Friday, 27 June 2014

Common Flameback Woodpecker nesting behaviour


 The Common Flameback or Common Goldenback (Dinopium Javanense) is a medium-sized, golden-backed woodpecker with long and solid black irregular lines on the head and neck. Both sexes have black eye-stripes joined to a black rear neck stripe. The male has a red crown and the female a black crown. Each sex has black-scaled underparts and a red rump with a black tail. The bill is smallish and the bird has only three toes. 

The male Common Flameback Woodpecker

Female Common Flameback Woodpecker



The species ranges through Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, India, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Locally the natural habitats are subtropical to dry forests, lowland moist forests or tropical mangrove forests.

The male Flameback at the Singapore nest in 2007

I first came across the species in Singapore and one male liked to look at himself in the mirror of our parked car. I photographed one nest in 2006 in broken forest territory near the Mandai Zoo. The woodpeckers were very shy and did not approach the nesting tree if any human was visible. I set the lens on a tripod and aimed it on the nest hole entrance and fired the shutter via a radio release. In my current location in Penang, Malaysia I have come across a small density of the species at Air Hitam Dalam and another mangrove area near Nibong Tebal. Recently a friendly bird photographer in the pointed out an active nest to me at Air Hitam Dalam. I decided to spend some time observing and photographing the nest to add to the knowledge base of the species.

Two female Flamebacks appear to chase a male at nearby Nibong Tebal

The partly or fully dead tree where the nest cavity was located was not in the best location for photography. The entrance was oriented towards the early morning sun. Normally this would be ideal but there were a number of broad leaves from an adjacent tree in close proximity and these cast shadows in and around the hole. Bright overcast light was a more ideal light for photography. Initially I set up my camera at right angles to the entrance hole and as long as the sun did not shine brightly my background and surroundings were acceptable.

Sunrise at Air Hitam Dalam

The female probes for insects

The male inspects a redundant nest hole



I have photographed other local bird species supplying nests and the best action shots occur when adult fly towards the nest with prey in their bill. An example of this is the White-throated Kingfisher flying towards the nest with a small-legged skink in its bill. The Blue-throated Bee-eater likewise carries fresh, often live prey, back to the chicks.

A White-throated Kingfisher carrying live food to the chicks

A Blue-throated Bee-eater carrying a butterfly to the nest

Other behavioral shots around the nest are obtained when the adult, carrying fresh food, interacts with the chicks at the nest entrance, as illustrated by the Olive-backed sunbird and two very enthusiastic chicks. Other woodpecker species such as the diminutive Sunda Woodpecker supplies its young with insects and their pupa, as illustrated. 

Enthusiastic Olive-backed Sunbird chicks compete for an insect

A Sunda Woodpecker delivers an insect pupa to the chicks

The Common Flameback is a regurgitation feeder and the adult mostly goes inside the nest to bring up the food to feed the chicks, therefore it is less spectacular from an action photography viewpoint.

There appears to be only scant information on the nesting habits of this species. I had read the astute observations of Wong Chor Mun from Selangor who observed a nesting in 2007 with some friends.
As the eggs are unseen it was difficult to determine when egg-sitting ended and raising the chicks began as the frequency of the adults visits did not change a great deal. Two to three eggs are laid and the incubation period is 25-28 days. It takes about the same time until the chicks fledge. The pair that I observed  part time for four weeks had quite distinct patterns of behavior. The female would visit the nest tree 6-7 times in an hour and spent quite a lot of time in the decaying wood above the nest entrance.  She was an infrequent visitor to the actual nest. The male on the other hand would arrive in determined fashion around 3 times every two hours.  He usually landed on the opposite side from the entrance but quickly made his way to the cavity. He would then spend from 2-10 minutes inside and would often emerge carrying droppings to deposit elsewhere. Occasionally the adults would interact with each other around the nest entrance and would frequently call each other away from the nest.

The male usually landed on the back of the tree (redundant nest below)

The male checks out the nest status before going inside to feed the chicks


The female regurgitating prior to feeding

Male/female interaction at the nest entrance

I was mainly semi-hidden behind a tree or in long grass. Any movement in the open resulted in the departure of the adult although I observed they paid little attention to grass-cutters operating nearby. Other species passed by while I was waiting for more woodpecker action; Spectacled Leaf Monkeys rested on the suspension bridge, Common Iora flitted through the vegetation, Blue-winged Pitta called and Green-billed Malkoha explored the leaves or flew like slow arrows to a new destination. 

A Spectacled leaf Monkey rests nearby

A Common Iora looks for insects

A pair of Blue-winged Pittas reside in the near vicinity

A Green-billed Malkoha hunting for food

The entrance hole was quite small and the adults had to squeeze through it when entering or leaving the hole. There would not be many predators that could fit through a small opening. Several times during my visits a Plantain Squirrel got close to the nest opening and was chased off by the male woodpecker.

An inquisitive Plantain Squirrel was chased away by the male woodpecker

The male enters the nest cavity

The female emerges after a feeding session

The male emerges carrying a fecal sac

When the chicks got older a male and a female could be seen just inside the nest opening and often a wide-open juvenile bill greeted the adult. The adults would often start the regurgitation process when approaching the hole. Both chicks take on the adult appearance at an early stage as there is no need for camouflage in a dark cavity.

A male chick peers out at the outside world

The adult male arrives to feed the chicks

The adults could be seen probing nooks and crannies in nearby trees when searching for insects. They approached the nesting tree or adjacent trees with the rapid and slight laboured undulating flight. There was no opportunity to get incoming flight shots as the adults usually appear from the foliage of adjacent trees.

I was present on 2nd July 2014 when the first chick fledged around 8.30am. The young male was having a very good look around at the outside world and occasionally calling to his parents. They replied from nearby. I had seen this type of behaviour with Bee-eaters trying to induce chicks to fledge. The adult male came to the nest and did not feed the chick, In response the chick was angry and appeared to snap at the adult. The adult male flew off and 15 seconds later the chick followed......mission accomplished. The nest cavity was quiet for the next hour and no feeding or chicks looking out occurred. I went to investigate elsewhere and when I returned another male chick appeared at the nest entrance.

The male chick had a good look at the world before fledging

Technical note;
For the Woodpecker shots I  used a tripod-mounted, Canon EOS 1DX with a Canon 800mm, f5.6 lens. The nest is around 6-7metres above ground level and with the appropriate angle of shooting the 800mm lens is best (a 500mm to 600mm with a converter would be fine). I always shoot on manual and require an f stop of f8-f9 to accommodate a reasonable depth of field. 1/100th sec is the slowest speed that wildlife should be exposed at......as there is always subtle movements. The most recent models of Canon and Nikon allow greater ISO speeds and I have mine set at ISO 2000 a lot. This enables speeds of 1/4000th second for flight shots in good light and respectable shots in bad light. The above nest was best shot in relatively poor light to avoid excessive contrast. The nearby Pittas are often in a fairly dark corner and the ISO speed advantage again prevails.  Incidentally the colours of the Pitta are best portrayed when the bird in shadow.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Air Hitam Dalam, Penang; small and broken but very active

GPS Coordinates:   5°27'8"N   100°27'1"E

Location of Air Hitam Dalam in relation to Penang Island

Air Hitam Dalam reserve runs mostly from the horizontal road at the top to the left of the vertical bund track until the Kampong


Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest or popularly known as Air Hitam Dalam Recreational Forest is a fresh water swamp with a size of approximately 11 hectares. The park is situated in the Seberang Perai North District of Penang or North Province Wellesley. It is easily accessed by leaving the North/South Highway at exit 165 to Sungai Dua and following the GPS directions. There are two access routes; one rather convoluted through a Kampong (old car park) and another upper car park off Jalan Kubang Semang (P3) (new car park). A lot of bird action occurs in and around the Kampong car park while the upper car park has a good view of the rising sun. 



Asian Open-billed Storks at sunrise

A Barn Owl observes from his base in the pre-dawn hours

Air Hitam Dalam literally means Deep Black Water, which suggests the river beside this park was deep and dark. A perusal of the noticeboard bearing an aerial image of the reserve and a quick look around would leave most newcomers underwhelmed as to the potential. Some birding sites are in a unique location and certainly this reserve is in that category. It consists of a winding muddy river (mainly Sungai Perai...it meets Sungai Jerak nearby), a bund running about 400-500 metres, patches of fresh-water marshes, a meager collection of large trees and an area of commercial shrubs [(Barringtonia racemosa (Putat) and Nypa fruticans (Nypa Palm)]. 
There are several observation towers and suspension bridges and boardwalks above the swamp. When I arrived in Penang 3 years ago the infrastructure was being replaced whereby concrete structures replaced sad, rotting wood. The site is relatively well maintained and the workers clean up the ubiquitous litter leaving a meager but pleasant environment but sadly the refurbished structures are already showing signs of wear and tear.

The track along the bund; the river is on the left and the forest fragment on the right

The turbid Sungai Perai meanders through the reserve




Sungai Jerai loops around on one side of the bund while the bulk of the forest remnant is on the opposite side. Various sized Monitor Lizards can be seen in the river or lurching across the bund to access the swampy area under the trees. I have also seen several Smooth-coated otters sliding on the muddy banks of the river or swimming in the murky waters.

Water Monitor

Smooth-coated otters

My first two visits to Air Hitam Dalam left me underwhelmed but the action is very seasonal and multiple visits are required to fully appreciate the potential. The overwhelming question is how does this rather small, mixed habitat area host such a variety of wildlife. The quick answer is that it an oasis and stopping off place for feathered migrants and travellers. The area around the reserve is mainly paddy fields and the trees would be like a 5 star hotel in the middle of the Sahara desert for migrants…..and of course some stay for a while. In reality over 100 bird species have been recorded at this forest reserve.


Suspension bridge with Barringtonia bushes on the foreground

Suspension bridge and walkway from the bund road.

There is a large population of Long-tailed Macaques in the reserve as well as a small group of Spectacled Leaf Monkeys (Dusky Langurs) as well as a smaller number of Silvered Leaf Monkeys. The two species of Leaf Monkey can interbreed and form a hybrid population. The  younger members of Macaque population can sometimes be seen in the early morning playing at the rivers edge.



Young Long-tailed Macaques

Long-tailed Macaques

Long-tailed Macaque female and baby

Long-tailed Macaque female and baby

Spectacled Leaf Monkey

Other species of mammals in the reserve include hyperactive Squirrels. The main species; the Plaintain Squirrel can be seen snaking at stupendous speeds along a disjointed arboreal highway, chasing, jumping, 'chirping' or gathering food or nesting material.

Plantain Squirrel

Plantain Squirrel with nesting material

Plantain Squirrel feeding on leaves

Several years back a pair of Mangrove Pittas were in residence and even nested adjacent to the carpark. They seem to have been displaced in recent years by one or two pairs of Blue-winged Piitas, which are a popular drawcard for the bird-callers and worm-feeders. As seems to happen when various species are lured out of the forest by play-back and meal worms other species cash in on the handout and await the ‘dinner gong’. Currently there is a friendly Racket-tailed Drongo quietly awaiting the Pitta-feeders.

Mangrove Pitta

Blue-winged Pitta

Blue-winged Pitta pulling an earthworm

Blue-winged Pitta

Racket-tailed Drongo

Air Hitam Dalam seems to be a popular place for raptors. There is sometimes 2-4 Crested Serpent Eagles in the vicinity and Brahminy Kites pay regular visits. At various times Black Kites are observed around the reserve. The small group of trees also host 3 owl species; a Barn owl family, a Spotted Wood Owl family and Buffy Fish owls.

Crested Serpent Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle in flight

Brahminy Kte

Barn Owl at nest hole entrance

Earlier in 2014 several species of Hawk-cuckoo were temporary residents in the reserve; the Hodgson’s Hawk-cuckoo and the Large Hawk-cuckoo (described here; http://digdeep1962.wordpress.com/tag/air-itam-dalam/).

There are a number of resident species of Kingfishers and others that take temporary residence in the reserve. Collared Kingfishers are a common and noisy resident. White-throated Kingfishers are always around as they are generally in the rural surrounds. Less frequently spotted are Stork-billed Kingfishers and the sought-after migrant the Ruddy Kingfisher.

Collared Kingfisher

Collared Kingfisher

White-throated Kingfisher

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Ruddy Kingfisher

There is a colourful supply of Woodpecker species in the reserve; the more frequently seen, or heard, are the Common Flamebacks which nest within decaying trees. Banded Woodpeckers can also be seen seeking insects in fruiting clumps and in tree bark. The less common Streak-breasted Woodpeckers are a a little more difficult to spot and photograph.

Common Flameback Woodpecker (female)

Common Flameback Woodpecker (male)

Streak-breasted Woodpecker (male)

Pittas and Raptors are large or colourful but the forest reserve also harbours a number of species of small and elusive flycatchers; The Asian Brown, Dark-sided, Mangrove Blue and the elusive Green-backed can be seen there at various times.
Flycatchers however can be spectacular and one of these is a migrant species in the reserve. Several months back there were at least 5 individual Asian Paradise Flycatchers stopping over on their way north.

Mangrove Blue Flycatcher (male)

Mangrove Blue Flycatcher (female)

Asian Brown Flycatcher

Asian Paradise-flycatcher (male)

Another large bird species that has recently made the area its home is the Asian Openbill Stork. In early 2013 several observers spotted a large flock of this species heading south. There had been a small seasonal population in Penang for a number of years numbering around 20 birds. The observed flock of up to 2000 birds signaled a southern expansion of this species that was listed previously as ‘non-resident’ in peninsular Malaysia. There is currently over 1000 Openbills roosting near Air Hitam Dalan and they fly at first light to grazing fields. A favourite food is the Golden Apple snail that has reached high levels in paddy fields.

Asian Openbill Storks

Relatively common denizens of the open swampy area include; White-breasted Swamp hens and Coucals.

Greater Coucal (juvenile)

White-breasted Swamp hen

A prominent sound on the reserve boardwalks is the call of the Lineated Barbet which nests in tree hollows.


Lineated Barbet feeding its nest

Other bird species documented in the forest reserve include; Olive-backed Bulbul, the Ubiquitous Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Asian Glossy Starlings, Green-billed Malkohas, Common Iora, Olive-backed Sunbirds, Ashy Tailorbirds, Arctic Warblers, Pin-striped Tit Babblers, Pink-necked Green Pigeons, Black-naped Orioles and Pied Fantails. I obtained a series of somewhat humorous images of this gritty little species when a Crested Serpent Eagle perched too near a fantail nest. The light was not good enough for sharp flight shots but the little birds constantly bombed and harassed the raptor until he sought a more peaceful perch.

Pink-necked Green Pigeon (male)

Yellow-vented Bulbul

Olive-winged Bulbul Pair

Asian Glossy Starling (male)

Green-billed Malkoha in flight

Common Iora
Olive-backed Sunbird (male)

Black-naped oriole

Pied fantail

Pied fantail feeding chicks

Pied Fantails harassing a Crested Serpent Eagle

Pied Fantail harassing a Crested Serpent Eagle

The old carpark that is accessed through the Kampong, although lacking in quality photographic light, has quite a bit of action with small birds foraging in the forest remains, along the top of the moss-covered wall and on the tarmac of the carpark. Forest Wagtails, the various flycatchers and the Abbot's Babbler come into this category. Nature photographers love to see and photograph Broadbills. Black and Red Broadbills were once a feature of Air Hitam Dalam and recently several individuals were again spotted with nesting material, which hopefully signals a return of this cute species. 
Colourful Sun skinks also bask in the sun on the carpark wall

Forest Wagtail

Black and Red Broadbill

Abbott's Babbler

Sun Skink

I have made a cross-video that incorporates video sections linked to still images to provide a feel for the location. The current edition for Air Hitam Dalam can be found here; https://vimeo.com/96301526


You are being watched