Friday, June 10, 2011

9th June 2011: At sea, off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah

It's hard - really hard - to muster much enthusiasm for posting on this blog as I keep track of my good friend at Waderworld and his experiences of Spoon-billed Sandpipers and other waders on the breeding grounds. But we must try!

I tried to go out on the boat last week, but we turned straight round and were back on land by 9am in the face of an oncoming storm, so a long trip for nothing!

This one started a bit better - by 8.30am we had the net out - one of the earliest catches in the day since I started going on the boat, and pretty soon we had a good melee of birds - mainly Bridled Terns - around the net.

Quite a number are now in pretty good breeding plumage. The tail streamers get really long in this plumage!

I was hoping for some Sootys - there were good numbers at around this time last year, but I drew a blank, and it's possible they've been and gone since we last went out.

There were a few second summer Common Terns about - all 'longipennis' as far as I could tell.

Amazingly, one of these turned up at one of my old birding haunts in the UK recently - Minsmere - and a write-up of the occurrence is in the current issue of Birding World.

It wasn't long before the first of three Short-tailed Shearwaters zoomed in and settled near the boat - getting pretty late for these birds now, but the extreme state of wear of these birds made me wonder whether they will make it to Japan before they moult!

Along with the Short-taileds came another bird with obviously longer wings and a more languid flight action. The long full tail revealed it to be a Wedge-tailed Shearwater. I saw my first one of these in Malaysia in June last year the same day as the Sooty Terns, so they're clearly a later migrant.

Apart from the obvious tail, the bird was more chocolate brown than the Short-tailed, with a paler panel on the outer greater coverts.

It held its long wings further forward, and the flight style - slower, more elastic wingbeats and more 'shearing' flight, banking from side to side and arcing up higher above the waves - made it look a much larger bird than the Short-tailed.

A shot of Wedge-tailed and Short-tailed Shearwaters (PS the Short-tailed is under water, bottom left!).

A nice view of the bird's pink feet and bill...

...But hang on...! Onley and Scofield's Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World states: Flesh-footed Shearwater: "When seen, colour of bill and feet diagnostic" (p90) and "Among dark shearwaters and petrels instantly separated from all by combination of pale bill and feet when these features are visible." Of Wedge-tailed Shearwater, they write: "bill and legs dark" (p90).

Two more images of this distinctly pink-legged and billed bird!

This got me confused for a while, but the tail and comparatively slight bill confirmed that the bird was a Wedge-tailed rather than Flesh-footed (compare with image of Flesh-footed here and here). A quick internet image search revealed that it's not unusual for Wedge-tailed to have pink legs, and though less usual, they can also show quite a bit of pink on the bill (e.g. this photo). Yet more evidence that birds don't read field guides!

A Short-tailed Shearwater for comparison - much more cruciform in shape and - well - short-tailed!

The Wedge-tailed Shearwater stayed a safe distance compared to last year's bird, and it was constantly harassed by Bridled Terns (did they mistake it for a jaeger?). However, the Short-tailed ended up right beneath my viewpoint on the boat and put on a fine show! It was interesting to see how certain feathers were waterlogged (the black ones) while others maintained their waterproofing.

The scapulars are a good deal newer than some of the other body plumage - it looks like moult has already started.

The fishermen constantly threw fish to the birds as they were bringing in the nets - a definite improvement on jumping on them! - and this gave me lots of opportunities to take shots for my forthcoming book, "An Underwater Guide to Identification of Indo-Pacific Tubenoses"!

Some of these reminded me of ancient cave paintings!

Fun though all this was, it proved to be the last real 'action' of the day. We caught a load of fish which required immediate delivery to port (we didn't have enough ice), which meant a detour of about 3 hours.

Some fish around the dock...

We went out again for a short time, only to give up around 3pm with no more catches made. On the way back this Roseate Tern appeared briefly and distantly in the wake.

It's probably the same bird as the one we saw on 4th May. I hope one day it might come a bit closer!

Standing tall! This White-bellied Sea-eagle's nest is a landmark on the headland near the port!


Anonymous said...

Here in the SW of Western Australia most of the breeding Wedge-tails have pink bills and frequently confuse visiting birders who, after consulting the Fieldguides, decide they are Flesh-footed!!!

Great Blog, always interesting reading.


digdeep said...

Hi Alan

Interesting! That's probably where our birds originate from. A curious omission from literature!

jytou said...

Excellent under water shots, looked like bird fossils somehow......

Anonymous said...

Good idea to get a polarizing filter for your lens to take those underwater shots for your forthcoming book. But those filters are probably the 2nd most expensive after those IR filters. They are not going to be cheap.
Choo Eng.

Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok said...

Really interesting post!
I've never been on a pelagic trip before. The only closest experience would be a family trip to Phuket last year. Lots of frigatebirds along the way while we're on the boat, sadly I didn't bring my binocular....

Erwin said...

I love the underwater shots! Very interesting!

John Holmes said...

"Tubenoses - the underwater guide" is exactly what we all need in our stockings at Christmas time !

digdeep said...

Glad you think I'm on to a winner there John! The follow up would be - "Penguins - the sounding approach"

JRandSue said...

Super collection of outstanding images,love the flight shots.

Ike said...

So there are still birds around then? Perhaps I should plan the next trip sooner rather than in August as I had planned.
The weather here is just too unpredicatble to make a trip right now. I too was turned back a few weeks ago when what started out as a sunny day turned to a full-force gale within half an hour!