Sunday, 31 January 2016

Mega-distant gulls

A disappointing weekend which seemed to be an appropriate way to end to a disappointing week (though the same thankfully cannot be said for the month). With nothing but high winds and rain on Saturday, it was always likely that I would fail to get anything, really. However, after having spent five days at work, I was starting to feel both physically and mentally ill from lack of birding and had to venture out despite the challenging conditions and flog all of Ma Sha Gou, Kou Hu and Au Gu, ostensibly for gulls but optimistic there would be more. On a relatively luckless day, I had to wait until Au Gu before I picked up anything at all worth looking at, this being a mega-distant third-winter Slaty-backed Gull Larus schistisagus

Although I do like my new camera, it is pretty clear now that it is way too small to deal with gulls. This is a shame as Slaty-backed Gull is not altogether all that common in Taiwan (with very many records relating to misidentified taimyrensis), and better shots of it would have been nice. However, the solidly dark juvenile-like belly, dark eye smudge, and wholly black tail are apparent in the photos above, as is the mirror on P10 (which means that the primaries have been replaced twice), which together combine to make the bird a third-winter. The 'string of pearls' effect on the outer primaries is also evident on the underwing. It seems unlikely that I'll ever manage anything other than crappy record shots of gulls from anywhere off the Qi Gu sandbar. Such a shame, as this latter spot is very erratic in terms of whether or not it attracts any gulls (often none at all). Below is a third-winter Slaty-backed Gull which turned up there in February 2014, what this (Au Gu) bird would have presumably looked like had I been able to get any nearer to it!

Sunday was sunnier but windier, another awful combination. I again beat the same path as Saturday, starting off at Ma Sha Gou where 'scope views of the possible American Wigeon Anas americana there showed it to quite clearly be a hybrid. Although its head had appeared plain and grey at range in overcast conditions, it was in fact plain and subtly tinged pinkish, and furthermore lacked the vermiculations shown by male American Wigeon (hence evidence of Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope). The flanks also looked somewhat untidy, with a few small patches of grey mixed in with the pink. So, disappointment to start with and more to come, as I would lose my sunglasses at Kou Hu and fail to find the Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis that had been reported there on Friday. It felt as though I was subtracting rather than adding today, defeating the object of having gone out in the first place, and it would take until my final stop on the Pu Zhi River before I would redress the balance with an adult Common Gull Larus canus. This bird never really came near, and furthermore seemed to want to play at silly buggers by constantly changing its mind which side of the river it wanted to sit on (necessitating constant relocating). I did my best with it, rattling off a few record shots as it messed about, before I'd had quite enough of it all and went home.

I was not entirely unhappy with finding a Common Gull and that being the way in which I would end January, as it does now mean that I've caught up with all the regular gulls already this year. I've climbed to 215 for the year, good going really, especially given that the last two weekends have been severely affected by weather. Things generally pick up both weather and bird-wise in February, though, and mercifully I have a great big holiday right in the middle of it! Above photos taken Au Gu and on Pu Zhi River, Chiayi County 30-31/1/16.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Vega Gull

As a fierce cold spell (complete with gale-force winds and driving rain) swept through the island over the weekend, I spent some of it (Saturday) in hibernation mode. There's just no way these days I can stay indoors for two days, though, so against my better judgement I ventured out on Sunday to brave the horribly unpleasant conditions. It came as no surprise that this would be the first day of the year that I would fail to add anything to my year list, but as something of a bigger surprise that the Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla would still be flapping around Ma Sha Gou, both in the morning en route north and in the afternoon on my way home.

It was practically impossible to photograph well on account of the strong wind and, despite a camera full of images, I was unable to improve upon what I had already managed a couple of days earlier picture-wise. The area also held more Black-tailed Gulls Larus crassirostris today, together with at least one adult vegae Herring Gull Larus argentatus, a relatively scarce form in the south of Taiwan, though this one was a little too distant to photograph. I did happen to find another, though, later on at Bu Dai, and this adult at least was close enough to shoot.

Although vegae do occur along this coast, in my experience the majority of (adult) vegae-types show at least some taimyrensis influence and are best considered intergrades. Such birds typically appear to be 'pale-end' taimyrensis, with rather extensive vegae-like winter hood, but show obvious (if subdued) traces of yellow in the legs. Today's individual showed vegae-like winter head together with bubblegum-pink legs, a surefire sign that it was a good vegae. Another pointer was the black in the wing only reaching P5, right for vegae (to P4 in mongolicus). The P10 was still growing (OK for vegae) and the bill base was still dull green, both of which indicate a more northerly breeder (note that the more southerly-breeding adult mongolicus in the second picture have bright bills and are essentially already in breeding condition). Not a bad find, really, though I had certainly been hoping for more in the extreme conditions! Above photos taken at Ma Sha Gou, Tainan County and Bu Dai, Chiayi County 24/1/16.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Dong Shan

As the forecast cold and damp would take until the evening to arrive on Friday, I was able to squeeze in an extra afternoon's birding at Dong Shan, my first excursion into mountains this year, albeit a very low one. There's rarely anything much to write home about from Dong Shan, just plenty of Crested Honey Buzzards Pernis ptilorhyncus to enjoy, together with other low elevation species such as Bronzed Drongo Dicrurus aeneus. I traditionally go here to year tick my Plain Flowerpecker Dicaeum minullum, a bird which is far from rare, yet one I never seem to come across at the other mountain spots I choose to spend time in.

Both the excitement and the disappointment for this bonus afternoon's birding were provided by the rather large Wild Boar Sus scrofa that I happened across when I stuck my head over a wall to check out a passing bird flock. Though this beast was less than twenty metres away, it was so obscured by foliage and tall grasses that I could never get anything like a clear shot of it with my camera. It fed deep in the herbage for a good ten minutes or so, all the while very close to me, yet all of the time allowing me only glimpses of parts of its back, snout, and forever twitching ears. There sounded to be at least one more crashing around and grunting slightly lower down, but I could not get any line of sight onto that one at all, and just how many there were in total I couldn't say. When all went quiet and the close individual had moved off, I thought it might be prudent for me to also do the same, as it was really anyone's guess from exactly where it was going to reappear! This was all good stuff, anyway, with unexpectedly fine weather and a few more year ticks added to my year list from the afternoon. Unfortunately, though, the rain has well and truly arrived as I write this now, and tomorrow looks like it will be a very grim affair! Above photos taken at Dong Shan, Tainan County 22/1/16.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Black-legged Kittiwake

A surprisingly good week this one, which saw two pretty good semi-rarities added to the year list towards the end of it. I continued with my policy of trying to pick off local winterers in the mornings so that I could 'save up' the weekends for longer jaunts. I was outsmarted for much of it by the weather, which is now settled into the familiar winter pattern of being blowy, overcast, and with drizzle for large parts of it (eerily reminiscent of a Yorkshire winter). It is my old adversary the wind that creates the most problems, as this blows more often than not, putting all those lovely skulky reedbed birds very much to ground. It was cold and blowy on Monday, so I chose to head to nearby Xin Hua in the hope of hitting my #200 for the year. The forest there holds a few birds of interest in winter, and this time round they included the familiar Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus and Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica, and also a much less expected Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta (only my second record in winter). Xin Hua got me to #199 for the year, but it took a very low Crested Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhyncus circling the road on the drive home to bring me up to my intended target!

Tuesday was calmer early doors, so I hit Ding Shan to look for wintering Locustella. A singing bird wintering in a spot that hosted a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola two winters ago turned out to be the much more regular Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis on this occasion, and I managed only brief views of it before the wind again began to strengthen. Qi Gu was my next port of call where, not surprisingly, I would dip on the Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla in the now rather strong winds. Bird of interest for the day came in the shape of a nominate race Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus which seemed to be doing its very best to look like Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio. This individual was so red-looking from most angles that I couldn't help but entertain thoughts of superciliosus (a stunning form I am quite desperate to see), but there just did not seem to be sufficient white on the forehead for it to be that. In the end, I assumed it must be nominate cristatus, a form which is very scarce in Qi Gu, but not so scare on outlying islands like Dongyin (where it provides a 'schoolboy error' trap for the unwary, who, not expecting Brown Shrike to be quite so red, frequently report it as Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus).

Wednesday threatened to be the first day that I did not add anything this year, as I failed to find much of note on either the Tseng Wen River or further north in Chiayi at Xin Wen. The day was salvaged somewhat comically by a Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres on the Ba Zhang River, which brought a sense of relief as it moved me off a duck for the day. I would later add a Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes from the same spot, albeit a rather distant one.

Thursday was supposed to be the last day of fairly decent weather before it all deteriorates into gale force winds and driving rain at the weekend. I had intended to head into the foothills in an effort to stave off the now imminent 'day of nothing' for as long as possible, but one look at the leaden skies early morning changed my mind. I tried for the Eurasian Wryneck again early doors, but it was raining when I arrived in Qi Gu and I not surprisingly had no joy with it. Stuck for where to go next, I plumped for the coast at Ma Sha Gou, an interesting-looking area of coastal forest I have never really fully explored, despite always intending to. There is a large reed-fringed lake in the middle of the forest I intended to look at, all in the rather outrageous hope of collecting one or two unexpected wintering passerines more than anything else. Imagine my surprise when I rolled up there and the first bird I saw was a Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla perched atop an old telegraph pole out in the middle of the lake!

As with seemingly all Kittiwakes that turn up here, this first-winter was oiled. It spent most of its time atop the pole trying to get the oil off, but would occasionally fly off to flap around the nearby harbour (where it would come much closer and became easier to photograph) after which it would return to one of the poles in the middle of the lake. Thrilled to bits that I had taken the decision to bird the 'complete unknown' of Ma Sha Gou (and that this decision had proper paid off), I continued birding the area I was in. The lake held a surprisingly large number of waterfowl, comprised mostly of Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope. Large flocks of this species are always worth a look as they sometimes hold American Wigeon Anas americana, and it didn't take too long to pick out a likely-looking candidate (albeit at mega-range).

Although this drake was at extreme range, it did stand out amongst the other birds and had the following features good for American Wigeon: (i) contrastingly greyish head, (ii) metallic green stripe through and behind eye, (iii) pinkish-brown back and flanks. Despite the crown appearing somewhat yellowish (acceptable in American Wigeon), there were no obvious traces of red on the head and the crown stripe appeared to extend further back on the crown than it typically does on Eurasian Wigeon. Furthermore, in many images taken of the bird, the bill appears to be distinctly dark-framed (a feature of American). I stayed on the bird when everything began to look nervous as though it was about to flush and managed to get record shots of the underwing, in which the axillaries appear to be gleaming white (diagnostic of American). If this is a hybrid, then it is a very cryptic one, as it shows no obvious signs of impurity and the suite of key features indicative of American Wigeon. It certainly looks like it will be worth trying to get better views of this bird in a 'scope at some point in the near future! I gave up on the ducks when they flew to the opposite side of the lake and hid inside the reeds. Instead, I headed off to look for the passerines I had originally been anticipating when I first set off to Ma Sha Gou. I managed to collect a further Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva for the year from the forest, which was more the kind of thing I had been originally expecting, and that was pretty much it. Having said that, this area has plenty of spots still to explore and will certainly be getting another visit before the winter is out!

So, yet another excellent week with plenty of unexpected bonuses contained within it. It's as well it was like this, as the forecast for the weekend looks simply horrendous and I may well be spending this one indoors! Above photos taken at various locations, Chaiyi and Tainan counties 18-21/1/16.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

White-bellied Sea Eagle

Well done Au Gu for producing yet another one of those birding 'fairy tale' moments this weekend with, of all things, my great bogey bird of last year the adult White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster! This bird was the bane of the previous twelve months, as I dipped on it no fewer than six times at its preferred summer residence of Tseng Wen Reservoir. Although it does infrequently pay visits to Au Gu, these are few and far between, hence it cannot at all be expected there. I had visited Au Gu solely in the hope of connecting with last December's Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus, though I had no idea whether or not this bird was still present there. If it is, it is not being very co-operative, especially considering that everything else from that day is still present on site! This supporting cast includes no fewer than five Red-breasted Flycatchers Ficedula parva (one of which was even singing on Saturday) and a single Pallas's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus proregulus.

It was whilst in the forest chasing these small jobs around that I heard two very unfamiliar calls. The first call was a piped, evenly-spaced 'tew-tew-tew-tew-tew-tew...', vaguely reminiscent of Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla. The second call was a curious, almost goose-like honking that I really could not place but sounded like it could possibly be being given by a heron or an egret. When I moved out of the forest to investigate, the only birds I could see flying around were a Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus and an Eastern Buzzard Buteo japonicus, and I assumed these weird noises may have been the result of some kind of sparring between the two. It was not until about an hour later, when I was once again about to go home, that I decided to have a look somewhere in the direction of where I thought the Wryneck-like call had been coming from (as this really had not sounded much like any of the calls of Osprey). I almost turned back, as I thought that finding any kind of passerine in a vast grassy field at noon would be an impossibility, but instead soldiered on. When I appeared at the edge of the field, there was an almighty crash in the trees about fifty metres ahead, and the giant adult White-bellied Sea Eagle came hurtling out!

The bird began calling as it gained height, first with several piped 'tew-tew-tew-tew-tew-tew...' notes and then with a series of hollow goose-like honking notes! Only then was the nature of my mistake clear, and I was thankful that I had in the end gone to investigate this unusual call, especially as I had almost chosen not to! It just goes to show once again that you should never ignore the evidence of your ears and investigate every sound that is unfamiliar! The bird continued to call as it drifted away south, and I imagine that it will now start its annual peregrination around the island in search of a mate. Such a pity that it is the only one here, and that its task will be a thankless one! Anyway, I was thrilled to bits to have this one logged so early in the year, and in unexpectedly fine weather on Saturday. The weather had turned into the forecast drizzle by Sunday, though, but my trip to Guan Tian still allowed me to add Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus to my year list.

This bird was not where I had expected it to be (from the hides), but along one of the paths at Guan Tian, so thanks to one of the wardens there for the tip off. There was precious little else on show at the reserve, to be honest (there rarely is), though I was told that last year's White-browed Crake Amaurornis cinerea was still knocking around. The water level at the current time is too high for it to show, though (one for later), so I snapped off a few quick shots of some close Garganey Anas querquedula before calling it a day and heading home ahead of an approaching band of more persistent-looking drizzle. Above photos taken at Au Gu, Chiayi County 16/1/16 and at Guan Tian, Tainan County 17/1/16.

Friday, 15 January 2016

The first of the dips

Having been busy during the week, it took until Thursday to get any sort of time off, and this gave me an opportunity to twitch the very strong candidate female Red-headed Bunting Emberiza bruniceps which had recently appeared in Gaoxiong. There are currently three Black/Red-headed Buntings wintering in Taiwan, and for me the other two are a much better fit for Black and don't really tick any of the right boxes for Red-headed Bunting. So, when one popped up that seemed to tick all the right boxes, it obviously had to be twitched. Sadly, although present for the five days prior to our visit, it was nowhere to be found when we rolled into town and thus goes down as the first really big dip of the year. As it was in a residential area, there was also no supporting cast to speak of either, just Category C 'plastic' to tick off in the shape of Indian Silverbill Lonchura malabarica (and later Azure-winged Magpie Cyanopica cyanus after returning to Tainan).

Things were no better Friday, either, as a band of cold air and rain moved through the island, meaning persistent drizzle all day long and most of the small birds with their heads down. All I was able to find of note were a couple of Northern Lapwings Vanellus vanellus that had dropped into and area of current interest on the Tseng Wen River, before returning home wet and cold.

So that was the week. With the rain and drizzle set to eat into the weekend, too, it looks like this one might be a bit of a write-off unfortunately. Above photos taken at Zuo Ying, Gaoxiong City and An Ping, Tainan City 14/1/16 and on the Tseng Wen River, Tainan County 15/1/16.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

White-capped Bunting

It seems almost ludicrous to conceive that I might have had a better weekend this one than I did the last one, but that is in effect what happened! It all kicked off on Saturday at first light on the Lan Yang River with a second search for the Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus which would once again not produce the intended result (of it being found). The only consolation on the river were the two first-winter Vega Gulls Larus vegae which were flapping around above it early morning. The first-winter male Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio was still present at Xin Nan, though it would come no nearer than it had done the week before.

It was whilst watching this bird that I received the phone call that would change the shape of the weekend, with news of a 'white-capped' bunting reported from Tian Liao Yang. I imagined that this information must mean that the Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos had been relocated, given that its Chinese name translates loosely to 'white-capped' bunting, and set off optimistic that I might be finally about to catch up with that one. Tian Liao Yang had been very much on the cards anyway as a Japanese Reed Bunting Emberiza yessoensis was also being reported from there, but news of a second mega bunting meant that we really had to set off from Ilan right away. It was only when we drew nearer Tian Liao Yang that I received a second phone call advising me that the bird actually was a White-capped Bunting Emberiza stewarti, and not an incorrect translation. Although I already knew that such a bird existed, I knew that is was somewhere far away in the Middle East, had no idea what one might actually look like, and hence had automatically preferred the 'poor translation' explanation over the one of there actually being a White-capped Bunting on site at Tian Liao Yang! On hearing this news, we had no choice but to start driving even faster! Unfortunately, all we would manage that afternoon was brief views of one partially obscured head and some crappy flight views, so we resolved to stay overnight in Fu Long and have a second go at the bird the following morning. It was as well we did, as the bird posed 'full bird' for a very brief period early morning before flying off into its favoured field to feed.

The bird once more became difficult after this early morning sighting, preferring to spend most of its time deep in the grass or out of sight in a farm field, both of which meant that it would spend the bulk of its time out of view. It was, however, very easy to pick up in flight, mostly on account of its call, which was a string of three to five 'chip' notes delivered at a tempo similar to that of the call of Oriental Greenfinch Chloris sinica. The bird also flew with much deeper undulations than the other buntings, which also made it stand out. The big question now after getting decent views was just where had this bird come actually from? Its natural range is at quite some distance from Taiwan, although it has arrived in the middle of a quite exceptional winter for buntings and does seem to migrate (albeit not that far). It also seems to have rather brown-looking primaries when compared to just how black its tail looks, which I assume would make it a first-winter male (the most likely age/sex to occur as vagrant). It is also quite wary and shows no obvious signs of being recently kept in captivity! I have no idea whether or not this species is commonly kept as a cage bird and it seems that this now is what should be established. No such problems exist with the supporting cast at Tian Liao Yang, though, which included the original target Japanese Reed Bunting which also showed well early Sunday morning. The long-staying female Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala was also still present, and has almost finished its moult into first-summer plumage.

When the birds disappeared mid-morning, we hung around for a further hour with little to see, before deciding to up sticks and start the journey south and home early in the hope of picking up a few year ticks en route. The first stop was Gang Nan, where the wintering Japanese Wagtail Motacilla grandis has become exceptionally easy now that it is being fed by photographers!

After a very quick look for the Mrs Gould's Sunbird Aethopyga gouldiae (which we had been told had already gone and we failed to find), we continued south to our second stop, Shi Gang Reservoir, and its three wintering Scaly-sided Mergansers Mergus squamatus. These were similarly easy to pick out, but were always very distant, and, despite waiting for them to give us some 'action' for the best part of two hours, all they did was sleep!

So, only two weekends into the year and it seems to be shaping up to be quite an extraordinary one! I have already logged five species I did not see last year, all within the first ten days of it! I can only hope that there is much much more of this to come! Above photos taken at Tian Liao Yang, New Taipei County, Gang Nan, Xinju County and Shi Gang Reservoir, Taichung County 10/1/16.