Boat Survey: Teluk Air Tawar – Kuala Muda IBA, mainland Penang, 16 Feb 2013

Watching waders from a boat provides an interesting change of perspective. Instead of peering across a vast expanse of mud to the water’s edge, the tideline is in the foreground, as are the birds. Birds seem to treat men in fishing boats as part of the scenery. This sounds ideal, but there are also significant constraints too. Distance is governed by water depth – areas with expansive mudflats have very wide, shallow intertidal areas, so often we sat frustatingly far away from the birds, silently willing the boatman to take an unwise risk of getting closer! Then there are the waves. Not seasickness-inducing, but definitely a challenge when it comes to looking through bins to count and identify birds, or through a camera to take photos.

waders_Kuala Sg Abdul_160213_IMG_6188 waders_Kuala Sg Abdul_160213_IMG_6191

The rivermouth is one of the few places where you get the best of both worlds – steeply shelving banks enable relatively close approach, and the river is sheltered from the waves offshore..

Nordmann's Greenshank_Kuala Sg Abdul_160213_IMG_6217

Two of a group of 6 Nordmann’s Greenshanks – some of the first birds we came across – but these were flighty!

Grey Heron_Kuala Sg Abdul_160213_IMG_6183

This Grey Heron acted as if we weren’t there, dropping in right infront of us without so much as a backward glance!

Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6217

The IBA stretches north for about 8km from the jetty. Birds are concentrated around the various rivers that empty out into the straits, for the simple reason that the outflow of silt and nutrients means that food is concentrated in these areas. This is a view looking north-east, with the limestone massif of Gunung Jerai in Kedah in the background.

Brown-headed Gulls_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6310

Here’s one rivermouth with a flock of close to 200 Brown-headed Gulls, not a significant number in the big scheme of things, but probably a state if not a national record all the same.Brown-headed Gulls_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6581

A lot easier to identify in flight than when sitting on the deck!

Brown-headed Gulls_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6848

The white irides of the adults give them a distinctly menacing air!

Chinese Egret_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6488

Toward the northern end of the IBA, we came across 2 Chinese Egrets, one (back left) obvious, as the bill had already turned yellow, and the other (right) not, since mud obscured the bill colour altogether.

Chinese Egret_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6507

This latter bird was most easily distinguished by the fan-like spray of head plumes just emerging on the nape, the longish largely greenish-yellow legs, and the distinctive shape of the loral skin. Note how it kinks down in front of the eye, a feature which distinguishes Chinese in all plumages from Pacific Reed and Little Egrets.

waders_Tekuk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda_160213_IMG_6656

By the time we started our return leg the tide had come up sufficently for birds to begin forming roosts. These tended to be of similar species – mainly sand plovers above…

Grey Plover_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6625

Grey Plovers (mostly)…

Common Redshank_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6718

A few decent-sized flocks of Common Redshanks (with a few Marsh Sandpipers in the mix).

waders_Tekuk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda_160213_IMG_6706

Common Redshank_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6452

Tereks and Redshanks have a definite affinity for one another.

Common Redshank_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6467

With all those birds, there’s a chance I’ll get one in focus, even from a rocking boat!

ekor biawak boat_Tekuk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda_160213_IMG_6733

This is the kind of boat you want to get as close as possible to the birds. The ‘long tail’ (‘ekor biawak’ in Malay, which translates literally as ‘monitor lizard’s tail’!) enables them to get into the shallows where the boats with fixed outboard engines can’t get to.

waders_Tekuk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda_160213_IMG_6670

The seaward side of Bar-tailed Godwits and Whimbrel.

Common Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6560

A roost of 150 greenshanks received close scrutiny, but all proved to be Common.

Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6803 Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6790

On the other hand, this roost proved to be almost all Nordmann’s – just the one Common among them (plus Great Knots)!

Nordmann's Greenshank_Teluk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda IBA_160213_IMG_6808

A careful count of photos of the flock revealed 63 Nordmann’s Greenshanks – which on current estimates could represent over 10% of the world population! Oh, and the orange has a story too, which all Malaysians (and Chinese elsewhere) will know about, but it’s too long to recount here! Look here if you need to know!

Asian Dowitcher_Tekuk Air Tawar - Kuala Muda_160213_IMG_6758

Of course, you probably miss quite a lot from a boat, so it’s always a good idea to take as many pictures as possible. When examining mine, I came across three Asian Dowitchers (the two birds left of the Eurasian Curlew facing head-on, and the bird two to the right of the curlew with bill and half the head submerged). Those “Denis Healey eyebrows” are a dead giveaway, as is the skinny side-on profile compared to the much larger and bulkier Bar-tailed Godwits.


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