Saturday, 31 December 2016

Blue Rock Thrush...

Whether it's a genuine vagrant or an escape, we will never know for sure - it's impossible to call. Ever optimistic, birders are nearly always looking for a tick and the majority will plump for this beautiful bird being a wild vagrant, whilst a few (usually those who've already seen an 'accepted' bird) will question its origins. Either way it was worth going to see simply because it was a male Blue Rock Thrush and it was kicking about in someone's back garden in Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire. The weather was a bit grim but the bird showed well and everybody was happy. To top it off there were two Waxwings a short walk away too - a great few hours birding and a super way to finish 2016.

Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire 
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire 
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire
Blue Rock Thrush, male
Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire 
Happy New Year to everyone. Raise a glass to good birding, herping and whatever tickles your fancy, in 2017!

NB: All photos taken on the Nikon P900.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A County First for Christmas!

Well, I never expected a Blyth's Pipit so close to home but when news broke of one at Blagdon Lake near Bristol in the week, I just had to go see it. Blyth's Pipits are usually notoriously difficult to get decent views of. They often turn up in long grassy fields or paddocks and you spend much of the time trying to see the features and jizz that separate it from the similar Richard's Pipit. Not this one. When Dave Helliar and I arrived on site and marched the 3/4 of a mile or so to where the bird was, it was ambling about on the shoreline. It has to be some of the best views you could ever have of this difficult species here in the UK?

When you view them this well, the differences from Richard's are much easier to see. Although it was about 30 meters away the light was good and some distant photos could be grabbed. My best efforts below:

Showing the nicely streaked crown and rich plumage tones
1st winter Blyth's Pipit, Blagdon Lake
The bill structure, hind claw and jizz
Could all be easily seen with prolonged views
1st winter Blyth's Pipit, Blagdon Lake

Couldn't ask for a better Christmas present! Thanks to everyone who's followed the blog in 2016 and a Merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Day 8, Last day at Bukit Fraser...

Bukit Fraser - 1st December, 2016

Stephen's Place on the Telegraph Loop at Fraser's Hill is a special place. Nigel told me before-hand that it was and I can see why. Stephen Hogg started up the B&B a few years ago along with his wife Salmhia. Today they are ably assisted by their two young boys as well - Adam and Daniel. When you stay at Stephen's Place you really are staying in their home - sharing the comfy sofas with them, watching tv with them and eating delicious home-cooked meals at their dining room table, you are made to feel like part of the family. Prior to his life as a trailblazing B&B owner (B&B isn't a well known concept in Malaysia), he was a wildlife photographer, cameraman and film maker often called upon whenever filming in Southeast Asia was required. He's worked on any number of well known wildlife documentary series including Nigel's own 'Ten Deadliest Snakes -Malaysia', as well as for the BBC, ABC Australia and National Geographic to name but a few and is still one of the country's top wildlife photographers. The B&B only accepts like-minded people who are seriously interested in wildlife so you can always guarantee good conversation with the host and other guests. What more could you ask for? This is definitely the place to stay when visiting Fraser's Hill.

So it was our last full day to explore Fraser's Hill before leaving Malaysia. Nigel and I met up and set out early to make the most of the first few hours birding. We had already decided to walk the Telegraph Loop road - Stephen's Place sits at the top of this 4 km loop and just walking around the road can offer some of the best birding in Fraser's Hill. The weather was a little murky and intermittent rain showers swept through but they didn't last too long. Initially a little quiet, we soon started picking up little groups of Mountain Fulvettas moving noisily through the dense under-storey and a few calls we didn't recognise. It was wonderful having a guide but when you're thrown in at the deep end on your own, you soon learn to recognise birds as you see them. Luckily Nigel was more familiar with them than me and was very adept at identifying the commoner birds by call too.

The weather on Fraser's changes very rapidly.
Mountain Fulvetta, not an easy bird to photograph
Our list started to build and we soon added Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Golden Babbler, Long-tailed Sibia, Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush, Fire-tufted Barbet, Little Pied Flycatcher and another Rufous-browed Flycatcher.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon
After the first couple of waves it went quiet again and we continued to head down the loop. As we reached an open corner of the road a vista appeared allowing you to see for miles across the hillsides. A pair of Little Cuckoo Doves flitted around the top of a fruiting tree at eye level and a group of Siamang hollered and moved through the canopy about half-a-mile in front of us giving good views. Fraser's Hill is a very special place.

Little Cuckoo Dove
View from the Telegraph Loop

Enjoying the view and the Siamang below
Towards the bottom of the loop we saw a Crimson-winged Woodpecker before turning the corner and making our way back up to Stephen's Place for a late breakfast, we planned to walk the loop again later, As we approached the house a gorgeous male Mugimaki Flycatcher pitched up in the garden before disappearing as quickly as it had arrived and the 300 strong colony of Glossy Swiftlets that make Stephen's garage their home, came piling out to make the most of the insects brought out by the rain.

Glossy Swiftlets
Closer view

After our late breakfast I spent some time in the garden watching the Black-throated Sunbirds and was rewarded with a Mountain Tailorbird, Javan Cuckooshrike and Buff-breasted Babbler, then we got to see these beauties in Stephen's garden...

Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina
Showing its horizontal pupil
Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina
The markings on the neck appear when agitated
as it puffs its throat and neck out.
Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina
As thin as your little finger, very delicate snake.
Oriental Vine Snake Ahaetulla prasina

Vine snakes are rear-fanged and mildly venomous Colubrids, unlikely to cause any major symptoms unless you were allergic to the venom. It would take some effort to envenomate a human, first getting a good hold on a hand or finger and then chewing on the bite site to get venom into the victim. Their normal prey consists of geckos and frogs.

You wouldn't really want to get bitten by this though, not deadly but it would spoil your day...a fantastic male Popeia fucata (synonym: Trimeresurus fucatus) or Siamese Peninsular Pitviper.

Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia fucata, male
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia fucata, male
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia fucata, male
Below is the female, she lacks the well defined markings of the male but often has a white or pale lateral line instead. This one was pretty much as big as they get and she was grumpy too, perhaps because she was just completing her slough!

Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
Portrait of the above snake.
Siamese Peninsular Pitviper Popeia  fucata, female
They are quick to strike and have a surprisingly long reach, so you have to be a bit cautious when getting photos. They have relatively long fangs which can deliver venom deep into the hand/digit (being mostly arboreal they are more likely to be encountered on branches or foliage waiting for prey and hence it's usually the hands that get bitten). Their venom is primarily haemotoxic, destroying components of the blood and causing local swelling and pain. There is often blistering and secondary infection can result in gangrene and the loss of the effected finger or thumb.

Also in the garden were several noisy Streaked Spiderhunters too.

Streaked Spiderhunter
Streaked Spiderhunter

On our second lap of the Loop we added a few extra species including this lovely male Orange-bellied Leafbird, Verditer Flycatcher a nice Speckled Piculet and a White-throated Fantail doing what they do best.

Orange-bellied Leafbird, male
Rain-drenched Verditer Flycatcher
White-throated Fantail - poor record shot
Oriental Magpie Robin, female
Also found this unusual Polydesmida Flatback Millipede - an amazing little creature.

Flatback Millipede

Striped Blue Crow on its last legs.

We finished our second lap and headed back to the house for dinner. We wanted to make the most of our last day and Stephen was taking us out for more rarities later along with his son Adam.

We set out once more just after 8pm. Now dark, it was time to try and find a real Fraser's Hill speciality...Coremiocnemis hoggi, a fantastic tarantula named in honour of Stephen Hogg, who spent years studying, photographing and filming this previously unknown species. To be more precise Stephen and his wife spent two years travelling three-times-a-week between Kuala Lumpur (where they were living at the time) and Fraser's Hill, where they would spend the entire night studying the spiders before the two-hour drive back to KL in time for work! That's dedication for you. To see them properly they have to be tricked out of their burrows by imitating insect prey walking close by - this is where Adam comes into his own - he's chief spider tickler.

Coremiocnemis hoggi - best ID feature are the hairy back legs.

This is a sizeable spider which would fill the palm of your hand. We found about a dozen or more but sadly they are becoming rarer as they are regularly dug out of their burrows to be collected and sold as pets - as a species we are truly greedy and abhorrent at times! Even rarer though (and sadly for the same reason) is this incredible Trap-door Spider...

Adam deftly unveiling a Trap-door Spider
These are declining fast and there is currently no enforceable protection to help them. Both of these particular spiders appeared on Nigel's '10 Deadliest Snakes' programme (season two) about Malaysia as well as Sir David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth series (season 1, episode 3).

Short video (no sound)

We weren't quite finished though. As Stephen and Adam left us to our own devices, Nigel and I continued on in search of snakes. Unfortunately we didn't get lucky with snakes but we did find a couple of nice large millipedes.

Millipede sp. Fraser's Hill
A rare and beautiful Malaysian Jewel Centipede (Scolopendra)
Unfortunately these are also taken and sold as pets
reaching crazy prices on the open market.
Back at Stephen's Place the moth trap was running and there were many species present on the large sheet. Stephen has recorded over 2,800 species just in his garden!! This beauty stood out though, by literally overshadowing the rest.

Silk moth sp.
Silk moth sp. with hand for comparison
With that, our Malaysian adventure was over. After a few hours sleep we were driven back to Kuala Lumpur International Airport by one of Stephen's neighbours and off our separate ways. What a great trip we had.

I'd highly recommend Craghoppers Nosilife clothing, which helped to keep me bite free throughout the entire trip, Lifesystem repellants and sun lotion and of course my trusty Nikon P900 which could be relied on for any situation. My thanks also to Wilbur Goh and Andrew Sebastian who are both superb bird guides and I would highly recommend either of them to anyone planning a visit to Malaysia.

I must also mention the great Nigel Marven for inviting me along - if you haven't checked out Nigel's website yet you really should. You can also follow him on Twitter @NigelMarven and keep an eye out for his shows on Eden Channel and National Geographic. Nigel's next series of Ten Deadliest Snakes starts in the New Year on Nat Geo Wild.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Day 7, First full day in Bukit Fraser...

Day 7, Bukit Fraser - 30 November, 2016

We're up at first light today and foregoing breakfast we headed straight to the Malayan Whistling Thrush site. The first bird to make an appearance was a Mountain Imperial Pigeon. It was almost dark when I took the photo so surprised anything could be salvaged from it.

Mountain Imperial Pigeon
Then a whistle from Andrew - he and Nigel were watching our target bird. Sure enough a male Malayan Whistling Thrush was feeding on the side of the road about 40 meters away, unfortunately the light was too poor to even attempt a photo so I enjoyed binocular views instead. A great start to the day! Sitting close by was this Spotted House Gecko Gekko monarchus.

Spotted House Gecko Gekko monarchus

Next it was on to the old abandoned Jalai Resort on the outskirts of town. It use to be a successful resort and popular with birders because their bright outdoor lights use to attract moths and insects, which attracted the birds each morning for a free feast.

This is how the reception looked a few years back...
The reception area now.
Unfortunately it closed some year back over a dispute between the owners of the resort and the land owners. Today it is getting overgrown but the visiting photographers still put out fruit and meal worms for the birds, so getting photos is easy. It's also supposed to be a good place for snakes, including Cave Racers inside the building, but I searched it pretty thoroughly and had no luck on that front.

First to take advantage of the food are the Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes - beautiful birds.

Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush
Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush
Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush
Who are then joined by the Long-tailed Sibias.

Long-tailed Sibia
Long-tailed Sibia
Then this stunning little chap flew in to see what all the fuss was about...

Little Pied Flycatcher
This Little Pied Flycatcher was so tame, Nigel even managed a full-frame photo on his mobile!

Are you ready for your close-up?
What a bird! The Little Pied Flycatcher
Little Pied Flycatcher, male
Little Pied Flycatcher
Little Pied Flycatcher, female

And then the wonderful Fire-tufted Barbet...what a lovely bird.

Fire-tufted Barbet
Showing its 'fire-tuft', a real beauty.
Fire-tufted Barbet
Fire-tufted Barbet

As if it had all been run to a script the Siver-eared Mesias then moved in for the finale. They are just a riot of colour.

Silver-eared Mesia
Fire-breasted Flowerpecker, male
Birds at the Jalai Resort, Bukit Fraser

We left the Jalai and moved on to the Hemmant Trail situated above the town's golf course (and named after the course designer, Frank Hemmant) to look for bird waves, checking a regular spot for Rufous-browed Flycatcher on route. Unfortunately the flycatcher (which always shows apparently) wasn't showing, so we continued to the trail.

The muddy trail descended through some trees and edged around a ravine. White-thighed Langaurs sat in the trees at eye level and a cracking Black and Crimson Oriole called from the trees above. Nigel turned to speak to me and just as we started to move forward again, I looked to my right and noticed a magnificent little green pitviper draped off a branch about 4 ft away. I initially thought it was a Cameron Highlands Pitviper (Trimeresurus nebularis) as it was quite bright in colour and devoid of lateral body markings, it had a bluish tinge to the skin between the scales too. 

Trimeresurus Sp - probably P. fucata
Trimeresurus Sp - probably P. fucata
Trimeresurus Sp - probably P. fucata
Trimeresurus Sp - probably P. fucata
Me with the Trim Sp.
Closer inspection, what a beaut! (the snake, not me).
Nigel Marven photographing this lovely snake
Pleased to see such a beautiful little pitviper

I've since learned that the yellow eye colour leans more towards Popeia fucata (Syn. Trimeresurus fucatus) or Siamese Peninsular Pitviper, which is the only other pitviper found in the area. This is presumably a young female without any sign of lateral lines or other markings. The Trimeresurus genus are a notoriously difficult group that have undergone many (often controversial) changes and splits over the last decade and it's always good to keep learning. What a magnificent pitviper and one of the highlights of the morning for me!

The trails are certainly well marked.
The fun was far from over. Walking in the opposite direction we picked up a small flock of Blue-winged Minlas and then a bird waved swept through depositing three stunning Sultan Tits, a Blue Nuthatch - a stunningly pretty little bird and one that Nigel had particulalrly wanted to catch up with, a pair of Grey-chinned Minivets and a Black-browed Barbet. We hardly knew where to look first!

Sultan Tit, male eating spiderlings
Grey-chinned Minivet, male - pity I didn't
get him with his head turned, in cahoots with the Sultan Tit me thinks!
A tiny Forest Cupid

We moved on again after the bird wave died away, this time heading to the Bishop Trail where we picked up a foraging party of Everett's Whiteyes and listened to the rhythmical sound of a troupe of Siamang just out of sight in the near distance. The start of their call has an almost percussive like quality to it - amazing! You may have to turn the volume up...

Heading a little way along the Bishop Trail we were surprised to see a pair of these giant weevils. They were easily the largest weevils I've ever seen - quite amazing to look at. You can get a scale of the size when seen next to Nigel.

Giant weevil Sp.
Giant weevil - would love to find out which species this is.
It was now lunchtime and we headed back towards town, stopping off once more for the Rufous-browed Flycatcher. This time we struck gold and this pretty little bird performed well for us.

Rufous-browed Flycatcher
It was back to the Shazan for lunch, stopping on the way to see the resident Slaty-back Forktails that nest by the road.

Slaty-backed Forktail
Slaty-backed Forktail, this one a bit darker.
At the Shazan we had great views of this lovely Lesser Yellownape (rodgeri form specific to Peninsular Malaysia) and a cracking male Black-throated Sunbird.

Lesser Yellownape, Fraser's Hill
Lesser Yellownape, Fraser's Hill
Black-throated Sunbird, male
Black-throated Sunbird, male
After lunch Andrew drove us back out of town to try and see some Pitcher Plants that Nigel had seen on his last visit here in early 2015. Try as we might we couldn't locate them and it took a call from Andrew to another local guide to pinpoint them for us. But before we even had time to look at them the same guide arrived on his moped to say there was a Large Niltava perched a short distance up the road. And what a beautiful bird it was.

Large Niltava, male
Large Niltava, male

Back down the road once more and this time we found a few Pitcher Plants, though most were a little bit past their best. We also found some beautiful Bamboo Orchids growing close by.

Bamboo Orchid
Pitcher Plants, Fraser's Hill

From here we set off to drive the new road all the way down to The Gap. Until relatively recently Fraser's Hill only had a single narrow road and you could only travel up (or down) at certain times of the day. When the 'new' road opened some years ago, it became a one-way system - the old road to go up and the new road to come down. We were heading down and were joined for the afternoon by Azlina Binti Mokhtar, Director of the Town Planning Department for Hulu Selangor District Council, who was keen to meet Nigel. She was also a birder and photographer so great to have some extra eyes.

Left to right: Nigel Marvem, Andrew Sebastian (foreground)
Me (background), Azlina and Azlina's driver.
Amazing Tree Ferns tower overhead

Pristine mountain rainforest
We stopped to take a photo of the tree ferns and as chance would have it, a magnificent Black Eagle soared overhead and away out of sight.

Black Eagle
This tatty Malayan Lacewing was the only one I saw but it was still an eye-catching butterfly.

Malayan Lacewing
Further down the road we had a nice mixed flock of around a dozen Eye-browed Thrushes with the odd Golden Babbler thrown in for good measure, a Black-thighed Falconet and this little chap...what appears to be a *Grey-streaked Flycatcher (see footnote below). Hopefully we will receive confirmation on this from our Malaysian friends in the not-too-distant future.

Dark-sided Flycatcher.

Dark-sided Flycatcher

Towards the bottom of the road we stopped again and Andrew bagged 'spot of the day' when he somehow latched on to a Siamang hanging from the branches of a tree about a mile away!

Full zoom on the P900 and you can just about see it!
He deserved a medal for spotting that.

Much closer was this Crested Serpent Eagle while lower down in the canopy we saw more Asian Fairy Bluebirds.

Crested Serpent Eagle
The last leg with our bird guide Andrew was to head back up into Fraser's Hill where he would drop us off at the renown Stephen's Place, a B&B operated by expat Stephen Hogg, his wife Salmia and their two young boys. On the way up we did of course stop for a pair of flying Wreathed Hornbills and as we did another bird wave went across the road, this time containing a distant Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Red-bearded Bee-eater, Everett's White-eye and Mountain Fulvetta. A Banded Kingfisher called from the trees but never emerged sadly. 

We'd had a completely amazing day and Andrew had introduced us to some of the great birding that Fraser's Hill has to offer. But for now it was time to meet Stephen Hogg and his family. Andrew would be back later that evening to take us looking for Mountain Scops Owls (which we heard but didn't see) and tomorrow, we would be on our own.

* Grey-streaked Flycatcher
I received some very helpful responses to my request for ID confirmation of what was initially thought o be a possible Grey-streaked Flycatcher. Both Brown-streaked and Dark-sided (by Wilbur Goh) were other suggestions put forward and after careful consideration I've decided to go with Dark-sided Flycatcher for the following reasons:

1. This bird shows quite cold brown tones compared to images I've studied of Brown-streaked and it also became clear that Brown-streaked has a much shorter primary projection than this bird. The additional video grabs show this feature well and the primary projection on our bird is much longer than expected on Brown-streaked.

1. Dark-sided Flycatcher
2. Dark-sided Flycatcher

Below is a Brown-streaked Flycatcher from the Internet (sorry whoever took the photo - there was no credit with it!). The primary projection is much shorter:

Brown-streaked Flycatcher  (author unknown)

Another grab from the video definitely shows hints of darker centres to the under-tail coverts too, a feature of Dark-sided Flycatcher.
3. Dark-sided Flycatcher - under-tail coverts
As such I'm happy to go with Dark-sided Flycatcher on this bird.