I finally had the opportunity to join Choo Eng's for one of his pelagic trips off the coast of Tanjung Dawai in Kedah. Together with Muin and another friend of Choo Eng, we arrived at the pier before dawn. When the tide was finally right for the boat to leave to pier, the sun had just rose above the distant horizon. As we slowly headed into the big blue yonder, I was rather excited as this is my first pelagic birding experience.
The boat that is taking us out is a fishing vessel that catches anchovies. It is quite a big and sturdy boat but space was a real constraint. We spend most of time on the top board and just below the captain's cabin. We didn't want to get in the way of the crew when they start working. The view was quite stunning with the deep blue sea and the sky was clear as well - with very little clouds.
The crew are made up of about a dozen friendly chaps and after the trip, I could feel the hardship of their of work. We were there from dawn to dusk and beyond to satisfy our birding needs but these fellows do this for a living. They serve as a good reminder of how lucky most of us are with our own line of work and way of life.
Anyway, this crew is no ordinary crew. They are quite knowledgeable about sea birds by now - courtesy of Choo Eng and Dave frequent trips with them. The guys even gave the crew a visual reference to help them identify the birds.
A large bird flying low above the sea really got our adrenalin pumping. However when it got closer, the bird turned out to be a raptor. The adrenalin must have gotten the better of me as I mistook this juvenile White-bellied Sea-eagle for a juvenile Osprey - initially that is. Once the adrenalin wore off and logic reclaimed back its rightful place, this magnificent raptor had already flew quite low over the boat and when on its way.
The crew will really get busy whenever the Captain locates a huge shoal with the help of the on-board sonar. Once the nets are cast, it is time to work.
The same goes for the terns that follow these fishing vessels. Through time, the terns have associated the fishing vessels to food. Not only is the food source abundant but easy as well since the nets will drive the shoals near the surface. Whenever the nets are cast, the terns will swoop in and congregate in quite huge numbers.
It also time for the on-board birders to get to work as well. The shooting conditions on the boat is quite difficult due to the constant rocking of the boat, the wind factor, the harsh lighting and the agility of the birds. I really struggled with my gear and most of the images I took were not satisfactory in the end. The Common Terns, as their name implies, provided the most opportunities for me to photograph.
Although shooting against the sky was much easier, I prefer the shots where the deep blue sea provided the perfect backdrop...
Beside the Common Terns, quite a huge number of White-winged Terns were seen on this trip as well. Identification of terns is a real mind-buster at times because all they look quite alike. I needed to clarify that just in case I make any mistakes on any of the species in this posting.
I even managed to capture this shot that shows the similarities as well as the differences of the 2 species quite clearly...
Little Terns are quite common here as well but their numbers are no where near the larger Common and White-winged Terns.
Black-naped Terns are one of the most elegant and stunning terns that occur in our waters. However throughout the trip, we only came across them on a couple occassions and I could only manage record shots.
I was rather disappointed when a lone Greater Crested Tern managed to slipped past my camera but when an unfamiliar tern decided to join in one of the feeding frenzies, I was totally elated. I can finally tick off Bridled Tern from my rather stagnant life list. Lifers are hard to come by for me nowadays and the sighting of this juvenile bird alone would have made this whole trip worth while. Although the shots I took were not that clear, a lifer will be a lifer - period.
This trip offers me ample time to reflect on life while drifting into the tranquility of the rolling waves. And at the same time, try my best to locate some rare pelagic species.
In between observing the terns, I did find the time to capture the crew reaping rewards from the sea...
They are primarily after anchovies and anything else is an added bonus like this 3-foot mackerel...
The setting sun was no hindrance for the crew to cast the nets a couple of times before calling it a day. In the end, my maiden pelagic trip turned out to be quite a memorable experience and I'm pretty sure it won't be my last.