Saturday 17 August 2019

Wrath of nature

As I was about to call it an early night in preparation for my tour the next day, I could hear a steady stream of wind caressing the window panes. The caressing soon grew to pounding and with an intensity that I do not think I have experienced before. I was sure I was out of harm’s way as long as I remained indoors but there was still cause for concern. The side effect of Typhoon Lekima that struck China has found its way to a few northern states in northern Peninsular Malaysia and in its wake, a trail of destruction. This act of nature could jeopardize the success of my tour tomorrow and I was a little anxious as I led my Singaporean guest to the first location of the day and it was the mangroves of Sungai Batu. The winds certainly swept through here but luckily, the damages were not as severe as I have feared. It was a gloomy morning and the resident Greater Coucals were quite adamant in absorbing as much of whatever little sunlight that was available today. So much so that they partly forgo their usual wary nature.

Crested Serpent-Eagles can be confiding at times and this individual that was resting on a low dead tree, certainly exhibited that trait. And on a slow day like this, it was a much welcomed encounter despite the common status of this impressive raptor.

It was good to see a few big water birds present here today. This young Purple Heron was one of them. The distance may not have been ideal but the beauty of the Purple Heron deserved our attention.

Our next destination was the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in mainland Penang. Upon arrival, I was left speechless. I stared upon my deepest fear as last night’s freak storm nearly flattened the place. When one of the mighty Banyan Trees uprooted not too long ago, it had a devastating effect on this birding site and now, a second Banyan Tree suffered the same fate when it could not withstand the wrath of nature. I fear the end is drawing near for this once glorious birding hotspot. And the atmosphere this morning was about as cheerful as a cemetery.

Not only does the site need to endure the power of Mother Nature but also the work of my fellow Man. The illegal land clearing works right at the border of the reserve were given stop work orders by the government but it may be too late. A little piece of me dies with the demise of each birding site here in my home state of Penang. Air Hitam Dalam and all the incredible moments it has provided, will be a huge loss to the local birding community should it face an untimely death.

A few Asian Openbills resting along the paddy fields of mainland Penang ended the day on a slightly higher note. And these unique storks are settling in very well indeed. Whether it is on top of isolated trees or on the fields, the Asian Openbills have certainly found their refuge here.

My next birding excursion took me to the hilly forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah state. The strong winds barely made it here deep in the interiors of Kedah and for that I am most grateful. Birding could have been better and the birds did just about enough to keep a couple of old school birders contented. My Australia guest had shown a keen interest to go for her first ever canopy walk and where better than what is supposedly the world’s longest one – the Sungai Sedim Tree Top.

The view from up here was spectacular as always. However, we were hoping for a little more than breath taking views from our venture into the canopy level.

For the second consecutive time, a mammal and not a bird, provided the main highlight for me. A civet was seen making its way along the foliage of the forest canopy. I tried my best to follow its movements but it was an uphill challenge for both me and my modest photography equipment. Between cursing and not toppling over the side of the canopy walk, I somehow managed to capture a few reasonable images of this sleek creature. And it turned out to be a Small-toothed Palm-Civet. My second ever encounter with this elusive and uncommon species.

Like most civets, it is nocturnal by nature and it is a true blessing to be given an opportunity to admire and photograph the Small-toothed Palm-Civet in broad daylight.

The encounter lasted no more than a half minute but for the observers, it seemed much longer than that. We could not take our eyes off the civet until it disappeared into the dense foliage where it finds true sanctuary. Apart from the usual species, I do not come across mammals all that often in the field. But of late, I seem to be having more luck with mammals than birds.

Just to prove my point, we also came across a relatively confiding Agile Gibbon. This primate is shy and although the far-carrying territorial calls are much a part of the sights and sounds of Sungai Sedim, to see one well like this requires luck.

The only bird image from this site that turned out well enough to be shared was of this male Whiskered Treeswift. He was enjoying his time in the sun despite all the commotion from a group of campers below.

At the mangroves of Sungai Batu, the lighting condition was better than my previous visit. It may be my imagination but even the plain-looking Abbott’s Babbler appeared to be looking exceptional beautiful today.

There will be no hesitation in describing the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher as beautiful for it is one of the best-looking species of this swampy realm.

It was a shame that this male Plain-throated Sunbird was in moult. He could have easily improve the vibrancy of the surroundings as he is a striking species as well.

A female Oriental Magpie-Robin helped increase the variety of species encountered today. Her kind may not possess a kaleidoscope of colours on their plumage but their ability to sing is rivalled by few here in Malaysia. And sadly, their beautiful song is not heard as often now especially here in Penang due to their demand in the bird trade.

On the other hand, the Yellow-vented Bulbul continues to do well throughout the country especially near humans. Naturally, I do not pay much attention to this species but there will be time of exceptions. A few were performing well at the stakeout and it would just be wrong not to acknowledge their presence.

So, one of the commonest birds in Malaysia wrapped things up for this time. Mammals (and a natural disaster) probably overshadowed the other contents in this post. I can state with much confidence, this time anyway, that there is certainly more to life than just birds.

Saturday 3 August 2019

The day of the marten

I was back at the forest of Sungai Sedim in Kedah state after a considerable lapse. My guests this time are from America and the birds that call this recreational forest home gave them a warm welcome. However, photographic opportunities were almost missing. Good thing was this father and son team are birders by nature and the lack of photos did not seem to damper their spirits. Red-naped Trogons, Grey-headed Babblers and Maroon Woodpeckers teased the group of birders from the dense foliage of this fertile environment. Bird waves brought in fascinating species like Spotted Fantails, Flycatcher-Shrikes and the Great Iora. I guess it would be unfair to the birds here if I call this a slow morning just because my photography gear remained slung over my shoulder most of the time.

The characteristic territorial calls of the Red-bearded Bee-eater rarely go unnoticed. It took some time to locate this gem of a bird but it was worth the effort. Perched at the highest level of the forest canopy, it was unfortunately a little far for any decent images. But the prolonged encounter and the way the Red-bearded Bee-eater showed off every bit of its feathery splendour was certainly one of the highlights of the day.

When it comes to birding, there is no sure thing. The mangroves of Sungai Batu is where my guests will usually put their cameras to good use especially in the presence of the star bird. But I was dealt an agonizing blow when the usually confiding Mangrove Pittas were no where to be seen. I had to put my game face on to hide my disappointment. The Abbott’s Babblers eventually gave my clients something to cheer about but it will take more to have the same effect on me.

The resident pair of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers was looking far from their best probably due to a recent conclusion of nesting duties. Their part in today’s itinerary was not unappreciated and the pair added much needed colours to our visit here.

Asian Openbills are now a part of the birding landscape here in the northern part of the peninsular and due to their size and tendency to congregate in numbers, these storks are hard to miss when present. They are usually found in paddy fields where their food source lurks. The sea of green with the occasional speckle of colours courtesy of wild flowers, often provide soothing backdrops for photographic efforts.

For my following birding excursion, the jungle of Bukit Wang was the decided destination. As with my last outing, this birding site was alive with bird calls. White-bellied and Maroon Woodpeckers, Banded and Rufous-collared Kingfishers and the Chestnut-necklaced Partridge filled the vicinity with their distinctive calls and momentarily transported me into a world of utter birding bliss. But only teasing glimpses were offered today which brought me back to the harsh reality of forest birding. I would be insane for constantly spending time in the forest if glimpses are all there is to it. Every now and then, a forest denizen reveals itself in its full splendour and these are the moments that makes forest birding so fulfilling. The penetrating territorial call was the first thing to catch my attention. Shortly later, I had a handsome male Orange-breasted Trogon in my viewfinder. I could not help but to find myself struggling to regain my composure as trogons are one of the most fascinating and spectacular birds that one can hope to encounter in the wild.

Ever since the discovery of the Olive Bulbul here in Malaysia, every Buff-vented Bulbul will be scrutinized especially here in the north. Well, on with the next...

Black-headed Bulbuls were the most conspicuous of this family of birds and today, I enjoyed a few good photographic opportunities. Common throughout suitable habitats, the Black-headed Bulbul is a regular in this forest reserve as well and its presence can still brightened up a birding day. It is a striking bird after all.

Even in the shadows of the forest understorey, the radiance of the Black-headed Bulbul cannot be denied.

To describe the Black-and-yellow Broadbill as adorable would be an understatement. Few birds comes close to the level of cuteness exhibited by this small but colourful feathered gem of the tropical rainforest. I came across a rather confiding pair foraging next to the access road and the male, told by his complete breast band, was the bolder of the two.

His mate is no less appealing which is not always the case when it comes to birds. Females often have to play fiddle when it comes to outer appearances. But not this girl and both birds received equal amount of attention and affection. Despite the harsh lighting at the time, the encounter was undoubtedly the main highlight of the day – for birds that is.

The lush landscape here does not only house members of the avian family. Mammals also find sanctuary here and this isolated road surprisingly provided a non-birding moment that overshadowed every other significant sightings today.

Wild Boars can still be considered common here in Malaysia. In fact, it is the only large mammal that can be seen with regularity in this country. Normally, there is not much to be feared in the presence of this mammal. But an adult with young must be given its due respect. It was alone this time and the distance between us, gave it no reason to not to take its sweet time in crossing the road.

Bukit Wang was not quite done yet and it had one last surprise in store for me – the Yellow-throated Marten. This beautiful but elusive member of the weasel family was happily crossing the road when something stopped it in its track. It turned and stared straight at me. And I, slowly raised my camera for this record shot.

Do not be fooled by the adorable outlook of the Yellow-throated Marten for it is a ruthless and accomplished killer in its own right. However, it knows it is no match for the malevolent nature of the upright gaiting primate known as Man and evolution has taught it to be fearful of the mere sight of this species. The marten naturally bolted away leaving me no chance of an improvement shot.

But not before giving me one last look. Then a second Yellow-throated Marten scooted across the road and I think it is safe to assume that she was his mate. This trip to Bukit Wang was exceptional not because of the birding but the fact that a pair of mammals managed to outshine my beloved birds.