Friday, 27 February 2015

Oriental Stork

A day off on Friday meant a further opportunity to do some birding and, with a warm, sunny and windless day forecast, I was keen to hit some reedbeds. Of course, with such a good forecast, it was inevitable that I would actually awake to grim overcast skies, cold, and strong winds. So, plans scuppered from the outset, I had little idea of what to do with this gift of a free day, and eventually ended up heading north on my 'default' birding route of Highway 17. Ding Shan was first stop, where I added a female Ruff Calidris pugnax to my year list, but failed to find much else. Pu Zi River seemed like the next logical spot, as the weather again looked better for gulls than for anything else. It was en route to Dong Shi that I came across 'bird of the day', an unexpected Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana soaring low over Bu Dai. I had known that one had been wintering somewhere in this area, but had not managed to connect with it thus far during the winter. The bird had obviously just come up from a fish pond in the north of the salt pan area and drifted rather quickly south, climbing to a considerable height with some ease. Not in the mood to give chase, I snapped off a few crappy efforts of it whilst it was at its nearest before pressing on to Dong Shi.

Pu Zi River held exactly the same gulls as it had on Monday, with both the adult and the first-winter Common Gulls present at the roost and the first-winter Slaty-backed Gull flapping around at range at the river mouth. There were no real numbers of gulls on the river, nor at any other of the spots I checked, so I pressed on to Kou Hu before turning back south (the wind being too strong to continue on to the Jiu Xue River) and returning home via Au Gu. I did make a brief stop at Ding Shan on the way home, where the Ruff was in better light but by no means near.

Feeling somewhat undone by the weather, I headed for home late afternoon, fortuitously adding Hooded Crane to the day list as it flew west over Highway 17 at 1700 on its way to 'wherever it goes'. So, the species list for the day had been pretty good all told, but still things felt a somewhat repetitive. It seems like the time may well have arrived to think about doing some birding inland! Above photos taken at Bu Dai, Chiayi County and Ding Shan, Tainan County 27/2/15.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The last of the gulls

A somewhat strange couple of days which brought to an end the vacation period for Chinese New Year began Sunday afternoon when I found myself on the Pu Zi River at Dong Shi. I had had no intention of venturing quite so far north with only the late afternoon to play with, but with nothing on the Qi Gu sandbar and similarly little elsewhere, I just found myself there before I realised where I was. The weather was odd, quite overcast with a stiff breeze blowing, suggestive of the arrival of a cold front. It was presumably this that had sent me north, almost on autopilot, as these are the only conditions likely now to produce gulls, given that Black-tailed Gull Larus crassirostris has started migrating and that they will clear out whatever remains of the big gulls as they pass through. Dong Shi had a single first-winter Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus flying around at range offshore, but only taimyrensis were willing to enter the harbour itself. 

As there were rather a lot of taimyrensis offshore, a return visit was called for on Monday, but not before first twitching Au Gu for a Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus reported there a couple of days before. Despite a solid search, only Black-necked Grebes Podiceps nigricollis could be found, but the fact that there were no fewer than seven of these was certainly noteworthy. As the consensus amongst those consulted was that the Slavonian Grebe was likely an error, I returned to the Pu Zi River in the afternoon to look for the last remaining straightforward gull that had evaded me thus far this year: Common Gull Larus canus. I first found a late first-winter, the plumage most commonly encountered in Taiwan, which still had a lot of retained juvenile feathers present in its plumage this late in the winter, hence can be regarded as a good/typical kamtschatschensis.

Next up was a cracking adult bird, far more unusual here, but sadly at similar range and in the same crappy light (murky/foggy) as the first-winter. The adult had a nice prominent yellow iris and a 'big gull' look to it, hence it too can be regarded as a good/typical kamtschatschensis.

The high tide had pushed many of the gulls off of the river at Pu Zi, and what remained were out of sight behind the now exceptionally tall mangroves. There were one or two taimyrensis flying around over the river, and what looked like around fifty or so on a sandbar offshore at the river mouth (though hard to see well in the gloom). With birds difficult to even see, let alone photograph, I took to photographing some of the quite wonderfully punk coromandus Cattle Egrets that are breeding along the river. These things should certainly think about starting their own band!

A stop on the way home at Bu Dai added a bunch of mongolicus to the day list, but as these were so far away and the light so bad it was not worth trying to photograph them. Absent a strong cold front now, that may well be it for gulls for this year. I've managed to see all the easy ones, but this may well be the first year in very many that I have to go without a vagrant gull of some kind on my year list. It's fortunate that I have other things on my list already to pad it out, otherwise I might well be throwing myself in the canal like the sorry individual the fire brigade were fishing out of there when I arrived home. This seems to be increasing in popularity in front of my flat at the moment, and is perhaps understandable when you consider that it's back to work tomorrow. Above photos taken at Dong Shi/Pu Zi River, Chiayi County 22-23/2/15.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Hit the North!

When you've been birding a place as small as Taiwan for as long as I have, you get a very strong sense of 'when' and 'where', and getting both down to a tee is not at all tough. To that end, in recent years, two permanent fixtures have emerged on my winter calendar. First of all, Kinmen, which is always good, and which this year proved to be outstanding, and, second, the north coast, nominally for albatrosses from Ma Gang, but usually with some kind of supporting cast coming from either Tian Liao Yang or from Ilan. My north coast trip usually falls in the Chinese New Year holiday, as the weather there is often bad at that time of year and most Taiwanese seem to prefer to head south, leaving plenty of places to stay in the north and no real worries about finding accommodation or about renting scooters. This year, I started as usual at Jiao Xi in Ilan, heading first to Tai Yang Pi to kick off the trip with a dip on Baikal Teal Anas formosa on Wednesday, and also to year tick my Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata. I had wanted to spend the whole day birding in Ilan, but the evident fetish for traffic lights that seems to be going on there soon wore my patience thin and it was not long before I had rolled up at Ma Gang. The sea was decent, and I had picked up at least two Black-footed Albatrosses Phoebastria nigripes (guaranteed at this site), together with hundreds of Streaked Shearwaters Calonectris leucomelas, within an hour or so of starting my seawatch, but as the light was not especially good, I moved on to Tian Liao Yang, hoping for more from the sea the following day. It was Tian Liao Yang that would produce the first unexpected bonus of the trip, a Long-billed Plover Charadrius placidus, though the photos I would get of it in late afternoon gloom would not be all that great. I also connected with the long-staying Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus (which looked utterly bizarre with its tail completely shed, and will most certainly leave the minute it is regrown), but not before it was almost dark.

Thursday was similarly overcast as the previous day, and a little bit muggy, which seemed like better conditions for Tian Liao Yang for the early morning. The only new arrival was a Hoopoe (probably a migrant this late in February), and I was able to year tick Buff-bellied (American) Pipit Anthus rubescens (difficult elsewhere in Taiwan, but easy here), as well as get one or two slightly better shots of the Long-billed Plover and of the Bull-headed Shrike. Although the light was not great for taking pictures, I was not waiting for it to improve as I was short a lot of seabirds form Ma Gang. As usual, Ma Gang proved to be excellent, with Black-footed Albatross present offshore all day (hence an unknown number of individuals, but perhaps as many as four or five) and three adult Masked Boobies Sula dactylatra south between 1000 and 1100. A not too unexpected bonus was an adult winter Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus, which flew north at 1055, but it took until mid-afternoon to connect with Japanese Murrelet Synthliboramphus wumizusume, of which there was just a single in a pretty rough sea. Seawatching by and large means no photos, so photographically I was left with what had been able to get from Tian Liao Yang.

The skies had cleared a bit on Friday and it was shaping up to be a nice day. Again I started at Tian Liao Yang, where further surprises were good (though brief) views of two Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers (much scarcer than Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis in Taiwan, but has wintered before at Tian Liao Yang (and also one in Tainan this winter)) and a flushed Bluethroat Luscinia svecica (which I would flush a further three or four times when I returned again in the afternoon). The only thing available for the camera, though, was a female Naumann's Thrush Turdus naumanni, which was not being especially co-operative.

Obviously, there was still something important missing from Ma Gang, so I was there pretty early on, leaving the Long-billed Plover for the afternoon. Ma Gang had Black-footed Albatrosses again from the off and, unlike in previous days, some of them were very close. There was a distinct flurry of activity between 1030 and 1100, when at least four albatrosses were all offshore together at the same time. Three of these were Black-footed Albatross, but the fourth was an immature (fourth-year or so) Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus, which cruised north at very close range at 1040. When I had noticed there were birds close offshore, I had decided to change position and move to the sea wall in the hope of a photograph. It was as I was moving my stuff from my original location to one on the sea wall that the Short-tailed Albatross came through. If I had remained at the sea wall with just my camera (I had just been in this area checking it out), I would have managed a record shot of Short-tailed Albatross! As it was, I had to make do with grainy images of a Black-footed Albatross for the day, but this was anyway better than the proverbial 'kick in the teeth'.

By the early afternoon it was actually starting to get quite hot at Ma Gang. Whilst this was rather pleasant, it did make the sea turn glassy, effectively killing any chances of continuing seawatching. As I already had the four regular Ma Gang 'goodies' in the bag (together with a bonus Pomarine Skua), I decided to call it a day and return to Tian Liao Yang to try and get better shots of at the Long-billed Plover (as I consider this one to be a big rarity). While I was at it (and there was still plenty of time in the day) I also took a few more shots of the oddball shrike.

A (presumably erroneous) report of two Meadow Buntings Emberiza cioides from the Tai Yang Pi area made all the decisions for me on Saturday, the last day I had really wanted to spend on the north coast. Although I usually spend somewhat longer than this up there at this time of year, I had one or two things to sort out before the dreaded return to work, so really needed to be heading home early this time round. There was also the traffic situation to think about, and I did not want to leave it until too late to leave Ilan. So, I arrived at Tai Yang Pi early and was at least able to catch up with the (miles away) Baikal Teal, so the return had been worth the effort. Despite trying one or two other traditionally useful spots with what remained of the morning, I was only able to add Black-headed Munia Lonchura atricapilla to my year list at Xin Nan, and closed my north coast trip for this winter with a Eurasian Oystercatcher on the Lan Yang River.

As with previous years, the north coast trip had been a very profitable one, with Short-tailed Albatross and Long-billed Plover ushering in the 'New Year'. It seems more likely than not that I'll be back up there next winter, hopefully with a bit more time to spend next time round. Above photos taken at Tian Liao Yang and Ma Gang, Taipei County, and Tai Yang Pi, Ilan County 18-21/2/15.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Langkawi (7)

With a mere two hours maximum to spare after sunrise before I would need to return to my hotel (where a Large-tailed Nightjar Caprimulgus macrurus had been calling just before dawn) and check out to start the return journey back to Taiwan, I was left with really only enough time to have one quick last look at the Bonton wetlands. I opted to 'pish' one or two spots in reedy areas to see what migrants would pop out, and pretty much got all of those birds I had heard calling on my first visit to the site earlier in the week. First bird out was a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, which was common here, quickly followed by at least four Black-browed Reed Warblers and a single Dusky Warbler. I figured that I might as well add Oriental Reed Warbler (also common here) to the photographed list, though did not try terribly hard with the photo to be honest.

Further snooping around added Yellow-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus goiavier and Zebra Dove Geopelia striata to my photographed list, and I closed the holiday with a further Plain-backed Sparrow and a rather nice White-throated Kingfisher enjoying some early morning sunshine.

The Large-tailed Nightjar was the final bird added to the trip list, bringing the total for the week to 107 species. My total trip list for the week can be found below.

 Langkawi (Feb 2015) Trip List: Click here

I figured that this total was about a dozen or so species short on what I had been expecting, and, though I had enjoyed the holiday, I was a little disappointed with a mere fifteen lifers from the week. That said, the hornbills had made the trip worthwhile, and I had returned with some very nice (for me at any rate) photographs of what I had seen. So, I would conclude that Langkawi would make an excellent destination for those who wanted to do some birding while they were on holiday (dudes, basically), or a good short extension to a birding holiday to Malaysia in general, but was perhaps an inappropriate choice for more hardcore birders (nutters like me) for two big reasons: (i) species diversity is more limited than you think, and (ii) a vast part of the day is lost to heat, which gets exceptionally frustrating. Basically, anyone who is really into birds needs to move to Taiwan! I also had to conclude that some of the existing information floating around online might well be in error, as there were several species I was unable to find, though I was able to find some of their 'lookalikes'. My final conclusion from this trip, given that none of the reedbed passerines seemed to figure on any Langkawi 'lists', was that I may well be the only person in Asia who actually enjoys birding this kind of habitat! Above photos taken at Bonton wetlands, Langkawi Island 14/2/15.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Langkawi (6)

For my final full day's birding on Langkawi it was decision time. The birding here seemed to offer a short window of bird activity early morning before all became quiet for the remainder of the day. Of all the places I had been on the island, I had perhaps enjoyed the Bonton wetlands the most. However, I also did not have very good shots of either of the big hornbills, which could only be found on Gunung Raya. In the end, the hornbills swung the decision (as much they should) and, after a decent breakfast, I was on my way again back up the mountain. The decision proved to be the right one, as I hit a group of Wreathed Hornbills quickly, and found one female that did not fly off the second I parked up, allowing me to get a reasonable shot of it.

These giant birds are just truly astonishing, and have such a prehistoric look to them that you feel you are actually looking at a living dinosaur. I always cannot help but wonder when I see things like this just how long such ancient species like these have left in the value-less toxic plastic denial-based virtual reality we are merrily creating for ourselves. For now, at least, there seemed to be plenty of them, and indeed, in contrast to other mornings, there was also plenty going on on Gunung Raya. After photographing my giant hornbill, a male Thick-billed Green Pigeon flew into the same tree (very distant, which goes to show just how big these hornbills are), with what was presumably this species also being quite vocal at other spots on the mountain. A second surprise was a Black Baza Aviceda leuphotes, which flew across the road a little further down the mountain, though chose to perch up at similarly long range.

As I was in the right area for Great Hornbill, I spent the next hour or so driving slowly up and down the mountain in the hope that I would come across one fairly close that would not fly off. Descending with the scooter engine off, I heard a loud gruff barking (which I knew to be coming from Great Hornbill) coming form around a bend up ahead where I knew there was a fig tree which had held a few Wreathed Hornbills earlier in the morning. I managed to approach the tree as quietly as possible and ultimately get the kind of shots of Great Hornbill I had been hoping for.

This proved to be my last bird on Gunung Raya, and happily it was just what I had been hoping for. As it was by this time getting hot, I started moving off in the direction of Tanjung Rhu and what little shade was available there. I had a play with the Brown-backed Needletails Hirundapus giganteus that were whizzing around above the river, but these were just way too fast for me (though I did get needles). The only other swift present in any numbers was the ubiquitous swiftlet SP., described in other trip lists as being Edible Nest Swiftlet Aerodramus fuciphagus. However, as I could see no difference on these birds than from on the Germain's Swiftlets Aerodramus germani I had seen at Kuala Selangor the year before, I presumed them to be that species.

I again spent most of the afternoon under the shade trees at Tanjung Rhu, where I managed to photograph a single Arctic Warbler. On a trip practically devoid of woodpeckers, a Greater Flameback Chrysocolaptes guttacristatus was a welcome addition to the trip list.

I gave Brown-winged Kingfisher until late afternoon, but as there were only Collared Kingfishers calling from within the mangroves and anything else was looking unlikely, I chose to spend my final evening on Langkawi back at the Bonton marshes. It was en route to Bonton that I picked up my 'holiday bee sting', a real beauty right inside my left ear (trapped inside a crash helmet). I usually experience some problem whilst travelling, either with things swelling up or more typically with insects. This one was painful, and caused a lot of swelling, but aside from having to travel home looking something like John Merrick, it was not in any way serious. I was not letting a bee deter me from finishing my holiday off at Bonton, where I remained until dusk, managing eventually to see a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, photograph a much better Oriental Pipit, and also photograph a White-browed Crake, albeit quite poorly.

So, by any measure, my final full day on Langkawi had been quite successful. Though I had not managed to get any lifers from it, I had got acceptable photos of both big hornbills, meaning that I had photographed all three species there pretty well during this trip. I would still have just couple of a hours available to spend at Bonton the following morning, but was not expecting to add anything significant from such a short space of time. Trip by and large finished! Above photos taken at various locations, Langkawi Island 13/2/15.

Langkawi (5)

As I had now become used to the weather pattern I was going to have whilst on Langkawi, and to just how significantly this affected bird behaviour on the island, choosing the destination for the morning was not a decision to be taken lightly. For my fourth full day on the island, I elected to spend the morning at Datai, an area which, although it had held no birds on a visit there the previous afternoon, had looked absolutely immaculate and I fancied must surely be productive during the morning. I kicked the day off with a quite ill-proportioned-looking Large-billed Crow Corvus macrorhynchos for the trip (a bird I had been seeing flying around at range prior to now, but never at all near) at the turn off to Datai, before continuing on towards the target birding area itself. 

Upon arrival at the area I generally had in mind for birding, I picked up a pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles sitting on a dead tree which looked like they might make a decent photo. However, whilst setting up to take a shot of these, a large green pigeon flew past and landed on a dead tree slightly further up the road. Not surprisingly, this turned out to actually be a Large Green Pigeon Treron capellei, a new bird for me, which permitted me just the one shot before flying off back into forest. On returning for the eagles, they too flew off, but I did manage to flush a pair of Thick-billed Green Pigeons Treron curvirostra, a second lifer for the morning, whilst poking around in the general area. The area also held White-bellied Munia Lonchura leucogastra, though these were not much compensation for missing the pigeons with my camera.

I hung around for the pigeons for a while, but neither of them returned. As the heat was starting to get going, I elected to take pictures of whatever I could find so that I had decent photos of some common birds as well rather than just record shots. This basically meant getting pictures of both of the bulbuls that are common in the forests of Langkawi, Black-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus atriceps and Red-eyed Bulbul Pycnonotus nigricans, and of Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo, which seemed shyer here than at Fraser's Hill. The practice of just hanging around paid off with my only Asian Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone paradisi of the trip, though this was really miles away.

I applied the same principle to the rest of the day, i.e. try for photos rather than trying for birds, as during the heat of the day the latter approach just got frustrating. I did rather better with Red-wattled Lapwing first of all, before finding an approachable Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus on my return to Tanjung Rhu, an area which had a second unidentified dragonfly.

The tall trees at Tanjung Rhu did hold one or two migrants. A small group of Ashy Minivets were first to attract my attention, and these had drongos in tow, which I hoped might be more Crow-billeds. Presuming them to be that species, I began snapping away at them as best I could, but became increasingly confused as to why they looked so slender and long-tailed and had a call which I associated strongly with that of Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus. A short while later the penny dropped, as the south-east Asian races of Ashy Drongo are not pale like the birds in Taiwan, but blackish. So, these were Ashy Drongos, another tick for the trip.

The area seemed to be worth hanging around in and did also produce a Laced Woodpecker that was 'gettable' with a camera. It was also close to mangroves, and offered some hope that Brown-winged Kingfisher might fly past (though obviously this did not happen).

So, my fourth full day on Langkawi completed, and one which I think had been better for the camera than for birding. Though I do slag off photography a bit, I'm happy I have chosen to have a go at it as I think simply birding Langkawi would otherwise have been a very frustrating experience. Above photos taken at various locations, Langkawi Island 12/2/15.