Sunday, 30 November 2014

Well, what do you know...(29/11/2014)

When I was in high school, I started to develop my passion for birds and birding. At that time, birding was something most folks in Malaysia are not familiar with. I was the only one among my peers that does this insane activity of going to God forsaken places to record and observe birds in their natural habitat. I suppose this is an universal thing but whenever I tell someone I am into birding, a smirk or even laughter is the usual reaction. And of course, there is always the typical 'Oh really - what kind of a bird?' response with the sly smile. Nowadays more Malaysians are aware of the existence of birders and sometimes, I don't even get the bewildered stares when I stalk around a bush with my gear in semi-military attire. Through social media, I have come to know that a few of my former schoolmates are now also into birding. Well, what do you know - I'm not alone after all.Victor, a schoolmate that I have not seen for more than 20 years, was back in town for a couple of days and I took him to experience a little taste of birding around Penang as he now resides in Kuala Lumpur. 

The first location we visited was the recreational forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah. It was a reasonably good visit as we came across no less than 3 separate birdwaves. I did not have much luck shooting during the waves but this rather obliging Eastern Crown Warbler was the only exception. Leaf-warblers are a difficult group when it comes to identification and photography. But the yellow vent and dark crown should be sufficient in saving me the embarrassment of another misidentification - I hope. 


A pair of Scarlet-rumped Trogons was also out and about on this beautiful morning. Unfortunately, I have only the duller female to show in the end. 

As we were making our way out of the reserve, the striking colours of a male Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker momentarily postponed our journey to the paddy fields of Kubang Semang in Penang.  

The first bird to catch our attention at the paddy fields was a lone raptor circling high up on the sky. Buzzard was the first thing that came to mind. Looking through my images after the raptor was gone triggered alarm bells in my head as the plumage was similar to that of a juvenile Bonelli's Eagle - a species yet to be recorded in Malaysia. A quick check there and then with Chaiyan and Hor Kee (the wonders of modern technology) put me back to my place. It was only a juvenile Oriental Honey-buzzard sporting a plumage variance that closely resembled a juvenile Bonelli's Eagle. So much for saving myself from the embarrassment of another misidentification! Anyway, I am truly grateful of having birding buddies both locally and abroad that are willing to put up with me when my enthusiasm gets the better of me. Thank you, guys. You know who you are.

The paddy fields provided a couple of hours of rewarding car-birding. The Long-toed Stints were still in high numbers and some of them came rather close to my stationery vehicle this time. 

The diagnostic call of the migratory Yellow Wagtails filled the vicinity and the newly planted fields are certainly their preferred habitat. Rarely have I seen a wagtail in such a vertical posture. Ten-hut!

Grey-headed Lapwings are commoner in northern Peninsula Malaysia and for Victor, this migratory wader was one of his target birds for this trip up north. A small flock resting among the young paddy stalks was a little more tolerant than usual towards human presence and provided a fitting end to this short but rewarding birding excursion. 

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Guess who's back in town...(22/11/2014)

When a Glossy Ibis was reported at the paddy fields of Kubang Semang in Penang, it did not take long for me to find myself there scanning the very fields for this vagrant. It is still one of my dream birds despite the fact that I have seen it once before in Thailand many years back. But as always, my Peninsula Malaysia life list is the one I hold closest to my heart and no effort was spared in trying to obtain this lifer. Unfortunately just like the Black-headed Ibis a couple of years back, they showed themselves on only one occasion to a privileged few and the rest of us were left to use our imagination. This time, I was reduced to shooting the closest thing present that remotely resembled a Glossy Ibis - a juvenile Striated Heron. 

The recently planted fields at the vicinity attracted a lot of waders but nothing out of the ordinary. A small flock of Ruffs did not stay long enough for me to capture their images. Even at a distance, they were wary of my approaching vehicle. The Little Ringed Plovers, on the other hand, did not even give me a second look and when about their business. 

There was a number of Long-toed Stints foraging about as well. That is until a White-throated Kingfisher suddenly alighted on the muddy earth out of nowhere. I do not think it was after the stints but its action sent them flying into the horizon. 

At this time of the year, the number of egrets foraging along the paddy fields is at its highest. Of the four species that occur here, the Intermediate Egret is the least abundant. I really like how this image turned it in the end. The overcast skies helped tremendously on the wholly white plumage. The young paddy stalks provided the ideal background and the gaping mouth of the egret completed the photo. 

The migratory Brown Shrikes are also back in full force but unlike the egrets, they are quite shy. Open perches are their favourites from which they terrorize anything they consider as food...or competition. 

While searching for the ibis, I came across a female Common Kingfisher a few times along a particular stretch of a ditch and yes, I went round in circles. Desperate times call for desperate measures. I finally gave her the admiration she deserves just before I left the locality to search for another rarity.

Another exciting report that came in earlier this week was Choo Eng's Indian Roller at Juru. Although not quite in the class as the Glossy Ibis but it has been 4 long years since my last record here in my home state. Seeing that I have not been to that area this season, its presence was a good enough reason for a visit. I went straight to its favourite hang-out when it was here the last time but the roller was no where to be seen. Rollers have a tendency to perch conspicuously and the possibility of a double whammy was starting to take shape. A Coppersmith Barbet on a perch too high for any good images did very little to lift my spirits. 

The Crested Mynas are doing well here. In fact, this is the only place in mainland Penang that you can regularly see them. Apparently something is holding back the population here on the mainland unlike on the island where they have established themselves to be one, if not, the most dominating species of all the mynas. 

There are certain things in life that you just cannot change no matter what you do. You will make things a lot easier on yourself once you accept them as they are. For example, all Black-capped Kingfishers images are to be taken as 'habitat' shots and nothing else...

A flock of pigeons were waiting out the rain on a tall dead tree. I was delighted that they were Thick-billed Green-pigeons and did my best to obtain some images despite the weather and lighting conditions. Not as common as the Pink-necked Green-pigeon, their confiding nature and beauty momentarily took my mind off the roller. 

As I reluctantly made my way out, I caught a flash of purple flying across the main road and suddenly, I don't feel the rain seeping through my slightly winded-down car window anymore. My ray of sunshine is here. The Indian Roller was on the hunt and it could not have timed it any better to finally reveal itself. Welcome back, bud…

When it gradually settled down on an electrical cable overlooking the buffalo pasture, I drove my car as close as possible and just enjoyed the moment. I did not risk driving onto the soft ground of the pasture and the roller appeared to be slightly apprehensive of my presence. So, trying to stalk it on foot was not an option. Despite all the obstacles, I am pretty happy with how my shots turned out in the end. 

The last locality for today's birding was the marshlands at Batu Kawan. Like many other birding localities, this place is a far cry from its former glory days. And to make matters worse, this locality is now a hotspot for developers as they capitalize on the recently open second Penang Bridge. Residential and commercial projects are springing up like mushrooms and the local wildlife, bearing the grunt. A flock of Red-wattled Lapwing provided the only images from the visit. Then the storm came and washed away any intentions of prolonging my stay here. 

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Third time's a charm? (15/11/2014)

Hor Kee came back from Chuping last Sunday with some exciting results and the sighting of the Racket-tailed Treepie was the one that really caught my eye. It has been a decade since my one and only sighting of this enigmatic but scarce northern species. And I have been hunting for a chance to obtain its image ever since. This was my third visit to Chuping this season and I was really hoping for something extraordinary this time. In the end, I dipped out on any would-be lifers and treepies as well but even so, Chuping still provided a memorable trip. I did not only have Choo Eng as my companion this time but Hor Kee as well.

I mentioned in one of my previous posts that the Asian Pied Starling has been officially removed from the Malaysian checklist and they performed well during that visit. Much to my delight, the starlings put on another splendid performance for the visiting birders again. Since this is one of the few places where it is regularly seen, I took as many images as they were willing to provide. 

The status of the Red Collared Dove is also shrouded with uncertainty. Initially, the birds that occur in the Peninsula Malaysia were either escapees or introduced birds. Recently, there is a strong indication that the birds that occur in the northern region of Peninsula Malaysia are natural colonizers from the north. Like the starlings, Chuping is one of the few strongholds for these beautiful doves. Here, they congregate in exceptionally high numbers and for the record we counted no less than 300 of them today.

There are a few other high-numbering sightings as well this trip. The migratory Black Drongo is common in suitable open country habitats throughout Peninsula Malaysia but today in Chuping, it is second only to the doves with an impressive figure of more than 100 individuals. With so many present, you would have thought I would be able to muster a better image than this one. However, the Black Drongo is usually a skittish bird despite occurring in open areas and they are not one that finds strength in numbers.

The Black-winged Kite is a petite raptor also found in open country and scrubland habitats. What it lacks in size and tenacity, it makes up in grace and beauty. A hovering bird is quite a sight and my poor attempt at capturing the moment does it no justice. It is normally found singly or in pairs. However when it comes to Chuping, you can throw the rule book out the window. Along a single electrical cable between two pylons, we counted 17 individuals. 

We also bumped into KC and Swee Yian from the MNS Perak Branch Bird Group shortly after our arrival at the locality. It was great to meet up with them again after such a long time.

A circling Oriental Honey-buzzard caught our full attention. This species with its highly varied plumage can sometimes be mistaken for something else and vice versa. We just wanted to be sure since we are at the hottest spot in Peninsula Malaysia in terms of rare migrants (and temperature).

Raptors ruled the day at Chuping as we stumbled onto the path of migrating Black Bazas. These are probably the last few to pass through as the raptor migration period was already tailing off. 

Among the Bazas, there was also a lone Grey-faced Buzzard and it was my first of the season. The distance prevented me from obtaining better images of this striking species. I guess there's always next time...

The grasslands here play host to wintering harriers every season and it is one of the best places to observe these graceful raptors. The Eastern Marsh Harriers and Pied Harriers are the two species found here so far. Today, the smaller Pied Harrier outperformed its larger cousin. I managed to obtain images of all three of its normal plumage variances. To start things off is this strikingly-marked male quartering his domain in search of breakfast. 

A confiding female did her hunting close to our stationery vehicle for a prolonged period of time. 

The juvenile is substantially different from the adults. Its overall dark plumage also makes it quite recognizable which is something you do not get to enjoy in most juvenile raptors. 

Here is a male Eastern Marsh Harrier and not a female Pied Harrier as I had initially put it down as (thanks, Dave!).

Chuping is also a regular wintering ground for another exceptional raptor. Rare throughout the rest of the Peninsula, the Common Kestrel is undoubtedly one of the star birds of this birding hotspot. Today's encounter was the best so far because we managed to observe a female bird preying upon what looked like an insect. And I managed to obtain the best image of this falcon to date. 

We came across a total of 3 individuals throughout the trip. Unfortunately, this female perched on a dead tree was slightly blocked and our attempt to re-position our vehicle saw our subject gliding away towards the far horizon. 

A small little mammal foraging along the access trail turned out to be a mongoose. Typical of the species, no second chance was given for improvement shots as it scrambled back into cover once it sensed our presence.

My third visit to the Little Cormorants’ pond finally yielded a reasonably close shot. This lone bird was slightly more confiding than usual as it rested among the reeds. So, I guess third time's a charm after all. 

The pond provided another pleasant surprise in the form of a female Pygmy Cotton Goose. This species, together with the Lesser Whistling Duck, are the only resident ducks in the Peninsula. However, the goose is a rarer bird and I have only recorded it on only a few other occasions elsewhere. It was personal new record for this site and a fitting end to another great trip to the great grasslands of Chuping.

As we were on the road heading back to Penang, Hor Kee received a text message from KC. They just had a family of 3 Racket-tailed Treepies at the exact location where we were searching for them just before we decided to call it a day. I guess if it is not meant to be, it is not meant to be...