Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Long-toed and Temminck's Stints

A painting of a scene from Malim Nawar a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Oct 26-27th, MNS Penang Wader Workshop

I ran a two-day workshop on wader identification with MNS Penang branch bird group. The 'classroom' session was on Saturday afternoon at Pantai Mutiara Hospital, attended by about 13 people.

Me recommending a reference book. Photo credit: Tan Choo Eng

One of the slides from the Saturday session.

On Sunday we did our field session at Teluk Air Tawar. Here the emphasis was on taking field notes and sketches to get to know some of the more numerous species. It was a chance to put some of the input from Saturday into practice! By the end of the session, participants were confidently checking off many of the more obvious species, and even tackling some of the more tricky ones.

Not a field guide in sight! Participants were encouraged to make notes of the birds they saw, and to use a field guide only afterwards.

A Far Eastern Curlew poses helpfully with a Eurasian Curlew (right)

Watching the birds come into the high tide roost from a shady spot!

Getting it all down on paper while the bird is still fresh in the memory!

After all the protestations of "But I can't draw!" it was great to see some really good examples of field notes emerging, once people got started.

My thanks to all the participants, who were great students, to Kanda for organizing the event, and to Daisy for bringing along an extra 'scope for participants to use.

We managed to see around 1,100 birds at the high tide roost, a number well below what we were expecting. Wader species recorded were:

Eurasian Curlew
Far Eastern Curlew
Bar-tailed Godwit
Common Greenshank
Common Redshank
Terek Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Pacific Golden Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Curlew Sandpiper
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Red-necked Stint

Worryingly, there were no Nordmann's Greenshanks seen. I haven't seen one yet this season, and it makes one wonder what effect the destruction of the Saemungam Estuary in South Korea may have had on migratory waders.

Later on I had brief views of a Sand/Pale Martin over the rice fields at Penaga.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Oct 26th, Water Watch Education Programme, Botanical Gardens, Penang

Today I was invited to represent MNS as an observer of the River and Water Awareness and Education Programme for Schools in Penang. This is run by Water Watch Penang with funding from the MNS-ABN AMRO Conservation Fund. The day was co-ordinated by Prof Chan Ngai Weng, who is the President of Water Watch Penang, with the help of one of his Master's students and a friend.

For this particular programme he was joined by 2 teachers and 30 Form 2 students from St Xavier's School. The day started with a talk on the importance of water catchments, and then some testing of the river's cleanliness and water quality.

By the time I arrived, students were already enthusiastically wading knee-deep in the stream, equipped with nets, petri dishes, trays and bottles.

"There! There! Get that one!" Some excited encouragement from the sidelines!

"Come and look at what I caught!" If only more science classes could be like this!

The catch is carefully and quickly transferred into a shallow tray filled with stream water.

Put into a petri dish for closer study.

Now, which one is it? Checking the identification key.

Reading about how different species are indicators of water quality.

Marking the catch on the pollution score sheet. The total catch score will give an accurate assessment of the state of the stream's water quality.

No clipboard? No problem! What are friends for?!

You know, I could get into this!

St Xavier's students go wild!

I was told by the students that this is a shrimp - river prawns apparently have hairy legs!

And we thought this must be a water spider of some kind.

Lunch tastes good after a hard morning in the field! Notice the biodegradable food wrappers!

Collecting rubbish at the end of the fieldwork, to make sure we leave the place cleaner than we found it. Malaysia boleh!

Students learn where the water in our taps comes from, and about the treatment process it goes through first.

A view over the treatment plant.

We were privileged to see the waterfall that provides the inflow for the treatment plant.

Reluctantly I had to leave at this stage for another appointment. Having observed the pristine beauty of the headwaters, the students were now taken to the mouth of the river into which the stream in the Botanical Gardens flows - the Penang River. At the point where the river enters the sea it is now longer pristine, but a foul-smelling black outflow of pollution. This would be a lesson in care for our waterways a thousand times more effective that the best classroom lesson. Hats off to Prof Chan and his team for their work in helping school children to understand and value their natural environment!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Oct 25th, Landfill Site, Nibong Tebal, southern mainland Penang

It's over a month since I visited the landfill site, and, after all the torrential rain we've been having, I was anticipating finding a lake. However, the pump has obviously been hard at work, and the site was drier than I've seen it yet - a perfect 'scrape' of pools and fresh mud for the waders to feast in.

This also made it harder for me to predict where the main roost would form, there were just too many options for the waders to choose from. Added to this, the presence of a male Peregrine, 2 Brahminy Kites and a White-bellied Sea Eagle was making the waders highly mobile and jumpy today, and I hardly got close to any.

Too close for comfort! This Peregrine made several passes at the waders, but I didn't see it catch any.

As soon as I got out of the car I could see there were more stints than usual - here are a Long-toed (left) and a Red-necked (right) in classic field guide position! I started to get the feeling that today would be a good one to find a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but then, any day would be!

Check out the toes on this one! A first winter Long-toed Stint (note the pale-fringed wing coverts).

The first nice surprise was not one but two Ruff, an unusual bird here. These are both males; the one on the left is a juvenile, while the right hand bird is an adult. Rather distant I'm afraid.

Then while scanning the Pacific Golden Plovers, I came across two Pectoral Sandpipers - again, an adult and a juvenile! The adult had completed its body moult into non-breeding plumage, but was still in wing moult. I couldn't say for sure whether this was the same bird as the one I saw on Sept 12th.

Here the adult bird is below. The juvenile is a brighter bird overall, with a clearer whitish supercilium and two pale lines on the mantle and upper scapulars.

Seen here with a Long-toed Stint (top left) for size comparison.

I managed to catch one shot of the juvenile in flight. At least you can see it doesn't have sharp tail feathers!

Here's a very poor quality video of both birds. As you can tell, I'm very new to videoscoping! Any advice gratefully received!

In early afternoon the rain closed in again, so I retired to the car and took a brief look over Site B, where there were a couple of hundred Whiskered Terns hawking around. So no Spoonie, but a good day for all that!

All seats taken!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Oct 20th, Juru, Penang and Malim Nawar, Perak

I wanted to attend a talk by David Li of Wetlands International on the Asian Waterbird Census in Ipoh in the evening, so decided to go early and do some birding on the way.

First stop was Juru, on the mainland of Penang state, where last year there was a flock of 250 Grey-headed Lapwings. The numbers haven't yet built up yet, but there were about 14 birds on a marshy field that is used for cow pasturing.

An adult bird with a grey breast and dark grey pectoral band.

Juveniles have a pale buff breast without the darker breast band.

I flushed this Cinnamon Bittern when I got out of the car.

After this brief stop I travelled about 150km southward to Malim Nawar, just south of Ipoh. I used the directions in the book The Birds of Perak and Where to See Them and found them accurate and helpful.

This is an area of abandoned tin mining pools, which have now largely been taken over by duck and fish farmers. The first birds I photographed at the site were a sad sight.

This is a Yellow Bittern. I also saw Grey Heron, egrets, White-throated Kingfishers and numerous other unidentified dessicated corpses strung up in this way.

Nets like this have been placed around and over fish ponds, and there were corpses in almost every net. I also witnessed dozens of spent shotgun cartridges around the pools, and heard gunshots while I was there. It seems that the birds are being killed for the crime of wanting to use the ponds to feed in rather than for food.

Little Egrets using one of the few unnetted ponds. This one has already been drained and emptied of fish.

In another drained pond I cam across a small flock of Long-toed Stints and Little Ringed Plovers, and something else ...

The banana-shaped body, short legs, shuffling feeding action and smokey-grey plumage are all typical of Temminck's Stint, an inland freshwater specialist that is rather rare in Malaysia; in fact, it was a new Malaysian bird for me.

Back in my youth, when I used to visit my 'local patch', Alton Reservoir in Suffolk, UK, Little Ringed Plover and Temminck's Stint were two species that would brighten up any spring day, so seeing them together here was a nice reminiscence!

A lucky flight shot showing the white outer tail feathers. Temminck's is the only stint to show this feature.

A short drive further, another empty pond, and I came across another Temminck's, this time much closer and in the company of a Long-toed, enabling a nice comparison of two yellow-legged stints.

Actually, apart from that one feature, Long-toed and Temminck's don't really have that much in common, as can be seen here. Structurally, Temminck's (left) is larger-headed, shorter-legged, shorter-winged, and has a long, slender, horizontal body shape. The upperparts are an almost completely featureless smoke-grey in non-breeding plumage, and there is a distinctive unstreaked grey throat and breast.

Some people say that Temminck's (right) looks more like a miniature version of a Common Sandpiper (rear). Well, you can decide for yourself. The Long-toed Stint in these pics is a first-winter, as can be seen from the whitish-edged coverts.

Another shot of those white outer tail feathers.

Across the other side of this pond I came across another or the same Temminck's Stint among a flock of 30 or so Long-toed. However, by this time the clouds had opened, and the rain effectively brought the days birding to a close. It didn't stop raining till after midnight!!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Oct 15th, Air Hitam Reservoir, Penang

I took the kids out for a nature walk on Monday, taking advantage of a holiday. While they were taking a 'restroom stop', I went to investigate a loud ruckus coming from some nearby bushes. There were bulbuls of several species, tailorbirds and sunbirds, all dancing nervously around a large green snake, which I later found out was a Red-tailed Ratsnake Gonyosoma oxycephalum.

I did a couple of quick sketches, took some 'digibinned' photos, and then turned it into a painting when we got home.

I should call this The Serpent and the Sunbird! The sunbird is a male Crimson, while the less brave bulbuls are Yellow-vented and Olive-winged (2).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Oct 12th, Kapar Power Station, Selangor

I took the opportunity to arrange a visit to Kapar Power Station (thanks Swee Seng!) since I was in the area.

The high tide was before dawn, so I didn't have a lot of time to count birds before they started to head for the mudflats. Nevertheless, the roost on the ashponds was a truly astounding experience, and made our few thousand birds up in Penang seem quite paltry by comparison!

The light wasn't good for photography, and in any case, how do you convey the spectacle of twenty thousand birds in photographs?! This video, though not great quality, gives an idea of the sights and sounds. The flock in flight are curlews, having been spooked by a marauding Brahminy Kite. The birds in the water are mainly Bar-tailed Godwits, Great Knot and Whimbrel.

To take a panoramic shot of this entire flock on the ground took me 30 frames! Here's just one.

I estimated that there were about 14,000 birds at this end of the ash ponds. They were mainly the larger waders - curlews, Bar-tailed Godwits, Great Knots, Whimbrels and 'shanks'.

At the other end of the ponds was another large roost - around 6,000 or more birds - mainly the smaller species - sand plovers, Curlew Sandpipers and stints.

Here is my full count:

Grey Heron 4
Purple Heron 2
Little Egret 10
Great Egret 4
Intermediate Egret 1
Grey Plover 14
Pacific Golden Plover 1
Lesser Sand Plover 4,850
Greater Sand Plover 150
Eurasian Curlew 6,400
Far Eastern Curlew 1
Whimbrel 1,000
Black-tailed Godwit 30
Bar-tailed Godwit 2,180
Common Redshank 900
Marsh Sandpiper 300
Common Greenshank 500
Terek Sandpiper 50
Common Sandpiper 10
Asian Dowitcher 4
Great Knot 1,800
Red-necked Stint 1,650
Curlew Sandpiper 370
Broad-billed Sandpiper 10
White-winged Black Tern 40
Gull-billed Tern 100
Caspian Tern 20
Little Tern 20

Total 20,421

An Asian Dowitcher flying with a flock of Black-tailed Godwits.

Grey Herons are rather uncommon in Penang, so it was nice to see many on the Selangor coast.

Three Gull-billed Terns fly over, showing their strangely proportioned heads

The waders were constantly harassed by several marauding Brahminy Kites.

After watching the last of the roosting waders leave for the mudlfats, I travelled north along the coast to this little fishing village.

A reflection and a shadow! This Whiskered Tern was part of a flock of marsh terns picking prey off the river surface.

White-winged Black Terns were less numerous.

This is what I was really waiting for though - and at last one dropped out of the sky - a Lesser Adjutant, perhaps more aptly named in Malay as 'Small Bald-headed Bird' though it's hardly small!

In fact, it dwarfs the Grey Herons when it finally lands on the river edge

A view over the mudflats at low tide. There are 20,000 waders out there somewhere! The 'boats' in the foreground are mudsleds, used by local folks at low tide for catching shellfish, and the next 'must-have' item for dedicated wader watchers everywhere I reckon!