Friday 22 July 2016

Still has what it takes...(16/07/2017)

After an incredible trip to Taman Negara, it will take something out of the ordinary to get my adrenalin pumping again. Together with Hor Kee, we set out to the forest that surrounds the mighty Sedim River in Kedah state. This recreational forest is probably the best forest birding site close to home and if there is anywhere that has what it takes to get me excited again, this would be it. Reason being this is one of the few places that I frequent which still has hornbills flying free in the skies above and broadbills deafening the forest with their persistent vocals.

Babblers are certainly well represented in this locality. This family of birds is the main reason why birders have such a colourful vocabulary of swears and curses. Babblers tend to frequent dense vegetation, strongly believe that death will bestow them if they stay still and get a kick out of frustrating their human observers. The one thing that betrays their presence is their call. Most birders have had plenty of practice at recognizing babbler calls because you hear them more often you see them. The Scaly-crowned Babbler is a tree babbler and that makes it a little easier to spot. A pair was rather confiding this time round but the dim lighting and constant movement (what did I just tell you?) proved to be too much for an ordinary mortal like me to obtain any better shots.

This species does have a pleasant whistle and it echoed through the vicinity during the encounter. The scaly crown is not a very prominent feature and caution has to be taken to distinguish it from the similar Rufous-crowned Babbler which we did hear calling later in the morning.

An inquisitive young male Green Broadbill swooped in to have a better look at a couple of birders that were combing through his territory looking for forest denizens like himself. A regularly encountered species here, the Green Broadbill is a mesmerizing bird that can get me all excited even when it is perched almost directly overhead and with the light coming from behind.

Having a good sense of hearing is very advantageous when birding in the forest. No doubt many forest species have amazing plumage colourations and yet they can still easily blend into the vegetation and shadows. Forest kingfishers possess a certain aura of mystery and intrigue that their open country relatives lack. The Dwarf Kingfishers may be adorable and all that but it is the bigger species that truly tickle my fancy. I have been encountering Rufous-collared Kingfishers here since my first visit more than a decade ago. Their mournful whistle is very much a part of the natural chorus that greets every visitor who enters this domain. However, I have come to a stage in my life that I have almost given all hope of photographing this kingfisher. I left Hor Kee to try and locate the kingfisher by himself while I scouted around for other species.

My companion apparently does not share my fate when it comes to this beautiful kingfisher and triumphantly signalled me over. It was a handsome bird and he was not too far from the forest edge either. I cautiously crept closer. When I was within shooting range, sweat started running down from my bare crown, stung my eyes and tried to cloud my vision. But I was a man on a mission. No amount of sweat and leeches will get in my way. I was in an awkward standing position thanks to dense undergrowth and my arms strained as I stabilized my camera for the moment of truth. Lighting was not on my side and a twig slightly blocked my subject but I took the shots. I had a gut feeling if I took one more to the right for an unobstructed view, my subject will inevitably fly and disappear from sight. At times I give in too easily to my desire for better shots. I am not proud of it but I took that step. From the single shot of the kingfisher posted, you can pretty much guess the outcome.

Trogons are another good reason to explore the forest here. A male Diard’s Trogon taunted us from the cover of the canopy level and despite all our efforts, managed to elude our cameras. Our persistent almost paid off when a trogon suddenly alighted on an exposed branch but much to our bewilderment, it was a male Orange-breasted Trogon. The male Diard’s Trogon went on with his vocal performance at the same and that answered a lot of questions regarding our sanity and birding abilities - much to my relief. Anyway, the male Orange-breasted Trogon may not be as visually stunning as the male Diard’s Trogon and the perch was not exactly within my photographic gear’s comfort zone but he provided a good ending to our excursion. Sungai Sedim may not be in the same league as Taman Negara but it is still a birding hotspot in its own right. And it is close to home.

Monday 18 July 2016

The one and only (8-10/7/2016)

Taman Negara is an odd name for a national park because it basically means national park in Malay and there are a few national parks throughout Peninsular Malaysia. But none even comes close to Taman Negara. Initial I thought someone did not have his thinking cap on when naming the place. But I see the logic now. Years in a creative agency has taught me to pick up stuff like this. Apparently, Taman Negara is the one and only national park in the country to the person who named it and I could not agree more. It is a true natural paradise and worthy of a name of such arrogance. Before this post sounds too much like an ad to promote the place (which is entirely unnecessary as it is awesome and needs no promotion), I better get ask the ad copywriter in me to take a breather. During a two and a half day tour here with Ben, my Singaporean guest, we spent a substantial amount of time in hides. But Ben’s maiden to visit to the Sungai Relau side of Taman Negara would not have been complete if we did not explore the iconic access road that cuts through the forest. And that is what will be covered in this third and final post of the tour.

Along this access road, one species was heard and seen more often than the rest during our visit – the Rufous-tailed Tailorbird. Surprisingly, based on calls it numbered even the commoner Dark-necked Tailorbird. It may sound contradicting but I only managed one shot of this adorable little guy. It is because I simply do not have time for it and it is certainly not the easiest of subjects to photograph. This is, after all, Taman Negara and I had bigger fish to fry - so to speak.

I encounter the Finsch’s Bulbul quite often because it is not uncommon in the forests of Kedah where I usually bird. But to Ben, this was his best photographic opportunity thus far. We came across parent birds attending to a juvenile. Maternal instinct set in and the parents tolerated our presence as they frantically search for more food to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the youngster.

The month of July is within the breeding season for most of our forest birds and that made it a good time to be birding in Peninsular Malaysia’s premier forest site. The Maroon-breasted Philentoma is certainly not a common bird – not to me anyway. So when we came across a female bird foraging along the middle level of the forest, I was just as excited as Ben. Unfortunately, she was not much in the mood to be photographed and I only managed to take one reasonably good shot. The images we took were good enough for a positive identification. And I was actually happy with this image and thought that was the end of it.

The next day, unbelievably, we saw a male bird at almost the spot. And he was a stunner! Unlike the female, he was confiding and tame. The blue upperparts is satin-like which only enhances the appeal of the bird. The maroon on the breast comes alive only in good light and since the encounter took place just next to the access road, we had plenty of opportunity to admire the bird’s namesake. For the life of me, I could not recall this species ever being so well behaved in the past and I guessed it was either the magic of Taman Negara or something else at work.

We found out later that afternoon that my gut feeling about the philentoma was right. He turned out to be a daddy and was attending to a newly-fledged chick. From a safe distance, we observed the chick being fed by the male bird. Unlike most ravenous fledglings, this one appeared very well-mannered and waited patiently for his dad to ‘prepare’ the meal at hand.

After the feeding, Ben lamented that he forgot to capture it on video. I, on the other, could not even remember I can actually shoot video with my current setup. Some birding moments are just more mesmerizing than others. This episode with the Maroon-breasted Philentomas was certainly one of them.

The male provided good photographic opportunities while performing his maternal duties and I felt bad taking advantage of the situation. Who am I kidding? This is the closest and longest encounter I have ever enjoyed with this sultry species and I relished every second of it. This is why Taman Negara is my favourite forest birding site. I first stepped into Taman Negara about 3 decades ago and it was love at first sight. The birding was remarkable then and it is still remarkable now.

If not for the presence of the adult male, I would have had my work cut out for me trying to identify the fledgling. Like most fledglings, it was constantly hungry and the parent birds had their work cut out for them too. Gradually, the youngster move deeper into the forest until the only indication of its presence was the constant chirping.

During one of our walks along the access road, we chance upon a female Trogon that was surprisingly confiding. Upon further scrutiny, she turned out to be a Red-naped Trogon. The presence of a male bird nearby further strengthened my hunch that they were another pair of breeding birds. I could be not be certain at what stage of breeding they were in but it is good to see forest denizens like this trogon continue to thrive under the protection of this national park.

The Rufous Woodpecker may lack the bright colours of some of the other species but there is beauty in simplicity. Uniform rufous brown combined with black barring throughout, will certainly help to blend the bird into its surroundings. And also its somewhat shy nature has prevented me from obtaining reasonably good images although it occurs in my home state of Penang. This male felt it was high time to rectify all my previous frustrations with his fellow kind and gave me one minute of my best photographic opportunity with the species. I could not have asked for more...

Another conservatively coloured woodpecker that I managed to photograph on this trip was the Buff-necked Woodpecker. Although it forages along the middle and lower storey of the forest, its preferences for dimly lighted areas has always being a stumbling block when it comes to photography. My modest gear does not perform well in low light and the fact that I usually shoot handheld only compounds the difficulty. I expected a better image this time due to the close proximity of the bird but yet again, the elements of forest photography got the better of me.

At times, you do not even have to walk far to enjoy the birding here at Taman Negara Sungai Relau. Since the day we arrived, I could not help but noticed a Spectacled Spiderhunter that hangs around the park headquarters. However due to time constraints (you will never have enough time here as there is so much to see), I was able to photograph it on only one occasion. It alighted on a tree in front of me and I do not need any invites to start shooting. It was just after dawn and the lighting condition was a disappointment. But it was way better than my past attempts of shooting at it at the top most part of the forest canopy.

During my last visit here years ago, I had a lifer in the form of a Jerdon’s Baza. This small raptor is reasonably scarce in Peninsular Malaysia and I was overjoyed to be able to add it into my life list. Since then I have encountered this species a couple of times in the forests of Kedah state. When a lone bird was seen soaring high above the forest next to the headquarters, I was slightly overwhelmed by the feeling of nostalgia. All the great memories of my past visits started running through my mind and there were certainly loads of them. The Jerdon’s Baza is a fitting end to another wonderful excursion to good old Taman Negara – the one and only true national park of Peninsula Malaysia.

Friday 15 July 2016


The drive from Cameron Highlands to Taman Negara Sungai Relau took slightly more than 2 hours. In order to reach our destination at first light, we embarked on our journey well before dawn. The cold mountain air and endless winding road could not dampened my spirit. It has been 7 years since my last visit to this birding paradise and I was savouring all the birding delights that are to come. When we finally reach our destination, the national park looked pretty much the same to me and that was certainly a good thing.

There is, however, one very noticeable difference. A small herd of Bantengs now roam the park headquarters compound. These native cattle are part of some reintroduction program and the freedom that they get to enjoy is because they are as tame as any domestic cattle can be.

The lone bull, although not as huge and intimidating as his bigger cousin the Gaur, is an impressive animal nevertheless. I would certainly not fancy bumping into a wild one in the forest.

Beyond this iron bridge lies Mother Nature’s gift to birders. The forest here is home to a magnitude of beautiful and intriguing species. It is a little piece of heaven on Earth that is more than capable of making a seasoned birder feel like a rookie birder all over again – overwhelmed by new and incredible birding sensations.

Ben and I had two and a half days of pure birding here. Taman Negara has never once disappointed me and it was not about to start now. We put in several hours of hide birding and photography each day and the results were quite satisfactory. This post will feature all the birds we obtained while staking out in the hides. The White-rumped Shama is one of the most confiding species we encountered. Famed for its divine singing abilities, this species is heavily trapped throughout the country. Fortunately for them, they are safe here from trappers as long as they stay within the boundaries of the park. The male not only sings well or also possesses a beautifully long tail. That is why it kills me to see them cramped inside cages. Although the cages used to house shamas are bigger than usual, they still rob these amazing birds of their birth given right – to serenade the natural world with their beauty and song.

We also had a chance to photograph the less impressive female...

And a juvenile completes the family album...

Yellow-bellied Bulbuls are not your typical bulbul. They have a preference for the lower levels of the forest. Being skulkers by nature, good views are somewhat a privilege. However with the aid of a hide and a little patience, we had plenty of that on this faithful trip.

They also have a tendency to behave like babblers with their vocal nature and foraging habits. Lacking the delicate-looking body structures of the canopy bulbuls, the Yellow-bellied Bulbul are certainly built for the treacherous and competitive life near the forest floor.

Being able to observe and photograph any babbler out in the open is already a blessing. And to get it up close and personal as well is beyond words. Babblers that frequent the forest undergrowth like the Short-tailed Babblers are notoriously difficult to observe and photograph. Hide birding can be taxing at times. Fortunately, the antics of these stump-tailed terrestrial birds kept us entertained whenever they were present.

Adorable as they may be, appearances can be deceiving. There is no doubt these birds are full of character. And they can be feisty at times too. These two individuals apparently could not see eye to eye. When all the displaying and threat posturing could not settle the dispute, a more physical approach had to be taken...

I have relatively few encounters with the Ferruginous Babbler despite the fact that they do occur in the neck of woods where I usually bird. Shy and active, most of my encounters are brief or obstructed views. You will not able to truly appreciate its beauty until you have a good look at it in the open. Graceful-looking and with a very pleasant combination of colours, the Ferruginous Babbler is a true hidden treasure of the forest.

The babbler’s upperparts is rusty coloured and much to the agony of birders, blends reasonably well with undergrowth vegetation. Its call like most babblers, is the usual tell tale sign of its present. Here in Taman Negara Sungai Relau, the single note call is frequently heard throughout the vicinity indicating the presence of a healthy population.

Hide birding is not as comfortable as it appears to be. Although you are seated and in the shade, the humidity and heat and as well as the cramped space will get to you sooner or later. And don’t forget the waiting part. Boredom will set in as quickly as the mosquitos and if you are unlucky, leeches too. But the main reason for putting ourselves through all this is a family of birds that undoubtedly is one of the most enigmatic and sought after in the tropics – pittas!

Both the Garnet and Malayan Banded Pitta are present at this birding site. We heard both of them every single day of our visit. The former is supposedly the commoner of the two but we are dealing with wild animals here and things do not always work out according to expectations. We only had one quick glimpse of the dazzling plumage of the Garnet Pitta in the end. However, much to our delight, the Malayan Banded Pitta provided a slightly longer view. Even when it is partly hidden by vegetation, this male made me giddy and quiver with anticipation.

I am not much of a praying person but at that moment, I got down on my knees and said a silent prayer. And it was answered. The male Malayan Banded Pitta hopped into full view. Now, the Giant Pitta may be the most revered of our Malaysian pittas due to its near mythical status but when it comes to aesthetic appeal, the male Malayan Banded Pitta has no equals. The flaming orange eyebrow and midnight blue underparts contrasting sharply with the orange breast bands is a sight that will be eternally embedded into your memory. This may not be my first experience with this alluring bird but it is by far the best.

Two shots was all that I was allowed to take. And just like that, the male Malayan Banded Pitta hopped back into the cover of the undergrowth leaving behind a vivid memory of splendour and beauty. He was not alone. But his mate only offered quick glimpses throughout the encounter. I should be thankful that Murphy sat this one out and it was the duller female that gave us the slip. Birding from a hide may not be my usual cup of tea but for a chance to observe this pitta I would be willing to step out of my comfort zone. Taman Negara Sungai Relau has so much more to offer than just hide birding and the birds we encountered while exploring other parts of the park will be covered in my next post.