Saturday 23 February 2019

All the right ingredients

The second day of the photo expedition with my Indian guest brought me to the foothill of Gunung Bintang where the revelled fruit tree, patronized by a high number of bulbuls each year when it fruits, is in season again. We arrived at dawn and the tree was already teeming with birds. A male Asian Fairy-Bluebird had me fumbling to set up my gear. It is not an uncommon bird but all these years, I never had any good opportunities for photography. It was the same story today because he disappeared back into the forest as soon as the lighting improved. But there is no denying the splendour of this remarkable bird even if my photo does no justice.

Exactly one dozen species of bulbuls were recorded at this one single fruiting tree throughout the morning and naturally, my guest and I were elated. One species that stole the limelight for me on this occasion was the Ashy Bulbul. This bulbul does not reveal itself as often as some of the others but today, it seemed adamant to have its photos taken.

Vocal and distinctively plumage, it was impossible to overlook the Ashy Bulbuls each time they visited the fruiting tree.

It seemed to have a lot on its mind this beautiful Sunday morning...

In the absence of the sultry Scaly-breasted Bulbul, the most attractive species recorded today were the Grey-bellied Bulbuls. The availability of food also made them approachable and confiding. And good photographic opportunities were certainly abundant.

To immediately gain birders’ attention, you either have to be beautiful or big. The Grey-cheeked Bulbul could do with some colours but being the biggest bulbul present today, it certainly did not go unnoticed. It is also another uncommon species brought out by the temptation of food. That is why active fruiting trees are such prized commodities in the birding world. For some species, it is the only time you can enjoy their true form intimately.

For example, the Yellow-bellied Bulbuls momentarily abandoned their sanctuary among the dim-lighted understorey of the forest to feast on the tantalizing meal being offered.

The forest of Sungai Sedim is the stronghold of the Finsch’s Bulbul and it came as no surprise when a few patronized the fruiting tree. The distinctive yellow throat and vocalization makes it distinguishable from similar looking species. But this could be a bias statement due to my regular encounters with the species as this site is one of my regular haunts. As we all know, these brownish bulbuls can be challenging especially if you are not familiar with the jizz.

When it comes to undescriptive plumages, the Red-eyed Bulbul will be one of those birds that come to mind.

The same goes for the Cream-vented Bulbul with the difference in eye colour being the only thing that easily separates it from the former.

A pair of Lesser Green Leafbird compensated the lack of colours of some of the bulbuls with their striking plumage. The more attractive male was shy today and the much bolder female certainly put him to shame. Attagirl...

It was most unfortunate the male Red-throated Barbet picked up the behaviour of the male leafbird because he is one of the most impressive barbets to be found here in Sungai Sedim.

However, it was girl power today and the female Red-throated Barbet was as confiding as any wild barbet could be. Resting in the shade and unperturbed by our paparazzi-like behaviour, this is probably my best photographic opportunity of this species to date.

Despite Sod’s Law at work, the encounter with this female Red-throated Barbet was one of the main highlights of this 2-day endeavour.

Dwarfed by all the other birds especially the behemoth barbets, the minute flowerpeckers struggled to make their presence felt. They were also slightly more restless than usual and that makes photography truly challenging. The male Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker despite all his splendour had very little time in the limelight.

My best effort of the day for a flowerpecker was this Yellow-vented Flowerpecker that took a breather on an open perch at eye level. It may lack the brilliant colours of the former but it is still a striking species and helped complete this remarkable experience at a fruiting for my guest.

On the way out of the forest reserve, we made a stop at the entrance to photograph some Whiskered Treeswifts. This unique and beautiful aerial hunter regularly rest in the open area of the bus park area and since it is a lifer for my guest, we took the time to appreciate the encounter.

And I am glad we did. Had we not lingered in the vicinity, we would have surely missed this male Violet Cuckoo that alighted on the very same tree moments later. I missed the cuckoo that performed superbly at my local patch of Air Hitam Dalam a few months back and till now it still leaves a bitter taste my mouth. Anyway, this individual was calling from the top of the tree and the distance was just beyond my gear’s comfort zone. But that did not make the moment any less captivating.

A pair of Pacific Swallows enjoying the beautiful weather today were the last birds we captured at Sungai Sedim and what an incredible morning it has been. I have not had it this good here for a long time. So, I was elated and I am sure so was my guest.

Nightbird encounters will always be able to conjure up feelings of intrigue and excitement – especially daytime records. It does not matter if it is the same pair of Barred Eagle-Owls that I regularly show to my foreign guests. The owls still do it for me after all these years.

By now, the bald bloke that comes round dressed in camouflage attire and armed with photographic gear do not draw curious stares at this small recreational park anymore (not that frequently anyway). The regular patrons there knows exactly what he is up to – sharing a local treasure with the birders from all over the world. And the Barred Eagle-Owls of Bukit DO rarely disappoints.

The swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam was frustratingly quiet today and the only bird that made it to my memory card was an Indian Cuckoo resting on a riverside tree.

Thanks to a tip off from Hor Kee, the final bird of the day is a privileged guest that decided to spend its winter at the coastline close to home. The Chinese Egret responsible for the sudden influx of outstation birders flocking to the Pearl of the Orient is now starting to show traces of its summer plumage and that is certainly exciting. I found the egret foraging quite a distance from shore – much to my dismay. It must have been the work of some over-enthusiastic angler to spook the egret away from its usual foraging spot. Good thing the lighting condition at that time aided my photographic efforts of this rare migrant.

My perseverance was duly rewarded when the egret finally shifted back to the water’s edge to feed. It is human nature to appreciate things more if it is harder to get and after sitting uncomfortably on a rocky shoreline for close to an hour, this encounter with the Chinese Egret will certainly be cherished.

One last image of the egret to wrap things up for the day. Hopefully, I will be able to catch it in its attractive summer plumage before it flies back north to breed if it stays that long that is. For the past two days, the Almighty has been kind to us and we were blessed with several rewarding moments. Forest bird photography can be downright cruel at times and I am most grateful for the results this time. Until the next birding adventure. Penang Birder signing off for now.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

The banded king of the forest

Fruiting trees are aplenty up here in northern Peninsular Malaysia at this time of the year. The breeding season has also commenced for some of the forest dwelling species of birds as well. In short, it is an absolutely great time to be out birding in the forest. It then comes as no surprise that I started out my 2-day photographic expedition with an Indian guest in the wild interiors of Pedu Lake. I had a tip-off from Dave that there was an exceptionally active fruiting tree at the abandoned resort of Desa Utara. In the past, I am sure this venue has seen its fair share of banquets. Nowadays, the banquets still take place but the difference is the patrons are all feathered denizens. The Streaked Bulbul may lack the vivid colourations of some of the other bulbuls but it is uncommon enough to have our undivided attention.

The male Greater Green Leafbird, on the other hand, has a green plumage so vivid that he certainly lives up to his namesake. A few other species were also present at this fruiting tree but the dense vegetation made photography truly challenging.

Since we are on the topic of vivid colourations, few species can meet the splendid colouration of some of the male flowerpeckers like the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker. Not uncommon in suitable habitats throughout the country, this little bundle of feathers and colours can be encountered quite regularly. A lone male was seen resting at eye level but the lighting plays a huge role in forest photography and this time, it hindered our efforts despite the confiding nature of the bird.

Kingfishers are loud and spectacular birds. A few species are confined to forested habitats and they have evolved to be elusive. However, that trait only amplifies their appeal. A Banded Kingfisher was heard calling and no effort was spared in our attempt to locate it. Some determination and a stroke of good luck later, both guest and guide were ogling at a handsome male perched unobtrusively in the middle storey of the forest.

His majesty was kind enough to show how the species got its name and this forest kingfisher is certainly one of those birds that look better from behind. Strikingly marked and with the colour intensity to match, the Banded Kingfisher is a true jewel of the jungle.

I do not come across Banded Kingfishers as often as I would like to and a prolonged encounter like this one made my day. When he shifted position, he alighted on a slightly closer perch but the lighting again was my nemesis. However, the banded king has made his mark today and no element from this world and beyond can change that fact. Come to think of it this male Banded Kingfisher performed his way to bird of the day for me and this should be my best encounter to date.

The diagnostic call of the Raffles’s Malkoha echoed through the vicinity later in the morning as we trekked along the main access road skirting Pedu Lake. It did not take long to locate this beautiful cuckoo and as expected, it was scurrying along the topmost canopy level of the forest. But the lighting was great on this occasion and when this female Raffles’s Malkoha took a breather out in the open, reasonably good images were still possible.

Not all forest birds are colourful and the Asian Brown Flycatcher is one very good example. Although it is a common migrant, it was scrutinized to avoid any misidentification as all brown flycatchers can be notoriously difficult at times.

The mangroves of Sungai Batu beckoned later in the afternoon and we found ourselves staring into the muddy domain of the birds that call this site home. There is one resident that has made quite a name for itself and it is the enigmatic Mangrove Pitta. A real showstopper.

Is this the best place in the world to photograph this habitat-restricted terrestrial species? At the present time, I bet it is...

The Mangrove Blue Flycatcher is another alluring species that can be regularly enjoyed here. I have noticed that of late the female was unaccompanied by her mate and I can only fear for the worst. The natural world is both delicate and brutal. Further compounded by the destructive nature of Man, wildlife as a whole live at the edge on a daily basis.

I am glad to say the resident pair of Abbott’s Babblers is doing just fine...

The migratory Forest Wagtails should be making their way back north soon to breed and today, they put on a superb performance. This common migrant wrapped things up for Day 1 and it was a good excursion as expected. Tomorrow, we will be heading to a few other sites around Penang and that will be covered in my next post.