Wednesday, October 26, 2011

19-22 October 2011: BRISC, Pulau Tengah, Johor

If you've been keeping track of this blog through the year, you may remember that BRISC stands for Batu-Batu Reef and Island Study Centre. It's part of a new boutique resort development on Pulau Tengah, about 9km east of Mersing in Johor. I documented my two previous visits here and here.

Part of my work has involved collecting baseline data on the birds and other marine and terrestrial fauna of the island and its environs. In particular, we've wanted to explore the potential of the island as a migrant trap, especially during southerly migration, and to find out what pelagic birds are in the area. For the past 3 weeks or so, Simon Buckell, an experienced island and pelagic birder, has been stationed on the island, assisted by Hakim, so I have been getting vicarious pleasure out of seeing what they turn up, since I've largely been stuck in my office! You can keep track of what's been happening 'at the coalface' by checking Simon's blog - Waderworld - what a year he's had!

Last week I had the chance of spending a few days with them, and arrived just after a pelagic trip on which they had had 5 Bulwer's Petrels, Christmas Island Frigatebird and a bunch of other goodies (which you can read about here). Simon promised me an overnight pelagic so I was pretty excited about the whole thing!

Looking North-east from Pulau Tengah toward Pulau Rawa.

Migrants have been few and far between so far on the island, but on my first morning there we collectively had a couple of Arctic Warblers, a Purple-backed Starling and a Brown Shrike. Bird of the morning for me was not a migrant however, but an unexpected encounter with three Nicobar Pigeons feeding on fruit in the canopy. I got good views of one, but didn't have the camera ready, so missed getting a shot. This is a tricky species to catch up with in West Malaysia, so I was very pleased indeed to bump into them - a world 'lifer', and number 558 for Peninsular Malaysia!

This was just the appetizer for the main course of the day however, as we set out on our boat trip at around midday. We chugged eastwards for about 4 hours to a point about 48 miles off the coast, beyond Aur, Pemanggil and Tioman Islands, to where Simon and Hakim had chummed the previous week.

Hakim and Simon preparing the chum. I would have loved to help of course, but someone had to do the hard job of recording the occasion on camera!

Seriously, it's a good job that photos don't capture smell - the stuff reeked terribly, a mix of fish left in the sun for 4 days and oil which we called Chanel No 9!

Great Crested and Bridled Terns were the first to come and check out the slick spreading behind the boat.

This adult Long-tailed Jaeger was next to arrive. The light was difficult, as the slick was drifting into the setting sun, and the relatively small boat was moving up and down considerably in the swell. This made getting the bird in frame, let alone in focus, was quite a challenge - a lot different from the relatively stable anchovy boat I take off the west coast.

Not the best views, but this was the first Long-tailed I've seen in autumn, so I was pleased with it. The photo shows some fresh non-breeding plumage feathers coming through on the scapulars and rump.

There were a few Lesser Frigatebirds about, as well as another couple of jaegers - one a Long-tailed and the other not, but not identified to species.

At dusk we headed for the relative shelter of Tioman.

Simon and me settling down for the night to the fragrance of Chanel No 9!

Tioman's own 'twin towers' greeted us next morning.

Our boat tied up at the jetty while we went in search of breakfast!

Heading out from Tioman to the chumming point.

We came across a small pod of about 7 dolphins, including this mother and calf. I think they were Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins - can anyone confirm or correct that?

There were several distant Lesser Frigatebirds - truly gothic birds!

Once we got the chum slick going, several came in for a much closer look.

Most were adult males.

The sense of latent power and menace in these birds was almost tangible as they drifted lazily over the ocean. Once they kicked into gear, their speed and agility was breathtaking (and pretty impossible to photograph!)

Who'd be a tern? Being harassed by a jaeger is bad enough, but when a frigatebird has you in its sights it must be downright terrifying!

Evil pirates or enviable beatniks?!

I think this is a 4th year male.

Adult females. I'm not sure what the significance of the different bill colour is.

Two juveniles.

But that was it really! We waited in vain for about 3 hours for the chum to draw in something a little more exciting, before finally giving up and heading for home. On the long 4 hour journey back we remained alert enough to see a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes on the sea, followed by a flock of at least 12 birds, which we lost as soon as we got onto, frustratingly. I don't think anyone's ever seen 14 phalaropes in a day in Malaysia before, but the chances are we only saw a tiny fraction of the true number out there.

The following morning was my last on the island. I hoped to find the Nicobar Pigeons again, this time with camera at the ready, but the birds were not in the same tree as two days previously.

I sat on the rocks at the northernmost point of the island, and watched a juv Japanese Sparrowhawk migrating south overhead.

Wanna check my mesial stripe? Here you go!

I noticed about 100 Pied Imperial Pigeons decorating some of the trees on the adjacent island, Pulau Hujong, like some strange fruit.

Soon some of them started flying over to Pulau Tengah.

A single Nicobar Pigeon (a juv with an all dark tail), also flew overhead.

So I got my pictures after all - not as close as I might have hoped - but then again, there aren't too many pics of Nicobar Pigeons in flight around!

An island 'regular' to finish with - a Pacific Reef Egret.


Choy Wai Mun said...

The frigate are certainly majestic. And you got the Nicobar as well!! Congrats.

Anonymous said...

Yea! Well done, the Nicobar's are my many dream birds.
Choo Eng.

jytou said...

fascinating, I would love to feel how seeing 14 phalaropes in a day felt in Malaysia, I just asked for 1 and it never showed up......

digdeep said...

You need to get on a boat and spend some time at sea then Tou!

Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok said...

Nice shots of the frigatebirds! I've only seen these birds once in Phuket during a family trip. There were lots of them out in the sea but too bad I didn't have my binocular...

Anonymous said...

Just came back from Mabul Island, semporna Sabah last weekend. Lotsa lesser frigates, hovering like WWII bombers in the morning. 1 of my favourite seabirds. Nice pic dave.

Btw, I'm back in KL forawhile, do u mind me asking, can u just walk in to watch birds at the kapar power station or do u need special clearance or anything like that? And is this a good time?

Tqs. Hoping to do some peninsular birding while I'm around.

digdeep said...

Sorry for the delayed reply to the above - special clearance is definitely needed for Kapar - and it's not easy to arrange at short notice - so sorry about that...