Monday, 18 June 2018

Red-footed Boobies

I finally got the opportunity to take the Taihua Ferry from Gaoxiong to Penghu this Sunday, although Fate did its best to prevent me from doing so by throwing a long string of obstacles in the way. These included: setting off just five minutes too late for the train; my rear brake block falling off en route to Gang Shan to catch the MRT ('Plan B'); rain on the way to Gang Shan (necessitating a stop when already 'late'); and being given directions to the wrong ferry terminal once finally 'there' at Xi Zhi Wan! In the end, with no small amount of 'rushing around', I reached the ticket window at 08:56, expecting that my only option would be to book a ticket for the following day (as tickets are usually no longer issued for that day's sailing 30 minutes prior to departure). However, I was granted an unexpected reprieve from my morning of bad luck and somehow managed to negotiate a ticket for the 09:00 sailing (with just four minutes to spare), and boarded the ferry just as they were pulling up the ramp! Once on the ferry, the ill fortune resumed, as the crew would not allow people outside for fear of the high winds, and one poxy Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus through one of the cabin windows was all I had to show for the first hour and a half of sailing.

Probably in response to the needs of the jaw-dropping number of smokers on board (rather than to my nagging), a tiny area was opened outdoors which at least gave me an opportunity to increase my field of view. After only ten minutes or so of being outside, a large chunk polystyrene came bobbing past which clearly had birds sitting on it. Remarkably, these turned out not to be the usual Greater Crested Terns Thalasseus bergii, but two unexpected Red-footed Boobies Sula sula!

Fortunately, Red-footed Booby is one of those species which is 'into' flying around ships, and the adult bird soon left the polystyrene to give the ship a closer inspection.

It was quickly followed by the immature bird, which I almost missed being so focused on the adult. For a second, I thought that there were in fact three birds in the air (as these two disappeared over the ship and another immature appeared far too quickly). This ultimately got confirmed in the photos, as the first immature had a pink-based bill, but in the second the bill was mostly dark. 

Remarkably, these would not be the only Red-footed Boobies I would see on the outward journey as I came across a further two 'adult + immature' pairs; a total of seven birds! Although a nice surprise, Red-footed Booby was perhaps to have been expected on this trip as a series of tropical depressions had moved up through the Taiwan Strait in a north-easterly direction in the preceding days (and I had been expecting to encounter at least something from further south). They seemed to be about the only things brought by the weather, though, as the crossing was otherwise quiet, punctuated only by the appearance of the occasional Bulwer's Petrel Bulweria bulwerii.

The return journey was quieter still, with just a few terns in the rain around Penghu before it got dark. To add insult to injury, it threw it down all the way from Gang Shan home; not the best conditions in which to drive with just the one functioning brake! I was happy to have taken the battering when I got home, though, as it was then I discovered that the ferry was cancelled for the following two days, as indeed it had been for the previous four! Given that I now 'know the score' with this ferry route, it is likely I'll find myself on board again before the end of the summer. This route has the potential to be very profitable in spring and autumn, but sadly the company schedules far too few day sailings (if any) at weekends! Sailing dates and times for this ferry can be found here and fares here. Above photos taken from the Taihua Ferry, Taiwan Strait 17/6/18.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Short-tailed Shearwater

A peculiar weekend this one to say the least, with precious few birds to show for it but a couple of good ones nonetheless. Absent anywhere to go on Friday, I ventured out onto the sandbar purely for the want of something better to do. A few Bulwer's Petrels Bulweria bulwerii were passing offshore, but all well out of camera range. Remarkably, the only log on the beach held a surprise as a Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis was sheltering (from the sun) under it; not really what you would expect in such an exposed spot (and at such a late date)!

I fancied that the bill of this individual was somewhat more deep-based than normal and was also interested in the somtimes short-looking P9. However, despite being on the tawny side, it was always too warm-toned and short-tailed to be anything other than a Middendorff's, but was perhaps one from a different population to the more slender-billed individuals I more frequently see.

With one Locustella on the beach, I fancied that the woodlots must be crawling with them, so paid a brief visit to each one of those. Neither held any migrants whatsoever, but I did manage to find my first female Hyaline Dusk-hawker Gynacantha hyalina of the season in Area B.

Saturday was perhaps even more bizarre as, en route once more to the sandbar, I picked up a very worn-looking (and slightly oiled) Short-tailed Shearwater Ardenna tenuirostris sitting offshore! This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened, but in previous years I did not have a decent camera to reach for and had been hoping for some time to find another close individual.

There was nothing but ferocious heat out on the sandbar Saturday; so ferocious in fact that it melted the rubberised grip on the main dial of my camera body, meaning a repair will be inevitable at some point soon. Still, with a low pressure forecast to make landfall early afternoon Sunday, I was back out on the sandbar the following day and scored again, this time with a 'miles-away' juvenile Lesser Frigatebird Fregata ariel. This appeared quite suddenly in the river mouth behind me and bizarrely gained considerable height before drifting inland. As it was sadly always too distant to get any kind of photograph of, the photographic 'record' for Sunday comprised nothing more than an unseasonal Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica, a 'close' Bridled Tern Onychoprion anaethetus, and a whole bunch of Horned Ghost Crabs Ocypode ceratophthalmus!

There were once more one or two Bulwer's Petrels offshore Sunday, suggesting that heading offshore might still prove profitable in the next week or so, but the Middendorff's is most certainly 'it' for passerines now this spring. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 8-10/6/18.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Cao Pi: Scarlet Dwarfs and Bog-hawkers!

With the spring rapidly drawing to a close and still no rain on the horizon, I was more than happy to accept Da Chiao Lin's offer of a lift north to pick up some new dragonflies this last weekend. First stop on the itinerary was Qing Ren Hu (Keelung) for the obligatory (and all-too-familiar, as this was now my fourth) dip on White-tipped Longleg Anisogomphus koxingai there. I had at least gone to the right spot this time (after having been sent to incorrect spots around the lake in the past) and did come across one clubtail; a male Long-lined Clubtail Asiagomphus septimus.

The long wait (the entire day) in the tiniest of clearings at Qing Ren Hu added just one further dragonfly to the trip list, but this one at least was an absolute belter! It had been several years since I last saw a Blue-faced Hawker Polycanthagyna melanictera down in Pingtung, and this had been so high in the canopy as to be awkward to photograph. I was therefore delighted to find myself another, although this one was still a bit too high to get the entire thing in focus.

Next stop on the tour was Cao Pi; an upland bog deep in the mountains of Ilan. It was a long and sweaty march up to this site, but one that was certainly worthwhile (the views alone being most pleasing). The long uphill slog produced just one further Long-lined Clubtail for the trip, this time a female, but we had to wait until Cao Pi itself before coming across much of interest.

Immediately upon arrival at Cao Pi, we were greeted by one or two smallish-looking hovering bog-hawkers. The very first ones appeared slightly smaller than those which later landed, but in the field I put this down to some kind of size illusion. It was only when back in the hotel in the evening that I began to see clear differences (most notably in the shape and number of spots on the upperside of the second segment of the abdomen, but also on the sides of both this and the first segment and also in the colour of the pterostigma) between these first individuals and those that I had later photographed perched, and realised that at least some of these smaller-looking individuals had been Least Bog-hawkers Sarasaeschna lieni! Had I know this in the field, I would have spent more time trying to get better shots, but unfortunately in the end had to make do with just these five!

Whilst Least Bog-hawkers refused to land, Razor-tailed Bog-hawkers Sarasaeschna tsaopiensis seemed to be popping up all over the place. It's always exciting to find resting hawkers, and I was especially pleased to get close enough to these to make out the 'cut-throat razor-shaped' terminal appendages from which this species gets its (English) name. Below are perhaps too many shots of this species in the same pose, but as it is virtually endemic to Cao Pi and emerges for just two months of the year, you really do have to 'fill your boots' with them whilst you're up there!

Cao Pi hosts a second endemic species, at least in the domestic context, as it is the only place to see the world's smallest dragonfly, Scarlet Dwarf Nannophya pygmaea. These are abundant here, but present their own challenges to shoot on account of their tiny size (< 20mm).

Other than bog-hawkers and Scarlet Dwarfs, there was little else at Cao Pi and the diversity was overall quite low. There was a butterfly which seemed to have the photographers there very excited ('Formosan Onyx' Horaga rarasana), apparently another range-restricted endemic. It took until the walk back down to come across more dragonflies of interest, though, this time a pair of Spring Copperwings Mnais tenuis, which together put in a pretty complete performance!

Sunday morning was spent at Hu Qien Chao in search of rare clubtails. I had managed to find Two-horned Clubtail Asiagomphus pacificus on my previous visit last year, but this male spent only a short time in view before disappearing completely. This time I would get a close female; one that could be compared with the more common Long-lined Clubtail photographed the previous day!

So, a productive trip north all told as it yielded three lifer dragonflies and took me to at least one very interesting and seldom-visited site. Despite the very poor spring for birds, then, I've had quite a very good one for dragonflies, and will doubtless now try to add a few more species over the summer months! Above photos taken in Keelung and Ilan Counties, 25-27/5/18.