Sunday 29 December 2019

Going cuckoo over cuckoos

I decided to visit the now-famous bamboo garden at the Penang Botanic Gardens again after settling some loose ends at the office. Apparently the relaxing island life here has gotten the better of the Asian Emerald Cuckoos and they now rarely make an appearance in the first half of the morning. As expected there was a crowd waiting and I saw some familiar faces whose companionship helped with the wait. The occurrence of these Asian Emerald Cuckoos was made known to all within the birding community and everyone has an equal chance to get this lifer or simply to bask in the presence of these spectacular birds. No secret handshake required...

There are some flowering plants next to the bamboo garden and a few sunbirds found the tantalizing nectar on offer irresistible. And the birder in me in turn, found the sunbirds dancing among the flowers, irresistible. One species in particular had my utmost attention and it was the stunning male Crimson Sunbird.

Blessed with a plumage rivalled by few, the intensity of the colours especially the red was just incredible. It is a regular here in the gardens but I am not a big fan of birding at a tourist destination like this. Since I am here on this sunny Saturday morning and with no sign of my main target yet, I decided to make the best out of the encounter.

The sunbird provided ample opportunities to admire and ogle at his aesthetic appeal. However when he wanders into the shade, some of his lustre is lost. All this while I kept tab on the bamboo garden the best I could to make sure I do not miss out on the cuckoo.

When the Crimson Sunbird finally retreated from the area for good, I joined back my companions and resumed the wait. It was a much longer wait today and has started to take its toll on my perseverance. A Crested Myna decided to drop by to have a good look at the things we sometimes do in the name of birding and I bet our actions appeared bewildering to it.

Common Kingfishers are regular winter visitors to the Penang Botanic Gardens. This season, at least two individuals often frequent the stream that cuts through this bamboo garden. During my hunts for the Asian Emerald Cuckoos, I do see this adorable kingfisher darting about. On one occasion, I decided to give it the admiration it surely deserves and took the effort to obtain some images. It turned out to be a male bird and he was a handsome specimen indeed. 

I was quite surprise at how accommodating this individual was. It could be that he is used to human presence as this garden is a popular tourist and recreation destination. Despite the close proximity, I faced the arch nemesis of all photographers – undesirable lighting conditions. But the confiding nature of the Common Kingfisher almost overshadowed the issue.

The Little Egret is the only egret that has adapted to survive here in the gardens. As the stream is also the hunting ground for this water bird, it was seen on every visit. During the hottest part of the day, it will sometimes take refuge among the trees. Temperatures nowadays are on the rise and a shaded spot is a priced commodity for both man and bird.

Apart from the Asian Emerald Cuckoos, there are a few other cuckoo species that are attracted to the bamboo clumps. One of them is the Plaintive Cuckoo. This common species is well-known for its loud and persistent vocalization. Its occurrence in built-up areas makes it an infamous disturber of peace to ordinary folks just like the Asian Koel but I find the powerful call to be quite mesmerizing. The male is a stunning bird and I usually pay more attention to him whenever our paths crossed. This time however, my mind and soul was preoccupied with another cuckoo.

The fruiting tree still brought in the flocks of Asian Glossy Starlings. These common birds tend to feast without hesitation despite the presence of humans. For photography, it was just a matter of catching a starling when it alighted on a perch with the right lighting.

A confiding female Pink-necked Pigeon, despite lacking the colours of the male bird, received a momentary stream of attention from all present as she gorged on the fruits as well.

Kanda Kumar, my old friend and mentor came over for chat while I waited for the cuckoo. Apparently this fruiting tree was planted by him years back and here I am, enjoying the fruits of his labour in the form of this pigeon. I have nothing but respect and admiration for the man because my first actual birding trip was led by him during one of the Malaysian Nature Society monthly birding trips. I can still partly recall the trip. How can I ever forget the sight of a pair of Green-billed Malkohas gliding in front of us with their long tails trailing and all? I was also amazed by how he was able to shoot off the name of every bird we came across. I wanted to be like him. Up to today, I still could not achieve that goal. He shares the wonders of the avian world with others out of love and passion for the birds. I, on the other hand, do it for money most of the time.

The fairer sex seemed to outshine the males today and this female Common Iora exhibited very little fear as she went about hunting caterpillars.

This species is relatively common in parks and built-up areas. It possesses an array of calls and its tendency to be vocal makes it a conspicuous bird. Today is probably one of the most prolonged encounters I have ever had with the Common Iora.

There was a pair of them but the male bird was restless and provided fewer good photographic opportunities.

I should have guessed that the display of girl power was a sign of things to come. When the star bird finally made an appearance, it was the female bird. Although I would have preferred the resplendent male, I am truly grateful the 4-hour wait yielded some results.

One of the main reasons behind this cuckoo phenomenon here in Penang Island is this caterpillar. Found in good numbers among the clumps of bamboo here, the Asian Emerald Cuckoos appears to have taste for these hairy snacks. Enough to have them returning each day to the same spot for weeks now. The exceptionally cold winter in north Thailand may also have an influence on the influx of Asian Emerald Cuckoos to Peninsular Malaysia.

As it was mid-afternoon now, the harsh lighting was a major hindrance for photography. The clear blue sky provided some compensation and I know I should always be grateful for what I have been given. But I am human after all. It is in my nature to want more.

The Asian Emerald Cuckoo has a tendency to remain still for periods of time which was a welcomed trait. A little prayer then will occasionally help with her choices of perch. And those choices certainly make a big difference.

For most, the best angle for which to capture an Asian Emerald Cuckoo is from the back. That is where one can truly marvel at the spectacular upperparts which this species is renowned for. Unfortunately, the dense foliage and less than ideal lighting condition hindered my efforts. But from a birder’s point of view, the female Asian Emerald Cuckoo comes close to the male’s scintillating appeal and she certainly heightened my senses. When she finally departed from the location, I also called it a day. It was a long wait and the weather was not exactly pleasant. Hopefully, this encounter will finally help me get over the spell cast by this scarce and beautiful migrant. 

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Feathered emeralds

The forest of Bukit Wang in Kedah state beckoned again and this time I was with a group of relatively young guests from Singapore. It is always comforting to see young people getting involved with birding and bird photography. I have to admit I envy their youth as I have now come to terms with my own middle age. Gone are the days of my hardcore birding. Fatigue and reluctance to go the extra mile often set in especially when a day of birding draws to a close. And even the twitcher in me has somewhat lost his influence over life’s decisions.

During my last visit, the Chinese Blue Flycatcher provided only glimpses. Forest birding can be unpredictable and today, the male bird made sure we do not end up empty handed again. I have encountered this uncommon migrant at this locality before but he still deserves my undivided attention. When the sun finally found its way into the forest understorey, we were presented with the true appeal of this flycatcher.

Another notable migrant we came across here was a male Green-backed Flycatcher. Equally as stunning as the male Chinese Blue Flycatcher, he provided one of the main highlights of the trip.

At the mangroves of Sungai Batu, the Mangrove Pitta made an uncharacteristic brief appearance – much to our dismay. The Forest Wagtail on the other hand, was the saviour for our visit here and provided a commendable performance.

I have not seen the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher here for months and had feared for the worst. That was before this male made an unexpected appearance and put my worries to rest.

All these years of guiding, I do not think I have ever taken my guest birding in Penang Island. The Pearl of the Orient has lost most of its glitter. Destruction of habitat is one of the main reasons. But there is always a first time for everything. One of the most frequently questions asked by my guests would be what is the latest “star” bird in Penang? This time, I replied without the slightest hesitation – Asian Emerald Cuckoos at the Penang Botanic Gardens with an Oriental Scops-Owl thrown in for good measure. From that moment on, the cuckoo became the main target for the rest of this 2-day tour.

From all the info that I could gather, there are at least three cuckoos present with one of them being a male bird. The cuckoos are attracted to the caterpillars found on the bamboo clumps in a landscaped garden and will make daily forays for these tasty morsels. This species is not a lifer for me but I have yet to photograph this scarce migrant. The last time I saw the Asian Emerald Cuckoo at this location was about 15 years ago and at that time, I do not even own a camera. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the bamboo garden. As expected, there was a crowd as this species would be a lifer for most.

Years of birding have made me an observant man and I could tell, as we got down from the car, that something in the clumps of bamboo had the attention of the crowd. A quick gesture of my hand and my guests immediately quickened their pace and made it to the crowd just in time to see a female Asian Emerald Cuckoo perched gorgeously on a slightly exposed bamboo shoot. Life can be beautiful sometimes.

She then flew to a nearby tree in order to further awe us with her stunning beauty. However, the chosen tree had a number of obstructing branches and that hindered our efforts for improvement shots. The cuckoos’ appearances at this spot are rather unpredictable and I thank the big guy above for giving us the opportunity to admire this spectacular bird. And that was the only encounter with the cuckoo for the rest of day. The magic of Christmas at work again? I would like to think so.

With the main target in the bag, I finally had the time to scoot over to some nearby bamboo clumps to look for the Oriental Scops-Owls. It is not a typing error. Two owls have been reported before our arrival and we faced no difficulty at all locating the pair. A few bird photographers were at the roosting tree and these migratory owls are truly adorable because of their miniature size.

Lighting was less than ideal and the dense foliage prevented unobstructed views. Although the owls have been seen quite regularly for the past few days, I still took as many shots as possible in this testing condition. One thing that I have learned in life is never to take anything for granted. One can never be absolutely sure of what tomorrow holds.

The second Oriental Scops-Owl had an even smaller window from which its image can be obtained. But these nocturnal hunters are not all that common here in Malaysia and they certainly have my love and affection. At the time of writing, I was made aware by Krys, the moderator of the excellent website called Oriental Bird Images, that there are three recognized colour morphs for this little owl and these two apparently are brown morph individuals.

We were back at the Penang Botanic Gardens the next morning. This was unprecedented for me as a bird guide. For the second consecutive day, I am at a birding site in Penang Island. Apparently, the female was just not quite enough. And the male Asian Emerald Cuckoo is now the main target. I do not blame my guests for deep inside, I was also disappointed at missing out on the male Asian Emerald Cuckoo yesterday.

Minutes turned into hours and there was still no sign of any feathered emeralds – male or female. At one time, I went to check on the Oriental  Scops-Owls and they were also absent. Lucky for me, I did not hold back any effort to photograph them the day before. Some of the commoner species present at the location did help us to pass the time like this angelic Little Egret in breeding plumage.

The White-throated Kingfisher patrols the stream here regularly. Though often ignored, it received some attention this time from the humans present in its territory.

The kingfisher shares the stream with a migratory Grey Wagtail. The latter can be seen combing the sandy banks for food. I guess there is an uneasy truce between the two species because the kingfisher is an opportunistic hunter and if ever given the chance to seize the wagtail for food, it probably would.

Crested Mynas are doing very well here in Penang Island and the gardens is one of its strongholds. For my Singaporean guests, this locally common species was another lifer because Penang is after all, the best place for this bulky myna in Malaysia.

Although it is also green and glossy, the Asian Glossy Starling is definitely not in the same class as our target bird. There was a fruiting tree within the bamboo garden that has been attracting flocks of this common bird to feast and linger in the vicinity.

Marcus, one of my guests, became the man of the hour as he was the first to spot the male Asian Emerald Cuckoo. He did not have to utter a single. From his body language alone, I knew the moment we have been waiting for has arrived. Even from a distance, there was no denying the resplendence of a male Asian Emerald Cuckoo. Under the sunlight, his upperparts sparkled like a true gem living up to his namesake. Everyone present, seasoned or rookie, was mesmerized by this scarce migrant.

Unfortunately he did not stay long but during his brief appearance, he did shift positions a few times. Like an idol high up upon a pedestal, the male Asian Emerald Cuckoo bestowed upon us two minutes of pure birding ecstasy with his brilliant colouration in full view. The agonizing 3-hour wait, the brief appearance and the luck of the draw are some of the other factors that made this moment one of the year’s best for me. If not for the determination of my young guest to get the male bird, it is very likely this chapter in my life would not have taken place at all.

After the performance, we regained our composure and planned for the remaining half of the day. Since Lady Luck has been a constant companion these past few days, I decided to try our fortune at the stakeout in Bukit Larut. The weather was not promising when we finally arrived at the location. Rain is a regular feature in this town and I fear our luck could finally be running out.

The shrill vocalization of the Chestnut-naped Forktail suddenly echoed through the vicinity. We held our breath. Through the gloomy undergrowth, the male bird hopped into view and it was an emotional rollercoaster all over again for my young Singaporean guests. By that time, I could feel a slight drizzle but it will take a lot more than that to dampen our spirits now.

When the king arrived, we could not even feel the rain drops anymore. The splendour of a male Rufous-collared Kingfisher can brightened up any situation. As this was my second experience at the stakeout, I have yet to get accustomed to viewing this striking kingfisher up close and personal like this. It was certainly breath taking.

The Hooded Pitta was probably put off by the impending storm and was sorely missed. Unfortunately, the Green-backed Flycatcher and as well as a juvenile Siberian Blue Robin only made a brief appearance. In the end it was the handsome male Orange-headed Thrush that provided one last adrenalin rush for our group before we decided to call it a day.

An inquisitive Spectacled Langur saw us off as we packed up our gear and these docile monkeys are a common sight here at the foothill of Bukit Larut. We did not encounter as many species as I had anticipated for this 2-day birding adventure. However, the amazing moments with the Asian Emerald Cuckoos were significant enough for my guests to consider the tour to be a successful one. And I cannot argue with that.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all those celebrating a Merry Christmas and to all, a Happy New Year.