The southwest monsoon has started to sweep into the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia and rain has been a prominent feature of late. It was cold and wet when I waited at the hotel lobby for my latest guest. Even as we were making our way to the forest of Sungai Sedim, we were constantly tormented by intermittent drizzle. I had to put on a brave face and stay positive. It could be a very long day for me if the weather does not improve. All my worries were put to rest when we trekked up the Gunung Bintang access trail. The drizzle had stop and the dawn chorus filled the vicinity with hope of what the brand new day might bring. Graeme is an experienced birder from London and it will take something out of the ordinary to push his buttons. The penetrating whistle of the Rufous-winged Philentoma stopped us at our tracks. This striking flycatcher is no ordinary bird and a confiding male singing on an exposed perch is no ordinary encounter despite the testing shooting conditions. Buttons pushed? Most certainly...
Woodpeckers form one of the most amazing and stunning family of birds in Malaysia. The forest here is home to quite a few species of these birds and one of them is the impressive Orange-backed Woodpecker. On this occasion, the bird was below eye level as the access trail was next to a deep ravine. The elevated view provided an intimate and memorable encounter as a pair of them moved about noisily along the middle storey of the forest.
The fruits of the active fruiting tree a few weeks back should be depleted by now but I did walk past the tree just to be sure. Birdwaves also offer several species at a single spot but unlike fruiting trees, the patrons hardly stay still making it hard to observe them let alone photograph. A male Scarlet Minivet is a very good reason to ignore other species at a birdwave and give it the attention he truly deserves. The vivid red colour pierces through the foliage of the canopy like a hot amber and he stood still long enough for me to capture a lousy shot that does no justice to the true resplendence of this forest dweller.
A quick detour at the Kulim Hi Tech Park after the morning session at Sungai Sedim yielded expected results. The resident Barred Eagle-owl was at hand again to thrill and intrigue my foreign guest with its unworldly beauty.
The next location we visited was the paddy fields of mainland Penang. Although by now most of the migratory waterbirds would have undertaken their journey back to their breeding grounds in the north, it is still the best time to catch the Pond-herons in their respective breeding plumages. From a drab-looking heron, they now sport striking plumage colourations which is a remarkable transformation. The Chinese Pond-heron may be the commonest of all the Pond-Herons but in my book, it is the most attractive. An individual in full breeding plumage, may it be in good light or in the shade, will have my undivided attention.
Despite a careful search, there was no sign of the Indian Pond-heron – the rarest Pond-heron of them all. As a consolation, we found no less than 5 Javan Pond-herons. Although the latter is not that rare, it is good to see them again after a lapse of one year. My love affair with the Pond-herons is an annual fling and it was truly rekindled this afternoon. It was most unfortunate that this Javan Pond-heron was strongly backlighted but it was so obliging that I did not have the heart to shun it.
Every time a tractor goes to work at the fields, so will the birds. The tractors plough to loosen up the soil. The birds follow the tractor to reap easy rewards. Invertebrates, insects, amphibians, small mammals are greedily snapped up. We came across one such scene and egrets formed the majority of the birds present. One thing I love about birding is you never know what to expect. Among the sea of white feathers, one individual stood out like a beacon in the dark. Perhaps more like the black sheep of the family. It was an intermediate morph Little Egret and I guess it can be considered rare as this is my first ever sighting. There is an individual at Malim Nawar in Perak for the past few seasons but I never got round to locating it because every time I am there, it was to twitch for some mega lifer.
It was very sociable and I found it hard to isolate it from the rest of its compatriots for a photograph.
Decades of birding has moulded me into a patient man and good things usually come to those who wait. It took a while but the Little Egret did wander away from the rest momentarily and that certainly made my day.
Only after then I paid some attention to the other egrets that were present and most of the Cattle Egrets were sporting their smart breeding plumages. This confiding individual stood very close to our stationery vehicle and looking very smug for my camera.
The last location for the day was the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. This once amazing birding hotspot is starting to lose its charms. It never quite recovered ever since the falling of the huge tree in the middle of the reserve. Having said that I am very grateful that the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher still calls this place home.
To wrap things up for the first day, a Black Kite gliding casually overhead just as the weather started to turn for the worse. And the timing could not have been better as we were heading to our vehicle for the journey back. Anyway a handful of these elegant raptors were recorded but they will soon join others of their kin at their northern breeding grounds.
The next dawn we were again greeted by dark skies and drizzle. We were blessed because just like yesterday, the weather improved upon our arrival at the birding site. A pair of Chestnut-naped Forktails flitting about the stream that runs alongside the landscaped recreational area of Bukit Wang Forest Reserve access trail got the ball rolling. Bukit Wang proved to be a good decision again and Graeme, being more of a birder than a bird photographer, was really soaking in the presence of the rich avifauna despite the lack of good photographic opportunities.
I finally lifted up my camera when a foraging Chestnut-breasted Malkoha alighted momentarily on an exposed perch way up in the canopy level. Common as it may be, I have very few images of this striking but shy cuckoo and it is not due to lack of trying.
We came across a few birdwaves here as well and one particular wave brought out a true feathered jewel of the forest. The white morph male Asian Paradise Flycatcher (I will not let recent taxonomical updates get in the way with my tribute to this exquisite bird), is proof that angels do exist in this world. Words can hardly describe the moment you see one gracefully waltz through the foliage of the forest, long tail trailing and all, in search of insect prey. Even my terrible attempt in trying to immortalize the encounter in digital format could not undermine this moment of pure magic. That is what the male Asian Paradise Flycatcher does best – providing memories that last a lifetime.
I thought our photography woes were finally over when we came across an active fruiting tree. But all the barbets, leafbirds, bulbuls and flowerpeckers that came were no where close to be as confiding as their counterparts at a fruiting tree in Sungai Sedim. This made me realize how lucky it is to be able to experience this natural phenomenon at one of my local patches on a yearly basis. The only bird that gave us some decent images was a flock of Black-headed Bulbuls.
This is one of the few places in Peninsular Malaysia where the scarce Wallace’s Hawk-eagle is regularly encountered. This time, it suddenly glided just above our heads and I could even make out the dark chestnut head with my naked eyes. I fumbled with my camera and by the time I had the beautiful raptor in focus, it was simply too late. But it was certainly one of the highlights of the trip – for both of us. A pair of Black-thighed Falconets was caught in a compromising position but the distance of the love perch from our position denied us any good images.
As we making our way to the car park to call it a day, the virgin jungle of Bukit Wang had a parting gift waiting for us. A flowering at the entrance was attracting a lot of insects. The insects in turn attracted a predator. A female Korean Flycatcher rested contentedly among the foliage no doubt after a feasting on the insects. She also provided the best photographic opportunity of the day. Part of her tail was blocked by the perch and judging by my luck with photography today, would not have it any other way. This common migrant provided the perfect ending for another memorable birding excursion spanning over two days and two states here in northern Peninsular Malaysia.
The complete checklists for all the locations covered in this post can be found here in eBird Malaysia.