Tuesday 14 August 2018


I was contacted by Spanish couple because of their interest for a day of birding around Penang. I naturally obliged but their following email nearly knocked the wind out of me. The trip to Penang will be after their birding excursion in Sepilok – one of the most renowned sites in Malaysia. Penang and its surrounding areas is not what one considers to be the main birding circuit in Malaysia. What chance does it have against a birding paradise in an exotic land like Sabah state? At that time, it looked like I have my work truly cut out for me. For the past couple of years, I have a trump card that has awed my guests, regardless of experience level, without fail. Just like clockwork, the Mangrove Pitta hopped into full view not long after our arrival at the Sungai Batu mangroves. And to have a confiding pitta as one of your very first birds of the day is right up there among the best as far as birding goes.

The resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers, having fulfilled their parental duties, are now almost back in their full splendour especially for the male.

The timing could not have been better as they brought even more colours and beauty to this swampy domain despite the female still not looking her very best.

However, it was not all smooth sailing. A few regular species were sorely missed today despite my best efforts. I can considered myself blessed as most of my guests so far are understanding people including this Spanish couple. A pair of Abbott’s Babbler was the only other species we managed to obtain at this locality. There are times when I feel bad for not being able to fully deliver and recently, it is happening more often than not. It is nothing that I have not foreseen. Destruction of habitats, pollution, poaching and trapping go unchecked. Do you think there will be no backlash for all these actions? I do not think so and neither does the Abbott's Babbler...

The Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest was the next location of the day. True to its name, the recreational area was packed with the weekend crowd. We left the human-infested areas with much haste and made our way to the isolated Gunung Bintang access trail. The trail offered mostly brief views today of the intriguing bird life found here and the 3-hour trek still captivated my guests. The only photo I have to show at the end was of a male Velvet-fronted Nuthatch indulging on some fruits in the canopy level. The nuthatch is an exquisite looking bird but it is as restless as kid who has had too much candy. He did remained still enough for a shot or two when he came across a bunch of fruits that tickled his fancy.

Apart from pittas, nightbirds are another group of birds that are highly sought after and revelled. And I knew exactly where to obtain the next highlight of the trip. It was back to the faithful empty piece of industrial land in Kulim Hi-Tech Park for the roosting Savanna Nightjars. Despite the knowledge of their preferred roosting spot, it still took some effort to locate this incredibly well-camouflaged birds.

All the squinting and straining of my visual receptors in the harsh midday sun was worth it as we recorded a total of three individuals. I could hardly contain my excitement let alone my foreign guests who needed the Savanna Nightjar for their ever-growing life list. Well, my birding circuit may not be in the same magnitude as the ones in Borneo but it can still hold its own well enough to evoke emotional pleasures. 

A little detour to the paddy fields of mainland Penang did not yield much although the White-throated Kingfishers were irresistible to my foreign guests – as usual. I usually do not stop for Yellow-vented Bulbuls but this particular individual alighted next to our stationary vehicle. It has been a long time since I last admire the subtle beauty of this common garden bird and partly also due the enthusiasm of my guests, it received my undivided attention.

The final destination of the day was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. I could not have asked for a better start to the visit as we were greeted by a family of foraging Common Flamebacks. No doubt it is a common species but the display of striking colouration and the vocal nature of the birds made it quite an overwhelming experience.

In fact, it was a good day for woodpeckers. In the morning we had brief views of the shy Maroon Woodpecker at Sungai Sedim. Here apart from the Common Flamebacks, we also had brief views of a male Streak-breasted Woodpecker. However, the best was a prolonged observation of a pair of Banded Woodpeckers. Despite the favourable duration, the dense foliage and lighting condition made it utterly frustrating for photography. The male came surprisingly close during the encounter but the photos I obtained could not truly reflect this memorable episode.

The sight and sound of an encounter with a woodpecker is perhaps one of the enthralling experiences of birding in the tropics. And today, my guests were truly mesmerized by this unique family of birds.

The resident Crested Serpent-Eagle was looking quite menacing as it gazed over its domain from a lofty perch.

A flock of huge birds glided in from the adjacent paddy fields and I knew immediately what they were. The Asian Openbills are now a regular sight here and these enigmatic storks were calling it a day as they prepared to roost for the night. The tall trees lining the river bank accommodated the storks and it would have been quite a sight if not for the distance.

Throughout the day, we have been encountering parent birds with young birds in toll. And not surprisingly, the last bird of the day was a young Olive-winged Bulbul out exploring with its parent. Judging from the parent bird’s constant supervision, it could well even be the youngster’s first day out in this big, wild world. And hopefully one day soon, it will repeat the actions of its parent and bring forth the next generation. It is always a blessing to end a day of birding with something that soothes the soul and this family of bulbuls bonding provided exactly that.

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Good vibes...

Sometimes, you can immediately tell if a person is on the same page as you and getting along well will not be an issue. Well, my latest guests was a couple from Singapore and I felt nothing but good vibes from them. The mangroves of Sungai Batu was the first location of the day. The weather was not promising but the slight drizzle could not dampened their spirit. As we geared up to get the tour going, the drizzle came to a complete halt. When my guests revealed that they had a similar preference as yours truly (that is to handhold their photography gear), my initial gut feeling about this birding couple was right on. It was still gloomy when an Abbott’s Babbler came into view and this inquisitive little bird got the ball rolling.

The resident Puff-throated Babbler strutted about the muddy terrain as it went about its daily routine. The beautiful plumage, the amazing song and lovable character makes the Puff-throated Babbler one the most interesting birds to be encountered here.

A flash of brilliant colours caught our immediate attention and I knew exactly what it was. The bleak environment only enhanced the exquisiteness of the Mangrove Pitta. The sun may be shrouded by rain clouds but the vibrancy of this terrestrial beauty illuminates the surrounding just as well.

This is a sight I can never get bored of – a Pitta absolutely confiding and at ease in your presence. My guests mentioned that experiences are a big part of what they seek in birding excursions and if this performance is not one, I do not know what is.

I cannot help but to be slightly tickled by the gait of the White-breasted Waterhen. It is the most commonly encountered rail due to its decision to live a life less elusive than others of its kind. Having said that, it is still a rail and good views like these should not go unappreciated.

Some birds cut very distinct silhouettes even from a distance. The Green-billed Malkoha, the biggest of all in Malaysia, is one such bird. However, there was a slight hesitant me for to call it out this morning as this individual had a shorter looking tail. When we got closer, the doubt about the bird’s identity vanished and we were left with good views of a Green-billed Malkoha enjoying a breather in a short tree.

Our next destination of the day was the hilly forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah state. The forest is truly an enchanted place. Not only does it house some of the most fascinating animals, it hides them from sight as well. A Grey-chested Jungle-Flycatcher was a first record for me at this site. It is understandable to overlook a small passerine but something as big as a Buffy Fish-Owl can also remained undetected until it decides to silently swoop across your path. It was a young bird and I can only assume there is a population of these nocturnal hunters here.

On the other hand, there are some diminutive forest bird that are quite conspicuous despite their size. Flowerpeckers are recorded regularly along the forested trails of Sungai Sedim. This time, it was a young Orange-bellied Flowerpecker that caught out attention. Lacking the vivid colouration of the adults did not deter the youngster from showing off to my foreign guests.

Spiderhunters are also well represented here and we managed to record three different species. The Grey-breasted Spiderhunter was the only one that provided a decent photographic opportunity when it rested briefly within its sanctuary up in the forest canopy.

It is quite safe to assume everyone knows what a woodpecker does best and the sound of a drumming woodpecker can ignite the spark to any birding excursion. A search among the middle storey of the forest revealed a female Buff-necked Woodpecker. It was testing conditions for photography and this was my feeble attempt to capture the striking plumage of this woodpecker.

It is wise to stop at any fruiting or you could risk missing out on a memorable birding affair. Unfortunately, only one species came for the fruits. But this one species was no ordinary forest bird. It was a Checker-throated Woodpecker and although the distance was not ideal for photography, this woodpecker was still a stunning subject.

On route to our last location of the day, we made a little detour in the hopes of capturing an intriguing nocturnal species that roosts within an empty plot of an industrial park. The Savanna Nightjars of Kulim Hi-Tech Park have provided numerous encounters that left quite an impression on my foreign guests. The plumage of these birds blend perfectly with their surroundings and if not for my encounters with them in the past, their presence can easily go undetected. Against the textures and colours of this concrete embankment, they are almost invisible.

A second bird was spotted not too far away and the detour was paying off handsomely. Unlike the first bird that looked remarkably like a stone, we could almost make out the shape of the bird as we approached it. Nightjars, like owls, are amazing representatives of the avian family tree and this episode with the Savanna Nightjars will go down as one of the highlights of the trip.

We took a leisurely pace to cover the elevated boardwalk of Air Hitam Dalam – our final destination of the day. The bird activity was nowhere near a good day at this local patch of mine. A young Crested Serpent-Eagle perched unobtrusively in the canopy level hoping to evade the humans intruding into its swampy domain. 

It was my guest that spotted the resting raptor and the sighting jolted the trip back to life...

This birding hotspot is a stronghold for the Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher. A handsome male was perched under pleasant lighting conditions and if you can turn away from such a beautiful sight, then you do not deserve to call yourself a birder.

The adult and immature Greater Racket-tailed Drongo was still loitering near the rear car park just like in my last visit here. The youngster looked relatively the same and was as confiding as ever.

The adult, however, lost a tail racket but that did not stop it from parading itself in front of a trio of birders. To capture the true splendour of its resplendent plumage can at times be difficult but not today. This common but impressive species wrapped things up for the day and it has been quite a day indeed. I guess good companionship also contributes to the outcome of a birding excursion at the end of the day.

Wednesday 1 August 2018

A tree full of barbets

Bukit Larut or Maxwell Hill is one of wildest hill resorts in Malaysia. Development has been kept to the minimum so far and naturally, the ecosystem is rich quite with fascinating flora and fauna aplenty. A fruiting tree at the foot of hill has been attracting a throng of feathered denizens and these in turn attracted birders and photographers from far and near. Photographing in a crowded spot is not exactly my cup of tea. Again, I would like to clarify that I am not anti-social. In a gathering like this, you will often meet up with old friends and make new ones at the same time. However, you will also come across individuals that will somehow test your patience. This time, the patience-testing incident was not severe enough for me to lose my cool and no feathers were truly ruffled at the end of it all.

The tree was short and photography should have a breeze if not for the density of the foliage. Barbets are attractive birds that usually frequent the canopy levels and a fruiting tree like is your best chance to observe and shoot them up close. The Gold-whiskered Barbet is a bulky bird and that made it difficult to obtain any unobstructed views.

The Red-throated Barbet is another behemoth representative of this family of birds. It is not as common as the former and it is the only barbet here that has sexual dimorphism. In my opinion, the males are truly striking and will have my affection every time our paths crossed. The foliage again proved to be a hindrance. In fact, it was my nemesis for the rest of the excursion here.

At one time he did briefly alight on an exposed perch but he decided to show off his namesake instead of providing a more flattering pose. And I, had to be grateful at what that has been given.

A juvenile male that lacks a complete red throat tried his best to gain some attention by being slightly more obliging.

The female, sporting the dullest plumage of all, could be bothered at all and gorging was the only thing on her mind.

On the other end of the scale is the adorable and diminutive Blue-eared Barbet. The little guy performed much better. Not only because there is less area of body to be obstructed but because it was much bolder than its bigger cousins. Since I do not have many photographs of the Blue-eared Barbet, its presence at the feast was very much appreciated.

A juvenile with almost wholly green plumage may not be as appealing as the adult but it was just as cute.

The fourth species of barbet drawn in by the tantalizing fruits were the Yellow-crowned Barbets. The adult may not be as vividly coloured as some of the other species present but I do find the subtlety intriguing. Or maybe it is one of the least encountered barbet species among the lot for me.

One of the Yellow-crowned Barbets was lacking in colours and I assume it was a young bird. The sheer number, species and plumage variations of barbets present at the fruiting tree was overwhelming. One of the reasons I made the journey here was to witness this spectacle. And I was certainly not disappointed.

A number of bulbuls joined in the feast as well. The Buff-vented Bulbul is a regular at fruiting trees in my usual birding haunts up north and here, it is no different either.

Visual aesthetics are lacking from some bulbul species and the Red-eyed Bulbul found it hard to stand out even from the bright colours of the fruits.

The Grey-bellied Bulbul share no such fate and its vivid colouration makes it a favourite among birders and photographers alike. Today, the individuals that visited the tree were certainly in the mood to be photographed.

For one bulbul species, beauty and sensuality comes very naturally indeed. It is the Scaly-breasted Bulbul and its brief visits to the tree today was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip.

Sometimes there is a chance of missing out certain species at fruiting tree when things are in full swing. That does not happen to the Scaly-breasted Bulbul. Whenever a fruiting tree is privileged enough to have this bulbul visiting, every single one present will be transfixed on this remarkable bird. Even if that remote chance, God have mercy, one overlooks a Scaly-breasted Bulbul the reaction of everyone around would have made sure that the bulbul eventually receives its due attention from the culprit.

The posterior view of the Scaly-breasted Bulbul may not evoke equal amount of admiration but it is still a head-turner.

A few flowerpeckers were also present but somehow never made their way into my photographic collection today. It comes as no surprise because compared to the barbets, they were almost invisible. It could have been an even better excursion if the male Asian Fairy-bluebird was not so wary of our presence. That leaves only a lone female Greater Green Leafbird as the only bird that is neither a barbet nor a bulbul to have its photo taken reasonably well here at this fruiting tree.

A domestic cockerel had enough and wanted some time in the limelight. Aloft his tree stump of a stage, he strutted out his act and obtained his moment of glory. He was a true professional. Everyone’s eyes were on him and I took a few shots as acknowledgment to his stellar performance.

Birds are not the only animals attracted by the fruits. A few Plaintain Squirrels also could not resist the tempting offering and feasted on the fruits with much vigour. Monkeys are known to raid the tree as well according to the locals but luckily, the only primates present today were humans.

The area surrounding the fruiting tree offered little shade and my companion for this trip, James and I decided to try our luck elsewhere as the noon hour approaches. The Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve is a locality that I have not visited for many moons. Much to my surprise, I was smitten by the beauty of the place. It somewhat reminded me of the famed Arashiyama Bamboo Grove of Japan. I could not recall it having the same effect on me during my younger years. Perhaps with age I am starting to see things in a different light.

The density of woodpeckers here was overwhelming with four species recorded within a short period of time. The Laced Woodpecker, Common Flameback and Greater Flameback did not offer much photographic opportunities. However, the smallest of them all, the Sunda Woopecker rose to occasion. Adorable and confiding, a lone bird lingered about at close proximity for a prolonged period and provided some excellent photographs for us before we wrapped things up for this fruitful day.