Sunday, May 30, 2010

29th May: Juru, mainland Penang

Went out this afternoon to give the new camera another try. I tried various options on autofocus with the bee-eaters, but got nowhere, so in the end went back to manual focusing.

I noticed that some birds (the same ones judging by the nests they attended) were dragonfly specialists, and seemed to prey predominantly on Orthetrum sabina. Goodness knows where they find them all, or how the O. sabina population manages to maintain itself despite the daily harvest of what must be hundreds.

The only other dragonfly species I saw taken was Pantala flavescens. This is a really common dragonfly, flying in swarms over dry grassland. However, I only saw this one as a prey item once.

Other birds really were 'bee-eaters', while this one favoured wasps. I suppose that if a pair finds a particular source of food, like a wasps' nest, they will go back again and again for more.

Another Orthetrum sabina incoming.

I am quite disappointed by how noisy these images are - even at 400ISO.

I noticed a mist net had been set up near the bee-eater colony. At first I wasn't sure if it might have been put there by a researcher, but since it was in direct sunlight and no-one was attending it, I closed it. After driving away from the colony, something made me turn back to check on the mistnet again. When I returned a man was busy opening it again. When I approached him he ran off into the forest. I took this as an admission that he was using the net illegally, so confiscated the net and his poles. I can't imagine why anyone would want to catch bee-eaters, except for 'fun'.

Near the mangroves a flock of Germain's Swiftlets were hawking over the coastal bund in the low evening light. I found the autofocus coped pretty well in this situation, though, again, I found the images a bit noisier than I would have hoped. Check out the variability in appearance and depth of the tail notch. I think sometimes people underestimate how forked a Germain's tail can appear.All these birds seem to be in very fresh plumage.

I was pleased that the autofocus managed to track the birds (not always!) even when they flew in front of distracting elements in the background.

I don't think my 40D would have been able to focus on this fly-by Little Heron...

...or this subadult White-bellied Sea Eagle against the trees.

As I was watching the swiftlets near to dusk, I noticed a steady procession of green pigeons flying to roost in the mangroves. I turned my attention to them in the hope of seeing a Cinnamon-headed, but all were Pink-necked except for this Orange-breasted. Definitely worth another try though!

A Crested Serpent-Eagle in the gathering gloom.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

25th May 2010: Juru with Canon 1D Mark 2

I bought a 2nd hand Canon 1D Mark 2 camera body yesterday, chiefly for its autofocus capabilities (it has a 45-point Autofocus area, as opposed to my 40D, which has only 9 focus points).

Today I took it out to see how well it would cope with flying bee-eaters against a busy background! As it turned out, this was being a tad ambitious, as the AF couldn't cope any better with the challenge than my 40D, so I ended up resorting to manually focusing! The 8.3 frames per second was fun, but meant I soon started filling up my CF card! Here are some of the better efforts.

All the bee-eaters today were Blue-throated apart from this solitary Chestnut-headed!

I got a few fortuitous shots of a fly-by Emerald Dove. They weren't particularly sharp, but it's not often you get chance to photograph an Emerald Dove in flight, in good light, and a bright adult male into the bargain! At least you can see the curious double-banded rump pattern.

Early days with the camera. I know from past experience that it will take a few months' use before I start getting the best out of it. In the meantime I think I'll need to do some arm exercises - I certainly felt the extra weight today!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

22 May 2010: Tanjung Dawai pelagic and Air Itam Dalam, Penang mainland

The rain started soon after I woke up at 4 am! It was still pouring when Mun arrived at my house at 5, and when we picked Hakim up from USM, and when we arrived at Tanjung Dawai at 6.15am! It poured on till almost 8 o'clock, when the boat finally rather gingerly headed out to sea.

Ominous clouds on the horizon and a respectable 'swell' on the ocean looked promising for seabirds, but things were unusually quiet. We had two brief fly-by views of Short-tailed Shearwaters, and distant views of a group of three Parasitic or Long-tailed Jaegers, as well as sparse numbers of terns, mostly Bridled and Common with a single Whiskered. By midday, with the weather taking a turn for the worse again, we were back in port, the hunt over for the day. I can only assume that the birds had vacated the area ahead of the storm.

En route home we stopped off at Air Itam Dalam, where a Spotted Wood-owl was rather obvious, roosting in a large tree.

A Mangrove Blue Flycatcher gave fleetingly close views, but the only other photogenic bird was this Green-billed Malkoha, which eventually climbed out of the foliage to give brief views in the open.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Not all RAW converters are equal!

After reading John's comments (on the Gelugor post)about what I must be doing wrong in trying to convert RAW images to jpegs, I hunted high and low through my dusty piles of CDs till I found my Canon EOS Installation disc, which was still sealed in its original plastic sleeve!

I installed Digital Photo Professional and did a quick upgrade to the latest version from the net. Then I revisited my Little Heron pic from the other day, which I had processed from RAW using a freebie RAW converter called Stepok's RAW Importer.

No tweaks or filters - just a straight convert and crop. Here's what I found:



Still can't see any difference? Let me blow up a small section of each picture...



NOW I see the difference! Thanks a lot John. Guess I'll have to start buying some more CF cards so I can shoot in RAW!

DPP (left) Stepok (right)

THAT'S better!

Monday, May 17, 2010

16th May 2010: At sea off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah

Choo Eng and Terence tempted me back to sea yesterday with tales of chum aplenty! Not till later did we discover that deep frozen chum doesn't thaw sufficiently in tropical sea within one day! So - good tip - don't deep freeze chum!

Anyway, it didn't make much difference. The boat only stopped once today and gave up by four o'clock due to lack of fish. Lack of fish, but luckily for us, no lack of birds!

The day was dominated by Short-tailed Shearwaters again - we had 21 sightings despite the shorter than usual day.

Sightings were clustered about 15-20km offshore along a line that roughly corresponded with the edge of deeper water, and not far from the islands of Telor and Songsong. We went out much further than this but there were no shearwater sightings further out.

Compared to just less than a week ago, the birds seemed to have 'learned the drill.' As soon as our net was cast, two birds made an appearance, flying in and settling near the perimeter of the net.

This gives an idea of the size compared to Bridled Tern.

The birds spent time diving for fish, often surfacing with wings half-opened.

You've heard of the song "Flying without wings" - this is the shearwater version - "Wings without flying!"

As the nets were winched in, the birds came closer and closer. Sadly for photography, they were always against the sun.

They got quite close!

According to Onley and Scofield, the "majority of the population apparently flies [from southern Australia] to waters off Japan in June, the Bering Sea in July, and on to the central Pacific during August on their way south again." All of which begs the question - what are these birds doing here, and where will they go after they leave?

They clearly aren't 'out of range' vagrants - they occur each year in varying numbers. They seem to have begun a body moult and their wings are heavily worn. Will they move up into the Bay of Bengal to complete their moult there? Circle back down into the Indian Ocean? Perform an unlikely overland crossing over the relatively narrow landmass of the Isthmus of Kra? Or retrace their journey down through the Straits of Malacca and move into the South China Sea? How little we still know about seabirds!

This bird gives a good impression of the state of plumage of the birds we saw.

It was intriguing to see the variation in underwing colouration, and the effects of different lighting conditions!

An odd variation - this bird showed pale tips to the coverts and appeared to have fresh secondaries and a few inner primaries, yet most of the primaries and humerals were very worn. Perhaps it was in suspended moult.

Apart from shearwaters, it was a good day for terns. Apart from the ubiquitous Bridled, there were good numbers of Common and White-winged Terns still about, as well as one or two Black-naped.

I was quite surprised to see this Aleutian Tern - a new 'latest date' for birds in spring.

This photo gives a good view of the diagnostic features of the species - the broad white frontal triangle, dainty black bill, dusky grey upper and underparts creating a strong contrast with the white rump and tail, and blackish bar across the underside of the secondaries. The short-necked, compact jizz is also subtly distinctive, as is the fact that they usually fly looking straight ahead, rather than down at the water.

A couple of heavy-set, 'necky' Common Terns for comparison.

Unlike all the previous Aleutians I've seen from the boat,which have been brief fly-overs, this one actually came to the net...

...twice! Still, it never came close, and the poor light ensured that my pics didn't come out as well as I would have hoped.

Just after the Aleutian, and while still looking for it, I glimpsed a very pale tern that didn't strike me as Black-naped. I yelled 'Roseate!' and grabbed a couple of shots (the first a beautifully sharp one of the water behind the bird!) before it disappeared out of sight behind the the boat. The bird never appeared again, and I convinced myself that I had probably jumped to the wrong conclusions. However, close examination of my dreadful pics reveal that I was right! You can just about make out the pinkish flush to the underparts, and the distinctive pale upperwing, white trailing to the wing, darker wingtip limited to the outer three primaries, and the long, white-edged outer tail feathers. Had I not managed to get the photos I would undoubtedly have written off this bird - that's the joy of digital photography! Roseates breed on the east coast but are a rare bird indeed on the west.

One good tern deserves another ... and another! Not long after the Roseate, this beauty turned up - a cracking Lesser Crested Tern - my second sighting from the boat.

Unlike the Aleutian and the Roseate, this one was eager to please!

Looking like a giant Little Tern!

There are fewer jaegers around now (presumably they time their migration to coincide with that of the terns), but there were still one or two around. This one was close enough to be identified as a subadult Long-tailed, and another two went unidentified.

It's pretty easy to tell a jaeger from a shearwater on the sea, even at quite a distance. Jaegers look like bananas, turned up at each end, an effect caused by the long neck and the angle of the wings and tail. Shearwaters are much flatter in the water, with a short neck, domed, duck-like head, and stumpy rear end.

The only jaeger species I'd recorded before today from the boat were Pomarine and Long-tailed, but I've always been on the look out for the elusive third species that makes up the 'set' - Parasitic (I grew up calling these Arctic Skuas and 'Parasitic Jaeger' still sticks sideways in my throat when I say it, but you have to move with the times I guess!). Anyway, back to this bird. It looked promising. It was clearly too bulky to be a Long-tailed, and 'Poms' are usually extremely wary of the boat, unlike this bird.

Though an adult, the bird did not have well-developed central tail feathers, making things a little more challenging! However, the tips of what could be seen of the central tail feathers were sharply pointed rather than rounded, which favoured Parasitic.

This picture shows the wings looking rather narrower-based than a typcial Pomarine.

On taking off, the bird attacked a tern, and then returned to the water to consume its ill-gotten gains. It did this three times. Long-tailed often harass terns, but I've never seen a Pomarine do so. The central tail feathers again look good for Arctic in these pictures.

In fact, the pale patch above the bill is a diagnostic feature of adult breeding plumaged Parasitic Jaeger. On Pomarine the black colouration of the crown extends down to the chin, encircling the bill base. The pointed central tail feathers can clearly be seen here.

Here's a composite of the three jaeger species in adult breeding plumage, all taken from the boat - Pomarine (top), Parasitic (centre) and Long-tailed (bottom).