Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Old school birding

I get a fair share of guests who are old school birders and Barry, my latest guest who hails from Canada, is certainly one of them. I was a birder long before I took up bird photography. So, I can relate to the fact that all the gear Barry needs for a birding trip is his faithful binoculars. Today also happened to be the final day of the Nine Emperor Gods Festival and that usually spells rain in the daytime. Chinese believe the rain is meant to cleanse the roads in preparation for the chariot procession at night. We were almost drenched to the bone when we wondered out of our vehicle at the mangroves of Kuala Gula in search of Milky Storks that is a part of Barry’s bucket list. The trip was off to a bad start. The location did not live up to its name as a bird sanctuary and the only ‘Milkies’ we saw were in a cage within the compound of the Wildlife Department.

The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher also happened to be in his list and I know exactly where to take him after the disappointing visit to Kuala Gula. As we making our into the flycatchers’ swampy domain at Air Hitam Dalam, a spectacle of nature that I have not witness for a long time stopped us at our tracks. A flock of about 200 Asian Openbills were riding the hot air thermals in the sky above. I was getting a little worried that these storks have abandoned their intentions to settle down here in Peninsular Malaysia. The sight of this massive flock was a relief to say the least.

The male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher did not disappoint as usual. His friendly nature and striking colours made quite an impact on my guest. Barry travels a lot in his line of work and he has seen a considerable number of bird species. It would take something less ordinary to impress him and the Mangrove Blue Flycatchers here are anything but ordinary.

Barry enjoying his second lifer of the trip – a female Streak-breasted Woodpecker. This is probably the most reliable locality for this northern speciality in Malaysia. The differences between this species and the commoner Laced Woodpecker are so subtle, I had to work a little extra to convince my guest. The woodpecker, being a female, was playing hard to get - naturally.

The last leg of today’s tour brought us to the muddy shorelines of Penang’s only Important Bird Area (IBA) – Teluk Ayer Tawar. The tide has started to rise upon our arrival and I could make out waders moving about on the huge expanse of mud and sand.

However, it was not the birds that had my immediate attention but this building that was still under construction. It looks modern and posh and totally out of place here. You are surrounded by scrub and all creepy-crawlies of all kinds. The air is stench with overwhelming mud odour and for half the time, a bleak coastline greets your view. The noise pollution caused by the thousands of migratory waders that winter here each year will drive you insane. This is no place for such an innovative and classy building. Please leave this modest location to the local residents and the birders. You deserve so much better – really…

Now that I have gotten that out of my system, back to the birds again. The mere sight of the number of waders present was breath taking. Although the tide was a little far, we could still scrutinized the flocks for any rarities. As time passed, the tide pushed the waders closer. The adorable Broad-billed Sandpipers were the first to come close enough for some decent shots. Oblivious to all the looming threats their wintering ground is facing, they went about having a good time in this tropical paradise.

Small waders are usually more confiding and this Terek Sandpiper foraged quite close to our stationery vehicle that is now our mobile hide. I am not sure how to describe it but Terek Sandpipers are very soothing to look at – upturned bill and all.

The Common Redshanks due to their big numbers and moderate size is quite conspicuous. Having a tendency to shout your lungs out every chance you get is bound to attract attention to yourself also. I find that they tend to get used to your presence faster than any of the other moderate-sized waders and forage quite close at times.

Whimbrels are usually wary birds. This individual flew close to shore to avoid the rising surf and soon realized its mistakes when it could make out two human forms within this lug of steel that sits on four wheels. I managed to take a few shots before it made things right again and foraged further away from the shoreline.

The main reason for our visit here is the endangered Nordmann’s Greenshank. After a careful sweep, we failed to locate one. It is probably too early in the season but one has to be optimistic at times. The next best thing was probably the small flock of Asian Dowitchers foraging nearby. This species, unfortunately, is also on the endangered list. Like the greenshank, the area is one of the main wintering grounds for these endangered waders. Hence, the IBA status but I guess that does not mean much to most.

The dowitchers forage by probing their long bills into the mud quite frequently. It is delightful to watch but challenging to obtain sharp images. Especially now that the rain clouds have started to form again and threaten to block out all traces of the ever-essential natural light I rely so heavily on for photography. The absence of the usual scorching heat here at the mudflats is a nice change despite certain drawbacks. The cool breeze that day also made our wader watching session this time a lot more comfortable than usual. Go deep or go home...

It is a dog-eat-dog world out there on the mudflats. Once you obtained your prey, you better consume it with haste or run away to consume it in leisure because there is always another wader lurking nearby and ever ready to snatch away your hard earned meal. When we were satisfied of our visit to the beach, I took Barry for one last detour and that was to Kulim Hi-Tech Park for his third and final lifer of the day – a well hidden roosting Barred Eagle-owl. And that, I would say is a great way to end a day’s birding despite not having that many photographs to show for it at the end.

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