Tuesday 29 December 2020

A trail of teasing trogons


I found myself exploring the foothills of Gunung Bintang in the state of Kedah on Boxing Day this year. And the weather was surprisingly good with clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine. The vicinity was alive with the sounds of nature and as usual, the wilderness provides sanctuary for my wearied soul. The troops of Agile Gibbons present almost drowned out all the rest with their powerful territorial calls and for these shy primates that is often the only indication of their presence.

One particular call had my undivided attention. It is a series of mournful notes but owner of the call is anything but mournful. I do not come across the Red-naped Trogon all that often and this individual was not making it easy for me. The dense foliage of the canopy hid the bird well and the vocalization was the only aid I have to locating this stunning forest dweller. Quarter of an hour and a couple of leech bites later, the trogon shifted position and slight movement was all that was needed for its location to be revealed. It was a dreadful photographic attempt but the experience exciting nevertheless.

The trogons of this birding haven appear to have returned to the forest surrounding this access road. The movement control order by the government decreased human activities considerably here and could well be one of the main reasons why I found myself surrounded by these forest denizens today. As much as I hate to admit it, human interference regardless of any nature, will have an impact on the ecosystem. In our absence, Mother Nature thrives. Anyway, the Diard’s Trogon and Orange-breasted Trogon teased me with fleeting views from the cover of the forest. Even the commoner Scarlet-rumped Trogon was reluctant to reveal his true beauty today.

His duller mate was not any much better despite resting on a relatively open perch.

The two resident forest kingfishers were also up and about. While the Banded Kingfisher remained out of sight, the Rufous-collared Kingfisher provided a brief but mesmerizing encounter. She alighted at eye level but unfortunately in a gloomy part of the forest. Unlike most avian species, she is just as striking as her male counterpart. I could not recall the last time I came across a female of this species and this girl certainly brought some cheer after the frustrating time with the trogons.

A number of birdwaves swept past me as I slowly ascended the trail. Babblers, warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers and sunbirds were the main participants of this natural phenomenon. Photographic attempts were futile as the birds were exceptionally active today. All except for a male Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrike that decided to take a short breather in the midst of all the chaos.

Fruiting trees are always a good spot for birds. A small fruiting next to the access road made me stop to have a better look. A pair of Finsch’s Bulbuls came for a short feed but they were the only signs of life at the tree for the entire duration I was there.

I did not give much thought to the resident Chestnut-naped Forktails that were darting about today as these birds do not appreciate human presence much. However, a juvenile decided to momentarily abandon its skittish nature and foraged relatively close to my position. This species has a tendency to hunt along isolated access roads and when out the in the open like this, one can truly appreciate the beauty of the Chestnut-naped Forktail even if it has yet to obtain full adult plumage.

Well, we are all familiar with the saying stop and smell the roses but you will not find any roses here in this hot and humid environment. I hope I am not getting sentimental with age but while waiting (in vain) for the forktail to show itself again, this yellow flower did catch my eye.

The Bushy-crested Hornbill is probably the avian world’s equivalent of the gibbons here at this site. It occurs in flocks and just like the primates, are vocal by nature. A flock was yelping away (yup, they do sound somewhat like puppies) from one of the taller trees and lucky for me, the foliage was sparse enough to make the shape of the hornbills. They were quite a distance away and the tree, strongly backlighted.

Years of birding has moulded me into a patient man and I waited for, hopefully, a change of fortune. My determination paid off when the flock, consisting of nine individuals, took flight and headed towards my direction. I also have been birding long enough to know that things rarely work out exactly how you hoped. When it comes to forest birding, everything comes down to luck and it certainly had some for this encounter.

My best effort of the flying Bushy-crested Hornbills was of this young male. He was the last one to make it across the valley and my modest photographic setup had a little more time to capture the moment. There is just something about hornbills in flight that make them so captivating – even if the species is mostly shades of brown.

I had to borrow my better half’s ride for my birding adventure this time as the battery of my old girl died on me the day before. When it comes to photography, birds and other wildlife naturally has precedence over everything else. But vehicles are one of my few other passions in life and you will find a number of photographs of this nature in my digital archive. And this Kai Concept crossover wrapped things up for the day.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

The case of missing Mugimakis


I have been constantly kept away from birding of late and it was rejuvenating to finally get to venture out into the field again even if it was only for a couple of hours. This time last year, the Penang Botanic Gardens surprisingly became the centre of attention for birders throughout the country because of the presence of Asian Emerald Cuckoos. A few notable migrants started showing well again in the form of a Taiga Flycatcher and Mugimaki Flycatchers. Their aesthetic appeal and charisma are not quite in the same league of that of the cuckoos and naturally, did not caused that much of a ripple in the birding community. Thus, I found myself alone as I searched for the flycatchers on this wet and gloomy morning.

The overcast sky cloaked the vicinity with an extended state of dawn lighting and undeniable evidence of last night’s heavy downpour made me ponder if it would have been wiser for me to sleep in late instead of birding in such a challenging condition. The Crimson Sunbird is not much of a singer but its call is quite distinctive to my ears. And one was certainly present nearby. This location is one the best site I know for Crimson Sunbirds and it did not take long for me to start ogling at a handsome male satisfying his sugar craving on a low flowering bush. It was a close and prolonged encounter and all thoughts of comfortably curling up in bed ceased to taunt me.

The lighting may have dampened my efforts to digitally capture his splendour but in real life, his vivid colouration pierced through the gloom like a fiery torch.

I come across Black-naped Orioles frequently in my housing estate and they are undoubtedly one of the prettiest garden birds in Malaysia. It may be a common bird but I do not have as many photographic opportunities with the Black-naped Oriole as I would like to. The striking beauty of the bird helped to brighten up the morning’s excursion.

The Penang Botanic Gardens has long been a stronghold for the Crested Myna and here, it outnumbers every other myna species. Somewhat of a Penang speciality, this species continues to thrive throughout the Pearl of the Orient.

As I wandered about this popular recreational location, I unintentionally flushed a pair of foraging Spotted Doves. The birds here are certainly accustomed to human presence and were hardly perturbed by my intrusion. They alighted just a few feet away and carried on with their foraging.

There was a fruiting tree in the vicinity but the fruits were almost depleted. Although there was hardly any bird activities, a pair of Olive-winged Bulbuls still came for whatever that is left.

They stayed for quite a considerable amount of time and me, having nothing else to keep me occupied, accompanied them until they moved on.

The search for the migratory flycatchers proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Except for a brief glimpse of a female, the Mugimaki Flycatchers were nowhere to be seen. That is a real shame for the male is an absolute stunner and one of the deciding factors why I chose this landscaped garden for my birding excursion this time. A little brown flycatcher hawking for insects did not evoke much excitement for I have not seen a Taiga Flycatcher hunt this way before here in Malaysia. As expected, it turned out to be an Asian Brown Flycatcher and no amount of scrutiny can change it into anything more notable – I tried.

A short while later, I came across another little brown flycatcher. Foraging about the lower level of a bamboo clump, it exhibited a more typical behaviour of the Taiga Flycatcher. When it started cocking its tail, the identity was no longer in doubt despite the distance. With a little perseverance, I managed to reduce that distance and obtained some decent images of this scarce migrant.

The Taiga Flycatcher may lack the bright colouration of the male Mugimaki Flycatcher but I am grateful to be able to spend time with it. It is way much better than missing out on both species – that is for sure.

A hunting Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo brought back memories of last year’s Asian Emerald Cuckoo because it was doing the exact same thing – gorging on caterpillars. This species tend to be quite tolerant of human presence and I managed to approach it without much effort.

The cuckoo’s hunt lasted several minutes and that was more than I could I have asked for. While it focused on satisfying its seemingly insatiable appetite, I took full advantage of the situation to obtain images of this sleek bird.

It was momentarily joined by another individual but sharing appeared not to be in their nature. Hostility ensued and one of them left the vicinity soon after. I can only presumed this was the second bird as the tails feathers appeared tidier. Anyway, it was just as confiding and continued to provide good photographic opportunities. Some Christmas magic after all...

In terms of birding, there is nothing much for me to shout about this year. Christmas did not come early for me nor will it be late. A Little Egret nicely moulting into breeding plumage is my Christmas angel this year. One thing about the pandemic that the world is still facing is that it has reminded us well to be grateful for what we have or have been given. To all those celebrating, I wish you a blessed Christmas.

Thursday 22 October 2020

Lightning never strikes the same place twice?

Almost exactly one year ago today I set out to seek a wintering Black-backed Kingfisher at one of my local patches, the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, in conjunction with the annual Global Big Day. The dwarf king managed to elude me on that occasion. And now, here I am again, attempting to locate another or possibly the same Black-backed Kingfisher during a Global Big Day. They say lightning never strikes the same place twice. Well, I can pretty much guess they are not birders and have no idea how cruel birding can be. Yet again, this spectacular little bird refused to reveal itself and lightning certainly struck twice – thrice in fact if I really wanted to lament about another failed attempt two years ago. However, it was not all gloom for despite the wet and cold week that was, it was a surprising beautiful morning today.

This birding location has lost much of its lustre and the dawn chorus is noticeably less impressive of late. One species that is still prominent is the Olive-winged Bulbul. Its bubbly territorial call filled the vicinity of the concrete boardwalk. In fact, one was using the boardwalk ropes as a stage for its post-dawn repertoire.

It may not be uncommon or exceptionally striking but the Olive-winged Bulbuls put on a grand performance today and that certainly provided some cheer.

Some cuckoos have the tendency to be unobtrusive. I would have walked passed this one if not for the exposed perch it alighted on. It was very cooperative and I had ample time to observe and photograph. And yet, I was indecisive of its identity. Juvenile cuckoos can be difficult to distinguish and this youngster was putting me to the test. It boiled down to either a Plaintive Cuckoo or a Brush Cuckoo and I was leaning towards the latter.

After consulting my buddies, my initial guess was right and it was indeed a Brush Cuckoo – a species that I have not recorded before from this location.

As it was a Global Big Day, I tried to record down as many species as possible and stopping only when good photographic opportunities presented themselves. However, the peculiar call of the Black-and-Red Broadbill immediately halted my efforts. For this bird does not required any good photographic opportunities to have my undivided attention. It is probably one of the most striking and charismatic feathered denizen at this locality. And a pair was frolicking about the forest canopy.

Unfortunately, the lighting condition was unforgiving and I was struggling to obtain any decent shots.

Meanwhile, a Common Myna was happily singing as it foraged close to where I had positioned myself below the broadbills. This bird is just so full of character and I cannot help thinking it is somewhat amused by my desperate attempts for better images of the broadbills.

The sweet song of the Mangrove Blue Flycatcher which was missing from the dawn chorus started to serenade the surroundings later in the morning. It has been months since I last saw this stunning species and this confiding male reminded me why it is such a favourite with my foreign guests. The pandemic has prevented any foreigners from entering Malaysia and my guiding endeavours for now are nothing more than memories. The recent spike in the number of coronavirus cases has covered my country with a cloud of uncertainty again and we can only hope and wait for the sun to shine through once more.

Another soothing moment was the encounter with the sole female Indochinese Blue Flycatcher of this locality. I am not certain of the lifespan of this flycatcher but this girl has brightened up my trips here often enough to have me missing her due to my inconsistent visits to this site nowadays.

The minute Black-thighed Falconet is a regular feature here in Air Hitam Dalam. Something in the lower canopy level caught the interest of this individual and made it dived down from its lofty vantage point. Now within the range of my camera, I was presented with this unexpected opportunity to capture some images of this beautiful raptor. Well, at least I can take comfort that one dwarf was showing well enough.

As the temperature rose, the migratory Black Kites started to soar above their wintering ground. For years these graceful raptors have taken refuge here and from the looks of things, this season will not be any different. The kites wrapped things up for this time and despite missing out on the kingfisher again, it was a relatively enjoyable day out in the field with a decent count for my Big Day as well.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

The surf runner

September is usually a wet month for northwest Peninsular Malaysia and this year is no different. To visit the forest surrounding Pedu Lake at this time would be a gamble especially after it had rained the day before. However, the forest denizens of Pedu were not the primary targets for today’s excursion. The promise of a gathering of waders at the high tide roost of Kuala Kedah was. It will be the highest daytime tide for the rest of the year and we were hoping for a rewarding wader watch. Anyway, the weather conditions gave the lakeside environment at Pedu a mesmerizing aura. As Hor Kee, Michael and I soaked in the scenery, I said a silent prayer for the weather to hold until we have concluded our birding.

Apparently, we were not the only ones drawn to the view. A flock of five Large Green-Pigeons alighted on a dead tree overlooking the lake and took a prolonged breather as they prepare for the day ahead. These largest of our green-pigeons is not rare at this birding hotspot but encounters are usually of flocks flying powerfully above the forest canopy. Although all that I could obtained this time were distant shots, the flock still provided a good start to the day.

We found the usually deserted access road surprisingly busy this morning. In fact, this was the most number of vehicles I have ever encountered here before. Thankfully, the birds were still out and about despite the unprecedented human intrusion. Good photographic opportunities were hard to come by though. A flock of Hairy-backed Bulbuls patronizing a fruiting tree finally gave me a reason to lift up my camera again.

At a particular stretch along this forested road, a pair of vocalizing Black-and-Yellow Broadbills caught my attention naturally. Scanning along the canopy level yielded a female bird with a successful hunt. She enjoyed the rewards of her effort partially hidden from view and this was my best attempt in documenting this adorable forest gem.

While I was still observing the Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, a Banded Broadbill started to call and judging from the volume, it was particularly overhead. I managed to glimpse this yet another striking representative of this family of birds moving about the foliage of the forest. As I struggled to try and obtain better views, a flock of Dusky Broadbill announced their arrival with their persistent high pitched calls and my attention was then diverted to them. Dusky Broadbills are the rarest of them all at this birding locality and I took no effort to conceal my excitement. Like the other two species, which were still present, the flock foraged from the cover of the forest canopy. I could not take a single shot until one decided to alight on an exposed perch. There is a God after all...

Determination had me follow the movement of the Dusky Broadbills which was relatively easy because the birds appeared hesitant to wander far from my position. Dilemma set in when my ears picked out the mournful notes of the stunning Diard’s Trogon and it too was in close proximity. Unbelievable as it may seem, a Green Broadbill then started to call in the vicinity as well. For the first time in my life, I have four different species of broadbills present at a single spot. It was just incredible. Earlier on, we had a Black-and-Red Broadbill and that made it five broadbills today – another first for me. However, I could not break from the spell the Dusky Broadbills had me under. In the end, I managed another distant shot of the Dusky Broadbill and missed out on the rest. I guess too much of a good thing may not always be a good thing.

I know forest birding can be frustrating and photography, even more so. But today reminded me how enticing forest birding can be. A bird wave stirred up even more exhilaration with a pair of Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes being rather cooperative to my photographic efforts. I rarely get to shoot anything during birdwaves as the participants tend to be restless and these images were much appreciated.

Minivets, babblers, warblers and sunbirds slipped past my gear as they succumbed to the feeding frenzy of the wave. The Great Iora, a species I have been trying to obtain better images but without much success all these years, cruelly taunted me from the very top of the canopy level.

By late morning, things began to sizzle down. It was also about time for us to retreat from the forest and head for the coast to our next destination. A vocal Long-billed Spiderhunter had just enough charisma to hold us back momentarily as we admired its namesake. This forest dweller is not common anywhere but a particular group of flowering trees here in Pedu will occasionally be graced by its presence. The photographer in me was frustrated one last time here in the wilds of Pedu and this odd pose by the spiderhunter was the only image good enough to be shared.

I have been to the coastline off Kuala Muda in Penang state for birding before but this particular high tide roost is new to me. Sometimes, the journey to a destination is half the experience. In a way, I think it applies here.  First, we had to manoeuvre pass dozens of poultry as we walked through a somewhat open coop. Then wade along a submerged, narrow wooden bridge. One wrong step will land you in almost waist deep of tidal water. A sandy beach greeted us at the end of our little adventure and upon further scrutiny, thousands of roosting waders. More than four thousand individuals as a matter of fact.

My better equipped companions got down to work as they scanned and counted the waders present. I, without the aid of a scope, was busy gawking at this breath taking sight because it has been a long time since I marvelled at a spectacle of roosting waders.

I noticed two rather pale waders scurrying about the shoreline and the first thought that came to mind was Sanderlings. And Sanderlings they certainly were. The foraging pair was a fair distance away but this would only be my third ever sighting and the duo certainly had my undivided attention. With both my previous encounters from my digiscoping days more than 15 years ago, I have now being given the chance to finally obtain some images of this scarce migrant.

Sanderlings are known for their penchant for hunting right at the edge of the tideline – rushing in for a quick jab or two into the sand when the tide goes out and a making a hasty retreat when the tide returns. This behaviour is a good indication that the pale peeps you are looking at is a Sanderling. And I just love the way these surf runners teased the raging waters of this ‘super’ high tide.

A Red-necked Stint momentarily joined one of the Sanderlings and it provided a good comparison shot between the two species. A Sanderling sporting its pale winter plumage is not that difficult to identify. It is basically an oversized Red-necked Stint and of course, there is always its surf running habits.

True to its nature, the Sanderlings stuck to the far end and there was no way of reducing the distance between us without scaring off the rest of the waders. When the adrenalin started to wear off, I diverted my attention to the other waders present. Although this was a distant shot, it depicts two very similar species together – the Great Knot and Red Knot. In breeding plumage, there is no mistaking the vivid colouration of the smaller Red Knot. This one still has traces of its breeding colours but in the near future, there will only be subtle differences to tell the two species apart.

The Greater Sand-Plover is not rare but care must be taken to identify it positively. The smaller but much commoner Lesser Sand-Plover look remarkably similar and just to make things interesting, these plovers can be variable in size and built. When seen together, the Greater Sand-Plover is usually distinguishable and there is little doubt of this one’s identity.

Earlier in the post, I made a comparison between the Sanderling and the Red-necked Stint as the latter is one of the most abundant winter migrants in Peninsular Malaysia. I scrutinized the flocks of stints present the best I could just so I do not overlook the remarkably similar (here I go again) but much rarer Little Stint. Or God forbid, a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The joys of wader identification are boundless...

Anyway, all stints including the Red-necked Stints are certainly adorable. Despite their minute size, they are accomplished long distance travellers. Wader migration is one of the wonders of the natural world and there is certainly more to these little bundle of feathers than what they appear to be.

Here is one bird that is more easily recognizable – a dark morphed Pacific Reef-Heron (yes, it is now a heron). And it was a true goliath when roosting next to the waders.

As the waders grew accustomed to our presence, we shifted to a more strategic position to continue our observation. A lone juvenile Lesser Sand-Plover wandered exceptionally close and provided one of the best images here at this Kuala Muda high tide roost.

Just when I thought there was nothing else I could expect from the Sanderlings, one gradually made its way towards us. And I shuddered in anticipation for what is to come.

A wintering Sanderling may not possess much colouration. But there is beauty in simplicity and the individual dashing about this bleak coastline in front of me is undeniably beautiful. The sand had a colour tone dark enough to compliment the fair appeal of the Sanderling. It has been quite a day of birding especially with the broadbills and all at Pedu but the moment provided by this confiding Sanderling surpassed all else.

The roosting flocks became restless when the nearby fishermen prepare to venture out to sea again. When all the commotion could not be tolerated any longer, the waders took flight in unison. A mass of wings and feathers swirled across the coastal sky before vanishing beyond the horizon. Nothing remained but the reminiscence of an endearing little Sanderling.