Wednesday 23 September 2020

The surf runner

September is usually a wet month for northwest Peninsular Malaysia and this year is no different. To visit the forest surrounding Pedu Lake at this time would be a gamble especially after it had rained the day before. However, the forest denizens of Pedu were not the primary targets for today’s excursion. The promise of a gathering of waders at the high tide roost of Kuala Kedah was. It will be the highest daytime tide for the rest of the year and we were hoping for a rewarding wader watch. Anyway, the weather conditions gave the lakeside environment at Pedu a mesmerizing aura. As Hor Kee, Michael and I soaked in the scenery, I said a silent prayer for the weather to hold until we have concluded our birding.

Apparently, we were not the only ones drawn to the view. A flock of five Large Green-Pigeons alighted on a dead tree overlooking the lake and took a prolonged breather as they prepare for the day ahead. These largest of our green-pigeons is not rare at this birding hotspot but encounters are usually of flocks flying powerfully above the forest canopy. Although all that I could obtained this time were distant shots, the flock still provided a good start to the day.

We found the usually deserted access road surprisingly busy this morning. In fact, this was the most number of vehicles I have ever encountered here before. Thankfully, the birds were still out and about despite the unprecedented human intrusion. Good photographic opportunities were hard to come by though. A flock of Hairy-backed Bulbuls patronizing a fruiting tree finally gave me a reason to lift up my camera again.

At a particular stretch along this forested road, a pair of vocalizing Black-and-Yellow Broadbills caught my attention naturally. Scanning along the canopy level yielded a female bird with a successful hunt. She enjoyed the rewards of her effort partially hidden from view and this was my best attempt in documenting this adorable forest gem.

While I was still observing the Black-and-Yellow Broadbill, a Banded Broadbill started to call and judging from the volume, it was particularly overhead. I managed to glimpse this yet another striking representative of this family of birds moving about the foliage of the forest. As I struggled to try and obtain better views, a flock of Dusky Broadbill announced their arrival with their persistent high pitched calls and my attention was then diverted to them. Dusky Broadbills are the rarest of them all at this birding locality and I took no effort to conceal my excitement. Like the other two species, which were still present, the flock foraged from the cover of the forest canopy. I could not take a single shot until one decided to alight on an exposed perch. There is a God after all...

Determination had me follow the movement of the Dusky Broadbills which was relatively easy because the birds appeared hesitant to wander far from my position. Dilemma set in when my ears picked out the mournful notes of the stunning Diard’s Trogon and it too was in close proximity. Unbelievable as it may seem, a Green Broadbill then started to call in the vicinity as well. For the first time in my life, I have four different species of broadbills present at a single spot. It was just incredible. Earlier on, we had a Black-and-Red Broadbill and that made it five broadbills today – another first for me. However, I could not break from the spell the Dusky Broadbills had me under. In the end, I managed another distant shot of the Dusky Broadbill and missed out on the rest. I guess too much of a good thing may not always be a good thing.

I know forest birding can be frustrating and photography, even more so. But today reminded me how enticing forest birding can be. A bird wave stirred up even more exhilaration with a pair of Black-winged Flycatcher-Shrikes being rather cooperative to my photographic efforts. I rarely get to shoot anything during birdwaves as the participants tend to be restless and these images were much appreciated.

Minivets, babblers, warblers and sunbirds slipped past my gear as they succumbed to the feeding frenzy of the wave. The Great Iora, a species I have been trying to obtain better images but without much success all these years, cruelly taunted me from the very top of the canopy level.

By late morning, things began to sizzle down. It was also about time for us to retreat from the forest and head for the coast to our next destination. A vocal Long-billed Spiderhunter had just enough charisma to hold us back momentarily as we admired its namesake. This forest dweller is not common anywhere but a particular group of flowering trees here in Pedu will occasionally be graced by its presence. The photographer in me was frustrated one last time here in the wilds of Pedu and this odd pose by the spiderhunter was the only image good enough to be shared.

I have been to the coastline off Kuala Muda in Penang state for birding before but this particular high tide roost is new to me. Sometimes, the journey to a destination is half the experience. In a way, I think it applies here.  First, we had to manoeuvre pass dozens of poultry as we walked through a somewhat open coop. Then wade along a submerged, narrow wooden bridge. One wrong step will land you in almost waist deep of tidal water. A sandy beach greeted us at the end of our little adventure and upon further scrutiny, thousands of roosting waders. More than four thousand individuals as a matter of fact.

My better equipped companions got down to work as they scanned and counted the waders present. I, without the aid of a scope, was busy gawking at this breath taking sight because it has been a long time since I marvelled at a spectacle of roosting waders.

I noticed two rather pale waders scurrying about the shoreline and the first thought that came to mind was Sanderlings. And Sanderlings they certainly were. The foraging pair was a fair distance away but this would only be my third ever sighting and the duo certainly had my undivided attention. With both my previous encounters from my digiscoping days more than 15 years ago, I have now being given the chance to finally obtain some images of this scarce migrant.

Sanderlings are known for their penchant for hunting right at the edge of the tideline – rushing in for a quick jab or two into the sand when the tide goes out and a making a hasty retreat when the tide returns. This behaviour is a good indication that the pale peeps you are looking at is a Sanderling. And I just love the way these surf runners teased the raging waters of this ‘super’ high tide.

A Red-necked Stint momentarily joined one of the Sanderlings and it provided a good comparison shot between the two species. A Sanderling sporting its pale winter plumage is not that difficult to identify. It is basically an oversized Red-necked Stint and of course, there is always its surf running habits.

True to its nature, the Sanderlings stuck to the far end and there was no way of reducing the distance between us without scaring off the rest of the waders. When the adrenalin started to wear off, I diverted my attention to the other waders present. Although this was a distant shot, it depicts two very similar species together – the Great Knot and Red Knot. In breeding plumage, there is no mistaking the vivid colouration of the smaller Red Knot. This one still has traces of its breeding colours but in the near future, there will only be subtle differences to tell the two species apart.

The Greater Sand-Plover is not rare but care must be taken to identify it positively. The smaller but much commoner Lesser Sand-Plover look remarkably similar and just to make things interesting, these plovers can be variable in size and built. When seen together, the Greater Sand-Plover is usually distinguishable and there is little doubt of this one’s identity.

Earlier in the post, I made a comparison between the Sanderling and the Red-necked Stint as the latter is one of the most abundant winter migrants in Peninsular Malaysia. I scrutinized the flocks of stints present the best I could just so I do not overlook the remarkably similar (here I go again) but much rarer Little Stint. Or God forbid, a Spoon-billed Sandpiper. The joys of wader identification are boundless...

Anyway, all stints including the Red-necked Stints are certainly adorable. Despite their minute size, they are accomplished long distance travellers. Wader migration is one of the wonders of the natural world and there is certainly more to these little bundle of feathers than what they appear to be.

Here is one bird that is more easily recognizable – a dark morphed Pacific Reef-Heron (yes, it is now a heron). And it was a true goliath when roosting next to the waders.

As the waders grew accustomed to our presence, we shifted to a more strategic position to continue our observation. A lone juvenile Lesser Sand-Plover wandered exceptionally close and provided one of the best images here at this Kuala Muda high tide roost.

Just when I thought there was nothing else I could expect from the Sanderlings, one gradually made its way towards us. And I shuddered in anticipation for what is to come.

A wintering Sanderling may not possess much colouration. But there is beauty in simplicity and the individual dashing about this bleak coastline in front of me is undeniably beautiful. The sand had a colour tone dark enough to compliment the fair appeal of the Sanderling. It has been quite a day of birding especially with the broadbills and all at Pedu but the moment provided by this confiding Sanderling surpassed all else.

The roosting flocks became restless when the nearby fishermen prepare to venture out to sea again. When all the commotion could not be tolerated any longer, the waders took flight in unison. A mass of wings and feathers swirled across the coastal sky before vanishing beyond the horizon. Nothing remained but the reminiscence of an endearing little Sanderling.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Getting twitchie over a sharpie


The former mining pools of Malim Nawar is probably the location for most, if not all of my pure twitching trips. And this time, it is for a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – a rare migrant to our shores. It was a cold and gloomy morning. To make matters worse, it started to drizzle just as Hor Kee, Michael and I were about to complete our two hour drive from Penang. When we finally reached the spot, we found ourselves staring at a huge semi-dry fish pond. Our target is a relatively small peeps. This is certainly a muddied version of the needle in a haystack saying. And no matter how stunning the view may be, I do feel my spirit lifted. Only a particular little wader that breeds in the northern tundra will be able to do that.

There were other waders present like Wood Sandpipers and Long-toed Stints. As most waders in winter plumage look quite similar especially in a distance, their presence were distracting. A huge number of Black-winged Stilts were out foraging throughout the pond and the possibility of a Pied Stilt (a recent addition to the Malaysian checklist) did cross my mind but a quick scan at the stilts revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

Anxiety soared as our target remained elusive. Sharp-tailed Sandpipers usually do not linger long at a stopover during passage. This twitch was beginning to put our skills (and patience) to the test. Ever since a camera joined my birding arsenal, I do not carry a scope anymore. Luckily, Michael still does and it took some good old fashion birding to save the day. As soon as he had his scope up, he found the ‘Sharpie’ foraging leisurely at the edge of the exposed mud. And Malim Nawar once again provided a successful twitch for me.

Here is the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in comparison to the smaller Long-toed Stint. When seen together, the differences are obvious. However when seen alone and taking into consideration the possibility of hallucinating some some non-existing field marks, it is a different story altogether.

The lighting was less than desirable and the privileged guest was quite a distance from the access road. There was undoubtedly room for improvement with the images that I obtained. But I was elated. In light of all the hindrance caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, I was not even sure there could be any lifers for me any time soon. The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was confiding enough I suppose and the prolonged observation made the experience a memorable one nevertheless.

With the lifer safely in the bag, I started to focus on the other waders present. One other certainly had my attention because it is usually shy by nature. The Greater Painted-Snipe is somewhat crepuscular and it is one of the few bird species in the world where the gender roles and even appearance is reversed. Anyway, this male was foraging quite comfortably right out in the open and that is something I do not see very often. I guess it would be pushing it to hope for the more striking female to make an appearance.

The Asian Openbills which have settled in well in the north are also finding this locality ideal. I managed to photograph one that was doing what it does best and that is to extract a meal out of a snail using its highly-specialized bill.

Another recent colonizer to Malaysia that is thriving here is the Little Cormorant. Although we did not get many photographic opportunities, this flying bird provided a sufficient souvenir for our trip.

One would think that after my trip to Cambodia I would not be so easily excited by the presence of an Oriental Darter. However, this sleek waterbird is rare here in Malaysia and one perched at a far distance still had my undivided attention.

No visit to this area would be complete without coming across the Grey Herons. Although, these majestic waterbirds are also found in my home state, I still find them intriguing. Birding, after all, is not always about rarities.

Grey-headed Swamphens (yes, another split) were given their due attention because we recorded the first Black-backed Swamphen in Malaysia quite recently. As with the stilt, there was no cause for celebrations. Only wishful thinking.

A feral Water Buffalo looking undeniably intimidating and it is not all bark and no bite for this occasionally ill-tempered animal. Thus, it has my respect which is rarely given to any semi-domestic animal.

It is alarming to find Javan Mynas outnumbering every other myna species here in Malim Nawar because the same thing could well take place back home in Penang. Not only are they displacing the locals but they are also attempting to ‘breed’ them out as several hybrids were seen. If this is not considered an invasion, I do not know what is.

As for the Zebra Doves, they went about their daily routine peacefully oblivious to the threat that the Javan Mynas now pose to a few of their fellow residents here.

I do not think I will ever get bored of the Stork-billed Kingfisher especially one as confiding as this individual. Just look at that bill...

Unbelievable as it may seem, the kingfisher was outdone by an unlikely species – a Crested Goshawk. In northern Peninsular Malaysia, this stunning raptor does not come by often enough for me and even when it does, it is exceedingly shy. This is the closest I have ever approached a Crested Goshawk and it was a moment worth savouring.

The only drawback was the awful lighting condition and there was not another single angle from which I could truly capture the beauty of the goshawk.

As our group was feeling luckier than usual, we decided to test our fortune at a slightly similar habitat closer to home for an equally rare peeps. The Pulau Burung landfill has been visited by the Pectoral Sandpiper before but luck can only take you so far. It would take nothing short of a miracle to bag these two rarities on the same day. A confiding Little Cormorant was the only consolation from our efforts of scanning the shallow ponds surrounding the landfill.

A tree full of Little Cormorants in the state of Penang is a sight that will still take some getting used to for me. The population has certainly flourished here and gone are the days when any cormorant is a rare occurrence.

Just like the Grey Heron, the Purple Heron still had what it takes to tickle my fancy. I guess being a big and beautiful water bird will make it easier to garner my affections.

It was a picture of serenity with this flock of Lesser Whistling-Ducks resting at the marshlands of this landfill. Their numbers are climbing again at this major stronghold and that is a good sign. The Lesser Whistling-Duck may be dull when compared to other ducks but it is still the only duck that can be regularly encountered in my neck of the woods.

Birds are not the only wildlife thriving in this environment. Reptiles like the Water Monitor Lizard has found sanctuary here as well. Some have grown to impressive lengths like this individual slithering about the river bank. This giant of a lizard wrapped things up for a great day out in the field as a successful twitch is one of the most exhilarating aspects of birding.