Thursday 27 February 2020

Welcome to my world

With each passing year, I can feel the drop in the wild bird population especially around Penang and northern Peninsular Malaysia – my neck of the woods. Destruction of habitat, poaching, trapping – you name it. All these and other factors contribute to this depressing fact of life. I suppose I ought to be grateful of what is still present and I am. Through the years, you will notice that a number of my posts will have the same old birds from the same old locations. But it is not like I have much a choice. Travelling half the length of the peninsular and beyond on a regular basis just for a chance of better birding is not really a viable option. However, as long as there are still wild birds out there to amaze and I still have the passion to carry on blogging, the Penang Birder will continue to pay tribute to these feathered deities through humble writings and images.

I was back, again, at the mangroves of Sungai Batu for a short excursion with a couple of British birders. My visits here are of such regularity that I can time our arrival at the location to coincide with the moment enough illumination starts piercing through the swamp forest to observe the feathered denizens that dwell here like this handsome male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher.

Less appealing but no less intriguing are the resident pair of Abbott’s Babbler. The pair did what they do best and it is to entertain with their charm and antics. After the inquisitive babblers left the stakeout, an uncomfortable silence crept into the vicinity. Naturally my mind started to wonder. This cannot be all there is to it for this spot today. I suppressed my feelings of anxiety as best I could. I engaged my guests in conversation just to ease my nerves. 

Then an all-too-familiar call stopped me in mid sentence. Consecutive calls brought a grin to my face. When the Mangrove Pitta finally revealed itself, my guests could now understand the reason for the abrupt end to our little chat. It was their first ever pitta and in the birding world, it is a monumental experience rivaled by few.

The Mangrove Pitta was in no hurry to appear and much to our delight, in no hurry to depart as well. It was a prolonged encounter - a substantial compensation for the agonizing wait earlier on.

Trying its best to steal some attention from the human birders was the adorable and striking Forest Wagtail. Unlike most of the regulars of this stakeout, the Forest Wagtail is a winter visitor and will soon answer to the call of its breeding ground up north.

With the arrival of the lumbering White-breasted Waterhens, the site was again vacant except for the presence of these attractive rails. With no other species expected to be discovered here, we scouted around the adjacent areas.

It is always a delight to observe the Dollarbird in good lighting. The distance was not favourable but the encounter was interesting as the bird showed off its true colours in the golden hues of the morning sun.

Grey Herons have an almost cosmopolitan distribution. So, this elegant water bird is not new any one of us. But the background in which the heron was hunting had a certain appeal and it made a good environment shot.

The next location of the day was the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest in mainland Penang. On the way into the park, one will pass a big area of paddy fields and this agricultural land can sometimes provide interesting encounters. This time a confiding juvenile Asian Openbill provided the excitement. Apart from the greyish plumage, the indistinct gap of the bill is another indication of its age.

We came across a few more youngsters along the way and they were Barn Swallows. This common winter visitor can occur in good numbers in all suitable habitats throughout the country during the migratory season. This juvenile appeared ragged but it is no fault of it. That was the stage of its plumage transition and every swallow has to go through it once in its lifetime.

The second youngster was almost in full adult plumage and soon, it will be able to scythe across the sky in its attractive adult colours.

In the park itself, the loud territorial calls of the Collared Kingfisher filled the vicinity. While the White-throated Kingfisher thrill foreign birders inland, coastal areas belong to the equally common Collared Kingfisher. Most of the time in birding, the birds will be flying away from their human observers. It was the opposite with this encounter and this pleasant surprise was much appreciated.

The migratory Black Kites congregate in big numbers here and soaring kites are a common sight during this time of the year. A row of trees opposite the river is the favourite roosting spot for these elegant raptors and at any time of the day, a few would be present. The distance was the only factor that hampered the quality of the observation.

As with any birding excursion, I try my best to end it on a high note and the final bird of the day was a more than qualified candidate. I have had very little luck with the resident Spotted Wood-Owls of late and when I managed to locate one roosting high up among the canopy, I could hardly contained my excitement. My guests obtained a most memorable lifer for the trip and for me, I am just happy to be able to reconnect with an old friend.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Deadly sin

When news broke out that the fruiting trees at Sungai Sedim Recreational Forest in Kedah state is finally in season, the choice of location for my birding excursion was crystal clear. I arrived at the location high in spirit and full of enthusiasm. But what greeted me at the revered fruiting tree felt like being stabbed in the chest – twice. A family had decided to camp right underneath the tree and they had a little camp fire going no doubt to prepare breakfast.

All the commotion and smoke almost made me end my excursion before it even started. But birders can be a determine lot. Even downright stubborn. And the sweet sound of singing Cream-vented Bulbuls at the tree was all the convincing I needed to carry out my initial plans for the day. The bulbuls were certainly in a joyous mood. In between feedings, they belted out short burst of their pleasant call. I do not blame them. Life is beautiful for frugivorous species like the Cream-vented Bulbul when trees come into season. And not even a bunch of irritating humans can ruin the moment for them.

Of all the bulbuls that occur within the borders of this park, the Finsch’s Bulbul will always be the one that comes to mind first for me. Although my first sighting of the Finsch’s Bulbul is from the pristine forest of Taman Negara, it is here at Sungai Sedim that I enjoyed the most encounters.

Although it is not strikingly coloured, the prominent yellow throat makes the Finsch’s Bulbul rather unmistakeable.

It was a cloudy day here in the interior of Kedah state and the subdued lighting was much appreciated. At times when the sun managed to pierced though the dense clouds, it was too harsh for my liking and there was the issue with shadows. I guess apart from being stubborn, we birders can be demanding as well.

From past experiences, the Buff-vented Bulbuls are usually the most conspicuous species at this fruiting tree. Today, only one came and for a surprisingly brief moment. Even the common Red-eyed Bulbuls were rarely seen and throughout the day, I only managed one single record shot.

An unusual bulbul momentarily diverted my attention from the fruiting tree. At first I did not know what to make of it. I do not mean to toot my horn but this moment of uncertainly rarely happens to me. Not at this location with a bulbul anyway. A better look with my binoculars revealed the truth almost immediately. A Red-eyed Bulbul with some strategically placed shadows almost got the better of me.

The Spectacled Bulbuls were slightly better behaved but most of my photographic efforts were hampered by the harsh lighting and foliage. I could not think of a reason for this shy behaviour from these bulbuls species and even the family of campers should not be able to keep them away.

As for the Yellow-bellied Bulbuls, the present of the campers could be the reason for their hesitance to linger long at the fruiting tree. Past experiences again have shown that it is much less confiding than most other bulbul species at a fruiting tree.

It is difficult to overlook Black-headed Bulbuls not only because of their stunning appearance but their distinct vocalizations. Unfortunately, they were yet another species that was reluctant to join in the feast. I used to think that gluttony was a deadly sin very few could resist but I may change my mind after today.

And Murphy’s Law will certainly make sure that one of the most spectacular bulbuls in the world, the Scaly-breasted Bulbul, shows up just long enough to have you yearning for more long after it has departed from the vicinity.

The elegant Streaked Bulbuls will not be denied of the succulent food available and threw caution into the wind. They descended from the adjacent forest without much hesitation and their presence certainly did not go unappreciated.

The beautiful plumage of the Grey-bellied Bulbuls finally added some colours and splendour to the vicinity. By now the campers have gotten used to my presence and stopped their periodic peering from behind the tents. And I guess the birds in turn have gotten used to the campers as well.

The bulbul of the day was none other than another sleek species. Not as common as some of the other species, their fearless behaviour took my heart away. This is by far the most prolonged encounter I ever had with Cinereous Bulbuls at a fruiting tree. Inevitably, it also provided the most photographs of this species that I can remember.

The Cinereous Bulbul is not exceptionally striking but its beauty lies in subtlety. The ashy plumage, flashing white throat and distinct facial markings all contribute to making this species one of my favourites from this family of birds. And the Cinereous Bulbul made it eleven species of bulbuls recorded today.

Another family of birds that cannot resist the temptation of the fruiting tree here is the flowerpeckers. Minute, adorable and striking; these forest denizens are a delightful bunch to observe. Or so I thought. I noticed something different about their behaviour. Restless and unaccommodating, it was so unlike my previous experiences here. Even the commonest species, the Yellow-breasted Flowerpecker, made very brief visits and I could only obtained a single record shot.

I could hear the Orange-bellied Flowerpecker throughout my visit. I saw them darting about too. But like the previous species, they rarely lingered at the tree long enough for me to obtain any reasonable images.

I was about to blame the campers again when the true culprits disclosed themselves. The deadly sin of gluttony brought out the worst from the Yellow-vented Flowerpeckers. I cannot be sure if it was just one individual or a team effort but this species was chasing away any other flowerpeckers that visited the tree. And the chases were not half-hearted attempts. They were out for blood.

I have seen flowerpeckers getting possessive at fruiting trees before but the Yellow-vented Flowerpecker took it to a whole new level today. Since it was so dominant, one would assume I will have ample photographs of this bully but that was not the case. Most of the time, it loitered deep among the foliage in the gloom overwhelmed with a sense of guilt for its unruly behaviour.

Surprisingly, the male Crimson-breasted Flowerpeckers were still able to feast in leisure most of the time.

Perhaps they were equally as aggressive. Or they timed their feedings when the bullies are preoccupied with others. Whatever the reason may be, the Crimson-breasted Flowerpecker is a gorgeous representative of this family of birds – second only to the elusive Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker that appeared at the fruiting tree for one season only.

The inconspicuous Plain Sunbird made a brief visit to the fruiting tree. As the name implies, the male lacks the resplendent colouration that this family of birds is renowned for. A small metallic green patch on his forehead is the only indication of this family trait.

Whether it was coincidental or intentional, a female Ashy Minivet appeared in the vicinity briefly. I did pay attention to her details, as I do to all Ashy Minivets, because of the possibility of overlooking similar but rarer species of minivets. When I was about done at the fruiting tree, the family of campers started to prepare for lunch. I took that as my cue to leave before I subject myself to be shrouded in smoke again.