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.


Ronnie Ooi said...

Yes a great place indeed and I think it will last a little longer.

John said...

Looks like a fine spot...that Buffy Fish Owl would give anyone a shock - in the nicest way possible.

I'm getting terrible at "proving I'm not a robot" !

Choy Wai Mun said...

I certainly hope so, Ronnie.

I know what you mean, John. Sometimes I can't even see a digit.

Phil said...

Some fine shots there. Star photo for me is the Buffy Fish Owl- in credible it just posed out in the open like that for you. Cracking shots of the woodpeckers too and it's hard to imagine how they can disappear into the trees with colours like that. The Black Kite too is a brilliant shot, the whole and largew bird in good focus. Sounds like a great place to visit and if there is so much interest in it from new and old birders maybe it will do better now.

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thanks, Phil. The owl certainly made my day.

Friend of HK said...

Love the beautiful birds there~

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thanks, Friend!

digdeep said...

Hi Mun,

Good to see you out and about again. Check out your Muscicapa flycatcher again - not Dark-sided, but Brown-streaked - a bird I have still yet to see in PM!

digdeep said...

I've just found another pic of what I assume is the same bird here: and now I am less convinced it is Brown-streaked - the streaking isn't extensive and the lower mandible has an extensive dark tip. More likely it's just an odd Asian Brown.

Choy Wai Mun said...

You're right, DAve. It is not a Dark-sided nor a Brown-streaked. Asian Brown it is. Thank you.