Thursday, 28 February 2019

A New Raptor Record for Langkawi

Most birdwatchers find overgrown rice paddy fields have nothing much to offer because the grass and weeds have grown to such a height that birds are always easily well hidden. If you stand along such rice field for at least 15 minutes, you bound to see at least two or three birds that would fly out unexpectedly. Before you can get much of the details of that bird, it dips into the overgrown field and disappeared. Event like this can leave some of the bird photographers in such boredom and despair.

Unless you happen to be at the rice fields during moments like this shown on this image below, then you will see crowded egrets!
Harvesting time is when the birds come out to play...and feed!
If it wasn't for this rare migrant raptor alert from a UK visitor, Dale Bateman, I wouldn't find myself standing on this particular rice field spot which I rarely use for my birdwatching tours. This rice field area is at Kampung Bukit Kemboja and it is a popular area for cycling tours. Dale booked his accommodation in a villa by the rice field. Being a very keen and experienced birder, Dale would do his walkabout along the field and plantation to photograph birds almost daily during his stay.

I am a firm believer of this theory of being at the right place at the right time and not forgetting, the right networking. Somehow Tom Reynolds and Dale got connected. On 30th January 2019, I received an enquiry from Tom about any Harrier has been recorded on Langkawi. Only the Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus has been documented so far. Here is a the paragraph extracted from Yeap Chin Aik's paper on the Birds of Langkawi Archipelago for the Eastern Marsh Harrier:
"Single female collected on November 1907 (Morioka and Chang 1996). A winter visitor, recorded from the paddy fields inland (Medway and Wells 1976). Totally Protected under the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972.
Hello Jane!
When was the Eastern Marsh Harrier last seen in recent years? No one knows or no one has yet to record and report.

Only on the 4th February that I received some images of the harrier from Tom despite his daily lookout. It wasn't easy with these overgrown field. Dale had some record shots of two individuals of harrier family. Tom sent me a couple of shots from Dale's camera screen to verify the species of harrier. 
The suspicion of an image from Tom's photo would be a Harrier and not an Eastern Marsh from the white rump shown on this individual. However, I learned that the white rump cannot be taken as the main feature to eliminate Pied from the Eastern Marsh Harrier.
Tom's photo of a Harrier's rear shot
As I am not an experienced Harrier watcher, it is best to leave this to the experts, my raptor sifus on the mainland. There were interesting discussions amongst them in detailing to a Pied Harrier juvenile from the record shots taken by Dale. During this time, I was away in KL for the Chinese New Year and didn't have my reference book with me, so I needed to rely on my birding sifus who are more familiar with Harriers.

Barrings, small bill and underwing barrings suggests a Pied Harrier juvenile rather than an Eastern Marsh Harrier. I have enough consensus to conclude that this individual photographed is a Pied Harrier juvenile.

And there I was in KL feeling restless and anticipating to return to Langkawi to see this Pied Harrier even though this species isn't my lifer. My first Pied Harrier was in Chuping, Perlis with the help of Tan Choon Eng from Penang and my other short glimpses of Pied Harrier were in Chumphon, Thailand.
A record shot of a Pied Harrier male taken from Chuping with Tan Choo Eng's guidance
The night I returned to Langkawi, I made an appointment with Tom to find this raptor on the next early morning. And here I am standing by the rice field of Kampung Bukit Kemboja with Tom on the morning of 9th February, waiting for this star migrant. It was indeed a waiting game and other birds like Watercocks, Pond Herons, Egrets and also Cinnamon Bittern playing the game of "Now you see me and now you don't".
Cinnamon Bittern's butt
Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus on flight
While waiting, might as well photograph some surrounding birds especially the obliging birds on the field.
A lone Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Another Brown Shrike with a crossed bill
A female Baya Weaver Ploceus philippinus
A Pond Heron Ardeola sp 
A Blue-Tailed Bee-Eater Merops philippinus posing comfortably in our presence

Tom and I stood there for one hour and no Harrier showed up. After many days of observing this Harrier, Tom noticed the Harrier's circuit is flying across the road to the other side of the field. And that's when I suggested to Tom to head towards the other rice field. And I was glad I did! After thirty minutes of waiting, a raptor flew above our heads and I initially thought it was a Brahminy Kite. No, it wasn't!
A very common scavenging raptor in our rice fields, Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus
Only butt shots of it before it disappeared. And it was time for Tom to leave the field.
My butt shot of a Harrier
Just as soon as Tom was about to leave, he spotted another one flying in from across. And this time, we nailed it!

Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos juvenile hovers above the field

Alas, my time spent there was fruitful with a new confirmed record for Langkawi. We are always on a lookout for any new or rare birds and is extremely difficult to do it alone. Thank you to Dale Bateman for alerting Tom and many thanks to Tom for sharing this news and location to me. And not forgetting my birding friends (Woei Ong, Liung, Aun Tiah and Seng) for their inputs.

My wish is for it or more of it to return on our next migratory season.

1. Yeap, Chin Aik, "Report on Birds Of Langkawi Archipelago", Malaysian Nature Journal 57 (1):91-144 (2005)

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Thank you Guests of 2018

Best langkawi nature tours

2018 whizzed past very quickly and some of the events with wildlife sightings did stay for a moment.  
Thank you to my 2018 guests for being part of our wildlife and nature moment. The excitement, fun and adventure wouldn't be possible without you. 

My special guest appearance is Rufous 🐶  My walkabouts with him had some good birds that came along and of course, he wouldn't know. 

Wishing everyone a fruitful new year 2019 with more lifers and wildlife. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

My Mudflat Story: A Giant Cockle and A Wedding Ring

Once upon a time, years ago, a lovely couple came and took me out on a kayaking excursion in the mangrove. To respect  this couple's privacy, I now name them as Mr & Mrs Romanian.

This post is dedicated to this lovely couple because without them I would not be out there kayaking and would not had such experience in the swamp that turned the impossible to the possible. 

Here's the story:
A journey by boat to our kayak put-in point was a bit bumpy with some swells. During our journey, we were rewarded with the incredible landscape of 490-370  million years old karstic limestone of Setul formation that formed the Eastern rim of Langkawi. 
Langkawi's uniqueness: The Karst and Mangroves

While I was occupied with spotting for Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus and the White Bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster, Mr Romanian was occupied with his camera clicking away.

Loads of trash welcomed us on a secluded beach as we prepared ourselves for the kayaking through a cave tunnel to get to a salt water lake. The tide was reasonably high enough for us to play around in between the Rhizophora trees with our kayaks. We saw a couple of mudskippers,  tree climbing crabs and lots of mullets. 

We headed out to the sea after that and kayaked along the coastline into the higher density of the mangroves. After some time exploring in there, we met up with our boatman at the edge of the swamp.

I instructed the couple to pull their kayak alongside with the boat so that they could stand up and climb over. My kayak was next to them to help stabilizing their kayak while Mrs Romanian climbed over onto the boat. Seconds after Mrs Romanian was on the boat, I saw something small and shiny passed me, knocked on the starboard side of my kayak and bounced off  ...pluurrrp.. into the water. It was too fast for me to catch it.

My first thought was, "A loose screw!".  I first looked around my kayak. Nope. My kayak ain't got screws. I looked around the boat and then at Mr Romanian. He was frantically searching for something. "Looking for something?" I asked. He replied, "My wedding ring..."

"Uh..oh" I said to myself. He asked me to check around my kayak. I dare not tell him that something went into the water and so I pretended to search around my kayak. Alas, I told him that I saw the ring went into the water and it was hard for him to believe my statement. He stared at me for awhile.

He had his large swimming goggles with him and went into the mangroves water to search for the ring. The water visibility was near zero and it was impossible for him to look for anything. The boatman and I told him to be careful on placing his footsteps because we didn't want him to step on the ring pushing it deeper into the mud. 

I was sitting on my kayak looking at him searching for his wedding ring and thinking to myself, "This is impossible". And then I decided to do the impossible by joining him into the swampy water. It was only waist deep and I could stretched my hands to the mud feeling for anything. I was worried by doing that could worsen the search. 

Mr Romanian was searching the area where I pointed the ring has dropped. I suggested that the current may had pushed the ring further away. But he was very convinced that the ring cannot be pushed much because it is heavy. I later learnt that the ring was made of platinum but I have no idea how heavy a platinum ring is.

After fifteen minutes in the water, Mr Romanian decided to call off the search and surrendered to the impossible. We climbed up to the boat and headed out to the sea. 

I watched how Mr Romanian who was smiling from ear to ear at the beginning of the excursion and now it was from jaw to jaw. While his wife was consoling him, the boatman and I were silently sympathising the couple.

Suddenly, the invisible light bulb above my head lit up! 

I knew the tide was going out that time and that area will be dry in the next three to four hours. I rechecked the tide table on the time of the lowest tide and quickly discussed with my boatman. So a plan was developed. I presented our plan to the couple and without hesitation, Mr Romanian liked it and he seemed very determined. There is still hope. Yes!

The lowest tide on that evening was a quarter to five. We set out at three in the afternoon and it was just three of us without Mrs Romanian. This time the sea got rougher and our ride was bumpier. 

As we got there, the boat could not go right into the spot where the ring has dropped because the tide had gone down a lot. With our double kayak, Mr Romanian and myself paddled on below knee deep water into the shallowest  stream-like channel. I told myself not to have any expectation and just enjoy the moment in the mud.

It was amazing to watch the mudflat. Blue-spotted mudskippers were everywhere! The crabs scattered away as we were approaching the spot. "Uh...urgh ... hmmm" as our feet sank into the soft soggy mud. Mr Romanian is a huge 6 footer and he sank in at thigh-deep mud. I am a much shorter Asian person and so, I sank into the mud up till my waist. We scanned the area very slowly by sweeping the top layer feeling for any hard metal object before taking another step. I had to crawl out of the mud in order to take another step. As I was doing so, I was apologising to the numbers of small tiny shrimps, crustaceans and other zooplankton that we stepped and crawled on. I felt ssooooo guilty.

During the search, it was also an opportunity for me to discover the mangrove fauna. Besides the shrimps, fiddler crabs and mudskippers, there were blood cockles too! The blood cockles here were almost the size of my palm!

Blood cockle or what we call them as "Kerang" in Malay is an edible marine bivalve mollusc. There are many ways to cook them. The simplest way is a quick cook in the hot water and can be eaten on its own or stir fry them with noodles. The small sized Kerang is a must ingredient for our delicious Malaysian hawker dish known as "Char Koay Teow" (Fried Flat Noodles)
Penang Char Koay Teow... Yum!
My boatman joined us into the mangroves by leaving his boat outside. But he was sitting on the Rhizophora tree roots watching us because he was wearing a white T-shirt.  He was giving us tips and suggestions on what else we can do as if he is our supervisor.

Sand flies were everywhere biting us and we were scratching crazily on our arms and thighs. Those huge biting flies were around too and had started to annoy Mr Romanian. He was wearing only his swimming trunk and I had my long sleeved rash guard and shorts. Almost forty five minutes later and no sign of his wedding ring except for those huge gigantic blood cockles. Those irritating flies were too much for Mr Romanian that he decided to call off the operation.  But I felt it was quite a waste to give up now when we had came all the way in and the tide was still low. Luckily, my boatman supported my thoughts and he encouraged us to keep looking. 

Photograph time while we took a five minute break. While Mr Romanian was resting, I crawled a few meters searching at the tiny mud drain where the water was running out. And suddenly, something shiny and white was staring at me. It was just sitting next to the mud drain. I went over to touch it and it was hard. Metal! I picked it up and asked Mr Romanian if this metal belongs to him. He took it from me to check and then he said calmly, "All of us should go out for dinner to celebrate". Found it!!! The ring drifted at least five meters away from where it dived into the water. 

I was leaping in joy and of course I couldn't leap up because my legs were stuck in the mud. My boatman was clapping and I was shouting in joy. I don't know but it seemed that I was more in the ecstasy of  joy than Mr Romanian. Maybe he has yet to recover from his shock.

As we paddled our kayak out to the sea with our hands on very shallow water, I was still feeling guilty about those sacrificed shrimps and small juvenile crabs. Oh well, there will be thousands to millions more of those but only one platinum wedding ring... just a thought to console myself.

Mr Romanian was back to smiling from ear to ear and our mission accomplished. Am I starting to believe that miracles do exist? Now back to my blood cockle... hee..hee... my precious.

Ever since this incident, I have to remind myself to remind my guests to temporarily remove their wedding rings before kayaking. It is very rare to be as lucky as Mr Romanian.

More than eight years have passed and this experience will remain as my best moment being a nature guide. I am still alive to tell this story and now I am sharing this with you. It is a long post, I know and thank you for reading this.