Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Dancing Egrets


It was looking to be another beautiful morning and since I had a couple of hours to spare, it would be a waste not to spend it out in the field. With limited choices available in my beloved island home, it was back to the Penang Botanic Gardens. Being a weekend morning, the crowd was inevitable. However, the spot that I usually frequent when I am at this popular recreational destination is somewhat off the beaten track so I could bird relatively undisturbed. Along the stream, I noticed two Little Egrets with a whole lot of interaction between them. To my untrained eyes, they appeared to be performing some mating dance as the Egrets moved in synchronize. Then things started turning hostile and dance, became dispute with one chasing off the other. In the end, there was no romance brewing here – just hostility.

The lone Striated Heron did not let all the commotion by the Egrets distract it from what it set out to do – acquiring breakfast.

Food also drew the resident White-throated Kingfisher from its usual lofty perch and provided me with a brief moment to capture its splendour at eye level.

A repertoire of musical notes started to fill the vicinity and it was the contribution of a pair of Oriental Magpie-Robins. I suppose these beautiful songsters have found their sanctuary here as bird trappers know better than to try their shit at a location constantly monitored by park personnel.

This next bird has a wide range of calls and even imitates. The territorial call is sometimes such a disarray of notes it makes it distinct. The bird itself is no less unique. The tail extends into a wire-like appearance ending with a racket shaped feather at each end. The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo may be a common species throughout the country but it is still an exceptional bird.

The migratory Asian Brown Flycatcher, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Silent and dull, it would have gone unnoticed if not for its occasional sallies for insects. Birding at a local patch like this is usually a laidback affair and every bird present will receive some form of attention.

No visit to this landscaped garden is complete without encountering the Crested Mynas. A population has established itself well here and the Mynas hardly take any effort to conceal themselves from humans. Here is just one of the many Mynas that took to the lawns in search of food.

While observing the Mynas, a White-breasted Waterhen wandered into the vicinity in full view. To a certain degree, birds here are quite bold as they are accustomed to human presence. I pretended not to show too much interest and it worked like a charm. But once this photo was taken, my subject knew my true intention and gradually backed away.

Penang Island has the highest density of White-bellied Sea-Eagles and that is something that I can be proud of. Being an island, you can see White-bellied Se-Eagles from literally everywhere and this time, a juvenile soars effortlessly above the gardens. It was hot and sunny and this youngster was taking full advantage of the updraft.

Olive-backed Sunbirds are another common sight here. Although the male lacks some of the radiance of other species, he is still handsome fellow. And the dark orange border below the blue iridescent throat indicates he is a subspecies that occurs in the northern region.

A Brown Shrike that is yet to look prime for the coming breeding season up north was having a little sunbathe above a relatively busy walkway. Unperturbed by the all walkers below and a lone birder, it remained at the perch to be admired only by the latter.

This feisty winter visitor wrapped things up for this short excursion. Most of the species encountered today were the commoner ones but in the end, it does not really matter. It was certainly time well spent and for that, I am grateful.

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Birding blues...


At first light, I found myself soaking in a spectacular sunrise and the overwhelming aroma of the biggest landfill in the state. With the restriction of interstate travel still very much in place, there are limited choices as to where Hor Kee and I could venture to and I guess Pulau Burung is as good a site as any here in Penang. Anyway, the Asian Koels dominated the dawn chorus this time as it is still breeding season for these parasitic cuckoos. Despite being for than a foot long, they have a remarkable ability to stay out of sight. Hence, an image of the sunrise...

We scanned the larvae-infested lakes hoping for any uncommon migrants but there were none to be found. As usual, the flocks of Lesser Whistling-Ducks filled the locality with their presence and whistling calls. Of late the weather has been sweltering but at this hour, the sun’s penetrating rays have yet to reach their full potency and provide the much desired golden hues for photography.

The Little Grebes were also in good numbers today. Beautiful and adorable, they will always have my attention whenever they wander within the comfort zone of my gear. The lakes surrounding the landfill here is probably the only remaining wetlands in the state that is still rich in bird life. And that is something I am most grateful.

For a species so elegant, the call of the Black-winged Stilt leaves much to be desired. Judging from the vocalizations today throughout the vicinity, the Stilts have found sanctuary here again and are thriving. After all these years, I still find it hard to resist their charm.

Crakes are usually difficult to see well – usually. This morning, we had at least 3 White-browed Crakes that frequently abandoned their skulking nature and provided good views. Despite fortune being in our favour, the Crakes are small and active birds. Following their movement was not easy and only a handful of the images turned out reasonable.

The Javan Pond-Heron is a regular migrant and every season (around this time of the year when it is identifiable), a number will be recorded especially from the northern states of the peninsular. This individual, stalking at the edge of the lake, was only in partial breeding plumage but with enough traces of its true identity.

A foraging male Olive-backed Sunbird momentarily diverted my attention from the water birds. A few of the trees next to the lake was in bloom and the nectar addict was having his sugar fix. The lighting was harsh and the hyperactive Sunbird hardly provided any photographic opportunities.

Red-wattled Lapwings are a regular feature here. These striking waders prefer the grassy river bank to forage and rest. As long as you stay in your vehicle, your presence is usually tolerated and all hell will not break loose.

A relatively confiding snipe shared the foraging ground of the Lapwings today. Although good views were obtained, it remained to be just another “Swintail” Snipe at the end due to the lack of evidence to proof otherwise.

The Greater Painted-Snipe is an intriguing species that I sorely lack field experiences. Its somewhat crepuscular and shy nature is the reason why. Today, however, we came across 3 individuals and 2 were in the open. Naturally, all were the duller males. To have a spectacular female in full view would have been phenomenal but things like that do not often take place in the real world. Anyway, one of males appeared to be absolutely relax in this untypical behaviour and the lighting condition was the only let down of this memorable encounter.

We left the Painted-Snipe to his morning siesta and heads towards the nearby state park of Bukit Panchor. Spring will see the Blue-throated Bee-eaters replacing the Blue-tailed Bee-eater here in Peninsular Malaysia. The former being a breeding visitor and the latter, a winter visitor. A few of these striking birds were seen hunting near the park entrance.

I cannot really recall my last visit to this locality and that would make it years. One thing about this location is that the habitat may be pristine enough but there are less birds here than you would normally expect. But it was not like this always. Once upon a time, the forest here was home to some truly incredible birds like the near-mythical Giant Pitta and you could also hear the far-carrying call of the amazing Great Argus on a regular basis. Once upon a time...

I do have to admit that the vegetation here is dense and it is not the easiest of sites to bird. We did come across some birds and a few bird waves but almost everything eluded my camera. A pair of Checker-throated Woodpeckers were foraging quite close to the access trail and provided a rare opportunity for me to actually put my camera to use. You know that I am scraping the bottom of the barrel when an image of this quality is included in my blog post.

A flock of White-bellied Erpornis exhibited little fear of our presence which is quite typical of the species. Being inquisitive and charming, it normally brightens up any forest excursion. And one even stayed still long enough for its image to be taken.

One of main highlights our visit here shares the sky with the birds but it is not a bird. A hut that was initially built to provide shelter for weary trekkers has been taken up by group of fruit bats (if any reader happens to know the exact species, please enlighten me). These winged mammals have a bad reputation which is totally uncalled for. I find these nocturnal creatures intriguing and like all other wildlife, deserves our respect and admiration.

On the way out of the park, a Stripe-throated Bulbul was exceptional vocal along the forest edge. By that time, it was blistering hot but it did not deter us from taking some time to appreciate this lovely bird before calling a day. The birding today may not have been exceptional but it is always good to be able to just get out into the field.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

A morning with five kings


The breaking of dawn saw flocks of Asian Openbills emerging from their roosts to forage within nearby vicinities and beyond. A few decided to try their luck along the river skirting the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. The Malaysian government has loosened the movement control order allowing me travel within my home state and I found myself back at this locality for a few hours of much-needed birding. Of late, I am feeling somewhat like a caged bird with all the restrictions in placed.

When I turned around to let the Openbills carry on with their daily routine, I found that the storks were not the only ones being watched. A village cat has taken a keen interest in my presence. A friendly gesture of clicking my tongue was all it took to have the feline rushing over and showering with me affection.

The morning, as expected, was sunny and beautiful. I decided to try my luck along the river trail with my new companion in toll. The walk, however refreshing it may be, failed to produce any unexpected species.

I cannot recall ever seeing the migratory Whiskered Tern hunt above the murky water here before but one was certainly at it today.

A dead tree on the river bank must be to its liking as the elegant water fowl frequently returned to rest and preen in between forays.

Two pairs of Collared Kingfishers were proclaiming territories along this short stretch of riverside forest and between them, particularly drowned out all other sounds with their raucous vocalizations. Unfortunately, good views were hard to come by. The birds were restless probably due to the presence of rival birds.

I could also hear a pair of Stork-billed Kingfishers calling persistently nearby. For a change it was not too hard to trace the call back to the source this time and the massive Stork-billed Kingfisher, is always a sight to behold. By the end of the trip, I managed to rack up 3 more species of Kingfishers (Black-capped, White-throated and Common Kingfisher) making these striking birds one of the main highlights.

A Crested Serpent-Eagle surveyed its domain from a lofty perch. Looking quite majestic against the clear blue sky, I naturally took the time to enjoy the view. At this hour, food was probably on its mind. Reptiles mainly form its diet but I suppose anything it can overpower will be in the menu as well.

With the migratory season coming to an end, the Black Kites that grace this locality with their presence will soon undergo the long journey back to their breeding grounds. A flock of 7 birds flew towards my direction before dispersing to the nearby paddy fields to hunt. I suppose this would be my last sighting for this season.

The commercial fish ponds next to the reserve attract water birds like egrets and herons for obvious reasons. It is a private property but the owner do not usually mind my intrusion. Of all the species present today, the smallest one outshined the others with its lovely breeding plumage. In fact, the Cattle Egret is the only one found here in Malaysia that develops some plumage colouration when it is time to breed.

The Cattle Egret shared the limelight with a few Chinese Pond-Herons that were also looking their best in breeding colours. The Herons were more suspicious of my presence and it took effort to gain enough of their trust in order to obtain some images.

A banana leaf was somehow able to provide this non-breeding plumaged Pond-Heron with a sense of security. The partial concealment and angle of the Heron did not make it an appealing capture despite my close proximity.

Waders do not occur in good numbers at this location and even this Wood Sandpiper, one of the commonest species, might actually be a new site record for me.

The tendency to burst out alarm calls of the Red-wattled Lapwing will often reveal its presence. But not this one. It stood briefly on the embankment and just coolly strolled away upon my approach. When the Lapwing was finally out of sight, I decided to take my leave before I outstay my welcome here at the ponds.

In the freshwater swamp forest proper, there was not many opportunities for photography. A Mangrove Blue Flycatcher was singing from the darkest part of the undergrowth and when I eventually obtained full view of the bird, a handsome male, he had my undivided attention.

And he was not alone. The sole Indochinese Blue Flycatcher was also in the vicinity and it is always heartening to see her still doing well after all these years.

As I made my way to the car park area, I was surprise to see a pair of Greater Coucals confidingly loitering about the rubbish dump area. They were in search of food and I do not think this species scavenges. They were probably after scavengers there.

I do not come across this beautiful bird so close and in the open like this often enough and this opportunity was much welcomed. I made myself as unintimidating to the pair as possible nearby and savoured the moment. On this occasion, both the birder and photographer in me were utterly satisfied.

The Greater Coucals provided glimpses of this site’s former glory days and just about enough to keep me hopeful that one day the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest that I love so deeply at one point in time will rise up once again.