Thursday, 5 March 2015

So close and yet so far...(28/02/15)

Perlis may be the smallest state in Peninsula Malaysia but it is certainly not short of surprises in terms of birding. Recently, more than a handful of Malaysia’s first records were discovered here in this northernmost state and it now has a reputation of being a twitcher’s paradise. The Universiti Malaysia Perlis Guest House is a small resort located in a particularly unknown area called Kurong Tegar and it was here that a Thai birder, Piyapong Chotipuntu, discovered what looked like Malaysia’s first Red-backed Shrike. Immediately, plans were made and strategies formed to try and relocate this vagrant the following weekend. And together with Dave, I made my way to my first twitch of the year.  

At first light, we started the search and it did not take long for us to come face to face with Malaysia’s first Red-backed Shrike. As it is a first record, I have no field experience with this species before but lucky for me, I had Dave and he was not truly convinced. The plumage was odd for a male Red-backed Shrike and this species is no stranger to hybridization which only made matters worse. So, we took as many shots as possible hoping that they will be enough to confirm his identity later. We needed a shot of its tail fanned out but the shrike had no intentions of making things that easy for us. Once we got back home, Dave studied the photos and did the research. I, mostly seek help from birding friends and experts. At the time of writing, the true identity of the shrike is yet to be confirmed but it is almost certain to be a hybrid because there are just too many inconsistencies for it to be a pure Red-backed Shrike.

There is a particular heap of cut branches that has become his favorite vantage point. We decided to spend quite some time there as the shrike will frequently return to this perch. Here, we managed to obtain the best images of this rare visitor.

When the sun was finally up, the shrike retreated into the compound of the resort and continued his morning hunt. We were allowed to enter the resort compound and we continued our efforts to obtain more photographs.

Eventually, we left the shrike in peace and proceeded to check out the surrounding areas especially the adjacent estuary. As made our way through the scrub, there were quite a number of Streak-eared Bulbuls present. Here in northern Peninsula Malaysia, this species is just as common as the Yellow-vented Bulbuls and both species seems to be doing well living next to each other.

When you are in Perlis, you should not take any species for granted. Not even the ever-abundant Eurasian Tree Sparrows because the similar-looking House Sparrow could be the next species to go into the Malaysian checklist. But nothing out of the ordinary about this Eurasian Tree Sparrow though. Except maybe the fact that it a little too close to the mudflats and risk getting stuck…

There were a number of waterbirds present on the small patch of mudflats next to the river mouth. Even at this distance, I could make out that some of the Pond-herons here were Javan Pond-herons. As we got closer, we counted 10 of these scarce migrants foraging at this locality and that figure alone was an exciting record.

We noticed a few egrets foraging at the water's edge and Dave commented that this habitat looks good for a Chinese Egret. And just like that, a partial breeding plumage Chinese Egret strolled into his field of view. I immediately diverted my attention to this globally endangered egret. It was unfortunate that it was not in full breeding plumage because this species is truly a sight to behold.

Chinese Egrets in all stages of non-breeding plumage is not easy to identify. They look very similar to the white-phased Pacific Reef-egret and it will take a discerning eye to tell them apart. Little Egrets sometimes sport a pale lower mandible, much like the non-breeding Chinese Egret and confusions arise when the legs and toes of the former are discoloured by mud or hidden from sight. Anyway, here is a comparison shot depicting the slight difference of their body structures with the Chinese Egret on the right.

And the rarities did not end there. Remarkably, this small patch of mudflats also had a Little Stint and a Swinhoe’s Plover – both rare migrants to Malaysia. As the rare peeps were a little to far away for my camera, I decided to turn my attention to a flock of Kentish Plovers. Some of the males are in their breeding plumages and look absolutely stunning.

Seeing that we were on a roll, we flogged the adjacent mangroves for other rarities that might be lurking. I guess expecting a Brown-winged Kingfisher or even a Black-hooded Oriole was pushing it a little. Although this part of Perlis is probably the closest you can get to the Langkawi Islands by land, it is still a very long shot as there is very little or no evidence of these two species occurring anywhere else in Malaysia except Langkawi. Nevertheless, we were rewarded with a brief view of the sexy blue back of a Ruddy Kingfisher as it darted past us and disappeared into the mangroves. In the end, we had to settle for an easier subject which was a confiding Mangrove Whistler. The whiplash calls of this species are usually the only telltale signs of its presence. Good views are hard to obtain and unobstructed photographs, even harder. So, it will do…

Since we have traveled all the way here from Penang, it only made sense to do a quick round of the other birding hotpots here in Perlis. Timah Tasoh was our next destination as the lake and surrounding scrublands can sometimes hold little surprises that can brightened up any birder’s day. However, nothing much of real interest was present today. Our only consolation was superb views of a pair of Bronzed Drongos. In good light, the iridescent markings do make this little drongo an object of admiration.

The grassland at Chuping was scorching and dusty. But it would be a sin to give this site a miss as we were just a few kilometers away. So, we decided to make it the last leg of our Perlis excursion. It was a decision that we certainly did not live to regret. A small flock of Oriental Pratincoles finally gave us a reason to stop and do some birding instead of trawling along the grasslands that was almost void of bird life.

It was a very warm and bright afternoon. Not the sort of lighting condition that you wish for in a photo shoot. But despite it, we managed to capture some really good images of this enigmatic wader. The confiding nature of the flock no doubt played a big role for the result of this encounter.

During our last trip here, we flushed a sandpiper from one of the ponds that had Dave, because of the brief view we were given, reluctantly dismiss a Green Sandpiper for the commoner Wood Sandpiper in the end. A visit to the same pond was inevitable and again, a slightly dark sandpiper was flushed. But this time it landed on the far end of the pond instead of doing a disappearing act like the last time. It was a Green Sandpiper after all – just as we had suspected. The Green Sandpiper may not be much of a looker but its rare status was enough to garner our admiration. We left the ponds some time after because the sandpiper showed no sign that we can improve on our images. Both of us thought the Green Sandpiper is a great way to end a truly rewarding trip. So we thought…

A quick scan on the towering pylons over the grassland produced something that made me feel a little light headed. It has been many years since the last I saw this raptor in real life and now, I finally have a chance to capture its images. The Short-toed Eagle has been sporadically recorded here in Chuping over the past two seasons but somehow, it has always managed to elude me.

I cannot believe that our last bird for the trip turned out to be another rarity. Unlike the earlier rarities, this was a magnificent bird of prey. We were running a little late as I have a family dinner later that evening but I was enjoying a Short-toed Eagle and that was a strong enough reason to risk the wrath of my better half. When it took flight, it circled back twice before flying away – much to our delight. It could be making up for all those times that it let me down in the past. Or it just wanted to have a better look at those humans standing under the hot sun covered with dust but with a wide grin on their faces.

So, here concludes our birding adventure to the beloved state of Perlis. One last shot of the Short-toed Eagle to wrap things up this time. With one “first” record for Malaysia, a handful of rare migrants and just enough time to make it back for a family dinner, this trip is certainly up there among the best for me.


John Holmes said...

Great Short-toed Eagle shots...

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thank you, John.

john said...

I second John Holmes's comment. Those are great shots, the pratincoles as well. I have seen many Red-backed Shrikes in Africa and I doubt that your shrike is a Red-backed. nevertheless they are great photos of a beautiful bird.

Choy Wai Mun said...

Thanks, John! Yes, the shrike is almost certain to be a hybrid.