This year, the Wild Bird Club Malaysia held their AGM at Changlun in Perlis making it feasible for me to attend as it was not too far from home. The meeting will commenced in the evening and together with a few other birders, we decided to visit the neighbouring grasslands of Chuping for some birding in the morning first.
This was my first excursion to the site this season and raptors still rule the skies – much to my delight. This Oriental Honey Buzzard lazily flapping across our field of view made me realize how much I miss this birding hot spot.
It was a good day for raptors. Eurasian Kestrel, Pied Harrier, Eastern Marsh Harrier, Black-shouldered Kite, Brahminy Kite, Changeable Hawk-eagle, Osprey, Short-toed Eagle and Common Buzzard – that is a pretty impressive list from a single site. However, good photographic opportunities were certainly lacking. A recently fed Greater Spotted Eagle provided the best raptor image for the day as it rode the thermals above us.
The grasslands of Chuping is one of the best places in Malaysia to observe the Red-throated Pipit. It is a scarce migrant throughout the country except for this site. Today, there were easily a hundred birds present. Despite the big number, this pipit is usually wary of human presence and I have tried countless times to try and capture good images through the years but without success. It has an uncanny ability to disappear into its surroundings and you will only realize its presence as it makes its getaway. However, on this fateful day, a male decided not to behave like a Red-throated Pipit and remained stationery long enough in the open for us to capture his image.
The Manchurian Reed Warbler also winters here in Chuping. This species is one of the latest additions to the Malaysian checklist and still rightfully holds a celebrity status. The call is usually the only indication of its presence and decent views are hard to come by. It is not called a Reed Warbler for nothing and it has perfected the art of hiding among this vegetation. A 2-second windows was all it was willing to offer to have its image taken but I finally have a shot of this little brown job that actually resembled a bird.
Birding is not only about rarities. Not all the time anyway. The Barn Swallow occurs here in the hundreds and their graceful sallies are a common sight indeed. But a confiding individual in good lighting and against a smooth background deserves some love and affection.
The AGM later that evening went smoothly but my thoughts were distracted. Days before the AGM, news broke out of a Short-eared in Langkawi. From Changlun, Langkawi was not all that far. This owl is a vagrant to our shores and a lifer to most. Dave made his intentions clear about having a go at this beautiful bird. And I, give in to temptations too easily – especially when it comes to rare lifers. Dave, Wilbur and yours truly found ourselves on the first ferry to Langkawi the next day. The only other way to get there is by air. That made logistics an issue. It was a long weekend and this island being a popular holiday destination is bound to be crowded. Luck was on our side as we managed to rent what appeared to be the last car at the jetty. Anticipation was high as we geared up for the hunt. I was anxious as well. This migratory season has not being exactly kind to me - having to dip out on two consecutive twitches. What hand will dear Mother Nature deal me this time?
The very first bird that grabbed our attention in this sweeping landscape was a subadult Rosy Starling foraging among Common Mynas. This is only my third ever sighting and I guess our target of the day will just have to wait. It is not much of a looker when compared to the stunning adults but its scarcity made it irresistible nevertheless.
It was a tedious 5-hour search. We tried everything that we could think of. No bush was left unexplored and no stone unturned but the owl was no where to be seen. Even when Sofian (the man who discovered the owl) came and helped us search, it was to no avail. Having to be cautious of the herds of Water Buffalos that were present and the blistering heat did not improve the situation either. The Short-eared Owl is now my third successive dip out for a mega rarity. Quoting the famous words of Col. George A. Custer it’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up, I will live to bird another day.
On a brighter note, my last birding trip to Langkawi was many years back and one of my targets back then was the Red-wattled Lapwing. Unbelievable as it may seem, there was a time when this tropical island paradise was the only place where you are most likely to see one. So, seeing them here again brought back sweet memories of my first ever Red-wattled Lapwing. In a small way it did help ease the disappointment.
Among the Red-wattled Lapwings was a lone Grey-headed Lapwing – another species that used to be rare in my home state of Penang.
With the obsession for the owl starting to lose its grip on us, we were then able to appreciate the other bird species found at the locality. The bird life here is quite diverse and this site would be the type of location I will frequently explore during the migratory season if it was located in Penang. The majestic White-bellied Sea-eagle is common here which comes as no surprise. This striking adult bird flew literally overhead and turned out to be the only predatory bird to make its way into my memory card. The Short-eared Owl was another painful miss. The twitch for the owl, however, was an experience. The packed ferry shuttle service to the island, the frantic acquisition for a rented car, a mega rarity at stake and a whirlwind of emotional conditions made it a memorable one in the end as it reminisces those hardcore twitching endeavours of British birders. On this rare occasion, it was the experience and not the bird that made a lasting impression.