Wednesday 6 November 2019

Now, this is more like it...

It started out like any other birding excursion. Together with my foreign guests, this time from Australia, we crossed the Straits of Melaka and headed to our first destination in the mainland well before dawn. The state of Kedah still has a few good forest sites left and the Bukit Wang Forest Reserve is certainly one of them. I have been birding long enough to know that forest birding is no walk in a park. It can be frustrating and difficult. One’s love for birding will often be tested. But occasionally, moments of magic will take place when you least expect and you find yourself experiencing something truly incredible. We hardly broke a sweat when the peculiar call of the Red-bearded Bee-eater echoed through the vicinity and stopped us at our tracks. It sounded close and when we laid eyes on the bird, it was even closer than I had anticipated. In all my years of birding, this is the closest I have ever been to this gorgeous resident of the forest and I was just as amazed as my guests. What a great start to the tour considering the somewhat poor outcome of my last few birding adventures.

The Red-bearded Bee-eater is by no means a rare bird. However, its preference for the canopy levels often prevents close and intimate encounters like this. That is most unfortunate for this species has a stunning plumage and the chubby appearance only enhances its overall appeal. The call is unmistakeable and that is usually the first indication of its present. This female, told by the reddish forecrown, was exceedingly confiding today. She even allowed me to reposition myself in order to capture her stunning beauty from a slightly different angle. That’s a good girl...

As we wandered further into this forested domain, we came across a flock of birds foraging just next to the access road. The call of the birds gave away its identity which is often the case for birding in the forest. It was a flock of White-bellied Erpornis and despite lacking any vivid plumage colourations, this babbler has enough character to thrill us with its presence.

There is probably at least a pair of Dark-necked Tailorbirds in every forest reserve - here in my usual birding circuit anyway. It has a big voice for such a small bird and this male bird was adamant on stressing that point. On an exposed perch among the thickets of the undergrowth, he gave a flawless performance. And this is one of the few occasions that this common species had my undivided attention.

Sensing that perhaps a change of backdrop could further improve his performance, he scurried through the dense thickets and popped up on a new stage to continue what he started. And that was to charm his way into the hearts of a trio of visiting birders.

There were a few interesting species that managed to evade my photographic attempts like the Red-crowned Barbet and Black-thighed Falconet but they were much welcomed additions to my guests’ life list. Bukit Wang is a beautiful place from the picturesque recreational area to the majestic trees of the forest proper. Lush, wild and alluring; it is no wonder that this site is usually a favourite with my guests.   

This juvenile Tiger Shrike, on the other hand, was a different story. It was more than willing to show off the intricate barring from which its name is derived. Resting on exposed in good light, we obtained great views of the youngster and naturally, good images as well. The Tiger Shrike is a regular migrant to suitable habitats throughout the country and crossing paths with one here at this time of the year, comes as no surprise.

The reasonably good weather brought out a pair of Oriental Honey-Buzzards and they were seen circling gracefully above the forest. By then, the noon hour was upon us and the level of bird activities had dropped noticeably. I guess there was no better time to adjourn to the next destination of the day.

I have to admit things have been slow at the stakeout in the mangroves of Sungai Batu lately. Nevertheless, I still maintain it as part of my birding circuit because of the opportunity to obtain good views of the striking and adorable Forest Wagtail. I am grateful this migrant continues to find the locality worthy of its wintering home and its signature sway will greet visiting birders for at least one more season.

The only other bird to join the wagtail this time was the resident pair of Abbott’s Babblers.

A pair of confiding Red-wattled Lapwings resting next to a canal was a good enough reason to park our vehicle and take the time to enjoy the encounter. I have always been drawn to the vivid colouration of this large wader and nothing has changed. It remains to be one of my most adored waterbirds.

While we were soaking in the view of the lapwings, I realized that there was a Little Cormorant resting nearby that went unnoticed till now. I am not sure if it was the mesmerizing beauty of the lapwings but I could hardly believe that I nearly missed the opportunity to show off this sleek bird that is increasing in numbers here in Peninsular Malaysia. Little Cormorants are usually wary of human presence and to find one as obliging as this individual was nothing less of a blessing.

Our final destination of the day was the freshwater swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Surprisingly, the weather did not turn for the worse as expected. That, itself, was another blessing. The male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher teased us from the dark lower storey of the forest. A moment of unexpected courage from this attractive migrant led to the only image I managed to obtain from the encounter.

The sunny condition will almost certainly have the wintering Black Kites out and about. The raptors soared and swooped in the heavens above and on those occasions when they floated closer to the earth than usual, outstanding views were provided.

A flash of blue diverted our gaze down towards the river. It was a Black-capped Kingfisher on the hunt. Unfortunately, it did not take too kindly to a Common Kingfisher that was lingering nearby – unlike the nearby human observers who are obviously overwhelmed by the presence of two sought-after kingfishers at a single spot. Although I was not given enough time to capture this encounter digitally, it would remain as one of the highlights of the trip. A big flock of Asian Openbills on the move formed a curtain that almost concealed the sky from view. I could not have asked for a better way to wrapped things up for the day than this breath taking sight.