Fraser’s Hill Revisited

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It was eight years since I last birded at Fraser’s Hill. So it was great to spend a few days there with the wife and get re-acquainted with the birds and the wildlife there this March.

 

A drive up to FH starts with a mandatory lunch at the must stop zi char stall at Kuala Kubu Bahru. It was the same as I remembered it eight years ago, nothing has changed right down to the cooling tea in a plastic bottle to the braised Ikan Kurau in Tofu, the most popular dish there. The grandma who took our orders was as cheerful as ever and treated us like her regulars. Maybe I spoke to her in Cantonese.

 

I managed to get the Sunbird room at Stephen’s Place. Stephen and his wife took over Lady McNiece’s bungalow Buona Vista along Telecom’s Loop and turned it into a center for birders and naturalists. The main draw of staying here is that you get to meet visitors with similiar interest and the big moth screen that Stephen set up in his garden.  I am not a moth person but I cannot help photographing over 50 different moths there.

 

  Some of the hundreds of moth that were attracted by the light at Stephen’s                              Place. Click on the photos for the names.

We had a bonus in the form of a Malayan Palm Civet that came to feed at Stephen’s Place the mornings and evenings. Stephen and his son Adam had been nursing this civet cat after it was confiscated from an illegal owner. They have just released it back into the wild. They still put out some cat food in the garden for it as it adapts to life in the wild.

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“Stinky” the Malayan Civet still comes back to feed on the cat food put out by Stephen

Another reason for my visit is to see the Malayan Hill Partridges. This species was legendary hard to see. In fact you are lucky to hear them call below some gullies at the High Pines. But two years ago a family was found feeding outside the Richmond Bungalow. I found three partridges at 5 in the evening after three visits there.

 

Banded Leaf Monkey looks well fed while the Red-cheeked Ground Squirrel                              enjoys a left over papaya.

I first meet Durai 25 years ago when Kenneth Kee and I took three buses from Singapore to FH. The man don’t seem to age. It was great to catch up and see that he now has a shop at Shahzan Inn and making a good living doing something he enjoyed doing, showing the birds of FH to the overseas visitors.

 

 

Blue Nuthatch, Malayan Cuckooshrike with a praying mantis and the “Elvis”                          bird of FH, the much sought after Long-tailed Broadbill.

Birdlife today is a lot quieter than before, but it is still the premier montane forest birding destination in Malaysia. With patience, many of the uncommon species can be seen. For the first time visitors, common birds like the Silver-eared Mesias, Laughingthrushes, Streaked Spiderhunters, Mountain Bulbuls, Sibias and Sunbirds were enough to make them happy. I remembered the non stop bird waves with twenty plus species that we used to encounter at just about every bend. During the few days we were there, we encountered only two bird waves with less than ten species each.

 

I found the bird life along the new road going down was more diverse and active. The forest is more open and many of the lowland species can be found here. We got a Long-billed Spiderhunter, Blue-throated Barbets and Sultan Tits on the way down.

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The Gap Rest House is now an empty shell. Lets hope that this much loved bungalow will be restored to its former glory.

This could be my last visit to this wonderful hill station. Had many fond memories of the great time I spent there over the years. I hope that there will be no more big developments there and the FHDC spend some money to restore some of the old buildings and places back to its old glory. It was painful to find the Gap Rest House an empty shell. It was one of the must stay places for anyone visiting FH in the past.

 

 

The Mangrove Dwellers of Sungei Buloh.

The little of what is left of our mangroves is vital for the survival of many of our mangrove dependent birds, reptiles, butterflies and dragonflies. Without the mangroves they will simply disappear and we will be the poorer for it. On a short morning walk at Sungei Buloh yesterday, we came across some of these survivors there. Let’s hope that this protected wetland will be their home for many years to come.

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Out door nature workshops for the students during the school holidays. All lined up on the bridge waiting for the crocodiles to appear.

 

 

From top left, the Colonel is locally common at the Kranji Marshes. Kim Keang’s sharp eyes picked up the smaller and less colorful Scarce Silverstreak at a distance. My lifer the Full Stop Swift( bottom) was spotted by Richard White.

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First time I came across this beautiful Mangrove Shield Bug, seen along the boardwalk. Lena Chow posted a link from WildSingapore with the ID. Not only are they mangrove dependent, the larvae can only be found on the Buta buta trees where they will feed on the new fruits. The adults were often seen clustered together under the leaves.

Mangrove Dwarf at SB

The Mangrove Dwarf as the name suggested is a smallish dragonfly that is found only in the mangroves. This uncommon dragonfly lives and breeds in the saline waters of the mangrove.

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The Copper-throated Sunbirds, another mangrove specialist, are busy bringing up another brood to grace our wetlands. I had the wrong setting for this and had to brighten it.

Ashy Tailorbird at SB

The Ashy Tailorbird is also confined to the Mangroves. They are often jumpy or hiding behind the vegetation. Good to have this one out in the open posing for a shot.

Mangrove Pit Viper at SBWR

It is never easy to spot a small motionless snake that has the same color as the surface it is resting on. But Marcel Finlay managed to see this Mangrove Pit Viper along Route I. Small ( about 40 cm) but venomous, it likes to stay near water edges and wait for its prey. The rest of us were happily shooting away for another great encounter of the herpy kind.

The Lovely Couples of Fraser’s Hill.

I last visited Fraser’s Hill eight years ago. Not much have changed except that more and more buildings are left to rot. This was rather depressing. The overall weather is definitely warmer. Global warming or over development? Bird life was disappointing as well. We encountered only two mini bird waves during our three days there. We did not see some of the commoner birds like the Green Magpie and the Niltavas. The Cutias and the Brown Bullfinches had gone for good long ago. At least we got to see the endemic Malayan Partridges, a species that was legendary difficult to see and get to meet some lovely couples there.

Rufous-browed Flycatchers

This pair of cute Rufous-browed Flycatchers can be photographed with a handphone.

Hill Partridges

A once impossible birds to see is now a matter of waiting at the right place.

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The call of the Fire-tufted Barbets is always welcoming for visitors to the Hill Forests.

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Long-tailed Sibias may not be that colorful but are still delightful birds to photograph.

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Bronze Drongos do not need the long rackets to stand out.

Glossy Swiftlets

I was told that there are two species of Glossy Swiftlets at Fraser’s Hill. This species will very soon be renamed.

Birding Israel with Leica V-Lux

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One of the perks of a Leica sponsored trip to Israel for the “Champions of the Flyway” Bird Race is the use of Leica cameras and binoculars. I was given the Leica V-lux, a bridge camera to try out. A handy travel camera with a generous 20.1 megapixels and a large 1″ CMOS sensor, a combination of comparable high end cameras.  A fast F2.8 to f4, 25-400 mm zoom lens ( 16X zoom) that performs just as well shooting desert beetles to flying swifts and eagles. What impressed me was the surprising fast auto focus especially for flying birds. The best part is that once the camera locks on the subject, the image stays in view. The 12 frames per second made sure every action is captured. It is packed with all the must have features like manual focus assist, stabilizer and DIY function buttons for quick adjustments while shooting. The coolest feature for me is the wireless remote control with my smart phone, a feature that will be very useful for shooting nesting birds. It allows the photographer to be away from the nest and yet able to see the action and adjust zoom and other setting before clicking. 4K video is standard.

Sharing some of the photos taken by the V-Lux in Eilat. Still getting use to the camera.

Over looking to Jordan

The different hues of the desert landscape from buffy brown to dark grey are captured in this shot. Taken from the north south highway in southern Israel, Jordan is in the background.

Flying V Formation

Slender-billed Gulls flying in formation under a beautiful blue sky. 1/1800 F4 ISO 200

Alpine Swift

Swifts are small and fast flying. Capturing them in flight usually needs a high end DSRL camera. This elegant Alpine Swift was flying against strong head winds, just slow enough for me to get a respectable image. 1/4000 F5 ISO 640

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Beetle mania in the desert. These are tough survivors in the barren desert landscape. Fights over food is common. The V-lux can focus up to 3 cm for marco shots.

Goat herd

I like the depth of field of this shot. Precious herd of goats will provide the required sustenance for the local people staying in the Kibbutz. 

Slender-billed Gulls

Slender-billed Gulls returning to their roost shot against a setting sun. 1/1800, F4 ISO 320.

Bluethroat

This Bluethroat is shot under the shade so the colors are a little muted but still rich.

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Steepe (Common) Buzzards are the most common raptor migrating through the Eilat Mountains during Spring. 45,000 were counted in one day alone on 25th March. Most were of intermediate and rufous morph. I was able to freeze this flying buzzard shooting at a slow 1/500 sec hand held. 

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Blue skies contrasting with a grey hillside. A balance exposure is needed to show off both shades. This is one of the counting points for the migrating raptors at Eilat Mountains.

Hooded Whaetear

Getting the details of a black and white bird like this Hooded Wheatear needs almost prefect exposure. The blurred background helps to define the subject.

 

Race to stop the killing.

 

Steepe Buzzard

When I was ask to represent Leica Camera as their Birding Ambassador for South East Asia in the Eilat Bird Festival and Champions of the Flyway, I was half expecting the usual bird festival and race. How wrong I was.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, a Birdlife International Partner use the spectacle of the spring migration of raptors and songbirds from Africa back to Europe to attract birders from all over the world to come to Eilat to raise awareness and funds for Doga Dernegi to stop the killing of migrating birds across Turkey. A Bird Race truly for conservation!

Thousands of Steepe Buzzards passed                                                                                                  through the mountains of Eilat in a day.

Every year 25 millions birds were shot and trapped for game and food across the Middle East. Illegal killing is also happening across Asia and we can certainly sympathize with this.

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The International and local teams taking part in the Champions of the Flyway 2017. Photo courtesy of the Doga Network.

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This was how the Championships of the Flyway started four years ago. This year 18 teams from the US, Europe and Africa got their sponsors and friends to donate and support their participation. Leica Camera AG was one of the corporate sponsors answering the call by sponsoring three teams this year. They are the Leica Cape May Bird Observatory American Dippers, Leica Sampach Snowfinch and Victorious Bird Nerds.

The American Dippers brought along the latest interactive tracking CCT Live technology where everyone can follow their race in real time. 

 

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The Golden Pheasants from China taking part for the first time. Chen Ting, Terry Townsend and Tong Menxiu did a great job for first timers. Photo courtesy of the Golden Pheasants.

The first team from China, The Golden Pheasants flew over from Beijing to take part in this year’s race. They came in the top ten with a credible 143 species in 24 hours. I was amazed that a team from Palestine The Palestine Sunbirders came and took part too. Just shows that nature conservation is above politics and beyond borders. For me the heart warming moment was when they came on stage to accept the pennant of participation. For the all ladies team “Orioles Team” presenting EU Partnership for Peace, this is their fourth year. Great advocate for women power! Three teams, walked and cycled 30-40 km bringing a green message to the race. I got tired out just driving around the arid habitat, so hats off the these guys.

The Palestine Birders

The Palestine Sunbirders participation in the Bird Race shows that Nature Conservation is above politics and beyond borders. 

During the briefing that night before the race, Jonathan Meyrav our host, MC and mastermind actually went through the checklist and locations where to find some of the difficult species. I thought that was brilliant, something we can adopt. All the teams get up to date news on what rare species were seen on whats app. The American Dippers went one step further with the live broadcast of what they saw during the whole race. Now that is what I call sharing and having fun.

Youth Africa Birders from South Africa winer of the Guardians of the Flyway for raising 8,900 Euros for the COTF.

The Youth Africa Birders from South Africa winner of the Guardians of the Flyway. Photo from Jessleena Suri facebook page.

The Arctic Redpolls came in first with a record of 181 species. Congratulations!. The Guardians for the Flyway went to the Youth Africa Birders from South Africa for raising the highest amount 8,900 Euros. Well done guys! In total a cheque of US$62,000 was presented to Doga Dernegi of Turkey who will use it to implement projects to stop the illegal killing.

I am really amazed at how Jonathan Meyrav, Dan Alon and a few members were able to pull off such a big international event all by themselves. I don’t think they remembered when they last slept. Many thanks for your hospitality. My thanks also to Leica Camera Asia Pacific for sponsoring my trip to Eilat to experience the wonderful work that they are doing in that part of the world. It was truly an eye opener for me!

 

 

Champions of the Flyway 2017

In 2015 Birdlife International published a shocking report that 25 millions birds were illegally kill across the Mediterranean in a year. Now with its partners across the region Birdlife International is working tirelessly to stop this killing. One of these partners is Doga Dernagi of Turkey.

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The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, another Birdlife Partner, will be organising a 24 hours bird race called the Champions of the Flyway in conjunction with the Eilat Birds Festival 2017 to raise funds for the many projects that Doga Dernagi will be implementing towards the stopping of the illegal killing of migratory birds in Turkey.

 

Nineteen teams from all over the world will gather in Eilat this coming week to prepare for the race which starts at midnight on 28th March. Leica Camera AG Sports Optics Division will be sponsoring three teams from the USA and Europe to this year’s race.

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The Flyway Rushhour. Photo from the COTF website.

I am most grateful to Leica Camera Asia Pacific for sponsoring me to take part in this race. Honored to be their birding ambassador for South East Asia at the Bird Festival and Race. I have taken part in many bird races at home and abroad but this will be a totally new experience. For one thing the experienced teams can clock over 150 species in the 24 hours. Really looking forward to the race and making new birding friends.

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Thousand of raptors and storks will be funneling through the mountains of Eilat on their way north to Europe in Spring. It is one of the spectacles of the birding world.

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Spring migration of raptors over Israel.  Photo from COTF website.

 

 

The “Playing Field” for the Bird Race (left)

Joining me from Asia will be a team from China, The Golden Phoenix. This is the first time a team from China is taking part. I am looking forward to meet up with Menxiu Tong, one of the members. He took us birding around SE China last year.

You can follow the race on twitter and Facebook at #COTF. More about the race on this link:  COTF

You can also donate to the cause by clicking on this link. Donate

Khao Yai Revisited

I first visited Khao Yai National Park in the mid 1990s in between my business trip there. Pat Komol was the one who took me there. The one sight I still remembered was a bare tree near the Visitor’s Center, all yellow, covered by Black-crested Bulbuls. There must be 200 of them. I have been back a few times to enjoy the great birding there. There were always new species to see like the Coral-billed Ground Cuckoo.

Blue Pitta

Early this year, photos of the Blue Pittas were posted on Facebook by Sree and Millie Cher. This was enough for me to make a short trip up there with my wife in late February. The Blue Pitta is one of the more common resident species in Thailand. Khao Yai is one of the easiest place to see them at their stake outs. Kaeng Kra Charn and Khao Sok are the other national parks where they are locally common.

The old Don Muang Airport is the better airport to use. AirAsia flies there. I rented a car from the Eurocar and use goggle maps to get me to the Terrazzo Resort outside the park. It was an easy drive on Highway 1 and 2 and a new road to Pak Chong at the northern part of Khao Yai. Guide Rittichai who lives in Pak Chong knows the park like the back of his hand having been running tours there for over 20 years with his company Green Leaves Tours.

Puff-throated Babblers

We went for our target first thing next morning setting up our hide by 7 am. Puff-throated Babblers, White-rumped Shama, Orange-headed Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin and a Hainan Flycatcher entertained us. I was ready for a long wait based on the experience of my friends that came earlier. But Rittichai said that will not be long. Then without funfare the Blue Pitta appeared twice before 8 am. What a elation! Now we have the rest of the day to go and look for other species.

Siamese Fireback Male

Driving along the quiet forested roads in the morning, you are always on the look out for something surprising. This morning a male Siamese Fireback was our surprise. It stayed by the roadside and gave us a few wing flaps for good measure. It was a lifer that was not expected but most welcome.

Patch of Scandal Wood trees

Sandalwood Trees at the entrance to the Haew Narok Waterfall were infested by caterpillars.

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They in turned attracted the cuckoos. A few local bird photographers were already there when we reached the place, excitedly pointing out a friendly Orange-breasted Trogon perching nearby.

Violet Cuckoo

Violet Cuckoo Female

Both the male and female Violet Cuckoos were in a feeding frenzy. These are winter visitors to Thailand. I would not want to pass up shooting a deep purple male at eye level close up even though I have some shots taken at Jurong Eco Gardens a few years back.

Asian Emerald Cuckoo Female

A female Asian Emerald Cuckoo was spotted. We had only one record of this species in Singapore. So this is a good chance for me to get some shots.

Banded Broadbill Male

Just as we were about to leave, Rittichai heard the calls of the Banded Broadbill from the forest edge. Lucky for us it was curious and came out. I photographed this broadbill at Panti Forests in the 90s. It was the only available photo of this hard to find broadbill then and was used for a bird guide on birds of SEA. I had to wait almost 20 years to get my camera lens on it again. This unexpected find really made our day.

Limestone Wren Babbler

My second target for the trip is the Limestone Babbler. I saw this at Cuc Phong National Park more than 10 years back but was not able to photo it due to bad light and skittish behavior.

Limestone Krast at Saraburi 2

The limestone krasts at Saraburi has a small population and this is only an hour drive from Khao Yai. This particular babbler was a prize catch when it was first discovered on another part of Thailand. Its habitat is so unique among the bare limestone rockery where food sources seem non existent. How do they survived?

Finding the exact spot took Rittichai a bit of driving around but once we got to the place inside a wat, a short playback was enough to get these inquisitive babblers to show. You have to love their streaky brown and buff plumage. Mission accomplished and now we can concentrate on enjoying the rest of Khao Yai and all the new attractions that sprouted in the past few years and the food. Many thanks to Guide Rittichai for taking us around at such short notice.

Ref:  Boonsong Lekagui, Philip D. Round. The Birds of Thailand  1991.