Wednesday 11 January 2023

In search of a rare gull


The Important Bird Area of the Teluk Air Tawar – Bagan Belat coastline injected a dose of exhilaration into the local Penang birding community by playing host to a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull. It is undoubtedly a rare migrant to our shores and four enthusiastic birders including yours truly decided to try their luck for this would-be lifer. Birding at this locality is now mostly a maritime affair due to current landscape and restricted accessibility to roosting spots. And the local fishermen now have an additional source of income by ferrying birders around.

A beautiful sunrise, surprisingly, was the first thing to have my attention as we left the jetty. I guess age is making me more susceptible to other wonders of nature apart from birds.

Naturally, anything that remotely resembled a gull was given due attention and a flock of Brown-headed Gulls loitering along the edge of the tide got the ball rolling for this twitching endeavour.

The concrete poles of cockle farms in the vicinity are prized commodities among the gulls and other seabirds. And we decided to scrutinize these manmade perches for our target.

One of our companions caught sight of an odd one among the Brown-headed Gulls but we could not relocate it despite all the effort taken. However, we could still take comfort in observing the commoner Brown-headed Gulls in close proximity with the diffused lighting of the overcast sky as an added bonus.

The most conspicuous species in these congregations is usually the Great Crested Tern and it is no different today. If I should be so bold to add these cockle farms do provide the best photographic and observatory opportunities for this impressive member of the tern family.

Overshadowed by the immense presence of the Great Crested Terns, our attention span on this a lone Common Tern was inevitably brief. And a record shot of this common but elegant winter visitor in order to include it in this post was the least I could do.

There are an assortment of manmade poles sticking out of the water throughout the area and I guess they all should serve a purpose. And for this Whiskered Tern, it was the perfect vantage point to take a breather and watch the world go by.

Then came another non-birding moment during our twitch for the Lesser Black-backed Gull. I was drawn to the view of my island home surrounded by thick clouds from above. It is confirmed. I am diversifying.

The water was rather choppy today and my sea legs were put to the test. Constantly peering through my binoculars and camera did not help the situation. But birders on a twitching mission do not have time to be seasick especially when dipping out is almost a certainty. We resorted to scanning the vast mudflats but the tide is not exactly ideal. The low tide stacked the odds against us and roosting terns like this Whiskered Tern were the closest we got our target bird here.

The waders are back in good numbers again this season but unfortunately, they were spread out too far and too wide on the exposed mud. A few Curlew Sandpipers did wander relatively close to our boat as we entered a river mouth.

It is always a delight to see the adorable Red-necked Stint and this individual was too preoccupied with feeding than to take much notice of our presence. Hopefully, it is taking notice of other dangers present in the vicinity.

A juvenile Brahminy Kite patrolled the shore line for breakfast. This common raptor is predominantly a scavenger but if the opportunity presents itself, an unwary stint would make a good snack.

As expected, a number of Pond-Herons were also foraging along this muddy coastline. At this time of the year, the majority of them will still be sporting their dull non-breeding plumages.

The gleaming white plumages of the Great and Little Egrets make it hard to overlook these graceful water birds. A small flock hunting along the edge of the water convinced me to take a few shots before I carried on with the search for a rare gull.

One species that truly towers over the rest is the Lesser Adjutant. I am always grateful that this stork can still survive in my home state because it is one of my favourite water birds. This individual was rather suspicious of our approach and quickly made its way to a safer distance.

As we made our way back to the jetty, a Grey Heron on lofty perch greeted our return and provided the last encounter for the trip. Disappointment from dipping out on the Lesser Black-backed Gull was inevitable but that is all part of birding and we live to twitch another day.