Thursday, April 26, 2012

21 April 2012: Pelagic off Tanjung Dawai, Kedah - Skuas/Jaegers

This was a long and difficult trip. 14 hours on the boat, and constant swell from the storm that passed through the previous day made it difficult to stay upright. My back was in pain at the end of the day from all that swaying about!

I'm still sorting through the 800+ pics I took, but have managed to edit all the skua/jaeger pics. Birds were on view from about 10am till 6.30pm, and since we were in the same broad area the whole day, it was difficult to work out how many birds were involved. I decided to get photographs of every sighting and then try to compare plumage features when I got home.

Right click on the images and select 'Open link in new tab' to see an enlarged version.

These two adult breeding plumaged Arctic Skuas/Parasitic Jaegers can be distinguished from each other by the missing primary in the left wing of Arctic Skua 1. It's only visible when the outer 'hand' of the wing is pushed well forward, but, when the wing is in a comparable position on Arctic Skua 3, there is no gap apparent.

This moulting first summer Arctic/Parasitic is a challenging bird as it shows several characteristics of a Pomarine.

The heavy-looking body, apparently broad wings and pale bases to the under primary coverts are all good pointers to Pomarine. However...
The fresh pointed central tail feathers tell a different story!
This close-up shows that the points are not caused by feather shafts of abraded feathers, but by pristine, fresh feathers. The central 2 pairs are fresh and the 3rd pair is still growing.

So it's an Arctic, but how can the anomalous features be explained?

1. The pale primary covert bases. The Collins Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe states that 1 out of 20 Arctics show this feature, so it is not such a "cast-iron Pom indicator: as I had realized.

2. The broad winged appearance. The bird is in wing moult, with P9-10 (the outermost primaries) and the inner secondaries still unmoulted. These old secondaries project well beyond the trailing edge outline of the rest of the wing. I don't know why this is - is it just that they look long compared to the still-growing newer feathers, or are they pushed out as new feathers emerge? In either case, these 'longer' secondaries perhaps exaggerate the apparent breadth of the wing.

3. The heavy-bodied appearance. Perhaps this bird is extraordinarily fat! Not a frivolous remark - birds are feeding up to facilitate further migration, and food is in plentiful supply here. You can see the difference in waders between freshly arrived migrants and well-fed birds - so why not in skuas too?

To me, neither the head nor the bill look heavy enough for Pom, though I can only say that with the benefit of the photos! If I'm honest, had I not snapped clear pictures of the tail, I'd be happily putting this down as a Pomarine Skua, which goes to show I should be more careful!

Compared to previous years, three Parasitic Jaegers is an exceptional day-count, and especially this early in the migration season. Most sightings are from late May into June.

A classic pale-backed adult breeding plumaged Long-tailed. The lower 3 pics were taken almost 3 hours after the first 6, but I couldn't discern any differences in plumage, so I counted them as referring to one  bird. The apparent difference in upper wing covert colour is almost certainly a product of the different lighting conditions.

The barred underwing coverts suggest that this might be a 3rd summer bird.

An intermediate morph breeding adult. 

Another breeding adult. I think the smudging on the underparts might be the vestiges of non-breeding plumage.

This seems to be an adult in non-breeding plumage

I think this is a 2nd summer bird. The white vent is an unusual feature for Long-tailed. On the other hand, a breastband seems to be quite a common feature of subadult Long-tailed - more so than I had realized.

There was almost a 4 hour gap between the first four and the last five photos, but I think they are all of the same bird, which I think (!) is a first summer. Better views would have been appreciated!

Finally, a bird which came reasonably close - an adult moulting into breeding plumage.

Finally, a bird I just can't pin down! I thought at the time it was a Pomarine, but some of the photos, especially in row 3, make me feel that it was another Long-tailed. The rounded central tail feathers reveal that it can't have been an Arctic. All in all, I can't be sure, given the distance and quality of the photos. Learning from the experience of the 1st w Arctic earlier, it seems wisest to put this in the unidentified column!

So, at least 12 skuas/jaegers in all, with 3 Arctic/Parasitic and 8 Long-tailed. An instructive bunch!

Throughout my 'dissection' of the birds in this post, I've found an online article A Review of Moult and Ageing in Jaegers by Steve Howell extremely helpful ... and challenging!

New Template Chaos

Tsk tsk! Trust me to want to tinker with things! I just decided to change the appearance of my blog by updating the template. Now the text and photo arrangements have gone haywire and there appears to be no way to undo the mess.

So - if you use Blogger and Google suggests you might want to modernize your blog, don't be tempted!

Friday, April 20, 2012

9 and 17 April 2012: Teluk Air Tawar, mainland Penang

I made a couple of trips to the mainland this past week to try to catch up with the Brown-headed Gull flock before they leave. The first visit was in the afternoon - forgot that the sun would be in my eyes, and the tide was too high to boot, so only saw half a dozen birds distantly.

The next trip, the light and tide were perfect, but the birds forgot to show up - perhaps they're already on their way north. Below are some bits and pieces from the two visits.

There were around a hundred Common Redshanks at the mouth of the river - this was one of the few in any semblance of breeding plumage. Most of the breeders are gone by now.

Most birds look like this - very washed out colours. These are immature birds that won't be breeding this year. Check out the leg colour!

Great Egret at full stretch!

I'm taking more of an interest in these since Chris Kehoe pointed out a possible 'alba' Great Egret in Wong Tsu Shi's blog here (the gigantic one!). This is potentially a new taxon for Malaysia. In Birds of East Asia, Mark Brazil notes that alba is perhaps specifically distinct from modesta (which is the one we get here in large numbers) and is an increasingly observed winterer in Japan and Korea, while modesta winters further south. Alba is larger than modesta and, in the non-breeding season, has pale or bright yellow tarsi and toes, as opposed to the all black legs and feet of modesta. So a bigger-than-usual Great Egret in these parts should be scrutinised, and if possible, photographed alongside others.

A Little Egret sporting groovy pink lores! This is a breeding condition feature, interesting, given that the bird lacked head plumes.

And an Intermediate Egret with breeding-coloured black bill. This species is Malaysia's most recently discovered breeding species. Take a look at Amar's fantastic series of photos documenting this extraordinary find on OBI (here and following).

This is the best time of year to tick off the pond-herons, and the Teluk Air Tawar area is one of the best places to do so in Malaysia. Top to bottom - Chinese, Javan and Indian Pond-herons.

The latter was only recorded for the first time in the country in 1999, but now it's a regular, and has appeared in west coast states as far south as Selangor. Something is definitely afoot with these herons!
This lone Red-wattled Lapwing is probably a sick bird, as they rarely occur singly, and it's largely lacking the  vibrant colours, including the beautiful purple and green iridescence on the scapulars and coverts, of a healthy bird.

I think this is a male 'confusus' Brown Shrike. 'Confusus'  is apparently an intergrade between cristatus and lucionensis. Anyway, it's a good description of my state of mind after reading Tim Worfolk's 2006 paper! I recently came across this extraordinary record of Brown and Tiger Shrike hybridizing in Korea (scroll about half way down). No wonder they confuse us!

Talking of confusing polytypic taxa, here's a stunning male Eastern Yellow Wagtail - tschutschensis. It positively glowed in the low evening sunlight, and made my otherwise abortive afternoon visit worthwhile.

It's interesting to see that there are old unmoulted marginal coverts on the leading edge of the wing, and that only the inner 'half' of the greater coverts are fresh feathers. However, I'm not sure what this means, and am hoping that someone can enlighten me!

Where the wagtail was - sunlight under thunder clouds over paddyfields - a visual treat!

Sunday, April 08, 2012

31 March - 1 April: Gunung Telapa Buruk, Negeri Sembilan

I took a 'slight' detour on my trip back from KL to Penang to visit Rafi at his dream-home near Gunung Telapa Buruk. Though I didn't really need an excuse to pay him a visit, the offer was 'sweetened' by the frequent presence of a Grey-and-Buff Woodpecker in his garden, which is my No 1 'Bogey Bird' in Malaysia, as well as regular sightings of Eyebrowed Wren-babblers at nearby Telapa Buruk.

To cut a long story short, I didn't see either of them, but we did enjoy some very pleasant 'armchair birding' from his verandah!

Not close, but then how many of us can boast any kind of views of Wreathed Hornbill from our back garden?!

Brown Shrike - a commoner garden visitor, but not to be sniffed at, especially when acquiring really smart breeding plumage.

While staking out the top of his woodpecker tree, I was amazed to see this flowerpecker land at eye-level. I'd only ever seen one Thick-billed Flowerpecker before, and that certainly wasn't at eye-level, so I was initially a bit puzzled by this bird.

For one thing, the bill didn't seem that thick, certainly not compared to the illustration in Robson. It also seemed deformed, as if the upper mandible had overgrown the lower. Later digging around revealed that the race 'remotum' that occurs in Peninsular Malaysia has a bill "no thicker than Yellow-vented, Yellow-throated [sic] and Crimson-breasted Flowerpeckers" (Wells 2007). Furthermore, by looking at photos in OBI, I realized that the bill is always this rather unique shape, with the lower mandible fitting inside the upper. This must be an adaptation to facilitate piercing of fruits. Con Foley's recent amazing photos of Brown-backed Flowerpecker show that Brown-backed shares this bill characteristic.

The streaks on this bird were rather less-well demarcated than those apparent on photos of nominate and 'modestum' races, and that olive wing patch really does stand out! Unfortunately, this was a fleeting view, as the bird was chased out of the tree by a Yellow-vented Flowerpecker! Still, it was a new 'garden tick' for Rafi!

This pic of an obliging Silver-breasted Broadbill was my only fruit from our early morning trip up Gunung Telapa Buruk. The place seems pretty 'birdy', but both Eyebrowed and Marbled Wren-babblers remained resolutely silent and invisible!

26 - 30 March 2012: Sungai Johor

This was a working visit to the southernmost state of Peninsular Malaysia, but I was very much hoping to be able to pick up a couple of Pen Mal ticks along the way - Cinnamon-headed Green Pigeon and Great-billed Heron.

My work required a couple of days doing boat surveys of the Sungai Johor and its tributaries - still in the main remarkably intact and good quality mangrove forest.

Plenty of Mangrove Pittas here!

We disturbed two Ospreys as they rested on kelong poles. This one shows not much of a necklace so is likely a male.

The dark neck markings on this bird suggest a female.

White-bellied Sea-eagles were numerous, and moderately approachable by boat.

We came across a small group of roosting Great Crested Terns, with a single Lesser (left) among them.

Apart from the obvious size difference and in the proportions and colour of the bill, it was interesting to notice that the Lesser appeared to have longer legs. However, at least in this light, the supposed difference in tone of grey of the upperparts was difficult to discern.

A first-year Greater.

The same Lesser, showing a marked difference in leg length and thickness.


There was no shortage of Grey Herons!

And finally, we found the big one - a juvenile Great-billed Heron - a Peninsular Malaysia lifer!

No green pigeons except the familiar Pink-necked this trip, but I was happy to have got this rather restricted-range heron (in West Malaysia) in the bag; the pigeons can wait!

Surprise of the trip was this Calotes versicolor - Garden Fence Lizard. Usually a rather drab and unassuming brown colour, this guy was definitely pumped up about something - probably another male which I couldn't see. Very impressive!