The founding of Penang Island in the late 18th Century by Sir Francis Light marked the beginning of 171 years of British rule in Malaya.
Province Wellesley on the mainland, named after Lord Wellesley, has always been made to feel and treated somewhat like a step-sister to the island state.
Geographically, it is something like Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Except that in Province Wellesley, there aren’t any nine hills to boast of any good Feng Shui – Chinese art of divine intervention to stimulate an economic boom initiated by a race nicknamed, ‘the Yellow Peril’ by British colonists.
Nor were there any Californian gold deposits that saw Chinese junks sailed to port to name the province, ‘San Francisco of the East’ also known as Kum Sun or Gold Hill in the Cantonese dialect.
Neither has Province Wellesley the amour and romantic provincial ambience of Provence in Northern Italy. There, sows are bred to sniff out musky truffles in Mediterranean woodlands. Valued like gold, truffles are shredded paper-thin and sparingly sprinkled over homemade, delicious pastas and spaghettis for the ‘oomph’ and much enjoyed by Italian families on special occasions.
The opposite holds true for Province Wellesley. While it held such a romantic, countryside name, it was renamed, Seberang Perai after the 1970’s.
My government then was in a passionate mood to erase all things colonial and opted for a local flavour. Pathetically, it sounds bad like a mouthful of verbal diarrhoea or a victim down with salmonella poisoning in latrine agony. Anyway, it is a phrase of a place I am not too proud to coo too sweetly.
The original topographic area of the province was mainly low lying, agricultural and forested land, with a couple of low, inland hills with patches scrub and wetlands. Naturally, it was left last to be developed in the tropical heat of a mosquito infested region.
Fortunately, remoteness and late development gave longer tenure to bird habitats. It also allowed me a window period to checklist bird areas and put on historical record – prior to mid-2007, images of migratory and water birds seen at Bandar Perda wetlands area, Bukit Mertajam (above: top, migratory egrets; bottom, Chinese Pond Heron; right: near right Purple Heron; far right, Little Egret).
There were uncommon sightings of Greater Painted-snipes (Rostratula benghalensis), Red-necked Phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus), Oriental Practincoles (Glareola maldivarum) and Brown-winged Kingfisher (Halcyon amauroptera), a family of Barred Buttonquails (Turnix suscitator) and Japanese Sparrowhawks (Accipiter gularis) to add to various species of bee-eaters, bitterns, kingfishers, munias, herons, wagtails, raptors and a resident Barn Owl (Tyto alba), bringing a total of more than a hundred species of birds at the peak of migratory season.
Crepuscular birds – active feeding birds at dawn and dust had to be the signature species of Bandar Perda. Bird images shown here are the result of many predawn, solo visits and setting up of mobile mini hides at various birding sites (left: top left, Watercock; top right, Ruddy-breasted Crake; bottom left, Baillon’s Crake; bottom right, pair of Slaty-breasted Rail).
There were numerous occasions of a peaceful sit down of a take-away breakfast and hot tea-flask to observe Slaty-breasted Rails (Gallirallus striatus) hunt for their breakfast. They threw their heads back and stabbed their long beaks into damp paddy fields in search of embedded crustaceans. With hammer action, hardened shells of crustaceans, gripped by their bills, were smashed open against hardened rock surfaces (below top, Slaty-breasted Rail).
Crepuscular birds were observed to roost in one field and breakfast stroll to the other. It provided a small window and précised time of opportunity to observe them as they crossed bunds or tracks in between fields (right bottom).
Being extremely skittish, these birds skirted the edge of paddy fields during feeding times and were rarely seen in mid-fields. As such, any slightest disturbance or predatory threat would give them the opportunity to run for cover.
In extreme cases, Watercocks (Gallicrex cinerea) were able to sense my presence a paddy field length or football field away. They posed to be most challenging of all water birds in digiscopy. The plumages of juveniles, females and non-breeding males were so well camouflaged in fallowed fields. My presence spooked them to flight before I realised they were there!
How did they know?
The sound of ploughing tractors roared in neighbouring paddy fields, churning out clumps of mud-encrusted larvae and worms to awaiting Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus), House Crows (Corvus splendens), Common Mynas (Acridotheres tristis) and various species of egrets for fresh pickings.
Occasionally, water birds such as this protected species of juvenile Slaty-breasted Rail (Gallirallus striatus) became destined for the cooking pot (left).
In spite of having to trudge in muddy terrain and having my boots sucked into mud and looking lost without owner’s foot, my passion for birds did not deter my fascination of observing feeding habits and behaviour of these water birds.
But… it is not me to be sitting and getting baked under the tropical sun for hours for birds to show up.
The stench of rubbish dumpsites and nuisance of mosquitoes swamping around and thirsting for new blood were no deterrent. I made peace pacts with hungry mosquitoes by the use of natural repellents and adorned the ghotra – a male Arabian headscarf which doubled up as a sunshade and dyed forest green.
However, any die-hard, large mosquitoes ‘dressed’ in black and white stripes attempting kamikaze stunts are something else to be reckoned with. They are potential carriers of Haemorrhagic Fever or Dengue Fever.
One has a choice. Smack those to death, take confession later or…. do a runner!
The only regret I have, had I been a birder much earlier to recee the birding site well, I could have chalked up a few more species of birds on my checklist. Unfortunately, my knowledge of birds then was inadequate to conclude a positive identification.
However, all is not lost. Just about in time, together with my visual partner, DG Scope, we take pleasure to share and air the final curtain show of the water bird series of Bandar Perda wetlands to readers of this blog (below: top left, Cinnamon Bittern; top right, White-browed Crake; bottom left, Purple Swamphen; bottom right, White-breasted Waterhen).
Alas! Development arrived.
With it, came cranes, bulldozers, trucks, and machineries for road works etc. changing the landscape, replacing agricultural lands with state of the art showpieces and grandiose buildings, some with eccentric architectural styles of mis-matched European designs with a concoction of Greco-Roman facades (below).
Development of a young nation like Malaysia, catering to the ever increasing demand in population growth, commerce and industry and prosperity takes priority above anything else.
It came with a heavy price tag.
One of the very expensive, destructive and irreversible price to pay is permanent and environmental habitat loss of wild animals, avian and flora life. Uncontrolled deforestation, human ignorance and greed, lackadaisical attitude, miscalculation, lack of prudence and foresight are other contributing factors.
Does it have to be done this way only?
A young nation in the stages of development is like a young child learning to walk tall, have a few falls and bleed a little. What is to be expected of a toddler with a pacifier learning to discover him/herself?
What did a developing nation know about good governance, harmonious partnerships in sustainable development and stringent, environmental conservation practices in their early days?
The sad thing when dealing with bird-habitat environment is, consideration to conserve is often left last in terms of economic priority. It is preferred and more convenient to brush such issues under the carpet as there are no long term revenues in sight for the short sighted.
If current developed nations were given another chance to rebuild from scratch, would they plan the same as they did before? Instead of ending up breathing in concrete jungles, could they still be seen enjoying wild life nature by circumventing development projects around vital, conservative life lines?
Currently, bird watchers living in concrete jungles and yearning to view exotic species have to pay top dollars to breathe clean air in green lung areas. They have to leave home thousands of miles away to become tourists and fly in iron birds to walk in tropical rain forests reserves.
Isn’t it uncanny that developing nations are making haste to chop down their trees at super speed to create an artificial environment; copying developed nations and catering to a greedy, misconstrued concept and ugly word call, ‘ECOTOURISM’?
Or, the madness of isolated cases where humans have become so pampered in calling government agencies to summon and axe a tree just because fallen leaves were added chore for a housemaid?
Let’s listen to the finale chorus of three House Crows (Corvus splendens) named, GO, GOING GONE crooning to LONGFELLOW, the Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) (top left))
GO, GOING, GONE seen perched on a bare tree,
Say GO and GONE, ‘Where have all the trees gone?’
GOING answered to GO and GONE perched on a bare tree,
‘They have all gone, to build concrete trees 200 feet long.’
So too, GO, GOING, GONE will gonna be going gone.
A last peep… as the final curtain descends on Bandar Perda wetlands (above right: top and bottom).
AVIAN WRITER DAISY O’NEILL, PENANG, MALAYSIA
(All bird images shown were taken by digiscopy techniques. No flash photography used. The use of electronic devices to entice birds into the open- not practiced).