Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Byram, Penang: Paradise lost for bird photographers

Good bird photography requires a number of elements to be in place:
1.     Interesting species
2.     Good directional light
3.     Tidy perches that have a ‘clean’ background
4.     An ability to get the subject within lens range
5.     Good photographic equipment

#4 can be achieved by increasing the lens size, using a hide or having cooperative birds.

Byram circa early 2012 and before had the entire elements in the list above. The confluence of different elements: the rubbish dump, the effluent ponds, semi-submerged skeletal trees, a mangrove estuary and coastal location conspired to bring a number of species to a small area.
On my first visits in my SUV in late 2011 and early 2012 I was overwhelmed by the perched and swimming species that were boosted by Northern migrants enjoying a warmer climate. Blue-tailed Bee-eaters tossed insects in bushes adjacent to the road, Little Grebes chugged around the ponds and ran across the water when frightened, Oriental Pratincoles stared in wonder at peering photographers and Paddyfield Pipits scythed across the ground or peered at the world from raised mounds.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Paddyfield Pipit

Little Grebe

Oriental Pratincole

 Crested Serpent eagles plunged into bushes to pull out snakes, Changeable Hawk-eagles patrolled the area and a Black-shouldered kite would tease me often, tearing up prey on a perch that was always in the wrong location in respect to the sun direction.

Changeable Hawk-eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle

Several species of Kingfisher also attracted the camera; Collared Kingfishers sat on several regular perches while the elusive Stork-billed Kingfisher could be captured on well-aligned twigs adjacent to the stream that flowed from the sluicegates to the seas. The migratory Black-capped Kingfisher was also a desirable target for the longer lenses. I was sure this particular species knew the length of various lenses and would always position itself just beyond the ideal range of the lens. 

Collared Kingfisher

White-throated Kingfisher

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Black-capped Kingfisher

 Shore birds use the estuary and the pond to forage for food or quietly practice their ballet moves.

Little Heron with breakfast.

Reflected Wood Sandpiper

Pied Stilt

A Great Egret pirouettes on take-off

Bird species are not the only photogenic wildlife at Byram. A group of Otters often scurried through the grass, slid across tidally-exposed mud or had group bonding sessions in their communal toilets. 

Smooth-coated Otters

The ever-present Long-tailed Macaques are in their natural environment in a mangrove swamp and regularly patrol the waters edge for food as well have have board meetings in the trees.

Foraging Long-tailed Macaque

Macaque board meeting

Walking around with a camera fitted with a long lens does not usually result in many great images because a walking human is seen as a threat to avian well-being. If you read the National Geographic July 2013 edition you would know that our feathered friends have every reason to treat us with suspicion and distrust. A hide can be used to get closer to stationary birds. The use of such devices in tropical South-east Asia however represents a good substitute for a Finnish sauna without the refreshing roll in the snow afterwards.
A judiciously located vehicle is a very good hide and was ideal for photographing birds and mammals around the old Byram. I had a number of productive sessions in my SUV and photographed everything from Fiddler Crabs to Giant Monitor lizards climbing tall trees and having a stand-up wrestling contest.

Fiddler Crab

Laced Monitor Lizard sunbathing on a dead tree

I was rather dismayed in the latter half of 2012 when workers began to remove the ‘wood’ from the ponds and started filling the lakes in two locations. Enquiries suggested that filling in the lakes might represent phase two of the rubbish disposal complex so we should be grateful for what had been. Thankfully it turned out that only part of one pond was filled in for a few additional buildings to be constructed.
The next ‘improvement’ that occurred was an example of mind-blowing near-sightedness and demonstrated a clear lack of consultation with those who appreciated the wildlife in the area. It was worse than putting lipstick on a pig…..the porcine in this case had an unwanted boob-job, botox treatment, hair transplant and complete makeover. A raised and concreted path was constructed around the remaining pond areas, trees were planted on either side of the path, shelters were erected and concrete seats were distributed at regular distances apart. Whom may I ask are these for, other than possibly  the grass cutter to take a rest and a phone-break.

The raised concrete path snakes into the distance

Macaque seats?

or for grass cutters?

OK let us analyze who actively observed or photographed the wildlife in the area prior to the makeover. In my frequent visits I saw only photographers in vehicles who were clearly recording the resident or visiting species. The place had local legendary status amongst the avian appreciators. Cars could be driven quite close to perched birds and in extreme cases you could almost touch the subject with the end of the lens. I took a friend to Byram and he said it was more a place for the really long lenses, which would mean an 800mm lens, which additionally means that the distance from the photographer to the target should be minimized.

The raised path, new trees and fence constitute a barrier and added distance for vehicle-based nature photography

So the question that begs to be asked is: were any photographers, the only apparent appreciative audience, asked for advice before the makeover occurred? Perches have been removed, the distance between lens and subject has been increased and potential targets obscured in a number of ways…including barbed wire on the surrounding fence and the random planting of trees and clumps of bougainvillea. To get any decent wildlife shots now you are forced to become a pedestrian on the concrete path and the animals will abscond to Perak or Kedah.
Who else is likely to use the expensive walkway? The 8-10 kilometers from the only substantial population at Nibong Tebal is likely to exclude most of the populace and I would think romantic couples with a vehicle would prefer the heady scent of Chanel #5 over that of Eau de Rubbish Dump. In essence it is as ridiculous as putting a floral clock near the summit of Mount Everest. Mercifully most of the species will still be around but photographing them has been made unnecessarily very difficult. The path itself may give rise to another species however......a white elephant and an expensive one at that.

A shelter for geriatric Macaques and old Otters?


  1. Well written, Sir. Well written. Stunning images as usual.

  2. Graeme - you should seriously consider copying this to the press. Someone needs to answer for this monumental act of crassness.

  3. nice blog... share some pix from your blog
    sabri @ Taman Negara Nature Guide

  4. Where is this location? I am in Penang now and would love to drive there and take a look. Thanks
    My e-mail is

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I like the caption "macaque board meeting".