Wednesday 24 September 2014

The season is off to a good start (20/09/2014)

I found myself with a few hours to kill on a Saturday morning yet again and the urge for another visit to the mudflats of Bagan Belat was simply too strong to be denied. At the break of dawn, I positioned myself on the man-made rocky outcrop, slightly hidden and eagerly anticipating whatever that is in store for me. A flock of Black-crowned Night-herons flying back to roost was the first to capture my attention.

Unlike the last visit, my timing with the tide was better and the weather was also on my side for a change. This is probably as good as it is going to get for a visit to the mudflats. The rest, however, will depend on the waders. And today, they were kind enough to go along with the plan.

The Lesser Sand-plovers foraged the closest to me yet again. But how can I ignore a face like this?

One of them has yet to moult completely into its winter coat and stood out rather like a sore thumb. Not that I am complaining. It does add a touch of colour to the all the shades of grey and brown that were present on the mudflats. 

The Terek Sandpipers, on the other hand, swapped positions with the Curlew Sandpipers. So this time, I had ample time to observe the Curlew Sandpiper up close and managed to obtain quite a few good shots. 

The majority of the larger waders kept to the far end of the mudflats - as usual. The only access to them is by boat or trekking through the mangroves and mud. But both are not an option today due to the time constraint. The Marsh Sandpipers graced the vicinity with their presence today and were the closest of the far flocks. 

An unfamiliar shape caught my immediate attention as it foraged among the smaller peeps. It turned out to be a Great Knot and there were two of them. 

The morning suddenly just got a whole lot better and there was more to come as the birds gradually made their way to my direction. Great Knots are not rare but I have had very little luck with photographing them. These two juveniles are certainly adamant of changing that today. And I, trying to keep as still as possible as I shot the knots, was in wader heaven. 

In the midst of shooting the knots, a larger wader suddenly alighted not too far from me. Now, who said wader watching is boring. Certainly not me! I find them to be fascinating. The only thing is that I occasionally get their identification wrong. But then again where is the fun if you got it easy all the time, right? Anyway, back to the encounter. This impressive Bar-tailed Godwit certainly made a great day better. Unfortunately, it did not take long for it to decide to join others of its kind at the far end away from human disturbances. But luckily, not before I took the shots. 

Now, the godwit may have ended its performance but the knots are far from done. They continued to forage quite close to shore and this is by far the best encounter I had ever experience with this species. They were quite active waders as they frequently probing the mud and shallow pools for prey. At times, I even had difficulty keeping up. 

The Purple Heron is not that common in this area - to me anyway. So when two of them flew leisurely overhead I was a little surprised to say the least. I cannot recall if I have ever seen any on mudflats before. However, it does occur along mangroves and we certainly have plenty of that here. 

Wednesday 17 September 2014

The waders have landed...(13/09/2014)

The wait is finally over. The waders are back. Naturally, I made a visit to the mudflats at Bagan Belat in Penang - my first for the season. But the rain clouds that were floating menacingly in the horizon threatened to cut short my day at the 'beach'.

The occasional drizzles that followed were bearable to both birds and birder. The poor lighting made it a challenge to obtain sharp images. Distance and the constant movement of my subjects only made things worse. To get the ball rolling was this Curlew Sandpiper in partial breeding plumage. Extra caution was taken whenever I came across those showing traces of dark colouring on their underparts just in case it was a Dunlin. Now, that would have been a great way to start off wader season...

The tide was a little too low for optimum viewing and most of the waders were feeding at the far end of the mudflats. But the faint aroma of the exposed mud, the sea breeze softly caressing your face, the tantalizing calls of waders filling the vicinity and most of all, the possibility of finding a rarity among the flocks amassed in front of you made me realize just how much I miss this. Anyway, an estimated 700 waders were way beyond the reach of my gear. This time only God knows what else these young Asian Dowitchers (Thanks to Dave for the identification correction. Now I know it has really been too long) had for company out there...

Thankfully, a few did forage near the coastline. These juvenile Lesser Sand-plovers came quite close indeed.

The long upturned bill of the Terek Sandpiper is perfectly adapted for probing into mud to locate and acquire food. 

Stints are the smallest wader on the mudflats. The Red-necked Stint is the commonest of them all and this individual in partial breeding plumage showed just how small it was although it was only standing next to a Lesser Sand-plover. 

The Common Redshanks are difficult to miss. The size and loud vocals make them one of the most conspicuous waders around. 

The sun did come out later in the morning and to help me celebrate this turn of event, a Terek Sandpiper foraged in front of where I have positioned myself.

There is a saying, make hay while the sun shines. In my case (and every other birder's), it is not the sun I have to worry about. It is the hay because my "hay" can (and will) fly off and disappear from sight in a blink of an eye. 

Here is the Red-necked Stint in a different light. 

Finally, the top performers of the day again - the Lesser Sand-plovers. A little dose of sunshine certainly brought its photos to life. Although no rarities were recorded, the commoners have done a pretty good job of commemorating the arrival of the migratory waders to our shores and made sure that I will be back for more in the months to come. 

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Sunshine after the rain (06/09/2014)

My trip to the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary in Perak with Choo Eng and Hor Kee could not have started off any worse. The pre-dawn sky truly opened up and the torrential rain and strong winds made visibility relatively poor on the highway. The weather started to ease when we reached our destination but it was still gloomy, cold and wet. So much so that even a waterbird like this Common Redshank did not want to get its feet wet and rested on an elevated perch.

Fortunately for us, the sun managed to find the strength to rise above the rain clouds and everything came to life like this Crested Serpent-eagle drying off on an exposed branch before the commencement of the morning hunt. 

This Common Iora is also feeling a little sluggish after the rain. It is not often that I come across one that is so stationery and I took advantage of its accommodating mood. 

This birding hotspot is basically a vast area of pristine mangrove forest and it provides sanctuary not only to the birds that occur along this mangrove belt but also the water birds along the coastline as well. 

My last visit was a couple of years back and the locality has changed substantially since then. Some parts of the mangroves are now being killed to make way for aquaculture. I guess their definition of a bird sanctuary bears a completely different meaning from mine.  

For now, the magic still lives on and a pair of confiding Sunda Woodpeckers was one of the main highlights of the trip. These miniature woodpeckers are only found in mangroves and coastal areas here in Peninsular Malaysia. They are not uncommon and are occasionally overlooked due to their small size and brownish plumage but not today. Today, they certainly wanted to be seen and photographed…

I find the population here in somewhat more confiding than elsewhere. I have had quite a number of good photographic opportunities in the past but today’s encounter was the best. 

The male bird differs slightly from his mate by having a small red patch below his crown. This red patch is often obscured from view and his active nature does not help on this matter at all. 

Another mangrove specialist that we encountered today was the Great Tit. This bird is widespread and common throughout most of Europe and Asia. Here in Malaysia, it has a limited range and is confined to the mangroves. Being adorable and a delight to observe, this species is highly sought after by many birders including yours truly.

The mangroves are also home to the Golden-bellied Gerygone. Its prolonged whistle is a very much a part of the sights and sounds of any mangrove forest. Due to its minute size, it is more often heard than seen. That is most unfortunate because it is a rather attractive little bird and these inquisitive individuals gladly helped in supporting my claim. 

Brahminy Kites are undoubtedly the commonest raptor at this locality. No less than half a dozen were seen during this trip alone. The population here is quite accustomed to human presence and at times, they will fly quite low and close.

We found the resident Ashy Drongos to be more skittish than usual. Throughout the morning, they were flying away at the first sign of our presence. I guess one must have felt a little embarrassed at being such awful hosts that it eventually posed for the visiting birders.

Honeybees are usually not dangerous unless they feel that their hive is threatened. Well, this is one big hive and that is I the reason why I am shooting this from a distance – a very safe distance.

The presence of a brownish flycatcher was another adrenalin-inducing moment of this trip. It was rather well-behaved and allowed reasonably close approach. We took quite a number of shots and after much scrutiny the flycatcher, with confirmation from Dave back home, was a Brown-streaked Flycatcher. 

Much overlooked due to its similarities with the commoner Asian Brown Flycatcher, this species occurs as both resident and migrant here in Peninsular Malaysia. Based on the locality and date, this individual is most probably a migrant. 

A pair of White-breasted Woodswallows ignited excitement again within our group or maybe just me. It used to occur only in the Selangor state but gradually, the population is spreading up north along the west coast. Photographing a black and white bird under the noon sun is a challenge. Anyway, I tried my best because I have had only a handful of encounters prior to this and there is no way I will turn down an opportunity like this. 

I always have a soft spot for water birds and if they are also large and rare, then true fascination and admiration kicks in. Three species of storks, which meet the criteria perfectly, occur within the borders of this bird sanctuary. We managed to see 2 species today. The first was a couple of Lesser Adjutants that appeared to be rather wary of human presence even when they are flying at a distance. 

This locality is probably the last stronghold in Malaysia for the globally endangered Milky Stork – our second stork species of the trip. A flock of 21 birds were seen circling above the Wildlife Department HQ and that is the highest number ever for me. Seeing this stork in such big numbers soaring gracefully was worth the trip alone. The majority of this flock is part of the re-introduction program that started back in 2007. A few could very well be second generation birds and that is a very good sign indeed. 

After a much anticipated seafood lunch, we decided to make a little detour before heading back to Penang. There is a Chinese Temple just outside the sanctuary where a Collared Scops- owl has been roosting for the past couple of years. The temple itself is decorated with the "mascot" of the sanctuary - the Milky Stork. However, to locate a small owl that is perfectly suited to blend into the environment among a dense bamboo clump is nothing short of a miracle. And, there were more than one clump. Despite the miss, it was still another rewarding excursion to one of the best birding areas in Peninsular Malaysia.