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: