Monday 30 June 2014

It can't rain everyday...(28/06/2014)

Motivated by Adolph's excellent post, I was back again at the forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah. The first half of the morning was relatively quiet and I was beginning to brace myself for yet another barren outing. And then, all of a sudden, I found myself smacked in the middle of a big birdwave. The wave was like a ray of sunlight on a gloomy day and I could certainly do with a little sunshine right about then. In between trying to record every species that were present, I managed to capture a few record shots as well like this young Grey-breasted Spiderhunter taking a breather from the feasting. 

Velvet-fronted Nuthatches are adorable little birds that scamper around branches and tree trunks like miniature squirrels. They are a joy to observe but a pain to photograph. Their constant movement and the harsh lighting condition really tested my gear. These are probably some of the better shots that I managed to obtain in the end.

The Great Iora is the rarest of the 3 Ioras found in Malaysia. It has been quite a while since my last sighting of this species. This female was too preoccupied with the wave that she did not take much notice of my presence and came relatively close. However, the dense foliage that provides her food and sanctuary keeps her well hidden most of the time from me. 

During bird waves, some birds can go into a feeding frenzy and become exceptionally bold and just simply disregard human presence. This male Dark-necked Tailorbird came really close but it also moved off really fast. 

I caught a flash of brilliant green from the corner of my eye and soon found myself looking at the all too familiar shape of a Green Broadbill flying directly towards me. It landed almost directly overhead and allowed me to press the shutter a couple of times before it disappeared into the vegetation. I could not be certain if it was participating in the wave or just curious of all the action that was going down. It was most unfortunately that it alighted against the sun and I did not have the luxury of time to adjust my exposure accordingly. As expected, it was a striking male bird - Murphy's Law at its best. 

It seems like I keep on bumping into Green Broadbills of late (not that I'm complaining) and my second encounter for this trip was this relatively confiding female bird. However, the lighting conditions and distance prevented me from obtaining better images. 

Sungai Sedim offers sanctuary to a few species of Trogon and the commonest of them all is the Scarlet-rumped. Common it may be but dull it certainly is not. A male Scarlet-rumped Trogon (on second thoughts any male trogon) is a sight that will overwhelm the retinal receptors to a level rarely achievable in normal everyday living. Naturally, I gave him the attention and admiration he truly deserves.  

Feed me!! Looks like the resident Pacific Swallows have their ‘hands’ full with the next generation of swallows…

Despite missing out on photographing a flying Helmeted Hornbill, my spirit was still high as I made my way to the canopy walk. How could I miss a bird that has a 3-foot long tail? Well, there were hardly any breaks in the dense canopy where the big guy took flight and by the time I ran to an open area, the hornbill was nowhere to be seen. Despite its enormous size, the Helmeted Hornbill is extremely elusive and shy. In my lifetime, I have only seen it a handful of times in which I only had my camera with on two occasions. The photo below is my best effort so far. A bird in full view just after dawn in Merapoh Taman Negara a few years back. Unfortunately, I still had my camera's exposure at yesterday's setting and the shot turned out terribly underexposed. It was a careless mistake - one that has continued to haunt me till this very day. 

Anyway, the Tree Top Walk at Sungai Sedim is the longest canopy walk in the world. It is almost a kilometer in length and the highest section is over 200 meters above the forest floor. It is no doubt an impressive structure but it has yet to give me any truly memorable encounters. But the view is always breathtaking…

Since today is my day in the sun, I did not end up totally empty handed from my tree top walk. Here are some of the birds that I managed to shoot and despite being on their 'level' for a change, they were sometimes still beyond the comfortable reach of my gear.

Red-eyed Bulbul...

Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike...

Ruby-cheeked Sunbird...

Wednesday 25 June 2014

The flying jewel (21/03/2014)

My luck with forest bird photography did not improve much from my last excursion as I ended up with another “one-bird” trip. This time it was at the forest of Sungai Sedim in eastern Kedah state. Forest birding is indeed very challenging and forest bird photography, even more so. But it is only in the forest that one will get to witness some of the true wonders of the natural world – like the stunning Green Broadbill. Since I do not have anything else to post for this trip, I will dedicate it to the Green Broadbill.

The Green Broadbill occurs in both primary and secondary forests of Southeast Asia. Occasionally, it might wander into adjacent orchards and plantations as well. It is not a rare bird but typical of the genus and like most other denizens of the forest, it is more often heard than seen. The call, like the bird itself, is rather unique and that makes identification rather straightforward. What is complicated is the fact that the bird is about the size of a leaf, has colours like a leaf and the tendency to remain still among the leaves at the canopy level. Successfully locating a Green Broadbill among a sea of leaves is an achievement all by itself. Obtaining reasonably good photographs is another matter altogether. I will not be going into detail about the habits and characteristics of the bird. This will be more like a personal account of this fascinating and beautiful species.

I recorded my very first Green Broadbill at Air Itam Dam in my home state and it was the year 1990. In fact, the Green Broadbill is the only broadbill to occur in Penang Island. Its unique call was the first thing that caught my attention. At that time I was still quite new to birding and did not know that this call belonged to the Green Broadbill. Intrigued, I slowly trace the call to its source. Then a "leaf" suddenly took off from the tree in front of me and darted through the forest. In a blink of an eye, it was gone but the image of the striking emerald green plumage remained fresh at the back of my mind till this very day. A little homework helped me identify this forest gem on wings. Determination and luck helped me obtain better views of this species at this locality in the years to follow after that faithful day. 

Throughout my bird photography life (which is after more than a decade after being converted into birding), I have successfully captured images of the Green Broadbill only on a handful of occasions. Not exactly a record I can be proud of but it is the honest truth never the less. Here is a male bird in his comfort zone - at the very top of the canopy level and well away from any intruding birders. This image was my first of this species and was taken at Merapoh Taman Negara back in 2009. 

My next photographic opportunity, if I can call it an opportunity, came about 2 years later. The forest at Sungai Sedim in Kedah is one of the strongholds of this species and it has been recorded here on a regular basis. Despite all my efforts, this was the best I could manage of a male bird foraging at the very top of the canopy level.

In 2012, the confiding nature of a female bird absolutely took me by surprise. Green Broadbills are omnivorous by nature and the availability of food at a fruiting tree was the reason for her memorable performance. But her mate was not as obliging and remained partly hidden most of the time. This encounter took place at Bukit Palong in Kedah and I made an entry into my blog about that trip entitled The Natural Bird Magnet. 

My latest Green Broadbill encounter took place last Saturday at Sungai Sedim again. It was a male bird, in all his glory, belting out his territorial call from a relatively low and exposed perch. The breeding season must have made him a little bolder than usual and I was lucky enough to enjoy his performance before he hopped back into the cover of the canopy. My only qualm is that I did not have time to adjust the exposure on my camera before he disappeared from view. But it is by far my best effort and I guess it will do – for now.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

A test of faith (14/06/2014)

Birding is more than a hobby to most hardcore birders. It is more like a religion. And like all religions, there will be times when your faith gets tested. The morning that I spend birding at the Bukit Panchor Forest Reserve in the southern tip of mainland Penang on this beautiful Saturday morning was one of them. This reserve is prime habitat as the forest is still quite undisturbed. Along certain stretches of the jungle trail, the forest literally creeps right into the trail itself. Do not get me wrong. I do appreciate that a habitat like this still exists within the borders of my rapidly developing home state. By right, it should be a birder’s paradise and it is – just not all the time. The birds are there. The only problem is finding them and convincing them to stay put long enough for you to have a decent view – let alone photograph. It all boils down to your field craft, effort, timing ands a whole lot of luck. Did I mention a whole lot of luck?

One of the reasons I have this blog is to try and keep my birding experiences and memories alive through words and photography. I can consider myself lucky that I usually have enough material for my blog from all my birding excursions. This trip had me braving the onslaught of leeches, mosquitoes and scorching heat in the humid tropical rain forest. All I have for show is a single bird – a Malaysian Hawk-cuckoo calling from an exposed perch. The encounter with the cuckoo was a good one and I manage to capture some pretty decent shots.

But the trip was as bad as it seemed. I did record a fair bit of good forest birds which unfortunately, did not give me the opportunity to photograph them. Then I thought perhaps I could put it in words and describe the encounters. But how can I describe the feeling of seeing of a Rufous-collared Kingfisher darting through the middle storey of the forest. How do I tell the frustration of having a Buff-necked Woodpecker play a little hide-and-seek with you around a tree trunk at eye level and well within your gear’s shooting capability? I am also at lost with words about the sudden rush of adrenalin that jolted through my body when an Emerald Dove decided to fly off from the ground just a few steps ahead of me. And the disappointment of yet another failed attempt to relocate a creature of almost mythical stature called the Giant Pitta.

But this is the reality of birding in the forest. Sometimes, everything just comes in place perfectly and sometimes, your faith in this so-called hobby gets tested. Despite all my grumbling, I will be back again at this locality in future because I just cannot deny myself the opportunity of what I may encounter in the next trip. It could be yet another letdown or it could be a trip filled with memorable encounters that will last a lifetime. To wrap things for the day is a photo of a skink hunting for breakfast among the undergrowth of the forest.