At dawn it was still raining, and I toyed with the idea of cancelling the day’s birding and just driving straight home.
However, there was a small break in the clouds to the east, so I decided to give it a few hours.
I drove past the Short-toed Snake-eagle still on its post and headed back to Chuping. My plan was to try to find some ploughed fields where I could get a look at pipits and wagtails on the deck. I stopped at a spot which seemed to have quite a lot of activity, and began scanning. Almost immediately I glimpsed a very streaky bird with a pale ‘face’ and supercilium and recognized it as a lark! The bird disappeared into a furrow, so I began a long wait, scanning and rescanning the area in the hope of seeing it again.
There are no larks on the Peninsular Malaysian list, although there are two records of flocks in Sarawak and Sabah from the 50s and 60s. These were initially assumed to be Oriental Skylarks, but a specimen from the Sarawak flock was collected and identified as Eurasian (Man 2008). Greater Short-toed and Oriental Skylark occur elsewhere in South-east Asia. I knew I would need to get good views of the bird to nail down the species, but as time went on with no further glimpse, it seemed increasingly likely that it would have to go down as a “lark sp.”
In the meantime I tried hard to find a Citrine Wagtail which I felt sure must be among the hundreds of Eastern Yellows.
Then I found this one, which appeared to have pale lores and forehead, pale central ear coverts and a full pale surround to the ear coverts, dusky flanks and a white vent. I felt sure that this must be a Citrine, and decided it was time to call in reinforcements, and directed Choo Eng, Kit Wan and James to the spot.
However, the problem was, it was an adult, and an adult Citrine, even a female in worn plumage, should be a lot more yellow about the head than this. As I look at the photos now, it seems pretty obvious that this is just an Eastern Yellow, but at the time rarity fever was upon me and I was pretty sure I had found a Citrine. Lesson learned!
Meanwhile, Choo Eng and team had arrived and were parked behind me. My phone went and Choo Eng informed me that ‘the lark’ was in the field to the right of the car (I had been looking left), and by the way, there were three of them! Trying to get onto a bird someone else is watching from a different vantage point is quite a challenge, but finally I was looking increlously at THREE larks! This field was much flatter than the original one, allowing much better and more sustained viewing conditions.
The heavy streaking above, pale ‘face’, thick triangular bill and short tail immediately differentiated them from pipits. They foraged by walking rapidly along, covering the ground much faster than pipits or wagtails; they were obviously focused on prey in the soil rather than airborne insects.
The heavy streaking below eliminated Greater Short-toed Lark, but I couldn’t remember how to tell Oriental from Eurasian Skylark. I knew that visible primary projection was important, so tried to get some profile shots.
One of the three had much warmer plumage and blacker centres to feathers (on the right here). I assumed that this bird was a juvenile and the other two adults. Occasionally they raised the crown feathers to form a slight crest. At other times this was not prominent.
They were pretty hard to pick out against the soil. There are two in this picture, along with two Oriental Pratincoles and an Eastern Yellow Wagtail!
Eventually, they flew, making a soft chrrt call as they did so. I was able to note the lack of white trailing edge to the wing (a feature of Eurasian Skylark), and this, together with the call and the short primary projection confirmed that they were Oriental Skylarks – Chuping’s SIXTH first for Malaysia!
Meanwhile, the weather was brightening imperceptibly, and birds were clearly on the move. A pair of Asian House Martins flew low across the fields heading south, and there were good numbers of other hirundines, including a few Pale/Sand Martins.
A few Oriental Pratincoles were loafing about too. I was pleased to find on inspecting this photo that this bird was a first winter. Pratincoles are unusual among waders in that juveniles undergo a full moult (most wader species do not moult their flight feathers in their first year).
Tthe bird was in active primary moult. Presumably the fact that pratincoles are mostly aerial feeders, spending much more of their lives on the wing than most waders, makes it a necessity to renew the juvenile flight feathers early.
Three lifers in three days, with a host of other good birds and a few that got away was a very satisfactory haul. Still, leaving the place left a bittersweet taste, as I know it’s only a matter of a few years until the whole area is a rubber plantation.