Wednesday 24 November 2021

Jewels of the marshlands


In a time when checklists are being reduced, the Bronze-winged Jacana added itself to Penang’s when it started breeding in the marshlands of Batu Kawan earlier this year. For now, this locality is a wildlife haven especially for water birds. Earmarked for development, there is no is telling when this site will join the rest of the birding hotspots that has diminished in my lifetime. The COVID-19 restrictions for the past six months prevented me from giving these new residents the welcome they truly deserve. Finding myself with some time to kill last Saturday morning, I set out on this long overdue quest.

I was surprised to find a number of Grey-backed Swamphens foraging out in the open. Although I drove as slowly as I could, my approach made them retreat back to the edge of the reed beds. Luckily, they were still in close proximity and their stunning appearance momentarily distracted me from my search for the distinguished lily trotters.

I made myself comfortable in my stationary vehicle and observe these sizeable birds go about their routine. I cannot recall the Grey-headed Swamphen to be so confiding. But then human presence is undeniable here. May it be construction workers, anglers or birders. I guess the birds have grown accustomed to all the commotion. Anyway they are undeniably beautiful and as the morning sun gradually rose above the horizon, the colours of the Grey-headed Swamphen start radiate with utter brilliance.

A pair of White-breasted Waterhen were sneaking about quietly near the vicinity of my car hoping not to get detected. But it will be difficult to overlook the contrasting plumage coloration of this common rail even with the distracting Grey-headed Swamphens in the near distance.

When I regained my composure, emotion of another nature began to set in. Anxiety has now pushed aside my feelings of exhilaration because there was no sign of the Bronze-winged Jacanas. It was then that I noticed another stationary vehicle close by. I casually drove over as I could tell it belonged to another birder and was immediately pointed to a foraging Bronze-winged Jacana. And the rest, as they say, is history...

The jacanas tend to move about the locality and I think there are two adults present as they were seen together at one time. They seemed to be constantly foraging as well. Photography was a little more challenging than I had anticipated. Images with motion blur or subject’s head stuck between the marsh vegetation are not exactly appealing images. But the lighting was beautiful today and this photographic woe is thankfully not something a little perseverance cannot overcome.  

The first time I saw the Bronze-winged Jacanas on Malaysian soil was along the banks of Timah Tasoh Lake in Perlis. Back then, they were miles away. In the more recent past, small numbers of this scarce resident were discovered at Chuping which is also located in this tiny state. Though the observation distance was a major improvement, much was still left to be desired. And now, here in one of my local patches, I am ogling at Bronze-winged Jacanas in all their splendour at close range. Surreal is definitely the word that comes to mind. Birders usually associate radiance and beauty with forest birds. If you have ever seen the Bronze-winged Jacana in good light, you know that it is far from the truth. Come to think of it, a few of the residents of this vast marshland are indeed no less spectacular than their forest counterparts.

However when it comes to vocal abilities, the marshland denizens are no match for the songsters of the forest. Despite all its aesthetic appeal, the call of the Bronze-winged Jacana is nothing more than nasal notes.

Bright sunlight will supposedly bring out the best of the plumage colouration and it does, to a certain degree. But for me, the Bronze-winged Jacanas are dazzling birds regardless of what lighting condition they may be dancing under.

In the duration of my visit to the Batu Kawan marshlands, a rather determined female Yellow Bittern hunted for breakfast and did not budge from one particular spot. I could not be sure if she has been very successful there or the opposite. 

It has been a long time since I last enjoyed a memorable encounter with a Common Greenshank. One was wading along a shallow canal and provided a commendable performance. Although it is a stark contrast from the colourful Bronze-winged Jacana, this common but elegant wader provided one of the main highlights of the trip.

I cannot blame the Common Greenshank for a being a bit narcissistic as it admired the reflection of its own sleek form.

Unlike the Common Greenshank, the Wood Sandpiper is a pure freshwater species. You are unlikely to find one plodding along a coastal mudflat somewhere but you can definitely find one in a marsh like this.

Although water birds held the limelight for this trip, a few other species of birds did manage to momentarily have my attention. The Blue-tailed Bee-eater is always a treat to come across in the field. The striking colouration and graceful sallies are near impossible to ignore.

I almost tripped over this overly confiding Zebra Dove that was resting along the pavement next to the vast reed beds. There may be a little exaggeration in my statement but this adorable little bird was barely an arm’s length away and showed very little intention of taking flight from my approach.

For my next destination, I decided to swing by the paddy fields of Permatang Pauh and what greeted upon arrival took my breath away. Surprisingly, it was not an extraordinary bird. It was not even an animal. But a surprisingly beautiful scenery.

Unfortunately, the birding could not provide the same sense of astonishment. It was not to say a poor excursion but I was hoping to catch up with something uncommon rather than just the regular species. Large birds are usually the first ones to be sighted for obvious reasons. And the Asian Openbill is a big and common bird.

Flocks of these peculiar storks was encountered throughout the paddy fields and the confiding ones reminded me just how much I miss birding during the government’s partial lockdown to curb the pandemic.

The angelic egrets are a regular feature here and like the storks, they are rather conspicuous in this open landscape. The Cattle Egret is the smallest but commonest one of them all.

On the other hand, the Intermediate Egret will usually occur in smaller numbers. Furthermore, it is often mistaken for the commoner Great Egret as both species bear some resemblance to each other.

And talk about the Great Egret, here is one providing a ‘reflections of wings and inspiration’ moment as the stately water fowl stalks a flooded patch for prey.

As I wandered further into the paddy fields, I came across even more impressive and large water birds. This Purple Heron looked uncomfortably out of place standing in the middle of this recently planted field.

The Grey Heron is not quite a regular occurrence here and the big fellow’s presence did not go unappreciated despite the harsh lighting.

Although not quite in the same league, Pond-Herons have their own appeal nevertheless. However, one has to wait for the right time of the year when these migrants don their respective breeding plumages to appreciate their true beauty and ascertain their identity.

Flocks of migratory Black-winged Stilts were also back here as expected for the winter. They are not large birds but their sheer numbers, vocal nature and distinctive appearance make them rather conspicuous. Set against the natural backdrop of paddy fields, it is always a delight to observe these graceful waders.

A Stilt with blackish nape is a just cause for getting excited. Pied Stilts, after all, have made their way into the Peninsular Malaysian checklist. But this individual is not going to increase my dormant life list.

Where there are Black-winged Stilts there will usually be Grey-headed Lapwings and they took no effort to hide their disapproval of my intrusion. A lone individual was a little more tolerable and for that I am most grateful.

A careful scan along the muddy stretches did not yield much except for this Little Ringed Plover in non-breeding plumage.

There was one particular patch that was bustling with bird activities and naturally, I decided to have a better look. It turned out to be a flock of Eurasian Tree Sparrows having a feast at the expense of the farmers. Recently germinated paddy seeds were easy pickings and as these raiders continued with their onslaught, the heat of midday started to take its toll on me. I am not sure if the days are getting warmer or my heat tolerance level has dropped due to spending too much time indoors of late. As I made way home, my thoughts inevitably wandered back to the mesmerizing encounter with the Bronze-winged Jacanas and their shimmering plumage.