During my last visit to the birding mecca of Chuping, the Plain-backed Sparrows performed admirably for me and my guest. I was hoping for a repeat performance on this trip and I was not to be disappointed. The perimeter fencing of the sugar mill was the stage and these exquisite sparrows were the stars. With the early morning sun casting a radiant glow on the sparrows, we took the time to bask in their beauty despite the constant urge to explore the adjacent grasslands for more feathered wonders.
To me, there is nothing plain about the back of a male Plain-backed Sparrow…
When we could finally pull ourselves away from the display of vibrancy and adorability, we found that we could not move an inch from where we have positioned our car. We were so indulged in the performance that we did not realize some sparrows had started to forage quite close on the other side of our car. The male that wandered closest to us naturally received our undivided attention.
The female with her drabber plumage may not be as flashy as her mate but it does has its perk. She blends so well with her surroundings that my gear found it hard to focus on her movements sometimes. And that makes her a less likely target for predators.
A male Red Collared-dove refused to let the sparrows have all the limelight and did his best to distract our attention. Another vibrant species, this dove can be found in great numbers here. Chuping is undoubtedly one of the best spots in Malaysia to observe and photograph these two northern specialities. It has been a rewarding trip so far and we have not have even wandered into the grasslands.
For the past few years, Chuping became the best place in Malaysia to enjoy the Bronze-winged Jacana – a sedentary waterbird that is rarely encountered until now. The presence of two chicks together with the parent birds makes it the first proven breeding record here in Malaysia. The jacanas, unfortunately, were foraging along the far side of the pond making it difficult to obtain good images. But both of us were relishing the encounter. For one of us, it was a global lifer. For the other, who has a soft spot for rare waterbirds, any encounter with a jacana here in Malaysia will be a memorable affair.
Some birds, like the coucals, are habitual sunbathers. Unlike the highly adaptable Greater Coucal, the Lesser Coucal is confined to lowland scrub and grassland habitats which makes Chuping an ideal sanctuary. This particular individual has happily enjoying the soothing rays of the sun next to the main road when it was interrupted by our peering. After a short stare, it came to the conclusion that the intruders were harmless and carried on with its morning routine.
Zitting Cisiticolas have always thrived in this locality and with the breeding season now in full swing, they are even more conspicuous as they perform their courtship displays to entice a mate. Bare stalks like this one provide the best photographic opportunities to capture this minute grassland warbler.
As we were slowly combing the grasslands from the comforts of our vehicle, a male Pied Harrier floated into view and the level of excitement skyrocketed. This is one of the main targets of the trip for my guest and as a first-timer, the poise and allure of the male Pied Harrier is bound to leave you breathless. The buoyant flight and striking colouration of this raptor have the tendency to do that. I have been chasing harriers over these grasslands for years now and I am still awe by the presence of a male Pied Harrier.
A large area of ploughed field had my attention during my last visit and this time, I was hoping I could discover something rare and extraordinary for a change.
We ended empty handed in terms of rarities. The Oriental Pratincole may be a common bird here in the north but it is to me an extraordinary bird. More like a giant swallow than a wader, it is a common resident up north and the grasslands of Chuping is one of its strongholds. Like the Pied Harrier, it also possesses a graceful flight and one in breeding plumage is a sight to behold as well.
After a hearty lunch, we headed to the Bukit Wang Forest Reserve for the afternoon session. It is always a risk to enter the forest in the afternoon as it can sometimes be exceptionally quiet at this time of the day. But life is all about taking risks. And today, it paid off handsomely. The forest was alive with birds. Even I was overwhelmed…
As we only had a few hours to spare here before making our way home, we barely got out of the recreational areas and into the prime forest area due to the exceptionally good birding we were enjoying. Birdwave after birdwave stormed through the vicinity and to be honest, I did not except this. As the babblers and warblers teased us with flitting glimpses, an exceptional few did provide some decent photographic opportunities like this White-bellied Erpornis.
Flycatchers are known to return to the same perch after their mid-air sallies for insects and they do but not every single time. This Dark-sided Flycatcher probably was not a participant of the birdwave and remained at the same location for quite some time where it made a few sallies and returned to the same perch. And we were there ready to capture its images.
The highlight of the day, for me anyway, is a female Banded Kingfisher that was surprisingly tolerant to our intrusion into her domain. This species is not new to me and neither is it rare but like most forest denizens, it is usually shy and wary. When we first caught sight of her, she was calling from near the canopy level. And I thought that was going to be as good as it will get. Due to the birdy condition of this patch of forest today, we let her be after a while and diverted our attention to the other birds present.
We could hear both her and her mate calling in the vicinity throughout our visit. The male did not reveal himself to us but it does not really matter as the female Banded Kingfisher is just as stunning a bird. In fact, some even consider her to be the better looking of the two. We crossed path with the female again later and this time, she was resting on an even lower perch. We decided to push our luck and slowly crept slower. Much to our delight, she obliged. A confiding Banded Kingfisher (regardless of sex) on an exposed low perch could well be one of the most rewarding birding encounters that can take place in a Malaysian forest. Today has been an amazing day and this gorgeous girl with her sultry performance had a lot to do with it.