There will always be challenges when one is a bird guide by profession. I am fully aware of that and sometimes, I think I would have given up had I been a lesser man. It takes a considerable amount of effort to conduct memorable birding tours here in northern Peninsula Malaysia and with each passing year it seems to get harder. What is a guide to do when his client has seen over 5000 species of birds? Well, my latest guest Sue has such a life list and all I could do was pray that the rarer birds perform above expectations – pray real hard. If that was not challenging, I had a shortage of time as she will be arriving in a cruise ship and that takes away almost two hours of prime birding time in the morning. Lucky for me, Sue and her partner Pam still appreciates the commoner species and lifers to them are not the only thing in birding. The Mangrove Pitta of Sungai Batu in Kedah state has been my saviour on countless occasions and it is no different this time. A pitta is a pitta and close encounters like this will leave even the most seasoned birders grasping for air.
The Puff-throated Babbler may not possess the electrifying presence of the pitta but its melodious song and inquisitive nature makes it a noteworthy species to encounter in the field.
Woodpeckers are known for their striking appearances and the Banded Woodpecker certainly does live up to expectations. A pair was seen sunning themselves at the edge of the mangroves. They were so indulged with the activity that our intrusion was ignored. The Banded Woodpecker is not an uncommon species and I am sure my guests have seen it before. They took the time to enjoy the encounter and it came as no surprise because I would have done the same.
The paddy fields of mainland Penang were up next and one of the flooded patches yielded a number of waders. Among the shades of brown was a Long-toed Stint almost in full breeding plumage. This peep is one of the most attractive species that occurs in freshwater habitats. The breeding colours only intensifies its appeal.
This is probably the best time of the year to have all three species of Pond-Herons at a single location – something somewhat unique to Penang state. Finding a Chinese Pond-Heron will never be an issue as it is the commonest of them all.
The Javan Pond-Heron, on the other hand, will require a little more effort. We came across this striking individual hunting on a flooded patch. Using our car as a hide, we managed to obtain good images of this uncommon migrant.
A plain looking Pond-Heron immediately caught my attention. As soon as I had my bins on it, I could hardly contain my excitement. It was my first Indian Pond-Heron in two seasons. Discovered wintering in Malaysia only less than 20 years ago in a paddy field just like this in Penang, my home state still remains to be the place in the country where it is more regularly recorded.
The last destination for the day was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. It was also my last chance to get Sue a lifer for this trip. As fate would have it, the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher would be a lifer for her. Initially, I thought it was a sure thing until I failed to locate the resident pair at Sungai Batu. Then again there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to birding. Today, the God’s are kind to me and it did not take long for her to enjoy her one and only lifer. But for me, the highlight from this location is a roosting Spotted Wood-Owl. Unlike previous visits, it was not partially hidden by the vegetation. Owls like pittas, have an aura of intrigue that captivates even if it is a common species.
The checklist of birds recorded:
1. Sungai Batu
2. Permatang Pauh
3. Air Hitam Dalam