Monday, 28 September 2015

Mid-Autumn Festival

The arrival of the Mid-Autumn Festival meant a three-day break and I was more than keen for a change of surroundings. When a lift to the north coast was offered I was quick to take it, hopeful that the greater likelihood of rain in that part of the world would bring with it a greater likelihood of birds, and hence an opportunity to add to my now stalled year list. The premier destination had to be Yeh Liu (even though little was actually getting reported from there) as this is the place for daily change. We rolled up just before seven in the morning and began our climb up the rock, optimistic that we would find the place crawling with birds. This would turn out not to be the case and, in fact, the opposite would be true, as Yeh Liu would prove to be very quiet indeed. To add insult to injury, I would also start the day with a dose of 'delayed' frustration, marching straight past a Phylloscopus which would turn out to be a Two-barred Warbler Phylloscopus plumbeitarsus (a bird I saw at considerable range, initially identified as a Two-barred Warbler on a split-second view, but, in my over-eagerness to get up the hill, dismissed as a Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus when it moved out of view and I would have had to wait around for it to return). On the rock itself there was practically nothing, save for a cracking but outrageously elusive adult male Siberian Blue Robin Luscinia cyane which I was able to see but not photograph. A male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata also gave brief but poor views, and that was essentially the tally for the whole morning. Disappointed (and blissfully unaware that there really was a decent Phyllosc hanging around), we moved off to nearby Nei Liao to see if there was any possibility of dragonflies there and did at least turn up an Asian Bluetail Ischnura asiatica, albeit a female and a big challenge to photograph (and to identify, the principal difference between females of this species and females of the abundant Common Bluetail Ischnura senegalensis apparently being that they have some black on the first of their abdominal segments (numbered outwards) and a predominantly green frons ('nose')).

Nei Liao had a few other odds and ends worth looking at, but no migrant Sympetrum (not entirely surprising as none had been reported). Other things worth photographing in this pocket handkerchief of a park included Dusky Lilysquatter Paracercion calamorum (rare/absent from the south), Green-spotted Grass Lizard Takydromus viridipunctatus (I think) (absent from the south), and Plain Danaus chrysippus and Common Tigers Danaus genutia (both common island-wide).

To get at least one bird on my camera for the day, the next stop had to be Jin Shan for the Siberian White Crane Leucogeranus leucogeranus, which remains in the same field it turned up in and is now almost fully adult. This bird is still quite ludicrously tame, and seems worryingly to have essentially 'imprinted' on the local farmers, whom it follows around and is more than happy being fed by. The signs really don't look good for this bird ever leaving Taiwan, but the fact that it began dancing and throwing twigs around (which presumably represents some kind of experimentation with 'display') in the evening does at least offer some hope of a departure. With any luck, the urge to breed will trigger its migration next spring (though who knows where it will end up), otherwise it looks doomed to remain at Jin Shan as some kind of 'curiosity', and a bird of such great rarity is deserving of a much better fate. The only other bird of note at Jin Shan was a grey morph Little Egret Egretta garzetta, which showed up in the gloom of early evening (hence the lousy photo).

After a night at Jin Shan, the following morning saw a dawn raid on an astonishingly quiet Yeh Liu. The wind was up on the previous day, roused by an approaching typhoon (which would dog the remainder of the long weekend). There was seemingly nothing new on the rock itself, but the long-staying first-winter male Siberian Blue Robin (which we had not seen the previous afternoon) did hop past and sit still for long enough for me to at least get a shot of it.

Other birds included the adult Japanese Paradise Flycatcher of the previous day, which had been joined by a (presumably) newly-arrived first-winter, and a single 'Arctic' Warbler, which was calling with a doubled-up call note (which I presume makes it Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus xanthodryas, though I could not judge the quality of the call note as the photographer standing next to me was playing his irritating medley of birdsong at full volume). By late morning, I had received news of the Two-barred Warbler of the previous day and headed back down to the lower toilet block to look for it. I was greeted by a showy Asian Brown Flycatcher (which had also been present the previous day) and a further 'Arctic' Warbler (a yellow-looking adult, and also most likely a Japanese Leaf Warbler (though this one did not call)), but no other Phylloscopus warblers were anywhere to be found. Typical for birding, whilst everything else had stayed put overninght, the Two-barred Warbler had been the only bird that had decided to leave.

The outer rim of the typhoon was by now having some effect on the weather, and they stopped allowing people on to Yeh Liu at noon (OK if you had gone on earlier). This typhoon was supposed to completely miss Taiwan, and instead pass offshore up the east coast (which originally had looked good for Ma Gang). The forecast now suggested that it was going to make landfall, with the eye even moving over the north of the island the following day. In a nutshell, this meant that it would be too rough to seawatch at Ma Gang on Monday, it would be raining heavily at Tian Liao Yang, and that Yeh Liu would be closed. Despite having planned to spend three days in the north, it now made much more sense to head home, so that at least some birding could be done on Monday, albeit back at Qi Gu! A second stop for the crane added a couple more photos for the scrap book, the only other bird there being a flyby adult Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo which stopped to hunt briefly, but which was way too fast for my camera to deal with.

After a lie in on Monday, the expected nice weather at Qi Gu did not materialise as the typhoon made landfall further south than expected, putting my local patch, too, directly in the path of the storm. I got out for a couple of hours in my woodlots late morning, before being driven back by the strengthening wind and increasing threat of rain. Area A did have one or two birds of interest in it, including a flock of three 'Arctic' Warblers, one of which called with the familiar, single, relatively thin 'tzit' that most of the migrants so far this autumn have been giving (presumed to be borealis), and one with a thick, lower-pitched, more 'saliva-filled' doubled-up 'djik-djik' (presumed to be xanthodryas). It was nice to hear a difference both in call structure and in quality of call note from two birds in the same flock, and I feel to be a bit nearer to being able to handle this group as I pay greater attention to their calls. One pair I don't think I will ever sort out without hearing the full song is the Pale-legged/Sakhalin Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes/borealoides pair, one of which was also present in Area A this afternoon. For my own reasons, I tend to have a hankering for Pale-legged Leaf Warbler for this one, though admittedly, in the absence of song, any identification amounts to nothing more than a guess.

I had hoped that we had already done with typhoons for this year. I guess now I have to wait until the weekend to see if I have any local patch left at all! Above photos taken at Yeh Liu, Nei Liao, and Jin Shan, Taipei/Keelung Counties 26-27/9/15, and Qi Gu, Tainan County 28/9/15. Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Friday, 25 September 2015

Predictable stuff

As I hope to get at least something out of the migration locally this autumn, I've stepped up coverage of my local patch recently and managed to fit in three visits there during the week. The previous weekend had been really rather good, so I was very optimistic that at least some of the passage would continue to spill over into Monday. The early signs were promising, with a nice and spotty juvenile Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta waiting for me at the entrance to Area A on arrival early morning. However, further exploration of Area A added absolutely nothing further to my day list, and I returned home with that bird the only migrant on it.

Tuesday saw everything grind to a complete halt, with not a single passerine migrant present in Area A despite an intensive search. What's more surprising than there not being migrants is there not being Phylloscs, and Tuesday brought the total of days to four (probably some kind of record) without any at all in Area A, at least not in the mornings. Tail between my legs, I sloped off to Tu Cheng, where Temminck's Stints Calidris temminckii at least continue to be easy to connect with (they are seemingly abundant this autumn, with others both along the Tseng Wen River and at San Gu). The Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus was still hanging around, but I only noticed it when I flushed it (from depressingly close quarters).

My next attempt at Qi Gu was Friday, and this was more of a return to form, only the 'form' here being that of frustration. The day initially looked wonderful, with low cloud, occasional light drizzle and, somewhat unseasonally, even a bit of heavier rain. These are great conditions for visible active migration and perhaps even a bit of filter migration down the coast, and it looked like that might be what was going to happen. Early on, several Grey Motacilla cinerea and Eastern Yellow Wagtails Motacilla tschutschensis, Pechora Pipits Anthus gustavi and an unidentified bunting Emberiza SP. moved south, adding promise to the day. The 'promise' showed up at 07:00, when two unidentified swiftlets Aerodramus SP. flew south together past the lighthouse. These were in view for perhaps only twenty seconds, but I got the feeling that they had a more 'swift-like' structure, 'scythe-like' wings and obviously a much more measured and direct flight than had the Germain's Swiftlets Aerodramus germani of the summer. Unfortunately, they did not feed or U-turn, and were clearly actively migrating and simply followed the coast south. A couple of years ago, what I have now demoted to 'Swiftlet SP.' (though previously classed as Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris) showed up almost daily at around this time of year, and there is clearly movement of some kind of swiftlet through Taiwan at this time. Whether these are Himalayan Swiftlets, Germain's Swiftlets, or a mixture of both, still remains to be resolved (and would not be done so today). I headed down to Area A shortly after these birds had passed to see if they had stopped in that area, but all I got for my troubles (and for my time in Area A) was yet another (distant) Black-winged Cuckooshrike Coracina melaschistos to add to the tally for the autumn.

The return to the lighthouse area showed some migrants to be around. A small garden to the north of Area A held both a male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata and a Grey-streaked Flycatcher, together with yet another Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus for the autumn. Sadly, there is no access to this area, and the birds were distant, so no photos could be taken. Back at the lighthouse, still another Ashy Drongo was hanging around and, incredibly, a further two Black-winged Cuckooshrikes. I don't really know what's going on with these two species at the moment, but it looks like it might be gearing up for a second big weekend for both of them. My trashed reserve woodlot did at least hold a few common migrants (Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica, Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus and Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis), more than in Area A, but the weather did not last, and by late morning it was clear blue skies again and hugely uncomfortable out in the open under the fearsome sun.

The fact that there are migrants around is promising, but the species involved are not of an especially mouthwatering kind. I wonder if I might not fare better elsewhere tomorrow! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 21-25/9/15.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

More of Qi Gu

As Friday had been so good, and the weather forecast was pretty much the same for everywhere (dry and sunny), I thought I might as well stay in Qi Gu and get sunburnt there as go elsewhere only to get sunburnt there. Saturday was reasonable, with the same birds (?) as Friday present in Area A, i.e. an Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus and a Black-winged Cuckooshrike Coracina melaschistos. I add the question mark as I found both an Ashy Drongo and a Black-winged Cuckooshrike together about 500 metres north of Area A right before turning up there, which makes me wonder if there might not have been an influx of these two species over the last two days and perhaps more than just the one of each around (especially given the fact that both had disappeared by mid-morning). Obviously new were the two juvenile Asian Paradise Flycatchers Terpsiphone paradisi which arrived early morning and stayed until at least noon, during which time at least one was reasonably easy to photograph. As this was pretty much the only species I had missed along this coast by earlier going to Sabah (and my photos from Kinmen were crap), I was keen to get some decent images of these, especially any that would show the glossed crown.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were no Phylloscopus warblers in Area A at all, so I continued on to Tu Cheng with a view to quickly checking the waders there before continuing on home. The worn adult Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus was still present, but very distant and in the wrong kind of light, so I left it alone and tried a few other spots. A juvenile male Ruff Philomachus pugnax proved to be a much easier prospect to photograph than the earlier miserable bunch of adults had been, and a couple of Swinhoe's Snipes Gallinago megala were willing to pose for portrait shots, though I had to wait for them to fly to see the tail.

Of greater interest was the first juvenile Long-toed Stint Calidris subminuta I have looked at this autumn, which seemed to initially offer some promise of being something better. I am desperate to add some kind of American 'peep' to my Taiwan list, and when I saw this individual with rather broad supercilia which obviously met on the forehead and an apparently isolated loral line which reached the bill, I thought I might be in with half a chance. However, all of posture, leg length, and rear end length (too short) seemed to be 'out' for anything other than Long-toed Stint, as did the length of those (decidedly long) toes! The bird was also wet on its forehead, which may go some way to explaining the somewhat atypical head pattern.

To say that Sunday was 'similar' would be something of an understatement. It did begin with a change, with a juvenile migrant Gorsachius night heron found in a ditch to the north of Area A, but unfortunately it was not of the kind that would send my heart racing. It is not a straightforward task to provenance each one of these (Malayan Night Herons Gorsachius melanolophus) that turns up in Qi Gu, but they occur regular as clockwork in both passage periods, so at least some migration is involved. It is interesting to compare the distribution of records, too, between both Gorsachius species, with Malayan Night Heron occurring in Qi Gu at a frequency of several individuals per year, and just one record ever of Japanese Night Heron Gorsachius goisagi, the one that is conventionally thought to be 'migrant'. What this means is that it does not necessarily follow that a Gorsachius night heron at a migration site will be a Japanese Night Heron, and Malayan Night Heron always remains the much more likely of the two!

Area A yet again hosted an Ashy Drongo and a Black-winged Cuckooshrike, and that was all (no Phylloscs for a second day). However, Sunday's cuckooshrike was an adult male, so clearly not the same bird as that of the previous day (female). Furthermore, Sunday's Ashy Drongo had a less abraded tail than had the one on Saturday, hence this too was clearly a new arrival. I did not think that the previous day's birds were capable of (or at least likely to) move from an area 500 metres north of Area A to Area A at exactly the same time as did I, and suspected then that different birds had been involved. On today's evidence, these two species seem to be migrating en masse at the moment, with numerous individuals arriving along the west coast. This is surprising only inasmuch as they seem to be the only two species involved in this movement!

As there was absolutely nothing else in the woodlot (and both of these birds were remaining in the canopy due to the continuous movement of people on the ground below), I once again headed off to Tu Cheng in search of waders. The big male Ruff had been joined by a female (which it seemed to enjoy bullying), and both were surprisingly fearless for this species. I was also able to track down the Grey-headed Lapwing, the bird which I think had really kicked the weekend off, in a much better position so that I could get a final shot of that.

All in all, I can have no complaints with the weekend (although a further year tick or two would have been nice). Next weekend is a national holiday, which falls pretty much slap bang at the time that I would ordinarily expect a decent Phylloscopus species to turn up. As there's always far more chance of this happening in the north than in the south, it might be time to start jumping on trains again! Above photos taken in Qi Gu and Tu Cheng, Tainan County 19-20/9/15.

Friday, 18 September 2015

The rewards of Qi Gu

I do hope today was indicative of what is to come this autumn (rather than the best day of it) as it really was quite a good one. It has been some time since I have had a very fulfilling full day's birding in the greater Qi Gu area, and certainly by my reckoning at least one was due. Today seemed to be that day, and hopefully there will be a lot more of the same in the pipeline. I suppose it began yesterday with a quick look in my reserve woodlot (which got trashed by the last typhoon and really does look like it will be a waste of time watching this autumn), followed by a quick look in Area A on my way home. I was quite surprised by what I found in Area A as, although it too is now much smaller, the fallen trees in there have at least created some (temporary) ground cover for migrants (formerly all sand) and it looks like it might well be worth putting in a more concerted effort (as in years past) for birds this autumn (which, like many autumns before, I always fancy will be its last). Although Thursday's visit produced only an Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica of note (which spent so long masquerading as a possible Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica that it had me entertaining 'two bird theory' for a while (though the game was up once seen from below)), it did rouse in me the at least a renewed flicker of interest which had been well and truly blown out over the last couple of autumns.

I returned to Area A on Friday to find few birds in the morning, but at least one of note. This was a Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi, which is far from rare (in fact, it is one of the most abundant passerine migrants to pass through Taiwan), but is seldom seen (they attract no attention to themselves, do not call when flushed, and migrate primarily at night). This Pechora Pipit was one of the 'greenier-looking' ones, and hence a putative menzbieri. Though I have done as much reading as I can on this form, identification in the field seems to be based on criteria which are tentative at best, but it does appear as though there are two waves of Pechora Pipit migration through the region (as suggested by Nial Moores of Birds Korea), one which involves menzbieri and another which involves gustavi. These two waves are quite evident in the south of Taiwan in spring as we get a small movement of birds in April (presumably menzbieri) which is followed by a much larger one (presumably gustavi) at the back end of May (which coincides with the passage of Locustella warblers through the island). The early birds (greenier-looking) are especially tough to find on the ground, whereas the later birds (bright, crisp, and with rufous tones in the parts of the plumage) are much more straightforward (presumably owing to greater numbers). However, autumn has always presented problems for this hypothesis, as I have only ever really noticed one peak (which occurs in the first half of September). It was not until last autumn, on a late October trip to Tian Liao Yang (Taipei), that I was able to witness the second peak when, after one night of heavy rain, large numbers of Pechora Pipits began leaving Tian Liao Yang at dusk the next night (dry) to continue with their migration. The fact that they are rare in the south when this second wave occurs I think can be readily explained by weather. The north-easterlies start in earnest in late October, and these move plenty of birds south over Taiwan and at speed. Whilst there is regular rain on the north coast during this season (so falls), there is typically none in the south at this time (where the weather is characterised by clear skies and strong northerly winds). Whatever Pechora Pipits are migrating at this time simply overfly the south of the island, carried further south on strong winds, and presumably complete their migrations very quickly (without the need to land). In contrast, both spring (early and late) and September birds are more likely to encounter inclement weather and/or southerly winds when moving through the south of the island, and therefore there is a much greater chance that at least some of these birds will land at coastal 'hot spots'. This theory makes perfect sense to me and, correct or otherwise, today's bird was certainly rather dull as Pechora Pipits go.

That other tricky bunch, the Arctic Warblers Phylloscopus borealis sensu lato, were also in Area A today, with at least half a dozen in the woodlot. These can only be separated by vocalisations, and even then it is best to do so by song. Although the calls are also said to be diagnostic (and I should put much greater effort into learning them properly), only the rasping/grating call of examinandus really stands out as being different to my ear (it has indeed 'stopped me in my tracks' in the past). That said, today's birds all called with a rather plain, high-pitched 'dzit', which was never doubled-up, nor sounded rasped or 'full of saliva'. From my understanding, this makes them good borealis, perhaps the form most likely to predominate in autumn anyway.

I was rather happy with my Arctic Warbler photos, as these always present a challenge for my pocket camera, so all told I was quite happy with the hour or so I had spent in Area A. As I was leaving the woodlot, however, things would get much better as I would hit upon two more prizes in the form of an Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus and two female Black-winged Cuckooshrikes Coracina melaschistos feeding near the entrance. Though these both proved rather awkward to photograph, I did come away with record shots in the end.

So, my morning in Area A had gone from being 'acceptable' to actually being rather good, and I left in quite a good mood. This is really what birding in Qi Gu should be like, with at least something present every day from now until it all ends some time in November. Though I had not seen anything new today (not even for the year), it really didn't matter, as I felt something of a flush of nostalgia that I had somehow returned to the Area A of old (when a migrant lurking in every tree). I took a quick look in Area B (still inaccessible), where a Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhyncus added further interest to the day, before pressing on to Tu Cheng with the intention of having a very quick look through the waders there before heading home. Getting home early would not happen, though, as the minute I pulled up in Tu Cheng I found myself a nice adult Pale Martin Riparia diluta that I obviously wanted to try an get a few photos of. A few of these showed up in San Gu at about the same time last year, and I figure that these early birds represent some kind of dispersal from nearby mainland breeding grounds. I am further assuming that the leg feathering is an identification criterion which is unidirectional (i.e. if birds have feathered tarsi, then they are Pale Martin, if not, then they are indeterminate (as these feathers may fall out)). Today's adult seemed to have plenty going on on the rear tarsus (and at least some feathering is visible in the second photo), though I could not see as far up the tarsus as I could on the birds that showed up last year (which had feathering high up on the rear of the tarsus). That said, I think there is still enough feathering there to call this bird Pale Martin, and a host of supplementary identification criteria, admittedly all of questionable value, all point the same way (tiny size, greyish-casted upperparts, breast band which is diffuse in the centre, wings projecting beyond the tail, etc.).

I spent a while with this adult (and also found a juvenile), but it refused to come as close as had last year's birds so, as time was getting on, I left it be to make a quick circuit of the farm fields to see what waders were hanging around. This proved to be an excellent decision, as I hadn't gone all that far before I picked up a Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus, a bird which is typically a very early migrant and one which I thought I had well and truly missed this year (hence this was my one year tick for the day).

Although this bird also refused to come close (and the photo above is in fact the first one I attempted of it, after which it just began walking further and further away), it was a terrific way to end an enormously satisfying day's birding, just the kind of day's birding I like best. In addition to providing me with that all-important lifeline year tick, it furthermore had produced numerous birds of a variety of sorts (raptors, waders, swallows, woodlot passerines), together with a number of ID puzzle birds (which I always like to feel I'm moving one step closer towards solving). Add to that that the fact that the weekend hasn't even started yet (and should hold within it the same kind of promise), then things do genuinely seem to be looking up a bit this autumn. Above photos taken in Qi Gu and Tu Cheng, Tainan County 17-18/9/15.