Wednesday 22 February 2017

This is more like it...

There are times when I may have a hard time deciding on where to take my guests in order to make their birding excursions here with me memorable and rewarding. Well, I had no such issues this time. The fruiting tree at Sungai Sedim was still at full swing. I knew exactly where to take my latest guest, who hails from Switzerland, for the first day of his tour. Just like last weekend, the first bird to catch our attention at the blessed tree was a brilliant male Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker.

However, the flowerpeckers seemed a little reluctant to be photographed well today and I had to work hard to obtain unobstructed shots - like this of Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker indulging on Mother Nature’s tantalizing offerings.

The Yellow-vented Flowerpecker made a brief appearance the last time and this time, it was just being plain difficult...

I will never get tired of the Grey-bellied Bulbul - who could? Today a small flock mesmerized all those present with their striking colours and confiding nature. Bright lighting is desired when it comes to photographing forest birds but too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. The harsh lighting today made photography quite challenging at times to say the least. But whatever it is, it cannot deny the Grey-bellied Bulbul of their radiating presence and the excitement they can evoke.

The area around the fruiting had a high level of bird activities as well and that frequently distracted us from the ongoing feast at the tree. The Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher is a common resident in the forest here. There is a good reason why it is called a Canary-flycatcher and its sweet song can be heard almost every time we bird through this neck of the woods. As it is now the breeding season, the vocalization of this adorable bird is even more prominent throughout the vicinity.

The canopy of tropical rainforests is home and sanctuary to countless remarkable avian species. Unless one can levitate 30 feet or more into the air, these birds can be difficult to observe. I have encountered the Great Iora here in Sungai Sedim on several occasions before never once was I lucky enough to get a decent shot of this striking bird. While enjoying a birdwave that was passing through, I spotted a male Great Iora rummaging through the canopy for prey items. I did not give it much thought until it suddenly stopped and took a breather. Unlike all my previous experiences, it remained stationery in the open long enough for me (and my guest) to capture his image. It may not be a great photo but it is certainly a treasured one.

Even the sky above the fruiting tree contributed to this rewarding excursion to Sungai Sedim. The resident pair of Crested Goshawks are getting ready to breed making them conspicuous throughout the morning. One of them even performed an aerial display to impress his mate (I am assuming that it is a he) and I do not think any female will be able to resist his valiant efforts.

On route to the paddy fields of mainland Penang, we made a detour to check on the Barred Eagle-owls of Kulim Hi-Tech Park – as usual. Just like my last visit, the owl was resting on one of the lower branches but in order to obtain an unobstructed image, we needed to walk round this huge rain tree and that added distance but it was a much clearer view of the owl. Needless to say, my guest was spellbound by its presence.

The number of Asian Openbills left present at the paddy fields here is relatively low and some days, I do not even see them at all. A couple of them was foraging at a flooded patch of the fields and it was only right to take the time and soak in the view.

The final destination before calling it a day was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher has always been a favourite for most of my guests when they visit this locality and of this day, it still is. Tame and beautiful, the male provided another splendid performance. Celebrity birds come and go at this little piece of birding paradise but the true star of Air Hitam Dalam, the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, is still showing well after all this time.

As we were about to wrap things up for the day, an unexpected shower had us seeking shelter in one of the gazebos. While waiting out the rain, a cow carcass floated down river towards us. Judging from the size, it appeared to be a young one. Just to make conversation, I mentioned to my guest that crocodiles are rare in Malaysia. At that point, a dark shape started to swim towards the carcass. I held my breath as I have yet to see a wild crocodile in Malaysia. As the animal clawed its way up the side of the carcass, it turned out to be a Monitor Lizard - attracted by the odour of rotting flesh undoubtedly. I guess the carcass was too much of a mouthful for it and the lizard slid down into the river again soon after. As the excitement of the incident sizzled down to stop so did the shower and we made our way back to the car contented after a great day of birding.

Thursday 16 February 2017

A feast for the eyes

Most babblers are notoriously difficult to observe let alone photograph. The forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah state is home to at least a dozen species of them. They will let you hear them from time to time just to let you know that they are doing fine. On this beautiful Saturday morning, a Grey-headed Babbler unexpectedly perched right out in the open long enough for me to point it out to my American guest, Bob, and to even take a few shots. This species is not common anywhere but in this locality, it has been recorded frequently. Grey-headed Babblers usually do not provide good views and this encounter was exceptional – to me anyway. And I could not have asked for a better way to start off our 2-day excursion.

During my last visit here a few weeks back, a fruiting tree along the Gunung Bintang access trail was coming into season. Upon our arrival today, some of my fellow birders were enjoying the spectacle of nature that had unfolded at the fruiting tree. The fruits are now ready to be consumed and the birds do not need an invitation to join in the feast. The first patron to catch our attention was a male Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker. In terms of aesthetic appeal, he is right up there among the best. Naturally, my guest was mesmerized by his beauty. And so was I...

The Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker is the commonest of all the flowerpeckers here. But it is only at fruiting trees like this, one can truly appreciate this little forest denizen.

For a brief moment, a Yellow-vented Flowerpecker discarded its sanctuary among the dense canopy of the forest and descended on the fruiting tree to fill its appetite. Gluttony is a deadly sin that few can resist and that includes captivating birds like the Yellow-vented Flowerpecker.

Apart from the Lesser Green Leafbird and Brown Fulvetta, the other patrons consisted of bulbuls. No less than 8 species were recorded and that is courtesy of one fruiting tree. Bulbuls are able to coexist because of the slightly different niche each species occupies. However, they will all come together at this natural phenomenon and provide a breath-taking sight. The most conspicuous and numerous species today was the Buff-vented Bulbul.

Some bulbul species can be an identification nightmare especially for a foreign birder. The white iris of the Cream-vented Bulbul best distinguishes it from all the other plain bulbuls found here. That is why I dubbed it the “White-eyed Bulbul” to all my foreign guests.

On the other of the scale is the Grey-bellied Bulbul. With such striking and contrasting colour, a glimpse is all it takes to nail its identity. A few were gorging on the fruits quite low down and indirectly provided stunning views to all that were present. It was an amazing experience even for a local like me.

We left the forest for the paddy fields in mainland Penang and along the way, we made a detour to the lair of the Barred Eagle-owls just outside the boundaries of Kulim Hi-Tech Park. Although the owl was roosting on a slightly lower perch, there was no way to obtain an unobstructed image. But an owl is an owl and every daytime encounter with these nocturnal predators tends to leave one absolutely enchanted.

Grey-headed Lapwings are one of the many attractions found along the paddy planting district of Permatang Pauh. Most parts of the fields are almost ready to be harvested and that makes any body of water within the area a prized commodity. One particular patch had a good concentration of waterbirds including the Grey-headed Lapwings and these lanky waders provided a good ending to a productive and memorable first day of birding around Penang.

The grasslands of Chuping in Perlis was the destination for the second day. Normally, it would be the picturesque sunrise over these lands that grab my attention but not this time. It was a “morning full moon”...

This birding site is the best place to observe and enjoy a number of northern specialities like the Plain-backed Sparrow. Much of its range has been reduced through the years and that is most unfortunate for the males are just exquisite. This confiding male was foraging on the tarmac next to our stationery vehicle and I bet my guest could easily detected the excitement in the tone of my voice.

Chuping is also famed for raptors and we did manage to record a fair number of them. However, good photographic opportunities were few. This Oriental Honey-buzzard was one of the few that did not slip past my camera.

When it comes to grace and beauty, very few raptors can surpass the male Pied Harrier. It is not a rare species but undoubtedly, one of the star birds of this birding haven. A male quartering the grasslands in search of prey has a hypnotic effect on you and you just cannot pry your eyes off him. We came across a hunting male twice on this trip and that alone made this trip worth the while for my guest.

The presence of a high number of Eastern Yellow Wagtails at a recently ploughed patch certainly got my attention as there is always a chance for the rare Citrine Wagtail. But I cannot be scrutinizing each and every single of the former just so I could increase my life list. Certainly not when I have a guest with me.

On the way back from Chuping, we made a detour to the virgin jungle of Bukit Wang in Kedah. Unfortunately, not much was about but a female Wreathed Hornbill did taunt us from among the foliage of the forest canopy. Each time she briefly revealed herself, my heart skipped a beat. I cannot help myself as hornbills are such fascinating birds. Bob, my guest from USA, has seen most of the hornbills species here in Malaysia but like me, this teasing female of a common hornbill species still got us all excited. Bob is an old-school birder and birds have been a lifelong passion for him. Although the number of photos obtained during the two days was nothing exceptional, the experiences provided by some of the encounters were. 

Friday 10 February 2017

Duck Central

The former mining pools at Malim Nawar in Perak state proved once again to be the place for rare migratory ducks when a Northern Pintail decided to winter here this season. However, I was only made aware of its presence a few days before the Lunar New Year and whatever plans to twitch for this duck just had to wait. And the wait became almost unbearable when Dave came back on the first day of the New Year not only with images of the Northern Pintail but also Malaysia’s second Blyth’s Pipit. I found myself embarking on the 4-hour round trip to the site the first chance I had and with Hor Kee as my companion. Ducks rarely winter here in Malaysia and even when they do, the males will usually be in their drab eclipse plumage. This male Northern Pintail, on the other hand, was almost in full breeding plumage. For a waterbird enthusiast like me, that is almost like striking the lottery. Upon arrival, I immediately went for the Northern Pintail. My companion, having ticked off both birds on his last visit, tagged along to seek improvements shots of the Blyth’s Pipit and as it turned out, to provide moral support as the duck was no where to seen at his usual spot. And all the excitement built up in me during the journey here died off completely.

A careful sweep of the adjacent ponds was the next and only course of action. There is a God after all and among the reeds of one of the other ponds, the Northern Pintail was paddling leisurely whilst looking for breakfast. Life, is beautiful once again. Of the three rare ducks that this little piece of birding paradise hosted through the years, this male Northern Pintail is the most stunning in my book. The only thing lacking from his splendid plumage is the elongated tail feathers. That would have made it perfect.

The duck was reasonably confiding but the lighting was against me. The thorny scrub vegetation and the presence of temperamental Water Buffaloes prevented me from improving my position. Taking into account my miserable state of mind minutes earlier, I was not too disappointed with the natural elements that were not in my favour. I finally connected with a male Northern Pintail and it was truly an uplifting experience.

While I was being uplifted by a duck, a group of Selangor birders that arrived later came across the Blyth’s Pipit near where we have parked our car. As we were making our way out to search for the pipit, the Selangor birders were making their way in for the duck. Information was exchanged and my pace quickened as there was now a chance for a double mega lifer today. And the moment of truth came not too long into our search…

But it was not meant to be. Every single pipit that we managed to dig up the whole morning turned out to be Paddyfield Pipits including this one. I was not expecting much to begin with as the celebrity pipit was not seen for the past few days. I am glad that today someone saw it. Even if it was not me who was in the vicinity at that time - honest. I bet if I had look really hard from where I was crouched down observing the Northern Pintail, I would probably had the Blyth’s Pipit in my binoculars. But seriously, if I have to choose between the duck and the pipit it would undoubtedly be the former.

Anything that even slightly resembled a pipit received our undivided attention including Eastern Yellow Wagtails…

In between our stops for pipits and wagtails, a few other species did manage to garner our attention. Malim Nawar is the best locality in Malaysia for Bank Swallows – a scarce winter visitor. Although there is much debate and confusion as how to differentiate the Bank Swallow from the Pale Martin, I like to keep things simple and consider all 30 birds that were present today as Bank Swallows. That number itself would have brightened up any ordinary birding excursion. But today is no ordinary excursion.

Not much waders were present today and a lone “Swintail” Snipe (again, I like to keep things simple) momentarily distracted us from our search for the pipit.

A large raptor circling overhead turned out to be a Crested Serpent-Eagle…

Just before we called it a day, we returned back to the pond area for the Northern Pintail. He was no longer alone and was enjoying the companionship of 4 Garganeys. Although the Garganey is the commonest of our rare migratory ducks, 4 of them at a single locality is certainly a noteworthy record and a fine way to end yet another successful twitch for a rare duck at this locality.