Thursday 29 December 2011

28/12/2011: Batu Kawan (Penang)

After the long Christmas break, I decided to make a short visit to this locality to check on the Oriental Darters. I met up with Dave who just came back from his UK Christmas holiday and the celebrity birds were on cue in providing us a memorable performance. The sight of these Darters spreading themselves to catch the warm rays of the morning sun will take some getting used to. I have wanted to see this species for as long as I could remember and now that I finally have, it still seems a little too good to be true.

However, the Darters’ leisurely time in the sun was interrupted by a few House Crows that half-heartedly harassed them. It is no wonder that a flock of Crows is also called a murder of Crows. I have to admit that it does take some effort not to hate House Crows at times. Luckily, the Darters were able to tolerate the nuisance and remained on their perch. Once in a while, they did retaliate by jabbing their formidable bills towards any Crow that got too close.

Anyway, the pesky intruders left after a short while and everything was blissful again. 

The lighting was quite ideal this morning and much to my delight, the subjects completely ignored my presence. Only the marsh prevented me from driving closer in order to obtain better images but I am still very happy with all the improvement shots from this encounter.

The commoner waterbirds, like this Great Egret, were in their usual numbers and are quite gracious about sharing this locality with the new winter visitors.

This odd-looking Grey Heron gives the impression that it is going bald (something that I am all too familiar with) due to the lack of dark colours on its crown.

As I made my way out of the marshlands, I came across this lone Pacific Golden Plover foraging on the mudflats.

And this Black-capped Kingfisher momentarily alighted on a bare perch quite close to my stationery vehicle. It did not take too long for it to feel that it is very unbecoming of it to be so bold in the presence of a birder and flew to a safer, distant perch.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

24/12/2011: Mainland Penang

I decided to start off today’s birding at the lowland forest habitat of Bukit Panchor – a location which I have neglected for quite a while now. It is mostly because birding has been poor of late and today was not much different. I did manage to do a little catching up with some old friends at this locality – the leeches. And they certainly gave me a warm (and bloody) reception. A couple of hours and 10 leech bites later, I was off to the marshlands of Pulau Burung which happens to be located in the neighbouring district. The Garganey pair was enjoying some blissful slumber under the warm tropical sun and so was the Lesser Whistling-duck. 

I was a little disappointed to find there was not much waders at the ‘Little Stint Corner’. However, Pulau Burung has this tendency to present a surprise or two just to regain your faith and get you coming back to the place again and again. This time, it was a dark-phased Changeable Hawk-eagle that took center stage. Although the raptor was quite close and confiding, the lighting condition was a little too harsh for photography. Otherwise, the encounter would have been so much more memorable.

I was elated when it decided to make a swoop down towards the scrublands and alighted on a very low perch. Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived when I realized there was no way I could get close enough to obtain the type of images I wanted for my archives of this beautiful raptor.

The Great Egret is a beautiful and elegant bird that is frequently taken for granted because of its abundant numbers during the migratory season. Anyway with nothing much about, I took the time to admire and photograph this individual resting on some low bushes overlooking a canal before making my way to my next destination.

Thing were also a little quiet at the paddy fields of Bandar PERDA with the exception of the adult Eastern Imperial Eagle resting on a distant pylon. The Pale/Sand Martin was also around. I did follow its movement for a while – hoping that it would alight somewhere close in order for me to capture some good images that could help shed some light on the true identity of this mysteriously Martin that has been wintering here for the past couple of seasons. The presence of a small flock of mixed waders foraging on a flooded patch provided a glimmer of hope that this trip could have one last surprise before I called it a day. And it did – in the form of a lone Little Stint foraging among a few Long-toed Stints and a Wood Sandpiper. Hopefully with the field experience I gained from the Stints at Pulau Burung, this fellow will not eventually be re-identified as a Red- necked Stint.

Although I adore waders, they are certainly some of the most difficult birds to identify – especially when they are in their drab and similar-looking winter plumages. I guess the challenge is what makes them so interesting. They also seem to somehow know where the limit of your photography gear is and will rest, preen, forage or even pose just a little beyond that. Anyway if by any chance, you are having difficulties picking out the Little Stint from my first image, here is another one for good measure.

Friday 23 December 2011

23/12/2011: Batu Kawan (Penang)

Another trip to this locality to check on the Oriental Darters was only a matter of when I had a few hours to spare. And that was this morning. Upon arrival, the Darters were sunning themselves on the very same tree as our last encounter.

This particular dead tree seems to be a favourite among the waterbirds here and it got a little crowded at times…

The Darters are truly enjoying their winter vacation at my home state and watching them settling in so well into this new environment was like food for my soul. They were preening, scratching and stretching despite the intrusion of a few birders, including yours truly, observing their every move from a distance.


I am more convinced that these two birds are indeed a pair as there was some allopreening going on as well.

A few more images of this celebrity pair which I am sure will be in the agenda of countless birders and bird photographers from far and wide this coming Christmas weekend before I made my way out of the marshlands.

I stopped for a rather confiding Collared Kingfisher that alighted just next to the access road.

Just about the same time, a small flock of Tricoloured Munias made their way quite close to my stationery car. This coincidental photographic opportunity would have been a highlight for a trip on any other day as I now finally have some images of this striking species that I can be proud of but the day belonged to the Darters. You know I still love you guys, right?

Thursday 22 December 2011

21/12/2011: Mainland Penang

I was back at the marshlands of Pulau Burung at the break of dawn but despite the good weather, there was nothing much about this time. All the scarce migrants like the Garganeys and Little Stints were no where to be seen. After about an hour, I decided to search for greener pastures elsewhere. I cannot recall the exact reason why I chose to visit Batu Kawan but it turned out to be one of the most crucial decisions that I have ever made in my life.

Upon my arrival, there was this particular dead tree with quite a few large birds resting on it. However, two of them had somewhat odd body shapes. Once I had my binos on them, their identification was crystal clear even at that distance – Oriental Darters! Apart from the historical records, there has been only one confirmed sighting of this enigmatic waterbird in Peninsula Malaysia and that was last year at Kinta Nature Park in Perak. I then quickly took a few record shots just to make sure I have photographic evidence in case the birds decide to disappear before I could get closer. I guess I have learned my lesson well from all my previous rarity sighting records where I was not able to support my finds with photographs and inevitably, resulted quite negatively on me.

Anyway, they were reasonably tame as I got as close as I possibly could by car. Using my car as a hide, I took quite a number of shots and the Darters were more than happy to oblige. As far as I could tell, both of them appeared to be adults birds in non-breeding plumage and there was not much difference in terms of colour and size.

The Darters were exhibiting their typical behaviour of drying itself and preening on exposed perches like this dead tree. It is most probably they had completed their morning hunt when I came across them. Much to my delight, my presence did not seem to bother them at all and I was given the opportunity to observe them going about their normal routine.

Looks like Christmas is early again for me this year and this lifer is one that I have been keeping an eye out for as long as I could remember. It fulfills most of the criteria that I look for in a bird that is worthy to be considered a mega lifer. It’s rare and it’s big and furthermore, it’s a waterbird. And even the moderate quality of the images due the distance and lighting did not seem to matter all that much. What is important is the fact that I was lucky enough to be at the right place and the right time to enjoy certainly one of my best birding moments ever. Merry Christmas and I hope you guys will enjoy your stay here…

Unfortunately, my encounter came to an abrupt end when a marauding White-bellied Sea-eagle came a little too close for comfort and caused the waterbirds in the vicinity to panic and flee - including the Darters. In flight, their long narrow wings carry them with ease and their necks are held outstretched. They stayed relatively close to each other as they flew and disappeared from sight among some vegetation at the far distance. I am not sure if the 'handshake' effect of these flying shots are due to my camera settings at that time or I was still recovering from all the excitement. Anyway despite a careful search of the area, I failed to relocate the Darters again.

And so, I finally had the time to pay homage to the other birds present. The marshlands here are quite rich in birdlife and there are always quite a number of large waterbirds around like this subadult Grey Heron.

The plumage of this juvenile Purple Heron blends rather well among the adjacent grasslands.

During the migratory season, there will be a large influx of Egrets to the locality and the Great Egret is one of the four species that have been recorded here.

The Changeable Hawk-eagle is another common sight at the marshlands and I photographed this one while it was contemplating what to have for breakfast from a dead tree stump.

As for the waders, not many were around. The Red-wattled Lapwings are quite conspicuous and their presence usually does not go unnoticed.

This Terek Sandpiper was rather wary of my approaching car and I had no choice but to photograph it from a distance.

My next destination was the scrublands and mangroves of Juru. The Black-capped Kingfisher is one the most striking of our commoner kingfishers. However, it is terribly shy and this shot is one of the better ones I have managed to obtain so far.

The Brahminy Kite is a common resident along the mangrove belt here and two were seen patrolling the skies today.

At my last destination, the Sungai Dua paddy fields, I spent some time photographing this rather confiding Blue-tailed Bee-eater that was posing so elegantly against a nice green background.

At one of houses next to the fields, I also managed to photograph this Mongoose foraging inside its compound. Although it is not uncommon, this small but deadly predator is seldom seen in the open for long periods of time.