Sunday, 28 June 2015

Gong Gu!

Circumstances conspired to keep me in and around 'home' this weekend, and it will have to be the last one spent in such a fashion if I am to preserve any sanity until the onset of the autumn migration. As it seems to have been showing fairly frequently in recent weeks, the adult White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster that has taken up residence at Tseng Wen Reservoir (a bird I first saw way back in 2011 as a first-summer in Keelung) was the only real bird on offer, and became an obvious primary target to try and pick up over the weekend. As I anticipated that finding it would present very few problems, Friday obviously got teed up to provide the first big dose of disappointment, as I would record no eagle (and indeed precious few raptors) at the reservoir despite spending the whole morning from first light onwards looking for it. To add insult to injury, I returned home with almost nothing on my camera, save for some dodgy blurred record shots of Plain Flowerpecker Dicaeum minullum and Taiwan Hwamei Garrulax taewanus.

I did find more Russet Sparrows Passer rutilans, though, but yet again these would not descend from high perches, and the only bird that I was able to photograph anything like well was the ubiquitous Black Bulbul Hypsipetes leucocephalus, not altogether worth the trip really.

With my sleep pattern now shot at (ostensibly because of the outrageous heat), I was up ludicrously early on Saturday morning and took the opportunity yet again to bomb up to Teng Jhr before it got light, arriving somewhere near the top pretty much as the first ambient light began to suggest the advent of day. There were far more birds around than last week, best of all a family party of Yellow Tits Parus holsti, but I could do little with them with my camera in the early morning gloom before the sun got up over the mountains, at which point they simply disappeared.

At the top (or at least as high as the road would go), I began a second raptor vigil in as many days, this time for Mountain Hawk Eagle Nisaetus nipalensis, a bird I frequently see at Teng Jhr, but which today took a leaf out of the White-bellied Sea Eagle's book and decided not to show. The only rewards on offer for my patient raptor 'watching' were a displaying Indian Black Eagle Ictinaetus malaiensis and several Crested Serpent Eagles Spilornis cheela, nice enough I suppose, but I was only really interested in seeing the big one (as it has evaded me thus far this year). There were other birds around, though, most notably Rusty Laughingthrushes Garrulax poecilorhynchus again, which are just everywhere and occur in very large flocks at Teng Jhr. I did at least get a better photo of one this time than I had managed last week, but still not at the best of angles. I also did quite well with a Black-necklaced Scimitar-Babbler Pomatorhinus erythrocnemis, a normally skulking species, but this one was uncharacteristically showy on this occasion.

I was obviously getting bored as I started photographing butterflies (with no water up there, or seemingly anywhere this summer, there was nowhere really to look for dragonflies). This is an interest I have tried to cultivate (and really need to do so urgently because birding in summer here is absolutely dire), but haven't really got that into as yet. As far as I can tell, those below are all pretty common species here, and should be Heliophorus ila, Mycalesis sangaica, and some Neptis species I'm not yet expert enough to be able to fathom!

For my sins, I returned to Tseng Wen Reservoir again on Sunday, yet again very early and yet again for the whole morning, hoping that the misery-guts of an eagle would flap past and provide me with at least 'something' to show for three days of birding. It wouldn't, so 'gong gu' for three days in a row, and all I would get for my efforts would be yet more Russet Sparrows.

The raptor watching produced a handful of Black Kites Milvus migrans and a real scruff of an Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus (missing multiple primaries both wings). The only close raptor was a Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus, which seemed to be enjoying the burning sun (and was evidently not concerned about skin cancer!).

Although last weekend was poor, this weekend somehow felt to be worse. The heat persists, and being out in it is uncomfortable to begin with, and all my targets (a mere two, both of which really ought to have been straightforward) were missed. I couldn't blame anything on the reserve being closed this time round, and simply had to return home with my tail between my legs accepting that my luck had been 'out', disappointing after having put in the effort. I rather fancy I will need to take a boat or a plane somewhere next weekend to try and put a stop to this disturbing rot that has evidently set in! Above photos taken at Tseng Wen Reservoir, Chiayi County 26 and 28/6/15, and Teng Jhr, Gaoxiong County 27/6/15.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Chasing shadows

This deep into the breeding season and the birding typically starts to get pretty tough going. This year seems to be something of an outlier, though, as the unseasonably dry conditions are making finding anything exponentially more challenging. This past weekend was of the three-day variety, with the Dragon Boat Festival falling this year on a Friday. I was up late on this particular day, but decided regardless to chance my arm with a reported two Grey-headed Lapwings Vanellus cinereus in nearby Gaoxiong, and to afford them the entire afternoon should that be required. These unseasonal and quite unlikely birds had been reported both two weeks and one week prior to this weekend, and I was optimistic that they might well be settling in for a long stay. However, they were on a jacana reserve, which in my case typically means that things will not necessarily all go according to plan. The first inclination I had that something might be wrong was that the local Facebook and Line crowds seemed to be completely unaware of these birds. This is strange as ordinarily anything odd that turns up and stays put in Taiwan attracts a crowd. I remained up for the twitch regardless, and hoped that these two birds had just slipped through the net. As things turned out, there would be no way of knowing for sure, as I would arrive to find the reserve closed, a depressingly familiar state of affairs wherever jacanas (and those who work with them) are concerned (I almost always choose to go to the jacana reserve in Tainan when it is closed, and the unhelpful sods refuse to let you in, even though the 'routine mantenance' that they purport themselves to be engaged in seems to consist of nothing more than sitting around chatting and drinking copious amounts of tea). So, all I was able to do was take a rubbish record shot of a Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus through the wire fence in some very nasty heat before dragging my sorry ass home.

Saturday was something of a first if recent form is anything to go by: an early start! However, this was not entirely unexpected given that it had been preceded by a terrible night of insomnia. With my bike seemingly running well, I decided to head inland whilst it was still dark and have a crack at a mountain location. I selected Teng Jhr in Gaoxiong, historically my favourite mountain locale and comfortably the best for birding in the south of Taiwan, but one which suffered enormously at the hands of Typhoon Morakot; a storm which removed all access to the one very long trail which had been just outstanding for birding. Nothing had changed up there since my last visit two years ago, with none of the roads repaired and access to the top possible only on foot. Though I walked in for a short distance, the forest was very quiet, with just one flock of Rusty Laughingthrushes Garrulax poecilorhynchus the only birds of note. I have quite a thing for Rusty Laughingthrushes for some reason, and was cheesed off these birds would not sit still (nor emerge into the sun), meaning that the only photos I would manage of them would turn out blurred. After not having slept, I was not at all up for marching miles in the outrageous heat and birded the road close to my bike. This produced practically nothing, and by noon I was on my way home again.

Sunday felt to be a lot better, as I selected one species, went to where I knew it ought to be, and managed to see and photograph it. The species was Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans, not an especially rare bird, but one which is localised and declining. It maintains a traditional stronghold around Tseng Wen Reservoir, which is where I went to look for it. Yet again, the heat was pretty insane when I found a decidedly scruffy-looking but approachable male to photograph. However, it refused to descend from overhead wires (except to fly miles away), hence was always strongly backlit, meaning that I would be disappointed with my photographic efforts at these, too.

Unlike the previous two days, there was at least something of a supporting cast around Tseng Wen Reservoir, which meant, amongst other things, better views of Plain Flowerpecker Dicaeum minullum than I had had earlier in the year, and a nice pair of White-bellied Green Pigeons Treron sieboldii, a bird which seemed to be abundant in the surrounding area.

I'd hardly call this weekend a good weekend, as I feel for the most part to have been dipping and even chasing shadows. At least Sunday felt a bit better, and it did in fact rain (heavily). With any luck, the thunderstorms that are forecast for next week will freshen things up a bit inland and make the breeding birds a bit less of a challenge to find than they have been up to this point! Above photos taken at Yuan Fu Gang Wetland Park, Gaoxiong County on 19/6/15, Teng Jhr, Gaoxiong County on 20/6/15, and Tseng Wen Reservoir, Chiayi County 21/6/15.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Xin Hua

After the Herculean driving exploits of the previous day, there was no way I would be getting up early on Sunday. This actually worked out rather well, as the current weather seems to be settled into a pattern of very hot and humid, no rain, and with no weather systems of note forecast to impact the island for the foreseeable future. The mini heatwave (and drought in actual fact, with very little rain at all so far this year) makes it virtually unbearable to be outside during the day, with the early evening somewhat more tolerable. So, I set off out late afternoon and, with little time to spare, headed to Xin Hua as this was the only real option I had to get some birding in before nightfall. It was the evening cast I would be primarily interested in anyway but, whilst the sun was still out, I did stumble across a surprise female White-rumped Shama Copsychus malabaricus, my second in this area in as many years (though the other individual was not at this site). Apparently, historically, White-rumped Shama was quite numerous but has since declined. It therefore sits in Limbo somewhere on my Taiwan List, awaiting promotion to Category C should its population ever increase to a self-sustaining level (which seems likely as it is being reported with greater frequency these days elsewhere, too). With an unfamiliar yet very rich song coming from somewhere nearby, I assume there was more than just a female present, and presume a breeding pair (meaning that it is also most certainly on the increase in Xin Hua).

I left the shamas alone, though, as I also found a Linear-striped Chaser Cratilla lineata, perhaps my favourite member of the Libellulidae present in Taiwan. This individual was always just that bit too awkward, favouring as it did a branch some way above my head. I found a second later (a more pruinose individual), but this was more towards evening and it was in shade. As this species is quite scarce, I spent plenty of time getting photos of these two while daylight remained.

As night began to fall, I began listening for the expected night cast to chirp up, but was more than a little disappointed with what actually began calling. Only a single Slaty-legged Crake Rallina eurizonoides could be heard (a bird which is abundant in these parts, only which does not show itself) and not a single Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha (of which there are usually one or two present). It is, of course, a possibility that these birds may have stopped calling as they are now busy breeding, but I suspect that the drought is playing a very big part in this year's silence. Without exception, all of the pools and wet gullies that characterise the lowland forest in Xin Hua are this year dry, and finding any water to speak of is pretty tough. I wonder if migrant birds such as Fairy Pitta are simply not in this area at all this summer. It was not all disappointment, though, as the star of the evening appeared shortly after dark: a massive Indian Giant Flying Squirrel Petaurista philippensis! This was a lifer mammal for me, and it was very nice to tick it straight after seeing Red-and-White Giant Flying Squirrels Petaurista alborufus at Alishan on Friday night. That said, I was treated to just the one glide between trees, but it was overhead with still some ambient light left in the day. A worthwhile trip all told, but disappointing there are no pittas around locally to find this summer. Above photos taken in Xin Hua, Tainan County 14/6/15.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The travails of year listing

As the last fortnight had produced two colossal megas in the shape of Blue-winged Pitta Pitta moluccensis and Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini, and I'd also found two national firsts on Dongyin earlier in the spring (Chinese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus yunnanensis and Rosy Minivet Pericrocotus roseus), it seemed like it might be a mistake not to continue with a year list. For at least a decade, it seems as though I have been the only one insane enough to have any interest in doing such a thing, but this situation has now changed. However, looking at what much of the 'competition' is happy to count on their lists (obvious escapes (check out 'e-bird' if you want a laugh)), the whole idea of keeping a list of any kind has become self-ridiculing. Whilst I will include introduced species on my own list, these fit into a very tightly-defined 'Category C', i.e. introduced species which are well-established and have been self-sustaining for at least a decade, which typically restricts the field to just seven or eight species (those accepted as 'introduced' by CWBF). All other escapes (including those nesting) count for nought. For me, this is the only sensible way of treating escaped birds (of which there are so many on Taiwan, an island on which the cage bird trade is rampant), and has to be the rule followed if year listing (or any kind of listing) is to be done seriously (simply ticking everything you see is just absurd). Anyway, these beefs aside, completing a year list means heading up into mountains for all of the resident stuff (something I don't really enjoy doing) and I began this weekend with a trip to Alishan (perhaps my least favourite place in Taiwan). I started late Friday afternoon in tea fields at Long Mei, where a Chinese Hare Lepus sinensis would prove to be perhaps the best 'thing' I would photograph all weekend!

As there was surprisingly little traffic heading up the mountain, I pressed on to Alishan instead of trying to find accommodation lower down, adding a few more year ticks en route (the best of these being Yellow Tit Parus holsti, as I recall rather scarce on this mountain). I arrived at the gates of Alishan early evening (18:00), as I knew the gas station up there closed early. However, I had not reckoned on it closing quite so early as it did (17:00, unacceptable for the island's 'premier' tourist destination), and so would be short on gas the following morning. I did find accommodation surprisingly easily, but in the 'Guantanamo Bay' of Alishan guest houses. Although cheap, the place I was staying in had workmen present, who made loud tapping and scraping noises until at least 23:30. At around midnight, more arrived, and shuffled around endlessly in the corridor outside, loudly rustling plastic carrier bags until well after 01:00. In the middle of all of this, a bright outside light was turned on, making it almost light enough to read inside the room I was 'sleeping' in. What with my room being 'spotlamped' and all the irksome rustling and scraping noises outside, it felt as though the owner of the guest house had opened some terrible CIA torture manual at the page marked 'sleep deprivation' and had specifically targeted me for some reason. Thank heavens I wasn't wearing my orange pyjamas, otherwise I would have been completely freaked out! Obviously, I had an entirely sleepless night (which did little to improve my wholly negative impressions of Alishan), which spread its ruin into Saturday. With not enough gas to head to Ta Ta Jia either, I started the following morning totally knackered at the Youth Activity Centre, where I did manage nice views of two troublesome skulkers (two singing Taiwan Bush Warblers Locustella alishanensis and a juvenile Taiwan Cupwing Pnoepyga formosana). I got a miserable photo of the warbler (the sun was not yet on this patch of foliage, and I had the camera settings all wrong), and slightly better ones of Taiwan Rosefinch Carpodacus formosanus, Brown Bullfinch Pyrrhula nipalensis and Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus, albeit in ever-changing light conditions.

After the gas station opened (08:00), I was able to press on to Ta Ta Jia to try and add the dozen or so species I was expecting from there. However, I had never seen the place quite so quiet (or so dry) and found birding it unexpectedly difficult. Whether it was due to the time of day or the dryness of the surroundings, I missed quite a number of usually abundant species and found everything else to be astonishingly low in number (I saw just two Taiwan Fulvettas Fulvetta formosana and a single Collared Bush Robin Tarsiger johnstoniae, for example). Counter to my expectations, though, Golden Parrotbill Suthora verreauxi proved easy to find, and I even managed a photo of one. The only species willing to perform for the camera was Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes, several of which were feasting on scraps left by tourists. Even White-whiskered Laughingthrush Garrulax morrisonianus seemed scarce, and I only managed a picture of one.

As I felt that I has missed so much, I tried to find somewhere else to stay at Alishan for a second night to give me the chance of picking up more birds on Sunday. However, there was no room at the inn at the few places I tried, with the exception of one place (which looked like a dump) that quoted me 4000 NT Dollars for the one night! At that point, the proverbial straw landed on my back, and I'd had enough of the torture and money-grabbing that is Alishan, and realised that the only thing for it was to begin the weary four-hour journey home. I stopped for a second time at Long Mei, where no Russet Sparrows Passer rutilans to speak of, and just Collared Finchbill Spizixos semitorques to add to my 'birds photographed' list (not that I keep one). The trip at least had moved me on to 350 'on the money' for the current year.

It would seem to be good advice to take a sleeping bag to Alishan and sleep in one of the public toilet blocks somewhere outside it. That way, you'll save yourself a packet and have a much greater chance of a decent night's sleep. Above photos taken at the Alishan Detention Facility and its environs, Chiayi County 12-13/6/15.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Chinese Crested Tern

A bizarre lethargy often sets in with me after the migration has passed, and this phenomenon often takes until September to completely resolve itself. So, no prizes for guessing that Saturday was a late start, kicking off at around noon in my reserve woodlot, where a female Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus was still present, though not showy. This is not the first time I have found this species lingering well into the summer along this coast, and I strongly suspect that they do breed from time to time. (The length of time that birds have been hanging around in this woodlot this spring only seems to support these suspicions!) As this seemed to be the only bird around and it was already well into the afternoon, I moved to the sandbar to see if there were any terns in view. There was a reasonable flock of Greater Crested Terns Thalasseus bergii, so I figured that it may well be worth the long march out there for a better look. As I drew nearer to the flock, a quick look through my 'bins revealed that there was also an obviously whiter tern sitting with them, which really could only be Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini. As I drew nearer still, I was eventually able to see the black-tipped bill and black forecrown (which most have lost by the time they arrive on offshore islands for breeding), as well as get a few half-decent record shots.  

Disappointingly, this bird must have already been there for some time and was ready to depart not long after I had arrived, flying off as it did on its own out to sea after only ten minutes or so of being in view. This is generally the 'form' with this species when it turns up in Qi Gu: bathing, preening, yawning, gone! They turn up once a flood and never hang around for very long, so you simply have to be content with whatever you get whenever you're lucky enough to connect with one. This bird quite obviously made the weekend, and I was so thankful that it did, as an intermittent electrical fault on my bike on Sunday left me not confident enough to travel any further on it than to Xin Hua, where I added a flyby Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica to my year list and that was it. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 6/6/15.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Out with a bang!

An excellent weekend to end the spring with, with two megas locally. Although I dipped on the first of these, I got the second, and can have no complaints as it was the most desirable one of the two as things go. The first mega was a Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini which was photographed (not by me) offshore on Friday. Saturday morning saw me engaged in a lengthy seawatch in an attempt to connect with it, but to no avail, as I was only able to log one Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus and three further unidentified skuas at great range. A trip to my sandbar in the afternoon offered little by way of consolation, just a few minussensis-type Common Terns Sterna hirundo in amongst what will now be the very last of the longipennis.

I was a little devastated to get out of bed late on Sunday and find the conditions to be excellent for seawatching, with the visibility pin-sharp right out to the horizon. It was midday before I started looking, but quickly notched up one late Short-tailed Shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris, a close sub-adult Long-tailed Skua and half a dozen Bulwer's Petrels Bulweria bulwerii. The calm of a pleasant afternoon seawatch would not last, however, and would be shattered by a phone call informing me that a local woodlot held the second mega of the weekend: a Blue-winged Pitta Pitta moluccensis! I sped to the woodlot and got the bird more or less immediately, but only very brief views of it on the ground (when blue wing and orange breast reaching the throat were at least readily visible). The bird became wary and flighty as more people began arriving, with flight views at least showing again the wholly blue wing and very large white primary patch (reaching the tips on some on the innermost feathers). On its last flight it flew quite some distance and disappeared for the day, with further poking around in there producing only an outrageously late Northern Boobook Ninox scutulata. Absent a photo, I returned to the woodlot the following morning optimistic that the bird would still be present, but was unable to relocate it (notching up just a couple more Gray's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella fasciolata for my efforts). Although disappointed that this bird has most certainly gone (perhaps the best of the year so far, and I managed to miss it with my camera), I remain hopeful that I can cadge a photo off the finder at some point and shove it in here ex post facto! (Cadged and inserted, with many thanks to Jun-Yao Wang for the images!)

Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 30/5/15 (with the exception of the Blue-winged Pitta, taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 31/5/15).