Wednesday 20 June 2018

Life in the mangroves

It has been quite some time since my last birding excursion. Heavy schedule at work and the absence of tour bookings were some of the contributing factors. A last minute booking for a half-day trip was accepted with much enthusiasm. My guest this time is originally from Australia but now based in Hong Kong as an insect researcher. The predawn thunderstorm was some cause for concern. Gloomy skies greeted us as we arrived at the mangroves of Sungai Batu in Kedah state but at least the rains had stopped by then. For that, we were truly grateful. A flash of colours darted through the undergrowth of the swamp forest as soon as we stepped into this muddy domain. It was the resident Mangrove Pitta and after all this time, the mere sight of this pitta still makes my heart skip a beat. The radiance of the sun may be absent but in its stead, the vibrant beauty of this terrestrial denizen.

The White-breasted Waterhen is probably the most encountered rail in Malaysia due to its confiding nature and common status but it is still fascinating to observe. The striking colouration also made it one of the highlights of the trip for my guest.

While we are at the subject of colouration, the resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers flaunted their way into this birding excursion and their presence certainly did not go unnoticed.

Beauty is not the only trait that makes birds such remarkable creatures. Sometimes, it is talent and ability. The Mangrove Whistler, as the name applies, is an accomplished vocalist. The distinct whip lash note of its song can be heard not only in mangroves but other suitable habitats as well. It is a species I seldom see but to be totally honest, there is nothing much there to see. Its dull colouration may help it blend in with its surroundings but it is its powerful song that makes it exceptional.

The confiding nature of this individual resulted in one of my best images of this species to date. It is also the first time I have recorded the Mangrove Whistler at this location despite countless visits in the past. The mangroves are a vital ecosystem and on this day, it provided immensely for a couple of birders on a quest to observe the alluring bird life here.

A lone Dollarbird decided to use this dead tree as a vantage point to launch its aerial assaults for winged morsels. Shooting against a gloomy sky will hardly bring out the true colours of the subject. However, nothing much can conceal that conspicuous red bill though.

Red Collared-Doves are regulars at this locality and a small flock foraging along the edge of the access road had our attention – naturally. The shooting conditions were again challenging and my images did no justice to the sultry splendour of these doves.

There are always exceptions to the rules of the animal kingdom. Among birds, a few species have their females more strikingly coloured than their male counterparts and even their roles are reversed. The Barred Buttonquail is one such bird. Anyway typical of small gamebirds, the Barred Buttonquail can be difficult to encounter despite being a common species. And a striking female standing right out in the open deserves to be posted regardless of the quality of the image.

My Australian guest enjoying the antics of a pair of Common Flamebacks...

The next and final destination of the trip was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Bird-wise, the locality did not meet expectations and it was a relatively slow visit. Some of the regular residents were on hand to ensure we do leave empty handed. A female Common Iora resting among the foliage offered one of the few photographic opportunities during our visit here. The varied and pleasant song of her mate was what caught our attention initially but he remained hidden throughout the observation.

Most foreign birders are fond of kingfishers here in Malaysia because of the birds’ character and appeal. The Collared Kingfisher is the commonest one at this birding spot and one pair of was in the process of increasing the local population. Crabs form a major part of their diet and this parent bird was bringing food back to the nest located somewhere within the swamp forest. I certainly have had better birding days at this local patch but it still felt great to be able to get out into the field again.

The acquisition of a new motorcycle helped eased my suffering during the non-birding period. Bikes have always been an integral part of my life. They are to me more than just a means of transport. My new bike may not be top of the line automobile technology but it is sufficient to inject a dose of excitement to my daily commuting and weekend escapes. It also serves as a good subject for a genre of photography that I am now beginning to explore.