Saturday, 31 January 2015

January total

The last day of January was a frustrating one to say the least, with just enough of interest to save me from going completely spare. I had hoped to hit 200 for the year during the day (with everything in that total having come from sea-level), but ultimately would fall just short. I gave myself every chance of doing so by sloping off into nearby woodland at Xin Hua for the last couple of hours of light on Friday, where a wintering Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus (winters sparingly in the south, very rarely so at this location) had been something of a surprise, and a wintering Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa latirostris less so (annual). In the end, the task for Saturday was to find a dozen species, and there was still plenty to go at on the south-west coast to make me think this would be quite straightforward, especially when I had already missed several of the 'scarcer' waders (i.e. those that winter at low densities, even though they become abundant during migration). As I know exactly where to find these birds, 200 for January looked to be squarely on the cards. However, in the end I, was undone on two fronts: firstly, a flat tyre first thing cost me the first (and best) two hours of the morning, and, secondly, the (cold) north-east wind was blowing at full force. Fired up despite these setbacks, I went first to Ba Zhang River, where I had missed Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus earlier in the month. I found one quickly, and also found a Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes (annual at this site), though it was miles away so the photo is naff.

Moving north through Xin Wen and Bu Dai added Spotted Redshank Tringa erythropus, but nothing more. Xin Wen held nine Greater Scaup Aythya marila, but the surprise find of the day was at Bu Dai, where a group of 42 (forty-two) Falcated Ducks Anas falcata were swimming around in the distance: an astonishing number! As neither of these were 'new', I pressed on as far north as Kou Hu, before retracing my tracks and heading south. I felt to be running out of options and time in the afternoon, so headed out to salt pans north of Qi Gu where I knew I could quickly add Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris, Red Knot Calidris canutus and Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea. These became the last additions to the list, with the only other thing of interest for the day being the large roost of Chestnut-tailed Starlings Sturnia malabarica I found on my way home.

In the end, I scrambled my way up to 196 for the year, four short of my target (but pretty high nevertheless). Now all that remains is to see how far I can push this figure on in February, a month with a big long holiday in it! Above photos taken at Ba Zhang River, Chiayi County and Tu Cheng, Tainan City 31/1/15.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

White-browed Crake

They say there is no rest for the wicked, and to be honest who would want it any other way? I had only just finished typing up my Kinmen stuff, when I received a tip off that there was a White-browed Crake Amaurornis cinerea at the jacana reserve in Guan Tian. Whilst I did have some time free in the afternoon, I had been intending to use it for other purposes (not birding), but, with new bird news rattling around inside my brain, it was clear that that was what I would inevitably end up using it for. I thought first about leaving it for next week and heading out to Xin Hua to record a few common woodland birds as I'm also hopeful of hitting 200 species in January, all from below 100 metres asl (effectively the coast), and before any trips into mountains begin. The jacana reserve in Guan Tian is also a spot I don't really like, as it has 'conventional' opening times (not nearly early enough), and I often seem to go there on the day that it is closed. White-browed Crake would also be quite hard, and a day when I had the whole day at it would doubtless be preferable. However, its rarity got the better of me (as really it should), and I found myself arriving at Guan Tian just before 1500, with only two hours to spare before the reserve would close. I was quite surprised by what I found, as there was precious little reed or vegetation cover at the reserve (which may be just what it is like in winter), and I found the bird more or less straight away! It was creeping around in front of one of the very few tiny stands of reed that remained, only this unfortunately happened to be the one furthest away from any of the hides. This meant that any photos of the bird would be poor, but only in keeping with all my other recent efforts at marsh birds! Being able to 'tell what it is' is really all I have come to expect from this kind of bird based on recent form!

So, yet another mega onto the year list, and a tricky marsh bird to boot! I'm doing very well for these characters at the moment, with all of this, Brown-cheeked Rail, and Purple Swamphen OML before the first month of the year is out! Hopefully this one will stay put and I'll have further chances at it before all the vegetation gets out of hand at this particular site. Many thanks to Da Chiao Lin for the information! Above photos taken at Guan Tian, Tainan County 28/1/15.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Kinmen (5)

With just the morning to go at, I first tried the forest at Dou Men (where I had seen Chestnut Bulbul), but this was surprisingly quiet. I then began what I felt amounted to nothing more than some aimless driving around, but would actually log another 'star bird' for the trip in the process, albeit unwittingly and one which would require adding to the trip list retroactively. In the far north-east of the island, I drove past a very small coppice in which a Phylloscopus warbler was calling rather loudly (heard from and over the engine noise of a scooter), causing me to stop. The call was a loud, full 'tiss-yip' or 'tsi-yu', distinctly downslurred on the second syllable, and had a strong feel of Two-barred Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus plumbeitarsus about it (which, even though out of season, was what I was expecting to find). Imagine my surprise when all I could find in the coppice was a 'Yellow-browed Warbler', which I kept passing over thinking 'that's not it, it's too small'. After quite some searching, it became clear that the 'Yellow-browed Warbler' was actually the bird that was calling, and for some inexplicable reason I left it recorded as a 'funny-calling' Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus (though I did record it, I also wiped the tape). I don't know why I did not consider Hume's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus humei at the time (for some reason I've always had it in my head that this species calls like Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita) or research the possibility more fully later, but video footage of a calling winterer in Hong Kong which I happened across later in the winter identified the Kinmen bird as that species immediately! It seems I will never learn from my mistakes, and although my mantra in birding is 'never ignore the evidence of your ears', this was something I had certainly done on this occasion! The pressure to get better photos on my last day forced me to return to the Chinese Grey Shrike before my afternoon flight off of Kinmen. Though this was a mistake, I certainly did manage better photos of it than I had in previous days.

I could find little else from the day, outdone by a wind which was strengthening to a forecast >6. All told, though, this had been a fantastic trip to Kinmen, and my full trip list is below:

Kinmen: Kinmen Island and 'Small' Kinmen (Jan 2015) Trip List: Click here

I normally expect a complete haul of the resident birds, together with one or two surprises, from the island, but to add two birds to my Taiwan List out of the one trip is quite exceptional. I wonder what will await me there next year? Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 27/1/15.

Kinmen (4)

My final full day on Kinmen again saw me on the first ferry across to 'Small' Kinmen in the hope of connecting with the Purple Swamphen. I was also hoping that I could do rather better with the Carrion Crow of the previous day. The weather did not look at all promising as, although it had actually stopped raining, it was overcast and very very foggy, making it difficult to see even across to the other side of the tiny marsh that the Purple Swamphen favours. Despite the conditions, I did in fact get it, but it took a wait of over three hours before it finally appeared in fog at the very far side of the marsh. There was absolutely no chance of a decent photo of this bird, but a purple shape is clearly visible in the exceptionally miserable effort at it below!

With the Carrion Crow seemingly gone, I was spending no longer than I had to in the fogs of 'Small' Kinmen, and returned at lunch time to the main island to try and get better photos of the Chinese Grey Shrike. Again, I found the bird straightaway, sitting out in the open on one of its preferred perches and, with the weekend now over, I had the additional pleasure of having the bird all to myself. However, it remained just that bit too distant, and again the only images I could get of it were not so sharp and far too grainy. Although much of the fog had dissipated, it remained very gloomy, which was not at all helping matters.

A little disappointed again, I moved off to a few other areas I had not yet checked to continue my quest for year ticks. Whilst birding some 'random' farmland later in the afternoon, I came across the surprise of the day in the form of two Greater White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons standing out in the open for all to see, a welcome year tick on a rather slow day.

Happy with these two, and with the skies clearing a little late afternoon, I returned to Jin Cheng to bird the town park there as it usually holds one or two birds of interest. There was nothing of any real note this time in the park, but I made a valiant effort with Fork-tailed Sunbird Aethopyga christinae, found a rather handsome Dusky Thrush Turdus eunomus, and took the one obligatory photo of the Kinmen holiday Hoopoe Upupa epops.

With just a morning remaining after this now, and the feeling that I had just about 'cleaned up', I vowed to get at least one photo of the Chinese Grey Shrike I could be happy with before I returned to Taiwan. Above photos taken on 'Small' Kinmen and on Kinmen Island, 26/1/15.

Kinmen (3)

As I had done very well so far from the main island of Kinmen, I felt that I really needed to head out to 'Small' Kinmen on my third day and try for Purple Swamphen, a bird which I felt might take some time. The weather had changed quite unexpectedly and, whilst it was still windless, it was overcast and very foggy, and looking like it might well rain. Muggy conditions are normally good conditions for reedbeds, so it was with some optimism that I got on the first ferry of the morning and headed off to this little gem of an island. I arrived at the target marsh early on, and scored pretty quickly with a Great Bittern Botaurus stellaris, albeit at some distance and in mist.

Then began the long wait for the Purple Swamphen in conditions that were looking increasingly like rain. As the day got gloomier and gloomier, it looked less and less likely that the bird would show. Looking around the general area revealed a 'black' crow flying around in the distance, which I expected would most certainly be a Rook. Whatever it was, it would be worth photographing, so I left the patience-testing marsh to chase that. On closer inspection, the bird was clearly not a Rook at all, but a Carrion Crow Corvus corone, yet another rare bird. Sadly, I could do little with it in the increasing gloom other than get grainy photos of one all-black crow.

The bird disappeared late morning with the local Collared Crows Corvus torquatus, at about which time I decided I would do a quick loop around the northern half of the island to see if I could add anything to the trip list. I couldn't, but did get pictures of melanistic morph Long-tailed Shrike and a rather startled-looking Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis.

I returned to the Purple Swamphen marsh after lunch, which was about the time the rain did actually start coming down. Despite waiting until almost dark, the miserable drizzle did not let up and nothing new appeared. There was obviously little point going elsewhere, as the fog and drizzle would be affecting all parts of both islands in equal measure. So, instead, I just waited until it was time to go home, adding nothing else to the trip list during the entire afternoon. The Purple Swamphen was obviously going to take more than one day, but at least the Carrion Crow had been worth making the journey across for. Above photos taken on 'Small' Kinmen, 25/1/15.

Kinmen (2)

My second (and first full) day on Kinmen was without doubt the best and will, in fact, take some beating for a 'day's birding' this whole year. It was a cold start (still dark), but a still morning, which to my mind made it one full of promise. As it was the most recent to arrive (and hence the most likely to leave), the Red-throated Diver had to be the first target, and I arrived at the small reservoir in the east of the island that it had been frequenting at first light. As the reservoir was so small, finding it was easy, and the bird was OML before the sun had come up! This was not only a year tick, but new for my Taiwan List, hence I was very happy that it had not left overnight! Getting pictures of it, on the other hand, would prove to be more of a challenge, as the white on the bird was rather glaring in the early morning sunlight and it was always a little too distant for my camera. 

In jubilant mood, I turned my attention towards the Chinese Grey Shrike at the other end of the island, but, as the conditions were so still, decided that it would be prudent to look first for Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus en route. These favour a small reed-fringed lake also in the east of the island, but can be rather 'on-and-off'. They were fortunately 'on' as I passed by, dropping in from some height (a flock of up to twenty) after a wait of only five minutes or so, only to pose briefly for photographs before gaining height again and moving off westwards!

Chuffed with finding these, I moved on towards the shrike, but, it being Kinmen and all, there were plenty of other birds to stop and look at (and take pictures of), and I made further stops to snap Yellow-billed Grosbeak Eophona migratoria and White-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis whilst moving from place to place.

When I finally arrived at the site for the shrike, it was approaching noon, and a couple of birders on a scooter told me that the bird could become quite difficult to find in the heat of the day. As this bird was in an open area and I was starting to get a bit burnt, I decided to pass on it for the time being and return later in the afternoon, opting instead to seek shade in a nearby forest in which I had seen Chestnut Bulbul Hemixos castanonotus in previous winters. As usual, the forest was quiet on entry, and it took about half an hour for a Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes to start calling and give me at least something to look at (race davidianus winters Kinmen in good numbers, but is hard to find (its call is barely audible)). After an hour or so, a few bulbuls began calling which had a more rolled and deeper 'prrp' call than Chinese Bulbul (and also a bizarre 'advertising' call, not unlike some small woodpeckers). These could only be Chestnut Bulbul (a shy but very smart bulbul), and I was able to locate them and get one or two (largely obscured) shots.

Chestnut Bulbul is without doubt the toughest of Kinmen's resident birds to get as it is present in only very small numbers. With this species in the bag, I felt as though I could not fail with the Chinese Grey Shrike, and when I returned to its site, it was sat out in the open bang on cue!

The bird was always just that bit too far away, and it took quite a lot of chasing around to get bigger, but disappointingly grainy, images. By all accounts, this bird had been present for some time and was obviously wintering, so there would still be plenty of time later in the trip to try for better shots than those I had managed today.

What I would be hoping for would be something along the lines of the Long-tailed Shrike Lanius schach that was sat out posing in the sun in pretty much the same area as the Chinese Grey Shrike, as if to rub it in just how awkward the target bird was actually being!

As I said at the start of this post, this is a day that will take some beating, wherever I happen to be birding this year. Not only did I manage to get the photographs shown above, but I also logged a distant adult Great Black-headed Gull Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus offshore from Lake Ci as I was in the process of year-ticking my Eurasian Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus! By my reckoning, five 'megas' (at least in the Taiwan context) from the day, one new for my Taiwan List (Red-throated Diver) and one an out and out lifer (Chinese Grey Shrike). Not only did I manage to see them all, but also managed to get adequate photos of most of them too. This was primarily a consequence of the weather, a beautiful still and sunny winter's day. The original forecast had projected this kind of weather out for several days, so I was optimistic about getting pretty much everything with my camera. How wrong they would prove to be and how quickly my fortunes (at least photographically) would change! Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 24/1/15.

Kinmen (1)

I'm always decidedly excited by my annual winter pilgrimage to Kinmen, and with good reason: it is in the habit of granting me lifers! This year would be no exception and, on balance, would perhaps be the best of the trips I have made there in recent seasons. The island became a permanent fixture for me about four years ago, when I found the diversity of birds wintering there to be somewhat wider than is/was commonly assumed (leastways by myself). What this means is that a winter trip to Kinmen adds about twenty or so species to a year list that there will realistically be no chance of seeing on the mainland of Taiwan for the remainder of the year. Add to that the very real prospect of picking up an addition to any Taiwan List and, yes, perhaps even to a Life List, and Kinmen becomes an absolute 'must' for a winter trip. I took a morning flight from Tainan and was out birding by lunch time. It all began in rather sedate fashion, with Chinese Hwamei Garrulax canorus being the first bird onto the year list, followed by a flyover juvenile Black Stork Ciconia nigra whilst I was photographing that.

Although sunny, the day was an especially windy one, which had seemingly sent many of the small birds 'to ground'. I tried a number of traditional spots for a variety of goodies, but failed to record anything much. As I had plenty of time to play with (and an apparently clear forecast), I wasn't too concerned, and was more than happy to take pictures of whatever common stuff I could find on my first day on the island. This included a Pallas's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus (ten a penny here in winter), always a challenge with just a cheapo Canon Powershot!

And so ended the first day of the trip, with very little added, but with the wind forecast to drop for the following day and with fine weather also forecast. I was quite happy with the sedate and enjoyable pace, but a phone call in the evening would shatter all of this and put me on tenterhooks for the rest of the night, as I learnt that there was Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus and Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata on the island, and that the Purple Swamphen Porphyrio porphyrio was still on 'Small' Kinmen. Praying that none of this would leave, I had a very poor night's sleep indeed! Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 23/1/15.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Desert Wheatear

A bizarre weekend this one, which to all intents and purposes looked like it would be absolute garbage, until one of those little pieces of magic that make birding so wonderful on the Jiu Xue River on Sunday morning. It started on Saturday, a day which was just a continuation of Friday in being relatively clear with a very strong north-easterly wind. I had wanted originally to go to Long Luan Can in the far south of the island for Philippine Duck Anas luzonica, but really did not fancy the drive in the (surprisingly cold) high winds and felt that the conditions might also make the bird tricky. In the end, I deliberated over whether or not to go for so long that, before I knew it, it was Saturday afternoon and not at all worth setting off. All that remained for me on Saturday in the challenging conditions was to head out to Jia Ding and fail yet again to find Baer's Pochard, before heading up to the nearby Er Ren River to miss out on Oriental Stork for a second time. Optimistic that the wind would drop overnight, I resolved to head up to the Jiu Xue River early Sunday 'come what may', and make an effort to get my year list moving a bit after a week of stagnation. I duly did so, and arrived before first light to perfectly still conditions and early morning gloom, adding Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus at dawn. I felt that I should really be looking for passerines in the calm conditions, but found most of the access roads to reedbed either overgrown or blown over with sand. Only one old track was open, but this too was covered with sand after about 3-400 metres of driving into it. With nowhere else accessible, I parked up anyway for a quick look around, and almost straightaway noticed an obvious wheatear sitting out on top of a sand dune. I lifted up my bins and found myself staring straight at a cracking male Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti!

After some careful manoeuvring, I got myself into a position close to the dead bush it was preferring and lay down motionless in a decent spot. The bird kept returning to the same bush, often to sing, and was in the end most confiding. Decent or crappy camera, there could be no excuse for leaving this corker alone until I had a camera full of very nice images!

I played with this bird for a couple of hours, after which the wind began once more to stir. Determined to get more from the day before it could reach its full forecasted fury (>6), I birded both the remainder of the southern and the northern shores of the Jiu Xue River, but was unable to add anything at all to my year list, even dipping on the rather straightforward pair of Oriental Storks that are resident at this site! Stopping off at Pu Zi River on the way home too was a waste of time, and by mid afternoon the wind had returned to being near gale force again. The two Black-necked Grebes were still at Xin Wen late afternoon, but not at all in the best of light. Quite bizarrely, the conditions had returned to what they had been the day before when all had looked so hopeless. How delightfully typical of birding that the wind would stop for basically just a couple of hours in the morning, and spare only enough time (and not a second more) to accommodate the first big find of the year! It really is no wonder that I find this hobby so incredibly addictive! Above photos taken on Jiu Xue River, Yunlin County 18/1/15.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Red-throated Pipits

It was almost as if today had been set up to fail, or that I had bitten off more than I could chew from it, or that I was demanding more from the local area than it was actually able to deliver. Whatever the case, the day comprised a long string of dips, and little else. First up was the pair of 'Ferruginous Ducks' at Jia Ding, which photos recently made available have revealed to actually be Baer's Pochards Aythya baeri, and which either way required (and still require) twitching. After a rude awakening at home, I hit Jia Ding early (still dark) and hung around for a good two hours after dawn, but nothing resembling a white-eye appeared on the pond they occasionally get seen on, so dip number one looked assured. I then took a look on nearby Er Ren River, where Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana had been photographed during the week, only to dip on that, too (after what was admittedly little more than a glance). After a brief nap at home, I pressed on to Tu Cheng Area C (a big forest on the south side of Tseng Wen River), more in hope than anything else that a (!) Greater Spotted Eagle Clanga clanga reported a week ago from a bizarre and seemingly unsuitable location on the north side of the river might be flapping around there. Obviously, it was not (and cannot really be classed as a dip), but neither were any other raptors. And finally, on to the Hooded Crane, which was nowhere to be seen on its 'preferred' day roost, so another dip, but one of lesser importance (OMYL). All I managed to find bird-wise from the day was a flock of Red-throated Pipits Anthus cervinus which were surprisingly confiding and easy to photograph. I therefore spent plenty of time in the afternoon with them as the rest of the day was obviously going nowhere.

Although the day wasn't that great, I still had a better one than the poor sod who chose to throw himself in the canal in front of my flat at 0400 this morning. Although, if things remain this poor throughout the weekend, I may well find myself following him! Above photos taken at Tu Cheng, Tainan County 16/1/15.