Tag Archives: South East Asia Birds

Today’s Fotofact – Woodpeckers are amazing!! I didn’t know these interesting facts…

  • Woodpeckers are found globally, except Australasia
  • Many woodpeckers have fine feather bristles covering their nostrils to stop wood chips entering the nasal cavity
  • Woodpeckers have 2 toes pointing forwards and 2 toes pointing backwards to grip trees better – most birds have 1 pointing backwards and 3 forwards
  • Woodpeckers hammer their bill between 8-12,000 times per day!!!
  • Woodpeckers hammer their bill to loosen bark to find insects, to make holes for nesting, and during the mating season, also to communicate with one another
  • Woodpeckers have an unusually long tongue relative to their size, up to 4 inches in some species!
  • Their tongue has a glue like substance on the tip, which aids the process of catching insects

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Large reptiles plunder whilst kingfishers wonder…

I have been going to Pasir Ris mangroves in Singapore a lot lately, in my spare time. During a recent visit , the dam that holds back catchment water in the Tampines River was again unleashed, with water speedily making its’ way out ¬†to sea. I wrote a blogpost about how a Stork Billed Kingfisher managed to cope with the coloured water after the torrent, by changing his fishing strategies to take fish visible only on the surface of the muddied waterway.

Recently, I witnessed this dam being unleashed again, though this time the state of the tide was very different; once the water had made it’s way towards the sea, the mangroves and surrounding area quickly returned to a state of low tide. VERY low tide. Again the nature photographers that were there as the dam was released decided to leave, as the calm waterway turned into a torrent . I stayed. And I’m so-oooo glad I did ūüôā …

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Little egret juggle a fish into position, for easy swallowing.

Birds that are natural fishers had a bounty this time, as the waters quickly receded and laid on a great opportunity to fish. I was able to observe a lot of natural activity in a very short space of time. Egrets gathered and fished to their hearts’ content in the ebbing water flow.

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Little Heron ‘stuns’ prey on nearby rock.

Little Herons took their places on rocks made visible by the shrinking waterway.

They were catching fish very regularly – even more regularly than usual.

 

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White Throated Kingfisher taking the opportunity to catch fish sheltering around obstacles now being revealed by ebbing waters.

The waters left for the sea as quickly as they had been racing by, revealing many fish trying to take shelter around the now shallowing underwater obstacles, to the birds that had gathered to feast.

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Gotcha! Stork Billed Kingfisher with meal… its’ last easy meal, before the 2nd dam release coloured the waters.

Birds took fast and quick advantage.¬†For a while, at least.¬†But only for a while as the dam was then released again, this time in full force, and now the water became very muddied really quickly. The torrent intensified and waters rose very quickly to again cover those ‘bird friendly’ perches that had previously been exposed.

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Nice dive… but no fish this time.

Our friend the Stork Bill (above and left) was struggling to make good on his superior hunting and angling skills after that catch, as the fish could no longer clearly be seen.

 

Foray after foray into the water left him fishless.

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No fish but still looking majestic, exiting the water and taking wing back to the hunting perch.

Time after time the flight back to the perch was with renewed ambition for the next dive for its’ prey.

This went on for around half an hour and eventually the waters receded to levels even beneath what they had recently been. No angling birds were present now and the Stork Billed Kingfisher left in search of better hunting opportunities.

I thought I’d have little chance to photograph much until the tide returned more water to the scene and fish stocks may be replenished anew.

And then it came. And this beast was HUGE. I’m guessing head to toe this specimen would have been 2 metres long and with a considerable weight… certainly over 15Kgs by my estimation. This was the largest Water Monitor Lizard I had seen in Pasir Ris. I imagine for Singaporeans these creatures are somewhat “pass√©”, as they are relatively common. but to a European, they’re always fascinating – we have no creatures like this in the UK!!!

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“Tasting” the surroundings… Water Monitor’s sense much through their forked tongue.

I’d photographed them before, swimming capably, often flicking out that tongue to ‘taste’ (sense) their surroundings.

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In search of… prey, nests with eggs, chicks, etc.

 

Despite their size, they are consummate climbers and do so to pillage birds’ nests, to feast on eggs, or indeed chicks. My devious blog posting “David meets Goliath” narrates how a Stork Billed Kingfisher attacked a Water Monitor Lizard, most likely as an act to protect a nearby nest.

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On the day where this dam was again released, and once the waters had subsided, the tide was very low and much of what would typically be submersed was clearly visible. To my surprise, this very large Water Monitor emerged and had interesting strategies for taking full advantage of those rushing waters having ebbed.

The lizard clearly had something in mind and I was surprised to see this beast use its’ head to dislodge rocks, some of which I’d estimate to be in excess of 2 kilos. A flick of the tongue, on towards another group of rocks, and more dislodgment. A repeated pattern. I wondered what it was doing and had no idea that a feast awaited this creature…

It seems that fish, especially tilapia, had decided to take refuge under these rocks, in order to escape the unassailable flow of water that the unleashed dam had created. I can understand this in hindsight, as this flowing water would have been all but impossible for a fish to controllably swim in – it would have been swept clean away, most likely to become battered against rocks or similar during the unplanned journey. The fish were, however, now trapped in pools beneath these rocks, and had no ability to escape into the main waterway as it had totally receded. I could only see rocks and had no visibility of these pools beneath them. The Water Monitor Lizard, however, was using its’ tongue to ‘taste the air’, getting full sensory input as to where prey might be.

A39T9840-impAnd then they’d stop. Taste again. And move large rocks to investigate a potential bounty.

Like kingfishers, the ‘eyelids’, (those protective membranes that shield the eyes), would be called upon often whilst dining. I imagine this is to protect the eyes from the thrashing of it’s prey.

A39T9969-impIt was evident that the lizard was adept at fishing yet at times less than adept at holding it’s prey.

This tilapia was making a ‘break for it’ and had managed to wriggle out of the lizards’ clasp. But not for long.

A39T9974-impThe lizard quickly followed the tilapias’ fall and snapped its’ jaws closed to reclaim the meal, just barely managing to trap the fish in its’ clasp by getting hold of the top fin of the fish.

SO in this instance, there was little chance of escape for this fish, despite its’ valiant dash for freedom.

A39T9839-impThe Water Monitor Lizard dined well this afternoon.

It seems that maybe a shoal of tilapia had sought refuge in these rocks and perhaps normally this would have ben an excellent strategy for mitigating the unnavigable water and channels.

A39T9985-impBut not on this day.

Fish after fish were located, uncovered and unceremoniously devoured with great speed.¬†I wondered just how big this creature’s appetite might be.

A39T9990-impBut the gorging went on… sheer opportunism at its’ natural best.

I’d never seen a Water Monitor Lizard behave like this before.

8D3A1043-impI had seen them fight previously, in Sungei Buloh wetland reserve in Singapore. They get aggressive. ¬†Real Aggressive. And I’d not want to be on the receiving end of their jaws, claws or teeth. But they are very hardy creatures. This portrait shot reflects one that has been in a fight and has not emerged unscathed. Yet it seems unperturbed. Even when red ants are all over its’ wounds.

So what an afternoon I had in Pasir Ris! All manner of birds getting their daily fill of fish, and then some! And that was followed by having the chance to observe quite an awesome Water Monitor Lizard. What a treat! I’m glad i stayed around that day!

Happy Days ūüôā

 

Boy Scout Photography

I was never a member of the Scouts organisation. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because none of my friends at school were? But i remember the Scouts’ mantra… BE PREPARED.

Recently I went on a birding trip to Malaysia with my darling, and after a “full on” birding photography few days, the road trip back to Singapore came about.

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 12.33.31 pmIt’s around a 5 hour drive given traffic and other nonsense you may encounter on Malaysian roads. They have their share of good drivers; they also have their share that went to the George Lucas School of Driving, I think. This is because every now and then, it seems to me that a driver has decided to “just let go, and use the Force!”.

Somewhat wearisome, with mischief and mayhem thus far on the road managed and mitigated, I stopped along a main highway to ‘stretch the legs’. The place was NOISY! Truck stop. Cars. Limited parking spaces unfilled. Double parking. Triple parking. Anger. Horns. Highway within 50 metres. Food Court. Bathroom queues. Kids screaming. Parents out-screaming the kids. And then…

Just the faintest ‘seep – seep – seep’ was heard, cutting through the auditory salvo I was experiencing. I thought ‘I know that sound’ and went back to the car. For some time now I carry my birding tools of choice (Canon 1DX and EF 500mm f4 lens), in a long, and well padded backpack, on the back seat of the car. The gear was assembled, and ready to go with batteries and memory cards in situ. I grabbed the gear, dismissed the idea of bringing a tripod, and set off in search of the chirping.

I thought it was from a sunbird. Most likely an Olive Backed Sunbird, but I wasn’t sure. I checked the most likely places this bird might be and noticed a small row of Heliconeae plants (some call these Bird of Paradise plants) along the roadside. I knew these were a “sunbird fave” so made a beeline for these plants. And there he was. Just one male, merrily flitting between flowers and darting between plants. He was very skittish. I set the camera to TV mode, shutter speed to 1/2500 to freeze the motion, left the AWB and ISO on auto for now, just to get ‘a shot’. All thoughts of trying to mitigate harsh overhead Asian tropical sunlight were cast aside, with the only thought remaining… GET, THE, SHOT!”.

A39T5259-impI took only 3 frames before this bird flew away, but maybe that was OK? After all, I only needed one. When home, I looked at the 3 frames on the ‘big screen’ and instantly became happy I had been a Boy Scout that day. Being prepared had paid off. In the strangest of places. With a very small habitat for a discerning bird, I had gotten the shot I had hoped for. Could I have made this shot better? Set the camera up better for the conditions? Sure. I definitely could have. But if I had dallied, I’d have missed the shot. If I’d had to put the gear together, I’d have missed the shot.

So for some time now, ¬†my bird photography mantra stays with me, wherever and whenever I go shooting…

“always be prepared, and look for the chance,

for that one, last, shot”.

Happy Days.

Stalking the Stork Billed Kingfisher

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Stork Billed Kingfisher

Stork Billed Kingfishers are majestic birds seen quite commonly in Singapore, that have remained true to their kingfisher heritage… they dine predominantly, though not exclusively, on fish. ¬†Many naturalists categorise kingfishers these days into either River Kingfishers (like this one, and the Common Kingfisher ) or Tree Kingfishers (such as Collared, or White Throated).

I’ve had a fascination with kingfishers since around the age of 13, when a Common Kingfisher in the UK chose to use my fishing rod as a perch. The bird seemingly glanced in my direction and then proceeded to dive towards my feet with careless abandon, emerging from the water merely a few feet from where I was sitting, with its’ catch held firmly in its’ bill.¬†The bird returned to its’ perch on my fishing rod, shook the fish against my rod, cast me another accusatory glance, and flew off to eat the meal in peace.

In Singapore, we are blessed with several types of kingfishers, each of whom have their own personalities, habits, and indeed habitats. The Stork Billed Kingfisher (SBKF) is perhaps not as widespread as other species, but surely is a beautiful bird. I’d recently bought a longer lens for my bird photography and wanted to practice Birds In Flight (BIF) photography. What better subject, I thought, than the SBKF. So off I went to Pasir Ris mangroves, in search of what has become one of my favourite birds…

At first I took photographs of the SBKF with a Canon EF70-200mm f2.8 lens, fitted with a 1.4x teleconverter, just to get a feel for BIF photography. I thought it would be easier to keep the bird in the viewfinder whilst it flew, given my unpolished skills. After that I traded up to a Canon EF 300mm f2.8 lens, with a 2x teleconverter, and eventually progressed to a Canon EF 500mm f4 lens, with a1.4x teleconverter, all over the space of a few weeks.

After a period of heavy rain in Singapore, the Pasir Ris council decided to release water from catchment drains, that flow into the Tampines River. I’d prepared myself to shoot the SBKF, but when an inflatable dam was released, the torrent of water that ensued was quite considerable, as it made its’ way out towards the sea. Fellow birders packed equipment and left, as the water was terribly coloured and it seems unlikely that the SBKF I could see, perched in search of its’ next meal, would be able to spot fish in all the murkiness. I thought I’d wait a while and see if this smart bird had other hunting strategies in mind… I’m SO happy I did! The SBKF eventually espied a fish on the surface, and launched itself towards what may have been its’ only meal until the waters’ cloudiness eventually cleared…

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I Spy, with my little eye…

I followed the bird through my lens as it flattened out, uncharacteristically, along the surface of the water.

 

 

I hadn’t seen the fish, as it was easily 30 metres or more away from me, but I could see the bird was definitely after ¬†prey of some kind. Then through the viewfinder I saw momentarily the outline of the fish, and I began shooting in high speed, with autofocus set to servo. What a thrill! I hoped I had managed to at least get a few good shots of this…

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Gotcha!

The SBKF didn’t plunge into the water with verve, as it typically would; it focused more on grabbing the fish, almost casting abandon to its’ more traditional “missile shaped” attack and spectacular water entry strategies. But Mr Storkbill was victorious in securing its’ meal and pinned the fish between its’ mandibles, ensuring no chance of escape for the unsuspecting fish.

The splash, predictably, came, but not with the total disappearance of the bird for a microsecond, as is usual. The trajectory was too shallow to lose sight of the bird underwater, and given the waters’ ruddiness, it’s likely the bird is smart enough not to dive deeply, as underwater obstructions and debris surely would not be visible.

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A more controlled ‘splash’ than usual…

The bird placed all emphasis on ensuring the catch was held tight. I’m guessing that chicks were nearby and needed to be fed… most likely the bird was going to consume the prey and then regurgitate later? At that point I didn’t know. The bird emerged from the water majestically ¬†and took flight…

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A successful hunting foray for the SBKF and a hasty return to a perch followed…

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Back at the perch, now to get ready for my meal…

Kingfishers are very cautious and have a clear process that needs to be followed¬†before merrily consuming their catches. It’s not just a simple case of gulping down the fish straight away, as its’ life would be endangered if it did that…

First of all, the fish needs to be killed or at least stunned, before anything else is taken into account. And that means the fish needs smacking heartily against a thick branch.

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Get ready to be stunning…
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SMACK! That’s going to do it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the fish is audibly¬†thwacked on the branch, the protective membrane on the birds eyes are called upon for protection. This shields the birds’ eyes from its’ prey’s fins, tail or splashing water.

After all that, next comes the act of swallowing the fish – and another¬†process that can’t be trifled with. The bird needs to make sure that any spines that are on the fish do not get caught up in the birds’ throat – it could easily choke, otherwise.

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Let’s turn the fish around so I can swallow it head first…

So the prey is manipulated into swallowing position (always head first, so that spines and fins are all flattened), and then swallowing is simply a breeze.

Merely a large “gulp” and the meal has been sought with much patience, caught with total panache, and then handled with care and precision.

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A-Hunting we shall go…

After that, all that remains is to seek out another fish… which is exactly what this fellow did!

 

Happy Days !