Friday 22 December 2023

A Manchurian for Christmas


It is common knowledge that our forests are under threat but the devastation does not end there. Wetland habitats suffer a similar fate. In my home state of Penang, I am running out of wetlands to visit. And for someone with a soft spot for water birds, it is utterly depressing. The marshlands at Batu Kawan would have been my saviour if it has not been slated for development in the near future. At the break dawn, my companions and I plodded along the soft laterite access road cutting through a construction site. It may not sound much like a birding trip but that is what one has to endure in order to reach the said wetlands. Sad but true...

I may not speak for everyone but the sight of a congregation of large water birds never ceases to amaze. Flock by flock of water birds arrive at this feeding ground from their roosts in the surrounding vicinity. For the record, this location probably has the highest density of Purple Herons and Grey Herons in Penang and the numbers are incredible. I opted to observe rather than photograph because that is where the true value lies and this image of a lone Grey Heron may not be able to fully convey the moment.

The advancement in digital cameras of late is undeniable but they do not come cheap. So, for the time being I still rely on pressing the shutter and pray for at least one frame to turn out decent. However, there is a limit to how much one can achieve through prayers especially for a flight shot in dim lighting like this taunting Cinnamon Bittern making its way to breakfast.

One has to be observant to pick out the small but adorable Long-toed Stint from all the blobs of mud, debris and vegetation present in the wetlands. The distance may have robbed me of some of the joy but the Long-toed Stints have their way to gain my affections.

A trio of drabber looking stints dashed across our field of view haphazardly and alighted on a distant sandbank. Our initial guess was spot on when they turned out to be Temminck’s Stints in the end. This species is an uncommon winter visitor to our land and more than capable to excite even the most seasoned birder.

My encounter with the rare Common Ringed Plover here last season left much to be desired. Naturally, all Little Ringed Plovers were scrutinized for a possible re-occurrence of the former but I could not attain the closure I seek.

The Black-winged Stilts graced the location in good numbers with their elegant presence. The new generation of birders and bird photographers may not be aware that this bird was once a rarity in Malaysia but I certainly do. Decades may have passed. Exhilaration may have been reduced. One of my all-time favourites, the bird remains.

They are conspicuous not only because of their contrasting colouration but vocal nature as well. More often than not, they drown out most other species that share their watery domain. This temporary sanctuary will host the Black-winged Stilts and the rest for at least one more season. I am no soothsayer but unless a miracle takes place, the demise of this locality is just a matter of time.

It is safe to say it is no longer unusual to record Little Cormorants in the northern half of the peninsular. A big flock resting together after a morning’s hunt is an impressive sight. One that I am still trying to get used to.

Garganeys, on the other hand, are unusual with sporadic winter records throughout the years. And to have four individuals together at a single spot close to home should be my early Christmas judging on how slow things have been for this year.

Apparently, the Lesser Whistling Ducks have had enough of the overwhelming stench and toxic at the marshland next to the Pulau Burung landfill and are now taking refuge here. I wish there was a way I could warn them not to get too comfortable because the good life they are now enjoying is not going to last.

There is a good reason behind the name of the Greater Painted-Snipe. The female bird (yes, female bird) is vibrantly coloured and stunning. There is also a reason why she seldom reveals her true beauty for evolution has made her particularly elusive.

Wetland habitats are not without their dangers. Raptors are always on the lookout for prey and today, a male Eastern Marsh Harrier was on the hunt. Harriers are generally uncommon at this location but this individual seemed to have decided on his wintering ground this season. His malicious presence will not be welcomed by other wildlife but it certainly added value to our excursion.

Executing a mid-flight scratch to get rid of an annoying itch…

The Zebra Dove is about bite-size for the Eastern Marsh Harrier and its tendency to perch in the open can be hazardous to its health.

The Long-tailed Shrike is predatory as well but on a smaller scale. This is one of the few places in Penang where this beautiful species resides and has been recorded regularly.

It is normally a shy bird despite occurring in scrub and open country habitats. Today, a pair was being more confiding than usual perhaps due to the approaching breeding season. Whatever the reason may be, I do not come across the Long-tailed Shrike often enough not be thrilled by their performance.

There was a significant change to the taxonomy of birds recently. More splits and renaming – as usual. Inevitably, I try my best to keep myself updated for Malaysian species. Among the changes, the Intermediate Egret is now called the Medium Egret which I cannot help but to chuckle when I first found out. I do not know how to put it but it just sounds odd. Will the Little Egret and Great Egret be renamed as to go with the flow?  Anyway here is the bird, with no regards that it is now probably the most joked-about bird wherever it occurs, looking all so poised at our second location of the day which is the Permatang Pauh paddy fields.

Searching for a little brown job in dense vegetation is not every one’s cup of tea. I will usually give it a pass but my companions convinced me otherwise. A lot of thought and strategy was put into the approach this time and we managed to persuade two Manchurian Reed-warblers to settle into a small clump of reeds. In fact, the smallest clump in the vicinity and just next to the access road. I could almost taste success when these globally vulnerable migrants put the human observers in their place and reminded them just how difficult reed-warblers can be if they choose to be.

When the vegetation finally gave way to a less obstructed view, it was the lighting’s turn to dampened our photographic efforts. Murphy's Law at work again.

However, birders can be exceedingly stubborn and determine especially with failure looming. An unexpected turn of luck eventually had the Manchurian Reed-warbler alighting on a relatively open perch with decent lighting. If this is not proof of the existence of a higher being, I do not know what is. As we were enjoying our moment of triumph, the reed-loving warblers gradually made their way out of sight but not out of memory. A fitting end to a rewarding outing and I am relieve there is no negative conclusion to this posting for a change. Perhaps, it is the magic of Christmas at work.

Speaking of which, MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone!

Friday 15 December 2023

Northward bound


The alarm went off at four in the morning. I do not recall it being this difficult to drag myself out of bed at this hour. Another sign of old age perhaps. By the time I don my usual drab-coloured birding attire, anticipation took over the reins. The tiny but fascinating state of Perlis awaits and this seduced my senses with the possibilities of encountering some far from common species. Up here at the northern tip of the peninsular, the climate is usually dry with sunny blue skies. And the cloud formations further enhanced the appeal of the scrublands surrounding Timah Tasoh Lake.

The odd vocalization of the Racket-tailed Treepies instantly took my breath away as this species is one of my targets for the trip. However, only glimpses of the bird with its distinct spatula shaped tail were provided today and that was a bitter pill to swallow. The Orange-breasted Pigeons, another speciality here, did not fare any much better. By mid morning, it looked like it was going to be one of those days when your love for birding will truly be tested. And a preening Streak-eared Bulbul in a position that normally will not be given the time of day, inevitably had my undivided attention.

Perched at the top of a tree stump, a Great Myna proclaimed its territory overlooking a cow shed. As the name implies, it is a proud-looking bird with the dark iris and wicked crest. To an undiscerning layman, it probably looks like any other myna. If memory serves me right, the Great Myna has been upgraded to a natural occurring species in Peninsular Malaysia and that only intensified my captivation for the species.

The Perlis State Park was the next destination and for that we cut across the hilly and beautiful countryside of Wang Kelian. Here, we were scrutinizing bulbuls for one particular species. One which we did not even know occurred within our Malaysian borders until a few years back. Identifying the Olive Bulbul is no walk in the park and neither is photographing them judging from my substandard images despite the prolonged encounter.

Due to time constraints, we did not venture into Perlis State Park proper. Instead, we explored the surrounding vicinity. With lady luck still shying away from us, the results were disappointing. A somewhat confiding Yellow-browed Warbler was the only species I have to show in the end. My best photographic effort of this uncommon migrant may not be an envy of others but the amount of effort required to obtain the image made it a keeper.

Although butterflies are not birds’ equal, they do come close. This striking species is certainly new to me. Regardless of its true identity and status, I was drawn to the iridescent splendour it exhibits. My fascination lasted till it floated away with the butterfly deep into the forest of the park.

We made one last stop which was at the vast agricultural lands of Chuping before calling it a day. It is sad to find this once haven for birding in its present condition. My last visit almost a year ago was a successful twitch for a Malaysian lifer. Today, all that greeted us was an out-of-place hotel, Instaworthy fields of Kenaf blooms and a ridiculous container park destined to be another white elephant project. A juvenile Pied Harrier reminded us just how amazing Chuping used to be. I fear the days when harriers and other raptors serenaded this locality in good numbers with their majestic presence are gone. As my fellow humans strike the final nail in the coffin for the demise of yet another birding location, my thoughts drifted back to the remarkable birding experiences I enjoyed here in the distant past.

Friday 1 December 2023

Compromising is the key to all happiness


It has been far too long since I last experienced the birding wonders of Fraser’s Hill. When my better half suggested we should do a short getaway from our hectic working lives and each choose a location, mine was an easy decision. Initially, I had my doubts if it was even possible for a birder like yours truly to have a somewhat normal vacation up this hill resort. However, the years have taught me that a happy marriage is all about compromise and compromise I did. It was only a night’s stay and I booked a cozy (and birdy) little bungalow that will hopefully be able to keep both of us satisfied.

Stephen’sPlace lived up to its reputation from the gracious host to the romantic interiors and the pristine surroundings. Stephen the owner, for some time now, has been running a second place called the MCM Nature Discovery Villa which is more impressive and just a short walk from the first bungalow. It has a mini library and a host of other facilities to keep, you know, ‘normal’ guests occupied during their vacation in Fraser’s Hill. However, I have been exposed to the treasures this rich ecosystem hold. Once you are exposed, you are smitten for life and the only time you can find me indoors during the day and not out birding is when the weather is unforgiving. Except for this occasion.

There is a watch tower at the villa with stunning views of this lush montane forest. But for me, the view was not the only thing that had my attention.

I would have trembled with exhilaration if this was taken at some Godforsaken marsh out there in the wilds but this Mandarin Duck is also part of the attractions here.

And no, I did not leave my wife to fend for herself during our visit. That is not compromising. We explored the rustic charms of Fraser’s Hill and took leisurely walks together. If there is one thing in life that can rival my passion for birds, it would be her. And time spent together is time well spent. It also made it easier to excuse myself for a few hours the next morning to bird.

Now, to the birds. I restricted my birding endeavours to the bungalow compounds and nearby vicinities. And I was fortunate that a fruiting tree next to the compound was in season and it attracted flocks of Little Cuckoo-Doves. For this common montane species, heard only records and birds seen in flight constitute most encounters. However, the availability of food can sometimes sway the will of even the most secretive species.

The Little Cuckoo-Doves took very little effort to conceal their presence and neither did I. I slowly repositioned myself to improve my photographic efforts and the doves continued to tolerate my intrusion. It has been a relatively uneventful birding year for me and naturally this encounter is up there among the best.

Typical of pigeons and doves, they are far from graceful when foraging. Plenty of flapping and lumbering about as these sizeable birds struggle for foot holds in order to reach the succulent fruits.

As far as I can tell, all the images I obtained were of male birds – not that it mattered. The mesmerizing pale blue eyes were bewitching and rekindled my love for this amazing birding locality.

Flowering trees, natural or planted, are heaven-sent for nectar feeders like the Streaked Spiderhunter. And the garden at Stephen’s Place is one of the easiest spots to observe this common but striking species.

The Streaked Spiderhunter was the most photographed species this time. It came as no surprise given the amount of time I spent at the compound. One particular individual was exceptionally confiding and left me breathless on more than one occasion. Most of the time, the status of a bird is irrelevant to me. It is the experience provided that holds the true value.

I usually do not expect remarkable images from my modest setup and moderate photographic skills. But on those rare occasions when my images turn out better than expected, it is simply magical even for a common species.

The Black-throated Sunbirds also patronized the lovely blooms of this garden but on this trip, the males were reluctant to fully reveal their splendour for my viewing pleasure.

Moths and other insects are attracted to the lights of the bungalow at night and a number of fascinating species greeted us on the morning of our stay here. I will not attempt to identify the moths I am sharing in this post as we all know, identification of insects is a whole different ball game. But their appeal certainly did not go unappreciated.

My beloved avian subjects also took a keen interest on the moths but theirs are of a different nature. Large Cuckooshrikes boldly swoop in overhead to carry off larger insects for breakfast. Just like the phenomenon of fruiting trees in season, gluttony is a deadly sin few can resist.

I was a little disappointed with the variety of birds that were recorded at this banquet but the memorable performance by the diminutive Black-thighed Falconet single-handedly kept that feeling in check.

Birds that occur in the mountains tend to be more obliging than their lowland counterparts. Add a seemingly endless supply of food into the mix and you will find yourself enjoying rather intimate observations that would otherwise not be easily obtainable.

Unlike the Little Cuckoo-doves, the Black-thighed Falconet forages or more accurately, hunts with deadly precision. I must admit the hunts are nothing as spectacular as the larger falcons’ but they are still quite a sight.

Although it is a known birding hotspot, one is not guaranteed a rewarding excursion every single time. Nothing in birding ever is. A flock of Hume’s White-eyes with their cheerful calls and active nature is rather difficult to be overlooked during my brief birding endeavours beyond the bungalow grounds. The conditions under the lush forest canopy made photography challenging and a stroke of good fortune produced this decent capture of a resting individual.

Persistent vocalization gave away the presence of Buff-breasted Babblers skulking away in the undergrowth. Patience and determination provided brief glimpses into their secretive world. Mist and poor lighting may appeal to some as it provides the mountainside feel. However, I greeted them with profanities because they hindered my efforts to capture the babblers significantly.

It is always a treat to be serenaded by the sweet repertoires of the Oriental Magpie-Robin. However, I did not put in much effort to photograph this songster as I was constantly distracted by other species present. This is, after all, a birding site rivalled by few in Peninsular Malaysia.

A migratory Grey Wagtail foraging along the edge of a manmade pond briefly held my attention. But the distance and restless nature of this individual were unlikely to improve the encounter if I had decided not to withdraw my efforts.

And to wrap things up for this revisit to a beloved birding ground is this image of a Tiger Shrike with its most vital parts concealed by the vegetation. No one ever said birding or bird photography is always easy. But I guess that is beauty of the birding as it keeps you coming back for more.