It has been about a year since my last pelagic trip. Thus, it was too good of a chance to pass when Hor Kee invited me to join him and Dave for a day of birding out at sea. It was not smooth sailing all the way as the fishing boat left the dock later than usual because of poor weather. Here in Kedah’s Tanjung Dawai Fishing Village, our pelagic birding is not from chartered boats. It is done from this particular fishing boat. We follow the fishermen out at dawn and come back only when they are done at dusk. And it is all thanks to Choo Eng who knows the owner of the boat.
As soon as we got into the fishing zones, the weather improved and like clockwork, the birds will appear once the boats cast their nets. All those trapped and discarded fish are natural magnets to the birds and they will come in from every corner of the sea. During the migratory season, terns numbering to the thousands are drawn to these fishing activities. As it is mid-June now, only the resident terns are likely to be around. It is also a little late for southern sea birds like shearwaters on their passage up north as well.
The Bridled Terns are the commonest terns at this time of the year and form the majority present today. They are also the most confiding and at times, flew very close to the boat.
A few of the Bridled Terns were in their smart breeding plumage and a much welcomed difference from the usual mottled plumages of both the juvenile and non-breeding adults. Unfortunately, there was not much good photographic opportunities as they kept their distance most of the time.
A Lesser Crested Tern in breeding plumage was a pleasant find because it should have migrated back to its breeding grounds by now. Whatever the reason, it provided some excitement to our maritime excursion that has started to become somewhat dull.
Sometimes in birding, you do not need many birds to make a trip worthwhile. You just need one. A bird like let's say a Roseate Tern in breeding plumage. This scarce off-shore tern is my second lifer this week and it made waking up at 4 in the morning to brave a pre-dawn shower, endure the tormenting conditions of the open sea and tolerate the scorching temperature of the midday sun the second great decision I have made this week.
The Roseate Tern has a tantalising pink hue on its underparts that is only prominent in good light. Together with its slender appearance and graceful maneuverability, it is truly a feast for the eyes.
Naturally, it had our undivided attention. It stayed in the vicinity for at least a few hours and provided a memorable performance to the three of us. Capturing the Roseate Tern in action was no easy task due to the shooting conditions from the boat. But there was no way I was going to give up without giving it my all first. The Almighty must be looking down on me today because I found that I managed to capture more good shots than I had anticipated.
After going through his images back home, Dave told us that there were at least two Roseate Terns present and not one as we had earlier suspected. The man's eye for the finer details is unbelievable. I certainly did not notice it. Perhaps the aftermath of all the emotions from laying eyes on my very first Roseate Tern clouded my vision. A very slight difference in the wing and tail feathers' stage of moult and bill colour were the only differences between the two birds. After scrutinizing my images, I found only a single image of the second bird with its left outer primary being the most noticeable difference.
It is much easier to identify Roseate Terns when they are in breeding plumage. The minussensis race of the Common Tern with the red legs is quite similar to the former and the root cause of misidentification between the two species.
With my newly acquired field experience, I found that I could differentiate the Common from the Roseate Tern (when seen together) even without the aid of my bins. The latter is a much more elegant and slender tern. And the former is simply more of a brute. A small number of Common Terns were recorded today and are most probably over-summering birds.
In fact, the Roseate Tern has almost the same jizz as the Black-naped Tern. However, the latter is a much paler tern. It is almost wholly white and still is the closest thing I will ever get in seeing an angel.
Our fishermen friends were also kept happy by the good haul today. Although the amount of anchovies (their main target fish) caught was significantly low, they did quite well with other small fish species.
We got back to dry land with a couple of daylight hours left. Dave still needed a Mangrove Pitta for his Big Year and the Merbok mangroves along the coastline here is one of the most extensive and unexplored mangroves in Peninsular Malaysia. He also happens to know of a spot where you can drive right to the edge of the mangroves and wants to try his luck there. It was just next to a Malay village and upon arrival, instantly reminded me of my beloved Air Hiram Dalam back in Penang. I intentionally left all my gear in the car as we stepped towards the mangroves. Years of birding has taught me that long shots and anything short of a miracle will only take place when you are least prepared or equipped. True enough, we were greeted by no less than three Mangrove Pittas! It may sound odd but this is the first time I have ever seen a Mangrove Pitta in the mangroves. Just in case you are wondering, I ran back to the car and grabbed my gear soon after we heard the calls.
Eventually, one of the pittas came quite close and alighted on a Rambutan tree. The only reason I know it is a Rambutan tree because it had unripe fruits on it. Otherwise, it will be just another "tree" next to the mangroves.
We started off the day with an unexpected sighting of three Wreathed Hornbills flying low above the coastal trees where our fishing boat was docked. And Mother Nature felt it was only right that we end this outstanding trip with another hornbill. This male Oriental Pied Hornbill was foraging on a dead coconut stump as we made our way out of the mangroves.
With the light disappearing at such a rapid pace, I tried my best to capture a few images. Lucky for me, one of them came out relatively good. Although Oriental Pied Hornbills are the commonest hornbill in Peninsular Malaysia, I have not had as many encounters with them as I would love to. One of the reasons is the fact that they are absent from my home state of Penang and that is a real shame.