Wednesday, April 16, 2008

15th April, 2008: Pelagic trip off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah (Part 2)

Terns in the rain! Luckily, we were able to stay reasonably dry.

Bridled Terns were the most numerous after the Common Terns. Their brown upperparts makes them easy to identify. These are usually deep sea terns, and are very rarely seen from the mainland.

Adults have fairly uniform brown upperparts, and a blackish crown with a white eyebrow extending to behind the eye.

First year birds were more numerous than adults. The white fringes to the mantle were variable in extent, but could make them appear to have a white or pale grey mantle in flight.

On board a piece of Nypah palm trunk. Typically, Bridled Terns preferred to sit on some floating debris, whereas Common Terns seemed to prefer sitting in the water.

I'd like a shake please! Trying to get rid of waterlogging in a rain storm.

Something a bit special! The second Aleutian tern for the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The first was a 1st year bird, but this one was a fine adult.

It didn't join the other terns but just flew straight past. Here's a good view of the distinctive dark secondary bar on the underwing.

On the upperwing, there's a dark wedge formed by the outer primaries (similar to Common Tern), but then a pale wedge on the inner primaries, contrasting with the slightly darker secondaries. Another thing I noticed about this bird was that it held its head up, looking straight ahead, unlike the Common Terns, which usually look down toward the water surface.

Flashing those black secondaries. You beauty!

Shaking some water off. Aleutian Tern seems much slighter than Common Tern, with a more slender bill.

Later in the day, I was surprised by a peculiar waderlike call - 'tree-ree-reep' - very different from the terns around the stern of the boat. I looked up to see this Aleutian Tern flying past at height. Not a great pic, but identifiable due to the pale wedge on the inner primaries. I saw it better than this, but was too busy trying to attract Choo Eng's attention to get better pictures. He missed both birds. Ouch!

Ghostly beauty! A Black-naped Tern joined the melee of terns at the nets. We saw a possible breeding colony of these terns in the distance, but only a couple came this close all day.

The underside of the wing appeared yellowish. Not sure if this was the effect of blood vessels showing through the translucent plumage, or genuine pigmentation.

We were hoping for a tropicbird, but this was as close as we got to one!

Long-tailed Skua is classified as a vagrant to Malaysian waters, but perhaps that should be amended to 'under-recorded'. We had 12 sightings during the day, including a flock of 4 birds. It is probable that we saw some birds on repeated occasions. Nevertheless, we estimated that there were probably 4 - 8 birds involved. This is a juvenile.

A particularly pale morph juvenile.

The same bird flying away. Notice the strongly barred uppertail coverts.

Settled on the water. Almost all the skuas we saw were initially sitting on the sea, and then flew and settled further away when flushed by our boat.

An adult trying to swallow a fish.

Notice how plain the wings are. Other skua species show prominent white flashes at the bases of the primaries. The long central tail feathers are not yet fully grown. All the adults we saw had partially grown central tail feathers.

A different adult. The smokey grey-brown upperparts contrasting with darker secondaries is characteristic of adult Long-tailed. Other skuas are much darker and browner.

The clean whitish throat and breast below the black cap, and the dusky rear body are also good pointers for adult Long-tailed.

This picture shows how narrow-based the wings are.

We also had 6 sightings of Pomarine Skuas, including a flock of 3 adults. At least 4 individuals were involved. Note how stocky this bird is compared to the Long-tailed. The thick breastband and scaly flanks, the prominent underwing flash and spoon-shaped twisted central tail feathers also help identification.

A bit blurred, but this gives a good impression of the difference in size and structure between Long-tailed (right) and Pomarine Skuas. Surprisingly, the Long-tailed was seeing off the 'Pom'!

Two Pomarine Skuas on the water. The 'spoons' on the tail and the breastband help identify them.

The birds stayed with us till dark. A Long-tailed Skua followed the terns that were following us, but sadly my battery had died!

A golden end to a great day!

Heading for port at the end of a long day! After we docked, the crew still had to unload the boat and clean it out for the next day's fishing. You won't find me complaining about the cost of 'ikan bilis' again!

15th April, 2008: Pelagic trip off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah (Part 1)

Following the exploratory trip on the MV Amusement World last month, Tan Choo Eng and I decided to try another pelagic excursion; this time on a working ikan bilis (anchovy) boat.

We set off from Tanjung Dawai at about 7am, and spent the whole day a few kilometres offshore hunting for anchovies, returning at about 8.30pm. I got up at 3.30am and got to bed after midnight!

Setting out from the jetty in first light.

The boat was a sturdy one, with about 30 crew, and functioned as a simple factory. The nets were laid and gathered at the front - sorry - bow, and the fish were processed at the stern.

Operations were directed from the bridge, where the skipper had a sonar to locate the anchovy shoals. Once one was located, he would steer the boat rapidly in a large circle to corral the fish into one area, then he went round once more to lay the net, with much hooting and banging on the deck to scare the fish into a tight ball. Sometimes one of the crew would jump into the water to make even more noise!

The skipper would also radio the other boats in the fleet to come and share the catch, and soon there would be 4 or 5 boats laying their nets.

All the noise was apparently the sign the terns were waiting for.Within minutes, a sea devoid of birds would become a boiling throng of several hundred terns. I would estimate up to a thousand at times.

Once the nets were laid, they would be slowly winched in, drawing the noose ever tighter around the fish, and also bringing the birds ever nearer!

In the gathering gloom of the approaching storm, the wind billowing the nets make this boat look some kind of weird sea monster.

Gathering in the nets is very wet work!

The catch is scooped out using a smaller net.

Next the fish are transferred via a chute to the back of the boat...

...where they are cooked and stacked in trays

As soon as the nets are arranged back on deck they are checked for holes and mended.

Times between locating shoals of fish were times to rest and also check out these two odd new crew members!

Robson's Birds of South-east Asia was a big hit!

As were our bins!

The crew were very interested in and knowledgeable about the wildlife they see out there. They told us that there weren't 'many birds about' now compared to December - February. I was slightly incredulous at this, seeing the huge flocks of terns about, but they assured us that this was 'very few birds' compared to the winter months! They also told us about some all black birds with 'feet like ducks' that live on the sea in the winter. We guessed these might be cormorants. Worth checking out next winter.

I had an amusing conversation with one guy. I asked him if they ever saw whales, to which he replied: "Tak ada. Ibu yu hitam." I translated this in my mind as "No, is your mother black?" While I was still trying to make sense of this, Choo Eng came to the rescue. "I think he means Whale Sharks!" 'Yu' is the Malay word for shark, so 'Ibu yu hitam' literally means 'black mother shark'!

Anyway, what about the birds?

Overwhelmingly the commonest birds were Common Terns. These had us in quite a pickle for a while, as there was a bewildering variety of plumages. The adults looked quite unlike the western race I am familiar with in Europe. They had strikingly grey underparts, tinged pinkish or even purplish, mostly black bills and dark red feet. The tail streamers seemed rather long, and the upperparts quite pale, so I tried to make them into Roseate Terns for some time.

The blackish outer web of the longest tail streamer eliminates the possibility of Roseate, despite the superficially similar upperwing pattern.

The grey underparts had a pinkish or purplish tone to them.

These grey-bodied, black-billed birds are presumably the race 'longipennis'. They are pretty chunky, looking larger, heavier-billed and longer-tailed than the nominate race.

Much less common were a few birds with a red base to the bill, apparently shorter tail streamers, whiter underbody and weaker-looking bill. I wondered if these might be the 'tibetana' race.

Here's another one.

This appears to be a non-breeding plumaged adult, possibly 'longipennis'.

There were also plenty of first year birds. Typically, these seemed to be midway through primary and secondary moult. The whitish areas in mid-wing seem to be caused by moulted lesser coverts exposing the pale bases of the median coverts, and this was a variable feature.

Here's one half way through primary and secondary moult, but without the white midwing patch caused by dropped lesser coverts.

This view shows the tail moult as well - the third from outermost pair of tail feathers are missing.

Hold on a second - gotta scratch!

Taking a break.

Back to work!

This looks like one of those photoshopped pictures showing a bird diving, but it's actually one shot of four birds!