Wednesday 31 October 2018

Sooty to soothe the soul

I found myself with a Saturday morning to kill and decided to take a ride up north to the pristine jungle of Bukit Wang in Kedah state. This was my first long distance ride with my recently acquired iron steed and she performed up to expectations. However, I nearly rode her into a trench as I approached the entrance to the forest reserve. A pair of White-crowned Hornbills flew low across the access road like oversized Magpie-Robins. It certainly took me by surprise. By the time I safely parked her by the side of the road and geared up, the only thing that prevented the whole episode from being just a figment of my imagination were the distanced calls of the pair from deep inside their lush jungle domain. It was one hell of a way to start off a birding excursion.

At the car park area, a Grey Wagtail scurried around for breakfast along the tarmac road. This species is a common migrant throughout the country and a locality like this is the ideal wintering ground for it. The wagtail can be quite wary at times but I was drawn to the pleasant colour combination that it possesses. I was still given the evil eye despite going down on all fours to try and conceal my human form – the thing that animals usually fear.

As you approach the forest trail, there is a huge open area where raptors can sometimes be seen in flight. Although there were no predatory birds around this time, the sky was not void of birds completely. A pair of Raffles’s Malkoha leisurely glided across and I managed to capture one of them as best as I could. The blurry image did no justice to the female bird as she followed a few seconds behind her mate.

Missing the malkohas was the least of my concerns. There was something much direr that had my undivided attention. Heaps of construction stones were scattered all over. I noticed some upgrading works taking place at the recreational on my way in but this was too close for comfort. Beyond the field is where the true forest lies and the delicate balance of nature there may not be able to cope with whatever the authorities had plan.

The access road cutting through the forest has been widened and flattened. And when a tractor made its way past me from the other direction, I knew that the entire road has suffered the same fate. I can still remember the authorities so proudly labelled this area as a virgin jungle. But now, we know the virginity of this jungle is a thing of the past.

Bukit Wang is not the place for you if you do not fancy getting your feet wet. With the bridge joining the recreational area to the forested area down indefinitely, my appreciation for my rubber shoes now knows no bounds.  

As expected, not much was about due to all the commotion. I even had time to take notice of some of Mother Nature’s less significant creations – termites. To be more precious, they were Macrotermes Termites and are supposedly the largest species in Southeast Asia (thank you, Google).

The soldiers are not all looks with no bite. They are vicious and they certainly can bite. Something I know from experience...

When I came across a little brown job hawking for insects along the access road, I do not think I have ever been so excited to stalk what looked like a Dark-sided Flycatcher. When I got closer, my first assumption was dead on. This common migrant lingered about in the sunlight and that enabled me to obtain some images that turned out relatively well despite the distance.

The Red-eyed Bulbul is another drab species that do not often stir much of my emotions but today was an exception. However it was so comfortable resting under the foliage of the forest canopy, it hardly moved throughout my observation.

Lucky for me, the long ride was not a total washout. My break came when I stumbled onto a flock of Sooty Barbet feasting on a fruiting tree. I proceeded with caution and stealth and found myself a shady spot close enough to capture this peculiar barbet. Being different can be a good thing. And to be a barbet without any traces of green on its plumage and squeaks like a mouse, the Sooty Barbet certainly stands out from the rest.

The Sooty Barbet is not uncommon here but their preference for the canopy level makes it difficult to obtain good images. Naturally, I was relishing every minute of this encounter while the barbets were ravishing the succulent morsels being offered. Don’t you just love it when things fall into place perfectly?

Contemplating which bunch of fruits to feast on next... 

It has a distinct chubby appearance that makes it utterly adorable. Away from the harsh morning sun, this image shows a truer colour of this forest dweller.

The females possess light coloured bills and this girl came closest to my position – a gesture that certainly did not go unappreciated. The whole encounter lasted about half an hour or so. When the flock dispersed, I expected them to be back soon but that was all for today. Reluctantly, I carried on along the forested track until fatigue overtook enthusiasm. The ride back was slightly taxing due to the midday heat but the encounter with the Sooty Barbets certainly made the trip worth the effort.

Thursday 25 October 2018

Living colours (Part 2)

Some of the birds found here in Fraser’s Hill find it hard to respect personal space of others. But for birders, it is a trait that is most welcomed. Rufous-browed Flycatchers can be ridiculously tame at times and this individual came close enough for me to give a pat on the head. I guess this is the magic of Fraser’s Hill.

No visit here is ever complete without feasting your eyes on the splendid colouration of the Silver-eared Mesia. No doubt it is common and conspicuous here but I do not get to see it often enough. And after all these years, it can still get me excited.  

This trip the Silver-eared Mesias outdid themselves and provided several intimate encounters and photographic opportunities that were simply amazing.

I am well aware of the sexual dimorphism found in this species. Perhaps both sexes are just as spectacular that I do not even bother to take notice of the differences all that often. Here, the male in front exhibits a slightly more intense colouration to the throat and nape area compared to his mate.

However, not all avian residents of Fraser’s Hill are confiding and this resting Mountain Imperial-Pigeon reminded us that we are dealing with completely wild birds here and occasionally may not adhere to the will of man.

With its preference for the canopy levels, the Large Cuckoo-shrike usually does not provide close encounters. But it is not uncommon here. Its vocal nature especially in flight makes it rather conspicuous in a way.

It took some persistence to finally obtained great views of the Fiery-tufted Barbet this trip. This remarkable resident of the montane forest is a pure delight to photograph and it certainly left a lasting impression on my guest.

The larger than life personality with eye lashes that are the envy of women everywhere and as well as vivid coloration makes the Fiery-tufted Barbet one of the most distinct species of birds found here.

On the last day of our birding adventure, we have not forgotten about the Red-headed Trogon. We spent the morning along Hemmant’s Trail as there was where we came the closest to tasting success. A male bird offered a brief view at a distance and that only compounded our frustrations. After checking out from the hotel, we decided to give it a final try. It was almost noon and with each passing minute, our chance grew ever slimmer. Just as we about to give up hope, I spotted the trogon resting just next to the forest trail. Finally, after more than six attempts along this isolated stretch of the hill resort, we got the Red-headed Trogon. It would have been perfect had it been the male but the all the anxiety leading up to this moment and the confiding nature of this female bird made the encounter as good as it is ever going to get.

We took our time to savour the moment and this girl was more than happy to oblige. I am not sure about my guest but I was feeling a little out of breath as we positioned ourselves the best we could to capture her images. It could have been the sight of the trogon perched so elegantly on this curvy vine or the suspense of the hunt. She did shift position once during our observation before flying deeper into the forest to join her mate. The male, yet again, taunted us from a distance. I guess in life, sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

Here is Paul, on his knees, in the presence of a startling beauty. He added one more trogon for his lifetime gold and yours truly, an overwhelming sense of satisfaction (and relieve) for helping him achieve his targets for the trip. Just in case you are wondering why I am taking photos of a human instead of a trogon, the latter was so cooperative I had ample time to do basically anything I want.

Shortly after mist began crawl up from the valley below and rain clouds darkened the sky. It could well be only a coincidence but I like to take it as divine intervention. A soft word of gratitude was uttered to a higher power before we start our descent from the birding haven. Fraser’s Hill proved once again why it is one of the best birding locations in Malaysia. And for both of us, it was certainly a memorable visit. It is routine for me to stopover at the Kek Lok Tong cave temple in Ipoh for my drives back to Penang. The temple with its impressive and artistic limestone formations is quite a sight to behold. Although Paul did give this natural phenomenon its due attention, it was not our main reason for the visit here. The temple grounds were rather devoid of interesting birds this time with the exception of a Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo hunting along the boundary of the temple.

At the car park area, we encountered one of the reasons birders flock to this place of worship – the resident Blue Rock-Thrushes. Accustomed to human presence, these limestone dwellers usually provide great photographic opportunities. The female although slightly less intense in colouration put on a memorable performance for a couple of weary visiting birders.

But once the radiant male makes an appearance, all eyes and lenses were on him. The Blue Rock-Thrush was a fitting end to another fantastic road trip and his vivid colouration certainly went well with my guest’s taste for luscious colours of the avian world. The drive back was smooth although there intermittent showers along the way. But one thing is for sure. Both of us, had one particular bird in our thoughts and it was the Red-headed Trogon that almost got the better of us.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Living colours (Part 1)

It is always nice to hear back from a guest again and a couple of years have passed since Paul’s first birding excursion with me in Malaysia. He hails from Costa Rica – a place where one regularly encounters such divine species like the Resplendent Quetzal. What could possibly trigger his return visit to this part of the world? Well during his maiden trip here, the Mangrove Pitta was sorely missed. And he still needs a Red-headed Trogon to stride closer to achieving his lifetime goal of photographing all the Trogon species in the world. It was doable assignment and confidence was high. All that was needed was another trip to the mangroves of Sungai Batu for the former and a road trip up to the montane forest of Fraser’s Hill for the latter. But after all these years, I still do forget that nothing is a sure thing when it comes to birding. Something that I will be reminded of harshly later in the trip.

Our 3-day birding adventure certainly did not start off well. While waiting to pick up Paul at the hotel lobby, overcast skies loomed with showers agonisingly poured from the heavens. Rain is and always will be one of the most dreaded elements in birding. Anyway, we travelled north to the mangroves as planned and hoped for the best. The Mangrove Pitta may not be looking its best now but it was still an exhilarating lifer for my guest. Compared to the last time Paul was here, getting the Pitta was like a walk in the park. A muddied park but the pitta was certainly worth getting a bit dirty for. It just goes to show again that not everything can go according to plan. But I am glad it did for the Mangrove Pitta this time.

With the first main target of the trip safely in the bag, the weather also improved slightly. Or it seemed that way. Paul has a penchant for brilliantly coloured birds and naturally, he could not resist the alluring beauty of the Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher despite having encountered this species before in his previous visit. Besides, it would a sin to ignore such an obliging individual.

I do think wagtails occur in Central America judging from the reaction of my guest when we came face to face with a Forest Wagtail. Strikingly marked and adorable, this common winter visitor received its due admiration as it swaggered about the swampy grounds.

By the time, we reached the windy Gap Road that leads up to the birding paradise known as Fraser’s Hill, it was already dark. It was an early night for the both of us in anticipation of the all-out birding that is to follow tomorrow. It turned out to be a clear and beautiful morning the next day. Fraser’s Hill is one of my favourite birding sites and I am sure I am not the only birder that feels this way. The cool mountain air, the lush landscape, beautiful architectures and most importantly home to an array of living colours in the form of feathered denizens. All these make Fraser’s Hill what it is.

We set out for the second main target of the trip but much to my dismay, the Red-headed Trogon proved to be elusive even from its usual haunts. Despite numerous attempts throughout the day, the closest we got to it was a lone bird calling from deep inside its forest domain. My work suddenly became much harder than I had anticipated. A male White-tailed Robin did his best to lift our spirits by foraging outside his gloomy domain of the forest undergrowth.

Some of the commonest birds of this hill resort sport brilliant plumage colouration. The Spectacled Laughingthrush is often taken for granted due to its common nature but to my guest, it was a sight to behold as this is his first birding excursion to a montane forest here in Southeast Asia.

The Long-tailed Sibia, like the laughingthrush, is just as confiding. It may be lacking in colours but the long tail and inquisitive nature make it another attractive species as well.

We have only a few endemics here in Peninsular Malaysia. Naturally, I take pride in showing off the Malaysian Hill-Partridge to all my foreign guests. This endemic game bird has been showing well at one particular stake out for the past few years and it did not take long for three of them to scurry their way into today’s highlights.

I sometimes still find it hard to believe that this bird used to be one of the most difficult to find and observe at this site. But that is in the past. Now with a little patience and the right timing, you will get to admire flocks of these amazing birds in their full splendour.

Joining the partridges, was a pair of Malayan Laughingthrushes. Slightly more cryptic and unobtrusive than the Spectacled Laughingthrush, it is still made up of a combination of colours that will capture your attention.  

The dimly-lighted lower storey of the forest is where the Large Niltava can be found. Even in the shadows, the striking colouration of the male bird is undeniable.

On those occasions when he does wander into the sunlight, the true splendour of this sizeable flycatcher will be revealed and it is spectacular. Even with those hideous rings on his legs.

The female on the other hand is a pale comparison to the male’s beauty. Only traces of blue can be found on her but the confiding nature exhibited by this girl deserves a space in my blog post. And she concludes the first half of our birding excursion to one of the most rewarding birding sites in Malaysia. The second half of this birding adventure continues in the next post.