Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Year of Tiger Shrike

This year's Lunar New Year is on 14th of February, will be celebrated by more than a quarter of the world's population. The Lunar New Year is an official and major holiday in the East Asia region, from as far north in the Heilongjiang in China and Mongolia to the south of the island city of Singapore, and from the east of Korean Peninsula to Xinjiang and Tibet of China.

If you are interested to understand more about the Chinese New Year and the Chinese lunisolar calender, I strongly recommend a paper "The Mathematics of the Chinese Calender" by Helmer Alasksen, a professor from the National University of Singapore (NUS). This calender has major cultural and social influence to Chinese, Mongolian, Manchurian, Korean, Vietnamese and Okinawan (Ryukyuan), and minor influence to Japanese (Japan adopted Gregorian calender after the Meiji restoration).

The animal zodiac for this year's lunar new year is the Tiger. Thus, I would like to select a bird to represent the year of Tiger - the Tiger Shrike (Lanius tigrinus), (虎纹伯勞). Tiger Shrike is a monotypic species, it is a winter migrant in peninsular Malaysia and Singapore.

The majority of shrikes are large-headed, hook-beaked and sharp-clawed. Only raptors, owls and shrikes are sharp-clawed birds. The sharp claws are their lethal weapon when preying. Occasionally, I classify shrike as a "raptor of passerine" (haha...) due to their sharp claws and their hunting behaviour which are closely similar to the raptor, especially the falconet. Following are my observation of Tiger Shrike and other species of Shrikes.

A juvenile Tiger Shrike eating wasp:

Shrikes are principally birds of open country, prefer to perch on the prominent lookouts such as posts, stick or tall bushes to search for their preys, which ranges from small birds and mammals, to insects, lizards and frogs. I learned they also know how to use thorn or bamboo branch (tools) to tear the meat.
Check out this LINK to learn more on how shrike preying on small bird.

There are 30 species of shrikes widespread across Europe, Asia and Africa, only two species in the North America. There are three main species of shrikes occur in Peninsular Malaysia and all are the winter visitors. The species include the Tiger Shrike, Brown Shrike and Long-tailed Shrike.

Brown Shrikes, Lanius cristatus (红尾伯勞) are the most widespread species, they breed in the northern Asia and winter in South Asia and South-east Asia. It is the most common shrike in Penang.

There are four subspecies of Brown Shrikes, namely superciliosus, cristatus, lucionensis and confusus. L.c. superciliosus has warm rufous-brown upperparts, broad mask from forehead to ear-coverts bordered by broad white supercilia joining on the white forehead. It is a common shrike in Japan, but I have yet to see any of this subspecies.

L.c. cristatus is like a pale superciliosus with colder, sandy-brown crown, white supercilia has less contrast, forehead narrower. Here are the cristatus subspecies I spotted in Taiwan.
L.c. lucionensis subspecies (灰头红尾伯勞), has ash-grey on forehead with variable white above black mask, crown and nape grey, mantle greyish-brown. I spotted this subspecies in Taipei Botanic Gardens, Taiwan, it was my subspecies lifer with distinguishable grey head.
L.c. confusus subspecies resembles lucionensis, but head browner and broader white forehead.

Check out this LINK to learn more about the distribution of the Brown Shrikes.

Long-tailed Shrike, Lanius schach (长尾伯勞) is the rarest shrike in Malaysia, it has many subspecies, which include the longicaudatus, schach, bentet, formosae, tricolor and etc.

The bentet subspecies is the common Long-tailed Shrike in this region, it has grey scapular with whitish outer edge, I spotted this subspecies in KLT, Ipoh, was my subspecies lifer.
The formosae subspecies (棕背伯勞) has thicker rufous scapular, whereas the schach subspecies has thinner rufous on the scapular as compared to formosae. I spotted the formosae subspecies in Yilan, Taiwan, it was my subspecies lifer.

There are other subspecies of Long-tailed Shrikes, longicaudatus and tricolor occur in South Asia and Northern part of mainland South-east Asia, nastutus in Philippines and East Sabah. I wish one day I will be able to see them, including the adult Tiger Shrike.

Tips to identify and to differentiate the Brown, Tiger and Long-tailed Shrikes:
1. Brown Shrikes have rufous-brown tail, wing is longer than tail.
2. Tiger Shrikes, mantle, wings, rump and tail rufous-brown/chestnut, mostly with distinct black scaling. Mostly with distinct slightly over-sized bill.
3. Long-tailed Shrikes, with black, grey, white and rufous plumage, long black graduated tail, and rounded tip.

I hope the reader will learn something about shrikes and its subspecies, hope that more birders will pay more attention to shrikes, especially the multi-subspecies of Brown Shrike and Long-tailed Shrike. Hope one day, we will have more information about the type of subspecies that occur in Malaysia and Singapore. Kindly feedback to me if you find any mistake in the subspecies identification.

Last but not least, please view this video clip:
Don't let this be the last year of the Tiger, join TX2 to save the Malayan Tiger.

Happy Lunar New Year, 新年快乐。

** I would like to thank Connie Khoo for the Long-tailed Shrike and Tiger Shrike in KLT, Ipoh, both were my lifers. Thanks to Eu Meng as a birding companion for my second Tiger Shrike in SBG.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Red-bearded Bee-eaters, Maxwell Hill.

Maxwell Hill (or Bukit Larut) is located on the Bintang Range and near to the Taiping town. It is one of the popular montane birding sites for most birders from the northern part of Malaysia. Check out this LINK to find out more about Maxwell Hill.

I visited Maxwell Hill (or Bukit Larut) for a night (29-30 January) and stayed in a nice, comfortable and well maintained bungalow - The Nest. Check out this LINK to find out more about this bangalow.

On the first day morning, I saw more than five Red-bearded Bee-eaters at the Green House, they are really beautiful with brilliantly-coloured plumage.

The most fascinating behavior I observed was the fanned-out tail shown by one of the bee-eater with a very loud call, my guess for the behaviour was either for courtship or as a warning signal to its opponents.

Look at the fanned-out tail, an enchanting yellow and black tail, with the total of twelve feathers. For me, the fanned-out tail looks like a Brazilian samba dancer.

I was lucky to have few lifers there, the most exciting lifer was the four Malayan Partridges foraging along the jeep road, they were more than 50m away from me. Even though the picture is not that clear, but it is still a memorable lifer record for me.
Another lifer was the Ochraceous Bulbul:

In this trip, what I had spotted were mainly the montane resident species, included the Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher:
Rufous-Browed Flycatcher

Streaked Spiderhunter,

Black-throated Sunbird, Mountain Bulbul, Black Crested Bulbul, Wreathed Hornbill, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Lesser Raquet-tailed Drongo, White-throated Fantail, Large Niltava, Mountain Fulveta, Chestnut-crowned Laughingthrush, and etc.

Happy digiscoping.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Hungry Parakeets, Singapore.

Parakeets are grouped in the same order of parrots (Psittaciformes). They have short and hooked bills, brilliantly-coloured plumage and strong, flexible zygodactyl feet that can be used for gripping food.

I was lucky to be able to observe closely two species of parakeets in Singapore during my January visit.
The most interesting observation was the flock of Long-tailed Parakeets feeding on the oil palm fruits in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The flock has more than 20 parakeets competing for the ripe fruits on the oil palm trees. It was my first experience encountering with the feeding behaviour of the parakeets.
They have strong beaks which are used as a tool to pull the fruits out from the palm tree. Their legs are like their hands and are used to grasp or hold the fruits while eating.
I noticed that the male is the most aggressive and usually snatched the palm fruit from the females or the weaker juveniles. I even saw a male parakeet, which dared to risk possible danger by feeding on the fruit that dropped to the ground.
I wonder why, I can't see a single parakeet in my hometown in Penang, even though we have plenty of oil palms, I guess it must be due to illegal poaching that has reduced the population of the bird.

Another species that I spotted was my lifer at Bukit Batok Nature Park - the Red-breasted Parakeet. The observation was the social behaviour of an adult parakeet feeding the juvenile. This must be a survival lesson taught by the adults to the juvenile on how to find the edible food.
After the feeding lesson, all five parakeets flew away in a flock. (picture courtesy of Khng Eu Meng, thanks for taking me to Bukit Batok Nature Park):
This was my beautiful birding and digiscoping trip.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Woodpeckers and the Hornbills, Singapore.

Most burrow and tree cavity nesters are beautiful and fascinating birds, they are either from the order of Coraciformes or Piciformes, which include the bee-eaters, kingfishers, rollers, hoopoe, hornbills, woodpeckers, barbets and toucans.

Bee-eaters and kingfishers are usually nest in the burrows, whereas hornbill and woodpeckers hack their way into the living wood. Barbets, on the other hand, usually prefer dead or softer wood. Their unique breeding behaviour in cavities has made them an environment-sensitive birds. They need a robust and healthy forest, stable soil or burrow to build their nests.

Moreover, the woodpecker is very important to the hornbill's breeding cycle. The used and abandoned woodpecker's nest is in turn occupied by the hornbill if the cavity is still in good condition. Therefore, further observations of woodpecker behaviour would be interesting as it would allow for the better understanding of the biological relationship between the woodpecker and hornbill.

I spotted four species of woodpeckers in Singapore Botanic Gardens (SBG). Besides SBG, many woodpeckers can also be found in other forest reserves in Singapore. The woodpeckers that I spotted in Singapore are shown as follows:

All these species are either small or medium size woodpeckers, I do not know whether their used nest will be useful to the hornbill. I had seen many large size woodpecker, the Great Slaty Woodepeckers in Temengor Forest Reserve in Malaysia during the Hornbill Volunteer Program. The high population of Great Slaty point to the presence of a sustainable forest for the woodpeckers and the hornbills. But in Singapore, I have yet to encounter any large size woodpecker, namely the Great Slaty Woodpecker and White-bellied Woodpecker.

So, will the hornbill need to rely on the man-made cavities from now onwards? In order to secure the future of the hornbills, should their conservation programme include the ensuring of a healthy population of large size woodpeckers as well?