We headed back toward Penang on our last day, but stopped at Bukit Wang until early afternoon. It was good to hear Great Argus calling, and we enjoyed extended views of Thick-billed Flowerpeckers calling and displaying high in the canopy. A non-adult male Green-backed Flycatcher was surprisingly elusive, foraging quietly beneath a fruiting tree frequented by flowerpeckers and bulbuls.
After another fruitless pre-dawn owling session, we headed down the road leading to Tasik Meranti, a part of the park I hadn’t visited before.
It was a very steep climb up to the reservoir (we didn’t make it to the end), and the heat was intense.
There was quite a lot of bird activity, but not a great deal of it was in camera-range.
This Asian Drongo Cuckoo was foraging around some shelters put up for picnickers. It was clearly fork-tailed rather than square-tailed, but David told me that there appears to be a complete range of intergrades (in all measurements) between two supposedly distinctive forms at either end of the spectrum.
A male in contemplative pose. The reason that I was able to take so many photos is that the troop seemed reluctant to move into the forest till all the stragglers, including young ones, caught up with the main pack.
Later on, we walked the Wangmu FR trail from Kampung Kaki Bukit, and I was able to take my best photo yet of my former bogey bird – Grey-and-buff Woodpecker – apparently one of the most primitive of all woodpeckers.
We stayed at the Perlis State Park overnight, and deciding that we had probably exhausted most of Chuping’s charms, headed for Timah-Tasoh lake first thing. We hoped that the drought conditions might have exposed more fringe habitat, beloved by jacanas and rallids. We were disappointed in this respect (has anyone seen a jacana there this season?), but there was enough else to keep us interested.
There was just a pair of Ashy Minivets, and none of the hoped-for rarer species with them. This is the male. More Thick-billed Warblers tack-ed at us from the undergrowth – they seemd to be everywhere.
We paid special attention to the few green-pigeons which were zipping about, and eventually got reasonable views of this female Orange-breasted Green-pigeon – not a species I see very often. The easiest way to distinguish them from female Pink-necked is the tail pattern – the outer feathers are dark basally but have a broad grey tip, and the central feathers are all grey. Pink-necked has a blackish terminal band. Orange-breasted are bigger and more bulky-looking, and have brighter green plumage (not that you can see that here!).
Having failed in our efforts to locate another speciality here – Racket-tailed Treepied, we headed for Bukit Jernih Recreational Park to try there.
The very pale legs and extensive dark tip to the lower mandible help identify this. Technically, they only identify it as Pale-legged OR Sakhalin Leaf Warbler, since the two are indistinguishable in the field except by song (not call). Many “Pale-legged Leaf Warbler types” have been trapped in spring in the Inner Gulf of Thailand and found, based on measurements, to be Sakhalin Leaf Warblers. This possibly means we are getting some of these too, so I suppose we need to add these to the ignominious group of ‘either/or’ species pairs (like Pale/Sand Martin, Swinhoe’s/Pintail Snipe, swiftlet sp and pond-heron sp.). Frustrating!
This is what the adult looks like. This is the crassirostris race, which occurs in Perlis and Langkawi. Compared to the race which occurs elsewhere in the Peninsula – dicrorhynchus – the adult in fresh plumage is bluer and has more irridescent feather edges; and the median coverts have larger whitish spots. Structurally, in all plumages, crassirostris is longer-tailed than dicrorhynchus.
Several times our attention was drawn to a thrush by the sound of a snail being smashed against a rock – there is obviously a plentiful supply of gastropods in this limestone habitat. It was good to revisit these fascinating birds. I took part in a study of them back in 2009-2010.
On our way back to the chalet we were entertained by this very confiding Forest Wagtail feeding on the road. These shots were taken from the car; the one above is uncropped.
There’s nothing ‘normal’ about this bird – it has unique plumage patterns, wags its tail from side to side, and has its own genus. I renamed them Forest Humbugs.
Some night-birding both evening and the following morning netted us very little in the way of birds – a couple of calling Javan/Blyth’s Frogmouths and a Collared Scops-owl. Neither sight nor sound of the latter’s White-fronted cousin sadly.
We arrived at Chuping at just after dawn, and almost literally, the first bird we set eyes on was a stunning pale morph Short-toed Snake-eagle roosting on one of the pylons. This was Malaysian lifer No 4 for David, and as we drank in the sight of the eagle – a species David had never expected to see in Malaysia – and the scenery, it was a special moment.
A backlit Brown Shrike as the sun came up. The fields were dust-dry, so we decided that the effluent ponds would be a good place to start. This proved a good decision, as we were soon connecting with the first of at least 10 Thick-billed Warblers (lifer No 5 for David) as they foraged around the pools. As we were trying to get better views of the warblers, remarkably, we heard that distinctive call which I had heard for the first time in Malaysia less than 24 hours previously, and my second Green Sandpiper in two days flew past! This time I was able to grab some shots.
The broad black bars on the tail and dark underwing are two diagnostic characters distinguishing Green from Wood Sandpiper in flight. The bird flew out of sight, and we spent some time trying to relocate it before finally spying it perched on some floating vegetation on a more secluded pond.
We were looking directly into the sun, but it looked like I could probably get better lit shots if I could make my way up onto the far bund, which was densely covered in tall vetiva grass. Leaving David to look for a calling Yellow-browed Warbler and several more Thick-billeds, I fought my way up the bund, slowly parting the dense grass till I could get a reasonable view.
The dark ‘upper half’ and white ‘lower half’ of Green Sandpiper is a good field characteristic. Also, the eyering on a relatively featureless ‘face’, and the fine white spots on dark brown upperparts.
By now things were really starting to heat up! When I rejoined David, I found that he had had two Short-toed Snake-eagles directly overhead. We also watched a male Oriental Honey-buzzard, which appeared to be passing through on migration.
A female or imm Eurasian Kestrel in tail moult flew overhead, and we watched an Osprey sitting on the pylon where the eagle had been earlier. It quickly became evident however, that the bulk of the birds had departed, possibly in response to the dry and dusty conditions. The huge numbers of Black Drongos, pipits and wagtails which had made the fields so profitable a few months earlier were now largely deserted. The ploughing activity had now ceased too, so there was not much to hold the raptors.
Back in December James Eaton had photographed a pair of Richard’s Pipits at Chuping – the first solid evidence of the species’ occurrence in the Peninsula – and I had made a mental note of the exact location. Since there seemed nothing better to do, we decided walk about in these fields for a while to see what we could flush. For some reason, the line “mad dogs and Englishmen” was playing on a loop in my head!
Eventually, to our surprise, an unseen pipit flushed which uttered an interesting call. Not the explosive ‘schreep’ of a classic Richard’s, but a nevertheless full-bodied ‘schilp!’ which did not sound like a Paddyfield. More walking and flushing ensued, without us getting much of a clear view. I tried to record the call but the wind frustrated all my efforts. There were clearly Paddyfield Pipits about, but there seemed to be at least 2 birds which called differently and looked longer-tailed in flight. We noticed that the birds we disturbed from the middle of the field had flown close to the track, so we retired to the car and tried driving slowly. This got us more frustrating glimpses of birds sticking to the dense grass either side of the track, and then flushing and flying at our approach. By now we had also heard the typical ‘schreep’ flight call of Richard’s, but we had yet to get conclusive views of a bird on the ground.
This was where they preferred to hide, making a good view of the tail very difficult. Eventually David volunteered to go on flushing duty and wandered off into the field, while I stayed in the car making my way slowly along the track. This worked! Suddenly I noticed a pipit working its way furtively across the track, sticking to the thick stuff wherever possible.
Sleek and streamlined – much more wagtail-like than Paddyfield. One thing which we both noted with some surprise is that they were not noticeably much larger than Paddyfield Pipits, which makes it likely that they were the smaller southern sinensis race.
In flight the birds’ bulk became more apparent; they looked heavier about the head, bill and body, and longer-tailed than Paddyfield. We estimated that there were at least 5 birds present in the area (this individual has a full set of median coverts on the left hand side).
Compare that to this! A Paddyfield Pipit sitting out on bare earth. We never saw the Richard’s Pipits in this habitat. The tail is short and appears bolted onto the body more rigidly, the head seems proportionately larger, and the lores and ear coverts are darker, making the supercilium stand out as the only pale area on the face.
Much later in the evening, as we waited for the harriers to come to roost, we heard the ‘schreep’ call again as a Richard’s Pipit flew high overhead, on its way to roost. We reflected that Paddyfield Pipits are perhaps less likely to be seen flying high, as they stick close to their territorial patch of field. If Richard’s Pipits prefer grassier habitat away from roads and paths, perhaps they are commoner than we’ve thought – perhaps we need to start walking across fields rather than round them! This was David’s 6th Malaysian lifer in 2 days, and my second, bringing up 580 for my PM list. It had taken me a mere three months to traverse the 70s!
Inevitably rest of the day was a bit of an anticlimax, but we did enjoy the rather few Pied Harriers which came to roost at dusk, when we also observed a small movement of about 20 Sand/Pale Martins.
David Wells, author of the 2 volume Bible of Malaysian avifauna, The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula (ubiquitously known simply as ‘Wells’) is spending an extended time in the region, and we arranged a short tour of the north for him to catch up on some of the many recent birding phenomena in our area.
After an overnight bus trip from Singapore, he was ready and raring to go, so we headed across the bridge to see what we could find on mainland Penang. First stop was the Manchurian Reed-warbler site, and the birds performed brilliantly, though not for the camera (i.e. I was too slow!).
It was interesting to see that they had completed their moult. The site was much drier than the last time I visited, and where there had been a deep pool previously, there was now a muddy puddle, out of which we flushed a black-and-white-looking wader with a distinctive, ringing call ‘t-veet-aveet-aveet‘. It flew directly away from us, and was gone too fast for a photo, but there was no mistaking the call or the appearance – a Green Sandpiper! This is a bird that’s familiar enought to me from the UK and further north in Asia, but it is truly a rarity in Malaysia, and one I have hunted for for many years. So that was a Malaysian lifer apiece for David and I – he had seen a Green Sandpiper many years previously, but the warbler was, of course, new for him. We soon added a second Malaysian lifer for him in the shape of a couple of Asian Openbills in the paddyfields.
Later in the evening we went sniping. This is one of many swiftlets hawking overhead – one of the domesticated variety of ‘white-nest swiftlet’ – which a recent Forktail paper has suggested may be a hybrid of imported taxa and native Germain’s.
We turned in at a reasonable hour in anticipation of an early morning start the next day, when we would be heading north to Perlis.
I’ve often said that cuckoos and blue flycatchers are my ‘weakest suits’ when it comes to bird id. That fact is linked to two others – that I probably don’t spend as much time as I should in forest habitats, and that (as a consequence) I don’t see that many of either. In fact, Hodgson’s Hawk-cuckoo has been a rather embarrassing gap in my Malaysian list for a long time. So when I heard of the presence of two birds at Air Itam Dalam, and knowing their tendency to hang around for a while, It was time to go on the hunt!
I decided that a dawn start would give me the best chance of success. There were a few birds about; one of the resident Spotted Wood-owls in its daytime roost giving me the sleepy eye…
But after a couple of hours I had drawn a blank as far as cuckoos were concerned, and was ready to concede defeat, when I bumped into Colm and Rachel Ó Caomhánaigh, who told me that the hawk-cuckoos had not been seen along the boardwalk (as I had assumed) but in the ketapang trees at the back. In fact, as we were speaking, Rachel pointed out the unmistakeable shape of a hawk-cuckoo flitting from one teak tree to another. The hunt was back on! Excusing myself with a haste bordering on rude, I headed to where we had glimpsed the cuckoo. I soon reconnected with it, peering at me warily from behind a branch.
Lack of white nape spot – check. Paler first tertial – check. So it must be one then! I headed back to the car to collect the scope, but at the same time, there was a niggle in the back of my mind. Somehow this wasn’t what I had been expecting. Why was the bird so streaky? And it looked pretty big – or large…! With a sense of disappointment, the penny dropped. I had been looking at a Large Hawk-cuckoo!
No pale tip to the bill – check! Although I felt a bit of a cuckoo myself to have been fooled, I consoled myself with the fact that I don’t often get chance to observe migratory Large Hawk-cuckoos, so settled down to watch.
The breast-spotting was made up of blackish drop-shaped spots against a white background – not much evidence of brown anywhere.
Eventually the bird was spooked by a passing cyclist, and flew off into the forested area. I carried on my walk along the edge of the teak plantation, and before long, came across two more hawk-cuckoos!
This was more like the England manager’s namesake I was expecting! The pale tip to the bill, small size and compact structure immediately announced that this was not a Large. Furthermore, the relatively narrow subterminal (dark) tail bar, lack of white nuchal spot and pale upper tertial ticked all the right boxes for Hodgson’s.
This is the second bird, showing rather heavy brown-tinged streaking on the underparts. This, coupled with the other features mentioned for the upperparts, eliminated the possibility of Malaysian Hawk-cuckoo. There’s an excellent photo guide to the identification of Hodgson’s and Malaysian Hawk-cuckoos by Con Foley here, well worth a read.
Thanks very much to Mr and Mrs Hum for letting me know about these birds (they were the original finders of all three), and to Colm and Rachel for literally pointing me in the right direction! Now I know a little more about hawk-cuckoos!
Having the chance to photograph Cook’s Swift (aka Pacific or Fork-tailed Swift of the cooki race) at Fraser’s Hill earlier this month reawakened my interest in the field differences between this and Pacific Swift (aka Pacific or Fork-tailed Swift of the nominate race).
A bit of background first.
Wells (1999) recognized three forms of Pacific Swift in the Peninsula: pacificus (a long-distance migrant from the Northern Palearctic), kanoi (from the South-east Palearctic), and cooki (which breeds in South-east Asia), all of which occur as migrants or non-breeding winter visitors.
Paul Leader, in his 2011 paper, Taxonomy of the Pacific Swift Apus pacificus Latham, 1802, complex (Bull. B.O.C. 2011 131(2)), upped the ante by proposing that the group be divided into four full species: Pacific Swift Apus pacificus, Salim Ali’s Swift Apus salimali, Blyth’s Swift Apus leuconyx, and Cook’s Swift Apus cooki. He proposed that kanoi was synonymous with kurodae, which was subsumed under pacificus as a subspecies.
As far as field identification of the three taxa mentioned by Wells is concerned, Leader described the following differences evident on skins which might also be evident in the field:
The same bird from below, again showing rather brown sides of the head, a clearly demarcated and apparently unstreaked white throat, and brown underwing coverts offering relatively little contrast with the rest of the underwing.
Compare that with this cooki, taken at Fraser’s Hill on 7 Feb 2014. It is sooty blackish above, including the head, and there are signs of a glossy sheen on the wiing coverts and mantle. The rump band is narrow and the throat patch relatively inconspicuous.
Cooki from below, showing a strong contrast between blackish underwing coverts and relatively pale undersides to the flight feathers. The pale throat is less sharply defined than in pacificus and looks less white. The sides of the head are slightly brownish-looking, but still sootier than the pacificus above. Finally, the white fringing to the underpart feathers is noticeably broader than on the pacificus. I’m not necessarily proposing that these would be clear field marks, but at least they are visible on reasonable quality photos!
As far as structure was concerned, of the many photos of cooki on which I can determine the wing formula, none of them show p1 as the wingpoint. However, there does seem to be a distinct difference between pacificus and cooki:
On cooki, P1 and P3 seem to be very similar in length, whereas, at least on this pacificus, P1 looks substantially longer than P3. I should add a substantial caveat or two here. First of all, it’s very hard to get a good view of the wing structure, even on photos, as angles can foreshorten the apparent length of feathers. Secondly, my limited survey of photos on the net seems to show that pacificus has quite a variable wing formula, with some showing P1 and P3 of almost equal length. So, this may not be a useful feature after all. More study needed!
Another structural feature which was apparent in the field was the very short-necked appearance of cooki.
Where and when to see them?
Cooki overwinters in the Peninsula, particularly over the forested central spine, whereas pacificus is only a migrant, wintering well south of the Peninsula. Thus, the best chance of seeing pacificus should be during autumn or spring migration, perhaps at one of the raptor migration watchpoints, while cooki can be seen during the winter months at any of the hill stations, or even over lowland forest in the north of the Peninsula.