Saturday, November 25, 2006

Brisbane 28th October

In Brisbane we stayed with old friends from Asian Wetland Bureau days back in the early 90s. We had a great time of catching up after 15 years, and Roger was keen to take me around some of the birding sites in the area. Roger has some of the sharpest ears of any birder I know, which proved a mixed blessing. On the plus side it meant that we got onto many birds I might otherwise have missed. On the other hand, it was frustrating to know how many birds were around which I couldn't set eyes on!

On our first morning, we took an early trip to Moggil State Forest in search of Forest Kingfisher and Painted Buttonquail. We saw neither and the forest was actually pretty quiet. The most embarrassing moment was when we spotted a Kookaburra sitting on a gate post. It wasn't until we took a second look at it that we realised it was actually made of pottery! Better keep quiet about that one!

A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in its natural habitat.

En route home we stopped by an undistinguished stretch of suburban verge to see another of my sought-after species. Here it is:

When I think of thick-knees (or stone-curlews), I think of wild, remote places. I certainly wouldn't have expected to find a pair sitting just inches away from a footpath in a busy suburban neighbourhood. This pair of Bush Thick-knees live on a narrow strip of scrub in just such an environment.

A bit like frogmouths, they rely on blending in with their environment to escape detection by day, and are nocturnal feeders. At night we heard their unearthly screams just down the road from Roger's house. Luckily he had told us about this possibility in advance, otherwise we might have thought some gruesome murder was being committed!

You can just about see me taking the picture in the bird's iris, with Roger standing in the background!

In the afternoon took a walk along the river at a bafflingly-named spot called Fig Tree Pocket.

A small colony of Rainbow Bee-eaters were nesting in a horse paddock and really caught the eye in the late afternoon sun. They are somewhat similar to the Blue-tailed Bee-eaters we get in Malaysia, but their colours, especially the greens, are even more intense. Also I noticed that the tail-streamers were slightly spatulate at the tip.

I snapped this female Australian Darter as it flew over the bee-eater colony.

Down by the river was some tangled undergrowth where Roger told me I had a good chance of seeing Red-backed Wren, another of the species I was keen to see and photograph. Male fairy-wrens are polygamous and move around with a harem of females and young birds. In response to Roger's expert squeaking, several birds emerged, but the male kept frustratingly in the background.

Part 2 in my series of pictures of dull females of colourful species: Red-backed Wren!

Part 3: Rufous Whistler. Apparently the male is a really smart bird but I wouldn't know - I only saw this female!

This Pied Butcherbird amused us by making use of the public amenities in the local park.

Sydney to Brisbane 27th October

Our second day at Moonee Beach north of Coff's Harbour. An early morning foray up onto the headland produced a Tawny Grassbird and an Australian Pipit. The weather was not so wonderful - with fine misty rain on and off.

Grassbirds are usually pretty skulking, but maybe this bird was trying to dry out after the rain!

A view of the upperparts.

Australian Pipit is a recent split from Richard's Pipit. It seems a slighter, smaller bird, and the call is more reminiscent of Meadow Pipit.

In the same bush that held the Golden-headed Cisticola yesterday, a small group of Chestnut-breasted Mannikins. Mannikins are in the same genus as the munias of South-east Asia. I was impressed by Chestnut-breasted - a new bird for me.

Sydney to Brisbane 26th October

Back to our Australia trip. Here are a few more shots from our first day at Moonee Beach and Coff's Harbour.

There are a few birds that I'd set my sights on seeing this trip. One was the Regent Bowerbird,the male of which is a simply stunning combination of black and rich yellow plumage. The good news is that I saw some; the bad news is that the only ones I saw well were females, which are pretty drab by comparison!

Galahs are a pretty common cockatoo, but I really like the unlikely combination of their pink and cloud-grey plumage.

Scaly-breasted Lorikeet - a smaller and less colourful cousin of the Rainbow Lorikeet.

There were a couple of oystercatcher species on the sandbar - Sooty looks pretty smart with its neon-coloured bill and eye-ring.

Pied was a new bird for me. The difference between this and the species we get in Europe and Asia is most obvious in flight, when the short wingbar is revealed.

In the afternoon of the 26th we walked out onto Muttonbird Island, which is the headland that sticks out from Coff's Harbour. From the tip we were able to observe several pods of Humpback Whales moving south, not too far offshore. We got better views here than on the whale-watching tour we had paid through the nose for in Sydney, and all from the comfort of a stationary watchpoint!

A reflective Pacific Black Duck sits in the river leading to Moonee Beach.

A Sacred Kingfisher - a fairly common bird that I had contrived to miss until now - so I was glad to finally see one.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Friday 24th November

I timed my arrival at the roost today to give me time to slip into my new hide - Coffin Mk VI - before the birds got really close. I had a shock in store though. This was the sight that greeted me!

My first reaction, after disbelief, was anger. I assumed that the construction workers had come and dismantled my hide which had taken me so much time and effort, not to mention getting mud up to my knees, to build. Had they objected to my taking their 'junk' plywood to make my hide? Why go to so much effort to ruin something that wasn't causing any obstruction to them? Why hadn't they told me to stop building it when they had seen me yesterday? Before long I was fairly fuming at the injustice of it all. I looked around and couldn't see where they had put my wood. I looked at the place where my hide had stood again. I couldn't see any footprints of the people who had taken away the hide. Come to think of it, I couldn't even see my own footprints that I had made yesterday when setting up the hide. Suddenly it dawned on me! My hide had been dismantled not by construction workers but by last night's high tide! I immediately had to repent of all the bitter thoughts I'd had toward the construction workers who, up till now, have shown nothing but politeness and interest in my activities. I also had to laugh! Point to remember when building a hide on the high water mark - nighttime high tides may be higher than daytime ones!

Once I had solved the mystery of the missing coffin, I settled down to scan the roost. The Sanderling was still present, and the number of Broad-billed Sandpipers had gone up to 10. There was also a lone Great Knot - the first I've seen this month. Little Tern numbers had increased dramatically, from 3 to over 30. Other than that it was business as usual, with numbers overall again slightly down on earlier in the week.

A couple of Terek Sandpipers on the mud. The stretching bird is still in primary moult - the outer two are still unmoulted, and it seems to have lost all its secondaries. It must be an adult bird as juveniles don't have a wing moult till their second winter.

A few birds have started to use the pools up on the red earth again, despite the more frequent human activity. There were 20 or so stints and a lone Curlew Sandpiper bathing in the rainwater pools, allowing me to get quite close in the car. The Kentish and Malaysian Plover flock was again present, with similar numbers of both to two days ago.

I like this picture because it shows well the 'typical' jizz of a Red-necked Stint - flat back, long slender body (reminiscent of Temminck's), square headshape, and straight-edged, slightly club-ended bill.

Man that looks good on a hot day like today! Hard to believe they aren't enjoying this!

After the wash, the spin dry - or rather - the flap dry!

Another bird gets stuck into the serious business of keeping the feathers in tip-top condition. It surprises me how long birds will take over the business of preening when uninterrupted. They really do a thorough job.I guess it's not so surprising when you think that they spend all day in the mud! There's not a speck of dirt on this bird though.

A different bird and a different angle. It's not often you get a good view of a stint's tail, but here's one!

All spruced up and ready for the next foray to the muddy tide-line!

This unfortunate individual had a missing foot. It compensated by holding its whole leg lower - hence the disparity between the height of the tibio-tarsal joint of each leg.

Maimed waders like this aren't that uncommon (I photographed a crippled Pacific Golden Plover earlier in the autumn). One wonders what the cause could be - a birth defect? a misfiring trap? a predatory fish? Gulls seem to have an even higher incidence of lameness, which suggests to me that the cause is related to proximity to humans.

A lone Curlew Sandpiper looked huge among the stints.

I find myself wondering how easy it would be to pick out a lone Dunlin among the roosting Curlew Sandpipers at this time of year. It's probably not that difficult, but still... Dunlin are the commonest small calidrid in my native UK but a great rarity here.

This male simillima race Yellow Wagtail has caught some prey - I think it's a dragonfly larva.

More preening antics - this time it's a Little Ringed Plover that's spending plenty of time 'in the bathroom'! This is a valuable shot of the tail pattern - which is one of the best distinguishing features from Long-billed Plover in this plumage. The latter lacks the white tail sides.

Each filament of a feather is locked onto the adjoining ones by a series of fine barbs or hooks (a bit like Velcro). In the hustle of feeding and flying, these can become unhooked, which inhibits the feather's efficiency. By passing each feather through the bill during preening, the bird can 'zip up' the filaments to each other again, ensuring that they stay in perfect condition. This Little Ringed Plover repeatedly zipped each tertial through its bill.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thursday 23rd November

Another 2.3m tide today, but this time not a Kentish or Malaysian Plover in sight. Generally there were fewer waders today, though I didn't do a count.

I was amazed to get yet another new wader species for the site when a quick scan revealed a 1st winter Sanderling running around among the Red-necked Stints. Sanderlings are very rare visitors to the state, and to west coast generally, perhaps due to the lack of sandy beaches.

The dark-centred crown and mantle feathers are remnants of juvenile plumage.

Sanderlings are like big, chunky stints. The two-toned plumage, completely lacking brown tones in non-breeding dress, is distinctive, as is the dark 'shoulder patch'.

Other new arrivals were 3 Broad-billed Sandpipers and 10 Marsh Sandpipers. I noticed that, despite the obviousness of the Sanderling, I could 'lose' it for quite long periods - maybe when it was obscured by another bird or a rock. It was a good lesson in what it takes to pick out an unusual bird from a flock. One or two scans is not enough. Sustained observation and repeated scannings are necessary to make sure that you see everything that it actually there.

Despite repeated scannings however, I still couldn't find a Spoon-billed Sandpiper! I wonder how many hundreds of Red-necked Stints I will have to scrutinize before one pops out? I still have a hunch that I'll find one before the migration season is over - or at least a hope!

A flock of sand plovers - mainly or maybe all Lesser, as well as some Red-necked Stints and a lone Terek Sandpiper (3rd from the left)

While scouting around for wood to make a new hide I came across this Common Sandpiper roosting in the remains of one of my former hides!

A closer view.

The pools on the top now seem too disturbed for the waders, so I resorted to building a new hide on the high tide line on the mudflats. Hopefully this will provide me with some opportunities for close up shots during some of the upcoming high tides.

The Coffin, Mark VI

The construction workers were intrigued by my industry, and wanted to know what I was doing. I chatted to one guy from Aceh. He hasn't been back home since the tsunami, which destroyed his village and took the life of his elder sister. I've met several construction workers from Aceh recently, and every one lost at least one family member. None of them seem anxious to go back.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tuesday 21st November

I learned something today. The high tide was due to reach 2.3m today, and there were birds galore! Last Wednesday the high tide was only 1.9m, and there were very few birds. Obviously a less than 2m high tide is not high enough to push birds off the mudflats in the area, hence the low count last week.

The roost pool was still deserted however, and the reason was fairly clear - construction work has now encroached to within an unacceptable distance for the waders. Though the work is still some way off, the workers are clearly visible, and lorries regularly rumble past.

A sad sight of dilapidation - the glory days for my coffin seem to be over! Time to try out a new strategy for getting close to the roosting birds.

The narrow strip of mud and sand above the high tide mark was fairly crammed with birds however, and I made the following fairly detailed count:

Bar-tailed Godwit 8
Whimbrel 249
Common Redshank 382
Common Greenshank 25
Terek Sandpiper 33
Common Sandpiper 13
Ruddy Turnstone 10
Red-necked Stint 412
Curlew Sandpiper 64
Pacific Golden Plover 454
Lesser Sand Plover 110
Greater Sand Plover 13
Little Ringed Plover 4
Little Tern 3

No sign of the Nordmann's today, despite much careful searching, nor of the Black-tailed Godwits.

A Kentish Plover. The race we get here is 'dealbatus'. These aren't common birds in Penang. My previous highest count was 2! Presumably this is a male, as it has rather blackish ear coverts and neck smudges. Note the pale fringes to the coverts - not unlike Malaysian!

A nice view of the upperwing ...

...and the underwing. Show off!

A Little Ringed for comparison. What a stubby bill!

What's this then? Just a Red-necked Stint or...? Quite a fine-tipped, tapering bill, slightly decurved, looks leggy too. Upperpart feathers are quite dark-centred and the shape is quite round-backed and bellied - all these are features I normally associate with Little... but - I think I'll wait till it moults into breeding plumage!! [Edit - After further scrutiny I think it is just a Red-necked!]

Another image of one of the swiftlets over the site to finish off with. Quite a tail notch on this bird. Comments welcome as always.

Wednesday 15th November

I'm getting so behind with these blogs that I've decided to interrupt our Australia trip report to bring you up to date with my beloved local patch at Tanjung Tokong.

After a break of over 3 weeks, I was somewhat afraid of what I might find, and prepared for the worst. Would there be houses all over the roost site? Would the 'Coffin' (my hide) still be there?

To my surprise - the Coffin was still there - more or less intact minus the roof, and the pool was still there too. Only problem was - no birds! A scan of the mudflats revealed precisely no sandplovers and no stints, and only a rather small flock of Whimbrel!

On closer inspection, it didn't look like the pool had been used as a roost for a while - no tell-tale feathers or droppings.

After a walk to the far end of the mudflats I did find a small roost of birds, but nothing like the thousands that were present 3 weeks ago. I counted;

Redshank 370
Greenshank 30
Marsh Sand 7
Curlew Sand 20
Pacific Golden Plover 6
Little Ringed Plover 5
Black-tailed Godwit 6
Whimbrel 20

The Black-tailed Godwits were my first of the autumn, so it was good to see them. Last time I saw Black-tails here there was a flock of Asian Dowitchers with them, so I scanned a second time just to make sure. The second time I scanned the flock out popped - not a dowitcher - but a lone Nordmann's Greenshank, my first for the island!

Not great photos, but a great bird! A Nordmann's Greenshank does its best to hide behind a Black-tailed Godwit.

On this picture you can just about make out the broad bill-base, rather like a Terek Sandpiper, and a good distinguishing feature of Normann's. Nordmann's in non-breeding plumage are ghostly pale, and usually stand out rather obviously as a consequence.

An even worse picture! This bird associated with the Redshanks, despite there being a flock of Greenshank present. It always kept to the edge of the flock, and seemed more wary than the birds around it.

I reflected sadly that this bird has probably never been in a flock of its own species the size of the Redshank flock it was with. The estimated world population of this species stands at just 500-1,000 birds, and it is threatened on both breeding grounds and at key migration sites. One of the most important staging sites for Nordmann's Greenshank, the Saemangeum estuary in South Korea, has recently been reclaimed, so the future for this fabulous species is depressingly bleak. For more information and some much better pictures, see here.

So what has happened to all the birds at Tanjung Tokong? Have they skipped over the strait to Bagan Tambang or Juru? Or maybe they have all headed further south? Time and further visits will tell.

As there was no prospect of photographing shorebirds today, I turned my attention to the swiftlets overhead. I've read recently that Himalayan Swiftlet is supposedly the commonest swiftlet species in southern Thailand during the non-breeding season, and it is regularly recorded in Singapore. Despite this, there are no accepted records for Penang. There is also some confusion over what resident species occur here. Traditionally Black-nest and Edible-nest Swiftlet are named as resident, but Robson's Birds of South-east Asia notes Edible-nest as a vagrant to South-east Asia, while Germain's Swiftlet is recorded as a common resident of Peninsular Malaysia.

The resident swiftlets are thought to be only reliably identifiable in the hand or at the nest (the composition of the nest is diagnostic), but Himalayan is reckoned to be distinguishable in the field by the more notched tail and possibly longer wings. But I confess I am a complete novice in this area, so I offer the photos for comment by the better informed!

Plumage-wise, these birds have very pale underparts and rumps, contrasting with darker brown underwing and upperparts. There are fairly obvious darker feather centres on the ventral area.

A view of the upperside, showing the pale rump. No tail notch is visible when the tail is held closed. Several birds were in primary and secondary moult, like this one.

Some birds had very full crops, as if they were collecting insects to feed young in the nest. If this was the case, they must be one of the resident species. A reasonable tail notch is visible here.

Here's a fairly good view of the typical flight shape - quite long-winged and with a good tail notch. Also a noticeably paler throat patch.

Another view of the topside. This bird shows a pale collar as well as rump patch.

Of course, there could have been more than one species involved here but I'd rather not even contemplate that thought! I'd be very interested to hear your opinions on the identity of any of these birds.