The second leg of my road trip brought me to the vast open grassland of Chuping in Perlis. This unique habitat is a double-edged sword. It has more than enough space to accommodate both the residents and the influx of passage migrants and winter visitors but with that much space to go round, a rarity could be taking refuge somewhere undetected for the entire duration of one's visit and in my case, one and a half days.
I stayed at a basic homestay-cum-motel in the bustling town of Changlun which is a 15-minute drive to the birding site. The motel was clean and it provided a place for me to sleep and shower. That is all I ever need in an accommodation during a birding trip. It even has free Wi-Fi and that was an unexpected luxury.
It was the peak of the migratory season and I was at 'the place' to be for rare migrants. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Mother Nature had other plans. It rained in the late afternoon on both the days I was there. And as far as rare migrants go, I had a brief encounter with two Red-throated Pipits that did not even hang around long enough for me to take a single shot. That was it. But this is what birding is all about. You have your good days and you have your bad days.
Fortunately, all was not lost as I did not go home empty handed in the end. Some of the commoner species did their best to resuscitate the trip and the Common Stonechat was certainly one of them. This male performed exceptionally well and I obtained the best images of this species to date.
The females, on the other hand, were shy and difficult to approach - even by car. The only way to bird at this locality is from a car as there is a lot of area to cover. Birds tend to be more tolerant to an approaching vehicle than a human but I guess someone forgot to tell those girls that.
The Asian Pied Starling has been removed from our official checklist as the authorities have come to the conclusion that all birds found within the borders of Peninsula Malaysia originated from introduced birds. A pair of these striking birds was foraging among the grass just outside the sugar factory. They did not seem to mind the drizzle and neither did I. Well, maybe I was just too preoccupied with obtaining their images.
I can still remember back in the early '90s when I came across a few odd-looking birds at a vegetable farm on the way back from school. I quickly rush home, grabbed my bins and notebook and went back to the locality, determined to solve the mystery birds' identification. Eventually, I managed to identify my very first Asian Pied Starling. It got a lot more interesting when Ben King's A Fieldguide to the Birds of Southeast Asia (that was the only fieldguide available at that time) stated that this species does not occur in Malaysia. However a quick check with my mentor, Kanda, revealed that these are introduced birds and I fell back to Earth with a thump. Now, almost three decades later, this starling still has yet to obtain its Malaysian citizenship.
The Little Cormorants were at the same spot from my last visit and from what I have heard you are almost guaranteed to see them here. I guess they are truly enjoying the Malaysian hospitality. This time a total of seven birds were present at the pond and its surroundings but again, none were close enough for any good images.
While contemplating on what I have to do to get a decent shot of these cormorants, a huge silhouette flew almost overhead and it turned out to be a Purple Heron.
The pond also houses a healthy population of Little Grebes. My obsession with the much rarer cormorants made me feel kind of guilty for neglecting these adorable little waterfowls. Sorry, bud. You know I still love you, right?
This is my first record of Lesser Whistling Ducks here at Chuping. Nothing unusual about this record as this duck has been recorded here before. But they did a real fine job of eluding me until now.
The harriers were present at the grassland as expected but I did not manage to obtain any really good shots. Here is a subadult male Pied Harrier seen resting on a distant tree sapling. According to Chaiyan, Pied Harriers are the first to moult into full adult plumage and a plumage stage like this one is not often encountered here in their Malaysian wintering ground.
Another resting harrier but this is a male Eastern Marsh Harrier. He seemed to prefer a more down-to-earth choice of resting location.
A little brown job flitting about one of the access trails got me all excited initially. To my dismay, it turned out to be only an Asian Brown Flycatcher that did not feel like it wanted to behave like one today.
Talking about little brown jobs, here is a Zitting Cisticola just chilling - on a single strand of grass. And it made it look so comfortable.
In the absence of rarities, I guess even the commonest species became good photography subjects like this resting Cattle Egret.
Huge numbers of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters of up to 100 birds were recorded on this trip. The figure undoubtedly includes those on passage as well. Unlike the ones back in Penang, they are not so tolerant to human presence and photographic opportunities were far and few.
A juvenile Barn Swallow spending his first winter here in Chuping. Welcome to Malaysia...
I headed back home to Penang earlier than expected because it started to pour at the grassland in the late afternoon again. Besides, there was nothing much about anyway. I thought of making a detour to a birding site along the way but the weather did not permitted that until I crossed the state border of Penang. The closest site to my position when the rain finally stopped was the swamp forest of Air Hitam Dalam. Despite the cold and gloomy conditions, the detour was a good decision because I had this handsome male Yellow-rumped Flycatcher for company. The low light was testing my gear's capabilities to the max. Even though a lot of images did not turn out well, the confiding nature of the flycatcher made it a memorable encounter.
The only other bird that I managed to shoot was this Abbott's Babbler. More often heard than seen, I have been trying in vain to obtain better images of this species for quite a while now. And today, it was certainly very obliging.
I could not think of a better way to end my road trip than to spend the last few hours of daylight with a couple of exceptionally friendly feathered friends. It was certainly one of the highlights of my trip. And the irony of it all is that they were not even rare species and it took place right in one of my local patches.