Thursday 28 February 2019

A New Raptor Record for Langkawi

Most birdwatchers find overgrown rice paddy fields have nothing much to offer because the grass and weeds have grown to such a height that birds are always easily well hidden. If you stand along such rice field for at least 15 minutes, you bound to see at least two or three birds that would fly out unexpectedly. Before you can get much of the details of that bird, it dips into the overgrown field and disappeared. Event like this can leave some of the bird photographers in such boredom and despair.

Unless you happen to be at the rice fields during moments like this shown on this image below, then you will see crowded egrets!
Harvesting time is when the birds come out to play...and feed!
If it wasn't for this rare migrant raptor alert from a UK visitor, Dale Bateman, I wouldn't find myself standing on this particular rice field spot which I rarely use for my birdwatching tours. This rice field area is at Kampung Bukit Kemboja and it is a popular area for cycling tours. Dale booked his accommodation in a villa by the rice field. Being a very keen and experienced birder, Dale would do his walkabout along the field and plantation to photograph birds almost daily during his stay.

I am a firm believer of this theory of being at the right place at the right time and not forgetting, the right networking. Somehow Tom Reynolds and Dale got connected. On 30th January 2019, I received an enquiry from Tom about any Harrier has been recorded on Langkawi. Only the Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus has been documented so far. Here is a the paragraph extracted from Yeap Chin Aik's paper on the Birds of Langkawi Archipelago for the Eastern Marsh Harrier:
"Single female collected on November 1907 (Morioka and Chang 1996). A winter visitor, recorded from the paddy fields inland (Medway and Wells 1976). Totally Protected under the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972.
Hello Jane!
When was the Eastern Marsh Harrier last seen in recent years? No one knows or no one has yet to record and report.

Only on the 4th February that I received some images of the harrier from Tom despite his daily lookout. It wasn't easy with these overgrown field. Dale had some record shots of two individuals of harrier family. Tom sent me a couple of shots from Dale's camera screen to verify the species of harrier. 
The suspicion of an image from Tom's photo would be a Harrier and not an Eastern Marsh from the white rump shown on this individual. However, I learned that the white rump cannot be taken as the main feature to eliminate Pied from the Eastern Marsh Harrier.
Tom's photo of a Harrier's rear shot
As I am not an experienced Harrier watcher, it is best to leave this to the experts, my raptor sifus on the mainland. There were interesting discussions amongst them in detailing to a Pied Harrier juvenile from the record shots taken by Dale. During this time, I was away in KL for the Chinese New Year and didn't have my reference book with me, so I needed to rely on my birding sifus who are more familiar with Harriers.

Barrings, small bill and underwing barrings suggests a Pied Harrier juvenile rather than an Eastern Marsh Harrier. I have enough consensus to conclude that this individual photographed is a Pied Harrier juvenile.

And there I was in KL feeling restless and anticipating to return to Langkawi to see this Pied Harrier even though this species isn't my lifer. My first Pied Harrier was in Chuping, Perlis with the help of Tan Choon Eng from Penang and my other short glimpses of Pied Harrier were in Chumphon, Thailand.
A record shot of a Pied Harrier male taken from Chuping with Tan Choo Eng's guidance
The night I returned to Langkawi, I made an appointment with Tom to find this raptor on the next early morning. And here I am standing by the rice field of Kampung Bukit Kemboja with Tom on the morning of 9th February, waiting for this star migrant. It was indeed a waiting game and other birds like Watercocks, Pond Herons, Egrets and also Cinnamon Bittern playing the game of "Now you see me and now you don't".
Cinnamon Bittern's butt
Cinnamon Bittern Ixobrychus cinnamomeus on flight
While waiting, might as well photograph some surrounding birds especially the obliging birds on the field.
A lone Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus
Another Brown Shrike with a crossed bill
A female Baya Weaver Ploceus philippinus
A Pond Heron Ardeola sp 
A Blue-Tailed Bee-Eater Merops philippinus posing comfortably in our presence

Tom and I stood there for one hour and no Harrier showed up. After many days of observing this Harrier, Tom noticed the Harrier's circuit is flying across the road to the other side of the field. And that's when I suggested to Tom to head towards the other rice field. And I was glad I did! After thirty minutes of waiting, a raptor flew above our heads and I initially thought it was a Brahminy Kite. No, it wasn't!
A very common scavenging raptor in our rice fields, Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus
Only butt shots of it before it disappeared. And it was time for Tom to leave the field.
My butt shot of a Harrier
Just as soon as Tom was about to leave, he spotted another one flying in from across. And this time, we nailed it!

Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos juvenile hovers above the field

Alas, my time spent there was fruitful with a new confirmed record for Langkawi. We are always on a lookout for any new or rare birds and is extremely difficult to do it alone. Thank you to Dale Bateman for alerting Tom and many thanks to Tom for sharing this news and location to me. And not forgetting my birding friends (Woei Ong, Liung, Aun Tiah and Seng) for their inputs.

My wish is for it or more of it to return on our next migratory season.

1. Yeap, Chin Aik, "Report on Birds Of Langkawi Archipelago", Malaysian Nature Journal 57 (1):91-144 (2005)