Thursday, 6 February 2020

Kinmen 2020

A frustrating trip to Kinmen this winter, hampered by the weather for the greater part of it. After a sunny (yet windy) start to the first afternoon, the skies blackened, creating gloomy conditions for the remainder of the stay (which included one day lost to rain). As it is usually sunny when I visit Kinmen, these novel conditions proved most challenging. Fortunately, I did pick up my main target in the best of the weather (and light), that being the three long-staying Sooty-headed Bulbuls that have taken up residence at the Agricultural Research Institute. Once a very unpredictable visitor to Kinmen indeed, these are now straightforward for anyone who wants them!

Sooty-headed Bulbul

The second 'recently arrived' bulbul on my target list, Red-whiskered Bulbul, also proved easy on Lieyu, where it was not only in the same bush as last year, but had also picked up a mate (so two).

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Small Kinmen also played host to two Carrion Crows; a bird I have not seen for many years. The last one I saw was also at this same location, so it is a popular one with them. Like all crows, these were intelligent and wary, and off when they detected you had taken an interest in them!

Carrion Crow

There were plenty of Collared Crows on Kinmen, too, including one with very worn primaries which forced it to fly with uncharacteristically quick wingbeats (thereby resembling a jackdaw). A flyover Large-billed Crow at the Agricultural Research Institute was a bit of a surprise, though.

Worn Collared Crow (above) and Large-billed Crow (below)

Another big target this trip was the adult (or adult-like) Rose-coloured Starling that was in a mixed flock of starlings just outside of Jin Cheng. Probably approachable had it been on its own, this would not come close as the large starling flock it was with was generally quite nervy.

Rose-coloured Starling

Other birds close to Jin Cheng included a wintering Amur Paradise Flycatcher and a Red-breasted Flycatcher. Both of these proved easy to find, and the rapid hit rate of the first few days led me to believe that I was going to leave Kinmen this time round with a very comprehensive list!

Amur Paradise Flycatcher (above) and Red-breasted Flycatcher (below)

Lake Ci reedbed chipped in with a decent-sized flock (20) of Chinese Penduline Tits (a relief as few had been reported this winter) and a surprise winter male Pallas's Reed Bunting. Flogging farm fields further afield also produced a male Bluethroat; often a problem bird for a year list!

Chinese Penduline Tit (top), Pallas's Reed Bunting (middle), and Bluethroat (bottom)

Perhaps more surprisingly, Lake Ci also held a wintering Two-barred Warbler (call here). I got a rather nice front-end shot of it, but couldn't manage a full-bird shot showing the all-important P10.

Two-barred Warbler

Once the rain started on the fourth day, however, everything stopped, and I had immense difficulty finding anything whatsoever for the final three days I spent on Kinmen. Even the regulars proved difficult to find and photograph, and I left with just a few of them on my camera.

Male Chinese Blackbird and female Fork-tailed Sunbird

After two days of blustery winds and finding nothing, I returned to Lieyu on my final morning, mostly with the intention of tracking down the grey morph Little Egret there (a bird I thought would at least show). Unfortunately, the only decent shots I managed of it were of it in flight.

Grey morph Little Egret

Right at the death, though, something remarkable happened: the Grey-headed Swamphen broke cover and flew into an area where I was able to see it 'full bird'. Although still some distance away, this was the first opportunity I have had to shoot the beast out in the open; remarkable considering I must have seen this individual in every one of the past seven years now!

Grey-headed Swamphen

All in all a decent tally from a few days spent on Kinmen, but I fancy it could have been higher had the weather not intervened. The addition of Eurasian Oystercatcher pushed my year list up to #250, a respectable total given the date. A second visit (at least) will be required, though, should I choose to persist with the folly of year listing (not yet a given) once more!

Friday, 31 January 2020

Pine Bunting

A second mega in the space of a week changed the complexion of this month entirely! This time, the prize was the (presumed first-winter) Pine Bunting that had taken up winter residence at Hou Li in Taichung. As this species was one that had eluded me whilst in the UK, it had moved to a position high up on my wishlist once they started appearing (albeit as vagrant) here in Taiwan (where I had already managed to miss two). The bird proved much easier to see than photograph, though, and I only managed one shot of this giant bunting that was anything more than a pinprick.

Pine Bunting

As the bird was oftentimes elusive, this meant the whole day would be spent at Hou Li. There were one or two bonus birds on site, chiefly the massive flock of Ashy Wood Pigeons that descends from the mountains to winter in this area. A distant Chestnut-eared Bulbul was with the bulbul flock early morning and a male Crested Honey Buzzard gave a low flyby early afternoon.

Ashy Wood Pigeons and male Crested Honey Buzzard

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Striated Swallows with interrupted post-juvenile moults!

During one of the strongest and most blustery cold fronts I can recall, I did a whistle-stop tour of my gull spots Wednesday in the hope that one of them might hold something out of the ordinary. None of them did, but my route through Chiayi took me past a spot where last year I felt to have found a handful of wintering Red-rumped Swallows (here) (based mostly on timing of moult, but also some morphological characteristics). The same giant flock of Straited Swallows was present this year, and had in amongst them a few birds that had obvious moult limits in their primaries. However, birds this year differed from those of last year in one surprising regard: primary moult was not active but was interrupted, apparently suspended! Moult was also more advanced at an earlier point in the winter than in those in active moult last year, and morphologically these birds appeared closer to Striated Swallow. As those photographed showed little wear to the primary tips and white fringes to the secondaries, they were assumed to be first-years in post-juvenile moult. I considered the moult to be too advanced to be acceptable for first-year Red-rumped Swallow. A few individuals are below.

Individual 1 has a full nine primaries, yet there is an obvious moult limit. P7-9 show evidence of wear at the tips and P1-6 are brownish (lacking bluish sheen), suggesting they are already quite old.

Individual 1: First-year Striated Swallow with interrupted post-juvenile moult

Individual 2, like Individual 1, has all nine primaries fully grown and an obvious moult limit. P7-9 show little wear at the tips and P1-6 are a little brownish, suggesting they too are fairly old.

Individual 2: First-year Striated Swallow with interrupted post-juvenile moult

Individual 3 is more lightly streaked than Individuals 1 & 2, has replaced P1-5, shows little wear to the tips of the outer primaries, and has a full set of primaries (at least on the left wing).

Individual 3: First-year Striated Swallow with interrupted post-juvenile moult

Individual 4 appears to have resumed moult after a period of interruption, with P7 dropped but not yet growing. P8-9 are worn, but some secondaries retain the white fringes of juvenile feathers.

Individual 4: First-year Striated Swallow resuming moult after period of interruption

Suspended moult (whereby moult is started on the breeding grounds, suspended for the migration, and resumed at some point once on the wintering grounds) is a strategy commonly employed by migratory species of swallow (e.g. Sand Martin), but I was surprised to find it in a resident species! I had noticed late last autumn that some (presumably late-hatched) hatch-year Striated Swallows were still moulting primaries and seemed unlikely to finish before the turn of the year. Perhaps suspending the moult is a strategy employed by such birds (which may not be as strong as earlier-hatched birds) to help them get through the (rather short) winter here. As evidenced by Individual 4, it does seem to resume at the point of suspension after the interruption. Whatever the reason why this occurs, it makes the moult of this particular species remarkably varied, complex, and confusing!

Monday, 27 January 2020

Sandhill Cranes

Finally, I managed to catch up with what will certainly prove to be 'Birds of the Year' this year over the Lunar New Year break; this after they had already been in Taiwan for at least three months! The two adult Sandhill Cranes that first arrived at Long Luan Can in Pingtung way back in November and later appeared at the mouth of the Jiu Xue River at Mai Liao in December thankfully proved easy to find inland along the Jiu Xue River at Xi Lou on Monday. This was a great relief as successive twitches for them at Mai Liao over the winter had all proven unsuccessful. Decidedly small for cranes (much smaller than I remembered those at Long Point having been), these were clearly of the long-distance migrant 'Lesser' Sandhill Crane population (a lifer for me should this be split from 'Greater'). The moult of Sandhill Cranes seems to be poorly understood, but as it takes a number of years for the bald red crown patch to appear, these two must be adults (and likely a pair).

Adult Sandhill Cranes

There was also a decent bonus bird to be collected whilst in central Taiwan: a Lesser White-fronted Goose at Da Jia in Taichung. This first-year bird (by incomplete forehead blaze and lack of belly patches) had a noticeable limp and unfortunately did not seem to be in the best of health.

First-year Lesser White-fronted Goose