The dawn of a new year was fast approaching. I have cramped myself uncomfortably among the nooks of a coastal rocky outcrop to hide my human form as best as I could. Beyond the outcrop, mudflats as far as the eye could see. However, I am here in this bleak environment along the north-western coastline of mainland Penang on my own free will. Somewhere out there is a first record for Malaysia and I have been looking forward to this for the past few days. At first light, I ushered in the first day of the year in the company of 10,000 waders and it is a true privilege to be able to witness such a breathtaking sight in my home state of Penang. And just in case anyone from the local authourities is reading this, if this is not an Important Bird Area (IBA) worth conserving, I swear to God I do not know what is.
However, the spectacle of such a high concentration of these fascinating birds could not hold my attention for long. Soon, I was scanning the surroundings for gulls and my heart skipped a beat when I found the first flock at the edge of the tide. Hor Kee found Malaysia's first Slender-billed Gull a few days ago and that is the sole reason for my visit here. After a couple of hours, Brown-headed Gulls were all that I had. The Slender-billed Gull is not that easy to distinguish from the commoner Brown-headed Gull to begin with. But I have scrutinised the gulls present today well enough to admit that the new year is not off to a very good start.
The descending tide did not provide comfort as well and the waders foraged further and further away from the shoreline. With about an hour's birding remaining in my New Year Day celebration schedule, I decided to make a bee line to my favourite local patch at Air Hitam Dalam. I could certainly use a little spiritual replenishment from this birding hotspot. My New Year morning birding excursions are usually a time to relax and reflect on life but not this time. It was just a whole lot of eye straining, anxiety and swearing. However, a Crow-billed Drongo on an exposed perch in good light set things right again. It may not be able to completely erase the earlier disappointment with the gull but it was an exciting encounter nevertheless. I wondered how even a 'black' bird like this drongo is able to stimulate my senses. And I could not find any good answers except for the fact that I love birds. Being able to observe and photograph these wonders of nature has always been my true passion in life. The birding world here is not quite the same as it was when I first started but so long as there are havens like Air Hitam Dalam and the birds continue to inspire and amaze, I will always be able to find my sanctuary.
A big flock of Ashy Minivets were seen combing the canopy levels for insects and other forms of prey but they were moving at such a vigorous pace making photography very challenging. The dense vegetation that the Minivets seemed favourable of was another setback.
Perched unobtrusively at the mid-canopy level, this Indian Cuckoo would have gone unnoticed had I have been less vigilant. Cuckoos usually betray their own presence with their persistent calls and the same applies to this species. However, the ones found at this locality are winter visitors and tend to be silent throughout their stay at this tropical retreat.
I have a keen interest in all kinds of wildlife and although on a lesser scale for butterflies, a confiding one will usually get my attention especially when I am taking a breather in between birding. It is not as brilliantly-coloured as some of the other species but it does make a nice addition to my database of insect photographs. It is always good to broaden one's horizon, right?
The lone female Tickell's Blue Flycatcher of Air Hitam Dalam was her usual confiding self as she rested among the undergrowth. The dim lighting (and my photographic gear) may have robbed her of some of her vibrancy but she is still as captivating as ever.
Her companion, a handsome male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher (it's complicated), posed ever so invitingly on a better-lit section of the undergrowth. These flycatchers have played a significant role in my birding tours throughout the year and it is only right that I let them wrapped up this short excursion this time. Dipping out on the Slender-billed Gull was a bitter pill to swallow but luckily, it lost its grip on me by the time I reached home. And I was able to be good company to my better half for the second half of my New Year Day celebration schedule.