Tuesday 30 January 2018

It's raining rarities

I travelled all the way to the limestone hills of Gunung Keriang once again hoping for a more intimate encounter with the recently discovered Brown Fish-owls. I reached the locality way before day break and together with Hor Kee and Dr. Neoh, waited patiently for the celebrity birds to make an appearance while listening to the calls of other nocturnal birds of this recreational forest – the Barn Owl and Sunda Scops-Owl. Unfortunately, the Brown Fish-Owls reminded me how elusive they can be and offered only fleeting views as they made their way back to roost.

A pair of Streaked Wren-Babblers foraging confidingly at the foot of the limestone hill provided some birding excitement but it was little compensation for the disappointment with owls. This babbler is a resident of the montane forest throughout most of the country. However, a number of montane species are known to occur at sea level here in the north and this babbler is one of them. Dim lighting and the active nature of the babblers was a major hindrance for obtaining better images. But to observe these Streaked Wren-Babblers foraging among the undergrowth at such close proximity was good enough for this time.

As we were about to head to our next location, the tinkling notes of a Leaf-Warbler from the nearby bush was just to tempting to be ignored. While we were trying to ascertain the identity of the Sakhalin/Pale-legged Leaf-Warbler, an all-too-familiar call whispered through the undergrowth. I have had enough field experience with the Taiga Flycatcher of late that I would be able to recognise its rattling call anywhere. And there is one calling right in front of us. A stroke of good luck and a small gap in the vegetation enabled me to capture a record shot of this supposedly rare migrant but this is the second individual recorded this season.

It has been months since my last visit to the vast, sweeping landscape of Chuping. It is a unique habitat and the sceneries are often mesmerising like this image of a flock of Cattle Egret gliding low over a patch of aquatic mimosa plants before alighting to forage.

This birding hotspot is renowned for wintering raptors and it did not take us long to come across our first raptor. It was a beautiful female Pied Harrier and she has finishing up a meal next to the access road that cuts through this agricultural land. We observed her from a reasonable distance using our vehicle as a hide but we could not be sure what the prey was.

Whatever the unfortunately victim was, it was a hearty meal for the Pied Harrier. Her obvious extended crop was proof of that as she flew away.

A few other raptors were also recorded but most did not provide good photographic opportunities. This Osprey was seen hunting at a commercial fish pond and it may not be wise to risk incurring the wrath of the fish farmers. However this is not the first time I have seen the fish hawk here and I can only conclude the greater the risks, the greater the rewards.

A Common Buzzard was photographed here recently and although this scarce migrant is not new to me, it has been years since I last saw one. Unfortunately, all the buzzards recorded (there was a number of them I might add) were Oriental Honey-Buzzards and here is the image of the one that came the closest.

Birding along the vast grasslands could have been better and the one of the few birds that managed to find its way into my memory card was this tiny Zitting Cisticola proclaiming its territory from the top of a wooden stake.

We also came across a Brown Shrike making short work of a tiny frog it has just caught. An accomplished hunter with a feisty character, this predatory bird must be terrifying to all small vertebrates that share its wintering ground.

Posing for my camera when it was done feeding. That’s my boy...

However, the magic of Chuping should never be underestimated. A detour to one of the lakes provided the main highlight for this locality.

I twitched for Peninsular Malaysia’s fourth Tufted Duck back in 2013. Since then, there have been no other sightings. And now, we found ourselves ogling over a female paddling leisurely in the company of Little Grebes. That certainly injected excitement into the excursion.

It was a big lake and the lighting was harsh. There was almost no way to reduce the distance. A desperate and muddy attempt did get us slightly closer and we had to be grateful with what that was given and cherish the moment. After all, this girl is a rare record for Peninsular Malaysia and that is a whole lot to cherish.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

It's written in the stars

I have always longed to see the Brown Fish-Owl ever since it graced one of the pages of Mr. Hum’s milestone publication - Winged Wonders in Malaysia. Now, 14 long years later, this almost mythical owl resurfaced again in Malaysia at a little known recreational forest in Kedah called Gunung Keriang. And I have a chance to finally bag a lifer I spent almost half my life chasing after. Sometimes, things happen for a reason. Call it fate or coincidence but my guest cancelled his tour last minute due to health issues but I knew exactly where to go with this sudden availability of time in my hands. So, I embarked on my first twitch for the year and reached the locality in good time. News of the owl first broke out less than a week ago and initially, I had prepared myself to wait another week before I have a go at this rare northern resident. As expected there was a crowd and I joined up with Victor and his companions as we patiently waited for the owls (yes, there is a pair of them) at their usual spot. It was still dark and a Sunda Scops-Owl was calling persistently from the nearby vegetation. On any other day, I would have attempted to locate this adorable owl but today is no ordinary day. I had only one thing on my mind and it was the Brown Fish-Owl.

Everyone were squinting at different directions hoping to catch the owls as they return to roost. Michelle, one of Victor’s companions, saw two dark shapes gliding in and alighted on a dead tree near the limestone cliff face. We had just enough light to positively identify the Brown Fish-Owls but not quite enough for any decent images. The dim lighting may conceal the whirlwind of emotions building up inside of me but this is one of the most exhilarating moments of my birding life. And I am happy to be able to immortalize this encounter although the photograph was a poor one.

It was a brief stop for the owls and they proceeded to fly into the vegetation along cliff face. We now had no chance of any improvement shots and despite a careful sweep, failed to relocate the owls. It was not an easy task to begin with. The vegetation was dense and it quite a distant up the hill. We had to come to terms with reality that this was all the owls were willing to offer today.

Two birding buddies contemplating on ways to relocate the owls that do not include rock climbing or any other strategies that could prove hazardous to their well being.

A few years back during the Fraser’s Hill International Bird Race, I came to know of a teenager who showed quite an interest in birding. Through the years, he has matured into an accomplished birder which is an uncommon thing for someone his age. Woei Ong was present on this faithful day as well and I have him to thank for relocating the owl later in the morning. One of the Brown Fish-Owls was resting on the ledge next to the base of a small tree and this twitch elevated to a whole new level. I was so excited that I had to take deep breaths to regain my composure in order to try and obtain some decent images.

There was more Gunung Keriang had to offer than the Brown Fish-Owls. When the owls finally retired deeper into the vegetation, we wandered around the foot of the limestone hill. Among the scrub trees, a large and ungainly bird was moving about. It turned out to be a Large Hawk-Cuckoo and a shy one too if I might add.

A pair of Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo, on the other hand, was quite adamant for their photos to be taken. One of the birds was enjoying its time in the sun and disregarded my intentions for a better image.

The Lineated Barbet is no stranger to me. I do most of my birding in northern Peninsular Malaysia and that is where this northern speciality thrives. However, they seemed to be more tolerant here and spend most of their along the middle storey rather the canopy. A fruiting tree nearby certainly had the attention of the barbets and although it is common in Penang, it is still an attractive species.

However, the barbets were not the birds that had my full attention at the fruiting tree. Another northern speciality, the Streak-eared Bulbul, is a species I certainly would like to spend more time with. Here, this species outnumbers even the ever-abundant Yellow-vented Bulbul.

It does not have much colouration but because of its restricted distribution in Malaysia, it certainly helped make my maiden trip to Gunung Keriang a memorable one indeed.

The next and final destination of the day was the mangroves of Sungai Batu. Unexpectedly, the weather changed upon our arrival and it started to pour. We decided to wait it out. Time passed quickly as we had plenty to reflect upon – mainly the encounter with the Brown Fish-Owls. Occasionally after rain, one can enjoy what birders call a false dawn. It is when a place suddenly comes to life after rain with bird activities much like the break of the dawn. It was good to see the Forest Wagtails up and about as they were not recorded during my last visit here.

The Puff-throated Babblers serenaded the vicinity with their incredible song before revealing their physical beauty for our group to enjoy as they foraged along the swampy terrain they call home.

We just recovering from the splendid performance of the Puff-throated Babblers when a pair of Abbott’s Babblers hopped into view.

One species that is struggling to thrive here in the northern region is the Oriental Magpie-Robin. I find it is not as common as it used to be and the main cause for the decline is undoubtedly the demand for this songster in the bird trade. Anyway, a female bird was recorded during our visit and as to my knowledge, there is still a small population left in this vicinity.

The presence of the resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers lit up the vicinity with their vibrant colours especially the male. The overcast lighting made it ideal for photography and we experience the splendours of the birds found here in their authentic form.

The female is just as attractive as the male which is not often the case with flycatchers.

And talking about splendour, a visit to the mangroves of Sungai Batu is never complete without the Mangrove Pitta. The showstopper once again rose to the occasion and the false dawn brought out all the alluring species found here. I could not have asked for a better way to end one amazing day. From the situations that led to obtaining one of my most sought after lifers and the rewarding birding this will certainly be a day to be remembered.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Ending the year with a bang

I usually reach my birding destinations before or at first light. However, it was a long night at the office yesterday and by the time, I wandered on the sandy access road of Air Hitam Dalam, it was well into morning. The overcast condition tried to deceive my perception of time and it was a struggle to capture images of the current celebrity bird of this locality because the Taiga Flycatcher has a penchant for the dim lower storey of the forest. Today, I made it a point to spend more time with this scarce migrant since I was alone and this was more of a relaxing birding excursion to a local patch more than anything else.

The Taiga Flycatcher is not much of a looker but I know how rare this species is. It has a tendency to cock its tail and no doubt to show off its white undertail which is one of its main field charcteristics. There is always beauty in simplicity but a rare status will always help to further enhance your aesthetic appeal.

I seldom name the birds that I encountered in the field. All the birds that I have rescued before and released back into the wild were named “Boy” – regardless of their sex. On those rare occasions that I do ‘talk’ to a bird in the field (when I am alone, of course), Boy is still the first name that comes to mind. This Taiga Flycatcher bears a black mark on its left cheek and surprisingly, the first name that came to mind was “Scar”. But the character with that name in the Disney animation Lion King is sinister and that, this flycatcher is certainly not. So, it was back to Boy...

As I was shooting the flycatcher, a small insect flew into vicinity unaware of the deathly fate that could await it. Boy raised up to have a better look at the potential snack but declined the offer. The insect, live to tell the tale. I just continued to press on the shutter throughout the whole episode and obtained what was undoubtedly the images of the day.

I can still recall my last visit here I was with a birding couple from England. I spotted a dark morph Changeable Hawk-Eagle resting among the shadows of the foliage on the other side of the river. It was a poor view and there was nothing that could be done. Today, it was also resting in the shadows but on this side of the river and close enough for me to capture its true majesty. It is just the luck of the draw and today has been a blessed day so far.

The Arctic Warbler is a common winter visitor to a wide range of habitats here in Malaysia. However, God made Tree-Warblers to push our patience and sanity to the limits. Many of these warbler look very similar and all the recent splitting and lumping of warblers species only made it worse. And the warblers themselves are not the easiest of birds to observe and photograph either.

This individual was exceptionally accommodating today and despite the challenging shooting conditions, the images turned out well enough. I guess I had be grateful the rope barrier of the elevated boardwalks still serve their purpose well. Frantic movements was certainly required to follow this little brown job around and all so often in birding, I do get carried away. And the ropes were the only thing between me and the swampy terrain.

The Yellow-bellied Prinia is another common warbler but unlike the Arctic Warbler, it is a resident species and more down to Earth – literally. Grasslands are usually its home and it utilizes the cover provided by the vegetation well. Maybe it was luck or the approaching breeding season but this individual, presumably a male, had no intentions to skulk among the undergrowth. He was belting out his territorial song right out in the open and his performance did not go unappreciated.

Recently, one of my guests put to rest the correct pronunciation for the name of the bird with one of the most distinctive songs in Malaysia. The Golden-bellied Gerygone (pronounced as Jerrygony) is a smart little bird with a penetrating song. Due to its minute size and active nature, good images are not easy to come by. I took a number of images during the encounter and the only one that turned out sharp and in focus, Sod had the bird facing away...

Small birds are not the only ones that can frustrating. Cuckoos in Malaysia come in all sizes and two of the biggest species are found here in Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. The Green-billed Malkoha probably has one of the longest tails in proportion to its body for a bird here in Malaysia. This malkoha tends to move about the foliage of the canopy levels and to capture an unobstructed image will require a whole lot of luck. I came across a pair foraging at a more leisurely pace than usual and managed to keep up with them for the longest time that I can recall.

This species is one of those birds that will capture the admiration of my foreign guests whenever I managed to show it and it has a lot to do with that impressive tail. I do not blame my guests. I was just as dumbfounded when my first Green-billed Malkoha sailed across my path at the mangroves of Pulau Burung. Truly a remarkable bird that will have my undying attention.

The other big cuckoo here is more often heard than seen. The call is a series of deep booming notes uttered with such intensity that it captures the imagination of all those who are not familiar with the Greater Coucal. The bird possesses just as alluring appearance as well. Unfortunately, it is shy by nature and good views do not come very often. I surprised this individual while it was foraging along the lower storey of the forest. This time my reaction was quicker than the bird’s and I managed to squeeze off a few shots before it disappeared.

Another species that spends a fair time along the lower storey is the Olive-winged Bulbul. At this birding site, it is just as common as the ever-abundant Yellow-vented Bulbul. But to have one pose all so elegantly and do nothing would be a sin.

The bulbul may be drably coloured but it shares this swampy forest home with some species that are so flamboyantly coloured and charismatic that one will be mesmerized by their presence each and every single time. The Black-and-red Broadbill is one such bird. The resident pair was sorely missed during my past few visits. My heart skipped a beat when I came upon this sight when I wandered into the dimly lighted part of the boardwalk.

It knew that the lighting was crap in that position. So, it hopped onto a more natural perch surrounded by the greenish backdrop of Mother Nature and posed for my camera. I guess it was its way to make it up to me. And I was overwhelmed by this trip’s good fortune so far. Air Hitam Dalam is a little piece of birding paradise that constantly amazes me. When I set foot out later than usual this morning, I certainly did not expect the birding to be so incredible. I could hardly control my emotions. For me, this is birding at its best. Not at some far off exotic location. Right here at one of your local patches.

A pair of Greater Racket-tailed Drongos were hanging out near the rear car park throughout most of my visit. They too appeared to be more relaxed and confiding today. One of them was really eyeing for my attention and simultaneously released the calls of an Asian Koel and Crested Serpent-Eagle in near perfect pitch. This bird is a renowned mimic. And it just felt I needed to be reminded of that.

A troop of Long-tailed Macaques, as expected, were loitering nearby the drongo. The mutualism shared by the two animals is a regular sight here. For the time being all the residents of this locality are certainly living the good life. This macaque was taking the term lazy weekend to a whole new level. The expression on his face and his posture say it all...

A pair of Banded Woodpeckers decided to alight where else but not too far in front of me on a dead tree trunk. Most woodpeckers are strikingly marked and the colours of this loving pair stood out beautifully against the pale bark of the trunk. I waited anxiously for any further drama to unfold but the woodpeckers would have none of that and flew off a little later.

I then decided to try my luck at the nearby paddy fields of Permatang Pauh. Even at a distance, Aquila Eagles cut a distinctive silhouette when they soar effortless on their immense wings. I failed to record even one single Aquila here last season. I hope it is just me but I feel that neither the Eastern Imperial-Eagle nor the Greater Spotted-Eagle are annual visitors to my home state of Penang anymore. A few minutes of putting my biking skills to the test, I was almost directly below the mighty raptor. At this distance, there was no mistaking the Greater Spotted-Eagle. There was heavy traffic along the adjacent Kulim Expressway as visitors were flocking in for the long New Year weekend. To the layman, I probably appeared absurd standing under the blistering midday sun with my gear and all while looking up to the heavens above. However, it did not matter because at that moment I was taken back to a time not too long ago when the skies here could have a handful of two species of Aquila Eagles soaring in all their magnificent and splendour. It has been a excellent excursion and it would take something truly evoking to wrapped things not only for the day but for the year 2017. And the encounter with the Greater Spotted-Eagle will do just fine. 

The complete checklists of the birds recorded for the trip can be found here: