Wednesday 24 July 2019

It's not just another bulbul

Some Bulbuls are truly nondescript and none more so than the Buff-vented Bulbul. In the neighbouring country of Thailand, there is also the Grey-eyed Bulbul and Olive Bulbul which are all remarkably similar. And just to make things even more enjoyable, there is a recent split by some authorities that those Olive Bulbuls occurring in the southern parts of Thailand (and now, northern parts of Peninsular Malaysia) are Baker’s Bulbuls. Initially, I thought birders here in Peninsular Malaysia have been spared the agony of having to differentiate these bulbuls. However, a humble little recreational forest in the northern tip proved otherwise. During one of his forays up north, Hor Kee discovered Malaysia’s first Olive Bulbul (let’s keep it at that) at the Bukit Ayer Recreational Park in the state of Perlis and an invitation to join him for another trip there was too good to pass.

It has been a long time since I last ventured out into the field. And an even longer time since I last twitched for a would-be lifer. However, the Olive Bulbul was not as easy as I thought it would be. It took considerable effort and time. As the minutes passed, the mission became more difficult because the weekend crowd started pouring in. Adolescents on their noisy moped of a motorcycle turned a blissful environment into utter chaos. We were forced to try our luck just outside the boundaries of the park and there, we hit the jackpot. A lone Olive Bulbul finally revealed itself and started foraging along the edge of the forest.

I have to admit this lifer is not one of the more exciting ones that I have had. Subtle differences distinguish it from the much commoner Buff-vented Bulbul. The differences were so minor that my modest photography gear could hardly pick them up. Overall, the Olive Bulbul is a darker bird with a shorter, thicker bill. Thankfully, Hor Kee was better equipped and I could finally tick off this lifer back home after his images were reviewed by Ayuwat and Wichyanan. It pays to make friends with accomplished birders like these Thai blokes. For a mere storyteller like me, their opinions truly mattered especially in times like these.

The Olive Bulbul lingered in the vicinity long enough for me to have a really good look and obtain several images. For that, I am most grateful and the 2.5 hours drive from home was worth the effort.

Another highlight from my maiden visit to the Bukit Ayer Recreational Park is from the reptilian family. It is an exquisite looking creature and one that I do not come across often. Resting low on a tree trunk was a Smooth-backed Gliding Gecko that was confiding enough to provide a prolonged and intimate observation.

On the way back to Penang, we made a couple of stops and these quick visits proved rewarding as well. The forest of Bukit Wang of late has been a real hotspot with several noteworthy species performing well. It was midday when we trekked into this forest reserve located in the state of Kedah. At this hour, any species that comes our way would be a bonus and one certainly did. It was no ordinary species for the male Diard’s Trogon is one of the most striking bird species of the Malaysian forest. And any encounter with this species is a memorable one.

The dense vegetation in which the Diard’s Trogon finds its refuge can be a major hindrance to photography...

Habitat aside, there is one more factor that birders have to deal with constantly – Murphy’s Law. When he finally alighted on an exposed perch nearby, he stared straight into the camera revealing what is possibly his worst angle for photography. Well, life goes on...

And it certainly did. With much exhilaration as well. Our final destination was another modest recreational park just like the first site and it was at Gunung Keriang. This relatively unknown site became well known last year with the discovery of a pair of rare Brown Fish-Owls. And the reason we took this little detour was because of this beautiful nocturnal hunter – naturally. Roosting owls can be difficult to locate and it was no different this time. It took effort and a little luck and we finally found a lone owl roosting on a distant tree. This may be my third encounter with the Brown Fish-Owl in Malaysia but it still felt like my first. I again found myself gasping for air in the presence of this rarity.

Despite the distance, our presence did not go well with the owl and it shifted position. Much to my surprise, it alighted on an open perch this time and the encounter got a whole lot better. The constant wind uplifted the underbelly feathers of the owl which reminded me of the iconic Marilyn Monroe upskirt scene. Naturally, the sight left me gawking. And the Brown Fish-Owl wrapped things up for this eventful day out in the field.