Ben and I entered the boundaries of the former sugarcane plantation of Chuping slightly before dawn on the scold day of our tour. The Savanna Nightjars were still patrolling their territories and their single-note calls pierced through the misty grasslands. At first light, we were scanning the ploughed fields as there was plenty of bird activity. Yesterday, the Red-throated Pipits managed to evade our every attempt to photograph them. Naturally, I kept an eye out for them today and we managed to capture one foraging in the golden light of morning. The distance hampered the quality of the photos but because this pipit is notoriously difficult to photograph, you will not hear a peep from me.
The small passerines might be early risers but this lone male Pied Harrier appeared a little sluggish as he rested among the ploughed fields. I told Ben that this is usually as good as it gets with this wary raptor and he should take a few more shots before we crept closer in our vehicle.
I could hardly believe it when the harrier was the least bothered by our approach and stayed put. This is the closest I have ever approach a resting harrier and it was a little too early in the morning to be hallucinating. Things are rarely perfect when birding. But a handsome male Pied Harrier absolutely at ease and posing beautifully in the rays of the early morning sun is about as close to perfection as I could imagine.
The harrier made me look bad by being so confiding and Ben is probably thinking "Shy...yeah, right". But he provided one of the best moments in my birding life. The rest of Chuping beckons but there was no way we could leave him without taking some time to sit back, relax and truly soak in the moment. And moments like these are forever.
There is no sure thing when it comes to birding. The birds are wild and free creatures. So, when you think you have them all figured it out, they do something unexpected. And unexpected can sometimes turn to unprecedented.
The Pied Harriers of Chuping were not quite done and a second male provided a breathtaking aerial performance. It is hard to imagine a creature so graceful and elegant to be a deadly bird of prey but that is what the harrier is.
Either it was my gear or my own doing; some of the photos did not turn out quite as well as I hoped for. I had to settle for another memorable experience that was only fully captured in my memory.
Our next encounter with a harrier was this juvenile Pied Harrier quartering the grassland in search of food. Although, it usually does not prey on big birds like egrets but its presence made a flock of Cattle Egrets uneasy and the latter was constantly put to flight. It was another close encounter and today, Chuping was really living up to its reputation as a harrier haven.
Ben came here for the raptors and he certainly got what he wanted. A female Common Kestrel was seen standing among some dry grass and the level of excitement rose again.
Assuming that we will get a repeat performance of the male Pied Harrier earlier, our vehicle rolled ever so confidently towards the falcon but she was having none of it. She took flight before we could reach optimal distance and both falcon and her newly-caught prey, that we were totally not aware of, disappeared beyond the horizon.
The dark morph Booted Eagle kept its distance again and I was really getting numb towards its reaction of my presence year in year out. And the amount of swearing has also reduced tremendously.
However, I cannot say the day about the Bronze-winged Jacanas. This is the first season that we are seeing them here in Chuping and each sighting still made me tremble with excitement. When emotions are high, they can be hard to contain. I cannot help but feel a little frustrated every time the Jacanas turned tail and fly off to the far end of the pond at the slightest hint of our presence. For crying out loud...
The Short-toed Eagle was another distant encounter but due to its rare status, it was still worth getting out of our vehicle, brace the blistering heat, trod on muddy soil to capture a few record shots.
Sometimes, nature has a way of balancing things out. After a string of record shots, a lone male Eastern Marsh-Harrier hunting just above the tree line reinforced Chuping's position as the harrier haven of Malaysia and we were in for a treat.
The male Eastern Marsh Harrier may lack the striking colour contrast of the male Pied Harrier but he certainly does not lack the grace and aerial agility. In fact, I found his aerial ballet to be more mesmerising than the latter.
There are a number of raptor species that are more easily seen in Chuping than anywhere else in Malaysia. That is why it is prime raptor country. The Osprey regularly winters here and I have had numerous encounters with it in the past. But this time was a little different. The fish hawk was on the hunt...
Renowned for its death-defying dives for fish, we held our breath when the raptor circled the pond one last time and started to hover - no doubt zooming in on its next unfortunate prey. The dive was too fast for either of us to react and we also missed the final moments of the dive because we were positioned on higher ground and where the raptor procured its meal was blocked from view. With its prized catch secured within its deadly talons, the Osprey flew to the nearest pylon to enjoy the reward of its labour.
By mid-afternoon, we decided to have a change of scenery and drove our way back south to the paddy fields of Kubang Semang in mainland Penang. It is still open country habitat but here it is not the raptors that rock but the migratory waders. The flocks of Grey-headed Lapwings were at hand to greet any visiting birders - as usual.
While savouring the sights and sounds of the lapwings, I picked out a handful of Ruffs foraging in the vicinity. Even at a distance, the distinct body shape of these scarce waders is easily noticeable. The dim lighting and distance provided me no opportunities to obtain any improvement shots.
Evolved to blend perfectly into its surroundings, snipes are the masters of camouflage in the avian world. If we had not been stationery and looking through our binoculars, there is a very good chance this snipe would have gone unnoticed. Positive identification is another issue with snipes especially between the Pintail and Swinhoe's Snipe and I am certainly not going there. So, Swintail Snipe it is then...
Stints are very tiny waders. So small that they are almost invisible when standing still among mud. The Temminck's Stint is one of the dullest-looking but it also happens to be one of the rarest. A confiding individual resting on a patch on mud may not produce any vibrant photos but it got two grown men jostling for space to photograph this little brown job.
As evening approaches, the rain clouds found us again - just like yesterday. The sky darkened rapidly and we could smell the moist odour of rain in the far distance. A flock of Black-winged Stilts huddled closer together in anticipation of a cold and wet tropical night. Inevitably, we had to call it a day and next task on hand was getting Ben to the airport on time. But even the thunderstorm that unleashed shortly could not drown out the amazing time we had on this trip especially the aerial displays of the raptors at Chuping.