Wednesday, 19 August 2015

There are no such thing as ghosts...(15/08/2015)

It may not be the most advisable thing to do owling on the first night of the Hungry Ghost Month but we have been planning and delaying this trip to Pedu in the wild interiors of Kedah state for weeks. The drive from Penang takes about 3 hours and in order to reach our destination in time for some pre-dawn owling, we had to leave the comforts of our bed at around one in the morning! As we were driving along the access road at near the shoreline of Pedu Lake in search of our nocturnal quarries, we noticed strange sounds coming out from the engine of my car. We birders sometimes get so carried away with our birding that we even lose perspective of things. So, we just pushed on as the thrill of the hunt was at its climax.

When we heard the call of not one but two Blyth's Frogmouths, any vehicular concerns momentarily vanished. Of the 3 species of frogmouths that occur here in Peninsular Malaysia, the Blyth's Frogmouth is the easiest to see. Or so they say. In all my years of birding, I have heard it on several occasions but not once did it show itself to me. My companions, Choo Eng and Hor Kee on the other hand, have seen this species before. So, I find it quite appropriate that this species finally decided to show itself to me tonight, of all nights, because the call of this nocturnal creature is best described to be not unlike the wailing of a banshee.

It was a memorable encounter. This lifer was perched on an exposed perch and gave us prolonged views. The distance hampered any efforts of a really good photo but who cares. He was a handsome specimen and the long wait for this moment only compounded my excitement and joy. His mate decided to join him and alighted on a perch behind him. We only had a brief view of her before she disappeared into the darkness with her mate. Our target nightbirds for this trip included the Large Frogmouth as well but if there was any sense of disappointment about missing the latter, it was fully compensated by the former's noteworthy performance. 

When morning came, it was time to look for another set of target birds. Pedu area used to have three resorts along the edge of the lake but are no longer in operation. The whole area is now rather isolated with the main access road devoid of vehicles most of time and that makes it very ideal for birding.

The Chestnut-necklaced Partridge provided a very good reason for a return trip to this locality as the closest we ever came to locating this elusive game bird was a Red Junglefowl flushed from its night time roost. At the time of writing, Dave managed to see and photograph the partridges exactly where we were searching for them a few days after our trip. I think envy is the word I should use right now. As expected, not even a peep from the near-mythical Giant Pitta although we managed to record both the Hooded and Blue-winged Pitta this time.

The wet and gloomy weather made photography rather challenging. But I had to try my best to obtain at least one photo that looked slightly like the Thick-billed Spiderhunter that was foraging at the canopy levels. This was my third ever sighting of this the rarest of all the spiderhunters in Peninsular Malaysia and not even the persistent light drizzle and horrid lighting could dampen our spirits.

We decided to venture out to more open areas along the main road that cuts through some pristine rainforest do to some birding by car due to the less than desirable weather. Some of the views from here are simply spectacular.

Unfortunately, human beings have a tendency to destroy all things beautiful and spectacular that Mother Nature has to offer. And to make things worse, this is a failed or abandoned agricultural project. It takes like forever for a forest to become a forest but it only takes one moronic decision to destroy it and sometimes, even for no reason at all.

However, the presence of hornbills meant that there is still enough unspoiled wilderness in the vicinity for them to roam and flourish. We had an amazing haul of hornbills today and recorded the Oriental Pied, Black, Great and Rhinoceros Hornbills. The best hornbill encounter was undoubtedly a pair of Plain-pouched Hornbills that was flying relatively low over the forest canopy. This nomadic species is rarely encountered anywhere else in the country except for the western and central northern regions of the peninsular at this time of the year.

I have not had the privilege or the good fortune to witness this but the Plain-pouched Hornbills often travel in huge flocks and flocks numbering up to the thousands is not unknown. This natural phenomenon will cease to occur if moronic decisions persist to occur.

This young Collared Kingfisher is looking somewhat out of place so far inland. Although the coastal areas are its preferred habitat choice, there will be those that prefer a life less ordinary - just like people.

Grey Wagtails are usually one of the first to arrive at their wintering grounds in the tropics. Quite a few were encountered along the main road and were not particularly pleased with our presence.

With the noon hour approaching, we finally decided to seriously find the source of the strange sounds coming out of my car at low speed. To our horror, Choo Eng found that the engine oil almost depleted. While trying to figure it out what happen, we came to few possibilities ranging from leakage to theft.

Anyway, to make a long story short, we managed to safely make our way to the nearest town and topped up the engine oil. We cut the trip short as we do not want to take any chances of my car breaking down in the middle of nowhere. We did make a short stop along the way back at Lata Mengkaung. We discovered a fruiting Macaranga Tree (thanks to Hor Kee for the identification of the tree) at the car park area with a couple of bird species patronising the tree. The highlight of the visit would be the lone Cream-coloured Giant-Squirrel that was gorging on the fruits as well. It was so preoccupied with the feast that it forgone its usual elusive and shy nature and allowed a prolonged and close observation.

'Food drunk' as Choo Eng so eloquently put it...

A quick check on my car's engine oil level at the car park revealed that the level did go down. Not even one bit. We then decided to head to the empty plot of land in Kulim Hi-Tech Park for another go at the elusive Small Buttonquail. We managed a few short glimpses of the Buttonquail, much to Hor Kee's delight, but without any images to show - again. During our search, we did come across a few roosting Savanna Nightjars and I cannot help but to be amazed at how similar a roosting nightjar looks like a rock when seen without any optical aid.

We Chinese believe that we should avoid offending the visitors from the supernatural realm that are set free in our world during the Hungry Ghost Month. And to be extra cautious as bad things tend to happen in this period of time also. My birding endeavours often take me to the most isolated and wildest areas and that is why my better half is not too thrill whenever I go birding during this "month". Did our intrusion into the forest in the dead of night offended something from the other side thus resulting in my car's mysteriously malfunction? I guess some things are better left unanswered...

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Birding is like a box of chocolates ((09/08/2015)

Tom's first visit to Sungai Sedim in Kedah must have made quite an impression on him. And since he had to say back another week to complete his working assignment here in Penang, he made arrangements with me for a second trip. I usually do not take visiting birders to the same location twice but I had to agree with Tom's decision because this locality is really happening of late. As we made our way into the recreational forest, we just had to make a quick stop at the Treeswift Tree to admire the usual big number of roosting Grey-rumped Treeswifts.

While being entertained by the Treeswifts, a pair of Lesser Cuckooshrikes came into the picture. I have seen this species in this particular spot quite a few times but they are always at a distance. I cannot say that it is common anywhere in the forests that I frequently bird and any encounter is a good encounter.

We did not even manage to walk far from my parked car when a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills decided to fly over the car park area. The male led the way and I was only fast enough to capture his female companion. When these huge hornbills are in flight, they are truly majestic. Now, this is what I call a warm welcome...

Before we could fully regain our composure, a flash of bright emerald flew across our path and alighted on a nearby tree. We traced the Green Broadbill to a small fruiting tree and much to our delight, there was not one but four of these resplendent birds in the vicinity. Unlike the other Broadbills here, Green Broadbills are omnivorous and a fruiting tree is just as inviting as swarming winged termites. Just this week alone, I have witnessed both these behaviours and these four birds are probably the same individuals that provided the experiences.

The Green Broadbill was one of Tom's main target birds for his trip to Malaysia. We were not given any photographic opportunities during his first visit. Today, it was a whole different story. Despite the dim lighting conditions, I am quite pleased with how the images turned out.

The fruiting tree also attracted barbets. We recorded a total of five different species in the vicinity but I only managed to obtain decent images of three. Forest barbets spend most of their time among the safety of the top most canopy levels. More often heard than seen, it is only at suitable fruiting trees like this that you can truly admire the beauty of these birds. The Blue-eared Barbet is the smallest of all the forest barbets and is common throughout its range.

The Red-throated Barbet is one the largest and most striking barbets in the forest here. It has a tendency to forage lower than most barbets and I encountered it on more than a few occasions. The availability of food made this male bird even more confiding and provided the best photo opportunities.

Here he is showing off his brilliant plumage in the sun...

The Yellow-crowned Barbet may not be as vividly coloured as most of the other barbets but there is also beauty in simplicity and subtlety. This may not be the best of images but I have not photograph this species before and that naturally made it a keeper for me.

We could have spent the entire day at the fruiting tree but the urge to explore deeper into the forest was too strong to resist. As we made our way up the Gunung Bintang access trail, we found a blue morph Rufous-winged Philentoma resting at the middle storey of the forest. Here in Sungai Sedim, this colour morph is not that uncommon but it has been years since my last sighting. 

The Olive-backed Woodpecker is scarce throughout Peninsular Malaysia. This is my third only sighting so far and was determined not to end up without any images from this encounter. This pair of Olive-backed Woodpeckers made their intentions clear right from the very beginning. Keeping to the top most part of the canopy and well hidden most of the time was absolutely disheartening. But through a little perseverance, I managed this record shot of the female at the end.

Hor Kee recorded a Rufous-tailed Shama here a few months back. That is another species I have not seen for many moons. Although it does not sing as well as the White-rumped Shama, its vocal capabilities are good enough to stop me at my tracks. Well, maybe not so much the song but the status of the bird that got me all excited. Unfortunately, this encounter was only for the enjoyment of my ear drums as the bird did not reveal itself in the end.

You can never know what to expect in birding. The last thing I expected to see here in Sungai Sedim was a flock of Long-tailed Broadbills moving through the canopy level. These gorgeous birds are usually found high up in the montane forests and this is the first time I have encountered them at such a low elevation. It is also my first record for this site. It is unfortunate that the flock was travelling at such a rapid pace. They really caught me by surprise and my slow reaction sealed the outcome of the encounter.

We visited the swamp forest at Air Hitam Dalam later in the afternoon and was greeted by a few confiding Abbott's Babbler at the rear car park.

The one species that you are almost guaranteed to see at this location is the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher. Best of all, they are often very obliging for photography. That's a good boy...

The Pin-striped Tit-Babbler is another regular babbler species found within this small patch of forest. Their loud and persistent vocalisations give away their presence every time. Obtaining clear and prolonged views is somewhat of a privilege due to the active and skulking nature of this species.

The resident Brown Boobooks have been keeping themselves well out of sight these past few weeks. But I guess today is no ordinary day based on the great results from Sungai Sedim earlier on. And true enough, we managed to see a lone bird on their usual roosting tree. A number of branches and leaves were in the way but it does not really matter. I was glad just to know that it is still here. The owl was a great way to wrapped up a rewarding and exciting trip. Disappointments and frustrations are aplenty in birding but the unexpected surprises will certainly balance things out and they have kept my passion for this hobby going even after all these years. 

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Feathered Houdini

A birding honeymoon. Now, that is a term you do not hear often. In fact, I think it is unheard of here in Malaysia. But there is always a time for everything and for newlywed Americans Mervis and Mitch that is exactly what they were doing here in Penang. They decided to incorporate a few days of guided birding into their itinerary and I was given the privilege to show them the hidden birding treasures of Penang. Their tour certainly did not start off well. I had to cancel the first day due to rain. On the second day, it rained again at dawn but lucky for them, after the rain subsided, the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam weaved its magic and the resident birds gave the love birds a warm reception. This birding locality has not failed me even once and today, it provided another memorable experience for my guests with notable performances by the Blue-winged Pitta, Black-and-red Broadbill, Mangrove Blue Flycatcher and Streak-breasted Woodpecker.

 The weather was unforgiving on the third day as well. It rained shortly after our arrival at the recreational forest of Sungai Sedim. Fortunately, I managed to show them the Grey-rumped Treeswifts at their usual roosting tree. The sight of 50 Grey-rumped Treeswifts slicing through the gloomy skies while screaming their heads off was something will leave me speechless let alone a couple of foreign birders on their maiden trip to Malaysia. And the presence of a couple of Whiskered Treeswifts at the vicinity added more colours to the encounter.

All seemed lost when we had to seek shelter in the multipurpose hall of the main car park to escape the downpour. With the rain showing no signs of stopping anytime soon, nothing short of a miracle could now save the trip. Out of nowhere, I caught a glimpse of a bird hawking. It was followed by another and another. Upon further scrutiny, I realised that winged termites were swarming and when this natural phenomenon occurs, it attracts birds like a natural magnet - rain or shine. Soon after, we were enjoying barbets, bulbuls and bluebirds from the comforts of our temporary rain shelter. I would never have imagined that I could salvage a birding trip when it rains. The experience was simply unbelievable.

We watched in disbelieve when two pairs of Green Broadbills came to join in the feast. These jewels of the forest usually occur singly or in pairs. To see four together was incredible. And to see them for a prolonged period of time hunting termites was priceless. The emerald plumage of the male birds pierced through the blanket of rain like a green beacon. A lone Black-and-yellow Broadbill also came for the nutritious termites but was chased away by the Green Broadbills. It was not to be denied and returned after the aggressors have had their fill and departed from the vicinity.

After lunch, we visited the nearby forest reserve of Ulu Paip because I wanted to show my guests the celebrity birds of this locality. The Blue-banded Kingfisher and the Chestnut-naped Forktail are regularly seen along the fast flowing river here. "Have faith" - that was what Mervis said to me when I wanted to give up after failing to locate both the birds. And thus we pushed on and a few minutes later, a striking male Chestnut-naped Forktail hopped out from the dense riverine vegetation and remained in the open for us to enjoy the sight. Faith restored...

The highlight of the day and the entire tour for me was a casual detour to an empty plot of land within the industrial park at Kulim that resulted in a mega lifer for all of us. I have been searching for the Small Buttonquail ever since it was discovered by Dave in the same district almost 10 years ago. It was a brief encounter. Luckily, I managed to see all the field characteristics before it casually strolled into the grassy area and vanished - just like that. I swear to God, all quails are born with talents that even Houdini himself would be envy of. Although it was not much of a compensation for the Buttonquail episode, I did manage to photograph a handsome male Red Collared-Dove at the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh before concluding the tour.

Missing out on photographing the Small Buttonquail did not go well with me. I know that could have just blown the only chance I will ever have to do it. So, I was back at the empty plot of land two days later but this time with infantry - Choo Eng and Hor Kee. However, trying to relocate a bird the size of a tennis ball and perfectly adapted to conceal itself in such an environment was near impossible.

When the thought of dipping out on this rare game bird started to sink in, we paid more attention to the other birds that were present. There was a fair number of Oriental Pratincoles in the vicinity. With the breeding season over, almost every bird was in non-breeding plumage.

The Savanna Nightjar can be considered a recent coloniser to Peninsular Malaysia from the south. When I started birding, it was only found south of Selangor state. It took these night birds some time to finally colonise the peninsular and nowadays, they are probably the commonest nightjar in open country habitats. I never had much luck with this species in terms of photography. When Choo Eng spotted a few roosting next to a retainer, it was heaven-sent to me.

If you ask me the concrete pavement provided the best backdrop for the nightjars to camouflage themselves. It is no wonder that they are roosting here and not the adjacent grasslands. This photo-lifer provided the highlight of this short outing but like the previous visit was not much compensation for missing out on a tiny bird that gets a kick out of performing vanishing acts in the presence of birders. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Welcome to birding in Malaysia (02/08/2015)

I was starting to develop withdrawal symptoms from birding insufficiency but lucky for me, this weekend is the first one in weeks that I am able to get out into the field again. The Orange-backed Woodpecker is a stunner that resides in both primary and secondary forests. An encounter with a family of three at the Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest in Kedah was truly an exciting affair. The birds were foraging in the dimly-lit middle storey of the forest and that made it difficult to capture good images. However, just to observe them on the hunt and the flashes of red and orange against the dark backdrop of the dense tropical foliage whenever they shift positions was a true privilege.

Tom, my guest from USA, has never been to Malaysia before and I felt proud to be the one to introduce him to the birding scene here. And these woodpeckers certainly had his full attention - naturally.

Bird waves are a common phenomenon in the tropics but to a visiting birder, they can be quite foreign and at times overwhelming. A flock of Green Ioras took part in this particular wave. A female bird, unable to resist the temptation of food, came very close and even stop momentarily to savour the meal.

This Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker has nothing to gain from participating in a bird wave as it has no interest in the insects flushed. Berries are what it is after. Its presence may have been a mere coincidence but to us, the up close encounter that we managed to enjoy made it a very rewarding coincidence indeed.

Everything was such bliss until this male Great Iora reminded us of the difficulties and frustrations of forest bird photography. However, it was a good record because this largest of the Ioras is not a species commonly encountered.

It is always nice to come across a Rufous-tailed Tailorbird because of the contrasting colours this little fellow boasts. A lone bird resting in the open was unfortunately too far for any truly sharp images.

On the way to lunch, we made a detour hoping to catch a glimpse of the roosting Barred Eagle-Owl. The sudden drizzle threatened to foil our plans but thankfully, the Rain Tree provided enough shelter for the owl and we caught it peering down on us from its lofty perch.

After a hearty lunch, we made our way to Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. A confiding Stork-billed Kingfisher started things off on a high note for this birding hotspot as well.

Tom had a few targets for this trip but he really wanted a Green Broadbill and any pitta. He got the former at a fruiting tree in Sungai Sedim earlier on but the distance prevented any good captures. His second target was a much better encounter which was a pair of Blue-winged Pittas performing well. Few things could better that. It does not matter which pitta species. If it is showing well, then you got it made. Simply magical...

A female Streak-breasted Woodpecker also decided to forage near the car park area and momentarily diverted our attention from the pittas.

To wrap things up for the day, one last image of the Blue-winged Pitta. Most birders, including locals, are fascinated by these beautiful terrestrial birds. Tom wanted a pitta and he certainly got one. It was a memorable encounter and a great way to end his maiden birding trip to Malaysia.