Thursday 9 April 2020

Home sweet home?

I found myself staring at a 28-day partial lock down as a strict Movement Control Order was laid down in place by the Malaysian government. That is a long time to go without birding. To help me keep my sanity and feed my often insatiable appetite for birding, I challenged myself to come up with a post for my blog and all the contents must be obtained from my home balcony. It would be a difficult one because a few years back, the management decided to chop down every single tree that is in plain sight from my balcony but I figured the challenge might do me some good. I could walk around the compound in order to obtain better images but with all the neighbours home-bound, I will draw even more stares and attention than I usually do. This home quarantine has made me slightly temperamental and I certainly do not need to subject myself to unnecessary stress. Nope, this post was an accumulative effort of a couple of hours each day over a period of one week from my balcony and my housing area is not exactly what one would consider as good for birding.

The most prominent species of bird here is not even a wild bird. Feral Pigeons thrive living alongside humans. Some of these pigeons do possess a striking resemblance to the wild Rock Pigeons but apparently, the only pure Rock Pigeons in Malaysia are the ones found at Batu Caves in Selangor state.

These pigeons multiple rapidly and often successfully. So much so that they are considered as pests by some. I noticed that the pigeons have started to pair up again or are trying their best to do so. Subtlety plays no part in courtship and this amorous male is prove to that.

Somehow Feral Pigeons have a way of earning the affections of non-birders and will receive handouts regularly from them. Every morning without fail, the pigeons will descend from the rooftops and gorge themselves on the offerings courtesy of my neighbours.

Now, the Spotted Dove is a truly wild bird and it is also doing well – not only here but throughout the country. Unlike the Feral Pigeons, it takes no interest in the handouts. It could be pride or it could be survival instincts but the Spotted Dove rarely exhibits the ridiculously bold behaviour of those feral birds.

With the absence of trees in front of my balcony, a row of lamp posts is the most strategic perch for photography. It is amazing how your perception of things can change when there is absolutely no choice to the matter.

The adorable Zebra Dove shares a similar fate with the Spotted Dove. Both are popular cage birds but despite of that, the wild populations are still doing well. A pair was getting very comfortable with each other at a building rooftop across from mine. It came as no surprise as it now the breeding season and most of the birds here were showing signs of that.

Being smaller, it was much more challenging to capture decent images of the Zebra Dove and its numbers here are much lower as well. The closest this dove ever came to my position was when it alighted on the perimeter fencing. For a species that is often obliging in normal times, I surprised even myself when a sense of achievement briefly developed within me after obtaining this far from ideal image. Or maybe it is just my cabin fever acting up again.

The sweet bubbly call of the Yellow-vented Bulbul is very much the dawn chorus of this bustling neighbourhood in the outskirts of Georgetown City. Here, it is convenient living because everything is literally at our doorstep. Everything except good birding, that is.

Anyway, the Yellow-vented Bulbul is another success story because it has adapted well to life among humans and this trait alone will almost ensure you of your existence in this world. The Mohawk does earn the bulbul some points when it comes to appearance but the bird does not linger close often enough for good photographic opportunities.

The resident pair of Common Mynas can be seen strutting around the vicinity except during the hottest parts of the day. Although abundant in the country, Common Mynas are full of character and can be a delight to observe.

Like most myna species, it is very adaptable and opportunistic. However here in Penang Island, the Common Myna faces stiff competition from the Crested Myna. There are certain localities where it is significantly outnumbered but the Common Myna still remains as one of the commonest birds on the island.

Being somewhat of a Penang Island specialty, the Crested Myna was an introduced bird that has been accepted into the national checklist. Apparently, the tropical island ambience suits it well and the population is blooming here and nowhere else in the country. A pair moved into the neighbourhood about a year back and they have been a regular sight since. It says a lot about one’s character if you are able to compete and even better the likes of a Common Myna.

During my challenge, this species provided the best photographic opportunities. Beggars cannot be choosers and I took those opportunities with much enthusiasm. I cannot recall the last time when this locally common species stirred up such exhilaration.

Due to the Crested Myna’s status here in my home state, it is usually taken for granted by local birders. Occasionally, I am guilty of this too and it is unfair to the bird. Sporting a sultry black plumage and an absolutely wicked crest, it is a stunning bird. And this time-at-home period opened up my eyes to the beauty of the Crested Myna again.

The lamp posts again provided the magic (I cannot believe that I actually wrote that) for my photographic efforts. From the looks of it, the birds here are fond of these manmade perches as well. The Feral Pigeons are harmless but they are cumbersome. The facial expression of this Crested Myna says it all when a pigeon decided to squeeze in on the perch.

Clumsy as it may be, the pigeon still has the mentality to practice social distancing which is more than I can say for some of my fellow humans...

Asian Glossy Starlings can form huge flocks to roost but unfortunately, not in this neighbourhood. This week their numbers were relatively lower and although most of us have been requested to take a break from work, I can see Murphy is still hard at work maintaining his law. Then on one beautiful morning, a lone individual alighted on a water pipe of the unit above mine. The perch was hideous and obstructing but thankfully, it could not obscure the true radiance of an Asian Glossy Starling.

Back when I was an easily excited teenage birder, I used to travel all the way to the fruit orchards in the southern part of the island to watch Dollarbirds and their aerial displays. At that time, it was a sight very foreign to me and I found these birds to be remarkable. Anyway, a lone individual will usually come round in the evenings and I was that teenage once again as I marvelled at the Dollarbird’s presence and occasional sallies. The backdrop of brick and mortar may not be as appealing as the lush greenery of the orchards but at least this common bird gave me something to look forward each evening.

Being married to a birder has enriched my wife’s knowledge on birds including their calls. And when it comes to bird vocalizations here in the city, the Asian Koel has no rivals. Loud and unbelievably persistent, the territorial call of this parasitic cuckoo is a regular sound in my neighbourhood. Inevitably, my wife has had ample opportunities to learn the calls. To actually see the bird, on the other hand, requires effort and luck as it often keeps itself concealed. A fruiting palm tree was the only reason I managed a few record shots during my challenge and even then, the Asian Koel rarely gave in to the temptation.

One other bird that she has learned to recognize by call quite efficiently is the White-throated Kingfisher. It will announce its arrival by filling the vicinity with its tremulous call and needless to say, striking appearance.  My wife still has to go to work during this lockdown period because she is attached to a private hospital. Although she is not really on the frontline, the risk is very real for her. Whenever I see the White-throated Kingfisher in this difficult time, an uneasy feeling creeps in. My better half is the only thing that makes sense in this world other than the birds. Everyone should be fighting this war but from what that I can see, it is not the case. She is out there doing her battle and I am proud of her. My only concern is that I cannot be there to protect her.

The vibrant colours of the Black-naped Oriole is a welcomed sight here. Its beautiful song is a reminder that the world is not such a gloomy place after all. Some might find solitude in religion and others in music but for me, it is always the birds. The Black-naped Oriole has a preference for trees when alighting and that puts me out of luck except for a few rare occasions.

I hate to admit it but the king of the block is the marauding House Crow. There is a reason why they are called a murder of crows. Although I am not terribly fond of this species, I have to respect its intelligence and tenacity. Nothing is safe when these birds have their eyes locked on it. Luckily House Crows are not capable of killing everything at will but they certainly have mastered the art of harassing and tormenting their victims.

However for several months each year, this ruthless king will be temporarily dethroned. For there is one that can strike fear even in the hearts of the hardiest House Crows. The Peregrine Falcon has a cosmopolitan distribution and in Malaysia, it occurs as both migrant and resident. The migrants will usually winter in concrete jungles where it reigns supreme. Even the House Crows do not mess with this deadly predator and that is one of the reasons why it is my all-time favourite bird (apart from the mighty Harpy Eagle of South America). For me the Peregrine Falcon is the most exciting bird to be found from home and through the years, I have seen it on several occasions. During the challenge, fleeting views in flight (it is the fastest bird in the world) was all that was given. A stroke of good luck produced this distant image of the Peregrine Falcon looking over its kingdom from a lofty perch. It was an unworthy shot for such an amazing bird but it was the one shot I wanted the most for this post.

There is one more raptor that makes me feel blessed I can enjoy it from the comforts of my balcony and it is the majestic White-bellied Sea-Eagle. Penang Island has the highest density of White-bellied Sea-Eagles in Malaysia and they are also one of the largest eagles around. The sight of these eagles soaring effortlessly on those huge wings is very impressive indeed and even after all these years, it still takes my breath away.

I stay relatively close to the coast and this raptor can be seen regularly making its way out and back from the sea. Evenings will usually have the White-bellied Sea-Eagles returning and occasionally, with fish securely in their talons.

I am elated I managed to obtain enough content for a decent blog posting despite all the drawbacks. In fact, I rather enjoyed the whole challenge. The birds, regardless of status, still continue to thrill and amaze. Surprisingly, the sunsets here can be quite lovely at times. Something that I usually do not take notice of. To quote from an antihero lead character in a movie that has some relevance to what we are facing today - enjoy the little things. And that I shall.