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.