Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Great things sometimes come in small packages

This weekend’s birding plans were far from ordinary. It was not because of the locations but more because of the company. James, Hor Kee and I will be hosting a couple of distinguished birders from this region. Ding Li, a friend who hails from Singapore happens to be the co-author of 100 Best Bird Watching Sites in Southeast Asia (a book that I will be contributing the Penang chapter for the next revision) and writer of several papers on birds. He brought along Abdel who is an avid birder currently residing in Hong Kong. Anyway, the duo was keen to visit the grasslands of Chuping and the recent the Manchurian Reed-Warbler was their main target. The trip up to the tiny state of Perlis did not start off well. A 5-vehicle pile up along the North-South Highway held us back for at least half an hour and we arrived at the location much later than we had planned. After a tedious search, the Reed-Warbler offered us only a glimpse but Ding Li who is into call recordings, managed some relatively good recordings of this difficult skulker.

The number of raptors present were still less than desirable. Hopefully, it is not an indication of things to come. A dark morph Booted Eagle did not seem to think so and its presence was one of the highlights of our visit here.

Blue-tailed Bee-eaters are common winter visitors to Malaysia. It can be exceptionally bold at times and this individual showed no fear to our presence and continued with its routine while we obtain images of this aerial feeder. And the beautiful blue sky, typical of the Chuping landscape, provided the perfect backdrop.

The Indian Roller may not have the aerial agility of the bee-eater but it just as stunning a bird. On the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Chuping is the best place to observe and enjoy the Indian Roller. Naturally, this scarce bird had our attention for quite while.

During our last trip here, the Siberian Stonechats were just amazing. This time, they were in good numbers but photography required a lot more effort. It was a scorching day and when the sun was its zenith, it became almost unbearable.

After lunch, we decided to try for the Dusky Crag-Martin at the adjacent limestone hill of Bukit Keteri. We brought two more accomplished birders to prove that we were not mass hallucinating during our last visit. With more eyes, we managed to confirm not one but two martins present in the vicinity. Hor Kee even obtained a record shot to put all doubts away. This is his gallant effort of my latest lifer.

We headed towards Air Hitam Dalam next and it was to be our third and final destination of the day. The recent flood that devastated my home state of Penang made the site inaccessible for a few days after. We were not sure what to expect. The consequences of the flooding could have been dire. But in the end, our worries were uncalled for. There was enough magic left here in Air Hitam Dalam to get a few experienced local birders all excited. The Taiga Flycatcher is a rare migrant to our shores. I am fortunate to have seen this species in two other sites prior to this. Dusk was approaching and there was nothing I could do about the horrid lighting. But this little brown job that can be mistaken for the ever-abundant Asian Brown-Flycatcher, was the bird of the day for me.

It has been months since the last time I connected with the resident Spotted Wood-Owls of this swamp forest. With the fading light, one of the owls started to stir and caught our attention. The foliage that provided sanctuary for the owl was a major hindrance to my photographic attempts. There was not much time for us to rekindle either. A group of visitors was simply too vocal for the owl’s liking and the night bird retreated further into the forest. However it was a welcomed encounter and a fine way to wrap things up for our guests’ first day of birding in this part of Peninsular Malaysia.

The next day we found ourselves combing the forest surrounding Pedu Lake for more feathered denizens of northern Peninsular Malaysia. Due to illegal bird trades, leafbirds are declining throughout the country. I guess we can consider ourselves lucky that their stunning beauty and melodious song is not completely absent from here. This foraging Blue-winged Leafbird was unperturbed by our presence and carried on within close proximity to our position. It was a female and although it lacks some of the vibrancy of the male bird, she was still a sight to cherish.

A row of fruiting trees was a centre of bird activities – naturally. Bulbuls were the predominant species this time. The presence of two of the most attractive bulbuls made our time at the fruiting trees most rewarding. The Grey-bellied Bulbul is always a pleasure to observe and despite the harsh lighting, it was only right to spend some time appreciating its striking colouration.

That was until a small flock of Scaly-breasted Bulbuls decided to join in the feast. Then all eyes were on these sultry beauties. The foliage was dense and the lighting, less than desirable but we still tried our best to capture some images of this bulbul. Apparently, the Scaly-breasted Bulbul is not so common down south and that made the encounter rather exciting for our guests. As for me, no matter how many times I have seen this species, it will always have my undivided attention.

Everything was just swell as we enjoyed sunbirds, white-eyes, flycatchers and other avian splendours that were patronizing the fruiting trees. The thing about birding is that it has the capabilities to turn ordinary into extraordinary in a blink of eye. The Grey-and-buff Woodpecker is one of the smallest woodpeckers in Malaysia. What it lacks in size is made up with character, adorability and beauty. Due to its penchant for the top most part of the canopy and its minute size, good photographic opportunities are rare. To come across one in the mid-level of the forest is already a blessing in my book. To have one perched in the open for a prolonged period time is nothing short of a miracle. That was exactly what this male Grey-and-buff Woodpecker with his flaming red crest and all did.

The Grey-and-buff Woodpecker is not a rare bird but to be able to bask in its radiance is a privilege. This is the closest I have ever been to one and it is by far my best encounter with this species. This is something that only forest birding can offer. Unexpected moments that will have a lasting impression. This will definitely be part of my reflections of wings and inspiration in years to come.

Pedu Lake is rich in fish life and that in turn will attract predators that have an appetite for fish. The Lesser Fish-Eagle can occasionally be seen in this locality and as the name implies, fish is its staple diet. A distant individual taking advantage of the rising thermals did not go unnoticed.

Hours of birding in the humid rainforest will usually have you sweating buckets. This diminutive Tailless Lineblue seemed adamant of extracting all the dried sodium from my skin. Certainly beats having your blood extracted by mosquitoes.

After a hearty lunch, we swung by the mangroves of Sungai Batu. It took a little longer than usual but we did managed to capture the star bird of the locality – the Mangrove Pitta. A second bird was heard calling but as usual, the dominant bird would have none of it and the latter remained among the shadows of the swamp forest.

The Forest Wagtail was the final bird of the day and it was quite a fitting sent off for our guests. The past 2 days of birding had its downs but a few remarkable birds and the companionship I had certainly evened things out.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The beginning of the end?

It is that time of the year again for my annual excursions up north to the great grasslands of Chuping. The past few birding trips were excruciating slow for me due to bad luck and weather. I always tell myself bad days will only make you appreciate the good ones even more and that usually makes it a little easier on the soul. Anyway, Hor Kee and James were my companions for my first visit to Chuping this season and the landscapes here are breath taking as usual and weather today was very promising.

However, sceneries are never first priority. Feathered splendours like a male Red Collared-Dove is. Although this species is gradually spreading south, Chuping remains to be the main stronghold for these doves and their numbers here can be overwhelming at times. A small flock was foraging on a recently ploughed field just next to the access road and was given its due attention. One male in particular got the ball rolling for what was to be another rewarding day of birding at the northern tip of Peninsular Malaysia.

This is the best site in Malaysia to observe the Bronze-winged Jacana and paying homage to this beautiful and rare water bird is mandatory for every visit. Luck was on our side as one of them was foraging close to where we had positioned ourselves. The heat wave was a major hindrance to my photography efforts but the images obtained were much to my satisfactory in the end.

Revealing the deep chestnut colouration often concealed by the bronze wings...

Belting out a round of territorial calls to complete the performance.

Little Cormorants are a regular sight here but today, I only managed a shot of a flying bird.
Another regular is the graceful Black Drongo. This common winter visitor can also be found in good numbers throughout the locality. This species thrives in open country habitat and there is certainly plenty of that in Chuping.

Chuping is renowned for wintering raptors. However, the numbers recorded today was not up to expectations. It could be still too early in the season or due to some other reasons. I am keeping my fingers crossed it is the former. A female Pied Harrier resting out in the field was the only raptor photograph worth sharing this time.

Fortunately, the void left by the mighty raptors was filled by other smaller species that also seek refuge here. A simple stop to shoot a pair of Zebra Doves led to a memorable encounter - for me anyways. Call it good luck or divine intervention but had we not stop for these common doves (which we usually do not), we would have miss out on an adult and juvenile Little Bronze Cuckoo foraging among some low bushes. I have not seen this species for a number of years and my images of it are from my modest Digiscoping years. This time, I had them close and in good light and they appeared to be completely at ease with the presence of our vehicle. It will take some time for the youngster to obtain the striking markings of adulthood.

The adult male was a true stunner and naturally, received most of my undivided attention. The glossy upperparts glittered under the morning sun and the boldly marked underparts complemented his looks well. And I was relishing every second of this chance encounter.

We stopped at the spot again later in the morning and much to my delight, the adult was still there. I took a few more shots for good measure.

Any Eastern Yellow Wagtail encountered in Chuping deserves a second look as the Citrine Yellow is very similar looking. This will be my third season looking for the scarce and elusive winter visitor. I guess one can always hope for a miracle...

The same applies to Paddyfield Pipits. Dipping out on the Blyth’s Pipit last season continues to haunt my thoughts. Hopefully, I will have better luck and put that ghost to rest this season.

Although not uncommon in suitable habitats throughout the country, it is much easier to see the migratory Siberian Stonechat here in Chuping. Like most female birds, the Siberian Stonechat has drably coloured females. However, to ignore a confiding individual like she is just wrong.

The males are much more attractive and at times, can be a little of an exhibitionist. Today, one male outdid himself and provided me with one my best encounters with this species to date. Floating from perch to perch and occasionally wandered very close to our stationary vehicle.

My only qualm was the harsh lighting. But better hot and sunny than gloomy and wet.

Cattle Egrets have pretty much conquered all suitable habitats in Malaysia and it comes as no surprise to see their numbers booming here in the vast grasslands.

It was bad enough when they decided to replace most of the sugarcane plots with rubber estates a few years back. It was a devastating move to both birds and birder. In time, both have recovered slightly from the blow and life goes on. Just when I thought it could not get any worse, they have now started to build a small industrial park. This could very well spell the beginning of the end for this birding paradise. I do not know the full extent of this development project and I do not even dare to find out. For the past decade or so, Chuping has provided numerous first records for the country and countless remarkable birding excursions for birders far and wide. I just wish that for once a birding hotspot is left the fuck alone. Is that too much to ask?

We made a short visit to the adjacent limestone hills of Bukit Keteri for another attempt at Dusky Crag-Martins. I have been scanning limestone outcrops for as long as I could remember in the hopes to bag this scarce resident. I am no spring chicken in terms of birding years and today, I finally broke the duck. In fact, it was a lifer for the entire group. Among the dozens of House Swifts and a handful of Barn Swallows, a lone Dusky Crag-Martin was making rounds along the twin hills at breakneck speed. Mass hallucination is not unheard of in birding especially in the presence of a would-be lifer but the martin gave us ample opportunities to be sure that we were not hallucinating. My companions tried to capture the moment but I did not even bother. My gear stood no chance whatsoever in this situation. No, the Dusky Crag-Martin was a lifer I had to enjoy through my trusted bins only.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

A day with a tantalizing tattler

It has been quite a while since my last twitch. Lifers are now a very rare commodity for me. The sighting of the fourth Grey-tailed Tattler in Penang by Hor Kee (and the Hums earlier last month) at Sungai Burung certainly caught my attention. Enough to make me embark on a quick visit for this scarce wader before work. Even though I have seen this species once before, I do not have any images yet. It was an overcast morning when I arrived at the river mouth where my quarry was last seen but the weather could not dampened my spirits. I was on the hunt for a Grey-tailed Tattler and hopefully, with some photos to show this time round.

I scanned along the water’s edge and it did not take long to locate the Grey-tailed Tattler. The absence of the sun on this cold morning was of no significance because I found my sunshine. I could not recall the last time I was so excited at a locality in Penang Island. Looks like the Pearl of the Orient still has what it takes to light up my life.

The tattler was rather confiding and my intrusion did not seem to interfere with its morning ritual of crab hunting. However due to the lighting conditions, its constant movement was a real test for my photography gear. Those few occasions that it was stationary were the highlights of this morning’s short excursion. The Grey-tailed Tattler is a drab looking bird in winter but to a birder that has a thing for waders, it is one of the most exhilarating species to encounter in this part of Peninsular Malaysia.

My presence did not go unnoticed by one of the residents of the nearby fishing village. From the expression on its face, life is easy and good here in this more rural part of Penang Island away from all the hustle and bustle of Georgetown City. Anyway, this feline kept me company throughout my visit and it received a deservingly prolonged pat on the head before I head to work a happy man. I wish this was my first experience with the Grey-tailed Tattler as my first encounter a few years back at Batu Kawan was only a brief one. But this one was just incredible.

As my working day drew to a close, I could not suppress my yearning for better images of the confiding tattler. So I found myself at the faithful river mouth again in the evening and as expected, the lighting was much better. The Grey-tailed Tattler was almost at the same spot as this morning and with a little effort, I got relatively close to it.

On one occasion, it wandered towards me and that took my breath away literally. When it comes to photographing waders, distance is always an issue – especially for the rare ones. Murphy will usually make sure of that. Anyway there I was, at a birding site I usually ignore, gawking at a Grey-tailed Tattler strolling right in front of me in good light. Perfect moments usually do not exist in birding but this one came pretty damn close.

Whenever I could pull away from the spell the tattler had on me, I will have a quick look at what other birds were about. A muddied Common Redshank almost fooled me into thinking it was something else.

The Common Sandpiper is somewhat a smaller version of the Grey-tailed Tattler but by now, I had enough field experience to differentiate the two by jizz alone. The latter usually has a lower posture but the main characteristic is the longer and slenderer appearance.

There must be something in the air today as another wader wandered towards me instead of the other way round and this time it was a Terek Sandpiper. This coastline has always being a refuge for this adorable species and I have encountered it on numerous occasions. However, today was by far the closest I have ever been to one and the following images reflect my good fortune.

There is probably at least one Striated Heron in every stretch mudflats throughout the state or even the country. It comes as no surprise when I counted at least half a dozen present in the vicinity.

The light was disappearing fast from the evening sky. I took advantage of the last rays of the sun to capture a few more images of the Grey-tailed Tattler before calling it the day. The setting sun cast a golden hue on my subject and set my heart aflutter. I have probably taken enough photos of this bird to last me a lifetime. But judging from its confiding, I will probably be back again before it flies back north.

A small group of shutterbugs had gathered at the river mouth as I was making my way out. They had no intentions of shooting the scarce Grey-tailed Tattler. The sunset was what they were after. To each his own but I will take a rare migrant over a landscape anytime. I began the post with a view of the river mouth at Sungai Burung at the break of dawn and it is only fitting that I should end it with a view at dusk.

The checklist of birds recorded this time can be found here:
1. Sungai Burung