Thursday, April 30, 2009

29th April: Air Hitam Dalam and Penaga ricefields

Following tantalizing accounts of a showy Mangrove Pitta at Air Hitam Dalam, I succumbed to the temptation and took a half day off work to go look for it. The bird had apparently showed for two hours by the boardwalk at the weekend, so it seemed to be a dead cert.

However, the bird was not calling, and the sense that I would inevitably see it which I had when I arrived gradually gave way to gloom and increasing certainty that I would not! After an hour or so, the bird suddenly began calling and moving closer, and suddenly, there it was, close by on an exposed tree trunk.

I had taken the camera off the tripod and was hand-holding it when the bird appeared, necessitating the use of flash.

I tried one shot without flash, and was much happier with the truer colours. Unfortunately, as I was putting the camera back on the tripod the bird flew, and that was the end of the show. Ah well, I'm happy with these few shots.

Mangrove Blue Flycatchers, Asian Paradise Flycatchers and Black-winged Flycatcher-shrikes were all active but distant, so I decided after another couple of hours to go and check out the rice fields at Penaga. These were largely empty of wagtails and waders, in contrast to a few weeks ago.

I did find a small flock of Pacific Golden Plovers, some of which were in splendid breeding plumage.

By now it was midday, and the heat haze prevented photography of all but the closest birds. Here's a shaky video.

A lone Intermediate Egret was still hanging around.

A large flock of what I assume to be German's Swiftlets was feeding over one field, so I stopped to try my hand at getting some flight shots.

These are the very pale-rumped birds which populate 'swiftlet hotels' in the north of the peninsula, building white nests of their own saliva which are then harvested to be made into birds' nest soup. The birds in heavy wing moult must be adults, and perhaps the fresh-plumaged birds are juveniles.

This female Cinnamon Bittern chose a paddyfield that didn't offer it much cover!

A nearby male had found a safer place to hunt. The bright red lores are an indication that the bird is ready to breed.

In flight, the uniform chestnut wings are the easiest way to identify this species.

This male Cinnamon Bittern was feeding at exactly the same spot as the bird I photographed on 24th March, and is probably the same bird. Now his lores are bright red too. Interestingly, this colour changed once he realized he was under scrutiny.

Did he go pale with fright, or was losing the bright colouration a defence strategy?

He decided to run for cover...

...where he quickly got his colour back again!

Once he decided I was no threat, he reassumed his hunt for lunch.

I decided to end up at the coast, where high tide was approaching, to see what waders were still around. Very few were (3 Redshanks!) but on the mudflats I noticed an unlikely species - a Barn Owl! On closer inspection this appeared to be attached to a long piece of fishing line by one wing, which was in turn attached to a long pole stuck vertically in the mud. I waded out to it and found that the bird had been deliberately tied there (there was no hook). I got it back to the shade of the trees and removed the line from its wing. The feathers were badly messed up but at least none seemed to be broken, and the bird was surprisingly vigorous considering it had been in the direct heat of the sun. I dripped a small amount of water into its bill, then wrapped it up in my hide cover and brought it home, where I installed it in an upstairs bathroom (what a long-suffering wife I have!).

Twenty-four hours later it appears to have made a good recovery from its ordeal and I hope to release it this evening. Here's a pic of it roosting on our shower head!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Whistling Thrush Project: Cameron Highlands 24-27th April 2009

Over the next twelve months I'll be taking part in a research project to try to discover more about the various whistling thrushes that live in Peninsular Malaysia. There are two species - Blue (Myophonus caeruleus) and Malaysian (M. robinsoni); Blue is represented by at least two races - M.c. dicrorhynchos and crassirostris while Malaysian is monotypic.

One of the puzzles we will be trying to solve is whether the two species overlap in terms of elevation (Blue has never conclusively been identified above the Montane Ecotone) and habitat; another is to try to establish reliable field criteria by which the two species may be distinguished, and a third is to get some idea of the status and distribution of each taxon.

A typical view of a whistling-thrush! In montane areas, where both species could occur, and where most views are brief and in the poor light of dawn or dusk, identifying the species involved is a challenge!

We'll be visiting four locations to attempt to trap and colour band whistling thrushes - two lowland (Perlis and Ipoh) and two montane (Cameron Highlands and Fraser's Hill).

We'd really appreciate any reports of whistling thrushes in West Malaysia, especially in montane areas. We'd like information on: location (GPS coordinates and elevation if known); habitat and which species is involved. Look out for colour bands, as we hope to be catching and banding more birds over the coming 8 months. Please note the colour and which leg the bands are on. Please send your information to: (substitute '@' for 'AT')

Our first field trip was to Cameron Highlands, home of cream teas and strawberries, and now increasingly polluted by overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. This is a view of the Pallas Boh tea plantation.

Setting up nets over mountain streams that quickly turn to raging torrents after rain is no simple feat, and I was extremely grateful to have the expert assistance of a team from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) - Dr Shahrul, Encik Yusof, Suhaimi and Am.

All birds caught were carefully weighed and measured before being released.

Some of the species we caught were:

A stunningly attractive vireo-like Black-eared Shrike-Babbler (male).

The surprisingly strong-billed Grey-throated Babbler.

A couple of female Large Niltavas.

Quite a few Lesser Shortwings. This is an adult male.

Here's a subadult female.

And a subadult male. These tiny birds have amazingly long legs - I never realized before that Lesser Shortwings have longer legs than Stripe-throated and Mountain Bulbuls (which weigh twice as much!).

White-tailed Robin was our most frequently-trapped species. Interestingly, all but three of the 15 birds caught were adult males like this one. We weren't sure whether this was because females were on nests (unlikely as we saw plenty in the field), or because males possibly engaged in territorial defense were more likely to get caught than more sedentary females.

Sexes are quite distinct even in juveniles - here's a young male.

We caught about four Silver-eared Mesias. This was the only female.

A Malaysian (Chestnut-crowned) Laughingthrush.

A new mammal species for all of us was this Kloss's Mole. Unfortunately this individual was found dead.

We almost saw a live one when we noticed this female White-tailed Robin observing a patch of ground intently. When we did the same, we noticed vigorous earth movement, indicating that a mole was active just below the surface.

This particular female was very curious about us too, and became habituated to us during the course of the day, approaching very closely and reminding me of the behaviour of European Robins.

Malaysian Hill Partridges were very vocal and seemed common. We saw a pair with a very young chick one day and a party of nine birds (including the one above) the following day. They took it in turns to run across the road, giving me plenty of time to aim my camera at the requisite spot!

A female Black-eared Shrike-Babbler - another commonly seen species.

A pair of Little Pied Flycatchers were holding territory around where we set up our banding station.

Mountain Leaf Warblers were common but difficult to catch on camera!

We caught one Snowy-browed Flycatcher, and they really are miniscule - the bird weighed less than 8g!

We were fortunate to spot a juvenile Sunda Cuckoo (the small resident race of what was formerly called Oriental Cuckoo).

It was being fed by its brood-host, a Yellow-breasted Warbler. Wells postulated that this species probably functions as brood-host above the altitudunal limit of Chestnut-crowned Warbler, but this is the first time (in West Malaysia at least) that this speculation has been proven correct.

The identity of this young bird was a mystery till its parent turned up - it's a juvenile Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo.