Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Feathered Gargoyle

Predawn birding can be exhilarating. It brings out the primeval instincts in you. Hunting in the dark and overworking all your senses in order to cope with the challenging conditions.  But it can also be boring with nothing but the sound of crickets to keep you company. The forest of Pedu is one of the few localities here in northern Peninsular Malaysia that has a proven record for owling and there is where I made way to for my latest nocturnal excursion with two other companions – Hor Kee and James. The last time I visited this locality at this ungodly hour was 2 years ago. Our efforts to locate the Large Frogmouth proved futile again whereas its smaller cousin the Blyth’s Frogmouth, rose up to the occasion just like that faithful trip back then. A pair filled the vicinity with their eerie calls and naturally, they got our undivided attention. When I think back to my Boy Scout days of all those campfire stories about encounters with supernatural beings sitting on trees in the forest, I guess these nocturnal birds are one of the reasons behind them. The call which I described to be not unlike the wailings of a banshee in my earlier post and the sinister look can certainly scare any non-birder senseless. Although it is not easy to actually see these feathered gargoyles in the wild, just imagine a non-birder coming face to face with this in the forest at night...

But for this trio of birders from Penang, it was a sight that they were hoping for. This female Blyth’s Frogmouth was perched on a low branch at the edge of the forest while her mate remained hidden close by. As we slowly edged closer, she remained unperturbed. I do not have many encounters with frogmouths. Perhaps it is because I do not go out owling as often as I should. But this confiding female provided one of the best owling encounters for me. She may look terrifying to some but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To me and I reckon most birders, she is absolutely beautiful.

A few more images from this fantastic encounter before I carry on with the rest of the trip...

It was a bright and sunny morning. The landscape of lush greenery set against the beautiful blue sky was a breath taking sight. The birds were certainly out and about but most did not provide good photographic opportunities.

Among the forest canopy, I caught sight of a pair of Lesser Cuckoo-shrikes. This species is not a common bird as I do not come across it very often in the field and I took my time to relish this encounter.

Deep inside I wished for the pair to come closer in which they did eventually. But only to fly overhead...

The diagnostic call of the Black-capped Babbler can be heard on every visit here but to obtain good views is another matter all together. However, today the call sounded really close and it was next to a forest trail. We set up our hides and hoped for the best. Moments later, it strolled into view. Apart from the Malaysian Rail-Babbler, this species is the only other passerine in Malaysia that walks and that makes it special in my book.

Anyway, I was only allowed one single shot before it disappeared back into the forest which it calls home. And we were left watching the sun trying its best to penetrate through the dense foliage of this tropical rain forest for the rest of our time in the hide.

Our next destination of the day was the mangroves of Sungai Batu to spend some time with the star bird of this locality – the irresistible Mangrove Pitta. As usual, it took a little while to gain the trust of this beautiful swamp dweller. Our patience were duly rewarded with another starling performance...

The supporting cast did their part to further enrich our visit here with the resident pair of Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers leading the way. Today, both sexes were very obliging. The female with her whitish eyes lores mesmerized us with her sultry beauty.

The male with his intensified plumage colouration charmed us with his rugged looks.

To wrap things up for this rewarding but taxing trip (I guess age is catching up with me), was a confiding Abbott’s Babbler. It may lack the colours of the flycatcher and all babblers have a certain charm to them and this common species is no different.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

A tale of two pittas

One of the worst things you can wake up to on a birding day is the sound of thunder and rain. Any prior plan I had for an excursion to a remoter birding site was drowned out by this torrential downpour. It was also impossible to go to back sleep now. The body, mind and soul was in birding mode. Nothing much left to do but to sulk in silent with a cuppa in hand and hope for the Almighty to be merciful. Two hours later, the slightest rays of the morning sun were finally able to pierce through the gloom. That was all I needed. A slight delay but I could still salvage what is left of the day. The weather was not promising when I arrive at the extensive and pristine mangrove belt in central Kedah. However, the territorial calls of the Mangrove Pittas deep inside their swampy domain immediately had a bewitching effect on me and I trod onto the soft muddy terrain without the slightest hesitance.

This is not the first I got down and dirty for this elusive but alluring species. I remember going off the beaten track back during my teenage years to observe two Mangrove Pittas having a territorial dispute among the lush vegetation of the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam disregarding the fact I was almost shin-high in mud and water. It was one of the most exhilarating moments in my birding life. Back to the present, the rain clouds may have now engulfed the sky again but it was no longer relevant. Among the vegetation in middle level of the forest, I could just make out the shape of the Mangrove Pitta. The sight of a pitta, even when almost completely obstructed, is a sight to behold.

With a little effort and patience I soon found myself ogling at an adult Mangrove Pitta foraging and resting in full view. The predawn rain has made the conditions here rather uneasy for me to settle down comfortably but it did not stop me from enjoying another memorable performance.

Just like my last visit, it was confiding and friendly. I lost myself in the encounter. My muddied clothes and equipment did not matter. Loads of impossible work-related deadlines to meet in the weeks to come did not matter. All that mattered was having this close and intimate encounter with a feathered jewel of the coastal swamp lands.

Normal folks usually assume I have to be patient to be a birder. Well, they are not completely wrong. Patience does play a role. However, I prefer to hunt for my ‘quarry’ rather than the sit-and-wait approach. In order to be mobile I rarely use a tripod for bird photography and on a few rare occasions, has deprived me of certain pleasures during birding. Without the aid of a tripod, shooting a video is usually a lost cause. Not trying at all, especially when your confiding subject happens to be a pitta, would be a sin. This clip turned out better the rest but do excuse the camera shake. The weight of my gear and the adrenaline flow was just too much.

Very few things could have distracted me from the Mangrove Pitta but an unfamiliar call that sounded very much like the rare and elusive Racket-tailed Treepie most certainly could. I turned around with just enough time to get my bins on a flock of 3 birds flying across the mangrove and into a scrubland habitat next to a Malay village. This species is restricted here in Malaysia to suitable habitats in the north-western parts of the peninsular. This was my third ever record and I am still waiting for the day to come when the encounter would last at least a minute. With the spell of the pitta over me broken, I began to take notice of the other birds present. Nothing unexpected was recorded during this time’s visit and the resident Abbott’s Babblers were showy indeed. They were a little sluggish today probably due to the weather and that worked to my advantage. My gear would not have been able to cope with any fast movements – especially in this kind of lighting.

The Mangrove Blue-Flycatchers are relatively prominent in this locality as well. A pair came to welcome me just like last week. But this time, it was the male bird that overshadowed the female with his memorable performance.

The Oriental Magpie-Robin, despite being heavily trapped for the bird trade, is still common in suitable habitats throughout the country. A coastal swamp forest nearby human settlements like this is ideal for this famed songster and like all divas, this female was quite adamant to have her photo taken.

From one swamp forest to another, my next destination was none other than Air Hitam Dalam. Afternoons are usually quiet times in any forest and it is no different here. The swarming of winged termites will usually bring the birds in and it did. But just not up to expectations. A hundred strong Germain’s Swiftlets having a mid-air feeding frenzy can only hold your attention for so long. A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, on the other hand, provided some opportunities to capture its images.

One thing did surprise me at the feeding frenzy and it was the presence of a Crested Serpent-Eagle. It could have been a coincidence or the presence of so many birds has caught its attention. I am quite sure it is not the minute termites. This is a big raptor and it will take a whole lot of termites to satisfy its appetite.

The Collared Kingfisher is the commonest kingfisher in this neck of the woods and only on a slow day would I be able to shower it with some attention. Today is one of those days. A lone bird resting on an exposed perch in relatively good light caught my attention as I was birding along the riverside trail. Somewhat lacking in colours but not in character, it kept me occupied for quite a period of time.

I noticed the Blue-winged Pittas flying about upon my arrival here and I thought to myself it would be fantastic if I could photograph two species of pittas on a single day. To see one species is already a blessing. To see and shoot two species here around Penang will certainly give me something to brag about. Initially, I failed to locate the pitta but sometimes in life, you just got to have a little faith. As I was about to call it a day, the Blue-winged Pitta suddenly alighted close to where I was seated packing up my gear. It was unexpected as the pitta kept itself well hidden from me thus far in my visit. Anyway, I sprang into action immediately and managed to capture its images. Bragging rights obtained...

Initially, I was a little disappointed not to be able to photograph the pitta on a natural perch but then I thought the pitta chose to alight here on its own free will. And if it is good enough for the bird, it is most certainly good enough for this birder. This encounter with the Blue-winged Pitta and the earlier one with the Mangrove Pitta reinforces the grip birds have on my life. To blog about your every birding excursion is no easy task no matter how passionate one may be about the subject. I do sometimes struggle especially when the excursion was a mediocre affair. However if the excursion had been exceptionally good like let us say two pitta species in a single day, the words come easily and I can even wrap up an entire post at one go.

So, here are the star birds of the day side by side showing the subtle differences between the two species. These two may be the commoner of the pittas found here in Peninsular Malaysia but they are still just as intriguing. And this time, they turned what was heading to be a disastrous day of birding into one that will be cherished for a long time to come.  

Here are the checklists for the birds recorded during this trip.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Nothing like a new spot...

I was again drawn to the wilds of Pedu Lake in Kedah state. A locality that has so much potential but unfortunately, does not deliver consistently. By right, at this time of the year the forest should be alive with bird activities but my last visit and Dave’s were proving otherwise. Anyway, my guest and I embarked on the slightly more than 2-hour journey from Penang well before dawn and was greeted by the usual misty conditions of the rural roads. It is forest birding after all and one can never truly predict the outcome of any trip. My wishful thinking for a better excursion did not materialize and we spent most of our time trawling the lush landscape for any sign of (bird) life. Just as we were about to give up hope, the penetrating whistle of a Dark-throated Oriole caught our immediate attention. It sounded really close and we had the bird in sight shortly after. A male Dark-throated Oriole is a striking bird and a confiding one like this individual, can turn any frustratingly slow day around.

I could not recall any Dark-throated Orioles that I have encountered before being so tame and friendly. I took a good look around just to make sure nothing was amiss – almost too good to be true. I guess he was just comfortable in our presence today. He sang, rested, preened and even hunted during the encounter. This species is not rare but most of my encounters were mostly brief or distant observations. The lighting at the time was less than desirable and this handsome fellow had a tendency to perch where the strong backlight causes the most negative impacts on our efforts to obtain his images.

He did briefly alighted in a better lighted area occasionally and we made the best out of them in terms of photography. The Dark-throated Oriole, like so many of our beautiful forest birds, do not usually provide such prolonged tantalizing views. When it does happen, it actually justifies why birders are willing to put themselves through harsh conditions when birding in the forest knowing fully well that it could amount to nothing in the end. Luckily, our trip to Pedu did not end up in vain.

When the silence (and the heat) finally got unbearable, we decided it was time to seek out greener pastures. It has come to my attention that the mangrove belt at Sungai Merbok here in Kedah is becoming the latest birding hotspot up north. It is always exciting to bird in a new place. I am not sure what to fully expect and the gripping anxiety of the unknown is giving the birding excursion today a much-needed boost. There is one particular species that has been performing well at this locality and it is the Mangrove Pitta. My last encounter with the species was also in this mangrove belt a few years back and a pitta, regardless of species or status, will always do it for me. It did not take long for the star bird to giveaway its presence. Its call which is almost similar to that of the commoner Blue-winged Pitta could be heard within the mangroves. With a little effort and luck, we were enjoying a splendid adult Mangrove Pitta in all its glory.

Having this close and intimate encounter brought back memories of the Mangrove Pittas that used to occur at my local patch – the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam in mainland Penang. The pitta provided a flawless performance. All my senses were on overdrive. This little 8-inch bird was pushing all the right buttons and brought me to my knees literally for some eye level shots. There was no doubt. I was savouring every minute.

When I could finally pull my attention away from the pitta, I began to take notice of the other species present at the locality. The Abbott’s Babbler is one babbler that regularly occurs in a habitat of this nature. It is a drably coloured bird but it does have a certain charm that will have my attention most of the time.

The last bird of the day is another species bearing the word Mangrove in its name – the Mangrove Blue-Flycatcher. Like all other birders and bird photographers here up north, we tend to take this species for granted due to its high number and obliging nature at, again, Air Hitam Dalam. For me, it is always nice to encounter this beautiful flycatcher outside that particular birding spot. One pair was recorded during my visit to this new birding location and were accommodating enough to have their images taken. This mangrove belt is under-observed as with most of the other birding sites found here in this state. However judging from today’s experience, this locality can expect a certain birder from Penang to be back more often in the days to come.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Take the good with the bad

The drive to the pristine forest surrounding Pedu Lake in Kedah takes more than two hours from my home state of Penang. If it is foggy along the way, you can expect a delay. And it was certainly foggy today. My companion this time, Choo Eng, had his driving skills tested and we reached our destination slightly later than usual but in one piece. Once there, all the fog has evaporated and was replaced by a bright sunny day. A swarm of winged termites will usually attract a horde of insectivorous birds but unfortunately, not today. Quite a number of birds did pass through the area but most were simply too high above to warrant any photographic attempts. A pair of Buff-rumped Woodpeckers finally gave me a reason to lift up my camera as they wandered slightly lower than the rest. This small woodpecker is strikingly plumaged but the plumage also acts an effective camouflage. From this angle, where the bird is most vulnerable to predators, the little drummer almost blends into its surroundings completely.

The unmistakeable call of the Scarlet-rumped Trogon momentarily diverted our gaze from the tall trees and towards the middle storey of the forest. We managed to trace the call back to its source and it was a handsome male. Resting on an exposed perch and showing off his namesake, this turned out to be the best photo of the trip.

The Oriental Pied Hornbill can be quite confiding in certain areas of its distribution in Malaysia. The population in this Pedu Lake area does not fall into that category. Good views are surprisingly hard to obtain despite audio contacts on every visit. I guess I can consider myself lucky to see this male bird perched on the topmost part of the canopy. This species lacks the majesty of its bigger relatives but it is a hornbill nevertheless. And there was no shortage of respect and admiration from me during the encounter.

The Sooty Barbet is peculiar among barbets for not having a single speck of green on its plumage and instead of calling like a barbet, it sounds more like a mouse. And to top it all off it is no where as sluggish as any barbet and moves about actively in a flock. The Sooty Barbet definitely does not give in to conformity. A flock was having a little midmorning siesta on a huge dead tree when I chance upon them. Knowing fully well that the distance was too great for me to be a threat, they totally disregarded my presence and my frantic movements to try and make the best out of the situation.

That pretty much sums up today’s trip. The birds were certainly up and about – with emphasis on up. They were way too high up in the canopy for me to make anything out of most of the encounters. I have been wanting to obtain a decent photograph of the Banded Broadbill for as long as I can remember. I came across a male bird today and he was quite obliging. I only had one little issue – I have yet to master the skill levitation and this the best that I could muster.

At the end of the access road we frequent lies the now abandoned Mutiara Pedu Lake and Golf Resort. Today, the vicinity provided a daytime sighting of an owl. Regardless of species, it is always exciting to encounter these nocturnal predators in broad daylight – even if it is just a Buffy Fish-owl. Needless to say it was way up in the canopy as well. Compounded by strong backlight, there was nothing much to be obtained here except for a momentarily exhilarating visual record.

With most spring migrants having undertaken their journey back north, this lone Asian Brown Flycatcher is probably one of the last few still here in their tropical winter homes. At the end of the day, the visit here to Pedu Lake did not quite satisfy my often insatiable appetite for birding. Perhaps of the great run I have been enjoying these past weeks have almost made me forgotten the feeling of having a slow and frustrating day. Well, today certainly jolted my memory but that is birding and I suppose, life as well. You take the good with the bad and carry on.