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.