Monday 29 December 2014

From north to south (27/12/2014)

The predawn drizzle again washed away any plans for a big day out. This came as no surprise because Peninsula Malaysia is now facing a flood crisis. I had no intentions to let a birding day go to waste so I decided to visit the marshlands at Pulau Burung in southern mainland Penang. Waterbirds may be my only consolation in this weather. When the dawn chorus started to fill the locality, the drizzle eased. By the time it got light, the rain surprisingly stopped altogether and the ever-present Jungle Mynas rejoiced at the sight of a rising sun. Open country mynas are much ignored due to their abundance. I admit that I am also guilty of this at times. But on those occasions when I do shower them with attention, I find them to be full of character.

The marshlands here showed no signs of recovery as I and every local birder had hoped for. The 'beautification' process by the local authorities has all but destroyed what I used to consider as one of the best birding localities in Malaysia. A handful of Lesser Whistling Ducks instead of the usual high numbers loitered around what is left of their wetland home. Just in case you are wondering, the slight blurred effect on the image is because I now have to shoot through perimeter fencing - not like the good old days. What is the point of beautifying the lake and putting up cement walkways if you are not going to keep people out, right?

Reflections of wings and inspiration…

The migratory Whiskered Terns, on the other hand, were almost in their usual numbers. With the sun now as bright as it could ever be, getting the right exposure for generally white birds can be a challenge. 

It has been a long time since I had a Wood Sandpiper put on a good performance for me at this locality and this image brought back fond memories of a time when shots like these are just part of an ordinary day's birding here. 

Even by using my car as a hide, this female Watercock (positive identification of the sex and age of this species in non-breeding plumage is not easy and I stand to be corrected) had me waiting for a long time before she finally revealed herself - at the other side of the canal. 

Purple Herons are usually just as shy but I guess this adult bird has been denied the soothing rays of the sun for too long to be bothered by my presence. Now, a Purple Heron in full view at this distance does not usually happen to me and it tempted me to believe that the magic of Pulau Burung lives on. 

The heron was not the only one enjoying its spot in the sun. This Crested Serpent-eagle looked like it could really use the sun's warmth…

A female Common Kingfisher hoping to catch a hearty breakfast from her shaded perch. I left her to her hunt and made my way to the next locality - the neighbouring forest of Bukit Panchor State Park. 

I seldom visit this locality nowadays because for some reason the birdlife has diminished tremendously through the years and I have a hunch it is human-related. The habitat still looks intact though. It is the sort where you can expect to see, let's say a Giant Pitta hopping across the access trail (and never to be seen again). This mythical bird is the only reason why I do not stop visiting this locality altogether. 

Apart from a flying Violet Cuckoo signaling its arrival and departure above the canopy of the forest with its persistent calls, this confiding Gold-Whiskered Barbet was the only notable encounter during my short visit. 

Probably the commonest of the barbets, the Gold-Whiskered Barbet is highly adaptable and occurs in a wide range of habitats in Peninsula Malaysia. Its preference for the canopy levels keeps it out of sight most of the time and its persistent calls are the only evidence of its presence. The only angle of an unobstructed shot was backlit but I am grateful just to be able to enjoy this prolonged encounter. 

My next stop was the scrublands of Juru in central mainland Penang and here, I recorded my second Crested Serpent-eagle for the day. This species is doing very well for itself throughout the country and its tolerance towards human is probably one of the factors behind its success. 

This light-morphed Changeable Hawk-eagle circled menacingly above the scrublands in search of a meal. This is another raptor that is fairing quite well and the keyword again is tolerance - especially towards a species called man and all his characteristics. 

The paddy fields of Kubang Semang were where I spent the next hour or so. I felt lucky the Black-winged Stilts decided to grace the day with their presence. I have always had a soft spot for these elegant waders and with nothing much about, taking the time to appreciate their beauty required no second thoughts.

The fifth and last locality for this trip was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam at the northern tip of mainland Penang. I have birded across the entire span of the state since dawn and covered a few different habitat types. Penang is not a big state. It is the second smallest state after Perlis. But it is not the size of the dog in the fight; it is the size of the fight in the dog. Penang has always been my home and has provided all I could ever ask for and more in birding and life as well. After all these years, it still has got what it takes to keep me amazed. For example, my third Crested Serpent-eagle for the day! Apart from the blind eye, it looks perfectly healthy to me. 

This Buffy Fish-owl was enjoying an afternoon siesta before being surprised by a stumbling birder. 

A shift of position instead of the usual disappearance act provided me with another chance to make things right. Going on all fours on a swampy terrain may not appeal to everyone but a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. The owl, probably enjoyed a good laugh at my expense, decided to tolerate my presence this time. And the decision to take the hard way this time was the right one.

The Yellow-rumped Flycatcher was being his usual confiding self. That's a good boy...

No visit to this locality will ever be complete without the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher...

This will probably be my last birding excursion for the year. I am certainly looking forward to what 2015 has in store for the Penang Birder and hopefully, a few lifers along the way if it is not too much to ask. Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday 24 December 2014

The Pearl has not lost all its glitter after all (23/12/2014)

The constant rain brought more woes and kept me away from the field for most of the morning on my rest day. Afternoon saw the rain ease a little and the call of the wild was a little too strong to resist. However, I dread the thought of crossing the Penang Bridge to get to my usual birding spots as the rain would have created traffic congestion. I have been shunning birding localities on the island because of late, birding here is simply incomparable with the mainland side. So, today is a good day to see what the Pearl of the Orient still has to offer to a frustrated birder. I headed towards the mangroves and scrublands of Sungai Burung in the southwestern part of the island - a local patch that I have not visited for a long time.

The visit started off slow initially and I really had no idea that it would end up as one of the best birding trips on the island that I have ever experienced. I even had the time to take a few shots of a foraging Scaly-breasted Munia. 

On the school field next to the access, a trio of female Pied Trillers was busy picking up insects that were flushed out by the downpour. It must be a girls-day-out because no males were seen at all. 

With the rain trickling down to a stop, the locality gradually came more alive and the birding got better. This Greater Coucal finally got a chance to dry itself and did not give much thought to my approaching vehicle. A shot of a Greater Coucal on exposed perch does not happen very often and I had a feeling then that maybe the pearl has not lost all its shine yet...

A Brahminy Kite also enjoying the change of weather from its lofty perch...

The calls of the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters broke through the silence of this gloomy afternoon when I passed the paddy planting areas of this district. It did take much effort in locating one as they love exposed perches on which to launch their graceful aerial pursuits of their insect prey. 

When I reached the section where the access road runs parallel to the mangroves, the afternoon's birding intensified. A migratory Large Hawk-cuckoo put my field craft and photography skills to the test. In the end, I had to concede defeat to the cuckoo and no photographs were obtained. However, this handsome male Tiger Shrike was more than willing to pose for my camera. He was so tame that no skills were required this time. I just needed to remember how to press the shutter. 

The resident pair of Crested Serpent-eagles was seen and heard throughout my time here. Whatever disappointments I had with the Large Hawk-cuckoo evaporated when one of the eagles provided another close-up photo session. Majestic still comes to mind even though this is one of the commonest eagles in Malaysia. 

When I was about to come to the area where I usually turn back, a few pigeons resting on a sparse tree caught my attention. Upon further scrutiny, they turned to be Thick-billed Green-pigeons. A few pairs were snuggled up quite affectionately. My guess is the cold and gloomy weather must really be getting to them. 

Just a short distance from the loving couples, a fruiting tree was in season and I found myself in the midst of a lot of pigeons - a whole lot of them I might add. Much to my delight, I found more Thick-billed Green-pigeons. The males are striking birds and I wasted no time in shooting them as I do not have any good photographic opportunities with this species before. 

The females lack the rich chocolate on the wings and inevitably, lose out to the more colourful males in terms of time in the limelight. I'm only human after all....

I have recorded three species of green-pigeons so far in Penang Island and this fruiting feast naturally attracted the commonest of them all, the Pink-necked Pigeons. The males are just as attractive as the male Thick-billed Green-pigeons but I found the former to be slightly more aggressive and will often chased away the latter if they get too close to each other. I did look out for the third species, which is the Little Green-pigeon but to no avail. In fact, I cannot recall the last time I saw this species in the field. 

The female Pink-necked Green-pigeon is even duller-coloured than her Thick-billed Green-pigeon counterpart. 

The fruiting tree was overhanging the access road and because it was a narrow road, my stationery vehicle was certainly blocking the way. I had to shift to and fro a couple of times to let other vehicles past and on one of those occasions, I noticed a small raptor on a dead tree over the mangroves. I immediately took a few shots but the raptor was on to me the moment I aimed the camera at it and gave me suspicious stares. Most sparrowhawk-like raptors that I have come across in the field are extremely shy and wary. This one is no different. It dived into the mangroves after a few clicks of the shutter and was never seen again. I had a quick look at its images and did not think much of it as I was too eager to get back to the fruiting tree.

It was only when I got home that I had a long good look at this raptor. After doing some homework, I realized it might not be the usual Japanese Sparrowhawk. In fact, the absence of tail bars on the upper tail strongly suggests the rarely seen Shikra and a would-be lifer for me.  These past few months I let my enthusiasm get the better of me when I seek confirmation for a few of my possible rare raptor sightings. So this time, I sent the images to Chaiyan accompanied by a rather conservative message but the reply that came back from him was anything but conservative. Finally, I got my first Shikra! Christmas certainly came early this year and my dormant life list erupted back to life.  The pale grey upperwings and unmarked central most uppertail feathers were the distinguishing factors. Thanks to Chaiyan, I now know that this is an adult female of the dussumieri race and this girl came all the way from the Himalayas. She is also possibly the first perched Shirka to be photographed in Peninsula Malaysia. That's a good girl. Merry Christmas!

Now back to the fruiting tree. I paid more attention to the Thick-billed Green-pigeon because they are the scarcer of the two pigeons. These pigeons are far from graceful when they gorged on the fruits and the fruits are just about bite-size for them and are swallowed whole at a rapid pace. 

To wrap things up from this unexpectedly remarkable trip are a few more images of the Thick-billed Green-pigeons in more presentable poses. I embarked on this trip with very low expectations but at the end of the day, I was given a very good reminder by the birds - that in birding you can never know what to expect and something amazing could be waiting for you when you least expect it.