Tuesday, January 26, 2010

26th January 2010: Kubang Semang, mainland Penang

I don't think I've seen rain this year ... till today! I decided to finish work early and skip across to the mainland for the last few hours of the day. There were some grey clouds around but that's not unusual, and they usually don't produce rain. But today, the moment I arrived at my destination, the heavens opened! I couldn't help smiling at God's sense of humour!

It rained and rained for about 2 hours. What to do in the pouring rain? Well, luckily I found a dried out patch of mud, which rapidly became a puddle, then a pool, with a bunch of snipes feeding, and then bathing in it. Using my car as a hide, I was able to watch and stay reasonably dry.

There were at least two species - Swinhoe's and Common - and by watching them preen, bathe and skirmish with each other and some Wood Sandpipers, I was able to see the tail feathers on three birds.

The light was awful, and this was taken at half a second inside a car being buffeted by the wind and rain. I didn't get too many sharp shots! Instead, I took lots of video, which was useful to check the tail when momentarily fanned. I'll include a few grabs from the videos, since Youtube isn't accepting my uploads at the moment.

So this one is either a Swinhoe's or Pintail. This pair can be differentiated from Common Snipe by:

- the lower row of scapulars having a thin buff fringe on both the outer and inner webs of the feathers

- the background colour of the scapulars being quite brown, rather than blackish

- the wing coverts (especially the medians) being well barred buff and dark before the whitish tip

- the bland face pattern, lacking a strong cheek bar

- the bulging supercilium in front of the eye

Between Pintail and Swinhoe's it's practically impossible to be certain without a good view of the outer tail feathers, but the thick-based, rather long bill, the eye set well back in the head, and the rather thick, yellowish legs are all pro-Swinhoe's characteristics. On the other hand, the very short tail projection beyond the tertials favours Pintail.

Here's a Common Snipe for comparison. Subtle differences from Swinhoe's/Pintail are:

- lower scapulars are broadly fringed buff on the outer webs only

- the background colour of the scapulars, mantle and lateral crown stripes is blacker than Swinhoe's/Pintail, making the bird look more contrasty

- the wing coverts are rather plain and dark, except for the strongly contrasting white tips

- a strong face pattern, with prominent pale and dark cheek bars

- Supercilium doesn't obviously bulge in front of the eye

- Bill is very long and rather slender, not especially thick at base.

If you are lucky to catch them even half-raising their wings, the axillaries are another useful clue. On Swinhoe's/Pintail, the black bars are about the same thickness as the white bars...

Whereas, on Common, the black bars are much narrower.

If they lift their wings even further, identification between Common and Swinhoe's/Pintal is easy - Common has a largely plain underwing, whereas on Swinhoe's/Pintail, it's evenly barred.

Snipes characteristically fan their tails when performing a threat display, and since they're quite aggressive, it's well worth spending some time watching them.

Common Snipe's tail is very obviously orange with a broad white tip. The outer tail feathers are similar in width to the central ones. Here it is exposed but not spread.

And here it is in full threat mode.

Even when completely closed, the white tip of Common's tail can be quite obvious at times.

Getting a decent view of the tail is critical to separating Swinhoe's and Pintail with certainty.

I got lucky with this one when it gave a threat display to a nearby Wood Sandpiper. It's the shape of the outer pairs of feather that you need to see well. On Swinhoe's each pair of feathers is successively narrower toward the outer edge of the tail, with only the outermost being very narrow. On Pintail, the outer six or so pairs of feathers are pin-like - hence the name. So this is a definite Swinhoe's.

Here's the same bird, unfortunately against what little light there was.

I think this is almost certainly Swinhoe's too, though the videograb doesn't let me see the shape of the outer tail feathers clearly. At least, they don't appear pin-like.

The same bird, typically much more buffy than Common, with well-barred coverts and a bland face pattern.

At last the rain stopped, and although it was too dark for bird photography, I was quite pleased with these scenic views.

Despite the rain I managed to see a number of interesting birds - an Eastern Stonechat, 6 Watercocks, a Greater Spotted Eagle, a pair of Greater Painted-snipes, oh - and this...

If you think you know what it is, let me know (I know what it is!).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

23 Jan 2010: Kubang Semang, mainland Penang

I'd not been to this site since returning from the UK, so I went to see if the Aquila eagles were still around.

My first bird of the day was an adult Imperial Eagle, sat on a pylon next to the road. It ignored a jogger and numerous motorcyclists passing beneath it, but flew as soon as I got out of the car!

Hence I only got this distant shot.

Later on I relocated the bird, but again it was wary of me, and I only managed flight shots of it taken directly into the sun! Still, this view shows the relatively long tail and head projection and narrower wings than Greater Spotted.

Scanning the wires I noticed a couple of Riparia martins alongside the other hirundines. This was the first time I've had chance to see these birds perched. The wingtips were seen to narrowly extend beyond the tail, which is supposedly a good feature of Pale Martin. Unfortunately the birds suddenly took flight, giving me no further chance to study them.

This adult Greater Spotted Eagle came down to feed on rats disturbed by a tractor ploughing.

Once it caught one it flew up to this telegraph pole.

Where it was hassled by a Black Drongo and a Brown Shrike - a pair of plucky migrants joining forces!

This subadult Imperial didn't seem interested in hunting.

Scanning the pylons for eagles also revealed a couple of Peregrines. This well-barred bird, with its broad moustachial patches, seems to be the resident 'ernesti' race.

This one, more finely-barred below and with narrower moustachials, seems to be the migrant 'japonensis/calidus' form.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

20th Jan 2010: Tanjung Tokong, Penang

A few shots from Tanjung Tokong, where I did my AWC count this evening. I was surprised not to see any "White-faced" Plovers - the first time I've drawn a blank for some time.

Little Egrets.

and Little Herons (adult and juv).

Monday, January 18, 2010

17th Jan 2010: Perlis marathon!

The plan was for Choo Eng to take a car-full, and I would go up separately in my own car with Hakim, on what was essentially a 'twitch' to try to add some rarely seen species to my Peninsular Malaysia list, as well as to try to relocate the Blyth's Pipit we'd seen on our previous trip. I set my alarm for just before 4am and picked Hakim up at five.

Our first stop was Timah Tasoh lake at dawn, where we hoped to see Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas. The latter flew in after half an hour, but the former did not appear.

Both Greater and Lesser Coucals were common at this site. This Greater looked as if it had just woken up.

Next stop was Kampung Sahabat, where a Thick-billed Warbler had been seen about two weeks ago. Directions were precise (to the bush!) and the bird duly obliged! No doubt under-recorded in Perlis, this is a rare visitor to Malaysia.

On to Bukit Jernih, where I hoped to add Dusky Crag Martin, Racket-tailed Treepie and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. The warbler was soon located by its distinctive, high-pitched 'tic' call, but it proved flighty and mobile, preferring to stay within thick undergrowth.

This would have been a great picture if my flash had fired!

A few Dusky Crag Martins were seen zooming around high up on the limestone cliffs, way beyond photographic range, but the treepies once again eluded me. Still, I was happy with my haul of four West Malaysia 'lifers'. News from Choo Eng's team at Chuping was not good - no sign of the Blyth's Pipit despite two hours of searching.

Still, by 10.30, we felt it was time to go over there, as raptors should by now be up and flying.

A lot of fields for a Blyth's Pipit to hide in!

And lots of pipits to scan, but every one turned out to be just a Paddyfield. This juvenile is in pretty fresh plumage, but even so, is relatively unstreaked on the upperparts, and has a very different median covert pattern to the Blyth's.

Still plenty of smart male Eastern Stonechats around.

Soon raptors started putting in an appearance, including a Grey-faced Buzzard and this dark morph Booted Eagle. From Choo Eng came news that they had seen a Eurasian Kestrel and a possible Long-legged Buzzard, the latter not hanging around long enough to be photographed or identified conclusively.

We couldn't find the buzzard, but the female Eurasian Kestrel put on a fine show.

I think this is the 'interstinctus' race, which is more coarsely and heavily marked than the nominate form.

This adult Long-tailed Shrike seemed to have lost most of its tail feathers.

As the afternoon wore on it was time to head for the harrier roost. Lighting conditions were a bit better than the previous week, but soon deteriorated of course!

The wind was coming from the north. Whether this was significant I don't know, but there seemed to be fewer harriers arriving from behind us tonight compared to the last visit, and only about half the number in total.

There were more Eastern Marsh than Pied Harriers this time, 37 to 27. This is a juv Eastern Marsh.

Another immature Eastern Marsh - probably a female judging from the bulk of the bird. Eastern Marsh have distinctively more head, neck and bill than Pied, as well as broader wing bases and tail, and a bulkier body.

Male Eastern Marsh shares these characteristics, despite being smaller and 'neater' than the female.

Juvenile Pied is fairly plain, rich chocolate brown above...

Below, the body and underwing coverts are chestnut-brown, the secondaries generally rather dark, and the primaries have 2-3 blackish bars on a silvery-grey background.

The head and bill are noticeably fine and delicate compared to Eastern Marsh.

The facial markings, including the owl-like facial disk, are surprisingly easy to see, and are a good way to eliminate Eastern Marsh.

A late arrival wasted no time in finding a bed for the night!

Adult female Pied bears a superficial resemblance to a male Eastern Marsh, showing a grey background to her primaries and secondaries.

The white leading edge to the inner wing is characteristic of female Pied. The upperwing covert pattern resembles a faded version of the male's.

From below, female Pied's pale underwing and white rear 'half' of the body are distinctive.

With a decent view, there's no much problem identifying male Pied!

Each time I observe a harrier roost I get the impression that adult males tend to arrive later than females. I'm not sure if this phenomenon has been written up or explained anywhere. I wonder whether it may be that earlier-arriving males get displaced from the best roost-spots by the larger females, so that there is not much advantage for the males in arriving early.

Anyway, talking of roosting, we decided to make an early start on our homeward journey, leaving before dark, at about 7.15pm. We'd already driven out of Perlis when we got a call from Choo Eng to say that they had got their car stuck in some mud!

We drove on to Changlun town, where we were lucky to find a hardware store still open which stocked some sturdy-looking nylon rope. We then retraced our drive back to the sugar cane plantation, noting as we did so that it was a cloudless night with the thinnest sliver of a new moon (and therefore almost pitch dark!).

Trying to find Choo Eng following his directions by phone and flashlight wasn't too difficult, but we found, on driving down a narrow track in a young rubber plantation, that he and we were separated by a deep swamp! We conducted a lengthy discussion across the swamp, and decided that there was no option but for us to take a long diversion via the sugar cane factory to try to find the track that they had taken.

We then spent the next 3 hours or so, driving around the sugar cane plantation, trying dead-end track after dead-end track, flashing our headlights and blowing the car's horn constantly! It struck us as amusing that, even though we were right on the Malaysian-Thai border, and there were look-out towers all along the border and anti-smuggling checkpoints along the roads, no one came to check out this crazy headlight-flashing, horn-blaring performance!

We tried locating each other by triangulating on distant lights, the stars and the sound of a distant karaoke bar, but all to no avail! Eventually, we decided that they would have to try to walk out and locate one of the more major dirt tracks that criss-cross the plantation. At last, around 11.30pm, we came across three tired birders trudging along a dirt track! Using signposts they'd erected using sugarcane stalks, we were able to find our way back to their car and, with much protest from my car's clutch, haul it out.

We convened at a 24 hr Indian curry house in Changlun, where we stocked up on caffeine in preparation for the two and a half hour drive back.

Somewhere along the highway my energy gave out and I knew I had to find a lay-by to sleep in - fast. Fortunately a 'P' sign soon appeared, and we pulled over. As we did so I had to swerve to avoid two men behind a lorry who were poking at a large 'thing' in the road!

The thing turned out to be a sizable python! After parking, Hakim and I walked back to where the men were trying to coax the irate snake into a hessian sack. Being only about 70% conscious, and barely aware of what I was doing, I took the pole they were using to manoeuvre the snake, and pushed it off the highway. After striking at the pole a couple of times it allowed me to do this without much protest. Meanwhile the two men were gesticulating to me that they wanted me to put the snake into their sack! With tact borne of extreme tiredness, all I said was, "No! Let it go." They backed off and the snake - all 8-9 feet of it - made its escape down the slope at the side of the road and into some long grass. Hakim then suggested that we make our exit rather rapidly as the men were far from pleased at having this windfall taken away from them (he thought they could have got RM500-1,000 for it). I knew I couldn't get in the car and drive again, so I just went back and collapsed in the driver's seat. Sometime before slipping into unconsciousness, I heard the lorry drive off, giving us a couple of hoots on their horn, whether in cheery farewell or angry protest I couldn't tell!

Refreshed by a 45 min nap, I drove the rest of the way home without incident, arriving at my bed at 3am - exactly 23 hours since leaving it the previous morning!