Thursday, 22 January 2015

Northern windfall (17/01/2015)

There were three target birds for this trip to Chuping in Perlis - the Brahminy Starling, Richard's Pipit and Oriental Skylark. The two hour drive was a breeze due to the prospect of twitching (there, I've said it) three possible lifers. So, it was three Penang birders, Choo Eng, Muin and yours truly against three birds that were not even in the Malaysian checklist a couple of years back. It was certainly a beautiful morning with a sea of grass contrasting against the sunny blue northern sky.

Just as we were about to hit the dusty network of access trails, an Oriental Honey Buzzard doing its best impression of a Common Buzzard diverted us into side path that cuts through a rubber plantation and scrub. As we left kicking ourselves for letting this species getting the better of us again, Choo Eng spotted a reed warbler resting out in the open. Once the warbler realized our intentions, it quickly moved into hiding. I took a few record shots because anything with feathers in Chuping is a potential rarity. The warbler vanished into the vegetation shortly after but when I looked through the images, it turned out to be a Thick-billed Warbler. A species that I have only seen once before in my life and it was from this locality as well. The trip was off to a flying start!

There were quite a number of Long-tailed Shrikes present today. However, this species is naturally shy and good shots are difficult to obtain. I had to settle for this slightly unkempt individual because it was the only one that was slightly more confiding than the rest.

A couple of weeks back, Dave recorded a Brahminy Starling here in Chuping and last week, he managed to obtain a few tantalizing images of this vagrant and from his description of the bird's habits, it seemed to have a thing for the pylon labelled 54/72. When we reached the location of this pylon, we spilt up to look for the starling on foot. Muin saw it first and upon receiving his alert, we rushed to his position only to find the celebrity bird gone. We failed to relocate it despite a careful sweep of the area. I thought to myself then that it was going to be a very long day. When I gradually regain my composure, I remembered the pylon and started to scan these behemoth steel structures one by one. And there it was on pylon 54/72 - just as Dave promised!

We stalked out at the pylon on a few occasions and the starling did return to its favorite perch. Unfortunately, it was rather wary of our presence and we only managed distant shots. But it was still an exciting lifer and a stunning one as well. Welcome to Malaysia, bud...

With lifer #1 in the bag, we set our sights on our next target, the Oriental Skylark - a first record for Malaysia last season. As we moved in on the coordinates given by Dave (yes, he recorded it again last week), we came across a field being plough by a tractor. All of a sudden, a smallish quail ran across the field just next to the access trail.  To make a long story short, three full grown men were made to play cat and mouse with a bird the size of a tennis ball - much to the amusement of the workers present. Our persistence prevailed and it was a female Blue-breasted Quail, a lifer for my companions. This was my best effort at the end of the chase.

The field where Dave saw the skylark had plenty of Red-throated Pipits when he was there. Well, the pipits were certainly around but there were no signs of any skylark. Reluctantly, we turned our attention to the pipits. Red-throated Pipits are rare migrants to most parts of Peninsula Malaysia. Here in Chuping, it is quite regular and occurs in unbelievably high numbers. We counted no less than 50 birds but not even one was gracious enough to provide a decent photographic opportunity. They are surprisingly well camouflaged and by the time you get close enough or spot one, it will fly just far enough to deny you a good shot.

When we had enough of these pipits showing off their defense mechanisms against lumbering birders, we moved on to our third and final target. The Richard'sPipit is a split from the ever-abundant Paddyfield Pipit a few years ago. Apparently, the former is a rare migrant to Malaysia and the call and flight pattern are the best distinguishing features between the two species. When we finally at 'the' field (yes, Dave again), we walked into the long grass and almost immediate a Richard's Pipit shot straight up into the sky while uttering its call and flew away horizontally for miles before disappearing back into the long grass. Unfortunately, we did not manage to capture a single shot but it was lifer #2 for me nevertheless. All my experiences with Pipits have taught me a sure way to identify the Oriental Pipit from the rest. If it poses for you to shoot from every possible angle without even a flinch, it is an Oriental Pipit.

The male Siberian Stonechats are coming into breeding plumage and they look devilishly handsome when they flit about the grassland. The northern winds will find their way here to Peninsula Malaysia at this time of the year and for small birds, the unobstructed landscape can be a taxing place to live. This stonechat was having a tough time finding his balance in the onslaught of the strong winds. And we were finding it hard to obtain photos without blurred motion.

But for the raptors, they were in their element. Their long wings enable them to take full advantage of the wind's energy. Harriers being the most graceful raptor around were a sheer delight to observe. This female Pied Harrier and her larger relative, the Eastern Marsh Harrier, put on quite an aerial performance to solve a territorial dispute.

A Eurasian Kestrel feeding on a lizard prey deserves attention no matter how far it is perched or how high, on this occasion.

I never had much luck with photographing Ospreys. These migratory raptors are usually shy and they are not so common to begin with in the first place. However, this lone bird that flew relatively low provided my best images of this graceful raptor to date.

From the grasslands, we then turned our attention to the small pockets of secondary forest along the fringes in search of the elusive Racket-tailed Treepie - another northern speciality. But the closest we came to a Treepie were the Black Drongos. This open country drongo finds shade from the midday sun along the tree lines and at times, quite a number can be found on a single tree.

Without much luck at the forest pockets, we drove to the ponds at the northern end and were greeted by a flock of Cotton Pygmy Geese. The only other resident duck in Peninsula Malaysia, it is more uncommon than the Lesser Whistling-ducks and a lot better looking.

Unfortunately, they were as shy as they are adorable and any attempts to reduce the distance between us and the ducks ended with the latter flying further and further away.

A lone Pheasant-tailed Jacana paddling along the far side of the pond is a new record for Chuping. It is not unexpected to record this uncommon migrant here as the habitat is ideal and there are records from the nearby Timah-Tasoh Lake.

We patiently waited for this migratory jacana to come closer but it never did. So, I ended shooting more obliging subject like these resident Little Grebes. The population of Little Grebes and Eurasian Moorhens at these ponds are doing well indeed and I cannot think of any other place I have been in Peninsula Malaysia that has such a high concentration of these waterfowls.

To wrap things up for another outstanding trip here, we came across an Indian Roller that had just caught a gigantic grasshopper. The lighting condition was just right for me to capture fast action shots and with much clarity for once. Chuping again prove itself to be 'the' place for rarities and vagrants. Two lifers in a single trip is very much a rarity for me now and I was not too disappointed about dipping out on the skylark. A couple of months left before the end of the migratory season and then it will be a very anxious wait to see how much of this unique habitat will lose its place to the encroaching rubber plantations. And will Chuping still remain a sanctuary for unexpected winter visitors. That is something only time can tell. 


zhong ying koay said...

Wow !!! A great and fruitful trip you had... so envy... good job !!!

digdeep said...

Some outstanding shots and a great write-up Mun. I certainly hope to do at least one more visit this season. A minor correction - Wandering Whistling-Duck is also resident in Malaysia, though not in the Peninsula of course!

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thanks, Zhong. It was certainly a good trip.

Thanks, Dave. It's become a bad habit of mine not to include East Malaysia as Malaysia.