Wednesday 30 January 2019

Urbanized Owls

My first tour of the year brought to the hilly forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah state. With the fruiting trees coming into season again as expected, my American client Michael was in for a treat but was not aware of it yet as I picked him from a hotel in the middle of Georgetown City. It was his maiden birding trip to my Malaysia and nearly every bird that came to the fruiting tree was a lifer including the common Cream-vented Bulbuls.

Red-eyed Bulbuls are another common species of the forest here and as expected, a few were gorging on the fruits available.

Uncommon would best describe the Ashy Bulbul and the black mask undoubtedly enhances its appeal. It is seen sporadically at fruiting trees here and its presence today was well appreciated.

With some many varieties of bulbuls sharing the same home, some are bound to evolve and fill up niches that are not so typical of bulbuls like the Yellow-bellied Bulbul. The dim lighted lower storey of the forest is where it frequents and patronizing fruiting trees is about the only time where it reveals itself more than usual.

The star bird at the fruiting tree today was the splendid Grey-bellied Bulbul. It stood out from the rest for its vibrant colouration. Naturally, it had Michael’s undivided attention.

There were a number of flowerpeckers present at the fruiting tree as well. Due to their minute size, good photographic opportunities were far and few. For some unknown reason, they seemed to be particularly restless today. Anyway, the only image that was decent enough to be posted here is of a handsome male Orange-bellied Flowerpecker.

The only sunbird you will usually find patronizing fruiting trees in Sungai Sedim is the Plain Sunbird. The common names of some birds can be misleading but not for this species. The only sign of splendour, present on all male sunbird species, is a small patch of iridescent green on the forecrown. This shot, despite all its flaws, shows that patch well enough.

While we were entertained by the feeding frenzy at the fruiting tree, the territorial calls of gibbons echoed through the vicinity. Captivated, Michael was disappointed when we could not locate a single one of them despite being in such close proximity. Then, like an answered prayer, a lone individual suddenly swung into view and it was an Agile Gibbon.

Shortly after, the reason for the boldness exhibited by this usually wary animal was known. There was another fruiting tree in bloom and like I always say, gluttony is a deadly sin few can resist. And the encounter with this amazing primate was one of the highlights of the trip.

There was one more mission I need to accomplish before concluding this half day excursion. My guest expressed his desire to see a Barred Eagle-Owl and lucky for him, I knew exactly where to fulfil his desire. The location is a modest suburban park but it is home to pair of these intriguing night birds. It did not take long to locate the owls this time as they were roosting on a smaller tree. As usual, it was an exciting lifer for my foreign guest.   

The second owl appeared smaller and I assume should be the male bird. However, his roosting perch was more concealed and there was no way to obtain any better images without the risk of disturbing the roosting pair. Anyway, the Barred Eagle-Owls did more than enough to provide the ideal end to this short excursion and a good start to hopefully another year of hopefully rewarding tour excursions.

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Counting waterbirds...

The emergence of the Chinese Egrets in Penang Island revived my passion for tidal habitats and the birds that find sanctuary there. I used to spend hours on end at the mudflats of Bagan Belat back in the day. Back when hundreds or even thousands of waders were present at this coastline. Sadly in recent years, the objects of my obsession have shifted to rather inaccessible areas. This and the destruction of most of the good wader sites in my home state has kept me away from indulging in wader watching. Each January, the Asian Waterbird Count (AWC) takes place throughout the continent and on this beautiful Saturday morning, I decided to do my part.

The tide was about right and the weather was good. But as expected, not much variety of waders were present at the extensive mudflats of Bagan Belat. Common Redshanks were the most numerous species present and it has been that way for quite some time.

A huge flock of white birds with black wings started to fly out from the mangroves and alighted beyond the edge of the mudflats. The birds were too far for me too positively identify them. Habitat may be ideal but they sure the hell were not Milky Storks – not in this kind of number anyway. Asian Openbills are a better bet and this is the first time I am encountering them in a marine habitat.

Eventually some of them flew over to my end of the mudflats and their identity were no longer in doubt.

One can always hope of something rare when gazing at flocks of waders out in the mudflats. Imagination can only take you so far but when seen well, it is not easy to misidentify a Common Greenshank for a Nordmann’s Greenshank.

All the egrets present were scrutinized to make sure I do not overlook a would-be rarity. I have recorded the globally vulnerable Chinese Egret here once before but today, only the Great Egret provided any form of excitement from this family of birds.

The resident pair of Brahminy Kites were up to their usual routine of scavenging and the occasional piracy of egrets’ fresh caught preys. However, what goes round comes round and the kites have to put up with the constant mobbing of the House Crows.

A fair number of Whiskered Terns were also present and the river mouth seemed to have their undivided attention today. A short walk along the rocky wave breaker got me into a better position to photograph these angelic and graceful birds. It is not easy but the good lighting helped tremendously.

Poetry in motion – the bird and not the photography…

After the AWC, I swung by the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam only to find a group of schoolchildren making their presence felt along the canopy walk. This location holds the status of an educational forest but judging from the level of noise and disturbance this group was making, I doubt there will be much education to be learned from this trip. The wintering Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo has been quite tolerant to human presence so far this season but nothing could have prepared it for the commotion that was now taking place. Inevitably, it was nervous and skittish and a record shot was all I could muster.

The male Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker is an exquisite creature despite his common status. Naturally he had my attention and from the look of things, I had his too (in a bad way). Not today, huh bud?

By the later half of the morning, the temperature started to soar and so did some of the birds. More Asian Openbills were seen again and this time at much closer proximity.

Poetry in motion – again the birds and not the photography…

Ever wondered how this stork got its name? Apparently only mature birds will sport this distinct gap between mandibles.

When a striking adult Brahminy Kite leisurely glided into view it was deja vu again. First the Openbills and now this common raptor.

I was just thinking to myself that there is another species that often patrols the sky above the swamp forest here this time of year and just like a staged performance, in came a trio of Black Kites from the adjacent paddy fields.

The kites were probably back to rest after the morning’s hunt and their favourite site is the row of big trees across the river. Enjoying the sight of a tree full of Black Kites is something you rarely get to say especially here in Malaysia.

This male Common Flameback signalled his arrival by uttering a series of his loud territorial call. Although this species is a regular here, I have always adored his vivid colouration. Today, he was particularly obliging and I think I took some of my best images of the species to date.

After the exciting encounter with the Common Flameback, I was ready to call it a day. The heat of the midday sun was starting to wear me out. But, this birding hotspot was not quite done. A male Banded Woodpecker alighted so close that it gave me a startle. This species can be exceedingly tame here at times and this was certainly one of those occasions. He was somehow attracted to a clump of Nipah Palms and most probably is about food. A dried palm frown coincidentally provide an interesting backdrop for the photo.

By that time, lighting was getting harsh. Despite the confiding nature of the woodpecker, some of my images somehow do not quite hit the mark. Nevertheless, like the woodpecker, I took my time to gradually move out of the vicinity. My last visit here was rather mundane but today was a whole different story. And it did not even involved one single uncommon species.

I would have missed the last bird of the day had I not seen it fly onto the perch. Indian Cuckoos are common migrants and there are at least two individuals wintering here this season. It is no award-winning photograph but sometimes, experiences matter more. And observing this handsome male Indian Cuckoo resting among the shadows of the canopy foliage is an intriguing experience indeed.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Big is beautiful

I yearned again to visit the nightbirds residing in the forest surrounding Pedu Lake in Kedah. Together with James, we departed from Penang in the middle of the night in order to reach our destination in time to catch these nocturnal hunters before they retire for the day. We stopped at a 24-hour fast food outlet for some breakfast to go and was surprised to see the number of patrons present at this hour. For them, their Friday night out was drawing to an end. But for us, it was just beginning. Upon arrival at this birding haven, we found it was a clear night and the view of the Milky Way from was mesmerizing as always.

Soon after, the diagnostic call of the Large Frogmouth echoed through the vicinity. My stargazing interest came to an abrupt halt because no astronomical spectacle can ever overshadow the presence of a Large Frogmouth. It did not take much effort to locate this amazing bird - again. Like my previous encounter, it was on an open perch at the edge of the forest. Only this time, it was a natural perch. For me, owling is one of the most difficult aspects of birding as we humans are certainly out of our element when darkness falls. However on those rare occasions when the subjects that we seek reveal themselves so obligingly, I cannot help but to believe in the existence of a Greater power.

The Large Frogmouth finally made it into my life list only a few years back (heard only records do not count in my book). Since then, I have been seeing it in the field quite regularly. Sometimes when you finally unblock a species, it shows up everywhere and makes you wonder why it took so long for you to see one. Anyway, the Large Frogmouth is a beautiful and remarkable species and I feel blessed that it is found in one of my regular haunts.

It was unfortunate that the Buffy Fish-Owl, Sunda Scops-Owl and Blyth’s Frogmouth only provided audio records this time. But the Large Frogmouth did enough to compensate for the rest. The breaking of dawn awakened the diurnal birds from slumber and the first one to break the silence was a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. But the one vocal that had my undivided attention was not unlike the braying of donkeys and it is one of the largest (maybe even the largest) woodpeckers in the world. Great Slaty Woodpeckers are very vocal by nature and they seldom occur alone. That makes it almost impossible not to take notice of them whenever they are present.

A pair of this magnificent species kept us entertained for a prolonged period of time. They were not only foraging. Love was in the air as frequent courtship displays were observed. The male sports the red moustache but both birds are just as vigorous with their show of public affection.

The tallest canopies are their stage of choice. The distance and the speed of the birds’ movements made it difficult for my modest photography setup. But the encounter was a treat for the soul nevertheless.

In flight, the Great Slaty Woodpecker was just as difficult to capture. The flight is often direct and rapid and the only reasonable image I managed was strongly backlighted. The joys of forest bird photography...

A male Oriental Honey-Buzzard cast an eerie shadow as it glided very low overhead. Its presence panicked some of the smaller passerines as it is after all a predatory bird. The whole episode went by so quickly that I only managed a single shot before the buzzard disappeared beyond the gap in the canopy.

Pedu Lake is home to three species of Fish-Eagles and the biggest of them all is the White-bellied Sea-Eagle. The name may be misleading as this species is equally at home inland especially in the vicinity of a large body of water. There is no denying it is a common species even in Penang but the sheer size and beauty of this eagle will not stop me to be still in awe of its presence.

The Changeable Hawk-Eagle is smaller in size but it is much more tenacious as a hunter. An immature bird with a newly caught lizard delayed our departure from this birding haven. The lizard was nothing but a snack as this eagle is known to take much bigger prey. Today’s excursion may not have the quantity to match a typical good day of birding here but it did have its significant moments. The Large Frogmouth and the Great Slaty Woodpeckers alone was worth the trip here. Two iconic forest dwellers whose sizes are truly exceptional and presence, electrifying. We also recorded some birds that have gone missing for months and that is always a good thing.