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?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

24th March, 2008: Pulau Burung Landfill site

Today I made another visit to the landfill site to try to get better pictures of the stints. Unfortunately I arrived rather late, so the birds had arrived before me, and it proved difficult to get close to the bulk of the birds.

Most migrants seemed to have gone anyway, and the number and variety of birds is well down. I estimated totals of:

Redshank 350
Marsh Sandpiper 100
Greenshank 2
Wood Sandpiper 40
Common Sandpiper 2
Curlew Sandpiper 25
Red-necked Stint 2
Little Stint 2
Pacific Golden Plover 1
Greater Sand Plover 2

The resident birds appear to be either breeding or preparing to do so. I found this Greater Painted-Snipe nest with four eggs,*

The Red-wattled Lapwings anxiously saw me off whenever I got too close to their nest or young, which I made no effort to find, and I observed three pairs of stilts copulating.

A romantic couple! After copulation, the pair crossed bills and then walked side by side before parting. Rather graceful and romantic I thought! It's worth clicking on this image to see the large version!

Throughout the mating ritual the birds' eyes were blazing red. I thought at first the irides changed colour, but I think the effect was caused by the dilation of the pupils.

I was trying to think what other bird species has fluorescent pink legs! Looking at the bill shape of this bird, perhaps I should take back what I said about the possible difference in shape between Black-winged and White-headed Stilts. This seems as long as as upturned as the White-headed I photographed in Sydney.

It seems amazing that this water contains anything edible, yet clearly the birds are thriving. This prey looks like a larva of some kind.

One more stilt incoming!

Redshanks were the most numerous wader, but also the most difficult to get close to. Only this one obliged, and I was amazed to see how rufescent the wing coverts were. Not sure what race this is. That's a Marsh Sandpiper on the left, of which more anon. EDIT: According to Bill Hale, this is the race 'craggi', one of the first ever photographs of this race in the field apparently!

A nice flight comparison between Redshank (below) and Common Greenshank

In contrast to both Redshank and Greenshank, the white on the rump of Wood Sandpipers doesn't go up the back.

A pair of Paddyfield Pipits were clearly nesting nearby, and kept a watchful eye on me.

A Marsh Sandpiper in breeding plumage arriving.

With a thunderstorm approaching, numbers of Marsh Sandpipers started dropping in in front of my hide. I was torn between staying to photograph the birds in exquisite lighting, and making a dash to the car before the heavens opened.

Time for a few more!

As the storm approaches, the wind picks up, ruffling feathers.

Definitely time to go! I made it back to the car just as the first drops hit the windscreen - perfect timing!

* I normally wouldn't publish details of an active nest, but since this is on private property I feel it's safe to do so.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

More on stilts

Some of the stilts at Pulau Burung have extensive black on the back of the neck, and look somewhat similar to White-headed Stilts. There is a single sight record of this taxon from Cochinchina, so I have been wondering how to distinguish them with certainty from Black-winged. Here's a bird at Pulau Burung:

And here's a White-headed Stilt I photographed in Sydney, Australia:

From what I can see here, White-headed Stilt has a 'mane' at the back of the neck, which sticks out slightly. Also, the bill appears slightly upturned, especially the lower mandible, and looks sharper tipped. Finally, the primaries seem to extend slightly further beyond the tail on White-headed, though this is difficult to gauge.

It certainly seems that black nape markings are not unusual on Black-winged Stilts here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

18th March, 2008: Pulau Burung Landfill site, plus night excursion

This was my first visit back to the site since last October, and things have certainly moved on since I was last there. Vegetation has now taken over a lot of formerly open areas, and the number of waders at the high tide roost was significantly lower than last autumn.

On the plus side, the number of Cattle Egrest was up to around 400, many coming into good breeding plumage.

There were also more stilts around - about 60 birds, though no signs of breeding.

Plenty of Greater Painted Snipes too. This one is a female coming into adult plumage.

Among the very few stints, there were at least two Little Stints, along with two Red-necked and two Long-toed! In this picture, the Little is on the right, the Red-necked on the left. The difference in structure between the two species is well illustrated here; the small rounded head that seems stuck on top of the body on Little, and the larger, squarer head of Red-necked, that seems positioned more at the front of the body. The rounder body shape of Little is also apparent in this photo, as well as the finer-tipped bill.

Here's the same photo cropped to show the Little Stint. The distinctive broad chestnut fringes to the tertials and tail feathers are just about visible.

This is the other bird. It also has fresh tertials with broad chestnut fringes, as well as a few new upper scapulars and median coverts. The tail is not yet moulted however.

Check out the leg length, the head, neck and body proportions compared to Red-necked (left).

Red-wattled lapwings are numerous, and this pair obviously have eggs or young nearby.

Wood Sandpipers are among the most numerous migratory waders.

Over in the deeper water area, the trees fringing the water have been cleared, and vegetation is growing up in patches in the water.

White-browed Crakes and Watercocks have arrived with the thicker vegetation, as well as three Lesser Tree Ducks.

A pair of Moorhens seem unconcerned by the arrival of a Grey Heron (a rather English scene!)

Now for something completely different!

A short trip up to Air Hitam Reservoir with Choo Eng produced a trio of owls, despite persistent rain for the early part of the evening. Buffy Fish Owl and Brown Hawk Owl were seen, but the best of the bunch was this confiding Bay Owl, still wet from the rain!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Friday 14th March: Kedah and Perlis, Penang

I took an opportunity to accompany Tan Choo Eng, first to see his family swiftlet project, and then onto some of the sites in Perlis where he and others have been seeing lots of great birds recently, including 2 firsts for Malaysia - Long-legged Buzzard and Asian Openbill.

First stop was the swiftlet house, where there were a number of swiftlets wheeling around in the early morning, clearly interested in this new potential breeding site.

These swiftlets seemed less -longed winged (or maybe broader at the wing bases?) and less 'Apus'-like than the Singapore birds I photographed. All of them seemed to be in fresh plumage, with no sign of moult. Later on I hope we can establish their identity by looking at the nests. Choo Eng's family are obviously hoping they'll be the 'White-nest' or Germain's Swiftlets, as their nests are much more valuable than those of Black-nest Swiftlets.

From the swiftlet house we journeyed north toward the Thai border. En route I got good but brief views of a White-breasted Woodswallow, which I think is the first sighting for Kedah state, and evidence of yet further northward expansion.

Just before we reached the Chuping sugar cane plantations, we made an unscheduled stop to photograph an Oriental Honey Buzzard. This proved to be the first of many.

The sugar cane plantations at Chuping are the largest in the country, and stretch like prairie grassland for miles in every direction. We saw many field being planted with young rubber trees in response to the rising price of rubber at the moment.

Over the fields were sizable flocks of Oriental Pratincoles, and, further up, several flocks of Oriental Honey Buzzards making good use of the wind and hot temperature to migrate northwards.

It was a good opportunity to observe the variability of plumage of this species; this one being a particularly distinctive individual. The yellow iris marks it as a juvenile.

More OHBs...

...And yet more!

A thorough survey of the plantations failed to reveal either the Long-legged Buzzard or the Openbill, but we did manage to find a few good birds typical of the habitat including Siberian Stonechats, at least two Sand or Pale Martins...

This rather wary Indian Roller - possibly a first for the state of Perlis,

... a distant Osprey,

...a pair of Long-tailed Shrikes frequenting a patch of burnt sugar cane,

...and this subadult male kestrel. We did wonder for a while about whether it might be a Lesser, as it seemed quite short-tailed, had pale underwings and rich pale rufous underparts. After doing some reading we realized that it must be a Common, and that the race found in south-east Asia, 'interstinctus', has much richer-coloured underparts than their European counterparts.

Butterfly Lizards were commonly encountered in the plantations.

Perlis is very different geologically from most other places in Malaysia, with limestone karst formations in abundance, and the large and unique lake, Timah Tasoh. This is a view from a look-out in the State Park.

"Arrrggghh! I've been shot!" We watched two pairs of Blyth's Hawk Eagles calling and displaying from the viewpoint.

In the next valley there were a few paddyfields between the forested limestone escarpments, and several hundred Striated Swallows lined the wires there.

They seemed to enjoy coming down to the road to dustbathe and perhaps warm themselves whenever there was an opportunity.

Striated Swallows are residents in Malaysia, and seem to prefer limestone cliffs to breed. They are very similar to the migratory Red-rumped Swallow, and differ from them in having heavier streaks on the underparts and rump, less red on the ear coverts, and a dark rather than rufous nape. This bird is presumably a first winter.

Here's an adult in moult, showing the diagnostic dark blue nape. All but one of the birds we saw were apparently of the race 'stanfordi', though we did see one of the distinctive 'badia' race, with its brick-red underparts. EDIT: These birds are probably the migratory Red-rumped Swallow, in spite of the obviously dark nape.

Don't fall off your perch! I saw several birds leaning over like this in an attempt to get into the best sunbathing position, even though it was past midday and already very hot.

Near the swallows we spent some time walking through the forest, following the valley between to ridges. A Great Hornbill flew overhead and several others were heard, as well as Banded and Black-and-Yellow Broadbill.

We got not very good views of both male and female Banded Kingfisher (this is the male), and, at the same spot ...

a nice Ferruginous Flycatcher, the first I'd seen in many years.

Grey-breasted Spiderhunters seemed particularly numerous. I heard the bird calling, and knowing their predilection for banana tree flowers, focused my camera on this one. As soon as I had done so, the spiderhunter flew into frame - one of the few times I've successfully anticipated a shot!

This Many-lined Sun Skink was uncharacteristically confiding.

From here we took a short drive to the excellently laid out Perlis State Park. On the way in, we spotted a number of Forest Wagtails foraging and preening by the roadside.

This one seems to have lost its head completely!

Ah, that's better!

I got close but frustratingly brief views of a stunning male Banded Pitta (I'll be back!), and then close and unfrustratingly prolonged views of a stunning male Rufous-collared Kingfisher.

Our second 'forest' kingfisher of the day.

Our final stop of the day was Timah Tasoh, the lake itself. We weren't successful in seeing either Pheasant-tailed Jacana or Racket-tailed Treepie, but the scenery alone was well worth the visit. I shall certainly be making more trips to Perlis!