Saturday, 9 December 2017

What a Ruff day...

Compared to yesterday’s two-hour drive to the interiors of Kedah, the drive today to the mangrove belt of Merbok was a breeze. We were delighted to find this presumably female Japanese Sparrowhawk out hunting. This small but deadly raptor is usually shy - typical of all Accipiters. The only reason this girl was so confiding is because she knows fully well I will not be getting any great images of her due to the poor lighting at this hour.

Once we ventured onto the mangroves, it did not take long for Stuart to start ogling at the star bird of the locality, the ever-striking Mangrove Pitta. Looking splendid as usual, it thrilled us with its electrifying presence from among the undergrowth of the swamp.

The resident pair of Abbott’s Babblers were next in line to make an appearance and their character makes up for their lack of colours.

The sweet musical song of the Puff-throated Babblers echoed through the vicinity long before the birds were seen. I may have grown slightly accustomed to the accommodating nature of the birds found here but for a visiting birder like Stuart, it was overwhelming to say the least.

Our next destination was the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest. We had gloomy skies the day before but fortunately, that was not the case today. Good weather will often result in better yield and Stuart soon found himself surrounded by the sights and sounds that make this little patch of birding haven what it is.

The White-chested Babbler is a regular here but to obtain good views hard work and lots of luck are required. Scampering around the forest undergrowth, this species is habitually difficult to photograph even in close proximity. The angle from which I took the shot may be unflattering but it is still one of my best efforts to date.

Golden-bellied Gerygones have provided me with a number of close and intimate encounters here in the past and today, I got to share one with my foreign guest. Three inquisitive individuals wandered very close to our positions and together with their vocal abilities, resulted in an intriguing encounter.

We came across a Brown Shrike hunting unobtrusively along the access road. Although it is a common migrant throughout the country, the confiding nature of this individual did not go unappreciated.

Woodpeckers have been a rare sight so far for Stuart here in Peninsular Malaysia and that does not happen often in my tours. Thankfully, the resident pair of Common Flamebacks put on a relatively good performance for my British guest. And I, could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

The migratory Black Kites are back in full force at this wintering ground of theirs. A few were soaring aimlessly in the sky above most likely prompted by hot and sunny weather. Despite being a scavenger by nature, this raptor is graceful in flight and I could not pull myself away from their mesmerising aerial display.

For the scarce migratory Taiga Flycatcher, Air Hitam Dalam is very unfamiliar land. Unfortunately, it appeared just long enough for my guest to add another tick for his maiden trip to Peninsular Malaysia but yours truly, not even a single image. On the other hand, one of the resident pairs of Mangrove Blue Flycatchers was accommodating enough to provide ample views. This is the dominant pair that frequents the rear car park area and it is good to know that the recent floods did not effected them much.

Olive-winged Bulbuls are common residents here but one’s unbelievably confiding nature even took me by surprise as they kept to the cover of the vegetation throughout most of the morning.

Our final destination of the day was the paddy planting district of mainland Penang. As usual we searched for recently ploughed or planted areas that are like magnets for water birds. Both the Grey-headed Lapwing and Black-winged Stilt are regular winter visitors here and they were in their hundreds today. Distance can be an issue at times and the only reasonable image I took while admiring this congregation of water birds was of a foraging Lapwing.

There was a good number of small waders or peeps as they are so affectionately called, present today and scrutiny is required to confirm their identities. The most numerous of them all are the strikingly marked Long-toed Stints but they did not present any good photographic opportunities. I could tell Stuart has a soft spot for water birds like me as he took the effort to bring his spotting scope along for the trip and that certainly came in useful for enjoying peeps at a distance.

On one occasion, we came across two rather uniformly coloured peeps. I knew what they were immediately. The Temminck’s Stint is generally a scarce migrant to Malaysia but at this site, it is an annual visitor in small numbers. Using our vehicle as a mobile hide we managed some outstanding views. I was utterly delighted with the images obtained this time. I just cannot explain how I could get so excited over a dull-looking bird like this but I can and will. Come to think of it, a lot things are beyond explanation when it comes to birding.

There is no mistaking the distinct shape of the Ruff and there was a small flock foraging at a flooded patch. The Ruff is a unique wader because the male Ruff is bigger than the female Reeve. Judging from the sizes there was one Ruff in the company of three Reeves.

With the aid of our vehicle again, we managed to sneak closer to our subjects. The lighting was good and when the birds got accustomed to our presence, the encounter turned out to be one of the best I have ever had with this species. The Reeves were the ones to let down their guards first and continued with their daily routine.

The male took slightly longer to reveal himself completely from the cover of the paddy stalks. The Ruff is one of the most exceptional birds on the planet because of his unbelievable striking breeding plumage. The change from its dull non-breeding plumage is so remarkable it borders the line of fantasy. I have to accept the fact that we will never have a chance to see one in breeding plumage here in the tropics. A good thing God make humans with the ability to imagine because that is the only consolation I have.

This shot depicts the sexual dimorphism for this scarce winter migrant. We spent a considerable time with both the Temminck’s Stint and the Ruff. Although these birds are neither new nor rare to Stuart, he was just as enthusiastic during the encounters. I guess as a water bird lover, he understands the significance of coming across rare ones that are performing well in the field. And these two species certainly fit the bill here in Malaysia.

A flock of Pacific Golden Plovers was the last bird to be photographed for the trip. There are three species of Golden Plovers in the world of which two are not known to occur here in this region. But they all do look similar. Stuart reminded me of that fact and since we were on a roll, there was no harm scrutinizing the flock for a miracle. However, Christmas is still almost a month away and we had to be contented with what we managed to racked up for the past two days and we certainly had it good.

The checklist of birds recorded during this trip can be found here:

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Feathered squirrels...

The weather has not been exactly peachy of late and that was a reason for concern as I made my way to the famed golden beach of Batu Ferringhi to pick up my latest guest, Stuart, who hails from England. It was a pleasant drive at this ungodly hour and we reached the forest surrounding Pedu Lake in good time. Despite all our efforts, the Blyth’s Frogmouth remained out of sight during our predawn excursion and its eerie call was our only consolation. The dawn of a new day turned our fortune around and the alluring bird life of this birding paradise came to life. Malkohas are remarkable birds. Big, beautiful and somewhat mammal-like when moving about the forest canopy, these feathered squirrels were out in full force today. I never had much luck photographing the Chestnut-breasted Malkoha. Despite its size, it is a shy bird and tends to keep to cover of the forest vegetation. This individual popped out into the open and revealed its true splendour. Naturally, it had the undivided attention of both host and guest.

The Red-billed Malkoha on the other hand, satisfied the birder in us. But from a photographer’s point of view, it could not have chosen a more frustrating perch to rest upon.

Like the malkohas, the trogons that call this place home are certainly out and about today. On one occasion, both the Scarlet-rumped and Orange-breasted Trogon were calling from the same vicinity. With a little effort and patience, good views were obtained of a male Scarlet-rumped Trogon.

As for the Orange-breasted Trogon, we were made to work hard in order to finally locate the male bird among the lush vegetation of the forest. It was a world tick for my well-travelled guest and I am quite certain this forest denizen is one of the highlights of his maiden birding trip to Peninsular Malaysia.

Pedu is the only site I frequent where the Thick-billed Spiderhunter is regularly seen. However, this uncommon species is never an easy subject to shoot. As usual, it was actively foraging along the canopy level and I tried my best to capture some images that has almost the whole bird in view.

It was equally frustrating trying to photograph a pair of Plain Flowerpeckers foraging at the canopy level. I am not sure if it is due to its dull colouration but I do not come across this species all that often in the field.

The broadbills of this region may not be new to Stuart but he still finds them irresistible. And I do not blame him because so do I. Two pairs of Black-and-yellow Broadbills were having a territorial disagreement and we just sat back and enjoyed the drama.

Bulbuls are one of the commonest and conspicuous birds of the Malaysian forest. To come across half a dozen species is quite normal but the challenge of identifying them accurately is another thing all together as a number of them are drably coloured. However, there are Bulbul species which identification is never an issue like the stunning Black-crested Bulbul.


As we were making our way home, a handsome male Japanese Sparrowhawk stopped us at our tracks along. Unfortunately, the abrupt stop of the vehicle sent him into flight and that was the end of it. Also perched along the electrical cables were Rufous-bellied Swallows and these swallows are the most striking species here in Malaysia. They also provided an ideal end to our adventure birding adventure in the wild interiors of Kedah. The skies held up till the evening and that was a good sign as we will be exploring birding sites in my home state of Penang tomorrow. That will be covered in my next post.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Flycatchers ruled the day

A few weeks ago, my life list was revived from dormancy with the addition of the Dusky Craig-Martin which I finally unblocked in Perlis. Today, I set off to the foothills of Bukit Larut in Perak state to twitch for Peninsular Malaysia’s first Narcissus Flycatcher. And who else better to go with than the birder who discovered this vagrant in the first place – James Neoh. After an early breakfast in the rustic town of Taiping, we made our way to the entrance of a water treatment plant where my would-be lifer has been regularly seen of late. I was a little relief we were the first to arrive. Word have also gotten out of a Green-backed Flycatcher, another scarce migrant, is showing well in the vicinity and a crowd was expected. Anyway, the striking male Green-backed Flycatcher was the first to reveal himself and he was the perfect appetizer for the main course that is to come – hopefully. The lighting conditions were challenging today but the radiant colouration of this flycatcher will not be subdued.

Anxiety started building up in me as there was no sign of the Narcissus Flycatcher. The presence of several species of Bulbuls and even a flock of Scarlet Minivets did very little to improve the situation. The Narcissus Flycatcher was a female bird and a pale comparison to the glorious plumage of the male birds but she is a first record for the peninsular. Like most divas, she opted for the fashionably late entrance. Well, better than never. I was enjoying my second lifer for this month and life, could not get any better.

Eventually, a crowd did form along the access road to the water treatment plant. Everyone managed to get both celebrity birds. Unfortunately, the male Green-backed Flycatcher was no gentlemen and will drive away the female Narcissus Flycatcher whenever their paths crossed. The chances of better photographic opportunities of the latter were now near impossible and we decided it was time to take our leave. Here are a few more images of the bully. Despite some resentment, I still gave him the attention and appreciation he deserves.

With my main target in the bag, I could afford to relax and even took the time to enjoy the view of the ever picturesque Taiping Lake Gardens.

On one of the many majestic Rain Trees that line the access roads, we found a juvenile Long-tailed Parakeet peering inquisitively out of its nest hole. This striking native species is sadly missing from my home state of Penang and the lake gardens is probably the closest place to home where it can be easily seen.

A lone Black-thighed Falconet alighted on the same tree and provided the last bird for our visit to this locality.

We visited the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary next. Or should it now be known as the Kuala Gula Aquaculture Park. This once birding hotspot is slowly being killed off by commercial ponds. The damages to the environment is devastating. Another birding location bites the dust in the hands of Man. A detour to an adjacent temple certainly lifted my spirit. This, however, is no ordinary temple and I needed some spiritual healing of the birding kind after the disheartening visit to the mangroves. It is home to a pair of Sunda Scops-Owl and this famed temple owls gave me the slip during my first visit here years ago. Luck was on our side this time and we managed to locate one of the owls roosting in a clump of bamboo. The Sunda Scops-Owl is not uncommon but any diurnal encounters with owls is special and usually memorable. This encounter is no exception and this adorable owl almost overshadowed the exhilarating time I had with my lifer earlier on.

While scrutinizing my images of the owl later, I noticed it had very pale corneas which is not a known field mark of the Sunda Scops-Owl. At the time of writing, I am still assisting Dave on determining this eye colour variation of the owl and if significant enough, submit an article to the region’s bird authority.

Our last destination of the day was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam where another rare migratory flycatcher has taken up refuge. Last week, we discovered a Taiga Flycatcher at this site. It has been seven long years since the individual that wintered at the car park area of Bukit Wang. Naturally, I wanted to obtain better shots than last week’s brief encounter. The lighting was much better this time and I got what I wanted. However, there is still room for improvement and I will certainly be back for more. Three rare flycatchers all on the same day is like a birder’s dream coming true and this migratory season looks set to be one heck of a ride.