Wednesday 19 December 2018

The Van Hasselt Show

Sunbirds especially the males are spectacular creations of Mother Nature that have intrigued Man for ages. Generally, there are no rare sunbirds here in Malaysia. However, a few species are uncommon. There is one species that occurs here in my beloved Penang Island that has become increasingly rare of late is the Van Hasselt’s Sunbird. Formerly know as the Purple-throated Sunbird, this new name has yet to grow on me. Anyway, my last encounter with this species here in Penang is now a distant memory. When news broke of a flowering Saraca Tree in the Penang Botanic Gardens that was attracting a number of Van Hasselt’s Sunbirds, it was an opportunity not to be missed. As a matter of fact, it would be shameful if I did. Eventually, I managed to wriggle out some time to seek out the tree and hopefully the striking sunbirds as well. The weather was far from ideal. It got even gloomier when I reached the spot only to find the tree void of life.

I waited restlessly. The usual stares I was drawing from the weekend crowd was no help either. I would have thought that by now the folks of Penang would be used to the sight of a birder and his gear. Anyway, the first sunbird arrived at the tree a while later and it was an eclipsed Van Hasselt’s Sunbird. And once a few other sunbirds darted into the flowering trees, the stares ‘vanished’ and it was only the sunbirds and me. The lighting could have been better but the splendour of the male Van Hasselt’s Sunbirds was undeniable. Yes, there was more than one present.

They were transfixed on the sweet offering and my presence was totally ignored. I was presented with the opportunity to observe and photograph these striking birds up close and personal.

So confiding was one of the Van Hasselt’s Sunbird that I could even managed to shoot a short clip…

The tree was alive with glittering feathers as the sunbird went into a feeding frenzy. The first thing that came to mind was a Christmas tree. It is that special time of the year after all. But a tiny, active bird high on sugar was a big challenge for my humble photographic gear – a very big challenge indeed.

But today, I think I did relatively well. I must say most of the images turned out better than I had expected. I also did not expect to be surrounded by a handful of Van Hasselt’s at such close proximity. It was a remarkable experience.

The birds were finding it a little crowded and inevitably, tempers flared…

When the lighting improved, so did my images. With more available light, the iridescent part of their plumages became more apparent and it was truly a sight to behold. This is certainly my best encounter with this resplendent species to date.

The Olive-backed Sunbirds were also attracted to the feast. Honest to God, I tried my best to spend some time on this commoner species as well but I was difficult to pull myself away from my target birds. The male of the northern subspesies has an orangey border to the dark blue throat. He would have made a great subject but today belonged to the Van Hasselt’s Sunbirds.

As I was enjoying the performance of the sunbirds, a Crested Myna alighted on the flowering tree close to my position. I find Crested Mynas to be shyer than the rest and getting close to them usually takes effort. The Penang Botanic Gardens is one its major strongholds on the island and maybe, it felt slightly more invincible here. There was no point pondering about something that has no certain answer. So, I took off my thinking cap and just enjoyed the moment. This local speciality was a great bird to cap off an hour of exhilaration and fascination courtesy of a tiny feathered jewel that goes by the name of Van Hasselt’s Sunbird.

Monday 17 December 2018

Take it or leave it

The current birding craze in the country now is for a showy Rusty-naped Pitta up at Fraser’s Hill with bird photographers reaching the locality in the middle of the night to increase their chances of scoring with the pitta. Again I am reluctant to hop onto the bandwagon. I rather wait for the dust to settle first. Besides, it would not be a lifer for me and in my books, the Giant Pitta is still the Holy Grail as I have only seen it twice. As for my own birding addiction, I decided to visit the forest of Bukit Wang together with James and another friend despite the less than ideal weather. It was to be a relaxing excursion just to see what is up and about. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the calls of a White-bellied Woodpecker and it sounded really close. It is one of the biggest woodpeckers in the world and sports a striking plumage. If that cannot get any birder excited, nothing else will.

However, the tallest trees is where this gorgeous giant finds sanctuary and that makes photography challenging. It has been years since I last saw the White-bellied Woodpecker and this prolonged encounter was a good reminder of what an incredible creature it is. The contrasting colours of red, black and white and the loud and proud personality all contribute to making the experience memorable. The images obtained this time will have to play second fiddle.

There was a pair of Orange-backed Woodpeckers present and it is also a large representative of this family of birds. However only glimpses were provided and that is the nature of things sometimes. Another uncommon species that almost gave us the slip was a Chestnut-bellied Malkoha foraging at the canopy level but at least it provided a record shot.

We recorded 4 species of malkohas today but one truly outdid itself. I had a remarkable episode with the Red-billed Malkoha during my last birding excursion one week ago and I thought no other could better that. I was wrong. Popping into view along the forest edge, the luscious bill and vivid colouration was unmistakeable even from a distance.

When it finally hopped into full view, it was the moment we were all waiting for. To have this object of beauty and sensuality at such close proximity was beyond words. Birding in the forest has its challenges but encounters like this make all we birders put ourselves through worth the while.

The trip was relatively slow and the looming rain clouds were menacing. All that was no longer relevant. This Red-billed Malkoha in all its splendour had taken over the trip and my soul. I will follow it unconditionally to wherever it was willing to take me. I am sure my companions felt the same way too.

Once the performance ended, we searched along the access road for more offerings from forest reserve. An active fruiting tree will usually brighten up any birding excursion and this one did but not quite what I was hoping for. A flock of Lesser Green Leafbirds was the only birds I managed to photograph. The male with the characteristic black facial marking was indeed a feathered denizen of the forest. Cursed with having vocal talents as well, it is no wonder that leafbirds are heavily trapped for the bird trade.

The females are almost as striking and the flock was certainly a welcomed sight. In fact, the drop in leafbird populations is so apparent that every encounter is now even more significant.

By midday, the drizzles started to pour in again and the level of bird activities trickled down to almost a halt. We did stop for one last species before calling it a day. And it could not have been a plainer bird. A flock of Buff-vented Bulbuls were seen foraging at the forest edge just before the exit of the reserve. Bulbuls were surprisingly missing from the fruiting tree earlier on but always expect the unexpected when birding – especially in the forest. You could have spellbinding encounters with woodpeckers and malkohas in the first half of the morning and spend the remaining half rummaging through foliage after foliage of thick jungle in search of any signs of bird life. Mother Nature can drive a hard bargain at times. So, you either take it or leave it. Seeing that I am still very much at it after 30 years, you can pretty much guess which one I chose.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Smitten by bitterns

Brothers Nigel and Jimmy are regular guests of mine whom through the years, have become friends. We certainly have our share of birding excursions in far off lands. In fact plans are being made for another birding adventure next year and if it materializes, it would be my biggest birding trip ever. Anyway, closer to home the brothers were back in Penang for a family holiday and they managed to allocate a day for birding. One of their targets this time was the Scaly-breasted Bulbul and I knew exactly where to take them for this striking forest gem. Upon arrival at the forest surrounding Pedu Lake in Kedah state, we were greeted by sunny blue skies and that is a somewhat rare commodity these days. Then and there I had a very good feeling about today’s trip and my gut instinct was right on the money as I was about to find out.

The fruiting tree was still in full swing and birds were diving in from every corner. It did not take long to locate the first Scaly-breasted Bulbul. Everything about the bird’s appearance shouts attention and it certainly had ours. A little patience yielded better photographic opportunities as the bulbuls started to wander lower down to forage. The lighting condition today was such a stark difference from my last visit here a few days back. Naturally, the images revealed more of the bulbul’s true splendour. I was feeling elated although the Scaly-breasted Bulbul is not new to me. My guests, were overwhelmed.

When we could finally break ourselves free from the hold these bulbuls had on us, we took a slow walk along the access road seeking more denizens of this lush landscape. The grassy patches along the edge of the forest are frequented by the rarest munia species in Peninsular Malaysia. Pedu is the only one of my regular birding sites where the White-bellied Munia is recorded. I could hardly contained my excitement when we came across a small flock right next to the road. The dense vegetation made it frustratingly difficult to obtain unobstructed views. After many attempts and streams of profanity later, one member of the flock alighted on an exposed perch to soak in the warm rays of the morning sun. There was a small gap in the vegetation to allow me my moment of glory and that was more than I could ever wish for.

Nowadays, every Ashy Minivet that I encounter will be given its due attention to ensure that I do not overlook similar but much rarer species. There was nothing unusual about this female Ashy Minivet but she did provide a stellar performance for this group of visiting birders.

A trogon perched at eye level got my imagination running wild and almost had me believing I was staring at the highly sought after Cinnamon-rumped Trogon. But when reality took back the reins, there was no denying the presence of red on the rump. The Scarlet-rumped Trogon may be the most frequently encountered species but it has enough finesse to brighten up any birding excursion. Not that today’s excursion needed any brightening.

Not quite as appealing as the trogon, the Streaked Bulbul still deserves some recognition as it not a common species. It does not usually patronize fruiting trees and prolonged encounters like this one will not go unappreciated.

During my last visit here, our group had an exhilarating encounter with a Giant Forest Scorpion. Today, it was a Spider Wasp living up its namesake. This skilful hunter has just caught a spider of similar size and was dragging its prey off into the forest. Pedu never ceases to amaze.

Raptors were certainly up and about today and I bet it had a lot to do the sunny weather we were enjoying. The first of these predatory birds to cross our path was a Crested Goshawk. It is a beautiful raptor and here in the north, we are not blessed with many encounters. What did I tell you about my gut feeling in the beginning of this post?

The far carrying territorial calls of the Crested Serpent-Eagle echoed through the vicinity on more than one occasion. However, this common but still impressive raptor did not get down low enough for any memorable shots.

Today, the Oriental Honey-Buzzards were everywhere. It is a little late in the season but they still appeared to be on migration. A flock of 5 buzzards taking full advantage of the rising thermals gained our undivided attention.

As we were enjoying the small spectacle, I swore I heard the cries of a Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle. Upon further observation, one of the ‘buzzards’ looked a bit odd and when it took a swoop at a nearby comrade only did I realized it was the Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle that I heard. The concentration of Oriental Honey-Buzzards must have hit a nerve and the eagle took matters into its own wings. The Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle was the fourth and final species of raptor to make an appearance during our visit here.

However, the bird of the day at this site do not rule the skies. It is a docile dweller of the canopy levels with a combination of vibrant colours that makes it one of the most alluring species in the tropical rain forest. The Red-billed Malkoha is not a rare species here and when one is privileged enough to encounter it foraging along the lower levels, it will be a memorable experience. It is not a particularly shy bird but has a knack to stay partly hidden by the vegetation.

Today was indeed our lucky day because it alighted on an exposed perch during its foray out of its comfort zone and for that brief moment, time came to a complete standstill. We found ourselves lost in this Red-billed Malkoha’s mesmerizing beauty. Life can be beautiful at times.

The next location we visited was the mangroves of Sungai Batu and the resident White-breasted Waterhen was the first to greet our arrival.

Inquisitive as ever, the resident pair of Abbott’s Babbler provided some good photographic opportunities as they moved about the vicinity.

Only the female Mangrove Blue Flycatcher presented herself well enough for me to photograph this time.

I have brought the brothers to this spot before but that does not stop them from getting all excited when the Mangrove Pitta hopped into the view. As a matter of fact, it did not stop me either...

The main reason for our visit to this site was for the Forest Wagtail. This adorable migrant did not show itself during the brothers’ last visit here. Thankfully, history did not repeat itself today and ample views were obtained.

From the mangroves, we then tried our luck at the paddy fields of mainland Penang. We were greeted by a splendid view of a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings resting in a sea of green. The distance could not produce any reasonably good images but the encounter certainly provided a moment to be cherished.

On the next patch of paddy field, we were delighted to find a young bird resting much closer to the access road. The afternoon light today certainly complimented the image of this unusually confiding Grey-headed Lapwing well.

A number of Whiskered Terns were present in the vicinity as well today. Graceful and beautiful, it is always a joy to see them float about in search of food. However, it is not easy to capture them in flight. A flock at rest is the best alternative.

The isolated trees within the paddy fields were again alive with starlings. Since it is that time of the year again, we scrutinized the flocks hoping for some Christmas magic. But it was not to be and only the usual Daurian Starlings were recorded. And their memorable performance helped to ease my disappointment of failing to reconnect with the much rarer White-shouldered Starling that I recently photographed here.

The Jungle Myna is relatively common here but the same cannot be said for built-up areas on the island. Stiff competition from the other myna species are reducing the population of Jungle Mynas as a whole in this state. There could be more bad news as the Javan Mynas are inevitably colonizing their way up north.

The Common Kingfisher is a regular winter visitor to the vicinity but can be easily overlooked due to its small size. Do not be misled by the name. Although it is not rare, it does take some luck and effort to see one in the wild. This female bird was hunting from a clean perch at eye level and together with her lovely plumage, made her rather conspicuous and a good subject for photography.

On the other hand, the White-throated Kingfisher can be seen on every visit here. It is not only due to its stunning appearance and larger size. It is by far the commonest inland kingfisher in Malaysia. Usually ignored due to its abundance but today I felt like paying homage to every confiding bird we encounter as a sign of gratitude for the good fortune we have been given today – weather and bird wise.

A small patch of reeds next to the access road provided one of the highlights of the trip. There was a Yellow Bittern was on the hunt and it was not the least perturbed by our presence.

We had to shift our vehicle midway during our observation because of an approaching vehicle. I usually curse under my breath in times like these (although it is no fault of the other vehicle) but this time, it turned out to be a blessing. The slight shift produced a second bittern that was there all this while undetected. I have seen this ‘Kungfu’ pose in the works of others and today, I finally got my own. Bitterns can be confiding at times but today, these individuals were amazing.

Unbelievable as it may seem, there was a third bittern in this very spot and for the second time today (the Oriental Honey Buzzards at Pedu and now this), we found ourselves surrounded by the subject we so passionately seek. There was some Christmas magic in the air after all.

The dreadful weather that has been plaguing our lands of late finally crept up later in the evening. For once, it was of no worry as I was about to conclude the tour. It has been an incredible day despite the lack of any true rarities. A refreshing difference after several trips of difficult and wet birding. The tropics no doubt houses some of the most fascinating and enchanting bird species in the world but the challenges will always be there and you will have to rely on your passion to get you through.