I waited for my guest at the hotel lobby, as usual before the break of dawn, and right on the dot, Paul emerged and greeted me with a warm smile. As soon as he got into my car, he gave me a calendar that he made using all his images and I was really impressed by the quality of the images. Then it dawned on me. He must be expecting to obtain images like these during our tour as well. One of the things we bird guides fear the most is not being able to meet the client's expectations. The man had a stunning photo of a Resplendent Quetzal on the front cover for God's sake. It certainly looked like I have my work cut out for me this time. Fortunately, I had something up my sleeves and it was a fruiting tree in full bloom at the Recreational Forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah. Upon our arrival, the tree was already a centre of bird activity.
The sun was a late riser today and that made photography a little more difficult. However, despite the setback, the birds were very confiding and that ease our efforts to capture their images. The first species to attract our attention was this lone Buff-vented Bulbul.
There were plenty of other bulbuls and flowerpeckers on the tree but they were momentarily pushed aside when a flock of Sooty Barbets came crashing through the forest canopy and started devouring the little red fruits.
The Sooty Barbet, formerly known as the Brown Barbet, is the only barbet in Malaysia that does not even have a trace of green on its plumage. Neither does it have the typical persistent and loud call of most barbets. In fact, it squeaks like a mouse and the chubby appearance makes it so adorable.
Being a habitant of the highest canopies, good views are often difficult to obtain. A fruiting tree like this is the only time when you are able to observe and photograph this barbet at such close proximity.
The flock of barbets did not stay for long and returned back to the cover of the forest soon after. And we started to focus back on the bulbuls again and they have certainly increased in numbers. The Red-eyed Bulbul is one of the commonest bulbul species at this locality. So, it was no surprise to find it feasting on the tree.
The Spectacled Bulbul is almost identical to the Red-eyed Bulbul. A thin yellow eye ring, from which its name is derived, is one of the best field identification marks to differentiate it from the latter.
Sneaking along the lower branches of the tree was a flock of Hairy-backed Bulbuls. Their behaviour is more like a babbler than a bulbul and they were gone in an instance. This is the only shot that I have to show for the encounter.
On the other hand, the Finsch's Bulbul was very cooperative and stood right out in the open after having had its fill of fruits. Although it does slightly resemble the commoner Hairy-backed Bulbul, it behaves very much like a typical Bulbul and that alone will easily separate the two species.
Being more robust than all the other bulbuls present, the Grey-cheeked Bulbul gets its way most of time. And today, it is more confiding than usual - much to our delight. The puffy white throat and the crested look do wonders to its aesthetic appeal and I found it hard to pull myself away from its charm.
It will have to take something exceptional to ignore the Grey-cheeked Bulbul and the Scaly-breasted Bulbul is undoubtedly something exceptional. One of the most stunning bulbuls of the Malaysian forest, its presence anywhere is simply electrifying.
I just love the intricate patterns on the breast of this bird. Reminds me of those racy lacy attires adorned by the fairer sex and are made to excite and arouse.
Once the effect of the fruiting tree started to wear off, we decided that it was finally time to actually go into the forest. The closest thing to a Quetzal here in Malaysia is the trogons. Although not exactly in the same league, the male Scarlet-rumped Trogon is no pushover in terms of appeal and charisma. And the bright red colour of his plumage will just melt your heart away.
A shift of position revealed his namesake - the red-coloured rump. This particular individual is also one of the most confiding that I have encountered in a long time. Maybe the distance between us was quite reasonable and he did not feel at all. That's a good boy…
A lone Crested Jay gave us no chance whatsoever of capturing any images as it swiftly move through the middle storey of the forest. The encounter with a family of Orange-backed Woodpecker was no much better but I did manage to capture a few records shots. Although, the woodpecker family was quite close and confiding, the dense vegetation and challenging lighting conditions got the better of our photographic attempts.
This family of Grey-and-buff Woodpeckers, on the other hand, was being plain difficult. This adorable species has always been in my most wanted list of birds to photograph but I never had the privilege to do so. I was on the brink of breaking into tears when I had the woodpeckers right in front of me but unfortunately, hidden among dense vegetation. This is a young male judging from the pale colours on his crest.
The adult male did hop onto an exposed perch momentarily but his constant movement killed my one only unobstructed shot for the whole encounter.
We had a last look at the fruiting tree before we moved on to the next locality of our tour. This Grey-bellied was relatively close but the harsh midday lighting was a real hindrance. Including the Cream-vented and Streaked Bulbul, we recorded more than ten different species of bulbuls at this tree today.
A few flowerpeckers were also at the fruiting tree throughout our time there but none of them wanted to be photographed. This handsome male Orange-bellied Flowerpecker was the only exception.
Paul is an American who now spends most of his time in Costa Rica and is relatively new to the birds of this region. He has been to Borneo once and that is about it. He made a request that he wanted to photograph a White-throated Kingfisher on a natural perch. He has seen this species before but was never given much chance to capture its image. This is not the first time a foreign guest has expressed interest in this common species. Local birders have taken this kingfisher for granted due to its abundance but its colours, and no shortage of attitude either, can certainly be quite intriguing to birders who are not familiar with it. It is just like me gawking at Galahs in Australia. This parrot is common even in the suburbs but to me, the sight of such a striking parrot strolling on someone's lawn is unbelievable. Anyway, we managed to find one that was exceptionally confiding. And it was on a natural perch. Hallelujah...
Our next destination was the swampforest of Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. However, things were slower than usual than this birding hotspot. But we enjoyed a few good encounters including one that even brought a grown man to his knees...
This splendid male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher was the highlight of the visit here. He was sitting smugly among the undergrowth next to the boardwalk and we had no choice but to lower our stance for a better image. Judging from the image, I feel that it was worth the effort. So despite the initial concern of not being able to rise to the occasion, the tour ended on a high note and Paul was a very happy man at the end of the day.