Wednesday 27 August 2014

One can always hope...(23/08/2014)

Bukit Palong is a little-known birding site located in the rural district of Baling in Kedah. It used to be a pristine habitat for wildlife - that is until development found its way there. Disheartened, I did not visit the site for almost 2 years. A proposition by Hor Kee to check if there are any Plain-pouched Hornbills passing through the site prompted me for a long overdue revisit. Together with Choo Eng, we made the 2-hour drive from Penang in the wee hours full of anticipation and anxiety.

A substantial part of this ridge is now being replaced with secondary growth thanks to all the deforestation that took place. But there are traces of its former glory left and perhaps, there is still hope for this birding site to recover. In fact, I'm really counting on it because the number of birding sites close to home are certainly not increasing. 

Sad to say we did not see or hear a single hornbill throughout the trip. Hornbills are good indicators of what state the forest is in. A heavily disturbed forest will usually be void of these magnificent birds. So, there you have it. Screw with the balance of nature and lose its precious elements.

But we did manage to observe another family of birds renowned for the shape of their bills but on a smaller scale - broadbills. Banded Broadbills are hard to observe because they tend to keep to the cover of the canopy. Their insect-like calls are usually the only indicator of their presence. Today, however, this individual decided to let us off the hook and foraged lower than it normally does. 

I was hoping for it to wander down a little more because at this distance, all we could muster were record shots. It does not matter if it is still a young bird and the radiance of its plumage is just a little short of an adult bird's. I have been taught to always be happy with what you have. Unfortunately, I have difficulties applying that to birding compared to other things in life.

The Rufescent Prinia replaces the much commoner Yellow-bellied Prinia along the edges of forest. But these two species do occasionally overlap in habitats. Here, both species are found but once you ascend pass the foothill settlements, it is the former's thick of the woods.

The mighty Blyth's Hawk-eagles look over what is left of their domain atop a lofty perch. This pair has been breeding quite successfully over the past years and looks set for another go in the coming months despite all the disturbances. Thank God for that...

The eagles are not the ones that are in for some action. I came across this pair of millipedes in a rather compromising position…

I am not much of a flower person but I guess there are a few species out there that I can safely recognize. Since our Independence Day is just around the corner and all that, here is the Hibiscus, the national flower of Malaysia.

The flower of the wild Ginger is another easy one for me…

At the summit of the hill, we were suddenly engulfed by heavy mist. The mist certainly gave the vicinity an aura of intrigue and beauty. Who am I kidding? It’s a nightmare for any birding activity.

But even in the mist, there is no mistaking the silhouette of the world's smallest bird of prey. A flock of six Black-thighed Falconets was seen hunting from a tall bare tree next to the access road. Don't let their adorable looks fool you. They are very efficient hunters of insects and small birds. These tiny terrors on wings have been my object of admiration for as long as I can remember. I guess being a falcon gets you into my good graces by default - even if you are just the size of a sparrow. Size doesn't matter in this case. It's all about attitude.

I lamented to my companions that I never had the chance to photograph Falconets from close range the day I took up photography and one must have heard me and alighted almost overhead. All you had to do was ask, human...

In the end, a confiding falconet became the saviour of this trip. I will certainly be back again in the near future and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the hornbills and others to return and call this place home again.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Sometimes great things come in small packages (16/08/2014)

With a couple of months to go before we hit the peak of the migratory season, it was back to the forest again. Since Sungai Sedim in Kedah has been delivering quite consistently of late, I found myself back there again on this fine Saturday morning with Choo Eng as my companion. It was no surprise for us to see a Red-eyed Bulbul performing parental duties because this species is one of the commonest residents here. 

The Chestnut-headed Bee-eater occurs only in the northern half of Peninsular Malaysia. Sungai Sedim houses a small population of these aerial hunters but unlike the ones found in open country and scrub habitats back in my home state of Penang, these are a real pain in the neck to shoot - literally. I guess life in the forest edge has taught them to keep to the top most part of the canopy level at the first sign of danger, and birders. 

The Green Broadbill, Banded Broadbill, Rufous-collared Kingfisher and Red-naped Trogon provided us with tantalizing glimpses for a good part of the morning. Sometimes, I swear these guys are just doing this out of fun. Just as frustration started to set in, hope came quite discreetly and restored my faith in forest birds. The Velvet-fronted Nuthatch is charming, adorable and striking. However, it is also active and fast - traits that do not go down well with photography in the forest. I guess it is also these traits that make the nuthatches such fascinating birds. We came across foraging parties a few times throughout the day but this is the only photo that is good enough to see the light of day. 

The drumming of woodpeckers are very much part of the sights and sounds of the tropical rain forest. However, the birds themselves can prove to be quite a challenging to photograph. The Buff-necked Woodpecker that we came across today makes a fine example of this claim. 

This male Checker-throated Woodpecker showed off the bold markings on his throat from which his name is derived from before disappearing into the dense foliage of forest.

There are a couple of woodpeckers in this region that are small in size but remarkably rich in character and appeal. Because of their small size, they are usually hidden from the human eye. The Rufous Piculet is one of them. We followed a pair of these adorable birds for a quite a long period as they went about their business. They seemed unperturbed by our presence and we took full advantage of this rare situation to shoot and observe them. However, I only managed to photograph the female, told by the absence of yellow on fore crown. 

Despite their minute size, they also have the ability to create a surprisingly loud racket whenever they drum. On a few occasions we had to rely on their calls and drumming to relocate when they move and fly about the middle storey of the forest. This is certainly my best encounter with the species and it was a great way to wrap things up for another rewarding day at this recreational forest. 

Friday 15 August 2014

Please let it be October soon...(13/08/2014)

I am seriously starting to miss the migratory season. To be more specific, migratory open country and water birds. So much so, that I made an off-season visit to the marshlands of Pulau Burung in mainland Penang. The presence of a few early arrival or over-wintering waders like the Common Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper did very little to compensate my yearning for the return of the migratory season. Cattle Egrets are found in big numbers at this vicinity throughout the year but I am not sure if they have start breeding here as well.

They have adapted well to the way of life here with the landfill providing an everlasting supply of food and the surrounding habitats, a place for them to thrive and indulge. I guess the birds have found their own little piece of heaven on earth.

Despite all the destruction that the marshlands had to endure of late, I am quite relieved to see the Black-winged Stilts still breeding and calling this place home. Their elegance and beauty will be sorely missed if they decide to abandon this site for greener pastures. And we have no one to blame but ourselves – humans. The so-called intelligent life form that is capable of creating something from nothing. Sadly, humans are also capable of turning something into nothing. The concrete walkway and benches, the perimeter fencing, the tarmac access road, the “clean marshlands” is slowly but surely killing off the place. This is a snippet from an article I wrote back in 2009 about this locality in the Naturalist, a quarterly magazine for the Malaysian nature Society. “I hope the day will never come when the ballerinas (Black-winged Stilts) are forced to perform one last time in the audience of angels (Whiskered Terns) before departing from a diminishing paradise and never to return again.” Well, that day is almost here. It is just a matter of time.

With that aside, I am delighted to see quite a number of young birds out and about. It looks like it was a relatively good season for the birds here. The Red-wattled Lapwing is another sedentary wader that breeds here. This young bird is enjoying some time in the sun.

Like the Cattle Egret, the Jungle Myna also relishes the company of cattle and can be seen striding on the backs of the mammalian companions. This myna is one of the few native mynas to Malaysia but the population is struggling against the more aggressive and adaptable introduced species of mynas. But at least here they seemed to holding out fine. Quite a number of juveniles were seen foraging under the supervision of the parent birds. One was a little more inquisitive than the rest and came quite close to investigate this huge, lumbering beast on four wheels. 

The surrounding mangroves have always been the domain of the Collared Kingfisher.    Bold, loud and beautiful - it is one bird that one can rarely miss out on any given day. I caught this young one taking a breather from learning the lessons of life and survival from its parents. But moments later a piercing call from one of the parents sent him deeper into the safety of the mangroves.

Parent birds have every reason to be cautious because danger is ever-present. Where there is prey, there is bound to be predators. Brahminy Kites are one of the several raptors are regularly seen here. Being more scavengers than true hunters, they normally not pose any threats to other birds. However, an ignorant juvenile could make an easy meal.

Zebra Doves are used to be called Peaceful Doves and I find the old name describes this species more accurately. They are indeed docile animals and most of the time, confiding and tame as well. The population throughout Malaysia is doing relatively well despite the fact that this little dove is trapped for the bird trade.

The Oriental Magpie-robin is not so fortunate. Cursed for being amazing songsters, its population has been reduced significantly by the bird trade. Once occurring in gardens and parks, the beautiful song of this robin may one day be completely wiped out even from the rural settlements let alone well-developed areas. Anyways, this handsome male is a fine way to end a surprisingly good trip despite the fact that it is not the best time of the year to make a visit here because the migratory season peaks in October. That is the time when this locality truly comes alive.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Wind of change (09/08/2014)

With news of a couple of bird photographers being robbed of their gear at one of my regular haunts, Air Hitam Dalam, I thought it was best not to tempt faith and will be giving this site a miss for while. One thing is for sure - the criminals are bound to be back for more. This is bad news because half the time I do my birding alone and to be totally honest, I sometimes do get overly distracted by the birds and let my guard down. It is sad but it looks like the ugly side of the real world has crept into the birding world and like the birds, birders and photographers alike will just have to adapt and change in order to carry on.

Anyway, I decided to go for the slightly strenuous trail up Gunung Bintang in Sungai Sedim, Kedah. We have now entered into the month of the Hungry Ghost. A time when my better half is not too thrilled whenever I go out into field. But supernatural elements are the least of my worries when I came across fresh elephant dung along the trail. Luckily, no tuskers or elements crossed my path today. Only the birds and a pair of confiding Black-headed Bulbuls was the highlight of the trip.

This species is quite strikingly coloured and despite being common in forested areas, secondary growths and orchards, I do not have many images of it. Being a relatively vocal, it is not easily overlooked but its tendency to keep to the canopy levels can sometimes hinder photographic attempts. So, today's performance was much obliged. 

The Asian Fairy-bluebird, like the Black-headed Bulbul, is another common but strikingly coloured species. However, there is one difference. The former is found in montane forests as well. The Asian Fairy-bluebird is an apt name and the male is truly a feast for the eyes. Whenever he decides to show himself completely that is. 

It can be tricky to identify forest bulbuls at times. Being one of the most regularly encountered birds in the forest, one will usually get their skills in bulbul identification tested in every visit to the forest. The Spectacled Bulbul usually needs a longer look to be identified. 

The Hairy-backed Bulbul behaves more like a babbler than a bulbul and this factor, as well as its characteristic calls, makes this species slightly easier to identify. However, the hair of its namesake is barely visible in the field and does not provide any aid in the identification process. 

The White-rumped Munia is certainly the most widely distributed of all the munias. It occurs from the paddy fields of the lowlands to the high altitudes of montane forests. There is a healthy population of these munias here in Sungai Sedim and this individual collecting nesting material is doing its part in maintaining the population. 

As I was about to call it a day, some movement among the undergrowth caught my immediate attention. It did not take long for me to spot the party responsible. My godfather always says to me that there is more to wildlife than just birds. Still, I cannot help but to feel a little disappointed when it turned out be a foraging Green Crested Lizard (thanks to Muin for the identification).

Anyway, it was not wary of my presence. In fact, it seemed to be much in a mood for photography. I may not have much experience shooting reptiles in the wild but I think it is easier than shooting birds. At least they do not fly away and never to be seen again for the rest of your life. A little herping to wrap up the day is perhaps a little different but still an enjoyable end.