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.

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