Tuesday 20 March 2018

Blonde Bombshells!

It was favourable day to spend some time at the beach. I reached my destination just after the break of dawn and found myself a nice little spot in which to uncoil after another hectic week at the office. The coastline here at Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda is bleak with mudflats as far as the eye can see. Not exactly the type normal folks tend to flock to for a day at the beach but birders are not normal folks to begin with. Due to the current hot spell, I decided to do my observation from the edge of a small patch of mangroves as the vegetation will be my saviour from the relentless heat that is to come. The trees will also help to break my human form and hopefully, deceived the birds long enough for me to obtain some images when the rising tide pushes them closer to shore.

The migratory season is drawing to an end and some of the water birds would now be sporting their respective breeding plumages. That is one of the main reasons for my visit here today to Penang’s only Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA). Pond-herons are common migrants throughout the country. Only during this time of year can one distinguish the three different species that occur here. Surprisingly, all the Pond-Herons that were in breeding plumage were the rarer Javan Pond-Herons. With most of the waders being well out of range, this stunning water bird had most of my attention. There is a certain degree of colour variation to the breeding plumage. Some individual are blondes – hence the title of this post.

Some, on the other hand, are more brunettes than blondes. One of these darker birds was very confiding today and provided good photographic opportunities.

The Pond-Herons have developed a strategy to help them hunt more successfully. They can be seen in close proximity with another predator of the mudflats here and it is the Dog-faced Water Snake. Preys evading the reptilian predator would unintentionally exposed themselves to the avian predator. I am not sure if any favour is returned to the snake. Well, life is not fair all the time.

One these snakes slithered reasonably close to my position on one occasion and I tried my best to obtain some images.

The absence of the much commoner Chinese Pond-Herons was a little puzzling. Then one flew into view and put my mind to ease. The lighting was brilliant today and my modest setup could capture some of the action shots. I guess that helped to compensate for the lack of uncommon waders on this visit.

The Chinese Pond-Heron may be the commonest of the Pond-Herons but its breeding plumage is the most vibrant in my book. The Indian Pond-Heron was sorely missed today. It is the rarest of them all but the breeding colours does not even come close to the former.

Egrets were plentiful today as expected. Only the Little Egret and Great Egret were present and they were foraging way out beyond the mudflats. A lone Little Egret did fly past close and I am quite happy with how the image turned out.

Some of the waders like the Lesser Sand-Plovers and Curlew Sandpipers are sporting their brilliant breeding plumages. Distance, however, is usually an issue when it comes to wader watching. And today, it would have been futile to try and capture their images. One species did come very close to shore with the rising tide and it was a flock of Pacific Golden Plovers.

A few showed some traces of their breeding plumage. Had they been in full breeding plumage, it would have been sensational. The Pacific Golden Plover undergoes one of the most intense changes and its breeding plumage is absolutely gorgeous.

The Common Sandpiper is not only common but has a high level of tolerance towards human intrusion. Throughout my time at the stake out among the mangroves, a few of them were foraging, fighting and resting just in front of me.

Despite their reputation of being guardians of the marsh, Common Redshanks are usually confiding if one is unobtrusive enough.

A leucistic individual held my attention for a substantial period of time. Things were starting to become stale by mid morning. Imagination and hallucination is not uncommon when one has been staring at a landscape of mud and surf for hours. Reality finally kicked in when the pale bird foraged alongside a typical bird. But it was good fun. It helped pass the time while I hoped for the tide to bring in something interesting.

A hunting Collared Kingfisher provided additional excitement to the trip. Crabs are its preferred prey and the lighting today made it possible for me to capture some feeding shots.

Gulls are generally rare in Malaysia except for this location. For years, a number of Brown-headed Gulls have been wintering here without fail. It may not be the rarity I was hoping for but a Brown-headed Gull almost in full breeding plumage has enough panache to escalate the trip to another level.

In any plumage stage, this gull is easier to identify in flight due to its distinct wing tip pattern. Lucky for me, it only took flight after I have taken several shots.

The reason for the gull’s abrupt departure was soon made clear to me. A group of Smooth Otters returning back to land after a morning out did not go down well with most of the birds present. They slid their way across the mudflats and this choice of locomotion although effective, is adorable and humorous to watch. Like mischievous puppies making a mess of things, I could not stay angry at these aquatic mammals for long.

I am not sure if they are unaware of my presence or they are simply not bothered, the otters scamper up on shore quite close to me. However, the vegetation made it difficult to capture unobstructed images. I decided to pack up shortly after and it was not because of the otters. The tide has now left very little mud exposed and hardly any waders were left.

A little bird perched at the top of a mangrove tree delayed my departure from the locality. The Little Bronze Cuckoo is more often heard than seen. I took the effort to try and obtain some images but luck was not on my side. The foliage hampered my efforts.

I decided to swing by the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam just to see if anything was up and about. The migratory Blue-winged Pitta has arrived but remained shy. On the other hand, the Taiga Flycatcher should be migrating back north soon and I was glad I managed to spend some time with it as I may not have another chance.

Birding and bird photography rely heavily on luck. You find yourself an impressive nocturnal bird of prey. You stalk your way until you are within range for a shot. However, you find yourself with only one window among the foliage that the subject, a Spotted Wood-Owl, is unobstructed. Except for a big branch blocking half the head. And life goes on for this old school birder.

A picture of blissful living by the wonders of Mother Nature. That would be the type of tagline I had to think up back in the day when I was a copywriter at a creative agency. Anyway, the Long-tailed Macaques are certainly having it good here at Air Hitam Dalam. The day did not yield as many species as I have hoped for but it is always good to spend some time in the field.

The checklist of birds recorded:
1. Bagan Belat
2. Air Hitam Dalam

Tuesday 13 March 2018

Another day at the fruiting tree

It was back to the revered fruiting tree at Sungai Sedim in Kedah state again. My last visit here was not quite up to expectations. The feeding frenzy ended earlier than usual for no apparent reason. This time, I am hoping for uncompromised birding euphoria synonymous with this fruiting tree. Flock after flock of feathered denizens descending from the forest canopy upon the tree to satisfy their hunger leaving the observer with very little time to catch his breath. That is what makes active fruiting tree so irresistible. With my optimism high, I prepared myself for the first wave of patrons. Shortly after first light, the wait was over. Among them was a species so stunning that even a seasoned birder like me struggled to regain composure. Unfortunately, this lone Scaly-breasted Bulbul did not provide any good opportunities to capture its true splendour and the brief visit was the only one it made for the rest of the morning. Not quite the start I was hoping for.

Eleven species of bulbuls patronized the fruiting tree this time. It is incredible that such variety of the same family of birds can coexist in perfect at one single location. Natural, they each have their own niche to fill in this ecosystem but a fruiting tree will be bring them all together and feed like one single super flock. I guess gluttony is a deadly sin that even the most elusive species will give in to. Lucky for me, not all of them are as frustrating as the Scaly-breasted Bulbul. The handsome Black-headed Bulbul did alight on an exposed perch at one time but the distance proved just too great for my photographic gear.

The characteristic nasal calls of the Finsch’s Bulbuls filled the vicinity when a few birds arrived on scene. The puffy yellow throat make them rather distinctive and the birds lingered at the fruiting tree after feeding instead of retreating back to the cover of the forest like the last time. This goodwill gesture certainly did not go unappreciated.

With their vibrant colouration, the Grey-bellied Bulbuls are always a welcomed sight. They visited the tree several times. The succulent fruits proved to be too tempting and they abandoned their habitual preference for the canopy level in order to indulge in this feast.

A few species almost completely forgo their natural instincts to evade man and gorged on the fruits without the slightest concerns. Today, the Buff-vented Bulbuls were most prevalent and this plain bulbul provided the best photographic opportunities.

Red-eyed Bulbuls, despite their plain colouration, were the other conspicuous patron this time. Bold and confiding, they ventured onto any branch where they are fruits and some of these branches did make it easy for me to photograph this common resident.

Flowerpeckers were the other family of birds present at the fruiting tree today. Three years ago, Sungai Sedim was made known to every birder in Malaysia because this very tree managed to lure out one of the most elusive forest gems. Every passing year, I hope for the return of the gorgeous male Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker but I guess it is time to face reality. This scarce resident may not patronize the tree again and the piercing red breast patch may be all but a distant memory for this location. I am grateful that I did not take the phenomenon for granted back then and made several visits to photograph and observe not one but at least four birds. The Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker is another striking representative of these tiny fruit eaters and it performed well enough to help ease my disappointment.

Gorging on the fruits were a few Yellow-breasted Flowerpeckers as well. Their slightly duller colouration inevitably make them less appealing in the presence of the Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker. However, close views like this do not happen all that often and they gradually received their due attention.

The Yellow-vented Flowerpecker felt that I needed more challenge than shooting at unobstructed flowerpeckers from close range. It decided to keep to the top most part of the tree and partially hidden each time it raided the fruiting tree. Which was more than I say for the fourth species present today – an unbelievably shy Orange-bellied Flowerpecker that provided no images in the end.

A walk around the nearby vicinity within the reserve yielded nothing of significance. With the temperature soaring to almost unbearable conditions, I decided to call it a day and had a sumptuous feast of my own with James, Wilson and Adrian whom I bumped into at the fruiting tree. Choice of food is not really a priority for me when I am out birding but it does not hurt to indulge and pamper one’s self once in a while.

The checklist of birds recorded:
1. Sungai Sedim