Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Byram; What a dump!

Diagram of the shooting location at Byram (orange road)

The rubbish mound between the pond reflection and the clouds

A rainbow at the entrance to the estuary

When I came to live on Penang Island I was given three GPS locations, which were the recommended bird photography sites. One of these was adjacent to the large refuse dump at Byram. The dump is located on mainland Penang, on the coast facing Penang Island. The Pulau Burung Landfill Site (PBLS) is a semi-aerobic landfill located in Byram Forest Reserve. The total area of landfill is 63.5ha which receives 2,200 tons of solid waste daily. The site was established in 1991. Landfill is the technique most employed worldwide for the disposal of municipal solid waste in developing countries such as Malaysia. In landfills solid waste decomposes through a series of combined physiochemical and biological processes giving rise to an extremely polluted liquid called landfill leachate. The poisoned water seems to attract a bounteous crops of birds, both resident and migrants. This unlikely prime  birding site consists essentially of three areas; a body of water that formed on the landward side of the current mound of waste, a mangrove forest and an estuary. These areas are accessed by a narrow road that runs to the right off to the main entrance road into the dump. The ponds currently contain toxic runoff from the waste that prevents pollution into the adjacent sea which is intensively fished. The main birding area is along a mainly sealed, but narrow road, that runs for less than four kilometers. My first visit to Byram was like eating durian; a very pleasant experience but with an odor you could do without.

The pond at Byram with the refuse mound in the distance

The ponds have within them a large number of skeletal trees and branch fragments that provide ideal perches for birds. There is a resident population of bird species including; Little Grebes, White-breasted Waterhen, various Egrets, Purple Heron, Red-wattled Lapwings, Great Coucals, Grey Heron, Little Herons, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Common Moorhen, the ubiquitous Yellow-Vented Bulbuls, Magpie Robins, and Lesser Whistling Ducks.

Little Grebe

Little Heron

White-breasted Waterhen

Cattle Egret in breeding colors

Magpie Robin flying to a nest-hole

Lesser Whistling Duck
 The adjacent mangrove forest is often alive with Long-tailed Macaques, various insect-seeking birds, different species of Woodpeckers, Dollarbirds, Collared Kingfishers and seasonally a large Changeable Hawk Eagle nest. The estuary attracts local fishermen as well as Collared Kingfishers, White-throated Kingfishers, Stork-billed Kingfishers and the visiting Black-headed and Common Kingfishers. 

Long-tailed Macaque searching for crabs or shellfish

White-throated Kingfisher

Collared Kingfisher

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Dollarbird with a bug
Great Tit (Juvenile)

Great Tit (male)
              The reptile kingdom is also well represented by a large number of Water Monitor Lizards that range from one to three plus meters. They are often seen paddling along the waterways or ponderously crossing the road. Water Monitors are one of the most common monitor lizards found throughout Asia and range from Sri Lanka, India and Indochina, the Malay peninsular and various islands of Indonesia. They are excellent swimmers and can be defensive using their tail, claws and jaws when fighting. On one occasion I saw two giant-sized Monitors locked in a vertical embrace like a couple of Olympic wrestlers probing their opponent for an advantage. Water Monitors are carnivores and have a wide range of foods; fish, rodents, birds, crabs, snakes and turtles. They are mainly carion eaters.

Water Monitor Lizard

The estuary and the adjacent canal often hosts a family of Smooth-coated Otters. I have seen a group of nine individuals, likely an extended family, fishing the waters with great skill. Within seconds of flopping into the water the otters emerge with largish sized fish that are consumed on the muddy banks or 'on the go'. The younger otters showed their juvenile sense of fun…toboganning across the slippery estuarine mud that was exposed at low tide. There was also a bare patch of grass on the waters edge that was clearly the otters marking zone. The whole troupe would emerge from the water and mark the area with urine and feces and rolling around in a typical group bonding ritual. The marking process is termed sprainting.

Part of a Smooth-coated Otter family

Smooth-coated Otter eating a fish    

The forest and area surrounding the ponds are also good for raptors. It is not unusual to see a pair of Crested Serpent Eagles perched on the top of lamp poles calling to each other or a Black Winged Kite on a favorite perch near the water canal stripping a lizard or snake it has recently caught. The adults and occasionally juvenile Changeable Hawk Eagles can be seen around the nest or on strategic perches around the ponds. Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Fish Eagles are also common aerial visitors.

Juvenile Changeable Hawk Eagle

Changeable Hawk Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle in flight and conversation

While this area could be considered a good birding area in May through October the area really comes alive in the migratory season from October through to April/May. Various waterbirds escaping from the Northern winter make Byram their home during these months. Species include; Brown Shrike, Black-winged Stilt, Tiger Shrike, Javan and Indian Pond Heron, Little and Long-toed Stints, Little-Ringed Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Garganey, White-browed Crake, Oriental Pratincole. Wood, Common and Terek Sandpipers,

Brown Shrike

Chinese Pond Heron in breeding colors

Common Snipe

Black-winged Stilts

As well as the various waterbirds the perches and surrounding airspace is graced by Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. These handsome master fliers migrate the shorter distance from Thailand. They catch insects with great skill, land on favored perches and bash and toss their prey before ingesting them and flying off after additional sustenance.
Byram hosts an amazing variety of wildlife, especially birds in what is a faciilty destined to be choked by human waste. Enjoy it while you can.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater tossing a dragonfly
Graeme Guy August 2012


  1. I guess everyone will get smitten by this locality. Beautiful collection of images and great write-up.

  2. I love this article, the discussion was very useful
    thanks for the share and greetings blogwalking ..

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