Monday, 21 January 2013

Don't count your chickens...(19/01/2013)

Since our first sighting last week of the migratory Asian Openbills in Permatang Nibong, Penang this season, the numbers reported seen from the area have rose to an all-time high of 250 storks. The news of the influx of this rare migrant to Malaysia has even made it into the newspapers. When I found myself with about an hour to spare, I decided to visit the locality hoping to immortalize this phenomenon into my digital database. I was so full with anticipation and excitement that it almost felt like I was going after a lifer. Unfortunately in birding, there is no such thing as a sure thing. There were only 16 Asian Openbills present when I finally reached the locality. The rest could have shifted elsewhere or migrated further south. I was utterly disappointed.

I consoled myself slightly when I managed to finally photograph this stork on the ground. As unbelievable as it sounds, this is the first time that I saw one actually standing on the ground and they have been wintering here for four seasons now. A few of the others gradually did come to the ground but I found them to be relatively wary and shy. All these seasons, I have had little difficulties approaching them when they are resting on the trees but I found out today that it is a different story when they are not within the safety zone of the tree tops. 

While waiting in my car for the better photographic opportunities with the storks, I had ample time to observe the other birds that were present in the area. This area is quite the center of activity as the abandoned fishing ponds and secondary growth are now a prime habitat much like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Only here it is among the vast expense of paddy fields. One of the species that were constantly attracting my attention was the flocks of Purple-backed Starling. A Chestnut-cheeked Starling or any other rare starlings would have compensated the disappointment with the storks but it was not meant to be. 

The distinct and loud calls of the Oriental Reed-warblers were heard throughout my stake-out. But actually capturing one that is not partly hidden by vegetation was a lost cause. I literally had to beg this one to stay still long enough in order for me to obtain this one single shot!

A splendid male Yellow Bittern trying his best to avoid detection. It could well have worked if he was not moving about the bush right in front of my stationery car before he realized that he was being watched. 

The Yellow-vented Bulbul is probably one of the commonest birds in Malaysia. Being able to adapt and live alongside man is a trait that will probably guarantee your continuous existence in this fragile world of today.  And this bulbul has certainly mastered that trait. Although not as conspicuous and bold as the Crow, Myna or Sparrow, it is still a bird that even a non-birder will recognize. In fact, it was one of the first few bird species that I went after in my neighbourhood during my early birding days and observing this individual brought back fond birding memories of a distant past. So, I began this short excursion with feelings of disappointment but ended it with a sense of nostalgia and it is all courtesy of a humble, drab-looking garden bird. 

Monday, 14 January 2013

A walk on the wild side (12/01/2013)

We entered one of the logging trails within the Gunung Bintang Forest Reserve in Gerik, Perak just as it started to get bright.  The first birds to welcome our group of three to one of the wildest regions in Peninsular Malaysia were a flock of extremely vocal Dusky Broadbills. Although not as brilliantly coloured as the others in its family but what it lacks in colour, it sure makes it up in personality and size.

We had the good fortune to glimpse into the courtship ritual of a pair of Red-bearded Bee-eaters. Perched next to each other among the foliage of the highest canopy, the loving pair was quite oblivious of all the attention they had attracted from all their sensual swaying and tail extensions. Yup, love is certainly in the air.

The melodious calls of the Dark-throated Orioles echoed through the vicinity during our visit. However, there were no close encounters and all my images were taken from a distance. That is a real shame because the male is truly handsome. 

We came across quite a number of bird waves today and as usual, I had to face the dilemma of deciding whether to use my bins or my camera. Most of the time, I will opt for the former because you risk missing out on quite a few species if you focus too much on photography. Secondly, good photographic opportunities are far and few during bird waves. But once in a blue moon it does happen - just like this Brown Fulvetta that decided to take a breather from the feeding frenzy right in front of me. 

The Bar-winged Flycatcher-shrikes stood out from most of the other species that were participating in the waves due to their striking plumage. This is, of course, the duller female. It would have been too good to be true if the male was to be so obliging.

The range of species in a bird wave can be quite varied and not only small birds are involved. Sometimes, you will get giants like the Chestnut-breasted Malkoha following the waves. Apparently, this big fellow is a little camera-shy.

Off-road enthusiasts enjoying the spills and thrills of the logging trail. Not my cup of tea but I guess to each, his own. I mean who am I to judge? Trekking along a soggy trail infested with leeches and God knows what else for hours in the middle of a tropical rain forest to observe birds is certainly not most folks’ cup of tea either. And as much as I love water birds, I have to admit that the forest is still where you will find the most fascinating and dazzling of bird species.

On the way back, we decided to make a detour to the paddy fields at Permatang Nibong, Penang. It was decision based on two important reasons. Earlier this week, there was a large influx of Asian Openbills migrating into Malaysia with about 1,000 seen in Kuala Gula, Perak and 200 in Batang Tiga, Melaka. Back in Penang, Graeme saw about 300 passing through our home state and I initially thought none will be wintering here this season. With so many passing through, I am pretty sure that those wintering in this particular locality in Penang for the past few seasons would surely do so again. Penang may be a tiny state but you once you get to know her, she is not so easily forgettable but we still had to be sure. The other reason for the detour is because this enigmatic stork will be a lifer for James, one of my companions on this trip. If ever he is to see his first Asian Openbill in Malaysia, it would be now. When we finally reached their favourite roosting site, we discovered that the storks were indeed back for the fourth consecutive season. Not only that, they managed to convince and brought along about 40 other compatriots. Looks like Penang has not lost her charm yet. And James got his lifer.

The reason for the sudden influx is yet to be determined. But whatever the reason, it was a certainly a sight to behold. It was simply fantastic. Welcome back, guys!

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Better than nothing...(07/01/2013)

A short visit to the paddy fields at Kubang Semang in Penang provided nothing much that is out of the ordinary. A flying Eastern Imperial Eagle was simply too far for any sort of photography attempt. The presence of the Black-winged Stilts and Grey-headed Lapwings did not improve the situation much as they were resting and foraging at far distances. I though I was in for a treat when a flock of Purple-backed Starlings decided to alight on a dead tree just in front of my stationery car. That was until a flock of marauding House Crows decided to to join the starlings and sent them packing. If there is ever a bird species that I can ever grow to hate, it would certainly be the House Crow. Anyway, I managed to snapped a few images of this lovely female starling before the crows ended the photo session. I guess something is better than nothing and this is my best effort of this migratory species to date.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Spontaneous Saturday Birding (05/01/2013)

I found myself with a couple of hours to spare last Saturday afternoon and a quick check online of the tidal forecast revealed that it was a good time for waders. So, off I went to the nearest coastal mudflats to my home which is alongside the coastal road on the southeastern side of Penang Island now known as the Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu Expressway. I soon found myself a spot slightly hidden by vegetation and not too far from the water's edge. As the tide was still moderately low at that time, I made myself comfortable and waited for the rising tide to push waders closer. There were also a few egrets present at the location as well - Great and Little Egrets to be more precise. 

After about half an hour, the waders started to move in closer. Only a handful of species were present and the one that caught my immediate attention were the Whimbrels. 

Three of them were present within the vicinity but one was extremely aggressive and chased away the others whenever they wandered close. But the aggressor was quite accommodating to my presence and this was the closest I have been with this beautiful but shy wader. 

In the absence of any other more notable species, I devoted most of the time to the Whimbrels. It is not easy to gain their trust. In fact, most waders that I know of are rather difficult to approach. Sadly in Penang, there are hardly any birding sites now where you can have easy access to waders. And wader watching is something that I relish. Anyway, the blue waters of the sea provided a soothing effect to some of the images taken today. 

The Whimbrel, despite its size advantage, was rather tolerant towards the flocks of Common Redshanks. There was the occasional barging-through-the-center-of-the-flock incident but other than that, they seemed to get along pretty well. 

The Common Redshanks formed the majority of the waders present here today and numbered about eighty individuals. Like the Whimbrel, this species is also usually quite wary of human presence and is easily spooked. Lucky for me, they were quite adamant of making this a memorable afternoon by the beach for me. 

Some of them were really making themselves comfortable just beyond the tide's reach. 

With the sun really scorching down on the mudflats, bathing is certainly one way to keep cool. As for me, the spot that I have chosen was in the shade and that itself, was a luxury one rarely gets to enjoy during a wader watch. In fact, it would have been perfect if I did not have to endure the onslaught of mosquitoes. Funny thing though that after a while it seemed like the bloodsuckers have left me alone. Maybe they have had their fill or I have just gone numb from the constant biting. 

When the tide finally came up all the way, the waders were forced to take flight and roost among the nearby mangroves. So, a spontaneous excursion turned out to be quite enjoyable in the end. Despite the ever encroaching blocks of luxury condominiums and bungalows, this degrading local patch still has some (bird) life left in it to keep a local birder happy.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dawn of a New Year (01/01/2013)

It was a wet and gloomy New Year morning and the rain had just subsided as I made my way to the mangroves at Sungai Burung in Penang Island. A female Asian Koel was eagerly waiting for the first rays of the morning sun as she dried herself on a dead tree. However with no signs of the conditions improving anytime soon, her wait may well end up in vain. 

A Black-naped Oriole joined the cuckoo momentarily. This species is one of the first few exotic-looking birds I could remember seeing during my childhood days. Nowadays, it is still an attractive species to me but it is also one of my jinx birds because despite of its common status, I still do not have any images I can be truly proud of.  The lighting conditions this morning literally squashes any hope of improvement shots. 

Wandering out onto the coastline, I came across a rather confiding Brahminy Kite calling persistently from a low perch. The call of this beautiful raptor is easily recognizable because it sounds like the mewing of a house cat. Brahminy Kites happen to be one of the commonest raptors on the island and the population is thriving due to their highly adaptive behaviour. 

The Japanese Sparrowhawks may be recorded in the thousands during migration but birds actually wintering in Penang are not a common sight. I just had a few seconds to photograph this handsome male resting on the edge of the mangroves before he had enough of my intrusion and flew away. Although the encounter was brief one, it was probably the highlight of the trip.

It is almost impossible to overlook a Stork-billed Kingfisher especially if perched right out in the open. I guess its massive size gives it all the confidence it needs to face the challenges of everyday life. 

Don't even think about it, squirrel boy!

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year and may the year 2013 be filled with lifers and memorable birding experiences.