Cameron Highlands: 16-17 Feb 2015

Gunung Irau_170215_IMG_2191

News from Hor Kee that he had seen and photographed the endemic form of Grey-headed Woodpecker at Gunung Brinchang, and that he had seen the Eurasian Sparrowhawk wintering near Tanah Rata sent me on my first real twitch of the year.

Last year, when news of the sparrowhawk broke in December, I had decided against making the trip. It’s still incredibly rare (this is the 3rd record I know of in Peninsular Malaysia), and records have always been of a single observer sighting, but this bird was evidently hanging around the same area, making it somewhat tempting. The real prize though, was the woodpecker. Surely an endemic species in its own right, it has been seen rarely at just two sites – Gunung Tahan in Taman Negara (a three day hike in the jungle) and Gunung Brinchang at Cameron Highlands. The last sighting prior to this was in 1999 I believe.

Gunung Brinchang_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3916

Gunung Brinchang, home of Grey-headed Woodpeckers, site of Malaysia’s first Rufous-headed Robin record, and who knows what else!

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Mossy forest gems!

So after a late night drive to Brinchang, I spent the next two mornings at the summit of the mountain seeing…very little!

Yellow-browed Warbler_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3752

Yellow-browed Warblers were vocal and active.

Mountain Warbler_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3769

As were Mountain Warblers, singing away in the early morning mist.

Golden-throated Barbet_Cameron Highlands_170215_IMG_3949 Golden-throated Barbet_Cameron Highlands_170215_IMG_3934

I was glad to get great views of a Golden-throated Barbet feasting on fruits. This barbet isn’t seen at Fraser’s Hill, which is too low.

Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3788

I spent the afternoon hanging around the valley where the sparrowhawk had been seen, and was genuinely puzzled by this bird foraging high in the canopy for a while. I worked it out eventually – it’s the first time I’ve seen Yellow-vented Flowerpecker at 1550m asl!

My plan was to sit at Strawberry Park and hope that the sparrowhawk would fly by on its way to roost. I got chatting to one of the chefs, who invited me to sit on the balcony of the restaurant. So I sat with coffee in hand and waited…!

Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3870

Bingo! At about 5.30pm she came sweeping up the valley and then wheeled around several times to get some height.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3857

Not the best lighting, as I was looking into the sun, but I wasn’t complaining!

Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3868

This was one BIG accipiter! The prominent hooded effect is something I have not noticed on Eurasian Sparrowhawk before. I have seen nisosimillis before, but it’s been a long time! It would be easy to mistake something as big and bulky as this as a Northern Goshawk. However, the obviously square-ended, narrow-based tail and relatively straight trailing edge to the wing identify it as Eurasian.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3896 Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3898

It certainly doesn’t look anything like any of our regular accipiters!

Eurasian Sparrowhawk_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3892

A great bird, and one that made the trip worthwhile, despite the disappointment of failing with the woodie!

Cook's Swift_Cameron Highlands_160215_IMG_3900

There were a few Cook’s Swifts about, with their narrow rump band distinctive even at great distance.

Blue Rock Thrush_KokLok Tong_170215_IMG_3961

On my homeward trip I popped in at Kek Lok Tong temple in Ipoh hoping to tick off the trio of Blue Rock Thrush, Java Sparrow and Blue Whistling-Thrush. The latter eluded me, but the other two were easily seen.


Big Year 2015: February summary

I stepped up a gear this month, with visits to Perak (Kuala Gula, Malim Nawar), Pahang (Cameron Highlands, Fraser’s Hill), Perlis (Chuping, Timah Tasoh, Kurong Tengar), Kedah (Sedim and Kulim) and Penang (Penang Hill), seeing 194 new species for the year, adding up to a total of 339. Over half way to my goal of 600 species with just 2 months gone, but getting the second 300 will be very much harder than the first!

The month started well, with a Rosy Starling on my first trip out at Kuala Gula on the 2nd. Malaysian Honeyguide was the highlight of another great visit to Sungai Sedim on the 9th, and I managed to catch up with Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Little Cormorant  at Chuping on the 14th. Hor Kee’s amazing news of both Grey-headed Woodpecker and Eurasian Sparrowhawk at Cameron Highlands on the same weekend sent me on my first real twitch of the year. Sadly the woodpecker was not seen again, but I was very happy to add Eurasian Sparrowhawk to my Malaysia list (my second Malaysian lifer of the month after the starling) as well as a good selection of upper montane species.

Over the Chinese New Year holidays I made a trip to Malim Nawar in the hope of picking up some good stints, but the high water levels frustrated that goal. A return to Kuala Gula failed to turn up the starling again, but some compensation was gained in the form of Greater Flameback, Laced Woodpecker and  Cinereous Tit.

I made good use of our family reunion at Fraser’s Hill from the 23-26th, seeing a good proportion of the montane species there, including Grey-breasted PartridgeMountain Peacock-pheasantMalayan Whistling-Thrush and all the owls. More frustrating was narrowly missing seeing a Long-billed Partridge which came in close but would not show itself. A Chestnut-winged Cuckoo was a great find on a ‘smash and grab’ raid to the ponds at Bidor FRIM substation to see Purple Swamphen. While at Fraser’s, news broke of a suspected Red-backed Shrike in Perlis, so Mun and I spent the final day of the month heading north again. As well as seeing the shrike, whose provenance  is currently under scrutiny, we scored heavily on some good scarcities, including Little Stint, Chinese Egret, Ruddy Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper and  Short-toed Eagle. Other than the missing the woodpecker at Cameron, I failed to connect with an Asian Emerald Cuckoo at Penang Hill, and missed a Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker at Sedim. A Eurasian Hobby hanging around in Port Dickson was tempting, but too far to seriously think of going for. But if it hangs about into March…!

Chuping, Perlis: 14 Feb 2015

With the long spell of dry weather we’ve been having, I thought it might be worth checking out the fringes of the lakes at Chuping, especially as Mun and others had seen Pheasant-tailed Jacana, Cotton Pygmy-Geese and Little Cormorant there recently.

At first light the Pygmy-Geese were immediately obvious.

Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3654

There were seven of them, six apparent females and a male, which kept apart from the rest of the flock.

Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_2982 Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_2985

A female above and the male below. I’m not sure whether he is in immature or adult eclipse plumage. The bill and eye colour suggest the latter.

Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3653

While the male swam around serenely, the females were a quarrelsome bunch!

Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3658 Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3663 Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3680 Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3667

Squabbles were frequent, which I suppose may be a sign that hormones are a-stirring!

Cotton Pygmy-Goose_Chuping_140215_IMG_3689

Eventually a Common Moorhen arrived to restore a little law and order! Now, now ladies!

Pheasant-tailed Jacana_Chuping_140215_IMG_2974

A little more investigation brought my main target of the day into view – a close but wary Pheasant-tailed Jacana.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana_Chuping_140215_IMG_2967 Pheasant-tailed Jacana_Chuping_140215_IMG_2964 Pheasant-tailed Jacana_Chuping_140215_IMG_2954 Pheasant-tailed Jacana_Chuping_140215_IMG_2943

Unfortunately I was always competing with the thick lakeside vegetation, and getting a clear shot was difficult. Frustratingly, the bird flew across to the other side of the lake just as Mun, delayed by an accident en route, arrived. Later, the bird flew back, and he was able to get a few reasonably close shots. (His account of the trip is here).

Pheasant-tailed Jacana_Chuping_140215_IMG_3631 Pheasant-tailed Jacana_Chuping_140215_IMG_2994

As we were watching the jacana, we heard the distinctive call of a Manchurian Reed Warbler on the opposite side of the track. The wind was making the tops of the reeds sway around rather wildly, which meant that the warbler kept low. We did manage some brief views with the bins, but no photos. This is the fifth separate spot within the Chuping area that I’ve recorded Manchurian Reed Warbler over the last two seasons – so clearly this is a a wintering site for this globally Vulnerable warbler.

Purple Heron_Chuping_140215_IMG_2990

A Little Cormorant put in a fleeting appearance, and there were several Purple Herons around the fringes of the ponds. However, there was nothing else of note, so we moved to the former sugar cane fields.

Wood Sandpiper_Chuping_140215_IMG_3709

At the effluent ponds we flushed a Tringa which called loudly as it turned and flew over us. The quality of the call was loud and ringing, like Green Sandpiper, but the notes were a repeated pi-pi-pi-pi, like a Wood Sandpiper. I caught a glimpse of thick black tail barring, and both of us felt that the upperparts were rather dark. On that basis, and the fact that a Green Sandpiper had been at this very spot last season, I identified it as a Green Sandpiper. However, the call bothered me, being unlike anything I had heard from Green before, yet seeming to be louder and more strident than typical Wood. We checked the other ponds and eventually came across this distant sandpiper. Through the bins it looked like a Wood Sandpiper, so I took a single photo and we concluded that this must be the bird we had flushed earlier.

Only when I examined the photo on the computer I noticed that the tail barring is indeed very prominent (for a Wood) and the head rather plain, lacking a prominent supercilium. The bill shape seems odd for either species, appearing slightly drooped at the tip, and the legs give the impression of being short. Nevetheless, the lack of prominent dark breast band or solid dark upperwing are not right for Green Sandpiper. So I am puzzled by this bird, and wish we had given it more attention. On balance I still think it was a Wood Sandpiper, but an individual that was less clearcut than most. Any other opinions?

Asian Pied Starling_Chuping_140215_IMG_3706

Resident Aisan Pied Starlings were pairing up, but the Brahminy Starling which was the star attraction last month seemed to have moved on.

The lack of rain had turned the fields into a dust bowl, and indeed, it was clear that most birds had deserted the area. Whereas we usually see dozens of Black Drongos and hundreds of Eastern Yellow Wagtails, our counts for each were in single figures. Perhaps as a consequence, raptors were also conspicuously absent, with one Osprey and a couple of Eurasian Kestrels being the only migrants other than the usual Eastern Marsh and Pied Harriers.

Oriental Pipit_Chuping_140215_IMG_3746

In the heat of the day I persuaded Mun to accompany me in bashing through the ‘Richard’s Pipit field’. We did hear one, but all the birds we got our bins onto were the familiar Oriental (formerly Paddyfield) variety. This one had a nice streaky crown and apparently pale lores, but the evenly dark ear coverts indicated that it was nothing unusual, and when it took flight, the short tail and call confirmed this.


The rarest bird of the day! An army Hercules dropping paratroopers.

Parachutes_Chuping_140215_IMG_3726 Parachutes_Chuping_140215_IMG_3730

The birds must have wondered what these strange aliens invading their airspace were. They also attracted quite a crowd of human spectators; the tractors stopped their work in the fields and cars parked along the roadside for a free airshow!

By Chuping’s own very high standards this was a relatively quiet visit, though things might have been very different if we had succeeded in tracking down an extremely furtive brown warbler which we flushed a few times in low scrub early in the day. Still, I was pleased to have seen the trio of pygmy-geese, cormorant and jacana, and to have had very nice views of the latter in particular.

Sungai Sedim, Kedah: 9th Feb 2015

When I last walked the Bintang Trail at Sungai Sedim, in December, it had been very birdy, so I decided to give it another shot. This time it was, if anything, even better, with a total of 84 species recorded (you can see a full list here).

Finsch's Bulbul_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_2925 Finsch's Bulbul_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_2895

A few early birds like Diard’s Trogon, Grey-headed Babbler and Chinese Blue Flycatcher got things rolling nicely, but things took off once the sunlight hit the trees, with one fruiting tree attracting a regular procession of bulbuls, including Finsch’s…

Cream-vented Bulbul_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_2941


Buff-vented Bulbul_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_2957

…and Buff-vented, making it difficult to know where to point the camera at times!

Near the start of the upward climb I saw the distinctive chubby shape of a Malaysian Honeyguide. I lost track of it momentarily, but then heard a low ‘growl’ and saw it chasing another honeyguide through the branches! Having seen off its rival, it consented to pose for a few photos, even though the light wasn’t the best.

Malaysian Honeyguide_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3034 Malaysian Honeyguide_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3023

As the morning heated up, levels of bird activity continued to be good.

Great Iora_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3225

I added more Chinese Blue Flycatchers (at least five) and this Great Iora moved through as part of a mixed flock.

Wallace's Hawk-Eagle_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3250

I glimpsed a raptor landing in a tree through some thick foliage, and was lucky enough to get a shot  as it flew off, enabling me to identify it as a Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle. The very next bird I saw was a Blyth’s Hawk-Eagle, flying overhead calling repeatedly.

Light and shade_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3287 The wondrous corss_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3246

The strong overhead sunlight by this stage made for some striking patterns in the foliage.

Red-throated Barbet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3301


On my descent I came across a close Red-throated Barbet which was obviously too full of fruit to be bothered about flying off. What should have been a golden opportunity for photos was frustrated by the thick foliage and strong overhead lighting, so these are the best I managed. Still, what a bird! It takes a lot to beat a male Red-throated Barbet!

Red-throated Barbet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3313

I was astonished by the length of its rictal bristles, but I guess that’s how barbets got their name!

Red-throated Barbet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3333

You can see how these would be useful in guiding fruit toward the bill.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3080

There were 20 or so swiftlets flying above the forest canopy. From the full, broad-based tail and very grey colouration I identified these as Black-nest Swiftlets. I saw some at this locality last year, as well as some birds I identified as Himalayan Swiftlets, so I spent quite a bit of time photographing these birds.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3151 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3149 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3085

The extent of tail notch was very variable. I surmised that this was a factor affected by moult (in the case of adults) and feather development (in the case of juveniles).

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3340-41

The two photos above are of the same bird, showing how the deepness of the tail notch is also affected by whether the tail is held closed or spread.

Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3378 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3376 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3358 Black-nest Swiftlet_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3394

Later I was able to photograph some juveniles (aged by their evenly fresh plumage, with no moult visible in the wings). Against a darker background, the lack of warm tones in the plumage is evident.

Later on in the afternoon I took some photos of Germain’s (in Kulim) to try to make comparisons.

Germain's and Black-nest2 Germain's and Black-nest1

Lighting conditions were very different, so probably not much can be said about the apparent colour differences in these photos. Structurally, they do seem extremely similar too, though in the field, Black-nest seems to have a relatively larger head and shorter neck, broader tail base and possibly broader wings. All of these are extremely subtle and perhaps subjective differences. I admit the main basis for identifying the Black-nest as such was the fact that they were in forest far from any known ‘swiftlet hotels’, though the very grey plumage tones add support to my identification.

Black-nest and Germain's Swiftlet_090215_IMG_3394 and 3548

Juvenile Black-nest (left) and adult Germain’s (right) showing the warmer brown tones of the latter. I have not yet seen any Black-nest with gloss on fresh feathers, as can be seen on Germain’s.

Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3437 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3495 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3513 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3525

Some Germain’s for comparison – browner, subtly slighter in wing and body and with a smaller-looking head.

Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3547 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3548 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3566 Germain's Swiftlet_Kulim Hi-Tech Park_090215_IMG_3587

Some more shots showing the upperpart tones of Germain’s.

I have to say that, even though I am confident of the identity of these birds, I don’t think I would be able to tackle a mixed species flock! My working assumption is that all swiftlets on the coastal plains in rural agricultural landscapes are the farmed ‘white-nest’ type, aka Germain’s, and that swiftlets in extensive forested landscapes well away from swiftlet farming activities are more likely to be Black-nest, especially if they are greyer and ‘colder’ brown than Germain’s.

Asian Palm Swift_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3362 Asian Palm Swift_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3375

Asian Palm Swifts are very different in shape – really skinny with a big rounded head and long, deeply forked tail.

Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel_Sg Sedim_090215_IMG_3352

And finally – a Cream-coloured Giant Squirrel. According to Mammals of South-east Asia these are darker orange in the north of the Peninsula than in the south, which this one certainly is. I wondered how one would eliminate the possibility of this being a hybrid with Black Giant Squirrel, since it has black feet and black in the tail.



Kuala Gula, 2 Feb 2015: Looking Rosy!

Last year a late January visit to Kuala Gula brought rich dividends in the form of Dusky Warbler, Ruddy-breasted Crake and, best of all, a male Shikra. However, I had failed to connect with my number one target that day, Rosy Starling, and I persuaded Hor Kee it was worth another shot this year. The site seems as regular as any for this irruptive species, and has on occasion hosted up to six birds. However, last year was a complete blank, and no birds had been reported so far this season.

Lesser Adjutant_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2914

A number of species are more or less guaranteed at this site, among them Sunda Woodpecker, Little Bronze Cuckoo and Lesser Adjutant, and all duly performed. From a year-list point of view, I was pleased when we got a couple of Ruddy-breasted Crakes, though no photos this time.

Starling-wise, we were drawing a blank though, so we began moving around the site more widely.

Asian Dollarbird_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2847

This immature Dollarbird gave us ample opportunity to play with different camera settings. Up above, we noticed a number of ‘Fork-tailed Swifts’ passing high overhead.

Pacific Swift_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2707

Now that these have been split into several species, they attracted our interest. I summarized what is known about the identification and status of the two species known to occur in Peninsular Malaysia, Pacific and Cook’s Swift, here.

Pacific Swift_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2726 Pacific Swift_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2718

The large white rump patch, brownish head sides and clearly defined white throat identified the ones close enough to see as Pacific, and it seemed reasonable to assume that, as these were clearly moving inland off the sea, they were all migrating Pacifics – about 300 of them.

Pacific and Cook's4

Digging out my old pics of Cook’s Swift from Fraser’s Hill, I’ve put together some montages for comparison. Differences are subtle enough to really only be apparent on still photos (rather than moving birds!). Brown head sides, more clearly defined pale throat, larger (squarish) white rump patch and less obvious pale scaling on the underparts are distinguishing features of Pacific compared to Cook’s.

Pacific and Cook's3

Structurally, Cook’s looks shorter-necked than Pacific. Another way of saying the same thing is that the wings seem to be set further forward on the body of Cook’s, with less head in front, and more ‘tail’ behind.

Pacific and Cook's2

Even when almost directly overhead, the white rump of Pacific is visible, so perhaps it ‘wraps around’ further than on Cook’s.

Pacific and Cook's1

Overall, Cook’s looks slightly more slender and spindly than Pacific.

Interestingly, many of the photos of Cook’s Swift (taken on 4-5 Feb last year) show well-worn flight feathers, whereas all the Pacifics I photographed today appeared to be in fresh plumage. Might there be a moult-timing difference, with Cook’s moulting earlier in the winter than Pacific? Worth looking out for.

Rosy Starling_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2925 Rosy Starling_Kuala Gula_020215_IMG_2926

It was past midday, and we were giving the mudflats ‘one last look’ when Hor Kee announced that he had found a Rosy Starling! It was one of those moments when time seemed to stand still until I got the scope fixed on the bird, which was singing,  making it an even more surreal moment! I had undoubtedly walked straight past the bird, which was perched in the topmost branches of a dead tree. Fortunately, Hor Kee’s younger ears had picked out the soft warbling song and he had been alert enough to know that it was worth investigating! A long-awaited Peninsular lifer for me, and my first ever adult anywhere. Thanks Hor Kee!

We watched the bird singing for a while, until our attempts at a stealthy approach put the bird to flight. After lunch we returned to the site, and immediately heard the bird singing in the heat of the sun. This time, the bird was singing from a low branch just a few meters above the mud, and it quickly disappeared before we could get any shots. Despite a long wait, the bird did not reappear, so we called it a day, well satisfied with our final bird of the visit!

If you turn the speakers up loud enough, you can just about make out the song in the video below.

<p><a href=”″>MVI 2932</a> from <a href=”″>Dave B</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>



Big Year 2015: Back in the game, and January Summary

After December’s mad dash to try to reach Dennis Yong’s 2006 record total of 582 species seen in Malaysia in one calendar year, I said I wouldn’t be following up with a repeat attempt at a Big Year this year, and for a while, I meant it! I enjoyed the slower, more relaxed pace of the first half of January. But as the weeks wore on, I started to miss the strategizing, and the challenge to push myself. Near the end of the month the symptoms were there – thinking about where I would need to go, counting how many potential ‘year-ticks’ I would get at different sites, working out what ‘priority species’ are available when, etc.

So here we are again – Big Year 2015! In case anyone else wants to join in, here are the ‘rules’ I am operating by:

1. The goal, obviously, is to see as many species of birds in Malaysia in 2015 as possible.

2. All birds must be SEEN. “Heard only” don’t count.

3. All species on the current Malaysia checklist are countable, even those in Categories C and D (i.e. exotics).

4. All records must be entered on the eBird database (so are checkable/ reviewable), and follow eBird taxonomy (i.e. Clements).

5. Any claims of new species for the national list must be submitted to the Records Committee to be countable.

Why do a Big Year?

First and foremost, because it’s fun! That’s my main motivation, and I won’t try to dress it up as something nobler than it is! Having said that, there are potential positive spin-offs:

  • An even effort to see every species in the year should result in better overall coverage and representation of what’s out there
  • Over time, if enough people start doing Big Years regularly, trends might emerge regarding what species are becoming easier or harder to see
  • The effort to see every species raises awareness (at least on a personal level) of where and when species are most likely to be seen

In relation to the last point, it’s often the ‘less rare’ species that get missed. Last year, I failed to see Grey-capped Woodpecker, for example. When I asked around, few people could name a reliable site beyond “I saw one at xxx a few years ago.” Perhaps they are rarer than we think (at least in the Peninsula).

January Summary

I spent most of my time around Penang, with the exception of one trip to Perlis and Kedah and some incidental birding in KL. Highlights of the month were Brahminy Starling, Manchurian Reed-WarblerRichard’s Pipit and Oriental Skylark in Perlis, and Sakhalin Leaf-Warbler  in Kedah – the latter a potential first record for the country. I was also glad to see Barred Buttonquail, a bird I failed to see at all last year! On the downside, due to my slow start, I failed to see Tufted Duck and Imperial Eagle within easy driving distance, and have yet to connect with Short-toed or Booted Eagle, which were both sighted in January or December by others. Generally, raptors seem scarce this year. By the end of the month I had seen 146 species – not spectacular, but a reasonable start given the opportunities I had to go out.



Asian Waterbird Census 2015: Same but Different!

January is the month for our Asian Waterbird Census count of local areas, so we chose 24 Jan this year. We visited three areas – Kuala Muda sandspits at low tide for the terns, the paddyfields inland of Penaga (to kill time really, but also for egrets), and the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA coastline, by boat, at high tide.

As it happened, the trip gave us some nice comparisons of similar-looking species, and I include some of them here for your delectation and delight!

Kuala Muda_240115_IMG_1689

We started at Kuala Muda, where we counted about 3,000 terns, most of them Common, and all of them far away!

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Some of them very far away!

Pacific Reef_Egret_Kuala Muda_240115_IMG_1738

A dark morph Pacific Reef-Egret came closer briefly.

Going back to terns, we ended the day in the boat circumnavigating some poles which have been planted in the seabed to encourage colonies of shellfish. The poles are used by terns to roost at high tide, and they seemed to be not at all bothered by us, enabling much closer views.

Common Tern_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2490 Whiskered Tern_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2450

Similar pair 1: Common and Whiskered Terns. Note the very different head pattern; the dense black on Common extends down the nape, whereas on Whiskered, it’s rather speckled and extends more or less straight back from the eye.

Great Crested Tern_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2478 Great Crested Tern_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2498

There were about 40 Great Crested Terns too.

Great Crested Tern_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2503

Captions please!

Great Crested Tern bills_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2408

The difference in bill colour and structure between different individuals was striking. I’m not sure how to account for this. Wells (1999) mentions that subspecies cristata is the one we get regularly, but that there is a possibility of the larger, more westerly race velox, which is larger overall and darker -backed. Perhaps the right hand bird is one such?

Lesser and Great Crested Tern_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2445 and 2408

Similar pair 2: Great and Lesser Crested Terns. A single Lesser Crested Tern gave us a good chance to compare the two. Generally, Lesser has a more orangey bill, but this is not always obvious. The whiter forecrown seemed to be a good distinguishing feature.

Lesser and Great Crested Tern_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2472 and 2446

If they can be seen alongside one another, the smaller size of Lesser is obvious.

Black-headed Gull_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2370

Similar pair 3: Brown-headed (right) and Black-headed Gull (left). In Penang, Brown-headed is the common species – we counted 344 of them. In amongst them were three Black-headed Gulls, a relative rarity up on the north-west coast of the Peninsula.

Brown-headed Gull_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2083

On the deck (or in water), these can be quite tricky to separate, especially the dark-eyed non-adult Brown-headeds (as this one is). Brown-headed is bigger, bulkier and has a heavier bill, but these things can be difficult to be judge on a single bird. The primary pattern is a better clue, but this can be better seen when the birds are in flight…

Brown-headed Gull_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2092Black-headed Gull_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2304

The white leading edge of the upperwing extends all the way to the wingtip on Black-headed (below), whereas, on Brown-headed, the wingtips are ‘dipped in black ink’ (with the exception of 4 white ‘mirrors’ on the wingtips of adults).

Brown-headed Gull_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2093 Black-headed Gull_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2305

It’s more or less the same on the underwing – on Black-headed, the outermost visible primary is mostly white and the rest are more or less black; while Brown-headed wingtips have the same triangular dipped-in-ink look.

waders_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2352

They can be a little tricky at a distance though!

waders_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2364

So to waders!

IMG_2006 to 2016

Trying to identify and count waders from a boat moving forward and up and down takes some doing, so we do a rough count, then take photos, stitch them together and then do a more detailed count at home. With over 14,000 birds it takes a lot longer to do the count afterwards than the actual survey! But it also has its rewards. See the little red square to the right of the panorama above?

IMG_2006 to 2016s

That’s a Thai-flagged Bar-tailed Godwit in amongst the Asian Dowitchers, Nordmann’s Greenshanks, Great Knot, Far Eastern Curlew and other commoner stuff!

waders_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_2057 waders_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_1932

Similar pair 4: Nordmann’s (top) and Common Greenshank (bottom). There are 7 Nordmann’s Greenshanks in the nearer group in the top picture (among Asian Dowitchers, Bar-tailed Godwit, Grey and Pacific Golden Plovers and a Great Knot) and 8 Common Greenshanks (and a Common Redshank) in the lower picture. Nordmanns look whiter than any other shorebird because of the white chest (which is bulky) and pale grey upperparts. Common Greenshank looks less pale because the breast is slimmer and the upperparts are darker and browner. The difference in leg length is also a giveaway.

Nordmann’s love to keep their feet wet, and generally choose to roost right on the tideline at the edge of any mudflats still available. Common Greenshanks prefer to stay close to the mangroves, as do Common Redshanks and Marsh Sandpipers. For this reason, boat surveys are an excellent way to observe Nordmann’s Greenshanks! We counted 64 from our photographs.

Intermediate and Great Egret_Permatang Benuan_240115_IMG_1792

Similar pair 5: Intermediate (left) and Great Egret (right). We saw many of these in the paddyfields. The size difference is mainly useful when both are available for comparison. Other features to notice are the small rounded head and relatively short bill of Intermediate, the extraordinarily long neck of Great and its long head and bill. Another key difference is in the shape of the gape, which terminates under the eye on Intermediate but extends well behind it in a characteristic acute triangle on Great.

Grey Heron_TAT_KM IBA_240115_IMG_1952 Golden Apple Snails_Kuala Sg Abdul_240115_IMG_1901

And finally, nothing at all similar about these, but I thought I’d add them anyway! A young Grey Heron in flight and the empty shells of Golden Apple snails on the beach.