Tuesday 29 December 2015

One last trip for the year (27/12/2015)

The journey from the Royal Bintang Hotel where I picked up Matthew, my latest guest who hails from the land down under, to Air Hitam Dalam did not take as long as I anticipated. Upon arrival, it was still dark but the birding hotspot was far from dead. Large-tailed Nightjars were establishing their territories one last time before seeking refuge from the light of day and Mangrove Blue Flycatchers signal the arrival of a brand new day with their repertoire of sweet whistles. The atmosphere provided the perfect built-up for the birding to come and we waited in anticipation for the break of dawn.

One of the first birds to greet us was a pair of Olive-winged Bulbuls. Occasionally, this bulbul can be rather confiding and this is certainly of those occasions. One of them was calling persistently and I can only assume it is the male establishing his territory. With the breeding season around the corner, it comes as no surprise when throughout this visit we encountered more birds pairing up.

There are quite a number of successful species here at Air Hitam Dalam like the Mangrove Blue Flycatchers. They are truly thriving in whatever is left of this swamp forest and have perfectly adapted to the lifestyle here. The pair that holds the territory at the rear car park area is the one that is most frequently encountered and photographed. And today, as expected, they provided another memorable performance for my guest to enjoy.

The resident pair of Brown Boobooks roosting next to each was the highlight of the trip. No matter how many times I have encountered them before, they still do it for me. Daytime sighting of owls is always exciting to me and photographing two in a single frame, no matter how common the species is, is a treasured experience.

The characteristic calls of the Collared Kingfisher drew our attention to the canopy where we saw a pair also preparing for the coming breeding season. Love is certainly in the air...

There are no woodpeckers in Australia and I really wanted to show one to Matthew. The star woodpecker of the locality, the Streak-breasted Woodpecker, did a fly-by which was too brief to ignite any sense of awe and excitement. The Banded Woodpecker, on the other hand, made sure that my guest goes home with a memorable encounter of an Asian woodpecker.

The male Banded Woodpecker is a beautiful representative of the forest here and his decision to be so confiding today amazes me as well. This close encounter is a great way to wrap things for this time. In fact, it is a great way to end the year as well. 2015 has been an amazing year and I am truly blessed to be able to experience all the excitement, beauty and fascination the birds provided. I also want to wish each and every one a Happy New Year.

Thursday 24 December 2015

A partridge on a pear tree

All partridges are elusive, shy and have the uncanny ability to hide well especially from birders. The Chestnut-necklaced Partridge is one of the rarest species that occur here in Peninsular Malaysia. You are more likely to see Santa in his open sleigh cruising in the skies above. However, unexpected things do happen in birding and encountering a Chestnut-necklaced Partridge so close to the edge of a forest is certainly one of them. The call of this elusive game bird was the first sign of its presence during one of our birding excursions and at such close distance, it was deafening.

The partridge was on no pear tree but we were so adamant in obtaining better images that leeches, ticks, snakes and God knows what else momentarily do not exist on our forest floor. We tried to remain as silent and still as possible while praying for a better view but that was easier said than done. And to make matters worse, I was quivering with excitement. But Christmas came early this year and the partridge tolerated our presence and gradually showed us more of its true beauty. This is one of the best and most exciting resident lifers we ever had. Terrestrial forest birds are notoriously difficult to observe in the wild. It takes as much luck as it takes field craft to see one well. And today, we were probably the luckiest birders in the world.

The partridge foraged, preened, rested and was totally at ease during our observation. The soft chuckling notes it made while foraging melted my heart away. If I was not seated on the forest floor, my knees would have given way. Things got even more interesting when it started establishing its territory again with those prolonged bursts of loud and wavering calls. I found out from my wife the morning after I was whistling the partridge’s call, which is now embedded deep in my subconscious mind as well, in my sleep. Now, that is what I call a lasting impression.

By the way, we did end up with multiple leech and tick wounds after the encounter. But what are a few bites for a lifer that I am willing to risk a limb to get. We hauled ourselves out of the forest muddy, bloody and sweaty but with a wide grin and a distinct bounce in our stride. This encounter with the partridge was simply electrifying. Being so close to it evoked some feelings that I had not felt for a very long time. It was certainly an experience that is up there among the best. 

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Christmas cheers

Chandru is an avid birder from India who is currently based in Singapore. He has a soft spot for raptors and proposing a birding itinerary for him was easy. The two of us were scanning the grasslands of Chuping, realm of the raptors, at first light.

I have been neglecting the Black-shouldered Kite that is fairly numerous here because it is also numerous throughout country. It was my guest's enthusiasm that reminded me what a beautiful and elegant raptor it truly is.

It took the raptors slightly longer than usual today to show up and excite and entertain with their grace, agility and beauty. Well, better late than never and it was the Pied Harriers that got the ball rolling. A juvenile and a female were seen quartering the grasslands together. However, only the female floated close to our position and provided ample photographic opportunities.

The male, being the most sought after, appeared the last - naturally. Hunting low over a field of Kenaf (thanks, Hor Kee for the identity of the crop) in bloom, his striking plumage and graceful flight set against a meadow-like background was a breathtaking sight indeed.

He provided yet another performance that will forever to crave into my memory regardless of the result of my photographic attempts to capture the moment. The performance deserved a standing ovation which I would have given had I been alone. I just could not risk making my guest think that maybe I have been out in the field for too long.

On the adjacent field, a female Common Kestrel was just finishing up a meal on the ground level. Exactly like the last trip, the girl was in no mood for any close up encounters and this was the best image I could obtain.

The Short-toed Eagle is known to hover as it hunts for food. I have yet to witness that behaviour until today. At that distance, there was no point for me to even hope that the images will turn out good.

When it did come closer, the hunt was over and the snake eagle was on normal flight mode again.

In between all the jaw-dropping performances by the raptors, a confiding female Brown Shrike managed to distract our attention for a brief moment.

It would have also been a sin to ignore this Zitting Cisticola that alighted on wooden stake right in front of us. Although it is common at this locality, good views of it are certainly not. 

Chuping had one last surprise in store for us before we proceeded to the next birding location of the day. It is, after all, the week before Christmas. A pale medium-sized raptor was seen perched on a rubber tree sapling and as we were making our way out of the maze of access trails that cut through the grasslands. To my dismay, it took flight as soon as I had my camera on it. My pleas gradually turned to swears as the mystery raptor was adamant on getting as far away as possible in a straight line before disappearing behind a row of tall trees. I was devastated. A quick review on my LCD screen offered no help to the identity of the bird. Perhaps it was my emotional state at the time but my mind drew a blank. Later back home, Dave is quite sure it was a juvenile Oriental Honey Buzzard. And once again, this highly variable buzzard got the better of me.

It was afternoon when we entered the virgin jungle of Bukit Wang in Kedah. Home to numerous exquisite forest dwellers, this birding site has all the potential of making a birding excursion truly memorable. Apart from a pair of Black-and-yellow Broadbill that offered teasing glimpses, nothing much was about. Nothing that is except for a soaring Jerdon's Baza!

Kindly let me elaborate the reason behind the usage of the exclamation mark in my last sentence. The Jerdon's Baza is a small but striking raptor that is rarely recorded in Peninsular Malaysia. This is my second ever sighting and although it was miles away and under the harsh afternoon sun, this encounter alone was worth the journey to this locality.

Our third and final destination for the day was the paddy fields at Kubang Semang in mainland Penang where enjoyed the wonderful companionship of the flocks of Black-winged Stilts and not forgetting a handful of Ruffs and plenty of Grey-headed Lapwings. The day may have come to an end but I still have another morning excursion with Chandru the next day and I decided it would be time to introduce him to my feathered friends at Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang.

The Crested Serpent-eagle is a regular at this birding hotspot and my guest made his intention clear about this raptor when I informed him about it. A good and clear shot and his day will be done. Mission accomplished...

The Abbott's Babblers kept us from exploring other parts of the forest by being so confiding and obliging.

It is frustrating to photograph malkohas as they are always on the move and slightly hidden by the vegetation. You require luck more than anything else to obtain good shots of the Green-billed Malkoha. An obstructed, bad-lighted image is all you get sometimes.

There is one species that is remarkably easy to photograph at this locality and it is none other than the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher like this male resting among the undergrowth. He probably felt he was not doing the best he could and hopped up onto an open perch which was at eye level. That's a good boy...

This female Tickell's Blue Flycatcher has been frolicking with male Mangrove Blue Flycatchers for a few years. I am not sure if it is because of personal preference or the absence of male Tickell's Blue Flycatchers at this site. Even her own identity is in question as she does not fully fit the bill for a Tickell's Blue Flycatcher. But whatever it is, she is just as confiding as her companion. This complicated girl wraps things up for another memorable birding weekend. I would also like to take to this opportunity to wish all those celebrating a Merry Christmas.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Harrier Central Part 2 (06/12/2015)

Ben and I entered the boundaries of the former sugarcane plantation of Chuping slightly before dawn on the scold day of our tour. The Savanna Nightjars were still patrolling their territories and their single-note calls pierced through the misty grasslands. At first light, we were scanning the ploughed fields as there was plenty of bird activity. Yesterday, the Red-throated Pipits managed to evade our every attempt to photograph them. Naturally, I kept an eye out for them today and we managed to capture one foraging in the golden light of morning. The distance hampered the quality of the photos but because this pipit is notoriously difficult to photograph, you will not hear a peep from me.

The small passerines might be early risers but this lone male Pied Harrier appeared a little sluggish as he rested among the ploughed fields. I told Ben that this is usually as good as it gets with this wary raptor and he should take a few more shots before we crept closer in our vehicle.

I could hardly believe it when the harrier was the least bothered by our approach and stayed put. This is the closest I have ever approach a resting harrier and it was a little too early in the morning to be hallucinating. Things are rarely perfect when birding. But a handsome male Pied Harrier absolutely at ease and posing beautifully in the rays of the early morning sun is about as close to perfection as I could imagine.

The harrier made me look bad by being so confiding and Ben is probably thinking "Shy...yeah, right". But he provided one of the best moments in my birding life. The rest of Chuping beckons but there was no way we could leave him without taking some time to sit back, relax and truly soak in the moment. And moments like these are forever.

There is no sure thing when it comes to birding. The birds are wild and free creatures. So, when you think you have them all figured it out, they do something unexpected. And unexpected can sometimes turn to unprecedented.

The Pied Harriers of Chuping were not quite done and a second male provided a breathtaking aerial performance. It is hard to imagine a creature so graceful and elegant to be a deadly bird of prey but that is what the harrier is.

Either it was my gear or my own doing; some of the photos did not turn out quite as well as I hoped for. I had to settle for another memorable experience that was only fully captured in my memory. 

Our next encounter with a harrier was this juvenile Pied Harrier quartering the grassland in search of food. Although, it usually does not prey on big birds like egrets but its presence made a flock of Cattle Egrets uneasy and the latter was constantly put to flight. It was another close encounter and today, Chuping was really living up to its reputation as a harrier haven.

Ben came here for the raptors and he certainly got what he wanted. A female Common Kestrel was seen standing among some dry grass and the level of excitement rose again.

Assuming that we will get a repeat performance of the male Pied Harrier earlier, our vehicle rolled ever so confidently towards the falcon but she was having none of it. She took flight before we could reach optimal distance and both falcon and her newly-caught prey, that we were totally not aware of, disappeared beyond the horizon.

The dark morph Booted Eagle kept its distance again and I was really getting numb towards its reaction of my presence year in year out. And the amount of swearing has also reduced tremendously.

However, I cannot say the day about the Bronze-winged Jacanas. This is the first season that we are seeing them here in Chuping and each sighting still made me tremble with excitement. When emotions are high, they can be hard to contain. I cannot help but feel a little frustrated every time the Jacanas turned tail and fly off to the far end of the pond at the slightest hint of our presence. For crying out loud...

The Short-toed Eagle was another distant encounter but due to its rare status, it was still worth getting out of our vehicle, brace the blistering heat, trod on muddy soil to capture a few record shots.

Sometimes, nature has a way of balancing things out. After a string of record shots, a lone male Eastern Marsh-Harrier hunting just above the tree line reinforced Chuping's position as the harrier haven of Malaysia and we were in for a treat.

The male Eastern Marsh Harrier may lack the striking colour contrast of the male Pied Harrier but he certainly does not lack the grace and aerial agility. In fact, I found his aerial ballet to be more mesmerising than the latter.

There are a number of raptor species that are more easily seen in Chuping than anywhere else in Malaysia. That is why it is prime raptor country. The Osprey regularly winters here and I have had numerous encounters with it in the past. But this time was a little different. The fish hawk was on the hunt...

Renowned for its death-defying dives for fish, we held our breath when the raptor circled the pond one last time and started to hover - no doubt zooming in on its next unfortunate prey. The dive was too fast for either of us to react and we also missed the final moments of the dive because we were positioned on higher ground and where the raptor procured its meal was blocked from view. With its prized catch secured within its deadly talons, the Osprey flew to the nearest pylon to enjoy the reward of its labour.

By mid-afternoon, we decided to have a change of scenery and drove our way back south to the paddy fields of Kubang Semang in mainland Penang. It is still open country habitat but here it is not the raptors that rock but the migratory waders. The flocks of Grey-headed Lapwings were at hand to greet any visiting birders - as usual.

While savouring the sights and sounds of the lapwings, I picked out a handful of Ruffs foraging in the vicinity. Even at a distance, the distinct body shape of these scarce waders is easily noticeable. The dim lighting and distance provided me no opportunities to obtain any improvement shots.

Evolved to blend perfectly into its surroundings, snipes are the masters of camouflage in the avian world. If we had not been stationery and looking through our binoculars, there is a very good chance this snipe would have gone unnoticed. Positive identification is another issue with snipes especially between the Pintail and Swinhoe's Snipe and I am certainly not going there. So, Swintail Snipe it is then...

Stints are very tiny waders. So small that they are almost invisible when standing still among mud. The Temminck's Stint is one of the dullest-looking but it also happens to be one of the rarest. A confiding individual resting on a patch on mud may not produce any vibrant photos but it got two grown men jostling for space to photograph this little brown job.

As evening approaches, the rain clouds found us again - just like yesterday. The sky darkened rapidly and we could smell the moist odour of rain in the far distance. A flock of Black-winged Stilts huddled closer together in anticipation of a cold and wet tropical night. Inevitably, we had to call it a day and next task on hand was getting Ben to the airport on time. But even the thunderstorm that unleashed shortly could not drown out the amazing time we had on this trip especially the aerial displays of the raptors at Chuping.