Monday, March 31, 2008

29th March 2008: MV Amusement World Pelagic

Ever since I discovered that a casino boat travels out from Penang daily I've been itching to get out there to see what birds might be using these waters. The MV Amusement World leaves Penang at around 10.30am, sails out into international waters, sits there till around 5.30pm, and then slowly sails back, arriving about 7.30pm.

Feeling the need of extra eyes, I've been trying to persuade various birders to accompany me, and I finally succeeded in tempting a couple of visiting English birders - Simon Buckell and Andy Adcock. It was going to be hot out there, and we might well see nothing at all, but you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen!

The stake-out: Not much shade here for the next 7 hours!

The team: Andy(left) and Simon), preparing for some serious tanning!

The weather: A bit different from the Scillonian

As we steamed out of the Strait, we found that the marker buoys were favoured resting spots for terns. Spot the lone White-winged Tern among the resident Great Crested.

Even they look hot!

As we passed offshore from Bagan Tambang we came across a flock of 11 Brown-headed Gulls sitting on the water, and there were at least 3 other birds flying around.

Further out we had distant views of the first Bridled Tern of the day. The boat eventually stopped, still within view of Penang to the south-east and Langkawi to the north-east. A couple of Barn Swallows flew over us, heading north, and two swiflets spent several prolonged periods over the boat. These seemed extremely pale rumped, and quite long-winged. From photos I could also see that they had pale-tipped median and greater coverts, so were presumably fresh juveniles.

Here are some composite pictures of these birds, which I am guessing may be Germain's (bottom), the birds I photographed in Singapore, which might be Himalayan (middle) and the Sungai Petani birds, which might be Black-nest (top):

What can be said about these birds, apart from that they are extremely similar! The bottom bird was noticeably paler buff-brown below and on the rump than the others. The top bird appears to have less 'tail' behind the wings than the other two, as well as appearing bulkier, especially about the head.

The Singapore birds (top) seem to have a slightly longer, fuller tail than the birds seen today (bottom)

Clearly, a lot more research is needed!

All other birds seen were infrequent and, especially, distant! Bridled Terns seemed fairly common, especially following fishing vessels. We also saw 4 noddies, a single and a group of 3, also following a fishing boat. These were probably Brown, but too far away to be sure. Likewise, a probable Sooty Tern, looking very black and white and flying with direct, strong wingbeats, and two pale phase adult Pomarine Skuas. One of these was sat on the sea. The other flew south. Here's the world's worst photo of it!

Best observed through the thick end of a bottle with eyes half closed!

On our way back in, we were treated to prolonged views of a probable Aleutian Tern sitting on a half-submerged log. Although raising its wings once, giving a glimpse of a dark secondary bar, the bird frustratingly didn't fly, so had to go down as a 'probable' only.

The buoys were once again fruitful on our return journey, several holding good numbers of Common Terns, and maybe further Aleutians. Our last bird of the day was also our closest (apart from the swifltets), a summer plumaged Brown-headed Gull which flew around the boat as we docked.

Although most birds were frustratingly distant, there was enough out there to suggest that a properly organized 'pelagic trip', with a chartered boat and a supply of chum, might well be a worthwhile exercise. Anyone interested?

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