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.