Friday, 29 May 2015

Gray's Grasshopper Warbler

A fairly successful morning with, as predicted, still some birds moving and a year tick off the sea to boot. I started in my reserve woodlot, where the long-staying immature male Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus was still present, the length of its stay perhaps being influenced by the female which has now joined it in there. The surprise of the morning was a Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus, another late mover, which was outrageously flighty and refused to settle for a photo. Rather less surprising were the two Gray's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella fasciolata that were present, unsurprising as there is still plenty of time for a 'fall' of these. Whilst it is good that my reserve woodlot is at least attracting them, it is not really the best place for taking photos!

The only other migratory bird in the woodlot worth looking at was a single 'Arctic' Warbler of some kind. Its dull green plumage tones and thick-sounding call (though admittedly it did call just once) suggested that it may be xanthodryas. The Asian Koel was easy to see today, but, as always, it chose to sit in spots where it was heavily obscured.

I didn't really want to spend too long chasing these guys around with my camera as the sea (which I have neglected this year) typically gets rather good at the end of May. It can be excellent when there are storms around (which there have been all week), but today was sunny and looked superficially somewhat less promising. However, a very short seawatch before the haze became unmanageable did produce a nice adult Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus (my first of the year), together with an immature Pomarine Skua Stercorarius pomarinus. In the right weather, there can be large numbers of skuas offshore in late May, and it will certainly warrant another look before the weekend (and the month) is out! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 29/5/15.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


Having a local patch which is a coastal migration 'hotspot', I naturally approve of rain. However, I do attach one proviso: that it must at some point stop! As it has not rained all spring really in the south of the island, I looked forward with bated breath to the overnight downpours that were forecast to start late Thursday. Out early on Friday, I hit my reserve woodlot and picked up a couple of Gray's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella fasciolata before the rain really started coming down and I was sent home sopping wet. Not to worry, I thought, as I would surely fare better on Saturday. As the annual 'plum rains' tend to rough up the sea, I elected to do a seawatch early Saturday morning, and notched up nine species of tern (the best being Aleutian Tern Onychoprion aleuticus), six Bulwer's Petrels Bulweria bulwerii, and a single Short-tailed Shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris. This was much less than I had been hoping for, so I again hit my reserve woodlot, where about half a dozen Gray's Grasshopper Warblers were now creeping around. The rain began shortly after my seawatch, and it wasn't long before I was again heading home after my second soaking of the weekend. Optimistic that Sunday would be better, I set off late morning after the early morning deluge seemed to have finished, and managed a mere half an hour in my reserve woodlot before the heavens opened and the rain came down much stronger than it had done on either of the past two days. In that half an hour, though, I picked up an immature male Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus (a different individual from the one last weekend), a female (presumed) Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus, a spectacularly late first-year male Japanese Thrush Turdus cardis (one of my most bizarre records for this area ever, I think), an unidentified smallish, brownish Ixobrychus heron (which looked good for female Von Schrenck's Bittern Ixobrychus eurhythmus), my first Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis of the year, a couple more Gray's Grasshopper Warblers, and an astonishingly large number of Brown Shrikes Lanius cristatus for so late in the season. With seemingly no end of birds in there, when the heavens opened I this time sought shelter in the hope that it would at some point stop and I would get a second chance at this huge bounty. Thus began the painful process of five hours of standing behind a wall waiting for the rain to stop, only for it not to do so and for me to venture home sopping wet for a third time in as many days! There was no way I was going to get any pictures of birds from the weekend, so I took one of my tiny yet bird-filled woodlot, drenched after three days of torrential rain. The picture is out of focus in part due to the very high ISO setting, which was needed as it was so gloomy in there it was actually difficult using binoculars for most of the day.

Feeling utterly cheated by the weather, I had no choice but to return Monday morning, which was gloomy but dry for the latter part of it. Both the unidentified bittern and the Japanese Thrush had gone, but everything else was still present. A flock of twelve Yellow Bitterns Ixobrychus sinensis was also flying around the small marsh at the entrance to the woodlot, suggesting the this species was also actively migrating (historically, Von Schrenck's Bitterns have appeared in Qi Gu at the end of May, their arrival coinciding with one of Yellow Bitterns). A seeming newcomer was a calling Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus which was somewhere in amongst the Arctic Warblers Phylloscopus borealis, and another was a large-looking Locustella warbler which sang with a rather slurred, fading in and out 'chiree-chiree' note (not the richer 'chiree-chiree' typical of Middendorff's), with the brief views I had of it suggesting that it did not have a white-shafted P9. Its bill did not look long, however, so this one remains unidentified, presumed Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler. Both of these birds had gone by Tuesday, but a small arrival of Middendorff's Grasshopper Warblers had occurred, and at least three Gray's Grasshopper Warblers were present. It took until Tuesday to get any kind of photographic record of the weekend's proceedings, when the Asian Koel decided to put in a very brief appearance.

So, five days of birding and a very good list from them in truth, but it is difficult to feel pleased with any of it. Most birds were glimpsed rather than watched, and I'm sure plenty of others were missed, With the amount of birding achieved measurable in minutes rather than in hours, it is hard not to come away feeling cheated. The only positive I can take from the last few days is that there are still obviously still plenty of birds migrating, meaning that I should be able to get at least one more weekend out of it before the spring is finally over. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 24-26/5/15.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Roseate Terns

The pattern for this spring seems to be that spending the weekend in Qi Gu results in disappointment, and that rewards only become available whenever I leave the place. This weekend fit that pattern comfortably, with the exception of one year tick which I would describe as 'worth having'. It kicked off on Friday with around half a dozen Gray's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella fasciolata in my reserve woodlot, fewer than the day before, but still I assume all of these birds to be new arrivals. I was unable to get the settings right on my camera to photograph any of these, with the exception of one individual which sat out in the open right until the moment I felt I had everything right, then disappeared (leaving me with only blurred overexposed rubbish for my efforts). Still, the one photo I did get shows the length of P9 if nothing else, even though it is depressing to look at. The only other bird present in this woodlot was a new Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus/saturatus of some kind, though obviously not a sound from it (usual for migrants).

Area B held the bird of the day, a Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata, the one year tick 'worth having'. It is perhaps fitting that I should get this species of Locustella next, before Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis, the most common of the regular four Locustella species (Styan's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella pleskei is unheard of in Taiwan), as my comically bizarre year list so far has many of the regular migrant species missing from it, yet no shortage of rarities on it. As regards Locustella, three Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella certhiola were the first on the list (rare nationally), followed by Gray's Grasshopper Warbler (highly localised), followed this weekend by Lanceolated Warbler (the most numerous species, yet also the most skulking, and exceptionally rare now in Qi Gu after Area A has dried out). Conversely, Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler (which winters in very good numbers island-wide in pretty much all suitable habitat, and is a common passage migrant throughout) remains to be found! These should peak next week, though, so no real worries about finding some of those. The only photos I could get of the Lanceolated Warbler were dire (worse than those of the Gray's), so I'll not be posting any here! With nothing but shame on my camera for the entire day, I headed out onto the sandbar, where a small group of newly-arrived Roseate Terns Sterna dougallii gave me at least something to both look and click away at.

The rest of the weekend comprised two mega-distant Pomarine Skuas Stercorarius pomarinus and a Wedge-tailed Shearwater Puffinus pacificus on Saturday, together with a further Lanceolated Warbler and a single Gray's Grasshopper Warbler in my reserve woodlot. Sunday saw an immature Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus arrive in the reserve woodlot, this after a totally miserable seawatch of absolutely nothing (followed by nothing on the sandbar). Apparently, there are thunderstorms forecast for the middle of this week, which should liven things up a bit. If they don't, then that will be the end of the spring migration for 2015! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 15/5/15.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Late movers

When the Gray's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella fasciolata start moving through the area, you know that the bulk of the passage is pretty much over (save for Locustella, that is). I was very happy this morning to find a dozen or so in my reserve woodlot, only a tiny clump of trees, but quite perfect now for this kind of bird. Area A used to witness massive arrivals of this species, but no more given the complete absence of any ground cover at that site. Most interestingly of all, all birds moving through Qi Gu appear to be of the nominate race (based on the length of P9), and quite surprisingly aminocola does not seem to occur (even though there is quite some variation in plumage, there is never any in the length of P9). Despite there being several on site today, they are notoriously skulking and difficult to photograph (especially in this new woodlot where thick ground cover). Somewhat short on time, I managed just a few record shots before I had to leave for work.

There are always still plenty of 'Arctic' Warblers around when the Gray's Grasshopper Warblers are passing, though they tend to sing less later in the spring. The only singing individual I heard today was good for borealis, though the dirty-breasted, black-billed, and dark-legged type was certainly the predominant 'form' on show today (several).

The only other bird present in the woodlot was a surprisingly large-looking cuckoo. I suppose after only having seen Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus well so far this spring, together with a few glimpses of the smaller southern form of Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus that breeds on Taiwan, any 'other' cuckoo was always going to look 'big' and I was interested in it from the start. Views of it perched revealed a dark eye and a very stout and deep-based bill, which made me fancy either Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus or the larger, more northerly form of Oriental, but the few photos I managed to take of it revealed a very obvious black subterminal band on the tail: a better fit for Indian Cuckoo. Though Oriental Cuckoos often show subterminal tail bands, these tend to be a blacker tip to a black tail (with the tail band perhaps 'suggetsed' rather than actually there). As far as I'm aware, a black tip to a blue-grey tail is an Indian Cuckoo.

So, a decent morning on my local patch all told, with plenty of birds still moving through and certainly more to come. With any luck, there will still be a bit of diversity to be had in amongst these late movers. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 14/5/15.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The final rewards of Dongyin

With the ferry schedule being the way it is, this weekend presented the one final opportunity to visit Dongyin this spring and milk whatever I could from it for one final time. It would be a shorter visit this time around (on the one day and off the next), but the forecast looked superb, with the winds set to switch from south to north-east whilst I was on the island and some rain around to boot. What else looked superb was that it was clear from the off I was going to have the island to myself, as no other photographers were waiting to board the ferry at Keelung! Perfect conditions indeed! Arrival Saturday morning obviously meant birding straight away, and I began quickly notching up year ticks in the form of singing Black-browed Reed Warblers Acrocephalus bistrigiceps (several) and Dollarbird Eurystomus orientalis (of which I would see about half a dozen during the day). The latter could be photographed, albeit at range, as could some of the by now more familiar Dongyin birds, such as Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus.

I moved to Jiang Jun Temple mid-morning, where I hit one of my bigger targets for this trip, Tiger Shrike Lanius tigrinus, a cracking male (and an agreeable way to notch up species number 300 for the year). I was thrilled to see this gorgeous bird (so rare on mainland Taiwan), but disappointed that it would remain unco-operative and forever at range (meaning that photos would be naff). This looked like it was becoming the pattern for this trip (i.e. great birds, bad pictures). Still, it was infinitely preferable to have things this way round rather than to have the reverse!

A few birds were bold enough to buck the trend, most notably a sub-adult Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo. A few buntings were also available for the camera, which by now were mostly females, and included both Chestnut Bunting Emberiza rutila and more 'Bobolink-like' Yellow-breasted Buntings Emberiza aureola (a plumage I'm especially fond of, for some reason).

I ended Saturday with a nice-looking trip list, but little on my camera and only four year ticks in the bag. Whilst not being especially deflated by this, I had hoped for more, but with the wind swinging round to a north-easterly direction there was always going to be hope for the following morning, which would end up being an absolute belter! It all kicked off at Miao Pu, where a couple of White-throated Needletails Hirundapus caudacutus were whizzing around overhead, and the tiniest of cuckoos (quite obviously Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus) flying around the nursery. Both birds remained in keeping with the 'I'm not letting you photograph me' theme of the trip, and the only images I was able to get of them were distant and poor.

I spent a while with these birds before heading out once again to Jiang Jun Temple, which proved to be a very smart move. I was greeted on arrival by perhaps the strangest bird of the trip, a Slaty-breasted Rail Gallirallus striatus, which was shy and would not appear for a photograph (or even decent views). A second Lesser Cuckoo was also flitting around here, and my only Swinhoe's Minivet of this trip put in a very brief appearance. It did not take me long to find a Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher Rhinomyias brunneatus, my first high quality bird of the day. After hanging around with this bird for a while, it did offer itself very briefly for a couple of photos, which would turn out to be the best shots I would get of anything this particular trip.

With time pressing on and my departure from Dongyin becoming increasingly imminent, I returned to the area immediately behind the homestay I was staying in for the last half an hour or so of birding. There were plenty of birds in the area, including a large and noisy flock of Black-naped Orioles Oriolus chinensis and yet more Hair-crested Drongos. A solitary minivet flew in to join them, and some pleasant whimsy flashed through my mind about it being 'nice' should it prove to be a Rosy Minivet Pericrocotus roseus. On Dongyin, however, anything is possible, and when I lifted my binoculars to look at this bird and saw red in the wing, I knew that my last twenty minutes on the island were not going to be the slow 'winding down' process I had originally had in mind for myself! I was fortunate in that the bird chose to hang around near the orioles, meaning that I was able to get reasonable views together with some pictures. The bird was clearly a Rosy Minivet of some sort, and presumably a first-year male, appearing overall like a dull female Swinhoe's Minivet with plain greyish head (including forehead), strong black eye stripe, paler chin and throat, dull greyish-brownish back, but breast rather patchily (yet liberally) washed pinkish-red. The small wing flash formed by the tips of the central greater coverts and secondary/primary bases appeared to be red on the greater coverts (presumably new second-year feathers) and yellow on the flight feathers (presumably retained juvenile feathers), with the longest tertial (new) also edged red (the inner two appearing more worn, again indicative of moult and of 'first-summer' status). At least one tail feather was also edged red, though there was also plenty of yellow present in the tail (presumably indicating feathers of different ages). Although this is not a perfect fit for the 'stanfordi' (southern China) form as depicted in Robson, this form is stated to be 'highly variable', hence the absence of a white forehead (which might be expected on males of that form) is perhaps not on its own indicative of nominate roseus. Either way, this was a totally unexpected 'mega' (and an overshoot by some distance), but really just the kind of thing I go to these islands for anyway!

Huffing and puffing, but with pictures safe in hand, I ran for the ferry. The journey home was uneventful, but a few seabird species did push my trip list total up to 91 species (which I think is very respectable for just two days). My full trip list can be found below:

Dongyin (May 2015) Trip List (3): Click here

Although my first trip to Dongyin this spring had been something of a disappointment, the last two had more than made up for this! Together with a winter trip to Kinmen, I think at least one spring trip to Dongyin really has to be a permanent fixture on any birding calendar in this part of the world! Above photos taken on Dongyin Island, Lienchiang County 9-10/5/15.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Radde's Warbler

As Sunday had been dire, I had hurried home late morning and spent as much of the afternoon as possible clearing out work that was sitting 'in the pipeline' and threatening to interfere with the mornings of the upcoming week. It was well that I had chosen to do this, as this morning brought with it a very unexpected surprise to my reserve woodlot in the form of a Radde's Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi. As this is only my third in Qi Gu (Radde's is a Yehliu bird), I guess it has to go down as a 'mega', and I was glad that I saw it, even though I did do my level best to miss it. My woodlot seemed to be quiet upon entry, save for yet another flock of ludicrously flighty Eyebrowed Thrushes which it was just impossible to see. These birds had a slightly less familiar call with them, a soft 'tuc', which I investigated briefly before getting side-tracked by a first-year male Mugumaki Flycatcher Ficedula mugimaki which put in a very brief appearance.

I heard the 'tuc' again later, when I relocated the Mugimaki Flycatcher after it had gone AWOL for a while, but this time was distracted by a male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata which looked like it might be easier to photograph than the previous one had been.

What with a couple of flycatchers together with a new Large Hawk Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides around, I completely forgot about the mysterious 'tuc' until a Phylloscopus popped up off the ground and sat out in the open for the very briefest of cameos. This Phyllosc was bull-naped, chunky, strong-legged, and had obvious rust-toned undertail coverts: Radde's Warbler!

As the bird was a bit of a way off and not in view for long, I did well to get any kind of image of it at all to be honest. I followed it as it flew deeper into cover and it duly re-emerged for an even briefer period, flying on into the deepest cover and calling twice with a sift 'tuc' as it did so! So, an unexpected year tick from the day, and a strong lesson to be learnt, too, that of never neglecting what your ears tell you! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 4/5/15.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The frustrations of Qi Gu

A very frustrating couple of days, which have served to bring into focus the contrast between just how excellent and easy the birding is on Dongyin, and just how frustrating and challenging the birding can be in Qi Gu. To start with the positives, Friday saw quite an arrival of migrants into the area, with a male Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus and a Large Hawk Cuckoo Hierococcyx sparverioides being the pick of the crop, and both in my small 'reserve' woodlot (which has in fact become my primary woodlot this spring). This place is so small that the arrival of a mere five flycatchers is enough to give the impression that birds are just everywhere! The five arrivals today were two Ferruginous, two Grey-streaked and a single Asian Brown Flycatcher. Only the Ferruginous Flycatcher was up for being photographed, although I was very distracted for most of my time in there with trying to relocate the Pitta SP. of the previous day.

With the Pitta SP. neither calling nor showing, I moved to Area B, where a nice long-tailed male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher was flitting about but always in far too much foliage. One of the pair of Ruddy-breasted Crakes Porzana fusca was sat out in the open, as if to thank me for not tramping on its eggs this spring, and I thought I might as well have a snap of that.

Saturday began very early, with an immediate return to my reserve woodlot at dawn, again hoping for an appearance from the presumably already departed Pitta SP. I was having no such luck, but did receive an early visit from the neighbourhood Chinese Cobra Naja atra, a rather large-looking individual, but still very tough to see and the easiest thing in the world to stand on!

Two presumably newly-arrived Grey-streaked Flycatchers were in, and these became very easy to photograph in the afternoon. A singing Pallas's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus (rare in Qi Gu) had also arrived, but seemed to leave whilst it was still early. Several Arctic Warblers were also singing, and the more typical individuals had today been joined by a black-billed and -legged form which seems to move through the area at around this time in May.

Whilst being a reasonable couple of days for migrants, the 'frustrations' of the last few relate to Thursday's Pitta SP., which, for some utterly inconceivable reason (though I was in fact late for work and did have to leave), I left on Thursday simply assuming must be Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha (though have since downgraded to SP. on that blog entry page). However, I knew when I saw it that something was wrong with it, as its upperpart colouration (including that of the mantle) was dark and close to that of Black-capped Kingfisher Halcyon pileata (seen in flight and very briefly, but at very close range) and hence it was altogether way too blue for Fairy Pitta. I had simply put this down to 'light' on Thursday, but this just kept kept on gnawing at me as Fairy Pitta is rather green above and ordinarily does appear so (or certainly does so in the kind of light we typically get in Qi Gu). I was also troubled by the fact that I had not seen any prominent head stripes or 'well-marked' areas towards the front of the bird when it flew (and I assume the head to therefore have been plain or dull). Instead, all I saw was a relatively small, predominantly blue pitta with small white wing flashes, which had red in its vent and lacked any strongly contrasting areas towards/on its head, and which furthermore did not seem to bear a particularly strong resemblance to Fairy Pitta. Ordinarily, I would be happy attributing all of this to 'light' or to the 'brevity of the views', but Fairy Pitta also does not typically give the very strange call I had heard which had prompted me to go and investigate the area this bird was in in the first place. This unfamiliar call (and I know the calls of all the regular birds that move through Qi Gu, hence the 'out of place' call was being given by the 'out of place' bird) was a deep and protracted, level, hollow-sounding (though slightly growled), dove or even owl-like 'hrroooooo', and the last thing I was expecting to flush when I went to investigate was some kind of pitta! This is not the usual call of Fairy Pitta, but I thought it might be some sort of 'contact call' given that I only heard this individual call clearly once (though I almost dropped through the floor when I heard it, as it was so obviously unfamiliar and out of place). As this bird had both plumage features and a vocalisation 'out' for Fairy Pitta, I began looking Friday evening (though why I left it so long to look I again have no idea) to see if there were any 'matches' to be found online. I first checked Blue-winged Pitta Pitta moluccensis as there have been previous records of this species in Qi Gu, but this did not match, and neither did Hooded Pitta Pitta sordida (for which there is also a single Qi Gu record, also found by me). I felt that I had exhausted all the possible options after looking at these three, and it wasn't until much later on that I checked the one remaining one that I thought might also be a possible candidate for vagrancy. Rather alarmingly, this proved to be an astonishingly good fit, both in terms of overall plumage and especially so (exact, in fact) in the case of call (actually song). This 'excellent fit' is at least partially migratory within its Philippines range (hence is actually quite a strong candidate for a spring overshoot), and has apparently been recorded on boats offshore Luzon (so is known to cross water). I do not wish to say which species this is, as I have not had anything like the views required to claim it formally (and it is perhaps best forgotten), but I now have a horrible sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach that this was a bird of some importance and will most certainly end up being the most significant 'one that got away' this particular year. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan City 1/5/15 and 2/5/15.

(This blog entry has since been updated, and I am really completely satisfied that the Pitta SP. in question was a singing male Red-bellied Pitta Erythropitta erythrogaster. The song is an exact match, as is what was seen (albeit briefly) of plumage. As there is no photographic record, there is obviously insufficient 'evidence' for any formal submission. However, for me personally, this bird does not have to be one which 'gets away'!)