Saturday, 9 December 2017

What a Ruff day...

Compared to yesterday’s two-hour drive to the interiors of Kedah, the drive today to the mangrove belt of Merbok was a breeze. We were delighted to find this presumably female Japanese Sparrowhawk out hunting. This small but deadly raptor is usually shy - typical of all Accipiters. The only reason this girl was so confiding is because she knows fully well I will not be getting any great images of her due to the poor lighting at this hour.

Once we ventured onto the mangroves, it did not take long for Stuart to start ogling at the star bird of the locality, the ever-striking Mangrove Pitta. Looking splendid as usual, it thrilled us with its electrifying presence from among the undergrowth of the swamp.

The resident pair of Abbott’s Babblers were next in line to make an appearance and their character makes up for their lack of colours.

The sweet musical song of the Puff-throated Babblers echoed through the vicinity long before the birds were seen. I may have grown slightly accustomed to the accommodating nature of the birds found here but for a visiting birder like Stuart, it was overwhelming to say the least.

Our next destination was the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. We had gloomy skies the day before but fortunately, that was not the case today. Good weather will often result in better yield and Stuart soon found himself surrounded by the sights and sounds that make this little patch of birding haven what it is.

The White-chested Babbler is a regular here but to obtain good views hard work and lots of luck are required. Scampering around the forest undergrowth, this species is habitually difficult to photograph even in close proximity. The angle from which I took the shot may be unflattering but it is still one of my best efforts to date.

Golden-bellied Gerygones have provided me with a number of close and intimate encounters here in the past and today, I got to share one with my foreign guest. Three inquisitive individuals wandered very close to our positions and together with their vocal abilities, resulted in an intriguing encounter.

We came across a Brown Shrike hunting unobtrusively along the access road. Although it is a common migrant throughout the country, the confiding nature of this individual did not go unappreciated.

Woodpeckers have been a rare sight so far for Stuart here in Peninsular Malaysia and that does not happen often in my tours. Thankfully, the resident pair of Common Flamebacks put on a relatively good performance for my British guest. And I, could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The migratory Black Kites are back in full force at this wintering ground of theirs. A few were soaring aimlessly in the sky above most likely prompted by hot and sunny weather. Despite being a scavenger by nature, this raptor is graceful in flight and I could not pull myself away from their mesmerising aerial display.

For the scarce migratory Taiga Flycatcher, Air Hitam Dalam is very unfamiliar land. Unfortunately, it appeared just long enough for my guest to add another tick for his maiden trip to Peninsular Malaysia but yours truly, not even a single image. On the other hand, one of the resident pairs of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers was accommodating enough to provide ample views. This is the dominant pair that frequents the rear car park area and it is good to know that the recent floods did not effected them much.

Olive-winged Bulbuls are common residents here but one’s unbelievably confiding nature even took me by surprise as they kept to the cover of the vegetation throughout most of the morning.

Our final destination of the day was the paddy planting district of mainland Penang. As usual we searched for recently ploughed or planted areas that are like magnets for water birds. Both the Grey-headed Lapwing and Black-winged Stilt are regular winter visitors here and they were in their hundreds today. Distance can be an issue at times and the only reasonable image I took while admiring this congregation of water birds was of a foraging Lapwing.

There was a good number of small waders or peeps as they are so affectionately called, present today and scrutiny is required to confirm their identities. The most numerous of them all are the strikingly marked Long-toed Stints but they did not present any good photographic opportunities. I could tell Stuart has a soft spot for water birds like me as he took the effort to bring his spotting scope along for the trip and that certainly came in useful for enjoying peeps at a distance.

On one occasion, we came across two rather uniformly coloured peeps. I knew what they were immediately. The Temminck’s Stint is generally a scarce migrant to Malaysia but at this site, it is an annual visitor in small numbers. Using our vehicle as a mobile hide we managed some outstanding views. I was utterly delighted with the images obtained this time. I just cannot explain how I could get so excited over a dull-looking bird like this but I can and will. Come to think of it, a lot things are beyond explanation when it comes to birding.

There is no mistaking the distinct shape of the Ruff and there was a small flock foraging at a flooded patch. The Ruff is a unique wader because the male Ruff is bigger than the female Reeve. Judging from the sizes there was one Ruff in the company of three Reeves.

With the aid of our vehicle again, we managed to sneak closer to our subjects. The lighting was good and when the birds got accustomed to our presence, the encounter turned out to be one of the best I have ever had with this species. The Reeves were the ones to let down their guards first and continued with their daily routine.

The male took slightly longer to reveal himself completely from the cover of the paddy stalks. The Ruff is one of the most exceptional birds on the planet because of his unbelievable striking breeding plumage. The change from its dull non-breeding plumage is so remarkable it borders the line of fantasy. I have to accept the fact that we will never have a chance to see one in breeding plumage here in the tropics. A good thing God make humans with the ability to imagine because that is the only consolation I have.

This shot depicts the sexual dimorphism for this scarce winter migrant. We spent a considerable time with both the Temminck’s Stint and the Ruff. Although these birds are neither new nor rare to Stuart, he was just as enthusiastic during the encounters. I guess as a water bird lover, he understands the significance of coming across rare ones that are performing well in the field. And these two species certainly fit the bill here in Malaysia.

A flock of Pacific Golden Plovers was the last bird to be photographed for the trip. There are three species of Golden Plovers in the world of which two are not known to occur here in this region. But they all do look similar. Stuart reminded me of that fact and since we were on a roll, there was no harm scrutinizing the flock for a miracle. However, Christmas is still almost a month away and we had to be contented with what we managed to racked up for the past two days and we certainly had it good.

The checklist of birds recorded during this trip can be found here:

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