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.

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