Monday, 30 March 2015

Why, Murphy? (28/03/2015)

The mystery of the male hybrid Red-backed Shrike has yet to be solved and on this beautiful morning, Hor Kee and I were back at the UniMap Guesthouse compound to try and obtained more images of the shrike - hopefully with his moult completed. Unfortunately, he was no where to be seen. Thus began our trip with a considerable amount of Murphy’s Law involved. After a futile search, we diverted our attention to the adjacent mudflats where a number of Javan Pond-Herons were foraging. Although the herons were foraging at a distance, the good lighting helped me in obtaining some reasonable shots.

Any attempts to try and reduce the distance were met with much resistance.

Most of the Pond-Herons that are showing partial or full breeding plumages here are Javan Pond-Herons. This is probably one of those rare occasions where they outnumber the more numerous Chinese Pond-Herons.

The Chinese Egret and Little Stint that were recorded on the last trip were absent this time as well. Luckily, there was a lone male Swinhoe's Plover to keep us occupied. Although this species is not recognized by everyone as a full species, I feel that it should be. The male Swinhoe's Plover was among a flock of Kentish Plovers, the species that some consider it to be a race of. Well, based on appearance alone, you be the judge. It is the second peep from the left.

This is the best image I could conjure up in the end showing the side profile of this uncommon wader that seems to have a preference to winter along the north-western coastline.

We decided to check out the rest of this stretch of mudflats that goes all the way to the Kuala Perlis jetty. As we were making our way to the car, we saw a parent Malaysian Pied-Fantail attending to a juvenile bird and it reminded me of those single parents trying to control a hyperactive child at a departmental store. The only difference here is this parent is just as hyperactive as the child!

At least two Black-capped Kingfishers were seen along the coast here. These beautiful but shy birds are getting ready for the passage back north to breed. Despite the approaching breeding season, they are still as skittish as ever.

Timah Tasoh was our next destination and we were lucky enough to stumble upon a fruiting tree. This year, I have the good fortune of enjoying quite a number of fruiting trees and the birds that came with them. Despite the absence of rarities at this tree, it was still a rewarding encounter thanks to the adorable Coppersmith Barbets.

My only qualm was the tree is very sparse and the harsh mid morning sun does not compliment the images well. There is little much I can do about the back lighting and since I have had little luck with this common but attractive species in the past, I made the best out of the situation.

Although there are more than enough fruits for the two pairs Coppersmith Barbets present, squabbles occasionally erupted and one bird will end up being chased by the other around the vicinity.

A flock of Large Woodshrikes announced their presence with their signature vocalizations. Photography was a challenge as the flock was on the hunt and was constantly moving about.

For the second trip in a row, I crossed path with the diminutive Grey-capped Woodpecker. Perhaps this species is doing better here than in my home state of Penang. This pair was foraging along the canopy level of the scrubland trees and was not really in the mood to be photographed.

A female Plaintive Cuckoo taking a breather from the overwhelming hot and dry weather that we have been experiencing here for the past month or so. With the sun at its zenith, there was no better time for us to seek some shelter, food and a cold drink to rejuvenate before proceeding to our final destination for the day - the grassland of Chuping. 

The Green Sandpiper and Racket-tailed Treepie again got the better of my camera. However, I did not feel much disappointment for missing the latter again. Perhaps, I have accepted the fact that I will never ever photograph a Racket-tailed Treepie. However, Chuping has so much more to offer than just a couple of rarities. A flock of eleven Little Cormorants resting at their usual haunt is one fine example of the magic of this locality. This is by far my biggest count of this recent colonizer.

One of them eventually alighted on the near side of the pond for some reason that I have yet to fathom because this species is relatively shy. Although this was the closest I have ever been to a Little Cormorant, I still could not obtain the type of images that I have been wishing for. This is Murphy's Law at its best. I will not dwell on this any further and the photo says it all.

Foraging along the floating vegetation was the same Pheasant-tailed Jacana that we have been recording here for the past few months. The encounter would have been much sweeter if the Jacana was a little more tolerant of our presence and foraged a little closer. It is has even started to moult into breeding plumage. Now, it would have been quite a sight to see it in full breeding plumage because it is one of the most stunning water birds in the world.The heat wave also affected the outcome of most of my images at Chuping. The result appeared like the subject was out of focus and there was blurred movement. None of which are welcomed in any photograph.

Well, at least the jacana was still within reasonable reach of my camera. Our first record of a Ruddy-breasted Crake in Chuping satisfied only the birders in us.

The heat wave together with the harsh lighting made today one of the most testing days in terms of photography in Chuping. There were around 80 Eurasian Moorhens present at the ponds and that figure was another highlight of the trip. But due to the shooting conditions, I only have this one image that I can be proud of.

The Little Grebes are also in their usual numbers and with their breeding season in full swing, they are a lot more tolerant to human presence.

I then decided to drag Hor Kee to that faithful copse that provided such a rewarding experience during my last visit. For our efforts, the only thing worth mentioning is that we heard the Collared Kingfisher again. Although it is mainly confined to the coastal areas, it is not unheard of for it to occur far inland.

One of the highlights of our trip this time was a dark-morphed Booted Eagle. This scarce winter visitor has been recorded a little more regularly in recent years and most of the sightings are from the northern region including here in Chuping. The height at which the eagle was soaring was beyond my gear’s comfort zone and the harsh afternoon sun only made it worse. But it is still my best image of it to date.

Do not be fooled by the Plain-backed Sparrow's name. If you are not familiar with the species, you might envision it as another little brown job. But the male Plain-backed Sparrow will rock your world if seen well. I am quite ashamed to use this image. It does no justice to the bird at all although it was quite near to our vehicle. I should have done better but this was my best shot.

The female is no push over in the looks department as well but incomparable to the handsome male. Naturally, her image turned out better than the male’s. Here you go. Murphy's Law at work again. But one thing Mr Murphy could not deny us was this one last rewarding birding trip to a little state up north called Perlis - until the commencement of the next autumn migration that is.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Northward bound - again (21/03/15)

This trip to the northern state of Perlis with Dave was spontaneous to say the least. I was still contemplating on where to go the next day when Dave's proposition came in. The birding days to follow after the remarkable trips to Sungai Sedim for the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers look a little bleak to me indeed. And a trip to Perlis to help search rarities for Dave's big year could be exactly what I needed to get over the flowerpeckers. We arrived at the Timah Tasoh scrublands just in time to witness the breaking of dawn over the lake.

I made it a point to open up my senses to other things and not only the birds. So, only after soaking in the view did I start with the birds. The lake and its surroundings are being cleared for some unknown reason and like all great things in life especially birding sites, enjoy them while they last. Although the Stork-billed Kingfisher is common in most waterways, it is still a striking bird. With such an impressive bill, it is hard to overlook or ignore it.

This individual was exceptionally confiding and allowed a very close approach. I cannot recall if I have ever photographed any kingfisher on foot so close before and I did not even have to crawl my way. The trip certainly started off on a high note.

There were three target birds for this locality. The closest we came to the Orange-breastedPigeon was a lone bird that looked very much like one but flew away too fast for a positive identification. I have seen the Racket-tailed Treepie only but once in my life. When two of them were seen moving among the canopy level, I was elated. But the feeling did not last long because the Treepie rejected my photographic proposal and I was left without a single image from the encounter again. I did manage to photograph our third target but it was far from satisfactory. The Thick-billed Warbler only allowed distanced obscured shots - just like my last encounter with this rare migrant.

There was a Shrike that was hunting at the edge of the scrubs which appeared slightly odd. We just had an interesting shrike also in the state of Perlis last month that turned out to be most possibly a hybrid Red-backed Shrike. Not wanting to take anything for granted, we scrutinized the shrike until we were sure that it was a Brown Shrike in moult and nothing else. Another thing that struck me as odd about this shrike was its confiding nature. It seemed to be quite comfortable despite being stalked by two birders.

Earlier on I mentioned that there are other things in life than just only birds. Well, I should have took it more seriously because I found out when I got back home that I missed out on photographing what is possibly Malaysia's first record of the Variable Squirrel. To make matters worse, there were at least five of them on this particular tree. Although they were active (and extremely noisy too), they remained on that tree for a long time. I gave up after my first shot was nothing more than a blurred photo of a brownish furry creature on a tree. Luckily, Dave managed to obtain a few better shots. By the way, he was the one who realized our discovery and we are now waiting for confirmation. This is not the type of first record that I yearn for but it is exciting nevertheless.

From the scrublands of Timah Tasoh, we headed to the limestone outcrops of Kaki Bukit in search of the Dusky Crag-Martin but it ended in vain. Once again, I dipped out on this would be lifer. This resident Peregrine Falcon could have been able to lift my spirit if only it was flying much lower than this.

We ventured into the nearby forest of the Perlis State Park to see if anything was about. There were some birds present but none really got me truly excited except for this lone Dusky Broadbill foraging among the canopy of the forest. Although it lacks the vivid colours of the other broadbills, it is the largest and I think the rarest of them all. That makes it a priority to me whenever I come across it in the field.

It was mid day when we reached the grasslands of Chuping. The heat and the dust were relentless and a shy Green Sandpiper certainly did not help improve the situation. Dave thought it was best to check out the small pockets of trees and scrub scattered sparingly over the grasslands. There were no objections from me as shade is a rare commodity out here. As soon as we stepped into our first copse, we were greeted by an adult Hodgson's Hawk-Cuckoo. The cuckoo’s abrupt disappearance got the ball rolling and we started to pick up a lot of bird activity within the copse. But the one that had our immediate attention was a female Grey-capped Woodpecker.

I have not seen this species for years and possibly the population here in northern Peninsula Malaysia could be on the decline. That is a shame because this species is absolutely adorable much like the commoner Sunda Woodpecker. In fact, the two species are superficially similar and habitat is one of the best ways to tell them apart as the latter is confined to the coast and mangroves.

While being entertained by the antics of the Grey-capped Woodpecker, a couple of the commoner species did come into view like this inquisitive male Olive-backed Sunbird.

The Golden-bellied Gerygone is a small bird with a big voice and its characteristic song is a regular sound in habitats like this. To actually see the bird, it usually takes some effort. If by chance one decides to alight in the open and reasonably close, you better make the best of it.

Malaysia recently released the second edition of its official checklist. This latest revision follows the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World. There are a substantial number of splits and lumps that will take some getting used to. One such split involves the Blue-And-White Flycatcher. The race where the male has no black on the face, throat and breast region is now a species of its own and is called the Zappey's Flycatcher. A bird will need a huge dose of panache to live up to a name like that. And the Zappey's Flycatcher has no shortage of that. This adult male that was foraging in the copse had the both of us eating from the primaries of his wing. He is truly a gorgeous bird and the immature male I saw a few years back does not even come close.

By the way, only the males are distinguishable in the field. With only three confirmed records of the White-and-Blue Flycatcher in Malaysia to date, chances are the immature I saw, which was my first record, was also a Zappey's Flycatcher. The flycatcher is Dave's 400th bird for his Big Year and he was a very happy man. Rightfully so I might add.

The last destination for our rarity hunt was the paddy fields of Pendang in Kedah state. What made this location so interesting are the surrounding scrublands and reed beds. In fact, one particular reed bed eventually became the stage for one last string of performances before we headed back home.

It was apparent that quite a number of reed-warblers and as well as grasshopper-warblers were present within this reed bed. We could hear them and once in a while, catch a fleeting glimpse as they move about. We saw a handful of Oriental Reed-warblers. Dave identified a few Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler by call which I did not even bother to try locating. More than a dozen Black-browed Reed-Warblers were counted and with such high density, chances of getting a clear shot were favourable. But I should have known better…

Another species that shared this reed bed with the warblers were Yellow Bitterns and they certainly make better photography subjects. The only thing that hindered my efforts was the fading light but I am quite happy with the results. The bittern concludes what has been a long but rewarding day. The drive back was marred by traffic congestion as the school-holidays are drawing to a close and families are rushing back from holidays to prepare the children for school. However, the two hour journey was still bearable as my thoughts constantly drifted back to a particular copse in Chuping where a handsome Zappey’s Flycatcher flitted among the rays of sunlight from the sanctuary of the canopy. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

The flowerpecker frenzy continues...(16/03/2015)

For his second day of day, there is only one place that my Singaporean guest Nigel must go to at the present moment. Some place where something of a phenomenon was waiting for him and his brother. It was unfortunate that his son could not join us today as we are going to the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers' fruiting tree at Sungai Sedim in Kedah. At day break we arrive at the locality and got ourselves ready for the performance to come.

The first to arrive for the feast was this rather confiding Buff-vented Bulbul. I am rather fond of the image I managed to take of it. In fact, it could one of my best efforts of this non-descript bulbul.

When the flowerpeckers came, I focused my attention on the duller ones for a change. As this is already my third visit to this fruiting tree, I was able to resist the mesmerizing presence of the male Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers a little better. Much to my delight, their female counterparts were also showing themselves far better today and I took full advantage of that.

The Yellow-breasted Flowerpeckers finally received their due attention from me. Today, it felt like they were more confiding and provided more photographic opportunities. Maybe it could be the spell of the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers is starting to wear off from me and I am more observant of the other birds present at the fruiting tree.

For this species, the sexes are identical and this duller looking individual should be a young bird.

The Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers were also overshadowed by the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers as well and I tried my best to make amends today. Unfortunately, they did not show themselves quite that often enough.

On my every visit here to this fruiting tree, this juvenile Green-backed Flycatcher will swing by for a second before moving away. And this time I was finally fast enough to capture a single shot before it disappeared into the forest. Got ‘ya!

Although I am a little more used to seeing the male Scarlet-breasted Flowerpeckers now, their beauty still do it for me. For my guests, they were lost in the moment just like yours truly one week ago when we first discovered the flowerpeckers. 

Countless birders have made their way here to experience the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker phenomenon. Up to today, birders are still coming in from far and wide. One of them actually left Kuala Lumpur at two in the morning; drove all the way here for these flowerpeckers and back in the evening. That is a round trip of about 800 kilometers. Would I have done the same if I was in his shoes? Well, given the fact that it is a fruiting tree and based on the quality of the images of this flowerpecker posted on various social media, hell yeah!

The Red-eyed Bulbuls are so confiding probably because they have been ignored and they do not see the humans present at this fruiting tree as a threat anymore. This individual must be quite surprised when I started to take notice of it.

Later in the morning, we retreated into the cooler access trails to carry on our birding excursion. This migratory Ferruginous Flycatcher reminded us on how bird photography in the forest is like most of the time and it is a timely reminder because of late, I have been spoilt by fruiting trees, the birds that patronize them and all the excellent photographic opportunities that came with them.

The Red-billed Malkoha is one of the rarer malkohas here in Sungai Sedim. Typically of the family, this striking cuckoo loves to move along the highest canopies and good views are hard to come by.

This is certainly something a whole lot easier to photograph - a confiding male Whiskered Treeswift on an exposed perch.

From the forest of Sungai Sedim, we made our way to a Palm Oil estate next to the Kulim Hi-Tech Park. Here, there is a particular Rain Tree next to the estate that is a regular roosting site for a pair of Barred Eagle-owls. It did not take long to locate one of the owls as it was roosting at almost the exact spot that I saw it a couple of days back. Unfortunately on this perch, it was slightly blocked by the vegetation and there is nothing we can actually do about it. Birding and wild bird photography can sometimes be frustrating, unpredictable and difficult. Most of the factors and elements involved are beyond your control. But on those occasions when everything does come together perfectly, it is sheer ecstasy.

Our final destination was the bee-eater colony at Penanti in mainland Penang. At this time of the year, it is possible to see both the Chestnut-headed and Blue-throated Bee-eaters together at a single locality. The former is a permanent resident and can be seen throughout the year.

The latter is a breeding visitor and will migrate to Malaysia just as the other winter visitors make their way up north to breed. Their breeding season has just begun thus making the birds very conspicuous and vocal.

After dropping off my guests at their hotel, I still had a few hours of daylight left and I decided to visit the Sungai Burung area in Penang Island. I was hoping for another memorable trip like the one I enjoyed during my last visit here around Christmas last year. But like I said, birding is unpredictable. Nothing but the very common birds were seen and to make matters worse, most of them were taking shelter from the blistering heat we have been experiencing here in Penang for past week. This Olive-backed Sunbird is either an eclipsed male or a juvenile bird. Because of this unfamiliar plumage, it finally gave me a reason to actually stop my car and look.

It so not very often that I get to see all of our open country bee-eaters on a single day and the sighting of this Blue-tailed Bee-eater cheered me up a little as it was the third and last species. When I just started birding, this locality used to have all three bee-eaters breeding here in one big colony. I can roughly recall the sight and sound of the colony where hundreds of bee-eaters can be seen but that sadly, is a thing of the past. I usually do not end my posts on a down note but this is something that is not only happening in my country but everywhere else in the world. Natural habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate. My only hope is there will still be a few places left for me to bird in the future.