Friday, 28 November 2014

Manchurian(?) Bush Warbler

Nothing more than a very quick look in my reserve woodlot was possible today due to my exhaust all but falling off, and fixing the bloody thing looks like it's going to eat into the weekend. That means I'll have to spend some time in town on election day, so earplugs will need to be kept close at hand! The glance revealed the winter assemblage to be very much 'in', with nobbut a couple of Pale Thrushes and the male Japanese Thrush still around. One of the Pale Thrushes was uncharacteristically photogenic, so I was able to add it to my growing list of 'photoed' birds.


Of greater interest were all the Horornis warblers that had arrived (and do so annually at about this time (late) in the season), of which four (all of the same type) were present today. I considered myself to be pretty suss with Japanese Bush Warbler Horornis diphone, at least as things stood before the recent Clements update (Aug 2014), in which canturians finds itself again relumped with diphone. Any vagrant (old) diphone that occurred here (and they really are genuine vagrants to the south (but common Yeh Liu)) called with a single 'tchak', and was obviously either grey-olive or grey-green on the mantle, lacking any of the warm tones of the (now historic) 'other' form (an abundant winter visitor), which called with a rattled 'drrrt' and belonged either to canturians or borealis. Further differences would became apparent in spring, when any wintering ('old') Japanese (again, rare in the south) would sing with a very pure-sounding long whistled grace note to its song, markedly different from the (very familiar) garbled chuntering of the 'other', redder form. I therefore assumed the redder form to comprise a mix of wintering canturians and borealis, which were so similar in morphology as to be inseparable and in vocalisations as to be an obvious 'lump'. Under the current treatment, however, I now become confused again as the songs and calls of the other redder form are so obviously a good fit for borealis (now monotypic as Manchurian Bush Warbler) that wintering birds can only be considered as such and the question remains: Where are all the canturians? This question is quite a puzzling one given the fact that canturians is apparently supposed to be the regular wintering form here (at least according to the Clements update). Now no longer knowing what any of these birds could possibly be, I took a photo of one anyway. 

I say every winter that I'll try to figure out what the real difference is between borealis and canturians. However, I never do and, looking at the current taxonomic arrangement, probably never will! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 28/11/14.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

More late arrivals

With the weekend settling into a pattern of being dry, sunny and relatively windless, it made sense to start Saturday at a reedbed site to see if any wintering Locustella could be coaxed out into the open. The only site I tried failed to produce, but two Black-browed Reed Warblers were around and one of them popped out for long enough for me to get some grainy record shots of it.


With little else in the reedbed, I moved on to Qi Gu late morning to check out the woodlot that had held Asian Verditer Flycacher the day before. Though this bird had gone, everything else from the previous day was still around, including an immature male Japanese Thrush Turdus cardis, which I was able to track down after having struggled with it the day before. I also managed to catch up with Dark Cerulean Jamides bochus, a not uncommon butterfly in Qi Gu but one which seldom stays put for long enough to do anything with it. 


I returned home early on Saturday as I really could not think of anywhere else to try and the heat was bothering me. The malaise spread into Sunday, and it was not until late morning that I headed out again to try the same 'reserve' woodlot that had been producing so much over the past few days. It produced again, first with a Chinese Cobra at about two metres distance which disappeared into the grass before I could photograph it. This was followed by another first-winter male Mugumaki Flycatcher, which was always just too obscured to get nice crisp shots of it.


The next bird found was the second Red-breasted Flycatcher for this woodlot for the autumn. This very active individual had rather more dark on the lower mandible than the one earlier in the autumn, but both uppertail coverts and call were a good fit for Red-breasted (as was all the red below which could occasionally look quite strong depending on the angle).


It is reassuring to know that at least one woodlot continues to produce birds along this coast, though this weekend's haul may well represent the last of the autumn for this year. Hopefully it will start getting colder from now and bring all the gulls in. Above photos taken in Qi Gu and elsewhere, Tainan County 22/11/14 and 23/11/14.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Asian Verditer Flycatcher

Undoubtedly the nicest aspect of birding small coastal woodlots is that, on occasion, you can walk into one and immediately hear a bird call which is unfamiliar. This tells you straight away that at least some new birds have arrived and that one of these may well be something pretty interesting. The above happened today in my 'reserve' woodlot to the north of Area A, where a rather clamourous Eurasian Magpie Pica pica had pretty much everything else on edge and 'alarm calling', including a nice first-winter male Asian Verditer Flycatcher Eumyias thalassinus, which was sitting right out in the open trying to locate the source of all the confusion. The bird disappeared and became difficult to find the minute the racket died down, but reappeared late afternoon when it could only be described as rather showy, meaning that I was able to snap off several shots of it with which I would ultimately be quite happy all told!


There were several thrushes around as well, meaning that birds are still arriving for the winter along this coast. With any luck there'll be more to come over the weekend. Above pictures taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 21/11/14.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Common Evening Hawker

The disappointing start to the weekend continued into the weekend proper with Saturday in particular being as close to a waste of time as you could possibly get. As the conditions were mild and somewhat muggy on Saturday morning, I elected to check out reedbeds again and visited several sites. My primary reedbed site, Ding Shan, is now very overgrown and, whilst this is actually good news for the birds, the access problems this presents means that finding anything in there from now on will be quite a tough proposition. Consequently I got nothing there Saturday morning and fared no better at the other sites I would visit. On the coast, the only things that seemed to have arrived in force were Daurian Redstarts, which were absolutely everywhere, both in woodlots and along the roadside up and down the coast in general. My original plan for Saturday had been to visit Au Gu, and when I learnt Sunday morning that there had been Hooded Crane Grus monacha there the day before, the error of judgement became clear. Sunday naturally was spent at Au Gu, but the crane had already left and, with nothing else on offer, I elected to look for dragonflies within the forested area itself. I guess I scored by managing to photograph a female Common Evening Hawker Anaciaeschna jaspidea egg laying, but this was flighty and I never really got the shots of it that I wanted. Evening Skimmers were a somewhat easier prospect, and a non-showing Red-breasted Flycatcher was also calling sporadically from somewhere within the forest at Au Gu.


In the afternoon, I learnt that the (!) Black-headed Ibis Threskiornis melanocephalus (which had apparently been present on and off for the last few weeks) had been relocated and was showing along the westen edge of the reserve. I rushed round just in time to see it walking into a group of Scared Ibises Threskiornis aethiopicus (introduced) before falling asleep. It later re-emerged, but was always so far away that I could only get very disappointing record shots of it. As my only bird picture of the day was going to be a grainy image of a distant bird (and without having seen it spread its wings, a somewhat dubious one at that), I thought I might as well bag the pair by stopping off for the even more distant Greater Flamingos at Bu Dai on the way home.


Although the birds I got on Sunday weren't bad at the end of the day, I always hope for something a bit better photographically to be honest. With winter on the way and the focus shifting to mega-distant gulls on estuaries and sand bars, there's unfortunately probably an awful lot more of this kind of frustration to come! Above photos taken at Au Gu, Chiayi County 16/11/14.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Birdless days

I was initially rather thrilled to have a couple of days free at the end of this week, which of course would be spent birding. A cold front began affecting the island Wednesday evening which I had assumed would mean an arrival of some kind on Thursday, so I arrived in Qi Gu early morning and began checking woodlots. Much to my befuddlement, I could find absolutely nothing and after a few hours of searching returned home. After the disappointments of Thursday, I started Friday at the local reedbed I had visited last weekend, armed with all kinds of goodies with which to entice out the Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. Despite a good deal of effort in the search, the bird had either moved on or was being silent and I caught neither sight nor sound of it. A skulking Black-browed Reed Warbler Acrocephalus bistrigiceps was a small consolation, though these are in pretty much every reedbed in winter the more you look. Disappointed, I started checking woodlots again and again found there to be absolutely nothing. I have never seen Area A so empty, not even in mid-winter, and things do not look good in there at all. What has happened is that the place has grown in popularity at the same time that it has become more fragile. Now, no ground cover whatsoever remains (all of the grass is either dead or gone) and it is completely bare at ground level (the result of too many pairs of feet). All that remains is a few dying pines sticking up out of sand! I can remember back to when there was both water and plenty of ground cover and to when there was almost always one freak 'goody' per winter (birds like Radde's, Japanese Bush Horornis diphone, Brownish-flanked Bush Horornis fortipes (davidianus) and even a Blyth's Reed Warbler Acrocephalus dumetorum (an absolute mega in Taiwan an still the only record) have all wintered in Area A). Those days are certainly very much over now. Depressed by the birdless day and the prospect of a similarly birdless winter, I ventured into the grass at my reserve woodlot to see what 'small stuff' was in there. I was able to find a nice male Evening Skimmer, a Gram Blue Euchrysops cnejus (a new butterfly for me at least), and a big writing spider enjoying a moth it had caught (and was consoled by the fact that at least something was enjoying the day).


There was nothing else, and it looks like I might spend this weekend buying a television so that I at least have something to watch until spring! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 14/11/14.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Red-breasted Flycatcher

It goes to show just how spoilt I am now with birding in Taiwan that I consider the weekend to have been 'disappointing'. Bucking the trend of heading north over the last few weekends, I stayed in the south for this one and experienced the first weekend of conditions that could be described as 'wintry'. It never really gets cold in southern Taiwan (except for a week or two around Christmas), and winter is generally marked by the arrival of successive cold fronts which bring with them wind more than anything else. I'm pretty sensitive to these changes as the prime birding habitat throughout winter is reedbed(s). These can be highly rewarding in still conditions, but are a complete waste of time when the wind is really blowing. This weekend saw a very weak front move through the region which whipped up the wind for Sunday. This was frustrating as, after failing to find anything in any of the woodlots Saturday morning, I found my first Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola of the winter in a local reedbed late Saturday afternoon. The bird was singing in warm afternoon sun and showed briefly in response to pishing. However, I was unable to photograph it due to all the dense foliage it was in and resolved to try again early Sunday morning. Despite hanging around for a good while, the only things I was able to photograph Saturday were an Oriental Scarlet Skimmer Crocothemis servilia (which are abundant at the moment) and a few White-shouldered Sturnia sinensis and Chestnut-tailed Starlings Sturnia malabarica I found sat on wires on my way home.


I began Sunday at the same reedbed a little later than I had intended but it really did not matter as the wind had strengthened overnight and all was quiet in the reeds. After hanging around for an hour or so, I headed to Qi Gu to check out some of the woodlots there and immediately found a Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva on entering one of my reserve woodlots. When I first arrived in Taiwan way back in 2000, I found this kind of Ficedula wintering not uncommonly in woodlots along the southwestern coast of the island. I assumed on range that all of them had to be Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla before finding my first very obvious Red-breasted in the winter of 2003-4. Ever since then, I have been unable to find Taiga Flycatcher in Taiwan, either wintering or on passage, and this is despite seeing on average around ten individuals per year. On the three main field criteria of lower mandible colour, longest uppertail covert colour and call, all turn out to be Red-breasted, even migrants on Matsu. Though this seems peculiar on range, I have analysed calls by spectrogram (though the difference between the two is obvious to the ear) and watched wintering males moult into summer-plumaged Red-breasteds before they leave in April. It is clear, then, that the wintering range of Red-breased Flycatcher in Asia has been massively underestimated, and that its regular wintering range in fact extends along the south-eastern coasts of China as far east as Taiwan. I assume it to migrate in an east-west fashion, with Taiga migrating in the opposite direction and sticking strictly to the mainland, hence its great rarity here. Though I wanted desperately to get a sonogram to shove on this blog, there was just too much interference from the wind to get a clear recording, so I instead have to make do with the couple of pictures I managed to snap of it (no mean feat in amongst all those branches).


As the wind seemed to be dying down a bit late afternoon, I returned to the reedbed for another crack at the Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler. It again showed briefly, but was too obscured (and too quick) for me to do anything with it with my cheapo camera. Hopefully it will winter, and four or five months will prove long enough to be able to come away with something in the end! Above photos taken in Qi Gu and elsewhere, Tainan County 8/11/14 and 9/11/14.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Another Amur Falcon

The 'Groundhog Day' conditions of perennially hot and sunny persist in the south of the island, with no rain or decent-looking cold front anywhere on the horizon. This makes it difficult to predict when arrivals of birds might occur, but of course does not prevent birds from actually arriving. Today, although looking decidedly 'without promise', actually ended up being rather good, with one or two interesting birds found, including a second Amur Falcon for the autumn. It started late morning in a small 'back-up' woodlot to the north of Area A with a female Blue-and-White Flycatcher and a male Mugimaki Flactacher Ficedula mugimaki, neither of which was especially easy to photograph.


Though these two were not being particularly co-operative, a female Daurian Redstart was altogether more better behaved, meaning that I could complete the set of photographing all plumages of this admittedly common wintering species all from the same woodlot. 


With the flycatchers requiring far more patience than I was ever going to have, I moved on to Area A to find absolutely nothing in there at all. Rather than go home, I decided to have a second crack at the flycatchers, but these too were nowhere to be found when I returned to the small woodlot. On leaving this woodlot for a second time I found the surprise of the day, a juvenile Amur Falcon sitting on wires not too far away. Quite uncharacteristically, though, this bird proved to be especially flighty, and I was only able to get grainy record shots of it from range. In the same manner as the female earlier in the autumn, the bird was present for a few short moments before it disappeared: one moment it was there, and the next it was gone. 

A bit disappointed that a second Amur Falcon had got away, I headed for home, stopping on the way to photograph a singing Crested Myna Acridotheres cristatellus. Though this is the resident myna on Taiwan, it is getting somewhat scarcer as it is being replaced by introduced species.


With birds arriving regardless, hopefully something will show up this weekend. Above photos taken in Qi Gu and San Gu, Tainan County 7/11/14.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Orange-bellied Jewel

With pretty much the same conditions in the south for this weekend as for last, the north again looked like the place to be with a cold front scheduled to start affecting the weather there on Saturday night. Cold fronts usually (but not always) mean rain and birds, but none have yet been strong enough this autumn to have had any affect on the south of the island (where the pickings will remain comparatively meagre until stronger weather systems start arriving and winter effectively begins). As Saturday itself would be dry and sunny, it made sense to head first to Ping Lin to look for Orange-bellied Jewel Rhinocypha taiwana, a highly range-restricted dragonfly species only formally described last year. Though I have known about this species for some time now, Ping Lin as a location is one which is very much 'out of the way', with nothing much else there especially given how late the season for this particular dragonfly is. It's much easier to reach by car than by scooter (thanks to the freeway), so I was happy to accept a lift and start the weekend there. Though we went first to the wrong location, we did end up at the right one eventually and found plenty of Orange-bellied Jewels to photograph. As ever with dragonflies, females are more difficult to get to grips with, so all the individuals below are males (which are better-looking anyway).


Though I was pretty much focused on the target dragonfly, there were a few other odds and ends around worth photographing in Ping Lin. These included Formosan Jewelwing Matrona cyanoptera, and a couple of common butterflies in Ypthima multistriata (which seems not to have an English name) and a large-looking skipper (which I think is Austen's Swift Caltoris cahira).


Certain there would be at least some birds along the north coast, we left Ping Lin at lunch time to head to Tian Liao Yang which, despite the miserable weather last weekend, had actually been heaving with small stuff. As if to demonstrate just how long a week in birding actually is, there was nothing there except for a single Black-headed Bunting, with almost no other buntings around at all. I fared better at photographing this one than I had last week, but still did not get especially good results. The only consolations around were a single European Starling Sturnus vulagris in with a small flock of White-cheeked Starlings Sturnus cineraceus, all too far away to photograph, and an approachable Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela, although it was not sat in the best of light.


On the face of it, Sunday looked outstanding, with a cold front having arrived during the night and plenty of overnight rain. These seemed to be ideal conditions for Yeh Liu, so we headed there bright and early. Despite the conditions, Yeh Liu produced only a single 'Arctic' Warbler, and that was it. Rather puzzlingly, there was even less at nearby Qing Xue. Disappointed and a little bit damp from the conditions (which seemed only to be getting worse), we turned tail and were heading back home before the morning was out, rather thankful that we had made the effort to get Orange-bellied Jewel this time round! Above pictures taken at Ping Lin and Tian Liao Yang, Taipei County 1/11/14.