Monday, 24 August 2015

Typhoon Soudelor revisited

I read in the newspaper a quote from an old guy somewhere out in Taidung that basically said he felt Typhoon Soudelor was the most destructive storm to have hit the island in living memory. This quote was somewhat surprising as the storm moved through the island on Father's Day this year, the same date as Typhoon Morakot in 2009. Morakot, a slow-moving storm, brought incredible devastation to the east coast and inland, with most of the carnage associated with unprecedented levels of rainfall (2.5 metres) which triggered huge landslides in mountain areas. The storm by any other measure (windspeed, air pressure) was not actually all that strong, and it was only just clinging on to typhoon 'status' at the time it made landfall (Category 1). Soudelor, on the other hand, had been a Category 5 'super-typhoon' when out in the Pacific, packing incredibly strong winds as it moved over the Mariana Islands in particular. Although it weakened slightly before its arrival here, the winds were still very powerful, and all kinds of structural damage was caused by them. I knew that it had been a big storm the day after its passing when I ventured out into Qi Gu to find many roads impassable due to fallen or uprooted trees. These have obviously been (at least partially) cleared since, and at that time there was really no point checking out woodlots as it was still too early for migrants. With the time about right now for some early passerine movement, I took a look in several this weekend, and was not at all prepared for what I found! My reserve woodlot had been hit especially hard, with well over 50% of trees felled and the remainder snapped and dying. Vast quantities of sand have also been dumped on this woodlot, which will kill off much of the remaining vegetation. This woodlot was in a small 'bowl' which I thought might protect it somewhat from erosion. However, it was not protected from the fury of this recent storm, and all of the cover (and shade) has simply been blown away (what trees do remain have been completely 'stripped' of greenery). Below is a 'before' (May) and 'after' (Sunday) taken from much the same perspective in this woodlot. I don't imagine that it will ever recover (and certainly will not do so in time for this autumn).  

The situation was the same in Area B, with most of the trees there snapped and stripped of greenery, and many felled (in fact, Area B is currently inaccessible due to a fallen tree which blocks the entrance). With no possibility of birding woodlots on Sunday, I headed out to the causeway, where my spirits were lifted somewhat by a distant Lesser Frigatebird Fregata ariel loitering around offshore (though really miles out). There were also large numbers of Greater Crested Terns Thalasseus bergii out on the sand bar, but access was blocked by a channel which had cut its way into the sandbar at high tide (there was a small typhoon on the east coast over the weekend, hence the big high tide and, presumably, the various seabirds). A Little Tern Sternula albifrons with wing strain was an easy target for the camera, whilst the few Sanderlings Calidris alba that were running around the tideline were more problematic.

I tried inland in the afternoon for more waders, specifically Jyang Jun, but was defeated by an ever-strengthening wind which was making getting close to anything particularly difficult. I returned the following day (Monday) after the wind had subsided, and found Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa to be a bit more photo-friendly in the calmer conditions. They were present in all kinds of plumages, with around one hundred individuals in total in the general area.

An always distant and unco-operative Ruff Philomachus pugnax which I had photographed on Sunday (first photo), was similarly unco-operative today (second photo), but at least today it did have a Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus with it (third photo, top left).

As usual at this time of year, there are always plenty of 'Swintail' Snipe around (just to annoy me), but at least some of these can be safely identified as Swinhoe's Snipe Gallinago megala on flight views (those with full-looking, square-shaped tails with some white on the outermost tail feathers when spread). I think that Swinhoe's Snipe tends to predominate (certainly so at this time of year), but Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura should not be rare either (as some winter, they may come later). I have no idea what to do with them when they're on the ground, though! 

All the waders are moving through now, which will keep me happy for a time. I'm going to need to come up with a 'Plan B' though somehow for passerines before they really start moving. Above photos taken in Qi Gu and Jyang Jun, Tainan County 23-24/8/15.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Back to Kinmen

I took a good look at my wader sites on Wednesday evening to try and get a feel for what the weekend might be about to bring, and, finding little of note, was not left feeling terribly optimistic about it. With the weather looking rather settled, too, I fancied that I might be on a hiding to nothing should I choose to spend it all in Tainan, so, in a rush of blood, I booked myself on a flight to Kinmen. Kinmen holds precious little in summer, but is the only place to go and year tick Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus. An August visit two years ago did produce a 'Himalayan' Swiftlet (though in retrospect this was most certainly a Germain's Swiftlet Aerodramus germani) and, given the summer we're having for those, I was certainly expecting more this time around. I arrived late Friday morning to overcast skies threatening rain, good conditions for swiftlets at least, and, with the high tide being at noon, I headed straight to the causeway at Lake Ci to see what waders I could find. There were only about half a dozen plovers there when I turned up, that was all, an even split between Greater Sand Plover Charadrius leschenaultii and Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus. In the relative gloom and with a couple of days to go at them, I took very few pictures of the Kentish Plovers on the causeway, even though they were actually one of my default targets (if you read the same literature as I do, then you'll know that Fujian breeders should all be dealbatus, a.k.a. 'Swinhoe's Plover'). There were also plenty of Collared Crows Corvus torquatus on the beach, one of which was busy tucking in to a 'fruit find'.

The 'threatening rain' turned into actual rain during the afternoon and, with the wind also gusting at considerable speed, birding became rather difficult. I picked up just one small group of Blue-tailed Bee-eaters flying over all afternoon and that was it, despite covering all of the north of the island. I did at least manage a record shot, but was certainly hoping for a lot better from them from this trip. At the far eastern side of the island, I took my obligatory White-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon smyrnensis snap, before returning to Lake Ci early evening where a couple of Germain's Swiftlets were flying around, though not in the best conditions for my camera.

As the wind and drizzle continued until dark, it would be Saturday morning before any more birding could be done, and I chose to start where I had left off back at the swiftlets. A quick stop in the trees at Gu Ning Tou proved to be a very smart move as I picked up a couple of quite unexpected and very early migrants (two Asian Paradise Flycatchers Terpsiphone paradisi and an Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus). In the early morning gloom, taking pictures was not easy, and it was looking like this was not going to be much of a trip for the camera.

I only saw a single swiftlet in the fields behind Lake Ci, and this bird seemed to move through quickly and purposefully as if it were migrating. With grey skies all morning (but with the welcome bonus of the inclement weather having brought migrants), I decided to have a crack at Small Kinmen to see if I might (with that island being smaller and easier to cover) pick up something more unusual there. I was hoping for something in the marshes along the southern and western shores of the island, but would fail to connect with any kind of marsh bird. Instead, I did flush a surprise juvenile Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus whilst poking around in flooded fields, another unexpected bonus (though again my pictures of it would be utterly naff). A real scruff of a Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis wandered out for its photo moment in the same field, and the obligatory holiday Hoopoes Upupa epops were much more willing to perform on the road adjacent to the marsh. A Germain's Swiftlet also flew south whilst I was on Small Kinmen.

I gave Small Kinmen until the early afternoon at which time I felt that I was not going to turn up anything else new. I thought I might still catch the tide on Kinmen proper, so returned to the causeway at Lake Ci to try and get some better photos of the Kentish Plovers there. I arrived just as the tide was starting to go out and the waders move slowly further offshore. I also arrived in time for a thunderstorm, which brought with it persistent drizzle over Kinmen until it fell dark. In the relative cold and dark of the thunderstorm, no swiftlets were flying around the area they had been in the day before, and again it seemed as though that was pretty much it for the day. A few sopping wet Collared Crows were all I could find with what remained of the daylight on Saturday.

On Sunday morning, I first tried Gu Ning Tou for migrants, but none at all seemed to have arrived. I then tried the botanical gardens on the top of Tai Wu Shan for 'whatever I could find', which turned out to be nothing whatsoever. Stuck for where to go, I tried the Dou Men Old Path for Chestnut Bulbul Hemixos castanonotus, where I would draw a blank, but got fantastically lucky again by flushing a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus from near the entrance to the path on my way out. This was a bird which I had missed during the spring migration (for the first time ever as far as I can recall), and it was looking increasingly likely that I would miss it completely this year. In typical Chestnut-winged Cuckoo-fashion, it simply slipped away quietly into the forest after I had disturbed it, and there was no hope of getting anywhere near it with a camera. I was delighted with the year tick, though, a second cuckoo for the trip (a group for which time this year is now most certainly 'getting on'). The only other things of interest at Dou Men were the numerous Common Flangetails Ictinogomphus rapax that were dotted around the entrance to the path, somewhat bizarre as there is no water anywhere near this area.

It began to brighten up a little late morning, and I decided that it might be a good idea to look for more swiftlets and bee-eaters in more open country areas. I found a large feeding flock of Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica near Xia Mei, and these had a further Germain's Swiftlet with them, together with one Blue-tailed Bee-eater that would allow a more close approach.

With the light looking like it might be good at noon, I returned to the Lake Ci causeway for the high tide and began photographing Kentish Plovers. I'm not completely sure just how many of the birds present were dealbatus, but rather suspect that they all were. Although I did not manage a full 'spread wings', the one bird with its wings outstretched shows extensive white on the secondaries (bases, inner webs, tips), which is a good feature of dealbatus. There were also many areas of contrast throughout the open wing on most (blackish carpal, broadly white-based/-tipped flight feathers (predominantly white), sandy-looking greater coverts, darker leading edge, scattered patches of rufous), which I don't think are present to the same degree in alexandrinus. The incredibly square-headed, orange-looking 'leggy' individual in the first photo really has to be dealbatus. Most of the birds below are presumably worn adults which have not yet to acquired winter plumage, which I think explains the apparent 'variation' between individuals in this flock.

All in all, this was a very decent trip to Kinmen, especially so given the season, and one which was an awful lot better than I had been expecting. The unexpected migrants have pushed my year list on to 375, which is not too far behind what it ought to be in a big year (400 is certainly on the cards now). Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 14-16/8/15.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Brown Noddy

A seawatch of a couple of hours this morning produced only the usual terns, with no storm-blown seabirds correcting themselves and passing offshore (though the visibility was poor and the shipping lanes not really visible due to mist and haze). The only bird to pop up at close range was a bedraggled-looking juvenile Red Collared Dove Streptopelia tranquebarica, which climbed up onto the rocks in front of me at the seawatching spot and had obviously spent no small amount of the weekend in the water. What an introduction to life!

I proceeded to drive the causeway to see what the estuary looked like and almost drove over an exhausted Brown Noddy Anous stolidus which was sitting in the middle of the road (presumably the same individual that I had photographed poorly the day before). As it was refusing to budge, it was obviously worth stopping to get better pictures of it than I had managed the previous day!

After taking a few shots at a range of down to around three metres, I decided that the bird really needed moving off the road at least before it got splattered by the next 'little blue van' to come speeding along. When I tried to pick it up, it surprisingly flew readily, though not very far, onto some bamboo poles away from the road at the edge of the sea. As it looked far more attractive here than it had done on the road, yet more portrait shots were called for!

Somewhat enthused that there may be more 'wrecked' seabirds out on the estuary, I marched up and down the beach looking for whatever there was to be found, finding only the same Brown Noddy which seemed to have followed me out there (but at least was now safely away from the road). There were no other birds of interest at all, save for a post-breeding Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes which was clowning around in one of the channels out on the estuary.

A quick drive around some of the inland wader spots revealed almost no birds, and it is puzzling just where they go to when these places (along with everywhere else) flood. As the water levels recede, all the usual sites will be primed to receive waders, which should start arriving in much bigger numbers from now on now that this storm has made way for them. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 10/8/15.