Friday, January 15, 2010

7th January 2010: Chuping Sugar cane plantation, Perlis, Malaysia

Choo Eng, Hakim and I spent half a day at one of my favourite places for pioneer birding in Malaysia - on my first birding trip out since returning from Europe. Perlis is as underwatched a state as almost any in Malaysia, and being right on the Thai/Malaysia border, has considerable potential for rarities. In the last few years Malaysia's first Asian Openbill was found here, as well as a hybrid Long-legged x Upland Buzzard (both of which would be new species for the country).

Unfortunately we were greeted on our arrival by persistent drizzle - the kind of weather I hoped I had left behind in Europe!

Our first good bird after arrival was a fly-by Osprey carrying a fish, and the second was this White Wagtail, a lifer for the other two and a new Malaysian bird for me.

It didn't think much of the weather either!

Looks like a male of the 'leucopsis' race.

The white face and isolated heart-shaped breast mark are distinctive.

With the rain continuing to fall, we opted to bird from the car, driving slowly along and stopping for anything interesting, like this male Eastern Stonechat.

As we drove along I was alerted by an unfamiliar call. On stopping and scanning we located a pipit, which ran past the car, forcing me to twist my neck painfully to get a few photos. The bird then flew. On my brief views through the viewfinder, the bird seemed to be a Paddyfield Pipit. I got out of the car in an attempt to find the mystery caller, but all I could see was the same pipit, which I pretty much ignored, despite it landing nearby. Not hearing the call again, I got back in the car and we left the scene.

I didn't get chance to review my pictures till just a few days ago, when I was immediately struck by several features of the bird which rang alarm bells that it might be a Blyth's Pipit. I put a couple of pics up on the Surfbirds Advanced Bird Identification Forum, still more in hope than conviction, and got unanimous feedback from experts familiar with both Paddyfield and Blyth's that it is indeed a Blyth's Pipit! You can read the comments here. As the icing on the cake, when I listened to recordings of Blyth's call here and here I heard a very good match for the initial call that caught my attention.

So what makes this bird a Blyth's rather than a Paddyfield Pipit (right)?

1. The shape and colour of the median coverts. Adult Blyth's in fresh plumage show crisp squarish dark centres to the median coverts, and the central shaft streak does not bissect the pale tips (see this picture for example). I was fortunate in that this bird has very fresh plumage apart from a very worn, unmoulted tail.

2. The well-marked crown and mantle - the streaks are not only dark, but quite fine, so that the buff-brown and dark streaks seem roughly equal in thickness.

3. Structurally, the bird is shorter-billed and legged than Paddyfield, and the hindclaw is markedly shorter.

4. The supercilium is less obvious than on Paddyfield, and the lores are paler, leading to a less well-marked 'face'.

Another comparison with Paddyfield (right). The shorter legs and much slighter bill of the Blyth's are obvious in this composite. Also, the head of the Blyth's seems smaller in proportion to the body. I notice that the malar stripe doesn't reach the base of the bill, but I'm not sure if this is a useful distinguishing feature, as it may be variable.

The differences seem so obvious looking at them now, I can't believe I didn't pick this bird out in the field! Oh well - that's the benefit of photography!

After the pipit, we discovered a fallow field over which a few harriers were circling. Realizing that this might be a potential roost, we decided to sit and wait till dusk. By the time we were done, we had counted 55 Pied Harriers and 43 Eastern Marsh at the roost - quite a spectacle! This picture of a male Pied Harrier coming to roost reminds me of the many cold evenings I spent in my youth watching Hen Harriers coming to roost in winter in the UK. Then if I got 10 birds I was ecstatic!

Another male Pied approaching the roost. Many of the birds arrived with full crops, showing they had recently had a successful catch.

A juvenile Pied inspecting its toes!

And a female Pied on a roadside fence.

A male Eastern Marsh Harrier incoming. The upperwing pattern is superficially similar to Pied, but it lacks the clear white leading edge to the inner wing.

Eastern Marsh Harriers of all ages and both sexes show a much more prominent head in flight than Pied. This is another male.

Even in near silhouette, the slim-wings, slim tail and small head of Pied are distinctive.

So, Perlis does it again - another first for Malaysia - even though retrospectively identified! Let's hope the bird hangs around long enough to get more looks at it!


bohbehchow said...

Many congrats on the Blyth's Pipit, Dave. I fear most of us would have just thought "Ah, a Paddyfield Pipit", and moved on. Your thoughtful persistence paid off!


Choy Wai Mun said...

Congrats! You always have the Midas's touch for the rare ones...

digdeep said...

Thanks Howard, Mun

Wish I'd paid more attention at the time though!