Sunday, 27 December 2015

Mrs Gould's Sunbird (?!)

Compared to the last one, a much much better trip to the north coast this weekend, even though it still had the same big dip hanging heavily over it! As the Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus had turned up again in Ilan, we elected to head in that general direction in order to be 'on hand' should there be any news of it. Not expecting it to roost Friday at Diao Bie Ci, we went first to the Lan Yang River to look for the Goosanders Mergus merganser that we had dipped on two weeks ago and, fingers crossed, a roosting swan. We picked up the two (presumably first-winter) Goosanders quickly, and also two very distant smallish-looking geese (two Tundra Bean Geese Anser serrirostris had been reported form the Lan Yang River during the week, hence most likely those).

Feeling chuffed to have picked up so much right from the off, we then headed to Diao Bie Ci for a cursory glance, only to discover once there that the swan had been present for the first hour or so of light, after which it had flown north, presumably to disappear for yet another week. Despite hanging around until almost noon, the swan did not return, so we headed up to Tian Liao Yang to see what we could pick up there. The large wintering flock of buntings was still present, and included numerous Little Buntings Emberiza pusilla, several Rustic Buntings Emberiza rustica and a now decidedly scruffy-looking Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala. The Black-headed Bunting was mid-moult and distinctly odd-looking, as most of the crown streaks appeared to have been moulted out and distinct traces of red appeared on the forecrown and upper breast. However, the bird had also become rather reddish-backed, making it still a Black-headed Bunting. It is certainly more problematic to identify now than it was when it had just arrived!

As our target Pallas's Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi seemed to have gone, the day felt like a bit of a mixed bag, but rather more down than up. We need not have worried too much, though, as the weekend was set to get much better, even though Sunday would start with a second dip on the Whooper Swan as we returned to Diao Bie Ci at first light to see if the bird had snuck in overnight to roost. It had not, but, armed with fresh information, we set of to Wan Li to twitch a reported Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata, which was fortunately still on site when we arrived.

It was obviously disappointing to discover that this bird was oiled, but the staining was relatively light and the bird did not look too unhealthy. As it had apparently already been present for over a week, there seems to be a pretty good chance that it will recover naturally. As the bird did little once it had climbed out of the water, we moved off to San Zhi to chance our arm with the adult Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis. This was fortunately 'on show' when we arrived, but at considerable range and in deteriorating weather conditions.

After snapping off a few record shots of the crane, it was time to move off to Xin Ju and the main target of the weekend, a first-winter male Japanese Wagtail Motacilla grandis, which had already been present near Gang Nan for several weeks. To add further spice to the journey home, a male Mrs Gould's Sunbird Aethopyga gouldiae was also being reported from Gang Nan, putting two megas right next to each other conveniently on the way home. Very reassuringly, we hit the wagtail right away, and I was able to rattle off a few fairly decent shots of it from behind a clump of trees.

Even more surprisingly, the sunbird was also easy, as it had staked out a stand of three small trees which it did not leave in the two hours or so we were watching it!

After having been told that the bird was male, it was a little disappointing to find it to be such a scruff (I had been expecting an adult rather than a first-winter). That said, this bird is a mega by any yardstick, so it was a relief to connect with it and so quickly. It is always tough to provenance such birds as this one, but this species is certainly migratory (as evidenced by records on Dongyin and Hong Kong). It is also not even a Taiwan tick for me, as I have an historic record of a singing male (and adult that time) from Area B in Qi Gu. Given the fact that the species is migratory, that bird has always counted on my own list, and I see no real reason not to count this one (even though I believe that they are kept in captivity somewhere in Xin Ju). Either way, this was an excellent trip up north, and felt much more like such a trip than did my previous effort (a quite bizarre anomaly and my worst day's birding in Taiwan ever). Above photos taken on the Lan Yang River, Ilan County and Tian Liao Yang, Taipei County 26/12/15, and at Wan Li and San Zhi, Taipei County and Gang Nan, Xin Ju County 27/12/15.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Grey Phalarope

After having dipped on a pair of Tundra Swans Cygnus columbianus mid-week, I was absolutely desperate to put an end to the unprecedented run of bad fortune I had been having, which had simply gone on for too long. This took a trip into the 'midlands' to sort out, specifically a twitch for a Grey Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius at Da An, Taichung, and I was very relieved to roll up on site at first light to find the bird just sitting there in the tiniest of puddles in a small muddy field.

After a fortnight of misery, all that pressure was finally let out after connecting with something new for my year list. In fact, this bird was also new for my Taiwan List, as the few 'Grey Phalaropes' I have seen in the past have been at range or at sea, hence have to some extent been presumed. I assume from all the brown in the wing that this is a first-winter bird, and, on the spread wing photo, there does seem to be one new black, presumably adult, inner primary. It was certainly rather comical to watch, as it defended its preferred puddle vigorously from anything smaller than it, but ran a mile when anything the size of a Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus showed up!

With this in the bag, but nothing else on the radar for the midlands, the Jiu Xue River seemed to be well worth a shot. A delightful group of five Oriental Storks Ciconia boyciana were worth the trip, even if they were several kilometres away. The only Eastern Marsh Harriers Circus spilonotus that would come close were all juveniles, and these were tough to deal with in the very high winds.

Sunday was quite agreeable, too, as I managed to reclaim one of my dips from earlier in the week by relocating the Tundra Swans at Ding Shan late morning. These were absolutely miles away, but did swim a little bit closer the longer I hung around. The Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula was also still present at Ding Shan and, somewhat more surprisingly, the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus was still on the Tseng Wen River late afternoon (though the light conditions had deteriorated enormously by the time I arrived there).

So, a nice return to form for the penultimate weekend of the year, with a couple of goodies and some nice support birds to report. I've left it too late to chase a truly massive year list total now, but this year will certainly end up having been a good one given the quality of birds seen in it. Above photos taken at Da An, Taichung County and the Jiu Xue River, Yunlin County 19/12/15 and at Ding Shan and the Tseng Wen River, Tainan County 20/12/15.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Epic fail!

A truly remarkable weekend this one just gone, but not in any way in any positive sense of the word. It promised to be the best of the year, as we left Tainan early Saturday morning armed with the following information: adult Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus in Ilan, and Red-crowned Crane Grus japonensis, Black-chinned Fruit Dove Ptilinopus leclancheri and Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos all in Taipei City/County. Any one out of these four would have been more than welcome, and would tee me up nicely to chase what remains absent from my year list in the mountains over the remaining two weekends of the year. However, this trip is the one that has probably put an end to any such ideas, as I can't recall having such a bad run of dips at any one time ever, really, and certainly not all together in the one trip. Things started to look ominous when I developed a cold late Friday afternoon. This would deteriorate over the weekend, leaving me not at my best (decidedly sick and tired) for the entirety of it. Still, I had absolutely no choice but to try for this mouthwatering smorgasbord of birds, and rolled up at Diao Bie Ci at 06:30 (first light) to find a fairly large crowd already assembled. Expecting the Whooper Swan to be simply sat out on the water, I was completely puzzled to find no swan whatsoever and even more so when trying to work out just exactly where it might have gone overnight (the bird had roosted) in far from optimum conditions. After about an hour or so of waiting (and obviously no swan), we moved off to check the rest of Ilan (Xia Pu, Wen Di, Xin Nan, Lan Yang River, Li Zi Jian) but would fail in our search to relocate the swan or anything by way of compensation. By lunch time we had simply had enough of this (it was also raining which was not helping my cold), and moved off towards our second target, the Pine Bunting. However, a phone call en route informed us that this record was completely unsubstantiated, and nobody seemed to have any idea just who was claiming it, so it began to look like nothing more than a rumour. We would also learn that the Black-chinned Fruit Dove had not been seen for two days, despite plenty of people having looked for it. In what would be the first of many u-turns over the weekend, we decided to pass on both and head out to San Zhi for the Red-crowned Crane. When we arrived there late afternoon, we were informed by local farmers that this bird too had been absent for a couple of days, and where it had gone to was also unknown. This was a big kick in the teeth as we had declined a u-turn at Pinglin when we were informed that a Goosander Mergus merganser had turned up on the Lan Yang River as this bird was at considerable range. Preferring instead the (presumably) much closer crane, we had decided to continue heading towards that rather than return to Ilan. The only saving grace from this day of unremitting misery was the 'permanent fixture' Red-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollis, which we picked up at very last light. In fact, we were with it for no more than ten minutes before it flew off to roost! (Of course, the Siberian White Crane Leucogeranus leucogeranus was also still at Jin Shan!)

You would have thought that things could not have gotten any worse Sunday, really, but Saturday was just the primer. After spending the night at Jin Shan, we resolved to return to Ilan early doors to pick up the Goosander, as otherwise we would be destined to come away with absolutely nothing from the weekend. However, a second u-turn was required when we were informed that the Red-crowned Crane was 'now' at Ba Li. Our information was unhelpfully vague, and not surprisingly we failed to locate it, so u-turned again mid-morning to resume course for Ilan. Of course, by the time we rolled up at the Lan Yang River, the Goosander had already gone and there seemed to be little else on offer elsewhere in the county. A stop at Xia Pu did produce a flyby Great Bittern Botaurus stellaris, a small consolation, but that was all, as the swan had not been relocated at any point during the morning. In a desperate act of madness, we began the journey back to Jin Shan as the Red-throated Thrush at least was nailed on and neither of us had managed very good shots of it in the gloom of the previous evening. However, we got snarled up in traffic jams twice on the way there, and by the time it was possible to u-turn and start heading back south to Tainan (Wan Li), we decided top give up on this obviously ill-fated weekend and head for home! You couldn't really make this up, all the toing and froing between Taipei and Ilan, but there really is no need to, as this is exactly what happened. Many thanks anyway to Da Chiao Lin for the lift! Above photo taken at Jin Shan, New Taipei County 12/12/15.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Dalmatian Pelican

I had a 'rude awakening' this morning, with a phone call at 07:00 to inform me that the wandering juvenile Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus was now in Qi Gu. I threw on what clothes were to hand lying on the floor, together with a pair of old slippers, and shuffled off out of the door bleary-eyed but as fast I could. The bird was indeed sitting out on the mud when I arrived, and it seemed as though there hadn't really been the need for quite so much panic, so I calmly snapped off a few record shots and hoped that it would at some point come closer.

However, no sooner had I arrived than the bird chose to leave, flying purposefully north at 08:30. Somewhat typically, I had just relocated to another spot I thought might have been closer to the bird (but wasn't) and, had I not chosen to move, the bird would have flown right over my head. So it looks like I'll have to make do with blurred pin-prick images of this beast for now and hope that I can bump into it again at some point over the winter. Thanks anyway to Lin Ben Chu for the valuable tip off. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, 9/12/15.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Common Ringed Plover

I'll take this for a weekend any day, thank you very much, so late as it is now in the year. The last time I 'scored' on a Friday (with Ryukyu Minivet Pericrocotus tegimae), I chose to hang around for the remainder of the weekend in the south thinking that it wasn't too bad down here as a matter of fact. However, that weekend I got absolutely nothing for my troubles over the remaining two days, and ended up regretting the decision not to have gone further afield. This weekend, I scored on a Friday for a second time in quick succession (with, of all birds, a Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus in Au Gu) and decided once again to spend Saturday and Sunday in the south of the country (once more influenced by the same kind of thinking). I returned to Au Gu on Saturday to try and get better views/photos of this, the undoubted star bird, there, but was once again unable to relocate it. I did turn up a Pallas's Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus, itself something of a rarity in winter, in the small birdy area I like at Au Gu, and there were also a minimum of four Red-breasted Flycatchers Ficedula parva present, so no need to be too down on the day. That said, I was feeling a little bit disappointed by the time I left for home late afternoon, but an impromptu stop on the Pu Zi River ensured that I wouldn't leave the area 'empty-handed', as an adult Great Black-headed Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus was sitting out on the mud when I arrived.

Sunday looked like it would be poor as the wind had really picked up and it would remain blustery all day. This typically kills a lot of small bird activity and, unless you are in a more sheltered area deep in forest, you tend to get nothing. For that reason, I elected to start the day in the large forest at the southern side of the Tseng Wen River (where I typically get nothing), and was not unhappy when I found myself a White's Thrush Zoothera aurea (which seem to have been scarce over the last couple of winters). I was short of ideas for what to do next and, thinking now more in terms of large birds, decided to head north to Bu Dai. I went via Ding Shan as I had noticed a lot of wildfowl present in this area when I passed it on Friday afternoon. When I pulled up to look at a large flock of Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope feeding close to the road at Ding Shan, I startled a pair of Kentish Plovers Charadrius alexandrinus that had been sheltering from the wind behind the wall atop which the road is built. These collected a third plover as they flew off, a darker individual, which seemed, in addition to an obvious wingbar, to have a complete breast band and a stubby bill. Although I only saw it naked eye as it flew away, I fancied that this really had to be a Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula, and parked up to begin the search. It took about half an hour to relocate the bird, but a Common Ringed Plover was sure enough what it was!

Although this is a bird which most surely winters annually in Taiwan, it is a very tough one to get to grips with as it is very thinly distributed. Add to that the vast numbers of other plovers that winter here and finding one really is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Finding this one was an absolute fluke, as there had been no need to look for it at all (the needle had simply presented itself), and it was just fortunate that I had paid attention to the waders when my passing by had flushed them (but then again, I always do). In addition to the minivets, this very welcome addition to my year list allows me to complete yet another 'set' (as I already have both Long-billed and Oriental Plovers OML this year). When you add the mega Willow Warbler to the weekend's tally, then this has to go down as yet another exceptional weekend's birding! Above photos taken on Pu Zi River, Chiayi County 5/12/15 and Ding Shan, Tainan County 6/12/15.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Willow Warbler

I think I'm slowly starting to get the hang of this yin-yang/karma thing. The pattern in general seems to be that if I have a good week at work, I have a poor to average weekend birding, and that if I have a bad week at work, I have a very profitable weekend in the field. This week was an absolute stinker, and yet I find myself completely dumbfounded by the remarkable bird I managed to find today! It all began with a twitch to Au Gu in search of the Dalmatian Pelican Pelecanus crispus that arrived there on Tuesday. Apparently this bird had already left by Wednesday, but, as I had no idea about this, I twitched it anyway. Disappointed to learn of its departure two days after the fact, I elected to bird some of the forest inside Au Gu and, if possible, record some vocalisations of wintering Red-breasted Flycatchers Ficedula parva. I found an astonishing three individuals close together in the same spot, but couldn't get my new (and not especially cheap) microphone to work, so the day was looking like it was simply going to be a complete disaster. One of the other species I had hoped to get some recordings of was Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, so, when a Phylloscopus appeared in a tree close by that was distinctly larger than the Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus that was already feeding there, I thought to myself I 'might as well get some photographs of this Arctic' as leave Au Gu with nothing at all to show for the day. This 'Arctic Warbler', however, from the very start was 'all wrong'. Although I only had it in my camera viewfinder, I could see that it was somewhat rakish (even vaguely suggesting a prinia), with an overall skinny look to it and a decidedly long tail. It was furthermore repeatedly dipping this long tail and regularly wing flicking, structurally and behaviourally all 'out' for Arctic Warbler. The bird also looked rather yellow below and the 'wrong kind of green' above, with a slender bill and not much of a supercilium to speak of. As I still had it in the viewfinder of my camera, I continued snapping away (now in a bit of a panic) as I felt that what I was looking at was not an Arctic Warbler but something much nicer. The slender build of this bird reminded me more of some of the Two-barred Warblers Phylloscopus plumbeitarsus I had seen this autumn, but the lack of wingbars and persistent wing flicking and tail dipping were obviously wrong for that species, too. It was only when the bird moved out of view and I quickly reviewed my photos that I began to wonder whether or not what I had just been watching might have in fact been a Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus.

I tried to follow the bird as it moved away, but it moved towards an area that was inaccessible and I had to give up chasing it and instead wait for it to return to where I had first found it. I got some reasonable looks at it in the binoculars as it moved away, and the bird could be easily picked out in a flock (naked eye) by its regular tail dipping. Despite a four-hour wait, however, it did not return and, although I could think of nothing else that would fit this bird other than Willow Warbler, as the bird had not called, I had to wait until I got home before I could be more certain. Although this was a very challenging identification (with the main potential pitfall being worn Arctic Warbler), fortunately there seemed to be plenty of pro-Willow Warbler features evident in the few photos I had managed to take of it. These included a narrow yellow supercilium which passed over the bill as a narrow line of yellow feathering (which should not occur in Arctic Warbler) and plain yellow ear coverts which were framed darker green. The colour of the feet and legs (bright orange with blackish shins) would be unusual for Arctic Warbler (in which either uniform ochre or more uniformly dark with redder feet (with darker-legged birds also typically having dark lower mandibles)), but looked spot on for Willow Warbler. Furthermore, although it is difficult to determine exactly where it ends, in several photos, the length of the outermost (short) primary can be seen to clearly exceed the length of the primary coverts, which would place it outside the range of Arctic Warbler (in which it barely exceeds these in length). These features, together with the noticeably long primary projection, wings apparently held crossed, deeply notched (long) tail, overall plumage tones (rather 'cold' above), absence of wingbars, arboreal habits, and constant tail dipping, seemed to eliminate all other Phylloscopus species (certainly all of those which are regular here), but fit Willow Warbler quite nicely. Although tail dipping/wagging is not associated with nominate trochilus (and is more a feature of Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita), according to Brazil, eastern yakutensis 'regularly wags tail downwards, recalling Siberian Chiffchaff', hence this noticeable behavioural characteristic represents a very valuable supporting field mark (Arctic Warbler certainly does not wag its tail). This was such an unexpected bird at this time of year and given the context of the day that it really has to go down as quite a remarkable find! Above photos taken in Au Gu, 4/12/15.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Grey Bunting

As there had been a female Grey Bunting Emberiza variabilis hanging around on Yeh Liu for at least a week, I could have no excuses for remaining in the south this weekend and really had to twitch it, otherwise I would have to face the grim prospect of a liferless autumn. I was relieved when I finally arrived on Yeh Liu Friday to hear that the bird was still present and had shown at least once in the morning, but became increasing anxious when it refused to show for a second time despite plenty of food on offer for it and a crowd which had thinned out markedly in the two hours since it had last put in an appearance. It took until noon for it to show a second time, and also for me to wander off to the bathroom just in time to miss it, only to return to find the few assembled photographers looking at some quite stonking photos of the female Grey Bunting (which had obviously been very close). I myself had to wait a further two hours for it to reappear once more, but considered this to have been time well spent once I had finally ticked it!

This was certainly an odd and rather enigmatic one as far as buntings go as it appeared quite silently in the grass at the side of the path, only then to creep out into the middle of the path and start quietly feeding on all the seed that had been put down for it. There was no hopping, wing-flicking or apparent nervousness on the part of the bird, and it had more the feel of a deliberate forest floor 'creeper' than a typical flicky Emberiza. I did hear one very sharp call right before it emerged, a call so abrupt and sharp that I was actually expecting Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps or some such bird to appear rather than Grey Bunting. I was obviously delighted when it was the latter rather than the former that appeared, as this put an end to a week of worrying that the bird would not hang around for long enough for me to get at it. Whether or not these things happen for a reason does seem pertinent to ask, as dipping on the bird at noon meant that I would spend longer on Yeh Liu than I had originally planned, which in turn meant that I would still be on site when the very dull female Japanese Robin Erithacus akahige got found in the afternoon, one I still needed for my year list. I only managed one shot of it in the failing light, but did rather better with the male Siberian Rubythroat Luscinia calliope that was also hanging around.

There had been other birds around during the day, most notably Japanese Bush Warblers Horornis diphone which were practically everywhere (together with a single Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis borealis, much the more numerous elsewhere in Taiwan). One of these had seemingly barely survived the crossing, a rather diminutive individual to say the least!

With my lifer in the bag and plenty of birds on my camera, I moved off to Tian Liao Yang where I would spend Saturday. Saturday was surprising for the large number of buntings present, though I was a little disappointed that I could find no reed bunting of any sort in amongst these. What I assume to be the same Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala from my last visit was still around, together with way more Rustic Buntings Emberiza rustica (at least half a dozen), plenty of Little Buntings Emberiza pusilla and a single Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans (and masses of Black-faced Buntings Emberiza spodocephala). I would get little from the morning until I made a rest stop at the local temple and explored a shaded pool located right behind it. This turned up a Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, quite an unexpected bird so late in the year and perhaps more likely a winterer at this stage than a recently-arrived migrant.

I had little idea what to do with Sunday, so spent the early morning again at Tian Liao Yang, which produced only more of the same but did at least let me get within camera range of the Black-headed Bunting. A singing Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata in the reedbed at Tian Liao Yang was a big surprise (with a first-winter Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis in the same spot less so), though no amount of pishing would bring it out of the reeds.

It was at Tian Liao Yang that I learnt about Sunday's bird, a first-winter male Red-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollis, at Jin Shan. A quick drive across the county got me there whilst it was still fairly early and in plenty of time to see this very exhausted looking individual, which had plenty of feather damage and looked like it could drop dead at any moment.

I thought that the moult limit in the greater coverts might make this 'other' than a first-winter, but the moult limit here does indicate precisely that (the white-fringed outers are retained juvenile feathers which are being replaced by adult-type grey-fringed inners). The remainder of the wing is also clearly juvenile. Like the Japanese Bush Warbler at Yeh Liu, this bird had obviously suffered flying through the incredibly strong winds of mid week and looked much the worse for wear for it. However, it was feeding well and may well remain on site long enough for me to year tick it again at the start of next year! Either way, this was a very agreeable way to end yet another successful trip to the north coast, perhaps the last one this year now I now have a backlog of places down south which need looking at before the year ends. Above photos taken at Yeh Liu, Tian Liao Yang and Jin Shan, New Taipei County 27-29/11/15.