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.

Friday, October 14, 2011

13th Oct 2011: At sea, off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah

Work-wise, this has definitely been my busiest southward migration season for some years, which has meant very little time in the field. However, I'd had an email or two from Gerry Brett in Thailand asking if I would take him on a pelagic trip off Tanjung Dawai in October. Well, I couldn't refuse a request like that, so, with the excuse of offering some good Malaysian hospitality to a visitor, I quieted my conscience sufficiently to put the office work on hold for a day.

We were on a roll from the get-go, with first a brief sighting of an Irrawaddy Dolphin, and then a nice feeding Whale Shark, which the captain obligingly steered over to so we could take a good look!

Just a 'baby', but still an impressive beast!

It was feeding on a shoal of small fish which formed a crescent in front of the vacuum-cleaner-like mouth, so it looked as if was wearing a fishy smile!

Shortly after this fine display, I picked up a tiny white dot flying above the waves. As I got my bins onto it and shouted "Phalarope!" it pitched down; I managed to locate the dot in the camera LCD screen, rattled off a few frames, and by 'chimping' the bird on the LCD, was able to see that it was a juv Red-necked Phalarope - a new Peninsular Malaysian bird for me. Gerry wasn't able to get onto the bird (well, you try giving directions to a tiny bird on the surface of the sea!), but, having seen them far closer in Thailand, was well able to contain the disappointment.

For me, this was a minor triumph - having been on the look-out for the species from the boat for some time now. I knew they must be out there, it was just finding one!

It was obvious that terns numbers were up in a big way compared to last month, and once the net went out, it was Tern Central, giving us superb opportunities to observe the species present from all angles and in most plumages.

White-winged were arguably the most abundant, with 1-2,000 birds present. As soon as the net went out these birds would materialize seemingly out of thin air and descend on the yellow floats holding the net up. It was as if they were just waiting for a place to perch!

Most were adults at various stages of wing moult.

There were a few first winters, but I was especially pleased to photograph this bird (top) still in full juvenile plumage. You don't often see this plumage here.

Common Terns had also arrived in numbers - at least 1,000 of these were present.

There were still lots of Bridled Terns about - at least 600 - and I spent a lot of time scrutinizing juveniles, especially the head patterns, after the occurrence of a strange dark-backed tern in Singapore recently (which I'll post more on anon).

I was especially interested in the variation in the pattern of dark and white on the forehead and supercilium, and also in the variation in extent of dark colouration on the throat. This is a fairly standard 'text-book' juv with a well-marked supercilium and plain white throat.

This was a particularly dark individual, which had extensive darker smudging on the flanks and a lightly streaked brown wash on the throat.

It had a typical white 'V' on the forehead, extending over the eye as a short supercilium, and a pale collar.

This much fresher-plumaged bird had a far less obvious supercilium and apparently more restricted white on the forehead.

And this one had nothing you could really call a supercilium at all. It had a fairly large and diffuse white forehead blaze, and a hint of streaking extending down the sides of the throat. This was the darkest-headed bird I could find among the hundreds of juvenile Bridled. None of the juveniles had yet started their body moult into 1st non-breeding plumage.

In fresh plumage, the crown is clearly streaked brown and white. However, when the white edges wear away, the overall effect is to make the crown plainer and darker.

There were more Black-naped Terns than usual - around 50 or so.

Juveniles were plentiful - very smart-looking in black and silver!

In-flight entertainment - Crick-naped Tern!

The scarcer terns were represented by Lesser Cresteds - never more than one in view at any time, but, as these photos show, at least three different birds were present.

There were a few Little Terns around, as well as a solitary and brief Whiskered.

So there were LOTS of terns, but not a great deal of variety. By the time the net was put out for the third time toward 5 o'clock, we were both feeling somewhat hot and weary, having been scanning for 10 hours pretty much constantly. I decided to go up top to get some more juv Bridled Tern pics, and Gerry was one deck down digiscoping (I kid you not, and he got some very respectable pics!) the terns on the net buoys. As I was scanning with my bins, suddenly a familiar but wholly unexpected bird appeared - a LITTLE GULL!!

The first frame!

My mind refused to take in what I was seeing for a split second, before instinct kicked in and I reached for the camera, at the same time shouting - :Little Gull - first for Malaysia!" hoping that this would alert Gerry to the importance of the message. There followed the usual comic miscommunication - "A what?.... A what?" Followed by, "Never mind, just get up here!" Gerry got onto the bird briefly as I got a few more shots, and then the bird vanished into the melee of other birds and into the sun. Confidence that the bird would reappear gradually evaporated as repeated scans drew a blank. Looking at the timing on the camera, the bird had been present for less than a minute, and it had now apparently vanished without trace!

Once we realized that the bird was not among the terns milling around the boat, we stopped to take stock. The bird had been in almost full juv plumage. Although I've seen lots of Little Gulls in the UK, most have been in first winter or adult plumage, and it's been over 15 years since I've seen one. I'd brought Brazil's Birds of East Asia with us, so was able to do a quick check. About an hour after seeing the bird, I had just sat down to write up my notes when Gerry looked up and found the bird again, almost over our heads! By now the light was going, but we were able to make a more leisurely observation, as it hung around for about 10 minutes, before being lost in the wake of the ship.

Spot the Little Gull!

So my second Malaysian lifer of the day was one that was not on my wackiest prediction list! Little Gulls have a northerly breeding and wintering range in Asia (see this map). Brazil reports: "most winter well to the west of [East Asia], but has strayed to coastal Hebei and Jiangsu, Taiwan and several times to Japan; reported Korea." The species sneaked into the latest (2008) edition of Robson's Birds of South-east by virtue of a record in Central Thailand, so, as far as I know, this is the second South-east Asian record, and the most southerly.

Some Common Terns followed us till dark. Thanks to Jerry for forcing me to get out of the office for the day - not a bad result!