Monday, February 18, 2008

16-17th February, 2008: Singapore Plover Trip

After a lie-in and a morning making snares we arrived at the plover site in the late afternoon, being delayed somewhat by cracking views of three Pied Harriers and a number of Oriental Pratincoles.

Here's an adult female Pied Harrier, showing the greyish bases to the primaries and pale underwing typical of this plumage.

This is a subadult male, with a few adult feathers coming through on the mantle, lesser coverts, face, rump and tail.

When we arrived at the sandspit, the tide was very low, and good numbers of waders were feeding on the exposed mud banks. We took this opportunity to set some snares along the spit where we hoped the plovers might move to roost at high tide. The flock of Grey Plovers did roost on top of the snares, and we could see them awkwardly lifting their feet, as if to avoid getting caught, which they did most successfully!

In late afternoon the wader ringing group from Sungei Buloh, headed up by James Gan and Ramakrishnan, arrived with a team of seasoned and willing helpers. In no time at all, they had set up a labyrinth of double-shelf nets all over the spit, in what we hoped would be an unavoidable combination as far as the plovers were concerned. While they were setting up the nets, a flock of Lesser Sand Plovers sat nearby, seemingly unperturbed. But, as soon as dusk fell, as if to mock us, they flew off! At dusk I removed the snares, afraid of what the ghost crabs might do in the dark to any bird caught in them.

Once again, despite the high tide, the birds steadfastly avoided the sandspit after dark. We wondered whether the predatory crabs might be the deterrent factor.

Once again, we caught a solitary Malaysian Plover - a first year female this time - and this bird was banded and leg-flagged with the Singapore colours - green above white.

Tagged and ready to go!

Around midnight we were surprised to find a Collared Kingfisher in one of the nets, especially as we hadn't heard or seen one in our time there.

Despite hourly checks of the nets, there were no more catches till just before dawn, when several flocks of Sand Plovers returned to the spit. We caught two Lesser Sand Plovers.

Just released, sporting Singapore leg-flags!

The day dawned bright and sunny, and there was quite a passage of Barn Swallows and swiftlets, as well as an arrival of Oriental Pratincoles and Pacific Golden Plovers.

At about 8, with the nets now fully visible, the "White-faced" Plover flock arrived and sat in front of the nearest net! We counted 14, which is the largest number seen at one time to date.

"White-faced" Plover and a mist-net - unfortunately not very close to each other!

Three "White-faced" Plovers (right) with two Kentish Plovers.

The "White-faced" Plovers seemed to like to sit in the hollows created by our feet - note the two birds in the foreground with just the heads visible.

A male showing a typically broad supercilium and isolated black eye in a white 'face'.

We might have felt a bit more aggrieved at not catching the plovers had we not caught sight of an even more exciting visitor among the newly arrived Pacific Golden Plovers...

Spot the odd one out - a fine spring-plumaged male Oriental Plover!

I believe this is only about the fifth time this species has been recorded in Singapore.

Photo by Lin Yangchen. Just the tonic you need after spending a night with the sand-flies on the beach!

It was barely nine o'clock, and we mused that we had already seen every plover species on the Singapore list that morning - can't be that bad!

Eventually it was time to pack up the nets and admit defeat with the "White-faced" Plovers. Despite our best efforts they had eluded us again, and we concluded that there wasn't any point in putting up nets on the spit the following night. Back to the drawing board!

As we packed up we were treated to a free preview of the Singapore Air Show, and watched in awe as an A380 Airbus, the largest passenger aircraft in the world, performed amazing stunts overhead.

Hope they don't do this when there are passengers inside!

On our way for breakfast, a shower and bed, we stopped to admire some Oriental Pratincoles in pristine plumage.

A fine male Red Turtle Dove - not a bird we see in Penang.

15th February, 2008: Singapore Plover Trip

Following the discovery of at least 8 "White-faced" Plovers at Changi Cove, Singapore, by two British birders, Simon Cockayne and Martin Kennewell (Martin had recently been up to Penang to see the birds here), an expedition to try to trap the birds was hastily arranged by Singapore National Parks and Raffles Museum staff.

We decided to try to trap the birds with mist nets on the evenings of Friday, Saturday and Sunday 15-17th Feb.

On Friday morning Simon and I went to the Botanical Gardens to try to see the family of Red-legged Crakes that has been showing there recently. Only one juvenile was visible, but it proved remarkably confiding and unafraid of the many joggers, tourists and photographers that were milling around.

Er - should I be afraid of you?

Oh all right then, I'll run away a bit!

After the crake, we took a look at the swiftlets flying around over the Bonsai Garden. The light wasn't great for photography, but they did look big, longer-winged and fuller-tailed than swiftlets we see in Penang, with a more noticeable tail notch. Also the underparts seemed darker brown. Are they Himalayan? The debate continues, with the consensus being 'probably, but how to be certain?'

For much better pictures and more informed opinion, see here

At about three we arrived at plover site, a sandy spit almost completely encircling a coastal lagoon on some reclaimed land within spitting distance of the forthcoming Singapore Air Show.

The intrepid team of plover pursuers: from left to right - Simon, Martin, Eleanor, Ashley and Luan Keng, our leader and the only qualified ringer among us.

A quick survey revealed 9 "White-faced" Plovers sitting on the sandspit, along with a few other waders.

12 Sanderlings (and 11 Grey Plovers) were particularly good to see as both are rare in Penang.

There were also several Malaysian Plovers, an east coast speciality.

Under Luan Keng's expert tutelage, we decided on the best places to try to catch the birds, and got busy putting up the nets.

On our way to and from our car, we flushed several Savanna Nightjars, and I grabbed a few flight shots.

The white spots on the wings indicate a male, which is also supposed to have white outer tail feathers. They aren't exactly obvious are they?

After dusk, the calls of these birds indicated the presence of many males. Unfortunately, once dusk fell, the calls of waders were worryingly absent.

Our first net round revealed many ghost crabs, which had come up onto the beach to scavenge, but no birds. As it was low tide, we took a long walk to try to find where the birds were feeding, without success.

It was the same story till midnight, and we only succeeded in catching one male Malaysian Plover, which was duly banded and had a blood sample taken. Luan will use this to do DNA analysis, which will hopefully be useful to compare with that of the mystery plovers.

By midnight there were still no waders apart from Malaysian Plovers on the spit, so we called it a night. There was always tomorrow, and our hopes remained high, as high tide would be at 9.30pm.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

9th and 12th February,2008: Tanjung Tokong

The 9th was my first real chance to go back to the site where I've taken many wader photos since late 2006.

The former high tide roost area is now a shanty village of workers' accommodation, and the intertidal area has also changed greatly. The area where I found the "White-faced' Plovers last year is now almost constantly in use by local fishermen, with the result that the plovers have moved onto the expansive mudflats. Numbers of birds in general have declined greatly, though the number of Kentish and "White-faced" Plovers using the site is about the same as this time last year - 12 and 5 respectively. Birds are, however, extremely wary and hard to get close to.

It was a good opportunity to try out my newly acquired bird hide!

I watched the tide come in, and as no birds came close for long periods, I had plenty of time to observe the other fauna!

These Blue-spotted Mudskippers were trying to out-pout each other to gain ownership of this clump of mud!

No sooner had the bigger one seen off the smaller to the lump in the distance than an even bigger pouter arrived!

This attractive blue-clawed crab was busily picking up morsels on the rising tide with his chopstick-like pincers.

When a stray wave catches him unawares, you can definitely see the advantage of having eyes on stalks!

As the tide retreats the birds start to leave their roost in search of freshly-exposed feeding areas - here's part of the large Common Redshank flock.

Here come some Red-necked Stints!

And then a mixed flock of stints, Kentish and "White-faced" Plovers. The "White-faced" Plovers are the left hand bird (a breeding plumaged male) and second from right on the middle row (possibly a 1st summer male).

Three "White-faced" in this shot. The more extensive white on the wing, the paler brown upperparts and more restricted lateral breast patches make them stand out readily from the Kentish Plovers.

You should be able to spot the two "White-faced" in this flock, as well as a nice bright male Kentish.

A close-up showing the difference in wing pattern.

This was about as close as they let me get to them.

And this is the best shot of the breeding female I was able to get after two days (about 7 hours) of sitting in the hide!

The Kentish weren't much more co-operative either!

A lone Little Egret was one of the few birds that seemed to accept my presence.

This Common Sandpiper was definitely suspicious!

I remember once telling someone that Common Sandpipers don't flock. Here are 12 exceptions to that rule!

Pacific Golden Plovers definitely do flock, so I've no objection to this group flying across the mud in the last rays of sun.

My 'bird of the day' on the 12th was this Whimbrel - the first of the race 'phaeopus' I remember seeing in Malaysia. I'm not sure what the official status of this race is in the country, but most birds I see are the 'variegatus' race, which has a strongly barred underwing and rump, and only a small amount of white on the back.

And to end up with, a mystery...How did these plovers go unnoticed for so long when they are this obvious???!