Wednesday 22 March 2017

One more time...

There was still time for one more trip to the revered fruiting tree in Sungai Sedim and some unexpected free time provided with just the opportunity I needed to make it happen. I have been keeping tab on the patrons of the tree via social media and a couple of photos of the Thick-billed Flowerpecker certainly had my attention. Although this species is not new to me, it will be great if I could finally have this scarce resident’s image in my collection. I was a little surprise upon arrival to find that I have the tree all to myself this time. It may sound a little selfish but I appreciated the solitude. Anyway, it did not take long for the first batch of birds to arrive and the one that foraged the closest to me naturally was the first to be photographed. The Cream-vented Bulbul managed to slip past my sensor during my last visit but this time, I made sure history will not repeat itself.

The eyes say it all for some bulbuls. The Cream-vented Bulbuls has white irises while the Spectacled Bulbuls, on the other hand, has red eyes with yellow eye rings. However, the latter was a little more wary than usual today and showed off this defining feature from far perches.

To complete the collection of “eyed” bulbuls, a flock of Red-eyed Bulbuls foraged along the lower parts of the tree just like during my last visit. And I welcomed their performance as they gorged to their hearts’ content right in front of me.

The Grey-bellied Bulbul proved to be one of the main highlights at the fruiting tree again. I have admit I have taken numerous images of this striking species before but how can I possibly resist from obtaining a few more - especially when it is so very confiding.

I cannot recall the last time I witnessed Yellow-bellied Bulbuls at this fruiting tree but a flock did make a brief appearance today. Their bright colouration and vocal nature made them conspicuous. And they allowed me to obtain a few of their images before they disappeared back into their realm among the lower storey of the forest.

Another species of bulbul that looks slightly out of place at a fruiting tree is the Hairy-backed Bulbul. A flock came to the tree during my last visit and they were here again today. I guess they find the tantalizing fruits hard to resist.

Bulbuls especially the duller ones are not exactly sought after birds of the forest. Normally, it is not easy to obtain good views as they tend to forage along the forest canopy. The Buff-vented Bulbul is one such Bulbul and to me, it deserves a fair amount of attention as well.

The Finsch’s Bulbuls were quite wary today and I am not sure if the presence of all the picnickers around the vicinity had anything to do with it. They were oblivious of the natural phenomenon that was taking place at a tree close to them. I do not blame them. You have to be a bird person to noticed birds at times even if it involves a dozen species at a single tree. Talking about bird persons, a couple of British birders came and enjoyed the fruiting tree later in the morning. One of them has been staying in the capital city for the past few months and I assume for work. These guys actually took the effort to drive up north to bird and Sungai Sedim was part of their itinerary. Birding sites around Penang are not part of the convention circuit for visiting birders. But who knows? Maybe the sites here are finally getting the recognition they deserve.

Flowerpeckers were my main focus today. A rather plain but rare flowerpecker in particular – the Thick-billed Flowerpecker. I was probably at the tree for about an hour and caught a glimpse of my target bird. But that was it. Just like that it vanished and I did not even managed to see the tail wagging habit of this species. I waited for the remaining morning for it to return but determination can only get you so far in birding. Fate determines the rest and it is not to be today. For this visit, I paid more attention to the duller females than their striking male counterparts and the majority present were female Orange-bellied Flowerpeckers.

When you sport a plumage colouration like a male Orange-bellied Flowerpecker, you are bound to attract attention. There were a number of them present today and I tried my best not to let them distract me too much from my quest for the Thick-billed Flowerpecker.

Easier said than done...

The Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers which proved to be difficult during my past visits were more obliging this time...

Most of the time anyway...

As usual, the Yellow-breasted Flowerpeckers were brazen when it comes to gorging on the succulent fruits. With almost total disregard for human presence, these adorable forest denizens provided another memorable photo shoot session.

The Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker is the only other flowerpecker that equals or even exceeds the aesthetic appeal of the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker today. Most of the birds, including this cracking flowerpecker, patronizing on this fruiting tree will usually required a substantial amount of work in order to obtain decent views. It is only at a fruiting tree like this that you are given an opportunity to intimately admire and capture the beauty of these birds without interrupting the natural routine of the birds. This is, after all, Mother Nature’s feeding station.

Leafbirds tend to keep to the top most parts of the tree just like this male Greater Green Leafbird. I can clearly recall leafbirds being bullies at a fruiting tree during my visit a forest reserve in Selangor last year. However, the leafbirds here are about as aggressive as a dove. The only birds being occasionally nasty here are the male flowerpeckers.

A female Lesser Green Leafbird abandoned the safety of the canopy to indulge on the tasty morsels offered by the tree. The green plumage of a leafbird is quite remarkable and photographs cannot completely capture the true essence of this colouration.

Another common forest bird that is renowned for its vivid colouration is the Asian Fairy-bluebird. Even the name itself projects an image of divine beauty and that describes the male bird aptly. However apart from fruiting trees, this species spends most of their time in the canopy level and well out of sight. Unlike the leafbirds, female bluebirds are much duller than their male counterparts and one individual has been visiting the fruiting tree quite regularly. Despite the presence of food, she still held true to shy nature and provided very little photographic opportunities.

An unfamiliar brown bird flitting about the tree above the fruiting tree distracted my attention momentarily. Striking and colourful birds usually do not pose much of a problem when it comes to identification. A dull-coloured one, on the other hand, can very well cause sleepless nights. Thankfully, that was not the case this time. A prolonged look and some images on the camera LCD later confirmed my earlier suspicion. It was a female Zappey’s Flycatcher. And since there is no way of distinguishing her from the much rarer female Blue-and-White Flycatcher, I will leave it as it is. It is a significant moment for me as I have had only a handful of encounters of this scarce migrant and this is my first sighting of a female. No wonder she look unfamiliar at first glance.

A Striated Heron is nothing much to shout about and I have recorded it at this locality before. However, an individual hunting among the rapids did strike me as rather odd. I know that the heron is a skilled hunter but it is certainly pushing its abilities here at this fast flowing river. Anyway, this common waterbird wrapped things up for another rewarding excursion at this fruiting tree despite the frustrating episode with the Thick-billed Flowerpecker.

I have been contributing to eBird Malaysia since it took flight almost 2 years ago. I wonder why I do not make it a point to include a complete checklist at the end of every posting. Besides creating awareness, it might even get others to start contributing as well. All the data collected will certainly be put to good use. That would be good as Mother Nature needs all the help she can get. So here is the complete checklist of the birds recorded at Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest today.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

The Pearl of the Orient?

I found myself with a couple of hours to kill before picking up my latest guest from the Swettenham Pier where he will disembark from the cruise ship that brought him here to Penang. I had a tough time deciding where in my home state I should visit for some birding in the meanwhile. It may sound ironic that I should face such a dilemma here in my own “backyard”. To begin with, birding in Penang Island has deteriorated much through the years. Secondly, the population bloom of humans on the island makes almost all birding areas with easy access (which is the type I am seeking this time) to be crowded especially during weekends. Penang Island may be known to the world as the Pearl of the Orient but to us birders, including yours truly, the true pearl lies on the mainland side of the state.

Anyway, after taking everything into consideration I decided to visit the Penang Botanic Gardens. I do not even dare to think about going into the Gardens proper. I took my chances along the outer perimeter of the Gardens away from most of the weekend crowd. Pointing a telephoto lens is an open invitation for some folks to approach, satisfy their curiosity and often times, put to flight whatever that is you were painstakingly stalking in order to get to this ideal photographic position. In between dodging approaching humans and surprisingly skittish common garden birds, I did manage to put my camera to use. But only on one species – the Crested Myna.

This myna was introduced to Penang Island many years back and it is now very well established here and has been included into the official checklist of Malaysian birds. It has been introduced elsewhere in the peninsula but without much success. In certain areas on the island, it outnumbers all the other mynas. This morning, I recorded about 30 Crested Mynas but only 2 Common Mynas during my 2-hour session. Their domination even over the Common Mynas is probably due to their adaptability and superior size. Like most myna species, it forages mostly on the ground and each time a lumbering human passes by, some of them will alight on this one particular dead tree for refuge. This behaviour did not go unnoticed and I positioned myself to capture them when they are flushed again. I did not have to wait long. On this rare occasion I even surprise myself because I actually welcome human presence during birding.

The Crested Myna breeds throughout the year. Hence, I could see individual birds in different stages of breeding here ranging from nest building to subadult birds. I can safely assume that Penang Island will remain to the stronghold for the Crested Myna for a long time to come. There are records from mainland Penang but somehow the population there is not doing as well.

Apart from the Crested Myna, this White-throated Kingfisher was the only other bird I managed to shoot at the Penang Botanic Gardens. Like the mynas, it has also learned to take refuge among the trees and taking a few of its images is just the right thing to do. After all, White-throated Kingfishers are hugely responsible for making my foreign guests’ birding excursions memorable. For visiting birders who are new to this region, the White-throated Kingfisher is a very impressive bird - prominent, colourful, exotic and full of character.

We started our birding excursion later than usual today. Due to the time constraint, I took my British guest straight to the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Charles is an old school birder and he is one of the few guests I have had the pleasure of guiding who still take notes when birding. Thankfully, his notebook did not stay in his pocket often as the forest started to show traces of its former glory days. Both of us were happy with the birding here today. We recorded almost all the regular species here including the resident Spotted Wood-owl. Despite its enormous size, this nocturnal hunter hides very well among the foliage of tall trees. If I had been less observant, we would have miss out on this memorable tick for my guest.

The Crimson Sunbird is one of the many fascinating avian species that calls this place home. The male bird, with his vibrant plumage, is a slight to behold. A pair was foraging on a low tree as we were making our way round the reserve. Initially, I was a little disappointed I could not capture his true radiance because of the lighting and his constant movement. However, this striking sunbird appeared to be dancing in the rays of the morning sun as he flitted bout the lush foliage of the swamp forest. It reminded me again that obtaining good images is not everything. Savouring moments of pure inspiration and beauty is just as significant.

Due to the pace of the birding today, I did not end up with as many images as I usually do. The paddy fields were definitely showing signs that the migratory season is drawing to an end. Most of the migratory waterfowls have undergone their spring passage back to their breeding grounds. However, this is the best time to catch the Pond-herons in their striking breeding colours. Despite a careful sweep, only the Chinese Pond-heron was recorded. A small flock of Asian Openbills resting in the middle of the fields provided another memorable lifer for my guest. These enigmatic storks is a great way to wrapped things up for yet another memorable birding excursion in my home state of Penang.

Thursday 9 March 2017

Bulbul Central

As soon as my alarm woke me from my slumber well before the break of dawn, I was greeted by a male Asian Koel testing the limits of his vocal chords and the patience of all the light sleepers in the neighbourhood. Breeding season is in full swing for this parasitic cuckoo and male birds will make sure their persistent territorial calls can be heard throughout the season. For this time’s birding excursion, I headed to the forest of Sungai Sedim to pay homage to one particular fruiting tree. This is no ordinary fruiting tree. It is the very tree that lured the elusive Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker out of hiding for the only time ever so far 2 years ago. But like the previous season, there was no sign of the celebrity bird this time as well. Anyway, together with my godfather and Chng, we reached the spot just as it got light. Judging from the cloudless blue sky, it was going to be a beautiful but hot day.

Deep inside I was hoping for the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker to magically show up. Thus, every flowerpecker present was scrutinized. That itself was no easy task as 4 different species were patronizing this fruiting tree and at times, 10 birds can seen together. The Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker were in good numbers today. However, the male birds are quite aggressive and God have mercy on any other male flowerpecker regardless of species that forage too close to him. In the absence of the Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker, the male Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker is undoubtedly the best looking flowerpecker around. The attitude and looks of the latter naturally made him the centre of attention quite often.

The male Orange-bellied Flowerpecker added even more colours and beauty to the fruiting tree. It was sorely missed from the other active fruiting tree a few weeks back and I made sure I gave him the attention and admiration he surely deserves.

Most female flowerpeckers are duller than their male counterparts and the female Orange-bellied Flowerpecker is no exception. This female alighted on an exposed perch to gorge for a long period of time. Her contented look and ample appearance says it all. For the time being, the birds here are certainly enjoying the good life. And so are the birders who derived pleasure from the birds’ confiding behaviour.

The Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker was another species that took full advantage of this natural offering…

Bulbuls again proved to be the majority of the birds feeding on a fruiting here in Sungai Sedim. A total of 11 species were recorded. Some like the Scaly-breasted Bulbuls stopped by for such a brief moment that I did not even manage to take a shot. But some, like the Grey-bellied Bulbuls, basically made the fruiting tree their temporary home. Unlike the former, they provided a truly memorable performance. Chng, who is relatively new to birding, was overwhelmed. Not only by the Grey-bellied Bulbuls but the sheer number of bird species present on a single tree.

Black-headed Bulbuls are not regular patrons to fruiting trees here and a short visit of a single bird did not go unnoticed. It is one of the commoner bulbuls in Malaysia and one of the more colourful ones as well.

The forest here is one of the strongholds of Finsch’s Bulbul in Malaysia. Before I discovered this birding site, I have had a few brief encounters with this species. The puffy yellow throat has always been the diagnostic feature of this forest dweller and nowadays, I have certainly grown very accustomed to this bearded bulbul.

Ashy Bulbuls are not as abundant as some of the other species of bulbuls found here. It has a sleek appearance and the black eye mask only enhances the aesthetic appeal of the bird. Today, it did not linger long at the fruiting tree but I am glad it made an appearance.

One of the most peculiar bulbuls around is the Hairy-backed Bulbul. This bulbul is just as happy to forage for food like a babbler as it is to feast on a fruiting tree. It usually shuns bright open areas but gluttony is one deadly sin that can get the better of all of us at times.

Brown bulbuls can be difficult to identify especially if you are not familiar with them. I usually have a hard time trying to describe a Buff-vented Bulbul. Hardly any part of this bulbul’s anatomy truly stands out. So, undeservingly, I usually describe it as the plain one and amplify what the Buff-vented Bulbul lacks rather than has.

For instance, it does not have red eyes surrounded by a yellow eye-ring. That would be the main field characteristic of the Spectacled Bulbul...

A thin yellow eye ring is almost all that differentiates the Spectacled Bulbul from the Red-eyed Bulbul. The latter was one of the most conspicuous bulbul species today at the fruiting tree. A small flock returned back to the tree several times throughout the morning and provided plenty of photographic opportunities. It may not be much of a looker but the flock was incredibly tame this morning and that made them utterly attractive to me. And the piercing red eyes have a way to captivate your attention as well.

The repeated visits of leafbirds broke the monotony of the browner bulbuls with their vivid colouration and melodious calls. And those traits are their downfall as well. Illegal trapping of leafbirds has left an impact of the local population found here. At the fruiting, at least one of pair of Greater Green Leafbirds was constantly present. One female Lesser Green Leafbird did make a brief appearance as well. Two species of leafbirds present at a single location here gives hope that these gorgeous songbirds are still able to survive in this testing environment. The female Greater Green Leafbird is extremely trusting despite all our evil ways. Unlike most passerines with sexual dimorphism, the female of this species is easier to identify than her mate because of her distinct facial markings.

The shy nature of this particular male Greater Green Leafbird did not help with the identification task at all…

As the sun gradually crept up overhead, we decided to try out the Gunung Bintang access trail. There, the foliage of the forest will be able provide momentarily relief from the blistering heat. Despite the less than desirable conditions, we managed to enjoy a relatively good session here as well. We were lucky enough to crossed paths with a handful of birdwaves. I am usually reluctant to hold up my camera when it comes to birdwaves. The movement of the birds are just to fast to follow most of the time. With some many species coming together, you are bound to miss out on a few species if you focus too much or long on a single bird. But the Spotted Fantail is not a bird I see very often and this individual remained still just long enough for me to capture one single image. 

During one of the waves, a family of Rufous-winged Philentomas decided to join in and reap the rewards of this natural phenomenon. Only the young one was obliging enough to let its photo be taken. It will take a little time for it for obtain the full splendour of adult plumage and become one of the many forest denizens that call the Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest home. This uncommon flycatcher wrapped things up for this trip and it was another memorable excursion courtesy of an active fruiting tree.