Friday 22 February 2013

The birds and the bees...(16/02/2013)

The yearning for another opportunity to observe and photograph the Barred Eagle-owls that we came across near the Kulim district in Kedah 2 days ago was so overwhelming that it brought me back to the locality again. However, the owls were no where to be found despite a careful sweep of the surrounding area. So hesitantly, I decided to make my way to another birding spot where owls are frequently encountered - the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in mainland Penang.

Unfortunately, no owls were recorded today but the other residents certainly did their part to keep me entertained for the rest of the morning. Firecrackers, although banned in Malaysia, is still very much a part of the Chinese New Year celebrations here. But there is yet another deafening sound around this time of the year and it is the persistent and remarkably loud territorial call of the Asian Koel. The breeding season of this parasitic cuckoo usually coincides with the Chinese New Year and their ability to survive near humans makes it one of the most recognizable (and dreaded) calls of any bird. This species is more often heard than seen and I have yet to obtain good images that I can be proud of.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher is one of the star birds of this locality. They have adapted well to the attention they have been receiving just like true celebrities and are now totally at ease in the presence of birders and photographers alike. This female was calling from an exposed perch just next to the elevated walkway when our paths crossed. The only thing that prevented me from getting better shots was the dim lighting. 

As I was bewitched by the charms of the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, the melodious call of the White-chested Babbler burst through from under the walkway. Soon, I picked out a pair foraging just beneath my feet and I could not resist the temptation of taking a few shots although I know fully well that trying to obtain good shots of these active little birds in the dark undergrowth will be a lost cause.

The Streak-breasted Woodpecker is a northern specialty and looks superficially like the commoner and more widespread Laced Woodpecker. In fact, apart from the streaks along the throat and upper-breast of the former, the two species are almost identical. Although this splendid male Streak-breasted Woodpecker was foraging actively along the edge of the swamp forest, I eventually managed to obtain my best images of this species to date. 

Later in the morning, the explosive single note calls of the Streak-breasted Woodpecker caught my immediate attention as the calls sounded a little more vigorous than usual. I managed to trace the calling bird to a sparsely foliaged tree and to my delight, found a male bird courting a female. It did not take long for her to give in to his advances and the pair consummated their passionate endeavour from their lofty perch. This locality is the only place in Peninsular Malaysia where the Streak-breasted Woodpecker is regularly recorded. And from the look of things, it's going to stay that way for the time being. 

It is amazing that this small patch of freshwater swamp forest is still home to several fascinating species and some of them are even considered rare elsewhere. I will not attempt to figure out why but instead just make it a point to enjoy it while it last.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

There is hope yet...(15/02/2013)

It has been 3 months since my last solemn visit to the marshlands of Pulau Burung, Penang and today, I decided to go and see the extent of the damage caused by the upgrading works of the adjacent landfill. I discovered that about a third of the main pond is converted into landfill and I guess it is not as bad as I had initially expected. No doubt it will take time for the vegetation and bird life to recover but at least there is a chance for recovery. One thing I did notice is that they have paved a cemented trail along the edge of the pond and I think it is possibly for us birders. I mean, they can't seriously be expecting normal folks to have an evening stroll because it is a landfill here after all. The initiative is well noted but if you really want to make it up to us, just let the vegetation grow and allow us to continue driving alongside the ponds. And we will forever be in your debt.

Troops of Long-tailed Macaques are a regular sight along the mangroves. This morning, however, I came across a few Pig-tailed Macaques amongst them. I have trouble recalling if I have seen this species here before. I guess age must be catching up with me and monkeys being mammals, isn't exactly top priority in my system. Although it is greatly outnumbered by the Long-tailed Macaques, I don't think it has anything to fear from its much smaller cousins. Not when you are built like a tank.

With the birding today on a low gear, I paid a lot more attention to the wild mammals that were present instead. This female otter was a little more confiding as she enjoyed her time in the sun.

Things started to pick up when I missed photographing a hepatic female Himalayan Cuckoo (a recent split from the Oriental Cuckoo) which is a rather scarce migrant to Peninsular Malaysia. I was a little slow again to capture some shots of a flying Barn Owl that was being harassed by House Crows. Both the cuckoo and the owl are new records for this locality and despite all that has happened here, Pulau Burung still has some magic and fight left in her.

Seeing an Asian Dollarbird is nothing much to shout about as it is a relatively common species. However, coming across a pair that is perched a little lower than usual and with the light condition just about right is a different matter all together. This is when you can truly appreciate and capture the beauty of this bird. Only in this light, the brilliant bluish-green plumage shows its true splendour. 

One of the birds was more confiding and allowed to me approach quite close. Unknowingly, it provided me with my best images of this species so far and helped turn this slow trip around. I personally still prefer its name - the Broad-billed Roller. The conspicuous red bill is probably one of the reasons why I was quite intrigued with this species when I just started birding. 

While admiring the Dollarbird, a striking male Greater Flameback decided to alight and forage on the mangrove tree right in front of my stationery vehicle. Although he was quite active, I still managed to capture a few images before he moved deeper into the mangroves. 

I went to check on Asian Openbills at Permatang Nibong, Penang and there was a substantial number resting on the trees at their usual haunt. A number of them were in flight - some making their way to join the others at the trees and some circling on the hot air thermals. On the whole, I counted about 80 storks all together and that is an all-time personal high.

Monday 18 February 2013

A stroke of good luck (14/02/13)

During the long break every Chinese New Year, I will usually get to do some birding after the "compulsory" celebrations of the first few days. And this year is no different. The location this time was the forest reserve at Sungai Sedim in Kedah - undoubtedly one of the best forest birding sites for day trips. However, the trip did not start off well as it started to pour when we reached the locality. While waiting for the rain to subside, we had a rather exquisite-looking spider to keep us entertained. It looked like the Golden Orb Spider that we regularly encounter in the field and is just as big but it sported a bold red and black colouration. It was also feeding on a recently caught beetle. 

Once the sun started peeping through the rain clouds, we finally got to do what we can here for - birding. The colour red is an auspicious colour during the Chinese New Year and a striking male Scarlet-rumped Trogon is certainly one of the best candidates to help usher in the year of the snake. Although it is quite common here and other forested areas as well, this is one of the very few occasions that it posed obligingly for my camera. 

Most Bulbuls are rather drab looking birds and can appear quite similar to each other. This forest reserve is home to no less than 17 different species of Bulbuls. The Cream-vented Bulbul is quite easily recognizable if one has a good look at the face region because the conspicuous white eyes is the main field identification mark of this common forest dweller. 

The Rufous-winged Philentoma is regularly encountered along the access trails of this forest reserve. Unfortunately, it tends to forage along the canopy level and that makes it a difficult subject for photography. 

On the way back, we took a different route. Thanks to Choo Eng's acute sense of sight, we came across an unexpected surprise that turned out to be the highlight of the trip. It was a pair of Barred Eagle-Owls resting on a huge Rain Tree just next to the road. Owls are often shrouded with fear and superstitious especially among common folks and this is most unfortunate. I find these night hunters to be extraordinary creatures and their beauty, mesmerizing. 

As it would be dusk soon, the owls were rather alert and getting ready for the hunt that is to follow in the cover of darkness. Although the lighting conditions meant that my images will be a little soft than usual, I am elated to finally add this species into my digital image database. 

We also stopped at the open grasslands near Alamanda Estate for one of the most recent additions to Peninsular Malaysia's checklist - the Small Buttonquail. But it was another disappointment for me as I dipped out yet again for this little nomadic gamebird.

This may be a little late but better late than never. So, to all those celebrating the Chinese New Year, I wish you Gong Xi Fa Chai!

Tuesday 5 February 2013

A tufted twitch (02/02/2013)

My alarm went off at 4 in the morning and it was followed by packing of my gear, tripping over stuff in the dark and finally a peck on the cheek of my still-asleep better half. Then it was off to meet up with Dave and Choo Eng before commencing on our quest to see Peninsular Malaysia's fourth ever record of the Tufted Duck. This vagrant was first seen by a few Perak birders at a pond in Malim Nawar, Perak about a week back and they were kind and considerate enough to share this sighting immediately with the rest of the birding community. Thank you, guys!

We reached the pond just after dawn. No difficulties were encountered when finding the spot because Choo Eng was here 2 days ago and to quote his text message to me when he ticked off this lifer - "like shooting a duck in a tub". True enough, as soon as we stepped out of the car we found the celebrity visitor paddling leisurely in the middle of the pond just next to the main road.  It was certainly one of the easiest twitches I ever had.


With the lifer securely in the bag, we strategically re-positioned ourselves and waited for the lighting condition to improve. Although not particularly shy, it still kept a safe distance throughout our observation. The duck was an eclipse male indicated by the absence of the crest behind the head and the presence of brownish colouration especially in the face and neck region.

We spent a couple of hours observing and photographing the duck before we proceeded to scout around for anything else that might be about at this birding locality. Here's Dave (L), Mike (a Selangor birder that was also here for the same reason) and yours truly (R) enjoying the companionship of the Tufted Duck. Although not apparent in this photo, each and everyone had a wide grin on their faces.

This female Brown-throated Sunbird was calling for attention from an exposed perch. In fact, she remained there for quite a long period time as we were busy combing through a nearby flock of Purple-backed Starlings for any surprises. 

Big herons are a common sight at this locality and Grey Herons can be seen flying overhead throughout our visit. 

The Blue-eared Kingfisher is uncommon everywhere in Malaysia. When we came across a family that was hunting from the edge of one of the many ponds of this locality, we took the time to admire this beautiful kingfisher. It was then that something totally expected happened. The immature bird suddenly decided to take flight and flew towards where I was crouching. Instead of flying overhead, it alighted on a perch that was barely 5 feet away in front of me and was fully exposed. I always find young birds to be much bolder than their parents. I'm not sure if it is ignorance or recklessness but it was certainly a magical moment. And I thought that nothing else today will be able to come close to this morning's twitch. I guess I was wrong. 

This Yellow-bellied Prinia was also a little more confiding than usual. There are a few bird species here in Malaysia that actually sounds like a cat and this common scrub land warbler is one of them.

The Sand Martin is considered a rare migrant to Peninsular Malaysia. But honestly, I think it is very much overlooked. Swifts, swallows and martins are not exactly favourites among birders. The recent split of Pale Martins from Sand Martins and recent discoveries of the highly variable plumage of the 2 species has now made it almost impossible to positively identify them in the field.  

Anyway, we counted no less than 30 individuals hanging out at this particular group of fish ponds and that is a significantly high number. 

Here, the martins are just slightly outnumbered by the commoner Barn Swallows and the former is just as tolerant of human presence as the latter - much to our delight. Choo Eng and I got our best images of this scarce visitor and Dave, close-ups that hopefully will shed more light on the identification of these Sand/Pale Martins in Peninsular Malaysia. 

As far as waders go, only the usual species were recorded this trip. A few of the Little Ringed Plovers in the locality are already moulting into their breeding plumage.

I have not had much luck with Pied Trillers despite it being relatively common and can even be found in housing areas. As the name implies, their distinct and persistent call is usually the tell-tale sign of their presence. Today, this female provided the best photographic opportunities for me of this species to date. 

Just as we were about to go reward ourselves with a much anticipated brunch, a pair of Ashy Tailorbirds suddenly alighted on a bush just next to where we were standing. I guess the meal can wait a few more minutes as I do not think it is even legal to leave this encounter without taking a few shots. So, this 5-hour drive round trip turned out to be quite a memorable one in the end and it's all thanks to some outstanding performances by a couple of rare migrants and an adolescent kingfisher.