Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Pearl has not lost all its glitter after all (23/12/2014)

The constant rain brought more woes and kept me away from the field for most of the morning on my rest day. Afternoon saw the rain ease a little and the call of the wild was a little too strong to resist. However, I dread the thought of crossing the Penang Bridge to get to my usual birding spots as the rain would have created traffic congestion. I have been shunning birding localities on the island because of late, birding here is simply incomparable with the mainland side. So, today is a good day to see what the Pearl of the Orient still has to offer to a frustrated birder. I headed towards the mangroves and scrublands of Sungai Burung in the southwestern part of the island - a local patch that I have not visited for a long time.

The visit started off slow initially and I really had no idea that it would end up as one of the best birding trips on the island that I have ever experienced. I even had the time to take a few shots of a foraging Scaly-breasted Munia. 

On the school field next to the access, a trio of female Pied Trillers was busy picking up insects that were flushed out by the downpour. It must be a girls-day-out because no males were seen at all. 

With the rain trickling down to a stop, the locality gradually came more alive and the birding got better. This Greater Coucal finally got a chance to dry itself and did not give much thought to my approaching vehicle. A shot of a Greater Coucal on exposed perch does not happen very often and I had a feeling then that maybe the pearl has not lost all its shine yet...

A Brahminy Kite also enjoying the change of weather from its lofty perch...

The calls of the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters broke through the silence of this gloomy afternoon when I passed the paddy planting areas of this district. It did take much effort in locating one as they love exposed perches on which to launch their graceful aerial pursuits of their insect prey. 

When I reached the section where the access road runs parallel to the mangroves, the afternoon's birding intensified. A migratory Large Hawk-cuckoo put my field craft and photography skills to the test. In the end, I had to concede defeat to the cuckoo and no photographs were obtained. However, this handsome male Tiger Shrike was more than willing to pose for my camera. He was so tame that no skills were required this time. I just needed to remember how to press the shutter. 

The resident pair of Crested Serpent-eagles was seen and heard throughout my time here. Whatever disappointments I had with the Large Hawk-cuckoo evaporated when one of the eagles provided another close-up photo session. Majestic still comes to mind even though this is one of the commonest eagles in Malaysia. 

When I was about to come to the area where I usually turn back, a few pigeons resting on a sparse tree caught my attention. Upon further scrutiny, they turned to be Thick-billed Green-pigeons. A few pairs were snuggled up quite affectionately. My guess is the cold and gloomy weather must really be getting to them. 

Just a short distance from the loving couples, a fruiting tree was in season and I found myself in the midst of a lot of pigeons - a whole lot of them I might add. Much to my delight, I found more Thick-billed Green-pigeons. The males are striking birds and I wasted no time in shooting them as I do not have any good photographic opportunities with this species before. 

The females lack the rich chocolate on the wings and inevitably, lose out to the more colourful males in terms of time in the limelight. I'm only human after all....

I have recorded three species of green-pigeons so far in Penang Island and this fruiting feast naturally attracted the commonest of them all, the Pink-necked Pigeons. The males are just as attractive as the male Thick-billed Green-pigeons but I found the former to be slightly more aggressive and will often chased away the latter if they get too close to each other. I did look out for the third species, which is the Little Green-pigeon but to no avail. In fact, I cannot recall the last time I saw this species in the field. 

The female Pink-necked Green-pigeon is even duller-coloured than her Thick-billed Green-pigeon counterpart. 

The fruiting tree was overhanging the access road and because it was a narrow road, my stationery vehicle was certainly blocking the way. I had to shift to and fro a couple of times to let other vehicles past and on one of those occasions, I noticed a small raptor on a dead tree over the mangroves. I immediately took a few shots but the raptor was on to me the moment I aimed the camera at it and gave me suspicious stares. Most sparrowhawk-like raptors that I have come across in the field are extremely shy and wary. This one is no different. It dived into the mangroves after a few clicks of the shutter and was never seen again. I had a quick look at its images and did not think much of it as I was too eager to get back to the fruiting tree.

It was only when I got home that I had a long good look at this raptor. After doing some homework, I realized it might not be the usual Japanese Sparrowhawk. In fact, the absence of tail bars on the upper tail strongly suggests the rarely seen Shikra and a would-be lifer for me.  These past few months I let my enthusiasm get the better of me when I seek confirmation for a few of my possible rare raptor sightings. So this time, I sent the images to Chaiyan accompanied by a rather conservative message but the reply that came back from him was anything but conservative. Finally, I got my first Shikra! Christmas certainly came early this year and my dormant life list erupted back to life.  The pale grey upperwings and unmarked central most uppertail feathers were the distinguishing factors. Thanks to Chaiyan, I now know that this is an adult female of the dussumieri race and this girl came all the way from the Himalayas. She is also possibly the first perched Shirka to be photographed in Peninsula Malaysia. That's a good girl. Merry Christmas!

Now back to the fruiting tree. I paid more attention to the Thick-billed Green-pigeon because they are the scarcer of the two pigeons. These pigeons are far from graceful when they gorged on the fruits and the fruits are just about bite-size for them and are swallowed whole at a rapid pace. 

To wrap things up from this unexpectedly remarkable trip are a few more images of the Thick-billed Green-pigeons in more presentable poses. I embarked on this trip with very low expectations but at the end of the day, I was given a very good reminder by the birds - that in birding you can never know what to expect and something amazing could be waiting for you when you least expect it.


JRandSue said...

Beautiful images,superb photography.
Happy Christmas have a wonderful 2015.

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thank you, John and Merry Christmas.

Phil Slade said...

That post just shows that the best can often happen just when we least expect it. A great set of sightings and pictures Choy. Although many pigeons can be rather unremarkable those Thick-billed Green-pigeons have tremendous colours -super pictures of it. The Large Hawk-cuckoo may be common but it is very photogenic, as is the Tiger Shrike. Well done with the Shikra as I can imagine how difficult they are to see sat still for more than a second or two.

Happy Holiday and New Year to you.

john said...

I have only been following your blog for a few weeks but I am very impressed with your photographic skills.
I have seen a number of Shikras in Thailand, where they seem to be common. Could I have been mis-identifying them? Great photos.

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thanks, Phil and John for your comments. I truly appreciate them.

John, Shikras are not that uncommon in Thailand. It is only rare (or overlooked) here in Malaysia.

John Holmes said...

Congratulations on your Christmas Shikra - and the Green Pigeon shots are great, too. Serpent Eagle is widespread here in HK, but it is hard to nail good shots of usually.

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thanks, John. Serpent Eagles are probably one of the most confiding of our eagles here.