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. 


John Holmes said...

Great to see the Nightjar, your Savanna NJs must be a different race to ours - quite different-looking.

My best (and very few) b'quail shots were frozen in the car headlights at night. "Houdinis", yes indeed.

Choy Wai Mun said...

John, our Savanna Nightjar originated from the south and I think you are right if this being a different race. I missed out on the Buttonquail again on my third attempt!