Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Laem Pak Bia: Gull Crazy

Heuglin's Gull (2w)

I decided late morning 3rd January 2012 to head to Laem Pak Bia in Phetchburi province.  It was an amazing day and any initial concerns about travelling later in the day, after the morning high tide and into busy roads with New Year trippers heading back home, were soon diminished. First a Black Kite circled above me a little bit down the Petchkasem Highway from home and then the  eagles put on a completely unexpected show for me, also above the highway, this time as I passed the Norng Blah Lai area: 2 Booted Eagles, 2 Greater Spotted Eagles and 1 Steppe Eagle. Just like that!  They hung around long enough for me to stop the car, get out and have a look.

Heuglin's Gull (2w)

Initially Laem Pak Bia was very quiet. I went into the Abandoned Building but nothing to get excited about here. A couple of Black-tailed Godwits, a few Red-necked Stint and, on the way out, a Common Kingfisher. The track out into the salt pans was blocked so access was impossible.

I then drove up to Laem Pak Bia proper past the King's Project and large flocks of waders were visible on my left and almost on cue they took to the air and moved towards the sea; mainly Great Knot I believe. I headed down the side road onto the sea side salt pans proper and met with a small flock of Curlew Sandpiper and Red-necked Stints. I could see huge flocks of birds massing further in and proceeded on towards them. These birds were on the move as I approached which provided great views of fast moving waders: thousands of birds.

I then witnessed one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen in my short time as a birder: a small flock of 16 Pied Avocets put on an aerial display, first of all as a group within a much larger group of waders and then they broke away on their own and swooped and swerved above the salt pans for a few minutes before disappearing. I want to know how these birds can perform with such poise and ability and at speed and not crash into each other! The avocets' colours, a very bright white with pronounced black primaries and other black markings on the scapulars and coverts, really enhanced the spectacle. I was in no doubt about this identification even though this was only my second sighting of Pied Avocet.

No photographs sadly but I was just happy to observe. I proceeded further along the track: huge flocks of Plovers and Great Knots, lots of Marsh Sandpipers and Spotted Redshanks, and plenty of other smaller waders. For my efforts I was rewarded with 4 Nordmann's Greenshanks and no sooner was I set up to photograph them than off they went. This looks to be avery reliable spot for Nordmann's as I saw them here on my last visit. Then all went quiet and I decided to investigate a flock of gulls.

This is when it got complicated! In the middle of a large dispersed group of Brown-headed Gulls there were some big gulls that were definitely not Brown-headed. I counted nine of them in total. They really do stick out as they look so different and are considerably larger. Unfortunately I was facing into the sun plus the birds were 200 - 250 m away. Add in my real inexperience with such complex species. But I was buzzing, I was excited, because I really didn't know what I was looking at it.

So I legged it round to the main road and walked into the salt pans. This way I managed to put the sun behind me. For the first time in a long time I switched to the 20-60 zoom eyepiece and cranked it up to 50 mm. In view of the wind I also had to shoot at between 200 to 800  ISO in order to use a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate shake. So these are not the clearest shots but they serve their purpose for records and for assisting with IDs.

Twenty-four hours later I am still struggling to ID most of these gulls. I've had a lot of help from Lou Salomon, a BirdForum member, who called the pictures above of the second winter Heuglin's Gull.  But I have also learned from my efforts that the identification of large "white-headed gulls" remains highly problematic. Let me quote Craig Robson, A Field Guide to the Birds of Thailand and South-East Asia, on this subject:

The systematics and identification of all taxa formerly considered as races of either Herring Gull L. argentatus and Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus occurring worldwide have received much attention in recent years. There is growing evidence, based on the study of qualitative differences in morphology, moult, behaviour, ecology,voice and mitochondrial DNA sequences, that several forms, previously regarded as subspecies of either one of the above-mentioned species may, in fact, be better considered full species. Among the most perplexing taxa of all are those that occur or are likely to occur in South-East Asia." ) (My underlining).
So I am mightily relieved to learn it is not simply me! But I do want to learn more about these amazing birds. I am not going to even attempt to ID these birds. I am happy to admit I am out of my depth. So if you can assist with ID please feel free to comment. There are some enquiries pending too so maybe I will be able to make further progress with the IDs.

For me, a perfect day! I am so glad I made it down to Laem Pak Bia. Ah, as I write, I have just finished my first day back at work. I have a very busy schedule over the next two months so I am not sure I am going to be doing a lot of birding.  But what a great  time I have had this last week or so, a great fix. The not insignificant matter of the birth of our second child is imminent, mid-February, and work will be crazy in the build up to the end of the academic year at the end of February. I am not complaining.......

1 comment:

  1. Hi, nice to see another Thai bird blog here in blogger! Laem Pak Bia is sure a great place for birding. I really enjoyed visiting there when I was in Thailand. The gulls in your photos are mostly Heuglin's Gulls as you said, except for the paler one in the 4th and 6th shot from the top which seems to be a first-winter Mongolian Gull (L.mongolicus). The bird was spotted at the sand spit since November but the identification of it still hasn't been settled. I also believe that the one in the first photo is indeed a third or fourth year Heuglin's Gull. A second year bird should be looking somewhat like this