Thursday 31 October 2019

Festival of Lights

Rain has been a constant feature for the past week here in northern Peninsular Malaysia. Each evening, just like clockwork, the heavens will open up and drench the lands below. Without rain, there will be no life and I really should not be complaining. However for a bird guide hosting birders from overseas, rain is one of the things I dread the most. My weekend birding for this time started off close to home. One seldom sees mist here in Penang Island and to be engulfed by thick mist is certainly new to me. The slopes of Bukit Penara were exceptionally misty due to the rainfall of late and as I walked along the access road, it momentarily deceived me into feeling that I was at some far, exotic hill resort in search of birds.

I rarely get swept away by the landscape I wander into when birding. However, things were off to a slow start and the rays of the sun piercing through one spot of the secondary forest captured my immediate attention. Deepavali happened to fall on the next day and this year in conjunction with the Festival of Lights, Mother Nature decided to provide an exclusive show of her own.

The soft but persistent calls of the Grey-throated Babbler finally got the ball rolling and I took the effort to locate and observe a flock that was foraging along the forest understorey. It is better known as a bird of the montane forest but up here in the north, the Grey-throated Babbler occurs even at sea level. It is also one of the few babblers to be able to endure the rate of development here in the Pearl of the Orient.

Typical of babblers, it is not often seen well. It takes perseverance and luck. The former is a compulsory trait for all birders and today, I had just enough of the latter to capture some unobstructed images of this plain but interesting resident of the forest.

A male Orange-bellied Flowerpecker was particularly obliging today. The winds occasionally blew in rain clouds and blocked out the sun during the encounter. A certain degree of colour intensity was lost due to the lighting but he was still a striking and remarkable bird.

Here in Penang Island where birders are not blessed with a whole lot of spectacular birds, the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker is up there among the best any birder can hope to encounter in the field.

The wind and rain caused some havoc along the access road leading up to Gunung Bintang in Kedah state but it will take a lot more than some minor landslides to keep birders away from their objectives. Birding was not exceptional this time and there were hardly any good photographic opportunities. Luckily my Australian guests are old school birders and there was just enough bird activities to keep them reasonably happy.

It was hot and sunny when we entered the mangroves of Sungai Batu. Sometimes too much of a good thing may not be good anymore and I struggled with shadows and harsh lighting when trying to obtain some images from this visit. It was good to see the return of the wintering Forest Wagtails to this locality but their constant movements added more woe to my photographic efforts.

The ever-present Abbott’s Babbler may not stir much excitement in me but for my guests, this common species did its part to help improve the quality of the trip.

A mass of wings and feathers greeted us above the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. Even without any optical aid, there can be no mistaking the Asian Openbills at this locality. After all this time, I still marvel at these peculiar storks. Not only because of the sheer number often present but for their beauty as well.

Luck or perhaps divine intervention diverted part of the flock towards our direction and some descended upon the nearby paddy fields either to rest or to feed. And the better views did not go unappreciated.

The sky was providing more action than the forest proper this time and the migratory Black Kites again graced the vicinity with their presence for another season. With whatever thermals available, they soared with such ease that it was a truly captivating sight indeed.

As we made our way to the nearby paddy fields, the weather turned for the worse drastically. Thunder rumbled at a distance and the approaching storm transformed the sky into a surprisingly mesmerizing sight. There was no point fighting the inevitable and we decided to turn back and head for home. The storm lashed the earth with such fury that it even made driving difficult. It may be the worst possible condition for birding but a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings desperately trying to evade the downpour provided one last highlight for the trip.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

The return of the dwarf king

Recently, a Black-backed Kingfisher on passage has been performing for birders in the capital city of Malaysia and it brought back bitter memories of this kingfisher gracing one of my local patches last season. Sometimes in life you are given second chances. Unbelievable as it may seemed, I received a tip off that another kingfisher was back at Air Hitam Dalam. Inevitably, I found myself back at this locality for the second consecutive Saturday. I timed my arrival better on this occasion and by the time I stepped onto the elevated boardwalk, the sunbeams have pierced their way through the lush vegetation of the swamp forest.

I was a man on a mission but a pair of Green-billed Malkohas glided into the foliage nearby and momentarily distracted me. This is the only malkoha species left in the reserve and its presence usually do not go unnoticed even when I am not guiding any foreign guests. With a tail longer than its body, I am quite certain I am not alone that feels that the Green-billed Malkoha is an incredible bird.

For a good half of the morning, I scanned the flooded understorey of the forest looking for a tiny but dazzling gem of a kingfisher but to no avail. I heard the call a couple of times. Saw it dashed across my field of view once. And that was it. An exact repetition of last year’s encounter. It started to feel like a frightening annual event for me but I cannot deny the fact that this little ball of feathers got the better of me – again. However, the locality was not void of birds and the middle storey was where most of them were to be found today. The Tiger Shrikes were still undergoing their migration from the north and this juvenile was having a stopover here.

The Brown Shrike, however, is home. For the next few months anyway before it flies back north in spring to breed.

There was a small fallout of leaf warblers today. At least 4 Arctic Warblers were recorded together with an Eastern Crowned Warbler. These little brown jobs are difficult to photograph due to their small size and active nature. One Arctic Warbler foraged for a considerable amount of time on a sparse tree and the absence of foliage was a great advantage for me. I know that there is now a split for the Arctic Warbler. But I am a simple man and I like to keep things simple. No point losing sleep thinking if it could have been the identical Japanese or Kamchatka Leaf-Warbler.

A number of Yellow-rumped Flycatchers (yes, they are using back the old name which I have always maintain to be the better one) seem to have settled down here in Air Hitam Dalam as their winter home this season. All three that I managed to encounter today were not as confiding as I hoped them to be. Only the first winter male, told by his black uppertail coverts, provided some reasonable photographic opportunities.

The resident female Indochinese Blue-Flycatcher was a real sweetheart by doing her best to brighten up the day and it was a commendable effort indeed.

The last bird for this short excursion was none other than a male Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher. I have had so many intimate and fond memories of this species here that I even unofficially christened this alluring species the ambassador of Air Hitam Dalam.

The disappointment with the Black-backed Kingfisher was disheartening. But that is birding. During the time of writing, a number of my fellow birders have scored with this tiny beauty and I am happy for them – honest! It did not come easy and some waited for hours before given the privilege to photograph his royal highness. But a couple of days after, the Black-backed Kingfisher was nowhere to be seen. Apparent, Elvis has left the building. Well, until the next season then...

Thursday 17 October 2019

The commoners to the rescue

Recently, a number of interesting passage migrants were recorded at the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in mainland Penang and I was hoping to catch some of them myself before they carry on with their migration. I reached the locality just before it got bright and was greeted by an eerie growl from one of the trees next to the car park. However, fear did not overcome me but excitement certainly did. It was just the resident pair of Spotted Wood-Owls proclaiming their territory and I am elated that they still lingered on here after all the destruction done to this site by the strong winds last month. I observed the pair’s interaction patiently and unobtrusively. In this light, I knew I could not obtained any reasonable images but it did not stop me from trying. As the sky started its transition from midnight blue to amber, the nocturnal pair retreated deeper into the forest leaving me with nothing but a beautiful memory. And this crappy record shot.

Morning followed shortly after and it was a beautiful one indeed. Blue sunny skies as far as the eye can see. The melodious call of the Black-naped Oriole diverted my attention to a clump of coconut trees just beyond the border of the reserve. A male bird was soaking in the soothing rays of the morning in the golden light. A Black-naped Oriole is nothing to shout about as it is a common bird even in parks and gardens. However, being common does make a beautiful bird any less appealing and I would not be able to forgive myself if I did not even try to capture this encounter with my camera.

It is one of the commonest birds in the country but the Common Myna is full of character. And when a few of them get together, they can raise a ruckus. Anyway, the three of them broke the morning’s serenity from the top of a coconut tree and that was enough to earn them a place in my blog posting this time.

My visit to this local patch of mine reunited me with a girl that I have not seen for a very long time. It is good to know that the lone female Indochinese (Tickell’s) Blue-Flycatcher of this location is doing well. And she is still in the company of a male Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher. Whatever makes you happy, girl...

Here in Air Hitam Dalam, the Olive-winged Bulbul is the most conspicuous bulbul even outnumbering the Yellow-vented Bulbul. Today, a pair of them performed exceptionally well and I gave them the attention they so truly deserve.

My search for interesting passage migrants did not go according to plan – most things do not when it comes to birding. Only the commoner ones were encountered like this rather striking Brown Shrike.

Just as I was about to seek better fortunes elsewhere, a Crow-billed Drongo swooped pass overhead, caught an insect and alighted on a nearby branch to feed. I took my time to enjoy the last encounter for my visit to this local patch. The paddy fields which are to be my next destination will just have to wait as an opportunity of this nature does not come by all that often.

It looked like an adult bird and although I have encountered better looking individuals, a Crow-billed Drongo performing well can always brightened up my day. It is no means a rare migrant but it is uncommon enough to have my undivided attention.

There was nothing unexpected to be found at the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh in mainland Penang. The usual migrants are starting to build up in numbers which is a good sign. A recently ploughed patch produced a flock of Grey-headed Lapwings but this locally common migrant do not usually allow prolonged observations and it was no different this time.

A fellow birder, Khor, has reported the arrival of White-shouldered Starlings to the locality and this uncommon migrant would certainly improve the outcome of this trip. Unfortunately, they were no where to be seen. The Daurian Starlings were back in full force and a humble estimation of the birds present throughout the locality was a hundred strong.

Every Daurian Starling was given a second look not because the species is rare or new to me but for the possibility of the rare Chestnut-eared Starling among them. There was a particular fruiting tree next to the paddy fields that was drawing in the starlings and naturally, I was anchored to the spot for a long time. By now if there is no mention of the Chestnut-eared Starling, you will probably be able to draw your own conclusion of my efforts.

The Daurian Starling used to be called the Purple-backed Starling. This male that was foraging at the tip of one of the tree branches in the full sun shows you exactly how the old name was derived. The striking upperparts of this male starling wrapped things up for the day and although nothing extraordinary was encountered, the commoners have done enough to keep the birder in me satisfied.

Friday 4 October 2019

It's a fallout!

The state of Perlis is capable of producing birding surprises due to its close proximity with neighbouring Thailand and the fact it houses some of the least explored birding sites in the country. The commencement of the migratory season is always a good time for a trip up to the northernmost tip of the peninsular and together with Hock Kee and Michael, we arrived at the border post of Wang Kelian in good time. I guess it is a blessing that this is not a popular entry point into Thailand. A crowd would have hindered our efforts to try for Malaysia’s first record of the Vernal Hanging-Parrot – a species missing from our checklist despite occurring just beyond the border. There was a healthy numbers of Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrots in the vicinity and every flock was given its due attention. In the end, they were the only parrot species present. The male Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrots are absolutely adorable and striking as well but they hardly provided any good photographic opportunities. And I had to settle for record shots this time.

There is a phrase that I adhere to when it comes to birding and it is known as Murphy’s Law. Out of all the parrots present, a plain juvenile proved to be most confiding and outperformed the better looking adults. Murphy’s Law? You bet it is...

Perlis State Park is not usually part of my birding circuit nowadays as I find the bird activities there relatively low. The revised admission rate for cameras just became another hindrance because it is simply exorbitant. Having said that, this park still has the potential of providing Peninsular Malaysia’s first Fulvous-chested Jungle-Flycatcher as it is found in the forest on the other side of the border. This and the possibility of other interesting passage migrants was good enough a motivation for me to enter the borders of this park again after a lapse of three years.

Luckily, it was a decision I did not live to regret. The number of passage migrants present were overwhelming to say the least. This fallout was like something out of the movies. To be more precise, the movie The Big Year. Although not quite in the same magnitude, it is probably as good as it will get in real life here in Malaysia. Throughout the morning, we saw around 20 individuals of Amur Paradise-Flycatchers. I am quite sure this is the biggest number I have ever seen in a single day and it was almost surreal. On one occasion, we found ourselves surrounded by at least four of these elegant flycatchers. Unfortunately they in turn, were surrounded by branches. It was a vicious cycle. The dense vegetation and the active nature of the birds hampered most of my photographic efforts.

My lucky break came when one Amur Paradise-Flycatcher foraged lower than the others and alighted briefly on an exposed perch. And I obtained, what would be, my best image of this flycatcher phenomenon.

There were a few white-phased males present as well and I have long yearned for a reasonably good photo of one with the long flowing tail and all. To my dismay, all of them were lacking the long streamers.

Even without streamers, the white males are still a feast for the eyes. It is the only passerine with an almost full white plumage that occurs in the forest of Malaysia and it literally floats through the foliage of the forest when in search of prey. Anyway, there was one with the elongated tail feathers but he managed to give me the slip only to be seen by Hor Kee alone.  You guessed it - Murphy’s Law.

As for our quest for the Fulvous-chested Jungle-Flycatcher, it was another futile attempt just like the Vernal Hanging-Parrots in the morning. But the encounters with not one but three Brown-chested Jungle-Flycatchers minutes apart fully compensated our disappointment or mine at least. This would be my third ever encounter after all these years of birding because I do not have much luck with this uncommon migrant. It has a preference for the darkest parts of the forest understorey and inevitably, both my gear and I were put to the test. Judging from the quality of the photo, I do not see the need to elaborate more on the matter.

I managed slightly better images from our second encounter but they were still nothing to shout about. When we encountered the third individual in almost identical conditions, I gave up shooting altogether and enjoyed the moment old school way - through binoculars.

The fallout was not all flycatchers though. We saw a number of Tiger Shrikes as well. The majority seen were juveniles and the absence of the eye mask literally make their eyes pop out. 

There was one adult male and he was still sporting some of his stunning summer plumage. Like all the other passage migrants, these stopovers is where the Tiger Shrike refuel for the remaining part of their migration. And a juicy Katydid will certainly do.

Brown Shrikes were plentiful too and for some of these common migrants, they have reached their wintering ground here in Perlis state.

I did not expect much from the resident species found here in the park as they are far and few. The appearance of male Lesser Cuckooshrike during one of the few small birdwaves certainly had our attention. After all, the almost similar-looking Black-winged Cuckooshrike has yet to cross the border into Malaysia.

On the way back, we swung by the vast open country of Chuping. It was still a little early in the year for this location but we were hoping to catch some passage migrants there as well. The landscape has not changed much from last season and I am most grateful for that.

It was good to see the local population of Little Grebes making a comeback at the lake area. At one time, it was difficult just even to see one here. Now, you can find dozens paddling about without much effort.

It comes as no surprise that to wrap things up for the day was another migrant flycatcher. The Asian Brown Flycatcher may be the commonest flycatcher of all the migrants but we still had to put it under scrutiny to avoid mistaking a rarer species for it because these flycatchers can look frustratingly similar.