Tuesday 30 June 2015

Penang's birding ambassadors (21/06/2015)

Whenever I have a foreign guest with me, a visit to the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam is usually inevitable. Reliable and rewarding, I cannot think of a better place to introduce Penang's birding experiences to visiting birders. Darren is a British birder who has been working in Singapore for the past couple of years and this birding hotspot provided yet another memorable trip for both me and my guest.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatchers had another successful nesting season - as expected. And the young ones are following their parents' footsteps to becoming the next generation of ambassadors for this little birding paradise.

Now that I think of it, it was silly for me to ask Darren if he wanted to photograph a Stork-billed Kingfisher resting in the shade nearby. I mean who doesn't? The massive bill and striking colours certainly make it a great subject for photography.

The Lineated Barbets did not provide much photographic opportunities and this lone individual that was resting on an exposed perch was just a little too far for any great images.

The best image of the day for me was probably this Greater Racket-tailed Drongo that was following a troop of Long-tailed Macaques around the swamp forest. Unfortunately, the vegetation is quite dense and completely unobstructed views were difficult to obtain. 

To wrap things up for this time's tour was this confiding Common Sun Skink. This reptile is also thriving at this locality. Despite constantly getting on the nerves of birder as it has a tendency of scaring away the birds, it is still a beautiful animal to photograph. 

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Things that go bump in the night (20/06/2015)

Owling is a term used by birders to describe their quest to search for night birds in the dead of the night and it proves to be one of the most unique and intriguing field experiences. A group of four perfectly sane and logical men from Penang (Dave, Choo Eng, Hor Kee and yours truly) decided to do some owling in the swamp forest of Bukit Panchor State Park in southern mainland Penang. We crept out of our respective homes at a God-forsaken hour and reached our destination a couple of hours before dawn. As we cautiously walked along the narrow elevated boardwalk that cuts through the swamp, we soon found ourselves surrounded by an array of eerie and ghoulish sounds but they were music to our ears. And for once in my life, I was overwhelmed by the variety of bird species present in an owling excursion.

Eventually, we made up our mind to focus our attention on two particular species - the Gould's Frogmouth and Oriental Bay-Owl. The two of them had us walking to and fro the boardwalk in a game of hide-and-seek. Each time one of them sounded closer than the other, we would head towards its direction. Just as we were about to lose hope, Dave pointed his torchlight in front of us and I was dumbfounded. An Oriental Bay-Owl was perched on an exposed vine and looking straight at us. It was so close I did not even need my binoculars to admire every intricate detail of this beautiful creature of the night.

However when I tried to capture its image, I found that my camera could not focus on it. My emotions were on overdrive at that moment and I also know that the owl will not stay for long. I panicked and decided to manually focus my camera resulting in dozens of crappy shots. When I regained my composure, I checked the Auto/Manual focus switch on my lens only to find it was on Manual. I must have accidentally switched it to Manual earlier on during the search. When everything was finally right, I only managed to take one single shot before the owl disappeared back into the cover of darkness. And to add salt to the injury, my camera’s exposure was also wrong. It would have been a perfect encounter if not for my dreadful mistakes. Well, like I always say, it would not be birding if everything goes according to plan all the time.

As I was still cursing myself, Dave directed his torchlight above us and the words Gould's Frogmouth escaped his lips. Although it was nothing more than a whisper, it resonated with such amplitude in my ears that I was almost knocked off my feet. This is my second ever encounter with this species. The last time I saw it was about 20 years ago at Pasoh forest reserve in Negeri Sembilan. And for the second time this night, I was left trying to catch my breath due to another exhilarating encounter.

The frogmouth was more confiding than the owl and it stayed for a much longer time. I even had time to capture it from another angle. Frogmouths are probably the weirdest looking of our Malaysian birds. The massive head and piercing eyes and not to mention a head full of whiskers are not exactly what one would consider to be beautiful traits. But they are truly fascinating and mysterious birds and that is more than enough to make them one of my favourites.

Dave rose to the occasion one last time and found us a Sunda Scops-Owl. This adorable little owl is not uncommon and also occurs even within human development. But like all night birds, it can quite elusive most of the time and good views are not easy to come by. It was perched quite low but sadly, it also did not stay long as well. Although I had it in focus this time and with the right exposure, it did not show its face to me and this was my best effort. Despite the photographic failures, this is one of my best owling excursions and a revisit to this nocturnal hotspot is just a matter of time.

Choo Eng and Hor Kee had to make a return trip home because of prior engagements while Dave and I decided to take full advantage of our lucky streak and made our way to the hilly forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah. Unfortunately, our luck seemed to have run out as soon as the rays of the morning sun brightened up the land. We managed to record more than 60 species during our 5-hour visit but nothing out of the ordinary was present and the photography was not particularly great as well. Just a few hours ago we were surrounded by the calls of 3 species of owls among others. Now, it was the trogons' turn - the Scarlet-rumped, Diard's and Red-naped Trogon. The latter could have made our day if it was perched a little closer because it was hardly obstructed by the vegetation and it was a handsome male. 

The Scarlet-rumped Trogon did not reveal itself except for its characteristic call. Two Diard's Trogons were calling persistently and in the end, we only managed to locate this female along the canopy of the forest.

This male Black-and-yellow Broadbill did not help much in providing more excitement to the trip. He was also a little too far for any great shots.

A flock of noisy and inquisitive Chestnut-rumped Babblers filled the vicinity with their mellow and loud calls. Unfortunately, they were quite active and kept to the dimly-lighted understorey of the forest where photography was a real challenge.

A heavily moulting Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo provided a temporary rush as we were not completely sure of its identity initially. But when we moved closer and had a better look, its identification was no longer an issue. The Fork-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo is indistinguishable from the former in the field at the present time as the degree of fork on the tail is highly variable but lucky for us, it occurs here in Malaysia only in the migratory season.

I thought things were finally going to turn around when we came across a fruiting tree. But only a few species of Bulbuls were present including 15 Scaly-breasted Bulbuls. The height of the tree was a little beyond the reach of my gear and on this occasion and I enjoyed the encounter through my bins. To wrap things up for this time, a Dark-necked Tailorbird that foraging very close to me but ignored my presence. On the drive back to Penang, I asked Dave how on the Earth he located the night birds during our owling session. He replied know the habits of the subjects, a whole lot of luck and enough self-confidence to believe it is there although you cannot be sure of it. So, now you know.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Earth Angels (13/06/2015)

It has been about a year since my last pelagic trip. Thus, it was too good of a chance to pass when Hor Kee invited me to join him and Dave for a day of birding out at sea. It was not smooth sailing all the way as the fishing boat left the dock later than usual because of poor weather. Here in Kedah’s Tanjung Dawai Fishing Village, our pelagic birding is not from chartered boats. It is done from this particular fishing boat. We follow the fishermen out at dawn and come back only when they are done at dusk. And it is all thanks to Choo Eng who knows the owner of the boat.

As soon as we got into the fishing zones, the weather improved and like clockwork, the birds will appear once the boats cast their nets. All those trapped and discarded fish are natural magnets to the birds and they will come in from every corner of the sea.  During the migratory season, terns numbering to the thousands are drawn to these fishing activities. As it is mid-June now, only the resident terns are likely to be around. It is also a little late for southern sea birds like shearwaters on their passage up north as well.

The Bridled Terns are the commonest terns at this time of the year and form the majority present today. They are also the most confiding and at times, flew very close to the boat.

A few of the Bridled Terns were in their smart breeding plumage and a much welcomed difference from the usual mottled plumages of both the juvenile and non-breeding adults. Unfortunately, there was not much good photographic opportunities as they kept their distance most of the time.

A Lesser Crested Tern in breeding plumage was a pleasant find because it should have migrated back to its breeding grounds by now. Whatever the reason, it provided some excitement to our maritime excursion that has started to become somewhat dull.

Sometimes in birding, you do not need many birds to make a trip worthwhile. You just need one. A bird like let's say a Roseate Tern in breeding plumage. This scarce off-shore tern is my second lifer this week and it made waking up at 4 in the morning to brave a pre-dawn shower, endure the tormenting conditions of the open sea and tolerate the scorching temperature of the midday sun the second great decision I have made this week.

The Roseate Tern has a tantalising pink hue on its underparts that is only prominent in good light. Together with its slender appearance and graceful maneuverability, it is truly a feast for the eyes.

Naturally, it had our undivided attention. It stayed in the vicinity for at least a few hours and provided a memorable performance to the three of us. Capturing the Roseate Tern in action was no easy task due to the shooting conditions from the boat. But there was no way I was going to give up without giving it my all first. The Almighty must be looking down on me today because I found that I managed to capture more good shots than I had anticipated.

After going through his images back home, Dave told us that there were at least two Roseate Terns present and not one as we had earlier suspected. The man's eye for the finer details is unbelievable. I certainly did not notice it. Perhaps the aftermath of all the emotions from laying eyes on my very first Roseate Tern clouded my vision. A very slight difference in the wing and tail feathers' stage of moult and bill colour were the only differences between the two birds. After scrutinizing my images, I found only a single image of the second bird with its left outer primary being the most noticeable difference.

It is much easier to identify Roseate Terns when they are in breeding plumage. The minussensis race of the Common Tern with the red legs is quite similar to the former and the root cause of misidentification between the two species.

With my newly acquired field experience, I found that I could differentiate the Common from the Roseate Tern (when seen together) even without the aid of my bins. The latter is a much more elegant and slender tern. And the former is simply more of a brute. A small number of Common Terns were recorded today and are most probably over-summering birds.

In fact, the Roseate Tern has almost the same jizz as the Black-naped Tern. However, the latter is a much paler tern. It is almost wholly white and still is the closest thing I will ever get in seeing an angel.

Our fishermen friends were also kept happy by the good haul today. Although the amount of anchovies (their main target fish) caught was significantly low, they did quite well with other small fish species. 

We got back to dry land with a couple of daylight hours left. Dave still needed a Mangrove Pitta for his Big Year and the Merbok mangroves along the coastline here is one of the most extensive and unexplored mangroves in Peninsular Malaysia. He also happens to know of a spot where you can drive right to the edge of the mangroves and wants to try his luck there. It was just next to a Malay village and upon arrival, instantly reminded me of my beloved Air Hiram Dalam back in Penang. I intentionally left all my gear in the car as we stepped towards the mangroves. Years of birding has taught me that long shots and anything short of a miracle will only take place when you are least prepared or equipped. True enough, we were greeted by no less than three Mangrove Pittas! It may sound odd but this is the first time I have ever seen a Mangrove Pitta in the mangroves. Just in case you are wondering, I ran back to the car and grabbed my gear soon after we heard the calls.

Eventually, one of the pittas came quite close and alighted on a Rambutan tree. The only reason I know it is a Rambutan tree because it had unripe fruits on it. Otherwise, it will be just another "tree" next to the mangroves.

We started off the day with an unexpected sighting of three Wreathed Hornbills flying low above the coastal trees where our fishing boat was docked. And Mother Nature felt it was only right that we end this outstanding trip with another hornbill. This male Oriental Pied Hornbill was foraging on a dead coconut stump as we made our way out of the mangroves. 

With the light disappearing at such a rapid pace, I tried my best to capture a few images. Lucky for me, one of them came out relatively good. Although Oriental Pied Hornbills are the commonest hornbill in Peninsular Malaysia, I have not had as many encounters with them as I would love to. One of the reasons is the fact that they are absent from my home state of Penang and that is a real shame.