Wednesday 27 December 2017

Luck of the draw

It was an anxious drive up to the northern coastline of Batu Ferringhi to pick up my latest guests who hail from England. Strong winds and rain are expected to hit northern Peninsular Malaysia today and that is one of the worse things to happen during a birding excursion. I reached the lobby of the renowned Rasa Sayang Hotel well before dawn and it was more lavishly decorated than usual. Christmas was just two days away after all and I am hoping for some Yuletide magic to prevent what appears, although on a lesser scale, to be the inevitable as I checked the latest weather forecast on my smartphone.

My mind was never at ease during the two-hour drive to the forests of Lake Pedu as we were met with intermittent drizzles. We managed to squeeze an hour of excellent birding before the heavens finally opened up. After waiting in vain for an hour we decided to carry on birding elsewhere. I cannot help but to feel disappointed whenever my tours do not meet my expectations – even if it is caused by the luck of the draw. This birding couple is one of the most cheerful and understanding people I have ever come across and they were the ones who consoled me and not the other way round.

The next destination was the mangroves of Sungai Batu. Not to be greeted by rain upon our arrival was a good sign but the overcast sky did not put my worries to rest completely. The Puff-throated Babblers lifted our spirits with its incredible song and inquisitive nature. The resident pair put on quite a performance just like my last visit here one week ago.

The Abbott’s Babblers were again outshine by the more appealing Puff-throated Babblers. But their presence did not go unnoticed. Lucy and Julian do not have much experience birding in this part of the world and the Abbott’s Babbler was a welcomed addition to their life list.

Being one of the most colourful species found at this site, the Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher naturally became an instant favourite with my foreign guests. Both the male and female were very accommodating this time and there were ample opportunities to take note of the sexual dimorphism of this striking species.

The adorable Forest Wagtail swayed its way into my guests’ hearts and it is not difficult to see why. The hypnotic rhythm of its body movement and the striking plumage is always a delight to observe. It was painfully missing during my last visit and I am glad it is still here to mesmerise. On the other hand, the star bird of locality was no where to be seen. Pittas are favourites for most if not all foreign birders. For Lucy and Julian, the Mangrove Pitta of Sungai Batu would have been their first Pitta in the wild. I need not elaborate how significant the absence of the pitta today was to my guests. However, I got to learn an English saying courtesy of the pitta and it was Sod’s Law. I have a feeling this saying will be regularly used in my postings from now on.

Later in the day, the paddy fields provided a different variety of bird life for the excursion. Although, I did not manage to immortalise any of the encounters through my photographic gear but it was a good one at this man made landscape. The last destination of the day was a suburban park in the middle of Bukit Mertajam - one of the largest towns in mainland Penang. There was only one objective here and the Barred Eagle-Owl provided only a fleeting glimpse. Not exactly the high note I was hoping for to conclude Day One of my guests’ maiden birding adventure in Peninsular Malaysia. However, a confiding male Common Tailorbird was a good consolation. As the name suggests it is a common species in built up areas throughout Peninsular Malaysia but like all warblers, good views do not come by often. This little garden bird did well to fill up the gap left by the owl. He chose to alight on an exposed perch in front of us and proceeded to belt out his territorial call long enough to give us a memorable end to the day.

The failure to show my guests their first ever pitta was a bitter pill to swallow for all of us. We came to a unanimous decision to try for the pitta again the next morning and were duly rewarded with amazing views of the Mangrove Pitta. Looks like Christmas came early for Lucy and Julian.

Foraging on the muddy forest floor, the radiant colours of the pitta stood out like a beacon in the dark. My guests got their first pitta and a huge burden was lifted off my shoulders. Unlike yesterday, it was a beautiful morning and we set off to our next location with much enthusiasm.

Like everyone else I love holidays but the holiday crowd can be an annoying issue. It is not only the malls and tourist attractions. Forest reserves like Sungai Sedim will suffer the same fate. For the record, the car park was at its busiest that I have ever seen. Thankfully, all these visitors rarely wander from the car park area and we managed to find solitude and splendour along the access trail leading up to Gunung Bintang as we found ourselves surrounded by feathered denizens that call this recreational forest home.

The Verditer Flycatcher is always a delight. The sultry blue plumage set against the foliage of the forest canopy as it gracefully hawked for insects was a sight for sore eyes.

Forest birding, frustrating as it may be at times, is still the most exciting of all birding endeavours. I have been exploring this site for many moons and yet it managed to hide a species as conspicuous as a Chestnut-bellied Malkoha from me till today. We are not talking about a little brown job here. It is a colourful and big forest cuckoo. And one that I have not seen for years. Of all the malkohas that occur in Malaysia, I find this species to be the most uncommon – here in northern Peninsular Malaysia anyway. The lighting was challenging and a record shot of the signature orange eye patch was all I could muster.

The final destination for Day Two was the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. The Malaysian hospitality has won over the Taiga Flycatcher and it is good to see this rare migrant enjoying life in the tropics at this wintering ground.

The migratory Black Kites filled the skies with their graceful stature and the lighting was ideal to capture these raptors in their element. We did not have much privilege with raptors so far and the kites made sure my guests had recollections of raptors for this trip.

The last bird of the trip was a Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo. This species has undergone a number of name changes and splits. Anyway, they have come to a conclusion that only the Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo occurs here in Malaysia for both the resident race and the migratory race like this one. And life is simple once again. Resting unobtrusively in the forest canopy, it was intriguing enough to escalate emotions one last time before we braced ourselves for the horrendous holiday traffic back in Penang Island. But I am not going to end this post lamenting about the ever increasing traffic woes of my beloved home town. It is Christmas Eve and my guests this time deserve a better ending. It was a roller coaster trip. Despite all the shortcomings, it was a trip still filled with excitement, awe, good company and most of all, amazing bird life.

Friday 22 December 2017

A partridge in a pear tree - Year 3

This is the third consecutive year that we have been able to observe Chestnut-necklaced Partridges in the wild interiors of Kedah. I am, however, running out of things to write about this game bird. It does not mean the presence of these rare and elusive forest denizens are any less significant now. The most important thing is that these partridges continue to survive here and that their far-carrying territorial calls will continue to echo through the vicinity during the breeding season.

Whenever I have the chance, I will capture their images with immeasurable enthusiasm. One thing I have learned in birding (and in life) is that nothing last forever. I hate to be so negative but I have seen entire birding sites wiped out by logging, a pristine marshland turned into an almost bird-less body of water and species that I used to enjoy driven to the brink of local extinction. The forest surrounding partridges are under siege. Both legal and illegal logging are threatening the livelihood of not only the partridges but every other living thing. So whatever it may be, enjoy it while it lasts. 

However, this is a post about one of the most intriguing birds that have entered my life and I should not let negativity influence it too much. The shooting conditions here may not always be easy but the images that do turned out good make all the effort worth the while. The striking and intricate plumage colouration of the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge still mesmerizes my senses just like how it did three years ago. Here are a few more images that I managed to obtain so far this year.

I usually only make use of my tripod for photography when I am in a hide which is not very often. As a result, I rarely take videos. Anyway, due to the confiding nature of the partridges and the availability of my tripod’s support, I managed to record a few reasonably good clips of the partridge this season as well. Nothing beats the feelings you get when you observe them in the flesh but these clips, I supposed, are the next best thing.

My better half is not the type that fancies sitting in some God-forsaken jungle and exposed to all the elements of Mother Nature in order to have a chance to observe some of the more elusive birdlife. These clips are one of the very few ways that I can share my passionate hobby with her and perhaps help her to comprehend this peculiar obsession of mine with birding. And what better way than to use my memorable experiences with the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge. At the time of writing, she has followed me to enjoy the experience first hand. I guess the videos clips must have been captivating enough for her to finally give birding a try.

Thursday 21 December 2017

It's starting to feel a lot like Christmas - Part II

We arrived at the car park of Air Hitam Dalam slightly earlier than expected. As my guests, brothers Nigel and Jimmy geared up for day two of their birding adventure around Penang, a Spotted Wood-Owl swooped in on silent wings like a phantom in the dark. There was just enough illumination to see it has got a rat in its deadly talons and the presence of food brought its mate out of hiding. Both birds eventually alighted among the dense foliage of the swamp forest canopy and it was one hell of a way to start off the day. Little did I know then that it was a sign of things to come. Anyway despite all our efforts, we could not relocate the owls when it finally got bright but we did manage to spot a Crested Serpent-Eagle getting for the day ahead.

Even at a distance, there was no mistaking a Red-whiskered Bulbul. I do not come across this species often despite the fact that it is a northern species. I guess the bird trade has a lot to answer for their decline in numbers. Cursed with remarkable vocal abilities and striking appeal, the Red-whiskered Bulbul is much sought-after as a pet bird. 

Migratory Indian Cuckoos are usually silent at their wintering grounds and this one would have gone unnoticed had I not see it flew in.

I do not see the Black-crowned Night-Heron roosting in the swamp forest here often and the sighting of a young adult is very promising indeed.

The Taiga Flycatcher that we discovered here a month ago is settling in very well and performing for all those who take the effort to appreciate its subtle beauty. Today, I managed to obtain some reasonably good images of this rare migrant.

We were off to the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh next and one of the first birds to capture our attention was a big flock of Grey-headed Lapwings. This birding site is one of the few places in the country where this migratory wader is found in good numbers annually. Unfortunately, it is naturally shy and good photographic opportunities are often rare.

The Black-winged Stilt also winters here annually and the numbers today is just as impressive as the lapwings. It has been a long time since I last ogled at the long legs of this graceful and sultry wader. The birds were exceptionally confiding today and with the favourable lighting conditions, the encounter was like a breath of fresh air. And for seasoned birder like me, I could sure use some rejuvenation.

Open country birds tend to be more obliging and with the aid of your vehicle, you can experience some truly intimate encounters. The Brown Shrike is one of the commonest migrants here. I always have a soft spot for this predatory bird and its temperamental personality. This individual was so confiding that I could reach out and pat it on the head. Naturally, it had our attention while it hunted from the perimeter fencing of the paddy fields.

The Blue-tailed Bee-eater is just as common a migrant as the shrike. It is an accomplished predator in its own right. It may lack the brute strength of the shrike but it has the aerial agilities few can master. Sleek and graceful, the Blue-tailed Bee-eater is a pure delight to observe and photograph from a close proximity.

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. A time of joy, hope and miracles. And sometimes, Christmas comes early and we were the three fortunate souls to receive this blessing today. A bird perched at the top of an opened boom gate miraculously turned out to be a Barn Owl. Yup, it is certainly feeling a lot like Christmas now…

This species is not uncommon as it adapts well to living alongside humans. I have seen it during the day on a couple of occasions in the past but only it flight. But this one was perched and right out in the open. Using our vehicle as a hide, we managed to creep quite close to this elegant nocturnal hunter.

It is unknown for Barn Owls to hunt in the daytime. This individual may not be in hunt mode – not full heartedly anyway. But it was alert of its surroundings. Every now and then, something from the undergrowth will have it staring intently. And each time, we will our breath hoping for the raptor to plunge. But it never did. I guess there is a limit to the magic of Christmas.

Despite our presence, it was completely at ease. Yawning and preening, the owl continued to have us mesmerized by its bewitching beauty. Surprisingly, even the marauding House Crows left it alone. Life can be beautiful at times.

So it was just us, the owl and the clear blue sky. There is no such thing as just another daytime owl sighting. A few species that quite often provide daytime encounters at my local patches and they are just as exhilarating even after all these years. With the Barn Owl, a species I rarely get to photograph, this encounter was simply amazing and will go down as one of the highlights of my birding life.

My Christmas angel up close and personal...

We awoke from this dream-like state when the owl suddenly glided to a clump of Banana trees. We took a few more shots of the owl before parting ways. Merry Christmas, bud...

On a lesser scale, we came across a young Purple Heron that was not resting partially hidden among the paddy stalks like this species often does. The heatwave was quite apparent now and that is bad news for photography.

Common Sandpipers are common everywhere in winter. But that does not mean it will not have my attention occasionally.

For me, one of the beauties of birding is that sometimes even the commoner species can provide a spark to your birding excursion. The White-throated Kingfisher is a regular feature paddy fields everywhere but an accommodating individual like this is still good enough to provide a memorable end to an incredible trip.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those celebrating a Merry Christmas and to everyone, a Happy New Year.