Monday, 26 May 2014

Sea, sun and skuas (24/05/2014)

You know the saying how time really flies? Well, it really does. I found it hard to believe that it has been two years since my last pelagic trip. Since it is now that time of the year when the sea-faring rarities are about, I found myself aboard the anchovy fishing boat and my companions for this time's maritime adventure were Choo Eng and Hor Kee. As usual, it is another dawn to dusk excursion as we follow the fishermen out to reap the rewards from the sea off Tanjung Dawai in Kedah. 

It was a bright and sunny day and when the boat casted the first net after a couple of hours’ "hunt", the birds came in from all directions and breakfast was served. The majority of the patrons today were Bridled Terns. Identification for this species is rather straightforward due to its brownish upperparts contrasting greatly with its whitish underparts.

The usually abundant Common Terns are greatly outnumbered this time of the year. However, some of them were sporting their beautiful breeding plumages and some were rather confiding, coming quite close to our boat. And I found it hard to resist taking a few shots.

Like angels floating around the boats, the Black-naped Terns are truly a sight for sore eyes. Graceful and beautiful, I do not think I will ever grow tired of this. 

The arrival of a lone juvenile Sooty Tern caused some excitement as it was a lifer for Hor Kee. In fact if it was not for our forays to sea in this fishing boat, most of the pelagic lifers would not have found their way into our life lists. 

The Short-tailed Shearwater certainly know how to make an entrance - skimming just above the water surface at great speeds. It is always good to see this pelagic species and today, three of them were present. 

I may be a novice when it comes to pelagic birding because after all, I have only done it a handful of times. But I am experienced enough to know that this incoming brownish seabird was something different. Something new. When it finally got close enough, we found ourselves staring at a Brown Noddy - a lifer for all of us!

It was a shame that the noddy did not stay around for long. I would have loved to be able to observe it with my binoculars but we only had time to photograph it a few times. That was its one and only appearance for the day. Anyway, just being able to record this rare off-shore resident alone was worth the trip. 

I have had the good fortune of recording all the 3 species of jaegers (or skuas as some prefer to call them. Honestly, I think both names are quite accepted and it really depends on which part of the world you come from) that occur in our waters in the past. The presence of two birds floating on the water still got my adrenalin pumping. I have yet to obtain any really good images of jaegers but these Parasitic Jaegers did not answer my prayers and flew off as our got within optimum shooting distance. 

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Givin' in to temptation...(17/05/2014)

I was back at the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in Penang because for the time being, this is the place to be. And I am not the only one feeling this way as the car park was a little crowded even at the break of dawn. I then decided to make my way to the other side of the reserve and left the others at the car park area which is by the way, one of the main birding spots for this locality. I do not think of myself as an anti-social but birding alongside groups of total strangers is not exactly my cup of tea.

There were quite a number of egrets still present in the vicinity. They are either over-wintering birds or have started to breed somewhere in Penang state as well. This is a relatively big group of Great Egrets taking a breather overlooking the commercial fish ponds.

It was certainly a sight to behold when the Asian Openbills came back to rest in the hundreds from their morning fiesta at the adjacent paddy fields. I counted at least 350 birds this time. 

An inquisitive male Ashy Tailorbird stopped me at my tracks when he suddenly alighted on some overhanging branches right in front of me at eye level. I took any many shots as I could before he dived back into the undergrowth. 

The Crested Serpent-eagle is the largest raptor that is regularly seen here. Although it may not be as fierce as some of the other eagles in Malaysia, it still strikes an imposing figure.

While trying my best to capture some images of a foraging White-chested Babbler, in which I failed miserably, this skink crept into full view and just enjoyed its spot in the sun. Anyway, it made my cursing ceased and I took a moment to soak in the beauty of this rather under-appreciated reptile. 

The mischievous Long-tailed Macaques are regulars to this swamp forest. Well, as long as they do not create too much of a nuisance, we get along just fine. Save it, bud. We both know that's only for show.

When you hear a pitta, the adrenalin in you body starts pumping. When you hear more than one calling simultaneously, then you start developing breathing difficulties and if you do not take immediate action, you may even lose consciousness. So, when I heard the diagnostic "too-few, too-few" calls from at least two Blue-winged Pittas from the direction of the car park, I immediately made a mad dash to the vicinity before I suffer the consequences. True enough, at least two pittas were present and I will never pass up an opportunity to observe and photograph pittas - even if it means birding along side strangers. 

Most of the star birds that occur in this locality, including this pitta, will get to live the good life. Those with an eye for detail will comprehend what I am trying to say here from the images below. Anyway, these are my best of the species to date and it would have been a near-impossible achievement under any other circumstances.   

The two of them does not appear to be a breeding pair as they were not too friendly towards each other. The Blue-winged Pitta is vocal even when on passage and the persistent calls do not necessary mean that they are here to stay. Now, if these Blue-winged Pittas start to breed at this locality, what will the impact be on the small population of Mangrove Pittas that reside here? I have not seen or heard the Mangrove Pitta for quite a long while now and I cannot be sure if it has got anything to do with the presence of these Blue-winged Pittas. 

A few other species are also attracted to the area and took centre stage in between the performances by the pittas. A lone Abbott's Babbler found it hard to resist the temptations on a couple of occasions. Being a skulker by nature, it did not stay out in the open for long. I guess it will take some time for it to get accustomed to this new lifestyle. 

This Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, which was present in the vicinity, was not given its due admiration from my other compatriots. But I have learned never to take things for granted. What that is common today may not be so in the near future. Anyhow, I will always have a soft spot for the species. It was one of the first birds that converted me to a life of birding at a tender age. How could a young boy not be intrigued by those racket tails and I still am – intrigued that is.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Change is the only constant in life (10/05/2014)

It has been more than a year since my last visit to the Bintang Hijau Forest Reserve along the Kupang-Grik Highway in northern Perak. This must be one of the most remote and wildest locations in the list of birding spots that I do my Saturday birding. Access to the forest is via the network of both active and inactive logging trails. That means you will not find any picnickers or day-trippers here. And inevitably, it is one of the best localities for forest birding.

So, you can imagine my dismay when I discovered that parts of this forest reserve (reserved for logging that is) are being converted into rubber plantations. And I thought the scheduled logging (sections of the reserve will be logged and then allowed to recover as other sections are logged) activities was bad. This is even worse. Rubber trees will be the only trees left in these areas from now on. Welcome to my world. 

Anyway, change has always been a part of life. May it be in work, relationships and yes, birding. You either deal with it or let it put you down. So, we dealt with it and made the best of whatever that is left - which is still quite a vast area of pristine tropical rainforest.

I have always lamented on the difficulty of obtaining great shots of forest birds and today, is certainly one of those days. Do not get me wrong. I love forest birding also and we had a great trip today. We recorded about 70 species in 6 hours. It is just that I wish I was able to obtain more images to show at the end of the day. I guess that is why this post is rather wordy - to make up for the lack of images.

The Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike is an adorable and striking little bird that tends to be quite restless when foraging. Coupled with the fact that the lighting was not on my side, this was the best I could conjure.

A male Orange-backed Woodpecker on an exposed trunk and in good light...but way up in the canopy and well beyond the comfort zone of my gear. 

The same goes for this Grey-bellied Bulbul...

Choo Eng lifted my spirit when he found a male Rufous-collared Kingfisher just next to the logging trail. This forest kingfisher is not that uncommon but it is more often heard than seen. Its mournful, persistent call gets even the most experienced birder excited. Relatively confiding, he performed well enough given the habitat he was in.

Here is the habitat. All you need to do now is to trace the call back to the source; find an angle that is not blocked to shoot the subject; make sure you do not accidentally step on a snake or any deadly creature that may be lurking while you are at it; and all this time try to be as silent and inconspicuous as possible so as not to spook the subject to disappear into the vegetation and never to be seen again for the rest of your life. Maybe I should take up an easier hobby like skydiving. 

We also recorded a few raptors today including this Oriental Honey-buzzard circling above the forest. It does appear to be the migratory subspecies and by right should have taken the spring passage back north.

The resident race of the Striated Swallow is the best looker among all swallows and martins that occur in Malaysia. Here are a few of them taking a breather at the top of a sparsely crowned tree. Unfortunately, this stunning species does not occur in my home state of Penang and I have not really had any good photo opportunities with it. 

Another noteworthy find for this trip was the tracks of a Malayan Tapir. This unique but endangered mammal is active at night like most large mammals found here in Malaysia. The tracks were quite recent and the animal had most probably crossed this trail the night before. 

Since we are on the subject of Tapirs, we saw a new set of traffic signs depicting tapir crossing on the way back. This is new to me because the usual signs that we see on Malaysian highways are deer and elephant crossings. But this is a good thing. The forest here is home to the tapir long before we humans built a highway right across it. A little respect and caution when you drive here at night is not too much to ask I reckon.