Friday, 29 April 2016

Glossy Ibis

I was very happy that the three adult Glossy Ibises Plegadis falcinellus at Han Bao had chosen to stay put for so long (though rather suspected that they might do). They turned up about three weeks ago when I was on Dongyin, and I have since had absolutely no time available in which to twitch them. Though I woke up very late this morning, I decided (once I learnt that they were still there) that I really could have no excuses for not hopping on my scooter straight away and setting off out on the long drive north to get them. It seems that they have always been favouring just three flooded fields, all within a few hundred metres of each other, so if they're not on one, they're on the other. They were therefore very easy to find, and quite delightfully glossy. Absolute belters all told!

Unfortunately, I did not come away with the photos I would have liked as the birds were very flighty when close to the road. It did not help that they were immediately 'charged down' by a horde of photographers whenever they did come close, causing them invariably to flush. I have no problem with photographers getting close to birds (and like get very close to them myself), but the 'approach work' of many leaves a lot to be desired. I fancy that these three might well have been quite tolerant of people close to them, but (like any bird) simply panicked at the sight of a number of people moving quickly in their direction. As it only ever looked likely that I would get either flight shots or distant ones of birds on the ground, I left the melee after snapping off just a few record shots and began the long drive home, happy enough I hasten to add that they were comfortably OML! Above photos taken at Han Bao, Zhanghua County 29/4/16.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Dongyin (Round 3)

I bust a nut during the week trying to clear out all the work I had outstanding to try and give myself a further opportunity to sail out to Dongyin this spring before the ticket booking procedure changes and it all becomes much more difficult for me to do. I arrived on the island on Thursday, bristling with excitement at the opportunity to do some birding on Taiwan's premier spot for rarities at what I considered to be pretty much the peak of migration. The wind was forecast to swing north overnight Thursday and bring rain, making conditions look very good for Friday. Thursday itself looked rather more innocuous, with southerlies, fairly clear skies and the occasional patch of light mist. There seemed to be little on the island when I first arrived, but I was still able to root out one or two Chestnut Buntings Emberiza rutila which are always nice to see.

It took until late morning for me to connect with the first of the (many) targets I had in mind for this particular trip: Daurian Starling Agropsar sturninus. This presumed female (though the flight and tail feathers that have been replaced do look surprisingly green glossed) was associating with Chestnut-cheeked Starlings Agropsar philippensis, allowing me to look at the differences between the two. First-winter males of Chestnut-cheeked Starling (in autumn) can look remarkably similar to Daurian, as they also show white on the scapulars. However, they will not show such a contrasting back as this individual, nor white so low down on the scapulars or on the tips to other wing feathers (tertials, greater coverts). Although an awkward one to pick up on Taiwan proper, Daurian Starling is one that can be expected on migration through Dongyin. 

Another one that can be expected on Dongyin in April (hence another one one of my main targets) is Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola. This took me until late afternoon to connect with, but it was worth the effort/wait as this year's individual would be a quite stunning male. 

The only other bird I would pick up on Thursday would be a 'heard only' Two-barred Warbler Phylloscopus plumbeitarsus (for call: Click here) which I would not be able to track down in the trees due to the strong winds of the afternoon. 'Heard' rather than seen would set the tone for the following day as the forecast rains would fail to arrive and the island was sunny and warm, unlikely conditions for any kind of arrival. However, on leaving the 'vegetable garden', I heard a very familiar call, a descending liquid 'tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi...', which reminded me of Fork-tailed Sunbird Aethopyga christinae but which I knew (from having found the 'first' on Dongyin at pretty much the same time last year) was a call also given by Chinese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus yunnanensis. It didn't take long for this bird to start singing with the familiar 'tsiridi-tsiridi-tsiridi-tsiridi-tsiridi-tsiridi...' song of the latter, which had me reaching for my tape recorder to try and get a sound recording. Though I did see the bird briefly (basically a Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus with a prominent central crown stripe), it was in dense foliage and always moving away up the hillside when I found it, hence I was unable to get any kind of photographic record. I did manage sound recordings (for recording: Click here), though, but these are very faint and have to be listened to carefully to hear anything at all (the bird in question is the background species, not the Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes singing more loudly in the foreground). The disappearing warbler led to a more extensive search of the wooded areas of Dongyin for warbler flocks, which in turn produced my year tick Goldcrest Regulus regulus, together with plenty more Yellow-browed and Pallas's Leaf Warblers Phylloscopus proregulus, some of which were willing to be photographed.

The rains would arrive on Saturday, which would make for a quite extraordinary day's birding on this extraordinary island. I started the day at the 'nursery', where I would be shown a photo of a Barred Cuckoo Dove Macropygia unchall by a photographer who had no idea what it was. Depressed that I had missed a lifer by just a few seconds, I was cheered somewhat when a Plaintive Cuckoo Cacomantis merulinus showed up in the 'vegetable garden' so I was at least able to come away with a year tick from the morning. Not long after having photographed this, though, news broke of a Brown-breasted Flycatcher Muscicapa muttui at the reservoir, a real mega and not one that could have at all been expected from a trip to Dongyin at any time of year. Fortunately this bird had stayed put, allowing me to get some nice photos of it, a big thrill as I had only managed poor shots of my only previous Brown-breasted Flycatcher in Qi Gu now many years ago.

It was wet and misty for much of the morning, so when the mist cleared a little late morning I returned to the 'vegetable garden' in an effort to try and get better photos of the Plaintive Cuckoo. I hadn't been there long when a large dove flew across the valley in front of me and I could see not only a rufous-barred back (reminiscent of Oriental Turtle Dove Streptopelia orientalis), but also a very long tail, making this bird the 'disappearing' Barred Cuckoo Dove of earlier in the morning (and hence my first lifer from the trip). I missed it with my camera on its first fly-by, but fortunately it did make another and I was able to get a record shot in which at least structure, grey plumage tones and metallic blue-green neck gloss are just about discernible.

Not long after this sighting, the heavens opened, and it would rain persistently until late afternoon. When the rains finally did clear up, there was quite a heavy passage of Chinese Sparrowhawks Accipiter soloensis going on, and these had been joined by all kinds of hirundines and swifts. The swifts included at least three representatives of that nightmare group, the swiftlets, all of which looked diminutive and had brown backs with contrasting pale rumps, which I assumed initialy would make them Germain's Swiftlets Aerodramus germani. However, the arrival pattern seems wrong for Germain's (which arrived in large numbers following hot weather later in the summer last year and hung around in coastal areas for lengthy periods) and is better suited for a migrant displaced slightly by rain. Several structural and plumage features also suggest that these birds are more likely Himalayan Swiftlets Aerodramus brevirostris, including 'broad' heads, absence of gloss anywhere above, and heavy brown streaking present in the rump. For these reasons, Himalayan Swiftlet has now become my preferred explanation for these birds.

The following morning began with a further swiftlet in the vegetable garden, and a flyover White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus. A female Common Rosefinch Carpodacus erythrinus was frequenting a weedy area with one or two buntings, mostly Chestnut Buntings, which I wasn't going to turn down the opportunity to photograph more of.

Things looked like they were set to proceed at a rather pedestrian pace for my final morning on Dongyin until a Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis showed up in the 'vegetable garden'. I charged down there only to be told that the bird had just flown off. However, Dongyin being so small, there are very few suitable places for a species such as this one to land, and it literally took about two minutes for it to fly back in to the area it had just taken off from.

Whilst in the 'vegetable garden', I was shown photos of a presumed Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis, but was very concerned that the bird did not look at all right for that species, hence sped off to track it down as quickly as possible (before my ferry off the island was due to leave). Fortunately, this bird was very tired and very confiding, and was sticking to the car park area in front of the Visitor's Centre, where it was very easy to relocate. The thickish bill, black breast patches, and tertials which cover the primaries (together with the toes) all told me that this was in fact a Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla, another wonderfully unexpected year tick and a nice one to leave the island with after four days of very productive birding on it!

There was still just enough time left in the morning for one final bird 'scare': a Blyth's Pipit Anthus godlewskii reported from back round above the 'vegetable garden'. The bird in question was still present when I got there, and was obviously just a Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi (by hindclaw length if nothing else). Oh well, you can't have everything I suppose!

I couldn't have asked for more than for what I came away with from Dongyin this time around, and the trip has moved my year list on by another twenty species or so. As many of these fall into the 'unexpected' rather than the 'expected' category, there's still plenty of time left in the spring to add more, and to reach the magic 400 for the year sooner rather than later. With the booking method for the Taima Ferry under constant revision, I may still get one final chance to get out to Dongyin this spring. Whether I take it or not yet remains to be seen! Above photos taken on Dongyin Island, Lienchiang County 21-24/4/16.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The fogs of Kinmen

It took about five minutes in an empty Area A on Thursday morning for me to realise that I did not want to spend any part of the weekend there whatsoever. Perhaps foolishly, then, I made a brief stop at a local convenience store on my way home to book myself on an 'immediate flight to Kinmen' for the following lunch time. This rather rash decision was conditioned by one or two things, Firstly, I had fully intended to go across to Kinmen to pick up Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus for the year anyway, together with one or two cuckoos, just later on. However, as these were all reportedly 'in' anyway, I figured why not? Secondly, if Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea is/was going to show up there this spring, it would most likely be at about this time, and I would be hedging my bets by visiting now rather than leaving it until later. I was full of optimism when I set off, but this would dissipate the minute I arrived on account of the weather. Although the birds would prove to be adequate, three days of mist, rain, or both, would make the conditions challenging and photography all but impossible. Things were that bad that I got absolutely nothing Friday afternoon (except for singing but not seen Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus), and I had to wait until Saturday to get my trip off to anything like a start with four Hair-crested Drongos Dicrurus hottentottus in early morning gloom at Gu Ning Tou.

Flooded fields nearby (which are normally dry) held all kinds of waders, but it was the 'downed' hirundines that were of greatest interest, as several Pale/Sand Martins Riparia diluta/riparia were perching, meaning that it might be possible to get photos/views of legs. All those I looked at had a small clump of feathers immediately behind the hind toe, and bare hind tarsi above this clump, indicating that they were Sand Martins Riparia riparia. Additionally, some of them actually looked quite large alongside Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica, and all of them lacked the grey tones shown on some upperpart feathers by birds (with feathered legs) that are in the habit of turning up immediately after the breeding season in San Gu. Though all of these birds were awkward to photograph in the dreary conditions, I did at least come away with shots of one individual.

A tour of other flooded fields around Jin Sha added a year tick in the form of half a dozen Little Curlews Numenius minutus, and I thought I might as well have a photo of a sopping-wet Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops to go with all the nice photos of dry ones I've taken this year. I would manage nothing more, though, until I flushed a very large-looking Great Egret Ardea alba with yellow tarsi which I presumed to be of the nominate race alba. This bird looked so much larger and longer-legged than the few modesta it had for company that it almost resembled a crane stood in amongst them. It would not let me get anywhere near it, though, and distant record shots through the persistent mist and drizzle were the best that I could manage.

A visit to the Dou Men Old Path brought some welcome migrants in the form of singing Eastern Crowned Warblers Phylloscopus coronatus and a bunch of flycatchers, which included Narcissus Ficedula narcissina, Mugimaki Ficedula mugimaki, Blue-and-white Cyanoptila cyanomelana, Ferruginous Muscicapa ferruginea, Grey-streaked Muscicapa griseisticta and Asian Brown Flycatchers Muscicapa latirostris. There were also plenty of Cuculus cuckoos kicking around, but none that would sit still, and the only singers were singing with the familiar 'boop boop' song of Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus (though, as in Taiwan, the birds here (especially so early in the spring) should really be Himalayan Cuckoos Cuculus saturatus). It actually started to become frustrating just how many cuckoos I would see that would just slip away upon 'having been noticed', very much in the fashion of Oriental Cuckoo, and without making any kind of sound. The only hepatic morph birds (three) I found all had barred rumps, indicating that these at least were optatus/saturatus, and I was starting to feel very confused as to where all the Indian Cuckoos Cuculus micropterus might be (one or two had been reported in the days prior to my visit, though on a mid-April visit a few years ago I also failed to find any, even though they do become literally abundant on Kinmen by the last days of the month). I did manage to pick up my Blue-tailed Bee-eater whilst driving around (increasingly aimlessly, I might add), but was starting to get seriously cheesed off with proceedings on the cuckoo front!

It took a return to Gu Ning Tou late afternoon to allow me to catch up with one of my hoped-for cuckoos, Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, albeit in the flukiest of circumstances and for nobbut a split second. This bird had obviously not seen me as it landed on the ground to feed, and let me get just a couple of shots off of it as it sat in front of me before flying away. The photos showed a bird with a very pale yellow iris, tantalisingly suggestive of Common Cuckoo, but not in itself diagnostic as older males of other Cuculus species develop yellow irides as they age. However, the sole photo I managed of the underwing showed that there was some light barring on the lesser underwing coverts, which is diagnostic of Common Cuckoo (and not shown by Himalayan/Oriental Cuckoos, in which unbarred), and (when added to the iris and pale rump which contrasts with the darker tail) more than sufficient to call it one! I have added an image of a flyover 'Oriental' Cuckoo taken on the same day (lower image) for comparison, which shows the unbarred lesser underwing coverts of this 'form'. The only other bird I was able to pick up from hanging around this area late afternoon was a solitary flyover White-throated Needletail Hirundapus caudacutus, a bird I had been hoping for rather more of to be honest!

I could have cried when I woke up on Sunday to the same fog and drizzle, and continued to beat exactly the same paths as on the previous day. I found nothing new until I reached a small reservoir above Jin Sha, where a large flock of Ashy Minivets Pericrocotus divaricatus were feeding in some tall trees. A look through them produced at least two Swinhoe's Minivets Pericrocotus cantonensis (readily identifiable even at range by pinkish-suffused breast and extensive white on the forehead of males), together with a further Hair-crested Drongo for the trip. Pictures were always going to be poor at such range, but I did at least manage some.

There were also several more Cuculus around this reservoir, including a further barred-rumped hepatic female 'Oriental' Cuckoo and a further male singing with the 'boop boop' song of optatus. As there were so many cuckoos around, I specifically began checking forested areas for Indian Cuckoo, but failed to turn up any whatsoever. Most of the birds I found appeared very sullied-looking (brownish above, buff-vented below, which I would imagine would place them closer to saturatus on plumage characteristics than to optatus), and some with such strongly brownish-casted wings and backs as to suggest Indian. However, all of them lacked either clear subterminal tail bands or blackish-looking irides, which I presume makes it safe to say they are not Indian! The rather brownish-looking individual (male) below was delivering some kind of subdued 'sub-song', a weak and barely audible 'huk kuk', which I have heard migrants in various places deliver before.

I had a further couple of hours or so to continue birding on Monday morning before my flight off the island, but it rained continuously for all of these so was effectively a write-off. The species diversity from the trip had in fact been rather high, but the miserable weather left me feeling that I had most certainly missed more than I had seen and I imagined that something wonderful would have popped out to get dry had the sun only come out for just an hour or so! I also left utterly confused by these 'southerly-distributed' 'Oriental' Cuckoos, which sing with the familiar 'boop boop' of optatus but appear sullied and brownish-casted like saturatus. If these are optatus heading further north (on current knowledge, optatus does not breed SE China), then why are they coming through so early? Assuming females to be more likely to appear 'brownish-casted' than males (and much bluer individuals than the birds I saw on Kinmen, presumably northerly-distributed optatus, pass the coasts of Taiwan in May), then what are they doing migrating first? All of this makes very little sense, and something clearly remains 'not well understood' (at least by me) about the 'Oriental Cuckoo' complex, both in SE China and on Taiwan. One thing that is clear, though, is that Indian Cuckoo is not 'in' on Kinmen by mid-April, and once again I was probably about just a week too early to connect with this species! Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 16-17/4/16.