Thursday 19 July 2018

Testing times...

Birding is full of surprises. Some are good and others are not. My two most recent tours fall short of expectations and it was even possible to combine them into a single blog posting. I always remind myself that I am dealing with completely wild and free subjects that do not necessary bend to the will of Man. It offers some relief but it is still disheartening not to be able provide a complete birding experience for my foreign guests. My first outing took me and my Singaporean guest to the mangroves of Sungai Batu in Kedah state. It started off well enough with another mesmerising performance by the resident Mangrove Pitta. It was a new species for my guest and naturally, the encounter was memorable.

The inquisitive Abbott’s Babblers were the supporting cast at this swampy domain as they went about their daily routine cheerfully. In fact if I am not mistaken, one of the field guides even describes the call of this non-descript babbler as “three-cheers-for-you”.

A few other regulars of this birding site helped to make the visit enjoyable and exciting. We then decided to try our luck elsewhere and that was when this half-day excursion began to slide downhill. Strong winds days before again caused havoc to the Air Hitam Educational Forest uprooting trees. It is unbelievably quiet today and the birds that were present were just simply being difficult. A Olive-winged Bulbul foraging at the car park area was given full attention as it was one of the few birds that managed to find its way into my memory card.

The only other species worth mentioning was the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. A parent bird was showing an immature bird the ropes and their confiding nature was certainly the highlight of the visit here.

There were only subtle differences between the adult and the youngster. The latter’s present signified another successful season for this species here. Soon, it will attain its adult plumage and hopefully, live a fruitful life at this swampy domain. It was also the last bird of the trip. Air Hitam Dalam seldom disappoints but today it did.

For my second outing, I found myself and my Australian guests in the pristine forest surrounding Pedu Lake in Kedah. The weather was ideal and the lush landscape was as enchanting as always. However, the birds were far and few. Common but beautiful species that regular greet my visiting guests were no where to be seen. White-bellied Munias and Crested Jays could have lifted the trip had they been a little more obliging. My saviour of the visit here did not come from the trees above but from the undergrowth. A Black-capped Babbler strolling next to a forest trail provided the only photographic opportunity for me at this site. A far from perfect shot but it captured the true essence of this terrestrial skulker.

It is always good to have a contingency plan and the feathered denizens of Sungai Batu mangroves have always had my back. But to my dismay, the star bird was absent today. The return of the Puff-throated Babblers, which were not present during my last few visits, could not fully compensate my failure to locate the Mangrove Pitta. Today has been one of the toughest tours I have to conduct. Not so much physically but emotionally. This past two days has been truly testing times but it is something that comes with the job.

The resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers provided much-needed colours to our visit here despite the male looking far from his best.

Our last destination of the trip was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Owls happened to be a favourite with my guests and my efforts to locate the roosting Spotted Wood-owls of this birding spot fell flat – inevitably. A confiding Black-and-red Broadbill helped save the trip from being a total let down and whatever pride I had left. Vivid colouration and looking absolutely lovable, this beautiful bird will always be a big hit among my guests.

While making our way back to the car, we were intercepted by a flock of Pin-striped Tit-babblers. Arboreal babblers are usually a nightmare for photography and just to follow the movement of these little birds was a challenge. Perhaps sensing our dismay, one individual decided to remained put long enough for us to capture a couple of reasonable photos before it went back into hyper mode. Considering our luck today, I was grateful for the little guy’s contribution.

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Must be my lucky day...

The Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest is the closest good forest birding site to home. Despite having to cross over the state border, the drive there is not strenuous. Or perhaps I frequent the lush surroundings there too often to feel it anymore. This time, I hosted a birding couple originally from England but now residing in Penang under the Malaysia My Second Home program. We took the usual trek up Gunung Bintang and it did not take long for the first resident here to capture our attention. A Purple-naped Spiderhunter was flitting about under the cover of the forest canopy and from this angle, the gender of this active little bird could be ascertained. Judging from its inquisitive behaviour, I would put my bet on a male.

Trogons are one of the most striking birds of the tropical rainforest. It was only natural the call of a Scarlet-rumped Trogon gave the trip a much required lift as things were relatively slow. It took some effort to locate the bird and the distance was a little too far to my liking. However, this handsome male was resting on an exposed perch and I could feel the exhilaration escaping from my guests. I would be lying to state that I was not a bit influenced.

One particular bird that has frustrated most of my photographic attempts of it thus far despite being quite a common forest bird is the Chestnut-breasted Malkoha. A pair moving along the canopy level naturally captured our attention. It is after all huge and colourful. I followed the movement of one and the images turned out acceptable after a struggle. It turned out to be the female bird told by her yellowish eyes.

Only when the lovers reunited at the top most canopy did I realize that her mate was preening on an exposed perch all this while. It was a rare sight – for me anyways. I had to be grateful to the female for leading me to her mate because I could have easily overlooked his presence.

The male, told by his bluish eyes, presented what should be my best photographic opportunity for the species to date. The angle was tight and the lighting harsh but he was out in the open and seemed to have no plans to get anywhere in a hurry. My guest captured this sweet encounter with the Chestnut-breasted Malkoha in their first attempt. I had to wait more than a decade. If birding is not mostly luck, then I do not know what is.

A quick detour to the grasslands of Kulim Hi-Tech Park did not yield any roosting Savanna Nightjars but it did produce something much better - a pair of Barred Buttonquails. The pair was caught off-guard as they walked straight towards our stationary vehicle. Normally, it will take nothing short of a miracle to have good views of this gamebird in the open. I guess today was our lucky day. Unusual for birds, the female is the better looking of the pair. And she was not that easily fooled. As soon as she got on to our ploy, her pace quickened. Out of the dozens of shots I took, only one had her unobstructed and sharp.

The same can be said for my efforts with her duller mate…

After a quick but filling lunch, we made our way to the mangroves of Sungai Batu. This locality has been the centre of attention of late because of the presence of an obliging Ruddy Kingfisher. We were greeted by a few like-minded individuals, as expected, upon our arrival. Although it was a no-show from the kingfisher, the other species present provided a memorable affair for my guests. And for them, I doubt that the Ruddy Kingfisher would have been able to overshadow the Mangrove Pitta. A pitta is a pitta and every encounter has a certain amount of magic and awe subject to one’s familiarity with the species. Judging from their reaction, I do not see the need to ask if this pitta was new to them.

In prime condition, a male Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher is a splendid species. Today, he looked rather unkempt. Perhaps as a result of the recent nesting season or moult. But sometimes it is all about the choice of perch and his choice today, was a good one.

A few other species were sorely missed during this visit but there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to birding. Lacking in colours but not in character, the Abbott’s Babblers had their share of the limelight when they emerged from their swampy domain and they were the last birds to be photographed before we took our leave.

The final destination for the day was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. By that time, we started to lose ambient light as dark clouds made their back again to my home state. Rain was a concern as the weather was dreadful the day before. Luckily, the tour was coming to a close but we still had time to enjoy a small spectacle. It was a flock of Asian Openbills retreating back to their roost earlier than usual no doubt triggered by the approaching storm. A few Brahminy Kites were also settling in for the day. One was rested on a rather interesting perch and I thought it would make a good image. I usually strive for crisp and clear images of the birds I encounter. This image is neither due to the distance and lighting but I still fancy it enough to use it to conclude this time’s trip posting.

Wednesday 4 July 2018

Realm of the hornbills

I took a drive up north with two birding companions, James and Hor Kee, and our destination was the virgin jungles of Bukit Wang in Kedah state. The weather yesterday morning was just awful and wet but as we were approached the borders of the forest reserve, daybreak revealed clear skies. It was a relief for the group. A colony of nesting Baya Weavers broke the silence with their constant vocalization and soon after, the other residents of this fruit orchard located at the edge of the forest reserve joined in the dawn chorus.

The Raffles’s Malkoha is the smallest of our Malkoha. It may be small but it is just as striking as the bigger species. Birds with preference for the forest canopy have always been a hindrance for photography but today, this handsome male rested for a prolonged period of time right out in the open. It was a sight I rarely encounter for this species and despite the challenging lighting condition, I was determined to make the best out of the situation.

We were still lingering beyond the borders of the reserve when a lone female Wreathed Hornbill came into view. Unfortunately, she was perched at top of the hill and the distance was just too great for my gear. Moments later, the diagnostic hooting notes of the enigmatic White-crowned Hornbill filled the vicinity and it sounded very close. Eventually, we managed to locate a pair and they were resting in a densely foliaged tree. We waited in vain for better photographic opportunities because the pair seemed adamant in hiding themselves at every stop they make as they moved along the edge of the orchard.

The reason for the hornbills’ skittish behaviour soon revealed itself. It was a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo and the presence of these omnivorous hornbill certainly hit the nerve of this much smaller but feisty bird. The drongo kept watch on the hornbills like a hawk and will mob them whenever they alighted on more exposed perches. It only relinquished its sentry duty when the hornbills were gone. As frustrating as it may be, I still have to hand it to the drongo for its determination and tenacity.  

While we were recovering from the White-crowned Hornbill episode, a Great Hornbill flew across the clear blue sky but at a distance. I do not encounter this species as often as I would like to and this sighting did not go unappreciated.

A female Buff-necked Woodpecker provided what should be for me the highlight of the trip. This smallish woodpecker is strikingly marked and utterly adorable. I do not have many good images of this species despite numerous encounters in the past. Their size and preference for the canopy is to be blamed – as usual. But today, this confiding girl, performed exceptionally and I was smitten by both her beauty and charm.

One of the challenges of forest bird photography is the lighting. Under the cover of the canopy, your skills will be tested. For me and my gear, I am often at the losing end. It is times like this that one truly appreciates the existence of photographic software.

Uneven lighting is another drawback. Here, the poor girl appeared to be wearing a mask...

Luckily, there was a happy ending to the encounter. And on the last perch, everything fell into place perfectly. A  Buff-rumped Woodpecker in all its splendour. Lacking the red malar stripe of the male bird was no longer an issue. This female has given me the best encounter with the species to date. A timely reminder as well for me as to why I continue to slog it out in the forest which I often end up empty handed. It is because of moments like this that make birding in the forest such an enthralling experience.

In northern Peninsular Malaysia, the Streak-eared Bulbul often outnumbers the Yellow-vented Bulbul. It has a tendency to be vocal but somehow, I find it hard to have decent views of the bird despite its common status. Like today, a handful were calling and moving about the scrublands. At the end of the day, the only shot I managed to obtain is of one bird preening at the top of a tree. And from the photo, I cannot help but to think it was mocking me with a wave...

We should have made our way into the borders of the reserve but decided to spend some time at the car park area. A decision we did not live to regret. The Macaranga Tree is coming into season again and a brief visit by a pair of Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrots could well be a sign of things to come. So far, we had recorded three species of hornbills and that itself is quite a feat for any locality. A distant call not unlike the yelping of puppies signalled the arrival of the forth species of the day. A flock of five Bushy-crested Hornbills were moving about the top most part of the canopy and this distant spectacle was best enjoyed through my bins.

When the flock flew across gaps in the canopy, I could finally obtain better images. Although it lacks the size and contrasting colours of some of the other hornbills, the Bushy-crested Hornbill is still just as amazing and its presence will conjure a heightened sense of exhilaration. Bukit Wang is proving to be a stronghold for these incredible birds and wherever hornbills roam, you can be sure I will be a regular visitor to the locality.

A Black-and-yellow Broadbill will usually be able to brightened up any birding excursion. Vivid colouration and adorable outlook is a winning combination few can resist. However, the pair present at the car park today was uncooperative with the female offering very little than record shots.

A flock of small birds flitting about the top of a tall dead tree turned out to be Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes. This species is just one of the many striking denizens that call the forest here home. Typically, the canopy level is where it is most comfortable and a few record shots of a male bird singing away was all I have to show for the encounter.

The trail here takes you through some of the most breath-taking forest sceneries in this part of the peninsular. Today’s surprising clear blue sky provided the finishing touch to the blissful aura oozing from this lush landscape. I do not often get myself transfixed on surrounding vegetation when I am out birding but for the forest here, I am more than willing to make an exception.

A Chestnut-necklaced Partridge proclaiming its territory with its far-carrying call was a first record for this location. As significant as this record was, it was only an audio record despite efforts put in to locate this scarce gamebird. A male Orange-breasted Trogon was the only bird along the forest trail captured in my camera’s sensor this time. A little disappointing no doubt but the early half of the morning outside the reserve had already made the trip worth the while. If four hornbills species (and a confiding Buff-rumped Woodpecker) in one morning could not justify the 3-hour round trip, nothing else in this world could.