This weekend’s birding plans were far from ordinary. It was not because of the locations but more because of the company. James, Hor Kee and I will be hosting a couple of distinguished birders from this region. Ding Li, a friend who hails from Singapore happens to be the co-author of 100 Best Bird Watching Sites in Southeast Asia (a book that I will be contributing the Penang chapter for the next revision) and writer of several papers on birds. He brought along Abdel who is an avid birder currently residing in Hong Kong. Anyway, the duo was keen to visit the grasslands of Chuping and the recent the Manchurian Reed-Warbler was their main target. The trip up to the tiny state of Perlis did not start off well. A 5-vehicle pile up along the North-South Highway held us back for at least half an hour and we arrived at the location much later than we had planned. After a tedious search, the Reed-Warbler offered us only a glimpse but Ding Li who is into call recordings, managed some relatively good recordings of this difficult skulker.
The number of raptors present were still less than desirable. Hopefully, it is not an indication of things to come. A dark morph Booted Eagle did not seem to think so and its presence was one of the highlights of our visit here.
Blue-tailed Bee-eaters are common winter visitors to Malaysia. It can be exceptionally bold at times and this individual showed no fear to our presence and continued with its routine while we obtain images of this aerial feeder. And the beautiful blue sky, typical of the Chuping landscape, provided the perfect backdrop.
The Indian Roller may not have the aerial agility of the bee-eater but it just as stunning a bird. On the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Chuping is the best place to observe and enjoy the Indian Roller. Naturally, this scarce bird had our attention for quite while.
During our last trip here, the Siberian Stonechats were just amazing. This time, they were in good numbers but photography required a lot more effort. It was a scorching day and when the sun was its zenith, it became almost unbearable.
After lunch, we decided to try for the Dusky Crag-Martin at the adjacent limestone hill of Bukit Keteri. We brought two more accomplished birders to prove that we were not mass hallucinating during our last visit. With more eyes, we managed to confirm not one but two martins present in the vicinity. Hor Kee even obtained a record shot to put all doubts away. This is his gallant effort of my latest lifer.
We headed towards Air Hitam Dalam next and it was to be our third and final destination of the day. The recent flood that devastated my home state of Penang made the site inaccessible for a few days after. We were not sure what to expect. The consequences of the flooding could have been dire. But in the end, our worries were uncalled for. There was enough magic left here in Air Hitam Dalam to get a few experienced local birders all excited. The Taiga Flycatcher is a rare migrant to our shores. I am fortunate to have seen this species in two other sites prior to this. Dusk was approaching and there was nothing I could do about the horrid lighting. But this little brown job that can be mistaken for the ever-abundant Asian Brown-Flycatcher, was the bird of the day for me.
It has been months since the last time I connected with the resident Spotted Wood-Owls of this swamp forest. With the fading light, one of the owls started to stir and caught our attention. The foliage that provided sanctuary for the owl was a major hindrance to my photographic attempts. There was not much time for us to rekindle either. A group of visitors was simply too vocal for the owl’s liking and the night bird retreated further into the forest. However it was a welcomed encounter and a fine way to wrap things up for our guests’ first day of birding in this part of Peninsular Malaysia.
The next day we found ourselves combing the forest surrounding Pedu Lake for more feathered denizens of northern Peninsular Malaysia. Due to illegal bird trades, leafbirds are declining throughout the country. I guess we can consider ourselves lucky that their stunning beauty and melodious song is not completely absent from here. This foraging Blue-winged Leafbird was unperturbed by our presence and carried on within close proximity to our position. It was a female and although it lacks some of the vibrancy of the male bird, she was still a sight to cherish.
A row of fruiting trees was a centre of bird activities – naturally. Bulbuls were the predominant species this time. The presence of two of the most attractive bulbuls made our time at the fruiting trees most rewarding. The Grey-bellied Bulbul is always a pleasure to observe and despite the harsh lighting, it was only right to spend some time appreciating its striking colouration.
That was until a small flock of Scaly-breasted Bulbuls decided to join in the feast. Then all eyes were on these sultry beauties. The foliage was dense and the lighting, less than desirable but we still tried our best to capture some images of this bulbul. Apparently, the Scaly-breasted Bulbul is not so common down south and that made the encounter rather exciting for our guests. As for me, no matter how many times I have seen this species, it will always have my undivided attention.
Everything was just swell as we enjoyed sunbirds, white-eyes, flycatchers and other avian splendours that were patronizing the fruiting trees. The thing about birding is that it has the capabilities to turn ordinary into extraordinary in a blink of eye. The Grey-and-buff Woodpecker is one of the smallest woodpeckers in Malaysia. What it lacks in size is made up with character, adorability and beauty. Due to its penchant for the top most part of the canopy and its minute size, good photographic opportunities are rare. To come across one in the mid-level of the forest is already a blessing in my book. To have one perched in the open for a prolonged period time is nothing short of a miracle. That was exactly what this male Grey-and-buff Woodpecker with his flaming red crest and all did.
The Grey-and-buff Woodpecker is not a rare bird but to be able to bask in its radiance is a privilege. This is the closest I have ever been to one and it is by far my best encounter with this species. This is something that only forest birding can offer. Unexpected moments that will have a lasting impression. This will definitely be part of my reflections of wings and inspiration in years to come.
Pedu Lake is rich in fish life and that in turn will attract predators that have an appetite for fish. The Lesser Fish-Eagle can occasionally be seen in this locality and as the name implies, fish is its staple diet. A distant individual taking advantage of the rising thermals did not go unnoticed.
Hours of birding in the humid rainforest will usually have you sweating buckets. This diminutive Tailless Lineblue seemed adamant of extracting all the dried sodium from my skin. Certainly beats having your blood extracted by mosquitoes.
After a hearty lunch, we swung by the mangroves of Sungai Batu. It took a little longer than usual but we did managed to capture the star bird of the locality – the Mangrove Pitta. A second bird was heard calling but as usual, the dominant bird would have none of it and the latter remained among the shadows of the swamp forest.
The Forest Wagtail was the final bird of the day and it was quite a fitting sent off for our guests. The past 2 days of birding had its downs but a few remarkable birds and the companionship I had certainly evened things out.