Thursday 30 January 2020

A red start to the Lunar New Year

I barely stepped into my house after leading a 2-day birding tour when this message came in from one of my birding mates – Daurian Redstart in Penang Island! It may be a common species in northern Asia but here in Malaysia, it is a long-awaited first record. This migratory season has been phenomenal with the likes of a Grey-sided Thrush (another first for Malaysia), Eurasian Wigeon, Wolly-necked Stork, Ashy Woodswallow, Himalayan Griffon, Small Pratincole, Slaty-legged Crake and other not-so-rare-but-still-exceptional migrants. The thrush would be a very long drive for me and a recent event in my life has left me quite drained – both physically and emotionally. The redstart, on the other hand, is in my hometown and I would not be able to look myself in the mirror if no attempts were made to tick this first record for the country.

When the opportunity arose, I took a ride up north in my island home to a small park behind a row of houses in Tanjung Bungah. Again, no secret handshake is required and the occurrence of this rare visitor was shared throughout the birding community – the way it should be.  I sometimes see people sharing images or news of rarities one year after its occurrence. I understand if it is an endangered species and all but other than that, I do not see the reason for such secrecy. A more exotic location usually comes to mind when one is on a twitching mission but apparently the Daurian Redstart occurs in this type of habitat in its regular range. The distinguished visitor has been showing well since its discovery and that provided me with the confidence to try for this female bird in, of all times, the hottest part of the day. The resident male Oriental Magpie-Robin probably found me amusing as he lingered in the trees above to observe this fool of a birder scanning the scrub vegetation under the blazing hot sun in search of a little brown bird.

When I picked out an unfamiliar silhouette with a distinct habit of rapid tail cocking within a low bush, I had to be sure I was not hallucinating. Exposure to intense sunlight is known to cause that. But when it hopped out of hiding, all doubts vanished and I was looking at my first lifer of the year and Malaysia’s first Daurian Redstart.

It was a short encounter but I am grateful she still obliged despite the testing temperature. I followed her movements briefly and she made one last stop on a barbed wire before disappearing back into the cover of the vegetation. It may not be an appealing image but I certainly appreciated her cooperation. Welcome to Malaysia, girl...

I dipped out on my previous attempt for the female Eurasian Wigeon (yes, another girl) at the marshlands of Pulau Burung. Although she would only be a Malaysian lifer and I have seen the gorgeous males during my visit to Japan, it was still a bitter pill to swallow. A few days after my success with the redstart, on the eve of the Lunar New Year to be exact, I rode my iron steed and head towards one of the most repulsive locations (to normal folks) in Penang State – the landfill of Pulau Burung. I guess my anticipation for the rare duck woke me up earlier than my alarm and I reach the location with enough time to enjoy the view of the rising sun.

As soon as it got bright enough, I scrutinized the flocks of resident Lesser Whistling Ducks for my would-be lifer. It was a tedious task. Not only does the wigeon blend in well with the locals but most of the ducks were reluctant to start off the day yet and still had their heads tucked under their wings. Then by chance or divine intervention, one of ducks out of the hundreds present struck me as a little odd. Senses heightened and eyes strained, I could just make out the uniform coloured and largish head (partially hidden). I knew I was now looking at the female Eurasian Wigeon but I needed more than a photo of a sleeping duck to commemorate the moment.

So, I waited. My eyes hardly lifted from the sleeping beauty - even when a pair of uncommon Garganeys swam across my field of view. I just could not risk losing sight of the wigeon among the other ducks should she finally decide to start off the day without me knowing it. I did not ride all the way here and tolerated the overwhelming odour of the landfill to miss out having a good look at the Eurasian Wigeon because I got distracted. It would make a good story but not at my expense. Gradually, she started to stir and I got busy trying to obtain her images as well as I possibly can.

Distance was a major hindrance but I have been birding long enough to know that you cannot have your cake and eat it every single time.

The Eurasian Wigeon swam further and further away from me and I do not see much chance to improve on my images. Then I decided to travel back to the island and spend some time with another distinguished guest – the Daurian Redstart. There was only a handful of people with the same intention present at the modest park today. It came as no surprise. Traffic along all major highways will be horrendous today and most Chinese folks will be preparing to usher in the Year of the Rat. Unfortunately by the time the Daurian Redstart finally revealed herself, the lighting was harsh and we had to struggle to obtain any acceptable images.

Murphy’s Law is at work again but better this than the Daurian Redstart not showing at all. It was another brief sighting. I waited for a couple more hours for her return but to no avail. But if all goes well and both birders and photographers keep their behaviour and enthusiasm in check, I will have the chance for improvement shots before this migratory season comes to a close.

Friday 24 January 2020

The bold and the beautiful

It has been a while since I last wandered into the wild interiors of Pedu Lake in Kedah state and my second day of birding with Bob gave me the opportunity to do so. The lone access road that cuts through the forest here is isolated and can spring a surprise or two – especially at this hour. A distant gamebird foraging along the edge of the road got our pulses racing. But when it finally revealed itself, there was no mistaking its identity. Naturally, I was hoping for it to be one of the uncommon species but I have be contented with this common but handsome male Red Junglefowl for this time.

Brownish flycatchers can be tricky to identify but the majority of them usually turned out to be Asian Brown Flycatchers. After all it is the commonest flycatcher despite being only winter visitors. This one had our attention until we were certain of its identity and I obtained yet another image of the Asian Brown Flycatcher for my digital archive.

It did not take long for the temperature to soar and from the look of things, it was going to be another sweltering day. The condition now was perfect for a soaring raptor and true enough, an Oriental Honey-Buzzard glided into view.

The magic of birding in the forest, despite all the challenges, is that you can never expect what you might come across. A red trogon was perched significantly low and one species naturally came to mind – the elusive Cinnamon-rumped Trogon. But I cannot identify a bird based on habits alone. The trogon was exceptionally confiding and we patiently waited for him to reveal his rump in order to eliminate the possibility of the much commoner Scarlet-rumped Trogon.

I do not have enough field experience to confidently identify a Cinnamon-rumped Trogon from the front. Due to the close proximity, my images of the trogon were commendable. A quick check with my mates online left no room for doubts and it was a Scarlet-rumped Trogon. Posterior view was not required. Bob was exhilarated with the find but I could not share his joy. And I am not proud of it.

Our next destination of the day was another forest site and it was the Bukit Wang Forest Reserve. This migratory season, a couple of uncommon flycatchers have been performing well. The male Chinese Blue Flycatcher continued to awe birders from his shadowy domain. Apart from the lighting, his performance was flawless.

Today, the Green-backed Flycatcher was just amazing. This is the closest I have ever been to this uncommon migrant and needless to say, the encounter left me breathless.

Just when I thought nothing could better that, the Short-tailed Babbler refused to be outdone. I have a soft spot for this adorable bird despite its dull colouration. Looks can be deceiving and the Short-tailed Babbler can be quite feisty at times and its behaviour is the thing that earn my affections.

Like the flycatcher, it was literally fearless today. For a bird of the forest undergrowth, open and intimate views like these do not come often and spending time at a stakeout is probably the only way where you can have that opportunity.

How can you not love a face like this?

One of the reasons why this site is such an alluring site is because it is one of the few places where you have a chance to encounter the beautiful Chestnut-necklaced Partridge. I have my fair share of encounters with this game bird but to lay eyes on one moving about the forest floor still does it for me.

The last destination of the tour was the mangroves of Sungai Batu. We came across another confiding babbler and the Abbott’s Babblers maintained our momentum with this family of birds.

When it comes to common birds, very few species can beat the Yellow-vented Bulbul here in Malaysia. However, we cannot hold that against the bird and an occasional recognition of its presence is only right.

However, for the striking Forest Wagtail, its presence will always receive my recognition…

The Mangrove Pitta again proved difficult and despite all my efforts, refuse to reveal itself from the depths of the mangrove forest. For the second time today, the feeling of disappointment crept in. A confiding male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher eased the episode with the pitta and his radiant blue plumage and charm was good enough to wrap things up for the day.

Thursday 23 January 2020

Where is the damn duck?

The weather here in northern Peninsular Malaysia has been unforgiving of late. With the Chinese New Year just around the corner, this hot spell is pretty much expected. I take comfort in the fact that for a birder like me, it is rain that I dread for the heat never really bother me anyway. My first destination for this 2-day birding adventure with an American guest started off at the foothill of Bukit Larut. However here at Rain Town, the sun rises later than usual even when a scorching day is in expectation.

There is no better way to start off a tour than with a pitta. The sun had barely pierced through the lush vegetation of the rain forest when a migratory Hooded Pitta hopped into view. Typical of pittas, it was an absolute stunner. Vibrantly coloured and full of character, the Hooded Pitta set the pace for our visit here and my guest was in for one hell of a ride.

The male Chestnut-naped Forktail floated into the trip with such poise, it was impossible to ignore his presence. Another terrestrial bird but with a preference for a semi-aquatic lifestyle, this striking forest gem is usually shy. And for the time being, this stakeout is the best spot in the country to appreciate the true splendour of the Chestnut-naped Forktail.

When the king finally arrived, all eyes were on him. There is no denying that the Rufous-collared Kingfisher is a spectacular species of the lowland forest. Forest kingfishers are in a class of its own and those species that occur in more open habitats just simply lack the X factor.

This is not Bob’s first visit to Malaysia and I have hosted him before. Inevitably, lifers do not come that easily to him now and the Rufous-collared Kingfisher appeared to be the most exhilarating one for him here. I do not blame him for when the sun illuminated both locality and bird, we were momentarily transported to a secret birding wonderland and enjoying every second of it.

I cannot help but to feel sorry for the Green-backed Flycatcher. Size does matter at this birding hotspot and the little guy only made brief appearances to avoid confrontations with the bigger birds.

Today, the Orange-headed Thrush appeared somewhat restless. And it was aggressive towards one of the birds present. High speed chases was a regular feature and gradually, I realized the reason for the exceptional aggression.

It was another male Orange-headed Thrush and clearly, the two were not good bedfellows. There is a difference in the facial plumage of the birds. Clear enough for an amateur like me to tell them apart. The thrush is another striking species at this spot and both guest and guide were well contented.

We took a leisurely walk later around the foothill and managed to obtain a few more species. A pair of Scarlet Minivets frolicking about the highest canopy levels had our undivided attention. The male, with his contrasting black and red colouration, was mesmerizing especially when the sunlight catches him in mid-flight. Unfortunately, he did not wander close enough for anything more than record shots.

A deserted Indian Shrine now houses wildlife and a pair of Zebra Doves have certainly made themselves right at home...

I had mixed feelings when I saw a troop of Pig-tailed Macaques gorging on what appears to be handouts. Somehow when the alpha male was stuffing his face with human food, he loses his usual imposing stature in my eyes. At the end of the day, it is all about survival and I should not pass judgement on him.

I am not sure if these young ones were waiting for their turn at the ‘table’ or they have had their fill…

Migratory ducks are scarce here in Peninsular Malaysia but recently 3 species were seen together at the marshlands surrounding the Pulau Burung Landfill. And that is almost an unbelievable occurrence. We swung by the locality on the way back north but to my dismay, only the pair of Garganeys were present and they were resting miles away (or seemed that way to me). I did one last desperate sweep at the flocks of Lesser Whistling Ducks just make sure I did not overlook the Tufted Duck or, God forgive me, the Eurasian Wigeon which would have been a Malaysian lifer for me.

The common resident Lesser Whistling Ducks provided ample photographic opportunities. And I would not expect anything less. Birding will always go according to plan – said no birder ever.

At the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh, our luck did not improve much. With the phenomenal influx of Asian Openbills to the country this season, inevitably it was the only species worth photographing here today.

The last destination of the day was the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. Once again, the Asian Openbill prevailed and provided some photographic opportunities.

Along coastal areas like these, the Collared Kingfisher is the predominant species. A confiding individual gave a good reason for us to halt our search for birds. Often taken for granted due to its common status, the Collared Kingfisher is nevertheless loud and beautiful.

Odd enough, there was a brief shower as we entered the borders of the park but it did not last long enough to have any impact on the surroundings. So, this drenched Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo found relief from the heat via another source.

Normally after a day of birding, I look forward to the comforts of home. Today, something held me back from this simple pleasure in life. As soon as I stepped out of my parked vehicle, a pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles greeted my arrival home by circling in the sky above. Upon further scrutiny, one of the eagles was an immature bird. The plot thickened when I noticed that the other bird, an adult, had a fish in its grasp.

I do not consider myself to be an expert. I am just a bloke with a thing for birds. In my humble opinion, I would presume that the immature was trying to obtain a free meal. Anyway as soon as the majestic raptors disappeared from sight, I hastened my walk home to a much anticipated shower and rest. For another day of birding awaits tomorrow and that will be covered in my next post.