Mainland Penang, 2 December 2013

This started as an afternoon visit to the paddyfields with a focus on raptors, but ended with a puzzling conundrum!

Buteo buzzards in Malaysia have always been a problem for me. I’ve never been down to see the regular birds at Bukit Tinggi, and I’ve been unlucky at other hill stations. A month or so ago I did see one high overhead at Bedong during the Raptor Watch, but lost it when reaching for the camera, before I could confirm its specific identity.

Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_6101

So when I spotted this bird I knew it was a West Malaysia ‘lifer’;the question was, which one? It was pretty obvious that it was ‘new’ for the local crow and Brahminy Kite population too, and they harassed it mercilessly wherever it went.

Malaysia only has two ‘species’ of Buteo on the list of species recorded – Common Buzzard B. buteo and ‘Long-legged B. rufinus or Long-legged x Upland Buzzard B. hemilasius’. The latter mouthful refers to a bird at Chuping (where else?!) which occurred in February 2008. It resembled Long-legged except for the fact that the feathering on the tarsi appeared to extend some way below the tibio-tarsal joint. This was thought by some to be evidence of possible Upland Buzzard genes; thus the possibility of hybridization could not be ruled out.

The waters are further muddied by the fact that Malaysia probably gets two forms of ‘Common Buzzard’ (or two species of what was formerly considered Common Buzzard, depending on your taxonomic convictions!). Wells (1999) mentions that  Common (Steppe) Buzzard B. b.vulpinus and Common (Eastern) Buzzard B.(b.) japonensis have been identified from specimens, but Robson (2008) reclassifies the latter as Himalayan Buzzard B. (buteo) burmanicus. My understanding is that japonensis has not been recorded in South-east Asia.

Fortunately for me, the bird which I initially saw distantly in flight ‘reappeared’ in a field not too far away.

Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_0109

Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_0127The pale iris showed that the bird was a juvenile. Unfortunately, its tarsi were hidden in the long grass, though the shot below possibly shows ‘a bit of leg’…or grass! The presence of and extent of tarsal feathering is important in sorting out this group.

poss tarsus_IMG_0118In flight, the bird looked surprisingly large and powerful, not at all like Common Buzzards I remember from the UK.

Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_6188Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_6185Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_6184The long wings, long tail and prominent head and neck reminded me of one of the larger Buteos (I’ve seen quite a number of Upland and Rough-legged Buzzards, though none for over 15 years!).

Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_6208Here it was trying to out-muscle a Greater Spotted Eagle, so was clearly no softie!Buteo sp_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_6194

A greatly enlarged shot of it momentarily lowering its undercarriage in flight, revealing apparently unfeathered tarsi.

Being almost completely clueless about Buteos, I sought enlightenment from the fount of all knowledge (some of it useful!) otherwise known as Facebook. Initially it was a straight toss-up between Long-legged and Upland. The problem was that it wasn’t rufous enough for Long-legged (especially on the tail) and it didn’t appear tarsal-feathered enough for Upland. Then I got a response from Dr Chaiyan Kasorndorkbua, who knows Asian raptors as well as or better than anyone. His surprising response was “without hesitation, a juvenile Himalayan Buzzard”! When I asked him how he eliminated Long-legged and Upland, he commented:

“The bird has a pale head without a dark brown post-ocular stripe. It has no rufous tones (contra rufinus) or dark brown tones (contra hemilasius, well dark morph juvenile at least) to the upperwing coverts, and has seemingly whitish greater and median underwing coverts (against hemilasius), and a rather connecting medium brown “belt” (against rufinus).”

Checking through the many photos of all three taxa on Oriental Bird Images, it does seem that Common Buzzard alone can sometimes lack a dark post-ocular stripe (the others always seem to have one, regardless of plumage colour and age, and many Commons also have one). So I am prepared to believe that this is a Himalayan Buzzard (but seriously doubt it can be the same species as Buteo buteo)! Any other thoughts?

Peregrine_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_0088The buzzard eclipsed everything else, but there were other things about too! Like this pair of Peregrines (male above, female below), presumably the same as the pair which sat on this pylon last winter.Peregrine_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_0089

I could make some comment about ladies liking pink but I’d better not!

Ruff_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_0132In raptors and many waders, the female is bigger than the male; in the case of Ruff, however, the males are larger – so here there are two males on the left and a female on the right. In the ‘old days’, females Ruffs were known as Reeves.

Common Snipe_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_0155A Common Snipe resting, showing the distinctive ‘twin spots’ at the tip of each covert feather (quite different from the bars on Pintail and Swinhoe’s). There’s a male Greater Painted-snipe in the foreground, one of at least twelve birds which emerged as dusk fell. These were great value to watch as they jumped up and down in their courtship/territorial displays. A couple of videos are linked below. The first shows a male reacting nervously to another bird out of view to us. The second is of an immature female having a bathe and preen in the gathering gloom.

Oriental Reed Warbler_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_0146 Oriental Reed Warbler_Kg Permatang Nibong_021213_IMG_6218Same bird, different camera! The top image was taken using my digiscoping set up and the lower one with the DSLR. The light was very poor and I probably  should have adjusted the White Balance for the telescope. Oriental Reed Warblers get extremely active at dusk and are easy to view relative to other times of day. Pallas’ Grasshopper Warblers start singing away at this time of day too, an unlikely sound in the middle of their winter season. However, they usually sing from the base of the reeds, so are much more difficult to see (and photograph!). The sights and sounds of a marsh at sunset make for a great end to the day!

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3 thoughts on “Mainland Penang, 2 December 2013

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