Saturday, June 18, 2011

16th June 2011: At sea, off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah

I had made arrangements to take a Star reporter and photographer on the boat today, so it was a good excuse to go out and see what was still around. There had been a major storm the previous day and there was still quite a swell for most of today, and I think it brought the birds in too!

The first interesting bird of the day approached the boat from the rear, and for quite a while I had no idea what it was!

Fortunately it kept coming closer, and eventually revealed itself to be an immature Sooty Tern. What was interesting was that the bird apparently showed white in areas where even adults don't normally show white. For example, the extent of white on the forehead and crown was way more than would appear on an adult (being suggestive of a Noddy sp).

The white colouration on the outer primary coverts on the distant shots proved, on closer inspection, to be light reflecting off dark feathers.

The apparent pale grey on the inner primaries visible on the distant shots was the effect of light reflecting off freshly moulted adult-type inner primaries, which are covered with a lustrous silvery sheen (see the pics of adults on this post). I judged this bird to be a different individual from the one seen last on 4th May, as that bird was in pretty fresh plumage - I doubt so much wear could take place in the space of just over a month.

When the net was put out, I saw what I initially took to be another imm Sooty.

On getting better views, I realized that it was a Bridled, unfortunately oiled on its head and underwing.

Bridled Terns were overwhelmingly the commonest species in evidence today - around 200 at the net.

There was an interesting array of plumages on view; the lower of these two has lost most of its greater coverts and some lesser and primary coverts, exposing the white bases of the feathers beneath, leading to a very piebald appearance. Glad to see it has started to moult - otherwise it might soon be flightless!

Adults breeding-types had all but completed wing and tail moult (p10 and the outermost right hand tail feathers were still growing).

Most of the non-breeding plumaged Bridled were at a similar stage of wing moult to this bird, with all but the outer one or two primaries replaced (compared to 5-6 unmoulted on 4th May).

I was very surprised when the Brown Booby showed up again! Undoubtedly the same bird as the one first seen by me on 27th April (but probably present since February according to fishermen's reports) and last seen on 10th May.

It put on a superb show today, doing several close fly-pasts and joining the terns to feast on the fish in the net.

It has started its tail and wing moult, and seems to have replaced the central pair and the outermost pair of tail feathers - odd!

It's replacing some nape feathers too by the look of it.

A few more!

Two of the Short-tailed Shearwaters were still around - perhaps they'll stay to complete their moult.

The adult Roseate Tern was another 'old friend'. It still seems very much warier than the other terns, but it did come a little closer today.

Check out the out-sized conk and long black mane!

There were three Common Terns today - one of each age class. This is an adult - showing surprisingly dark underparts.

A 2nd summer...

And a 1st year bird.

The biggest surprise of the day was not one, but four jaegers! I thought that these would have long departed, but there were two first year Long-tailed Jaegers and 2 2nd yr or adult Parasitic. This is the first Long-tailed.

A second, pale-headed Long-tailed.

The first Parasitic, with tail extensions!

The second, with none.

The last jaegers of any description were seen on 10th May, so these are pretty late.

So all in all, an excellent day, with a surprising variety of birds on show for so late in the northern spring migration season.

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!