For the second consecutive month, a noteworthy species has been recorded showing well in Penang Island. Both these birds were discovered by godfather’s friend, Mr. Chn’g whom we helped start his conversion into a birder. The first bird was the resplendent male Van Hasselt’s Sunbird and for the second, he really outdid himself. It was the scarce migratory Chinese Egret which only a handful has been seen in the state for the past 30 years or so. The sunbird, with its spectacular colouration, naturally had crowds of birders paying homage to. A Chinese Egret in winter plumage do not possess such appeal but for a waterbird lover like yours truly (and a few others), the presence of this globally vulnerable egret is just as exciting.
It did not take long for me to find myself scanning the coastline off Karpal Singh Drive for the Chinese Egret only to fail on my first attempt. Dave, who was there as well, reassuringly stated that I should try in the morning despite the less favourable lighting conditions because the egret performed well for him earlier that day. Not exactly the start I hoped for to kick off my birding for the year 2019. Luckily, the location was only a 5 minutes’ ride from my home and I was back the next morning. As soon as I stepped on the rocky shoreline I could see a lone egret foraging and there it was, a Chinese Egret looking absolutely at home in this bleak landscape of mud and surf. It was rather confiding and I soon got myself into a good position to observe and photograph this beautiful egret. In fact, this is the closest I have ever been to a Chinese Egret and the pounding of my heart was the only thing I could hear at that time.
There was literally no cover for me on this beach. My human form was in full view of the egret and I had to improvise. I used my windbreaker to cover my head and upper body and crouched down uncomfortably among rocks lined with spiky barnacles. I could also feel the tide rising towards my ankles but none of that mattered. I could not be entirely sure if my plan worked or the egret was just tolerant to human presence. It gradually made its way ever closer to me and the encounter now was beyond words.
It is not easy to photograph white birds especially in harsh lighting conditions like this. I did the best I could as the Chinese Egret performed well as predicted. All my previous encounters with this species do not even come close to this. I was totally lost in the moment. This seaside drive is popular with anglers, joggers, walkers and all kinds of humans. No doubt I was drawing the usual stares with my antics but this is a Chinese Egret we are talking about and they can stare all they want.
The privileged visitor had a taste for the local prawns and it seemed quite apt in obtaining this succulent meal.
Egrets are often ignored in the field because most of the species that occur in Malaysia are common – even abundant. The two least encountered species would be the Chinese Egret and the Pacific Reef-Egret. And to see the two of them together like this is a true blessing.
The harsh lighting also made it difficult to obtain good images of this dark morph Pacific Reef-Egret. Being the second rarest egret, I was naturally eager to increase my digital collection of this attractive egret. Unlike the Chinese Egret, it is a resident that occurs throughout the year.
Both species look remarkably alike especially if it is the white morph Pacific Reef-Egret. Although Dave has confirmed the identity of the Chinese Egret, it was still a good opportunity to study the differences between the two species. I have made a few photo montages of the two species. It would have been better if the Pacific Reef-Egret was a white morph bird but I guess beggars can’t be choosers. And the differences, apart from colour, are subtle. For me, the most discerning would be the length of the tarsus and that would be difficult if the bird is seen alone.
I should be happy with the encounter and all the images I managed to obtain of the Chinese Egret. They are definitely my best to date. But the lighting was overwhelming at that time of the day and inevitably, I was back at this popular esplanade in the evening hoping to capture the egret in better light.
Like the previous evening, the egret was no where to be found. A lone Little Egret provided very little compensation despite performing well.
However, it was not a total waste of time. The resident Pacific Reef-Egrets were around and the better lighting conditions revealed the true beauty of this coastal waterbird. Against the rocky outcrops, the dark morph birds blend in quite well.
I focused all my attention on the Pacific Reef-Egrets because I do not have as many images of it as I should – especially not in this beautiful light. The plumage colouration is a lovely combination of blue and grey and could not help but to fall in love with these gorgeous creatures.
Living up to its name, the Reef-Egrets spend most of their time among rocks and reef. Compared to the Chinese Egret, I find that they take a more active approach when in pursue of prey and that makes them a better subject for photography. The lighting was bright enough to capture the movements of the latter most of the time and I was utterly grateful for that. One of egrets sports an all-dark bill and that made it a lot easier to distinguish the two of them.
This is my best and most intimate experience with the species to date. Just like the Chinese Egret, they exhibited very little fear of humans and came quite close to my position at times. They were so obliging that at one point, I almost forgot the main reason I am here for. Almost...
It was the same story the next evening as well. The disappointment was getting unbearable. I found out later that the Chinese Egret was foraging at another corner in the evenings and not in such close proximity. Dave even discovered a second Chinese Egret at that ‘evening’ location. I then took time to appreciate the other commoner species that I totally neglected during my past few visits. When it comes to common species, the Striated Heron will be one of the first few that comes to mind. Occurring in good numbers throughout the entire length of the island, it is the easiest heron to encounter. A true success story and again, it all boils down to its ability to adapt well to living alongside Man.
In coastal areas, the common White-throated Kingfisher no longer reigns but the equally abundant Collared Kingfisher does. A pair was present at the locality during every visit that I made. Their vocal nature and bright colouration make them rather conspicuous. There is a particular dead tree where they often use as both a resting and vantage perch. I found the pair here rather unperturbed by the presence of humans. I guess they have grown accustomed due to the popularity of this location as a recreational area. The Chinese Egret may have a thing for prawns but for the Collared Kingfishers, crabs are certainly on their menu.
Penang Island probably has the highest density of White-bellied Sea-Eagles in Malaysia and these majestic raptors can be seen regularly soaring effortless along coastal areas. I am blessed that I get to enjoy this impressive sight from my balcony as well. Anyway, a lone eagle was circling above the esplanade during one of my visits there and it certainly had my attention. I did not realise it at the time I took the shots but the eagle actually had something small in its massive talons and I am guessing it is a snack before retiring for the day.
On my fourth attempt to capture the Chinese Egret in the evening, I half-heartedly scanned the horizon for my target. I could make out two white egrets at a distance. The one closest to me was a Little Egret. The second bird was structurally difference and upon further scrutiny, had me running down the walkway like an Olympian sprinter. Once I regained my composure, I steadied myself and proceed to capture the images I have been longing for. Now, my experience with the Chinese Egret of Karpal Singh Drive is complete. And it is an uplifting experience indeed.
Gradually, the Chinese Egret wandered to the shore edge to forage and the still, blue waters certainly improved my image. The soft evening light cast a soothing hue on the celebrity guest and I made myself comfortable at a reasonable distance in anticipation of more photographic opportunities in this lovely condition. However as we all know, we are constantly tested in life. To my horror, the Chinese Egret suddenly took flight and disappeared from sight. The culprit was a fellow human with the intention to cast his net near the egret. A dozen nasty thoughts of what I can do this human with his nets crossed my mind. When logic and sense finally prevailed, I let it go. There is no way he could have known that I had waited four evenings for this moment. I do not even think he knows there is a frigging bird there in the first place. It is a public area after all and he has every right to be there as I do.
Christmas came a little late for me this time but better late than never. A Christmas angel decided to winter here along this modest coastline so close to home and provided me with one of the highlights of my birding life. The Chinese Egret is now in danger of becoming extinct and it is a shame for such an angelic creature to be suffering such a fate. I feel thrilled to be given the opportunity to enjoy such an intimate encounter with it. Dave proclaimed that this could be the bird of the year after his initial encounter. And he could be right. Here is one last image of the Chinese Egret to help prove mine (and Dave’s) point of view. Welcome, Year 2019!