While I was away in Japan, I have been keeping a close tab on one of my local patches – the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. The reason or should I say reasons for this keen interest is because both the Ruddy Kingfishers and Blue-winged Pittas are back in the limelight at this little patch of birding paradise. I have grown a little accustomed to starting off my birding at 5 in the morning courtesy of the early daylight hours of my Japan trip and it came as no surprise I reached Air Hitam Dalam way before the break of dawn. Without the aid of the tropical sun, any attempts at capturing the two birds beneath the forest canopy will be futile. So, I chilled and took the time to enjoy the breaking of a new day for a change. Sometimes I do wonder it is right to call my birding endeavours a hobby. The last I checked, hobbies are something that you enjoy doing to help you relax and revitalize yourself. Well, I enjoy my birding and it does more than just revitalize but I am not too sure about the relax part. Relaxing is hardly the word I will use to describe birding. It is usually hectic, frustrating and stressful especially when things do not go your way. So birding is not a hobby to an old school birder like me. It is a commitment. It is an obsession. It is a way of life.
Once it got bright enough, I began my missions for the day. The Blue-winged Pittas were calling but they were not ready to show themselves yet. Thus I ended staring at nothing but swamp vegetation for a considerable amount of time.
I decided try my luck (and to get over the disappointment with the pittas) along the elevated boardwalk. A pair of Olive-winged Bulbuls were the first birds to greet me here…
I did not have to walk far when I picked out the all-too-familiar calls of the Ruddy Kingfisher and it sounded very close. I proceeded towards my target cautiously and there, perched right out in the open, was the Red King of Air Hitam Dalam. The Ruddy Kingfisher is back to reinforced his reign over these lands. Best of the all, it was very confiding and I could not have asked for a better way to start off birding here in Malaysia again after being away for almost 2 weeks.
The Ruddy Kingfisher seemed adamant of making that perch as its platform to project his persistent territorial calls. I decided to let it be and turned back where I came from. Just a few strides later I bumped into the complicated pair of Mangrove/Tickell’s Blue Flycatchers and they were as confiding as usual. They appeared drenched and probably did some skinny-dipping before our encounter. I could not blame. I myself was struggling with the heat and humidity as well. A very stark difference from the cold and dry Japanese spring.
When I returned to the kingfisher spot later, I could only hear its calls but it did not take me long to relocate it. Pretty hard to be inconspicuous when you are red and your surroundings, green. The Red King had decided by then to continue its territorial calls from a higher perch. Perhaps to help carry its intentions further.
When the diagnostic calls of the Blue-winged Pittas started to echo through the vicinity again, I immediately focused my attention on getting my second target bird of the trip. With a little perseverance, a single bird did finally come into view. Pittas are the one bird that I can never get tired of. Their colours and personality are always a delight to observe. Although only one decided to come out from hiding, it was still a great moment. It too was relatively confiding as long as I did not cross into its comfort zone. And I made myself comfortable on the ground as I knew it was going to be a long session.
The Blue-winged Pitta is now a regular to Air Hitam Dalam. It is a nice addition to the site – there is no doubt about it. However the other pitta of the swamp forest here, the Mangrove Pitta, has not shown itself for a few years now. I am not entirely sure it is the Blue-winged Pittas’ doings but the latter is the more adaptable and tougher of the two.
After my rewarding encounter with the pitta, I decided to explore the open gravel road next to the river. There, I accidentally startled a Greater Coucal. For a second there it was just as stunned as I was. Luckily, I recovered quicker than the cuckoo and managed to squeeze a few shots before it disappeared into the undergrowth.
Just when I thought I have seen everything there is to see here, Air Hitam Dalam sprung a little surprise for me. I have not seen a wild boar here before and this young one was coming down trail totally unaware that it is being watched. When it finally caught my scent, its pace quickened considerably and disappeared into the forest a few second later.
As I was making my way back to the car park, a Ruddy Kingfisher suddenly flew across my path and flashing its tantalizing silver-blue rump along the way. Naturally, I aborted my plans to call it a day and followed the trilling calls of the red king back into the forested area of the elevated boardwalk. The kingfisher stood out like a sore thumb among the swamp vegetation but unfortunately, it was not the best location from which to photograph.
Then again, this is the natural habitat of this kingfisher after all. And like my earlier encounter, it provided a prolonged view for me (and a few other birders this time) ample time to admire and bask in the beauty of this uncommon species. Long live the king…