Thursday 18 June 2020

Hornbill heaven

It has been nearly three months since I last had the fresh countryside air passed through my lungs. As I made my approach with two like-minded birding companions to a forest reserve  in Kedah State, I inhaled deeply to savour the moment. With the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown finally coming to an end, we were able to travel interstate again and the forest sites here in Kedah are far more rewarding than the ones in my home state of Penang. We timed our arrival to coincide with the breaking of dawn. As the mist lifted, the dawn chorus started to fill the vicinity.

Initially, the call was faint and not its signature territorial call. But it was definitely a Helmeted Hornbill – the most amazing hornbill species here in Malaysia and perhaps, even the world. Sadly, it is also one of the rarest. The Helmeted Hornbill has a territorial call like no other but the call does not echo throughout tropical rainforests as often as it used to. We desperately scanned the distant forest canopy for a glimmer of hope. And then, the mist that lingered just above the trees parted to reveal a Helmeted Hornbill in all its glory. It turned out to a female told by the pale throat and she powered across the skyline with her beautiful long tail in toll. It has been years since my last sighting of a Helmeted Hornbill and only heaven knows when I will be given the privilege again. This majestic bird has been hunted to near extinction because it is the only hornbill with a solid casque and this avian “ivory” has a value no poacher can resist. I think I speak for all birders that the sight of a Helmeted Hornbill living free in the wild is beyond any material value.

A pair of Common Hill-Mynas was getting ready to start off the day as well. This is another bird that is in demand in the bird trade. Its charming character and the ability to mimic sounds including human speech is the cause of its downfall. However, it is not endangered like the Helmeted Hornbill and remains relatively common in suitable habitats.

Patches of long grass next to the access road that runs across the forest reserve is refuge to the Rufescent Prinias and their vocal nature makes these warblers conspicuous. One was belting out its territorial call from a lofty perch to enhance its audible reach and it certainly reached our ears.

I did not manage to take as many photos as I had anticipated. Do not get me wrong. The forest was teeming with birds. It is just the lack of good photographic opportunities. Chestnut-necklaced Partridge, Crested Shrikejay and Hooded Pitta are always good records for any birding excursion. And to walk through the forest here again after such a long time was uplifting to say the least.

A pair of Oriental Pied Hornbills was showing their offspring the ways of the world when I crossed path with the family. The young one, as usual, was much more confiding (or should it be naive) and provided time for me to obtain a record shot. Today has been exceptional for hornbills. Great Hornbills, White-crowned Hornbills, a flock of 10 Plain-pouched Hornbills and the fantastic encounter with the Helmeted Hornbill at first light made it 5 species from a single locality.

The Mountain Imperial Pigeon can wander far and wide in search of food. Mostly found in higher elevations, it is not rare to see this stunning pigeon at this low elevation as well.

One of the commonest woodpeckers here is the Banded Woodpecker. Typical of woodpeckers, it is a striking bird despite its status. However, the distance and lighting offered no assistance to help prove my point.

At the edge of the lake, a Black-winged Kite was perched elegantly against a stunning blue backdrop and it was a mesmerizing sight. I cannot recall having seen this raptor here before but it is a welcomed addition to my ever-growing checklist of the birds of Kedah State. 

Wild boars do not normally stand their ground and stare back at you. This one did and I know better than to try to find out the reason behind this bold behaviour for it can be a dangerous one if it wanted to. It is also the only big mammal that can still be regularly encountered in Peninsular Malaysia.

Next on today’s agenda is a twitch for a Malaysian first record. You would normally think I would have done the twitching mission in the morning to increase my success rate. Well to be begin with, the twitch took me to, of all places, the semi-open air ticketing building at Kuala Perlis for the ferry shuttle to Langkawi. Time was also no longer an issue as you are more or less guaranteed of not dipping out. A group of birders from Penang while waiting to board their ferry came across some strange-looking sparrows before the lockdown and they turned out be House Sparrows – a species that has been expected to turn up in Malaysia eventually. Anyway, the Records Committee accepted these House Sparrows as genuine colonizers and that made them ‘tickable’ for my Malaysian life list. 

As soon as our group entered the building with birding gears and all, we drew the usual stares from the locals. The House Sparrows are known to roost along the structural beams of the building but all we could find were Java Sparrows. These gorgeous sparrows were also recorded by the birders on the day they discovered the ‘rarity’. So, their presence came as no surprise. But their numbers certainly were. Their origin may be in question but the Java Sparrows are settling in very well here.

I thought our twitch for Malaysia’s first House Sparrows would be a short and easy one. However, we could not find a single one within the building. Although the Eurasian Tree Sparrow is a different species altogether, the age-old saying of birds of a feather flock together might still be applied here. I then decided to scrutinize the flocks of Eurasian Tree Sparrows foraging next to the building and it worked like a charm. Almost immediate, I spotted my Malaysian lifer on a grassy patch together with a few Eurasian Tree Sparrows.

The House Sparrow is not new to me. I have recorded it during my visit to Cambodia. Now that I have obtained a record shot, I should be on my way to the next location but I could not. I wanted to spend more time observing this male House Sparrow. Chances are I will not make another trip all the way here for it again. It was relatively easy to follow his movement and I managed to obtain better images while doing so.

I have been to this ferry terminal twice before. I knew there were Eurasian Tree Sparrows present which is typical of built-up areas like this. The question is did I overlooked the House Sparrows then? Being almost the same size and colouration as the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, it is highly possible. This locality is not exactly a place frequented by birders and the birds could have gone unnoticed for a long time.

Once the first House Sparrow revealed itself, we started recording more of its kin. At least 10 birds were seen at the end of it all and some are back to resting along the beams of the building where they were supposed to be in the first place.

A pair of Common Mynas trying to figure out what the fuss is all about...

Our next and last destination took us to the paddy fields just outside the Alor Setar Airport. Last season, a pair of Black Bitterns decided to breed among the patches of dense vegetation and we were hoping to catch them here again.

Unfortunately we did not manage to locate these sleek water birds. And in their stead, a few Yellow Bitterns provided the highlight of our visit here.

One individual was an absolute cracker as it was sporting a full breeding plumage. I assumed it is a male because he was quite a showboat and frequently launched himself after other Yellow Bitterns as part of nuptial displays or territorial disputes.

All bitterns rely heavily on blending into the surroundings as their main form of defence. And facing their threat straight with their head tilted upwards usually strengthens their effort to remain undetected. Not this time though ‘cos I can still see you, bud...

One Pond-Heron was finding it hard to leave our warm Malaysian hospitality and still lingered around instead of making its way back up north to breed.

Unlike most paddy fields in the state of Kedah, there were relatively few Asian Openbills present. Maybe it is just a coincidence. Anyway, this once rare stork wrapped things up for my first interstate birding in months. My country’s fight to overcome this virus may well be ending soon but the pandemic left a devastating aftermath. Some have lost loved ones. Others, their source of income. That struggle, is far from over. I would love to say that I am not affected by the economic crisis we now face. However, I will taking things one day at a time and be thankful for what I have been given.

Monday 1 June 2020

Enjoy the little things

I awoke to a Saturday morning that was simply too beautiful not to be out in the field. It has been a while since my last visit to Sungai Burung – a local patch located at the south-western corner of Penang Island. The scenic drive that cuts through the central hilly region to get to the site is now marred with the massive construction of an elevated highway. Luckily, the site itself remained pretty much the same as I last left it. In fact, I found the rural landscape to be more captivating than usual today. Or perhaps it is because I have been away for far too long.

The Black-naped Oriole is one of the most attractive birds that occurs within human settlements. I came across one resting on an electrical cable and it appeared to be in no particular hurry to start off the day and neither was I. Besides, I could use some colours in my life right now and the radiant plumage of the Black-naped Oriole will certainly do.

Feral species usually do not do it for me but Barbary Doves are still relatively uncommon here in Penang. Two pairs were seen perched suspiciously just outside a village house. The doves could well be free flying pets as they exhibited very little fear of my approach.

One pair had no intentions to conceal their feelings for each other. And I guess in no time, Barbary Doves will be a regular sight here but hopefully, not the entire island. We have more than enough Feral Pigeons flying about everywhere as it is.

An immature Blue-tailed Bee-eater was also making full use of the electrical cables. Unlike the doves, the youngster was using this man made structure to hunt for breakfast rather than procreation.

Along the access road next to the mangroves, the resident Collared Kingfishers were certainly out and about. Most have paired up for the breeding season and their raucous calls constantly broke the serenity of the surroundings.

There were fewer White-throated Kingfishers present which is expected of this location. In birding, it is sometimes about quality rather than quantity and this one White-throated Kingfisher provided the best photo out of all the kingfishers I came across today.

There was a big downpour the night before but it still does not explain why this Dollarbird is looking so miserable and wet. Not when other birds are looking prime and proper.

Despite having to endure human trappers, both the Zebra Dove and its bigger cousin the Spotted Dove are doing surprisingly well. While birding along the edge of the mangroves, I came across numerous individuals of both species. And one exceptionally tame Zebra Dove managed to convince me to stop for a photoshoot. While enjoying some sunshine on the rocky divider between the access trail and the mangroves, the little guy literally ignored my approaching vehicle. With the lighting condition ideal and the subject at eye level, it was almost too good (and easy) to be true.

The doves might be enjoying the good life here but they better not let down their guard too often. In this healthy ecosystem, predators lurk. The Crested Serpent-Eagle generally prefer a reptilian diet but who is to say if it suddenly acquires a taste for avian meat.

Brahminy Kites are aplenty today and the majority of them were juveniles. It is a scavenger by nature but will take life prey when the opportunity presents itself and small birds are certainly part of its diet.

The Purple Heron has little to fear from these raptors as it is simply too big for them to overpower. It enjoys its time in the sun with very little worries. At this location, the only species that poses any real threat to it would be humans. But not this human for he has nothing but admiration the heron’s stately presence.

At the nearby estuary, Striated Herons are abundant and it has been that way for as long as I could remember. Immature birds lack the lovely plumage colouration of the matured birds.

An adult Striated Heron is an attractive water bird that most birders and bird photographers often take for granted. But today, I was not on tour nor was I on any twitching mission. Today’s excursion was a relaxed outing to a local patch just to catch up with all the birding I was deprived of by the government’s partial lockdown order. And I intend to enjoy the little things like giving the Striated Heron the attention it truly deserves.

Even the Pacific Swallow managed to grab hold of my attention today and that does not happen often.

This is one of the few locations on the island where the Large-billed Crow can still be seen regularly. There is no doubt they are losing out to the marauding House Crows and that is a shame. I like the Large-billed Crow more or maybe I am just biased towards the House Crows for all the misdeeds they are capable of doing.

I kept a look out for Javan Mynas as they have been recorded from the island as well. However, there were not many mynas around today and those few Jungle Mynas that came my way did not produce any surprises.

As I was driving next to the river, I was surprise to see five Grey Herons at a single spot each perched on a different but adjacent tree. It appeared to be like a small heronry and in all of years of birding here in the Pearl of the Orient, this is my biggest count to date.

Another notable personal count for the island was a group of six Red-wattled Lapwings. Long before I could see them, I could hear their loud call as I approached the paddy fields. I have seen Red-wattled Lapwings at this site irregularly through the years but always lone birds. This species is doing so well throughout the peninsular nowadays and there is really no reason for them not to thrive here as well.

A few all too familiar silhouettes glided across the sky before alighted on a flooded patch of the paddy fields. It was not unexpected but to finally know I share my island home with Asian Openbills was definitely the highlight of the trip. I do not think this is the first confirmed sighting from Penang Island but it does not really matter. These unique storks have settled in well just across the narrow straits that separate the island from the mainland. It was just a matter of time before a few decide to opt for an island life. Unlike the invasive Javan Mynas, these storks certainly have my welcome.