Is it a Plane, is it Superman? No, it’s a Bird!

These enthusiasts seek out birds to photograph, paint or just document.

Asian openbill.

Ruddy kingfisher.

Chestnut-headed bee-eater.

Mangrove pitta.

Being an island blessed with a 130-million-year-old pristine rainforest, Penang is a haven for nature enthusiasts. But beyond weekend hikers and hobby anglers there is a group of amateurs and professionals who seek out wild birds, simply for the pleasure of observing them in their natural environment. These are the Birders.

Local Pioneers

Kanda Kumar is a pioneer birdwatcher in Penang. He has been birding since his school days and began documenting bird data for the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) in 1971. He led the MNS Penang Bird Group and initiated the MNS Bird Conservation Council which he then headed for five years. Despite this track record he regards himself as merely an amateur, albeit a passionate and enthusiastic one.

Mangrove blue-flycatcher

Given his extensive experience birdwatching, Kanda doesn’t have a favourite location for doing it: “Locations can vary greatly. The environment can differ slightly or greatly, and so will the species you can spot. I try firstly to visit locations that I have not frequently been to. It is often that these are habited by rare or shy birds,” he says.

Kanda has seen interesting changes over the years. “There are many species that have declined due to habitat loss. On the other hand, a few locations saw an increase in population and even species abundance,” he says. “For instance, most of the migratory waterbird species and mangrove bird species are almost not seen anymore along the coasts of Tanjung Tokong and Jelutong, or in the hills near Batu Maung. However, we now have waterbirds at the Pulau Burung landfill area, taking over from the mangrove bird species displaced by the landfill project.”

According to Kanda, common birds like the oriental magpie-robin and pied thriller typically seen on the outskirts of George Town are getting rarer, while the jungle myna is now found only in rural Penang. The largest bee-eater nesting colony in Peninsular Malaysia in Genting, Balik Pulau has also been lost due to development pressure.

A Growing Community

It all began for Choy Wai Mun when his godfather took him on a birdwatching trip organised by the MNS. “That trip opened my eyes to a whole new world and I have been hooked on birding ever since,” says Choy, a Penangite who has been a birder for 30 years. “There are very few things in life that can overshadow the moment when you see a species of bird in its natural habitat for the first time in your life.”

Kanda Kumar.

Choy Wai Mun.

Choy’s blog and Facebook page, The Penang Birder1, feature stories of his extensive birding experiences and tours, and has more than 1,000 readers worldwide. Today, he is a guide taking visiting birders from all over the world on trips within and outside Penang.

The increase of cyclists over the years tells us that people want to enjoy the great outdoors. Birding can go the same way too if we have a locally run body to champion this industry.

According to Choy, birdwatching as an ecotourism activity is gaining popularity around the globe, and Penang is very much a part of this industry. He has even brought birders from Switzerland to Penang’s coastal mudflats, paddy fields and hilly forests. Choy also organises trips around Peninsular Malaysia for guests looking for more variety.

When he first started, there weren’t many like him in Penang. But today, the birding community has grown tremendously – not just in Penang, but throughout the country. “It is not unusual for birders to travel the length of the country and even overseas in search of feathered denizens,” says Choy.

And while there are clubs and organisations organising trips in Penang, birding is usually done alone or in small groups.

A Passion for Plumage

Dave Bakewell is a full-time birding tour guide who has been living in Penang since 1995. When he was just seven years old, he followed his father to a beach bird survey during the aftermath of an oil spill in Scotland, and that was how his hobby developed.

He began being a professional when he signed up for an expedition to China during his tertiary education years. Bakewell then went on to work with the Asian Wetlands Bureau (now known as Wetlands International) in KL in 1988.

Birds are easily accessible as they can be found almost anywhere; photographing them in their natural habitat is relatively easier compared to other wildlife subjects.

Although his professional background is in English, French and Linguistics, his passion for birding never waned despite a 10-year break during which he focused on his language centre. An MNS birding trip to Sungai Bakap in 2006 saw him returning to the birdwatching scene; apart from being a full-time bird guide he is now also actively involved in the MNS, which is the Malaysian partner of Birdlife International. Together with the Penang state government, its members endeavour to protect and manage the coastline between Teluk Air Tawar and Kuala Muda, designated an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).

The IBA network is an international conservation initiative which identifies sites that are globally important for the conservation of bird populations and encourages management solutions that benefit both the local community and wildlife.

“Seasonal and piecemeal changes have always occurred at Teluk Air Tawar over the years. However, the area is threatened by proposed offshore aquaculture projects and other developments. The nutrient load from these farmed fish cages would have a detrimental impact on the benthic fauna which the shorebirds feed on. Also, water pollution from ports and even the construction of jetties could irreversibly change the hydrology of the shoreline,” he says.

Birding at Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest.

Bakewell thinks that birding in Penang can be mainstreamed: “Looking at the massive increase of cyclists over the years tells us that people want to enjoy the great outdoors. Birding can go the same way too if we have a locally run body to champion this industry, perhaps as part of a club in schools or through public awareness events.”

Birds are His Muse

Before Choo Beng Teong picked up the binoculars, he first picked up the paintbrush. Known as one of the finest wildlife artists in South-East Asia, Choo is a full-time artist specialising in wildlife art. His hyper-realistic paintings of birds have captivated the heart of many art aficionados from all over the world. “Birds are easily accessible as they can be found almost anywhere; photographing them in their natural habitat is relatively easier compared to other wildlife subjects.” Choo takes his own photographs for reference when he paints, and with an extensive variety of bird species – over 600! – he will not be running out of subjects to paint anytime soon. “Birds come in many shapes and sizes and they are colourful. It gives me room to be creative and vary the composition of my paintings. The different habitats and the different poses of the birds – whether they are flying, spreading their wings, perched or in their nests – provide so many ways to paint.”

Black naped oriole.

Black shouldered kite.

A self-taught bird photographer, Choo first followed MNS on its Branch Birding Trips some 25 years ago to places like Taman Negara, Maxwell Hill and Fraser’s Hill. Since then, Choo has covered many popular birdwatching areas in Malaysia and has also noticed some changes: “Cheng Ji Chan (‘Temple of a Thousand and Two Steps’), also known as Cheng Kon Sze Temple, is located below the Air Itam Dam. Where the temple is there was a nesting area of black bulbul nearby. However, the birds have all disappeared, mostly due to habitat loss; they would have found new nesting areas deeper in the forest which are not as accessible to birdwatchers.”

Choo’s masterpieces have brought the beauty of these birds closer to the public. His art allows people to learn to appreciate nature. His latest exhibition, “Nature Nurtured”, is currently ongoing until June 18 at the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery, along with the works of 15 other contemporary artists.


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