Ben was back in town again for a couple of days of birding and this time he brought along another Singaporean birder, Millie who is still relatively new to birding. Ben has been my regular guest for a few years now and has seen probably all there is to see in Penang but for Millie, this will be her maiden birding trip here. For the first day of the tour, I took them to the forest of Sungai Sedim – the best forest site close to Penang state. The forecast was rain this week and initially I was a little worried about the weather but soon after our arrival, the sun glowed in beautiful amber and the forest came to life in its wake. I thought to myself that this must be our lucky day. The birds did a great job in welcoming my Singaporean guests. Birdwaves will usually have you frantically trying to identify every participating species and for the bold, attempt to photograph them as well. However there are moments when the participant remains stationery long enough for its photo and moments like these are priceless. We encountered a handful of birdwaves this beautiful morning and one of them provided one of my best images of the striking Black-winged Flycatcher-shrike.
The nearby Ulu Paip Forest Reserve is not as rich in bird life but it is home to a few sought-after species like the Blue-banded Kingfisher. This beautiful creature of forested streams and rivers is not common anywhere. This forest reserve is one of the few places where it is more regularly encountered. Its diminutive size and shy nature helps it keep out of sight. And to obtain reasonably good images, a hide is a requirement. A lone male hunting unobtrusively along the main river provided my guests one of their best lifers of this trip. Although it was no way a close observation, the prolonged period that he allowed us to peer into his secretive little world made up for the quality of the images we managed to obtain in the end.
The resident Barred Eagle-owl of Kulim Hi-Tech Park is undoubtedly one of the favourites among most of my guests. Owls as a species are amazing creatures. And confiding ones like the Barred Eagle-owl here straddle the border between reality and fantasy as the encounters at times are almost too good to be true. This is the first time in a long while that I managed to see the pair together. It was exciting and a relief. Even the obstructing vegetation could not damper my spirit.
On the second day of our tour, we visited the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. No visit to Penang is ever complete without it – especially for first-time visitors. The weather held up today as well. It must be our lucky day again. I received news a few days earlier that one of the big trees has uprooted due to strong winds. I had no idea how much negative effect it has caused and there is only one way to find out for sure and that is to see it for myself. My heart sunk to the floor when I saw the uprooted tree as it was one of the big ones. It is fine for trees to get uprooted in a natural environment where everything is in perfect equilibrium but in a confined one like this, it could be devastating.
However through all the destruction and debris, there was still hope. The mixed pair of Tickell’s and Mangrove Blue Flycatchers appeared to have gone through the ordeal without much trauma although the tree flattened their territory. Just to reassure me, the male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher greeted us along what is the left of the boardwalk and he was as friendly as ever.
My guests distracted by a Stork-billed Kingfisher perched on a dead stump next to the river…
As we were making our way out of Air Hitam Dalam, the presence of a lone Asian Openbill did not go unnoticed. There is a major decrease in the number found here in mainland Penang and it could well signify that the colonization attempt by these birds that originated from the neighbouring country of Thailand is coming to an end. Where once hundreds darkened the skies around the paddy planting district here, there are now small numbers of individuals. For a waterbird lover like me, that is sad indeed.
The coastline along Teluk Ayer Tawar is one of the major wintering grounds for migratory waders to Peninsula Malaysia. At the peak of the migratory season, you can see them in the thousands. Lucky for me and other birders, this is still an annual occurrence – for the time being anyway. There are plans surfacing that intend to convert this area into God knows what. Whatever it is, it is quite certain that the waders will not be a part of it. Enough of the whining and back to the birds. Once we found a good spot to observe the waders, we made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed the experience. The tide was not at its optimum for photography but the sight of hundreds of waders against a background of mud and surf always do it for me. And the season has just only started. More waders will come in due time.
The final leg of the itinerary took my guests to the landfill of Pulau Burung in southern mainland Penang. The second phase of the landfill is well on its way. And it is enormous. But then again, all the solid waste has got to end up somewhere eventually. So I would like to make a public announcement, please recycle whenever you can. The highlight of our visit to this local patch for me is a lone Lesser Adjutant perched on a tree along the edge of the mangroves bordering the landfill. This species is getting rare here in my home state. Destruction of its natural habitat is probably one of the main causes for its decline. A truly enigmatic waterbird. One of my favourites in fact. Which explains why I even bother to take a shot although it was miles away. This bald but majestic stork wraps things up for this 2-day birding excursion. Despite all the on-going and looming threats to the birding localities around Penang, there is still enough left for a good couple of days of birding. The real question is how long it will last.