Sunday, 29 November 2015

Grey Bunting

As there had been a female Grey Bunting Emberiza variabilis hanging around on Yeh Liu for at least a week, I could have no excuses for remaining in the south this weekend and really had to twitch it, otherwise I would have to face the grim prospect of a liferless autumn. I was relieved when I finally arrived on Yeh Liu Friday to hear that the bird was still present and had shown at least once in the morning, but became increasing anxious when it refused to show for a second time despite plenty of food on offer for it and a crowd which had thinned out markedly in the two hours since it had last put in an appearance. It took until noon for it to show a second time, and also for me to wander off to the bathroom just in time to miss it, only to return to find the few assembled photographers looking at some quite stonking photos of the female Grey Bunting (which had obviously been very close). I myself had to wait a further two hours for it to reappear once more, but considered this to have been time well spent once I had finally ticked it!

This was certainly an odd and rather enigmatic one as far as buntings go as it appeared quite silently in the grass at the side of the path, only then to creep out into the middle of the path and start quietly feeding on all the seed that had been put down for it. There was no hopping, wing-flicking or apparent nervousness on the part of the bird, and it had more the feel of a deliberate forest floor 'creeper' than a typical flicky Emberiza. I did hear one very sharp call right before it emerged, a call so abrupt and sharp that I was actually expecting Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps or some such bird to appear rather than Grey Bunting. I was obviously delighted when it was the latter rather than the former that appeared, as this put an end to a week of worrying that the bird would not hang around for long enough for me to get at it. Whether or not these things happen for a reason does seem pertinent to ask, as dipping on the bird at noon meant that I would spend longer on Yeh Liu than I had originally planned, which in turn meant that I would still be on site when the very dull female Japanese Robin Erithacus akahige got found in the afternoon, one I still needed for my year list. I only managed one shot of it in the failing light, but did rather better with the male Siberian Rubythroat Luscinia calliope that was also hanging around.

There had been other birds around during the day, most notably Japanese Bush Warblers Horornis diphone which were practically everywhere (together with a single Manchurian Bush Warbler Horornis borealis, much the more numerous elsewhere in Taiwan). One of these had seemingly barely survived the crossing, a rather diminutive individual to say the least!

With my lifer in the bag and plenty of birds on my camera, I moved off to Tian Liao Yang where I would spend Saturday. Saturday was surprising for the large number of buntings present, though I was a little disappointed that I could find no reed bunting of any sort in amongst these. What I assume to be the same Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala from my last visit was still around, together with way more Rustic Buntings Emberiza rustica (at least half a dozen), plenty of Little Buntings Emberiza pusilla and a single Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans (and masses of Black-faced Buntings Emberiza spodocephala). I would get little from the morning until I made a rest stop at the local temple and explored a shaded pool located right behind it. This turned up a Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus, quite an unexpected bird so late in the year and perhaps more likely a winterer at this stage than a recently-arrived migrant.

I had little idea what to do with Sunday, so spent the early morning again at Tian Liao Yang, which produced only more of the same but did at least let me get within camera range of the Black-headed Bunting. A singing Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata in the reedbed at Tian Liao Yang was a big surprise (with a first-winter Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis in the same spot less so), though no amount of pishing would bring it out of the reeds.

It was at Tian Liao Yang that I learnt about Sunday's bird, a first-winter male Red-throated Thrush Turdus ruficollis, at Jin Shan. A quick drive across the county got me there whilst it was still fairly early and in plenty of time to see this very exhausted looking individual, which had plenty of feather damage and looked like it could drop dead at any moment.

I thought that the moult limit in the greater coverts might make this 'other' than a first-winter, but the moult limit here does indicate precisely that (the white-fringed outers are retained juvenile feathers which are being replaced by adult-type grey-fringed inners). The remainder of the wing is also clearly juvenile. Like the Japanese Bush Warbler at Yeh Liu, this bird had obviously suffered flying through the incredibly strong winds of mid week and looked much the worse for wear for it. However, it was feeding well and may well remain on site long enough for me to year tick it again at the start of next year! Either way, this was a very agreeable way to end yet another successful trip to the north coast, perhaps the last one this year now I now have a backlog of places down south which need looking at before the year ends. Above photos taken at Yeh Liu, Tian Liao Yang and Jin Shan, New Taipei County 27-29/11/15.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Ryukyu Minivet

After a decidedly miserable week at work, I was both delighted and relieved to see the weekend come around again and afford me yet another chance to get out birding. Obviously after the previous weekend I was itching to get up to the north coast again, but the forecast for there suggested that, although it would most certainly rain (which would bring new arrivals), this rain would likely persist for the entire weekend (and therefore finding these new arrivals might be tough). I contented myself instead with a jaunt around Qi Gu Friday, and was rather happy that I had chosen to do so. Area A seemed to have one or two birds in it on arrival, including several Daurian Redstarts Phoenicurus auroreus, a Red-flanked Bluetail Tarsiger cyanurus, two Eyebrowed Thrushes Turdus obscurus and a Brown-headed Thrush Turdus chrysolaus. I fancied that there may well be more in there than I actually thought, and this proved to be the case when a slender-looking black and white bird flew into the canopy to join a feeding flock of Japanese White-eyes Zosterops japonicus I was watching. The bird was obviously some kind of minivet, and from the dark-looking breast band I believed that I had seen, a potential candidate Ryukyu Minivet Pericrocotus tegimae. After a short wait for it to reappear, I was able to confirm the dark grey breast band, and that the bird had only a small area of white above its bill and a very short supercilium, extensive dusky ear coverts, no white in the wing, and little or no contrast between the dark head and the remainder of the upperparts (which were also therefore dark), making this one a rather straightforward Ryukyu Minivet and a male at that!

This is my second Ryukyu Minivet in Qi Gu, and my fourth in total in Taiwan. What makes this one that bit more special is that is was perhaps the bird I was most hoping for from my trip to the north coast the prevoius weekend, as Ryukyu Minivet would bring my (migrant) minivet list for the year to four (Ashy, Swinhoe's, Ryukyu and Rosy), a full house as far as I see it! The bird was calling fairly frequently and also gave several short bursts of song. I was able to record some of its vocalisations (here), and fancy that they are somewhow flatter, more rasping and less upslurred than the calls of Ashy Minivet Pericrocotus divaricatus. My day was not finished with this bird, though, as a late afternoon stop at an historic harrier roost on the Tseng Wen River to try and photograph an Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus I had seen there some days earlier produced not only the Eastern Marsh Harrier, but also a first-winter Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus, a second year tick from the day (and a new bird for this particular roost)!

So a truly unexpected and most welcome fantastic Friday to kick off my weekend after a very grim few days of zero satisfaction. I am leastways happy that I can always rely on birds to pick me up out of any ruts I may slip into, and am really very grateful for this day's fare! Above photos taken in Qi Gu and on the Tseng Wen River, Tainan County 20/11/15.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Short-eared Owl

It was a struggle to decide what to do with this last weekend, as the weather in the south of the island looked settled and only relatively weak cold fronts were forecast to affect the north. I tried to get on the ferry to Dongyin for one last time this year (as it had been raining there), but left it all too late and was unable to get a space (it did not help matters either that one of the two boats that had been due to sail had broken down). In the end, I plumped for Tian Liao Yang, a spot I rate very highly, and would leave very pleased with my haul from the weekend. It did not look good initially, though, as sunny skies and a burning hot sun on Friday meant that I would get nothing save for several Black-browed Reed Warblers Acrocephalus bistrigiceps and a single Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata in the afternoon spent at Tian Liao Yang, a very disappointing result from several hours of traipsing around the place. I had earlier tried the area above Da Xi for Chestnut-bellied Tit Sittiparus castaneoventris (and perhaps should have spent the day there), but had managed to miss those as well (though did pick up an unexpected male Swinhoe's Pheasant Lophura swinhoii). All I could do was continue with my search until dark and hope that the forecast rain would arrive overnight (which it duly did).

Saturday morning was a whole different ball game, with overcast skies and intermittent showers, some of which were pretty heavy. I have lost two cameras in the past to the weather at Tian Liao Yang, so my new (and more costly to replace) rig got packed up securely in its bag pretty sharpish when a more persistent downpour set in early on. The rain was easing but had not stopped when I made my first find, a female Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica, nice but not enough to tempt me to set up again in the now much lighter drizzle. This was a decision I would regret as, shortly after looking at the bunting, I would flush a rather wet-looking Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica, which flew from a relatively open area into very deep cover and did not seem worth pursuing. A short distance away from here, I did the same with a Locustella (which was at some range) and decided that there would be nothing lost in trying to pish it out as loudly as I could. This proved to be a big mistake as, ever since the rain had started to ease, I could hear what I thought was distant thrush calling, though something about its call had sounded slightly strange (too persistent, I think). It was only when I started pishing as loudly as I could that I found the culprit, a Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes, which flew out of a bush about fifty metres away (seemingly in direct response to all the racket that I was making) and sped off firmly in the direction of the mountains (calling all the way as it went). By this time, the rain had eased off sufficiently to allow me to set up my camera, somewhat cheesed off that I had already missed two goodies with it, but expectant that there would be more. The drier conditions had encouraged plenty of buntings out of the grass to dry off, and the giant first-winter Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala that was sat in amongst them would be the first bird that would allow me to finally get something on my camera for the day.

This first spell of post-rain activity would be the only big one of the day. I made repeated circuits of Tian Liao Yang (together with repeated return visits for the quail), but would add only a single Lanceolated Warbler Locustella lanceolata to the day list. Both the Black-headed Bunting and the Rustic Bunting remained on site (the latter being joined by a male), but I was unable to get any further decent shots of either. There were other buntings around this morning though, including Little Buntings Emberiza pusilla, but these too became tough to find once the grass began to dry.

As some aimless driving around on Saturday afternoon had produced a dead owl, thought to be an Oriental Scops Owl Otus sunia (partially eaten by ants), on the road just outside of Fu Long, I decided to try the small park just to the west of there early Sunday morning to see if I could connect with some night birds. I flushed a Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola from an open grassy area at the centre of the park, but no owl I could add to my trip list. It had been dry overnight, and nothing new had arrived in Tian Liao Yang. Somewhat surprisingly, I did get a second Hawfinch for the trip (these seem to be 'invading' this winter), though this bird was very high and simply flew straight inland, apparently fresh in off the sea. Both the Black-headed Bunting and Rustic Bunting were still present, but I could not relocate the quail despite a two-hour search. As I wanted some birds from Ilan, I began the drive back there mid-morning, towards what I thought would be clearing skies and pleasant conditions. I couldn't have been more wrong, as it was drizzling persistently in Ilan, so much so that when I finally arrived at Li Zhi Jian to year tick the three wintering Taiga Bean Geese Anser fabalis, I was soaking wet and there was no way that my camera was coming out of its bag even to take a record shot. I moved off to nearby Ding Liao, more to wait for the rain to stop so that I could return for the geese than anything else, and was surprised to find quite a few migrants present. These included a Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans, two Red-flanked Bluetails Tarsiger cyanurus and two Mugimaki Flycatchers Ficedula mugimaki. Hopeful of photos, I thought it would be better to hang around there for the rain to stop (which it did briefly late afternoon), and spent much longer at Ding Liao than I had originally planned. This proved to be an inspired decision when, shortly after the rain had stopped, a cracking male Asian Verditer Flycatcher Eumyias thalassinus popped out right in front of me!

As if this were not a good enough find, shortly after it disappeared a loud racket began coming from nearby Japanese White-eyes Zosterops japonicus, and this was sufficiently harsh and raucous to suggest that they had most certainly found themselves an owl. Expecting it to be some kind of scops, I couldn't believe my eyes when I peeped down the hillside towards the source of all the commotion and found a big yellow-eyed Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus staring back at me!

This bird had obviously just appeared out on the open branch, presumably to get itself dry, which had sparked all the commotion amongst the local passerines. There was only one 'line of sight' onto it, and it was always partially obscured, though fortunately it was close enough to where I was standing to photograph well. It has been many years since I last saw Short-eared Owl in Taiwan, so I was well happy with the find. I was so happy that I stayed at Ding Liao until almost dusk, and by the time I returned to Li Zhi Jian to try and photograph the geese, they had already flown off to roost! Above photos taken at Tian Liao Yang, New Taipei County and Ding Liao, Ilan County 13-15/11/15.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A pair of flycatchers

A weak cold front moved through the island overnight Monday, and such conditions usually bring new arrivals. In fact, the conditions brought precisely two new arrivals: a Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva and a Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla, and I was able to bag the pair early doors in the same bush! The Red-breasted Flycatcher I would guess was a first-winter as everything looked pretty fresh on it. It was awkward to say the least, being very active in the darker parts of the woodlot and calling only infrequently. That said, the pale lower mandible and grey-fringed uppertail coverts were easy to see and this bird did have a nice warm wash across its breast.

The Taiga Flycatcher, on the other hand, was hugely uncooperative and I was only able to photograph it at range. I would guess that this was an adult due to the fact that it was replacing some of its tail feathers and a male on account of the strong traces of blue-grey on the neck sides. This bird never called, but the black lower mandible and uppertail coverts could both be seen, and it was also decidedly more sturdy-looking than the Red-breasted Flycatcher.

This is the first time I have seen both together, so it has to go down as quite a treat. However, I remain disappointed with my photographic efforts at both (and to date) as, despite the camera upgrade, none of my photographs currently seem to be coming out quite as well as I would have expected! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 10/11/15.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

An Ma Shan

With pretty much the whole island sweltering under an unseasonal heatwave this week, there seemed to be little promise of anything at all along the coast, so I took myself off up to An Ma Shan Friday to attend to my year list. An Ma Shan is a pretty awkward combination of public transport and scooter hiring for me from Tainan, and getting up to birding altitude invariably takes a minimum of four hours whichever way I choose to do it. So, even with the early start, it was not until early afternoon Friday that I finally found myself birding on the upper reaches of the mountain. Although I was too late to get anything from 23K, all the usual stuff was still easy to find higher up. It wasn't until I stumbled across a wet-looking Mountain Hawk Eagle Nisaetus nipalensis, however, that I was able to add anything of quality to my year list.

I had planned to stay at the top until well after dark to do some owling, but the guard on the gate told me he would lock it at 18:00, meaning that I would have to be lower down than I wanted to be much earlier than I wanted to be (as I was staying in the homestay at 13K). Feeling somewhat thwarted, I could only hang around for the 47K Mikado Pheasant Syrmaticus mikado to show until pushing dark (this bird is an evening rather than a morning bird), and it duly showed at 16:55, pretty much the time I was expecting it to.

I was well happy with this bird as Mikado Pheasant is usually a bogey for me in most years (they simply require too much patience). By my reckoning, this was species number 400 for me in Taiwan this year, and for some reason it felt like a highly appropriate one to be that big number. Whether or not I got to 401 on the drive down remains debatable as the most unexpected bird of the weekend was an unidentified nightjar Caprimulgus SP. sitting on the road at 33K (2000 metres ASL according to Google), and seemingly in much the wrong habitat for Savanna Nightjar Caprimulgus affinis. I saw the bird at least twice as it returned to the road to do whatever it is nightjars do when they sit on roads, but the traffic picked up after the second sighting and I was unable to relocate it after that. I would get a few more much more straightforward birds for the year the following morning at 23K, though, including a male Swinhoe's Pheasant Lophura swinhoii which was actually too close for my camera to deal with. In the same clearing, a Taiwan Hill Partridge Arborophila crudigularis was also scurrying about, and I did mange to get shots of that (a much better bird to have on your camera anyway).

Hanging around at the top for the remainder of the morning added a further four Mountain Hawk Eagles to the trip list, but what other targets I had in mind would not play ball. It was probably a mistake to descend all the way back to Tainan on the Saturday as there was only heat to look forward to for Sunday (as the incoming cold front has yet to arrive). Still, it is unlikely that this will be my last trip into mountains before the year is out. Above photos taken on An Ma Shan, Taichung County 6-7/11/15.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The wrong nightjar

It's always exciting to flush some kind of nightjar, and doubly so when you're on the coast during the migration in a coastal hot spot like Qi Gu. That's what happened to me this morning, when I flushed a Caprimulgus off the ground as I clambered over the rocks to get into Area A. I was completely unprepared first off, but had my camera all set up for the second flush, which was only inevitable as I had to walk straight past where it had landed to get into the woodlot. All told I managed just the one flight shot (and one awful shot of it on the ground), which was more than enough to temper my enthusiasm as it revealed that the bird was just a Savanna Nightjar Caprimulgus affinis and not the hoped-for Grey Nightjar Caprimulgus jotaka.

The bird was basically small and noticeably pale buff-brown, almost sandy (Greys I have seen in the past have been much darker than this), with club/square-ended wings (which I have always taken to be indicative of Savanna) and a short-looking tail. I also believed (erroneously) that tawny-coloured scapulars (rather than grey scapulars) would rule out Grey Nightjar, but when I got home I began to have doubts as some individuals (photographed on migration in South Korea) show tawny rather than grey in that area (here for example). I began to wonder just what there was on photos such as the one I had taken that could be used to completely rule out Grey Nightjar (which would otherwise seem to be the more likely of the two in Area A), which led to an afternoon of trawling the internet comparing images. After a lot of looking, it seems that the only consistent difference between these two is structural and lies in the relative length of the outer primaries, with Savannah having P10-7 of similar length overall (giving a club-ended wingtip) and Grey having a longer P9-8 and a noticeably shorter P7 (giving a pointed wingtip). This backs up my original assumption that a 'square wingtip' does mean Savannah and furthermore validates my decision not to harass the bird after the second flush. Instead, I looked for other migrants and found there to be plenty around (hence the creeping doubt about the nightjar), but these were all common or garden, with five Daurian Redstarts Phoenicurus auroreus being a decent count.

It seems to be predictable and slow in woodlots now and, although there are certainly still many more birds to come, the chance of something more exciting is slowly becoming more and more remote. Where oh where is the mega this autumn? Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 3/11/15.