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.