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.