Thursday 29 October 2015

Haze gets in your eyes (24/10/2015)

There is usually a sense of excitement as you make your way to a birding site. The further the site is from home, you more excited you tend to be. That is only natural. But today's journey to the forest of Sungai Sedim evokes no such emotions. Instead there was concern and resentment. The haze that has engulfed my country of late did not show any signs of clearing up. And the beautiful scenery that usually welcomes my arrival to this site is now stained by the foul air. And for the first time in all my years of birding, I had to wear a surgical face mask to indulge in this favourite pastime of mine. What is this world coming to...

The forest was exceptionally quiet today. Even the persistent calls of the resident barbets and broadbills did not echo across the vicinity as usual. It seemed as if the gloomy sky and intoxicating haze were chocking the life out of the forest. The rays of the morning sun could not find a way here and a dimly-lit forest will utterly test your sanity and ability as a bird photographer. A confiding juvenile Rufous-winged Philentoma came extremely close while it foraged for breakfast. By right, this should have provided a collection of good images. But not today.

A territorial dispute had a resident pair of Yellow-bellied Bulbuls chasing off an intruder through the lower level of the forest. When the chase was finally over, the intruder had unknowingly alighted on a nearby branch to catch its breath and I tried to make the best of out of the encounter.

When a juvenile Crow-billed Drongo led a bird wave across my path, for a brief moment birding was back to how it is supposed to be. A dozen species of birds held my attention as I determined their identification and observed their behaviour. When the wave finally passed through, deafening silence took over again and the bird activity died down to almost a complete halt. After a while, I gave up and retreated back towards the car park while thinking up a contingency plan.

In Penang, there is one particular site that will usually have something about no matter the time or condition. Air Hitam Dalam has rarely let me down in the past and I found myself back at the swamp forest for the second consecutive Saturday. The annual southerly passage of migrating raptors is well underway but the current air quality kept me back from our usual raptor count site at Bedong. I was quite pleased to see a flock of thirty Black Kites riding the thermals above the car park area. Migrating raptors is truly a spectacle of nature. This particular individual flew lower than the rest which made photography still possible in this shooting condition.

This striking male Korean Flycatcher is gradually getting accustomed to the hospitality here. Seeing him foraging among the canopy level jolted me back to last season. Back then we had a couple of friendly males that provided countless memorable encounters.

The Green-billed Malkoha proved to be a difficult subject again as it move from tree to tree in search of food.

To wrap things up for this hazy day is one of the star birds of this birding site - the Streak-breasted Woodpecker. Its limited range in Peninsular Malaysia is the reason behind its celebrity status and a performing male bird will never be taken for granted. 

Wednesday 21 October 2015

The flooded forest (17/10/2015)

It has been a while since my last visit to the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in northern mainland Penang. Upon my arrival, the first thing that caught my attention was the amount of water that has covered the forest floor. It is no Amazon basin but to me, it is still a little piece of natural paradise not too far from home.

The rise in water level did not have much effect on the birds as the rear car park is still quite a centre of activity. I spent more time than usual at the car park today because of a small but striking migrant that performed well here last week for a few privileged birders - the Black-backed Kingfisher. But it was a no show by this dwarf kingfisher today. Abbott's Babblers are usually secretive birds that tend to keep to the cover of the forest undergrowth. The only indication of their presence is their tri-syllabic call. Well, try telling that to this one...

Are birds capable of daydreaming? It looked like this female Ashy Tailorbird was and she remained stationery for quite a long period of time considering she is one of the most active species found here.

This Lineated Barbet was feeling a little smug as it almost got the better of me. It was on an exposed perch in front of me but I was too preoccupied with a Green-billed Malkoha that was moving about nearby to notice it. Then, James Neoh came along and casually made a remark of what a nice perch the Lineated Barbet was posing on. Thanks, bro...

Common as this barbet may be at this locality but its preference for the canopy levels often prevents good photographic opportunities. One on an exposed perch not too steep in angle is definitely worth a second shot.

The deafening calls of the Hill Myna are not often heard at this locality. Seeing that it is a local rarity, I did my best to locate the bird and I did. However, the only slightly unobstructed view was a distant one and yet again, I could only obtain record shots of this the largest of the mynas. Its ability to mimic human speech makes it a much sought-after cage bird and being kept in a cage is no way for this remarkable bird to live. That did not come out right. Being kept in a cage is no way for any bird to live.

I always have a soft spot for the Black-thighed Falconet. Not only is it adorable but its mannerism is also captivating at times. It does occur in small family groups and allo preening is a common practice among these tiny raptors.

This show of public affection is a relished activity. The expression of the bird on the receiving end says it all. One good turn...

Deserves another...

Air Hitam Dalam is one of the main roosting areas for the migratory Black Kites. Only a handful was seen today and they are probably the early arrivals. In the weeks to come, their numbers will increase significantly and dozens will call this place home for the winter months.

By mid-day, another yearning drew me from the swamp forest to the nearby coastal mudflats. The migratory waders are back and it is time once again to scan the coastlines for this fascinating group of birds. I made myself comfortable on the rocky outcrop of Bagan Belat and patiently waited for the rising tide to push my subjects closer to me.

The Common Redshanks were the first to come within reasonable shooting range but the harsh afternoon sun and shimmering heat wave made photography difficult. And thanks to a considerate neighbouring country, I now also have to deal with the haze as well.

Despite the abundance of food, Common Redshanks have a tendency to squabble and snatch each other's catch.

The Eurasian Curlews, on the other hand, behaved like the regal creatures that they are and there will always be an air of elegance and majesty about them.

Even their massive size could not withstand the rising waters and gradually, they moved closer to shore. Their occasional short burst of flight gave me a chance to capture them in flight.

A flock of lanky waders also made its way closer to shore and upon further scrutiny, turned out to be Black-tailed Godwits. Although it is not uncommon throughout its wintering range here in Malaysia, it is not often encountered at this range here in Penang. Naturally, they had my undivided attention.

In flight, it is easy to see why they are called Black-tailed Godwits...

This lone Terek Sandpiper came reasonably close to my position and stroll past my field of view a few times. It was only after the godwits left the scene did I started to pay it some attention. No hard feelings, ya?

We often come across common names of birds that do not truly reflect their appearance or character. Then there are those common names that really hit the nail on the head like the Common Sandpiper. It is undoubtedly the commonest of our waders. It may not occur in very big numbers at a single locality like some of the other waders but it occurs everywhere. And I mean everywhere. With that, I concluded my first visit to the mudflats for the season and it is good to be back. 

Thursday 15 October 2015

The Sunset Pond (10/10/2015)

The former mining ponds of Malim Nawar in Perak have been hosting exceptionally rare migratory water birds for the past few seasons. Thus, the slightly more than two-hour drive from Penang is a very small price to pay for potential mega lifers. Together with Hor Kee, we set out well before dawn for this birding adventure. Upon our arrival at the Sunset Pond, a name passionately given by birders to a particular pond, we found that it has been flooded with too much water and is now avoided by the water birds. The pond on the opposite side of the access track, on the other hand, was a different story. Hundreds of Little Egrets have gathered there to rest and feed gracing the vicinity with their poise and beauty.

There were at least a dozen Little Cormorants present as well. This species is gradually becoming commoner here in Peninsular Malaysia. It was most unfortunate that none of them ever came close to our position and flying shots were all that I managed to obtain today.

The adjacent ponds held spectacles of nature themselves too. This is the highest density of Oriental Pratincoles that I have ever laid eyes on and I have seen my fair share of Oriental Pratincoles prior to this.

Their numbers were easily a thousand strong in total. And whenever they took flight, they darkened the sky. And their calls, echoed throughout the vicinity.

We did scrutinise these flocks for the much rarer Little Pratincole that is known to occur here. We figured if there is ever a chance to find one, it would be today. In the end, the Little Pratincole remains elusive and our hopes, dashed.

The migratory terns are back in full force and their angelic presence is always a welcomed sight. The Little Tern occurs both in fresh and saline water habitats. Although it lacks the size of the other terns, it still possesses the aerial elegance and agility synonymous of this family of birds.

There are a few reasons behind the high concentration of waterbirds here. The availability of food is definitely one of them. Here, an adult Purple Heron was photographed making off with breakfast. Nothing like a hearty meal to start off the day...

The Grey Heron is another large waterbird that is always present at these ponds. Suitable habitats for this beautiful bird are disappearing rapidly in my home state of Penang and possibly, neighbouring states like Perak are the only places I can observe it in future.

As the migratory season is now in full swing, flocks of waders had to be given their due attention. When it comes to waders, you just do not know what rarities might be mingling with the commoner species. There were no surprises among the Little Ringed Plovers however...

A few of them were still in their striking breeding plumage and rightfully deserved some space in my camera's SD card.

Stints are the smallest, and the cutest, of all the waders. Due to their diminutive size, identification can be challenging at times. The Long-toed Stint is well-marked enough to be quite easily told apart from the other species. In fact, it is one of the most attractive of all the stints in winter. Although it was the only stint species present, the sheer number present and confiding nature made the encounter a memorable one.

Odd-sized stints were scrutinised for possible Pectoral and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. I know I just mentioned that Long-toed Stints are quite distinct. But these are waders we are talking about and wader identification is never straightforward. Anyway, there were no Pecs and Sharpies to brighten up the day.

To wrap things up for this trip, a lone Oriental Honey-Buzzard was seen in flight and most probably on passage to its wintering ground further south. I guess it is that time of the year again when we will spend countless hours gazing up into the heavens while observing yet another spectacle of nature - raptor migration. 

Thursday 1 October 2015

Here we go again (26/09/2015)

With the migratory season coming into full swing, we decided to do a site recce up north to plan out our own "migration routes" for this season to check out all the wintering grounds there. My companions this time were Choo Eng, Hor Kee and Tulsi (a raptor specialist from Nepal currently doing a course at our local university) and the grasslands of Chuping in Perlis was our destination. We noticed some significant changes to the site but there is still hope. Some portions of the grasslands remain just the way they were last season.

It was a little too early to expect encountering anything out of the ordinary. However, there is now a huge heronry right in the middle of the grasslands. Hundreds of Black-crowned Night-herons and Purple Herons were seen nesting and resting at that patch of reed bed that is that well beyond harm's reach.

There was not much migrants encountered this trip but this confiding female Siberian Stonechat, hopefully, is a sign of things to come. Doing her little balancing act on a strain of grass, she had us transfixed on her every move as we observed her from our stationery vehicle.

Just like my last trip to Sungai Sedim, male birds appeared to be lacking in courage. He remained much further away from our vehicle during our observation. Or maybe he was a little reluctant to be photographed as he has almost moulted all of his striking breeding plumage. 

In the absence of notable birds, we had plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of these lands. The view of limestone hills set against beautiful blue skies and soothing green grasslands is like gazing onto the canvas of a piece of art. Who am I kidding? I didn't travel all the way here from Penang just to soak in the scenery. I am here for the birds. It has always been the birds for me and will always be…

It is good to see resident species still able to call this place home despite all the looming threats of converting the grasslands into rubber estates. The highly vocal Red-wattled Lapwings will never go unnoticed.

Indian Rollers are scarce on the western side of Peninsular Malaysia. So, to see pair is an exciting record regardless of the distance and the lighting condition.

To wrap things up for the day was this female migratory Brown Shrike having some trouble with the locals - a Garden Fence Lizard. Neither was big enough to overpower the other. Eventually, the shrike just hopped onto the next fence pole. End of conflict. Life goes on. If only it was this simple for all species that share this Earth to settle their differences - including us humans.