Wednesday 26 April 2017

There may yet be hope...

I reached the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in northern mainland Penang earlier than anticipated and darkness still engulfed the land. While waiting for the break of the dawn, I headed towards the gazebo overlooking the river. From previous experiences, the wide open space there might have something in store for me at this hour. This site is home to the biggest nightjar species in Malaysia and as darkness was about to lift, the Great Eared Nightjars gracefully floated into view one last time and serenaded the vicinity with their signature calls. The resident pair of Spotted Wood-owls joined in this predawn chorus as well and I found myself surrounded by the calls of nocturnal birds. The sunrise today may not be a spectacular view but that was irrelevant. My main passion, the birds, have already provided a perfect start to this brand new day.

The Little Cormorant is establishing itself here in Peninsular Malaysia. Like the Asian Openbills, there have been an influx of these birds from neighbouring Thailand. I have had ample field experience with it to realise that I was looking at my first record for the state. A single bird that flew overhead gave me just enough time to obtain a few record shots. It is probably one of the dozen or so birds recorded earlier this week by Hor Kee nesting at the nearby mangrove belt. The Little Cormorant is certainly a welcomed addition to my home state and I am looking forward to more encounters in the future.

In the avian world, there are a number of small birds that possess remarkably loud and persistent calls. The Ashy Tailorbird is one of them. Its calls can be heard on every visit throughout the day. The bird itself due to its small size and active nature will usually require a little work to locate. Unless you are lucky to find a handsome male resting in the open just asking to be photographed.

Like the Ashy Tailorbird, the common Golden-bellied Gerygone is more often heard than seen. However, its call is melodious and soothing to the ears. The mangroves is where this species truly thrives but it does incur inland and Air Hitam Dalam houses a healthy population of this species. A lone bird foraging on a sparse tree provided a good opportunity for photography. But it is an active little bird. In between the misses and swearing, I did managed to obtain a few images in the end.

As I was focusing on the first bird, a second bird’s call was so loud I swear it could well be perched on my knapsack and singing into my ears. I looked over my shoulder and there it was. Not exactly on my knapsack but close enough to be deafened by the repertoire of its song. It was an incredible moment and one that shall be remembered for a long time. This birding site has not live up to expectations of late but judging from the morning so far, things may finally start to turn around.

There were at least 3 Asian Paradise Flycatchers present in this small area of swamp forest today. They are most likely to be migrants and for the time being will grace this site with their poise and beauty. Only one of them had the long mesmerizing tail streamers but as fate would have it, it was the only that eluded my camera. The stunning adult male remains a nemesis and I do hope to change that one day soon – for my sanity’s sake.

On a happier note, I came across two families of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers making Air Hitam Dalam still one of the best places to observe this striking species. The male of the first family was quite confiding typical of the birds found here. I should by now, stop shooting this species because of the large collection of their images accumulated in my database through the years but I simply cannot help myself.

The young one was taking up to its father and posed smugly for my camera. It will take some time before it sports the brilliant colouration of the adult birds but this plumage does have its own appeal.

Being a parent bird is tough except if you are a parasitic cuckoo that is. The second family of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers had 2 chicks to care for and that can be a real handful. The mother bird, despite her short comings, is doing a great job as far as I can tell.

The Greater Racket-tailed Drongo is hugely responsible for converting me into birding back in my teenage years. The bird is full of character and aggressive by nature. And I have not even gone into the looks department. Today, an individual had taken a liking to the area where a once mighty forest tree stood. The lighting was good as the fallen tree cleared the vicinity of tall trees and I could capture the splendour of the drongo’s iridescent plumage.

The confiding nature of the bird was a significant help and during one of its forays for prey, it even alighted quite close to where I had position myself at the very edge of the broken down boardwalk. This is the Air Hitam Dalam that I have come to know and love. A place where even the common birds can provide moments of magic that will leave me amazed.

A fruiting tree next to the elevated boardwalk had my immediate attention. However, only a handful of species were enticed by this natural offering. I cannot help but to feel disappointed because I have been spoilt by the rich variety of birds that often visit fruiting trees at another one of my regular haunts – the forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah. Anyway, a few Lineated Barbets were present and their robust size made them rather conspicuous. It was a welcomed change from the usual neck-straining posture one has to adopt to observe this canopy-loving species. The conditions were challenging for photography but I am please with this image of one that came down the lowest to feed.

A number of Coppersmith Barbets could not resist the sumptuous fruits either but due to their diminutive stature, good photographic opportunities were rare. But I was not going to give up without a fight as this striking and adorable barbet certainly do make an excellent subject to shoot.

I noticed that at least one of the birds did not gorge on the fruits there and then. It was collecting the fruits no doubt back to a nest of hungry mouths nearby. This fruiting tree must be heaven sent to the parent birds as the chicks are pretty much assured of a constant supply of food for at least a week. The barbet came quite close eventually but the harsh lighting was unforgiving towards my attempts to capture it performing its parental duties.

The fruiting tree attracted quite a number of bulbuls as well. At this locality the Olive-winged Bulbul outnumbers the Yellow-vented Bulbul and that is not the usual case. I managed to sneak up on an Olive-winged Bulbul undoubtedly resting after gorging on the fruits.

The migratory Blue-winged Pittas are back to spend some time here before continuing their journey up north. I have been hearing them during my last few visits but they are proving to be difficult to see just like the previous season. One was calling particularly close to me on one occasion and I did everything in the book to try and obtain its images. I was on my knees (literally) when it finally revealed part of its radiance to me through the foliage of the undergrowth. Birding has a lot to do with luck and being at the right place at the right time. I was birding along the much wider trail next to the river when the Blue-winged Pitta I worked so hard to get a short while ago suddenly alighted on a tree just next to the access trail in front of me. There is a God after all…

It then flew across the trail but instead of diving straight into the vegetation, alighted on another tree next to the trail. Although it was further away from me now, it was in better lighting conditions. It does not get any better than this. I had my reservations about this trip initially but after the exhilarating episode with the Pitta, there will be no more doubts in future.

Despite gloomy weather being forecast for today, it was clear and sunny. The heat of the midday sun started to take toll both the birder and the birds and I decided to call it a day. Just outside the boundaries of this forest reserve lies an expanse of paddy fields. As I was making my way out, I unintentionally flushed a male Yellow Bittern from the edge of the paddy fields. Not much I could do except to watch this beautiful but elusive waterfowl fly a short distance before disappearing into a sea of green paddy stalks. As I lowered my binoculars, I was surprised to see a male Cinnamon Bittern just in front of me. Unlike the former, he has total confidence that his last line of design before fleeing will be sufficient to overcome this threat. Staying absolutely still and pointing the bill upwards while facing the foe is a defensive measure typical of bitterns. And I tried to be as unimposing as possible while relishing every second of this rare occasion. It is by no means a scarce bird but the only regular view is the sight of it flying away from you.

Gradually, he let his guard down. He probably figured that this lumbering human was no threat to him. After obtaining my desired shots of this handsome bird, I started to feel a little light-headed. I cannot be sure if it was due to standing in this blistering heat or the overwhelming excitement of the encounter. The Cinnamon Bittern with its bizarre pupils and all was a great way to wrap things up for a surprisingly memorable trip at my local patch.

The checklist of birds recorded during this trip can be found here.

Thursday 20 April 2017

There is a first time for everything

I have guided birders and bird photographers of every level around Penang and beyond but my latest guest who hails from England is something else. Coryn’s main passion is recording sounds of wildlife especially birds. There was one issue that was constantly haunting my thoughts when we were making our way to the first location of the day the forest of Sungai Sedim. I know very well how to locate and show the birds but how do I get them to call? Thus like every other guided bird tour, there are bound to be challenges ahead. I always lament the frustrations of observing babblers. That is the bitter truth but babblers are extremely vocal birds and today, that will work to my favour. And Sungai Sedim had plenty of babblers about as usual. And my guest got down to business almost immediate after stepping onto the forest trail with the diagnostic call of the Puff-throated Babbler leading the way.

I did not photograph as often as I usually do during our 2-day excursion. The reason simply being I did not want to risk putting the birds to flight while he was recording their calls. But I did photograph something here at Sungai Sedim in the end but it was not a bird. I seldom indulge in macro photography. That is a different world all together. This unidentified but attractive bee (I tried but I guess Google does not have the answer for everything after all) did catch my attention as we were descending along the Gunung Bintang access trail.

Our next destination for the day was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Here, another array of intriguing wildlife sounds greeted us upon our arrival and my guest was in seventh heaven. With his equipment and all, we were attracting attention from everyone we came across throughout the day. Locals find it hard to comprehend how someone can derive so much pleasure and inspiration just by watching birds let alone someone with a huge parabolic microphone recording bird calls. Even the star bird of the locality, the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher, came in for a closer look at what this human was up to. Unfortunately, he did not call at all during the encounter but his good looks certainly did not go unnoticed.

His mate, a female Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher made an appearance as well. It was good to see this complicated couple still doing fine despite the deteriorating conditions of their territory.

While we were making our way along the elevated boardwalk, this male Banded Woodpecker suddenly alighted on an overhead vine and caught me off guard. It is unexpected things like this that help flame my passion for birding. Anyhow, he was so close that I had to reduce my zoom (one of benefits of using telephoto zoom lens) in order to capture the entire bird. And just like that he darted back into the canopy of the forest.

The last bird of the day for me were the migratory Black Kites that yet to commence their journey back north. This individual were among the four left here and was lazily circling its roosting tree which is part of their routine each evening. From what I could tell it was a good day for my guest and the resonating chorus of the frogs in the vicinity, amplified by the impending rain, pulled us back into the swamp forest for one last recording session before calling the day.

On the next day we found ourselves at the car park of Bukit Wang in Kedah just as it got bright. Unlike yesterday, the Black-and-Yellow Broadbills were certainly making their presence felt by being extremely vocal. Considering the nature of our excursion, this is what we are wishing for. And there was more than enough broadbills to go round between the recorder and the photographer. While he had his ‘ears’ on one of the birds, I had my ‘eyes’ on another and far enough as not to interfere with his recording. Life can be beautiful sometimes.

Bukit Wang is supposedly a patch of virgin jungle literally untouched by human activities. The sweeping landscape of lush greenery is a sight to behold. Tall trees reaching for the heavens above make us humans feel insignificant and in awe of their magnificence. Even an old school birder and a diehard bird call recorder have to take a minute to soak in the view.

A duetting pair of Scarlet-rumped Trogons next to the access trail promises another notable session. Although it is the commonest of our trogon, it is still more than capable of holding you spellbound to its beauty and radiance. On this rare occasion, Murphy’s Law had no part in the encounter and the striking male performed just as well as his less flashy mate.

The female remained in the safety of the canopy most of the time but she did perch stationary for a long time on a relatively exposed perch and I suspect is just to check on her mate to make sure her mate was not up to no good.

The relentless territorial calls of the Rufescent Prinia at the boundary of the forest reserve was almost overwhelming. This warbler is common among scrub and grasslands at the edge of forest and orchards throughout the country. We came across one pair and gradually, one of them wandered out in the open much to my delight.

The resident pair of Wreathed Hornbills is encountered on almost every visit recently but good views are near impossible as these majestic birds are shy by nature. Their whooshing wing beats, typical of hornbills, are a common feature and that worked well for today’s visit. The sound of hornbills in flight will evoke feelings of excitement and anticipation without fail. I am always fascinated by these amazing family of birds but encounters with them are on the decrease which is truly disheartening.  Back to the Wreathed Hornbills. During one of their flyovers, the female alighted briefly on a distant tree. I did not have the heart to give this rare photographic opportunity a pass and this pathetic attempt was all I could muster.

An Oriental Garden Lizard soaking in the warm rays of the sun momentarily diverted us from our main mission here. The tail of this lizard is incredibly long and that makes it a captivating creature despite its abundant nature.

As we were making our way back to the car park, a flock of White-bellied Erpornis foraging nosily next to the access trail was worth delaying the journey back. As usual, the birds were extremely active and the lighting conditions did not help with my efforts to obtain good images. I have been encountering this species quite often of late but I am not complaining. I just cannot get enough of its adorable appearance – crest and all. Overall, a great bird to cap off two days of memorable birding or to be more precise, call recording as well.

I will be ending this time’s post with a personal opinion. Stone stacking, rock balancing or whatever you call it is a trend that has found its way to Malaysian shores. All I have to say about this is Mother Nature is perfect just the way she is. Your attempt to beautify her is appreciated but not required. According to some, it may even screw up the ecosystem. It may not be as damaging as some other forms of vandalism but it is still vandalism nevertheless. We have disrupted and damaged the natural world devastatingly in the name of development. I am sure there are other better alternatives for you to channel your overflowing creative and artistic juices into and let Mother Nature be.

The checklist of birds recorded in this post can be found here:

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Easter came early

My latest birding excursion fell on Good Friday but unfortunately, the weather was not in a very cheerful mood. Together with PK, my guest from Singapore, we made our way to the forest of Sungai Sedim. As we trekked up the slopes of Gunung Bintang, the atmosphere was dark and cold courtesy of the southwest monsoon. Despite the gloom, I picked out the all-too-familiar penetrating whistle of the Rufous-winged Philentoma. And just like my last visit, the resident male greeted us with his striking colouration when he momentarily revealed himself from the dim understorey of the forest he calls home. The lighting conditions may have rob us of any real chance to obtain good shots but to have a Rufous-winged Philentoma as your first bird of the day deserves some of recognition.

A small flycatcher hawking for insects next to the trail had our attention next. Upon further scrutiny it turned out to be Iron Boy, a name christened by Singaporean birders for the Ferruginous Flycatcher. I took a liking to the nickname almost immediately as it does suit this adorable little migrant well. I do not come across this flycatcher as often as I like to and this encounter was a pleasant addition to our now rapidly growing checklist for the day. That’s a good boy…

The sweet song of the Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher is a regular feature of the forest here. It tends to keep to the safety of the canopy and that makes observation and photography tedious. Its minute size does not help much to. However, it is a charming bird which often brightens up birding excursions here.

Babblers are well represented here in Sungai Sedim but they do not make good subjects for photography. On those rare occasions when the stars are aligned just right, magic transcends upon your birding excursion and you will get that shot that has eluded you all these years. The Scaly-crowned Babbler is not uncommon here. I have crossed paths with this tree babbler several times in the past but I have very little to show in the end except for the memories. This lone individual changed all that by being, I suppose, as confiding as a babbler could ever get. Resting on an exposed perch at eye level, it was almost too good to be true.

Although I am way too old to believe in the Easter Bunny and all that but this year, Easter came early for me. I stumbled upon an Easter Egg in the form of a Rufous Piculet – both being rounded, colourful and cause a lot of excitement. This female was foraging along the middle storey of the forest when she alighted very close to the access trail. The active nature of the bird and the harsh lighting prevented me from getting much better images from this encounter.

The next destination for the day was the paddy fields at mainland Penang. Remaining flocks of waterbirds working the fields with the tractors were again the centre of attention. Standing out like fresh blossoms on a snow-laden field during the first days of spring were the Cattle Egrets. Sporting their smart breeding plumage, they overshadowed the bigger egrets as the mixed flocks foraged together in tight formations.

At this time of the year, Pond-herons are objects of affection as they adorn their respective breeding plumages. Penang is one of the few states where one stands a chance to see all three species in one area and that we did today. A confiding Javan Pond-heron provided the main highlight for the Pond-heron observations. It was foraging quietly just beside the access road and both guest and guide were visibly excited by the encounter.

Very few raptors hover here in Malaysia and one of them is the striking Back-shouldered Kite. Its hovering action is a delight to watch. Like poetry in motion, the flight agilities of this raptor is remarkable and my images could never capture the true essence of this encounter.

Since it was my guest’s maiden visit to the Pearl of the Orient, a detour to the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam was inevitable to pay homage to one of the star birds of the state.

Almost like clockwork, the male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher was seen resting on his favourite tree. PK openly expressed how astonished he was by the beauty of this bird. And I, could not agree with him more.

The migratory Black Kites were still seen loitering this wintering ground but in smaller numbers now. The tall trees across the river provide the ideal refuge and just a little effort is all that is needed to locate one resting among the tallest branches.

PK was staying at his in-laws’ place in Bukit Mertajam. As it was a no-show for my usual Barred Eagle-owl earlier this afternoon, I decided to swing by the recreational park at Bukit DO before calling it a day as it very close to where I was to drop off my guest. The park was crowded as expected. And we were losing daylight rapidly. It took a while but the gamble paid off. A single Barred Eagle-owl was getting ready for the hunt and to perched on one of the lower branches of its usual roosting tree. My guest got one of his most anticipated target lifers - finally. What a bird to wrap things up for another memorable day of birding.

The checklist of the birds recorded during this trip can be found here:
3. Air Hitam Dalam