Friday, 16 February 2018

A walk in the park...

I managed to wrap things up early at the office which was itself a miracle to begin with, before the start of the long Chinese New Year break. I took this as a good sign and with a few hours of daylight left, I decided to visit the Penang Botanic Gardens. I shunned the main gardens to avoid the usual horde of visitors to this tourist attraction. This landscape bamboo garden at the fringe of the gardens can be relatively good at times and I decided to try my luck there.

A pair of large raptors riding the thermals caught my immediate attention. The colouration was quite distinct and it was a pair of dark morphed Changeable Hawk-Eagles. The main breeding season has commenced and it is not unusual to see birds pairing up in preparation. Coincidentally, it is also Valentine’s Day and love was certainly in the air.

As I walked along the access trail surrounded by clumps of bamboo whispering in the soft breeze, a feeling of serenity started to develop within me. But it did not last long. A striking male Crimson Sunbird darted across my path hardly an arm’s length away. This is one bird, despite being common in Penang Island that I could do with more images. Much to my delight, he alighted nearby and started to forage among the bamboo shoots.

The lighting was dim, vegetation was dense and the sunbird was constantly on the move. It was both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. This is one of my target birds for my visit to the gardens and it looks like the Lunar New Year came early for me this year with this offering of an auspiciously-coloured feathered gem.

As I was recovering from the encounter with the Crimson Sunbird, a second male bird came into view. At this spot, the lighting was better and this casual visit to one of the closest green areas to home elevated into quite a rewarding one.

I guess there is a reason why he is called a sunbird. When he briefly alighted in direct sunlight, his colouration radiated and almost rivalled the intensity of the sun. My beloved hometown which I often lament is poor in birdlife, left me struggling for air this time as it was truly a breath taking experience. 

Crested Mynas are striving here in the gardens and they outnumber the Jungle Mynas, Hill Mynas and even the Common Mynas. Anyway, the crest and character of this species always do it for me.

One species that does not share the same fate as the Crested Myna is the Oriental Magpie-Robin. It is always good to see one close to built up areas. There was a pair present and hopefully, the coming breeding season will be kind to them and the next generation of these famed songsters will emerge successfully and safe.

A number of water birds were encountered as well with the Striated Herons being one of the most conspicuous species. At least 2 birds were foraging along a small stream that skirts this landscape garden.

The much larger Little Egret also finds sanctuary here although it looked a little out of place. The white plumage does not exactly blend well with the environment but it is a regular winter visitor to this locality.

A family of White-breasted Waterhens was also out and about. The recently fledged chicks keep close to the parent.

Well, most of the time anyway...

Although not as abundant as the marauding Long-tailed Macaques, troops of Dusky Leaf-Monkeys can be seen here on a regular basis. I came across a small troop foraging on the ground which was not their usual practice and they were surprisingly confiding. The morsels found here must be very succulent to be able to entice these canopy dwellers to feed in this manner.

A young one trotted across the access road hoping that the grass is greener on the other side and it was not disappointed. With the evening light rapidly diminishing, I decided to make my way home. This short excursion turned out better than expected and a perfect way to unwind after days of near impossible deadlines at work.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those celebrating a Happy Chinese New Year.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

It's raining rarities

I travelled all the way to the limestone hills of Gunung Keriang once again hoping for a more intimate encounter with the recently discovered Brown Fish-owls. I reached the locality way before day break and together with Hor Kee and Dr. Neoh, waited patiently for the celebrity birds to make an appearance while listening to the calls of other nocturnal birds of this recreational forest – the Barn Owl and Sunda Scops-Owl. Unfortunately, the Brown Fish-Owls reminded me how elusive they can be and offered only fleeting views as they made their way back to roost.

A pair of Streaked Wren-Babblers foraging confidingly at the foot of the limestone hill provided some birding excitement but it was little compensation for the disappointment with owls. This babbler is a resident of the montane forest throughout most of the country. However, a number of montane species are known to occur at sea level here in the north and this babbler is one of them. Dim lighting and the active nature of the babblers was a major hindrance for obtaining better images. But to observe these Streaked Wren-Babblers foraging among the undergrowth at such close proximity was good enough for this time.

As we were about to head to our next location, the tinkling notes of a Leaf-Warbler from the nearby bush was just to tempting to be ignored. While we were trying to ascertain the identity of the Sakhalin/Pale-legged Leaf-Warbler, an all-too-familiar call whispered through the undergrowth. I have had enough field experience with the Taiga Flycatcher of late that I would be able to recognise its rattling call anywhere. And there is one calling right in front of us. A stroke of good luck and a small gap in the vegetation enabled me to capture a record shot of this supposedly rare migrant but this is the second individual recorded this season.

It has been months since my last visit to the vast, sweeping landscape of Chuping. It is a unique habitat and the sceneries are often mesmerising like this image of a flock of Cattle Egret gliding low over a patch of aquatic mimosa plants before alighting to forage.

This birding hotspot is renowned for wintering raptors and it did not take us long to come across our first raptor. It was a beautiful female Pied Harrier and she has finishing up a meal next to the access road that cuts through this agricultural land. We observed her from a reasonable distance using our vehicle as a hide but we could not be sure what the prey was.

Whatever the unfortunately victim was, it was a hearty meal for the Pied Harrier. Her obvious extended crop was proof of that as she flew away.

A few other raptors were also recorded but most did not provide good photographic opportunities. This Osprey was seen hunting at a commercial fish pond and it may not be wise to risk incurring the wrath of the fish farmers. However this is not the first time I have seen the fish hawk here and I can only conclude the greater the risks, the greater the rewards.

A Common Buzzard was photographed here recently and although this scarce migrant is not new to me, it has been years since I last saw one. Unfortunately, all the buzzards recorded (there was a number of them I might add) were Oriental Honey-Buzzards and here is the image of the one that came the closest.

Birding along the vast grasslands could have been better and the one of the few birds that managed to find its way into my memory card was this tiny Zitting Cisticola proclaiming its territory from the top of a wooden stake.

We also came across a Brown Shrike making short work of a tiny frog it has just caught. An accomplished hunter with a feisty character, this predatory bird must be terrifying to all small vertebrates that share its wintering ground.

Posing for my camera when it was done feeding. That’s my boy...

However, the magic of Chuping should never be underestimated. A detour to one of the lakes provided the main highlight for this locality.

I twitched for Peninsular Malaysia’s fourth Tufted Duck back in 2013. Since then, there have been no other sightings. And now, we found ourselves ogling over a female paddling leisurely in the company of Little Grebes. That certainly injected excitement into the excursion.

It was a big lake and the lighting was harsh. There was almost no way to reduce the distance. A desperate and muddy attempt did get us slightly closer and we had to be grateful with what that was given and cherish the moment. After all, this girl is a rare record for Peninsular Malaysia and that is a whole lot to cherish.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

It's written in the stars

I have always longed to see the Brown Fish-Owl ever since it graced one of the pages of Mr. Hum’s milestone publication - Winged Wonders in Malaysia. Now, 14 long years later, this almost mythical owl resurfaced again in Malaysia at a little known recreational forest in Kedah called Gunung Keriang. And I have a chance to finally bag a lifer I spent almost half my life chasing after. Sometimes, things happen for a reason. Call it fate or coincidence but my guest cancelled his tour last minute due to health issues but I knew exactly where to go with this sudden availability of time in my hands. So, I embarked on my first twitch for the year and reached the locality in good time. News of the owl first broke out less than a week ago and initially, I had prepared myself to wait another week before I have a go at this rare northern resident. As expected there was a crowd and I joined up with Victor and his companions as we patiently waited for the owls (yes, there is a pair of them) at their usual spot. It was still dark and a Sunda Scops-Owl was calling persistently from the nearby vegetation. On any other day, I would have attempted to locate this adorable owl but today is no ordinary day. I had only one thing on my mind and it was the Brown Fish-Owl.

Everyone were squinting at different directions hoping to catch the owls as they return to roost. Michelle, one of Victor’s companions, saw two dark shapes gliding in and alighted on a dead tree near the limestone cliff face. We had just enough light to positively identify the Brown Fish-Owls but not quite enough for any decent images. The dim lighting may conceal the whirlwind of emotions building up inside of me but this is one of the most exhilarating moments of my birding life. And I am happy to be able to immortalize this encounter although the photograph was a poor one.

It was a brief stop for the owls and they proceeded to fly into the vegetation along cliff face. We now had no chance of any improvement shots and despite a careful sweep, failed to relocate the owls. It was not an easy task to begin with. The vegetation was dense and it quite a distant up the hill. We had to come to terms with reality that this was all the owls were willing to offer today.

Two birding buddies contemplating on ways to relocate the owls that do not include rock climbing or any other strategies that could prove hazardous to their well being.

A few years back during the Fraser’s Hill International Bird Race, I came to know of a teenager who showed quite an interest in birding. Through the years, he has matured into an accomplished birder which is an uncommon thing for someone his age. Woei Ong was present on this faithful day as well and I have him to thank for relocating the owl later in the morning. One of the Brown Fish-Owls was resting on the ledge next to the base of a small tree and this twitch elevated to a whole new level. I was so excited that I had to take deep breaths to regain my composure in order to try and obtain some decent images.

There was more Gunung Keriang had to offer than the Brown Fish-Owls. When the owls finally retired deeper into the vegetation, we wandered around the foot of the limestone hill. Among the scrub trees, a large and ungainly bird was moving about. It turned out to be a Large Hawk-Cuckoo and a shy one too if I might add.

A pair of Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, on the other hand, was quite adamant for their photos to be taken. One of the birds was enjoying its time in the sun and disregarded my intentions for a better image.

The Lineated Barbet is no stranger to me. I do most of my birding in northern Peninsular Malaysia and that is where this northern speciality thrives. However, they seemed to be more tolerant here and spend most of their along the middle storey rather the canopy. A fruiting tree nearby certainly had the attention of the barbets and although it is common in Penang, it is still an attractive species.

However, the barbets were not the birds that had my full attention at the fruiting tree. Another northern speciality, the Streak-eared Bulbul, is a species I certainly would like to spend more time with. Here, this species outnumbers even the ever-abundant Yellow-vented Bulbul.

It does not have much colouration but because of its restricted distribution in Malaysia, it certainly helped make my maiden trip to Gunung Keriang a memorable one indeed.

The next and final destination of the day was the mangroves of Sungai Batu. Unexpectedly, the weather changed upon our arrival and it started to pour. We decided to wait it out. Time passed quickly as we had plenty to reflect upon – mainly the encounter with the Brown Fish-Owls. Occasionally after rain, one can enjoy what birders call a false dawn. It is when a place suddenly comes to life after rain with bird activities much like the break of the dawn. It was good to see the Forest Wagtails up and about as they were not recorded during my last visit here.

The Puff-throated Babblers serenaded the vicinity with their incredible song before revealing their physical beauty for our group to enjoy as they foraged along the swampy terrain they call home.

We just recovering from the splendid performance of the Puff-throated Babblers when a pair of Abbott’s Babblers hopped into view.

One species that is struggling to thrive here in the northern region is the Oriental Magpie-Robin. I find it is not as common as it used to be and the main cause for the decline is undoubtedly the demand for this songster in the bird trade. Anyway, a female bird was recorded during our visit and as to my knowledge, there is still a small population left in this vicinity.

The presence of the resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers lit up the vicinity with their vibrant colours especially the male. The overcast lighting made it ideal for photography and we experience the splendours of the birds found here in their authentic form.

The female is just as attractive as the male which is not often the case with flycatchers.

And talking about splendour, a visit to the mangroves of Sungai Batu is never complete without the Mangrove Pitta. The showstopper once again rose to the occasion and the false dawn brought out all the alluring species found here. I could not have asked for a better way to end one amazing day. From the situations that led to obtaining one of my most sought after lifers and the rewarding birding this will certainly be a day to be remembered.