Thursday, 19 April 2018

Reliving a sweet memory

A teenage birder was making his way to a birding site one morning and stopped by a 7-11 store for supplies before getting on with his journey. A loud shriek followed by a fury of wings got his immediate attention. A murder of House Crows tormented and chased a bird which was left with no choice but to fly into the store in a desperate attempt to escape its attackers. The teenager immediately came to the aid of the bird which was undoubtedly disoriented and terrified. At first glance, the bird appeared to be a White-rumped Shama to him. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be something much better. It was a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo - a species this teenager has been dreaming to encounter in the field.

Without hesitation, he picked up the cuckoo with the intention of setting it free far away from the marauding crows that were still lingering in the vicinity. It was a lucky day for both parties. The teenage human got his much-anticipated lifer and the cuckoo avoided the dreadful fate of being caged for life or worse – ending up in a cooking pot. The teenager’s mode of transport was a motorcycle. His ride had no basket and he, a free hand to carry the cuckoo. The only way he could think of to transport the cuckoo comfortably was to snuggle it in his shirt. He made his way to an isolated road and when the coast was clear, did a quick check on the cuckoo for any obvious signs of injuries. He then placed the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo on his arm and released his grip. It took a while for the cuckoo to realise it was free again and when it did, glided down a small ravine and alighted at the edge of the secondary forest. It uttered a series of harsh notes as if to thank its young rescuer before disappearing into the dense vegetation.

In time, I learned through experience that the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo is shy by nature and often difficult to approach. Twenty years later, that encounter I had as a teenager remained to be my most intimate with this beautiful migrant. That is until I made a last minute trip recently to Air Hitam Dalam in the hopes of obtaining some images of a male Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher on passage. It was midday by the time I arrived and unfortunately, the main reason for the visit was no where to be seen. As I walked the elevated walkway one more time, a rustling of leaves from the lower storey of the swamp forest was the first excitement of the trip. An ungainly bird then hopped into view barely an arm’s length away and it turned out to be a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. I expected it to disappear into vegetation as usual when it caught sight of me but not this time.

It was totally at ease with my presence and I found this behaviour rather odd. Nevertheless, I proceeded to capture its images as the cuckoo continued to hunt and devour all sorts of insects. From the looks of it, this particular patch was teeming with prey. It is no wonder the cuckoo was so confiding. After all, gluttony is a deadly sin that even the shyest species will give in to at times.

This is the closest I have come to a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo for a long time and to add icing to the cake, the encounter was not a brief one. For a moment there, the teenage birder was back and gawking at his first ever Chestnut-winged Cuckoo. One of the best things in life is to be able to relive a sweet memory from your younger years and this time, it was all courtesy of this stunning bird.

As the cuckoo moved about, it will sometimes alighted in places where the lighting was more favourable. Naturally, I obtained my best images of this species to date. The slightly tattered tail did not matter. Neither did the occasional obstructing vegetation. Not when this cuckoo was so unbelievably tame.

I may have missed out shooting the Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher and a Grey Nightjar (which I found out later back home was seen earlier here today) but this episode with the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo formed another memorable chapter of this species in my life. I always believe birding is about moments and not just lifers and rarities. And this moment with the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo rejuvenated me in more ways than one.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Good day, mate - Part 4

It took a moment to acclimatize to the hot and humid conditions of lowland tropical rain forests after three days in Fraser’s Hill. The short trek to Sungai Congkak Forest Reserve’s stakeout point reminded how good we had it up at the hill resort. My Australian guests were on the final leg of their 4-day tour and this would be their last destination. The distant thunder threatened to cut short this last excursion here in Selangor state. But all worries about the gloomy weather and pesky mosquitoes vanished when the first bird of this birding hotspot made an appearance. The Horsfield’s Babbler is not common anywhere in Malaysia. It has been years since my last sighting of the Horsfield’s Babbler and the confiding nature of this individual got me just as excited as my guests. I finally have images of this scarce but drab-looking forest bird and it felt good.

Lowland babblers are generally difficult to observe due to their active nature and preference for dense vegetation. Stakeouts like this is probably the only place you can enjoy intimate encounters with them. The White-chested Babbler occurs in one of my local patches and it took a lot of effort to obtain the handful of images I have of this species. Here, the bird is much more confiding and will occasionally abandoned its skulking behaviour and wander out into the open.

There are two passerines in Malaysia that walk instead of hop as they move about the forest floor. One is the enigmatic Malaysian Rail-Babbler. And the other, though not so charismatic, is the Black-capped Babbler. Like the former, its distinctive call is usually the only indication of its presence. When seen in good light, the Black-capped Babbler is quite a striking bird and I certainly do not come across this all that often.

The reigning star bird of this locality is the Rufous-backed Kingfisher. Amazing colouration makes it a true jewel of the forest but its minute size makes it difficult to locate. I was smitten by its beauty when I made my maiden visit to the location last year. No longer a first timer, I thought I would be able to control my emotions better this time but I was wrong. I was just spellbound. This little kingfisher is truly something else.

Even without eye contact, this image of the Rufous-backed Kingfisher facing away was still a keeper to me.

There were a few newcomers to the stakeout and one of them was a female Siberian Blue Robin. She was still wary of human presence and kept her distance. That was a real shame because although it is not a rare bird, I still do not have any decent photographs of this migratory robin. By then the weather had turned for the worst. When the rain started to trickle down, we knew better than to stay on. So concluded my tour with the Knights. It was a rewarding trip and I enjoyed it as much as my guests.

I stayed over at Victor’s place for the night with the intention of dragging him along for some birding in the morning before I take the long drive back to Penang. He took me to a wader roost in Jeram along the Selangor coastline and we timed our arrival with the rising tide. We were greeted by a spectacle of nature as hundreds of waders were roosting on the sandy shore. It was their high tide roost and the landscape of the beach allowed us to creep right up to them without giving away our presence.

Initially, I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers present at such close quarters. One of the reasons animals flock together in big numbers is to evade a predator as there is safety in numbers. Sometimes a predator may become disoriented and unable to single out one quarry to pursue.  It has the same effect on photographers as well. When I finally regain my composure, I found that the majority of the waders present were Lesser Sand-Plovers and some were sporting their smart summer plumage.

Red-necked Stints were in good numbers here as well and like the plovers, some were in breeding plumage. At times, these peeps wandered very close to my position. It has been a long time since I last enjoyed such intimate encounters with roosting waders. Most of the roost sites in Penang have shifted to inaccessible locations. I am glad Victor brought me to this location. It was just like the good old days when wader watching was awesome back in my home state.

Despite a careful sweep, there were no rarities among the flock. I was not disappointed. Birding is not always about rarities and lifers. It is also about losing yourselves among the wonders of nature. It is about finding solitude in your main passion in life. It is about discovering experiences that last a lifetime. Even a common species like the Curlew Sandpiper can awe and inspire – especially if it is in its splendid breeding plumage.

Whenever the roosting flock took flight, it was a whirlwind of wings and feathers. The sight and sound of hundreds of birds taking off and alighting back at the same place was breath taking indeed.

This is how you shoot at this wader roost. Camouflaged attire to blend in. On your knees to break the human form, for better photographic angle and to show gratitude to a greater power for the opportunity to experience this rewarding moment.

The waders gradually disappeared with the receding tide. We then combed the rugged shore line for any other birding highlights to add to the visit here.

Like a scene from the Cretaceous Period, three prehistoric-looking beasts were hunting along the exposed mud. Even at this distance there is no mistaking the Lesser Adjutant.

There are a few ways to describe this endangered stork but I do not feel ugly is one of them. Every bird is beautiful in its own way. This stork is one of my favourite birds and that will tell you how I feel about its appearance. Unfortunately, the Lesser Adjutant is getting scarce in my home state and a sight like this is rare to come by.

I guess habitat destruction and human encroachment is to blame. I am always a sucker for large water birds and the Lesser Adjutant being the biggest here in Malaysia, will always have a special place in my heart.

During my drive back to Penang, I made a quick detour Kek Lok Tong Temple for a break and some birding. This temple is a popular birding location and since it is at the halfway point of my drive home, it is a regular pit stop of mine whenever I travel back from the central region. True to its reputation, I was greeted by a pair of Red-whiskered Bulbuls at the entrance to the temple. The origins of the pair is questionable as native birds are restricted to the north of the peninsular. However, there were doubts about their vocal abilities and aesthetic appeal.

The Blue Rock-Thrush is very much a part of this temple cave. Located at one of the many limestone outcrops throughout Ipoh town in Perak, the temple is an ideal refuge for this beautiful dweller of rocky terrains. As usual, the male is more striking than the female and had my initial attention.

The female does not lag very far from the male in the looks department and received a fair share of affection.

There is another avian resident of this temple cave. One that has somehow managed to evade me on every visit here. The Blue Whistling Thrush is somewhat uncommon as I do not come across it often when I am out in the field. This temple is probably one of the best places to observe and photograph the species. But as fate would have it, it was another failed attempt. To take its place was a surprisingly tame female Asian Emerald Dove. This usually shy member of the dove family provided a fitting end to my interstate birding adventure.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Good day, mate - Part 3

One of the reasons that Fraser’s Hill is such a haven for birding is the confiding nature of some of the resident birds. A few of the bungalows are known for the birds’ morning visits and several species can come together to forage on leftovers, handouts and insects attracted by lights during the night.

The Fire-tufted Barbet is huge by barbet standards. Combined with its striking appearance and signatory call, this barbet is certainly one of the star birds of this locality. The fiery lashes are usually hidden from view except when in close proximity. I try not to stare too long as they have a somewhat hypnotic effect – on me anyways.

Moving about in noisy flocks, the Long-tailed Sibia is one of the more conspicuous birds of hill stations like this. What it lacks in colour is made up with character. And a flock in search of breakfast is a delightful encounter.

I have yet to obtain any close shots of the male Black-and-crimson Oriole although I see it during most of my visits to the mountains of Peninsular Malaysia. Having no yellow at all in its plumage already makes this oriole unique and its skittish nature makes it a bird that I always keep a lookout for when I am in its neck of the woods.

There are little brown jobs that call this hill resort home but because of their less radiating appearance, they are usually ignored. The Buff-breasted Babbler is no ordinary brown job to me as it is uncommon where I come from. Even here, it takes some effort to obtain decent shots.

The evening sky brought the rains in and my Australian guests decided to have a little siesta before dinner. Despite the obvious setback, I wandered out on my own and tried my luck at the Malaysian Partridges’ tuft. When the rain trickled to a stop, my quarries strolled into view from the ravine below. I, just sat back and enjoyed the show.

However, there were no signs of the little bundles of joy like yesterday. It is possible that these birds are from a different flock as there is a healthy population of these endemic gamebirds here in Fraser’s Hill.

An explosive series of double note whistle echoed through vicinity from a nearby ravine followed by the calls of a second bird. A heightened sense of exhilaration overtook me. I now have two Rusty-naped Pittas calling persistently in front of me. Experience has taught me this is one of the most difficult and shyest birds to see. But I yearn for my first ever photograph of this terrestrial creature. I crawled my way into the ravine an inch at a time and waited patiently crouched like a rock. Leeches and God knows what else were no longer relevant. One of the pittas was just beyond a line of understorey vegetation. I lost track of time as the pitta proved to be as elusive as ever. Sweat began to trickle down my temple and my legs cramped up from this uncomfortable position. Then a rustling of leaf litter beyond my shoulder propelled the moment to the point of climax but when whatever it was making the noise finally came into view, it turned to be only an inquisitive Malaysian Partridge and not the Rusty-naped Pitta which I had hoped for. I looked down the ravine only to see the Rusty-naped Pitta hopping across and disappeared into the vegetation. Reluctantly, I hauled myself up the ravine a broken man.

The next morning, I was still reeling from the disappointment with the Rusty-naped Pittas. Failing to capture the Mountain Scops-owl and Grey Nightjar before dawn offered no relief at all. But this is Fraser’s Hill. A premier birding site in Malaysia. And you do not stay disappointed for long. The Sultan Tit is a living work of art and a pair was foraging confidingly in our presence. We, the humans were certainly humbled by its divine beauty. Insects attracted by the lights of the bungalow the night before often linger around well into the morning. That in turn attracts insectivores like the Sultan Tit.

It would have been the perfect start to the day if we were better positioned to capture the courtship feeding of this pair of Sultan Tits. But I guess there is a limit to the magic of this birding paradise.

A pair of Mountain Imperial Pigeons resting on a lofty perch slightly shrouded by mist was a picture of blissful serenity...

Swooping in from the adjacent forest, a pair of Common Green Magpies shattered that peace and quiet with their resonant calls. This is another resident that is a true gem of the montane forest. The sheer size of the magpie only amplifies its striking appearance. The availability of food enticed this usually shy bird right out into the open. At such close quarters, the Common Green Magpie is an impressive bird indeed.

With poise and grace, a few Lesser Racket-tailed Drongos hawked for insects in the vicinity. Unfortunately, only one had the long tail streamers. Sod’s Law then came into play and that particular individual somehow managed to evade all my attempts to photograph it.

Fraser’s Hill is not only about birds. It has so much more to offer as well. This trip, I managed to obtain some images of squirrels that roam the forest here. The Grey-bellied Squirrel is a commonly encountered species. A confiding individual had my attention momentarily and I managed to capture some of the best images to date.

The Himalayan Striped Squirrel moves at hyper speed most of the time. Its diminutive size makes it adorable but it also makes it difficult to photograph. A pair were having a territorial dispute and in between the high speed pursuits around one particular tree trunk, the squirrels will pause for a breather. I took advantage of this repetitive behaviour to finally add this species to my digital collection.

My best moment in Fraser’s Hill this time took place on our last day. I decided to take my guests birding along the road that goes down to the Gap. There is one resident bird of Fraser’s Hill that has eluded me all these years and I have made it a point to mesmerize its call. As we made past a deep ravine, there was no mistake of what was calling down below – the elusive Marbled Wren-Babbler. Excitement soon turned to frustration as the calling bird remained hidden from view. Out of desperation, I descended the ravine and a brief view of my lifer moving deeper into the forest was all that I got in return.  A distant shot of a young Slaty-backed Forktail shortly after was very little compensation for my failure to photograph the Wren-Babbler.

We made one last visit to the stakeout where the White-tailed Robin frequents and were not disappointed. The male bird showed off his subtle yet enchanting colouration for our group to admire and appreciate.

The final bird for the Fraser’s Hill chapter is the Rufous-browed Flycatcher. A small bird that spends a lot time in dimly lighted undergrowth and with its soft high pitched song as the only indication of its presence. The puffy white throat does give the flycatcher some contrast to its plumage. However when seen in good light, it does boost enough appeal to earn some space in my memory card. From here, we headed down to the lowlands of Selangor where a whole different set of birds await. That will be covered in my next post.