Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The one that didn't get away

Air Hitam Dalam has been struggling to return back to its former self after the uprooting of one of its main trees. This morning’s birding excursion was off to a very slow start. My guests this time were from England and they have been residing here in Malaysia for the past 6 years and have a significant number of our bird species under their belt. And that only made matters worse. Under performing birding sites can be stressful. Even a family of Mangrove Blue Flycatcher could not improve the situation much. The next location was the mudflats of Bagan Belat where my guests were hoping for their first ever Nordmann’s Greenshank and I was determined to see their wish fulfilled after the disappointing start. The weather was beautiful and the tide ideal but despite a careful search, no Nordmann’s Greenshanks were found. Fortunately, the mass gathering of waders at this high tide roost was a spectacle by itself.


Asian Dowitchers have been showing well so far this season and today was no exception. A reasonably big flock was foraging along the tide line together with Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This presented a good opportunity to compare the differences between the dowitcher and the godwits – especially when the former is relatively foreign to my guests.


A trio of Black-tailed Godwits sweep the coastal waters for nutritious morsels at their winter sanctuary…


The arrival of a few Brown-headed Gulls to the roost diverted our attention from the waders momentarily. I cannot help it but I do not forget bad experiences easily. The bitter memory of dipping out on the Black-tailed Gull here a few weeks earlier resurfaced to torment my thoughts.


The distinctive call of the Coppersmith Barbet started to resonate nearby our position. A quick search at the nearby trees revealed this adorable little bird. In an avian-scape of browns and greys, the vivid colours of this barbet was a welcomed sight.



The paddy fields in Permatang Pauh holds a few would-be lifers for my guests and finally, they were not to be denied. To be able to enjoy three lifers at a single location will turn any ordinary trip to an exceptional one. One good turn deserves another and in return for the lifers I found for them, my guests spotted Penang’s second Glossy Ibis which was discovered here yesterday by Hor Kee. This peculiar water bird was foraging at a distance and the lighting was harsh. However, I would not be able to forgive myself if I did not even attempt to obtain some images from this encounter because the last this species showed up in my home state, it stayed for only one day and I missed it on the second day. And this rare migrant is a fine way to conclude this half day excursion despite the slow start.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The eagles have certainly landed...

The weather has improved slightly here around Penang state and a beautiful sunrise unfolded as we made our way along the elevated boardwalk of Air Hitam Dalam. This time, I had the company of a couple from Scotland and they have been birding for a very long time. We had barely broke a sweat when we came across our first bird of the day. It was a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo foraging noisily along the canopy level of the swamp forest. The rackets of this bird have always been the object of fascination for me but today, it was the bird’s hearty catch.


Moments later, the presence of a pair of Spotted Wood-owls stopped us at our tracks. However, the owls were restless and did not stay put for long. Daytime encounters with owls are always exciting. Even if brief glimpses were all that were to it. The owls, despite their size, can hide surprisingly well among the foliage and shadows of the tree crowns. Hide-and-seek is one game that you do not want to engage with them. On the other hand, another predatory bird of this swamp forest was a lot more obliging. The Crested Serpent-eagle is not new to any of us but it still received its share of admiration and affection.


The next destination was the expansive mudflats of neighbouring Bagan Belat. The tide was slightly higher than anticipated and inevitably, the number of waders present was less overwhelming. The Nordmann’s Greenshank is one of the most sought after wader species among my foreign guests. It comes as no surprise because it is an endangered species and the coastline here is one of its regular wintering grounds. It is also one good looking bird even in winter. Flocks of almost similar-looking Common Greenshanks were given extra attention but to no avail. And Penang continues to anxiously await the arrival of the first Nordmann’s Greenshank of the season (at the time of writing, a few had revealed themselves to Dave a few days after our visit).


From the coastline, we headed inland towards Permatang Pauh - the main paddy planting district of Penang. The electrical pylons that spans across one section of the paddy fields is the favourite haunt for wintering eagles. It did not take long to find one and it was a Greater Spotted Eagle. It was an exciting find but unfortunately, there was nothing much I could do about the distance of the encounter.


I was so preoccupied with the Greater Spotted Eagle that I did not notice a pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles on the very top of the same pylon until they were pointed to me by my guests – much to my embarrassment. Again the distance was just too great or this majestic pair would have made a very good capture.


Unlike the mighty raptors, one small migratory passerine performed admirably well for my camera and it was a female Siberian Stonechat. It is by no means a rare species but she is exotic enough to have my undivided attention.


Black-crowned Night-herons are not often seen here. Not in broad daylight anyway. This juvenile was hunting when our paths crossed and since it was obliging enough, we took some time to admire its presence.


The flocks of Grey-headed Lapwings are increasing in numbers - as expected. Their numbers may have grown but their courage remains the same – as expected too. Anyhow, the lighting was good today and I tried my luck at some distanced shots hoping that they will turn out good enough to be posted. And one of them did.


To see a Lesser Adjutant foraging in a paddy field in Peninsular Malaysia is nothing out of the ordinary especially in the paddy fields in the southernmost state of Johor. But this is the first time I have seen one in the paddy fields here in Penang. Hence, the inclusive of this dreadful shot to end this time’s post of our half day excursion. Thanks to the sunny weather, it was a memorable and rewarding trip as well.



Thursday, 10 November 2016

A sky full of storks

I found myself back at the base of the Treeswift Tree in Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest again. Nick, my British guest, wanted both species of Treeswifts found here in Malaysia and I thought to myself that this was going to be an easy one. However, I should have known better. There is no sure thing when it comes to birding. The Grey-rumped Treeswifts that usually outnumbers the Whiskered Treeswifts were nowhere to be found. I could feel a sense of embarrassment developing from within as only a handful of the latter were present. Just as I was about to give up hope, an all too familiar silhouette cut through the sky above followed by another and another. Soon the tree was filled with both Whiskered and Grey-rumped Treeswifts. I was back in business. The vicinity was exceptionally “birdy” morning. Species after species popped up as though to greet my foreign guest. The Chestnut-breasted Malkoha is an impressive bird. Brightly coloured and massive, this cuckoo garners affection wherever it goes. Unfortunately, it is shy and good views are hard to come by. On this rare occasion, it alighted momentarily on quite an exposed perch. But even at this far distance, it gave us the eye before disappearing back into the foliage of the forest. Now that is attitude for you...


There was a small fruiting near the base of the Treeswift Tree and the bulbuls were in a very good mood indeed. Any fruiting tree that is attracting birds is a phenomenal occurrence and the size of the tree certainly does not matter here. No less than six different species were recorded and the Finsch’s Bulbul is one of the more confiding ones.


The Cream-vented Bulbul made a few brief visits and this was the only image I managed to obtain.


It would not be complete if the fruiting tree did not have a few Buff-vented Bulbuls gorging on the fruits. This particular individual was taking a breather from the fiesta and the roadside cable was as good as any perch.


The birds were not the only ones performing well today. We also had the privilege to observe a Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel foraging on one of the tall trees nearby. It may lack the colours of some of the other squirrels but it is still an attractive creature and one that you do not come across all that often.


When the noon hour was upon us, it was time for my guest to get acquainted with some of the wintering freshwater waders at the paddy fields in mainland Penang. As we making our way out of Sungai Sedim, a soaring raptor delayed our departure in a good sense that is. It turned out to be a pale morph Changeable Hawk-eagle and as common as it may be, this formidable raptor still evokes excitement for me.


At the paddy fields, Grey-headed Lapwings, Little Ringed Plovers and Long-toed Stints soon found their way into our birding excursion despite the blistering heat. Wintering waders were not the only ones taking advantage of the accommodating conditions found in this muddy terrain. Eastern Yellow Wagtails can be seen in significant numbers here as well. Their numbers are increasing with each passing week thus providing more photographic opportunities.


Baya Weavers are regular patrons to the paddy fields but their penchant for paddy seeds do not make them very popular with the farmers. A lone individual that was resting next to the fields tried to appear as innocent as possible before the next feeding.


Unlike the last trip, the weather held up till the end but the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam was exceptionally quiet today. Come to think of it, the birding has not been the same since the uprooting of one the trees last month. They say time heals all wounds and I hope that will be the case here as well.


Anyway, this male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher seemed hardly affected by the tree and continue to excite and fascinate.


The female Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was not recorded during my last visit but the old girl put my worries to rest today...


Normally, I would be worry when the natural light disappears all of the sudden but not this time. An enormous flock of Asian Openbills darkened the sky with their sheer number. It was a true spectacle. I have encountered big flocks of this stork here in the past but today, their numbers swept me off my feet as a 1000 strong of them rode the thermals above the adjacent paddy fields.



The Asian Koel, like most cuckoos, is more often heard than seen. This male was foraging unobtrusively on a fruiting tree when we spotted him. As the breeding season is still a few months away, his signature territorial call did not echo through the vicinity this time.


The final destination of the day was the mudflats at Bagan Belat. At the high tide roost there were a number of waders but not as many as my precious visits. I guess our timing was slightly off and most of the waders have retreated elsewhere. The direction of the setting sun also made observation difficult. After a careful sweep, only the usual species were present. A couple of Marsh Sandpipers were foraging at a spot where I could still obtain reasonable images and this graceful wader is always a delight to observe.



The waders at this Important Bird Area provided the perfect way to wind down after a rewarding day of birding. Although there were no lifers to be found at the mudflats here for my guest, a number of the waders were relatively rare where he comes from and that is good enough reason to spend about an hour admiring them before calling it a day.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Nature's fury

I felt a little anxious as I drove past the archway that leads to Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest. The locality has not been performing to its full potential of late and I have a couple of Australian guests with me this time. Perhaps the current spell of wet and miserable weather is one of the reasons for this. At the ‘Treeswift Tree’, both species of treeswifts were present to greet us. But we also had a handful of others species there as well. The trip was certainly off to a good start. And it was bright and sunny as well. Maybe my luck was finally improving. The mournful and penetrating call of the Rufous-winged Philentoma was one of the first few calls that caught our attention when we made our way up Gunung Bintang. The calls came from a poorly-lit spot among the lower storey of the forest. There were at least two birds present but it was frustratingly difficult to see them clearly. Their calls must have some kind of hypnotic effect as we were drawn ever deeper into their gloomy domain. It was only when a handsome adult male revealed himself by alighting on an exposed branch, did we break free from the spell we under. A juvenile followed closely behind and I unknowingly included it in my photo. Yes, things are certainly looking up...


A trogon flew across the access trail in front and caught us all by surprise. It turned out to be a female Diard’s Trogon. Encountering a trogon will always raise the level of excitement in any birding excursion even if it is a drabber female. A little patience and perseverance later, I managed to obtain her images from rather close by and my guest, a truly memorable encounter.



She was rather confiding but still preferred to have some cover between herself and the peering birders. This was the closest I got to obtain a shot that showed some of her underparts. Frustratingly close but no cigar.


It was a rewarding morning of birding. But when the noon hour was upon us, things started to sizzle down to a stop naturally. The next destination was the paddy fields of mainland Penang but along the way, we took a little detour into an open country habitat within the Kulim Hi-Tech Park. There we were rewarded by the presence of a pair of Long-tailed Shrikes – a species that is surprisingly rare in this part of Peninsular Malaysia.


By the time we arrived at the paddy fields, the weather has changed considerably. A massive formation of rain clouds covered the sky. And I fear our birding excursion could be cut short. I tried to make the best out of whatever time we have left. The Black-shouldered Kite is undeniably a striking bird of prey. Desperately hoping for one last successful hunt before the rains arrived, it tolerated our intrusion.


The waders were present in good numbers today but I decided to focus my photography on the passerines today. It is always a delight to observe flocks of Daurian Starlings although there were no rarer starling species amongst them. The slight drizzle seemed to have brought the birds even closer together.


As for the munias, the testing weather also brought them closer together. And these White-rumped Munias resting next to the access road certainly did not go unnoticed.



The light was fast disappearing as the foul weather continued to develop. Hesitantly, I had to forgo my initial plans of making a visit to my local patch at Air Hitam Dalam. The stormy skies and strong winds would inevitably have driven everything to take cover. A solitary male Pink-necked Green-pigeon wrapped things up for the day.  Even the gloomy weather could not drown out the vivid colours of this common species and we enjoyed this obliging individual before calling it a day. As I was driving my guests back to their hotel, we were caught in some nasty traffic congestions due to the occurrence of flash floods. It also took me twice as long to reach home as the floods have caused much havoc and considerable damages to the surroundings areas. Rain is more of an inconvenience than anything else when it comes to birding. But rains that caused floods will result in more dire and severe consequences.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Live to bird another day

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. My better half and I have embarked on a one day culinary expedition to the town of Ipoh in Perak. We were happily soaking in the sights and sounds and of course, experiencing the local cuisines when I received a message from Nelson. A pair of Comb Ducks were spotted by BK at the Pulau Burung marshlands back in Penang. Not only is it a first record for Malaysia but the male has a rather unique bill that reminisces some pterodactyls of ancient times. I had to dig really deep to try and enjoy the rest of our little expedition. Cutting short this trip, which we had plan weeks ago, and dragging her to a what is basically one giant rubbish dump just so I can see a pair of ducks will not end well. The ducks will just have to wait till tomorrow – no matter how rare they may be.

I woke up before my alarm had a chance to ring the next morning. The Comb Duck was the only thing on my mind now. As I walked to my vehicle, it started to rain hard. Against my better judgement, I decided to proceed with my quest to tick off Malaysia’s first Comb Duck. I arrived at the marshland earlier than expected. I parked my vehicle where the ducks were last seen and waited. The rain has started to ease and the soothing rhythm of falling raindrops on the roof of my SUV coupled with the surprisingly pleasant orchestra of frog calls would have been the perfect lullaby on any normal day. But today is no normal today. I looked east and counted the seconds to sunrise. As soon as it got bright enough, I scanned every inch of the marshlands but to no avail and the Comb Duck is not exactly something you can miss easily.

This is one of the most painful dip outs I have ever experience. More out of desperation than anything else, I searched the remaining ponds in the vicinity and all I found was more disappointment. As I gradually came to term that the Comb Ducks have moved on, I paid some attention to the flocks of Black-crowned Night-herons loitering about the vicinity. I have not seen this big numbers here before and their presence lifted my spirit slightly. I have never converted any of my bird images to black and white before but for this time, it reflects the moment (and the excursion) quite accurately – gloomy and cold.


Adult herons are beautiful creatures and it has been a long time since I last got this close to them. It brought back memories of the former heronry in the outskirts of Georgetown where you could almost pat the heron on the head if you try hard enough. That heronry was destroyed (as usual) to make way for a transportation hub that never materialized.



A majority of the herons present were subadults. It is a good indication that the population here is doing very well.



A subadult enjoying the good life next to a landfill...


A few juveniles were also present. Thus giving me an opportunity to capture all stages of this nocturnal waterbird’s plumage.




The only other bird that I took notice of was this male Common Kingfisher. Common by name but not distribution here in Malaysia, I usually give this species its due attention. However, my fixation with the pair of Comb Ducks did not allow it this time.


At the time of writing, another rarity popped up in Penang again. This time it was a Black-tailed Gull discovered by Hor Kee and it is a new record for Peninsular Malaysia. There must some big storm brewing up north and blowing all these rarities our way. It is an unbelievable phenomenon if I get to see the birds eventually that is. My attempt to locate the gull at the Bagan Belat coastline suffered the same fate as the Comb Duck. Lucky for me I did not put too much expectation on locating the gull with my current streak of bad luck. The only bird that I had the heart to shoot was this young White-bellied Sea-eagle that flew low overhead. It was probably the same individual that was seen (by Dave) giving the gull a hostile welcome yesterday. A double dip out within the space of a few days was a damn bitter pill to swallow. But if it was not meant to be, it was not meant to be. Life goes on…


I hate ending my posts on a solemn note and fortunately, I do not have to this time. The Big Guy upstairs finally cut me some slack and provided me with a consolation for my earlier disappointments. I received news from 3 birding buddies of a roosting rufous morph Oriental Scops-owl in the heart of Georgetown city later on the same day I missed out on the Black-tailed Gull. It pays to be nice and humble to fellow birders and bird photographers (thank you, guys). I have seen this scarce migrant only once before and it was a grey morph bird then. Coincidentally, it was also seen in a built-up area. However, this time one thing was different - I had my gear with me. The news came minutes before the end of my working day and I straddled my faithful iron steed and made my way to the locality soon after. It was roosting on, of all things, a narrow ledge above a glass panel. This owl is a migrant and this particular individual was most probably still on passage.


Dozens of normal folks walked past oblivious of the owl. Perhaps they were too distracted by this bald guy holding a telephoto lens in the middle of town. I could not be bothered. I was savouring the moment. The owl was exceptionally confiding and I finally had the opportunity to obtain its images. I stayed with the owl until dusk as I was in no particular hurry to go anywhere. It had also started to stir a little and this enabled me to capture the owl in slightly different poses.



Peekaboo…



I left the owl when nightfall was upon us. After all the dip outs, I am glad I have a birding excursion that ended on a happy note and it is courtesy of an adorable little migratory owl. Life is beautiful again..