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.