Sunday 27 March 2016

Two decades and counting (19/03/2106)

I started birding when I was a teenage. It was my godfather, Ban Beng who took me to my very first birding trip more than 25 years ago. And the rest, as they say, is history. Occasionally, he does join me for some birding and last Saturday, he brought his friend Chng along. Like what he did for me back then, his friend got to experience a true birding trip for the first time. I decided to take them to somewhere not too far from home and where birds are easy to encounter. The first place that came to mind was Air Hitam Dalam. The elevator boardwalk that cuts through the swamp forest is the perfect passageway to the wonders of the natural world. As expected, it was an enlightening experience for the first-timer and I did my best to guide him through this captivating experience.

Chng had a keen interest in night birds and the trip was off to a very good start as the resident Spotted Wood-owl was one of the first few birds we encountered. It was resting high up among the foliage of a tree crown. It was a distanced shot and the morning sun was not quite bright enough but the encounter was certainly exciting. Seeing an owl in the wild for the first time always is.

We came across a number of the regular birds that are found here but some, more than others, left truly lasting impressions. A Greater Coucal glided across our field of view and alighted on a low bush not too far away. Instead of making the usual quick escape into the dense undergrowth, it stayed long enough to allow the moment to be captured into our digital archive.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatchers were back to their usual selves and we had close and prolonged encounters with two pairs of these striking birds.

At mid morning we left Air Hitam Dalam to seek out more nocturnal birds and modest environment around the Kulim Hi-Tech Park was our next destination. The Barred Eagle-owl has been performing well for the past few weeks and it did not disappointment this time as well. Its sheer size and enchanting beauty certainly captured our undivided attention. It was not much of a surprise when this nocturnal hunter ended up being the best bird of the trip.

The last bird for the trip was another night bird and it was the Savanna Nightjar. The remarkable camouflage was so effective we almost drove right past it.

And what could be better than to observe one Savanna Nightjar at its daytime roost? To observe two Savanna Nightjars and the second bird is a female as she lacks the white outer tail feathers of the male. Of the two birds she was the more relaxed one and provided the perfect to end to Chng’s first day out in the field.

Monday 21 March 2016

One in the world (13/03/2016)

The anticipation of my second day of birding in central Peninsular Malaysia got me all worked up and I made my way downstairs full of zeal and excitement. Like the first morning, breakfast was all ready and waiting for me – courtesy of Foo’s wife, Connie. I must admit I was truly being pampered on this trip.  The drive to Bukit Tinggi in Pahang took slightly more than an hour but the winding journey was made shorter by Foo’s excellent driving and his awesome ride.

Bukit Tinggi is yet another tourist destination and is usually crowded on weekends like today. However through his connections, Foo managed to get us in way before the permitted entry time. This is the second time I have been to this hill resort but the first visit was a casual trip. Today, was a different story. I was on a mission and a remarkable gamebird was my target.

A short trek from the Botanical Gardens and we reached the spot where the renowned Mountain Peacock-Pheasants of Bukit Tinggi frequent. It looks like any ordinary patch of montane forest but the memories and experiences that birders far and wide obtained here are anything but ordinary. This pheasant is only found in the main range of Peninsular Malaysia and no where else in the world. Prior to the discovery of the pheasants here, this endemic has an almost mythical status. Elusive and scarce, it is rarely encountered in the field. I have seen it on two occasions in the past and they were only glimpses of its true splendour. It has been three years since the discovery and one of the reasons I chose to finally have a go at the pheasants now is to avoid a crowd when shooting. But fate would have it that I had to share the location with a group of half a dozen mainland Chinese birders and their local guide. They came shortly after we had settled down and waiting for my second target bird of the trip to start its performance. I may sound selfish and perhaps I am but I would very much preferred to enjoy my moment with the pheasants at total ease and solitude. Anyway, we did our best to accommodate the group.

A couple of hours later, a stream of continuous shutter clicks from the direction of my new found companions broke the silence. I knew that the pheasant has finally decided to show itself but from where we had positioned our hides, I could not see a thing. It is a good thing the pheasants here are accustomed to all this attention. Any other gamebird would have turned tail and disappear right back into the forest. Slowly, I could almost make out the shape of the pheasant foraging just behind the undergrowth. There was nothing I could do but wait. And it was one of the longest minutes I had to endure in my life. The intensity of the moment was unbelievable. If my heart were to beat any faster, I fear it would have broke through my rib cage. When this amazing creature finally showed itself completely to us, I took a few seconds to awe at this magnificent creature before commencing with the photo shoot.

It was a handsome male. The blue-green ocelli sparkled like jewels whenever they caught the few rays of the sun that have managed to pierce through the dense canopy. The chestnut colouration interwoven with intricate fine markings make this bird a true wonder of the natural world. Its near mythical status is no exaggeration. It is so beautiful that at times, it seemed unreal. It was like a secret passageway to a fantasy world was breached once upon a time allowing the Mountain Peacock-Pheasants to cross into our world and grace us with their poise and beauty for all eternity.

The mere presence of the pheasant drowned out everything else. The hide I was in became my own little private world and at that moment in time, it was just me and the pheasant. And all these astronomical feelings was the doings of a single male bird. Other birders have encountered pairs and even families of this pheasant here but I can only dream of such good fortune and privilege.

The whole encounter lasted about 5 minutes. During that time, the pheasant hardly stood still. The dim lighting offered very little reprieve for my modest photographic gear. The long tail that had me spell-bounded proved to be a double-edged sword as it was challenging to keep the entire bird in the frame. Naturally, I wanted more. The group left immediately after the performance. I decided to stay and wait for the pheasant to return.

While waiting, the other species present finally had my attention like this male Oriental Magpie Robin. For the second consecutive day, this species has appeared at my target birds’ location.

The Buff-breasted Babbler occurs in hilly forest and is not often seen as it tends to keep itself well hidden among the undergrowth. I have several failed attempts to obtain its image in the past. This confiding individual changed all that. In terms of appearance, there is not much I can elaborate on this non-descript species but that does not mean I did not relish the encounter. I finally managed to obtain some reasonably good images of this little brown job.

Active and small, it was a tough subject to photograph despite its confiding nature...

I was disappointed when the pheasant did not return after a couple of hours. On the other hand, that made the earlier encounter even more precious to me. As I was about to pack up, this Common Treeshrew scurried into view and was just asking to be photographed. Naturally, I obliged...

From Bukit Tinggi, we travelled to the adjacent hill of Genting Highlands. Well known for its casinos and theme parks, this hill resort is naturally another popular tourist destination. However, those attractions are of no concern to me. The Important Bird Area (IBA) of Awana along the lower slopes is. IBAs here in Malaysia are not given their due protection. Awana, as many other IBAs, is under threat by human activities. That is a real shame because it is certainly a very beautiful and a regular birding site for birders in this region including Foo.

The Collared Owlet here has performed well on numerous occasions in the past but not today. Today it was quite adamant of taunting us from the dense foliage of the forest canopy with its diagnostic calls. No amount of pleading will get it show itself and a flying Great Hornbill finally diverted our attention away.

A fruiting tree only yielded a pair of Fire-tufted Barbets. This species is undoubtedly the most impressive of all our barbets. The challenging lighting condition and the height of the tree robbed us of any great images despite the confiding nature of our subjects.

After such an exhilarating morning with the pheasant, it would take something truly spectacular to reignite my excitement. A small flycatcher hawking along the forest edge awakened my senses but after further scrutiny, it turned out to be only an Asian Brown Flycatcher – the commonest of our migratory flycatchers. Not quite the spectacle I was hoping for. 

Foo was a little puzzled as to why we have yet to come across the Orange-bellied Leafbird. This beautiful forest jewel is a common sight here. I have been to this site only once before a few years back and I obtained one of my images of this species courtesy of an exceptionally confiding individual. I know what it feels like when you fail to show a regular species at your local patch to a visiting birder. A handsome male on our way back saved Foo the agony. And Foo’s pet bird was a great way to wrapped up things up for this weekend of outstanding birding and great companionship in the heart of Peninsular Malaysia. I owe the success and rewards of this trip to Foo. Without him, photographing a certain migratory ground bird and an endemic game bird will still be very much in my bucket list.

Thursday 17 March 2016

Three is certainly not a crowd (12/03/2016)

When I first found out about the Hooded Pitta that was performing well at the Shah Alam Agricultural Park in Selangor a few years back, I had to give it a pass. Reasons being it was not a lifer to me, it would be a long drive and most of all, it would be crowded. I mean it is a pitta after all. One of the most sought after bird species in the world. The same applies to when they found the confiding Mountain Peacock-Pheasants at Bukit Tinggi in Pahang. I always stress on the fact that we should never take things for granted and now, after a few years, I finally decided to have a go at both these birds before it is too late. Immediately after work on Friday, I braved the horrendous rush hour traffic along the Penang Bridge to get to the mainland. Four hours later I left my fate at the hands of modern technology to help me maneuver through the residential areas of Petaling Jaya in Selangor to the house of my good friend and ardent reader of the Penang Birder’s blog, SL Foo. He and his wife certainly made me feel right at home and their gracious hospitality is one of the reasons that made this trip so memorable. It was an early night for me because it has been a long drive and at first light tomorrow we will be going after the famous Hooded Pitta of Shah Alam.

During my early birding years, I imagined that pittas are only found in remote natural habitats. That was until I had my very first pitta, a Blue-winged Pitta, at a modest rubber plantation in Perlis. It changed my perspective of these fascinating and spectacular terrestrial birds. We have migratory Blue-winged and Hooded Pittas to Peninsular Malaysia and they sometimes occur in unlikely places. I have had numerous memorable encounters with the Blue-winged Pitta since that eye-opening encounter in Perlis but the Hooded Pitta never quite provided any memorable ones. That explains why I drove 400 kilometres to visit a crowded tourist and recreational locality just beyond the borders of our capital city of Kuala Lumpur on a weekend. After all pittas are one of my favourite birds and for them, I am willing to travel to the ends of the world.

There is a particular spot next to a small stream with isolated clumps of bamboo where the Hooded Pitta has been wintering for the past few seasons. We did not have to wait long for the star bird to appear. Amidst morning walkers, cyclists and some Aerosmith-wannabes screaming their heads off at a nearby event; I finally connected well with this alluring species. The Hooded Pitta may not be a lifer but it certainly had me fooled with all the feelings it managed to conjure up inside of me.

The pitta came back to the spot throughout the morning and was as confiding as any wild bird could ever be. In fact, it was so well behaved, it made me feel overdressed for the occasion. I might as well don Bermuda shorts and shirt because I do not think it will affect the pitta whatsoever. Anyway, we made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed this memorable encounter.

To top it all up, there could be at least three birds present judging from the slight differences of their blue wing patches. All my life I have struggled to obtain good views of single birds. Now, here I am having a few Hooded Pittas take turns to entertain and thrill me. There are very few things in birding that can better that. Come to think of it, there are very few things in life too.

In between the pittas’ performances, two renowned songsters made brief appearances. The Oriental Magpie Robin is still doing well despite all the Illegal trapping and nest raiding.

The White-rumped Shama is not so fortunate. There is now a distinct reduction in its population throughout the country. The male bird was shy this time and I could only obtain images of the duller female.

As we were about to pack up and leave, the Hooded Pitta made a final appearance for us. Perhaps it was its farewell gift to us as it performed for the longest time today. Pittas are such amazing creatures. It does not matter if you encounter them deep in the forest or just next to an open-air concert. Every single encounter is magical.

Here is Foo trying to get me better acquainted with the other feathered residents of this agricultural park...

With my main target for the day in the bag, Foo took me to one of his usual birding haunts in the Klang Valley – the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) in Kepong. There is a fruiting tree here that is a centre of bird activity and one of the patrons is the adorable Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot. Nothing beats having a local birder showing you around his local patches and I have Foo this time. You save time and effort trying to locate birdy spots within a locality and most of all, you are up to date with the latest happenings.

On the way to the fruiting tree, we made a short stop to look for a female Green-backed Flycatcher. Although not that rare, she is still uncommon enough to ignite some excitement. We found her foraging at the very spot Foo said we would. Now, that’s local knowledge for you.

The Stripe-throated Bulbul can be found in suitable habitats throughout the country. Unfortunately, I do not have many good encounters with it back in my home state of Penang. There is no denying the attractiveness of this species. The streaks engulfing the face region give you the impression that this bird is adorned with a golden mask. I was a little surprised when this individual alighted below eye level on a fallen tree in front of me and tolerated my efforts to slowly stalk closer for a better a shot. I started to see why this is one of Foo’s regular birding sites.

We settled down in front of the fruiting tree and the first thing that struck me was the size of the tree. It was a small tree as far as forest trees go and the birds will certainly be close when they feast on the fruits. The Lesser Green Leafbirds were the first birds to get my attention and they were certainly close. In fact, they did not show much fear of our presence. The male, as usual, is more colourful and charming.

The female Lesser Green Leafbird may lack of the colours of the male but her green plumage is just as vibrant as any male...

According to Foo, the fruits brought out the worse from the Greater Green Leafbirds. And couldn’t agree with him more. They were noisy, possessive and aggressive. All smaller birds including the Lesser Green Leafbirds were driven away by any means necessary. It is no wonder there were no signs of the parrots. I have never witness such tenacity from this leafbird at fruiting trees in my regular sites. I guess life near the capital city tend to change who you are and it is a true dog-eat-dog world. There were no female Greater Green Leafbird present and the males that were present were not too courteous to each other either.

You could basically walk below them and they will not even flinch. But shooting from directly below your subject will not get you anywhere. The foliage was quite dense and the leaves got in the way of most of my attempts. Luckily the bold nature of the birds provided ample opportunities and I did manage some unobstructed images in the end.

Sneaking in when the leafbirds are distracted was a family of Plain Sunbirds. This species spends most of its time along the canopy level and good views are not that easily obtained. Today, not only did I manage to obtain great views, the sunbirds were also very confiding as well. The male with his signature head patch came really close to my position but the foliage prevented me from obtaining better images than this.

The female, living up to her namesake, is certainly a plain looking bird. I caught her as she was devouring a fruit on an exposed perch. That certainly made my day.

There was some ground activity nearby the fruiting as well. You will not see any Selangor birders paying much attention to the Javan Myna. This myna is an adaptable and highly invasive species. It does not have a very big fan club but until it finally colonizes my home state of Penang, I will still be a fan.

We were about to get into the car and call it a day when the bleating call of the Black-and-red Broadbill seeped through the vegetation. With some effort and a little luck, we managed to locate the bird perched in the crown of a roadside tree. The lighting was terrible and a record shot can never do justice to the real beauty of this forest jewel.

Back at the Foo Residence, I was offered the perfect beverage to cool down and it was also my victory drink to celebrate one heck of a day. The Hooded Pittas certainly made the journey worth the while by performing so admirably for a visiting Penang Birder. And a supporting cast of colours and personalities completed this truly memorable excursion.

Socks, the cat of the house, probably could not comprehend why this day is any different from yesterday. To her, life is a bliss and every day is a great day. It was another early night for me as we prepare for an even earlier day tomorrow. The montane forest of Bukit Tinggi beckons and that birding adventure will be covered in my next post.