Tuesday, January 24, 2012

23 January 2012: Perlis

The sugar cane fields of Chuping, Perlis in January are the nearest equivalent we have in Malaysia to a Fair Isle or a Point Pelee in terms of ability to turn up mega-rarities. Over the past 4 years or so, this vast area has hosted three 'Firsts' for Malaysia - Asian Openbill, Long-legged Buzzard and Blyth's Pipit (see my post for 7 Jan 2010 for details of the latter).

I had been planning this year's January expedition for some time, and daydreams of what might be waiting to be found there had kept me going over the last few weeks of hard grind in the office! Now at last, it was time, and, as Hakim and I drove north in the early hours, we discussed what first we might like to find this time!

Our first port of call was a spoil pit not far from the sugar refinery, where Malaysia's 3rd Wryneck had been seen a few weeks back. In the half light of dawn I wandered over to a patch of sugar cane to relieve myself after the long drive and disturbed a Lanceolated Warbler, watching it scuttle mouse-like into cover at my approach! That felt like a good start to the day!

As the sun rose a male Eastern Marsh-harrier came toward us and then doubled back.

A male Eurasian Kestrel flew over, heading toward the sun.

On the power lines overhead, a flock of 25 Red Collared-doves were catching the first rays, along with flocks of Barn and Red-rumped Swallows and a number of noisy Plain-backed Sparrows. The doves are relatively recent arrivals in the area - we learned later that the locals call them 'terkukur api' - fire doves - which seemed appropriate as they glowed in the morning sun.

One or two male Plain-backed Sparrows were singing and evidently holding territory. I've not had such great views of this scarce species before.

A few Asian Pied Starlings were feeding in the dirt. Like the doves, these are likley colonizers from across the Thai border, and they seem to be doing well here.

The Red-rumped Swallows were now coming down from the wires to drink in the stream, giving great photographic opportunities.

I would have liked to stay longer and improve on these shots, but there was too much else to look at!

Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers were chasing each other around in the aquatic vegetation, and a Thick-billed Warbler popped its head out of a Giant Mimosa bush. The latter species used to be thought of as a vagrant, but since birders started making regular visits to Perlis, small numbers are found annually.

The Thick-billed Warbler shared the bush with a snake, which was warming itself up at the start of the day. Hopefully someone will identify it for me! [Apparently, this is Ptyas korros, or Indochinese Ratsnake. Thanks a lot, Muin!]

While watching the swallows, I noticed the Wryneck fly out of a tree on my right, round in an arc in front of me, and land in a bush to my left. I got the bird in the scope and called Hakim over. However, by the time he arrived, the bird had dropped into cover. A few moments later it flew out of the bush and this time, went away from us down the valley and over some trees. Frustratingly, I had missed getting a photo as well! My field sketch will have to do!

Malaysia's third (and my second) Wryneck. See this post for my first.

Hakim's disappointment was moderated somewhat by the appearance of a second Lanceolated Warbler - a lifer for him. It obliged by giving both a front and a back view!

This was rapidly followed by the arrival of a White Wagtail of the 'ocularis' race. The only one I'd seen previously in Malaysia was a 'leucopsis' - about a kilometer away from this site!

We decided to try to reach the area where the Wryneck had flown to and began walking through a ploughed field. It immediately became obvious that it was full of Yellow Wagtails, and, since Citrine Wagtail was one of those 'dream firsts' we had talked about on the drive up, we began scrutinizing them.

Almost immediately I got onto a promising-looking bird which appeared to have a yellow face. However, no sooner had I spotted it than it first ducked behind a clod of earth, and then took off and flew several hundred metres away up the field. I managed to get three frames of the bird which were moderately sharp...

Hmmm! Looking at the LCD on the back of the camera, it DID look interesting. But it was now gone, and that seemed to be that. I couldn't be sure from what I was looking at on the screen whether I had got 'enough' of the bird to make a claim. For one thing, I had been expecting huge white wingbars, and this bird showed almost no white in the wing at all. Oh well - one that got away... I reasoned with myself that it was probably a Yellow Wagtail - after all, what are the chances that you look for a first for the country and straight away find what you're looking for?!

Then came a moment of sheer unexpected grace - the bird flew back to where it had originally flown from! I hastily got the scope on it and took as many digiscoped pics as I could. Amazingly, the bird left the ploughed area, where it would have been practically impossible to photograph, and walked across the grassy track in front of us. Just a few moments later it was flushed, along with every other wagtail in the vicinity, by what I later discovered was our second Eurasian Kestrel of the day!

With the bird gone, I started examining my shots. I knew that the head pattern was a key id feature. The pale supercilium should completely encircle the ear coverts - check! The ear coverts should have a pale centre - check! The lores should be pale - check! But what about those blotches of pale yellow all over the body? Not sure... The vent should be white - check! The rear flanks should be grey - check!

I was struck by the grey crown and upperparts, although worried by the faint olive tinge to the mantle visible on one or two shots.The bird was moving up the scale from 'possible' to 'probable' to 'I really think it IS one!' But to be fully confident, I wanted to check out some photographic references and explain those apparent anomalies of the plain wings and olive tinge to the mantle.

On reflection, I realized that, like all the other wagtails present, this bird was an adult in very worn plumage. That meant that it must be a female. Looking closely, I could still see the remnants of white tips to the median coverts on the right hand side, something that none of the Yellows showed.

A search of Citrine images on OBI revealed that birds can occasionally have a olive tinge to the mantle, and quite often show patches of pale yellow on the underparts. On the only shot I took of the left side I could see a single fresh inner median covert with a gleaming broadish white tip. I wasn't able to find any photos of similarly worn birds, but I can't see anything inconsistent with this bird being a Citrine in exceptionally worn plumage.

The culprit - a female Eurasian Kestrel clutching its prey - a Calotes versicolor (Garden Fence Lizard).

About an hour or more later the wagtail reappeared once more, this time in the sun, and it quickly flew off. Despite two long waits in the afternoon, we failed to see the bird again.

(Eastern) Yellow Wagtails received close attention for the rest of the day! They included a few of the dark-headed, bright yellow below 'macronyx' race...

and many 'tschutschensis' types.

There were some 'taivana' types too, and these looked most similar to the Citrine. I'll post some pictures of these in tomorrow's post.

Some other birds we saw!

Pipits were well 'grilled'but we could find only Paddyfields.

A very square-tailed Black (eared) Kite.

Some 'Pin/Swin' Snipes.

In the early afternoon we drove up to Timah Tasoh in the hope of tracking down the recently reported Rosy Minivet.

Being the hottest part of the day, it was pretty quiet, though we did manage to see a Yellow-browed Warbler - not a commonly seen bird in the lowlands.

We returned to have another go for the wagtail in the afternoon, to no avail. This singing Plain-backed Sparrow was some compensation.

We couldn't find a House Sparrow this trip, so that 'first' will have to wait for another day!

We ended the day at the site of last year's harrier roost. The few harriers we did see headed over the horizon, so clearly the main site has moved.

We were entertained by a pair of 'short-tailed' Long-tailed Shrikes and their recently fledged young. This is a very worn adult.

And a Brown Shrike catching the last rays of sun.

What a day! At the end of it, we could say that Chuping has now turned up FOUR firsts for the country!


Choy Wai Mun said...

Very exciting news indeed! Great images and write-up. Hopefully, all the rarities will still be there for me tomorrow. Congrats again.

jytou said...

Congratulations!!! The long awaited Citrine is finally ticked, we are slowly getting those missing species now that turned up at Singapore, perhaps Lesser Kestrel could be the next good target? Or perhaps a Gadwall?

Great to see more sightings of Wryneck, I strongly believed we are overlooking this species that is not easy to spot, will try spend more effort to look for it at suitable habitats.