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.