected, it was not raining upon my arrival. I bet if I was at some far off birding hotspot, I will mostly probably be talking shelter from the rain. Murphy would have made sure of that.

This site happens to be one of Hor Kee’s local patches and according to him, the bed of Heliconias near the main building of the park is a good bet for foraging sunbirds. Although the Plain-throated Sunbird is one of the commoner species, I do not have as many photographs of it as I would like. Well, that certainly changed after today. A male bird seemed to have proclaimed this bed of flowers his and defend it vigorously from other nectar-loving species.

Although he was confiding, sudden erratic movements occasionally derailed my photographic efforts. Like all public parks, there will be the weekend crowd. Although it is not as bad as some other prominent parks, my gear and behaviour attracted the usual stares and questions. But I stood my ground. The resplendent plumage of the male, especially his upperparts, is worth the irritation.

He feeds in intervals. When not indulging he alights on the same nearby perch to rest, preen and keep a look out for intruders.

I was surprised when he went after a female that invaded his turf. However, shortly after I saw her savouring the sweet nectar right in the open. It looked like our boy realized his mistake and he has a soft spot after all.

The female was even more confiding and she soon had the undivided attention of not one but two males following her every move.

With the male Plain-throated Sunbird being so utterly aggressive, there is very little hope of any other species visiting the Heliconias. Since it is my first visit and all, I was eager to explore the remaining areas. Unfortunately, I did not have much opportunity to photograph except for a male Common Tailorbird that occasionally took a breather before commencing on his morning hunt for sustenance.

Near the far end of the park, I came upon a watch tower. Much to my delight, the surrounding trees were fruiting. So I was presented with a rare opportunity to observe and shoot an active fruiting tree at eye level. And of all places, it is at a modest residential park in my own island home of Penang. My faith in the island for providing exceptional birding experiences has been somewhat questionable of late.

Thoughts of guilt were running through my head as I climbed the steps up the tower. But those thoughts vanished when I caught sight of a handsome male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher.

He is one of the early arrivals as the migratory season will only peak in about a month’s time. It was a good encounter for a visit to a site so close to home. Could have been even better if he had been slightly more confiding.

The presence of a plainer flycatcher among the fruiting trees pulled me away from the Yellow-rumped Flycatcher. No, the elevation of the tower has not clouded my senses. With last season’s episode of the rare Narcissus Flycatcher still lingering at the back of my mind, the drab one was fully scrutinized for unexpected surprises. However, it turned out to be only a female Yellow-rumped Flycatcher and a camera-shy one as well judging from this one single photo that I managed to take.

I made myself comfortable at the tower and waited for what else that might drop in for a feed. Being surrounded by fruiting trees also has its drawback especially when one is alone. I had to constantly move around to make nothing slips pass my radar. Frustration started to set in when most of the patrons chose to feast among the furthest trees and often partially obstructed from view. You know, I would never had thought the Yellow-vented Bulbul would be so shy here...

The Black-naped Orioles made frequent brief visits to the loftiest branches. Enough said...

I was given only one chance to the photograph the Pink-necked Pigeon. It was after the flock has gorged themselves whilst completely hidden from view and a female bird alighted on an exposed perch before flying off with the rest of the flock.

Although there were hardly any notable species present, some the commoner did provide moments of delights during my time at this elevated stakeout. The Olive-winged Bulbul may be the second commonest bulbul on the island but it was still nice of it to provide some photographic opportunities.

The resplendent beauty of the Asian Glossy Starling is often difficult to capture accurately and lighting plays a major role here. Well today, I had ample time to attempt as quite a number of them were present at the fruiting trees.

Some of the starlings I captured appeared duller than the rest. But it was no fault of mine nor my equipment. They were subadults that have had to obtain the adult’s true splendour.

The tower provided me with a means to photograph the foraging starlings at eye level. With a little patience and luck, some of the images almost did these common but stunning birds justice. There is no denying the advancement in photographic equipment but I still feel that nothing beats first hand experience. The moment you lay eyes on the bird. The emotions that run through your soul. The conditions that you had to endure or savour. No photograph, no matter how remarkable, can ever capture those.

The forecasted storm finally started to show itself as the noon hour approached. I managed a few more shots of the starlings before the fruiting trees no longer show any signs of life. The vicinity grew dark and silent except for the distanced rumbling of thunder. It was then that I descended back down to Earth. Inevitably, I was caught by the downpour but am glad I decided to make this visit and enjoyed a few hours of unexpectedly rewarding birding.