Wednesday 25 February 2015

A good start to the Year of the Goat (21/02/2015)

This year my Chinese New Year celebrations are a little more extensive than usual. Lucky for me I still had a free morning for birding but with the time constraint, I could not afford to travel far and it was down to my usual haunts again. Seeing that Dave had a very exciting excursion at Sungai Sedim in Kedah recently (check out his blog posting here), I decided to try my luck there as well. Who knows, maybe the Year of the Goat will bring some good fortune to this Penang birder. It seemed quite appropriate that the first bird to catch my attention during this Chinese New Year excursion was a male Chinese Blue Flycatcher. It is an uncommon migrant to forested areas in Peninsula Malaysia and a great way to get things rolling. However, his preference for the gloomy lower levels of the forest made photography difficult.

The Ang Pow (red packet) I received from Sungai Sedim this year was when I came across a fruiting tree teeming with birds. Bulbuls formed the majority of the patrons and curiously the usually common Black-headed Bulbuls were no where to be seen this time. The equally common Red-eyed Bulbuls, on the other hand, did not even bother to conceal themselves at all in my presence.

The Cream-vented Bulbul is another commonly recorded species here and its pale iris is what usually distinguishes it from the Red-eyed Bulbul.

Gradually, the rest of the birds accepted me being there and returned to take advantage of this heaven-sent food supply. Looks like I am not the only gaining a few extra pounds during this festive season. The usually elegant-looking Ashy Bulbul may not be anymore by the time they are done judging from the way they were gorging on the fruits.

Sungai Sedim is one of the few strongholds of the uncommon Finsch's Bulbul and being extremely vocal, their loud nasal calls announce their arrival each time they return to the feast like a welcoming band.

I recorded a total of 12 different species of bulbuls on this fruiting tree but not all were tolerant of my presence and some even avoided my photographic attempts. The Buff-vented Bulbuls were certainly not one of them and provided me with some of my best images of this common species to date.

It is undeniable that most bulbul species look quite similar to each other in the field and sometimes you have to pay a little more attention to the finer details to get the identities right. For the Grey-bellied Bulbul, I do not think it is necessary at all.

Being one of the most striking of all our bulbuls, it stood out from all the shades of brown and grey that were present. Naturally, I was smitten by its beauty and paid more attention to it. I am only human after all.

But there is another whose beauty equals or even surpasses that of the Grey-bellied Bulbul and it is the Scaly-breasted Bulbul. Usually found in the canopy level, good photographic opportunities are hard to come by. The feast was a little too much for it to resist and I finally managed to obtain really good shots of this forest denizen from almost eye level.

The intricate patterns of the underparts as well as the contrasting colours of the upperparts make this bulbul one of the most beautiful birds of the tropical rainforest.

The Streaked Bulbul dropped in for a short while only but luckily I managed to capture one shot before its abrupt departure. Perhaps the tree was a little too crowded for its liking.

Foraging among the shadows was a small flock of Hairy-backed Bulbuls. I was certainly spoilt for choice this time round and waiting for these skulking bulbuls to come to more open areas simply did not cross my mind. There were just too many distractions around.

The adorable flowerpeckers were also in good numbers at the fruiting tree and a total of 5 different species were present. The Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker is commonly found in the forest here and it comes as no surprise to find one gorging on the fruits.

The similar-looking Yellow-vented Flowerpecker is not often encountered and the presence of a single bird did not go unappreciated.

There is always a sense of anticipation whenever you come across a fruiting tree because you never know what might show up next. Deep inside, you always keep your fingers crossed for a rarity to come along and today, one did. It was a gorgeous male Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker and I have only seen this species once before at Maxwell Hill in Perak. It has been so long that I almost forgot the whirlwind of emotions that swept through me when I saw this species for the very first time. But when I saw the piercing red breast again today, it all came back to me and what a rush it was! Unfortunately, he was very shy and took flight as soon as I pointed my camera at him. And that was the last I saw of him.

My failure to obtain even a single shot of the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker was a very bitter pill to swallow. Luckily, a rather confiding male Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker was there to help ease my disappointment.

Almost just as striking as his rarer cousin, he certainly did not mind my presence as he helped himself to the fruits. I guess some are more easily seduced by food than others.

A pair of Dark-throated Orioles was also wary of my presence despite my best attempt to keep myself inconspicuous throughout my observation at the fruiting tree. The pulling power of the tantalizing fruits got the better of the male bird and he did come for a quick bite before returning back to the cover of the canopy levels.

I have recorded the Plaintive Cuckoo from this location before but only from the adjacent fruit orchards. When a small cuckoo alighted nearby the fruiting tree, I was certainly not expecting a Plaintive Cuckoo. Did word got round of this Chinese New Year banquet and has it even reached beyond the borders of the forest?

The Plaintive Cuckoo may be a little out of place in the dense forest but the migratory Hodgson's Hawk-cuckoo is right at home here. I could have easily walked past it when I made my way out of the forest if not for a pair of Little Spiderhunters that mistook the cuckoo for a real raptor and were mobbing it. Their persistent calls made me stop to look and only then did I realize the presence of the cuckoo. I may not be aware of its presence initially but it was certainly aware of mine.

A little bit of stalking got me slightly closer and I managed to take a few more shots before the cuckoo glided out of sight. Although I did not get to meet up with some old friends like the Malaysian Honeyguide and the Wallace's Hawk-eagle, it was still a great way to spend a Chinese New Year morning - among other feathered friends that have always been an important part of my life. 

Monday 16 February 2015

It's raining men! (14/02/2015)

An invitation from Dave to meet up for some birding at Chuping in Perlis was a little too good to pass despite the fact that I had to leave early for home in the afternoon. The trip certainly did not start off well for me as traffic came to a total standstill along the North-South Highway just after Sungai Petani. A lorry transporting concrete beams spilled its load all over the highway. It took more than an hour to clear up the mess and I was at my boiling point limit by then. I know that I am not very patient on the road and I guess that is something I need to work on. A new resolution, perhaps?

Anyway, I reached my destination later than planned and quickly made my way to the ponds where Dave was enjoying a Pheasant-tailed Jacana. Lucky for me, the jacana was still around at that time doing what it was born to do - foraging on floating vegetation. It was partly hidden but with a little patience (which is never an issue when birding), I managed to obtain a few reasonable shots.

There were a few Yellow Bitterns foraging in the same area as well. I had my sight set on one of them but it adopted its defensive posture when I got too close. It was quite confident with this strategy and I was allowed to practically walked till the water's edge. You can't see can't see me...

A Little Cormorant unknowingly alighted near our stationery vehicles to take a breather from the morning hunt. Being the shy creature that it is, the sound of our camera shutter immediately sent it flying to the far side of the pond.

It was certainly a bright and beautiful day and the lighting condition was near perfect when we came across this small flock of Cotton Pygmy-geese foraging in one of the ponds.

Although the flock consisted of youngsters, it was still an exciting experience as this species is not that common. It is absent from my home state of Penang and I do not have many photographic opportunities like this.

The lone male of the flock was not in his prime yet but he was a handsome bird nevertheless. Inevitably, I paid more attention to him than his slightly drabber companions.

The lighting was even good enough for my modest setup to capture some swiftlets in flight. Well, maybe not some but one image was quite acceptable by my standards. It was a Germain’s Swiftlet, I think…

A Manchurian Reed-warbler had our undivided attention for quite a period of time. Unfortunately, it lived up to its reputation of being one of the most skulking Reed-warblers known to men and only gave the faintest of glimpses as it moved about the reeds. The Oriental Reed-warbler again proved that not all Reed-warblers are such a pain in the posterior and posed long enough for its image to be taken.

It was dry and dusty along the network of trails that cuts through the grasslands. And we have had better days in terms of birding. We did not really try to locate the Brahminy Starling but it was not at its usual haunt. This Asian Pied Starling, on the other hand, was being its usual conspicuous self.

We spent some time flogging the grasslands for rare passerines. The Oriental Skylark continues to elude my life list. Only the common Oriental Pipits were recorded today despite a few exciting moments for would-be Richard's and Blyth's Pipits. Richard, is that you? Dream on, human...

As for the raptors, only the usual suspects were present today. I only got round to shooting this female Common Kestrel which glided above us at the noon hour.

The army was conducting training at one end of the grassland and we made sure we avoided that section. A military plane flying low over the vicinity momentarily diverted our attention from the birds. And all of a sudden, the sky was filled with paratroopers. It was raining men at Chuping. This place is just full of surprises. Although it is non bird-related, it was still a first for me. Yes, this is the first time I have seen a parachute in real life. And judging from the crowd that started to form along the side of the main road, I am not the only one.

I still had a bit of time left after lunch and Dave managed to convince me to try for the Dusky Craig Martins at the limestone hills of nearby Bukit Jernih. This martin is the last swallow species missing from my Malaysian life list and after thorough search my life list remains as it is.

I would to take this opportunity to wish all those celebrating the Lunar New Year, GONG XI FA CHAI!