For the past few years, bird species all over the world are going through some major changes. There have been a lot of 'splitting' and 'lumping'. Here in Malaysia, it is mostly splitting. One good example is the Malaysian Hawk-cuckoo splitting from the Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo. Identification of adult birds is pretty straightforward and being a migrant and the rarer of the two, I have not seen an adult Hodgson's yet. Juveniles are a different story altogether - they look almost the same. In the past, I did not pay that much attention to details whenever I come across young birds because they are, after all, the same species. When the split became official, I could not be sure if I have actually seen a juvenile Hodgson's before. And with the identification being anything but simple, there is still a missing tick next to Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo in my life list.
When my fellow Penang birders started recording not one but two juvenile Hodgson's at Air Hitam Educational Forest, I feel like I have been given the chance to finally make things right. It did not take me long to hit the dusty access road that cuts through this rather unique birding spot in search of the Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo.
The Asian Openbills have started roosting at this locality in big numbers as well. At this hour, the storks are just starting to stir as they prepare themselves for the day ahead.
Within minutes of my search a silhouette of a medium sized cuckoo perched on one of the Ketapang trees heightened my senses because these trees are where the Hodgson's was seen. I thought to myself this is too good to be true and, it was. The cuckoo turned out to be only an Indian Cuckoo. I took a few record shots as the lighting was still poor at that time and carried on.
A second cuckoo shortly after got my blood pumping again. And yet again I was disappointed when it turned out to be a second Indian Cuckoo. I was actually at this very area in early February and the only cuckoo I saw that day was a Large Hawk-cuckoo. Am I destined to miss out on this lifer?
The presence of morning walkers and anglers got me a little worried as they have the potential to being party poopers. However, a lone angler who could not decide where to settle down and cast his luck spooked another cuckoo from its perch but this time, it worked to my advantage. The cuckoo alighted in front of me and a quick glance with my bins produced a grin on my face. The angler just presented my lifer on a silver platter. But there is no happily ever after to this fairy tale. As soon as I focus my camera on the cuckoo, it took off deeper into the forest. A photograph of a Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo would have made it complete. It was performing well just a few weeks back and this is Dave's account of the encounter. But I guess if you have everything your way, it would not be birding.
The next couple of hours were spent combing the vicinity in search of the one that got away. I held my breath every time I come across a cuckoo but they turned out to be Indian Cuckoos - every single time. Patience stretched and sanity truly tested but in the end, no sign of the Hodgson's. As I reluctantly accepted my fate, I gave the two Indian Cuckoos their due admiration and attention. Lucky for me they did not hold a grudge and fly off just to get back at me for ignoring and cursing them earlier on. In fact, I managed to obtain my best Indian Cuckoo photos to date.
But the day is far from over. A casual stroll towards the swamp forest next to the old car park swept me off my feet - literally. I had to drop on all fours and commando-styled my way closer to the forested side of the car park. There, perched on one of the pillars of the collapsed boardwalk, was a Ruddy Kingfisher hunting for breakfast.
The resident Ruddy Kingfisher is one of the celebrity birds of this locality. A small population of these relatively rare kingfishers here has been keeping birders captivated through the years including yours truly. This species is well known for its beauty but not for being gracious. Today, it is probably as confiding as it will ever get and it was quite a struggle just to contain my composure. A truly beautiful bird. A truly memorable experience.
Seated on the tar surface and with a 2-foot tall curb shielding me, I guess I was somewhat slightly concealed from view. That is when the second moment of magic transpired. While being mesmerized by the kingfisher's performance, something colourful hopping about the swampy ground caught my attention immediately. I have been brought up to be especially vigilant of colourful things hopping about the ground and I guess the same applies to most birders living in the tropics. If you have not already guessed it, I am talking about Pittas. This patch of swamp forest is home to a small population of Mangrove Pittas but much to my delight, it was a migratory Blue-winged Pitta - my first record for this site.
The smaller bill and paler coloured crown stripe separates the Blue-winged from the Mangrove Pitta. Eventually, it came quite close and even foraged at the base of the kingfisher's elevated perch. Flicking through the leaf litter and looking surprisingly comfortable in my presence, this was certainly one of my best Pitta encounters.
The shooting condition was far from ideal and most of my shots did not come out as well as I hoped. But somehow, it did not really matter that much as well. A pitta providing memories that will last a lifetime - it does not get any better than this.
The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher is another striking denizen of this swamp forest. This locality is one of the best places to see this species and the sweet whistling notes of its territorial call is a common sound especially with the breeding season approaching. Again, my position made the resident pair comfortable enough to forage reasonably close by.
When everything finally subsided and I was back on Earth again, I decided it was time to move on. As I stood up and turned around, I startled a Forest Wagtail and it quickly scooted off in the opposite direction. I have a funny feeling that it was having a ball making funny faces behind my back all this time.