Wednesday, March 25, 2009

24th March 2009: Teluk Air Tawar coast and Kubang Semang, mainland Penang

A few years ago the Teluk Air Tawar coastline was regularly hosting ten thousand waders during the non-breeding season, and it was designated an IBA on the basis of this. Nowadays, as the mangroves colonize the accreting mudflats, and the areas of accretion themselves have shifted, there are far fewer birds around. This illustrates the difficulty in applying protection to parts of a coastline. Really, the whole coastline is just one dynamic wetland site, and, as such, it should be protected in its entirety. The birds are still be out there somewhere, but they must have shifted to another part of the coastline which offers them optimal feeding.


As the tide receded at Bagan Belat a few birds did arrive, including this Brown-headed Gull coming into breeding plumage.


Javan Pond Herons were the commonest heron on the mud. They seem to be increasing in numbers every year.


This one is in full breeding dress - beautiful!


There were a couple of Indian Pond Herons too. This species was first recorded in Malaysia in 1999 but is now regular in Penang, and it has even been seen on Langkawi.

Chinese Pond Heron should be the 'common' pond heron here, but there were only two on the mudflats and I couldn't get a good picture of them; this one was taken at Kubang Semang later in the day.


I tried hard to get all three species in the frame at once - here are Javan and Chinese ... but no Indian!


And here are Indian (left) and Javan ... but no Chinese!


Finally I got my chance, but the birds were rather distant and the shot isn't sharp - perhaps someone else can do better! From left to right, they are Javan, Indian and Chinese.


There were still some pond herons in non-breeding dress, including this interesting pallid individual.


A pair of resident Collared Kingfishers were keeping a wary eye out for intruders...


They wouldn't allow this migrant Black-capped Kingfisher anywhere near their territory.


There were one or two waders around as well - this lone Common Greenshank having a mudbath.


One or two Whimbrel.


And a few Terek Sandpipers.


There was a small flock of Redshanks, and I focused on those in breeding plumage to see if I could diagnose any different races. This one, with its slightly rusty tones and thin bars on the tertials, looks like a typical 'craggi'.


This one, however, with its boldly barred tertials and more grey-brown plumage, might be either 'eurhinus'or 'ussuriensis'. I've written to ask Dr W G Hale what he thinks - watch this space!

At Penaga there weren't many birds in the paddy-fields, but I did surprise this male Cinnamon Bittern feeding in a ditch.

When it realized it was being watched, it slowly manoeuvred itself into the 'camouflage position' typical of bitterns.

Where's it gone? All I can see is a few swaying reeds!

This one is using advanced Stealth technology - actually it's a hybrid Cinnamon Bittern x Cheshire Cat!

A quick check of the paddy-fields at Penaga and Kubang Semang wasn't so productive. The commonest birds around were Cattle Egrets, some of which were coming into nice plumage.

There were smaller numbers of Little Egrets.

A few Red-rumped Swallows were feeding amongst the Barn Swallows, but the light was against flight photography.


And the fields were swarming with Yellow Wagtails, but I couldn't find anything else among them.

This makes my blood boil. Did this Zitting Cisticola have to die a lingering death in mist nets strung across the paddyfields because it eats the insects that harm the farmer's crops, or was it necessary to feed his starving children?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

18th March, 2009: Batu Kawan and Pulau Burung, Penang

I visited a new site for me this morning, an area of cleared mangroves just behind the coastal fringe at Batu Kawan on the mainland. It has apparently been attracting a lot of waders, but today the tide was wrong, so there were relatively few around.


This pair of Collared Kingfishers were courting in the early morning sun.

An Olive-winged Bulbul tried a few phrases of song.

And this Paddyfield Pipit paid particular attention to a small patch of long grass.

Here's why!

My next stop was Pulau Burung Landfill site, where I had spent a season photographing the waterbirds a couple of years ago. Here's what the site looked like then.

And here's what it's like now. Lucky for you, photographs don't reproduce smell! It's such a sad sight to see the migrant waterbirds trying to find food in this muck. For a moment I felt angry at the landfill company, but then I realized that this wasn't their fault so much as mine. That's my waste in there - a powerful argument to recycle as much as possible.

In the UK, landfill sites have gulls; here, we have Cattle Egrets! There were about 1,000 or so feeding on the active landfill.

The area opposite the active landfill remains attractive to a variety of birdlife.

Lesser Whistling-Ducks have moved in more or less permanently. Check out those enormous feet!

This barely fledged juvenile suggests that they may be breeding here too.


Little Grebes certainly breed here. Interestingly, the population in Malaysia doesn't appear to have a non-breeding plumage. They always look like this!

This juvenile Purple Heron looked enormous as it stood tall in the morning heat.

As elsewhere, the pond herons here are beginning to assume breeding plumage. Here's a Chinese Pond Heron with a few tell-tale maroon feathers on the rear crown.

And here's a Javan beginning to take on some orangey hues around the head and neck.



It was nice to see a few Marsh Sandpipers in smart breeding plumage. This one's an adult.


It's not often you get to see a size comparison between Marsh Sandpiper and Little Grebe!


This bird is in first summer plumage (ie it hatched last year).


The way to age waders at this time of year is to look at their lesser coverts. Adults have a full body, wing and tail moult before or during southward migration, and then a body moult (and some wing coverts) in the northward migration. So the lesser coverts are still relatively fresh, as can be seen on this bird (a nice even, rounded shape).

Young birds, however, retain their first set of (juvenile) lesser coverts and most other flight feathers throughout their first year of life, so by now, they are looking decidedly worn (ragged edges, shaft extending beyond the rest of the feather as a 'spike', bleaching etc). Birds in their 'first summer' do not usually attain complete breeding plumage - this bird is much less well-patterned than the adult. Feather patterning and colouration is apparently driven by hormone levels, so birds intending to breed will have more intensely coloured and patterned feathers. Most waders will not breed in their first summer, and may not even migrate all the way to the breeding grounds. For more on moult, see here.

Here's a Wood Sandpiper for comparison - an adult I think.

I tend of think of Marsh Sandpipers as quite 'leggy' birds, but this one looks positively stumpy next to a Black-winged Stilt!

I flushed an immature male Watercock.

Blue-tailed Bee-eaters may be extremely common, but they are also irresistibly photogenic! I realized today that, no matter how many perfectly good photos I have of this species, I will always take more!

My last photos of the day were a stroke of good fortune. Cruising along slowly in the car with my camera at the ready, I suddenly spotted a pair of Barred Buttonquails by the road, about a second before they saw me! I was able to squeeze off about four shots before they ran for cover.

This is one of a select group of birds where the female is brighter than the male and is polyandrous (mating with more than one male and leaving him/them to carry out the parental duties). She also seems to have a heavier bill than the male (all the better for pecking her many husbands with?). Apparently buttonquails are more closely related to waders than to quails. Anyway, good views are hard to come by, so I was happy to have had this brief opportunity.