Monday, 29 February 2016

Long-eared Owl

Although my original plan had been to spend four days on the north coast, both the weather forecast and the appearance of a Black-chinned Fruit Dove Ptilinopus leclancheri in Pingtung quickly cut this down to two, but I still really needed to go regardless as there were one or two things of interest that I was hoping to pick up whilst in the north. Chief amongst these was Grey-headed Lapwing Vanellus cinereus, which is currently mid-migration. Although an easy prospect at Tian Liao Yang in late February, this is somewhat tougher to pick up elsewhere, especially in the south of Taiwan, so I was keen to get one now to save on any potential headaches later on. 'Easy' was just what they proved to be, and we got not one but five straight away.

There were a few other goodies on offer at Tian Liao Yang, the best of these being a female Bluethroat Luscinia svecica which we flushed from the path whilst marching around. This would not sit still at all, and flushed repeatedly whilst still at considerable range, so record shots were the best that I could manage of it. Buff-bellied Pipits Anthus rubescens, on the other hand, were this time surprisingly co-operative, although the Lapland Bunting Calcarius lapponicus that had been hanging around with them the week before had long since departed.

After Tian Liao Yang, we moved on to Ma Gang, where we must have spent all of half an hour in the very inappropriate hot and calm conditions before deciding that it was time to leave. As we had also done with Tian Liao Yang for the day, we headed up into hills above Da Xi to look for some low elevation mountain birds, with the main target being Chestnut-bellied Tit Sittiparus castaneoventris. These are uncommon along Da Xi Industry Road, but this is without doubt the most convenient place to get them, located as it is right next door to two premier birding spots (as opposed to being located well out of the way up some isolated valley, where it is the only bird of real interest). We managed to find a party of three, which meant I could add this rather localised species to my year list, though the same could not really be said of my photographed list!

It was mid-afternoon when we had finished in the mountains, and, having also cleaned up at the surrounding sites of interest, it seemed to make sense to return to out lodgings for a nap in order to be better refreshed for the evening's fayre. A Long-eared Owl Asio otus had been reported from nearby Fu Long and, not really expecting to see it at all, I did still fancy giving it a go. We had help from three local birders, who proved to be very sharp at night birding, and I was shocked to discover after arriving on site that, not only had they located the bird, but they had also already photographed it! Luckily, we tracked it down again quickly, meaning that I could not only get a difficult year tick from the evening's owling, but also some unexpectedly good photographs!

Buoyed by our success with the owl, we continued our search for other night birds by spreading out inland and trying one or two low mountain roads. Unfortunately, we found nothing more of interest, and, when our local escorts decided it was time for them to return home, we ourselves went back to the small park just outside Fu Long to photograph the wintering Eurasian Woodcocks Scolopax rusticola we had seen there the week before. There were a total of three this evening, and one of these proved to be incredibly co-operative.

It seems surprising that I would come away with better photographs and views of night birds than of day birds this time around, but that is effectively what happened. Many thanks to all those involved in our short night safari, including Lin Zhi Wei and company for picking out the owl, and Cai Zhi Yuan for his very helpful information. It was midnight by the time we had finished with the Eurasian Woodcocks, after which sleep, and after which Ma Gang again in tho hope of some seabirds as the weather had changed quite unexpectedly overnight. Ma Gang gave us nothing more than the usual seabirds, but at least one of the Black-footed Albatrosses Phoebastria nigripes this time could be said to be 'close', although my photographs of it were as usual disappointing as it was proving rather difficult to stand up in the incredibly strong wind!

We gave up on Ma Gang after just a couple of hours or so and (in fear of repeating the same mistake as last week) returned to Tian Liao Yang for a cursory inspection of what was there. The strong winds had rendered the conditions here less than optimum also, so we turned tail and began the long drive back south, leaving plenty of time to stop off en route for the locally wintering Nordmann's Greenshanks Tringa guttifer, both of which were still in their preferred locations, but neither of which would come close enough for my small lens to deal with.

So, this was a hugely successful weekend all told, with megas in the south and tough night birds in the north and pretty much a 100% hit rate from the four-day break. The (belated) arrival of Streaked Shearwaters Calonectris leucomelas at Ma Gang on the last day of February meant that I was able to climb to 275 for the year, which is good going for just the first two months of it. There are only really a couple of weeks of 'winter' left now, after which things typically go very quiet for a fortnight or so. This will mean that much of March will now be spent chasing the resident assemblage around way up there in the mountains, the 'slog' part of year-listing! Above photos taken at various locations around Gong Liao, New Taipei County 28-9/2/16.

Black-chinned Fruit Dove

One of the biggest additions you can make to any domestic year list is that of the near-mythical Black-chinned Fruit Dove Ptilinopus leclancheri. This species is quite an enigma in Taiwan, with its preferred breeding areas being a complete unknown and (as far as I know) breeding never actually proven. It is assumed to be a (perhaps semi-nomadic) resident species, but with only a handful of records per year and with only a few of these hanging around for long enough to be twitchable, actually seeing one is no small matter. So, when a female was reported in nearby Pingtung (which furthermore seemed to be hanging around in a very small area), my original plans for the weekend had to be shelved as this bird really had to be twitched. It took about an hour for the bird to show up on Saturday morning, but show up it did, meaning that this very tough species could be added to my now impressively large year list.

I assume from the contrast in the primaries that this bird is a first-year female. Although I would have preferred it to have been a male, the greens on this bird were so astonishingly deep that I could not help but be impressed by it. This bird was rather posey and approachable for about half an hour or so in the morning, after which it disappeared into the foliage completely in typical fruit dove fashion. As they were right next door, it also made sense to stop off at Jia Dong to pick up easy King Quail Coturnix chinensis there for the year, but the seven individuals we flushed (which included one singing/calling male) were all too fast my camera this time round (I was fast enough to get a shot of a male last year). Above photos taken at Kan Ding, Pingtung County 27/2/16.

Dark Vega Gull

The bad thing about today was that, when I got up, instead of the anticipated warm weather, it was cloudy, windy and cold. This meant that the field bashing I had had in mind for the morning would likely be a waste of time, which was just what it proved to be well inside the first hour. In such conditions, and close to home, the only option open to me seemed to be once more to traipse out onto the sandbar and take a look at the gulls there. The good thing about today was that, after several visits now to the sandbar, the gulls there have accepted me into their 'social circle', leaving me quite free to wander around in amongst them taking pictures of just whatever I fancy. My new found friends today comprised the usual Black-tailed Gulls Larus crassirostris, a couple of nice Slaty-backed Gulls Larus schistisagus, the odd Vega Gull Larus vegae, and one or two nice taimyrensis gulls, now looking much cleaner as they enter breeding plumage.

There were also up to thirty Greater Crested Terns Thalasseus bergii out on the sandbar, many of which again showed strongly orange-toned bills depending on the light conditions. A Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus also dropped in to say "Hi", providing me with my one year tick for the day from my trip out onto the sand.

Thing were all very leisurely and pleasant, but the excitement quickly went up a notch when a very dark-looking first-winter gull flew in and plonked itself down on the sandbar. I have seen this kind of gull a couple of times before, and fancy that they must be 'dark-end' first-winter Vega Gulls (as they are structurally wrong for Slaty-backed Gull), but such birds do show more than a passing resemblance to American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus, a species which is quite regular in Japan and Korea, and which is always lurking around at the back of mind. All I could remember off the top of my head about smithsonianus was that it has lots of solid browns below, and has a dark-barred rump and vent (sparsely barred or spotted in most first-winter 'herring' gulls, and usually contrastingly white). I was therefore rather taken aback when this thing flew low in front of me and it appeared as though (as well as being very dark) it had a heavily barred rump!

A couple of other things I thought might be perhaps be indicative of American Herring Gull were the strongly contrasting solid dark brown collar (contrasting with the much paler scapulars), the very black-looking tail (with what appeared to be only relatively sparse white spotting on the outer web of T6), and the rather indistinct pale window on the inner primaries. This bird appeared to be very dark from most angles, and the overall impression was that it was somehow not altogether unlike an over-sized first-winter Black-tailed Gull.

Although I have not had the opportunity to get stuck into the mountain of reading required to deal with such a gull as this one, I have failed to find many Vega Gulls online which appear to be quite so dark. However, a 'good' American Herring Gull ought really to show much darker outer greater coverts than this bird (although this bird's greater coverts may be bleached), together with a pinker-based bill. Although there is much variation in tail pattern of first-winter American Herring Gull (and this bird's tail pattern falls within that variation), the tail does look much more pale-based from below than it does from above, which I assume to be much better for Vega Gull.

So, with a couple of features out for smithsonianus, I have to accept that this is most likely just a very dark first-winter Vega Gull. It certainly caused me plenty of excitement when it flew in this morning, and was also one of those great puzzle birds that I was able to learn plenty from! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 26/2/16.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Lapland Bunting

A truly wonderful weekend this one just gone and a perfect way to end my winter vacation for this year with an absolutely flawless trip to the north for once. It all kicked off on the Lan Yang River on Saturday with a 'miss' on the wintering Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus which, although present for a good two months, according to locals has not been seen since early January (hence cannot really be counted as a 'dip'). Not really expecting to encounter it anyway, we only spent twenty minutes or so looking for it before moving on to our next target, the wintering female Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus which, unlike last time, gave us no problems whatsoever. The only niggle this time was that it had attracted too large a crowd (which was constantly moving around), meaning that it would not settle for long at close range. I did manage a few record shots of it, though, and cannot be too disappointed with the outcome under the circumstances.

With the first target in the bag, it was time to hit the south side of the river in the hope of the Swan Goose Anser cygnoides that had turned up there the week before. We were greeted on arrival not by a goose, but by the wintering first-winter Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, with seemingly no goose in sight. Luckily, a visiting birder had had the presence of mind to walk out onto the estuary on top of a bund which allowed a view up a small creek which was completely obscured from the road. He casually informed us on returning to his car that the Swan Goose was sitting up this creek, meaning that I was able get a second bird for my year list from the Lan Yang River and the morning, if not one for my photo album!

The afternoon was then spent at Ma Gang in a raging cold front and gale force winds. The conditions did produce the expected albatross, but all sightings were of Black-footed Albatross Phoebastria nigripes, with all of them at range and nothing else in the way of birds out on the rough sea between sightings. With really nowhere else to go, we stuck it out until nearly dark before returning to our hostel for a hot shower and something to eat. Feeling refreshed after this, we tried a small park just outside of Fu Long where I had seen Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola earlier in the winter. Astonishingly, there were at least two (and perhaps as many as four) and, after some careful manoeuvring of the car, we were able to get some decent night shots of them.

The trip got even better on Sunday, although at the start of the day this was the last thing that could have been predicted. A completely empty sea after two hours at Ma Gang left us keen for a change, so we left to twitch the Pelagic Cormorants Phalacrocorax pelagicus at Jin Shan. We picked one up in flight fairly quickly, but this would not subsequently fly and all I could manage of it on the sea with a small lens were a few blurred dots. Much like last year, I was happy to pick this up for a year tick, but very disappointed with my photographic output!

With seemingly nowhere else to go, we really did overstay at Jin Shan, and it was well after 13:00 before we decided that it perhaps might be best to start heading for home. Fortunately, Da Chiao Lin had the presence of mind to make a quick phone call just to double-check that we would not be missing anything else in the north by doing so, and it was form this phone call that we would learn that Tian Liao Yang (back where we had come from) currently had, of all things, a Lapland Bunting Calcarius lapponicus! Obviously, there could not now be an early return home, and this bird had to be twitched, so we began the long drive back to Fu Long hopeful that we would connect with it before dark. It took about an hour (and a very nervous one at that) after our arrival at Tian Liao Yang before the bird was eventually found (after having gone AWOL over lunch), but fortunately it was, and this presumed (pre-breeding) adult male allowed me to make an addition to my all-important Taiwan List, as well as being an unexpected bonus for my year list.

This was not the only bird of note at the currently extraordinary Tian Liao Yang, though, as there were also three Long-billed Plovers Charadrius placidus nearby, a bird which in my experience you really have to pick up in a very short window of opportunity in late February, otherwise you simply do not get it in that particular year. We found these three pretty quickly after leaving Tian Liao Yang, though they were very shy and refused to come particularly close.

So, despite this weekend being one of rather miserable results with my camera, I can have no complaints with it at all, and left Tian Liao Yang on Sunday once more completely satisfied with the way events had worked out. This was yet another trip north this winter which had quite unexpectedly boosted my national as well as my year list. I really do have no idea just what is happening this year at Tian Liao Yang, but have experienced sites going through 'purple patches' before and this place is absolutely slap-bang in the middle of one. There's a three-day weekend coming up next weekend (about time, too, as it will have been a whole four days since the last one). I wonder where I'll be going? Above photos taken on the Lan Yang River, Ilan County, and at Jin Shan and Fu Long, New Taipei County 20-21/2/16.