Sunday, 31 August 2014

Common Tinsel

It took about twenty minutes today to realise that I was on a hiding to nothing looking for migrants in Qi Gu. The Japanese Leaf Warblers of the previous day had all departed, and a mere handful of Brown Shrikes (indicative of nothing as this species is one which is prone to truly massive falls) was all that remained/had arrived overnight. With the sun out in full force again, high humidity and no wind to speak of, I did not fancy slogging it around wet (and open) farm fields looking for waders, so, when a friend who had also arrived in Qi Gu during the morning suggested that we could head inland and look for a few less common butterflies, I was quick to agree. Xin Hua was earmarked as target area as it was first and foremost close by and also contains no shortage of potential goodies. The first target was Common Tinsel Catapaecilma major which, quite surprisingly, is a regular visitor to just one tree, and is apparently almost unheard of elsewhere.


This butterfly is really quite a pretty one and has quite a chameleon-esque quality to it, as its general appearance can vary markedly depending on what kind of light is hitting it. If sunlight is hitting the iridescent silver bands, then it can appear quite dull and pale brown (with the exception the shining bands). If the light is hitting the rusty bands (which also have an iridescent quality), then the whole underwing is coppery-toned, which I guess is where it gets its name from. Also on show at this site were Violet Onyx Horaga albimacula, which we saw late morning, and Apefly Spalgis epius, which we saw when we returned to the area late afternoon.


The break between visits had obviously been for lunch, and also to visit another part of the forest to search for Forest Pierrot Taraka hamada. As butterflies are quite a new thing for me (and an interest which is not yet fully fledged, to be honest) and dialogue in respect of them is conducted in Chinese, I didn't really know just what it was that I was supposed to be looking for. I gave up on the search pretty early, but my more enthusiastic companion turned up a mating pair after only a relatively short period of time. This sparked what can only be described as a twitch, with several other photographers very interested in recording this phenomenon and en route shortly after the find. As with all twitches, there are those who dip, and one unlucky photographer (the last to arrive), who had to travel from almost the shortest distance, pulled up in his car right at the moment when these two separated and disappeared high up in the canopy. I guessed his tardiness was due to the many traffic lights in Tainan City (from whence he had come), and I truly did sympathise with him as he had been beaten to the site by a guy who had travelled from three counties away! (Whilst I have a suite of nemeses that I view as Jungian 'Trickster' figures, and hence try to take away positives from the periodic encounters I have with them, traffic lights are in a category all of their own as they were put here simply to belittle and degrade, and to goad you into jumping them to make profits for the authorities. I hear them mocking me whilst I sit for countless eternities day-in day-out at junctions where there is not a vehicle in sight, only me and red traffic lights in front of me for what looks like infinity. This is not a good state of affairs, especially when the highest density of the damn things nationwide seems to be here in Tainan, where the vast majority serve absolutely no purpose.) Anyhow, I had wanted a dragonfly for the day, and was not unhappy under the circumstances to make do with the common-as-muck Red Percher Neurothemis ramburii, which is certainly one of the prettiest regardless of its status.


So, no birds for the day, but it had been a pretty successful one nevertheless. All above photos taken in Xin Hua, Tainan County 31/8/14.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

(Not) Japanese Leaf Warbler!

As a rule, all these Phylloscopus (together with a lot of other small stuff) are simply just too fast for the cheapo camera that I carry around with me to handle, especially so if in forest. That said, I got a couple of pictures today that weren't all that bad, though these did take plenty of effort to actually get. The pictures below were taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 30/8/14.


I follow the conservative 'Clements' list for my own listing purposes, but it does seem that they're being slow in adopting the taxonomic changes to Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis which are only inevitable (for a summary of the proposed changes: click here). On range, the vast majority here should be Phylloscopus xanthodryas: Japanese Leaf Warbler. 'Arctic Warblers' sensu lato are the most numerous passerine migrant (outside of swallows and wagtails and things like that) in Taiwan and are common wintering birds, and their passage period spans pretty much all of the autumn migration. As the map below (taken from the above link) suggests, xanthodryas is the form that one might most reasonably expect to occur here.

There were five together in my favoured woodlot today (along the coast at Qi Gu), all of them rather moss-green above with liberal amounts of yellow in the supercilium and below, especially in the vent. The call was that of the typical winterer here which, on songs delivered in spring (by individuals in moult which are known to have wintered), I have always assumed to be xanthodryas. The other forms of Arctic Warbler also pass through Taiwan on migration, with one or two borealis-type songs to be heard in the latter part of May and birds with longish, dry calls (in the vein of Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla), which are strikingly different from the calls of the other two (and belong to examinandus), popping up somewhat more rarely in either passage period (for a good summary of the vocalisations of these three: click here). A fourth 'form' also occurs occasionally very late in spring, which is exceptionally dull with virtually all black lower mandible and very dark reddish legs, though what category this oddball belongs to I have no idea. Arctic Warblers sensu lato are a big feature of any migration, and birds will be present in coastal woodlots (and elsewhere) on a daily basis from now on. Given time, they will doubtless drag something else along with them!

Friday, 29 August 2014

Peep show

With just the afternoon to play with, I took another look at flooded fields around the Tseng Wen River and San Gu today. The area has gone completely insane and is just crawling with waders of all kinds. The best find of the afternoon was a Temminck's Stint at Tu Cheng which was in much better condition, and a whole lot closer, than the scruff seen at Jiang Jun last week. I took a few acceptable shots of this bird and would find a further three at San Gu later in the afternoon.


There were thousands of other peeps around as well, most noticeably Long-toed and Red-necked Stints. Surprisingly, juveniles of anything seem pretty scarce and are presumably yet to come, which goes to show what a truly jaw-dropping number of waders actually pass through this area. The birds below are adults, and they are now pretty much in full winter plumage.


Curlew Sandpipers Calidris ferruginea are also here in massive numbers, though they are usually one I pay little attention to. A further Pacific Golden Plover was also nice and approachable, so it seemed worthwhile taking a picture of that. Hopefully, this weekend will produce something of a slightly different flavour as passerines are now also on the move, as evidenced by my first Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus of the autumn. Many hundreds of thousands of those will be hot on the heels of this one!


All above photos taken along the Tseng Wen River and at San Gu, Tainan County 29/8/14.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Pacific Golden Plover

I think I've had just about enough of snipe now after yet another long and hot search today, following which I only returned home disappointed. There are plenty around, of course, but none that seem willing to pose for photos of spread tail, at least not when I'm anywhere near them. I got crappy long-range photos of the tail of one Swinhoe's Snipe this afternoon (the bird in the first photo below, so its identity is known), but these are not at all nice to look at. This individual was striking for the bright orange-yellow tones to its legs and to the basal half of its bill (which I think are also pointers to Swinhoe's Snipe), and it was certainly the brightest of the autumn so far in this regard. However, it refused to pose for long at close range, and flew off to join its mates (uttering a gruff guurk as it did so) in the wet grass before I'd got a picture that was anything like in focus.


I do think that Swinhoe's Snipe has something of a preference for wet grassy habitats when they are available, and it is not unusual to scan a grassy field and see numerous heads sticking up from within it. Birds I think are more likely Pin-tailed Snipe I find more frequently in grass-less (no green) muddy fields, and these flush from within furrows in the mud, often at pretty close range. Anyway, this is all academic now, as passerines should start next week and, if nothing else, I will be able to spend more time in the shade. Today was therefore probably 'closure' for waders this autumn, so I just enjoyed the afternoon taking shots of whatever commoner birds would come close. As I think one of the vagrant golden plovers is overdue here, I took some shots of Pacific Golden Plover Pluvialis fulva in order that I might have something to compare images with when I finally find one (later this autumn/winter with any luck). The birds below are typical for adults at this time of year.


The above birds have tertials which approach the tail tip in length (falling just short), except for the middle one which is affected by posture (and has a tertial missing on the side that has been photographed). The wings do not project too far beyond the tail, with three primaries visible beyond the tertials, hence 'typical' Pacific Golden Plovers (on some individuals the wings project much further than this, strongly suggesting American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica, and identifying a vagrant adult in this kind of plumage looks like a very tricky prospect indeed). A monstrous-looking juvenile Greater Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii was also on show for anyone that wanted it, so I took some pictures of that beast too. Who knows, perhaps it might be of interest to someone.


Hopefully pictures of something that is not a wader next weekend (unless it's a damn good wader that is). Above pictures taken on the south side of the Tseng Wen River near Tu Cheng, Tainan County 25/8/14.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Pin-tailed Snipe

I do hope I don't have to start too many posts with the descriptive phrase 'waste of' collocated with the noun 'weekend', and I do see that there's one such post already. However, when it's burning hot, cloudless and windless, birding can get pretty damn tough here. Obviously, under such conditions, there's nothing for it but to head back up to the place that has been producing (Jiang Jun) in the hope that it can produce something more. So, this was the plan Saturday and things in truth were looking good when I stumbled across three distinctly small snipe huddled together in some dry grass that did not fly off immediately when I pulled up and set up shop.

These snipe were obviously my 'brownish one' rather than the 'yellowish one', and showed a bunch of features that I think should be indicative of Pin-tailed Snipe. On the ground, when feeding or resting in horizontal stance, they were distinctly round-looking, with only very short tail projections. They appeared small-bodied, regardless of stance, and never looked sleek as had the Swinhoe's Snipe of the previous day. They showed dark russet and brownish tones to their plumage, quite strongly so in the case of one very 'autumn-toned' individual, obviously different from the bright oranges and yellows of Swinhoe's Snipe. They furthermore showed a preference for areas of drier mud, spending most of their time in deep furrows, where they were especially difficult to detect.

Thus began my Mexican stand-off in the hope that I might manage some photos of pins from these guys. I got as close as I thought safe, and it took me some time to get into position (having carefully crept and crawled my way behind a large hedge so as not to break the skyline). After about an hour or so of waiting, the inevitable happened. A wizened old crone on a bicycle, complete with 'hoe' (or some such stick) pulled up next to me, mumbled some unintelligible folk curse under her breath and hobbled off into the field, right along the small ridge on which the snipe were sitting. Of course off they went, towering and zig-zagging their way to somewhere miles away where I would have no chance of ever relocating them. I wouldn't have minded, but the crone actually did nothing in the field and, after shuffling her way to the end of it (some 30 seconds or so) and scaring everything in sight, she turned immediately around and shuffled her way back, got on her bicycle and buggered off home, taking her hoe (which she had made absolutely no use of) with her. She was in the field for less than two minutes, and this wrecked an hour's worth of very careful approach work. I can only assume that acts like these, which happen every time I venture into rural environments, from these rustic-types are in fact calculated and malicious, and this plays unhelpfully into my stereotype of old people, especially those way out in the countryside, as being grotesquely unpleasant cantankerous rascals. I seemed to be asked what I was doing by this particular delinquent, which must have been hard to fathom, given that I was standing with binoculars and telescope in front of field full of birds. Ordinarily a single firing brain cell is enough to work this one out, but in the crooked never-never land I seemed to have unwittingly entered this must have been just too much to ask. I was so busy lamenting my circumstances and cursing the skies at my defeat in this, yet another encounter with my nemesis (crone being one of several nemeses, fisherman being another of note) that I forget to check leg length when the birds flew off. If leg length when standing erect was anything to go by, then I imagine that this most certainly would have been quite long. (Also note how thin the legs of this bird are compared to the one the day before.)

I'd had quite enough of Jiang Jun and its degenerate inhabitants after this and returned to Qi Gu. After a fruitless drive along the coastal embankment I called in at San Gu and found a flock of four Asian Dowitchers, comfortably the biggest number I had ever seen together in Taiwan, which was some consolation, even if they were to remain distant. And so ended Saturday.

Sunday was even hotter and, frankly, just worse, and I really can't be bothered trying to think of anything positive (or negative for that matter) to say about it. Above photos taken at Jiang Jun and San Gu, Tainan County 23/8/14.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Temminck's Stint

With the forecast for the weekend not looking too over-inspiring (sun, heat, no rain, no wind), I went yet again to Jiang Jun to have a crack at waders before things there begin to dry out and everything leaves (assuming no big storms roll in between now and that happening). The Pectoral Sandpiper has moved on, but has been replaced by a Temminck's Stint Calidris temminckii which is the first of the autumn (at least for me). Though I see plenty of these in Taiwan (and regularly find them wintering), this one really had me going for a while as it was particularly small and, curiously for Temminck's Stint, did not look especially long-tailed. There were few pointers to be found in much of the bird's plumage as it was heavily worn, and both the bill and legs (and parts of the face) liberally smeared with mud. As it crept around in the tiny pool it seemed to like, it looked to all intents and purposes more like a Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla than a Temminck's Stint. However, when the true amount of white in the tail could be judged, this was quickly ruled out and the excitement over. The thing refused to come close, and after a only a few minutes of viewing at anything like reasonable range, it took off in typical Temminck's fashion, towering and jerking its way to another pool miles away, 'tittering' as it went, and leaving me with only this miserable photo for my efforts. 

I guess I've been quite lucky thus far with the birds I've tried to photograph this autumn, and a Swinhoe's Snipe on the same pool as the Temminck's Stint was ready to step in as some form of consolation, willing as it was to pose for a few portrait shots. It refused to give full spread tail, though, at least not close where the photograph might actually look nice (electing instead only to tease in this regard), but enough could be made out of the tail in some poorer photos to be sure of the bird's identity. This individual was one of those large-looking yellowish ones that get me quite excited and thinking in terms of Latham's Snipe. The two main reasons for this (in addition to plumage tone) are the 'big-headed' look and the fairly long tail. Despite the promise, they always turn out to be Swinhoe's Snipe, at least those that show the tail do. The complete irrelevance of a 'big-headed' look to anything I think is well illustrated in the bottom two photos (taken one after the other), in which a Swinhoe's Snipe first looks big-headed, then small-headed!


This individual did not fly far when flushed (or tower to any height of any kind), nor did it call. I could see about half the length of the toes projecting beyond the tail when the bird was close, and fancy that these might be difficult to detect at any kind of range. Conversely, birds I have been identifying as Pin-tailed Snipe in recent days have shown almost the whole foot projecting beyond the tail in flight, obvious at any range. On the ground, they appear distinctly smaller than 'the yellowish one', are darker/browner above, and are round-bodied, with virtually no tail projection. These birds have all been in drier areas and, when flushed, tend to tower and call. I have yet to get close enough to one though to engage it in the 'Mexican stand-off', whereby I wait for the chance to photograph its tail and it waits for me to bugger off. All photos taken at Jiang Jun, Tainan County 22/8/14.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Pectoral Sandpiper (2)

I couldn't really leave that Pec Sand with just the blurred and miserable grainy images I had managed to get of it yesterday, and really had to go back today for a second look. So, I arrived at Jiang Jun mid-morning and found the bird pretty much straight away. To add to the joy, there was only me there (not a farmer or another photographer in sight), so I was able to stake out a position on my lonesome close to where the bird was favouring and wait for it to move towards me. It duly did so, and I got a bunch of shots that if nothing else were a vast improvement on what I had managed the day before.

I would guess from the rather worn (though not heavily so) fringes to the tertials, scapulars and wing coverts that the bird was an adult (it leastways seemed to lack the 'crisp' look to its plumage that would be expected on any juvenile). It was also rather slightly built and, in terms of size, appeared marginally smaller than most of the Sharp-tailed Sandpipers that it was associating with (which I assume should make it female). The general state of wear of the bird seemed to match that of some of the adult Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, which I also took the opportunity to take one or two shots of. 


With the Pec Sand in the bag, rain stopped play early on in the afternoon. I hung around for a while after the rain stopped to look for snipe and did find a bunch of Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura hanging around in one of the drier fields, but was unable to do anything with them photographically due to the heavily overcast conditions. It was nice to know at least that many more snipe are now arriving and I'm sure a further visit to the area will be in order during the upcoming weekend. All above images taken at Jiang Jun, Tainan County 18/8/14.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Pectoral Sandpiper (1)

Now, I wouldn't necessarily choose to refer to myself as being in any way a 'lucky' man (and could present the stronger of the two cases arguing quite the opposite) but, when it comes to birds, it does seem that I get my fair old share of the stuff. I tend to believe that every individual is apportioned an equal amount of luck at birth, and that this 'slice' then manifests itself in dribs and drabs (a trail of crumbs) in accordance with how that individual chooses to lead his life. In my case, then, although pretty much every aspect of life I might care to look at takes on a bleak and barren quality due to the tint of my own particular spectacles, I remain genuinely amazed at just how consistently often birds buck this pessimistic trend and do deliver. Today was an excellent case in point. Consumed with an inexplicable fetish for snipe at the moment, today became my third day of traipsing around flooded farm fields near Jiang Jun in horrendous heat trying to get views and photos of some 'spread tails' without even the slenderest glimmer of hope that this might actually happen. In transit from one field to another, I noticed a reasonably-sized flock (a dozen or so) of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers Calidris acuminata feeding just next to the road. "Better take a look at them", I thought (and probably said, as I'm now very much in the habit of talking to myself (and writing for myself it seems)), "a flock that size might have a Pec with 'em". Lift up the old bin's and the first bird I see is a Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos! Nice!

It was clear I wasn't going to have it all my own way as the thing would never come close. As I do all my birding from a motorbike, I know and expect that I will be given quite the run around when trying to get anywhere near some kind of wading bird. I am dead good at approaching birds in the field, and patient, but can never predict when some farmer is going to show up and walk straight through the field I've spent the last hour trying to get 'in position' for (well, actually I can - one invariably turns up the minute I am 'in position', scattering everything in sight to the four winds). With so many farmers around today for some inexplicable reason, it was clear that I was going to have to make do with grainy record shots, a shame as this was only my second in Taiwan, where it is genuinely rare.


My snipe quest will continue and will hopefully be able to move beyond scattered 'heads in fields' to more tails at some point in the next few weeks. So far all I've learnt is that there seems to be a more yellowish one with a deep guurk call that prefers wetter areas and more brownish one with a distinctly higher-pitched guurk that favours drier areas: it really is that amateur with me with snipe! Greater Painted Snipes at least show better than their Gallinago counterparts, although this male was decidedly more cowardly than the female photographed on Friday.

Pectoral Sandpiper photos taken in Jiang Jun, Tainan County 17/8/14, Greater Painted Snipe in Xi Kang, Tainan County 16/8/14.

Friday, 15 August 2014

More snipe (sort of)

As I'd managed to get such good photos of Swinhoe's Snipe earlier in the week (not only for me, but also I expect for that model of camera), I put myself on a mission to find and photograph a Latham's Snipe Gallinago hardwickii with what remains of my summer vacation. Latham's Snipe was OML historically based on large, straw-coloured individuals I had seen associating with mixed flocks of 'Swintail' during passage periods. However, I removed it some time ago as I'd never really had adequate views of the tail and was making use of texts that grossly oversimplified its identification. I have encountered other 'possibles' in the interim, of course, but have found that I haven't had the patience for waiting around for a bird to spread its tail in an open field in 35 degree heat and near 100% humidity (I wonder why?). Latham's Snipe is now, therefore, the one big glaring hole on my Taiwan list (as many do pass through here), so I'm determined to find one sooner rather than later. I cast the net wide today, checking vast numbers of farm fields between Tainan City and Jiang Jun about 20 kilometres to the north. I flushed a paltry dozen or so snipe, none of which looked especially good for Latham's, and was only able to photograph one (presumed) Swinhoe's Snipe, which was more or less completely obscured by grass (and never opened its tail). 

I returned in the evening to the spot where I had photographed the Swinhoe's Snipe earlier in the week, and was rewarded with nice views of Greater Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis. One female was pretty bold and hung around close enough for me to take some quite nice pictures. It started singing after a while, but I never thought on to video it. Never mind. For UK birders such as myself this species seems to be a bit of a popular one, but in Tainan County at least they're actually ten a penny, which does take some of the shine off!


The snipe quest will continue and can only improve. Today's birding was preceded by a week of rain, which means that all the farm fields are flooded and snipe can go wherever they want. They should get more concentrated as things dry out a little. Above photos taken at Jiang Jun and San Gu, Tainan County 15/8/14.