Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Berjaya Resort, Langkawi; a wildlife photography niche

At the end of March 2015 I spent three nights at the Berjaya Resort on Langkawi Island. It was long weekend with my wife and two other couples. I was interested in the wildlife around the hotel grounds, which were quite extensive. One of my friends was a keen nature person with excellent knowledge of the local mammals and reptiles.

My first impression of the hotel was not particularly good as the check-in was very slow. I was however impressed by the room when we arrived there. There are basically two room locations; a forest location or a seaside location. We chose the former. The room was not luxurious but everything was clean and perfectly adequate. The outside deck was a great place to read and appreciate the passing wildlife and sounds of the night. A walk around the grounds later demonstrated that the chalets were in good condition and the grounds were well maintained. From a nature perspective the chalets had been located with some thought to preserve the trees to allow free passage to the fliers and gliders. From along the beach only the seaside chalets were really visible.

The grounds are gardens were well maintained and the plantings added to the ambience......except when the silence was rudely punctuated by leaf blowers.

The next day I got up early and walked for four hours around the grounds. There was a good selection of wildlife and I was able to get some good images even though I had only a 28-300mm zoom lens.
My friend Nick Baker was seeking images to put on his popular website, EcologyAsia. He had a lean time until he had an encounter with the occupants of a tree hole…two Red Giant Flying Squirrels.
From my perspective the shooting targets were the cute Orange juvenile Dusky Langur babies, hornbills, Black Giant Squirrels, mischievous and house-invading Long -tailed macaques and the intriguing Colugos. I managed to get shots of each of them and came across at least 3 Orange Langur babies. Three Black Giant Squirrels put on quite a display of chasing each other and squealing like mating cats.

The Colugo is also known as a Flying Lemur, which is quite a misleading name. First it does not fly but has an extensive webbing that includes between the hind limbs and tail and between the 'fingers'. They can glide for long distances well over 100metres in ideal conditions. Secondly they are not even closely related to Lemurs, they are a separate evolutionary line whose closest relatives are the primates.  

There were mangroves at the top of the beach and there is a short mangrove walk for guests to enjoy that fragment of an eco-system. Nick managed to photograph a Brown-winged Kingfisher in the mangrove area. This was on my list but a challenge with a relatively short focal length lens.

The hotel offered free night walks to appreciate the denizens that are active then. Surprisingly there is no promotion of the nature within at on the Berjaya Resort website. A small brochure in the rooms might also arouse more interest in guests who are not connecting with the surrounding wildlife. I was informed by Nick that there was a booklet available in the hotel shop for 5 ringgit detailing some of the wildlife but those responsible for this slice of information has ripped off 12 images plus tracts of information from his website.  Other information contained within was riddled with errors.

The food outlets in the resort were good and the vehicles were efficient in transporting guests to and from their rooms. The pool was nice and there was also a part of the beach cordoned off for swimmers. The Beachside restaurant had a great view over the sea and the Thai restaurant at the end of the jetty has delightful staff, great ambience and the food was excellent.

In summary for nature lovers and photographers this is a very good place for subjects despite the lack of accurate information from the hotel and associated guides. The rest of the facilities are common in many other resorts. It is perhaps another case of not appreciating the natural resource you have.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Coppersmith Barbets; raising the young

The Coppersmith Barbet (Crimson-breasted barbet) (Megalaima haemacephala) is a sparrow-sized bird with a crimson forehead and throat, which is best known for its regular call that is reminiscent of a coppersmith beating sheets of metal. Like other barbets they chisel out a hole inside a tree to build their nest. They are mainly fruit eating but will sometimes take insects, especially winged termites.

Throughout their wide range they are found in gardens, groves and sparse woodland. Habitats with trees having dead wood suitable for excavation is important. This species nest and roost in wood cavities.
The location of the described nest exemplifies the habitat of this Barbet species: located in the shadow of Gleneagles Hospital, down a busy lane with terraced shop-houses and in a dead limb of a partially decaying Laegerstromia floribunda tree.

The species is solitary, or in pairs, or small groups: larger parties occasionally congregate on abundantly fruiting Ficus trees. They are fond of sunning themselves in the morning on bare top branches of tall trees, often flitting about to sit next to each other. The flight is straight with rapid flaps.
The call is a rather metallic tuk......tuk...tuk....tuk, which is reminiscent of a copper sheet being beat, when gave the bird its name. The call is repeated monotonously for long periods, starting with a subdued tuk and building up to an even body and tempo. They are silent in winter. The beak remains shut during the each call..........a patch of bare skin on both sides of the throat inflates and colapses with each tuk, like a rubber bulb and the head is bobbed in making the call.
Coppersmith Barbets eat various berries and drupes, and the occasional insect, caught in aerial flight. Petals of flowers may be included in the diet. They eat nearly 1.5 to nearly 3 times their body weight in berries each day.
Courtship involves singing, puffing of the throat, bobbing of the head, flicking of the tail, ritual feeding and allopreening. They breed through much of the year with local variation. Both sexes excavate the nest, usually on the underside of a narrow horizontal branch.They may also roost inside the nest hole. Three or four eggs are laid and like many hole-nesting birds the incubation period is not well known but has been estimated to be about 2 weeks. Both sexes incubate and often two broods are raised in quick succession.

Photographic Criteria
The nest hole on the tree in George Town is pointing in a north-west direction. The sun rising in the east will light the branch around 9am. It is best to position the camera north to south along the edge of the road in order to get shots of the action around the nest hole. Unless it is a hazy hay I prefer the light from around 8.30 to 9.00am. Hazy sun is preferable to full sun. The parents fly in from an overhead branch from the north and this precludes landing shots. There is also not sufficient room or light intensity for incoming flight shots. The camera has to be carefully positioned to avoid light patches in the background and to get as much of the branch surrounding the hole in focus. I used a 500mm f4 lens with a 1.4x extender and shot at f8-f9 to get a sufficient depth of field.

Because Coppersmith Barbets live amongst us photographic records of their nesting are not uncommon. I had a chance to get such a record when a friend indicated there was activity in some nesting holes in a lane behind Gleneagles Hospital in George Town, Penang. Reconnaissance on 11-02-2015 showed that two of seven round holes appeared to be occupied in the early morning as the sun appeared over the horizon with respective birds peering out like horses in a horse box. Two holes in the tree were occupied in the early member of the pair in an upstairs apartment while the nest was two stories (holes) down.

There was no apparent feeding activity but the behaviour around one hole indicated egg incubation may be occurring. I checked a week later (27-02-2015) and there was feeding activity that I followed for a number of weeks.

Two to four eggs are laid mostly a day or two apart which means that the last hatched is at a serious disadvantage in competing for food. In essence the last laid eggs are more like reserves and normally only two chicks, at most, will fledge from the nest. This species is very fastidious at keeping their house in order and faecal matter is cleared many times in a few hours. The mortality of the later chicks was soon demonstrated when an adult removed the body of a dead chick (01-03-2015) and flew off with it to be deposited away from the nest.

I visited the nest on three further occasions (08-03-2015, 16-03-2015) and each time observed regular feedings of the nest. The highest frequency was around 12 per hour but in the first 20 minutes there can be a rapid eight feedings. Fruit appeared to be the only item on the menu with no insects visible.

I first observed chick(s) on 16-03-2015

On 22-03-2015 the chick was looking at the outside world with his head outside the entrance and aggressively jabbed at the parents when they came in with, or without, fruit. about every third visit the parents would remove faecal matter from the nest.

On 22-03-2105 it was estimated the chick was 23-24 days old and therefore due to fledge in the next few days, I shot some video on this visit and it can be seen in the links below.
Life along the  service lane resumed as normal. Goods were delivered, hospital workers parked their cars and reported for duty, offerings were made to remember ancestors and plants were watered, The Barbets were immune to the noise and movement beneath them.

I visited the nest again on 24-03-2015. The chick was still in place but the feeding was more relaxed. An adult appeared at the nest entrance at 7.30am and went off to gather fruit eight minutes later and soon returned for the days first feeding. The chick was more attentive to the outside world and would have a good look around. See video link B below

For a deep-seated urban environment there was quite a selection of bird species in the immediate vicinity; Mynahs and Sparrows cooled off in small fountains, the ubiquitous Yellow-vented Bulbuls and Asian Glossy Starlings foraged for fruit and insects, Koels romanced each other with their sleep-shattering calls, Dollar-birds squawked in flight, above the high-rise building Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Sea Eagles glided on thermals, nearby Olive-backed Sunbirds squeaked, a pair of Pink-necked green Pigeons buildt a nest in a nearby tree, Black-naped Orioles patrolled thee tree-tops and a female Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker stripped vegetation for nesting material.

On Thursday 26-03-2015 the chick was still in the nest and leaning further and further out. At this point evidence suggested there was a solo chick in the nest and it was very inquisitive checking out sights and sounds in all directions.The parents were feeding in a relaxed manner, which suggested fledging was not immediately imminent.

The chick would softly call to the parents and they would call from nearby branches. The light catching on the chicks throat showed the air-sac where the closed-beak call originates from.

I was away for a long weekend but heard from a fellow photographer that the chick was still in the nest on Saturday 28-03-2015. I checked when I could on Tuesday 31-03-2105 and the nest was empty.....the chick had fledged. Occasionally a parent landed on the tree as if it regretted the ending of the nesting phase. James Neoh, who had recorded several nestings said that the parents can forcibly evict a reluctant chick and guard the hole to foil a return to the nest.

Thanks to James Neoh and Praneeth.

Video links
Feeding the chick:
Chick viewing the world: