Friday 27 October 2017

When life throws you curve balls

I found myself at the wild lands of Pedu Lake again and this time with a couple of Australian guests. Birding was relatively good today but photographic opportunities remained scarce. As we walked along the access road, we came across a number of forest species and some were brought into view by birdwaves which is a natural phenomenon in any birding excursion.

The biggest of the forest denizens today were the striking malkohas and the tiniest, would undoubtedly be the brilliant flowerpeckers. One of them was gracious enough to allow its image to be taken and it was a handsome male Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. It is one of the commoner species but with such vivid and intense colourations, this flowerpecker is never short of admirers.

Flocks of Green Ioras foraging along the canopy levels is a regular feature here in Pedu Lake. The birds’ lifestyle makes it rather difficult for birders to appreciate their true splendour. However on this occasion, something attracted a flock to venture lower than usual and provided a visual treat rarely enjoyed by birders. The male is a splendid creature and just like the previous species, are true jewels of the forest.

The Osprey was back at what seems to be its favourite perch that overlooks the scenic Pedu Lake. A stroke of good luck brought me closer to this elegant raptor than ever before. Life, however, threw me another curve ball and the Osprey was back lighted by the harsh midday sun.

One of the most recognizable bird calls of the forest here belong to an enigmatic species – the Red-bearded Bee-eater. The call consisting of a combination of croaks and resonant notes was the first thing to give away the bird’s presence – as usual. A tedious search among the dense foliage of the rainforest revealed a male bird resting on an open perch but the distance prevented me from capturing his true splendour.

As we were making our way out of Pedu Lake to head to our next destination, a confiding juvenile Changeable Hawk-Eagle hunting by the road was too exciting to forgo. This individual seemed more slender than usual. Perhaps life here is not all sunshine and rainbows after all. Anyways, it was a memorable performance by this common raptor.

Once we were done with the eagle, we returned to my vehicle only to find that the starter has died and I could ignite my vehicle. I have a history of automobile fails here at Pedu Lake and this is by far the worse. My birding usually takes me to wilder side of the country. And now, I am stuck with a couple of foreign guests along an isolated road in the middle of nowhere. I was thankful that my I could still call for help and my mates had my back again. In between Choo Eng and Hor Kee, we managed to send my guests back to the hotel safe and sound and my vehicle towed to the nearest town for repairs. I always do my best to ensure my guests get the best out of every excursion but I guess some curve balls can really put you to the test. So instead of enjoying the companionship of pittas and babblers at the mangroves of Sungai Batu with my guests, I was stuck at a car workshop in a small town for the rest of day.

Saturday 21 October 2017

Birding couple in the making?

I have been birding close to 30 years now and I know that this endeavour is not for everyone. But it is my one true passion in life and my better half knows that she has to accept that birding will always be a part of our lives together as a couple. My last birding trip to the state of Kedah was monumental and it is not because of the birds. I am most grateful that my wife is able to put up with a birding husband for all these years and when she wanted to join me and experience what birding is like, I was overwhelmed with joy. It is not certain if she will take up this peculiar hobby but she is taking the initiative. That is more than I could ask for. Together with my godfather and his friends, the Ch’ngs, we travelled to the interiors of Kedah. Here there are sweeping views like this overlooking Beris Lake that she can enjoy if the birding does not live up to her expectations.

I usually show my wife photos of the birds that I managed to capture after every excursion. One bird that caught her liking almost immediately was the Black-and-yellow Broadbill. It is no surprise as the broadbill is both colourful and cute. A combination very few could resist and I am elated I managed to show her one in the flesh when we walked along the access road of Pedu Lake.

Malkohas are not the easiest of birds to photograph. They tend to move about frequently and keep themselves partly hidden. The unique call of the Raffles’s Malkoha echoed through the vicinity and I tried my best to show my companions the smallest malkoha here in Malaysia. A few fleeting views later, a female rested momentarily among the dense foliage of the canopy and is all I have to show for the encounter.

This is a sight I would love to get used to…

Base on past experiences, I find the Osprey generally is a shy and wary raptor. From a distance, we had good views of one feasting on a freshly caught prey. The observation ended abruptly when a car drove past us and inevitably, the Osprey. As expected the fish hawk took flight with lunch securely in its powerful talons.

The mangroves of Sungai Batu was our next destination. Although not as picturesque as the previous location, it does has own charm. Anyway, this is Mangrove Pitta territory. Being scenic is not required. The pitta is another species that struck my wife’s fancy in the past. Mrs. Ch’ng is also experiencing her maiden birding excursion and the ladies are lucky to have a Mangrove Pitta on their first day out in the field.

Another favourite among my companions were the Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers and their striking colouration probably had a lot to do with it. The female was more obliging today and produced a wonderful performance.

The hypnotic sway of the Forest Wagtail left a lasting impression despite lacking vivid colours in its plumage. Casually strolling along the muddy terrain and occasionally very close by, it is no wonder it was such a hit.

Being natural skulkers, the Puff-throated Babblers remained undetected until the more vibrant species have retreated back into the swamp forest. The distinct patterns on these birds made it easier for me to describe them…

The Abbott’s Babbler, on the other hand, is about as plain as you can get. But this little brown job played a role as well to help complete a rewarding excursion. As for myself it was more about the company I was in and God willing, this will not be the last birding adventure that I will get to enjoy with the queen of my heart.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Just when you thought you have seen it all

The usual misty condition at first light injects an enchanting feel to our journey as we made our way to the wilds of Pedu Lake. I was with no ordinary company this time. Ayuwat, Wichyanan and Ingkayut are some of the most knowledgeable and dynamic birders from Thailand. It was an honour to host them for a visit to one of my birding haunts. But the birding had to wait. As we approached the lake systems, I could not believe my eyes. There was traffic congestion ahead and from past experiences, one hardly sees another vehicle here at this ungodly hour. There was a huge cycling event taking place and the participants were taking their time parking their vehicles. Hence, the traffic woe. I guess I have to be thankful our destination is still quite a drive away and the congregation of humans here will have no effect on us. Despite the worrying weather forecast, it was a beautiful morning at Pedu Lake and my companions were soon mesmerized by the denizens that call this forest home.

Not much hosting was required from me. My companions are accomplished birders and most of the birds found here also occur in their country as well. It is impossible for a flock of munias to receive the undivided attention of this group of ours - unless they were White-bellied Munias. Here in Malaysia, this uncommon bird with its characteristic straw-coloured tail is restricted to forested areas and this is the first time I am seeing them at this locality. Unfortunately, the munias were skittish and we could not reduce the distance for improvement shots. My images in the end were far perfect but the encounter was memorable. So much so that I was a little embarrassed I could not contain my excitement better in front of my Thai counterparts.

The birds of Pedu were quite camera-shy today but we did manage to record some interesting species. A small fruiting tree attracted a few bulbuls and that kept us occupied for some time. A flock of Hairy-backed Bulbuls were part of the patrons to the tree.

Another conspicuous species was the Cream-vented Bulbul. Now if I am posting images of common species that are even partly blocked by the vegetation, you know it has been a slow day for photography.

Then came along a confiding male Black-and-yellow Broadbill to save the day. This adorable bird can be exceptionally confiding at times and I just cannot resist its charm whenever it is present. Perched along the middle storey of the forest, it provided tantalizing views and the angle was quite reasonable for photography as well.

Unbelievably, we had a Banded Broadbill calling very close by. And no sooner had the Black-and-yellow Broadbill retreated back into the dense vegetation of the canopy, a female Banded Broadbill came and took his place. Apart from her exceptionally confiding behaviour, one other thing got our undivided attention – the spur-like feather sticking out from her shoulders. Neither of us have ever seen this before. It goes to show that in birding just when you thought you have seen all there is to see of a species, Mother Nature springs up another surprise to keep you intrigued. Pedu, in the end, did manage to provide a taste of birding over this side of the border for my Thai comrades despite the sight lack of good photographic opportunities.

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Beginner's luck

Rain was forecast for this morning but luckily, it was not accurate. Bright blue skies greeted us when we arrive at the mangrove belt along Sungai Batu in Kedah state. However, the heavy downpour last night almost ruined my guests’ maiden birding trip to this part of Peninsular Malaysia. There were just enough patches of dry mud for us to continue with our quest to seek out the alluring birdlife found here. And just like my last visit, the striking Forest Wagtail with its signature sway was the first bird to catch our attention.

It took a while for the Mangrove Pitta to show off its splendour this time but better late than never. As usual, it mesmerized my guests with its charm. My guests, who hail from Kuala Lumpur, are relatively new to the world of birding and the Mangrove Pitta is certainly an awesome bird to have under one’s belt.

The resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers was much more obliging this time. We had plenty of opportunities to enjoy their vivid colouration.

This locality still has a small population of Oriental Magpie-Robins and a young female made a brief appearance today. This famed songster has suffered tremendously in the hands of man and it is getting quite scarce in certain areas like my home state of Penang.

The Puff-throated Babbler was sorely missed during my last visit. Fortunately, we managed to record it this time but it was a brief encounter.

Its cousin, the Abbott’s Babblers, were all over the site and I just could not resist taking an image or two.

As we were making our way out, a lone raptor perched majestically on a dead tree caught our immediate attention. It was a young Crested Serpent-Eagle and on this occasion, the strong backlight hindered me from obtaining any better images.

I had no choice but to stop on the road side just short of a few hundred meters from the junction to Air Hitam Dalam. A huge flock of Asian Openbills were in flight and it was a breath taking sight.

Quite of a number of them were circling quite low overhead and I managed to obtain several good images. It is more than four years since the first Asian Openbill appeared in Penang and I am still fascinated by them.

Part of the flock alighted on a tree just beyond the reserve. It is not often you get to say a tree full of storks unless you are here in mainland Penang where the Asian Openbills continue to congregate in their hundreds.

These enigmatic storks are not the only birds taking full advantage of the hot air thermals. The migratory Black Kite is back in good numbers but the lighting condition is a little challenging.

It was nice to see Dusky Leaf-Monkeys chilling along the elevated boardwalk instead of the usual marauding Long-tailed Macaques.

This Greater Racket-tailed Drongo was feeling a little camera shy today…

There are very few birds in this freshwater swamp forest that can outdo the Black-and-red Broadbill. Not only in terms of aesthetic appeal but charm. The resident were exceptionally affectionate today and a brood of young ones will not be too long to take.

I know the broadbills can be exceptionally tame at times and today, they did not disappoint. And with a colour combination that only the Almighty can conjure, the pair provided the perfect ending to this time’s birding adventure.

Checklists of the birds recorded on this trip:
1. Sungai Batu
2. Air Hitam Dalam

Wednesday 4 October 2017

A lifer is a lifer

This is probably the worst photo I have ever chosen to be used to start off a post - out of focus, wrong exposure and motion blur. However, it is of a female White-tailed Flycatcher and I have been looking out for this species for many years. This encounter completes my life list of flycatchers found in Peninsular Malaysia and that is certainly cause for celebrations despite the absolutely horrid attempt to capture her image. But a lifer is a lifer and this turned out to be the highlight of the trip for me.

I was with a family of birders from Hong Kong and it is just wrong to spend too much time chasing after a better image of what is to them an uncooperative little brown job. It was a half day tour to the forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah state and the gloomy weather truly tested my skills and knowledge as a bird guide. The number of species recorded was lower than usual and I could only pray for a better excursion tomorrow.

A beautiful sunrise greeted our convoy as we made our way across the Penang Bridge the next day and the promise of better weather lifted my burdens for the trip quite significantly. The first destination was the extensive mangroves of Sungai Batu in Kedah. The Forest Wagtail has been performing relatively well since its arrival from its wintering ground this year and inevitably, it was the first bird to greet us. However, it has an issue with staying completely still and the constant body swaying does it affect our photographic efforts.

The one bird that my guests were really looking forward to was the Mangrove Pitta – naturally. When it appeared, it grabbed everyone’s attention. Its plumage was far from perfect and the vibrancy of its colouration was somewhat lacking. I guess its moult has not completed its full cycle. Anyway, much better than the bald-headed look it was sporting a few weeks back.

The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers are back to their usual splendour as well but the pair was a little shy today. Only the male bird provided me with an opportunity to actually have time to squeeze the shutter. However, I am not complaining. If compared to yesterday, today has been incredible so far.

The resident pair of Puff-throated Babblers was sorely missed today. The Abbott’s Babblers did their best to fill the void and these natural performers charmed their way into my guests’ birding experience in Malaysia. When things started to sizzle down, it was time to proceed to our next destination.

We barely had time to gear up after our arrival at the Air Hitam Educational Forest when we were greeted by a spectacle of nature. A flock of Asian Openbills was taking advantage of the thermals and although they were not in their usual big numbers, it was still quite a sight to see how many large waterbirds in flight.

The female Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher was her usual confiding self and her performance was certainly a breath of fresh air. The weather today was indeed significantly better today and naturally, so was the birding.

A flash of green at the canopy level diverted our gaze from the sultry looks of the female Tickell’s Blue-Flycatcher. The Lineated Barbet may not be as elegantly built as the flycatcher but being bulky does have its own appeal. This individual chose to rest on any open perch which they occasionally do and we took the time to soak in the view.

The Brahminy Kite may be one of the commonest raptors in the country but to my guests, it is one striking raptor that they do not have the chance to observe back in Hong Kong.

To wrap things up for the trip, the resident pair of Black-and-red Broadbills doing what they do best – mesmerizing my foreign guests with their beauty and manner. I was so relieved with the results of our second tour. Their teenage son somewhat reminded me of my teenage years as a birder and I am glad eventually I did managed to show him the true wonders of birding here in the tropics. 

The complete checklist from this time's birding excursion can be found here: