Saturday, 12 August 2017

Birding Marathon (Part II)

It has been three long years since my last visit to the renowned montane birding site of Fraser’s Hill. During that time, a few changes have taken place with the local birding scene. The most notable one is undoubtedly the regular appearance of Grey-breasted Partridges at one particular photography stakeout. By now, most if not all Malaysian birders would have enjoyed the stellar performances of this once elusive game bird. So finally, I found myself staring at a patch of bare earth next to the forested compound of a private bungalow on a cloudy Saturday morning.

It was a long wait. Lucky for me, I had Victor for company. While waiting for my main target of the trip to appear, some of the commoner species kept me entertained and helped pass the time. The Malayan Laughingthrush is by no means rare. However, it is shyer than the ever-present Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush and I do not have many photographs of it. Naturally, it had my attention...

The most prominent species present at the site was undoubtedly the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes. Flocks of these colourful and loud birds can be encountered throughout this hill resort and much of the charm of this locality is owed to these birds. Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes have an aura of mischief surrounding them and that makes them a delight to observe. The mountain air does not pass through my lungs all that often and this common montane bird still does it for me after all these years.

The Emerald Dove is a common bird that occurs in a wide range of habitat from mangrove forest to montane forest. The bird is no stranger to me but it is nevertheless a beautiful bird. Close and intimate views of it out in the open like this is rare to come by. This male, told by his complete greyish crown, strutted about with total disregard of our presence and I enjoyed my best ever encounter with this highly terrestrial dove to date.

At stakeouts like this I usually have the aid of my tripod to support my gear and that made videography possible. Here is the male Emerald Dove indulging in breakfast captured as best as I could with my modest setup.

When he flew back into the forest, I thought that would be all there is to it. But Mother Nature had other plans. Moments later, an Emerald Dove emerged from the adjacent forest and took to the stage again. Initially, I thought it was the same bird. That was until I had a look at the crown. The second bird was a female and suddenly, I was presented with a golden opportunity to capture good images of both sexes.

At one point, a Rufous-browed Flycatcher appeared briefly at the locality. Size does matter when it comes to the law of the jungle and the petite flycatcher was seen off by the larger birds present.

As the hours passed, anxiety grew within me. I occasionally shuddered at the chilly caress of the cold mountain wind. My posterior grew numb after such a prolonged period on a concrete slab. Despite it all, I was determined. I have been waiting for this moment for too long to give up so easily. No, it would take a lot more than this to break my yearning. Then, out of the blue, a flock of Grey-breasted Partridges scurried through the undergrowth and popped into view. Upon further scrutiny, I realized the flock consisted of three smaller juveniles and an adult bird. Seeing this partridge family in front of me going about their business was just amazing. I am in awe. Life can be beautiful at times...

Once I managed to take back control of my emotions, I focused on obtaining images of this encounter as best as I could. The presence of too many birds can be a bad thing as well as you might not know which one to shoot first. Anyway, I made sure I took some images of the chicks that foraged without a care in the world.

The adult was more cautious but still confiding enough for me to obtain its images. I have had a handful of encounters prior to this but they were made up of glimpses. This is by far the closest and most memorable one so far. Fraser’s Hill is an amazing place and its magic has provided me with numerous defining moments through the years. And this episode with the Grey-breasted Partridges is certainly one of them.

I just wonder how I could put off this trip for so long. It could be due to my hectic working schedule or my guided tours. Perhaps it is because I am not too keen with the ‘festive’ atmosphere that comes with every recent significant discovery at a photography stakeout. Whatever the reasons may be, I am absolutely thrilled that I am here now witnessing and documenting this spectacle.

Once the partridges retreated back to their forest domain, we seek our fortune elsewhere in this birding paradise. My attempts to find my first ever Marbled Wren-Babbler failed miserably – again. A family flock of 3 Red-headed Trogon offered some relieve for my disappointment. The sight of a male bird foraging along the forest canopy is like a flaming entity floating about a sea of green. As usual, I was so mesmerized by striking male that I completely overlooked the duller female and immature.

My birding network has informed me (it pays to be nice to your fellow birders) prior to the trip that the Grey-breasted Partridges usually appear twice a day and we returned to the stakeout again in the afternoon only to find a pair of partridges already foraging at the locality.

Fortunately, these birds are now quite accustomed to human presence and our lumbering approach did not alarm them. No chicks were present this time but there are some plumage variances between the pair and I am not sure if it is due to gender or age. I can only assume the one with the reddish throat is the male...

And the other slightly duller bird is his mate...

This encounter lasted longer than the one in the morning - much to my delight. The absence of young birds running around at neck-breaking speeds meant I was not constantly distracted. It also gave me a chance to record a video clip and it was of the ‘male’ bird foraging.

When the second performance of the partridges concluded, we made our way to another secluded area of the hill resort and were duly rewarded. Owls are fascinating animals and they never cease to capture my imagination and admiration. Now, picture one that is active during the day and adorable like a kitten and you will have the Collared Owlet. The characteristic 4-note call of the Collared Owlet can be heard echoing throughout the hill resorts of Peninsular Malaysia. Obtaining good views of this little fellow is another thing altogether. In birding, sometimes things just happen perfectly and we were very lucky to come across this confiding individual calling on a reasonably low perch next to the access road.

Despite our intrusion, it remained unperturbed and even continued to call. I inched closer and shot from a different angle hoping to improve the results. It is hard to believe that such an adorable animal is a formidable predator striking fear in all other creatures of the forest it can overpower. This is an absolutely amazing encounter and one that is up there among my all-time best.

Unfortunately, the presence of the Collared Owlet attracted not only the attention of a couple of birders but a female Black-throated Sunbird as well. The owlet may be adored by its human admirers but to small passerines like the sunbird, the hatred for the owl runs deep. The sunbird mobbed its sworn enemy with such intensity that the latter retreated deeper into the forest almost immediately. And we were left staring on an empty branch but the owlet has left a lasting impression on me. I am not the type that is easily moved by cute and cuddly creatures but in this case, I was giddy like a school boy.

There was a fruiting tree nearby but only one bird came for the fruits and it was a Black-browed Barbet. The resonating call of this species is very much a part of the sounds at every hill resort but only the temptation of an easy meal will draw it down from the safety of the tallest canopy and offer birders a chance to truly appreciate its splendour.

Since we are talking on the subject of splendour and beauty, there is a remarkable bird found here that has almost no equals when it comes to aesthetic appeal. Strikingly plumaged and full of character, the Sultan Tit is Mother Nature’s answer to the Mona Lisa. Unlike the painting, this is a living work of art. As fate would have it, this confiding Sultan Tit lingered in a dimly lighted part of the forest for a prolonged period offering us amazing eye level views.  But my gear struggled in the lighting condition and my images in the end, did no justice to the bird.

Eventually, it did wander into brighter areas where its true beauty could finally be captured by my modest gear. But the vegetation was dense and I failed to obtain any unobstructed images. Well, life is not always fair and you learn to roll with the punches.

We were losing daylight rapidly but there was still time for one last stop before calling it a day. It is rather ironic with the fading light, this next location is a stakeout for extremely active little brown jobs. Today’s results so far have left us feeling invincible but our sense of immortality did not last. A Pygmy Cupwing put us back in our place. I still have trouble believing that a bird can be christened with such a name. I guess if you have to name a bird a Cupwing, this bird would be it. Anyway, this feathered egg was just simply too fast and our humanly reflexes had no chance at all. I can consider myself lucky that one out of the dozen of shots I took of a Grey-throated Babbler that wandered into view later turned out reasonably well.

Another ball of feathers appeared just as we were about to leave and it sported a plumage somewhat foreign to me. A quick glance with my trusted bins and there was no doubt it was a juvenile Lesser Shortwing. I cannot recall if I have ever encountered a young of this terrestrial species before but I certainly have now. It was rather obliging as well but time waits for no man and it soon got too dark for anymore birding to be indulged. However, tomorrow is a brand new day and who knows what awaits the Penang Birder in this blessed land. That will be covered in my next post.


Wilma said...

What a day! Your words make the beautiful images come alive.

Choy Wai Mun said...

One of my best outings this year. Thank you, Wilma.

Burnice Starkey said...

You educate me!
Your portrait shots and descriptions convey not only information but a passion I feel when birding.
Love it!

Dreamliner said...

Wonderful post - looking forward to the next part. I missed the Partridges in June, although I've seen them briefly on Bishop's Trail. The bird that continues to elude me is Collared Owlet - I've heard them so many times but just can't get a sighting. Your images are outstanding.

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thank you, Burney. I do what I can.

Thank you, Dreamliner. Luck plays a major role in birding and we have been lucky this trip.