Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Byram; What a dump!

Diagram of the shooting location at Byram (orange road)

The rubbish mound between the pond reflection and the clouds

A rainbow at the entrance to the estuary

When I came to live on Penang Island I was given three GPS locations, which were the recommended bird photography sites. One of these was adjacent to the large refuse dump at Byram. The dump is located on mainland Penang, on the coast facing Penang Island. The Pulau Burung Landfill Site (PBLS) is a semi-aerobic landfill located in Byram Forest Reserve. The total area of landfill is 63.5ha which receives 2,200 tons of solid waste daily. The site was established in 1991. Landfill is the technique most employed worldwide for the disposal of municipal solid waste in developing countries such as Malaysia. In landfills solid waste decomposes through a series of combined physiochemical and biological processes giving rise to an extremely polluted liquid called landfill leachate. The poisoned water seems to attract a bounteous crops of birds, both resident and migrants. This unlikely prime  birding site consists essentially of three areas; a body of water that formed on the landward side of the current mound of waste, a mangrove forest and an estuary. These areas are accessed by a narrow road that runs to the right off to the main entrance road into the dump. The ponds currently contain toxic runoff from the waste that prevents pollution into the adjacent sea which is intensively fished. The main birding area is along a mainly sealed, but narrow road, that runs for less than four kilometers. My first visit to Byram was like eating durian; a very pleasant experience but with an odor you could do without.

The pond at Byram with the refuse mound in the distance

The ponds have within them a large number of skeletal trees and branch fragments that provide ideal perches for birds. There is a resident population of bird species including; Little Grebes, White-breasted Waterhen, various Egrets, Purple Heron, Red-wattled Lapwings, Great Coucals, Grey Heron, Little Herons, Yellow-bellied Prinia, Common Moorhen, the ubiquitous Yellow-Vented Bulbuls, Magpie Robins, and Lesser Whistling Ducks.

Little Grebe

Little Heron

White-breasted Waterhen

Cattle Egret in breeding colors

Magpie Robin flying to a nest-hole

Lesser Whistling Duck
 The adjacent mangrove forest is often alive with Long-tailed Macaques, various insect-seeking birds, different species of Woodpeckers, Dollarbirds, Collared Kingfishers and seasonally a large Changeable Hawk Eagle nest. The estuary attracts local fishermen as well as Collared Kingfishers, White-throated Kingfishers, Stork-billed Kingfishers and the visiting Black-headed and Common Kingfishers. 

Long-tailed Macaque searching for crabs or shellfish

White-throated Kingfisher

Collared Kingfisher

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Dollarbird with a bug
Great Tit (Juvenile)

Great Tit (male)
              The reptile kingdom is also well represented by a large number of Water Monitor Lizards that range from one to three plus meters. They are often seen paddling along the waterways or ponderously crossing the road. Water Monitors are one of the most common monitor lizards found throughout Asia and range from Sri Lanka, India and Indochina, the Malay peninsular and various islands of Indonesia. They are excellent swimmers and can be defensive using their tail, claws and jaws when fighting. On one occasion I saw two giant-sized Monitors locked in a vertical embrace like a couple of Olympic wrestlers probing their opponent for an advantage. Water Monitors are carnivores and have a wide range of foods; fish, rodents, birds, crabs, snakes and turtles. They are mainly carion eaters.

Water Monitor Lizard

The estuary and the adjacent canal often hosts a family of Smooth-coated Otters. I have seen a group of nine individuals, likely an extended family, fishing the waters with great skill. Within seconds of flopping into the water the otters emerge with largish sized fish that are consumed on the muddy banks or 'on the go'. The younger otters showed their juvenile sense of fun…toboganning across the slippery estuarine mud that was exposed at low tide. There was also a bare patch of grass on the waters edge that was clearly the otters marking zone. The whole troupe would emerge from the water and mark the area with urine and feces and rolling around in a typical group bonding ritual. The marking process is termed sprainting.

Part of a Smooth-coated Otter family

Smooth-coated Otter eating a fish    

The forest and area surrounding the ponds are also good for raptors. It is not unusual to see a pair of Crested Serpent Eagles perched on the top of lamp poles calling to each other or a Black Winged Kite on a favorite perch near the water canal stripping a lizard or snake it has recently caught. The adults and occasionally juvenile Changeable Hawk Eagles can be seen around the nest or on strategic perches around the ponds. Brahminy Kites and White-bellied Fish Eagles are also common aerial visitors.

Juvenile Changeable Hawk Eagle

Changeable Hawk Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle

Crested Serpent Eagle in flight and conversation

While this area could be considered a good birding area in May through October the area really comes alive in the migratory season from October through to April/May. Various waterbirds escaping from the Northern winter make Byram their home during these months. Species include; Brown Shrike, Black-winged Stilt, Tiger Shrike, Javan and Indian Pond Heron, Little and Long-toed Stints, Little-Ringed Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Garganey, White-browed Crake, Oriental Pratincole. Wood, Common and Terek Sandpipers,

Brown Shrike

Chinese Pond Heron in breeding colors

Common Snipe

Black-winged Stilts

As well as the various waterbirds the perches and surrounding airspace is graced by Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. These handsome master fliers migrate the shorter distance from Thailand. They catch insects with great skill, land on favored perches and bash and toss their prey before ingesting them and flying off after additional sustenance.
Byram hosts an amazing variety of wildlife, especially birds in what is a faciilty destined to be choked by human waste. Enjoy it while you can.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater tossing a dragonfly
Graeme Guy August 2012

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters nesting in Penang

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters (Merops leschenaulti), unlike the Blue-tailed and Blue-throated cousins are endemic within the Malaysian State of Penang. They are a resident breeder in the Indian Subcontinent and adjoining regions ranging from India east to South East Asia, including Thailand, Northern Malaysia and Indonesia. This species is not found in Southern Malaysia or Singapore but like other bee-eaters is a beautiful, richly colored, sleek bird and a master flyer. It is predominantly green, with blue on the rump and lower belly. Its face and throat are yellow with a black eye stripe. The crown and nape are a rich chestnut. Newly fledged chicks are the same colors except for a mainly darker green forehead and less distinct demarcation between the colors. The species is 18-20 cm long and it lacks the two elongated central tail feathers possessed by the majority of bee-eater species. There are several subspecies that display variations of the color pattern. The male and females have similar coloration but when seen together the males are noticeably larger, with a higher forehead.

A Chestnut-headed Bee-eater adult in prime condition

The male (right) is bigger than the female

Although seen in small groups throughout the year in various locations around Penang around the middle of December Chestnut-headed bee-eaters arrive at communal breeding grounds. For the first few weeks it seems to be re-union time and the various pairs will hunt together from the surrounding taller trees. January and February are the region’s dry months and it is a spectacle to behold as these beautiful flying machines arc down from their high vantage points and power after flying insects. The rapid aerial assault is mostly punctuated by a perceptible thwack as the insect is hit. That mission over the bird will return to a perch to ingest the captured insect. 

On arrival the Bee-eater hunt many insects

Bees are tossed to get them in a position to swallow

Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters are very exuberant with captured insects: usually they are bashed onto a branch to ‘anesthetize’ them and then tossed into the air to get them into a favorable position to swallow them. Bees are a favored food, as their name suggests, and the sting is squeezed out before the tossing occurs. I did not realize until analyzing my images that this species are more ostentatious insect tossers than the Blue-throated cousins. A steady supply of insects presents certain problems in waste disposal. One of the major proteins in insects is chitin, which is a durable, waxy polymer that is very hard to digest. Every so often these bee-eaters, as well as related species, will open their bills wide an expel a small black ball of indigestible insect products.

Insects are tossed with enthusiasm

Synchronized bee tossing

From a photographic viewpoint I was determined to get some shots of these beautiful but deadly fliers (in silhouette from underneath they remind me somewhat of the renown RAF Spitfires). Most of my images were taken with a long lens resting on a beanbag on my vehicle’s open window however flight shots demanded, high ISO, high speeds, a shorter handheld lens and a location away from the restrictions of the car interior. The clear blue skies of the early months allowed for speeds of 1/3000 to 1/4000 second, coupled with modern camera tracking and the reflexes of an Olympic skeet shooter (almost).

The high speed interception

The low level capture

After settling into the nesting area the pairs of Bee-eaters descended to the undulating terrain and started drilling exploratory holes. As with their Blue-throated cousins the compacted soil was loosened by their pick-like bills and the soil was then kicked back out of the way. It was a joint effort and the pair would often be seen working in unison with one loosening and the other shifting. Sometimes one member of the partnership would be too close behind the dirt kicking operation and get a face-full.  After a few weeks it could be seen where the serious nest cavities were being constructed by the piles of ‘tailings’ outside the entrance.  I located 12 of these potential nests in the general area. It later appeared that some of them were abandoned and only 6-8 nests were being frequently attended some weeks down the line. It was at this time that the Blue-throated Bee-eaters arrived in greater numbers and although they appeared to respect each other’s boundaries I wondered if the change in dynamics caused some nest abandonment.

Nest-hole drilling is a cooperative event

Loosened soil is kicked away

Bee-eaters are such delicate and efficient flying machines and it seems contradictory to best logic that they nest underground and must drill the holes themselves. It seems to be the equivalent of fitting the latest jet fighter with a ditch digger or asking a refined lady in her Sunday ensemble to dig the vegetable garden. Survival however needs adaption but serious preening is needed to keep  flying feathers in good shape and considerable time is spent preening. These sessions are punctuated by wing stretching and tail fanning that can be quite graceful and balletic. At the start of the season the Bee-eaters arrived in prime condition but after digging in abrasive soil some of the birds showed the rigors imposed by their mode of reproduction.

Tail fanning and wing stretching during preening

After nest construction began couples were observed mating on their favorite perches. One day around two weeks later it was like Mothers Day; females were stationed on various perches while the males were operating at full throttle to supply them with insect presents. This apparently is about building the female up nutritionally to fulfill the demanding role of egg laying.

The larger male (left) offers his partner a dragonfly

I followed three active nests over the next month. The suppliers were very industrious in maintaining a steady flow of insects. As with the Blue-throated Bee-eaters each of these nests was supplied by three to five birds, including younger birds likely from last nesting. As the chicks reached maturity the feeding got quite frenetic and sometimes two or three birds would arrive within seconds of each other to hand over insects. In one nest there was only one chick and it stationed itself just inside the entrance and gulped down everything offered. It later ventured a look at the world but stayed inside the hole to continue getting fed. The next morning the chick had gone and the nest was amazingly quiet.

Feeding the chicks; a variety of insects are captured

A constant stream of helpers bring insects to the nest entrance

Cargo includes beaten butterflies........

---------and red Dragonflies

The last chick gets the first view of the outside world
Graeme Guy July 2012

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hunting White-throated Kingfishers

The White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) is considered a large kingfisher at 28cm in length and is also known at the White-breasted Kingfisher or the Smyrna Kingfisher. It has a widespread distribution, ranging from Bulgaria in Eurasia, east through South Asia to the Philippines. There are four variations of plumage documented throughout the range where the kingfisher is often a resident often found well away from water where it feeds on small reptiles, amphibians, crabs, small rodents and small birds. In Malaysia generally and in many rural areas in Penang White-throated Kingfishers are seen of perches frequently along roadsides on telegraph poles and on tree stumps. During the mating season they announce their presence by calling loudly.
This kingfisher, albeit considered common, is a target for nature photographers because of the combination of iridescent blue and chocolate brown feather colors offset by a bright red bill and orange/red feet. I was happy to see at least one pair that was resident in the nesting ground of several species of Bee-eater that I was documenting. One pair communicated regularly with each other, mated and set up a nest and we follow their story.
The kingfisher pair had a favored perch on the tallest tree in the center of the nesting area and from here they made various forays into the surrounding trees to hunt for prey. Both birds were active shortly after dawn and could be seen scanning the ground for prey and making quick swoops to descend on and then consume an unsuspecting victim. On three early mornings over the span of a week the pair could be seen mating on their favorite tree. Prior to mating and often as a greeting the individuals, especially the male, would greet each other with rapidly deployed spread wings.

A male White-throated Kingfisher

The partners call often to each other
The male (left) and the female look very similar

A rapid wingspread is a common form of greeting between partners
               There were at least two kingfisher-constructed nesting holes in the surrounding undulating terrain and one of these was clearly the chosen nursery for our highlighted pair. Another pair of kingfishers briefly visited the other hole but seemingly went elsewhere to raise their brood. It appeared that the kingfisher holes were more permanent than the surrounding Bee-eater holes and thus they did not have to dig new ones each season, just some home improvement being required. The nest cavity was likely to be one to two meters long. 
              Bee-eaters and Kingfishers are not too distantly related and a number of similarities could be observed in their habits and behavior. Unlike the Bee-eaters the eggs did not seem to be tended regularly by one of the pair because mostly they were both outside the nest. A single clutch of 4-7 round white eggs is typical. An indication that chicks were hatched was announced when the parents started taking prey into the nest. The eggs take 20–22 days to hatch while the chicks fledge in 19 days, which is considerably less time than the bee-eaters. The young are fed mainly on invertebrates and a succession of insects was seen being taken into the nest, with the occasional lizard or skink. I did not see chicks fledging nor did I see juveniles in the area so I can’t confirm a successful fledging. 

Flying to the nest prior to the arrival of the chicks.
On the lookout for prey
The dive begins on unsuspecting prey 
A small grasshopper is brought to the nest
A skink is about to be fed to hungry chicks

               The first indication I had that the nesting was over was when the parental visits to the nest hole on one of my visits were lacking. The male arrived around mid-morning and landed on their favored pre-entry perch carrying a bug in his bill….to my surprise he suddenly tossed it in the air and swallowed it then flew off in the other direction.

A bug gets tossed in the air before being swallowed

Like their Bee-eater cousins kingfishers spend considerable time underground and fastidiously preen themselves in sessions that are punctuated with wing stretches, tail fanning and diving briefly into rain puddles (there was no permanent water in the vicinity).

I have seen some species of nesting kingfishers hit other birds that were remotely near their nests and I have seen them having screeching attacks on 2 meter long Monitor Lizards. These kingfishers were surrounded at times by a number of bee-eaters but were remarkably tolerant. On half a dozen occasions the kingfishers did seem to loose their patience and strafed a group of bee-eaters causing a moment of consternation. Red-wattled Lapwings were also nesting in the area and one was foolish enough to lay it’s four eggs in line with the kingfishers favorite perch and the nest entrance. Twice  the hapless hen was targeted by bullet-like attacks until it finally got the message and laid eggs elsewhere.

A wing-stretch during a preening session
Tail fanning
Spin-drying after a quick dip in a puddle
Wing feathers are groomed

 After the Kingfisher breeding season was over and before the bee-eaters were finished their parental duties our observed pair returned to a normal roster hunting in the early morning, bathing a preening a few hours later and perching in the shade in the heat of the afternoon. There were periods of showers during this time that seemed to encourage a local frog population to flourish. Both kingfishers seemed to welcome a more substantial breakfast (I will refrain from making references to Ihop). I observed, and sometimes photographed both the male and female each catch and gulp down two frogs in the space of an hour. This was quite impressive to see considering the size of the frogs; subsequent to capture the hapless amphibian was bashed on a solid object and several times swung into the air to get into a more aerodynamic position to swallow. Legs hanging out of the bill were soon sucked into the abyss.
I enjoyed the challenge of getting close to this kingfisher pair and they were perhaps more tolerant than most of their species. They were both starting to molt when I departed their domain until another time perhaps.

A frog is captured
Another frog becomes a victim.........
...........and is tossed into a favorable position to swallow
Graeme Guy July 2012