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.