The Penang Botanic Gardens is not exactly the kind of place that you will find me on a birding Saturday. No doubt it is a beautiful place with lush green landscapes and probably provides shelter to quite a number of birds. However, it is a popular tourist and recreational destination and it can get a little crowded at times. I do not consider myself to be antisocial. There is one thing though – I do prefer to do my birding in peace far away from all those stares and interruptions. It has been more than 25 years since I took up birding and yet, up to this very day there are still people who cannot grasp the thought of someone who loves and appreciates birdlife so much that he will travel far and wide just to observe and enjoy these wonderful and inspirational creations of Mother Nature.
I found myself walking alongside morning walkers at the break of dawn as I made my way to the Lily Pond section of the gardens. It must take a very good reason to risk exposing myself to the torments from my fellow human beings and it is an Orange-headed Thrush reported by a few birders that has been showing well at that vicinity. This migratory thrush may just be uncommon here in Malaysia but to me, it is rare as I have only seen it once before and with no photos to show. It was still dark when I reached the spot where the thrush was last seen and made myself comfortable on the narrow cemented forest trail and waited patiently for my quarry to show itself.
I did not have to wait long. The Orange-headed Thrush appeared out of nowhere and started foraging along the trail. There was enough light for me to enjoy the beautiful plumage of the thrush through my binoculars but my photography gear just could not cope under such conditions. Inevitably, I laid down my camera and just watched the thrush hopped along the trail (and into my heart) as it looked for breakfast while waiting for more light to pierce through the dense canopy. It was a stunning bird and its tolerance to my presence made the encounter priceless. The setting and close proximity brought back memories to a time when Penang Hill was still a birding haven. For a few seasons, a male Siberian Blue Robin would forage along a cemented trail next to the Southview Bungalow. Back then, I did not even own a camera. I just sat on the trail and cherish the encounters through my binoculars. Birding was definitely simpler then. I did not have to worry about lighting, composition, exposure, etc.
When the lighting condition finally improved, so did my images. The encounter was now complete as I was able to obtain reasonable images. Being under the cover of the forest, the lighting was far from ideal but you will not hear a peep from me. Giving and receiving Mandarin Oranges are very much a part of the Chinese New Year tradition. With the New Year just two days away, this ‘orange’ from Mother Nature is a gift that will be treasured for a long time to come.
All my years of birding has made my sense of hearing relatively sharp and there was no mistaking the calls I was hearing coming round the bend of the trail – human speech. I avoided eye contact hoping that the group will move past me as fast as possible without jeopardizing all the efforts I have put in to gain the trust of the thrush. But I guess sitting on a forest trail alone with birding equipment was too much for most humans to ignore and I tried to be as courteous as possible when thrown with the normal array of questions. This was the first of the three groups that walked past during my observation. With each passing group, it took the thrush longer to return to the trail again. After the last group, I had to come to terms that there was no chance of the lighting condition improving and very likely, more recreational walkers will be marching down the trail. So, I decided to pack up and proceeded to the mudflats at Bagan Belat for some time at the beach.
One of my main reasons for this visit was to try and get some improvement shots of the Slender-billed Gulls. During my last visit, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of gulls present and picking out the rare Slender-billed Gulls was tedious work. This time it was a whole lot easier as there were only seven gulls present. If only the Slender-billed Gulls were among these Brown-headed Gulls. This outcome devastated Andy (chairman of Wild Bird Club of Malaysia) who was back in Penang for the Chinese New Year more than me because the former would have been a Malaysian lifer for him.
The number of waders at the high time roost has decreased since the last visit. I never expected this phenomenon to last but I did not know it would be gone so soon. Utter disappointment...
The only wader that provided some good photographic opportunities was the Common Redshank. As usual, it will forage quite close to the shore line and will even disregard your presence if you do not pose to be of any threat to it.
Surprisingly, the highlight of this visit to the mudflats did not come from the mudflats but the sky above. When I first arrive at the river mouth, there was a pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles resting on some poles not too far from the coast and the waders. Since the waders are not perturbed by their presence, then neither should I. Midway through my visit, the eagles took to the air and were flying in unison. That can only mean one thing – we were in for a treat.
Most fish eagles throughout the world have spectacular aerial displays during the breeding season. The White-bellied Sea-eagle is certainly one of them. These large eagles lock talons in mid air while plummeting down to Earth spiralling. And just before they make contact with the ground, they release their love hold. Like the scene from The Big Year, one of my all-time favourite movies, where the three birders doing their big year actually took the time to enjoy a pair of common Bald Eagles performing a similar display. Usually they tend to exaggerate the truth in movies but there is no exaggeration about this scene. It is just as breath taking in real life. This is my crappy attempt to capture the moment and it does no justice to the courting pair.
I also bumped into Mr and Mrs Hum, some of the most senior birders in Penang, and their friend further down the coastline. Mr Hum has been shooting birds for as long as I could remember and his photographs are a true inspiration to me when I first took up bird photography to compliment my birding. However, the mudflats are unlikely to spring any more surprises and I decided to head to one last location before calling it a day. By the time I arrived at the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, the sun was at its zenith and bird activities have dropped to a low point. But this is Air Hitam Dalam. You do not usually go home empty handed. This confiding Lineated Barbet certainly made sure of that.
The final bird of the day was a soaring Brahminy Kite. Red is an auspicious colour for the Chinese New Year and an ideal way to wrap things up for this last trip before the New Year as the Brahminy Kite is a reddish bird after all. One last thing. Note to self – never pack up your camera until you are next to your vehicle because just do not know when a ever-wary Black-capped Kingfisher suddenly decides to alight on the rope of the boardwalk right in front of the gazebo you are resting in. Well, life goes on...