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.