Thursday 25 August 2022

Foreseeing a lifer?


The general plan was to check out whatever remains of the peat swamp forest at Pondok Tanjung in northern Perak state. This locality used to be one my favourite forest sites but that was a long time ago before all the deforestation and road works crept in. I often tell myself there is no point holding on to the past because most of the time, what has been done towards Mother Nature cannot be undone in this lifetime nor the next. So instead of exploring this wilderness through a network of idyllic forest trails, it is now reduced to walking along the busy access road next to the forest.

There is another reason that could well be the true objective of the visit. Hor Kee recently recorded some different sounding Cream-vented Bulbuls with pale orangey irises at this location and we hope to further document these bulbuls. The Cream-eyed Bulbul is a species new to science that was discovered in Borneo a few years back. And Hor Kee, hoping to repeat the success he had with the Olive Bulbul (which was a new country record) by accumulating enough supporting evidence to show that the Cream-eyed Bulbul may not only be restricted to Borneo. A careful sweep of the area where the bulbuls were last recorded eventually produced the results we seek.

We also found a pair that was attending to a juvenile indicating that for now, these bulbuls still find sanctuary in the peat swamp forest of Pondok Tanjung.

I have recorded Cream-vented Bulbuls with darker iris before and going through my images, I found a few that I have taken at Sungai Sedim in the state of Kedah back in 2015 and 2010 respectively.

When it comes to birding, I like to keep things simple and trying to separate two almost identical brown bulbuls is anything but simple. Just to be clear, there is nothing conclusive in this post. These “Cream-vented” Bulbuls do call differently and have subtle physical differences from the typical. And for the time being, I will leave it at that.

A lone Buff-vented Bulbul momentarily distracted me from our objective a one point. It is undeniable all these brownish bulbuls look quite similar at a glance. Upon further scrutiny one can usually determine their identifications unlike some other family of birds like for example the dreaded leaf-warblers.

Once we were done with the bulbuls, we started to pay attention to the other species that were obviously present. In fact, we found ourselves surrounded by an array of bird calls since dawn and one family of birds stood out from the rest – the babblers. As we are all well aware, babblers usually offer nothing more than glimpses as they move about in the cover of the forest. Sometimes, we can be fortunate enough to experience a little more than that and a pair of Fluffy-backed Tit-Babblers mesmerized us with their charisma on this occasion. This species is known to be confiding at times and this is certainly one of those times.

The forest undergrowth may save you the agony of straining your neck looking upwards but your patience will be tested as you wait for photographic opportunities that may never come. I was almost outdone by this sneaky little Fluffy-backed Tit-Babbler but a gap among the vegetation caught the babbler off-guard and frustration instantly became exhilaration for me. Gotcha!

The haunting territorial call of the Sooty-capped Babbler has always been a prominent feature here. I do not get to see this skulker as often as I would like and on this beautiful Saturday morning, the prolonged visual encounter obtained was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.

The Sooty-capped Babbler is not that striking a bird but the obliging nature of this individual overwhelmed my senses. I frequently lament about the frustrations of forest birding but when everything comes together perfectly, it is utter bliss. And all those hours spent wandering aimlessly will make sense to you again.

Often obscured from view by the dense foliage of the canopy, the Green Iora is one of the many denizens that call the forest home. The soft but persistent song is usually the only indication of its presence and once learnt, you will find that the Green Iora is not that uncommon at all. The male is exceptionally striking and our good fortune today continued with cracking views of an individual that wandered much lower down than usual. The late morning sun was unforgivingly harsh but there was no undermining the beauty of this species especially from such a close proximity.

Unlike the Iora, the Rufous-tailed Tailorbirds were shy and uncooperative today. It is another attractive resident of this locality but prefers the lower levels of the forest rather than the canopy. A brief view enabled me to squeeze the shutter a few times but the distance and lighting conditions were just a little too much for my photographic gear.

As we were making our way out, a troop of Pig-tailed Macaques loitering about the roadside halted our journey. The monkeys here are accustomed to human handouts and have grown exceedingly bold as a result. The alpha male is seriously intimidating and this brute of an animal provided the perfect ending for our visit here.

Before calling it a day, we made one last stop at the ponds next to the landfill of Pulau Burung. As expected only the resident species and overwhelming stench were present. But one species of water fowl in particular had our full attention. It has been quite a while since I last recorded such a big number of Lesser Whistling-Ducks. This location is a known stronghold for them and all two hundred strong were relatively unperturbed by the sudden presence of two human observers.

Hindered by the glaring midday lighting, the confiding nature of some of ducks enjoying their siesta could not produce the type of images I was hoping for. Regardless, I am still delighted to be greeted by this small spectacle at a locality that has also lost much of its lustre in recent years.

Thursday 18 August 2022

Call of the wild


EarthLodge is one of the most remote birding spots in Peninsular Malaysia. It is located along the Muda River deep in the wild interiors of Kedah state and certainly a haven for both wildlife and wildlife enthusiasts. It was a “working” holiday for me because I have been commissioned by the founder of the establishment, Hymeir, to guide a French couple. Although being a bird guide never feels like work to me. The only access is by boat; electricity is by a generator that runs for the first half of the night and there is not much use of your smart phones here except for capturing memories of the trip. That is all part of the charms of Earth Lodge. As we disembarked onto the muddy banks upon arrival, the sounds of the forest greeted us to our home for the next few days.

The accommodations are reasonably comfortable and I have no complains about the food provided either. My priorities have always simple and the deciding factor for every location I that visit lies in how good is the birding.

We had excursions by boat along the Muda River on a daily basis because that is the only way to obtain a few of the main targets that included the mighty Asian Elephant and during this time of the year, the migratory Plain-pouched Hornbills.

The tusker is the mascot of Earth Lodge and since we are dealing with wildlife here, nothing is guaranteed. And unfortunately, the closest we came to these giants of the forest were their tracks and dung.

Thankfully, we did not miss out on the Plain-pouched Hornbills. Although not really in the numbers we were hoping for but a traveling flock set against the lush landscape of the locality is quite breath-taking.

We recorded every species of hornbills that occur in Malaysia during our stay here except for the Bushy-crested Hornbill. Being the commonest species, it came as no surprise that the Oriental Pied-Hornbill was the only other hornbill that I managed to capture. Bird photography in Ulu Muda (the general area where Earth Lodge is located) is challenging. The dense vegetation, the skittish nature of most of the birds, the taxing humidity and in certain ways the distraction of the leeches are just some of the contributing factors.

In fact, the river cruises provided the best photographic opportunities of the trip despite the constant swaying of the small boats that were used. The Lesser Fish-Eagle is the most prominent raptor along the slow-flowing waters of the Muda River and was recorded during every cruise. Its preference for exposed perches overlooking the river eased efforts in locating this beautiful raptor.

Occasionally, we will come across individuals that are more confiding than usual and that is when the wilds of Ulu Muda truly come to life and flaunted their full glory.

Flocks of Brown-backed Needletails will normally patrol above the river in the evenings and they were a sight to behold. It is such a thrill to watch these huge swifts slice across the sky with such ease and velocity. With audible wingbeats for added dramatic effects, even the non-birders in our midst are left astound. My feeble photographic attempts to capture one of the fastest birds in the world inevitably left much to be desired.

The discovery of a pair of roosting Dusky Eagle-Owls was not only the highlight of the trip but one of the most significant chapters of my birding life. One of the birds was more exposed than the other and it naturally had our undivided attention. Our boatmen skillfully rowed us close to the flooded trees and the blazing yellow iris of this nocturnal predator had everyone spellbound. The Dusky Eagle-Owl is not new to me but this encounter, rocked my world...

When the owl took flight, I initially thought the show was over. However, the best was yet to come. It alighted on an exposed perch nearby and proceeded to sunbathe. And now we had one of the rarest and largest species of owls here in Malaysia right out in the open in broad daytime and appeared to be unperturbed by our intrusion into its domain. It was almost too good to be true.

Throughout my time at Earth Lodge, we recorded another three species of owls and frogmouths. Seven nocturnal birds in a single trip is something I rarely have the privilege to enjoy. However, none of the others came close to the episode with the Dusky Eagle-Owl as they were only heard. The tiny Reddish Scops-Owl called practically every night behind our lodges and my failure to locate the bird was a bitter pill to swallow. Anyway, no one said owling is ever easy. Unless the owl unexpectedly gives you a once in a lifetime experience like this obliging Dusky Eagle-Owl.

The evening cruises usually conclude after sunset. And twilight in the wilderness of Ulu Muda is mesmerizing and therapeutic. I can think of no better way to unwind after a long day of birding than to sit back in our little boats and soak in the ambience. We often seek solitude to escape the hectic modern-day world and here in the embrace of Mother Nature, I have found mine.

Birding along the forest trails here can be tough and frustrating typical of most lowland forests in Peninsular Malaysia. Ulu Muda is home to a huge variety of intriguing species including pittas, trogons, broadbills, woodpeckers and many others. Like their nocturnal counterparts, these birds were more often heard than seen but we faired relatively well. At the time of writing, the White-crowned Forktail was the latest addition (no. 330 to be exact) to the checklist of Earth Lodge but this striking stream dweller managed to evade my photographic efforts.

When it comes to photography, priority is always given to my guests. That and the challenging conditions here makes this image of a female Green Broadbill taken along the forest trails the only one worth sharing.

The compound of Earth Lodge is a treasure trove of birds. My French guests and I spent a considerable amount of time just observing the birds passing through or foraging in the vicinity. Since it is slightly more open, I had better luck with my photographic efforts. There are a number of birds that are regularly recorded here and the persistent vocalization of the Rufous-tailed Tailorbird is a common sound of the lodge. A little effort is usually required to see this little denizen and judging from this image, obtaining good photographs will require a whole lot more.

Surprisingly, bulbuls are not as common as I would have expected. Lone birds are occasionally recorded like this Red-eyed Bulbul resting in the canopy level.

The handsome male Blue-winged Leafbird will serenade the vicinity with his radiance and vocal abilities whenever he makes an appearance. He was also one of the few birds I encountered that was confiding enough for a close approach.

A stream flows along one side of the lodge forming a natural border. This riverine habitat shelters the alluring Black-and-red Broadbill but it seldom reveals its name’s sake. I had to wait until my last morning at Earth Lodge to obtain a decent image of it.

Birdwaves sometimes sweep through just above the rooftops of the lodges. This natural phenomenon is like no other but the frantic pace of most of the participants is beyond my photographic abilities. During one such wave, a young male Rufous-winged Philentoma must had struggled to keep up with the rest and took a breather on an exposed perch along the lower storey of the forest.

As expected, the presence of other wildlife helped complete the experience at Earth Lodge. While owling around the lodge, we could not help noticing the presence of bats as they made their way to and from their roosts which are under the roofs. Eventually, we found a small group roosting in the daytime and they turned out to be Forest Short-nosed Fruit Bats. In case you are wondering, identification of this flying mammal was confirmed by my guest who unlike yours truly has a much broader range of interest when it comes to wildlife. For him, there is certainly more to life than just birds.

Affectionately named Emma by Hymeir after the Latin name of the animal, the Forest Crested Lizard can be exceptionally confiding and we encountered it on several occasions. It tends to remain motionless for long periods of time and that made it an excellent subject for photography. It did abandon its preference for tree trunks at one time and the image turned out to be my favourite of this beautiful lizard.

A skink crawling about the dining-cum-assembly area had everyone’s attention during one of the days. It was unfamiliar to me as well and I joined in excitement. The cracks of a tree log provided just enough cover for this delicate lizard to briefly remain still for its image to be taken. The Yellow Striped Tree Skink is not only stunning but apparently, it is also relatively scarce.

There is nothing delicate about the Large Forest Gecko. As the name implies, it is a true behemoth as far as geckos go. We came across not one but two of these impressive lizards hunting on the outer wall of the lodges at night no doubt attracted by the insects drawn to the lights. A katydid would make a tasty snack for the gecko as this unwary individual is about to find out.

Insects, to me, are of another world altogether and there is no shame in admitting it. Identification can be a real nightmare even for some spectacular specimens like this caterpillar going about its daily routine next to the walkway of the lodge.

As a closing to a remarkable five days at Earth Lodge, here are snapshots of some plants (yes, you read it right) that somehow managed to momentarily divert my attention from the birds. A total of 122 species of birds were recorded from which almost half are heard only. So, it was not exactly a walk in the park. It took determination, patience and luck to glimpse into the secretive world of some of these species. Nevertheless it is one of the most exhilarating and memorable birding adventures I have had in a long time. Our daily checklists are in the links below and they will give you an idea of what can be expected. However, what the checklists cannot give is the magical essence of Earth Lodge. For that, you have to visit this amazing place and experience it for yourself.

Checklist of birds day #1

Checklist of birds day #2

Checklist of birds day #3

Checklist of birds day #4

Checklist of birds day #5