Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Ending the year with a bang

I usually reach my birding destinations before or at first light. However, it was a long night at the office yesterday and by the time, I wandered on the sandy access road of Air Hitam Dalam, it was well into morning. The overcast condition tried to deceive my perception of time and it was a struggle to capture images of the current celebrity bird of this locality because the Taiga Flycatcher has a penchant for the dim lower storey of the forest. Today, I made it a point to spend more time with this scarce migrant since I was alone and this was more of a relaxing birding excursion to a local patch more than anything else.

The Taiga Flycatcher is not much of a looker but I know how rare this species is. It has a tendency to cock its tail and no doubt to show off its white undertail which is one of its main field charcteristics. There is always beauty in simplicity but a rare status will always help to further enhance your aesthetic appeal.

I seldom name the birds that I encountered in the field. All the birds that I have rescued before and released back into the wild were named “Boy” – regardless of their sex. On those rare occasions that I do ‘talk’ to a bird in the field (when I am alone, of course), Boy is still the first name that comes to mind. This Taiga Flycatcher bears a black mark on its left cheek and surprisingly, the first name that came to mind was “Scar”. But the character with that name in the Disney animation Lion King is sinister and that, this flycatcher is certainly not. So, it was back to Boy...

As I was shooting the flycatcher, a small insect flew into vicinity unaware of the deathly fate that could await it. Boy raised up to have a better look at the potential snack but declined the offer. The insect, live to tell the tale. I just continued to press on the shutter throughout the whole episode and obtained what was undoubtedly the images of the day.

I can still recall my last visit here I was with a birding couple from England. I spotted a dark morph Changeable Hawk-Eagle resting among the shadows of the foliage on the other side of the river. It was a poor view and there was nothing that could be done. Today, it was also resting in the shadows but on this side of the river and close enough for me to capture its true majesty. It is just the luck of the draw and today has been a blessed day so far.

The Arctic Warbler is a common winter visitor to a wide range of habitats here in Malaysia. However, God made Tree-Warblers to push our patience and sanity to the limits. Many of these warbler look very similar and all the recent splitting and lumping of warblers species only made it worse. And the warblers themselves are not the easiest of birds to observe and photograph either.

This individual was exceptionally accommodating today and despite the challenging shooting conditions, the images turned out well enough. I guess I had be grateful the rope barrier of the elevated boardwalks still serve their purpose well. Frantic movements was certainly required to follow this little brown job around and all so often in birding, I do get carried away. And the ropes were the only thing between me and the swampy terrain.

The Yellow-bellied Prinia is another common warbler but unlike the Arctic Warbler, it is a resident species and more down to Earth – literally. Grasslands are usually its home and it utilizes the cover provided by the vegetation well. Maybe it was luck or the approaching breeding season but this individual, presumably a male, had no intentions to skulk among the undergrowth. He was belting out his territorial song right out in the open and his performance did not go unappreciated.

Recently, one of my guests put to rest the correct pronunciation for the name of the bird with one of the most distinctive songs in Malaysia. The Golden-bellied Gerygone (pronounced as Jerrygony) is a smart little bird with a penetrating song. Due to its minute size and active nature, good images are not easy to come by. I took a number of images during the encounter and the only one that turned out sharp and in focus, Sod had the bird facing away...

Small birds are not the only ones that can frustrating. Cuckoos in Malaysia come in all sizes and two of the biggest species are found here in Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. The Green-billed Malkoha probably has one of the longest tails in proportion to its body for a bird here in Malaysia. This malkoha tends to move about the foliage of the canopy levels and to capture an unobstructed image will require a whole lot of luck. I came across a pair foraging at a more leisurely pace than usual and managed to keep up with them for the longest time that I can recall.

This species is one of those birds that will capture the admiration of my foreign guests whenever I managed to show it and it has a lot to do with that impressive tail. I do not blame my guests. I was just as dumbfounded when my first Green-billed Malkoha sailed across my path at the mangroves of Pulau Burung. Truly a remarkable bird that will have my undying attention.

The other big cuckoo here is more often heard than seen. The call is a series of deep booming notes uttered with such intensity that it captures the imagination of all those who are not familiar with the Greater Coucal. The bird possesses just as alluring appearance as well. Unfortunately, it is shy by nature and good views do not come very often. I surprised this individual while it was foraging along the lower storey of the forest. This time my reaction was quicker than the bird’s and I managed to squeeze off a few shots before it disappeared.

Another species that spends a fair time along the lower storey is the Olive-winged Bulbul. At this birding site, it is just as common as the ever-abundant Yellow-vented Bulbul. But to have one pose all so elegantly and do nothing would be a sin.

The bulbul may be drably coloured but it shares this swampy forest home with some species that are so flamboyantly coloured and charismatic that one will be mesmerized by their presence each and every single time. The Black-and-red Broadbill is one such bird. The resident pair was sorely missed during my past few visits. My heart skipped a beat when I came upon this sight when I wandered into the dimly lighted part of the boardwalk.

It knew that the lighting was crap in that position. So, it hopped onto a more natural perch surrounded by the greenish backdrop of Mother Nature and posed for my camera. I guess it was its way to make it up to me. And I was overwhelmed by this trip’s good fortune so far. Air Hitam Dalam is a little piece of birding paradise that constantly amazes me. When I set foot out later than usual this morning, I certainly did not expect the birding to be so incredible. I could hardly control my emotions. For me, this is birding at its best. Not at some far off exotic location. Right here at one of your local patches.

A pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos were hanging out near the rear car park throughout most of my visit. They too appeared to be more relaxed and confiding today. One of them was really eyeing for my attention and simultaneously released the calls of an Asian Koel and Crested Serpent-Eagle in near perfect pitch. This bird is a renowned mimic. And it just felt I needed to be reminded of that.

A troop of Long-tailed Macaques, as expected, were loitering nearby the drongo. The mutualism shared by the two animals is a regular sight here. For the time being all the residents of this locality are certainly living the good life. This macaque was taking the term lazy weekend to a whole new level. The expression on his face and his posture say it all...

A pair of Banded Woodpeckers decided to alight where else but not too far in front of me on a dead tree trunk. Most woodpeckers are strikingly marked and the colours of this loving pair stood out beautifully against the pale bark of the trunk. I waited anxiously for any further drama to unfold but the woodpeckers would have none of that and flew off a little later.

I then decided to try my luck at the nearby paddy fields of Permatang Pauh. Even at a distance, Aquila Eagles cut a distinctive silhouette when they soar effortless on their immense wings. I failed to record even one single Aquila here last season. I hope it is just me but I feel that neither the Eastern Imperial-Eagle nor the Greater Spotted-Eagle are annual visitors to my home state of Penang anymore. A few minutes of putting my biking skills to the test, I was almost directly below the mighty raptor. At this distance, there was no mistaking the Greater Spotted-Eagle. There was heavy traffic along the adjacent Kulim Expressway as visitors were flocking in for the long New Year weekend. To the layman, I probably appeared absurd standing under the blistering midday sun with my gear and all while looking up to the heavens above. However, it did not matter because at that moment I was taken back to a time not too long ago when the skies here could have a handful of two species of Aquila Eagles soaring in all their magnificent and splendour. It has been a excellent excursion and it would take something truly evoking to wrapped things not only for the day but for the year 2017. And the encounter with the Greater Spotted-Eagle will do just fine. 

The complete checklists of the birds recorded for the trip can be found here:

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Luck of the draw

It was an anxious drive up to the northern coastline of Batu Ferringhi to pick up my latest guests who hail from England. Strong winds and rain are expected to hit northern Peninsular Malaysia today and that is one of the worse things to happen during a birding excursion. I reached the lobby of the renowned Rasa Sayang Hotel well before dawn and it was more lavishly decorated than usual. Christmas was just two days away after all and I am hoping for some Yuletide magic to prevent what appears, although on a lesser scale, to be the inevitable as I checked the latest weather forecast on my smartphone.

My mind was never at ease during the two-hour drive to the forests of Lake Pedu as we were met with intermittent drizzles. We managed to squeeze an hour of excellent birding before the heavens finally opened up. After waiting in vain for an hour we decided to carry on birding elsewhere. I cannot help but to feel disappointed whenever my tours do not meet my expectations – even if it is caused by the luck of the draw. This birding couple is one of the most cheerful and understanding people I have ever come across and they were the ones who consoled me and not the other way round.

The next destination was the mangroves of Sungai Batu. Not to be greeted by rain upon our arrival was a good sign but the overcast sky did not put my worries to rest completely. The Puff-throated Babblers lifted our spirits with its incredible song and inquisitive nature. The resident pair put on quite a performance just like my last visit here one week ago.

The Abbott’s Babblers were again outshine by the more appealing Puff-throated Babblers. But their presence did not go unnoticed. Lucy and Julian do not have much experience birding in this part of the world and the Abbott’s Babbler was a welcomed addition to their life list.

Being one of the most colourful species found at this site, the Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher naturally became an instant favourite with my foreign guests. Both the male and female were very accommodating this time and there were ample opportunities to take note of the sexual dimorphism of this striking species.

The adorable Forest Wagtail swayed its way into my guests’ hearts and it is not difficult to see why. The hypnotic rhythm of its body movement and the striking plumage is always a delight to observe. It was painfully missing during my last visit and I am glad it is still here to mesmerise. On the other hand, the star bird of locality was no where to be seen. Pittas are favourites for most if not all foreign birders. For Lucy and Julian, the Mangrove Pitta of Sungai Batu would have been their first Pitta in the wild. I need not elaborate how significant the absence of the pitta today was to my guests. However, I got to learn an English saying courtesy of the pitta and it was Sod’s Law. I have a feeling this saying will be regularly used in my postings from now on.

Later in the day, the paddy fields provided a different variety of bird life for the excursion. Although, I did not manage to immortalise any of the encounters through my photographic gear but it was a good one at this man made landscape. The last destination of the day was a suburban park in the middle of Bukit Mertajam - one of the largest towns in mainland Penang. There was only one objective here and the Barred Eagle-Owl provided only a fleeting glimpse. Not exactly the high note I was hoping for to conclude Day One of my guests’ maiden birding adventure in Peninsular Malaysia. However, a confiding male Common Tailorbird was a good consolation. As the name suggests it is a common species in built up areas throughout Peninsular Malaysia but like all warblers, good views do not come by often. This little garden bird did well to fill up the gap left by the owl. He chose to alight on an exposed perch in front of us and proceeded to belt out his territorial call long enough to give us a memorable end to the day.

The failure to show my guests their first ever pitta was a bitter pill to swallow for all of us. We came to a unanimous decision to try for the pitta again the next morning and were duly rewarded with amazing views of the Mangrove Pitta. Looks like Christmas came early for Lucy and Julian.

Foraging on the muddy forest floor, the radiant colours of the pitta stood out like a beacon in the dark. My guests got their first pitta and a huge burden was lifted off my shoulders. Unlike yesterday, it was a beautiful morning and we set off to our next location with much enthusiasm.

Like everyone else I love holidays but the holiday crowd can be an annoying issue. It is not only the malls and tourist attractions. Forest reserves like Sungai Sedim will suffer the same fate. For the record, the car park was at its busiest that I have ever seen. Thankfully, all these visitors rarely wander from the car park area and we managed to find solitude and splendour along the access trail leading up to Gunung Bintang as we found ourselves surrounded by feathered denizens that call this recreational forest home.

The Verditer Flycatcher is always a delight. The sultry blue plumage set against the foliage of the forest canopy as it gracefully hawked for insects was a sight for sore eyes.

Forest birding, frustrating as it may be at times, is still the most exciting of all birding endeavours. I have been exploring this site for many moons and yet it managed to hide a species as conspicuous as a Chestnut-bellied Malkoha from me till today. We are not talking about a little brown job here. It is a colourful and big forest cuckoo. And one that I have not seen for years. Of all the malkohas that occur in Malaysia, I find this species to be the most uncommon – here in northern Peninsular Malaysia anyway. The lighting was challenging and a record shot of the signature orange eye patch was all I could muster.

The final destination for Day Two was the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. The Malaysian hospitality has won over the Taiga Flycatcher and it is good to see this rare migrant enjoying life in the tropics at this wintering ground.

The migratory Black Kites filled the skies with their graceful stature and the lighting was ideal to capture these raptors in their element. We did not have much privilege with raptors so far and the kites made sure my guests had recollections of raptors for this trip.

The last bird of the trip was a Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo. This species has undergone a number of name changes and splits. Anyway, they have come to a conclusion that only the Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo occurs here in Malaysia for both the resident race and the migratory race like this one. And life is simple once again. Resting unobtrusively in the forest canopy, it was intriguing enough to escalate emotions one last time before we braced ourselves for the horrendous holiday traffic back in Penang Island. But I am not going to end this post lamenting about the ever increasing traffic woes of my beloved home town. It is Christmas Eve and my guests this time deserve a better ending. It was a roller coaster trip. Despite all the shortcomings, it was a trip still filled with excitement, awe, good company and most of all, amazing bird life.

Friday, 22 December 2017

A partridge in a pear tree - Year 3

This is the third consecutive year that we have been able to observe Chestnut-necklaced Partridges in the wild interiors of Kedah. I am, however, running out of things to write about this game bird. It does not mean the presence of these rare and elusive forest denizens are any less significant now. The most important thing is that these partridges continue to survive here and that their far-carrying territorial calls will continue to echo through the vicinity during the breeding season.

Whenever I have the chance, I will capture their images with immeasurable enthusiasm. One thing I have learned in birding (and in life) is that nothing last forever. I hate to be so negative but I have seen entire birding sites wiped out by logging, a pristine marshland turned into an almost bird-less body of water and species that I used to enjoy driven to the brink of local extinction. The forest surrounding partridges are under siege. Both legal and illegal logging are threatening the livelihood of not only the partridges but every other living thing. So whatever it may be, enjoy it while it lasts. 

However, this is a post about one of the most intriguing birds that have entered my life and I should not let negativity influence it too much. The shooting conditions here may not always be easy but the images that do turned out good make all the effort worth the while. The striking and intricate plumage colouration of the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge still mesmerizes my senses just like how it did three years ago. Here are a few more images that I managed to obtain so far this year.

I usually only make use of my tripod for photography when I am in a hide which is not very often. As a result, I rarely take videos. Anyway, due to the confiding nature of the partridges and the availability of my tripod’s support, I managed to record a few reasonably good clips of the partridge this season as well. Nothing beats the feelings you get when you observe them in the flesh but these clips, I supposed, are the next best thing.

My better half is not the type that fancies sitting in some God-forsaken jungle and exposed to all the elements of Mother Nature in order to have a chance to observe some of the more elusive birdlife. These clips are one of the very few ways that I can share my passionate hobby with her and perhaps help her to comprehend this peculiar obsession of mine with birding. And what better way than to use my memorable experiences with the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge. At the time of writing, she has followed me to enjoy the experience first hand. I guess the videos clips must have been captivating enough for her to finally give birding a try.