Monday 31 December 2012

Takin' it easy for a change (30/12/2012)

A group of 5 birders from Penang including yours truly made a trip to the Bukit Wang Forest Reserve in Kedah hoping to end our birding year on a high note. I know it is vital to start off any birding trip just after dawn when the birds are most active and most of the time we (well, I do) will be rushing to reach the birding locality just before the dawn chorus commences. But I guess sometimes you just have to stop and smell the flowers. In our case, it was the aroma of a hearty breakfast at the Gurun rest stop along the North-south highway. Choo Eng swears that this is the only rest stop that serves giant prawns!

Our journey veered slightly off track when we took the wrong exit from the highway. The lapse of concentration must have something to do with our full stomachs. As we traveled along the old trunk road, we decided to take the road less traveled and it cut across what used to forest. It is sad to see hectares of forest being replaced with plantations, orchards and scrub lands. Now, only the adaptable species survive like this Lesser Coucal sunbathing just next to the road.

One of the first birds to greet us when we finally reached our destination was an Oriental Honey-buzzard and it was also enjoying the warm rays of the morning sun.

Bukit Wang is remains one of the best places to observe the enigmatic Bat Hawk in its natural environment. This resident pair has been performing well for almost every visiting birder since the discovery of this locality.

And for the record, they still receive our attention and admiration till today. My birding companions for the day – (from the left) Kanda Kumar, Kheng Hong, James Ooi and Choo Eng.

On the contrary, this is the first time we have ever seen a Crested Goshawk here. It just goes to show the seemingly endless supply of goodies forests have to offer. Anyway, it was perched way beyond the reach of my gear and inevitably, I had to settle for record shots only this time.

But for how long?

The photographic highlight of the trip was this male Orange-breasted Trogon. He was a little more accommodating than usual but unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the lighting condition. But I still managed to capture my best image of this beautiful species to date and I guess that will do for now.

I almost had a belated Christmas when we came across a Rhinoceros Hornbill and a Great Hornbill alighting on the very same tree. As fate would have it, the tree was again beyond the reach of my gear and it was an encounter best enjoyed through my bins than my camera.

The forest here is home to a few extremely rare species. One of them is a little-known brownish bird called the Malaysian Honeyguide. It has a long time since the last time it was sighted and on this trip, we only managed to hear to its signature call from deep within a small valley. The other local celebrity is the Dusky Eagle-owl and we had the good fortune of observing one half of the resident pair roosting on a tall leafy tree. The foliage was so dense that it had the bird slightly obscured from every possible angle. Despite all the frustration, this encounter turned out to be the main highlight of the trip. Happy New Year, buddy!

There is another thing worth mentioning and that is the authorities have erected a gate to prevent cars from going in the back entrance. I suppose it is a good thing. Hopefully, it will help to keep the chastity of this beautiful place intact for a long time to come.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Where flying rhinos roam (15/12/2012)

I was having second thoughts about going to Bukit Palong in Kedah when it started to rain just as I drove pass the state border. It was still another good hour’s drive to reach the locality but I decided to follow through with my initial plan. Luckily, it turned out to be the right decision as the trip turned out to be quite rewarding in the end. Upon my arrival, the rain had stopped. The sun was out. And the birds had started their morning repertoires. I took all of this as a good sign and started trekking up the steep access road with much anticipation of what may be in store for me up ahead. The first bird to greet me was a family of Black-thighed Falconets drying and preening themselves on a dead tree.

A male Crimson-winged Woodpecker was busily foraging along a coconut tree trunk. However, he had his back towards me most of the time and this was the best that I could obtain.

The yelping calls of the Bushy-crested Hornbills, which always reminded me of the sounds puppies make, echoed through the vicinity as I slowly made my way deeper into the forest reserve. I followed their calls to a huge tree at the edge of the forest and managed to locate a female blissfully drying herself in the warm rays of the morning sun.

A male was also drenched to the bone from the earlier rain. As he was perched on a slightly lower part of the tree, he provided a much better photographic opportunity. This species is usually rather wary of human presence but perhaps, the rain had made them a little more sluggish and tolerant. Or maybe they were just enjoying their time in the sun too much to be bothered by one birder.

I had to walk further away from the tree to locate the rest of the flock as they had perched at the very top of the tree crown. I find hornbills to be most fascinating and one of the reasons is because they are one of the largest of our forest birds. Unfortunately, it is now getting quite difficult to see them in the field. Deforestation and poaching has had a devastating impact on them. I can only hope the ongoing conservation works in Malaysia will be able to provide these majestic birds with a better future.

A pair of Wreathed Hornbills flew past without giving me much time to focus my camera on them. But shortly after, the diagnostic sounds of the wing beats of another hornbill did not go unnoticed. And I was ready for it this time – or so I thought. Much to my dismay, it flew along the line where there were hardly any gaps in the forest canopy. To add to my misery, it was a Great Hornbill – a species I have longed to obtain good photographs. By the time I was able to start shooting, the window of opportunity for a good shot had already passed.

All was not lost when it alighted among some very distant trees. Now, you must be thinking that it should be pretty easy to locate a 3-foot long bird perched on a tree. Well, trust me – sometimes it isn’t! So, this encounter ended up as another case of so close and yet so far.

Migratory Phyllosopus warblers are one of the most difficult birds to identify. They look remarkably alike and are extremely active by nature. Fortunately, only a handful winters here in Malaysia and at first glance, this individual did not look quite like the usual suspects. Upon further scrutiny, it turned out to be an Inornate Warbler and I haven’t come across one of these for a long time. I tried my best to capture a few images as it is considered a scarce migrant to Malaysia. Surprisingly, I did manage to because it was a little more accommodating than usual for an arboreal warbler.

The piercing cries of the resident Blyth’s Hawk-eagle diverted my attention to the clouds above. I find this species to be one of the most strikingly marked raptors in Malaysia and they even look much better at rest with the crest and all. But I still do not have the good fortune of photographing one perched from a close distance.

The Rufescent Prinia is not uncommon in suitable habitats but its skulking behaviour do made it a tough subject for photography most of the time. A pair was exceptionally vocal this morning and they seemed pretty confiding as they went about their business. I then decided to try my luck by sticking around and wait for a photographic opportunity to present itself. Just when I was about to give up, one of them hopped onto an exposed perch in good light, posed and dived back down into the tall grass. And that was it. I guess expecting a repeat performance would be pushing it a little too far.

During my maiden trip to this locality with Choo Eng, we recorded a Buff-breasted Babbler. If I were to try and describe this bird to you, it would sound something like it is a little bird and it is brown. Little brown jobs, a term used by birders for non-descript birds, are put here on Earth by God to test the identification skills and sanity of birders everywhere. Anyway, the sighting turned out to be a new record for the state of Kedah and at a lower altitude when compared to the other localities where this species is known to occur. At that time, it managed to slip past our cameras. When I came across this bird again and this time foraging along the lower levels of the forest, I was determined to obtain at least a record shot - one way or the other. I cursed and struggled for quite long while but without any success. I even resorted to using manual focusing and that is something I rarely do. The moment of truth came when it rested on a slightly more exposed perch (probably tired from all the taunting and teasing that it has been dishing out to me) long enough for me to fire a couple of shots.

Bukit Palong is a wonderful place – beautiful, wild, isolated, no weekend crowd and most importantly, rich in bird life. But like any other “not-so-protected” forest reserves here, the presence of man and his actions will often leave a lasting impression on the natural environment. Well like what I always say, enjoy it while it last.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

It's that time of the year again (11/12/2012)

December is an exciting month. It is a month full of celebrations and fun. With the school holidays and of course, Christmas and New Year, it does not get any better than this. Coincidentally, December has always been a great month for me – in terms of birding. In recent years, it has produced quite a number of outstanding birding experiences and a few lifers in between. A short visit to the paddy fields of Bandar PERDA in Penang this morning, unfortunately, yielded nothing out of the ordinary. A mixed group of waders foraging and resting on a slightly flooded patch was given their due attention – just in case. Towering above the rest of the group were the Grey-headed Lapwings.

The presence of a lone adult Imperial Eagle, the first record for the season, hopefully is a sign of better things to come in the following days. This majestic raptor was once considered a vagrant to Malaysia but in recent years, a few individuals have been wintering at this locality regularly. Although this morning’s encounter was only a distanced observation, I still took the time to enjoy the moment. I have learned not to take rare species for granted as you just do not know what the future may hold. For instance, there are no signs so far this season of the Asian Openbills - another rare visitor that has been wintering here in small numbers for the past 3 seasons. And I am afraid that last season’s encounter was my last with this enigmatic stork here. Their presence will be sorely missed and I can only hope that they have found a better wintering ground.

Monday 3 December 2012

Adapting to survive (01/12/12)

The weather has been gloomy and wet of late and a bright sunny dawn last Saturday was a much welcomed sight. My birding addiction took me to the marshlands at Batu Kawan in Penang this time and even the usually grumpy Brown Shrike seems to be in a very good mood as she soaked in the warms rays of the sun.

My home state is blessed with a healthy population of kingfishers and it is not unusual to record 5 different species at a single locality. The Common Kingfisher is a common winter visitor to Malaysia but on this beautiful morning, this female was the only kingfisher that provided a reasonable photographic opportunity.

A brownish Finch-like bird foraging on the ground level immediately captured my undivided attention. Initially, it remained quite hidden among the grass and the anticipation of waiting for it to show more of itself was killing me. Gradually it did but much to my disappointment, it was only a Baya Weaver. Well, the encounter certainly left me with a significant amount of adrenalin in my system.

Some birds are quite challenging in terms of positive identification and then there are those that are just plain impossible to identify. The Swinhoe’s/Pintail Snipe is certainly one of them. I have practically given up trying to separate the two in the field. Maybe they should call it Swinhoe’s Pintail Snipe. That would certainly save us a lot of headache! Anyway, this individual was trying very hard not to attract my attention and I left it in peace after taking a shot or two.

The highlight of the day came in the form of Striated Herons. This is by far the commonest heron species in Malaysia. Who would have thought that this humble species had what it takes to keep me entertained for a good half hour. Apparent, this species here (or is it just these 2 individuals) have learned that they could get an easy meal by following the “weekend” fishermen. These fishermen will usually discard tiny fish and shrimps from their nets along the access road. The herons will then casually stroll in and devour the tasty morsels.

I have not witness this behaviour before despite countless visits to this locality and I can only guess it is something new. The herons exhibit very little fear of human presence and although this species is generally not that shy but it can still be quite wary of humans. But not this daring duo. I decided to test just how bold they can get by parking my car just next to some dead shrimps lying on the access road. One of the heron came and started picking up shrimps literally from beneath my stationery car! Then I got to thinking. If only their bigger cousins start to learn this trick. Imagine a lanky Grey Heron feeding just next to your car. Better still, a Lesser Adjutant.

So for the time being, I have to settle for only the Striated Heron but what a delightful encounter it was.

A vast area of the palm oil estate on the opposite of the road is being cleared and now flooded with water. I am not sure what the actual plans are in store for the area but for the time being, the water birds seem to have taken a fancy to this new “wetland”. Purple Herons can be seen resting on the dead palm trees.

“What is good for the heron must be good for the egret”, thought this Great Egret.

There is a rather big number of Grey Herons present as well and this area now shelters the largest concentration of large herons in the state of Penang. It does look promising but only time will tell if this temporary sanctuary will become a permanent one for the birds and birders to enjoy.

Monday 19 November 2012

River of birds (17/11/2012)

Well, that is the English translation for the name of this birding spot in Penang Island - Sungai Burung. Unfortunately, you will not find a river teeming with birds. There is certainly a river but as for the birds, it very much depends on one's luck. Don't get me wrong. This locality does have its fair share of memorable experiences for me. In fact, this is the very locality that I made my maiden birding trip to and you can imagine what an impact it had on me. Started the day off by unintentionally flushing a Striated heron and it alighted on the overhead electrical cable. The reddish legs indicate that it is in breeding plumage and it comes as no surprise as this common waterbird breeds throughout the year.

The White-bellied Sea-eagles were hanging out at the same spot that I saw them during my last visit. I guess they must have a nest nearby or there is an abundance of prey here. But then again, maybe they just fancy the spot.

The mighty Stork-billed Kingfisher is quite common at this locality. Their large size and attractive colours make them very conspicuous when hunting from an exposed vantage point like this one. Although this individual was rather accommodating, the lighting condition was not. On this rare occasion, I used my bins more than my camera.

The Grey-headed Lapwing is one of the few migratory birds that through the years have downgraded their status from rare migrant and locally common winter visitor. Imagine that I even did a victory jig when I recorded this species for the first time almost 20 years back. At that time, it was a mega-lifer to me and it deserved nothing less. I have to admit that this wader still does it for me but nowadays I have to refrain from over-expressing myself in order to keep my reputation intact. Anyway, I came across 9 of them foraging on a distant patch of paddy fields. Although they are regularly recorded in mainland Penang, their occurrence on the island is still rather sporadic and never in big numbers.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Happy ever after? (10/11/2012)

The Air Hitam Recreational Forest in Penang is one remarkable place. Despte all the awful stuff (I had to refrain myself from using a much 'stronger' word) it had to endure throughout its 16-year history, it continues to provide sanctuary for a rich variety of species and still has what it takes to usually make birding excursions memorable. Recently, the Forestry Department took the initiative to revamp the locality and gave it a new lease on life. The rotting boardwalks are now replaced with concrete ones, the huts repaired back to good conditions again and the canopy walk is once again safe for visitors to experience. In the coming month, there will be a 'reopening' ceremony and it is expected to be a major event. They will also reclassify the locality from a recreational forest to an educational forest. The million dollar question here is will all of this be enough to safeguard this site or will it in future suffer the same fate as the many other former birding sites?

There is a rather special reason for our visit to this locality today. Choo Eng and I will be meeting up with a group of birders from the Selangor Bird Group as this locality will be part of their 4-day birding trip up north. While waiting for Choo Eng and the group, I decided to bird around first and it was then I came across the highlight of the trip. As I walked passed a sharp bend on the boardwalk, I found myself face to face with a pair piercing yellow eyes and they belonged to one of the resident Buffy Fish-owls. It was just meters away and I was stopped dead on my tracks. I am not sure if I was more stunned or the owl but thankfully, I managed to regain composure and snapped a few shots before the owl flew and alighted further away.

Even on the distance perch, it still kept a sharp eye on me and continued to do so even after I have diverted my attention elsewhere. I guess my sudden intrusion certainly did not go down well with this nocturnal predator. Daytime encounters with owls are always an exciting affair and at this locality, it is not such a rare occurrence.

Other than the owls, woodpeckers are another attraction here and one particular species, the Streak-breasted Woodpecker, is a northern speciality and this is by far the only locality in Malaysia where it is regularly recorded. Not today though. Not by me anyway. But a pair of foraging Common Flamebacks did kept me entertained for a quite a good while. The male and his flaming red crest make an excellent subject for photography.

The female, although not as brilliantly coloured as her mate, is a striking bird nevertheless. I wonder why is it that it is usually the duller one that comes much closer to you?

I spend some time scanning the river banks hoping for some waterbirds and optimistically, perhaps even a crocodile but without much success. Crocodiles are now rare throughout its range in Malaysia and I have yet to see one in the wild. Some of the older villagers here claimed that they have seen the mighty reptile here in the past. Thinking back of the time I abandoned the safety of the boardwalk and trekked into the water-logged swamp forest for a better look at a pair of calling Mangrove Pittas now gives me the shivers. I guess to a teenage birder, the opportunity to observe pittas surpasses everything else. Anyway, this male Yellow Bittern hunting along the water's edge would have been a great catch if only it was not on the opposite side of the river.

There are few birds that come close to the vibrant colour of the male Crimson Sunbird. Encountering this rather confiding fellow foraging on a flowering tree was like a dream come true because I have yet to photograph this species till now. Furthermore, it was a new record for the locality. So even after all these years, this locality can still spring a surprise or two.

Wintering Black Kites roost here annually and are a common sight during the migratory months. However, their numbers now are a pale shadow from the good old days and all the clearing of the natural habitat within the locality is probably the reason that is driving these raptors away.

A flock of Ashy Minivets was going around the locality the whole morning. The flock had my attention whenever our paths crossed in light of all the new minivet species that have recorded in Malaysia recently. Choo Eng's arrival provided an extra pair of eyes to scrutinize the foraging flock. Both of us thought we saw an individual with a yellowish wash on its underparts and it could well be a Rosy Minivet. However, failure to obtain reasonble good looks and photographic evidence of that individual meant only one thing - the hunt for my first Rosy Minivet continues.

When the Selangor group finally arrived, the size of the convoy caught me slightly off guard. Six vehicles carrying about two dozen birders is not a common sight in Penang. The Selangor Bird Group is indeed doing very well because their members keep on increasing. I cannot recognize half the birders that came as there was quite a number of new faces. Anyhow, it is always good to meet old friends and make new ones. The photos below are courtesy of Choo Eng.

Due the the sheer size of the group, we gradually split up into smaller groups and the group I was in managed to record quite a few interesting sightings like this Dark-sided Flycatcher which also happens to be a new record as well. Come to think of it, we had quite a handful of new records today!

Dave has corrected my identification of this flycatcher as an Asian Brown Flycather and I think he is right. Thank God it is not a Brown-streaked Flycatcher as initially suspected by Dave and coincidentally, by me as well when I first encountered the bird. Otherwise, I will have a tough time explaining myself to the Selangor birders why I re-identified the bird as a Dark-sided Flycatcher and possibly prevented them from enjoying prolonged views of their would-be lifer.

This female Mangrove Blue Flycatcher put on a really good performance for the visiting birders. Her good looks and charming behaviour earned her deserving admiration and praises. Although she was quite close, the dim lighting proved difficult for me to obtain really good images.

We bid farewell to the Selangor birders after midday as they needed to proceed to their next destination - the sugarcane plantations of Chuping in Perlis. Choo Eng had some other work to attend to and I made my way alone to the paddy fields of Bandar PERDA in Penang. Unfortunately, the juvenile Steppe Eagle that I recorded last week was no where to be seen. In fact, there were no signs of any Aquila eagles at all. On the other hand, the migratory Black-winged Stilts were finally back in full force - all 100 strong of them.

Among the stilts, I managed to pick out 3 foraging Ruffs. These are certainly part of the flock of 10 birds that were recorded by Choo Eng last week at the nearby paddy fields of Permatang Nibong. I do not think we will ever have the privilege to observe a male Ruff in full breeding pluamge here in Malaysia. That is a real shame because he has the most stunning and flamboyant breeding plumage of any waterbird I can think of.