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.