Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Rising to the occasion

I have been kept busy during the Chinese New Year period with several excursions with visiting birders. The warm but ideal weather was a welcomed advantage. The only drawback was the usual traffic congestion during the festive season in Penang Island. Like Mother Nature, nothing can be done about that except to factor in additional time for the driving in the Pearl of the Orient. The Bukit DO recreational park is the only site that I prefer it to be crowded during my visits. I have been there often enough with my foreign guests for the regular patrons of the park to recognize me (I guess having a bald head and birding gear makes you stand out) and know my intentions. The resident pair of Barred Eagle-Owls here is an integral part of my birding circuit but despite their size, can hide well if they wanted do. That is when the regular patrons come in useful. Some of them readily point out the roosting owls to me and that saves a lot of time and effort. With my Canadian guests this time, they got to admire the pair side by side courtesy of a couple of ladies on their morning walk. Despite some blockage by the vegetation, the encounter was as exciting as always with any roosting owls.

I have been guiding around northern Peninsular Malaysia close to a decade now and one of my first guests when I first started was Benjamin from Singapore. Through the years, I have showed him particularly everything that needs be seen in this region and beyond. But some uncommon migrants that are showing well now in the forest of Bukit Wang had his attention and I naturally obliged. We timed our arrival when the lighting condition was bright enough for photography and it did not take long to find the first target flickering about the understorey of the forest. I know that this particular male Chinese Blue Flycatcher in my most of postings of late. However, the species is uncommon enough to still have my undivided attention. His vivid colouration set against the gloomy condition of the undergrowth is not something one can easily forget. And due to the fact that he is just a winter visitor, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

We spend some time at a few fruiting trees along the access road as there was a high level of bird activity but most of the patrons were flowerpeckers. Unfortunately, the foliage was dense and these tiny forest gems were in a feeding frenzy. My modest photographic equipment could not cope and out of the four species present, I could only obtain a record shot of the Yellow-vented Flowerpecker.

Surprisingly, very few bulbuls were present. In fact, I only recorded one species and it was the Cream-vented Bulbul.

A few flowering trees were in bloom and they were quite a sight. However, my main interest with flowering trees is not due to the beauty of the coloured petals. It is the nectar-feeding birds attracted to the bloom. And today, a Spectacled Spiderhunter was the result of my search among the flowers. I cannot really consider it a search. The spiderhunter was loud and conspicuous as it fed on the sweet offerings. Unfortunately the flowers were at the top most part of the tree and typical of birding in the rainforest, our neck muscles were put to the test. Despite the distance, I am quite happy with how the images turned out and the bright red petals were certainly a contributing factor.

The second target of the trip required some effort and perseverance. The male Green-backed Flycatcher may be confiding but can be restless at times. The dimly lighted understorey of the forest where he frequents is no help at all. Just like the male Chinese Blue Flycatcher, he is also an uncommon migrant and may not return here the next season. And I know better than to take things for granted especially in birding.

Undoubtedly, the Short-tailed Babblers are now a regular feature for any visit to Bukit Wang. Adorable and inquisitive, I have grown fond of these terrestrial birds.

To them, there is no such thing as personal space and they will wander exceptionally close. And I certainly have no issues with that.

For my most recent excursion, I started off with a visit to the mangroves of Sungai Batu with a guest from Belize. Expectations were high. Belize, after all, is a birding paradise and my guest is no stranger to feathered denizens of the tropics. The resident pair of Abbott’s Babbler was the first to appear at the stakeout and they played their role well as appetizers to the main course.

The Yellow-vented Bulbul may not evoke much emotions among local birders due to its common status but to a visiting birder on his maiden trip to Malaysia, it did not go unappreciated.

When the male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher came into the scene, he provided much-needed colours and appeal to our visit here. He has been showing off well of late and today was no exception – much to the delight of both guest and guide.

I have had not much luck recently with the celebrity bird of the locality but when I heard the diagnostic territorial call of the Mangrove Pitta from the depths of the mangroves, I readied my guest for what would be the highlight of the day. When we finally saw the pitta hopping on the muddy terrain towards our direction, it was just mesmerizing. My guest naturally was swept away by the beauty and charisma of the pitta. As for me, I am most grateful to be still able to provide and share moments like this with visiting birders from around the globe.

Swaying their way into the day were the migratory Forest Wagtails of Sungai Batu. Stunning and adorable, they constantly thrill and tease birders with their antics. Judging from the reaction of my guest so far, I think the birding here was up to expectations.

A drive around the surrounding vicinity produced a male Common Kingfisher hunting for breakfast along a canal. Although my guest was originally from England where this is the only species of kingfisher to occur, he never had the chance to photograph the bird. That certainly changed when this particular individual proved to be reasonably confiding.

My guest just so happened to bring up the subject on raptors and the lack of them so far today. Like an answered prayer, I picked out a looming silhouette partly hidden by the foliage. From the shape, I could tell it was a raptor. Upon further scrutiny, it turned out to be a dark morphed Changeable Hawk-Eagle. And our first raptor of the day was this beautiful and impressive eagle. I love it when things work themselves out…

Greater Coucals are impressive birds but despite their common status, they are naturally shy. There are times when this large cuckoo will reveal its true form for all to admire and I have been birding long enough to know that these times are meant to be treasured. The concrete pole may be a manmade perch but to me, it makes no difference. If it is good enough for the coucal, it is sure the hell good enough for me.

Something from behind caught the attention of the Greater Coucal and made it turned around. It must have been something significant because it even tolerated us shifting position as well. When seen in good light, the Greater Coucal is not completely black and the sunlight will bring out hues of blue that is often hidden from view. A relatively common bird in a garden environment but yet able to provide just as exciting an encounter. That is the wonder of birding…

From the mangroves of Kedah, we adjourned to the swamp forest of mainland Penang. Although the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest has not been providing as well as it did in the past, in birding one cannot truly know what to expect. The Asian Openbills continue to rest and feed within the borders of this park and these unique birds are always a welcome sight to me.

A pair of Black-thighed Falconets was executing short burst of flight from a tall dead tree as they hunted for flying insects. Being small is always a disadvantage when it comes to photography but like I said in the beginning of this post, it was a sunny day and it was bright enough for me to capture these tiny terror on wings reasonably well.

My guest was not only interested in birds but other wildlife and nature as well. I am naturally tuned to pick out birds and this setback is my own doing. It came as no surprise when he spotted this Green Crested Lizard sunbathing near a spot where an Olive-winged Bulbul just alighted on. Thankfully, this little hiccup was soon to be forgotten.

The final bird of the day certainly left us breathless. It was not an exceptionally spectacular or rare species. But the confiding nature of this particular Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo was unbelievable. This species is known to bold at times and I have experienced that trait before. But I find this to be a privilege and one that will still make me as giddy as a schoolboy. Perched on an exposed branch at the edge of the forest, the Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo was undoubtedly on the hunt. It was stationary most of the time except for the occasional turn of the head. We could have easily walked past the cuckoo as it was unobtrusive. But like I said, I am naturally tuned for birds.

And if we were any closer, I would not be able to fill it into frame without reducing the magnification of my lens. It was just an incredible moment. In fact, it has been a terrific day of birding. Malaysia is certainly no Belize but I think the birds have done about enough to rise to the occasion. Ending the day with stunning views of the Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo was most memorable and almost overshadowed the Mangrove Pitta - almost. Maybe, just maybe, things might be turning around for this local patch of mine. That will certainly be good news because here in northern Peninsular Malaysia, we need all the rewarding birding sites we can get.


Kezonline said...

Hi Wai Mun. Well your "modest camera gear" sure is giving us some stunning pictures. What a trip and what a variety of birds behaving for your lucky guest. Most enjoyable for us reading your excellent post too!

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thank you, Kieron. Your praise and comments are always much appreciated.