Notes on a Vagrant Blyth’s Pipit in Malaysia. Part 2 – Moult

The opportunity to observe and photograph a known individual bird over a long period gives a unique opportunity to observe the progression of moult and the effects of feather wear. Examples of such opportunities regionally in recent years have been a first year Siberian Blue Robin in Malaysia (Suara Enggang Vol 20, No 3:3-5) and a similarly aged Firethroat at Nam Khan in northern Thailand.

Now we’ve had the chance to do the same with a Blyth’s Pipit!

Establishing that the bird was in ‘first-winter’ plumage when it was first seen on 2 Jan 2017 (see Part 1), the next moult it was due to undergo was Pre-breeding moult. A quick review from Alström and Mild:

Pre-breeding moult: In the late winter or early spring of the second calendar year, i.e. when the bird is 9–10 months old, most pipits and wagtails go through a partial pre-breeding moult to obtain first-summer plumage. In most pipit species most of the head and body is moulted (a few feathers, particularly on the scapulars and rump, are often retained) as well as some to all median coverts, a few inner greater coverts (second innermost, 9th, usually replaced first), one to all tertials, and often the central two rectrices.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 2 Jan 2017. © Amar Singh HSS

On 2 January, the bird was in first-winter plumage. The median and greater coverts  seem moderately worn (‘frayed’ edges), and the innermost two greater coverts and upper two tertials have paler edges than the others, probably as a result of bleaching by the sun. There is one unmoulted juvenile outer median covert visible.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 28 Jan 2017.

Taking into account the effects of different light, almost a month later, the plumage looks largely unchanged, though the tertials are looking more worn.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 6 Feb 2017. © Ooi Beng Yean

Ten days later, and we can see the first sign of the pre-breeding moult. The middle tertial is in the process of being shed, and the underparts look different, though it’s hard to say if this is because of new feathers, or old feathers becoming more worn.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 8 Feb 2017. © Ooi Beng Yean.

Two days later, the middle tertial has dropped out. Also we can now see some flank feathers have dropped out (the grey patch below the wing). The greater prominence of peach-coloured feathers on the underparts might also be a result of overlaying feathers having been dropped.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 8 Feb 2017. © Ooi Beng Yean.

A view from the rear on the same day shows that the central tertial on both sides has dropped, and that the longest tertial on the right side is broken. There appear to be two age classes of mantle feathers, with the lower ones having noticeably more gingery fringes. I’m not sure if either of these are fresh feathers or whether this contrast is a result of the previous post-juvenile moult.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 8 Feb 2017. © Ooi Beng Yean.

This spread wing shot shows the difference caused by bleaching. The outer median coverts are protected by the scapulars (and are also newer), so retain buff-coloured fringes, compared to the white fringes of the rest. The same difference can be seen in the outer  and inner greater coverts and the outer and inner primaries. The more exposed feathers have paler (whiter) edges than the ones which are usually covered by other feathers.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 12 Feb 2017. © Lean Yen Long.

Nothing much has changed four days later, but this photo shows the worn state of the back, rump and upper tail coverts.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 18 Feb 2017. © Zhongying Koay

Six days on and some of the median coverts have dropped out. We can just see a new tertial, which has already grown to about half the length of the longest tertial.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 20 Feb 2017.

Two days later, not much change, but we can see that the fringe of the new tertial is a rich gingery colour. We can also see that the outermost tail feather on this side is a new one, not yet full grown.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 20 Feb 2017.

A close-up of the head shows that the head feathers are very worn. Some of the eye-ring feathers have dropped out. One gingery-fringed mantle feather appears to be a new one.

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Blyth’s Pipit.24 Feb 2017 © Mike Kan

Four days on and the new tertial has had quite a growth spurt. Earlier, I had assumed it was a replacement of the middle tertial, but now it looks too long for that. The shortest tertial on this photo is confusing. It seems to have a far broader buff fringe than in the photo two pics up. But close examination reveals that it is in fact the same feather, looking very different in the shade compared to in strong sunlight.

One new inner median covert is now visible. It is gingery-fringed, not white.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 27 Feb 2017.

Just three days later and things are really changing fast. That new tertial is now so long it can only be a new lower tertial. The shorter one we saw on 24 Feb has now all but disintegrated. The innermost greater covert is new, and we can now see at least three new inner median coverts with their broad gingery fringes. The mostly white outermost tail feather is now almost full grown, and we can now see that the central pair are new as well, and almost full grown.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 27 Feb 2017.

Compared with the back-on shot taken on 8 Feb, we can see that nothing has changed in the mantle area, so those brighter lower feathers are probably not freshly moulted. Interestingly, the old longest tertial on the left wing is still present beneath the new one. We can see that moult of the left and right wing is taking place more or less in synchrony.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 6 Mar 2017.

Considering the rapid changes which occurred in the last week of February, things seem to have slowed down a week later.

A new tertial is just emerging next to the innermost greater covert.

The replacement of median coverts is progressing outwards from the innermost, with 4 new ones now visible. The tail feathers known as T5 (i.e. the second outermost pair) are newly growing. These should only have white outer webs and a small wedge of white on the inner web.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 7 Mar 2017. © Zhongying Koay

This fantastic shot just the next day shows us much more detail than we can see on the closed wing. Now we can get a clear look at the lesser coverts. Interestingly, the outermost (buff-tipped) seems to have been replaced, then there’s a gap where old feathers have dropped but new ones have not yet grown out, then another new feather, and the inner three or four are unmoulted old ones. Alström and Mild say that, in post-breeding moult, “the median and lesser coverts are generally moulted rather irregularly”, so perhaps the same applies also when they are moulted in pre-breeding moult.

The four innermost median coverts are new, and the rest are not visible (the old have dropped out and the new have not grown into view yet).

The alula and primary coverts, most of the greater coverts and the primaries and secondaries are unmoulted and still look in remarkably fresh condition (with the exception of the inner secondaries, which are moderately worn).

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Blyth’s Pipit. 7 Feb 2017. © Zhongying Koay

In just 24 hours, the upper tertial seems to have now advanced in length past the innermost greater covert!

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Blyth’s Pipit. 12 Mar 2017. © Chan Kai Soon

Five days later the new tertial has almost reached its full length and the new tail feather is now half grown. There are now 5 new median coverts. The head and body moult seem not to have started.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 2 April 2017. © Zhongying Koay

Into its fourth month on the site, and what a transformation! In the three weeks since it was last photographed, the bird has completed head and body moult. The gingery tone is wearing away from the median coverts, and the bird looks brand new! Unfortunately the morning dew has made the tail bedraggled so we can’t see what’s going on there.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 7 April 2017.

 

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Blyth’s Pipit. 7 April 2017

The second outermost tail feather appears to have much more white on it than the old corresponding feather (see here). I’m not sure if this is age-related.

This is the last date I saw the bird. I don’t know if anyone has seen it since then (nothing on eBird). It is possible that the bird may still be there, as the bulk of overwinterers in India do not leave till late April/early May .

However, the pre-breeding moult seems to have been completed by the first week of April, with all three tertials, the innermost greater covert, all the median coverts, the central and outermost two pairs of tail feathers, and head and body feathers replaced. We can already see the effects of wear on the median coverts, as their fringes are bleaching from ginger to buff. Soon they’ll be white again.

The extended stay of this individual gave many Malaysian birders their first experience of this species, and awakened a new interest in pipits, which will hopefully mean that in future, more Blyth’s will be found. Being able to watch it at such close quarters as it underwent its pre-breeding moult was a rare privilege, and one I will long remember!

My thanks to all the photographers (credited above) for sharing their photos with me and allowing me to use them on this blog.

Notes on a Vagrant Blyth’s Pipit in Malaysia. Part 1 – Behaviour and Ageing

Background

A Blyth’s Pipit was identified at MalimNawar, Perak, on 28th January 2017. Subsequently, it was discovered to have been present from at least 2nd January, when it was photographed by Amar Singh HSS. At the time of writing, the bird is still present (most recently seen on 7th April). This is only the second record of the species for Malaysia.

Throughout its long stay, the bird has been remarkably faithful to one small area of roadside grass, and it has been rather tolerant toward the many photographers and birders who have come to see it. Throughout much of its stay it has been in pre-breeding moult, providing a rare opportunity to document the progress of moult in a single bird.

Behaviour and Habitat

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Blyth’s Pipit habitat. The bird feeds in the longer stalky grass on the far side of the track, as well as in the shorter grass on the near side. © Ooi Beng Yean.

The bird has faithfully frequented a small area of roadside grass verge either side of a dirt track which runs through an area of mining ponds. The track is infrequently used by fish-farm workers and recreational fishermen and birders using motorbikes, cars and SUVs.

The Blyth’s Pipit appears to prefer foraging in grass populated by sparse low vegetation and taller stalks. Its common foraging technique in this habitat is to locate small prey items such as spiders and small bugs by eye and then catch them, often by jumping upwards to pluck them off tall stalks. Paddyfield Pipits and Eastern Yellow Wagtails have also been noted using this foraging method occasionally, but nowhere near as frequently and regularly as the Blyth’s Pipit.

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Blyth’s Pipit foraging. 20 Feb 2017 (left and centre). 24 Feb 2017 (right). © Mike Kan

In shorter grass devoid of taller vegetation it feeds much like other pipits and wagtails. It often forages on or near water buffalo dung, and has been seen to take flies and small maggots from these.

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Blyth’s Pipit with fly sp. 27 Feb 2017.

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Blyth’s Pipit with earwig sp. 8 Feb 2017. © Ooi Beng Yean.

The bird uses the dirt track for dust-bathing (see this short video), and this also seems to represent a territorial boundary for a resident pair of Paddyfield Pipits. At the beginning of the Blyth’s Pipit’s stay, its presence was tolerated by the Paddyfield Pipit pair, but recently, skirmishes have been more frequent.

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Blyth’s Pipit (rear) with a local Paddyfield Pipit. 20 Feb 2017.

The Blyth’s Pipit rarely calls unless in an altercation with a Paddyfield Pipit. Normally when flushed by people or dogs it flies off silently, flying a short distance, and then circling back to its preferred area shortly after the perceived threat has passed. When flushed it occasionally perches on telegraph wires or a fence post. It does not habitually bob the tail up and down like a wagtail, but occasionally flicks the tail downward rather deliberately.

What age?

Determining the age of pipits can be difficult! It all depends on the fine details of plumage and moult, particularly in the wings and tail.

There is a detailed summary of moult in pipits and wagtails in Alström and Mild’s Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America, which is available online as a pdf here (scroll down to page 24ff). It bears reading in full, but I will attempt a précis of the salient points here.

Juvenile plumage: The first proper plumage succeeding natal down. The feathers develop simultaneously so are uniformly fresh or worn.

Post juvenile moult: Begins 2-5 months after fledging. In all pipits except some Paddyfield Pipits, this is a partial moult. It includes the head and body feathers and a variable number of secondary coverts and tertials, sometimes also the central pair of tail feathers. Most lesser coverts, none to all median coverts, none to a few inner greater coverts and none to all tertials are renewed during the post-juvenile moult. Once post-juvenile moult is complete, the bird is in first winter plumage.

Pre-breeding moult: In the late winter or early spring of the second calendar year, i.e. when the bird is 9–10 months old, most pipits and wagtails go through a partial pre-breeding moult to obtain first-summer plumage. In most pipit species most of the head and body is moulted (a few feathers, particularly on the scapulars and rump, are often retained) as well as some to all median coverts, a few inner greater coverts (second innermost, 9th, usually replaced first), one to all tertials, and often the central two rectrices.

Post-breeding moult: At the age of a little over a year, after breeding, the first-summer  bird goes through a complete post-breeding moult, resulting in adult plumage, i.e. the final plumage.

The moults in adults follow the schedule and type of the young bird after the post-juvenile moult, i.e. a partial pre-breeding moult in late winter to early spring and a complete post-breeding moult which starts shortly after breeding. (The way I remember this is “Some in Spring; All in Autumn!”). The post-breeding moult usually commences either with the innermost primary or with some feathers on the head and body, often mantle feathers. The primaries are moulted descendantly (from the innermost outward), and the primary coverts are usually moulted in phase with their corresponding primaries. Soon after the moult of primaries has begun, that of rectrices and tertials begins. The tail moult commences with the central pair and normally continues centrifugally. The central tertial is usually shed first, approximately at the same time as the third primary, then usually the shortest and finally the longest. The secondary moult usually begins at about the same time as the sixth primary is shed, and proceeds ascendantly, starting with the innermost. However, the greater coverts tend to moult from the body outwards—thus not renewing in phase with their corresponding secondaries—but the sequence is often irregular, and sometimes most of them are renewed at much the same time. The median and lesser coverts are generally moulted rather irregularly, and most or all of the medians are often renewed simultaneously. The alula is generally replaced after the secondary coverts, usually in an irregular sequence. The outermost primary and innermost secondary get fully grown at approximately the same time, the latter often marginally later. The primaries, primary coverts and secondaries (but not necessarily the secondary coverts, tertials and alula) are as a rule moulted symmetrically across the wings. The head and body moult is usually completed around the same time as, or slightly before, the moult of the flight feathers, the head on average slightly later than the body.

The moult usually lasts 1–2 months, and is completed before the autumn migration.

Ageing

Most first-winter pipits show two generations of secondary coverts, often also tertials. Retained juvenile secondary coverts and tertials are more worn and, owing to bleaching, show paler tips/edges and marginally paler centres than newly moulted ones. Unmoulted juvenile secondary coverts are also usually slightly shorter than adjacent newly moulted ones. In several species (particularly the ‘large’ pipits) unmoulted juvenile secondary coverts and tertials are also differently patterned compared to newly moulted adult-type feathers. The resulting moult contrast (moult limit) is diagnostic for first-winter birds, as adults in the autumn show only one generation of secondary coverts and tertials (but see below).

It should, however, be noted that wear and bleaching is not uniform across the wing feathers, and this may result in the appearance of moult contrast. The inner primaries and outer secondaries are less exposed than the outer primaries and inner secondaries, and therefore less subject to wear and bleaching. The inner greater coverts, notably the 9th (second innermost) although not the usually concealed 10th, are more prone to wear and bleaching than the outer ones, and hence the outer greater coverts sometimes appear to be newer than the inners. The outermost three or so median coverts are less subject to bleaching and wear than the rest, and frequently look fresher than adjacent median coverts even when the same age. The tertials may become more worn than the secondary coverts.

It might be useful to do a quick review of the topography of the wing, courtesy of Beng Yean’s perfectly-timed photo below.

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Blyth’s Pipit. 6 Feb 2017. © Ooi Beng Yean.

  1. Marginal (secondary) coverts (sometimes lumped together with the lessers)
  2. Lesser (secondary) coverts
  3. Median (secondary) coverts
  4. Greater (secondary) coverts
  5. Alula
  6. Primary coverts
  7. Primaries
  8. Secondaries
  9. Tertials

The most important group of feathers in determining the age of this bird are the median coverts, as juvenile feathers are differently patterned from first winter and adult feathers (in Blyth’s Pipit).  In juveniles, the black centres of the median coverts follow the shape of the feather, whereas on first winters and older, they are more square-cut, as these are. See here for a juvenile. Juvenile-patterned median coverts can apparently be retained until ‘midwinter’ (see these pics taken on 30 December).

But is the bird in its first winter or is it older?

If this bird is a first winter, one would expect to see 1. Evenly aged remiges (primaries and secondaries) and 2. Possibly (though not always) some evidence of moult contrast due to their being two ages of e.g. coverts. 3. Possibly (though not always) the central pair of rectrices (tail feathers) being newer than the rest.

If it is an adult, one would expect to see 1. No moult contrast, though possibly some unevenness of bleaching, with the outer greater coverts and the outer median coverts being less bleached than the rest of the feathers in their respective feather tracts. 2. Perhaps some unevenness of wear in the remiges (with inner secondaries and inner primaries being more worn than the rest, because they were moulted earlier in the complete post-breeding moult). 3. The tail feathers being evenly aged.

In the photo above, we can see:

1 The primaries and secondaries appear uniformly aged.

2. No obvious moult contrast in the coverts.

So, honestly, I cannot age the bird from this photo!

Fortunately, the first photos taken of this bird were on 2 Jan – much earlier than this photo. Here’s one:

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Blyth’s Pipit. 2 Jan 2017. © Amar Singh HSS.

A close look at the median coverts reveals something interesting!

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Blyth’s Pipit. 2 Jan 2017. © Amar Singh HSS

The question is – is this differently-patterned feather a median covert or a lesser covert? Comparing it with the lesser coverts on the numbered photo, it seems more worn and to have a narrower pale fringe than those feathers, so I think it’s a median covert. Here’s another view:

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Blyth’s Pipit. 2 Jan 2017. © Amar Singh HSS

I think the feather labelled 1. is a median covert, and the other labelled 2. is a lesser covert (with a buffier, broader fringe).

If I’m correct, and it is a median covert, then it is a juvenile covert, which ages this bird as a first winter (hatched in 2016). By the time Beng Yean’s photo was taken on 6 Feb, this feather had dropped out and been replaced by an adult-patterned covert.

I might be wrong – in which case, please let me know what you think. I did say that ageing pipits can be difficult!

In the next post, I will look in more detail at the progress of the pre-breeding moult in this bird.

My thanks to Amar Singh HSS, Mike Kan and Ooi Beng Yean for allowing me to reproduce their photos in this post.

Identification of Paddyfield, Richard’s and Blyth’s Pipits in Malaysia

There are six pipits (Anthus spp.) on the Malaysian list. Of these, only Paddyfield Pipit is resident. The others are either more or less regular but localised non-breeding visitors (Olive-backed Pipit and Red-throated Pipit), scarce migrants (Pechora Pipit – Bornean Malaysia only – and Richard’s Pipit) or vagrants (Blyth’s Pipit – Peninsular Malaysia only).

The pipits can be fairly reliably grouped according to their preferred habitat in Malaysia: Paddyfield, Richard’s, Blyth’s and Red-throated are lowland open country birds; Olive-backed occurs mostly at montane and submontane altitudes and in more forested habitats; and Pechora has a predominantly coastal distribution in northern Borneo, preferring coastal scrub.

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Red-throated Pipits usually show at least some pinkish colouration on the throat. Even when they lack this, they differ from the larger pipits by the heavier streaking on the underparts which extends all the way down the flanks, and by the more heavily streaked upperparts.

In this article, I will focus on differentiating the three ‘larger’ species – Paddyfield, Richard’s and Blyth’s (in fact, size differences are small, and there is overlap in length with the so-called ‘smaller pipit’species, but ‘larger pipits’ differ in having proportionally longer legs and a stockier structure).

STATUS

Paddyfield Pipit is the default pipit species in Malaysia, being extremely common in a range of open country habitats.

Richard’s Pipit is at best a scarce non-breeding visitor. Because the resident Paddyfield Pipit was formerly lumped with Richard’s Pipit, the historical status of the species is unclear. In Peninsular Malaysia, the first acceptable record was at Chuping, Perlis, as recently as 2013. Since then, it has been recorded annually at the site between Nov and Feb, but nowhere else in the Peninsula. On Borneo, it is probably a scarce migrant, but well-documented records are few and far between.

Blyth’s Pipit  has been recorded just twice; once at Chuping, Perlis, in Jan 2010, and once at Malim Nawar, in Jan/Feb 2017.

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Malaysia’s first Blyth’s Pipit, recorded at Chuping, Perlis, on 7 Jan 2010.

HABITAT PREFERENCE

Paddyfield Pipits frequent open grass fields, roadside verges and sandy tracks, and cleared ground with little or no vegetation.

Richard’s Pipits at Chuping prefer much longer grass and more overgrown fallow fields than Paddyfield Pipits. They are rarely flushed from the roadsides there, and are very difficult to see on the ground because of the thicker ground cover they frequent.

Both Blyth’s Pipits  were originally observed on sandy tracks, and subsequently fed on short grassy verges, frequently associating with Paddyfield Pipits, and apparently sharing their preferred habitat.

CALLS

It may seem strange to talk about what the larger pipits sound like before what they look like, but, more often than not, it is the call which gives the first clue that we are dealing with something other than a Paddyfield Pipit.

Pipits are generally rather vocal, particularly when  flushed or in flight. It is also true that the larger pipits use more than one type of vocalisation, so it is well worth paying attention to the full range of calls made.

As is so often the case, the key to finding a rare species is to make every effort to become familiar with the common ones. Recording and noting down the various calls uttered by Paddyfield Pipits is essential foundational work for anyone with an interest in locating Richard’s or Blyth’s Pipits. Xeno-Canto Asia has an excellent library of bird sounds where you can gen up on the vocalisations of all three species.

Paddyfield Pipits utter a variety of short, sharp calls, many of which sound like “chup” orchip” to my ears (listen to this and this).

Richard’s Pipits commonly utter an explosive “schreep“(listen here), which is very different from any Paddyfield Pipit call (be careful not to confuse it with the softer, thinner “tseep” of Eastern Yellow Wagtail). I’ve quite often seen Richard’s Pipits near dusk at Chuping as they’ve flown overhead going to roost, calling loudly.

Both Malaysian Blyth’s Pipits  were initially located by call. Neither time did I recognise the call as Blyth’s, but both times I knew it was something different and worth investigating. It sounds more buzzy and ‘jangly’ than Paddyfield or Richard’s. Listen here. However, some of the calls sound more Paddyfield-like (such as this one), so don’t be too quick to discount a funny pipit which sounds like a Paddyfield!

PLUMAGE AND STRUCTURE

Paddyfield Pipit

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Paddyfield Pipit in alert posture. Paddyfield Pipits typically look 1) short-tailed 2)show dark lores and 3) richly-coloured ear coverts which are obviously darker than the area surrounding them, creating the impression of a cheek patch. 4) The upper parts and crown are not distinctly streaked.5) The head seems proportionally rather large and wedge-shaped, with a flattish crown.

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Colour tones may vary according to the light, background colour, and extent of feather wear. Nevertheless, the features mentioned above usually hold true. Some birds show light streaking on the rear flanks (centre photo), while others have unstreaked rear flanks. 6) The bill appears long and relatively thin. 7) The median coverts usually show  broad buff edges and dark brown centres when fresh. When worn, they are medium brown with slightly paler edges.

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Typically, Paddyfield Pipits show 8) quite heavy breast streaks, and 9) there is usually some contrast between the buffier background colour of the breast and flanks, and the paler lower breast and belly. 

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Usually the belly is whitish, but some birds show more uniform buff below, more like Blyth’s Pipit.

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Once in a while, variations show up. This bird had pale lores and looked paler overall. However, the bill and head look right for Paddyfield Pipit.

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This fresh-plumaged bird appeared much buffier overall than typical Paddyfield Pipits. It appears quite strong-billed, has strongly-patterned median and greater coverts and a dark lateral crown stripe. Some of these features fit Richard’s Pipit. Nevertheless, the overall structure (short-looking tail, not especially long legs) and head pattern (dark lores and ear coverts) seem to fit Paddyfield Pipit best. 

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Another pale-lored Paddyfield Pipit. 

Some of these trickier individuals show that identification is not always straightforward, based purely on plumage features. It is always worth taking time to make a thorough appraisal of atypical birds, getting as many photos as possible, and recording the call if this is possible.

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Juvenile Paddyfield Pipits are more distinctly-marked than adults, but their markings do not closely resemble any other species. Besides, there’s usually an adult or two around!

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In flight, Paddyfield Pipits look short-tailed. They usually call frequently when in flight. Some books mention that Richard’s Pipits characteristically dangle their feet in flight, and hover before landing. As these habits are commonly observed in Paddyfield Pipits, I don’t think they are of any value for identification.

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Richard’s Pipit

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Richard’s Pipits are 1) larger than the other two species, sometimes markedly so. Structurally, they are 2) the longest-tailed and -legged of the three. 3) The overall colour is warmer and buffier than is typical of Paddyfield Pipits.

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4) The bill is strong with an evenly-curved culmen. 5) The lores are typically pale, as are the lower ear coverts, which result in a more ‘open’ facial expression than Paddyfield. Their preference for long grass can make them difficult to observe on the ground.

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6) The crown is rounder (the head is less wedge-shaped) than Paddyfield, and 7) is typically more distinctly-streaked.8) The breast-streaking is less dense than on most Paddyfield Pipits.

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9)The long tail seems rather loosely attached to the body  when the bird is walking

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The plain-faced appearance, caused by pale lores and lower ear coverts, is striking on this bird. This individual has moulted out its median coverts. The rear flanks are lightly streaked.

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In flight, they look a much stockier, bigger bird than Paddyfield Pipit, and the difference in tail length is obvious. The heavy bill and extremely long hind-claw are also evident in these pictures.

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Blyth’s Pipit 

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From a distance, 1) the pale buff plumage, 2) well streaked  mantle and crown, and 3) blackish-centred, whitish-tipped median coverts stand out. 4) The bill looks short and 5)  the head seems small and rounded.

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6) The pale lores coupled with 7) the relatively weak face pattern (pointed supercilium, pale ear coverts and indistinct moustachial stripe) create an ‘open-faced’ expression.

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8) Structurally, Blyth’s Pipit looks slender and well-proportioned. The tail is longer than Paddyfield, but shorter than Richard’s.

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At certain angles, there is a greyish triangular smudge on the lores.

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9) The breast streaking is lighter than on typical Paddyfield, and 10) there is little or no contrast  between the colour of the breast and belly. Photo credit: Ooi Beng Yean

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11) The crown is finely and distinctly streaked

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At times, the ear coverts look slightly darker than the surrounding area, but are not nearly so dark and contrasting as on Paddyfield Pipit. The flanks have a distinctly peach-coloured wash and are unstreaked. Photo credit: Ooi Beng Yean

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The pattern of the median coverts is distinctive. The central dark area is diamond-shaped, rather than triangular (as on Paddyfield and Richard’s), and the whitish edges are very clearly demarcated from the dark centres (on Paddyfield and Richard’s they blend into each other more smoothly, especially on the edges). Photo credit: Ooi Beng Yean

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When feeding, Blyth’s Pipit adopts a horizontal, wagtail-like stance, but stands erect when alert.

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Conclusion

There’s lots more to learn about plumage variation in the larger pipits, so this is certainly not the last word on the matter, particularly as for the latter two species, my observations are limited to a small number of individuals.

Nevertheless, I hope this article will encourage you to take a closer look at pipits next time you have the opportunity to observe them, and that it will give you some idea of what you should be looking and listening out for.

A final plea – when you do positively identify pipits (or any other birds for that matter) – please do submit your observations to eBird Malaysia; doing so regularly will be of immense benefit in adding to our understanding of the true status of Malaysia’s beautiful birds.

larger-pipits

Chinese Egrets in Malaysia – Where, when and how to find them

[This article was first published on the eBird Malaysia website].

White egrets are notoriously confusing for the novice and experienced birder alike, with their lack of obvious plumage features and variable ‘bare part’ (legs, bill and lores) colouration. Identifying them correctly largely depends on an appreciation of subtle differences in structure and shape, as well as a knowledge of their habitat preferences.

This article focuses on identifying Chinese Egret (Egretta eulophotes), a globally Vulnerable species with an estimated world population of fewer than 10,000 (BirdLife International 2017), and in particular, differentiating it from the main confusion species – Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and white morph Pacific Reef-Heron (Egretta sacra).

Where and when to look for Chinese Egrets

The bar chart for the species on eBird shows that it is most frequently observed between September and early May, with just a very few ‘oversummering’ records. Little Egret and Pacific Reef-Heron, on the other hand, can be seen all year round.

In Peninsular Malaysia, small numbers are seen at a few localities along the west coast, such as the Klang Islands (Selangor), Parit Jawa (Johor) and the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda coast IBA (Pulau Pinang). Numbers are much larger in Bornean Malaysia, with Bako-Buntal Bay IBA (Sarawak) recording counts of almost 100 birds. A survey of the entire Sarawak coastline in 2010-2012 recorded a total of 637 Chinese Egrets (Bakewell, D. et al. 2017). In Sabah, Chinese Egrets can be regularly seen along the coast west and east of Kota Kinabalu, and around Sandakan Bay. A species map for Chinese Egret on eBird shows the distribution of records in Malaysia.

Chinese Egrets are largely restricted to intertidal areas on the coast, though they may gather to roost and occasionally feed in coastal aquaculture ponds in Sarawak. They do not habitually frequent rice paddies or freshwater habitats.

Little Egrets are equally at home in saltwater and freshwater habitats, and frequently occur in loose flocks of 100 and more in Malaysia. They also breed colonially locally.

Pacific Reef-Herons tend to occur alone or in pairs (often a dark morph bird is paired with a white morph individual). They prefer rocky and sandy shorelines rather than intertidal mud, and offshore islets and rocky outcrops. They do not occur in freshwater habitats.

How to find a Chinese Egret

The first step is to go to a place where they are likely to be found and at the right time of year (see above). Once you’ve done that, the key is learning how to tell them apart from the main confusion species, Little Egret and white morph Pacific Reef-Heron.

In breeding plumage (from late April), Chinese Egrets are relatively straightforward to identify, as they are the only egret to show a combination of yellow bill and black legs with yellow feet. They also have distinctive fan-shaped head-plumes, which are unlike the twin filament plumes of Little (Pacific Reef-Heron also has two short filament-like head-plumes).

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Chinese Egret coming into breeding plumage, Sg Seria, Brunei, 28 April 2010

 

In non-breeding plumage, identification is more tricky.

Key things to focus on are:

  • Bill shape and colour, loral skin and head-plumes
  • Leg length and colour
  • Overall structure
  1. Bill shape and colour, loral skin and head-plumes

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAChinese Egret’s bill is dagger-shaped. The lower mandible is yellow for more than half its length, and the base of the cutting edge of the upper mandible is yellow.

The upper line of the loral skin (the skin between the eye and the bill base) kinks downward in front of the eye. This creates a distinctive expression even at a distance. The loral skin is grey-blue, becoming brighter blue in breeding plumage.

What’s left of the head-plumes are ragged and shaggy.

little-egret-headLittle Egret’s bill is thinner and more parallel-sided, more pencil-shaped. The base of the lower mandible is frequently pale (this is seldom illustrated in books), but is pinkish or whitish, not strongly yellow. The upper mandible is all dark (this bird’s is covered in mud, so looks pale).

The upper line of the loral skin is more or less straight, creating a ‘bland’ expression.

Vestigial head-plumes are filamentous – one or two long, thin feathers.

pacific-reef-heron-headPacific Reef-Heron’s bill is heavier than and not as sharp as Chinese or Little. It is variable in colour, and can show the same rich yellow as Chinese. However, the yellow tends to be more ‘smudgy’ and less clearcut than on Chinese, and often the bill tip is yellow, which is not the case with non-breeding Chinese.

The loral line is more or less straight and the skin appears to go over the bill base.

The vestigial head plumes are typically two short filaments.

2. Leg length and colour

chinese-egret_legs_150110_img_0221Chinese Egrets have mostly greenish-yellow legs in non-breeding plumage; they begin to become black in the early months of the northern spring.

little-egret-nhkLittle Egrets usually have black legs and yellow toes, but juveniles can show greenish or yellowish legs (the left hand bird in this picture), which are a potential trap for the unwary. Photo credit: Neoh Hor Kee.

pacific-reef-egret-legs_191008_img_8777_edited-1Pacific Reef-Herons’ legs are variable in colour. They are noticeably shorter than those of Chinese Egrets, especially the tibia. The legs also appear thicker than Chinese, especially the tibio-tarsal joint.

 3. Overall structure

pacific-reef-heron-structurechinese-egret_structure_150110_dscn8082Pacific Reef-Heron (top photo) looks shorter-necked and legged and generally stockier than Chinese and Little. Chinese Egrets (bottom photo) are skinny-looking, more like Little Egret in overall proportions.

 A Final Word

As with other species which are difficult to identify, the key to solving this puzzle is to base identification on as many features as possible, not just on one. These include habitat, time of year, numbers present and a combination of structural and bare part details. Photos are always helpful, especially in judging subjective details like leg length, and finer points like the shape of the loral skin.

Happy hunting!

 References:

BirdLife International (2017) Species factsheet: Egretta eulophotes. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 20/01/2017.

Bakewell, D., Wong, A., Kong, D. & Au, R. 2017. Waterbird Surveys of the Sarawak Coast (2010-2012). [A Report by the Malaysian Nature Society-Bird Conservation Council (MNS-BCC) Waterbirds Group in partnership with the Sarawak Forestry Corporation]. Kuala Lumpur:

Chestnut-necklaced Partridge – one species or two?

One of the many highlights of 2015 for me was the opportunity to observe Chestnut-necklaced Partridges in Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia within a few weeks of each other.

The Clements and IOC checklists treat these two forms as subspecies – Arborophila charltonii charltonii (range: S Thailand to S Myanmar and Malay Peninsula) and A.c. graydoni (range: N Borneo (Sabah)). A third subspecies is A.c. atjenensis (range: N Sumatra (Aceh province)). However, Birdlife International and HBW split charltonii and atjenensis from graydoni as Chestnut-necklaced Partridge and Sabah Partridge respectively.

HBW describes the ways in which graydoni differs from charltonii  as follows:

“Formerly treated as a subspecies of A. charltonii, but differs in its plain dirty white vs plain tawny-buff ear-coverts (2); absence of a distinct black upper necklace from the lower throat around below the ear-coverts (2); much darker, richer chestnut on upper breast with black vs greyish-brown lower breast feathers, more narrowly, evenly and distinctly barred with buff (3); belly with darker rufous and rufous-chestnut coloration (ns[1]); and darker upperparts (ns[1]).”

Whereas Sabah Partridge has a Red List threat classification of Least Concern (LC), Chestnut-necklaced is considered Vulnerable (VU).

I had the chance to watch and photograph a single graydoni from a boat on the Kinabatangan River, as it strutted and called along the bank of the river just feet away, for over an hour.

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Aborophila (charltonii) graydoni. Compare this with the points outlined in the HBW description above.

Not long afterwards, I had a memorable encounter with charltonii in Peninsular Malaysia, while sitting in a hide. The bird spent over two and half hours in front of me, down to about 5 feet away, seemingly oblivious to my presence!

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Charltonii. Both these images are uncropped.

Here are a couple of short videos of the bird calling.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/150893762″>MVI_7245 Chestnut-necklaced Partridge</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user23184508″>Dave B</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/150896550″>MVI_7358</a&gt; from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user23184508″>Dave B</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

These are best viewed fullscreen and with the resolution pumped up to 720p (click on the HD symbol at the bottom right of the screen)

Having so recently seen the Sabah version, I was pretty surprised to see how different the Peninsula form looked. I made a few composite montages to make comparison easier. The Sabah version is always on the left in the pictures below. In making the following observations I realise that I am drawing on a sample size of one in each case, too small to make generalisations. Nevertheless, differences are suggestive.

Graysoni-and-charltonii2

The most obvious difference at first sight, apart from the ear covert patch, is the difference in the colour of the bill base and eyering – nondescript dark brownish-grey in the Sabah example and vibrant reddish-pink in the Peninsula bird. Wells mentions some variation in this feature on charltonii:

“Periorbital skin reddish-orange; bill black in four specimens, black with a reddish base and yellow-green tip to lower mandible in one, all olive-green in one, all brown in one and all yellow-brown in one – variation that is not yet understood.”

The throat feathering on charltonii seems to have much less black on the feather tips compared to graydoni.

Graysoni-and-charltonii1

When seen in detail, the head patterns are fairly different from each other. The Sabah example differs in having:

  • a darker, grey-brown crown
  • whiter, less-streaked supercilium
  • a white loral spot
  • the whitish-grey ear coverts bissected by a dark vertical line
  • more evenly dark-tipped throat feathers, lacking a distinct lower necklace

Other differences are:

  • darker, greyer-brown breastband with thinner, paler transverse barring
  • Belly and flanks dark, rich chestnut, being similar to the colour of the lower neck (much paler peach on the Peninsula bird)

Graysoni-and-charltonii3

Although the Sabah bird is in shade and the Peninsula one in bright sunlight, the upper parts of the Sabah example do seem to be darker, greyer, and more thinly barred.

Structurally, the Sabah bird seems longer-bodied, longer-necked and larger-headed.

Graysoni-and-charltonii4The flanks are distinctly different – plain on the Sabah form and heavily barred on the Peninsula bird.

Graysoni-and-charltonii5The profile view seems to add weight to the structural differences suggested above. The Sabah bird looks longer and ‘rangier’ compared to the dumpy and rotund Peninsula one.

Graysoni-and-charltonii6

Lastly, a close-up of the head in profile shows that the bills are not only different in colouration but also in shape, with the Sabah bird having a longer, more tapered bill compared to the thick, almost bulbous bill of the Peninsula individual.

The Peninsula bird was only ever heard to make the single-noted repetitive crooning trill which can be heard in the videos, and never the rising and falling see-saw shriek which Sabah birds make when in full cry. However, that may be explained by the fact that the bird was alone, rather than part of a pair. The louder calls are more usually heard from antiphonally duetting pairs of graydoni.

Whether or not the two forms represent two full species or not, it was certainly a privilege to be able to observe both at such close range within such a short time. I’ll finish with a few more shots of the bird on the Peninsula, which came too close to focus on at times.

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Big Year 2015 Final Checklist

Non-Category A species are highlighted in yellow.

Big Year 2015 Final Checklist

Total seen: 632 (77.8% of all species on the Malaysian list)
Total Category A seen: 621 (79% of all species in Category A of the Malaysian list)
Additional species heard only: 6

I managed to see all the Malaysian representatives of several groups, including:

Malkohas
Coucals
Frogmouths
Bee-eaters
Barbets
Broadbills
Drongos
Bulbuls
Babblers (excluding wren-babblers)
Sunbirds
Spiderhunters

 

Big Year 2015: December summary

The final month arrived with 619 on the scoreboard. I set myself what I thought would be a realistic target of 625 by the year’s end, given that there were not too many more ‘easy targets’ available. During the month I stayed in Peninsular Malaysia, but travelled almost the full length, as I went north to Perlis, south to Johor, and had other out of state excursions to Malim Nawar, Perak, and Langkawi, Kedah, while squeezing in a few visits to mainland Penang. I managed to record 286 species, which included four Malaysian lifers (moving my Peninsular Malaysia life-list to 595) and no less than 13 year-ticks; a haul which exceeded all hopes!

This meant that my final Big Year total was 632, of which Category A (naturally-occurring) species comprised 621.

My first trip was to Malim Nawar, where up to six White-shouldered Starlings had been regularly sighted. It wasn’t long before I got on to these, perched on some netting over empty fish-ponds.

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Juvenile White-shouldered Starling singing

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Adjult (left) and juvenile White-shouldered Starlings

I had just taken these photos when some workers came along to start working in the area, flushing the starling flock, and I never saw them again. Having just driven two and a half hours to be there by 8am, I was suddenly extremely grateful that I hadn’t slept in for ten minutes!

This winter has been a good one for this species, with up to ten turning up in Singapore, and others reported at Kuala Gula and Rawang, at least. It was also an addition to my Malaysian life list. I believe I saw one back in the 80s in KL, but I can’t find my notes to confirm this, so had kept it off my list till now.

Next up was four days in Langkawi, where I hoped to clean up on the Big Four – Brown-winged Kingfisher, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Black-hooded Oriole and Oriental Scops-Owl. All but the last are restricted to the Langkawi Islands alone in Peninsular Malaysia. Last year I managed to clean up on all of them, but this year was a huge disappointment, with only the easiest – the kingfisher – being added to my list.

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Frustratingly, both the eagle and the owl were regularly sighted within days of me leaving, but, having endured four days of frustration, I was unwilling to return and possibly repeat the experience!

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Presumed Sakhalin Leaf-Warbler

Other birds I saw on Langkawi included several presumed Sakhalin Leaf-Warblers. Until recently, the tail-pumping, skulking leaf-warblers with a distinctive ‘tink’ call which winter in the north of the Peninsula were assumed to be Pale-legged Leaf-Warblers. However, response to playback of the song of both Pale-legged and Sakhalin Leaf-Warblers has without exception so far, elicited a strong response to the song of Sakhalin and no discernible response to that of Pale-legged. Added to this, the contact call of these birds is lower-pitched than that of recordings of Pale-legged on the breeding grounds. This is most easily appreciated when the audio recording is converted to a sonograph. Calls of known Sakhalin Leaf-Warblers are lower-pitched than those of Pale-legged, so it seems likely that most (or all?) of the birds we get in Peninsular Malaysia are Sakhalin.

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Good numbers of Asian House-Martins were seen daily around the summit of Gunung Raya.

Visits to Pendang and Kurong Tengar failed to produce hoped-for Black Bittern or Dusky Warbler respectively, so post-Langkawi despondency was setting in fast! A visit to Chuping produced the ‘usual’ scarcities like Short-toed and Booted Eagles, but nothing new.

However, things were afoot further south, as news broke that Paul Wu had found at least one Small Pratincole at Sungai Balang in Johor. That’s a VERY long way from Penang, but on the other hand, Small Pratincole was a Malaysian lifer and a wader to boot – very tempting! Additionally there were still quite a few potential year ticks that I’d missed earlier in the year in Johor, so I decided to make the long journey south, and to spend a few days visiting some of the areas I’d explored earlier in the year.

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One of three Small Pratincoles at Sungai Balang

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Bald but happy! Lesser Adjutant, Sungai Balang

The pratincoles were found with a minimum of fuss and proved to be very docile, so much so that I didn’t actually see them in flight, but I wasn’t complaining! The next few days were very rewarding, as I picked up three much-wanted birds I’d missed earlier in the year – Brown-chested FlycatcherShort-toed Coucal and  White-necked Babbler.

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Brown-chested Jungle-Flycatcher – an unexpected late bonus!

While attempting to get views of the babbler, I managed to see the best bird of the trip – a White-fronted Scops-Owl – accidentally flushed from a day roost. It landed in partial view, allowing me to take some shots, but was very wary and eventually flew off. This was not only a year tick and a Malaysia tick but a world lifer!

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White-fronted Scops-Owl

Before anyone asks, I’ve decided not to divulge the location of the owl, as it was clearly very sensitive to disturbance, and is of such rarity that it would be likely to attract a lot of attention from birders and photographers. The welfare of the birds comes first!

Back in Penang, I received news from Mr and Mrs Hum that they’d sighted an Imperial Eagle on the mainland. Rashly deciding to try for it at the end of a working day, I was soon stuck in traffic across the bridge. While cursing my poor judgment, I noticed a Black-collared Starling flying across the road! This is a feral species in Malaysia, but one that I’d searched for several times in Penang and had given up all hope of seeing. In the event, I missed the eagle, but was still able to add one more to the list.

There was an inevitable lull over the Christmas period for me, but this was abruptly brought to a close by news from Chuping on Christmas Day that Swee Seng and Carol had discovered Malaysia’s 2nd Citrine Wagtail among the many Eastern Yellow Wagtails there. Plans were swiftly made with the result that, early the next morning, Hor Kee, Chiung and I were heading north.

What followed was an arduous day of firstly trying to find flocks of wagtails, and secondly, sifting through them time and again. Despite a couple of fleeting views of the Citrine Wagtail, it wasn’t till about 5pm that I was finally able to photograph it on the ground.

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Bronze-winged Jacana in the early morning sun

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A Short-toed Eagle overhead

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An adult Booted Eagle

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Finally…after 8+ hours of searching – Citrine Wagtail!

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Citrine Wagtail (top left)

Later, when I went through my photos, I found that I’d photographed it in flight too, but I didn’t realize it at the time!

This got me to 629, and I really thought that might be the final total. On our drive that day, Hor Kee and I talked about what future national firsts might be possible. At some point we got talking about gulls, and I advised him to check the Brown-headed Gull flock at Teluk Air Tawar carefully for the outside chance of a Slender-billed Gull, as they occasionally turn up among the thousands of Brown-headed Gulls in the Inner Gulf of Thailand.

I had a major surprise the next afternoon when I got a message from Hor Kee with three photos of a gull he had found at Teluk Air Tawar which was clearly … a Slender-billed Gull!! 

I was in place the next morning at dawn, even though the tide was low and not conducive. Indeed, when I arrived there were no gulls in sight. Soon I was joined by Swee Seng and Carol, who had got as far south as Taiping the night before when they got the news and decided to make a U-turn! Before long we began to see a few gulls offshore, and at about 8.15am the bird we were hoping for flew in and joined a growing roost of Brown-headed Gulls on the mud.

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1st winter Slender-billed Gull – first for Malaysia!

It spent an hour in the roost, mostly preening, and then took off and flew north out of sight, rather ominously. It did not return at high tide during that afternoon, and as far as I know, it hasn’t been seen since.

While watching the gulls, I suddenly realised I could hear Red-whiskered Bulbuls calling behind me. This was a species I had tried and failed to see repeatedly during the year, and it was the only Malaysian bulbul species not yet on my year list. Within minutes I had located a pair tucking into a ripe fruit at the top of a tree – finally!

Red-whiskered-Bulbul_0M7A3537

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Since my luck was in, I decided to try for the Imperial Eagle again. Back in January, an adult Imperial Eagle was one of the first birds I had missed in the year, so I was particularly eager to get this one back. With a little effort and a lot of luck, I succeeded in locating the bird on a distant pylon, and Imperial Eagle became my 632nd and last bird of 2015.

Imperial-Eagle_IMG_4539

Imperial Eagle

632 species is exactly 50 more than the previous record Malaysian Big Year, set in 2006 by Dennis Yong. Hopefully it won’t be 9 years before someone attempts another one. In a succeeding post I will include the full list of species I saw, and reflect on what I learned through the process of attempting a Big Year. But for now, a Big Thanks to everyone who helped and accompanied me through the year, and especially to my long-suffering wife and daughters. I promise I won’t do another Big Year in 2016!