Wednesday 27 March 2019

Cambodia: Land of the Ibis King (Part 2)

This was to be our final day at Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary and also our last day of birding in Cambodia for we fly back home first thing tomorrow morning. We travelled further for this morning’s birding and the forest at this end of the sanctuary looked more like home with its lush and tall vegetation. We headed towards a river where the majestic Black-necked Stork is known to occur here on rare occasions. Upon arrival, a big black and white bird took flight and Mardy, our guide, reigned me back to reality before my imagination got the better of me. The bird turned out to be a Woolly-necked Stork and when it alighted further down the river, it provided us with our first view of this species grounded.

The stork did not linger in the vicinity for long and would not have been Cambodia if it did. Anyway, this lookout point was productive with several species recorded. But the majority of them were distant observations. A few familiar species were recorded like this striking Black-crested Bulbul basking in the morning sun.

A Chestnut-headed Bee-eater decided to hunt near our position and it was welcomed by my companions who reside beyond the range of this lovely species.

We were also presented with front row seats to an aerial performance courtesy of a pair of Green-billed Malkohas. Twisting and turning in mid-air with their long tails in toll, these cuckoos revealed a side to them that I did not know existing. Before I could react, the performance was all but over and the malkohas were casually gliding across the river.

It was no doubt hot and sunny throughout our stay in Cambodia but the lighting has been exceptional most of the time. Today was no different and I even attempted shooting Crested Treeswifts that were patrolling the area.

This is probably the worst photo you will ever see of a Heart-spotted Woodpecker. With a name like that, you know the bird will be nothing less than spectacular. And it was. You just have to trust me on this.

I would have been elated if I had not encountered the Brown Fish-Owl back home just last year. The one we came across today was more for the birder in me due to the distanced and obscured view.

Another short lived encounter with the White-shouldered Ibis took place near a grassy area within the forest. It may not be sufficient compensation but a Golden-headed Cisticola added yet another lifer to the trip.

A group of lumbering birders sent this Brown Prinia up a tree for cover which was not an unusual course of action even for a grassland bird.

We headed back to the lodge for one last meal before we checked out. The lodge may appear to be a modest type of accommodations but the meals provided throughout our stay deserves some praise. I am not particular with food when I am out birding but to have something that not only fills you up is an added bonus.

This map gives you a rough idea of what you can expect to see...

While waiting for lunch to be served, a Rufous-winged Buzzard made an unexpected appearance just outside our chalet. I was in perfect position but the chosen perch had several obstructing branches. It was unfortunate and frustrating. And the buzzard was having none of my desperate attempt to creep round the branches and took flight almost immediately.

A roosting Collared Scops-Owl was a nice addition to our Cambodian list. However, the midday lighting was harsh and the apparent heatwave further hampered our photographic attempts.

There was one encounter today within the grounds of the lodge that left me near the state of ecstasy. Woodpeckers certainly provided much colours and excitement to our trip so far but none really provided any excellent photographic opportunities. Not until a White-bellied Woodpecker came knocking when I was seated inside a permanent hide next to our chalet. This striking species also occurs in Malaysia but all my previous encounters are incomparable to this one.

It was a handsome male and his confiding nature blew me away. I am sure he was aware of my presence in the hide because it was difficult to contain one’s excitement when you have a White-bellied Woodpecker in all its glory perched no more than a stone’s throw away. Much to my delight, he was unperturbed. This is one piece of memory from Cambodia that I am definitely taking home with me.

Birding here has certainly being memorable especially in the dry dipterocarp forest. It was a new and interesting experience for me. The dry and dusty condition was another aspect that made the trip memorable as it is very much a part of this testing terrain.

Because of the intense heat, drinking water never tasted this good…

There was one last plan to execute before we depart from this location and it was to the ibis pond for one last shot at the Giant Ibis. I know we had great views of this extraordinary species yesterday and we ought to be grateful. But we travelled a long distance for the Giant Ibis and since we still have a fighting chance for something more, we decided to take it. We approached the hide with utmost caution. Then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose and a number of large water birds departed from the pond with much haste including the Giant Ibis. I had to pick my heart up from the dusty forest ground. It certainly looked like a lost cause now because the chances of the Giant Ibis returning were slim. It was likely that we will be spending our last few hours here observing less significant species like this Vinous-breasted Starling.

A pair of Green Bee-eaters tried their best to brighten up the occasion. I have been birding long enough to know that things do not always go according to plan and luck, above all, determines your fate. If this is how things will come to end for our Cambodian trip, then this is how it will end. We just have to accept it and be thankful for all the wonderful moments we have enjoyed so far.

I tried my best to conceal my disappointment as minutes turned into hour. I felt my life force regenerated when a pair of Woolly-necked Storks alighted on the 'significant' dead tree. It was a torture to refrain myself from immediately photographing the storks but we learnt our lesson well from our encounter with the Giant Ibis yesterday. It was not too long of a wait and we soon found ourselves admiring this fascinating species hunting frogs at the pond.

It was our last hour at this site and the Woolly-necked Stork may not be the main reason behind the long wait. But it was still a memorable and exhilarating encounter. The Woolly-necked Storks somehow reminded me of ladies sporting fur scarfs (not that I agree with this fashion apparel) with their downy neck feathers and slender appearance. There is even a tinge of red at the tip of the bill much like lipstick. And just like any lovely ladies, they certainly knew how to gain your undivided attention.  

The arrival of the storks attracted a number of Pond-Herons that seemed to appear out of thin air. It was most likely that they were here all this while but I was just too focused on the task at hand.

It was an amazing sight as the pair of Woolly-necked Storks hunted in leisure and provided one of the main highlights for our Cambodian trip. In fact, it was a good enough finale for this 5-day birding adventure.

But Cambodia and its amazing fauna weaved its magic one last time for our group of four. A large dark water bird alighted just beyond the open area of the ibis pond. I froze and hushed my fellow companions. The Giant Ibis was back and it was almost too good to be true. It remained hidden from view for a good half hour and if not for Mardy who also caught sight of its arrival, I would have seriously considered that it was my imagination playing a cruel trick on me. I held my breath when the enormous ibis cautiously walked towards the pond. I thought fighting my urge to shoot for the Woolly-necked Storks was difficult but this was really killing me. When the ibis finally settled down and started to forage, I started documenting one of the most testing and intriguing encounters for my trip to the Kingdom of Wonder.

The lighting may not be flattering and the distance from the bird was at the borderline of my modest photography setup’s comfort zone. But I was enjoying every moment of the encounter. The Ibis King went about searching for food in total ease now and I got down on my knees in the presence of this magnificent animal and tried to shoot from the lowest angle possible.

Human birders were not the only ones excited with the arrival of the Giant Ibis. The Pond-herons, as expected, were up to their passive pirating behaviour again.

What was not expected was the sudden formation of clouds that helped diffused the harsh lighting of mid-afternoon. How can I, a mere mortal, now doubt the existence of a greater power when I am here experiencing a series of miracles unfolding before my very eyes?

From utter disappointment to unbridled jubilant, the Giant Ibis of Tmatboey toyed with my emotions and sanity before presenting me with an experience of a lifetime. After all this is its domain and we were just guests or if you want to be crude, intruders to this harsh but surprising bird-rich land. We could just as easily ended up with nothing but a fleeting glimpse of a retreating Giant Ibis. And for that, no words can describe my gratitude.

Now, more than 2 weeks since my return to homeland, I can finally conclude my blog postings of this incredible trip. I am in awe of the bird life in Cambodia and the memories will forever be cherished. No doubt the birds especially the large and rare water birds were the main highlights for me. In the end, I94 species of birds were recorded of which 54 were lifers. But the country, the landscape and the people also played a role to make this trip complete. Rugged and rustic, the village of Tmatboey may not be everyone’s idea destination for a dream vacation but it houses of some of the most enigmatic bird species on the planet. To me, that is heaven on Earth.

Finally, there are my companions Nigel, Jimmy, Kok Siong and of course Mardy (our outstanding guide) all whom I got to share this awesome chapter of my birding life with. Well, until my next birding adventure abroad. The Penang Birder signing out for now.

Checklist of the birds recorded

Sunday 24 March 2019

Cambodia: Land of the Ibis King (Part 1)

Yesterday’s failure with the Giant Ibis only fuelled our determination to observe and photograph this rare water bird in its natural habitat. We arrived at the ‘ibis pond’ and settled into the makeshift hide well before dawn. Both ibises have been seen here at first light quite regularly nowadays and we are not taking any chances. Should we arrive after the birds and spooked them, we can literally kiss our chances goodbye. Like clockwork, a flock of large dark coloured birds descended upon the dead tree overlooking the pond like a group of gargoyles at the break of dawn. They were a flock of 8 White-shouldered Ibis – one of the secondary targets of the trip. The tree was the same one used by the Olive-backed Pipit yesterday and according to our guide, most of the water birds will perch on that tree to make sure that the coast is clear before coming down to the pond to feed. Hence, the significance of this tree to me.

Lighting was horrendous at the time but we cannot help taking a few shots of these captivating birds. Odd but captivating birds. The clean shaven head is typical of ibises and storks. I sometimes wonder if having the same look somehow influence my love for these birds...

It took the flock nearly 30 minutes before they had the confidence to come down to the pond to feed. Even then, only one descended while the rest remained. I am not sure if the first bird was a sentry but it did not take long for it to sense something was amiss. We barely managed a few shots before it swiftly moved to the far end of the feeding area and almost beyond our field of view from the hide. Either by telepath or body language, the rest of the flock joined the sentry. It is most unfortunate that my gut instinct from our first encounter with the White-shouldered Ibis was right and they are indeed unbelievably shy.

The arrival of a Lesser Adjutant momentarily eased our disappointment with the ibis. Just like them, it alighted on the tall tree first before gliding down to the pond.

Unexpectedly, the presence of the Lesser Adjutant gave one of the White-shouldered Ibis a renewed sense of security. One strong enough for it to foraged into full view of the hide again. They say God works in mysterious ways and I for one would have never expected a Lesser Adjutant to turn things around and save the day. The two water birds got along well and the atmosphere in the hide improved tremendously.

Unfortunately, our joy was short lived. Perhaps, the Lesser Adjutant felt it was being used or the hide could not contain our excitement completely. The big guy took off in a flurry of feathers and we were left looking at an empty pond – again. The ibis joined the rest of the flock at the far end and there they remained for the next 2 hours.

There was nothing we could do but wait. It was truly a blessing that a few other species of birds that gradually came to forage at the pond unknowingly helped us pass this testing time even if they were not lifers like this stunning Banded Bay Cuckoo.

With the hide as our cover, we actually enjoyed some great moments. Not only with the cuckoo but a handful of other species as well. One thing is for sure. These are by far my best effort of the Banded Bay Cuckoo.

I have been longing for an opportunity to truly admire the beauty of the Red-billed Blue Magpie even since I had a glimpse of the wicked long tail during yesterday’s exploration of the ibis pond. And today, the opportunity presented itself on more than one occasion.

I rarely question the processes of evolution but judging from the magpie’s preference to forage near and on the ground, the long tail that makes it so alluring seemed to hinder the movements of the bird. Well whatever the reason may be, it is thrilling to see such a stunning bird in the wild and I am grateful for the experiences received today.

The striking and loud Black-collared Starling occurs only as escapees or introduced birds in Malaysia. I know it is all in the mind but these wild birds certainly looked a lot better than the ones I sometimes see roaming about housing areas in Penang.

There is one significant difference between the forests here and back home in Malaysia and it is the reduced number of bulbuls. Maybe I was not looking hard enough for this family of birds. Anyway, the commonest species here in this wildlife sanctuary happens to the Sooty-headed Bulbul – another lifer for a southerner like me.

In fact, a pair was all over the hide throughout our time there and we could not have asked for a better performance.

The best thing about birding in a new country is every bird you encounter could well be a lifer – even a little brown job scurrying about the undergrowth. The Brown Prinia is aptly named and a confiding individual foraging just next to the hide was given its due attention.

However, there is a downside to this expectation of lifers. It can blind you and even a modest Brown Shrike can leave you puzzled. To be fair (a self-preservation moment here), it was an extremely worn bird and it took someone not under the birding-in-a-new-country syndrome (thank you, Ayuwat) to set things right.

Decades of birding has made me a patient man but my uncomfortable position, the rising temperature and the disappointment with both ibises are putting that quality to the test. Much to our delight, a few of the White-shouldered Ibis gradually inched closer to the pond after a tediously long wait and life was beautiful again.

While observing the foraging ibises, I could not help but notice the Pond-Herons somewhat escorting the former. The reason for this behaviour soon revealed itself. Prey items flushed or missed by the ibises were easy pickings for the Pond-Herons. However, I did not see nor do I think the Pond-Herons are bold enough to glaringly snatch away prey caught by the ibises. And these polite pirates earned some attention after being literally ignored throughout the morning.

As we were enjoying the companionship of the White-shouldered Ibis, a pair of large dark birds descended upon the same dead tree. It was the moment of truth. I held my breath and turn my attention (and my gear) towards the new arrivals. I had to be sure. Looking somewhat prehistoric, the Giant Ibis is undeniably unique and impressive. My journey of a thousand kilometres, the tribulations faced and the built up anticipation have all led me to this moment. And it is a remarkable one.

To be honest, there is hardly anything aesthetically appealing about the Giant Ibis. But the beady eyes and charisma of the ibis king has definitely won me over. In between shooting, I admired the Giant Ibis through my bins. After all, I know exactly where I am coming from and a still image or a moving video cannot replace seeing a bird in the flesh. I know we live in the digital age. Call me old fashion but I somehow feel the connection is lost when a digital medium bridges me to the bird.

When the excitement subsided, we waited for the pair to join their smaller cousins by the pond. Much to our dismay, the wait ended in vain. Out of the blue, the Giant Ibises took flight and the White-shouldered Ibis follow suit. I am not sure of the reason for their retreat but it could have been a lot of things - a distant human, a stray dog, our breathing or even just because they could. And for the third time, we were left staring at an empty pond.

The ibises are certainly one of the shyest water birds I have ever encountered. Even with the hide, the ibises were still suspicious. When we first settled into the hide, our guides were busy putting up additional twigs and vegetation to further conceal this human structure. I felt the hide, covered with camouflaged netting and the works, was sufficient to do the job even without the additional touches but I did not speak my mind at the time. So, let this be a lesson. Never doubt your local bird guide because he knows his shit.

Now that we (or maybe just me) have achieved the main mission of the trip, the rest of the bird species found in this dry forest were about to be given their due attention. The Rufous-winged Buzzard possesses a certain poise and beauty that makes this small raptor mesmerizing. Unfortunately, it is usually shy despite its common status at this renowned birding site. There is a pair residing near the ibis pond and they tolerated my intrusion on a few rare occasions.

As expected most of my images of the Rufous-winged Buzzards were in flight...

We encountered drongo species throughout our time in Cambodia but they are shy. My best photo of a drongo has to be this Ashy Drongo hunting from a dead tree.

The distinct colouration of the Pied Bushchat makes it relatively conspicuous even when foraging among ground vegetation. One individual resting on a tree provided what should be my best images of the species to date.

The relatively drab colours of the Common Woodshrike ought to help blend the bird into this landscape of browns and greys. But its active and confiding nature gives away its presence most of the time. In a place where the human form is feared, the Common Woodshrike’s behaviour was a welcomed trait.

It is a blessing that the trees here are short or it would have been truly testing to obtain records shots of the minute Yellow-crowned Woodpecker. Small but striking, we inevitably followed its movement as it skipped from tree to tree. The woodpecker may be seeking out sustenance but for the human birders, something more than just record shots.

The Small Minivet looked slightly out of place here in this type of forest. Maybe it is all my years of birding in Malaysia that I associate reddish minivets with dense and tall rainforests. The male Small Minivet may not have the colour intensity of the minivets that I am used to but it was still a breath taking species.

As the blistering heat of midday started to take its toll of us, we retreated back to the lodge for a lunch break. I had some time on my hands before food was served and as always, I continued birding around the vicinity but at a leisurely pace. I could not be sure if it was the heat or age finally catching up with me but birding here in Cambodia was no walk in the park. Anyway, I approach the nearby pond with caution just in case yesterday’s White-shouldered Ibis was back. Even before I could see the pond, audible croaks filled the vicinity and a mixed flock of large water birds took to the air in retreat including the ibis. I was dumfounded. Before I step foot in Cambodia, I would never had guessed that the ibises will be so unbelievably skittish. But they are and it can be frustrating at times. However, I could take comfort that I managed to obtain my best photo of the Woolly-necked Stork so far.

As I dragged my feet back to the lodge, a huge raptor took off from a nearby tree and rejuvenated my enthusiasm. Although it was a familiar sight to me, this Crested Serpent-Eagle made me realized how good sometimes I have it back home in Malaysia. This is one of the few encounters in Cambodia where the bird was as tolerable to an approaching human as the bird normally is in Malaysia.

A leafbird participating in a small birdwave within the grounds of the lodge turned out to be a Golden-fronted Leafbird. Nothing to brag about in terms of photography but it is was a lifer and naturally had my undivided attention.

A little celebration to commemorate our success with the enigmatic Giant Ibis but it was premature. We found out later that day, a British couple and their guide enjoyed a foraging Giant Ibis at the ibis pond at around 3:30pm. We were contemplating about another attempt tomorrow afternoon until the guide showed us a clip of the foraging ibis and that made the decision up for us. We will go for the elusive Giant Ibis again tomorrow before the long drive back to Siem Reap.

After lunch there was no news from the local guides of the ibises returning to the ibis pond and we proceeded to explore other parts of this wildlife sanctuary. I have had not much luck with photographing owls so far here in Cambodia but that was about to change. A pair of Spotted Owlets has been roosting regularly in an area not far from the lodge and even with the sparse foliage, it took the guides some time to finally locate these adorable night birds.

I see absolutely nothing wrong with photographing a nocturnal bird with its eyes closed during the day. I sometimes hear bird photographers stress on how mandatory it is to shoot the bird on a natural perch. I guess it is to make the photo look as natural as possible. Which brings me back to what is so unnatural about a nocturnal species roosting with its eyes closed?

The second owl we encountered today was a Brown Wood-Owl and it certainly found an ideal spot in which to roost – well hidden and inaccessible.

Parakeets are quite a common sight here but all the sightings so far were of birds in flight. Even so, the parakeets were a spectacular sight with their longish tail and striking colouration. This distant photograph of a Red-breasted Parakeet at rest was the only one I could obtain of the species.

While we were trekking along the access trail, a parakeet suddenly alighted on a nearby tree. It offered only one shot before it realized its mistake and took off. But it was classic Sod’s Law. Instead of the gorgeous male Blossom-headed Parakeet, it was the drab female. And life goes on.

Another small and striking woodpecker made its way into our life list and this time, it was a Rufous-bellied Woodpecker. This tiny critter made us work hard to obtain its image and out of the whole bunch that I took, this is probably my best effort.

The Burmese Shrike is did not provide any better photographic opportunities and this photo of a bird at the canopy of a tree did not go unappreciated.

There is only one species of treeswift here in Cambodia and it is the Crested Treeswift. I did not have much opportunities to photograph this lifer as all the sightings so far were birds in flight. Nearing the end of Day 4, a nesting male provided a prolonged encounter and despite the bad lighting I took a number of photos as we are unlikely to come this way again.

Dusk is probably the worst time to photograph a male Purple Sunbird but beggars can’t be choosers. So, the iridescent purple plumage from which the name is derived was not in its full glory at this hour.

The last night bird of the day was another familiar sight – a Changeable Hawk-eagle and it was nesting at the edge of the forest. Just before we called it a day, we found ourselves surrounded by the loud and distinct calls of the Chinese Francolins. The setting sun seemed to trigger off some internal setting in these gamebirds but they were too well hidden for anything other than an audio record. The Giant Ibis certainly lived up to its reputation of being shy, elusive and enigmatic and hopefully tomorrow, it will give us another reason to remember this incredible birding adventure to Cambodia.