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.