Wednesday 28 September 2016


The forests of Peninsula Malaysia house some of the most extraordinary bird species. The elusive and enigmatic Malaysian Rail-babbler is certainly one of them. In all my years of birding, I have only seen it twice and on both occasions, they were fleeting views. The chicken-like gait and the long, slim body shape make the Malaysian Rail-babbler rather unmistakeable. Recently, a Malaysian Rail-babbler has been performing well for birders and photographers near and far at a location in Pahang. It kind of contradicts my earlier statement of it being elusive. And some, God forbid, have almost forgotten how hard it used to be to obtain decent views of this particular bird.

A life well-lived is a life filled with moments. Moments that inspire. Moments that awe. And moments that change lives. A recent excursion into the forest of Kedah state with James Neoh certainly had such moments for me. The day started off quite well and later in the morning, some bird activities at a fruiting tree naturally gained our full attention. While scanning through the patrons of the fruiting tree, a prolonged whistle penetrated through the forest vegetation before reaching our ear drums. A second whistle proved that it was indeed a real bird and not my imagination at work. I am no stranger to this locality but this is the first time the Malaysian Rail-babbler has revealed itself to me. It is not totally unexpected but it is certainly exciting as hell. We cautiously inched closer to the source and that led us to the edge of the forest and beyond that, a ravine. The ravine was too deep and the vegetation too dense for any attempts to locate our quarry.

We followed the forest edge until we came to an opening and it appeared to be an abandoned trail. We set up our hides at a strategic location, got our gear ready and left our fate in the hands of Mother Nature. Suddenly, it started to drizzle and that was certainly not a good sign. But we held on. It will take a whole lot more to forgo an opportunity to capture a Malaysian Rail-babbler.  I am not sure what my companion was doing but I was on my knees in prayer. The 10-minute wait felt longer than it truly was. Anxiety had pretty much taken hold of me by then. In the faintest of whispers James uttered, it’s here. And there it was – strutting in front of our hides. I was utterly overwhelmed and I have not even squeeze my shutter yet. Just to be able to see this amazing bird so clearly would have been enough for me. Anything else is a bonus.

The encounter lasted only minutes and for most of time, it was partly hidden by the vegetation. But this is the Malaysian Rail-babbler. I, a mere mortal, should count my blessings for whatever I have been given by this divine creature. The babbler was emitting its territorial call at one time and I could even make out the blue throat patch (invisible when the bird is silent) with my limited field of view. A life-changing moment? Absolutely...

Just before the babbler wandered deeper back into its domain among the undergrowth of the tropical rain forest, it provided a few seconds of unobstructed views and I made the best I could out of the situation. No doubt it was walking down a mound and the angle was less than desirable but it was in good lighting and I obtained my best image of this treasured encounter. We continued to wait for about 2 hours but to no avail. That was all that Mother Nature intended us to witness today. But it will certainly do.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Glimmer of hope

The Pulau Burung Landfill in southern mainland Penang holds a very special place in my heart for all the wonderful memories it has provided. It is most depressing that in recent years the birding there plummeted to an all-time low. Human intervention at the marshlands surrounding the landfill is one of the main reasons behind this dreadful turn of events. When I received a phone call from Christine if I could assist her conduct a bird survey as part of the EIA for the construction of the second phase of the landfill, I took it on without much hesitation. The second phase will be constructed on the adjacent palm oil estates which honestly, will have very little impact on what is left of the birdlife there. But the scope of the EIA will include the original landfill area as well and if there is anything I could do that may help restore the marshlands back to half its former glory, I certainly would. Nothing may come out of EIA. It is only but a glimmer of hope. But it is better than nothing at all.

The heavens were in our favour. Despite torrential rain for the past few days, we were greeted by sunny weather upon our arrival. The Brahminy Kite may be one of the commonest raptors in Malaysia but to me, it is one of the handsomest as well. This lone bird soaking in the golden rays of morning sun on top of a dead coastal tree provided a good start to our survey. The striking plumage of this raptor set against the clear blue sky was certainly a sight to cherish.

Purple Herons were present in good numbers today. Large herons are becoming a scarce commodity in Penang nowadays and that makes today’s records significant. It is generally a rather skittish bird but this adult bird had total faith that the surrounding vegetation would provide adequate cover and shield it from approaching birders.

The silhouette of a raptor perched on a dead tree in front us caught my immediate attention. It was most unfortunate that the sun was in front us as we slowly made our approach in our vehicle. It turned out to be a pale morph Changeable Hawk-eagle and this impressive predator showed no fear of our intrusion into its domain. I managed to obtain full frame shots from the comfort of our vehicle and this encounter reminded me why visited this locality more times than I could remember in the past (and why I could tolerate the overwhelming stench of the landfill). I know that the phrase a little piece of heaven on earth is so cliché but that was what Pulau Burung was to me at that point in my life. It broke me when it was all taken away from me. I am not sure if this place will ever be the birding paradise it used to be but we have to try.

An all-too-familiar call still echoed through the vicinity and the water birds responsible for the racket are one of the few that has managed to survive here after the onslaught. Red-wattled Lapwings have adapted well to disturbed habitats not only here but throughout the state. Their poise and colours are always welcomed in any birding excursion.

The migrants have started to trickle in and a few confiding Eastern Yellow Wagtails foraging next to the landfill hopefully will be a sign of things to come. This individual was still in partial breeding plumage and provided a much needed lift to my spirit as I reflect upon the days of old I spent experiencing the magical birding moments. I published an article in a nature magazine a few years back about this location and as a closing I wrote, I hope the day will never come when the ballerinas of the marsh (Black-winged Stilts) are force to perform one last time in the presence of angels (Whiskered Terns) before departing from a diminishing paradise and never to return again. Well, that day is certainly almost here.

This new sign erected by the Wildlife Department momentarily distracted us from our survey. I have never seen a wild crocodile here in Peninsular Malaysia before. I have also been birding here in Pulau Burung regularly for the past 2 decades. If there are crocodiles, it would really make my day to see one finally. But it was not my time yet. So, here I am, posting this photo of the “Beware of Crocodiles” signboard taken by Christine…

As we were about to conclude the survey, I took the opportunity to observe the flocks of Lesser Whistling-ducks present at the marshlands. The ducks seemed to have found a true sanctuary living here next to the landfill. In fact, this is probably the last stronghold for this species here in Penang. I guess the security around the landfill indirectly protects them from poachers and with food aplenty, there could be no better place for them to call home.

From Pulau Burung, we headed south to the Sungai Acheh Mangrove Research Center. If not for Christine, I would not have known such a place actually exist in my home state. There is even a small boardwalk that cuts through the mangroves but as it was near the noon hour, not much was seen because the heat was truly taxing. And we also concluded the survey shortly after - naturally. I do hope that the little role that I played in this survey will be able to do some good for the once-inspiring birding hotspot called Pulau Burung. Only time will tell.