My planned trip to an east coast island to look for migrants fell through this year, so instead I made my way north to Chuping, Perlis.
Chuping is a unique ecosystem in Malaysia, partly because it is about as far north as it’s possible to get without crossing the border into Thailand, and partly because it’s as close as we get to savannah – miles upon miles of rolling landscape. For years it was the site of the only major sugar cane plantation in Malaysia. Sadly, the rocketing price of rubber has put paid to that, and a slow tide of rubber trees is creeping its way north, swallowing up this unique ecosystem.
Over the last few years, this one site has yielded an astonishing FOUR national firsts: Asian Openbill, Long-legged Buzzard, Blyth’s Pipit and Citrine Wagtail. Neoh Hor Kee and Terence Ang added a potential fifth in the form of a Manchurian Reed Warbler during their last visit on 5 November, when they also saw 2 Short-toed Snake-eagles, a Jerdon’s Baza and a male Shikra (which would all have been lifers for me!). The site also regularly hosts scarce migrants which are difficult to see elsewhere in the country – Eurasian Kestrel, White Wagtail, Thick-billed Warbler to mention a few, and also has one or two high value residents, like Plain-backed Sparrows, Racket-tailed Treepies and Red Collared-doves.
My first destination was locked into my gps – a nonedescript clump of reeds beneath a row of pylons beside one of the tracks which weave like a labyrinth around the fields. This was where Hor Kee had photographed a small acrocephalus warbler – at first sight, ‘just’ a Black-browed Reed Warbler, but, on second throughts – not quite right!
Manchurian Reed Warbler, 5 Nov 2013, Chuping, Perlis. (c) Neoh Hor Kee
The most obvious thing about the bird was that it was in wing moult – which is a ‘problem’, since Black-browed Reed completes its post-breeding moult before migration. Manchurian, on the other hand, completes its moult after arrival in the wintering area. A few other points confirm the identification as Manchurian – the noticeably longer tail, pale brown iris, mostly or all yellow lower mandible, dark loral spot in front of the eye and supercilium tailing off weakly to a point behind the eye.
This is a rare bird globally, given a Vulnerable (VU) threat rating by BirdLife International/IUCN. Its only known winter quarters are a few sites in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
It didn’t take long for me to locate the bird, its churring alarm call gave it away. Seeing it well was another matter altogether!
A view of the long bill and apparently unmarked lower mandible (birds in breeding plumage have a dark tip to the bill, but this is lost on most birds in the non-breeding season).
A relatively clear view of the wing in active moult, and long tail.
Almost the head pattern. At least I can say I saw the lores! This bird was a real skulker, and I never saw it in the open as Hor Kee and Terence were fortunate enough to do. Intriguingly though, when I played the song at other places of suitable-looking habitat nearby, I caught glimpses of at least three other birds which were clearly responding, raising the possibility that this bird is not a vagrant but part of a previously undiscovered wintering population.
The ditch below the pylons was full of fascinating chacking and churring noises – there were certainly Oriental Reed Warblers in there, and probably Lanceolated too, but the only birds which showed themselves were two Thick-billed Warblers.
Half warbler, half shrike! These have recently been placed in a separate genus, Iduna, and they certainly stand out. Both birds made noisy protests at my approach, making them them rather hard to miss!
Here’s an Oriental Reed Warbler for comparison.
A soaring raptor raised hopes briefly, but turned out to be an Oriental Honey-buzzard on closer inspection. Black-shouldered Kites sat on wires in flocks (I counted 6 birds together!). Other raptors in evidence were an Osprey sat on a pylon, and a female Eurasian Kestrel which hung around for some time.
The female of this interstinctus race has a distinctive pale cheek patch.
Near the stables, where I photographed the Oriental Reed Warbler (above), there were a number of Black Drongos flycatching over the newly cut grass.
The white-tipped vent feathers show this to be a first winter bird.
This one is still largely in juvenile plumage. A Racket-tailed Treepie at the same spot eluded my attempts to photograph it.
This being Chuping, all pipits were carefully scrutinized. Most of them, like this one, turned out to be Paddyfield Pipits.
This one field had a large number of Red-throated (the right hand four birds), in addtion to Paddyfield (the 2 lefthandmost birds). I estimated 40-60 Red-throated in this field, but it was near impossible to glimpse them on the ground due to the long grass.
This was the best I could get of them. They seldom called. Some still had pinkish throats.
The Eurasian Kestrel flew over the field, pushing up clouds of pipits and wagtails as it did so.
Later it perched in a ploughed field, showing that pale cheek patch again.
What with the Kestrel and many Black-shouldered Kites, there was no shortage of hovering raptors about, but as soon as I saw this one, I knew I was onto something better. Check out those short toes! After hovering for some time, this bird went into a vertical dive and landed beyond a ridge. I had to sit out a heavy shower before going looking for it, walking across a now very muddy field and flushing a number of Pintail/Swinhoe’s Snipes before the Short-toed Snake-eagle finally rose from the grass.
Even allowed for the rain making the plumage look darker, I think this is a different bird from either of the two seen by Terence and Hor Kee in the first week of November.
Left: Chuping, 5 Nov. (c) Neoh Hor Kee. Right: Chuping 19 Nov.
The dark beading along the tips of the median secondary and primary coverts is heavier and more extensive on today’s bird than on the one earlier in the month.
I judged the bird to be a juvenile based on the uniform age of all the wing feathers.
Not long after the first bird had flown out of sight, this one appeared. Clearly in wing moult, it was obviously a second bird.
Left: Chuping, 5 Nov. (c) Neoh Hor Kee. Right: Chuping 19 Nov.
The primary moult showed that this was the same as Terence and Hor Kee’s second bird seen in early November. The eighth primary (p8) had grown quite a bit in the 2 weeks between the photos, but otherwise there was little apparent change. In a future post I will have a go at explaining the moult sequence of this bird in a bit more detail.
So I had ‘recouped’ my two most wanted birds from Hor Kee and Terence’s trip on my first day, and had had a ‘double-lifer day’ in the process, which doesn’t happen too often these days. I left the site for the day, wondering what goodies tomorrow would bring!