Tuesday 23 February 2016

Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose (13/02/2016)

This is the final trip of my festive birding spree and it was to the forest of Pedu in Kedah state which has all the ingredients of a premium birding site. I had the companionship of Choo Eng this time and as usual, we left the comforts of home way before dawn in order to reach our destination at first light. The forest came alive as we were unpacking our gear. The dawn chorus itself was enough to get our adrenalin pumping because it consisted of some very interesting species including a Rufous-collared Kingfisher. Although he (yes, it was a striking male) was reasonably tame, I failed to obtain anything that resembled a bird photo due to the dim lighting. In fact, that was the story for the rest of the day. During our 6-hour excursion, we recorded almost 70 birds in which only a handful had photos to show. But my biggest disappointment was missing out on photographing a pair of Jerdon’s Bazas because I was simply too slow. When I finally had the rare raptors in focus, they had almost flown past the gap between the forest canopies. The Jerdon’s Baza was not unexpected but it was still a new record for this site. The forest here is indeed sanctuary for countless species – both common and rare. The views here are picturesque but somehow ‘reflections of leaves and inspiration’ do not evoke the same quantum of emotions...

We had a good haul of raptors on this trip. Unlike the bazas, I managed to shoot both the Rufous-bellied Eagle and Crested Goshawk. Unfortunately, they were miles away and I do not think sharing photos of a dot in the sky is going to do anything for this post. An Oriental Honey-buzzard almost slipped past my radar too but with the lighting condition being much better now, my gear was fast enough this time.

There is no way to improve this photo unless we took a boat out and positioned ourselves with the sun behind us. It is a little far fetched because after all, it is just an Osprey. From the look of things so far, chances are the Osprey will take flight by the time we get there anyways.

Shooting babblers in the forest is never easy and that is an understatement. These birds get a kick out of frustrating birders and bird photographers alike. Their preference for dense vegetation and their inability to stay still make them one of the most challenging birds to photograph. The Chestnut-winged Babbler is common at this locality. I hear them on almost every visit. This is the first time I managed to capture its image. Although it is far from perfect, I more than happy to add this species to my collection finally.

This was more of an act of desperation rather than a deliberate attempt to capture a Black Magpie in flight...

A huge tree that towered over most of the other trees was flowering and it was a big feeding station. Due to the distance, some of the birds were beyond recognition especially the dull coloured ones. The Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot is one of the patrons of this tree. Identification was not much of any issue due their distinct shape and splendid colouration. But if I wanted to obtain better images of it, I will need to master the art of levitation. As for now, this image will just have to do.

The Van Hasselt’s Sunbird used to be common in Penang Island. Back then, I did not even own a camera but I have plenty of memories of this dazzling species. And memories are all that I have until today. I have not seen this species ever since I took up photography. I do not think it has become that uncommon. It is just fate and the alignment of my stars. Anyway, at least two pairs were feeding on the nectar of the flowering tree. These sunbirds are tiny birds and at that distance, all the splendour and details of the male birds are all but lost. A record shot is only the right thing to do. I just hope I do not have to another decade before I get to photograph this species again.

So far, I have not had too much luck with photography and naturally, I did not put much hope on a Black-bellied Malkoha that was resting at the canopy level. It was a little far to start with and the sun cast an awkward shadow on the bird.

I got distracted by another bird but I cannot recall which species. It could be age catching up or the fact that after I was done with the bird, the lone Black-bellied Malkoha had me under a spell by shifting to a position that was almost ideal for me to shoot. It was perched much lower down and in the sun. I am not sure if birds can read the minds of humans because this, the smallest of our malkohas, read mine like a book. It stayed long enough for me to capture a few shots before it took cover in the dense foliage of the forest.  And that minute of staying put was all that I could ever ask for.

The bubbly call of the Green Broadbill will betray its presence and for that, I am truly grateful. A silent bird is usually overlooked despite its striking plumage. Like the malkoha, the first image was nothing more than a record shot.

However, it did move to a better position and provided the perfect end to the trip. It was still a good one despite the shortage of good images but then, that is forest bird photography. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose but the anticipation of what you may encounter will lure you back time and time again.

Saturday 20 February 2016

The grass is not always greener on the other side (12/02/2016)

My plans were set for the third day of my festive birding spree – or so I thought. I intended to spend as much time as the volatile jeep shuttle schedule of Bukit Larut in the state of Perak would allow. As I walked towards the ticketing booth at first light, there was a notice stating that the shuttle service will not be operating today. I just stood there stunned. This turn of events really took me by surprise. After the initial shock, came the anger and the swearing. So much for some montane birding during this festive season. The reason, which I found out later, was because there will be a little ceremony here today to commemorate the handling over of the management of the hill to the local council. Whatever and so long as they do not kill off the hill, it does not matter who is in charge. I planned to visit the mangroves of Kuala Gula after my montane excursion but now, it will no longer be a side trip. I arrived at the locality slightly later than my usual birding time and proceeded to search for an enigmatic and unique bird that has been recorded here last month – the Common Hoopoe. It has been more than a decade since my last sighting of this scarce migrant and much to my dismay; it was nowhere to be found. Today is certainly not off to a good start and nothing has gone my way yet. Not even the weather as dark rain clouds started to form overhead.

Flocks of mynas and starlings will come out of their roosts in throngs at this locality after the break of dawn. I did my best to look out for any rare or unusual species and for my effort; I did come across one species I do not see that often up north. It is also a species I am not too fond to see making its way up north because it is not native and is highly invasion – the Javan Myna.

Then among the dead mangroves, I caught a glimpse of something moving up one of the dead trunks. It was a Sunda Woodpecker looking for breakfast. I stalked my way closer until the trunk was in front of me and patiently waited for the minute woodpecker to move round to this side of the trunk in which it did – eventually. Things are finally starting to look up...

A male Ashy Tailorbird came extremely close to my stationery vehicle while foraging among the branches of a fallen mangrove tree. Although the angle of the shot was a little steep but I am happy with the clarity of the image as the bird was quite active and the lighting was less than desirable

A small number of Pond-herons were foraging near the river and upon further scrutiny, one of them turned out to be a Javan Pond-heron. It was still in the early stages of its breeding plumage and that explained why it was so confiding and cooperative. If it were in its striking breeding, it would have been long gone before I could even get half as close as this.

The larger herons like the Grey Heron and Purple Heron were exceptionally skittish this time and I could not even muster one single reasonable shot. The Striated Herons that find refuge in this bird sanctuary have shown exceptionally bold behaviour in the presence of humans time and time again. And a nice portrait will not require much effort.

The waterways that cut through this bird sanctuary are favoured hunting grounds for kingfishers. Five species were recorded this trip. The Black-capped Kingfishers were being their usual difficult and skittish selves. Although my luck was improving, there was no point hoping for one of these beautiful birds to allow me to obtain one reasonable shot. The Collared Kingfishers, on the other hand, could not be bothered even if you reach out your hand and pat it on the head.

At least two Common Kingfishers were seen zipping up and down their respective territories and I did not have much photographic opportunities until the moment one alighted near where I have stopped my vehicle. It turned out be a female and remain on that perched for quite a period of time. And I felt so privileged to have the companionship of such radiant beauty - even if it lasted only for a few minutes.

When it comes to Red Junglefowls, you have but one shot to get it right as they are very shy and wary birds. This morning, I managed a couple of shots before it disappeared into the long grass of the adjacent palm oil estate. The male’s resplendent colours are something you do get to enjoy for a prolonged period and every shot that I get which is slightly acceptable will be keepers in my book.

The male Pied Triller is a striking bird that occurs in a wide variety of habitats including mangroves. Its nasal notes are not foreign in built-up areas as well but like most beautiful birds that occur alongside man in Malaysia, I do not have many images that I can be proud of. This slightly distant shot of a male bird proclaiming his territory from the canopy level of the mangroves is certainly one of my better efforts.

I started feeling restless around mid morning. This tends to happen when things are slow – like today. As I was making my way out of Kuala Gula, the distinctive silhouette of a White-breasted Woodswallow delayed my journey to my next destination. This species is commoner down south and I have yet to see one in my home state of Penang. It also has a preference to use man made objects to rest and this time, a rusty goal post in the middle of a school field. Not the kind of setting or the lighting condition one would ask for but it will do.

I headed up north to another vast area of mangroves. Pulau Burung is at the southern tip of mainland Penang and this whole area used to be one of my favourite birding haunts. I have lamented many times how this little birding haven was destroyed by the local authorities but I guess what is done is done. No point dwelling in the past because it will not bring back the glory days of yesteryear. The weather has turned full cycle by then and it was sunny with clear blue skies. The scenery is breath taking despite the landfill in the background. 

However, I am not here to soak in the view. It is always the birds that really do it for me and the Lesser Whistling Ducks are one of the few that still call this place home.

This used to be the best place in the whole of Malaysia to observe and photograph Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. This confiding individual brought back good memories of that era and I, slightly moved by this nostalgic moment, kept my composure well enough to continue shooting.

It has been a long time since I did a birding circuit and seeing that I still have half a day left, I might as well do one today. After a quick lunch, I set off towards Sungai Sedim. The active fruiting tree is not just a bird magnet. It pulls in birders just as well. On the way there, I made a little detour to check on an old friend who has been absent from his favourite roosting during my last first visits. Even from a distance, I could make out its silhouette and today, the Barred Eagle-owl was roosting much lower than usual. I would have been happy just to know that the owl was still well and kicking but to be able to get so close to this amazing animal was a real bonus. So long as I remained in my vehicle, this individual will be almost as tame as a house cat. And today’s excursion just when up a notch.

The slight drizzle as I made my through the narrow rural roads leading to Sungai Sedim could not dampened my spirit especially after such an exhilarating encounter with the owl. The rain trickled down to a stop when I arrive at the fruiting tree and I took that as another good omen. I barely had time to get down from my vehicle when the birds started to come in to the fruiting tree. Most of the species present at the tree were the same species as my last trip a few days back. As I was observing the patrons of the fruiting, the male Green-backed Flycatcher alighted barely a few feet from where I was standing. Unbelievably, it chose a clean perch with a clean background and almost at eye level. I was left dumbfounded. It is just one of life’s mysteries and one that I enjoyed it for almost half a minute. All the activity from the fruiting tree above momentarily ceased. It was just me and this handsome migrant.

Once the flycatcher disappeared into the vegetation, I was back on Earth again. The commotion above caught my senses again. The distinct calls of the Finsch’s Bulbul filled the vicinity and it did not take long to locate one gorging on the fruits.

A flock of Hairy-backed Bulbul made a pit stop at the fruiting. I only managed to take one shot before the flock moved on. And I had a sudden urge to visit the paddy fields of mainland Penang. Call it a birder’s intuition and I decided to adhere to my inner voice, packed up and head to one last locality for the day. 

Most parts of the paddy fields were either dry or waiting to be harvested and that is bad news for a birder. I was beginning to doubt my decision to leave the fruiting tree at Sungai Sedim when I spotted a flock of large birds soaring above and it was one massive flock. Even at this far distance there is no mistaking the Asian Openbills for anything else. This is another species that I have not seen for months and I decided to drive closer to this spectacle of nature.

As I got closer, the flock descended on probably the only spot that has open water in this entire area. I drove closer cautiously as these birds usually do not have much tolerance for intruding birders. However, they were exceptionally confiding today and I guess they were just very reluctant to part from this watery refuge.

Using my vehicle as a mobile hide, I got to as close as I possibly could and enjoyed the view. The storks appeared relax in the presence of this lone birder and I too got comfortable before focusing on obtaining some good images. The setting sun provided a certain glow to both the storks and the environment in my images and I am truly loving the moment.

Large shadows cast over the water marked the arrival of even more Asian Openbills. My initial guess was right. An open flooded patch is certainly a prized commodity here and I have positioned myself the best that I could to welcome this second wave of storks. Sometimes when I am birding, I will have encounters that are so captivating that everything else drowns out and I just lose myself completely. I had two earlier on – the Barred Eagle-owl and the Green-backed Flycatcher. And this is my third – being surrounded by Asian Openbills. All these took place in my usual birding spots and it made me wonder why I needed to drive all way into Perak state in the first place.

When the storks finally settled down, there were at least 500 birds in this pool of water alone and this is the closest I have ever been to this unique waterbird. Now, this is what birding is all about. Moments when everything just falls into place perfectly and the birds give a show that will last a lifetime.

When I was finally able to break free from the spell the storks have put me under, I discovered that the day was not quite done yet. A flock of Ruffs were foraging at different section of the flooded patch alongside the much commoner Black-winged Stilts. The Ruff is an extraordinary wader and what makes it so is the remarkable breeding plumage. Unfortunately, we will never get to see a male Ruff in full breeding here as they do not breed here in the tropics. But it is still a scarce winter migrant and seven birds together is something to shout about for sure.

Just as I was stalking towards the Ruffs, the entire flock of Asian Openbills suddenly took flight and it was a fury of wings and feathers. Continuous wingbeats of 500 pairs of wings at such close proximity can be a rush. Initially, I was puzzled by the unexpected departure of my feathered friends until I saw a local villager casting a net for fish. I guess I should not complain because at least he had the courtesy to wait until I was done with the storks and started to photograph something else. This wrap things up for a long and tiring day of birding circuit that started off on the wrong foot but concluded so much better than I could have hoped for.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

No rarities, no problem (11/02/2016)

I have been quite consistent with my visits to the former mining pools of Malim Nawar in Perak during this time of the year. This locality does have a good record for producing mega lifers and I thought I will try my luck here on day 2 of my festive birding spree. The 200km drive was slightly taxing than usual due to my level of intoxication from last night’s festive drinking session. There have been records of the scarce White-shouldered Starling a few months back and I decided to start off today’s excursion from the spot where a pair of these migratory starlings were last seen. Luck was not on my side and despite a thorough sweep of the area; there were no signs of the starlings. So, I turned my attention to the next best thing – the uncommon Sand Martin. There is still some confusion about the true identity these martins and Malim Nawar is one of their regular wintering grounds. I am a simple man. Until, they find a way to differentiate the Sand Martin the Pale Martin (which is near impossible); they will all be Sand Martins to me.

At least 5 birds were present in the vicinity and they have a habit of resting along the wires, in the company of Barn Swallows, above the fish ponds. When compared to the latter, they are smaller and duller-looking but sometimes status supersedes everything else. With no way of getting any closer to the martins, I soon left them to their sunbathing and searched for other interesting species to document.

You are bound to see a few Cattle Egrets when birding in open country habitats like this. In winter, they are small and don their boring non-breeding plumage. Come spring and you will see an astonishing change for the Cattle Egret sports the most vibrant breeding plumage of all the egrets found here.

That remarkable breeding plumage is further enhanced when in full breeding plumage with the purplish hue to the lores and reddish glow to the legs. Exquisite is the word...

The Long-tailed Shrike is a beautiful bird and certainly beats the rest of the shrikes hands down. Unfortunately, it is also the shyest. I have come to a stage where I will not even attempt to try and reduce the distance for a better shot whenever I come across one in the field. Sometimes, God works in mysterious ways. I was not even trying today and the bird just happened to be along the route I was taking. To my astonishment, this Long-tailed Shrike did not budge. It still remained put when I raised my camera to focus on it. That’s more like it.

But the sound of the shutter must have struck a nerve because it flew across the trail after a few clicks. Luckily by then, I had already obtained my best images of this species to date. The lighting from this angle was better and the rays of the morning sun brought out the true splendour of the bird.

A colony of nesting Baya Weavers is not something you can easily miss. First of all, there is the presence of all those architectural work of art these birds call home. So amazing are these nests that are collected to be used as interior decorations. Unfortunately, these unscrupulous nest collectors lack conscience and humanity. Nests with fledglings still inside will not be spared and that just makes my blood boil. Secondly, the birds at a nesting colony tend to make a racket that can be heard from far away. There were at least 3 colonies within the area and I am glad this species is still doing well despite all the senseless prosecution.

As there was nothing much about, I took my time to observe a relatively new colony told by the big number of bachelor pads. Most of these pads are newly-constructed as they are still green. From these bachelor pads, all the hot-blooded males will sway, sing, shout and do whatever it takes to entice a female to join him. Not so much different from human beings, I guess.

This is the reason for all the activity at a colony – the dull female.

Once a male manages to find a mate, he will finish up the nest – turning his bachelor pad into a family suite. Again, this sounds very familiar. Anyway, this is what a completed nest looks like.

The Little Cormorants have settled in quite well to this locality. A handful were seen during this trip but they were extremely skittish and nearly impossible to approach even by car. These skilled fishers of birds were the only relatively uncommon waterbird that crossed my path today.

The commoner waterbirds, however, were very gracious and did a fine job hosting me during my visit. I absolutely adore Black-winged Stilts. There is always an aura of grace and poise about them. This male was so confiding that I could not help but to stop and photograph this common but striking wader.

It felt like there is a slight drop in the number of Grey Herons. In the past, I used to be overwhelmed by their sheer number. In fact, these large herons are one of the reasons I love this birding hotspot.

The same applies to the Purple Herons. It will be real shame if these two giants can no longer find sanctuary here in Malim Nawar. I could be a little paranoid but I have seen how these herons are losing grip of their home at the marshlands of Batu Kawan in my home state of Penang.

On the other hand, egrets like the Great and Little Egrets are finding life to be sunny and blissful here...

It is not that often a Greater Coucal allows itself to be photograph in the open. This cuckoo is shy despite its large size and common status. The deep booming call is frequently heard in a variety of habitats and is the best indication of its presence. Having said that, I guess having a few twigs in the way of my attempts to capture images of this skulker is not a big deal after all.

While taking a breather from intense searching for possible rarities under the blistering sun along the rows of former mining pools, a lone Eastern Yellow Wagtail wandered very close to my stationery vehicle. I certainly do not need any invites to start shooting this confiding individual. Now this is probably one of commonest passerines that spend their winter here in Malaysia. In suitable open country habitats, their numbers can be impressive. But a close encounter like this does help ease the disappointment of the lack of rarities for this trip.