Thursday, January 22, 2009

11th January 2009: Kuching Waterbird Workshop, Sarawak

Our last day was focused on counting waterbirds, in conjunction with the Asian Waterbird Census.

However, conditions at Buntal were not ideal, illustrating the difficulties of counting a huge site where birds have a choice of roost sites. The bird numbers today were quite different from the previous two visits.

Plenty to look at, and a chance to hone those id skills!

A good opportunity to compare scopes in the field!

It's always heartening to see participants putting into practice what they've learned about taking fieldnotes, and arriving at a correct identification ... eventually!

We got lots of practice counting flocks of birds flying past. Take a quick count in blocks of 10 and see how many you estimate!

I estimated 45 birds. In fact there are 50. If you want to try it with moving birds, try this!

Now click on the picture and see what species you can identify (answers below).

How about this flock? (Answers below)!

We got a bit distracted by the reappearance of yesterday's star visitor!

The greyish markings on the tertials, scapulars and mantle suggest that the bird may be a first winter, and the long bill indicates that it is probably a male (unlike many waders, male Pied Avocets have longer bills than females).

Could this be the first time a Pied Avocet has ever been photographed with a Malaysian Plover?!

Further away but in better light.

When disturbed it would sometimes go for long flights, but always came back to the sandbar.

Some more fly-bys - a Ruddy Turnstone is unmistakable!

And Terek Sandpipers are pretty distinctive too.

On the other hand, I find almost impossible to identify sand plovers in flight, unless you get a good sight of the bill. It's a lot easier from photos, when you can sometimes make out the slightly longer white wingbar of Greater as well as get a clear profile of the bill. Here, there's a Lesser above and a Greater below.

It's a bit easier when you can see them on the deck, when something of the Greater's gawky character is evident - it's too-large bill and eye and head! There's something distinctively different about the lateral breast patches too, which I find it difficult to put into words. It's as if they've been painted on with a broader brush than on the Lesser. The Lesser's in front by the way; the Greater is at the back, alongside a Sanderling.

In case you think Sanderlings look a bit like stints, here's a pic to show that when a real stint turns up, they are actually a lot smaller and more delicately built. These Sanderlings are lot more bulky and thicker-billed than the Red-necked Stint at the rear.

As the tide swept up over the sandbar, the few birds remaining were forced to share a smaller and smaller living space. Here's another picture to practice your identification skills on. (Answers in the usual place!)

When it comes to brinksmanship, I would have thought it would be hard to beat Sanderlings, as they dance with the advancing waves. Yet it was the Malaysian Plovers that proved the most reluctant to leave the sandbar as the tide rose.

They took advantage of any exposed rocks or driftwood to stay above the waves.

...even when the wood started floating!

This bird seemed quite unfazed when the log it was on started rolling in the waves!

Rather than fly off, it preferred to 'run' on top of the rotating log, rather like a circus elephant!

Another bird, which was perfectly able to fly, seemed happy to get knocked off its perch every once in a while, and swim to the next available log!

Sometimes though, flight was unavoidable. I guess that's why they have wings!

Answer to flock 1: Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey Plover, Great Knot
Answer to flock 2: 12 birds, 4 species: L-R - Terek Sandpiper, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Lesser Sand Plover
Answer to flock 3: L-R - Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Sand Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Sanderling. The rest are Lesser Sand Plovers and Sanderlings.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

9 - 10th January 2009: Kuching Waterbird Workshop, Sarawak

Do they realize what they are letting themselves in for?! Friday was the first day of the workshop and was a full day of class sessions.

Saturday was a full field day. I had to miss the morning session due to a virulent bout of food poisoning, but felt well enough to join the afternoon sessions, which turned out to be the highlight of the weekend, and one of my better days birding!

Sarawak in January is 'landas' season - the monsoon - and we had been experiencing non-stop torrential rain and strong winds for several days. Fortunately, we found a seafood restaurant at Buntal which provided good views of the birds while keeping us dry. The owners allowed us to use their premises all afternoon, and we reciprocated by ordering a steady supply of drinks!

One of the first birds of the day was this Bridled Tern, which was found perched on a car behind the restaurant! It was very thin and clearly exhausted, although there was no sign of injury. The aging of this individual provoked considerable discussion. The bird was in wing moult (the outer two or three primaries were old feathers). Wells mentions primary moult in Oct - Nov in some first winter birds, so this may be a bird of the year.

Before our arrival Daniel Kong had been busy! Without telling me what he'd found, he beckoned me over to his scope, and this is what I saw:


A Pied Avocet - the first for Malaysia! This was a fine introduction to the field session for the workshop participants! Besides being rare, this was a truly handsome bird, though looking a little out of place on the stormy beach of Buntal Bay. Avocets are the only wader/shorebird family to have fully webbed feet (besides that extraordinary up-sweeping bill!).

Since this was a teaching session, I had decided to leave my DSLR camera behind - a decision I rapidly grew to regret!


The hide tide, assisted by driving rain and an onshore wind, rapidly covered the sandbar where the birds had roosted yesterday, pushing the birds to another roost upriver. However, as the tide fell, wave after wave of birds appeared and circled down to land in front of us! How many species can you spot here? Answer at the bottom of the page!

An interesting thing I've noticed lately about the Black-tailed Godwits we get here (the small 'melanuroides' race) is that they all have a dark vertical smudge down the breast. That's not a feature I've noticed in any books.


Bar-tailed Godwits were commoner. The longer bill of the female is quite evident in this picture.


Some Great Knots.


A close view of one of two Red Knots that were hiding in the knot flock. Apart from the smaller size and shorter bill and legs, those dark scallop-shaped marks on the rear flanks are a useful feature of Red Knot. This one still has a few unmoulted 'red' feathers, which helps too!


The commonest Tringa sandpiper present was - ahem - Nordmann's Greenshank! A total of 12 birds dropped in with the knots and godwits.


In my more imaginative moments, I have more than once thought that Sanderlings look a bit like diminutive Nordmann's, but this is the first time I've had chance to see them alongside each other (the small white bird to the right of the NGs). The heavy, broad-based bill of the Nordmann's is very evident here.


These birds were close enough for DSLR photography, and I might have got some great flight shots had I brought the camera, though the light was very poor.Still, I'm not complaining!

The slightly surreal feeling of the Nordmann's being the commonest Tringa sandpiper was enhanced by the fact that the commonest, indeed, the only egret species on view, was Chinese Egret!

Sanderlings are also good value to watch,as they dash about evading the inrushing waves. Beginner wader-watchers are sometimes dismayed to see waders which have apparently lost one leg. In most cases, this is simply a case of the bird choosing to tuck one leg up into its belly feathers, but here the bird third from left really did only have one leg, as did another in the same flock. We wondered whether the birds were 'born like that' or had lost a leg in a snare on migration.



It was definitely a day for sandpipers rather than plovers today, but this Kentish Plover stuck in out despite the atrocious conditions.


Apart from the waders, a hundred or so Gull-billed and 120 Greater Crested Terns came and roosted on the sandbar, in addition to a few Common, Little and a single Bridled Tern. This is a first winter Greater Crested Tern wishing it were somewhere else!


This first winter Black-headed Gull came to roost on the egret poles, and later, almost at dusk, an adult came to roost on the sandbar. A first record for Buntal apparently.


As if that wasn't enough, on the falling tide a jaeger came steaming out of the rivermouth and past the sandbar, heading rapidly out into the bay. Not having my DSLR around I had to resort to digiscoping, and this was the best I could manage. The bird was in a very unfamiliar plumage to me, with white underparts apart from a dark breastband, a very pale underwing, and a white, unbarred rump. From the structure and presence of prominent upper and underprimary flashes I identified the bird as a Parasitic Jaeger.

Quite an amazing afternoon's birding, and these photos are evidence that I wasn't just delirious with the after-effects of food poisoning!

Answer: You should be able to find 5 species: Gull-billed Tern (big, white, at the back), Black-tailed Godwit (1 bird, back left), Great Knot (the majority); Red Knot (1 bird, front centre, with short bill and legs, dark crown and white 'eyebrows'), and Terek Sandpiper (orange legs and long, upturned bill).

8th January 2009: Kuching Waterbird Workshop, Sarawak

The Sarawak Forestry Corporation and the Kuching branch of the Malaysian Nature Society invited me to give a training workshop on waterbirds to coincide with the Asian Waterbird Census.

I arrived a day early so that we could check out the sites for the field sessions.

My hosts the first day were Sim and Daniel. Here they are at the first site - Kampung Skudup, Chupak - which has an area of freshwater paddyfield habitat.

Note the low rain-filled clouds. These were to play a prominent part in the workshop!


Apart from the ubiquitous Wood Sandpipers, there were a few Pintail/Swinhoe's Snipe about.

White-breasted Woodswallows are common residents.

However, I was really surprised to see Greater Painted Snipes there in numbers, as the species isn't on the checklist of birds of Sarawak I had consulted. Apparently this is an error in the list rather than a first record!

Painted Snipes are one of a select group of waterbird species where the female is brighter than the male. She takes no part in incubating the eggs or rearing the young once the eggs are laid, and she is 'polyandrous', mating with several males. This female sat obligingly next to the road, though unfortunately, against the light.

From Chupak we moved to Bako-Buntal Bay, a large bay just east of Bako National Park.


There was a good selection of plovers on the sandbar, including several Kentish Plovers - this one a nice male...



...and several resident Malaysian Plovers.

This is a male, with the black collar going all the way round the back of the neck.

This one looks like a female, but it has some black feathers in the breast patches and on the forehead, so it may in fact be a 1st winter male.

This species preferred to roost on the driftwood, which made for some interesting photo opportunities.

A close view of a male.


Sand Plovers were a couple of species we would be focusing on identifying during the workshop. Here, the difference in bill size between Lesser and Greater (right) is very apparent.

We were delighted to find that all the egrets roosting offshore were Chinese.


A Whimbrel with a deformed leg fed near our watchpoint. The bird's handicap had probably prevented it from migrating north last season, and may also have prevented it from moulting. Consequently the plumage was extremely worn and bleached.

The non-pigmented areas (white) have largely worn away, and much of the dark areas of plumage has been bleached by the sun. Feathers in this condition will not be able to provide much insulation from the heat and cold, nor waterproofing, and this makes it vulnerable to an early death.



I was very happy to find a single "White-faced" Plover roosting on the beach. As far as I know, this is the first record for Borneo of this taxon (whether a full species or a race of Kentish remains to be seen). It differs from Kentish in having pale flesh-coloured legs, generally paler upperparts, whitish fringes on the coverts, very little brown on the ear coverts below the eye and restricted lateral breast patches. For more information, see here.