The plan was for Choo Eng to take a car-full, and I would go up separately in my own car with Hakim, on what was essentially a 'twitch' to try to add some rarely seen species to my Peninsular Malaysia list, as well as to try to relocate the Blyth's Pipit we'd seen on our previous trip. I set my alarm for just before 4am and picked Hakim up at five.
Our first stop was Timah Tasoh lake at dawn, where we hoped to see Bronze-winged and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas. The latter flew in after half an hour, but the former did not appear.
Both Greater and Lesser Coucals were common at this site. This Greater looked as if it had just woken up.
Next stop was Kampung Sahabat, where a Thick-billed Warbler had been seen about two weeks ago. Directions were precise (to the bush!) and the bird duly obliged! No doubt under-recorded in Perlis, this is a rare visitor to Malaysia.
On to Bukit Jernih, where I hoped to add Dusky Crag Martin, Racket-tailed Treepie and Pale-legged Leaf Warbler. The warbler was soon located by its distinctive, high-pitched 'tic' call, but it proved flighty and mobile, preferring to stay within thick undergrowth.
This would have been a great picture if my flash had fired!
A few Dusky Crag Martins were seen zooming around high up on the limestone cliffs, way beyond photographic range, but the treepies once again eluded me. Still, I was happy with my haul of four West Malaysia 'lifers'. News from Choo Eng's team at Chuping was not good - no sign of the Blyth's Pipit despite two hours of searching.
Still, by 10.30, we felt it was time to go over there, as raptors should by now be up and flying.
A lot of fields for a Blyth's Pipit to hide in!
And lots of pipits to scan, but every one turned out to be just a Paddyfield. This juvenile is in pretty fresh plumage, but even so, is relatively unstreaked on the upperparts, and has a very different median covert pattern to the Blyth's.
Still plenty of smart male Eastern Stonechats around.
Soon raptors started putting in an appearance, including a Grey-faced Buzzard and this dark morph Booted Eagle. From Choo Eng came news that they had seen a Eurasian Kestrel and a possible Long-legged Buzzard, the latter not hanging around long enough to be photographed or identified conclusively.
We couldn't find the buzzard, but the female Eurasian Kestrel put on a fine show.
I think this is the 'interstinctus' race, which is more coarsely and heavily marked than the nominate form.
This adult Long-tailed Shrike seemed to have lost most of its tail feathers.
As the afternoon wore on it was time to head for the harrier roost. Lighting conditions were a bit better than the previous week, but soon deteriorated of course!
The wind was coming from the north. Whether this was significant I don't know, but there seemed to be fewer harriers arriving from behind us tonight compared to the last visit, and only about half the number in total.
There were more Eastern Marsh than Pied Harriers this time, 37 to 27. This is a juv Eastern Marsh.
Another immature Eastern Marsh - probably a female judging from the bulk of the bird. Eastern Marsh have distinctively more head, neck and bill than Pied, as well as broader wing bases and tail, and a bulkier body.
Male Eastern Marsh shares these characteristics, despite being smaller and 'neater' than the female.
Juvenile Pied is fairly plain, rich chocolate brown above...
Below, the body and underwing coverts are chestnut-brown, the secondaries generally rather dark, and the primaries have 2-3 blackish bars on a silvery-grey background.
The head and bill are noticeably fine and delicate compared to Eastern Marsh.
The facial markings, including the owl-like facial disk, are surprisingly easy to see, and are a good way to eliminate Eastern Marsh.
A late arrival wasted no time in finding a bed for the night!
Adult female Pied bears a superficial resemblance to a male Eastern Marsh, showing a grey background to her primaries and secondaries.
The white leading edge to the inner wing is characteristic of female Pied. The upperwing covert pattern resembles a faded version of the male's.
From below, female Pied's pale underwing and white rear 'half' of the body are distinctive.
With a decent view, there's no much problem identifying male Pied!
Each time I observe a harrier roost I get the impression that adult males tend to arrive later than females. I'm not sure if this phenomenon has been written up or explained anywhere. I wonder whether it may be that earlier-arriving males get displaced from the best roost-spots by the larger females, so that there is not much advantage for the males in arriving early.
Anyway, talking of roosting, we decided to make an early start on our homeward journey, leaving before dark, at about 7.15pm. We'd already driven out of Perlis when we got a call from Choo Eng to say that they had got their car stuck in some mud!
We drove on to Changlun town, where we were lucky to find a hardware store still open which stocked some sturdy-looking nylon rope. We then retraced our drive back to the sugar cane plantation, noting as we did so that it was a cloudless night with the thinnest sliver of a new moon (and therefore almost pitch dark!).
Trying to find Choo Eng following his directions by phone and flashlight wasn't too difficult, but we found, on driving down a narrow track in a young rubber plantation, that he and we were separated by a deep swamp! We conducted a lengthy discussion across the swamp, and decided that there was no option but for us to take a long diversion via the sugar cane factory to try to find the track that they had taken.
We then spent the next 3 hours or so, driving around the sugar cane plantation, trying dead-end track after dead-end track, flashing our headlights and blowing the car's horn constantly! It struck us as amusing that, even though we were right on the Malaysian-Thai border, and there were look-out towers all along the border and anti-smuggling checkpoints along the roads, no one came to check out this crazy headlight-flashing, horn-blaring performance!
We tried locating each other by triangulating on distant lights, the stars and the sound of a distant karaoke bar, but all to no avail! Eventually, we decided that they would have to try to walk out and locate one of the more major dirt tracks that criss-cross the plantation. At last, around 11.30pm, we came across three tired birders trudging along a dirt track! Using signposts they'd erected using sugarcane stalks, we were able to find our way back to their car and, with much protest from my car's clutch, haul it out.
We convened at a 24 hr Indian curry house in Changlun, where we stocked up on caffeine in preparation for the two and a half hour drive back.
Somewhere along the highway my energy gave out and I knew I had to find a lay-by to sleep in - fast. Fortunately a 'P' sign soon appeared, and we pulled over. As we did so I had to swerve to avoid two men behind a lorry who were poking at a large 'thing' in the road!
The thing turned out to be a sizable python! After parking, Hakim and I walked back to where the men were trying to coax the irate snake into a hessian sack. Being only about 70% conscious, and barely aware of what I was doing, I took the pole they were using to manoeuvre the snake, and pushed it off the highway. After striking at the pole a couple of times it allowed me to do this without much protest. Meanwhile the two men were gesticulating to me that they wanted me to put the snake into their sack! With tact borne of extreme tiredness, all I said was, "No! Let it go." They backed off and the snake - all 8-9 feet of it - made its escape down the slope at the side of the road and into some long grass. Hakim then suggested that we make our exit rather rapidly as the men were far from pleased at having this windfall taken away from them (he thought they could have got RM500-1,000 for it). I knew I couldn't get in the car and drive again, so I just went back and collapsed in the driver's seat. Sometime before slipping into unconsciousness, I heard the lorry drive off, giving us a couple of hoots on their horn, whether in cheery farewell or angry protest I couldn't tell!
Refreshed by a 45 min nap, I drove the rest of the way home without incident, arriving at my bed at 3am - exactly 23 hours since leaving it the previous morning!