Friday, September 29, 2006

Tuesday 26th September

A juv Little Heron having a bad hair day!

I had an unexpected opening in my schedule today, so I managed to get down to the site by late morning. We have had several days of more or less continuous rain and overcast skies, and the numbers of waders present had gone up dramatically. Unfavourable weather during migration season sometimes results in a phenomenon called 'a fall' of birds, when, on occasion, birds seem to fall out of the sky seeking a place to rest and take shelter. They will then wait until the skies clear again before setting off on the next leg of their journey.

The light was pretty terrible for photography most of the afternoon, and I managed to get soaked not once but twice. The first time I was in my hide, I discovered that my box was not waterproof. As the rain poured down, water started to drip through onto my camera, forcing me to make a hurried retreat to the car to dry off the equipment. The rain stopped and I decided to go to the hide again, this time with a dustbin bag to put on the roof of the hide. The next time it rained, the camera was nice and dry, but the rest of me got drenched! I noticed that each time the rain started to come down hard, all the waders left the mud and went up onto the roost site. The second time the rain came down, they didn't return to the mud after the rain stopped, so eventually I abandoned the hide, only to have the birds then return to the mud, right in front of my hide! By this time I decided to abandon photography, and managed to do quite a thorough count instead. Here are the totals:

Whimbrel 250 (2% juvs)
Bar-tailed Godwit 78
Pacific Golden Plover 420
Lesser Sand Plover 270
Greater Sand Plover 13
Ruddy Turnstone 15
Great Knot 40
Red Knot 2
Curlew Sandpiper 130 (5% juvs)
Broad-billed Sandpiper 3 (67% juvs)
Greenshank 9
Redshank 400 (2% juvs)
Red-necked Stint 260 (10% juvs)
Terek Sandpiper 70
Marsh Sandpiper 20
Little Tern 76
Ruff 1
Common Snipe 1
Total 2058

Little Egret 7
Great Egret 2

Juveniles were evident in numbers today, including my first juvenile Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Red-necked Stints of the autumn. The Ruff, probably an adult male, in non-breeding plumage, appeared in the roosting flock of Redshanks, after I had left the hide. Later it wandered in front of the hide, much to my frustration! I only managed to get distant record shots from the car.

A lone Common Snipe, flushed from the vegetation at the water's edge when I arrived, was another good bird for the site.

Potentially the best bird was a probable Little Stint - a different bird from the one seen on the 19th. It was an adult in non-breeding plumage, but wasn't as obvious an individual as the earlier one. See the pictures and notes below.

A juvenile Broad-billed Sandpiper (right). Broad-billeds are short-legged compared to Curlew Sandpipers (second left) and long-billed compared to Red-necked Stints (left and centre). Juveniles are really smart-looking birds, with a whitish double supercilium and mantle 'V' and beautiful chestnut-fringed upper scapulars and tertials.

Another view of the same bird, showing the distinctive downward-kinked bill. This was the only picture I got this close, as the sound of my shutter frightened the bird away. One disadvantage of the Konica Minolta is the clunky shutter!

A juvenile Curlew Sandpiper. Juveniles have distinctive anchor-shaped marks on the scapulars, which can make the upperparts look blackish at a distance. They also have a lovely peach-coloured wash to the breast.

Juvenile Red-necked Stints are really smart birds as well. They also have a wash acrosss the breast - greyish-brown, and have dark-centred, white-tipped scapulars. They always look very neat!

The Ruff wandering around in front of my hide when I wasn't there! It was as big as a Redshank, indicating that it was probably a male. It had grey legs and a short, slightly decurved bill. Another distinctive feature was the pale forehead and chin and dark eye-line. The bird fed continuously while most other waders snoozed.

The lower photo shows an adult non-breeding Red-necked Stint. What is the upper bird??? I suspect it may be a Little Stint. What initially drew my attention to this bird was the complete breastband, which most adult non-breeding Red-neckeds lack, the grey, rather blotchy upperpart colouration, and the shape of the bird, including, especially the bill. The bill was longer, finer-tipped and less expanded laterally than the Red-necked Stints around it, and it had a distinctly heavier body, with more rounded shoulders and a deeper belly. The head was less square, especially at the rear.

I did find the occasional Red-necked Stint which had plumage features very similar to the mystery bird, such as the one pictured here (top). However, the bill, body and headshape were consistently different.

A head-on view of the bird (left) with two Red-necked Stints. This photo eliminates any of the American dark-legged stints, as the bird lacks semi-palmations between the toes. The bill seems thinner than the Red-necked on the right.

This photo shows the overall greyer tone of the plumage than most Red-necked (such as the bird on the right). It also shows the difference in head, body and bill shape well. The bird did not seem noticeably longer-legged than Red-necked Stints around it. Little Stints often appear longer-legged than Red-necked (see the pictures of the bird on the 19th), but I don't know how variable this feature is.

One last picture to show how unlike a Red-necked Stint this bird is in jizz. Red-neckeds are long, slender birds with squarish heads and short, straight, thick bills. This has quite a pot belly! Is it a Little Stint? Feel free to write your comments!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thursday 21st September 2006

No sign of the Little Stint at high tide roost today, but there were a few new arrivals; my first Broad-billed Sandpiper and Common Tern of the autumn, 4 Red Knot (highest count so far), and some juvenile Curlew Sandpipers and Common Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones coming through finally. Sand Plover and Pacific Golden Plover numbers were well down on recent weeks.

I realised that I was seeing more or less the same birds in front of my hide (chiefly stints and sand plovers), so decided to move it today to see if it would produce different birds. Results were quite pleasing - fewer birds overall, but the chance to snap some different species at close quarters - Ruddy Turnstone, Common Sandpiper and, best of all, a Chinese Egret feeding on the tideline with Little Egrets, giving me some good photo opportunities!

Beautiful but rare. There are estimated to be fewer than 3,000 of this species left in the world,, and it is threatened everywhere - on the breeding grounds and at migration and wintering sites - by habitat degradation

An illustration of habitat degradation! Fancy finding food in this muck?

The bird was surprisingly difficult to pick out at a distance; the differences from Little Egret in bare part colour and structure being quite subtle.

Detail of the head.There is a vestigial spray of plumes at the back of the head, typical of Chinese. Little shows only one or two single feather plumes, and Pacific Reef, none at all. The bill is quite hefty compared to Little, with a distinctly curved culmen. It is yellow at the base. The loral skin is pale blue on this bird. It will probably become yellower as the over the winter. The really distinctive thing about the loral skin though is the shape; the way the top edge dips down and up again in a kink just in front of the eye. This distinguishes Chinese from Pacific Reef and Little, in which the top edge of the lores is straight or evenly curved.

For comparison, here's a Little Egret's head. The bill is rather thin and parallel edged. It's mainly black (muddy on this bird!)with a pale flesh or even pale bluish base to the lower mandible. The top edge of the lores is more or less straight. A single plume is visible at the back of this bird's head.

Great Egrets should pose no identification problems, partly due to their size, and partly due to the distinctive dagger-shaped triangle of skin that extends below and behind the eye.


A Little Egret feeding in the tideline trash.

I was pleased to get this picture of my first juvenile Common Sandpiper of the autumn.

You can clearly see the paler parts of the feathers wearing away more quickly than the dark, pigmented areas. The wear is quite advanced on the tertials and greater coverts.

A classic adult non-breeding Red-necked Stint in alert posture.

After seeing the Little Stint, I was interested to see if I could find any Red-necked Stints with breast-bands. This one is typical of the adults that are moulting from breeding to non-breeding plumage. The breast band is on the lower breast only. The upper breast is clean white. Streaking on the rear flanks is a good pointer for Red-necked if present. The streaks disappear as moult to non-breeding plumage progresses.


A juvenile Ruddy Turnstone at close quarters.

Here's the feeding behaviour that gives this bird its name!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Tuesday 19th September

I did a whistle-stop tour of Kuala Juru/Kampung Sembilang Juru, Bagan Tambang/Teluk Air Tawar/Kampung Molek and Tanjung Tokong this morning to try to get an idea of wader numbers at all the sites. I visited Kuala Juru and Kampung Sembilang Juru first, and there were only a few Common Redshank - maybe 1-200. The tide was still well out, so this was probably not an accurate reflection of the numbers present there.

By the time I got to Bagan Belat/Teluk Air Tawar/Kampung Molek the tide was already covering much of the mud. I counted 2 Eurasian Curlew, 30-40 Whimbrel, 6 Red-necked Stint at Bagan Belat and Teluk Air Tawar, and at Kampung Molek there were small numbers of Common Redshank - 30-40. The area at Teluk Air Tawar that was favoured by waders in the northward migration is being rapidly colonised by mangroves, and I saw no birds there at all.

I would guess that the birds that traditionally feed at Teluk Air Tawar are now favouring the Tanjung Tokong site, as it is directly across the strait and easily visible from there (haze allowing!).

Map showing known wader roosts in the area. Pink - Kampung Juru/Kampung Sembilang Juru; green Bagan Belat/Teluk Air Tawar/Teluk Molek; red - Tanjung Tokong.

At Tanjung Tokong, numbers were well down on the usual - only 4-600 birds at the high tide roost. Numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits (20) and Marsh Sandpipers (10) were up but most other species were down. Highlights were Red Knot (1), Great Knot (20), Ruddy Turnstone (7) and, best of all, a Little Stint.

Once I got into the hide, one of the first birds that caught my attention was a stint that seemed rather long-legged and long-billed. At first I wondered whether it might be a Long-toed Stint, but it didn't seem to have pale legs. I should explain that I don't usually take my binoculars or telescope into the hide with me, so I was limited to views through the camera viewfinder. I managed to get a few shots, as it stood resting some distance away from some Red-necked Stints that were feeding busily nearby. The bird was harassed from time to time by these stints, and eventually they chased it off completely and I didn't see it again.

Subsequent examination of the photos convinced me that the bird was an adult Little Stint. The legs, especially the tibia, were markedly longer than on Red-necked Stint, and the bill was also longer, finer-tipped and slightly down-curved along the lower edge. These features are good structural pointers to Little Stint. It was also obvious that the bird was a different shape to the Red-neckeds, with a rounder, less slender body and a bigger-looking head. The plumage can't be seen in detail from my photos unfortunately. However, the upper breast is clearly streaked (it would be either white or brick-pink on Red-necked, never streaked). The non-breeding scapulars have a noticeable dark central wedge, whereas most Red-neckeds have only a dark shaft streak.

Little Stints in Asia generally winter further west than Red-necked. They are the commonest small stint in the non-breeding period in Bangladesh and India, and small numbers are seen in Hong Kong annually. Despite there being only two published records to date in Malaysia, they almost certainly occur more regularly among the thousands of Red-necked we get here each year.

A head-on view, showing the bill and leg structure and length. The upper breast is faintly streaked and rather sullied, and the head is large.

A side-on profile. Some non-breeding scapulars can be seen, with prominent dark central wedges. The supercilium is broad, especially over the eye, and turns upward behind the eye.

This view shows clearly the structural differences compared with the Red-necked Stints on the left.

Still haven't managed to get really close to a Greater Sand Plover yet, but this shows the features of a juvenile bird reasonably well.

The juvenile Little Heron was again curious about me today, coming for an even closer inspection!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Friday 8th September

Most birds had already left the mud and were roosting up 'on top' by the time I arrived. I find that most of the Pacific Goldies and Whimbrel tend to roost in the drier areas where there's a bit of grass, while the smaller waders like to roost on the bare earth where there are pools. A lot of the time is spent washing and preening in the fresh water.

Eventually, by moving the car a few feet at a time and then stopping for a while, I managed to get fairly close to the flock and take some pictures. The Little Terns hogged all the best spots at the pool, and busily splashed, preened, and every now and again would take off in a needless panic, only to wheel around and land again sheepishly.

The stints, Curlew Sandpipers and sand plovers stood around or rested on their bellies on the sand. They mix freely with one another and don't seem to show any preference for their own kind. The knots are much more exclusive however, sitting close together and apart from the other species. The two Red Knot hung about with their larger cousins.

The exclusive Knot Club! There's a lone Red Knot toward the right of the group, back toward us, looking over its shoulder. Red Knot are smaller, shorter-legged and billed than Great Knot.

A few Terek Sandpipers wandered through the resting flocks, dipping their bills in the water, preening and, occasionally resting.

The rest of the roost was made up by Pacific Golden Plovers, a few Bar-tailed Godwits and Whimbrels, and Ruddy Turnstones. Most exclusive of all, however, are the Greenshanks. They always seem to roost by themselves, well away from all the other waders.

At the back of the flock I spotted a Red-necked Stint with what appeared to be a yellow spot attached to its wing. Wing-tagging is one way of marking birds for research purposes, enabling them to be recorded on migration by birdwatchers, so that a picture can be drawn of migration routes, favoured staging sites, etc. This information becomes important baseline data for conservation efforts. I've sent off details of this bird to researchers in Australia, who in turn have forwarded it to colleagues in Russia, but so far, no one has been able to tell me where the bird got its tag from.

Once the tide started to fall, I got myself into position on the mud. A juvenile Little Heron landed very close by and was clearly suspicious. It would continually make disapproving clucking noises while bobbing its head and peering in my direction. Eventually it must have decided I was just a harmless lunatic, and began to hunt for prey in the nearby pools. I could see some vestigial down attached to its head and breast, so it was probably a very young bird.

A small group of Greenshanks landed on the tide-line and began chasing around after fish fry. They would put their open bills into the water and then run along sweeping them from side to side, as I have seen Avocets do in my native UK. Marsh Sandpipers sometimes also feed in this way here.

An adult Greenshank. The many small spots along the edges of the scapulars and tertials are a good distinguishing feature from the much rarer Nordmann's Greenshank.

In most wader species, adult birds are the first to set off on the journey south from the breeding grounds, leaving the juveniles to find their own way south later (which is pretty amazing when you think about it!). So far, most of the waders I've seen here have been adults. The only exception has been the sand plovers, first the juvenile Lessers, and now the first Greaters.

Even among the juveniles, there's quite a lot of plumage variation, as juveniles undergo a partial moult (body and head, but not wings) during their first autumn. So some - perhaps earlier hatched birds - already have adult-like body feathers, while others are still in more or less complete juvenile plumage.

This Lesser Sandplover is still largely in juvenile plumage. The crown feathers, as well as the mantle and scapulars, have mud-brown centres with quite broad creamy fringes. The lovely peach-toned feathers on the lores, ear coverts, supercilium and sides of the breast are also juvenile feathers. If you look carefully at the scapulars, you can see about 5 or 6 feathers on the lower row which are plain mud-brown, without the paler fringes. These are fresh '1st autumn' feathers. (Click on the photo to see an enlarged version.)

This bird is also a Lesser Sand Plover, and also one of this year's hatch. However, it has pretty much completed a body and head moult, replacing the brighter juvenile feathers with duller adult-like ones. The wing coverts have not been replaced, but don't look as bright as on the preceding bird because, being older, the pale fringes are more worn away.

I was very entertained by this juv Lesser Sand Plover's efforts to extract a worm from its hole. The Plover stretched up to its fullest height and leant back with all its might, but the worm managed to hang on. I believe they have stiff hairs along their body angled upwards, so it must be rather like trying to pull an arrow out of a tree. You can clearly see that the feet of this species have tiny webs between the bases of the toes. This feature is called 'semi-palmation', and is a key identification for some species.

In the end, this was all the plover got for its efforts, and the worm presumably lived to fight another day. Maybe an older, more experienced plover would have grasped the worm lower down its body? I'll have to watch out to see.

Thursday 31st August

I tried to get close to the waders roosting up on the construction site today, but they were not very approachable, and I didn't want to disturb them unnecessarily. After taking some distant shots of Pacific Golden Plovers, I went down to my mud hide and waited for birds to return to the mud as the tide fell.

They eventually did this, and I was able to take some more shots of stints. However, the birds were disturbed quite frequently by a subadult White-bellied See Eagle. I never saw it make a serious attempt to catch any of the waders, but it seemed to delight in causing mayhem every time it appeared over the horizon. Perhaps it was experimenting with different ways to catch prey. I also saw it pick up a sizeable dead fish, but it dropped it after a minute or two and flew off.

Other disturbances are fortunately few. There are two or three stray dogs that scavenge along the shoreline on the falling tide, but they never come while I am on the mud. I guess they can smell me and are too timid to approach. So I feel that me being there is actually giving the waders chance to feed undisturbed by the dogs.

I photographed an adult Common Sandpiper catch a small crab not far from me. It held the crab by one leg and shook it till the leg broke off, which it then swallowed. The bird did this with each leg in turn, until the crab was completely limbless. Finally, it tossed the crab, caught it in mid-air, and swallowed it in one swift movement.

Another interesting thing caught my eye today. For some reason, the mud was particularly sticky on the falling tide. I saw it sticking to the bills of a number of waders, the stints in particular. Later on, when the stints were flying around, it would have been easy to mistake these muddy-billed individuals for Spoon-billed Sandpipers.

This adult non-breeding plumaged Red-necked Stint has mud stuck to its bill and legs. On the ground it's still obviously a Red-necked Stint ...

...but in flight, these muddy-billed birds can look at a glance like the extremely rare Spoon-billed Sandpiper (see birds top left, lower left and lower right)

Another shot of an apparently 'spoon-billed' Red-necked Stint (right hand bird)

With the eagle around, and as birds repositioned themselves at optimum feeding sites as fresh mud was newly exposed, there were plenty of opportunities for flight shots. My camera doesn't cope too well with birds in flight, but I got a few 'educational' shots!

There are five species in this shot; Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Great Knot, Red-necked Stint and a Sand Plover (not sure which species). It's always worth checking out waders in flight, as some are easier to identify when you can see their wings and rump. For instance, there are rarer subspecies of Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit that have a brown rump and tail base

I like this shot just because it highlights the huge variety of shorebird shapes and sizes. This Red-necked Stint looks like a tiny WW2 fighter plane flying alongside a lumbering bomber (actually a Whimbrel; the contrast if this were a Eurasian Curlew would be even greater!)

A couple of Whimbrel to end with.