Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Where is that bleeding gull? (23/01/2016)

I was up way before my alarm went off. Perhaps the excitement of the trip ahead kept me awake. I am not off to some exotic far away location. In fact, it is just to the mudflats of Bagan Belat – one of my local patches in mainland Penang. That is the beauty of birding. Even nearby locations can be just as exciting at times especially when there is a possibility of a mega lifer. The tide was ideal for a visit in the late morning and so, I went to the nearby locality of Air Hitam Dalam to kill time. I arrived at the swamp forest just in time to witness the graceful Great-eared Nightjars hunt one last time before the arrival of dawn. The buoyancy of their flight and their immense size captivated me throughout the encounter. There was no point attempting to capture the hunt in this light and the best I could manage was this landscape shot of the breaking of dawn. After the nightjars left, that is.

It was not a slow morning at the swamp forest. Most of the regular species were present but my heart was not really here today. I longed for the aroma of exposed mud and the salty sea breeze on my face. But most of all, I just could not stop thinking about Malaysia’s first Slender-billed Gull which was recorded at the mudflats a few weeks ago. I dipped out on the gull on New Year Day and the wound is still fresh. It was a beautiful day at the mudflats. The sun was shining brightly and the sky was just so blue. Thousands of waders were foraging everywhere in this extensive mudflat but they were not my objectives today. Today, I am after gulls and I will have to try very hard not get distracted.

The mixed flock of gulls were roosting very far off shore as the tide was still low. My enthusiasm got me here a little earlier than planned. Somewhere among them were two Slender-billed Gulls. Due to the distance, there was no way I could positively identify my would-be lifers. The differences between the three species of gulls found here are very subtle as I found that out the hard way later in the day. The majority of the 250 or so gulls are Brown-headed Gulls. So far, four Black-headed Gulls have been recorded and as well as two Slender-billed Gulls. Last season, we had two gull species here which were the Brown-headed and Black-headed Gull. Now, gulls are rare in Malaysia. Having two species at the same locality was a blessing. Having three is a miracle – thus all the excitement. Anyway, the pace of the rising tide is beyond any mere mortal’s control and I patiently waited for nature to take its course.

It was a long wait and perhaps, one of the longest hours of my life. A few of the waders present did their part to help me pass the time. The most impressive of them all was this lone Eurasian Curlew that came surprisingly close to where I have positioned myself.

As the tide gradually rise, it pushed the gulls closer to the shore line where I was waiting anxiously. I did my best to scrutinize each and every bird present but from what I could tell, there were no Slender-billed Gulls present.

I did see at least one Black-headed Gull (the gull on the left of the photo) but I did not spend too much time following its movement.  This species is rare to our waters but there were bigger fish to catch today.

The closest I got the gulls was when they settled down near the river mouth. It was much easier to identify them due to the close proximity. But still no Slender-billed Gull. It was truly disheartening. I did send a few images of “possible” Slender-billed Gulls (the wonders of modern technology) taken from the flock to my birding buddies who have all seen the gull before and their replies was more or less expected. The Slender-billed Gull remains elusive to me.

I was so focus on getting my lifer that I did not spend time to enjoy the fine performance by the commoner Brown-headed Gulls. Some of them did come very close but I only took a few shots. Here are a few juveniles that can a little deceptive at times in hiding their true identity.

But there is no mistaking an adult Brown-headed Gull - even when it is in non-breeding plumage like this. By the way, the smaller gull on the left is the much rarer Black-headed Gull which I did not realise was one at that moment. My obsession with locating the Slender-bill Gull even made me overlook this rare migrant. It was only when I was back home that I took notice of the dark iris and that is a real shame because I could do with a few more good images of it. I guess I deserved that much for ignoring this species earlier on in the morning.

When the tide finally peaked, the gulls moved away from the river mouth and rested on some exposed mudflat further down the coast. I solemnly walked towards the gulls and made myself comfortable on the nearest patch of dry land to the roosting flock. Just as I was about to give in, I spotted a rather pale-headed individual and I started to feel alive again. But I had to be cautious. After hours of frantic searching under the scorching sun, there is always a possibility I was hallucinating. Upon further scrutiny and confirmation from my birding buddies (modern technology at work again), I finally found what I was looking for.

It was a distant shot, the lighting was harsh and the heatwave very apparent but I got my first lifer of the year and it was also a new record for Malaysia. The quality of the photographs will not deny me of a jubilant moment.  It was a moment that almost did not happen. And that made this whole encounter even so memorable.

Just to prove I was not seeing double, here is a photo with the two celebrity gulls in a single frame. The irony of it all was I took this shot before I positively identified the gulls. It was a random shot of the flock taken out of desperation. In fact I took many random shots with the intention of going through them on the big screen back home (which was how I found out about the significance of this photo) in case I did miss out on the gulls in the field. I did not waste the shutter count of my camera after all.

As my pulse gradually came back to normal; heat, hunger and thirst started to kick in out of nowhere. There were still thousands of waders out on the mudflats waiting to be scrutinized but the search for the gulls has really taken its toll on me. I took a few shots of this spectacle of nature before calling it a day.

When the roosting waders took flight, they literally block out the sun. This is probably the highest concentration of waders at this locality since the good old days back in early 2000s. And since I am not really trying to identify the waders, I reckon there will be a few Spoonies, Pecs and Sharpies around. Rarities can sense this sort of things and will instantly keep well out of sight when you are trying your best to locate them. That is the law of things.

As I trekked through the swamp to try and get close to a few foraging Asian Dowitchers and Nordmann’s Greenshank (and you guessed it – I failed in the end), I flushed at least two roosting Large-tailed Nightjars. There is just something about the way a nightjar flies. It is more like floating through the air and with such grace. I started off the day with nightjars and it seemed really fitting that I could end with nightjars as well. 

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Crazy for crests

The grasslands of Chuping in Perlis beckoned again and this time, my regular guests, brothers Nigel and Jimmy, soaked in the picturesque sunrise before scanning the horizon for any signs of bird life. However, we did not need to look long or far. Caught in the golden light of the morning sun was a flock of Great Mynas. The origin of the birds found here is debateable but this season, there is a significant increase in numbers and today was the highest count for me – about 20 birds. Native or otherwise, this myna is absolutely alluring. I just cannot get over the wicked crest and that body anatomy alone could have won me over. It is most not found in my home state of Penang and we spent quite some time with them despite the strong pull of whatever that could be waiting for us further in the grasslands.

We eventually found our way to the jacana pond and since the Bronze-winged Jacana is a lifer to my guests, we patiently waited for the celebrity waterfowl to show themselves. I did not even dare to think that I might obtain some improvement shots of these shy birds in order to reduce the chance of being disappointed again. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So, I guess I do not need to describe how I felt with yet another record shot.

Unlike my earlier visits, it was now dry and dusty. The dry season has commenced and the poor show of bird life is the unfortunate result. My guests are here for the raptors. Not being able to show even one to them for half a morning does not reflect very well on me – even if they are very understanding about it. By late morning, the heat was at a blistering state. For the life of me, I simply cannot comprehend why some of the birds do not attempt to even find some shade to rest in. This Zebra Dove appeared to be most comfortable resting under the sun on the concrete pole of the perimeter fence.

Maybe there is something about these poles that give the birds a sense of calm in this unbearable heat for the dove was not alone. A Paddyfield Pipit also chose to rest here. And like the dove, it was just as confiding.

The Zitting Cisticola is small in size but big in character. Just check out this pose…

The heat did not seem to be bothering the Black Drongos much as they continued to hunt around the sewage pond area. The heatwave is quite apparent in the photo and despite the close distance; all the images did not turn out as good as I anticipated.

A few Yellow Wagtails were also foraging around the sewage pond and one of them did come relatively close to our stationery vehicle. Out there in the grasslands, not many wagtails were seen and it is most probably because of the weather condition. Naturally, I dipped out on Malaysia’s second Citrine Wagtail which was recorded here a few weeks back.

In the afternoon, it became more like the Chuping that I have come to know and love. A female Eurasian Kestrel provided the first raptor photographic opportunity. The kestrel is also one of the few raptors here that you can regularly see perched on a tree. And she got the ball rolling. That’s my girl!

A female Eastern Marsh Harrier was the first harrier of trip and I thank God for that. After all the amazing harrier encounters prior to this trip, it was downright disheartening that I had to search for more than half a day to actually see one. Anyway, the harrier was soaring high above the grassland but the good lighting provided something to cheer about in regards to photography.

I have had only brief and distant observations of the striking male Siberian Stonechat at this locality so far. But today, he was a very different bird. I cannot recall why we stopped our vehicle but it does not matter. He decided to alight on a low branch just next to us. He may not be in full breeding plumage but he was a handsome devil indeed. And the clicking of our shutter filled the vicinity...

The encounter even got better because he started to hunt. Several times he dropped to the ground but without success. The best thing was, he always came back to the same branch and we were lucky enough to be in a very good position to observe his endeavours – unsuccessful as they might be. Or maybe he was just showing off.

The highlight of the day was a magnificent Short-toed Eagle that flew reasonably close and despite the harsh lighting, it provided a few captured moments that I am quite please with. This season I have probably seen the Short-toed Eagle more times than all the previous seasons. But this beautiful raptor has not cease to excite and intrigue.

As evening drew near, a few harriers started to come in to roost among the taller rubber trees. Although the numbers are nowhere near the former known harrier roost, it was still exciting. A juvenile Pied Harrier landed on a surprisingly open area and it was a photographic invitation not to be turned down. The first day of our tour concluded on high note and the slightly disappointing morning was nothing more than a hiccup. Just for the record, we recorded a total of 11 raptors during the tour and that is a good haul by any standard.

The next day, we left the grasslands for some pristine tropical rainforest. At the car park of Bukit Wang Forest Reserve in Kedah, a pair of Wreathed Hornbills flew across just as it got light. It is always great to encounter hornbills in the field but it was too dark for any photographic attempts. In fact, that was the story for the whole morning. In terms of birding, it was terrific. We got birds like Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle, Violet Cuckoo, Banded Kingfisher, White-bellied Woodpecker and other forest denizens. In terms of photography, we were not so lucky. The highlight of trip was when Jimmy spotted a raptor on a tall dead tree and upon further scrutiny turned out to be a Crested Goshawk. This raptor is renowned for its agility and efficiency as a bird of prey. These traits will naturally garner my respect and affection as raptors are one of my favourite group of birds. I do not have any good shots of this species yet and today, despite it being so obliging, the distance was just a little too far for my gear. But it was still a memorable encounter.

The Common Snipes took advantage of whatever shade they could find to escape the relentless tropical sun. Shaded locations are such a prized commodity that they were more tolerant than usual. At such proximity, these cryptic waders would usually perform their vanishing act.

The final destination of this 2-day tour was Air Hitam Dalam and upon arrival, the weather turned unexpectedly. Rain clouds started to form and darken the skies. Just an hour ago it was too much sun and now, it is too little. Welcome to birding in the tropics. A big troop of Long-tailed Macaques was stomping through the swamp forest for their evening siesta. One individual was too indulged with the meal at hand to even take notice of our approach. I am not particularly fond of Long-tailed Macaques because of their nasty nature. But on this occasion, I did take the time and effort to capture this photo.

Where there are macaques, there will be Greater Racket-tailed Drongos. Perched above the marauding troop, the drongo was patiently waiting for any prey flushed by its mammalian companions’ movements.

My Singaporean guests were hoping to experience the Mangrove Blue Flycatchers again – just like their last visit to this locality. It would be a great way to end the tour for them. And this flycatcher rarely disappoints. I know that I have posted photos of this species quite often. But I have learned, through years of residing in this ‘beloved’ country of mine that nothing is to be taken for granted. Like I always say, enjoy it while it last. And enjoy, we did.

Thursday, 7 January 2016


I'm usually at the pickup points, wherever they may be, well before daybreak. That is unless the guests will be arriving in a cruise ship. This is not the first time for me to be picking up guests at Swettenham Pier but these cruise ships usually dock later than my preferred time to start my tours.

So once Gaetan and Christine got into my car, I had to get this French-Canadian globe-trotting birding couple to the closest birding hotspot and it was none other than Air Hitam Dalam.

With the breeding season just around the corner, the resident pair of Crested Serpent-eagles was making their intentions very clear. A sparse tree overlooking the rear car park appears to be one of their favourite vantage points to survey their kingdom. As common as these raptors may be, they are still regal and impressive.

The migratory Black Kites have a few more months to go before their biological clocks start clicking. For the time being, it is just easy living in a tropical paradise.

Meanwhile, closer down to Earth, this Abbott's Babbler made sure that it had our attention by providing a good performance. This is one of the best places to see this skulking species and at times, it looks a little out of place being away from the dense and dark realm of the undergrowth.

However, it could not outshine the Mangrove Blue-flycatchers (very few birds can at this locality) and this female was certainly one of the highlights of the visit. It was their first lifer of the trip and it certainly made an impression.

The next locality that we visited was the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh. The thing about paddy fields is that every month or so, the landscape changes. Exposed mud and shallow water patches, which are ideal for water fowl, will be overgrown with paddy stalks. It is only a matter time. It took a while for me to find a new 'birdy' patch on this visit and all I had to do was find a spot to park my car where all the motorcyclists could pass and enjoy the show. Grey-headed Lapwings, Ruffs, Common Snipe, Long-toed Stints, Temminck's Stint are among the water birds that made the visit here memorable. However, I was too preoccupied trying to locate more species and did not have too much time to shoot except for this foraging
Black-winged Stilt.

The open country habitats of Penanti were next line as we searched in vain for Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters and Oriental Pratincoles - two species that are in my guests' list of birds to see. A Black-thighed Falconet hunting from an electrical cable provided some comfort for missing out on the target birds. Small in size but big in character, the Falconet is always a delight to observe.

A visit to a couple of open country habitats within the Kulim Hi-Tech Park further north yielded no results for the 2 target birds as well. My guest have been to every continent on Earth and have recorded over 3,600 species of birds and it was good to see them excited when I showed them a roosting Savanna Nightjar even though it was in the shade and partly hidden. Judging from their reaction, I need not have to ask them if it was a lifer.

Our last location for the day was the hilly forest of Sungai Sedim where they managed to tick off another two lifers. The last leg of their tour provided some memorable encounters and some were courtesy of birds that they have seen before during their last trip to Malaysia 5 years ago. A couple of inquisitive Hairy-backed Bulbuls were certainly one of them.

Despite being one of the largest of our forest birds, good views of the Rhinoceros Hornbill are a bit of a novelty. A female that was perched on a distant tree certainly had us mermerised. It does not matter, if it is a close or far observation. If you do not get excited by the sight of this majestic creature, you do not deserve to be called a birder. My guests expected to see 10 lifers on this trip but unfortunately, I could only managed 8. But they were far from disappointed and I guess it had a lot to do with the non-lifers putting on memorable performances as well.