Wednesday 13 July 2022

Well, what do you know...


There was a time when Cameron Highlands was a haven for both birds and birders. Fast forward to the present day and you will usually have traffic congestion greeting you upon your arrival, development everywhere and an unbelievable number of people present. In short, they brought city living up to this hill station. This trip was a family vacation more than anything else. For my better half, it was her first outstation trip since the lockdowns. The colours and fragrances of the floral gardens and the rolling hillslopes of the tea estates certainly had her attention. I naturally agreed to everything that was in her itinerary. Getting in her good graces in exchange for some birding time never once crossed my mind.

I managed (or should I say allowed) to sneak out twice during our stay here. The first was an afternoon affair and it was along an isolated road close to our accommodations. Hopping about the undergrowth was a small ball of feathers and I knew exactly it was. The ever-adorable Pygmy Cupwing was the first true montane species I encountered on this trip and I could not have asked for a better start. As usual, the skulking nature of the bird and the cover provided by the dense vegetation tested both my patience and photographic gear.

My lucky break came when the Pygmy Cupwing was done tormenting me and alighted on an exposed perch. In full view, it is undoubtedly a cracking bird. And I thought to myself perhaps there is still some magic left here after all.

The Lesser Shortwing is another skulker of the mountainous regions and its distinctive and melodious call is a common sound in this habitat. To enjoy good views, one usually has to work (or pray) really hard. And for my efforts this time, a view that I really should not complain about but the obstructing vegetation hampered what could have been a decent image of a handsome male bird.

Away from the hustle and bustle of Brinchang town and potentially a good birding area, I was grateful to have found this “local patch” to satisfy my birding addiction. Here the natural habitat remains relatively untouched and the sounds of Mother Nature filled the vicinity instead of human activities. It reminded me of the Cameron Highlands of old and the nostalgia brought back unforgettable memories of a teenage birder experiencing the avian wonders this place had to offer.

I froze when I came across an open space among the forest. There was a slender and black mammal lying on the ground in a distance and it appeared to be feeding. As I lifted my binoculars, I could hardly contain my excitement. However instead of a fearsome Black Panther as I so wishfully hoped for, it was just a domestic dog. Luckily I was alone and my pride, intact.

The Mountain Tailorbird, apparently, is no longer a Tailorbird but it is still a warbler. Whatever it is, this bird is difficult to photograph because it is restless and small. The individual I came across today was rather inquisitive and a little more confiding than usual. And I pulled every trick in the book to try to finally obtain some images of this montane denizen. The images obtained were not exactly award-winning material but it did not matter. This Mountain Tailorbird was the bird of the day for me.

Not only did I managed to photograph the Mountain Tailorbird but the little guy lingered around for quite some time before disappearing back into the forest. Initially, I did not expect much from this short excursion but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Like I always say, expect the unexpected when it comes to birding.

Flowering bushes will often yield the Black-throated Sunbird which is the only sunbird here in Peninsular Malaysia that has adapted to life in the mountains. And the iridescent throat, in certain angles, had yours truly gawking at one of the most easily encountered birds in Cameron Highlands.

A quick glance at my watch and it was time to head back. An early dinner with the family awaits at the famed night market of Cameron Highlands. And keeping your end of the bargain especially after a birding excursion, is one of the keys to a happy marriage. Despite that, a soaring raptor is almost impossible to ignore and this one turned out to be a resident Oriental Honey-Buzzard. To the unwary, it can be dismissed as the commoner Crested Serpent-Eagle because of the similarities in plumage.

The next morning, I was blessed with another hour of birding and I arrived at my local patch at first light. The dawn chorus was absolute music to my ears and one particular call had my immediate attention. It belonged to yet another skulker of the undergrowth and effort was certainly required before I had visual of the Streaked Wren-Babbler. It was still dim and my photographic gear struggled to obtain some digital memories of this encounter.

Determination and luck eventually produced some decent images. It has been ages since I last enjoyed such views of a Streaked Wren-Babbler. Despite the urge to carry on with the excursion I could not bring myself to do it and continued to enjoy the performance.

The tail markings of the White-tailed Robin are prominent even when seen in a gloomy environment. However to appreciate the true splendour of a male bird, he has to be in enough light for his colours to shine. Which he was but only for the briefest moment.

I caught sight of some movement along the edge of the access road and proceed to investigate as discreetly as possible. When I was greeted by a clear white throat, it was none other than a Rufous-browed Flycatcher in search of breakfast. Then it dawned on me. Almost all the photographic opportunities here so far involved species that frequent the lower storey of the forest. And that is often not the case because these birds tend to be more elusive than their arboreal counterparts.

The Silver-eared Mesia to me is the perfect epitome for montane birding. Beautiful and charming, no visit to the mountains is complete without this common but stunning species stimulating your senses with its presence. And the Silver-eared Mesia was a fitting end to my birding quickies at Cameron Highlands. Although birding was not a priority this time, I enjoyed some fascinating moments with the birds that still called this diminishing paradise home.

Tuesday 5 July 2022

Peeping Tom?


Crakes, as we all are well aware, can be darn elusive if they choose to be. Naturally, the birding community in Penang (and beyond) got all worked up with the discovery of a family of Red-legged Crakes that habitually bathe in a forest stream at a locality where this species is known to reside. When I finally managed a few hours of birding time into my schedule, Mother Nature had other plans soon after my arrival at the site. Not only did she conjure up rain clouds and strong winds on initially a beautiful Saturday morning but I also found out that the crake family recently changed their daily indulgence to evenings. The joys of birding have no equals...

The gloomy atmosphere, however, did not stop a pair of Indochinese Blue-Flycatchers from serenading the vicinity with their sweet song and appealing beauty. Here in Penang Island, this species is surprisingly common and you can hear their distinctive call in almost every green area. Having said that, I still do not have that many images of the of the Indochinese Blue-Flycatcher and their presence were very much appreciated. Like the crakes, they have been performing well of late and the male immediately gained my undivided attention.

Photography here is not exactly easy because it is naturally dim. The weather today compounded the difficulty. A handful of my photographs turned out reasonably well and that slightly compensated missing out on the crakes.

His mate although much duller in appearance, performed just as admirably today. I showered her with some deserving affection once the hold he had over me started to wear off.

It was almost impossible to ignore the Oriental Magpie-Robins at this locality. Their amazing vocals and active nature will make sure of that. There are small populations of this highly in demand song bird throughout the island but illegal trapping if left unchecked, will be devastating for the Oriental Magpie-Robin.

As I dragged myself out of the location to conclude this short visit, a male Black-naped Oriole decided to alight on a nearby tree. Although he was not exactly looking his best, he was still a stunner which is typical of the species.

The disappointment with the Red-legged Crake was a bitter pill to swallow and I was back at the locality the next day determined not to let this uncommon resident get the better of me. Needless to say, my visit this time was in the afternoon. An Ashy Drongo attending to an offspring momentarily diverted me from my mission. They were hunting along the access road and I left them to carry on with their lives after the youngster made short work of a butterfly it caught.

Just like yesterday, I waited at the faithful spot and endured the onslaught of the mosquitoes here. Minutes became hours and still no Red-legged Crake. The male Indochinese Blue-Flycatcher was patrolling his territory and provided some exhilaration to the occasion.

Exceptionally confiding, I enjoyed my best experiences with this flycatcher so far in my birding life.

I was about to pack it up when someone spotted the Red-legged Crake made its way down to the stream for its evening dip. It was a Sunday after all and to have a small crowd waiting for a chance to photograph this striking crake was nothing surprising. However, it was a relatively distant observation. Dusk was also approaching and threatened to rob us of our precious lighting. The Red-legged Crake is not new to me but this brief and challenging encounter blessed me with a few images and that, was new.