Wednesday 25 September 2019

Unforgettable - Part 2

One of the reasons I do birding from a hide is for the opportunities to experience intimate encounters that would otherwise be near impossible to obtain any other way. However, one still needs to endure long periods in a confined space and occasional boredom from waiting for the magic to begin. The penetrating call of the Black-capped Babbler is very much a part of the sights and sounds of Taman Negara Sungai Relau. However, this terrestrial passerine with its signature walking gait, does not provide good views very often. For this trip, it was one of the most obliging species and I obtained some of my best photos of the species to date – with the aid of a hide that is.

It may not be brilliantly coloured but the boldly marked head region makes it a striking species especially when seen well like this. And the walk never gets old despite all my previous encounters with this babbler.

On most occasions, we saw them in pairs and that further compounded my sense of exhilaration...

Another babbler that helped keep us entertained while we were waiting in our hides for our target birds was the Ferruginous Babbler. Like most babblers, it is more often heard than seen and that is a shame for it is an elegant beauty.

I am sure all of us are familiar with the saying it is not the size of the dog in the fight. The small but feisty Short-tailed Babbler is a very good example. It can get crowded at a stake out sometimes but the Short-tailed Babblers are able to stand their ground while in the presence of larger species. The personality and adorable appearance makes this babbler a delight to observe and photograph.

The White-rumped Shama is another famed songster that has found refuge in this park. The population is doing so well that we managed to capture at least four different individuals that included males and a single drabber female.

As for our target birds, the Garnet and Banded Pitta, the quest did not start off well at all. On the first day, there were no signs of even the commoner Garnet Pitta. We bumped into Dr Chan and his group of Perak birders and he confirmed my worst fear – the Garnet Pitta has not been seen for the past two days. Memories of my failure with this very pitta during my last visit here started coming back to haunt me. We did hear a pair of Banded Pittas on the first day though. They came very close to our hides. In fact, a row of dense undergrowth was all that prevented us from savouring our first pitta of the trip but it offered very little consolation. Luckily, we still had more than 2 days here and it is never over till the fat lady sings, right?

The next morning, we tried for the pittas again. Minutes turned into hours before I heard a distinct melancholy whistle from the undergrowth that could only belong to a Garnet Pitta. Then appeared a glowing red crown from out of the gloom of the forest undergrowth and it hopped among the leaf litter towards our hides. The lighting was far from perfect but it did not matter. What did matter was we were now gawking at a Garnet Pitta in all its glory and it was a spectacular sight indeed.

After our first encounter, there was like a sudden influx of Garnet Pittas. For the remainder of our visit, we recorded no less than 3 individuals. This is the unpredictable factor in birding that I always mention. Two days ago, the Garnet Pitta was nowhere to be seen or heard and now, they were everywhere. We continued to stake out in our hides at strategic locations for our second target the Banded Pitta. Inevitably, we experienced even more encounters with the Garnet Pitta. When seen in gloomy conditions, the brighter the crown of this pitta glows.

However on those occasions when the Garnet Pitta was in good light, it was simply magical. When I photographed my first Garnet Pitta from this location, a whirlwind of emotions ran through my body then. Now 11 years down the road, I was again overwhelmed with emotions when in the presence of this feathered gem of the tropical rainforest. I thought by now I would be better prepared to face the seductive splendour of this pitta but I should have known better. There are still times when I get smitten by even a common species. And the Garnet Pitta (in fact, any pitta) is no common or ordinary species in my book. No, pittas are extraordinary creatures put here on Earth to enrich the lives for those who take the effort to appreciate their existence.

On the final day of our visit to Taman Negara Sungai Relau, we tried one last time for the Banded Pitta that proved elusive thus far. In between appearances by the Garnet Pitta, we saw a male Banded Pitta hopped across our field of view from the hide and disappeared back into his lush domain. There was hardly any time for photography but Kuan, got his second pitta lifer for the trip. Birding can truly test your mental strength at times. The Banded Pittas toyed with our emotions on more than one occasion and in the end, the star bird of this trip was undoubtedly the Garnet Pitta.

To commemorate his double pitta lifer, we had a feast at a local restaurant in Gua Musang. Now, there are fishes and there is the Empurau (also known as the Malayan Mahseer). It is the most expensive edible fish in Malaysia. So exquisite is the meat that the fish is known as “The Unforgettable” (wang bu liao) in Chinese – hence the title of this blog post. Well, the fish was certainly incredible and so was the price. True to its Chinese name, it was a memorable culinary experience. But for me, the memories of the Garnet Pitta and its glowing red crown will probably outlive The Unforgettable.

On the way back from Taman Negara Sungai Relau, we made a little detour to the Kek Lok Tong Temple in Perak state to try our luck with the temple thrushes. Although we missed out on the Blue Whistling-Thrush, the ever-present Blue Rock-Thrush provided a flawless performance.

The females are equally as stunning and helped to welcome my guest for his maiden visit to this famed (birding) temple.

It is good to see the population of Java Sparrows thriving here in the temple grounds. It did not take long to locate them and we found a flock taking refuge in a clump of bamboo. Although our presence did not cause them any alarm, the dense vegetation made it difficult to obtain unobstructed images. 

Thankfully, it was nothing a little determination and luck could not overcome...

There were a few juveniles in the flock as well and I guess it was another successful breeding season. These adorable sparrows concluded this 4-day birding adventure and although all the targets were met, I feel Taman Negara may be starting to lose its lustre and that is a scary feeling. The extraordinary encounters I obtained from the Garnet Pittas this time offer hope still for this location to remain as one of the best birding sites in the country.

Monday 23 September 2019

Unforgettable - Part 1

I was really looking forward to my latest birding adventure as it would take me to one of the best lowland forest sites in Peninsular Malaysia – good old Taman Negara. Just a few days before the tour, it dawned on me. The dates coincided with Malaysia Day and that made the weekend a long one. I planned to have a stopover at Cameron Highlands for a night with my Sabahan guest, Kuan, before going over to the other side of the peninsular. And to be brutally honest, this highland resort is the last place to be during long weekends. As expected, we were greeted by horrendous traffic upon our arrival and particularly everywhere was crowded. Even the only birding spot left on Cameron Highlands, the narrow road up Gunung Brinchang, had its share of visitors. However, the human congestion and engulfing mist could not deny my guest of two outstanding lifers in the form of a Malayan Whistling-Thrush and Rufous-vented Niltava. Both species were equally exciting to me as they are montane specialities but the conditions made it utterly meaningless for my gear to attempt any photography.

We left Cameron Highlands and all the festivities behind when we made our way to the wild interiors of Pahang state. Taman Negara Sungai Relau was to be our hunting ground for the next few days and it has been 3 years since I last wandered into this wildlife sanctuary in search of feathered denizens. I was well aware of the ongoing construction works for a new canopy walk in the park and I can only hope it will not effect the birding too much. Certain parts of Malaysia has been under siege this past week with the return of the hazardous haze – the worst in 4 years. Fortunately, it was still relatively clear here.

The monumental sign at the entrance has been refurbished with a simpler one. There is room for improvement but I guess it will do given the isolation of this locality. This is the consequence of my years in the advertising and signage industry. It is in my blood and I cannot help but to take an interest in this manmade structure.

For the rest of Taman Negara Sungai Relau, nothing much has changed - lush vegetation, wild environment and captivating views. For that I am most grateful.

Oriental Magpie-Robins continue to do well here under the protection of the national park and from the look of things, it will be another successful nesting season. In fact, it was breeding season for quite a number of other species as well.

Ayuwat’s last visit here yielded a lone Slender-billed Crow that was mixing around with Large-billed Crows at the entrance to the park. It is a species that I have not encountered for many years. Naturally, all crows seen within the compound of the entry point were given extra attention. My efforts were not rewarded in the end as I do not possess the same good fortune as my Thai compatriot. On the other hand, my guest enjoyed our time scrutinizing the Large-billed Crows. For him, the Slender-billed Crow is the commoner one in East Malaysia.

In the forest proper, Ayuwat found yet another gem and it was the elusive Cinnamon-rumped Trogon. And again, it is another species I yearn to reconnect with. Unfortunately, the only trogon we managed to observe for this trip was a male Diard’s Trogon. Forest bird photography is often challenging and it took considerable time and effort to obtain this shot.

Have I ever mentioned that patience is a virtue for birding in the forest? Well, it certainly is. And so is determination. However when all the elements are against you, those virtues don’t do squat. Like this female Green Broadbill making an appearance at first light.

The Yellow-bellied Bulbul was a regular feature during my last visit. This time, there was only one brief encounter. Come to think of it, bulbuls were rather elusive – however unbelievable that may sound.

The only bulbul that I had a reasonably good encounter with was the Grey-cheeked Bulbul. The colouration of this individual lacked its usual radiance and I assumed it is a young bird.

Apart from a distant Crested Goshawk, there were no other photographic opportunities with raptors. I have to admit that this trip produced less photos than I had expected and I hope it is just me getting more demanding with age and not the fact that even mighty Taman Negara is starting to deteriorate just like any other birding site.

I was happy just to be able to locate this Yellow-crowned Barbet shouting its head off from a lofty perch late one evening. Barbets usually conceal themselves well among the foliage of tall trees but we can sometimes surprise ourselves with what we can achieve when we really put our heart into it. The ache from straining our necks will heal itself eventually...

Even from that distance, the barbet received a fair share of attention from a couple of visiting birders. For Kuan, this is only his second sighting and obtaining a record was never an option.

Taman Negara Sungai Relau is not only home to the birds. Mammals roam the forest here with very little threat from humans. Our encounters with Wild Boars and a Yellow-throated Marten left us with nothing but memories. A Prevost’s Squirrel using the electrical cables to move about the edge of the park made sure we did not end up empty handed. Thank goodness for that because this species is one of the most beautiful mammals found here in the park.

We also crossed paths with Smooth Otters on a few occasions. The thought of Hairy-nosed Otters did cross my mind since we are in this rare mammal’s neck of the woods. A quick check with Goggle put all uncertainties to rest. Anyway, the encounters were still exciting despite the common stature of the Smooth Otter.

It was good to see the herd of captive released Bantengs still surviving here in the park. The male looked as intimating as ever. Sporting a fresh wound on his shoulder only enhanced the look.

For this trip to Taman Negara, the main targets for my guest were two species of pittas. To increase our chances with these shy jewels of the jungle, a considerable amount of time was spent in hides. How we faired with these beautiful but shy terrestrial birds will be covered in my next blog posting.