Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Yellow Bunting

As one or two migrants seem to have been arriving, I've been putting as much pressure on my local patch to produce as possible. The last two mornings have seen the same birds present as at the weekend, but Yellow Buntings Emberiza sulphurata have begun moving through, with one in Area B on Monday and a pair in my reserve woodlot this morning. Like other Asian buntings, Yellow Buntings tend to be rather shy and spend a lot of time just sitting high up in the pines. Their calls are quite distinctive, though, in being a hollow, rather Yellowhammer-like 'tsu', rather than the familiar 'tsits' and 'tsiks' common to the other species. It was call that betrayed the presence of the new arrivals this morning, though both remained just that bit out of range and sufficiently obscured to mean that any photos of them would be poor at best.

The addition of Yellow Bunting (and of a flyover Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus later in the morning) moved me onto a grand total of 249 for the year by the last day of March. This is lower than I would have hoped for, but is 'lean' as thus far everything on the list has come from sea level. Though I remain itching to go up to altitude for the much-needed resident bird boost, this is going to have to wait as the migration takes priority in any given year! As it has now well and truly kicked off, my attention is starting to turn more strongly towards those wonderful outlying islands, which I feel have now become 'in need of a visit'! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 31/3/15.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Yellow-throated Bunting

A slightly disappointing Sunday, which was reasonable for the birds but quite dire for the camera. I started in Area B, which had calling buntings SP. (not Black-faced Buntings, but not showy buntings either) and a small flock of seemingly newly-arrived but typically nervy and flighty Brown-headed Thrushes Turdus chrysolaus, which simply would not sit still. Moving onto a second woodlot, the long-staying Tristram's and Yellow-throated Buntings remained, and these were joined by a Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla from mid-morning onwards. This woodlot, too, held a small flock of Brown-headed Thrushes, evidence of passage, but little was showing and I did well to manage a couple of snaps of the Yellow-throated Bunting, even though these in truth were rather poor.

The main issue that arises when electing to spend the whole weekend in Qi Gu is where to go when you feel you've cleaned up on whatever there happens to be, especially when there's no visible migration of any kind to speak of (being the westernmost point of Taiwan, it is as far as you can get from almost anywhere). I beat the usual path of Ding Shan and Highway 17, calling in at Jiang Jun to see if the farm fields there held anything. As they were still dry, the answer to that question was no, and all I got from the afternoon was a single Indian Silverbill Lonchura malabarica and a Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus, both of which are introductions.

Feeling that I'd hit some kind of bottom by deigning to photograph a Ring-necked Pheasant, I decided to not prolong the agony and head home for the cricket world cup final. Every year is the same down here in that the migration seems to drag its heels a bit when it first gets going, but I'm sure a change will happen soon. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 29/3/15.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Tristram's Bunting

An odd week, and one in which I felt to have been somewhat deceived by the apparent fall of the previous Sunday. Expecting the floodgates to well and truly open, I began putting pressure on my local patch, with no fewer than three early morning visits during the week. Rather surprisingly, the assemblage throughout remained the same, with the owstoni flycatcher long gone but both the Tristram's and Yellow-throated Buntings still hanging around. Both were also still present on Saturday, when I finally manged to catch up with the Tristram's Bunting at least (the Yellow-throated Bunting being decidedly more camera shy).

There was precious little else to report bird-wise on Saturday, save for a few Grey-faced Buzzards Butastur indicus which passed over early morning. Perhaps of greater interest was the sun, which was sporting a highly attractive double-halo for much of the day (though the outer halo was far too vast to fit in a camera frame). I'm sure this had them dancing their socks off in the mountains (which I am told some people are wont to do when they see this kind of thing).

Fingers crossed there will be a bit more to look at on Sunday! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 28/3/15.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

And so it begins...

A weekend which ultimately ended up being quite rewarding, though showed all the signs initially of not being, saw the first smattering of migrants arrive along the coast and (for me at least) the start of the madness that is spring. I retraced my steps on Saturday and followed the route I had laid out on Friday, stopping first at San Gu for another look at all the stints there. I logged an astonishing seventeen Temminck's Stints from only one small field (and there appeared to be others elsewhere), by far the largest figure I have yet seen in one flock in Taiwan. So many birds meant that this was a good opportunity to get some decent shots of these, so I began clicking away.

The Little Stints of the previous day were also present, but at range, and only a Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis would come close enough to photograph. There were also (obviously) plenty of Kentish Plovers, including one odd-looking female which practically lacked a collar.

I moved on to one of my woodlots in the afternoon, which was completely overgrown and held one unidentified bunting (heard calling). It also held not one, but two, Chinese Cobras, both of which moved off too quickly to photograph well. Somewhat disquieted by this, I was not keen on going there on Sunday and had Au Gu earmarked as destination of choice, where I hoped I might find some raptors. However, the electrics went on my motorbike near San Gu, and I had to hang around there waiting for somewhere to open before I could start with any birding. (Why is it always Sunday that motorbikes break down?) As it was mid-morning before things were fixed, the nearby coast became 'best bet' and I was back in the same woodlot as on the previous afternoon. I spent most of time clearing a decent path to walk around on but, whilst thrashing around in there, I did disturb the unidentified bunting of the previous day. There turned out to be two, a male Tristrams' Bunting Emberiza tristrami and a female Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans.

Buntings are hard to come by in the south of Taiwan, so these two were sufficient reward for my path-clearing exploits. However, the day would not end there, as a splash of spring colour would be added to the day later in the afternoon when a male owstoni Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina put in an appearance, one of my favourite birds to find in any passage period.

So, faulty electrics and venomous snakes aside, a productive weekend all told. As well as the birds, I now have a spot to focus on for the spring migration which has better access than before and is already producing birds. I'm now very optimistic about the next couple of months! Above photos taken at San Gu, Tainan County on 21/3/15 and Qi Gu, Tainan County 22/3/15.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Better for Sand Martin

After a week of work that subjected me to entirely new levels of depression I never imagined could even have existed, I was absolutely desperate to get away from it all as soon as was possible and out birding, and the arrival of Friday felt like collapsing onto a finish line after having run a particularly gruelling race. (Work really is a four-letter word!) Itching to finally do something productive with the week, I got out late morning and went straight up to Ding Shan, as I had a bizarre feeling that I was missing something from there. I drew blanks in both the reedbed and the marsh, before electing to check the hirundines that were perched up on wires dotted around the place. It was impossible not to notice the Pale/Sand Martin Riparia riparia/diluta that was sitting in the very first group of Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica and Grey-throated Sand Martins Riparia chinensis that I checked and, as it was close to the road and in good light, I fished out my camera and began snapping away.

My first impression was that this bird was most likely a Pale Martin as it did not seem to be much larger than the Grey-throated Sand Martin it was sitting with. It did have a very good 'T-bar', but there is overlap in this feature between eastern races of Pale Martin and Sand Martin, hence the presence or absence of a 'T-bar' alone is not really indicative of either species. I was being slightly swayed by having read that the wings of Pale Martin should project beyond the tail in that species (which appeared to be the case in this bird), and be equal to or shorter than the tail in Sand Martin (even though in many images of Sand Martin online the former situation seems to be the case). Closer inspection of this bird (and of a second bird found later) showed it to be in active primary moult, hence the wing-tip-tail-tip ratio would in any case be difficult to determine with any real accuracy. I knew from experience with this pair last summer that the only identification feature mentioned consistently in the literature as being of any use in their separation is the presence or absence of a comb of feathers on the hind tarsi, hence focused on trying to get good shots of this part of the bird (which was not too difficult given where it was sitting). In the end there were two birds, both of which showed two small clumps of feathers immediately behind the hind toe and a bare rear tarsus, indicating that they were Sand Martins. I am also assuming (correctly or incorrectly) that wing moult at this time is indicative of a more northerly distribution, and that these birds have wintered and will depart once their moult is completed.

In between bouts of photographing Sand Martins and waiting for them to return to the wires after they had flown off feeding, there were plenty of other hirundines available to photograph, which included Striated Swallows Cecropis striolata and one or two Barn Swallows.

Happy to have found something for the day, and to have gotten some photographs, I left Ding Shan mid-afternoon and headed towards San Gu, not really expecting anything more. Pretty much all of San Gu had returned to a state of being dry, and of course as a result of this the Oriental Plovers of the previous week had long since departed. I could find only one field which contained any decent amount of water, and this was a magnet for all the small waders that were present in the area. It did not take long to pick out a Little Stint Calidris minuta in amongst the many Long-toed Stints Calidris subminuta, and there seemed to be no shortage of Temminck's Stints Calidris temminckii either. Sadly, everything was a little bit distant, but I did manage some record shots nevertheless. In the end, there were two or three Little Stints and around ten or so Temminck's Stints.

There can be no better feeling after a week of misery and frustration than feeling you have made some real progress on a year list from the coast. With spring now very much on its way, and the signs of migration increasingly apparent, this very nice feeling should start to become very much the norm. What a pleasant and very cathartic end to an otherwise very bleak week! Above photos taken at Ding Shan and San Gu, Tainan County 20/3/15.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Oriental Plovers (2)

The Oriental Plovers at San Gu had done their trick, and I was out and about early this morning, but, after scarcely any sleep, it was obvious that I was not going to last the day. I headed first to Ding Shan as the weather was finally of the right type to suggest I might do well there. Despite the suitable conditions, however, no Acrocephalus warblers showed in the reedbed and only a single Locustella was heard singing at some distance. The song of this bird, though, contained a reasonable amount of variation, suggesting that it may well be yet another Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler for the winter, rather than the more regular Middendorff's (which for some reason I have so far failed to find). The only birds I was able to photograph at Ding Shan were a Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala and a Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus, though both were very much in the wrong kind of light.

With little of interest on the coast, I returned for a second look at the Oriental Plovers at San Gu. All seven were still present, but the area was a hive of farmer activity, and it did not take long for one of them to enter the field and scatter all the birds to the four winds. The mixed flock of Pacific Golden and Oriental Plovers flew some distance to the west, and I was unable to relocate them with what remained of the morning. So, I went home for a nap, and returned to San Gu late afternoon to find that all the birds had returned to the field that they had been in the previous evening. They were likewise similarly confiding, allowing me to get yet more images for my album.

The only other birds in the field were Pacific Golden Plovers and Kentish Plovers, nothing terribly exciting, though I did find one Kentish Plover with a complete breast band. There also seemed to be a significant amount of size variation between the Kentish Plovers that were present.

So, another weekend of the year down and very little added to my year list in terms of numbers (just one!). However, it is difficult to complain when birds the calibre of Oriental Plover are performing as well for you as these individuals have been doing over the last two days. Above photos taken at Ding Shan and San Gu, Tainan County 15/3/15.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Oriental Plovers (1)

A bizarre day, and one which had an almost spiritual quality to it as the 'unseen hand' of birding yet again reached in to pull me out of a rut I seemed to have worn for myself. I've been desperate to get into mountains to kick start my now stalled year list for some time, but the thought of the drive has been enough to put me off, at least at an unconscious level, and I find myself waking up later and later in the morning and hence with no longer enough time to actually go. It was the afternoon before I ventured out today, without a clue really of where to go, but in the knowledge that I would beat myself up mercilessly if I did not make some sort of effort to at least get out. So, first to farm fields around Xi Kang, which were mostly dry, before moving on to Area B, where a bunch of very sickly-looking stray dogs, a proliferation of dog turds, and a large-looking snake did little to encourage me to hang around for very long. The only other woodlot I tried was empty, and it looked like I would be returning home very empty-handed indeed. On the way home, I noticed that the farm fields around San Gu seemed to have some water in them and, what with everywhere else being dry and with San Gu being pretty much the site for waders in Tainan (albeit in Autumn), I figured it might be worth a very quick look. I found a field full of Pacific Golden Plovers Pluvialis fulva, and that was it, and was about to leave when I noticed another wader slightly obscured by a bund about twenty metres in front of me. I could see with the naked eye that it was relatively large, and white-faced with a broad red breast band, an Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus! Whilst carefully pulling my camera out of my bag, almost not daring to move, I noticed that there was actually more than one, all very very close, and in total I was looking at a 'trip' of seven birds.

Whilst Oriental Plover is annual in Taiwan, its numbers vary enormously from year to year, and in most years it is scarce. I see them less than annually, so to stumble across seven and for them to be so close felt almost like some kind of divine intervention! There was a good deal of variation in the plumage of these birds, with the least white-headed of them seemingly having both less chestnut in their breast bands and broader buff fringes above. All had black lower breast bands, indicating that all were males, and I am assuming that the feather fringes simply wear off of the least bright individuals to produce summer plumage. However it works, these birds have had the right kind of effect, and I'm sure I'll find myself out of bed a good bit earlier tomorrow! Above photos taken at San Gu, Tainan County 14/3/15.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Tough going

This weekend was tough going. I suppose it really started Friday with the disappointment of the mystery Aythya turning out to be a pretty clear case of a hybrid, and that seemed to set the tone for what remained of the rest of it. My original intention had been to hit mountains somewhere, but the duck had kept me at sea level and that's where I ended up staying. I'm missing one or two reedbed birds from my year list, and plenty of raptors, so felt I could conjure up something from Saturday and Sunday without too much difficulty. Saturday began rather later than would have been ideal, and I chose to focus on two reedbed sites in the hope of getting something from those. My great foe the wind was blowing, and seemed to strengthen each time I pulled up at a new site (wind just kills reedbeds). Site number one, a small reedbed on the Tseng Wen River, had been partially (fully half of it) burnt away, and I can only guess that what was in there no longer is. There had also been a lot of fly-tipping going on since my last visit, with broken toilets and a burnt-out car new on site. Site number two, Ding Shan, also showed plenty of evidence of fly-tipping, with broken ceramics and glass thrown in one part of the reedbed. There was also plenty of habitat clearance going on (not of the reedbed itself, but on its fringes), which added to the 'downer' the day had already put me on. No birds, save for a few Wood Sandpipers Tringa glareola, which was all that there was on my camera, even by late afternoon.

I couldn't really return home leaving things as they stood, as this would mark the day out as being a strong contender for the title of 'Worst Day's Birding Ever'. So, as it was about the right time for it to depart on its evening journey to who knows where, I decided to stop off on my way home to get yet more blurred and grainy record shots of the Hooded Crane to add to my collection.

My enthusiasm had returned for Sunday, but it really needn't have. I returned first pre-dawn to Ding Shan in the hope of connecting with some Acrocephalus or Locustella. However, despite a forecast of still and sunny conditions, there was a good breeze blowing and it was cloudy and cold when I got there. One Locustella was calling from within the reedbed, but from nowhere near the path. Needless to say, I didn't stay long, and pressed on instead to Au Gu in the hope that the conditions might be better there. It was slightly brighter at Au Gu, and a little warmer, and this did tempt a Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla up out of a weedy field for the very briefest and distant of cameos. I managed just two quite dire shots of it before it disappeared back from whence it came.

Now fired up for the drive on to the Jiu Xue River in the hope of some 'missing' harriers, I continued north and arrived on site well before lunch time. I tried first for the Desert Wheatear, which most certainly had gone, before spending the rest of the afternoon watching the conditions slowly deteriorate as banks of low cloud rolled in from the north and the wind picked up to a very decent speed. With the visibility poor and the air quality dropping, I did not stay long on the Jiu Xue River before turning back south and heading for home. I made a brief stop at the Pu Zi River en route, but found fewer gulls there than there had been in previous weeks with nothing really of any note. Thank heavens for that Wryneck! Above photos taken at Ding Shan and Tu Cheng, Tainan County 7/3/15 and Au Gu, Chiayi County 8/3/15.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Baer's Pochard resolved (hybrid)

It took until Friday for me to have enough free time to venture out up to Xin Wen to try and get a better look at the 'mystery' Aythya of Monday, which on Monday at least had shown so much promise of being a female Baer's Pochard. I arrived at Xin Wen relatively late in the morning and, unlike on Monday, had quite a tough time relocating the target bird in amongst the large number of other Aythya, of which there seemed to be rather more today. This was because the 'Baer's', or more accurately 'Baer's lookalike', was in actual fact not out on the water, but sleeping in amongst a group of ducks which were tightly-packed together (hence it was out of view) on the island in the middle of the lake. Until I could locate my target, I had to content myself with trying to get record shots of Greater Scaup Aythya marila and of Common Pochard, though these were pretty much at the upper limit distance-wise of what my small camera can handle.

When I finally located the target bird, it was asleep 'arse-end on', and it was clear in the scope that there was quite a lot of dusky in the undertail coverts and vent, with the white patch in that region looking almost triangular and not especially clean. On a pure Baer's Pochard, this area should be both white and square-shaped, hence it was clear from the off I was, disappointingly, dealing with a hybrid. When the bird moved later onto the water, I was able to see it at slightly closer range and determine that the black on the bill tip was most likely too extensive for Baer's Pochard, its shape and distribution being much more indicative of Common Pochard. To deepen my suspicions, the only spread wings shot I was able to manage also revealed further characteristics of Common Pochard. Whilst there was no dusky area on the outermost primaries (negative evidence of the influence of Tufted Duck), the innermost secondaries were rather buffy-looking, and these should be solidly dark on either of the 'white-eye' pair (but are greyer on Common Pochard).

This feature could also be seen when the bird was preening and held its wings slightly open. At this time, the dark trailing edge to the wing also seemed to be rather too narrow than should perhaps be the case on any Baer's Pochard. Having known only to check the outer parts of the wing rather than the inner on Monday, I had overlooked this clear evidence of 'impurity' in the wing.

So, the return trip to Xin Wen had at least provided me with an answer as to what this puzzling duck might actually be. With clear evidence now of Common Pochard in its plumage, it was obviously a hybrid of that species and some other Aythya. The wing would indicate that this bird did not come about as a result of a pairing with Tufted Duck, and one of the white-eye pair remains favourite for the other parent. Although it is now difficult to rule out Ferruginous Duck, Baer's Pochard would seem the most likely due to the reasons outlined in the previous post. For me, then, this bird is a Common Pochard x Baer's Pochard hybrid, and a genuine case of 'so near yet so far'! More worryingly, losing this one means that I have so far failed to add anything to my year list in March, a most unacceptable situation! Above photos taken at Xin Wen, Chiayi County 6/3/15.