Wednesday 26 July 2017

Fortune favours the bold (Part II)

From the wild interiors of Kedah, we headed towards the coastline for some birding along the extensive mangrove belt of Sungai Batu. But the birds will have to wait as we were held back by some misfortune - a punctured tyre. We finally reached our destination later than planned but fortunately, it did not take long to locate the star bird which is the Mangrove Pitta. The little hiccup along the highway was soon forgotten when we heard the pitta calling from a nearby perch. A little patience was all it took to have this amazing bird in full view. Once again this feathered jewel mesmerized my guest with its radiance and confiding nature.

A second pitta came into view on this visit but the dominant bird would have none of it. A short dash towards the direction of its competitor and that was the last that we saw of it. Occasionally it could heard calling from a distance and that would get an instant reaction from the dominant bird. Beautiful but bad-tempered as well. Now please tell me again why birders love pittas...

Other species present did not seem to incur the wrath of the Mangrove Pitta. The resident pair of Mangrove Blue-flycatchers is recorded on every one of my visits here so far but today, they appeared rather scruffy. Moulting is a natural process every bird has to undergo. It may not be pretty but it is absolutely necessary to ensure survival.

News have reached my ears of a pair of Puff-throated Babblers that have been regularly recorded in the vicinity of late. The series of musical notes of that form the song of this bird is remarkable to say the least. For my very first encounter with this babbler many years ago, it was the song that caught my attention and only after a tedious search did I see the bird. It is by no means a rare bird. Its distinct song and 3-note call can be heard regularly in suitable habitats but like most babblers, catching sight of it can be frustratingly difficult. Today, it was again the song that caught my attention. But this time, it did not take long to enjoy stunning views of this terrestrial species.

I have obtained very few images of the Puff-throated Babbler before this but all that changed with this confiding pair. Intimate views will reveal this babbler is not just another little brown job. It has a slightly shaggy rufous crown, bold streaks contrastingly sharply with its whitish underparts and of course, a puffy white throat from which its name is derived. No, this is a beautiful bird and it almost overshadowed our encounter with the Mangrove Pitta. The visit to the mangroves concluded the second day of the tour and it has been a very good one despite of the punctured tyre.

The last day of Ed’s tour kicked off at the hilly forest of Sungai Sedim in, yes, Kedah state again. It was an uphill task to try and obtain similar success from our previous days. This locality after all is not quite in the same league as Pedu or Bukit Wang. Do not get me wrong. It is a beautifully wild place where hornbills still roam free. A number of interesting forest species kept us happy for most of the morning. However, photographic opportunities were hard to come by. The highlight of the visit here was a fruiting that was attracting a host of barbets. Unfortunately, it was a tall tree and its foliage, dense. I used my binoculars more often than my camera on this occasion. One barbet did manage to find its way into my memory card and it was a handsome male Red-throated Barbet. In order to distinguish barbets here in Malaysia, one has to pay extra attention to the head region. The array of striking colours on the head region of the male Red-throated Barbet certainly makes it one of the most attractive barbets here.

The scrublands at Kulim Hi-Tech Park was our next destination for the trip. Although this site is basically an industrial park, it usually has a few pleasant surprises if you know where to look. The Savanna Nightjar has evolved perfectly to blend into its surrounding environment. Open grasslands are their preferred habitat and there are plenty of those here. However, the birds prefer to roost on concrete embankments which in my opinion provides an even better platform for these nocturnal creatures to disappear from sight. I would have driven right pass this roosting Savanna Nightjar but experience has taught me otherwise. I missed out on this species during my last few visits here proving once again that luck plays an important role in birding.

Fortunately some of the other residents are rather difficult to miss due to their vivid colouration and tendency to flaunt it. Although Blue-throated Bee-eaters are common summer visitors to our shores, there is nothing common about their aesthetic appeal and aerial agilities. A few of them graced the locality with their beauty as they hawked for insects overlooking a small patch of wetlands.

Munias are considered pests by farmers due to their raids on ripe paddy seeds and they are often taken for granted by birders due to their abundant nature. The Chestnut Munia is not as common as some of the other species. Its bold colouration makes this species rather attractive especially when they float above a sea of grass or paddy stalks. It will usually have my attention when present and a pair foraging just beside the access road certainly deserves some affection.

Then it was time to finally take Ed to a birding site within the borders of Penang and it was none other than the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. We were greeted by the usual residents upon our arrival and one particular resident knew exactly how to make its presence felt by gliding from one tree to another with its incredibly long tail trailing behind like the streamer of a newly weds’ car. Eventually, the Green-billed Malkoha settled into the dense foliage of a small tree. I waited patiently for a chance to capture its image without any obstructions from the vegetation but it was near impossible.

Just about then, I heard the all-too-familiar call that sounded not unlike the bleating of a goat. It may not be all that pleasant to the ears of ordinary folks but to us birders, it was sweet music to the ears. As luck would have it, the Black-and-red Broadbill was also in my guest’s wanted list. We managed to obtain intimate views of a pair foraging along the lower storey of the swamp forest and no matter how often I have encountered the Black-and-red Broadbill, it is still an intriguing bird with very contrasting colours. And a bill that is simply out of this world...

There are a few specialities found at this site and the Streak-breasted Woodpecker is one of them. Restricted only to the northern region in Peninsular Malaysia, this locally common woodpecker is always a nice addition to any birding excursion. A lone female was particularly attracted to this dead tree trunk and thus, provided a prolonged view for me and my guest.

As we were making our way out of the swamp forest, I was surprised to see this Crested Serpent-eagle perched below the canopy level of the forest overlooking the elevated boardwalk. Something on the ground must have caught its attention as this was certainly not its usual perch. There was nothing I could do about the awful lighting condition but the close proximity of this beautiful raptor got my heart racing.

Ed has yet to see an owl so far and for our final destination, I decided to take him to a modest suburban park in mainland Penang where if one is lucky, will have the opportunity to observe not one but two large owl species in their natural environment. And my guest has been nothing but lucky so far. We scanned the usual roosting trees for the nocturnal hunters as soon as we reached Bukit DO but to no avail. Our enthusiasm plummeted and we were about to give up when hope came in unlikely form. An evening walker waved us over to his location and we rose from the gloom as we locked onto a roosting Buffy Fish-Owl. After thanking the Good Samaritan, we repositioned ourselves to enjoy an unobstructed view of this striking night bird.

We hardly recovered from the rush of seeing a Buffy Fish-owl when the Good Samaritan waved us over again. I could hardly believe it when he pointed out a splendid adult Barred Eagle-owl roosting among the foliage of a tall tree. Incredibly, we were now enjoying our second owl of the trip. Our owl spotter truly deserves a medal for his efforts. I am not a proud man. I know when to admit defeat and this time, I was clearly outshined by a bare-footer evening walker. I usually do not have much faith in the laymen when it comes to bird-related stuff but after this episode, I will not see them quite in the same light again. Anyway, I have stated very often that daytime observations of owls are always special regardless of species. And to have two species at a single location is quite a way to wrap things up for a rewarding three days of birding in northern Peninsula Malaysia.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Fortune favours the bold (Part I)

During the non-migratory season, I occasionally struggle to provide memorable birding excursions for my visiting guests. When Ed first contacted me, I told him that 2 full days would be sufficient for birding around Penang in the month July. Without the aid of migratory birds to conjure up additional magic, it only seemed logical. But he had negotiated 3 days of birding out of the 2-week planned family vacation to Penang and understandably, he was determined to make full use of those days. I had my reservations. I will be stepping out of my comfort zone. But then again fortune favours the bold and I carefully planned out the itinerary for this Scottish birder. On the first day, I took him deep into the heart of Kedah state for his maiden birding excursion in Malaysia. The forest surrounding Pedu Lake was a good way to start off the tour and one of its frequently heard but rarely seen inhabitants got both the guest and the host all excited shortly after daybreak - the Black-capped Babbler.

The lighting condition may be downright horrible for photography but this fascinating bird has rarely revealed itself to me long enough for its image to be taken. That was not the case this time. Not one but two birds performed admirably. The walking gait, striking head patterns and shy nature make the Black-capped Babbler a fascinating species to observe and God willing, photograph.  Forest birding depends a lot on luck and my guest this time must possess some kind of a built-in rabbit’s foot as we were very lucky on several occasions during the days of his tour.

One does not expect to see a Red-billed Malkoha foraging on the ground as this cuckoo spend most of its life along the canopy level of the forest. This was the lowest I have ever seen it and I have to use up every ounce of self-control to refrain myself from trying to get closer for a better shot as my guest had his bins locked on the bird. Ed is an old school birder and I did not want to risk spooking off the bird before he has had a good look. And an eye-level Red-billed Malkoha is certainly worth a good look.

The bird gradually moved higher into the forest vegetation and before it disappeared completely, I managed to squeeze off one last shot. A Red-billed Malkoha is quite a feast for the eyes and although the images obtain were far from perfect, I am not complaining. I did not have many opportunities to use my camera here in Pedu but it was certainly not a slow day. One of the highlights of the day included a singing female Asian Emerald Cuckoo and even without any images to show, this totally unexpected encounter was a great way to wrap things for the day.

On the second day, we found ourselves at the virgin jungle of Bukit Wang in the state of Kedah again. There is not much pristine forest sites left in my home state of Penang and I am most grateful that this neighbouring state still does. One of the best things that can happen during a forest birding excursion is the discovery of a fruiting tree being patronized by birds. As soon as we got down from the vehicle, a Macaranga Tree in full bloom received our undivided attention. A host of spiderhunters took no effort to remain inconspicuous. The seemingly endless supply of fruit can momentarily alter the behaviour of even the shyest of species. The Spectacled Spiderhunters are large birds and they make full use of this physical attribute to monopolize the tree.

At the receiving end are the smaller Yellow-eared and Grey-breasted Spiderhunters. So effective were the bullies that I did not manage to shoot one single shot of the former. The latter did get to feed occasionally and it was during those brief periods of serenity that I obtained this shot.

The smaller sunbirds present are mostly ignored by the spiderhunters. Only two species came for the fruits when we were present. The Plain and Red-throated Sunbirds zipped about the tree at such velocity that it made photography rather challenging. The poor lighting condition at the time was no help either and that was a shame because I do not have many photographs of the male Red-throated Sunbird. Subtle differences distinguish it from the much commoner Plain-throated Sunbird and its preference for forested habitats often keeps it out of sight. The tantalizing fruits brought them out into the open and we were grateful for this good fortune.

Only a few bulbul species were attracted by the fruits of the Macaranga Tree and it was slightly disappointing. The Red-eyed Bulbuls were by far the commonest species present.

A confiding Spectacled Bulbul provided something to cheer about as it gorged on the fruits of a broken branch that was lying in the ground.

A flock of 4 Wreathed Hornbills flying above the car park area broke the trance the fruiting tree had on us and we finally started to make our way into the forest reserve. Hornbills are such amazing creatures that even a distant flock in flight is able to evoke feelings of awe and fascination.

The far-carrying territorial call of gibbons is a prominent feature in the Malaysian rainforest. Even more so here in Bukit Wang. Unfortunately, these primates are extremely sensitive and shy. Good views are not easily obtained. That is the reason we took our time to observe this lone White-handed Gibbon hanging out at the top most part of the forest.

A flock of foraging White-bellied Erpornis is hard to miss due to the constant vocalization of the birds. Although it is conservatively coloured, it has that certain mischievous vibe to it and is a delight to observe. One bird was rather inquisitive of our presence and came close to satisfy its curiousity and we the birders, enjoyed splendid views of this adorable bird.

The single note call of the Malayan Banded Pitta stopped us dead at our tracks. The male bird was the first to reveal himself as he flew clumsily low across the access trail. He was so close that I could make out his striking form even without the aid of any optical equipment. His mate follow suit seconds later. I have been birding here since 2010 and this is my first encounter with the resident pair of Malayan Banded Pittas. We were lucky to be at the right place at the right time to catch them crossing the trail. But I guess there is a limit to our luck. I tried every trick in the book to relocate them but to no avail. The Malayan Banded Pitta is a forest gem with unparalleled beauty. Both of us continued to stare into the lush vegetation. Both hoped for a miracle that never came. It will take time for logic to finally kick in again.

However, there is a God after all. Before we could take a step, this birding haven provided another exhilarating experience. I always seem to have good luck with the Black-and-yellow Broadbill here in Bukit Wang. Today a male bird, told by his unbroken black collar, surprised us with his exceptionally confiding nature by alighting almost right in front of us. From every angle, he is a sight to behold. Cute, colourful and charismatic; this broadbill can light up even your darkest hour. It almost made us forget the failed attempt to relocate the pittas just moments ago – almost.

But unlike the pittas, he remained in view longer than we could ever have wished for. The cicada-like call of the bird was overwhelming at this distance and he was quite adamant in giving us both a visual and audio treat. This little bird has certainly stole the limelight and his performance, impeccable. He was undoubtedly one of the highlights of trip and I will remember this encounter for a long time to come.

On the way in this morning, I noticed a clump of flowering bamboo next to the access trail and I casually mentioned that it looked good for Pin-tailed Parrotfinches but none were present or so I thought. On the way out, I carelessly trudged past the bamboo clump only to flush a small flock of parrotfinches. 

After cursing myself, I realized that the birds were still in the vicinity as I could hear them. I knew then that the birds would return. So, we patiently waited at a safe distance and let nature take its course. Pin-tailed Parrotfinches can be quite nomadic and they are known to travel far and wide in search of flowering bamboo. The presence of two bungling birders will not keep them away from their feast. True enough the flock returned and the dull clump of bamboo suddenly came to life with an array of colours and splendour.

Due to the unpredictability of flowering bamboo, I have enjoyed very little field experience with this species. Birding with a pure birder is usually executed in a quicker pace but our excursion came to a complete halt here. Time literally stood as we lost ourselves in the presence of finches. I even momentarily forgot I had a guest with me but lucky for me, he was just as mesmerized by the flock which by then was gorging on the feast at hand. This particular clump of bamboo was relatively low and we were blessed with almost eye-level views of the spectacle.

The males, with their extraordinary plumage, received most of my attention. It is not called a parrotfinch for nothing and despite the challenging conditions, I am happy with the images obtained from this remarkable encounter. To conclude a visit to any birding site with a flock of Pin-tailed Parrotfinch is about as good as it gets. I would very much like to think that field craft and experience play an important role in the success of any birding excursion but luck is very much a part of the equation and I believe Ed is one lucky devil. Due to the amazing results we enjoyed during this 3-day tour, a second blog post is required to cover the rest of the tours. 

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Moments - one year later

My encounter with the enigmatic Malaysian Rail-Babbler last year in the wild interiors of Kedah has been regularly haunting my thoughts for the past year or so. I failed to relocate the bird despite numerous trips to the locality ever since that faithful day. The bird has been steadfast to its true self of being an elusive forest denizen. I have been to the site in Pahang state where this species has been performing superbly for all to cherish but nothing beats a bird that is found through your own efforts. I stated in my posting of the Kedah bird that I was grateful for whatever that was given to me during that encounter. However, my heart yearns for more. It yearns to listen to its mournful penetrating whistle and observe its walking gait one more time. And during my last visit to the locality with Hor Kee and James, my heart got what it desired.

Around the same area, we heard the unmistakable whistle of the Malaysian Rail-Babbler. Initially, I was a little doubtful. Not a single peep all this time and this locality is even part of my usual guided tour circuit. It just goes to show if a forest bird does not want to be found, it can literally vanish into thin air. We immediately setup our hides as gently as possible along the abandoned forest trail and waited. That was what we did the last time. And it worked like a charm - again.

This particular spot was poorly lighted compared to our previous encounter. My modest photography gear and my sanity was pushed to their limits. My gear constantly could not lock onto the fast movements of the bird. Not a word of profanity escaped my lips on this occasion. It was beyond that. I was almost in tears. It did wander briefly into a spot where the sun managed to squeeze through the dense forest canopy and I was in seventh heaven. This highly-terrestrial bird may not have much colours to boast but it oozes with charisma. Couple that with its elusive nature, the Malaysian Rail-Babbler is one of the most intriguing birds in Malaysia – if not the world.

Despite the drawbacks, this encounter was another life-changing moment. It lasted longer than the previous encounter and this time, the Rail-Babbler called several times in full view. The inflated blue skin on the throat is only visible when the bird is calling. And to be able to see that was itself a privilege in my book. After the encounter, I watched it strolled back into the cover of the undergrowth with a heavy heart. But absence makes the heart grow fonder and I have certainly fallen head over heels over this bird. And if it takes another year to bask in its presence again, so be it. Because very few things in life can overshadow an intimate encounter with a Malaysian Rail-Babbler.