Wednesday 6 September 2017

Sometimes he works in mysterious ways

Work schedule and tours have kept me away but it was finally time to visit the active fruiting tree at Sungai Sedim in Kedah state. I reached the borders of the park earlier than usual and came across a few night birds – much to my delight. Two were new site records for me but without my torch, there was not much I could do but watch the Spotted Wood-Owl and Large-tailed Nightjar gradually disappear into the darkness. As I waited near the fruiting tree, a Malaysian Eared-Nightjar called and circled the vicinity one last time to signal the break of dawn. However, the arrival of daylight was not as uplifting as I was hoping for. There were hardly any birds on the fruiting tree and that certainly came as a big surprise. I have had amazing results from this tree for the past few seasons and expectations were high. I guess there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to birding. Anyhow, the first bird that captured my attention was this female Greater Green Leafbird.

The vibrant Grey-bellied Bulbuls were shyer than usual and good photographic opportunities were close to none.

The Red-eyed Bulbul were more confiding but they kept to the upper level of the tree most of the time.

James with his group of Hong Kong birders shared my dismay at the fruiting tree. Thankfully, the gloomy atmosphere did not last long. The silence was shattered when James shouted White-crowned Hornbills and a quick scan along the canopy of the forest produced a flock of these enigmatic birds. It was the one species that was missing from my recent Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition at the hornbill capital of Malaysia where all 10 species occur. I find it rather ironic to see it here at one of my local patches in Kedah state instead. Having said that, this site is a known refuge for the White-crowned Hornbill and all my memorable encounters of this species took place here. Due to the distance and the dense vegetation, initially all I could obtain were record shots but that does not rob me of the overwhelming sensation I felt just to observe this beautiful hornbill in its element.

The flock consisting of two females and one male appeared to be in no hurry to move on from the vicinity of the car park. Naturally, neither were the birders. Despite their size, hornbills are shy creatures and seldom tolerate the presence of humans but that is not the case today. Our patience paid off handsomely when the flock gradually moved about the canopy level because we could finally enjoy some unobstructed views. As always, I am drawn towards male birds despite the fact that the female this time is just as stunning.

We were absolutely astounded by their confiding behaviour and the disappointment with the fruiting tree is all but a fading memory now. I would trade one dozen species patronizing at a fruiting tree for a prolonged encounter with a flock of White-crowned Hornbills anytime. Heck, I would probably trade them for any kind of encounter with this hornbill.

As we were in the car park area on a weekend, our presence and gaze attracted the attention of the other visitors to the park. During our observation of the hornbills, they occasionally flew from tree to tree. Every time they took flight, the group of birders will get all excited and the other visitors were left amazed and mouths agape. Some do not even know that hornbills exist and yet, they are now watching one of the rarest hornbills in Malaysia putting on a spectacular aerial show. Usually, it is the male that leads the way...

Follow by the two ladies. The lighting today was ideal and made my task of capturing white and black birds flying in the sky a lot easier.

One last photo of the White-crowned Hornbills that turned my birding excursion around today is of one the females. She came the closest to the human observers and provided them with a moment they will cherish for a long time to come.

A change of scenery may be required to keep the momentum going and when the hornbills left, I decided to venture into the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam in mainland Penang. As soon as I entered this birding haven, the loud calls of the Common Flameback filled the vicinity. A family of three birds were on the hunt and the constant vocalization of the young one made it easy for me to locate the woodpeckers among the dense foliage. Only the adult male allowed his image to be taken and even the dim lighting and my poor attempts could not supress his striking colouration.

The forest here is also home to the smallest raptor in the world. A title in which the Black-thighed Falconet shares with its Bornean cousin, the White-fronted Falconet. Due to its diminutive size and preference for the tallest trees in which to perch, it is often overlooked. One was resting typically on a tall tree when I chanced upon it. This time however, the perch was reasonably close to the elevated suspension bridge. The entrance to the bridge was a long way away and there is no guarantee the falconet will stay around but for this striking and adorable raptor, it was worth the risk. I rushed as quickly as I could onto the suspension bridge and head towards my quarry. A quick scan along the canopy after catching my breath drew a grin on my face. The falconet was still there and looking fairly relaxed.

In fact, it even started to preen and stretch and I tried to stabilize myself as good as I possibly could on the suspension bridge while enjoying the performance. The Black-thighed Falconet is still very much a gem of a bird to me despite its common status. The lighting was quite harsh as it was midday but I liked how the images turned out in the end. I do not have many images of this tiny raptor that show the finer details of its splendid plumage and this close encounter certainly did.

When I was back on the ground, the characteristic calls of the Black-and-red Broadbill drew me back into the swamp forest again. It is almost impossible to overlook these striking birds as they moved about the gloomy lower storey of the forest. A pair was seen and they appeared to be rather affectionate towards to each other. I was rather please to obtain a few images of the two love birds in a single frame.

As there was nothing much about, I discreetly followed the broadbills as they forage leisurely in their swampy domain. They were unperturbed by my intrusion and allowed me to peer into their world. The experience was interesting and somewhat soothing. It has been a rough week at the office and these forest denizens were the perfect therapeutic treatment for my mental health.

Lighting condition was as still as challenging as the falconet. Despite their confiding nature I had to struggle to get the exposure right. There was a moment during the encounter that I just hung my camera back upon my shoulder and savour the broadbills through my bins. This was how I started out almost 30 years ago and I am grateful I have not forego my birding roots. Anyway, big and colourful bills were the flavours for this time’s birding excursion and it turned out to be a rewarding one despite the disappointment at the fruiting tree.

Friday 1 September 2017

Hornbill Heaven

Hornbills are one of the most fascinating and majestic birds of the forest that naturally, have a very special place in my heart. With their massive stature and loud wing beats, hornbills in flight is a marvel of nature and I am always humbled by their presence.  So when Andrew invited me to be one of the guides for the upcoming Royal Belum International Hornbill Expedition (RBIHE) 2017, I accepted it in a heartbeat. The Royal Belum State Park houses all the 10 hornbill species that occur here in Malaysia and it is where you have a very good chance to see the migratory Plain-pouched Hornbills at this time of the year. Flocks of up to 3,000 birds have been recorded here before and that would certainly be a phenomenal sight.

There were about 40 participants for this year and the majority were international delegates from Asia. I timed myself to arrive at Pulau Banding early in the morning to enjoy some birding before the start of the expedition. The participants had to make their way from Kuala Lumpur and I had ample time to wander around this locality for the first time.

You know that you are truly in the wilds when the local rubbish dump (birders certainly know where to enjoy the best sceneries) is being patronized by wild boars instead of the usual stray cats and dogs.

I trekked into the only forest trail I could find and it was reasonably good with a variety of bulbuls leading the way. I did not have much opportunity to use my camera throughout the morning until I came upon a large clump of bamboo. There are a few species of birds found in Malaysia that have a penchant for bamboo vegetation. Its sweet whistling call was the first to catch my attention and it did not take long before I had a pair of Yellow-bellied Warblers in sight. I come across this species relatively often as it is found in one of my usual birding haunts but it seems to have a fetish for frustrating bird photographers there. Today however, one was belting out its territorial call from a surprisingly low perch and provided me with my best image to date.

With the noon hour fast approaching, I made a hasty retreat to the Pulau Banding Jetty to meet up with the rest of the participants whom are expected to arrive soon. But I was held back on the way by another common warbler that was performing well. The Rufescent Prinia replaces the common Yellow-bellied Prinia in forested areas and it is almost as abundant. Anyway, this particular individual was exceptionally confiding and I just could not break away from the encounter.

Feeling patriotic with Independence Day about a week away.

Pulau Banding Jetty – the gateway to hornbill heaven...

The Royal Belum State Park is one of the oldest forests in the world and it is certainly one of the wildest in Peninsular Malaysia. The lush landscape is frequently shrouded with mist and numerous partially submerged dead tree trunks can be seen artistically reaching towards the heavens. In short, it is breath taking. Very little has changed here since my first visit back in the 1994 during MNS Penang’s first exploration trip into this once restricted area and for that, I am most grateful.

The best way to get around this massive park is by boat. In fact, our accommodation for this expedition were houseboats. For a hard core birder like me, very little is required to make my stay comfortable. The boathouse actually has more facilities than to my liking. But that is me.

This is not the first time I stayed in a boat house. My first hornbill expedition to Royal Belum was back in 2003. Although I only managed to see 3 very distant Plain-pouched Hornbills flying across the sky at that time, it was still an experience. Being in a houseboat again after all these years brought back good memories. Here is a photo of a younger me taken during that expedition - overly enthusiastic, studded ears and all.

We anchored at Sungai Kenarong – our base camp for the next few days. And once you are so deep inside Royal Belum, the only time humans lift up their smartphones is take capture memories of this incredible place. For the next couple of days, it was just us and Mother Nature in all her glory.

Evidence of the presence of a much mightier mammal around base camp squashed any prior intentions for nocturnal excursions along the forest trails. Coming face to face with Asian Elephants in the night is not something anyone would fancy. However, a predawn stroll along the water’s edge produced a Buffy Fish-Owl hunting discreetly not far from our temporary aboard. I was not expecting much and left my camera in my room. As usual, exciting encounters will usually take place when you are ill-equipped to capture any images.

The second day was when we got to work. We were divided into small groups and boarded small speed boats to go further into the interiors of the park. I was assigned to lead the group consisting of delegates from India and Brunei. Having half a dozen enthusiastic birders with photographic gear on a shallow and light vessel may not seem to be a very good idea and it was the perfect way to cover more area and to literally chase after hornbills.

Sungai Kejar was the northern most point we ventured to and Sungai Tiang, the eastern most. The weather was perfect during the morning but in the late afternoon, the sky open up and drenched us to the bone. I found myself in one of the most uncomfortable situations in all my years of birding. Cold, battered and wet, we had to brace ourselves as our tiny boat met the torrential storm head on. And what lasted minutes felt like an eternity.

The participants of the RBIHE consisted of delegates from all walks of life but brought together by a mutual passion – their love for the natural world. Among them, one stood out. It was not because he was the only Caucasian but he was none other than Noah Strycker. For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the name, he was the birder who broke the world record last year for seeing the most number of bird species (6,042 species to be exact) within a calendar year. Now, you know.

The main target for the RBIHE was the nomadic Plain-pouched Hornbills. My group managed to record a total of 101 birds throughout the day. It was not an outstanding figure but definitely better than my last count here. Obtaining good photos here in Royal Belum was real hard work. The constant rocking of the boat and a few easily excited group members made it even more challenging. These are my best efforts of the Plain-pouched Hornbills and I am quite please with the results considering all the factors.

We hardly came across perched Plain-pouched Hornbills and on the rare occasions that we did, the birds were miles away...

A total of 9 species of hornbills were recorded during this RBIHE and the only one missing was the enigmatic White-crowned Hornbill. My group only managed 3 species – the ever present Oriental Pied Hornbills and this confiding male Black Hornbill. This was the closest we ever got to a hornbill during our stay here in Royal Belum. The Black Hornbill may not be as impressive as the other larger species but it is an amazing bird nevertheless.

Apart from hornbills, raptors were the only birds that I managed to capture. Their sheer size and preference for resting on exposed perches make them rather conspicuous indeed. Despite its name, the White-bellied Sea-Eagle can occur deep inland and here along the network of rivers and stream, this majestic raptor is a common sight.

The White-bellied Sea-Eagles share their home here with 2 smaller Fish-Eagles. The Lesser Fish-Eagle is the most encountered raptor during our expedition and I can safely assume that this is one of its major strongholds. However, it is a shy bird and often very difficult to approach. Did I mentioned that bird photography is tough here in Royal Belum?

A juvenile Lesser Fish-Eagle provided one of the highlights of the trip by being unbelievably confiding as it hunted for food. Perhaps due to its tender age, the eagle showed very little fear of our presence and I obtained some of my best images for the trip.

Slightly larger and similar looking is the Grey-headed Fish-Eagle. Throughout our time here, I only managed to see it a couple of times. As we were making our way out of Royal Belum on the final day of the RBIHE, we came across a lone bird resting on a dead tree. I have had little experience with this species in the field and the few minutes we had it in view as our boathouse cruise past was my best encounter with the Grey-headed Fish-Eagle so far.

From this angle, the photo turned out somewhat like a drawing. It was certainly not done intentionally. When it comes to birds that are uncommon to me, I usually do not take much notice of the background unless it is a glaring, bright sky.

To wrap things up for the RBIHE, a resident Peregrine Falcon proudly looks over its domain from a lofty perch. Peregrine Falcons are one of my favourite raptors and despite the distance, I still took the effort to try and obtain its image. I find that this photo captures the essence of this state park - wild, beautiful and mesmerizing. Hopefully, the hornbills of Royal Belum will continue to roam free and provide everlasting memories to all those who wander into this jungle domain of theirs.