A few years ago, the mudflats along the Teluk Air Tawar coast were hosting over 10,000 waterbirds during migration season. But each year, as the currents change the shape of the coastline and available mudflats, and as accreting mangroves obscure different sections of the shoreline from view for the land-based birder, finding the birds is a challenge each new season. Last migratory season, I found no more than 400 birds at my best count.
With high tides guaranteed to push any feeding birds off the mud today, I went determined to try to find an accessible roost.
The first surprise was to find that the local Black-crowned Night-heron colony had shifted accommodation yet again, and is now on view right on the edge of a popular picnic spot!
Most nests seemed to have three youngsters, of varying size.
In amongst the Night-herons were at least eight Little Egret nests. Little Egret was only recorded as a breeding bird in Peninsular Malaysia relatively recently, and this is, as far as I know, the first record of breeding in Penang State. In recent times, there have been one or two incidents of people raiding night-heron colonies for eggs or the young (for food). The locals I met and spoke to about the colony seem to enjoy having the birds around, so I hope that their popularity will safeguard them from unwelcome human intruders. This is a case where probably the more birders go to see them the better, as we can highlight the value of the birds (alive and free) to the local economy, by going, educating people, and buying snacks at the picnic site.
The herons and egrets were nice, but it was waders I really came for! A reasonable walk eventually brought me to an area of open mudflats where a few hundred waders were feeding.
An adult Eurasian Curlew. It can be aged by the motley appearance of the upperparts, as the feathers are of several different ages - some fresh (coverts), others worn (scapulars).
A juvenile, by contrast, has uniformly fresh feathers, with broad whitish edges to all the coverts. Here's a video of this bird:
Not the best picture, but I think this is probably a first summer bird, judging by the extremely worn state of the upperparts (largely last year's juvenile feathers), and juvenile type breast feathers (with thin shaft streaks).
A neat juvenile in front, with a rather scruffy adult behind!
There were also juveniles of both sand plovers, Common Redshanks, and Whimbrels, but none yet for any of the calidrids - Curlew Sandpiper, Great Knot and Red-necked Stint. Eventually the tide covered the mud and the birds flew off north. Time to look for the roost!
The weather looked threatening as I returned to the car, but provided some great lighting for the Black-crowned Night-herons! I made it back to the car just as the heavens opened.
The rice fields looked hopeful, as a couple of flocks of Whimbrels came flighting over, but they didn't land. Instead, all I saw were a pair of Watercocks. The male looks like something a Disney cartoonist might invent!
The female flew out of the paddy into a harvested area, before realizing that perhaps that wasn't the brightest move, and flying back into cover!
Seeing a new housing development, I drove toward it in the hope of finding some shallow rainwater pools on an unfinished construction site, and almost immediately struck lucky! Waders, right by the road, and in an area I could drive onto.
A nice comparison of an adult (left) and juvenile Lesser Sand Plover, with a few adult Red-necked Stints for company.
Here's one to practise on! How many species can you find and what are they? (Click on the picture to enlarge it. Answers at the bottom).
While continuing my scrutiny, I got a shock when I came across this! The bird with its head down at the back left is a completely different colour from a Red-necked Stint in any plumage! And it's far too golden for a Long-toed.
And check out those pale 'braces' on the mantle.
Look how long the tibia is compared to the Red-necked Stints. Also, the dark central crown with a hint of lateral crown stripes, and the streaked, golden-straw coloured throat. My first Little Stint of the southward migration!
A few more shots and some video of the bird. It was looking very settled, and I was looking forward to getting some better shots, when a Brahnminy Kite dived on the flock and they all shot off in an instant, and did not come back! Oh well, at least I got some pictures!
A short visit back to the coast as the tide was beginning to fall produced another small roost of Whimbrels, Common Redshanks, some Bar-tailed Godwits and a lone Asian Dowitcher, which I only spotted as it flew off with the Redshanks.
All in all, about 700 birds today, but I knew that I still had not found the main roost. Something to come back for!
4 = good; 5 = very good; 6 = excellent; 7 = inspired or lucky guess! The 4 fairly easy ones are: Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Red-necked Stint and Common Redshank. Then there's a snoozing Broad-billed Sandpiper just right of centre behind the sand plovers, and a Curlew Sandpiper near the back, left of centre. Finally, there's an extremely blurry Terek Sandpiper preening its neck at the back, right of centre..