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.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

A paradise no more...(03/11/2012)

When Graeme told us that the marshlands at Pulau Burung, Penang are being developed, I can only fear for the worst. I finally had the time to see for myself the magnitude of the damage and it was a sight I hoped that I will never have to see. All unprotected birding sites in my beloved home state usually  will not be able to stand the test of time and it would be very foolish of me to believe that would be any different here at Pulau Burung. According to Dave, the extension of the landfill into the marshlands was always part of the plan and it was only a matter of time. 

With a heavy heart I bid farewell to one of my favourite birding sites. Not only is it the best and easiest place for bird  photography, it also gave the birding community rarities like the Red-necked Phalarope, Garganey, Little Stint and Pheasant-tailed Jacana. And it is not always about rarities. Even the commoner species provided hours of priceless birding memories – to me anyway.

With the ongoing "works", most parts of the marshlands are now inaccessible unless you are willing to thread on soggy and muddy grounds. Photographing Wood Sandpipers will require more work from now on. I guess it will never be the same without the aid of my car as a mobile hide.

There was quite a number of wintering Whiskered Terns present here today and this pair was taking a breather after a hearty breakfast.

I will certainly miss the flocks of Lesser Whistling-ducks that are thriving here if the marshes are completely destroyed in future.

And how can I forget all those close-up shots I managed to obtain here of the stunning Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. No, things will certainly never be the same again. 

I then decided to try my luck along the surrounding mangroves and that is something that I must admit, have neglected in the past. I did not have to drive far before I came across this lone Stork-billed Kingfisher hunting from a shaded perch.

A small flock of Black Bazas were also seen circling above the mangroves. Despite the distance, these striking birds of prey were reasonably wary of my presence. 

But I guess it would take something really rare or really big to cheer me up today. And it was the latter - an adult White-bellied Sea-eagle resting at the edge of the mangroves. The distance and angle of this majestic raptor from my stationery car was just within the reach of my camera and this was something that I have been waiting for because all of my past encounters were either from a distance or in flight. Much to my delight, this individual was quite confiding and totally ignored my intrusion. I took quite a number of shots as an opportunity like this is pretty rare even though this eagle is not.  

I was dumbfounded as soon as I turned into the gravel access road of the paddy fields at Bandar PERDA Penang – my second locality of the day. A huge eagle glided overhead and it only took one look to identify the species. I  finally unblock  the  last of  the  Aquila eagles from my life list. It was a juvenile Steppe Eagle in all its glory. As fate would have it there was another car behind me and I had to frantically drive to the nearest lay by to let the car pass. Unfortunately, when I got out  of  my car with my gear in hand, I had lost the eagle. How can one possibly lose sight of an eagle that has a wing span the size of a door? Apparently you can because I did.

Streams of  profanity  were  immediately  replaced by  phrases of  joy when  I managed  to  locate a large  flying  raptor  being  harassed  by  a smaller one shortly after. My happiness was short lived when the large raptor turned out to be, no disrespect intended, only a Greater Spotted Eagle. The smaller raptor was a juvenile Brahminy Kite and it must have struck a nerve of the big guy causing it to retaliate quite aggressively. 

I could hardly believe my luck when a second eagle came into view. This must be the Steppe Eagle or so I thought. But it turned out to be another Greater Spotted Eagle. So much for luck. Judging from its much streakier underparts, it could be a younger bird than the first one. Why I am so adamant of obtaining the image of this lifer?  Well, let's just put it as a photo is worth a thousand words. Especially if it is as rare as a Steppe Eagle and you have no one else with you at the time to back up the sighting. 

Anyway, the second Greater Spotted Eagle must have felt my disappointment because it decided to give quite a performance by gliding very low directly where I was standing and it came close. Pretty darn close I might add. 

The migratory Black-winged Stilts are starting to build up in number and they will always be a welcome sight to me.

Wrapping things up for the day was this handsome Brown Shrike looking perfectly at home at his wintering ground.