Saturday 31 December 2016

Ending the year with a bang

I do not fancy birding where there are lots of people. I prefer the onslaught of leeches and ticks than the stares and ridicule of those who cannot come to terms why a fellow human being can be into birding. Anyway, when another juvenile Malayan Night-heron decided to spend its winter in a landscaped garden at the Penang Botanic Gardens for the second consecutive year, no amount of human irritation could have kept me away. This was not a regular birding excursion. It was a quick visit to this popular tourist destination specifically for this uncommon migrant. Today is New Year’s Eve and as expected, the road leading into the gardens was congested. I took my faithful iron steed and that saved me the frustration of getting stuck in traffic. Unlike last year, it took me, James and Kevin (whom I bumped into at the locality) quite a while to find the bird. I had to admit that at one point during our search, the thought of dipping out on this one as well did creep in. But all ill feelings evaporated when we caught sight of the heron strolled out of hiding and positioned itself underneath a dense clump of bamboo.

The bird showed very little fear of man – just like the one last season. Gradually, it started to hunt and we just made ourselves comfortable and waited for the heron to present better photographic opportunities. In which it did – much to our delight.

This particular spot in the gardens could be a regular wintering location for this heron. I do not spend much time here. I have stated the reason at the starting of the post. Through the years, there may have been others before the discovery of the first one last year. The environment is ideal and food is definitely abundant judging by the rate of the heron’s successful acquisition of prey. Well whatever the reason, I feel blessed that this island home of mine, despite all the destruction to its natural habitat, is still able to provide sanctuary to intriguing birds like the Malayan Night-Heron.

I thought that by now I would be used the sight of a Malayan Night-heron foraging on an open lawn. Last year, I made several short trips here to spend time with the first juvenile. But no. It is still exciting to see it up close and personal. This year has been a roller coaster ride in terms of birding. There are just as many ups as there are downs. But I am glad to able to end the year on a high note and it is courtesy of this confiding Malayan Night-heron.

I would like to wish a Happy New Year to all my followers and readers. 

Thursday 29 December 2016

A little Christmas cheer is better than none

Paddy fields are one of the very few man made landscapes that are actually beneficiary to birds as well. During the migratory months, these expanse of open country habitats provide sanctuary to countless birds. Here in Penang, we are truly blessed that the paddy fields on the mainland are not only birding hotspots but easily accessible by car as well. This season, one particular migrant stands out from the rest and it is the White-shouldered Starling. This scarce migrant is not new to the area but usually occurs singly and records are far and few. This year, at least a 10 birds are present and a whole lot of birders got to see it for the first time. I have seen this species before in the past and also the ones here this season. Despite the fact that they are showing well, I still do not have any good images of this species to this day. Since Christmas is almost here and all, I was hoping my luck might change. But in the end, the only starling that found its way to my memory card was this Daurian Starling. The White-shouldered Starlings were present alright and I even got them in my sight but somehow, some way they managed to elude my camera’s sensor. And at the time of writing, I found out that James Neoh, whom I bumped into at the site, even managed to photograph a Chestnut-cheeked Starling in addition to the White-shouldered Starling. The former is a long, sought-after lifer for me. So much for the magic of Christmas...

There is one raptor found in Malaysia that has my utmost admiration and respect – the beautiful but deadly Peregrine Falcon. The ones that occur in the paddy fields here are of the nominate race and they occur in the locality only during the migratory season. Their presence, however, are not so welcomed by other birds that form the diet of this formidable falcon.

I missed the actual kill and by the time I managed to relocate the falcon, it had a feral pigeon clenched firmly in its talons. The stoop as the falcon goes in for the kill makes it the fastest bird in the world. There is no shame in admitting I was simply too slow to follow its movement. Anyway, the falcon settled down on one of the pylons to saviour the meal to come. It was a distanced observation but I would not miss it for the world. Some Christmas cheer for me after all...

A little effort was required to seek out some of the wintering water fowls but not that many were present today. I was delighted to come across a couple of Temminck’s Stints foraging together with the commoner waders. This site is one of the few places where this scarce peeps is regularly recorded in Malaysia.

The graceful Black-winged Stilts also winter here regularly and their presence provide additional charm and beauty to the surroundings. End of the year may be the holiday season but it is also the busiest time of the year for me. Work as expected had been taxing these past few weeks. Spending time out in the field will certainly do me some good. A pair of Black-winged Stilts foraging on a flooded patch of paddy field is a picture of total bliss and no other revitalizing treatment can come close to this.

A small flock of Asian Openbills spiralling down to rest on an isolated patch caught my immediate attention. The storks have chosen their resting spot well as it was inaccessible from any direction unless you can fly. So, I had to be contented with this record shot of the resting flock.

A confiding Brown Shrike wrapped things up for this time. Being a migrant, this feisty little guy spends its Christmas in the tropics each year and it is commonly encountered here where the paddy fields provide refuge from the bitter cold up north. Merry Christmas, bud...

Friday 23 December 2016

A partridge in a pear tree - Year 2

The discovery of the elusive Chestnut-necklaced Partridge last year in the wild interiors of Kedah state is one of the most exciting birding news up north. Through my years of birding I have come to terms with the fact that most of our rare forest birds do not have happy endings waiting for them. However, the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge proved to be an exception for now and they are doing just fine going into the second year of their discovery. With the aid of a hide and a little patience, I was transported into their realm once again. Together with James Neoh, the two of us enjoyed yet another memorable and fascinating performance.

The location this time was slightly brighter than previous encounters and this enabled the true splendour of the partridge to shine through the lush green landscape where it calls home. It was a prolonged and intimate encounter. I even had the privilege to put down my photography gear and just bask in the presence of such an intriguing creature. It was very accommodating of our intrusion and you rarely get to say that about gamebirds found in this region of the Malaysian rainforest.

The birders were the ones to retreat away from the encounter this time and the partridge quietly watched us packed up to leave from a hidden corner of its domain. I am not sure if it was the reassuring presence of the partridge or the jungle air was exceptionally refreshing and revitalizing today. Everything was just blissful and beautiful. I can only hope the resounding territorial calls of the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge will continue to echo through the locality for many more years to come and amazing encounters like this are more than just figments of imagination.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those celebrating a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Here we go again...

The grassland at Chuping is constantly changing due to the agricultural activities of man. This year the birding area around the sugar mill have lost most of its appeal as the rubber tree saplings have now grown tremendously. Further up north, there are development plans in the works but for now, it is fruit farms and other less destructive crops. Here, the birds can still find refuge but to a lesser degree. I found myself back at this locality for the second successive Saturday to observe and admire its rich and spectacular bird life while it last. This Long-tailed Shrike greeted the new day with a series of territorial call whilst on an exposed perch. Now that is a certainly a splendid way to start off a birding excursion.

Chuping is now the only place in Malaysia where the rare and stunning Bronze-winged Jacana is regularly encounter. However, it is a shy bird and difficult to approach. Perseverance is a virtue in birding. After countless attempts for decent shot since its discovery here last season, I finally managed some reasonable images of this waterbird.

In the neighbouring pond, we caught sight of a Little Cormorant sunning itself after the morning hunt. I saw it on this very perch last week.  It is not so much its favourite perch but the only suitable one in the locality.

My companions for this trip, Victor and Sanjeevi, are rather new to this birding paradise. So, it was quite an experience for them.

Another species that was still frequenting the same spot as last week were the Red-throated Pipits. As usual, these birds are frustratingly difficult to observe and photograph. But when one decided to post so elegantly on some dried branches, it certainly did not go unnoticed. True that it may be slightly far away but this is a Red-throated Pipit and this is at most times as good as it will ever get.

A gathering of Black Drongos on one of the many isolated trees in the grassland caught our attention. Apparently this spot held a considerable amount of prey as the birds were frequently seen making short sallies from the tree and back. They even forgo their usual wariness of human approach and allowed us to enjoy the encounter from close range.

Raptors will always be one of the main highlights for any excursion to Chuping. This time, the Osprey provided the best photographic opportunity when it was seen soaring overhead. The harsh midday lighting hampered my photographic efforts. But there is no denying the grace and beauty of this elegant raptor that has made Chuping one of its regular wintering grounds here in Malaysia.

Friday 16 December 2016

Man, not another dip out...

This year, the Wild Bird Club Malaysia held their AGM at Changlun in Perlis making it feasible for me to attend as it was not too far from home. The meeting will commenced in the evening and together with a few other birders, we decided to visit the neighbouring grasslands of Chuping for some birding in the morning first.

This was my first excursion to the site this season and raptors still rule the skies – much to my delight. This Oriental Honey Buzzard lazily flapping across our field of view made me realize how much I miss this birding hot spot.

It was a good day for raptors. Eurasian Kestrel, Pied Harrier, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite, Brahminy Kite, Changeable Hawk-eagle, Osprey, Short-toed Eagle and Common Buzzard – that is a pretty impressive list from a single site. However, good photographic opportunities were certainly lacking. A recently fed Greater Spotted Eagle provided the best raptor image for the day as it rode the thermals above us.

The grasslands of Chuping is one of the best places in Malaysia to observe the Red-throated Pipit. It is a scarce migrant throughout the country except for this site. Today, there were easily a hundred birds present. Despite the big number, this pipit is usually wary of human presence and I have tried countless times to try and capture good images through the years but without success. It has an uncanny ability to disappear into its surroundings and you will only realize its presence as it makes its getaway. However, on this fateful day, a male decided not to behave like a Red-throated Pipit and remained stationery long enough in the open for us to capture his image.

The Manchurian Reed Warbler also winters here in Chuping. This species is one of the latest additions to the Malaysian checklist and still rightfully holds a celebrity status. The call is usually the only indication of its presence and decent views are hard to come by. It is not called a Reed Warbler for nothing and it has perfected the art of hiding among this vegetation. A 2-second windows was all it was willing to offer to have its image taken but I finally have a shot of this little brown job that actually resembled a bird.

Birding is not only about rarities. Not all the time anyway. The Barn Swallow occurs here in the hundreds and their graceful sallies are a common sight indeed. But a confiding individual in good lighting and against a smooth background deserves some love and affection.

The AGM later that evening went smoothly but my thoughts were distracted. Days before the AGM, news broke out of a Short-eared in Langkawi. From Changlun, Langkawi was not all that far. This owl is a vagrant to our shores and a lifer to most. Dave made his intentions clear about having a go at this beautiful bird. And I, give in to temptations too easily – especially when it comes to rare lifers. Dave, Wilbur and yours truly found ourselves on the first ferry to Langkawi the next day. The only other way to get there is by air. That made logistics an issue. It was a long weekend and this island being a popular holiday destination is bound to be crowded. Luck was on our side as we managed to rent what appeared to be the last car at the jetty. Anticipation was high as we geared up for the hunt. I was anxious as well. This migratory season has not being exactly kind to me - having to dip out on two consecutive twitches. What hand will dear Mother Nature deal me this time?

The very first bird that grabbed our attention in this sweeping landscape was a subadult Rosy Starling foraging among Common Mynas. This is only my third ever sighting and I guess our target of the day will just have to wait. It is not much of a looker when compared to the stunning adults but its scarcity made it irresistible nevertheless.

It was a tedious 5-hour search. We tried everything that we could think of. No bush was left unexplored and no stone unturned but the owl was no where to be seen. Even when Sofian (the man who discovered the owl) came and helped us search, it was to no avail. Having to be cautious of the herds of Water Buffalos that were present and the blistering heat did not improve the situation either. The Short-eared Owl is now my third successive dip out for a mega rarity. Quoting the famous words of Col. George A. Custer it’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up, I will live to bird another day.

On a brighter note, my last birding trip to Langkawi was many years back and one of my targets back then was the Red-wattled Lapwing. Unbelievable as it may seem, there was a time when this tropical island paradise was the only place where you are most likely to see one. So, seeing them here again brought back sweet memories of my first ever Red-wattled Lapwing. In a small way it did help ease the disappointment.

Among the Red-wattled Lapwings was a lone Grey-headed Lapwing – another species that used to be rare in my home state of Penang.

With the obsession for the owl starting to lose its grip on us, we were then able to appreciate the other bird species found at the locality. The bird life here is quite diverse and this site would be the type of location I will frequently explore during the migratory season if it was located in Penang. The majestic White-bellied Sea-eagle is common here which comes as no surprise. This striking adult bird flew literally overhead and turned out to be the only predatory bird to make its way into my memory card. The Short-eared Owl was another painful miss. The twitch for the owl, however, was an experience. The packed ferry shuttle service to the island, the frantic acquisition for a rented car, a mega rarity at stake and a whirlwind of emotional conditions made it a memorable one in the end as it reminisces those hardcore twitching endeavours of British birders. On this rare occasion, it was the experience and not the bird that made a lasting impression.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

The one that didn't get away

Air Hitam Dalam has been struggling to return back to its former self after the uprooting of one of its main trees. This morning’s birding excursion was off to a very slow start. My guests this time were from England and they have been residing here in Malaysia for the past 6 years and have a significant number of our bird species under their belt. And that only made matters worse. Under performing birding sites can be stressful. Even a family of Mangrove Blue Flycatcher could not improve the situation much. The next location was the mudflats of Bagan Belat where my guests were hoping for their first ever Nordmann’s Greenshank and I was determined to see their wish fulfilled after the disappointing start. The weather was beautiful and the tide ideal but despite a careful search, no Nordmann’s Greenshanks were found. Fortunately, the mass gathering of waders at this high tide roost was a spectacle by itself.

Asian Dowitchers have been showing well so far this season and today was no exception. A reasonably big flock was foraging along the tide line together with Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. This presented a good opportunity to compare the differences between the dowitcher and the godwits – especially when the former is relatively foreign to my guests.

A trio of Black-tailed Godwits sweep the coastal waters for nutritious morsels at their winter sanctuary…

The arrival of a few Brown-headed Gulls to the roost diverted our attention from the waders momentarily. I cannot help it but I do not forget bad experiences easily. The bitter memory of dipping out on the Black-tailed Gull here a few weeks earlier resurfaced to torment my thoughts.

The distinctive call of the Coppersmith Barbet started to resonate nearby our position. A quick search at the nearby trees revealed this adorable little bird. In an avian-scape of browns and greys, the vivid colours of this barbet was a welcomed sight.

The paddy fields in Permatang Pauh holds a few would-be lifers for my guests and finally, they were not to be denied. To be able to enjoy three lifers at a single location will turn any ordinary trip to an exceptional one. One good turn deserves another and in return for the lifers I found for them, my guests spotted Penang’s second Glossy Ibis which was discovered here yesterday by Hor Kee. This peculiar water bird was foraging at a distance and the lighting was harsh. However, I would not be able to forgive myself if I did not even attempt to obtain some images from this encounter because the last this species showed up in my home state, it stayed for only one day and I missed it on the second day. And this rare migrant is a fine way to conclude this half day excursion despite the slow start.

Thursday 17 November 2016

The eagles have certainly landed...

The weather has improved slightly here around Penang state and a beautiful sunrise unfolded as we made our way along the elevated boardwalk of Air Hitam Dalam. This time, I had the company of a couple from Scotland and they have been birding for a very long time. We had barely broke a sweat when we came across our first bird of the day. It was a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo foraging noisily along the canopy level of the swamp forest. The rackets of this bird have always been the object of fascination for me but today, it was the bird’s hearty catch.

Moments later, the presence of a pair of Spotted Wood-owls stopped us at our tracks. However, the owls were restless and did not stay put for long. Daytime encounters with owls are always exciting. Even if brief glimpses were all that were to it. The owls, despite their size, can hide surprisingly well among the foliage and shadows of the tree crowns. Hide-and-seek is one game that you do not want to engage with them. On the other hand, another predatory bird of this swamp forest was a lot more obliging. The Crested Serpent-eagle is not new to any of us but it still received its share of admiration and affection.

The next destination was the expansive mudflats of neighbouring Bagan Belat. The tide was slightly higher than anticipated and inevitably, the number of waders present was less overwhelming. The Nordmann’s Greenshank is one of the most sought after wader species among my foreign guests. It comes as no surprise because it is an endangered species and the coastline here is one of its regular wintering grounds. It is also one good looking bird even in winter. Flocks of almost similar-looking Common Greenshanks were given extra attention but to no avail. And Penang continues to anxiously await the arrival of the first Nordmann’s Greenshank of the season (at the time of writing, a few had revealed themselves to Dave a few days after our visit).

From the coastline, we headed inland towards Permatang Pauh - the main paddy planting district of Penang. The electrical pylons that spans across one section of the paddy fields is the favourite haunt for wintering eagles. It did not take long to find one and it was a Greater Spotted Eagle. It was an exciting find but unfortunately, there was nothing much I could do about the distance of the encounter.

I was so preoccupied with the Greater Spotted Eagle that I did not notice a pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles on the very top of the same pylon until they were pointed to me by my guests – much to my embarrassment. Again the distance was just too great or this majestic pair would have made a very good capture.

Unlike the mighty raptors, one small migratory passerine performed admirably well for my camera and it was a female Siberian Stonechat. It is by no means a rare species but she is exotic enough to have my undivided attention.

Black-crowned Night-herons are not often seen here. Not in broad daylight anyway. This juvenile was hunting when our paths crossed and since it was obliging enough, we took some time to admire its presence.

The flocks of Grey-headed Lapwings are increasing in numbers - as expected. Their numbers may have grown but their courage remains the same – as expected too. Anyhow, the lighting was good today and I tried my luck at some distanced shots hoping that they will turn out good enough to be posted. And one of them did.

To see a Lesser Adjutant foraging in a paddy field in Peninsular Malaysia is nothing out of the ordinary especially in the paddy fields in the southernmost state of Johor. But this is the first time I have seen one in the paddy fields here in Penang. Hence, the inclusive of this dreadful shot to end this time’s post of our half day excursion. Thanks to the sunny weather, it was a memorable and rewarding trip as well.