Wednesday 29 April 2015

Once upon a time...(25/04/2015)

My latest visit to a little piece of birding heaven located at mainland Penang in Malaysia that goes by the name of Air Hitam Dalam is one that will be remembered for a long time to come. With my former favourite, the marshlands at Pulau Burung 'destroyed' by my fellow human beings, this birding site has now reinforced its position as my new favourite in Penang. The magic of this locality has even found its way to this migratory Forest Wagtail and the latter has certainly joined the ranks of top performers here.

It is one of the most confiding Forest Wagtails I have ever encountered before and I made it a point not to take it for granted as it will be heading back to its northern breeding grounds soon.

Usually, you will have to be on your belly to get half this close to a Forest Wagtail. But here, it is not necessary. Just go down on your knees and enjoy the show.

While being spellbound by the wagtail's performance, an inquisitive Olive-winged Bulbul dropped in to have a better look at what was going on. What’s up?

The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers were being confiding selves - as usual. With the migratory Korean Flycatcher now gone, they do not have to share the limelight with any other tame flycatchers for the time being.

There are a few sought-after species that this site is famous for and one of them is the resident Ruddy Kingfisher. Most of my encounters with this species took place here and this time of the year is the best time to observe this elusive kingfisher. However, it did not perform as I had expected. It exceeded my expectation…

This image is almost too good to be true. A ravishing Ruddy Kingfisher on an exposed perch with a relatively clean background and well within the reach of my gear is not something I expect to happen. But it did and I had to pinch myself just to make sure I was not dreaming.

What are the odds of having another encounter of similar magnitude later in the same day? This time the kingfisher was at eye level and had its back towards me. I was trembling with excitement and without the aid of a tripod, shooting it in the dim understorey of the swamp forest was no easy task. But today is no ordinary day and one of the shots turned out great despite all the factors that were against my favour.

Air Hitam Dalam is a haven for kingfishers and I was reminded of that today. The mighty Stork-billed Kingfisher receives its due respect and admiration whenever it is present. It was taking a breather under the shade of a large fig tree when I came across it and much to my surprise, it did not disappear into the swamp forest like usual.

At the other end of the size spectrum, there is the migratory Black-backedDwarf-Kingfisher but it is elusive by nature and a fleeting glimpse was all I had today. The Collared Kingfisher is the commonest kingfisher of them all at Air Hitam Dalam and unlike the Dwarf-Kingfisher, it is almost a guaranteed species on any visit. Its raucous calls and confiding nature makes it difficult to be overlooked.

Woodpeckers also find sanctuary within the borders of this educational forest. This Banded Woodpecker that was foraging along a densely-foliaged tree was quite tolerant to my presence. Perhaps the foliage provided it with a sense of security. Unfortunately for me, it was a hindrance to my efforts of trying to obtain unobstructed images.

The Black-naped Oriole is without doubt one of the most stunning of our common birds in Malaysia and is a common sight even from built-up areas. There are usually a handful of them present here but because of their status, this beautiful bird is often ignored. The oriole’s bright colour and melodious calls have attracted my attention even before I started birding. Although the impact of its presence is more subdued nowadays, it still feels good to be greeted by one when I open my balcony doors in the morning.

There are only three species of babblers that regularly occur here. At the present time, the Abbott's Babbler is the most conspicuous one with its persistent vocalization and confiding nature.

Cuckoos are a fascinating family of birds. They come in all shapes and sizes and some are truly spectacular. However, they are generally shy and good photographic opportunities have to be earned. The Green-billed Malkoha is one of the biggest cuckoos in Peninsula Malaysia. It grows to a staggering two feet in length and the long tail is more than half the body length.

The Chestnut-winged Cuckoo may not have the malkoha's size but it is a striking species. Two of them were present today and they led me on a wild goose chase around the locality. Through sheer persistency and luck, I eventually managed to obtain an image that I quite fancy. This cuckoo is a migrant and it has taken me almost this whole migratory season to capture its image. I guess I can live with the strong back light and obstructing vegetation.

Whilst stalking the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo along the elevated boardwalk, a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo alighted on an exposed perch just in front of me. Although it is a common bird, it would have been a sin if I did not stop to appreciate the encounter.

In fact, I was so impressed with its confiding nature that I took the time to observe and photograph it. As a result, I let my initial quarry slip deeper into the swamp forest but it was a decision that I do not regret. A bird in full view is worth two in the bush - especially if it is performing so well.

When I was about to call it the day, something propelled me to stay back and take one last walk around the boardwalk. Call it intuition. Call it luck. Call it whatever you want but as soon as I stepped onto the boardwalk, I can just barely picked out a distanced sound that is not unlike the bleating of a goat. I knew what it was and I have been trying my best to photograph it for the past few visits to this locality but without success - the Black-and-red Broadbill! I have crossed paths with this amazing bird a number of times before here and as well as other sites in the past but I have yet to obtain its image until now. When I finally managed to track it down, it was a brief encounter and I only managed to take a few shots from the same angle. But sometimes, it is the circumstance and the bird involved that makes some encounters stand out more than others. The broadbill’s decision to finally show itself to me after weeks of disappointment was like a fairy tale ending to this trip. But will the alluring birdlife at Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest live happily ever after? That is a question only time can answer.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

A misty affair (18/04/2015)

Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill) is the closest montane birding site to home and it always will have a place in my heart. My very first few montane birding experiences was at this hill resort and it also provided me a number of great lifers including my first hornbill. Every time I inhale the aromatic fragrance of the Eucalyptus Trees around the former Speedy Bungalow, flashbacks of my birding adventures here as a teenager will fill my thoughts. However one of the letdowns of this site, depending on your tolerance towards the smell of diesel-powered exhaust fumes and high-speed hairpin cornerings, is the jeep ride which happens to be the only mode of transportation that ferries visitors up and down the hill. Inconsistencies in terms of quality birding is another reason why Bukit Larut is often not considered to be one of the premier montane sites in Peninsula Malaysia. My latest visit here did not start off well. Hor Kee and I were greeted by heavy mist and gloomy weather upon our arrival. 

The unfavourable lighting condition made photography even harder than it already is in a tropical rain forest. We recorded a good number of birds but shooting them was another thing altogether. A confiding male Orange-breasted Trogon was one of the highlights of the trip. Despite the fact that he was on an exposed perch, my photos did not turned out as well as I hoped they would. At least I have a few images to show for the encounter. This is more than I can say for the shy male Red-headed Trogon that was calling persistently from hidden perches throughout our visit.

The resident male Hill Blue-Flycatcher was just being difficult and it was a frustrating encounter. Despite being extremely vocal, teasing glimpses and distanced shots were all that he was willing to offer today.

The Rufous-browed Flycatcher restored our faith in the locality (and our sanity) by performing a whole lot better than its more colourful cousin. Being drably-coloured and having a preference for the dark domain of the forest undergrowth, its thin penetrating whistle is usually the only thing that gives away its presence.

We were delighted to see a handsome male Siberian Blue Robin still here in his wintering ground. It was a short encounter and one miserable shot was all I could muster before he disappeared into the undergrowth.

In most hill resorts, the persistent calls of the Black-browed Barbet can be heard throughout the day. To see the bird, effort is required as it blends well with the foliage of the canopy levels. To see bird at eye level, luck is required as well. And to compose it well in your shot may be asking for a little too much.

The barbet's call may be very much a part of the sounds of the forest but there is one sound that is noticeably disappearing from the forest. And that is the sultry song of the White-rumped Shama. Cursed with the ability to belt out remarkable repertoires of heavenly notes and with the looks to match as well, this songbird is heavily trapped for the bird trade. The population in Malaysia is on the decline and sadly, even wiped out from a few localities. The pale colouration on the underparts of this male bird suggests that it may be a young bird. Like most youngsters, he tend be a little too bold for his own good. Lucky for him, we are firm believers that caged birds will never sing as well as free birds. And the shama wrapped things up for this slightly mediocre birding excursion. 

Saturday 11 April 2015

What the heck is he shooting at? (09/04/2015)

The Malayan Night-Heron is a rare migrant to Peninsula Malaysia. I have had only two previous encounters before this but both were not that rewarding in terms of photography. All that changed when a fellow Penang birder, Seng Chee, informed me (the perks of being helpful and willing to share knowledge and information with other birders) of a tame juvenile at the Penang Botanic Gardens. I used to envy those photographs of the Malayan Night-Herons from Taiwan where the birds will forage confidingly in gardens and parks because the herons that winter here are certainly do not behave like that. Or so I thought. The day after the tip-off, I weaved past the rush hour traffic after work on my trusted iron steed and found myself face to face with the heron on an open grass area on the outskirts of gardens. Please do excuse the language but it was f*#king unbelievable. I never once thought I will ever get to experience an encounter with such a tame Malayan Night-Heron in Malaysia let alone my home state of Penang. And to think I even dipped out on the heron during my vacation in Taiwan a few years back.

Fortunately, there was still some sunlight left in the evening sky and I quickly made myself comfortable on the grass and clicked away. I was as close as possible to the heron without having to reduce my zoom lens. It was a full-framed affair.

It was not the least bothered by my presence. Neither did it care about all the other visitors to the gardens that occasionally strolled past quite close. In fact, I was more concerned about them because I did not want them to accidentally spook my subject away. All the heron cared about was the highly-nutritious earth worms!

At one time, the heron wandered towards me and I had to reduce the zoom of the lens in order to fit the whole bird into frame. It was a good thing I was seated with my gear propped up by my knees because I was trembling with excitement. This encounter will certainly become one of my all-time best. What can better a rare waterbird performing exceptionally well? Life can be truly beautiful at times...

When the light started to fade, I noticed a few Crested Mynas foraging in the vicinity also. I guess they were there all this while but were overshadowed by the heron.

One last image of the juvenile Malayan Night-Heron that graced my home state of Penang with its beauty and grace. I am not a big fan of head shots but I guess I can make an exception for this distinguished visitor. The encounter would have been perfect if it did not take place is such a "public" area. I had to put up with curious onlookers and noisy evening walkers. Most of them do not even notice the bird in front of me. They are just curious of what this bald bloke sitting on the grass is photographing. Once, I even had to stop a human from trying to get closer to the heron in order to get a better shot with his smartphone. On second thoughts, if the heron were to show up in an isolated area, there is a very good chance its presence will have gone unnoticed. I guess nothing in birding and life can be perfect. 

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Size doesn't matter (04/04/2015)

Birders here in Penang are blessed to have Air Hitam Dalam. I have been birding at this site since the first day it opened its door to the public which was more than two decades ago. Although there is a drop in bird species and the size of this small reserve has been much reduced, it still remains as one of the best. Where else in Penang or even Malaysia can one regularly encounter and observed nocturnal species in broad daylight like this Brown Boobook showing off its mystical beauty on an exposed perch like this.

The Boobook was not only out in the open but it was confiding as well. This is certainly not my first encounter with this species but there is just something about it that I find so fascinating. Maybe it is because it is the first owl that I saw in the wild many moons back when I was still a teenager. I do not know. But all I do know is that all owls are truly special and I will always be fascinated by them.

It is kind of ironic I had to worry about the direction of the sun when photographing a night bird - not that I am complaining though.

The Olive-winged Bulbuls were also showing well today. It is now peak breeding season and the bulbuls are lot more confiding than usual. This individual perched on the rope barrier of the elevated boardwalk lacks most of the olive colouration on its wings but does not appear to be a young bird.

This man made structure is a favourite perch for a pair of these bulbuls. All I had to do was to be still and wait for them to come round again. The lighting and distance was favourable but the only slight letdown was the artificial perch. Well, you cannot have your cake and eat it all the time.

Of late, I have been seeing a lot more of the Laced Woodpecker here than the usual Streak-breasted Woodpecker. There are only very subtle differences between the two species and positive identification can be quite a challenge if the birds are not seen well. Anyway, this male Laced Woodpecker provided excellent views but the strong backlight made photography difficult.

The Asian Openbill is no longer a regular at my usual birding spots in Penang. Here at Air Hitam Dalam, they used to roost in huge numbers. I was lucky to have a few juveniles flying over this morning and the lighting was quite ideal for shooting these unique storks in flight.

There is no way to mistake a Forest Wagtail for anything else due its striking plumage. However, it tends to keep close to cover which makes it a challenging subject to photograph. The constant movement of the bird does not help the situation either.

The Malaysian Pied-Fantail is usually not a good subject for photography either - much like the Forest Wagtail. This individual managed to catch a dragonfly for breakfast and I was hoping this substantial prey will weigh down my subject long enough for me to capture a few images. At the end, of the stream of images that I shot, only one turned out good enough to be shared.

Just last week there were records of some splendid birds coming from the vicinity of the rear car park. The Ruddy Kingfisher, Black-And-Red Broadbill and the migratory race of the Asian Paradise-Flycatcher just to name a few. Unfortunately, none of them were recorded this trip. The migratory Blue-winged Pitta was also heard calling from the nearby vicinity but stayed well out of sight. But I did get one species that I was hoping to see - the male the Korean Flycatcher in breeding plumage.

The throat and upper breast region now has an orange tinge and it is a sign that he is ready to fly back north to breed. You handsome devil!

The new checklist by Clements replaced the old name of Yellow-rumped Flycather with Korean Flycatcher. I am no scientist but I still prefer the old name because it describes the bird perfectly and I am sure it is not the only flycatcher in Korea. Here you can see him backing up my opinion.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatchers are residents and will breed within the boundaries of this reserve. The superstars of this hotspot, you are almost guaranteed to see one on every visit.

The car park is usually the center of bird activity at this birding hotspot. It is just a small area and can only accommodate about 10 vehicles and the passengers with all their gear comfortably at one time. All you need to do is wait for the birds to come. You will even get to enjoy skulkers like the Abbott's Babbler.

Birds are not the only animals present at the car park. The Common Sun Skink is regularly recorded and like the birds, has grown accustomed to human presence. In good lighting, the iridescent colours make this reptile an appealing subject as well.

Air Hitam Dalam is also a great place to catch up with birding friends. It is very popular with the local birders including yours truly and on any given weekend you are bound to bump into another bird person. For this trip, I met no less than 5 different groups of birders. Hor Kee, James Neoh and Zo Cozy were among them. If that is not enough, this site is almost next door to the coastline of the Teluk Ayer Tawar IBA. I did sneak off for about an hour to the IBA when the tide was right but there was nothing noteworthy about except for a Brown-headed Gull in breeding plumage. The distance was too great for any good shots but I did take a record shot before I returned to the car park of Air Hitam Dalam for a couple of hours of pleasant birding before I finally called it a day.