Tuesday 31 March 2020

Reaping rewards from the reeds - Part 2

Still using my vehicle as a mobile hide but abandoning the bittern approach to hunting, I drove slowly skirting the marshlands of Batu Kawan in search of more birds. Yellow Bitterns are undoubtedly the commonest of all the bitterns here. They are usually more confiding as well and it is not too difficult to approach them especially if you do it using a vehicle.

The lighting conditions and obstructing vegetation often foiled my attempts for better images of this species as usual.

With years of experience, you will be able to master the art of field craft to enable you to approach birds easily – in your dreams, that is. A lot will ride on luck and the mood the birds are in. Most of the time you can and will be outdone by the birds, trust me. But sometimes, when the birds are obliging enough and Lady Luck is by your side, you will get what your heart desires.

Unlike the bittern, I found the Eurasian Moorhens to have little tolerance for human presence. It took some effort before I managed some reasonable images but these lovely and graceful birds are worth the trouble. This birding hotspot has a good number of Eurasian Moorhens and I encountered them a few times throughout the trip.

I thought they were shy on water but on dry land, they are even worse. When out of its element, this water bird is likely to feel particularly vulnerable which is understandable. God forbid if it lets a birder enjoy fetching views of its awkward gait. Or worse, post the images on his blog for all to see.

The next dweller of this marshy realm stopped me at my tracks. For when it comes to beauty, the Grey-headed Swamphen is utterly gorgeous. Boasting a plumage of shades of purplish-blue and not to mention a striking red bill and frontal shield, this water bird is certainly a feast for the eyes. This individual was resting openly at edge of the marsh when our paths crossed and with the lighting much in my favour, today’s birding excursion provided yet another treasured encounter for me.

It is not an uncommon species but I do not come across it often enough in my usual birding locations here in northern Peninsular Malaysia. This locality and its vast reed beds is probably the last stronghold of the Grey-headed Swamphen in Penang state but that did not make it easy to encounter one. This was my fourth visit here and the first time I actually got to see the bird.

Purple Herons, though common, are another spectacular water bird that is thriving here. Unfortunately, I did not have much luck with the adults today.

The juveniles lacking the vibrancy of the adults are still impressive. Despite its towering stature, the Purple Heron can be relatively shy at times. Young birds have a tendency to be bolder and that offered some compensation for their duller appearance.

A confiding juvenile Purple Heron right out in the open may not be that exciting to most. But for me, a sucker for water birds especially the big ones, the youngster’s performance certainly did not go unappreciated.

This photo depicting a pair of Asian Openbills perched over the marshlands somehow reminded me of my amazing trip to Cambodia. Well, this is certainly not Cambodia – not even by a long shot. But for a place located within of one the most rapidly developing states in the country, it is heaven sent.

Asian Openbills are the most numerous of the big water birds found here in the marshlands of Batu Kawan. I have come to learn from previous trips that they are exceptionally bold here as well. And I cannot help but to take a number of images of these unique storks - again.

With a diet that consists primarily of snails, I thought that the Asian Openbills have it made. There were plenty of Golden Apple Snails judging from the eggs deposited throughout the vicinity. It was not until I started following foraging storks that I realized it was not a walk in the park for them. It took effort to fill their stomachs - just like every other bird species. I must have observed at least three individuals but not even one ended its foray with success.

I rarely use a tripod for my photography and that is a major hindrance when shooting videos. That is why I usually keep my crappy clips for my own viewing. Anyway, one Asian Openbill was hunting so close to my vehicle that it would be a shame if I only took still images. Luckily, I could brace my gear against the window sill of my vehicle and it provided the support I needed for a decent video capture. The day just keeps getting better.

On the opposite side of the access road from the marshlands lies a big area of mangroves. A network of shallow tidal canals weave their way among the exposed roots and one such canal ran quite close to the access road. I invested some time here because of the presence of foraging waders. There were no exceptional species present but birding is not always about rarities. Poise and sensual, the Black-winged Stilt is one of my favourite waders. This lone male was not perturbed by my presence and continued his daily routine in full view.

Smaller but no less elegant was the Marsh Sandpiper. This individual was obtaining its striking breeding plumage and soon, it will probably be able to give the stilt a run for its money. I have not used these words in a long time - reflections of wings and inspiration...

A preening ‘Swintail’ Snipe had my undivided attention as I saw an opportunity to confirm its identity. Or so I thought. I took a lot of images with emphasis on the tail region especially when fanned out. Back home, I sent my best efforts to my man Dave only to be disappointed again. The images did not quite show the outer tail feathers well enough and without that, it is impossible to tell the Swinhoe’s Snipe from the Pin-tailed Snipe.

I normally keep my post light but since I have touched on the subject, do allow me to attempt to finish what I started. These two images were taken with permission from Dave Bakewell’s posting on snipe identification. The title of the article is Keep Calm and Study Snipes. Well, calm is not exactly what I feel when it comes to identifying these snipes. It is, please excuse the language and no disrespect to the author, fucking frustrating. Anyway, here is a Swinhoe’s Snipe with its tail when fanned out for a positive identification...

And here, a Pin-tailed Snipe. Go knock yourself out. On a more serious note if you are interested to know how to truly differentiate the two snipes, here is Dave’s informative article.

Although this trip was predominantly for water birds, the land birds did play a part to make this birding excursion complete. I have not noticed any other munias present here apart from the Chestnut Munia. It could just be a coincidence but whatever the reason may be, I am glad this species has found refuge here because I do not think it is doing well in other localities. A pair of these seedeaters was drawn to some dried mud on an area of red earth. I guess the mud was actually some vegetation unintentionally dragged out from the marsh and the munias were picking out edibles.

The red earth and heatwave barely complimented the stunning colourations of the Chestnut Munias well and I waited in vain for them to improve the situation for my photographic efforts.

A pipit flew across my moving vehicle and alighted just next to the access road. It did not budge as I rolled slowly next to it and such confiding behaviour usually belongs to only one species. Even without lifting my binoculars, I knew it was a Paddyfield Pipit, the commonest and only resident pipit in Malaysia. However, it has been an amazing day and it could not hurt being a little more optimistic. Perhaps there was still one more moment of magic left for me. A few photos later the bird in question, now standing all so elegantly on a tiny mound, was indeed a Paddyfield Pipit. I know I may be demanding at times but any bird, regardless of status, performing this well certainly deserves some loving.

With summer fast approaching, this Blue-tailed Bee-eater should be starting its migration back north soon. A skilled aerial hunter of open country habitats, it usually tolerates intrusion as long as you hide your human form. I did exactly that resulting in a prolonged and rewarding observation of a common but attractive winter visitor.

As I was about to part ways with Blue-tailed Bee-eater, it was joined by another. There was one more moment of magic left for me after all. The second individual was also looking its best and all prepped up for the breeding season.

Just when I thought I have seen everything there is to see, something unexpected took place. When returning from its flying assault on insects, the bee-eater misjudged the strength of a twig and landed clumsily. In fact, it almost fell from the flimsy perch and held on to whatever pride it had left belly up. Now, that is something you do not see very often with this agile bird but mistakes do happen. Just like the Japanese proverb, even monkeys fall from trees.

As a closing for this surprisingly long post for a visit to a local patch, the species selected to do the honours was not my typical choice. It is not even a bird but a lotus flower. I came across a few in bloom as I made my way to back the harsh reality of life. Somehow the sight of this bright flower in a dull landscape captivated me. Normally, flowers do not have such influence over me but it is not exactly normal times now. I took it as a message from Mother Nature. True we are now plagued by a lethal element but even in our darkest hour, there is always hope and it will shoot up from the most unlikely places to make our world beautiful again. Until then, stay home and stay safe to all. The Penang Birder signing out for now.

Friday 27 March 2020

Reaping rewards from the reeds - Part 1

The break of dawn today seemed more radiant than usual as the sun rose above the massive ongoing development on the horizon. Not much of a dawn chorus at the marshlands of Batu Kawan though. That was fine because song birds were not in the itinerary today. An exceptionally dark coloured bittern was and I decided to adopt the wait-and-strike approach used by this family of water birds to get what they seek. If it is good enough for the bitterns, surely it must be good enough for me.

I positioned myself strategically where I last hit the jackpot at this birding hotspot. One of the reasons I am constantly drawn to this locality is the birding conditions (apart from the abundance of water birds) where the hunt takes place from the comforts of your vehicle.

With my mobile hide in place, it did not take long for the first bird to stroll into view. Maybe stroll is not quite the word to use for the Ruddy-breasted Crake’s hasty pace. Scoot is more like it and with the sun barely up, my modest photography setup was struggling to keep up.

Crakes are known to be most active at first light. So, I really have no right to be swearing. But my only companions today were the birds. I guess there was no harm venting out my frustrations verbally. As for the Ruddy-breasted Crakes (yes, more than one), they could not be bothered by the profanities streaming out of this huge metal box and just carried on with their lives.

One of crakes wandered close to my position during the encounter. If not for some obstructing vegetation, it would have been my best effort of the day for this usually elusive marsh dweller.

The White-browed Crake is another regular here but I found it to be shyer and tends to keep a distance. Except when the urge to terrorize the Ruddy-breasted Crake arises again. That is when all hell breaks loose. Similar in size but not in character, the former will be chasing the latter all around the stakeout but these pursuits do not last long. When the dust settles, in this case water and mud, both parties will commence to feed again. This aggressive behaviour exhibited by the White-browed Crake was new to me but then again, I hardly had any field experience before with crakes of different species feeding so close to each other.

Next to my stationary vehicle, there was a bunch of low lying vegetation. I have noticed the Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler skulking around during all of my excursions here so far. Today was no different except that I did not have to make sure my foreign guests have had a good look at the bird first. No, today was all about me and I wholeheartedly attempted to obtain some reasonable images of this sneaky fellow.

It seems that this warbler is a creature of habit and will always forage in a particular spot but as fate would have it, that particular spot consists of a spider web of dead twigs. Coupled with the poor lighting of early morning and the active nature of the subject, photography was tough despite the close proximity.

Throughout my time at the stakeout, the Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler (I can only assume there was only one individual) teased me a number of times during its forays out in the open. When the lighting improved, the cursed twigs were still an issue but I am happy with the images that I managed to obtain. For here in Peninsular Malaysia, this is one of the ultimate skulkers of the birding world.

One of the things birding has taught me is to always expect the unexpected. I was so used to the routine of the Pallas’s Grasshopper-Warbler that I almost ignored the appearance of the much rarer Dusky Warbler. I could almost tell from behaviour that it was a different bird because it was not as skulking. Both warblers are migrants to Malaysia but there are relatively few confirmed records of the Dusky Warbler. This scarce migrant prefers to winter among vegetation next to bodies of water. And here at the marshlands of Batu Kawan, the habitat is absolutely ideal.

My last encounter with the Dusky Warbler was years ago and today, I finally managed to obtain images of this plain but distinguished winter visitor. The term Little Brown Job (LBJ) suits it perfectly but even so, the brief encounter today was one of the highlights of this birding excursion. Waiting for the birds to come to you from your vehicle beats doing it from a stuffy hide but it is still a strain. However, there are things that you can achieve that would be difficult with normal birding strategies and documenting a Dusky Warbler is a good example.

Another LBJ was seen skulking around but this time, it was among the reeds on the far side of the stakeout. I could tell it was one of the smaller Reed-warblers but effort was required to ascertain its identity. Black-browed Reed-Warbler would be the usual candidate as it is commoner than the Manchurian Reed-Warbler. After further scrutiny, my initial hunch was right but the Black-browed Reed-Warbler did not provide any opportunities for improvement shots.

I actually found myself surrounded by warblers at the stakeout today and none more conspicuous than the rowdy Oriental Reed-Warbler. It is a big bird when compared to the other warblers here and much to my delight, it was not taking any effort to conceal itself. Announcing its return to the stakeout with a series of harsh notes every single time, it was impossible to even overlook this common migrant.

My mobile hide probably played a role for its confiding behaviour and I enjoyed my best encounters with the Oriental Reed-Warbler to date. Completely disregarding my intrusion, it went about foraging without hesitation. It was a series of prolonged observations as the bird will take short breaks somewhere hidden from view before joining me again. Thanks to the good lighting condition, I was able to follow the movements of the bird reasonably well with my modest photographic equipment and obtained a number of good images.

The Oriental Reed-Warbler explored every nook and crevice in the vicinity and from what I can see, there is no shortage of food here. And this should explain my good fortune and rewarding encounters with warblers here.

Another warbler that held my attention today was a male Common Tailorbird. Renowned for their sewing skills, these warblers build cup nests by literally sewing one big leaf or two leaves together. As the name implies, the Common Tailorbird is the most often encountered representative of this genus of birds because it has adapted well to survive alongside Man. You can hear their persistent calls in gardens, parks, orchards and as well as scrublands, marshlands – you catch my drift, right?

The dried twigs next to my stationary vehicle was a regular spot for the tailorbird as well, returning to forage time and time again. Unlike a certain skulker, this handsome male preferred the top most twigs where my view was relatively unobstructed. He was also a natural in front of a camera and I even had to restrain myself from being too preoccupied with him and risk missing out on other rarer species.

I know that it is a common species and appearance wise, there is not much to boast but to me every bird has its own appeal. And this obliging Common Tailorbird certainly has his. Just look at that tail!

One of the commonest warblers in Peninsular Malaysia is the Yellow-bellied Prinia. It occurs in a wide variety of habitats but scrublands and reed beds are where it thrives. The relentless vocalizations of the prinia is usually the first indication of its presence. With a little patience, you can be rewarded with decent views as well. As expected, the marshlands of Batu Kawan has a healthy population of Yellow-bellied Prinias. However it only appeared once at the stakeout and the moment it stopped for breather, I made sure I had something to show at the end of it all.

My vehicle had parked itself at the stakeout long enough for the birds let down their guard. A Spotted Dove just dropped down on a perch right in front of me and started to coo out his territorial call. I am assuming it is a male as the sexes are identical but generally, only male species are capable of such careless behaviour. It was only when my continuous shutter clicks broke the silence did he realized there was a frigging human in the vehicle and flew off immediately.

I could hear the feverish calls of the Plaintive Cuckoo throughout my visit here today. Even if the sexes were not dimorphic, I still would have guessed this individual that wandered across my field of view was a female because generally, only female species are capable of exhibiting such finicky behaviour. And she looked suspiciously at my vehicle the whole time. One shot was all that I could muster before she retreated back to the dense vegetation.

As the morning got warmer, the crakes were back to their normal elusive behaviour but that did not signal my time at the stakeout was coming to an end. There are not so many egrets to be found living of this locality which was a bit of a surprise. The adjacent mangroves will probably harbour more of these elegant water birds and the only egret that made it to my memory card today was a Little Egret that dropped in briefly at the stakeout.

Some of the Pond-Herons are starting to sport their summer plumages in anticipation of the journey back to their breeding grounds. This lone bird that hunted in the vicinity showed just enough of its breeding colours for me to safely conclude that it was a Chinese Pond-Heron. Regardless of what some may claim, there is no way to differentiate Pond-Herons in non-breeding plumages. For these birds, you will not lose any credibility if you put your records down as Pond-Heron spp. until they start revealing their splendid breeding plumages. Better that than having the local eBird reviewer barking you to provide supporting evidence or amend your record.

Although the bittern hunting technique worked like a charm today, I was disappointed again by the elusive Black Bittern. At one point during my wait, a male Cinnamon Bittern flew across and alighted deep among the reeds. I did not give it much thought after as that is usually the end of it when it comes to this stunning water fowl. About half an hour later, I could not believe my eyes when the male Cinnamon Bittern slowly stalked his way to the edge of the reeds until he was in plain sight. I guess it really took a bittern to catch a bittern after all.

Although it was not the bittern I was hoping for, this male Cinnamon Bittern was a good enough compensation. My earlier conclusion that the stakeout was rich in food was reaffirmed by the bittern. The availability of food here drew him out from reeds and into the open. Minutes later, he found success but I was too slow to capture the entire hunt.

After gulping down his prey, he lingered around to show off his splendour before gradually disappearing into his watery realm again. When things finally started to quiet down at the stakeout, I decided to explore the rest of the marshlands here.

The visit here has been exceptional so far and it reminded me of the glory days at the marshlands of Pulau Burung. It is depressing what the place has now become and through the years, the wound may have healed but the scar remains. I wrote an article about this site a long time ago and the ended with this sentence, I hope the day will never come when the ballerinas of the marsh are forced to perform one last time in the audience of angels before departing from a diminishing paradise and never to return again. Well, that day certainly came. Anyway, to find out how I fared for the remaining half of the trip will be covered in the next post. And if I have to break a half-day excursion into a 2-part post, you can pretty much guess the outcome.