Tuesday 31 January 2012

Pulau Burung (27/01/2012)

After a rather taxing trip to Perlis yesterday, I decided to take things easy today and visited good old Pulau Burung in my home state of Penang. However, all the rare migrants must have moved on as they were nowhere to be seen. And the locality is back to normal again – in terms of birds and the number of birders present. Today, I had the locality all to myself. Perhaps the thought of spending the day at a landfill is a little inappropriate since it is the Lunar New Year after all. But spending time with family and friends is part of the joy of this festive season and to me, the birds are certainly friends.

The Watercock may be the largest rail in Malaysia but it is also one of the shyest. Although still relatively common throughout its range, good views are hard to come by. This locality is well known for its exceptionally friendly birds but I guess that does not apply to the elusive Watercock – not completely anyway. So, when I came across a non-breeding bird foraging at the water’s edge, I naturally stop and took a few record shots.

The Common Moorhen is slightly more tolerant to human presence and I took the time to observe this lovely pair basking in the early morning sun. Pulau Burung has a healthy number of this species and is also probably its last stronghold in the state. 

With the Garganeys absent, it was back to admiring the commoner Lesser Whistling-ducks.

And the ever-present Little Grebes.

I decided to spend more time at the surrounding mangrove forest for a change and hoping to possibly come across something interesting. Who am I kidding – I was really hoping to find a rare! A small hawk resting among the foliage provided a glimmer of hope for a rarity. These small raptors are certainly not easy to identify especially the females and juveniles and upon further scrutiny, it turned out to be a female Japanese Sparrowhawk – the commonest of all the migratory hawks. It is still a good sighting as I feel that its number is dropping here in Penang and I can’t recall when was the last time I saw one perched. 

An improvement shot of the Brahminy Kite from what I managed to take during the last visit. In fact, I think it is the same individual because it was in the same area and just as confiding.

It was certainly a hot and sunny day and I could see that I was not the only one affected by the heat. This Collared Kingfisher taking shelter deep inside the mangroves couldn't agree with me more.

A male Oriental Magpie Robin proclaiming his territory with his tantalizing song from an exposed perch.

The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly this pair of Lesser Adjutant Storks foraging along the vast expanse of mudflats. With no possible way of getting any closer to these majestic birds, I was just happy to be given the opportunity to observe them and take a few record shots from this distance.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Nearly a triple dip out (26/01/2012)

Dave and Hakim came back from a 2-day birding trip to Perlis and made some very exciting discoveries at the Chuping Sugarcane Plantation. From Dave’s blog, there were three would be lifers for me – Citrine Wagtail (1st record for Malaysia), Eurasian Wryneck (3rd record) and Thick-billed Warbler (very rare migrant). So, as soon as we found some free time from the ongoing Lunar New Year festivity, our group of 5 made a bee line to the warm sunny skies and open areas of the locality. 

Unfortunately, we did not get to enjoy the good fortune and luck of the earlier group and things were pretty slow. We even bumped into a few more birding groups at the locality – undoubtedly influenced by Dave’s post of those rare birds. The Plain-backed Sparrows were among the few notable species that kept us occupied during our morning session at this locality.

 We decided to visit a few nearby sites for a change and hoped that our luck will improve. Unfortunately, the scrublands along the Timah-Tasoh Lake did not provide any relief for our earlier disappointment. A quick visit to the Perlis State Park did produce some excitement but it was not from the birds. A fruiting tree near the car park was patronized by a rather confiding Black Giant Squirrel and it particularly ignored our presence. I suppose the availability of food was a major factor behind its bold behaviour. Anyway despite the harsh lighting, I managed to obtain my best images of this beautiful forest dweller to date.

A lone Stripe-throated Bulbul provided a few reasonable images as it foraged along the canopy of the forest and it was back to the sugarcane plantation for one another try.

Indian Roller sightings anywhere on the west coast is quite significant and this one provided a much needed boost of confidence for the entire group towards the locality and gave us the courage to dare to hope on finding the rarities once again. Unlike the individual we had in Penang last year, it was quite skittish and I could only managed distant record shots only.

This juvenile Pied Harrier flying gracefully over the plantation was quite a sight and although the afternoon session was much better, there were still no signs of the rarities. Luckily at the end of day, we did manage to find one of my three target birds – a Thick-billed Warbler flickering about a recently harvested patch. Although it did not give me any chance to capture its image, it was good enough to allow me to get a positive identification before it disappeared from sight.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Enter The Dragon Year (21/01/2012)

With the Chinese New Year just a couple of days away, those celebrating this festive season were busy preparing to usher in the Year of the Dragon. I, on the other hand, had the morning to spare and decided to do some birding at the Bukit Penara Forest Reserve on Penang Island itself. The thought of getting caught in the human migration along the North-South Highway and the Penang Bridge kept me from birding at my usual spots on the mainland side. The mass exodus of people coming back to their hometown from the capital and other cities to celebrate the New Year with family and friends is a yearly phenomenon and is as much a part of this festive season as everything else. At this time of the year, the access road leading up to the forest reserve is decorated with traditional lanterns as one will pass the famed Kek Lok Si Temple before reaching this birding site.

The access road that cuts through the reserve is quite isolated and is a favourable foraging ground for the beautiful Emerald Doves. This species is regularly seen here but good photographic opportunities are seldom presented. The Doves can be quite shy at times and they prefer to forage where there is some cover among the vegetation.

The Tiger Shrike is the forest equivalent of the commoner Brown Shrike. Only thing is that being a forest bird, it tends to be more wary of human presence. Just before the spring migration is a good time to catch the males in their striking breeding plumages and obtaining good images will be one of my objectives this year.

Penang Island is certainly not a paradise for forest birds but surprisingly, it is one of the best places for one to observe Grey-throated Babblers. This species is strictly a montane species further south but here in the northern region, it occurs even almost at sea level. Common it certainly is. Photogenic it certainly is not. With a preference for dense vegetation and dim lighting, this active species requires a whole lot of effort and luck in order to obtain reasonable images. This is the only shot from the whole lot that I took during the encounter that at least had most of the bird in the frame.

There are three communication towers at the summit of this forest reserve. In fact, the personnel of this telecommunication station are usually the only ones using this access road. Now, the resident Peregrine Falcon sometimes rest on these towers and I was elated to be able to see one this morning. It is rather unfortunate that the distance was well beyond my gear but nevertheless, it was still a good record. My first record of the Falcon here was back in the late 80’s and this species is known to live up to 15-20 years in the wild. So, it is very unlikely to be the same individual and the Falcons must be breeding at this locality.

The Thick-billed Pigeon shuns human developments unlike its commoner cousin, the Pink-necked Pigeon. Penang Island still houses a healthy population of this stunning pigeon but I still lack good images of this species. This female bird resting on a reasonably low branch is now my best effort of this species to date.

I took a breather from my trek down to the foothill when I bumped into a rather large troop of Long-Tailed Macaques. This is not because they pose any real threat to me but wherever there are Macaques; there will usually be Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. And true enough, there was pair right among them. These birds will follow the foraging troops and feast on any insects flushed by the Macaques’ movement. A very beneficial adaptation indeed but it is one that only the Drongo has mastered so far.

Friday 20 January 2012

Penanti, Penang (19/01/2012)

It is probably a little early in the year to visit this scrubland habitat for the breeding colonies but it is pretty difficult to resist a quick detour before I made my way to a business meeting in the nearby vicinity. There’s nothing like some quality time “in the field” to start off the day. A Spotted Dove basking in the golden rays of the morning sun was the first bird to greet me upon my arrival.

The Red Junglefowl may be one the commonest of the gamebirds but it is shy and extremely difficult to approach. I don’t blame it for being so fearful of man. It is not considered a gamebird for nothing. For many years the stunning male has successfully evaded most my photography efforts and leaving me with only distance record shots. Imagine my excitement when I came across this rather confiding male bird foraging alone at the edge of the access road. I quickly took a few shots but the clicks from my camera’s shutter put him into full alert mode.

And once my intrusion passed his tolerance level, it was a quick dash to the nearest cover – a dash that would even put any Olympic sprinter to shame. This encounter was the highlight of the day and much to my delight, I did not end up empty handed this time.

There were certainly plenty of Paddyfield Pipits foraging in the vicinity. I am assuming that they are all Paddyfield Pipits and the not the rarer and almost identical looking Richard’s or Blyth’s Pipit. Honestly, I probably couldn’t identify them even if they were staring right into my lens.

The Red-wattled Lapwings looked all set for the coming breeding season and hopefully, it will be another successful season as before.

I almost drove past this male Plaintive Cuckoo resting among the scrub vegetation and it was his signature call that caught my attention. Unfortunately, he was in no mood for photography and flew away when I tried to reduce the distance between us.

The Common Myna is probably one of the most familiar birds in Malaysia but when a bird is posing in good light and with a nice green background, I still find it hard to resist a shot or two.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Northern delights (07/01/12)

The group of four of us decided to do some birding up north and our first destination was the Bukit Wang forest reserve in Kedah. The resident pair of Bat Hawks was resting at their regular haunt. Nothing like a good stretch after some pre-dawn hunting…

It is very unfortunate that the resident Malaysian Honeyguides here have gone into hiding but this locality still remains the best place to observe Bat Hawks.

Hornbills, despite their immense size, are extremely shy birds. The Bushy-crested Hornbills are commonly encountered at this locality but good views and photographic opportunities are certainly scarce - like this male resting near the canopy level at the edge of the forest. Don’t be shy, big guy. I’m not going to bite.

He must have heard my plea and on this rare occasion, obliged

So, I finally managed to obtain a few reasonable images of this species. Although it is not as impressive as its larger cousins, it was still a breathtaking experience.

The Dark-necked Tailorbird is another common species that has evaded my camera thus far but today, it decided to give me a break. This particular individual was a little “sluggish” than usual and I was able to comfortably follow its movements. And when the right moment came along, I took the shots.

To top it all off, it even alighted momentarily on an exposed perch in a well-lighted area.

Our next destination was the Chuping sugarcane plantations in Perlis where a Eurasian Wryneck, a rare visitor and recent addition to the Malaysian checklist, was seen a few days back. Unfortunately, we dipped out on the target bird but we did manage to record a few other notable species in the end. The highlight from this locality was undoubtedly a pair of Plain-backed Sparrows that was collecting nesting materials from the grounds of an open area. Unlike the much commoner Eurasian Tree Sparrow where the sexes are identical, the male Plain-backed Sparrow is rather striking while the female has a much duller plumage. My last sighting of this Sparrow was back in my teenage years and at that time this species could still be found in my home state of Penang. Sadly, it is now locally extinct and I have to travel all the way to the northern tip of the country to see it.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Sungai Burung, Penang (01/01/12)

As usual, I did my annual New Year’s Day short birding trip today. But one thing is different this year; I no longer have a New Year resolution. I managed to uphold my resolution (the one and only for the past 20 years or so) last year and I finally managed to quit a rather addictive and unhealthy habit of mine. With that said, it's back to the birds. The first bird that greeted me on this first day of the year 2012 was a majestic White-bellied Sea-eagle circling low over the scrublands at the break of dawn. The gloomy weather made it impossible for any sharp images despite being quite close to the eagle.

A rather confiding Brown Shrike kept me entertained for a good while. This was a much welcomed change as I have had no luck with this common migrant so far this season.

When I flushed a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings from the access road, it took me some time to realize how significant it was. Although it is now quite common in mainland Penang, I’m not on the mainland now. So after more than 20 years, I finally managed to record it on the island. It may only be a local rarity but it is still a rarity nevertheless. Happy New Year, guys!

Although the Crested Serpent-eagle is a common raptor through Malaysia, it still does it for me – especially the more confiding individuals like this one. Overlooking its domain from the edge of the mangroves, it was totally unperturbed by my presence and the continuous shutter clicks of my camera. In fact, it seems to be enjoying all the attention it is receiving from me. 

Ironically, a Crested Serpent-eagle with its crest fully visible is not a common sight - not here in Malaysia anyway. 

I did drive to the coastline to check if the waders are back on this stretch of mudflats and they certainly were. Unfortunately, they were a little too far to capture any reasonable images. Identification was quite difficult as well but one species did stand out from the rest or should I say stand above - the Eurasian Curlew. With a bill like that, it is almost impossible to mistake it for anything else except only for the much rarer Eastern Curlew.

Collared Kingfishers are usually quite tolerant towards human presence and make good photography subjects like this individual hunting from a wooden stake at the river mouth. Now if this trip is a sign of things to come, I can certainly look forward to another outstanding year.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

31/12/2011: Pulau Burung (Penang)

Initially, I wanted to do some forest birding at Bukit Palong but Mother Nature had other thoughts. A pre-dawn drizzle made me altered my plans and it was off to the marshlands of Pulau Burung again. Despite the cold and gloomy weather, most of the birds were already out and about like this adult Purple Heron.

Lately, I have been quite lucky with Changeable Hawk-eagles here. First it was the light-phased adult and followed by the dark-phased individual. Today, it was this juvenile’s turn to perform. Now, I have a series of close-up portraits depicting the complete plumage range of this variable raptor and all from a single locality.

During my observation, it dived into the undergrowth and I immediate got my gear ready to capture the outcome of the hunt. Although the raptor was completely hidden, I could see movements among the vegetation and there was a whole lot of squawking noises as well. After a while, the raptor finally reemerged from the undergrowth but the hunt was unsuccessful. The intended prey managed to survive the attack of this formidable predator and live to see another day.

There were quite a few raptors recorded this time including this immature White-bellied Sea-eagle, gliding menacingly low over the marshlands.

The Brahminy Kite is certainly of the commonest raptors in Penang. Due to its abundance, it is often under appreciated despite having a striking appearance. I still lack reasonably good images of this raptor at rest and this would have been a good one if not for the blocking leaves.

The Grey Heron is another large heron that can be found at this locality. Today, I came across this lone bird foraging out on the vast expense of mudflats.

Breeding season will soon be in full swing and looks like this pair of Greater Coucals are getting a head start with the male courting the female just next to the access road. However, Coucals are notoriously shy and the pair made a hasty retreat into the undergrowth once my presence was felt.

The Blue-tailed Bee-eaters are starting to perform like the good old days again by allowing close approaches and looking their best for the camera.

I was so preoccupied with photographing the Bee-eaters that I almost miss out on the highlight of the day. BK, another regular birder to Pulau Burung, stopped his car just behind mine and started to shoot in the general direction of the Bee-eaters. Initially, I thought he was shooting the same subjects until he casually said to me the Gargarneys are pretty close today and gestured towards the water. And true enough the celebrity ducks were resting on a floating log just beyond the Bee-eaters.

Now, this is the life…

Putting our perseverance and patience to the test, they finally began to stir from their siesta after quite some time and provided photographic opportunities of their behaviour – other than napping that is.

The first order of business was preening…

When both of them extended their wings simultaneously to stretch, it was a moment I was hoping for as it could help determine their gender once and for all. The eclipse male (as identified by Dave before) revealed his pale greyish upperwing coverts while the other sported brownish coverts indicating that it is a female.

All the activity does build up an appetite and finding food was next on the agenda.

I noticed that they tend to forage and feed among the vegetation. I cannot be completely sure if this is their usual habit but it does explain why they occasionally keep out of sight.

After feeding, it was back to the floating log again to rest. As for me, I can think of no better way to end an extraordinary year than with another memorable and rewarding birding experience courtesy of this scarce winter migrant.