Sunday, April 08, 2007

April 2nd, Bukit Mertajam rice-fields

Having watched the wader roost for a couple of hours, I visited an area of rice paddies I hadn't visited previously. Almost the first thing I saw upon arrival were mist-nets strung across the fields. This is an illegal but common practice in these parts.

This male Cinnamon Bittern would have died fairly quickly in the intense heat.

As I was photographing this, a man approached on a motorbike carrying a male Watercock and a Slaty-breasted Rail in one hand. When asked what he was going to do with them, he said that he was taking them to someone who would sell them in the market. He wasn't sure what the price was.

He directed me to where he had caught the birds. A combine harvester was harvesting an ever-shrinking island of ripe padi. Mist-nets were strung along the entire length of the field, and a group of young men armed with long-handled nets were energetically pursuing anything that broke cover in front of the harvester.

I have mixed feelings when I see this kind of activity. On the one hand, it's illegal and shouldn't be happening. On the other, it's a traditional part of the harvest, and something quite 'normal' for people who live off the land. It's a valuable source of income for people who don't have a lot. Their rice-fields provide habitat for hundreds of these birds, so do they have a kind of right to reap some of the benefits? On the other hand, the odds seem stacked against the birds when people are not harvesting them merely for sustenance but for profit. It seems clear that hunting of these birds is being carried out at unsustainable levels. I have spoken to farmers who can remember catching 400 birds in a single night as youths, but no more. It's something that seems wrong in principle but, when you get down to the personal level, difficult to condemn. It's easy to point the finger when it isn't something we practise ourselves. I see the use of plastic bags as a far more pernicious evil than hunting, and that's something we're all guilty of!

What's the value of a wild bird? Jesus said that 'five sparrows are sold for two pennies, yet not one of them is forgotten before God.' Well, I found out that male Watercocks are priced at RM7 (about one pound sterling) and females (which are much smaller) cost RM5. So I emptied my wallet and bought two males and a female, drove to an area which still had some padi standing and no mist-nets visible, and released them.

Did I do the right thing? Will these birds make it back to their breeding grounds? At any rate, the birds seemed vigorous and in excellent health. I was amazed at how strong they were. This male flew off powerfully and pitched down in thick cover - safe for the time being...

Feeling somewhat sheepish for doing something that these people would see as the incomprehensible act of a crazy foreigner, and also wanting to put distance between myself and this conscience-troubling place, I drove to another area where new padi was being planted.

Here there were many of this species of dragonfly buzzing around - a new one for me - but a widespread species - Anax guttatus. It's so widespread that it has several English names - Lesser Green Emperor in Australia, Blue-tailed Green Darner in India.

Wood Sandpipers are always smart-looking birds, never more so than when in spring plumage.

In the distance I spotted a tractor busily working the padi, accompanied by a trail of birds, so I headed over for a closer look.

Many hirundines, such as this Barn Swallow, followed the tractors, snapping up insects.


Whoops! No I don't! The one that got away!

Some Barn Swallows showed rich salmon-pink underparts. I wondered if these might be the race 'tytleri'.

Red-rumped Swallows were very numerous, with most in heavy moult.

A lone subadult Brahminy Kite hung around above the field. Occasionally it would dive down amongst the egrets and pond herons, causing widespread panic. At the time I thought it was trying to catch the birds themselves, but examination of my pictures showed that it was actually after the herons' prey, in this case an eel.

After some time trying to photograph the swallows I noticed some martins among them similar to ones I'd seen earlier in the year (see the entry for Feb 5th, here:.)

There were obviously several birds - I estimated at least five, but possibly quite few more - and some were in heavy moult. This bird has almost completed primary moult, and has fresh outer secondaries, central tail feathers and tertials.

The most obvious way in which most of the birds differ from typical Sand Martins is their very shallowly forked tail, which looks square-ended at times. The underwing coverts are dark brown, concolourous with the rest of the underwing, the breastband is narrow but distinct, with little marking on the central breast below this band, and the throat is unmarked white.

This bird, however, showed a more marked tail fork and more extensive central breast marking. Whether this is the effect of moult or individual variation I don't have the experience to tell.

There doesn't seem to be much published literature on the differences between the various races of Pale and Sand Martins, especially at this eastern end of their ranges, so I'm not sure whether these birds are even assignable to species based on current knowledge. If anyone knows more, I'd appreciate your opinions, comments and references!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, it does pose conflict within. I do believe you should follow your initial reaction in doing everything you can to discourage such behaviour.
It is our duty to educate, enlighten and point towards other sources of income or livelihood. Often it is simply tradition and no longer out of economic hardship. There are alternatives.