Monday, 26 October 2015

Two kinds of Pechora Pipit?

Unlike in previous years, I have this year managed to get some fairly decent shots of Pechora Pipit Anthus gustavi on migration, both in Qi Gu and on the north coast. Although my photographic haul amounts to a mere three individuals, it's quite interesting to make a few comparisons between these birds. The first bird (Individual A) arrived in Area A (Tainan County) on 2/10, a date which puts it firmly in the 'second wave' of Pechora Pipit migration (with a 'first wave' (which can on occasion be quite large in the south of the island) occurring late August and early September, and a 'second wave' (more apparent in the north of the island) in late September and early October). However, the fact that it shows structural and plumage features I would tend to associate with 'first wave' birds leads me to think that it may in fact be a straggler from the first wave. These features (in no particular order of importance) include obvious grey-green tones to the upperparts, an extensive yellow wash below, a barely visible malar stripe, a barely contrasting submoustachial stripe, an absence of any warmer chestnut tones anywhere in the plumage and a noticeably weak bill (which looks rather slender). In addition, Individual A was also curiously 'pot-bellied' and small-headed. Just how much of the greens and yellows can be explained by age I cannot say, as I have no idea how to age these birds (Pechora Pipit has a complete post-breeding moult and a partial post-juvenile moult, both completed by September). Whilst some of these plumage features might be indicative of nothing more than a first-winter (though the same suite of features have also been observed on birds in April), it seems unlikely that the same would apply to the apparent structural differences that seem to exist between Individual A and the later birds which, taken together with plumage characteristics, perhaps place Individual A in a different population. Individual A was photographed with a camera inferior to that used to photograph the other two birds. However, I had a clear line of sight on to it and, even though the photos were taken in coastal forest, do not feel that surrounding 'greenery' (practically absent anyway) is in any way influencing perceived colour.

Individual B was photographed at Tian Liao Yang in Taipei County on 11/10. On this particular day, Pechora Pipits were abundant following a large fall brought about by overnight rain. Individual B shows a number of plumage features I would tend to associate with 'second wave' birds, including warmer brown tones to the upperparts (throughout), crisp 'clean' whites (both below and on feather fringes), a fairly obvious malar stripe, a contrasting submoustachial stripe, weak chestnut tones to the rear ear coverts and a rather strong/stout bill. It furthermore looks more 'deep-chested' and more 'evenly-proportioned', rather than 'small-headed' and 'pot-bellied' like Individual A. Individual B was photographed with a superior camera to that used to photograph Individual A and under very different conditions (in forest vs. in grass, in bright vs. overcast conditions), but neither of these are thought to be affecting perceived colours in any way.

A collage of Individuals A and B side by side seems to do a better job of capturing the overall differences in structure and plumage tone than does scrutiny of individual photographs.

A third individual, Individual C, was also photographed at Tian Liao Yang on 11/10, albeit at greater range than Individual B. It too has the Gestalt of a 'second wave' Pechora Pipit in having warm browns, pale chestnuts and contrastingly clean whites in its plumage rather than more subdued grey-greens and yellows, though it is not really at the right angle to permit closer scrutiny of other plumage features.  

As the wintering range of Pechora Pipit sensu latu is the rather restricted (in comparison to its vast breeding range) area of the Philippines and a few adjacent territories, the bulk of the population of Pechora Pipit (including menzbieri) can be expected to funnel through Taiwan on migration (where Pechora Pipit sensu lato is indeed an abundant migrant). As both Alstrom and Mild (2003) and Drovetski and Fadeev (2010) suggest distinct taxonomic status for menzbieri (with the latter also suggesting that it is in decline), Menzbier's Pipit ought perhaps to generate more interest amongst birders here than it currently seems to do. The only enquiry of any kind into potential morphological differences between these forms available online seems to be that advanced by Nial Moores (2004). Interestingly, Individual A (a presumed menzbieri) and Individual B (a presumed gustavi) show most of the proposed/presumed structural and plumage differences summarised in the table at the foot of this very useful article. The only place I find myself at variance with the findings of this article relate to call as, although I have heard both the sharp Zitting Cisticola-like 'zit' and the softer Grey Wagtail-like 'chip' coming from migrants, I have not found that they fit so neatly into convenient categories ('early migrating' vs. 'late migrating') and, for me, there is more overlap, either in range of calls or perhaps in timing of migration (the latter perhaps supported by a 'first wave' bird turning up during the 'second wave' of migration). As Individual A shows the full suite of features stated to indicate Menzbier's Pipit (both by Moores and elsewhere), it is here tentatively identified as such, with perhaps the structural features (slender bill held horizontally, pot-bellied look) being more convincing than the plumage ones. Either way, given the distribution of these forms, both should be expected to occur in Taiwan (and in massive numbers) on migration, and the island would seem to be the ideal place to examine whether or not all early birds consistently show features indicative of menzbieri and just how consistent these plumage features actually are. Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County and at Tian Liao Yang, New Taipei County 10/15.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Northern Goshawk

I thought that that was pretty much it for the weekend on Saturday night when my bike developed electrical problems and the mechanic I use said it could not be fixed before Monday. As usual, he was nice enough to lend me a spare, but, as this was not the kind of thing I could be driving for miles on, I would once again be restricted to Qi Gu on Sunday. I had originally planned to visit Au Gu in the hope of picking up either (or both) of the two Accipiter species that were not yet on my year list: Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis and Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. Both are regular or fairly regular there, the former wintering annually (but very hard to find, especially so now as there are more trees) and the latter wintering occasionally (and fairly easy to find when it does so). With Au Gu now out of the question, I thought it would be a bit of a miracle should I be able to conjure up anything at all for my year list in a dry and sunny Qi Gu! However, my local 'patch' would not be outdone, and I was really quite astonished to come across a totally unexpected juvenile Northern Goshawk on the south side of the Tseng Wen River late in the afternoon (albeit after a pretty painful slog around a virtually migrant-less Qi Gu).

This bird was really close when I first picked it up (soaring practically overhead), which lead to a hurried fumble to get my camera gear out of its bag and assemble it as quickly as possible (whilst all the while it was drifting further and further away, hence the tiny pictures). It was continually harassed by the neighbourhood Black-winged Kites Elanus caeruleus which probably did not help matters, and, after a bit of a chase, it flew into a small copse never to come out again (at least before dusk). Juveniles have wintered on the south side of the Tseng Wen River before, and there's a strong chance that this one will do, too. That said, once they get settled into their winter quarters, they seldom leave the cover of the forest, so this may indeed be all I see of it! Above photos taken at the Tseng Wen River mouth, Tainan County 25/10/15.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Northern House Martin

With no camera until Friday (by which time I had finally acquired one), it took until Friday for me to get out birding locally again. Area A was reasonable, with an adult male Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina putting on a nice show near the entrance and quite a few Yellow-browed Phylloscopus inornatus and non-calling 'Arctic' Warblers Phylloscopus SP. deeper in the woodlot. A total of seven Crested Honey Buzzards Pernis ptilorhyncus came in off the sea late morning, but the only shots I managed of them were overexposed.

Saturday looked like it would be a dead loss in the woodlots, with clear skies and northerly breezes forecast for it, but nevertheless looked like it might be reasonable for visible migration. I had two species in mind, Himalayan Swiftlet Aerodramus brevirostris and Northern House Martin Delichon urbicum, both of which have a habit of showing up in Qi Gu at this time of year. I hit the first of these, Himalayan Swiftlet, on my drive to the coast, about two kilometres inland. This bird just headed straight inland and did not stop, and although I got it pretty clearly in the 'bins, it really was not presenting me with any sort of opportunity to start unpacking my camera gear to get a shot of it. I picked up a second bird just off the coast, which fed very briefly near a sluice gate, prompting me to set up my camera. When I was ready to start shooting, the thing disappeared, and just like the first bird had gone inland. Five minutes later, a third bird flew along the nearby embankment heading inland, but this one did not stop to feed over the sluice gate as had the second bird (it just went straight through). Somewhat frustrated with this start to the morning (but optimistic that there would be more), I chose to hang around the nearby hirundines for a while longer, but only managed to get shots of House Swift Apus nipalensis!

I was, however, right to focus on vis mig during the morning as predicted bird number two, Northern House Martin (much the rarer of the two in Qi Gu), showed up in a different flock of birds I was photographing a little later on. Fortunately this time I was ready for something flying by, but frustratingly had removed the extender from my lens to photograph close swifts, so would not manage especially large images of it.

The bird was a first-winter, as evidenced by the dark centres to the otherwise white uppertail coverts and the smoky breast band. The dark-centred uppertail covert feathers get replaced by pure white ones when adult, giving lagopodum a much larger rump patch than Asian House Martin Delichon dasypus (or any other form of House Martin for that matter), on which the uppertail coverts are solidly black. Structurally they are also noticeably more slender than the more dumpy-looking Asian House Martin. The bird did just the one one quick circuit of where I was standing, before also turning to head inland. As the heat was starting to get up, too, I followed suit and turned to head inland myself, happy to call it a day after picking up my target year tick for the day with relative ease! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 23-24/10/15.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Siberian Thrush

It took me until Saturday to finally reach Yeh Liu (for the second weekend in a row, again courtesy of a lift from Da Chiao Lin) where a pretty nice-looking drop of birds had occurred mid-week. Top of the bill amongst these was a cracking male Siberian Thrush Geokichla sibirica which appeared (from what photos were popping up online) to be co-operative and photogenic. With a new camera body (but not yet lens, though fortunately I was able to borrow again), I had been sweating kittens over this bird at the back end of the week, hoping that it would both stay for my year list and appear for photographs. Although both hopes would be realised, the bird turned out to be a real skulker, showing briefly just once at around 09:00 before disappearing completely for the rest of the day (and indeed weekend). Fortunately, I was standing in exactly the right spot at the time it chose to appear and managed to get myself a record shot of it (as did a few other photographers, though 90% of those assembled in front of the toilet block missed it completely).

I couldn't be more thrilled with the outcome of my photos, as my chief concern when getting a new camera (in addition to price) was that I would be able to get reasonable results whilst operating it at high ISO levels. The ISO level on the above photo is a quite absurd 5000! I'm sure when I get used to using it more, I'll be able to get better photos and bring the ISO level down, but for now I'll happily take record shots of male Siberian Thrush to be the way that I break in my new toy! The supporting cast was also excellent on Saturday, with everything from the mid-week arrival still on site leaving plenty to go at during the day. The next big target for me was Rufous-tailed Robin Luscinia sibilans, another bird which likes the dark, but is more willing to show than most of the thrushes (especially when there are mealworms present). Another year tick target was Grey-backed Thrush Turdus hortulorum, a female of which (which had been especially skulking during the day) became quite showy later on, though waited until it was practically dark to do so. An Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps was also in front of the toilet block, though you needed to be embedded deep within the melee of photographers to get anything from that.

In the end, there were three Rufous-tailed Robins and two Grey-backed Thrushes, though all spent their time in the darker places. In the brighter places, there were plenty of Phylloscopus warblers to go at, which included a further Two-barred Warbler Phylloscopus plumbeitarsus for the year, a nice addition to the trip list. This fast-moving bird proved to be a big challenge to photograph, though it became much easier when it found something nice and big to eat! There were also several approachable 'Arctic' Warblers around, though none of these would deign to call!

Sunday was also spent at Yeh Liu, a decision motivated primarily by 'rumours' of a Black-breasted Thrush Turdus dissimilis (which turned out to be in error: Somebody had posted photos of a male without specifying a location on a Taiwan bird ID forum asking for an identification, together with photos of a first-year male Grey-backed Thrush which was obviously being fed by photographers. When this happens, Yeh Liu is usually involved (though the bird in question had been photographed in Thailand).). As Yeh Liu has now become some kind of controlled experiment in authoritarianism (they won't let you in before 07:30), the first hour of the day was spent with the Siberian White Crane Leucogeranus leucogeranus, which remains in its preferred field at Jin Shan.

It was a bit of a mistake to spend a second day on Yeh Liu, as nothing had arrived overnight and, if anything, the birds of the previous day had become more difficult to find. The only exception to this seemed to be the Asian Stubtail, which continued to perform for photographers in front of the toilet block. A strangely small and cute-looking Arctic Warbler showed up there early afternoon, which was one of those with dark legs and a very dark lower mandible. Such birds superficially resemble Large-billed Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus magnirostris, and I remembered from somewhere that this species (not that I thought it was one) has a very short P10 which is obviously much shorter than P9. Though I could not see this happening on on this bird, I quite interestingly found this also to be the case on Two-barred Warbler (second from bottom) when I was reviewing my photos. I cannot see the same short P10 in the spread wings of Arctic Warbler (bottom photo, and this is a different individual to the dark-billed bird). Instead, on the dark-billed bird, there appears to be a vestigial P10 which does not obviously exceed the greater primary coverts in length, rather than a more developed (but still very short) one which is obviously longer than the primary coverts. I had no idea about this structural feature before (this would be in the domain of ringers), but wonder if it might not be of some use in the identification of Two-barred Warblers here in Taiwan?

Some time around mid-afternoon, we decided to go back for the crane, finding both a Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva and a Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina on our 'descent' of Yeh Liu. It started to rain late afternoon, which drew the curtain on yet another trip to the north, which this time had been one with some added educational value! I wonder what will be up there next week! Above photos taken at Yeh Liu and Jin Shan, New Taipei County 17-18/10/15.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Everybody hates bird-watchers

I had hoped for rather more than the solitary Hair-crested Drongo Dicrurus hottentottus I found in Area A this morning. Somewhat typically for the season, Yeh Liu had five of these during the week, together with a bunch of other goodies, yet down here in the south we only managed to scrape together just the one. Still effectively camera-less from my last trip to Yeh Liu, I only had my very first and now very old cheapo camera to get any sort of record of it, and consider myself lucky to have come away with anything at all under the circumstances.

The big shock of the day was waiting for me just north of Area A in a small nursery which has actually proven to be pleasingly productive for birds recently. A couple of weeks ago, I asked the farmers there if I could take a look around and they were kind enough to let me in, even though some of them looked a bit unhappy about the idea. Foolishly, I let slip that the reason I was interested in the place was that it was now one of only a few areas locally to have any trees. I shouldn't really have been at all surprised, then, given my track record, to find them on my next visit to have been either completely removed or crowned (and no good for birds).

You might think it paranoid of me to think that I was the cause of the demise of this stand of trees, but this is not the first time such a thing has happened. In fact, there is a bizarre and distrurbingly strong positive correlation between me taking an interest in 'some area' and that area being either hacked to pieces or rendered 'off-limits' (almost immediately after I have 'taken an interest' in it). Off the top of my head, examples of this phenomenon would be: Area B (gated after my first few visits there, though we did get the farmers to take the gate down); Sz Tsau (completely off-limits now, and heaving with birds in winter and on migration a decade ago (though little since it was designated 'protected', which is simply double-speak)); a reedbed on the Tseng Wen River (burnt out by locals after a few decent birds were found to be wintering there); Ding Shan (gated after my first few visits there, large sections of herbage removed removed after I must have been spotted 'taking an interest' in it); Ba Zhang River (gated after my first few visits there); Bu Dai (now gated, ostensibly to protect the birds); a starling roost in Chiayi (trees ripped up after a Rose-coloured Starling Pastor roseus had wintered in them, hence after bird-watchers had spent time there); and, most depressingly of all, Au Gu, which historically was my birding winter wonderland, and is now gated. I've heard all the excuses ad nauseum, but none of them apply to me. (Will I really be stealing telegraph poles on a scooter? Or stealing fish with a pair of binoculars?) In fact, they so do not apply to me that I can only conclude that bird-watchers are just not welcome wherever they choose to turn up, and are a creed so reviled that the fearful country folk are left with no alternative but to revert to 'scorched earth' just to keep us away! (I also got this impression in England, BTW.) Above photos taken in what little currently remains of Qi Gu, Tainan County 16/10/15.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Ijima's Leaf Warbler

A second 'bank holiday' weekend in as many weeks, this time for National Day (not that I approve of such things), provided another opportunity to go north in the comfort of a car as I was again offered a lift by Da Chiao Lin. The target destination was once more Yeh Liu (even though little had been reported from there) as the first cold front proper of the autumn was forecast to arrive on Thursday night. Cold fronts bring rain and rain brings birds, and under such conditions it is always prudent to make a beeline for a migration 'hot spot'. I had not banked on just how much rain would actually be brought, though, as it threw it down on Friday, from dawn until dusk. This was bad news for my cheapo camera, which stopped working early on and sits now on some rubbish tip somewhere. Friday for me, then, ended up being a return to just looking (which was fine), and I did pick up plenty of birds in the few periods when the rain eased off. The best of these (for me) was an Ijima's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus ijimae (very rare in the south) which was hanging around the upper toilet block. The best (seemingly) for Yeh Liu was an elusive Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher Rhinomyias brunneatus (increasingly regular in the south), which showed up briefly early morning and then disappeared completely until late afternoon. In between views of this bird, plenty of others showed up, including three first-winter Japanese Paradise Flycatchers Terpsiphone atrocaudata and at least seven Blue-and-White Flycatchers Cyanoptila cyanomelana, so a very good day despite the conditions and the demise of yet another camera. Fortunately, Da Chiao Lin had a 'spare' in his car (a 'spare' which was vastly superior to the thing I had gotten used to using) and was kind enough to let me play with that the following day (Saturday). The first target with this new and better 'rig' obviously had to be the Ijima's Leaf Warbler, which fortunately was still hanging around and gave me plenty of opportunities to get some decent shots of it.

The Japanese Paradise Flycatchers were also outrageously showy on Saturday morning, meaning that I could get some nice shots of those, together with some of the much less showy female Blue-and-White Flycatcher which also put in a brief appearance.

With the diversity at Yeh Liu looking much the same as it had been on the previous day, we headed out to Tian Liao Yang for a change of scenery and a change of birds. There were plenty present in the afternoon, mostly wagtails of various kinds and Pechora Pipits Anthus gustavi (of the brighter, more contrasting, 'late-migrating' type), which were simply abundant. There were a small number of buntings around, too, with Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola being the one seen most frequently. After a good deal of searching, we were able to track down the first-winter Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus that had been reported from there, though this spent most of its time down in the grass and was always at considerable range.

A juvenile Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus was also present, and we got a real treat late afternoon when close to two thousand Grey-faced Buzzards Butastur indicus arrived in two very large streams (the majority of birds in the photo below are behind the close birds thermalling). With so many raptors arriving so late in the day, I was very optimistic of we would connect with the main target Amur Falcon Falco amurensis the following morning!

Sunday morning was gloomy-looking, with low black clouds and leaden skies. It started very well, though, as we relocated the Common Rosefinch quickly (though it was still no nearer). Whilst watching this, two small falcons flew in to Tian Liao Yang and began sparring, a Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo and the expected/hoped for Amur Falcon (a juvenile). A second Eurasian Hobby joined the scrap and, for a short time, all three were sparring just above our heads. Unfortunately, despite now having the right camera for the job, I had the settings wrong, and only managed to get silhouettes against the backdrop of grey. At least the structural differences between these two are obvious in the photos I got, with the top bird (Amur Falcon) having shorter and slightly broader wings (which are not in any way 'swept back') together with a much shorter neck projection (all 'cute looking'), than the much more powerfully built bottom bird (Eurasian Hobby).

Tian Liao Yang remained good throughout the morning, with a total of ten species of raptor recorded (not all of which were migrant), Yellow-browed Bunting Emberiza chrysophrys added to the trip list, the Grey-headed Lapwing still around, and yet more Pechora Pipits to photograph. 

Things began to calm down late morning, as the flow of raptors petered out and all of the small stuff went to ground. We hung around until 14:00, after which time it seemed to be prudent to begin the long drive back to Tainan. I had managed to put three onto my year list from the trip (Ijima's Leaf Warbler, Common Rosefinch and Amur Falcon), rather less than I had been expecting. However, the trip was educational in that it informed that I was very much in need of an upgrade camera-wise. As my old camera got trashed on the same trip, it seems like this is no longer a option (hence I now have a frighteningly large shopping list to get through). Above photos taken at Yeh Liu and at Tian Liao Yang, Taipei County 10-11/10/15.