Wednesday 29 October 2014

Northwest Peninsula Road Trip - Part 2 (22-23/10/2014)

The second leg of my road trip brought me to the vast open grassland of Chuping in Perlis. This unique habitat is a double-edged sword. It has more than enough space to accommodate both the residents and the influx of passage migrants and winter visitors but with that much space to go round, a rarity could be taking refuge somewhere undetected for the entire duration of one's visit and in my case, one and a half days. 

I stayed at a basic homestay-cum-motel in the bustling town of Changlun which is a 15-minute drive to the birding site. The motel was clean and it provided a place for me to sleep and shower. That is all I ever need in an accommodation during a birding trip. It even has free Wi-Fi and that was an unexpected luxury.

It was the peak of the migratory season and I was at 'the place' to be for rare migrants. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Mother Nature had other plans. It rained in the late afternoon on both the days I was there. And as far as rare migrants go, I had a brief encounter with two Red-throated Pipits that did not even hang around long enough for me to take a single shot. That was it. But this is what birding is all about. You have your good days and you have your bad days.

Fortunately, all was not lost as I did not go home empty handed in the end. Some of the commoner species did their best to resuscitate the trip and the Common Stonechat was certainly one of them. This male performed exceptionally well and I obtained the best images of this species to date. 

The females, on the other hand, were shy and difficult to approach - even by car. The only way to bird at this locality is from a car as there is a lot of area to cover. Birds tend to be more tolerant to an approaching vehicle than a human but I guess someone forgot to tell those girls that. 

The Asian Pied Starling has been removed from our official checklist as the authorities have come to the conclusion that all birds found within the borders of Peninsula Malaysia originated from introduced birds. A pair of these striking birds was foraging among the grass just outside the sugar factory. They did not seem to mind the drizzle and neither did I. Well, maybe I was just too preoccupied with obtaining their images. 

I can still remember back in the early '90s when I came across a few odd-looking birds at a vegetable farm on the way back from school. I quickly rush home, grabbed my bins and notebook and went back to the locality, determined to solve the mystery birds' identification. Eventually, I managed to identify my very first Asian Pied Starling. It got a lot more interesting when Ben King's A Fieldguide to the Birds of Southeast Asia (that was the only fieldguide available at that time) stated that this species does not occur in Malaysia. However a quick check with my mentor, Kanda, revealed that these are introduced birds and I fell back to Earth with a thump. Now, almost three decades later, this starling still has yet to obtain its Malaysian citizenship. 

The Little Cormorants were at the same spot from my last visit and from what I have heard you are almost guaranteed to see them here. I guess they are truly enjoying the Malaysian hospitality. This time a total of seven birds were present at the pond and its surroundings but again, none were close enough for any good images. 

While contemplating on what I have to do to get a decent shot of these cormorants, a huge silhouette flew almost overhead and it turned out to be a Purple Heron. 

The pond also houses a healthy population of Little Grebes. My obsession with the much rarer cormorants made me feel kind of guilty for neglecting these adorable little waterfowls. Sorry, bud. You know I still love you, right?

This is my first record of Lesser Whistling Ducks here at Chuping. Nothing unusual about this record as this duck has been recorded here before. But they did a real fine job of eluding me until now. 

The harriers were present at the grassland as expected but I did not manage to obtain any really good shots. Here is a subadult male Pied Harrier seen resting on a distant tree sapling. According to Chaiyan, Pied Harriers are the first to moult into full adult plumage and a plumage stage like this one is not often encountered here in their Malaysian wintering ground. 

Another resting harrier but this is a male Eastern Marsh Harrier. He seemed to prefer a more down-to-earth choice of resting location. 

A little brown job flitting about one of the access trails got me all excited initially. To my dismay, it turned out to be only an Asian Brown Flycatcher that did not feel like it wanted to behave like one today. 

Talking about little brown jobs, here is a Zitting Cisticola just chilling - on a single strand of grass. And it made it look so comfortable. 

In the absence of rarities, I guess even the commonest species became good photography subjects like this resting Cattle Egret.

Huge numbers of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters of up to 100 birds were recorded on this trip. The figure undoubtedly includes those on passage as well. Unlike the ones back in Penang, they are not so tolerant to human presence and photographic opportunities were far and few. 

A juvenile Barn Swallow spending his first winter here in Chuping. Welcome to Malaysia...

I headed back home to Penang earlier than expected because it started to pour at the grassland in the late afternoon again. Besides, there was nothing much about anyway. I thought of making a detour to a birding site along the way but the weather did not permitted that until I crossed the state border of Penang. The closest site to my position when the rain finally stopped was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Despite the cold and gloomy conditions, the detour was a good decision because I had this handsome male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher for company. The low light was testing my gear's capabilities to the max. Even though a lot of images did not turn out well, the confiding nature of the flycatcher made it a memorable encounter.

The only other bird that I managed to shoot was this Abbott's Babbler. More often heard than seen, I have been trying in vain to obtain better images of this species for quite a while now. And today, it was certainly very obliging. 

I could not think of a better way to end my road trip than to spend the last few hours of daylight with a couple of exceptionally friendly feathered friends. It was certainly one of the highlights of my trip. And the irony of it all is that they were not even rare species and it took place right in one of my local patches.

Monday 27 October 2014

Northwest Peninsula Road Trip - Part 1 (22/10/2014)

It has been more than a year since my last overnight birding trip. When I finally managed to find a couple of days to go off birding, a feeling that I have not felt for a long time ran through my veins again as I geared up for my road trip. The first leg of the trip brought me to the lush rainforest of Bukit Wang in Kedah. Once upon a time, this was the best place for Bat Hawks and rarities like the Wallace's Hawk-eagle, Dusky Eagle-owl and Malaysian Honeyguide. Unfortunately, most things do not have a happily ever after in this world that we live in and that statement is now a thing of the past. But I am hoping there is still some magic left to keep a visiting birder happy for the morning. 

A troop of Pig-tailed Macaques were making their way through the recreational area at the break of dawn. My sudden intrusion did not go down well with the alpha male and the big fella decided to stand guard while the rest of the troop crossed the access trail in front of me and into the cover of the forest. He was an impressive and intimidating specimen to say the least. 

The forest was quiet for the first hour or so. As I was making my way along the access trail, I had to stop at one point to answer to the call of nature. When I was about done a male Black-And-Yellow Broadbill suddenly alighted on a low perch in front of me and unlike yours truly, he seemed pretty calm about it. What’s up, bro?

Then, the dilemma came. I wanted to shift my position slightly for an unobstructed angle to shoot the bird but by doing so, I risk scaring him away. Fortune favours the bold and I shifted as 'gently' as I could. Much to my delight, he did not object to my intention. So, I happily took a few more shots before he flew back up into the canopy. Life was beautiful again. 

I did notice a number of fruiting trees and they are always a good sign. A pair of Greater Green Leafbirds soon came into view from one such tree. Not that uncommon but this species tends to keep to the canopy levels. This fruiting tree was relatively small compared to some of the other majestic forest trees and this allowed me to capture a few decent shots of this foraging pair. 

There were a few Brown Shrikes present today and are more likely to be on passage than wintering here as the forest is not their preferred habitat. This juvenile was one of them. 

Remember I mentioned that fruiting trees are always a good sign? A small fruiting plant provided the highlight for the trip in the form of a flock of Blue-winged Leafbirds. This is probably the only species of leafbird that I have ever seen foraging close to the ground on more than one occasion. This time the eye-level angle provided great photographic opportunities. The only setback was the plant was rather dense and most of the time, the birds were blocked by at least one twig. The flock was so preoccupied with the feast at hand, they simply ignored my presence. And that was fine with me. The male, as usual, is the more vibrantly coloured one. 

The females sport a less stunning plumage. 

A commotion in the gloomy lower storey of the forest turned out to be a recently fledged Purple-naped Sunbird waiting to be fed. The mother bird was an efficient hunter and came back with food in very short intervals. 

To wrap things up for the visit is this scarce mammal species that is locally common at the locality - the Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel. It may be regularly seen but good shots are hard to come by and it is rather wary of human presence. A pair was helping themselves on a fruiting tree and the only time I managed to obtain a clear shot was when one of them was scampering away from me.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Close, but no cigar...(18/10/2014)

Birding at a new location is always an exciting affair and the latest one to enter my now relatively stagnant list of birding spots is the Sungkop Forest Reserve. Located just next to the Bedong Raptor Watch Site, it was discovered by Choo Eng and Kanda while they were conducting this season's count. Together with Choo Eng and Hor Kee, we decided to explore more of this forest reserve before we conducted our raptor count on this warm and cloudy Saturday morning. It is only accessible by foot or 4-wheel vehicle, in which we did a little bit of both, through the network of logging trails. 

Our exploration came to a halt when we came across the loud bell-like calls of the Black Magpies filling the vicinity. Although they are large and vocal, it took a while before they finally revealed themselves as they foraged among the distant canopy level of the forest. After an insane amount of pleading and persuasion, one of them finally glided across the valley towards us and alighted on one of the trees along the edge of the logging trail. 

We only had a couple of hours to spare here before it got hot enough for the raptors to start migrating pass. But Sungkop had one last welcoming gift before we parted for the raptor count - Great Slaty Woodpeckers. It is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world and usually occurs in flocks. This time we are most fortunate to have a flock of five in our midst. 

The ruckus that usually accompanies any foraging flock makes the Black Magpies sound like church mice. This flock was not so much foraging but displaying. I really struggled to obtain at least a few images that were sharp and unobstructed. The unforgiving shooting conditions and the constant movement of the woodpeckers are not exactly helping the situation. 

It was a good one at the raptor watch site as well in terms of numbers and species. Unfortunately, the raptors were passing through very high up and well beyond the comfort zone of my photography gear. Here is a big flock of Chinese Goshawks circling in the sky above. This species made up the majority of the raptors passing through today.

The highlight of the count this time was a pale morph Booted Eagle - the first for the season. This species used to a rare migrant but in recent years, sightings of this small eagle have increased. It was fortunate that in this morph, the eagle can be easily identified. At that distance, we will be in a whole lot of trouble if it was a rufous or dark morph individual. 

An exceptionally pale harrier riding the hot air thermals at the far distance got our undivided attention. The harrier is front of us had all the field markings of a male Hen Harrier - that is until we seek confirmation from Dave and Chaiyan (thank you, guys!) when we got home. The pale areas at the base of the black primaries were all that stood in the way between us and our would-be lifer. It turned out to be a rather pale male Eastern March Harrier. Close, but no cigar...

And to wrap things up for this trip, a lone male Oriental Honey-buzzard that we came across first thing in the morning on the way to the raptor watch site. He was probably waiting for the sun to make the conditions optimum for him to carry on with his amazing journey down south to his wintering ground.

Here are the results of our three and a half hour raptor count:
1) Oriental Honey-buzzard - 222
2) Black Kite - 2
3) Rufous-bellied Eagle - 1
4) Booted Eagle - 1
5) Eastern Marsh Harrier - 3
6) Chinese Goshawk - 345
7) Japanese Sparrowhawk - 44