I was up way before my alarm went off. Perhaps the excitement of the trip ahead kept me awake. I am not off to some exotic far away location. In fact, it is just to the mudflats of Bagan Belat – one of my local patches in mainland Penang. That is the beauty of birding. Even nearby locations can be just as exciting at times especially when there is a possibility of a mega lifer. The tide was ideal for a visit in the late morning and so, I went to the nearby locality of Air Hitam Dalam to kill time. I arrived at the swamp forest just in time to witness the graceful Great-eared Nightjars hunt one last time before the arrival of dawn. The buoyancy of their flight and their immense size captivated me throughout the encounter. There was no point attempting to capture the hunt in this light and the best I could manage was this landscape shot of the breaking of dawn. After the nightjars left, that is.
It was not a slow morning at the swamp forest. Most of the regular species were present but my heart was not really here today. I longed for the aroma of exposed mud and the salty sea breeze on my face. But most of all, I just could not stop thinking about Malaysia’s first Slender-billed Gull which was recorded at the mudflats a few weeks ago. I dipped out on the gull on New Year Day and the wound is still fresh. It was a beautiful day at the mudflats. The sun was shining brightly and the sky was just so blue. Thousands of waders were foraging everywhere in this extensive mudflat but they were not my objectives today. Today, I am after gulls and I will have to try very hard not get distracted.
The mixed flock of gulls were roosting very far off shore as the tide was still low. My enthusiasm got me here a little earlier than planned. Somewhere among them were two Slender-billed Gulls. Due to the distance, there was no way I could positively identify my would-be lifers. The differences between the three species of gulls found here are very subtle as I found that out the hard way later in the day. The majority of the 250 or so gulls are Brown-headed Gulls. So far, four Black-headed Gulls have been recorded and as well as two Slender-billed Gulls. Last season, we had two gull species here which were the Brown-headed and Black-headed Gull. Now, gulls are rare in Malaysia. Having two species at the same locality was a blessing. Having three is a miracle – thus all the excitement. Anyway, the pace of the rising tide is beyond any mere mortal’s control and I patiently waited for nature to take its course.
It was a long wait and perhaps, one of the longest hours of my life. A few of the waders present did their part to help me pass the time. The most impressive of them all was this lone Eurasian Curlew that came surprisingly close to where I have positioned myself.
As the tide gradually rise, it pushed the gulls closer to the shore line where I was waiting anxiously. I did my best to scrutinize each and every bird present but from what I could tell, there were no Slender-billed Gulls present.
I did see at least one Black-headed Gull (the gull on the left of the photo) but I did not spend too much time following its movement. This species is rare to our waters but there were bigger fish to catch today.
The closest I got the gulls was when they settled down near the river mouth. It was much easier to identify them due to the close proximity. But still no Slender-billed Gull. It was truly disheartening. I did send a few images of “possible” Slender-billed Gulls (the wonders of modern technology) taken from the flock to my birding buddies who have all seen the gull before and their replies was more or less expected. The Slender-billed Gull remains elusive to me.
I was so focus on getting my lifer that I did not spend time to enjoy the fine performance by the commoner Brown-headed Gulls. Some of them did come very close but I only took a few shots. Here are a few juveniles that can a little deceptive at times in hiding their true identity.
But there is no mistaking an adult Brown-headed Gull - even when it is in non-breeding plumage like this. By the way, the smaller gull on the left is the much rarer Black-headed Gull which I did not realise was one at that moment. My obsession with locating the Slender-bill Gull even made me overlook this rare migrant. It was only when I was back home that I took notice of the dark iris and that is a real shame because I could do with a few more good images of it. I guess I deserved that much for ignoring this species earlier on in the morning.
When the tide finally peaked, the gulls moved away from the river mouth and rested on some exposed mudflat further down the coast. I solemnly walked towards the gulls and made myself comfortable on the nearest patch of dry land to the roosting flock. Just as I was about to give in, I spotted a rather pale-headed individual and I started to feel alive again. But I had to be cautious. After hours of frantic searching under the scorching sun, there is always a possibility I was hallucinating. Upon further scrutiny and confirmation from my birding buddies (modern technology at work again), I finally found what I was looking for.
It was a distant shot, the lighting was harsh and the heatwave very apparent but I got my first lifer of the year and it was also a new record for Malaysia. The quality of the photographs will not deny me of a jubilant moment. It was a moment that almost did not happen. And that made this whole encounter even so memorable.
Just to prove I was not seeing double, here is a photo with the two celebrity gulls in a single frame. The irony of it all was I took this shot before I positively identified the gulls. It was a random shot of the flock taken out of desperation. In fact I took many random shots with the intention of going through them on the big screen back home (which was how I found out about the significance of this photo) in case I did miss out on the gulls in the field. I did not waste the shutter count of my camera after all.
As my pulse gradually came back to normal; heat, hunger and thirst started to kick in out of nowhere. There were still thousands of waders out on the mudflats waiting to be scrutinized but the search for the gulls has really taken its toll on me. I took a few shots of this spectacle of nature before calling it a day.
When the roosting waders took flight, they literally block out the sun. This is probably the highest concentration of waders at this locality since the good old days back in early 2000s. And since I am not really trying to identify the waders, I reckon there will be a few Spoonies, Pecs and Sharpies around. Rarities can sense this sort of things and will instantly keep well out of sight when you are trying your best to locate them. That is the law of things.
As I trekked through the swamp to try and get close to a few foraging Asian Dowitchers and Nordmann’s Greenshank (and you guessed it – I failed in the end), I flushed at least two roosting Large-tailed Nightjars. There is just something about the way a nightjar flies. It is more like floating through the air and with such grace. I started off the day with nightjars and it seemed really fitting that I could end with nightjars as well.