Sunday, 27 March 2016

Glaucous Gull

We've had a final taste of winter down here in Tainan over the last couple of days, and thank Heaven for it! Friday was blowy and cold, with rain around for much of it, and a look in the nearby woodlots produced nothing whatsoever of interest. Saturday looked like being more of the same, but a small gathering of rather late big gulls out on the sandbar attracted me out there for a better look. Somewhat surprisingly, there were at least four Slaty-backed Gulls Larus schistisagus in amongst a small gathering of taimyrensis, which I decided to play around with for a while. Though not especially flighty, I was having quite some trouble getting anywhere near them, and the best photo I came away with was of yet another first-winter vegae for the collection.

Happy to persevere with what gulls there were, my heart sank when they all flew up and I figured that I must have overstepped the mark and gone too near and flushed them. On this occasion, though, I was not the cause, as it was another very large big gull coming in to land that had unsettled the birds in front of me. I only had to glance at this massive white-winged brute to see that I was finally about to connect with Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus, a bird which had been a real blocker for me here in Taiwan, and hence a new one for my domestic list!

This giant hung around for about an hour or so, and permitted a reasonably close approach, so that I was able to come away with some half-decent record shots of it. After a short rest, a bit of a preen and a quick drink, it upped and left just as suddenly as it had arrived and flew purposefully north, scattering everything on the sandbar to the four winds once more as it did so (and making something of a comment as to what it thought of the place as it departed).

With pretty much the unthinkable having happened on Saturday, my imagination was racing Sunday morning when I returned to the sandbar with an enormous 'wish list' of all those other gulls I imagined that it might be possible to see here. Not surprisingly things had very much returned to normal, though, with just a handful of the usual terns to play with, which felt like a bit of a shame as I did seem to have my camera working quite well today.

Although I'd been itching to get up into the mountains again this weekend to move my year list along, the surprisingly powerful late cold front quickly put paid to that idea. However, I'm pretty sure I'd be more content with what I did end up with than with whatever the alternative might have been, and any weekend in which you see a white-winged gull in the tropics has to go down as having been an astonishingly good one! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 26-7/3/16.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Hybrid Chinese Crested Tern x Greater Crested Tern

The weather looked superficially very promising on Sunday, with low cloud, a light mist, the threat of rain, occasional periods of wind, and the temperature swinging around between uncomfortably hot and somewhat chilly. To add to the feeling of great promise, it had obviously rained overnight when I woke up, ideal conditions for migrants, hence the coast was looking very much like the place to be. However, appearances can be deceptive, and a grand total of 'nowt' in both Area A and in a second woodlot left me pretty cheesed off with the day's fayre and wondering just exactly what to do with the remainder of it. As it is miles from anywhere, this is a familiar problem in Qi Gu as it is invariably too late to set off on any longer drives by the time all the woodlots have all been checked. However, there did appear to be terns out on the sandbar, so it looked like it might be worth a further traipse out there. There was little more than the expected Caspian Terns Hydroprogne caspia and Greater Crested Terns Thalasseus bergii in view when I reached the tip, but I decided to hang around anyway as there was really nowhere else to go. Although there did not appear to be much in the way of terns coming and going, it didn't take long before I picked up one with a black-tipped bill, which superficially at least looked very promising for Chinese Crested Tern Thalasseus bernsteini, certainly so whilst it was at range.

I was somewhat puzzled as to just how this bird had managed to sit in amongst only about eighty or so Greater Crested Terns without me picking it out straight away. Ordinarily, Chinese Crested Tern sticks out like a sore thumb, and doesn't take that much finding. The bill of this bird certainly looked good, being straighter and more deeply amber-coloured than that of Greater Crested Tern, but the bird itself did not appear to be strikingly white, as Chinese Crested Tern ought to be. It was whilst scrutinising the bill that I noticed that the forehead was also largely white, and that the penny dropped as I realised that I was probably looking at a hybrid.

With the forehead out and closer to that of Greater Crested Tern, I started to tally up just how many features of Chinese Crested Tern this bird actually had. Whilst the bill structure was perfect, the black in the bill tip was rather diffuse and the contrast with the yellow not as strong as it perhaps should be. The mantle, as remarked upon above, was certainly paler than that of Greater Crested Tern, but not especially whitish. I wondered if it could be said that this was 'predominantly' a Chinese Crested Tern or not, and felt that that question might not be answered until I had seen the bird in flight. When the bird eventually did take off, I was gobsmacked by what I saw!

There are no two ways about it, I would definitely call a bird as strikingly pale and as whitish as this one a Chinese Crested Tern were I to see it fly past on a seawatch, without a second thought. It was astonishingly pale when on the wing, and clearly stood out in amongst the accompanying Greater Crested Terns (which it barely resembled). The only detail 'out' was that it lacked a very strong contrast between the pale inner and black outer primaries typically shown by Chinese Crested Tern, but primary contrasts tend to be something that become more pronounced later on in the summer in terns, so might not be especially apparent earlier in the season anyway. Otherwise, in flight, this bird was absolutely perfect, meaning that it was for my money 'more' Chinese Crested Tern than Greater Crested. I wonder just how many of these kinds of birds there are (presumably not that many) lurking out there in the Taiwan Strait as a massive ID trap for the unwary! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 20/3/16.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Success inland!

After vowing that March would be the month that I 'cleaned up' in the mountains and not yet having set foot up there even once this month, I finally roused myself sufficiently early (03:00) today to set off for a morning jaunt up to Teng Jhr, by far the closest and most convenient mountain destination for me to try. After a fruitless nocturnal diversion through Jhong Liao Shan, I found myself at about 800 metres ASL at first light and began picking off some much-needed year ticks. The first of the bigger treats was a flock of Rusty Laughingthrushes Garrulax poecilorhynchus, always a favourite of mine, and some of these were willing to have their photos taken, even though they preferred to remain at least partially obscured. Shortly after finishing with these, some bizarre calls a little further along the road heralded the arrival of a second flock of laughingthrushes, Rufous-capped Laughingthrushes Garrulax ruficeps, an even bigger treat, though these had moved away quickly up the hillside before I could get much from them with my camera.

I was delighted to have come across these birds, as Rufous-capped Laughingthrush is highly erratic at Teng Jhr (as seems to be the case everywhere) and I encounter them far less frequently these days than I used to do when the path to Chu Yun Shan was open (a path which was destroyed in 2009 by Typhoon Morakot). These were not the only birds around, of course, and, with plenty of birds in song, it was easy to locate a few other goodies such as Yellow Tit Machlolophus holsti, which were surprisingly numerous this morning. Although the birds were proving to be very good, it seemed clear that I was not going to be having it all my own way with my camera, and all I managed of these little corkers was a female frantically collecting nest material at the roadside. With the better birds not giving me the time of day, I took to photographing some of the more common ones, which meant a Grey-cheeked Fulvetta Alcippe morrisonia when all was added up!

Although I was enjoying myself on the mountain and quite wanted to stay, by around 09:00 it was starting to bug me that I had not yet come across Large Cuckoo-shrike Coracina macei, a bird which I had been hoping for rather than expecting. This is another species that used to be easier (very easy, in fact) on the old Chu Yun Shan path (and also higher up on the South Cross-Island Highway), but, since the typhoon, all of my traditional sites for it had become completely inaccessible. As I had recently learnt about a new site for it lower down at Liu Guei, I was keen to give this place a shot before late morning when I knew that everything in the forest lower down would go very quiet. Things did not look promising when I took the turn off to Shan Pin Forest and found the road blocked after three kilometres, with a policemen on guard refusing to allow me to continue any further. Apathetic now about my chances of getting anything else from the day, I decided to bird the approach road to the police station as the forest along this stretch of road had looked sufficiently good on the way up. After little more than ten minutes or so of birding this stretch, I heard the unmistakable raucous call of a Large Cuckoo-shrike and picked up a male flying straight towards me. Although I got very nice flight views, my camera was still packed up in my bag, and, by the time I had fished it out, the bird (even though it had landed in the trees above my head) had become very flighty and all I manged of it was an out-of-focus blur (with the auto focus on this occasion picking out quite the wrong subject). Still, as this was my first Large Cuckoo-shrike for almost a decade, I was more than happy with it, and I'll certainly be back for more of this bird at some point later on in the summer.  

Regardless of not having had a very good day with my camera, my first real trip into mountains (for nothing more than a morning) has to go down as being a big success, with two potential 'banana skin' species (Rufous-capped Laughingthrush and Large Cuckoo-shrike) picked up at the very first time of asking. I can only hope that my next trip up to altitude goes just as smoothly as this one. Above photos taken at Teng Jhr and above Liu Guei, Gaoxiong County 19/3/16.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

'Birula's' Gull?

For some inexplicable reason, I woke up in a cold sweat very early on Wednesday morning, panic-stricken that I was missing something out there in Qi Gu. I set off before 06:00, accompanied by a migraine, to Area A, and was disappointed to find nobbut the two wintering Daurian Redstarts Phoenicurus auroreus on site. Somewhat deflated, I started to head for home, but a glance on the sandbar revealed that there were more gulls and terns out there than I had imagined there would be, so out I trudged again. When I arrived, I was greeted by this oddball.

Ordinarily, I would have had this one down as a 'pale-end' taimyrensis (by virtue of the bright yellow legs if nothing else) and thought nothing more of it, but (as the only big gull out there at first) this one warranted a closer look and there did seem to be one or two things not quite right about it for that form. First, and most strikingly of all, it appeared to be pale-mantled. Although the light can have a big influence on how pale (or dark) mantles appear to be, this one appeared to be very 'pale-end' from all angles. Second, the bill appeared to be rather dull for adult taimyrensis (all vivid yellow by now), and to have more the greeny-yellow tones of a vegae (at this time of year). Third, the primaries (all complete and intact) did not project very far beyond the tertials (even though the bird did have quite a slim look to it, suggesting taimyrensis). I needed some other gulls to compare this one with, and fortunately the oiled vegae of the weekend was still hanging around and put in a brief appearance. A cracking and strikingly clean-looking adult mongolicus gull also dropped in to the sandbar, giving me yet more big gulls with which to compare this one.

Although the vegae was oiled, it still appeared as though it was (originally) darker-mantled than the presumed birulai (hence odd for taimyrensis), and the mongolicus was clearly paler. Compared to the vegae, the head shape, dark eye, and dull bill seemed to be very similar, whereas the eye of the mongolicus was decidedly more beady and the bill a much brighter yellow. The mongolicus also had very small (worn) white tips to the primaries, indicating that these feathers were older and had been replaced earlier in the winter, whereas those of the presumed birulai were large (and hence newer), right for either taimyrensis or some kind of Vega Gull Larus vegae. I got plenty of shots of this curiosity from a variety of angles, some of which are below.

I've rather given up on looking at wing patterns on the big gulls, as there seems to be complete overlap in features amongst all of the members of the complex that occur here, but this individual does have more black in the wing than does the adult vegae, closer to the amount shown by the mongolicus (and hence to taimyrensis). It also has just the one small mirror, and perhaps any kind of Vega Gull ought really to show more (or at least a larger one than this). Below are more images of the striking but sadly oiled vegae, both sitting and in flight, together with a flight shot of the mongolicus, with which the wing of the presumed birulai can be compared.

Before I left the sandbar, a fourth adult gull flew in, which left me even more perplexed than had the presumed birulai. This bird had much more the structure of taimyrensis, being small-headed, short-billed, and long-winged, and was also pale-eyed and bright-billed (both right for taimyrensis). It had the 'hanging hand' look which I associate with taimyrensis, with the long wings angled downwards and almost 'dragging in the sand' behind it. However, although presumed to be a taimyrensis on its structural features, this bird also appeared to be at the pale end for that taxon (about the same shade as the birulai), so may also be one best left as 'of uncertain provenance'.

Although I think that presumed birulai looks pretty convincing for that form, it seems that the more I look at all big gulls here, the more confusing it all becomes. Perhaps it's now better I join the ranks of the larophobes, and instead just look the other way whenever I see one of these things! Above photos taken at Qi Gu, 16/3/16.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

The ups and downs of birding

I have to admit that I felt right royally cheated when the weather threw a cold front at me Thursday afternoon, meaning cold, wind, and rain in various combinations throughout the weekend, effectively ruling out any possibility of heading up to altitude to acquire some much-needed year ticks. With the Jiu Xue River out due to the wind (sandstorms there when it's windy) and Au Gu currently poor, I had little alternative but to begin the task of flogging my local patch, albeit prematurely, in the hope that the adverse conditions might have dropped one or two early migrants. Area A held the first of such birds on Friday, with two White's Thrushes Zoothera aurea sneaking around in the woodlot not wanting to be photographed. Only one of these remained on Saturday, and I did manage to get some quite miserable record shots, certainly no mean feat with birds as shy as these. The only other birds in there were a few Daurian Redstarts Phoenicurus auroreus, with a male present on Saturday which seemed to be a genuine migrant, and two approachable females which had perhaps wintered (and been tamed at some point by photographers). 

Stuck out in Qi Gu miles from anywhere and in adverse conditions, the only thing for it was to traipse back out onto the sandbar, which I duly did on both Friday and Saturday. The strong winds of Friday produced the most birds, with half a dozen or so taimyrensis gulls of various ages. Some of the adults are now in full breeding plumage, and they look very dapper with their bright yellow bills and legs. Friday produced the one gull of interest in amongst the taimyrensis, a small bird with a dark-looking eye, small head, and decidedly long parallel-edged bill (with white tip). Sadly, this bird was not fully adult, and its age may account for some of the perceived differences in bill colour. However, the same cannot be said for structure, and the bird did rather stand out in amongst the crowd on account of the length of its bill. Is this some kind of cachinnans/barabensis?

Saturday on the sandbar produced little more than an oiled and strikingly hooded adult vegae with a somewhat reduced amount of black in its wingtip. Sadly, this bird left the minute I turned up, so I was only able to manage photos of it flying away. There were obviously plenty of other birds out there on the sand, though all of them now feel to be very familiar. I haven't posted any photos of Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia yet, so one is below, as is yet another of Greater Crested Tern Thalasseus bergii, many more of which are now starting to arrive.

At the outset, it felt like the joke was going to be on me on Sunday, as I hit Qi Gu much later in the morning than I had wanted to and found fishermen out on my sandbar (so no gulls) and just the two female Daurian Redstarts present in Area A. I took a look in my reserve woodlot (which has made something of a small recovery since it was battered by Typhoon Soudelor last summer, though it still lacks tall trees which will reduce its appeal to many birds) and there was nothing in there other than the locally-wintering first-winter male nominate race Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus, which looked odds-on that it was going to be the best bird of the day for most of it.

On both Friday and Saturday, I had spent a decent amount of time inland looking for Oriental Plover Charadrius veredus, a bird which is moving through the region right now and which can be quite a tricky one to catch up with. I decided to try the apparently 'traditional' stopover site at Jiang Jun this afternoon, but drew a further blank there. Although it was approaching late afternoon by the time I had finished at Jiang Jun, rather than head home, I headed towards Da Jhou on the outskirts of Tainan, ostensibly to year tick Oriental Pratincole Glareola maldivarum (as this is generally where they appear first), though it was also at the back of my mind that I had seen Oriental Plover there in the past. I found two pratincoles straight away, and when I walked into the field to photograph them, a third bird put its head up from behind a lump of mud: an Oriental Plover!

This bird was behaving in a most peculiar way, seemingly performing the classic plover 'broken wing trick', and it was only when I got nearer to it that I realised that it was in fact genuinely hurt. A cursory inspection of the bird suggested that nothing obvious was broken, and that it was able to flap both wings, just not generate enough power to take off. I have no idea what had actually happened to it, but guess from the proximity of nearby power lines that it had collided with those on either take-off or landing and had damaged something internally. What an utterly devastating way to catch up with a species I really do find to be quite wonderful and enigmatic, and was indeed whooping with joy about when I first saw its head pop up from behind that mud.

I assumed that such an early arrival as this one must have come in to the area as part of a flock, and proceeded to check the rest of the field. It didn't take long to find 'the others' (a further six individuals), which thankfully were in much better shape than the first one.

So, in the end, this was a weekend (and in fact a day) which perfectly epitomised that which I take home from having gone out 'birding': you might see some birds, you might not, you might feel happy for a time, but ultimately you will come away feeling disconsolate, especially when it dawns on you just how many obstacles 'humanity' is placing (with reckless abandon) in the way of everything else's survival (power lines being but one 'thing' quite low down on a very extensive list). I was absolutely delighted to nail this potential 'banana skin' of a year tick, but not with the way in which I had come across it. Such a bummer and a what depressing way to end a rather gloomy weekend that had otherwise threatened to end on a very high note indeed. Above photos taken in Qi Gu and at Da Jhou, Tainan County 11-13/3/16.