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.