Teluk Air Tawar IBA, mainland Penang: 13 Jan 2013

Several years ago, Teluk Air Tawar coastline (TAT for short!) used to host waders in vast numbers, up to 10K or more. However, the coastline changes yearly, roosting and feeding sites change, and mangroves have grown up to obscure many former vantage points.

I recently got to know a resident of the area who offered to show me a path through the mangroves out to the rivermouth. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. though he warned me the going would be muddy!

pond heron and Dog-faced Mud Snake_Bagan Belat_130113_IMG_9837While waiting, I was entertained by this pond-heron which was clearly fascinated by a hunting Dog-faced Water Snake. The snake was near a metre in length, and too much for the heron to handle, but the heron could not quite bring itself to walk away from this potentially mountainous morsel! The snake itself appeared oblivious to the heron’s close attention, and continued its hunting technique of checking out crab holes.pond heron and Dog-faced Mud Snake_Bagan Belat_130113_IMG_9863

When the snake happened to move in the direction of the heron, it became visibly nervous! You can watch a short video of the proceedings here.

Dog-faced Mud Snake_Bagan Belat_130113_IMG_9865Harmless to herons! Dog-faced Water Snake Cerberus rynchops.

pond heron_Bagan Belat_130113_IMG_9843I was interested to see if I could identify this bird, as it was beginning to show signs of breeding plumage. I checked carefully for signs of head plumes which might reveal if it was Chinese (maroon) or Javan (white), but couldn’t be sure in the end.

My guide arrived on schedule, and we picked our way along the river bank through initially dry, but increasingly muddy mangroves. Having reached the rivermouth, we then turned north and walked a kilometer or so inside the mangrove fringe, in mud mostly about ankle deep but occasionally rather deeper! Eventually we arrived at a place where we could see birds – many of them, but there was nowhere even near firm enough to be able to stop and set up the scope and tripod. Ahead of us was an enticing bund which offered a perfect place from which to observe, but between us and it lay an outflow which looked very deep!

With a bit of ingenuity, no small amount of hard graft, and considerable risk, we eventually found a way to get across the ditch, although we were beseiged by ferocious kerengga ants in the process, and I have red bumps from the top of my head to my ankles to prove it!

Low tide_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_9881The view from our watchpoint, looking north, at low tide.

High tide_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0158The same view about 4 hours later!

Distance and the heat haze made photographing the birds very difficult, but believe me, there were a lot! Including the ones almost lost in the heat haze to the north, I estimated ten thousand birds was conservative.

wader flock_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3476Some of the closer birds as the tide rose.

wader flock_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3535Some larger waders (Bar-tailed Godwits, Great Knot and Grey Plover) dropping in to join the crowd. Yes, Grey Plover! Previously I had only managed to record a single bird in Penang, but I counted 50 out there!

Grey Plover_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0128Here are 4 of them.

Other high counts were 1,800 Pacific Golden Plovers, 1,000 Bar-tailed Godwits, 700 Great Knot, although unidentified waders made up the largest figure…

Pacific Golden Plover_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3482

Part of a flock of PGPs which included a Ruddy Turnstone.

Pacific Golden Plover_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3590Pacific Golden Plover_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3695The PGPs formed sedate lines apart from the other waders, and eventually disappeared into the mangroves as the water covered the area.

two leg-flagged Great Knot_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0007'

I was especially pleased to pick out three leg-flagged birds; a Bar-tailed Godwit ringed on Chongming Dao, China, and these two Great Knot, almost side by side. The black over orange code of the left hand bird signifies that it was ringed in Java (a leg-flag ‘lifer’ for me!), while the triangular black over green flags on the right hand bird show it was tagged not so far away, on Ko Libong, off the west coast of Peninsular Thailand.

Black-tailed Godwit_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0047Of the less common waders, there was a single Black-tailed Godwit, flanked here by a couple of Nordmann’s Greenshanks (of which more anon!),

Asian Dowitcher_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_9917a flock of 12 Asian Dowitchers, Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_9896and …

…39 Nordmann’s Greenshanks. These always love to feed right on the tideline, and so are the most distant birds of all, appearing as white dots in the heat haze. Of course, there are also Common Greenshanks and Marsh Sandpipers out there, so counting white dots is not a recommended way to census NGs! Instead, you have to wait for the tide to bring them a bit closer.

Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_4021 Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0137

Indulging in a game of chicken with a Grey Plover! The Nordmann’s inevitably win these competitions to see who can stay the longest as the tide advances ever upward!Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0083

Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0082A nice study in contrasts between a Common and Nordmann’s Greenshank.

Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_4036 Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3987Even Nordmann’s have to fly eventually!

Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_4011Dropping in with a couple of Common Gs. Note the gleaming white underwing coverts, white tail and short legs.Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_0058

They seem quite comfortable mingling with the larger, longer-legged waders.

Brown-headed Gull_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3938Apart from waders, Brown-headed Gulls occasionally flew overhead.

wader flock_Teluk Air Tawar_130113_IMG_3902This was the last stand before the rising tide forced the birds to take shelter in the mangroves.

It’s very hard to convey the magnificent spectacle of so many birds through the lens. You really have to be there, and pay the price of the long slog there and back in the process!

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5 thoughts on “Teluk Air Tawar IBA, mainland Penang: 13 Jan 2013

  1. WOW! Looks like all my ‘old friends’ are still wintering here after all. The only one missing is the Spoonie. I have seen Grey Plovers here in the past but not in such high numbers.

    • Hi Mun,

      Yes, I was reflecting sadly as I looked out at all those birds that the chances of finding a Spoonie out there are now much less than even 10 years ago. Very sad, but hopefully, the situation may yet be reversed.

  2. Hi Dave, your description of the soft mud reminded me of one occassion when I wanted to walk closer to a big group of waders over a sretch of mud just like those you show in your images. The mud was beyond ankle deep and I lost my wellington boots which got stucked so deep I was unable to extract them, I had a hell of a time retreating to firmer ground later as I was carrying my big lens and tripod with me.

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