Last week I got an email from Dr Ron Orenstein explaining that he would have a day in Penang en route from Toronto (-20°C) to Kuching (+30°C), and asking if there was a chance of doing a bit of birding! Ron and Eileen have been generous hosts to me on a previous visit to Kuching, so I was only too glad to return the favour. At the top of Ron’s wish-list were Asian Dowitcher and Nordmann’s Greenshank (I told him to take Spoon-billed Sandpiper off!), so we headed out at the crack of dawn to the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda IBA.
Ron is fascinated by everything that moves (and much that doesn’t), and this Dog-faced Watersnake cerberus rynchops stalking crabs was another highlight for him.
There was an excellent variety of other waders on show too, before we headed for a late breakfast and then off to the Manchurian Reed Warbler spot.
These performed true to form, being extremely difficult to see well, and even harder to get sharp pictures of! One of Ron’s other targets, Pallas’ Grasshopper Warbler, which is normally a shoe-in at this site, was even more elusive, despite multiple calling birds.
At the paddyfields, we were attracted to a small unplanted area which turned out to have an exceptional collection of waders.
Given reasonable views, separating Temminck’s (right) from Long-toed Stint shouldn’t be much of a problem, despite the fact that both have yellow legs. Simply put, Long-toed is the brown speckly one, and Temminck’s the plain grey one! Notice also the clear divide between the grey of the breast and the white belly, with minimal flank streaking, on Temminck’s.
They have a characteristically long horizontal body shape and short legs, and can be hard to spot as they creep slowly around, typically in muddy freshwater pools.
Little and Red-necked are much more of a challenge to separate. Having one of each, there was a perfect opportunity to ‘contrast and compare’. They never fed in the same pool, but with the help of Photoshop, I was able to bring them closer together!
Both these birds were in full non-breeding plumage, which is the plumage that gives the fewest identification clues. Nevertheless, subtle plumage differences are apparent, and differences in structure are consistent regardless of plumage.
In the photos (Little on the left, Red-necked on the right), compare the following:
- the undulating back profile of Little (LS) compared to the flat back of Red-necked (RNS)
- Longer neck and smaller-looking head of LS; RNS looks neckless and often large-headed
- Rounder body of LS compared to the longer body of RNS
- More tapering bill shape of LS
- Longer legs of LS (both tibia and tarsus).
- Head pattern in non-breeding plumage: pale parts generally whiter on LS than RNS. LS has more white on the forehead and has a ‘double supercilium’. Also note the difference in supercilium shape – pointed and slightly downcurved on LS, broader-ended and slightly upswept on RNS
- Subtly more uniform upperpart feathers on RNS, making the grey upperparts look neater, vs the more motley appearance of LS (caused by slightly darker feather centres). This a supporting feature, not diagnostic on its own.
Many of these features are visible on these feeding posture shots. Perhaps because LS has to reach further down (because of its longer legs) it looks ’round shouldered’ when feeding.
The more contrasting head pattern of LS, with, in typical non-breeding plumage, a whiter forehead, supercilium and prominent ‘split supercilium’, is visble here. The smaller head and rounder body of LS is also rather obvious when viewed head-on.
The bill of RNS looks more tubular and less tapered than RNS, in profile and when seen head on. LS often has a longer bill, which is perceptibly downcurved. The differences in head and neck proportions are evident from this angle.
Alert and ready to fly. In sitting or alert posture, LS is more upright than RNS, with the head appearing to sit on top of the body, while on RNS it seems to be stuck on the front. Again, note the small head and distinct neck of LS compared to RNS.
I noticed with these birds that, when feeding, the RNS never paused to look around (which is why I barely got a shot of it with its head up). By contrast, the LS would habitually pause every few pecks to look around. I can’t say I’ve noticed this difference in feeding styles before, and it may not be typical, but I’ll look out for it in future.
We finished off the day at the nightjar site, where we watched 450 Asian Openbills glide in to roost, and where at least 4 Pallas’s Grasshopper-warblers serenaded us with their loud songs, yet remained obstinately invisible!
I let Ron focus on getting shots of perching birds (which he eventually did extremely successfully), while I tried my hand at flight shots, and was quite happy with the results. Amazing birds – and Ron’s fourth lifer of the day (after the 2 coveted waders and the warbler) – so the perfect way to end it!