Ever since I went on my first trip on the boat out from Tanjung Dawai with Choo Eng back in April 2008, the fishermen have told us of small black 'ducks' that arrive in large numbers off the coast in May and June.
From what they told us, and from reports in Thailand and Hong Kong of sometimes large numbers in May and June, we figured out that these must be Short-tailed Shearwaters, a species that is not yet on the Malaysian list.
So we waited for May and June 2008 with eager anticipation... but the fishermen reported only one or two birds on odd days. It was the same again in 2009, and we wondered whether this phenomenon was a thing of the past.
This year, my main man on the boat, Harom, started seeing the occasional 'black duck' back in April. Was this a sign that 2010 would be a 'good year'? Over the past week, Harom smsed me a few times reporting the sighting of one or two birds on three or four days, so I decided now was a good time to go and try again! For the first time, Choo Eng couldn't join me, so I couldn't rely on anyone else's eyes to help me!
Not long after setting off at about 7am, the boat flushed two shearwaters in quick succession.
This was the first...
And the second, a bit closer. As the birds were flying more or less away from me, it wasn't easy to see the diagnostic features. I knew I needed to see the tail shape and length to eliminate dark morph Wedge-tailed Shearwater. On the first of these pictures you can just about make out the toes projecting beyond the tail, and the pale brownish underwing lining is a good feature, eliminating the similar (but unlikely) Sooty Shearwater, as well as Wedge-tailed. A two-year old mystery solved!
We went through a shoal of garfish, sending them skittering across the waves.
I discovered that this escape strategy has its own risks, when I suddenly found myself looking into the eyes of a White-bellied Sea Eagle which had seemingly materialized out of thin air!
We've all heard the expression 'eagle-eyed' but I was still amazed at how the bird could have spotted the fish from way up in the sky!
In one last desperate act of defiance, the garfish took advantage of the momentum of the strike to have a stab at the back of the eagle!
Now we know what feathers are for!
So it was lights out for the Garfish and breakfast for the eagle!
Next up were several more rather distant Short-tailed Shearwaters...
...including a couple on the water. They have a distinctive short-necked shape, and ride high in the water, and I could see why the fishermen call them 'ducks'! I watched one bird sitting very close to one of the boats in our fleet, and then fly to sit next to another one... but of course, it didn't come to ours! Next time!
The boat crew were kept busy by the presence of huge shoals of ikan bilis (anchovies). In one mad period, we let the net out three times in quick succession, casting it out again as soon as the previous catch had been dealt with. At the end of the day I counted 440 trays of fish! We were in a fleet of about 8 boats which each also had their nets out, so it meant that the birds were spoilt for choice, and didn't necessarily come to our boat.
While watching the birds round one of the other boats, I saw two black-looking birds which appeared to be harassing the terns. Oddly though, the terns were not reacting as I've seen them do when attacked by jaegers. These birds were too dark for Long-tailed Jaegers, and also rather small, being just a bit bigger than the Bridled Terns. Finally I realized they were Brown Noddies, the first I've seen from the boat.I took some 'record shots' showing one bird flying with Bridled and Black-naped Terns.
There were five species of terns, with Bridled being the most numerous. The others were Black-naped, Common, White-winged and Little. It's not often you get Bridled and White-winged in the same shot!
While scanning the stern of the boat for shearwaters, I came across this bird skimming across the waves quite a way back.
At first I took it to be a shearwater, but there were several things 'not right'. The bird was following a zig-zag path back and forth across the wake of the boat, the tail was much too long for Short-tailed Shearwater, the wings were held forward and bent back at the carpal, and the bill was way too thick for a shearwater.
Although the bird looked all dark, at times a faint paler bar across the upperwing coverts could be made out, which confirmed it as a Bulwer's Petrel - a lifer for me, as well as the fulfilment of a personal ambition - to see a petrel off the west coast of Malaysia!
The bird made its way gradually closer, but veered off and passed us some way to the right, indulging in a bit of 'foot-paddling' - a characteristic behaviour of many petrel species.
Within moments of the petrel, this imm Long-tailed Jaeger flew over the boat and started harassing terns, leaving me beginning to realize that this was quite a good day!
Getting closer! We sailed past this Short-tailed Shearwater, giving me my closest views yet. Onley and Scofield's book "Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World" mentions that Short-tailed Shearwaters fly to waters off Japan in June to moult. This bird appeared to be moulting some wing coverts.
The closest bird of all (one of three) drifted past us as we returned to harbour, well within sight of land. This brought the days' tally to nine birds. I'm pretty sure numbers will increase considerably in the next few weeks, and hopefully there'll be chance to improve on these shots.
A great end to a great day! The sunset reflected over Gunung Jerai on the Kedah coast.
The sun's last rays illuminate the sea and clouds. Glory!