Tuesday 27 January 2015

Giving back...(24/01/2015)

The Asian Waterbird Census (AWC) is an annual event coordinated by Wetlands International. Each year in January, volunteers from across Asia and Australasia will conduct the AWC in their respective countries. I am no scientist but I derive endless fascination from birds. That is why whenever I can, I do my part and help out in some conservation work. The AWC and My Garden Birdwatch (MYGB) are just some of the citizen scientist projects that I commit myself to. For the AWC this year, we did counts at two sites. Together with Dave and Hor Kee, we started off the first count at the sandy shores of Kuala Muda in mainland Penang.

Once we got ourselves comfortable, it was down to business. Here, on the exposed sandbars, a high concentration of terns rest in between feedings and tides. Egrets and a small number of waders will also use these resting stations. The count was conducted from the shore and it was a fair distance from the birds. There is no point to risk spooking the birds when doing a count. Stationery birds are much easier to count than flying ones - believe me. By mid morning, we concluded the count here. It was a good session as there were about 3,000 terns present consisting mostly of Common Terns and as well as a few Brown-headed Gulls.

The resident dark-morphed Pacific Reef Egret provided the photographic highlight for me after the count. This coastal species is the rarest egret after the globally endangered Chinese Egret in Peninsula Malaysia. The coastline here is one of the few spots in Penang where it is regularly encountered.

The elevated rocky outcrops next to the coastline where the egret had landed to forage provided the ideal cover for me to sneak up on my subject and successfully obtained my best images of this species to date. Being the only the egret in Malaysia with two colour morphs makes it unique and it is a species that I have always wanted to obtain good images. Looks like I got my wish today...

We had a few hours to kill before the next session of our AWC. The nearby paddy field was a very inviting option to pass the time. Upon our arrival, a flock of about 60 Asian Openbills were seen riding the thermals further confirming the fact that these enigmatic storks are still present in my home state. The paddy fields had quite a number of egrets about. Here is an image depicting the differences between the Great Egret and the Intermediate Egret.

I had a frustrating time trying to obtain decent shots of the Red-throated Pipit during my last birding trip that is at the grasslands of Chuping in Perlis. We came across a handful of these uncommon migrants again today but unfortunately, they are not any better than their northern comrades. I will get you guys one day...

Our second AWC session was by boat as we counted roosting waders along the Bagan Belat Important Bird Area (IBA) coastline which was not too far from the first count site. We were joined by Choo Eng and a few others including representatives from the local council. It is part of the Malaysian Nature Society's effort to get this site protected and turned it into some kind of an ecological reserve for tourists and future generations to enjoy - with the help of the local council.

Our 'guests' were in for a treat as we came across a few high tide roosts that had thousands of waterbirds. As we were doing the count on a boat, good images of individual species were difficult to obtain due to the distance and the constant rocking of the boat.

No matter what the distance, the Eurasian Curlew is almost impossible to miss because it is one of the largest waders in Malaysia and with a bill that is almost as long as its body.

A flock of Bar-tailed Godwits was looking very comfortable roosting at the water's edge. This is another species that spots an impressive looking bill.

Flocks of Common Redshanks are another species that were easy to pick out because of their vocal nature and distinct colouration.

This distant shot is of a flock of Common Greenshanks and Marsh Sandpipers. There were no Nordmann's Greenshanks here as initially thought (Thanks, Dave for the correction).

The Asian Dowitcher is another scarce winter migrant to Malaysia and deserves just as much attention.

Larger waterbirds were easier subjects for our guests to observe and appreciate. The resident Grey Herons were certainly one of them.

The Great Egrets also did their part to help keep the boat trip interesting...

We, on the other hand, required no such motivation to earn our undivided attention. The presence of 10,000 waders was more than what we could ever ask for. This was certainly a much better session of our AWC - as expected. Another exciting discovery was the 300 Brown-headed Gulls resting at one of the high tide roosts. This is probably the highest concentration of gulls in Malaysia.

A few of the gulls were quite near to our boat and they provided some great photographic opportunities.

This is a juvenile as it lacks the characteristic wing 'mirrors' of the adult bird.

Some were also swimming in the vicinity like this juvenile that has just caught quite a sizable meal. Beginner's luck, perhaps?

And if that was not enough, there were at least three of the much rarer Black-headed Gulls present as well. This adult bird was flying not too far from our boat and provided the only image I could obtain of them.

Initially, only the commoner terns were counted like this Common Tern...

That was until our boat passed some mussel farms out at sea. Consisting of cement poles jutting out from the water, they provided the perfect perches for the sea-loving terns to rest on.

The majority of the terns recorded here were the Great Crested Terns - much to our delight.

Beautiful and majestic even in non-breeding plumage, this uncommon species provided the photographic highlights for the afternoon session.

The poles were quite crowded as there were about 55 Great Crested Terns present in the vicinity. Squabbles for space were inevitable…

Among the Great Crested Terns, there was a lone Lesser Crested Tern which is the rarer of the two species. It was almost too good to be true as I have had very little photographic opportunities with both species in the past. And now, here they are together at the same spot and so obliging. Truly a magical moment…

The Common Terns that were also making full use of the poles and are dwarfed by the larger Crested Terns. The former are outnumbered here because they prefer roosting on the sandbanks of Kuala Muda where we conducted the first session of the count.

A lone Whiskered Terns was present as well and I took a few shots of this widespread marsh tern just as we were about to head back to the jetty. This year's AWC was probably the most memorable and rewarding one that I have ever had. It just goes to show that it does pay to give back to Mother Nature once in a while.

Thursday 22 January 2015

Northern windfall (17/01/2015)

There were three target birds for this trip to Chuping in Perlis - the Brahminy Starling, Richard's Pipit and Oriental Skylark. The two hour drive was a breeze due to the prospect of twitching (there, I've said it) three possible lifers. So, it was three Penang birders, Choo Eng, Muin and yours truly against three birds that were not even in the Malaysian checklist a couple of years back. It was certainly a beautiful morning with a sea of grass contrasting against the sunny blue northern sky.

Just as we were about to hit the dusty network of access trails, an Oriental Honey Buzzard doing its best impression of a Common Buzzard diverted us into side path that cuts through a rubber plantation and scrub. As we left kicking ourselves for letting this species getting the better of us again, Choo Eng spotted a reed warbler resting out in the open. Once the warbler realized our intentions, it quickly moved into hiding. I took a few record shots because anything with feathers in Chuping is a potential rarity. The warbler vanished into the vegetation shortly after but when I looked through the images, it turned out to be a Thick-billed Warbler. A species that I have only seen once before in my life and it was from this locality as well. The trip was off to a flying start!

There were quite a number of Long-tailed Shrikes present today. However, this species is naturally shy and good shots are difficult to obtain. I had to settle for this slightly unkempt individual because it was the only one that was slightly more confiding than the rest.

A couple of weeks back, Dave recorded a Brahminy Starling here in Chuping and last week, he managed to obtain a few tantalizing images of this vagrant and from his description of the bird's habits, it seemed to have a thing for the pylon labelled 54/72. When we reached the location of this pylon, we spilt up to look for the starling on foot. Muin saw it first and upon receiving his alert, we rushed to his position only to find the celebrity bird gone. We failed to relocate it despite a careful sweep of the area. I thought to myself then that it was going to be a very long day. When I gradually regain my composure, I remembered the pylon and started to scan these behemoth steel structures one by one. And there it was on pylon 54/72 - just as Dave promised!

We stalked out at the pylon on a few occasions and the starling did return to its favorite perch. Unfortunately, it was rather wary of our presence and we only managed distant shots. But it was still an exciting lifer and a stunning one as well. Welcome to Malaysia, bud...

With lifer #1 in the bag, we set our sights on our next target, the Oriental Skylark - a first record for Malaysia last season. As we moved in on the coordinates given by Dave (yes, he recorded it again last week), we came across a field being plough by a tractor. All of a sudden, a smallish quail ran across the field just next to the access trail.  To make a long story short, three full grown men were made to play cat and mouse with a bird the size of a tennis ball - much to the amusement of the workers present. Our persistence prevailed and it was a female Blue-breasted Quail, a lifer for my companions. This was my best effort at the end of the chase.

The field where Dave saw the skylark had plenty of Red-throated Pipits when he was there. Well, the pipits were certainly around but there were no signs of any skylark. Reluctantly, we turned our attention to the pipits. Red-throated Pipits are rare migrants to most parts of Peninsula Malaysia. Here in Chuping, it is quite regular and occurs in unbelievably high numbers. We counted no less than 50 birds but not even one was gracious enough to provide a decent photographic opportunity. They are surprisingly well camouflaged and by the time you get close enough or spot one, it will fly just far enough to deny you a good shot.

When we had enough of these pipits showing off their defense mechanisms against lumbering birders, we moved on to our third and final target. The Richard'sPipit is a split from the ever-abundant Paddyfield Pipit a few years ago. Apparently, the former is a rare migrant to Malaysia and the call and flight pattern are the best distinguishing features between the two species. When we finally at 'the' field (yes, Dave again), we walked into the long grass and almost immediate a Richard's Pipit shot straight up into the sky while uttering its call and flew away horizontally for miles before disappearing back into the long grass. Unfortunately, we did not manage to capture a single shot but it was lifer #2 for me nevertheless. All my experiences with Pipits have taught me a sure way to identify the Oriental Pipit from the rest. If it poses for you to shoot from every possible angle without even a flinch, it is an Oriental Pipit.

The male Siberian Stonechats are coming into breeding plumage and they look devilishly handsome when they flit about the grassland. The northern winds will find their way here to Peninsula Malaysia at this time of the year and for small birds, the unobstructed landscape can be a taxing place to live. This stonechat was having a tough time finding his balance in the onslaught of the strong winds. And we were finding it hard to obtain photos without blurred motion.

But for the raptors, they were in their element. Their long wings enable them to take full advantage of the wind's energy. Harriers being the most graceful raptor around were a sheer delight to observe. This female Pied Harrier and her larger relative, the Eastern Marsh Harrier, put on quite an aerial performance to solve a territorial dispute.

A Eurasian Kestrel feeding on a lizard prey deserves attention no matter how far it is perched or how high, on this occasion.

I never had much luck with photographing Ospreys. These migratory raptors are usually shy and they are not so common to begin with in the first place. However, this lone bird that flew relatively low provided my best images of this graceful raptor to date.

From the grasslands, we then turned our attention to the small pockets of secondary forest along the fringes in search of the elusive Racket-tailed Treepie - another northern speciality. But the closest we came to a Treepie were the Black Drongos. This open country drongo finds shade from the midday sun along the tree lines and at times, quite a number can be found on a single tree.

Without much luck at the forest pockets, we drove to the ponds at the northern end and were greeted by a flock of Cotton Pygmy Geese. The only other resident duck in Peninsula Malaysia, it is more uncommon than the Lesser Whistling-ducks and a lot better looking.

Unfortunately, they were as shy as they are adorable and any attempts to reduce the distance between us and the ducks ended with the latter flying further and further away.

A lone Pheasant-tailed Jacana paddling along the far side of the pond is a new record for Chuping. It is not unexpected to record this uncommon migrant here as the habitat is ideal and there are records from the nearby Timah-Tasoh Lake.

We patiently waited for this migratory jacana to come closer but it never did. So, I ended shooting more obliging subject like these resident Little Grebes. The population of Little Grebes and Eurasian Moorhens at these ponds are doing well indeed and I cannot think of any other place I have been in Peninsula Malaysia that has such a high concentration of these waterfowls.

To wrap things up for another outstanding trip here, we came across an Indian Roller that had just caught a gigantic grasshopper. The lighting condition was just right for me to capture fast action shots and with much clarity for once. Chuping again prove itself to be 'the' place for rarities and vagrants. Two lifers in a single trip is very much a rarity for me now and I was not too disappointed about dipping out on the skylark. A couple of months left before the end of the migratory season and then it will be a very anxious wait to see how much of this unique habitat will lose its place to the encroaching rubber plantations. And will Chuping still remain a sanctuary for unexpected winter visitors. That is something only time can tell.