Saturday 30 May 2020

Conditional freedom

When the Movement Control Order was finally lifted (conditionally that is) about three weeks ago, birders were able to go into the field again but forest reserves and parks remain close and that is most unfortunate. With the migratory season all but over now, forest sites are usually the preferred choice. The deadly COVID-19 pandemic affected the livelihood of countless humans around the world. I did not rush out to bird immediately after this conditional freedom was acquire. There were more dire matters to attend to and one of them is to make sure I do all I can to help the company that I work for fight through this difficult time. With eco-tourism in fact any kind of tourism in a complete standstill, there will certainly be no guided birding tours for me anytime in the near future. Birding is the love of my life but it would be not much of a life if I cannot provide for my loved ones.

It has been more than 70 days since my last birding excursion. With interstate travel still prohibited and the unavailability of forest sites, I found myself at my last birding locality before Malaysia came under partial lockdown. I arrived at the marshland of Batu Kawan just after dawn and sight of a few Asian Openbills preparing for the day ahead made me realize just how much I miss birding.

I could not help but to notice that the water level within the marsh has risen higher. I do not think it is tidal and that could be spell bad news. The smaller water birds, as expected, did not reveal themselves like my previous visits because of the lack of foraging patches. I have been kept away from birding long enough to appreciate whatever that has been given to me. It will be a long time before I will consider any birding excursion to be poor – a long time indeed. This juvenile Purple Heron is one of the tallest birds here and the water level could not prevent it from performing well for my first birding excursion in months.

Just like the Purple Heron, the Grey Heron is another towering presence at this location. This individual was taking a breather next to a stream and proved to be most confiding – much to my delight.

A cumbersome landing by a Watercock among the reeds caught my immediate attention. Apart from males in breeding plumage, it is hard to tell them apart. This individual, judged by its indistinct barring on its underside, should be a juvenile. Anyway, I could managed only a few record shots before it barged its way through the reeds and out of sight.

Even from a distance, I could make out a pair of Lesser Whistling Ducks flying above the vast marshland. Like their namesake, these duck emit a unique whistling call that cannot be mistaken for anything else here in Peninsular Malaysia. I half heartedly attempted to capture their images as the lighting condition was not exactly favourable at the time. In the end, my lack of self confidence was uncalled for as the image turned out quite decent.

For the remaining half of my trip to Batu Kawan, I decided to focus on land birds. There was a number of birds present but nothing out of the ordinary. During my ‘stay home’ period, I had ample opportunities to observe House Crows and Common Mynas going about their daily routines. I surprise even myself that I actually took the effort to capture this House Crow resting on a plastic pipe.

And a Common Myna doing exactly the thing a pipes down the access road...

You can always count on the Paddyfield Pipit to be obliging and today was no different. Perched so elegantly on its very own pedestal, there are no surprises as to why a photo of this common species is included in my post this time.

The Chestnut Munia remains to be the only munia species present in the vicinity and a flock was busy foraging among the long grass. However, they appear restless and easily agitated this morning and I rarely had any opportunities for a decent photograph.

Unlike my previous trip here, warblers did not contribute much this time. The male Common Tailorbird was the only one that greeted me on this beautiful day. Well, one warbler is better than none at all.

As I was leaving the location, the highlight of the day called out to from the scrublands. Long-tailed Shrikes used to occur and breed in Penang state. When I started birding, it was locally extinct from my home state. In recent years, it has been recorded again but only in mainland Penang. And today, a skittish individual became my first record of a Long-tailed Shrike in Penang.

My next location is another open country habitat. The conditional freedom left me with very little choice of birding locations. The migratory season would be the best time to visit the marshlands of the Pulau Burung landfill and with June just a few days to go, only resident species were present. A few White-breasted Waterhen were caught out in the open. Perhaps with the absence of anglers and other humans in the past months, the birds have grown bolder than usual.

It was nice to pick out a lone Intermediate Egret among the usual flocks of Cattle Egrets. Of all the resident egrets here at the landfill, I guess it is probably the rarest of them all.

A number of Lesser Whistling Ducks were present but not in their usual big numbers. The day has grown hot and perhaps they have taken refuge at another spot of the marshlands. The perimeter fence often hinders photographic efforts. The enthusiasm of the local authorities are usually short-lived and in this case, it is a good thing. Hardly any maintenance is done since the day they erected this horrid structure. Certain spots have collapsed or damaged and these gaps in the fencing provide a window of opportunity for some decent photography.

I can remember a time when I could easily obtain intimate encounters with Little Grebes (and several other species as well) here. I thought those days are long gone after the destruction of this birding paradise that took place a few years ago. But the Little Grebes today took me for a stroll down memory lane and performed exceptionally well. And for a while there it felt like I was back in the good old days. Back to the days when this place was in its prime.

A couple of Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo was recorded a few weeks earlier near the mangrove area. Hopeful and successful are two very different things.  For today, it is only the former for me as there were no signs of the Austral migrants. During my search, I found a Dollarbird hawking in the vicinity. The buoyant flight always appeals to me and with the good lighting bringing out the true colours of this roller, it was an enjoyable encounter. It would have been better if the perch the Dollarbird chose as a vantage point had better angles for a photograph.

I had another personal first record for Penang state today. It is safe to assume that it was a fruitful day out in the field after all. However, I have mixed feelings for this second species. All of us in the north knew that it was only a matter of time before the Javan Mynas made their way here from the south. For months, it has been regularly recorded in this region and I knew then there was no stopping the inevitable.

On one hand, I admire the bird for its ability to adapt and spread. On the other, I find the Javan Myna to be invasive and a threat to the existing populations of mynas especially the Jungle Myna. It had to cope with the likes of the Common and Crested Myna and now, it has the Javan Myna to deal with as well. Anyway, a small flock of Jungle Mynas happily allowed this lone Javan Myna to tag along and this comparison shot, though not a good one, shows the differences between the two species.

The final bird of the day was the majestic Crested Serpent-Eagle. Electrical poles are one of their favourite perches and coming across one on such an exposed perch is not unexpected. By that time the lighting was harsh but the eagle was just one pole away from my stationary vehicle and at this distance, the encounter took my breath away. Birds have always been my source of inspiration and solace. Right now, I could well be facing one of the biggest challenges in my life and this birding excursion certainly did wonders for my wearied soul.