Thursday, May 22, 2008

22nd May 2008: Bukit Panchor and Pulau Burung, Penang state

Bukit Panchor State Park is the only site in Penang where Giant Pitta has been recorded, though there have been no records for a few years now. The park is quite well maintained, and is well-known for its several bat-caves.

On my visit this morning, I didn't manage a single bird photograph! It was drenchingly humid, and the birds weren't co-operating. Here are some other bits and pieces I did manage to snap.

The first was this dragonfly, along a forest trail on a small ridge, far away from any water source. It was very faithful to the same spot. I can't find anything that looks like this in my dragonfly books, so perhaps someone can help me out here. [This is a female Lyriothemis biappendiculata. Thanks to Ian Choong for the id]

Something else I need help with is the identification of this flying lizard, perfectly camouflaged against the tree.

A couple I did manage to identify! This one is Devadatta argyoides - a rather reclusive creature that was perched near a small waterfall.

This one is pretty common, or should I say pretty and common! Heliocypha biforata. A couple of males were battling it out head to head in the same area as the Devadatta.

A pair of Banded Yeoman (or Yeomen?)- Cirrochroa orissa.

Having exhausted myself and the possibilities at Bukit Panchor, I drove the relatively short distance to Pulau Burung. On the way I went past some of my favourite local place names: a couple of cul de sacs named Taman Camar Jaya ('Successful Seagull Park' or 'Successful Glutton Park', depending on your preference), and Taman Penting ('Important Park'), and a small town called 'Badak Mati' ('Dead Rhinoceros'). Some day perhaps I will have an address like that - 47 Successful Seagull Park, Dead Rhinoceros, Penang! Mind you, perhaps we shouldn't try to translate local terms - 'cul de sac' doesn't come out too well in English either!

This is what Pulau Burung (Site B) looks like now. It's gradually drying out, and is evidently rich in invertebrate life, if the numbers of Whiskered Terns are anything to go by.

There were at least 200 birds present in a variety of plumages.

The end of May seems late for such a large number of these terns to still be around, but most were not in full breeding plumage, so perhaps these are first year birds. Robson notes that Whiskered Terns have been seen in summer in southern Thailand.

Coming in to land...

Getting rid of some pesky cobwebs!

Keeping an eye on the sky!

And with good reason! This subadult White-bellied Sea Eagle drops in to see if there's any food to be had.

Uh-oh! Stilts at 9 o'clock! This might not be as easy as I thought!

Surrounded! Time to beat a hasty retreat.

A White-breasted Waterhen warily emerges.

And one of the stilts returns from seeing off the eagle. She looks in need of a wash - perhaps soiled from sitting on her nest?

A small group of Oriental Pratincoles are feeding on the road. This one has found a small yellow grub.

This one looks like it's wearing false eyelashes and mascara, not forgetting the lipstick!

Here's a close-up of the head, showing the distinctive nostril shape. There's an interesting write-up of the difference between this species and Collared Pratincole (as well as some stunning pictures!) here

Here's a second bird. The yellow leg colouration seems to be mud. I saw some similarly attired Red-necked Stints at Kapar last month.

Finally, near home, I managed to grab a couple of shots of the hybrid Crested x Common Myna. It's paired with a Common Myna, and has been around for at least the last five years. For more pictures of this bird, see here (scroll down to Sept 9th).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

14th May, 2008: Gunung Jerai, Kedah

Gunung Jerai is an isolated limestone outcrop on the coast of Kedah. It contains the 8,500ha Sungai Teroi Forest Reserve, which is mainly lowland dipterocarp forest, giving way to montane forest with conifers, pitcher plants and rhododendron-like shrubs near the peak (1200m). Tan Choo Eng, James Ooi and I spent a few hours there late morning and recorded a fairly average list of 23 bird species.

Cream-vented Bulbuls were among the six bulbul species we recorded.

Orthetrum sabina are particularly abundant on the mountain. I also saw Tramea transmarina and an unidentified Gomphid dragonfly.

What an ugly creature! No, not the frog, which, I think, is Rana blythii or Malayan Giant Frog, but the person who decided the best place for their rubbish after their picnic was this pristine mountain stream. The frog is apparently edible and and a popular menu item in Chinese restaurants!

This bat wasn't on Gunung Jerai, but roosting in an abandoned building at Bedong. I think it might be a Megaderma sp (or False Vampire in English) but I could be completely wrong. Any help on this and the frog would be appreciated!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Review and Field Trials of Omicron Estavia 10 x 42 Aspherics WP and Minox BL 10x42 BR Binoculars

Recently, I field tested the Omicron Estavia 10X42 Aspherics WP binocular. I compared this with my own Minox BL 10x42 BR binocular.

Both models are quite comparable in terms of specifications, as can be seen from the summary table below, gleaned from the respective websites and :

Both models would be contenders for anyone considering buying their first pair of ‘serious’ birding binoculars, particularly if the top of the range models are out of range price-wise. Both are also comparably priced. So how do they stack up in the field?

Optical Quality
Both binoculars give a clear image, but I found that the Omicron provided slightly greater sharpness, greater contrast and more intense colours, which helped to make details clearer than the Minox. Slight chromatic aberration was visible on vertical edges with the Minox model, while I couldn’t see any through the Omicron.

Colour rendition was good in both models, with the Minox giving a slight bluish cast and the Omicron more or less neutral.

When comparing clarity across the whole image, I found both to be sharp at the center, but the Omicron gave a significantly sharper image toward the edges. This was offset, however, by the Omicron having more of a double image effect at the edges, making the field of view seem narrower than it actually was. Although not as sharp, the Minox edge image was not obscured by any double image effects.

Ease of Viewing
When panning, I found there were no unpleasant side effects or distortion in either model, but when panning from near to distant objects, I found the Omicron easier to use due to the greater depth of field, which meant there was less need to refocus than with the Minox.

Technical properties and usability
I found there to be no actual difference in the field of view for both models, but, as mentioned above, the double image effect at the edge of the Omicron made the field of view feel rather tube-like and narrow. The Omicron had a slightly better depth of field than the Minox, while the close focusing limit seemed identical in both models, and easily close enough to be useful for examining butterflies or other insects. The focusing wheel on the Omicron was slightly stiffer than the Minox, but this did not significantly affect performance. The eyecups on the Minox slide out with a smooth twist. As a glasses-wearer, I find that one or both eyecups tend to twist out by themselves, which can result in a frustratingly distorted view on occasion. The Omicron eyecups twist out with three clicks, which I would imagine makes them less prone to twisting out by themselves.

One unique feature of the Omicron as far as technical properties are concerned is their latest ClearVue hydrophobic coating (a special water,grease and oil repellent coating ) which is normally found on certain higher priced binoculars.

Both binoculars seem well-balanced and are pleasant to hold, the Omicron being slightly heavier and longer-barreled. I found the weight difference barely noticeable in the field. The strap that comes with the binoculars is a little narrow and unpadded on the Omicron, whereas the Minox has a broader, padded strap. The fastening arrangement of the strap is the same on both models, and I have found, with the Minox, that the strap occasionally comes loose at one end, which could be an expensive failing, resulting in the binoculars falling to the ground or worse. Most recently, the strap came adrift while I was seawatching in deep sea from a boat. Happily I became aware that my binoculars were no longer securely attached to my person before they disappeared into the depths! This is one design failing that I would like to see improved in future models from both Minox and Omicron. It is good news that the current strap will be replaced by a broader and comfortable neoprene strap in the Omicron from June 2008 onwards.

A rainguard and objective lens caps are provided with both Omicron and Minox . The latter clip onto the strap, but unfortunately, unclip rather easily, with the result that they tend to be easily lost. I found the rainguard on the Omicron rather tight and difficult to put on and take off quickly, an essential requirement for birders, while the Minox rainguard was rather better designed. I understand that a larger, looser fit rainguard similar in design to that supplied by Minox is also available from Omicron. Each also comes in a soft case, fastened by a sturdy plastic clip on the Minox, but a rather cheap and not so cheerful patch of Velcro with the Omicron.

Both the Minox and Omicron 10 x 42s are excellent mid-range binoculars, providing superb value for money and optical quality that will easily meet the needs of discerning birders. Their field performance is close enough that I would recommend handling both before making a final choice, since individual needs differ. Personally, I found the Omicron shaded the Minox optically in terms of clarity and sharpness of image, the only significant failing of the former being the slight double imaging at the edge of the image. The Minox comes with a slightly better quality batch of accessories (rainguard, lens caps, strap, etc). Nevertheless, the differences were sufficiently small that I did not feel a compelling urge to exchange my Minox for Omicron, and both are excellent value for money.

Both binoculars are also available with 8x42 specifications.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

7th May 2008: Air Hitam Dalam, Penang

I spent a few hours here this morning in the hope of catching up with Streak-breasted Woodpecker. There were several 'Picus' woodpeckers drumming, and I had brief views of a female, but nothing conclusive. But here were other birds around - lots of Abbott's Babblers and Asian Paradise Flycatchers, a late Arctic Warbler and a calling Mangrove Pitta.

Mum and baby. The Spotted Wood Owls continue to breed here, despite the ever-shrinking acreage of suitable habitat.

A single Black-and-Red Broadbill spend a short while hawking insects within view, before melting back into the undergrowth.

This male Mangrove Blue Flycatcher was singing away and was quite confiding. The illustration in Robson's Birds of South-east Asia doesn't show the dark chin or the pale orange vent, but Lekagul and Round's Birds of Thailand mentions that the chin is black, so I am assuming, based on the habitat, that this is a Mangrove Blue.

1st May 2008: Ulu Paip

Not a birding trip, more of a family day out, but we saw a number of interesting bits and pieces!

While having breakfast by the roadside, we noticed a number of white damselflies swarming around a lotus flower. We identified them as Copera marginipes. This one is a juvenile.

And here's an adult. Let me know if I've misidentified these please!

This is the waterfall we always head for. There's a nice pool at the base where the kids can play, and we always seem to have it to ourselves!

We found two juvenile Hillstream Soft-shelled Turtles (Dogania subplana for short!) and caught this one to have a closer look.

The neck was as long as its body and it was quite an impressive climber!

After we released it, it continued to hang around on the offchance of any titbits we might throw to it!

We found this dragonfly larva when it tried to take a bite out of my wife's leg! I was amazed to learn that dragonflies spend by far the largest part of their lives in this larval form - up to 4 years or more, compared to only around 2 months as a winged adult.

One more damsel - this time Prodasineura laidlawii. The one I'd really like to see is Mortonagrion arthuri. My book (the wonderful "Dragonflies of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore") provides the following intriguing detail: "known from a single discoloured specimen from a garden in Butterworth, collected by Arthur Wheeler at the age of four." I can just picture Grandpa Wheeler at the age of 85 telling his grandchildren - "Eee, when I was four years old I found a new dragonfly for science." "Sure you did Grandpa!"

19th April 2008: Kapar Ash Ponds

I met up with Simon Cockayne and Piet Opstaele who came on a marathon daytrip up from Singapore in the hope of seeing at least one of 'the Big Three' (Asian Dowitcher, Nordmann's Greenshank and Spoon-billed Sandpiper).

Numbers of birds were well down on a couple of weeks ago, but we estimated that there were still well over three thousand birds present. Some of the same individuals that I saw on April 6-7th were still around, such as the Little Stint, one of the Dunlin and both Sanderlings.

Most of the remaining sand plovers seemed to be non-breeders.

The Little Stint (front right) was among the very few Red-neckeds remaining.

Simon gets his bird! Fortunately the Nordmann's Greenshanks saved the day, with 12 being present.

Birds of a feather...! The zoning of related species was very evident - Whimbrels and godwits in one group, Curlew Sandpipers in another, and Great and Red Knot in a third.

There were a number of 'phaeopus' race type Whimbrel (with white back and underwing coverts) among the predominant 'variegatus' birds. Here's one (upper near bird).

A Gull-billed Tern flies overhead toward dusk.

Just before dark we went to look at the second ashpond, which I had not visited before. Having seen no Terek Sandpipers on the main pond, we were surprised to find over 500 here, as well as good numbers of Redshanks and smaller calidrids. A place to check in the future clearly!