Friday, 8 February 2019

The degradation of nature photography sites in Penang

When I came to Penang 7 plus years ago I was given 5 GPS locations of recommended nature photographic sites. They were at Juru, Batu Kawan, Penanti motocross track, Byram and Air Hitam Danum.

A number of my nature photography colleagues are interested in recording as many species as possible. I do this too but my prime interest is in the behaviour of a species, recording action and if possible I spend  longer periods with one species.

I  dismissed Juru and Batu Kawan fairly quickly.  I went to Juru once and have not returned as there was little material there. I think I ended up photographing mudskippers. I went to Batu Kawan three times in 2012 and have not been back. There were some interesting species, including the elusive Black-capped Kingfisher but already locals from nearby houses were netting fish in the shallow lagoons in direct competition with Kingfishers.

In the following headings I will show what was recorded at the location at the start of my association and what it looks like now, in the second part of the description.

Air Hitam Dalam (AHD)

Barn Owl

Buffy Fish Owl

Spotted Wood Owl

Plantain Squirrel with nesting material

Lesser Flameback Woodpecker (male)

Ruddy Kingfisher

Mangrove Blue Flycatcher
Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

Yellow-rumped Flycatcher (male)

Blue-winged Pittas

Black and Red Broadbill (male)

When I first arrived in Penang, AHD was being refurbished and the elevated walkways and higher walkways were being restored. The elevated walkway is necessary because the area on the non-riverside of the bund is swampy. There are not a great number of trees present and unfortunately in the last 18 months there has been several falls of major trees. One damaged the elevated walkway, and another smashed the toilet facility at the forest carpark. Both have been repaired and order restored. I would question the need for the aerial suspended walkway. It had been closed for some time for maintenance work and it appears to be used mainly by the monkeys. Generally, although the reserve has looked like it was decaying several times it has been repaired and is generally kept in good condition. There appeared to have been some grandiose plans for AHD in recent years. It was muted that locals would guide ‘tourists’ through the reserve for a fee. I must admit I have never seen many, if any, local residents taking any interest in the various species found in the reserve. There also appeared to be attempts to make it a paying proposition as booths were built at the two entrances. This would also be an ill-informed plan as there is not enough to warrant payment despite it being termed an 'Education Centre'.
In essence it is a bit of a scruffy remnant that fights above its weight. AHD is on a migration route and various birds turn up as they travel north or south. There is a resident Barn Owl and for several years there was regular visits by a pair of Spotted Wood Owls. There has been both Mangrove Pittas and Blue-winged Pittas nesting in the vicinity. There are regular raptors; Crested Serpent Eagles, Brahminy Kites and Black Kites and the seasonal appearance of the Open-billed Storks. There are a number of Bulbul Species, Black-naped Orioles and the Mangrove Flycatchers. Coucals and Green-billed Malkohas are relatively common. As well as Collared Kingfishers, White-throated Kingfishers and some Stork-billed Kingfishers there have been yearly visits of Ruddy Kingfishers. There are occasional visits by Oriental Dwarf Kingfishers. Indian Cuckoos appear at the beginning of the year and in 2018 there was a flurry of photographers seeking Violet Cuckoos. You can hear Coppersmith Barbets and Lineated barbets as well Common Flameback and Streak-breasted woodpeckers. Intermittent visits by Asian Paradise Flycatchers and Black and Red Broadbills have been noted.
There is a number of Long-tailed Macaques in the reserve as well as a small number of Dusky Langurs and Silvered Langurs. It would be interesting to know how this band of primates arrived at this location as they now appear to be isolated. They have been seen to be interbreeding and hybrids can be seen.

From my perspective AHD has been worth visiting once or twice during a month. I have got some good record shots but not a lot of action. It is a nice place to spend a morning from sunrise to around 10.30am as the sun rises across the Sungai Tengah river.

The toilet was destroyed by a fallen tree....a new toilet has now been erected...further away from the trees.
A large Fig tree fell and destroyed part of the walkway in 2016

Repaired walkway

Current status; Despite set-backs holding on and well maintained although some issues


The diagram above is a general view of the rubbish dump at Byram and where the best locations for nature photograph occurred Represented by the purple and red dot and pink line). Along the purple line the following images were taken before the fence and path were erected around the oxidation ponds. Image possibility along the purple line is severely compromised currently and is like to cease soon. The pink line and red dot  represent good locations for kingfishers and otters and are not immediately compromised by the fence or the current dump extension. The canal has been blocked where indicated and the water is now stagnant in the vicinity.

House Crow mobbing a Crested Serpent Eagle

Pied Stilt

Wood Sandpiper

Changeable Hawk-eagle with a rat

Blue-tailed Bee-eater

Little Grebe

Smooth-coated Otters

When I first went to Byram I was very happy with the set-up and prospects. There was a non-sealed road running essentially south to north that ran alongside some oxidation ponds that were adjacent to the major rubbish dump for the state of Penang.  The ponds contained some skeleton trees that provided good perches for the number of local and migratory species. It was relatively easy to shoot from a car window with a 500mm or 600mm lens with extenders. Past the oxidation ponds was a group of trees with mainly swampy ground beneath. A canal runs parallel to the road and later there is a T-bend with a drainage route out to the open seas briefly joining another river. There is a mechanical gate that can be raised at low tide to drain part of the canal to the sea.
The road and canal continue to the north running parallel to each other. There is a small fishing port less than a mile along the road.
In 2011 and 2102 this was a great place to visit and many images were collected. It is also on a migration route and one of the migrant species was the beautiful Blue-tailed Bee-eater and the ubiquitous Brown Shrikes. There were a number of Crested Serpent Eagles who preyed on local snakes as well as a nesting pair of Changeable Hawk-eagles.  Along the canal Smooth-coated otter families hunted for fish or sprainted alongside the canal. Where the canal meets the Sungai Air Hitam there were at least five species of kingfishers; Collared, White-throated, Stork-billed, Black-capped and season.
In 2013 some unspecified and very misguided contractor decided to make the oxidation pond area into a ‘nature park’. A mesh fence was erected around the ponds and a concrete path was laid down as well as concrete seats and a sort of gazebo. For unknown reasons some of the dead trees were removed from the water. The perches were now mainly gone, and the mesh fence precluded shooting images from a car. If you walked on the path you would scare off most of the potential subjects.
I wrote a blog documenting the loss to local nature photographers in 2013 and tried to get a local newspaper reporter interested in the ruination of a nature photography site. For some obscure reason an article was published that extolled the sense of making nature available to locals and what an asset it was to the local community!!!! I never saw anyone use it and when I tried to walk the path in the early days after its construction a security guard got very anxious about what I was doing. It was complete stupidity to think that locals from Nibong Tebal over 10Km away would romance their partners with the aroma of the rubbish dump.
Since 2014 I have only been to the area two or three times a year. The canal and river area were unspoiled and the kingfishers etc still arrive. In January 2019 the main dumping ground is very close to the oxidation ponds and some ponds have been filled in. The mesh fence is broken down in many places and the path is broken and covered in dirt and rubble in some places. Perversely the broken path and surrounds was still being maintained by one worker, at least. The canal for some reason has been filled in at one spot and the water either side has deteriorated markedly. In general, the deterioration has been gradual but seems headed for a final demise. Some trees have fallen down by natural forces and the raptors are less but the kingfishers are still around. What is most annoying that the virtues of the area were pointed out, but a ridiculous scheme was funded without any possible merit, logic or sense other than to extract money.

The gate is wrecked the Gazebo unusable and the path covered in dirt (see below) and the main dumping ground gets ever nearer. The ponds are necessary to temper toxic run-off from the dump before the effluent goes into the sea. There have been a number of scientific papers written about the desirable readings.......but it seems to be breaking down!!!!

The path around the 'great attraction' is broken and overgrown

Nobody sits on the seats

It is still a good photographic location around the estuary (pink and red indicated area on the diagram); including 5 species of Kingfisher but they are not easy to get close to.


Current status; Ponds....degrading to extinction, Estuary ......still intact

Penanti Motocross track

A kingfisher nesting hole is visible on the bank by the corner of the track (2012)
Image from 2012 showing the diversity and a small section of nesting sites

GoPro images from above a Chestnut-headed Bee-eater nest

This was clearly my favourite site. I have visited this location over 200 times. I exhibit in international photographic salons and this location produced over 100 images that were accepted internationally with many medal winners. The location was like an outdoor photographic studio. At its peak in 2012/2013 30-50 Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters nested there starting November/December, around 150 Blue-throated Bee-eaters nested there from late February to June. Also,  four pairs of White-throated Kingfishers nested in cavities in the complex. Coucals, Bulbuls, Paddyfield Pipits, Green-billed Malkohas, Blue-winged Pittas, Pied Fantails, Savannah Nightjars, also frequented the area. Wild Boars used to dart across the area in the early morning.
I had several friends who were motocross riders. They told me there was a number of such tracks in the area and they were free to use which one was convenient. The track was designed by an enthusiast who owned supermarkets apparently. The track was remodelled several times in 3-4 years and then declined. The trackside tyre markers were removed and over the next three years or so the track degenerated. The Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters declined until there were 3-4 only in 2018 and their attempt at nesting was futile. The number of Blue-throated also dropped to about 34-40 in 2018. In 2018 my main focus was a solitary pair of White-throated Kingfishers raising two chicks. I drove past the track in October 2018 and the area was being levelled and trees uprooted. On investigation in January 2019 I established that half the area had been flattened while the back half is currently intact. A kingfisher pair was in residence. Some Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters appeared but did not stay.
As the land was owned privately the owner can do whatever he/she likes. The area is surrounded by palm oil trees and I have long suspected this area would become part of the ‘profit forest’. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to make use of the situation. The owner would never have known this was a major bird-nesting area and such a wonderful photography site.

Several years back and in the year before half the area was levelled some lazy tree-felling contractor would dump his waste on this site, some of which can be seen below. Turf was also cut here and poachers were frequent visitors.

Current status; Severely compromised and likely to be totally gone by the end of 2019.

The remaining locations were not part of the original GPS locations I was given but they are still part of the story.

Barbet nesting at Jalan Servis

Tree with Coppersmith Barbet nest holes
Coppersmith Barbet

The colourful little Coppersmith Barbets are cavity nesters that drill holes in mainly dead or dying tree branches. For several years there was a tree along Jalan Servis, just behind Gleneagles Hospital that looked like a mini condominium for Coppersmith Barbets. The nest was very active in June 2015. I checked in 2016 at about the same time and found the tree had been cut down......’because it looked ugly’ in front of a restaurant. Whether permission was granted to cut it remains unknown.

The stump of the Barbet-nesting tree can be seen at the bottom of the picture

Current status
; Gone forever.

Otters at Seri Tanjung Pinang

I live in Seri Tanjung Pinang and for a number of years we sighted families of Smooth-coated Otters that bred under the ‘Lighthouse’ at Straits Quay and had another holt in the rocks adjacent to the promenade. Some days 8-9 otters were sighted. They also frequented a patch of mangroves near Gurney Drive. Since the construction of the offshore island and the destruction of the mangroves the otters are very infrequently seen and never as a family. What is concerning is that no environmental impact studies were taken into account for the island complex and submissions from the Nature Society were ignored.

The mangrove complex can be seen in the centre of the image
Smooth-coated Otters would raise their young under the 'lighthouse' (on the left)

But along came the reclamation and the machinery.......

Pile-driving equipment, more development and fishermen has resulted in abandonment of the holt which was located in the foreground

Current Status; Far less sightings and no family groups.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater nesting site at Kampong Genting

Blue-tailed Bee-eaters nest in and around China and migrate South during the Winter. They can be seen around the coast of Penang in November when heading south and again in March/April when returning north. There have been anecdotal reports of nesting sites in mainland Malaysia but the only confirmed site was in Balik Pulau on Penang Island. Specifically the site was in Kampung Genting. A decade ago the Government decided to construct an education complex in this area and a Vocational College  was constructed on the nesting site.
Progress needs to happen and educational establishments are of primary importance but one has to question wether ecological surveys were carried out at the time. The species will survive but this colony clearly had to find alternate places to nest. You can now watch a game of football where new life was once created and nurtured.

To be fair the nesting ground had been lost before I arrived in Penang but I feel it adds to the theme of the blog.

Today the flags of the Malaysian States fly over the area where the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters fed their chicks .

Current Status; Gone forever

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