Tuesday 27 June 2017

When life gives you lemons...

The sweeping waters of the Sedim River is just as awe-inspiring as it was during my first ever visit to this locality more than a decade ago. Despite being gazetted as only a recreational forest, Sungai Sedim has not changed much through the years and for that, I am most grateful. I still have a birding site near Penang where the wing beats of the majestic hornbills regularly echo through the vicinity and forest denizens foraged among the lush vegetation as well. Too many sites, even those gazetted with a higher status, have been devastated under the wake of Man. Way too many...

The persistent call of the Rufous-collared Kingfisher stopped me at my tracks. I have very few good images of this forest kingfisher despite the fact that it is regularly recorded here. On numerous occasions during my visits to this location, I have failed to see the bird despite tracking the call almost back to the source. This time the call sounded very close and I slowly inch my way forward with ab overwhelming sense of anxiety. And just beyond the first layer of vegetation, I saw him. Perched on an exposed vine, this male bird was proclaiming his territory. I threaded carefully as it is I who has trespassed into his domain. However, it is not out of fear but respect for the king. Besides, any sudden movements and I would have blown any chances of capturing his images. The lighting may not have been perfect to bring out the true colours of the kingfisher but the encounter certainly was.

Woodpeckers are remarkable birds and the commoner species are often taking for granted. At first glance, the Buff-necked Woodpecker may appear to be dull-coloured and its preference for the dimly lighted parts of the forest is no help to its aesthetic appeal. I was fortunate to come across this pair foraging on the edge of the forest where the sunlight was able to reveal the fine patterns of the birds. The male with the red moustache was leading the way and provided very little photographic opportunities.

His mate, on the other hand, moved at a more leisurely pace and allowed to me capture more than one single image. She may lack the additional facial colour of the male but her obliging behaviour certainly helped me look past that.

I came across two other species of woodpeckers today. The Maroon Woodpecker only offered a glimpse of its ivory bill as it darted across a gloomy ravine. The Checker-throated Woodpecker faired only slightly better by briefly showing off its namesake to me before disappearing from sight.

Sungai Sedim has always been a stronghold for babblers of all shapes and sizes. Of the dozen or so species encountered today only one was confiding enough to allow its images to be captured. But it did not come easy. Taunting me from the safety of the middle storey of the forest, the Moustached Babbler made me work very hard for its images. I had to crawl, crouch and curse my way to a couple of mediocre images.

It did provide one shot that was relatively exposed and knew that this is as good as it gets for today.

My gawky attempts for the Moustached Babbler attracted the attention of one of the locals. I only realized later I had an audience when I turned around and saw a pair of puffy white eyes looking back at me. The Dusky Leaf-monkey is the predominant monkey species here. A welcomed change from the usual marauding Long-tailed Macaques.

Apart from babblers, a least a dozen species of Bulbuls also call this forest home. The Grey-bellied Bulbul is certainly one of the most attractive of them all but its preference for the canopy levels often prove difficult for its true splendour to be captured by camera.

As I was making my way back to the car park, I caught sight of the all-too-familiar silhouette of a kingfisher perched among the dense vegetation not too far from the access trail. A quick look through my trusted binos resulted in my second Rufous-collared Kingfisher of the day. The lighting was much better this time but as fate would have it, there was only a tiny window between two branches where I could photograph the bird without any obstructions. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons make lemonade.

The checklist of birds recorded today can be found here.

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Feathered Gargoyle

Predawn birding can be exhilarating. It brings out the primeval instincts in you. Hunting in the dark and overworking all your senses in order to cope with the challenging conditions.  But it can also be boring with nothing but the sound of crickets to keep you company. The forest of Pedu is one of the few localities here in northern Peninsular Malaysia that has a proven record for owling and there is where I made way to for my latest nocturnal excursion with two other companions – Hor Kee and James. The last time I visited this locality at this ungodly hour was 2 years ago. Our efforts to locate the Large Frogmouth proved futile again whereas its smaller cousin the Blyth’s Frogmouth, rose up to the occasion just like that faithful trip back then. A pair filled the vicinity with their eerie calls and naturally, they got our undivided attention. When I think back to my Boy Scout days of all those campfire stories about encounters with supernatural beings sitting on trees in the forest, I guess these nocturnal birds are one of the reasons behind them. The call which I described to be not unlike the wailings of a banshee in my earlier post and the sinister look can certainly scare any non-birder senseless. Although it is not easy to actually see these feathered gargoyles in the wild, just imagine a non-birder coming face to face with this in the forest at night...

But for this trio of birders from Penang, it was a sight that they were hoping for. This female Blyth’s Frogmouth was perched on a low branch at the edge of the forest while her mate remained hidden close by. As we slowly edged closer, she remained unperturbed. I do not have many encounters with frogmouths. Perhaps it is because I do not go out owling as often as I should. But this confiding female provided one of the best owling encounters for me. She may look terrifying to some but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me and I reckon most birders, she is absolutely beautiful.

A few more images from this fantastic encounter before I carry on with the rest of the trip...

It was a bright and sunny morning. The landscape of lush greenery set against the beautiful blue sky was a breath taking sight. The birds were certainly out and about but most did not provide good photographic opportunities.

Among the forest canopy, I caught sight of a pair of Lesser Cuckoo-shrikes. This species is not a common bird as I do not come across it very often in the field and I took my time to relish this encounter.

Deep inside I wished for the pair to come closer in which they did eventually. But only to fly overhead...

The diagnostic call of the Black-capped Babbler can be heard on every visit here but to obtain good views is another matter all together. However, today the call sounded really close and it was next to a forest trail. We set up our hides and hoped for the best. Moments later, it strolled into view. Apart from the Malaysian Rail-Babbler, this species is the only other passerine in Malaysia that walks and that makes it special in my book.

Anyway, I was only allowed one single shot before it disappeared back into the forest which it calls home. And we were left watching the sun trying its best to penetrate through the dense foliage of this tropical rain forest for the rest of our time in the hide.

Our next destination of the day was the mangroves of Sungai Batu to spend some time with the star bird of this locality – the irresistible Mangrove Pitta. As usual, it took a little while to gain the trust of this beautiful swamp dweller. Our patience were duly rewarded with another starling performance...

The supporting cast did their part to further enrich our visit here with the resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers leading the way. Today, both sexes were very obliging. The female with her whitish eyes lores mesmerized us with her sultry beauty.

The male with his intensified plumage colouration charmed us with his rugged looks.

To wrap things up for this rewarding but taxing trip (I guess age is catching up with me), was a confiding Abbott’s Babbler. It may lack the colours of the flycatcher and all babblers have a certain charm to them and this common species is no different.

Thursday 1 June 2017

A tale of two pittas

One of the worst things you can wake up to on a birding day is the sound of thunder and rain. Any prior plan I had for an excursion to a remoter birding site was drowned out by this torrential downpour. It was also impossible to go to back sleep now. The body, mind and soul was in birding mode. Nothing much left to do but to sulk in silent with a cuppa in hand and hope for the Almighty to be merciful. Two hours later, the slightest rays of the morning sun were finally able to pierce through the gloom. That was all I needed. A slight delay but I could still salvage what is left of the day. The weather was not promising when I arrive at the extensive and pristine mangrove belt in central Kedah. However, the territorial calls of the Mangrove Pittas deep inside their swampy domain immediately had a bewitching effect on me and I trod onto the soft muddy terrain without the slightest hesitance.

This is not the first I got down and dirty for this elusive but alluring species. I remember going off the beaten track back during my teenage years to observe two Mangrove Pittas having a territorial dispute among the lush vegetation of the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam disregarding the fact I was almost shin-high in mud and water. It was one of the most exhilarating moments in my birding life. Back to the present, the rain clouds may have now engulfed the sky again but it was no longer relevant. Among the vegetation in middle level of the forest, I could just make out the shape of the Mangrove Pitta. The sight of a pitta, even when almost completely obstructed, is a sight to behold.

With a little effort and patience I soon found myself ogling at an adult Mangrove Pitta foraging and resting in full view. The predawn rain has made the conditions here rather uneasy for me to settle down comfortably but it did not stop me from enjoying another memorable performance.

Just like my last visit, it was confiding and friendly. I lost myself in the encounter. My muddied clothes and equipment did not matter. Loads of impossible work-related deadlines to meet in the weeks to come did not matter. All that mattered was having this close and intimate encounter with a feathered jewel of the coastal swamp lands.

Normal folks usually assume I have to be patient to be a birder. Well, they are not completely wrong. Patience does play a role. However, I prefer to hunt for my ‘quarry’ rather than the sit-and-wait approach. In order to be mobile I rarely use a tripod for bird photography and on a few rare occasions, has deprived me of certain pleasures during birding. Without the aid of a tripod, shooting a video is usually a lost cause. Not trying at all, especially when your confiding subject happens to be a pitta, would be a sin. This clip turned out better the rest but do excuse the camera shake. The weight of my gear and the adrenaline flow was just too much.

Very few things could have distracted me from the Mangrove Pitta but an unfamiliar call that sounded very much like the rare and elusive Racket-tailed Treepie most certainly could. I turned around with just enough time to get my bins on a flock of 3 birds flying across the mangrove and into a scrubland habitat next to a Malay village. This species is restricted here in Malaysia to suitable habitats in the north-western parts of the peninsular. This was my third ever record and I am still waiting for the day to come when the encounter would last at least a minute. With the spell of the pitta over me broken, I began to take notice of the other birds present. Nothing unexpected was recorded during this time’s visit and the resident Abbott’s Babblers were showy indeed. They were a little sluggish today probably due to the weather and that worked to my advantage. My gear would not have been able to cope with any fast movements – especially in this kind of lighting.

The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers are relatively prominent in this locality as well. A pair came to welcome me just like last week. But this time, it was the male bird that overshadowed the female with his memorable performance.

The Oriental Magpie-Robin, despite being heavily trapped for the bird trade, is still common in suitable habitats throughout the country. A coastal swamp forest nearby human settlements like this is ideal for this famed songster and like all divas, this female was quite adamant to have her photo taken.

From one swamp forest to another, my next destination was none other than Air Hitam Dalam. Afternoons are usually quiet times in any forest and it is no different here. The swarming of winged termites will usually bring the birds in and it did. But just not up to expectations. A hundred strong Germain’s Swiftlets having a mid-air feeding frenzy can only hold your attention for so long. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, on the other hand, provided some opportunities to capture its images.

One thing did surprise me at the feeding frenzy and it was the presence of a Crested Serpent-Eagle. It could have been a coincidence or the presence of so many birds has caught its attention. I am quite sure it is not the minute termites. This is a big raptor and it will take a whole lot of termites to satisfy its appetite.

The Collared Kingfisher is the commonest kingfisher in this neck of the woods and only on a slow day would I be able to shower it with some attention. Today is one of those days. A lone bird resting on an exposed perch in relatively good light caught my attention as I was birding along the riverside trail. Somewhat lacking in colours but not in character, it kept me occupied for quite a period of time.

I noticed the Blue-winged Pittas flying about upon my arrival here and I thought to myself it would be fantastic if I could photograph two species of pittas on a single day. To see one species is already a blessing. To see and shoot two species here around Penang will certainly give me something to brag about. Initially, I failed to locate the pitta but sometimes in life, you just got to have a little faith. As I was about to call it a day, the Blue-winged Pitta suddenly alighted close to where I was seated packing up my gear. It was unexpected as the pitta kept itself well hidden from me thus far in my visit. Anyway, I sprang into action immediately and managed to capture its images. Bragging rights obtained...

Initially, I was a little disappointed not to be able to photograph the pitta on a natural perch but then I thought the pitta chose to alight here on its own free will. And if it is good enough for the bird, it is most certainly good enough for this birder. This encounter with the Blue-winged Pitta and the earlier one with the Mangrove Pitta reinforces the grip birds have on my life. To blog about your every birding excursion is no easy task no matter how passionate one may be about the subject. I do sometimes struggle especially when the excursion was a mediocre affair. However if the excursion had been exceptionally good like let us say two pitta species in a single day, the words come easily and I can even wrap up an entire post at one go.

So, here are the star birds of the day side by side showing the subtle differences between the two species. These two may be the commoner of the pittas found here in Peninsular Malaysia but they are still just as intriguing. And this time, they turned what was heading to be a disastrous day of birding into one that will be cherished for a long time to come.  

Here are the checklists for the birds recorded during this trip.