We could not have asked for a better day to do the autumn pelagic on Saturday 28 September 2019. The sea was calm, with a light breeze blowing. The sun was shining through as the month-long haze seemed to have dissipated, in part due to the change in direction of the monsoon winds.
Our first bird of the day, a crested tern flying over. We were blessed with good weather and calm seas today.
On the boat was also Audrey Tan, Environment Correspondent at the Straits Times, and her photo journalist Lim Yaohui. They had joined us on this trip to learn more about the research which the Nature Society (Singapore) and the National Parks Board are conducting to survey and study the seabirds which use the Strait of Singapore on their annual autumn and spring migrations.
The happy NSS survey team at the end of the trip at Sentosa Cove.
Three hours into the boat trip and we were cruising north of Batam Island when we saw a small flock of dark-shaped birds floating on the waters just ahead of us. They looked like the storm petrels which we had been seeing flying in small flocks westwards on their way to the Indian Ocean earlier. In total, we would have seen 118 of these Swinhoe’s Storm Petrels, Oceanodroma monorhis, when we finished the trip that day. This was a far cry from the 532 which we had on a similar pelagic last September.
Part of a flock of 11 Red-necked Phalaropes we found floating on the waves. Photo: Lim Kim Keang.
The dark-shaped birds flew up as we got nearer, their white underwings and bodies gleaming in the bright sun. Kim Keang, our leader for the trip, shouted “Phalarope!” but it was lost to those on board!
We got very close to these three Red-necked Phalaropes as they were busy feeding on the small marine crustaceans among the sea grasses. Photo: Lim Kim Keang. Their habit of swimming around in small circles helps to pool the food to the center for easy pickings.
Floating further on the water were 11 Red-necked Phalaropes, Phalaropus lobatus, while another 3 were much closer, allowing all on board to have good close-up views. As they were feeding and flying around the boat, there were ample opportunities to photograph them. This was the first sighting of multiple phalaropes in a flock as the previous three sightings were of single birds. Interestingly all were juveniles.
The Red-necked Phalarope foraging among a sea of floating sea grasses out in the Straits. Photo: Shruti.
Terns also put up a good show. There were 55 Bridled Terns, Sterna anaethetus, with two flocks of 18 and 7 flying eastwards in the direction of Horsburgh Lighthouse.
A breeding Bridled Tern resting on a plank by Wilson Leung. The head pattern is similiar to the Aleutian but the dark plumage of the Bridled Tern is a good identification feature for this tern.
Aleutian Terns, Sterna aleutica, that migrated all the way from Alaska was a species which we hope we could show to the members on board. They did not disappoint. 15 adults, 8 of them still in their breeding plumage and a juvenile were present.
An Aleutian Tern in breeding plumage. They are often seen resting on flotsams. Presence of a small wintering population recorded at the Karimun Islands in 1998.
Aleutian Tern in non-breeding plumage showing the dark trailing edge of the secondaries, a good identification feature for this tern.
Also seen were 4 Common Terns, Sterna hirundo, comprising two adults and two juveniles. These uncommon terns (despite their name) were resting on flotsam and all were happy to manage close-up shots of them.
One of the four Common Terns we saw during the trip. This one is in breeding plumage.
As the Crested Terns were in flight and at a distance, it took a while before they were separated and counted. There were 24 Swift Terns, Thalasseus bergii, (formerly Great Crested) and 10 Lesser Crested Terns, Thalasseus bengalensis, with four being unidentified. 6 Little Terns, Sterna albifrons, were also seen on the trip and these may be winter visitors.
A hazy looking Swift Tern. It is a large tern that can be found flying along the Straits of Johor. Photo: Alan OwYong.
Other birds seen on the trip include a Great-billed Heron, Ardea sumatrana, on Sister’s Island, 5 Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica, flying south, an Intermediate Egret, Egretta intermedia, and a soaring Chinese Sparrowhawk, Accipiter soloensis.
A Bridled Tern flying in the same direction of the tanker towards Horsburgh Lighthouse, where seven specimens were collected in October 1921, our first record of this tern.
A big thank you to Alfred Chia for making all the arrangements for this trip and to everyone for helping out with the count.
Many thanks to Lim Kim Keang, Alan OwYong, Shruti and Wilson Leung for the use of their photos.
Reference: A Field Guide to the Waterbirds of Asia. Wild Birds Society of Japan. Lim Kim Seng. The Avifauna of Singapore. Nature Society (Singapore) 2009.