Tuesday, April 17, 2007

April 17th, Bagan Tambang

Yesterday I splashed out almost RM50 on a new wardrobe:

Here is my fine new acquisition. Note the colour - a fetching green. Just right for ...

... a shorebird-watching hide! So, I've graduated from a coffin to a cupboard!

Today was a 2.9 metre high tide, so was the ideal opportunity to try it out. Since Tanjung Tokong is now a sad shadow of its former self, I decided to try it out at Bagan Tambang.

I set everything up and climbed in at about 9am, and began a long, steamy wait! High tide was due at 1pm. Despite cutting a few air holes in the material, it was mind-numbingly hot and humid in that thing! Plenty of water and a towel are essential if you are ever crazy enough to want to try it!

By about 11am, the birds were within photographing range.

This Red-necked Stint provided an interesting comparison with the Little Stint I saw last time I was here. Although the scapulars are very bright, these contrast with the dull grey-brown lower tertials and wing coverts. On the Little Stint, both the lower tertials and coverts have bright chestnut fringes.

Whenever a potential predator appears, such as a raptor, all the waders quietly crouch down. I once saw them do this fully a minute before a Peregrine came racing through. They must have amazing eyesight.

Most of the waders have gone through now, and only about six or seven hundred were at the roost. Most of these are non-breeders, taking a more leisurely journey northward than those that need to get back to claim territories and start breeding. A lot of these late birds will be last year's young, not yet ready to breed.

Crab-grabber extraordinaire! A Greater Sand Plover in action.

By contrast a male Lesser Sand Plover in full breeding dress. What a cracker! The all black forehead shows that this bird is the 'schaeferi' race - the commonest race occurring in Malaysia.

This non-breeding plumaged Lesser is interesting in that it appears to have yellowish legs. Most Lessers show dark grey legs, and most Greaters have yellowish legs, but there are exceptions as this picture shows.

A Broad-billed Sandpiper in breeding plumage. These can be quite variable. Some, like this bird, are quite a cold dark brown. Others can be quite rich chestnut.

The closest I could get to a Curlew Sandpiper today, looking resplendent in its deep reddish plumage.

A trio of Lesser Sand Plovers. The duller bird on the right is probably a female.

Some Whimbrels keep a wary eye on a Water Monitor that emerged from the sea to forage on the shore.

I'd like to propose renaming Common Sandpiper as 'Sensible Sandpiper' - it was the only bird to make use of the shade available under this log!

The rest of the birds, like this Whimbrel, just sat under the sun and panted...

... though this one seemed to be seeking other possibilities.

As the tide rose rapidly, the Sand Plovers moved off to the right hand side of my hide, and new arrivals took their place - a flock of Pacific Golden Plovers in an array of different plumages.

Some looked very smart in their black waistcoats...

Others were just starting to moult into breeding dress...

Yet others were neither one nor the other!

A lone Great Knot arrived with the Pacific Goldies - several weeks late!

By now the tide was pushing birds very close, but also making me think about a swift exit!

A quick shot of the Sand Plovers out of a hole cut in the side of the hide.

Poised for flight, just like me!

One last shot and then it really is time to move - quickly - as the tide is just inches from my hide.

A roar of wings as I leave my hide. The birds would have had to leave anyway, as their roost site is rapidly being submerged.

The very last bit of mud!

A look at the rice fields revealed that the hirundines and most of the Yellow Wagtails have moved on too.

I did manage to find this young Yellow Bittern trying to be invisible in very sparse cover!

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!

2nd April: Bagan Tambang high tide roost

From the rice fields I went to the mudflats, where the tide was rising fast. There were roughly 7,000 shorebirds gathered at the roost site, not the most I've seen there, but an impressive spectacle nevertheless.

A carpet of birds. Part of the roosting flock, which comprised mostly Sand Plovers, with a supporting cast of Red-necked Stints, Broad-billed Sandpipers, Curlew Sandpipers, and the odd Terek Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone here and there.

A few Lesser Sand Plovers are coming into breeding dress, while almost all the Greater Sand Plovers (one bird is at the back of this flock) have been in summer plumage for some weeks already. Chestnut brown through brick red to orange is the preferred colour scheme for most calidrid sandpipers and Charadrius plovers in breeding plumage.

Organized chaos! It's easy to see how flocking together is an effective strategy for confusing predators, making it very difficult to focus on one bird. On the other hand, it must require considerable aeronautical skill and coordination to avoid mid-air collisions - something I've never seen in all my years wader-watching.

Flaming beauty! This breeding plumage Little Stint really stood out from the crowd in its rich chestnut and black colours. Red-necked Stints can show very bright chestnut fringes to the scapulars and one or two tertials, but these always contrast with greyish wing coverts, whereas on Little, the chestnut colouration extends to the wing coverts. Red-necked Stints also tend to show a rather greyish nape and crown, whereas breeding Little has a chestnut crown and nape. The split supercilium, streaked breastband and unmarked white throat are good confirming features of Little Stint. Even these poor photos show the rounder body shape and smaller headed, less bull-necked appearance of Little compared to Red-necked (immediately to the left).