Sunday, 29 May 2016

Flatwings and Clubtails

I was left kicking myself on Saturday for having descended from Alishan so quickly when all I found in Qi Gu Saturday morning was a single Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus. Absent rain, that will be it for the spring now, though storms may make the sea worth looking at should any roll in during the next fortnight. I passed on the coast Sunday and headed inland to Dong Shan, somewhat comically to year tick Dusky Fulvetta Alcippe brunnea! I couldn't be bothered putting in the effort to get my camera onto one of these skulkers, though, and all I came away with bird-wise were some admittedly rather good shots of White-bellied Erpornis Erpornis zantholeuca.

Despite this, I had a surprisingly pleasant afternoon at Dong Shan, exploring one or two of the wet areas for dragonflies. I was happy enough to find Short-tailed Gossamerwing Bayadera brevicauda and Formosan Piedwing Psolodesmus mandarinus, and doubly happy when I managed to take some decent photos of them with my 'new' camera (which necessitates far more faffing than did the old one and seems to struggle with depth of field). I also managed to find a Linear-striped Chaser Cratilla lineata, which is always something of a favourite.

Things got much better when I stuck my nose into some of the darker areas and turned up Brook Clubtail Leptogomphus sauteri, Horn-tailed Clubtail Stylogomphus shirozui, Red-legged Flatwing Rhipidolestes aculeatus and Yellow-tailed Forest Damsel Coeliccia flavicauda, three of which I had not seen in Tainan before! The Brook Clubtails seemed to exhibit some variation in their abdominal markings, with at least one having two rather large white spots distally, suggesting that it may be of the nominate (?) rather than the more common endemic subspecies.

Though I will focus on birding for the rest of the summer (and year), I'll not turn my nose up at dragonflies if they're there. In fact, they really made the day today, which had they been absent would have been nothing short of preposterous! Above photos taken at Dong Shan, Tainan County 29/5/16.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Himalayan Wood Owl

With Qi Gu offering me nothing other than pain all week, by the time I had finished my check of Area A on Friday morning I was ready for home and not in the mood for looking elsewhere in that area (the heat is now insane along the coast anyway). Home early and restless, it didn't take long for me to start thinking of what else I could possibly do with the day and a snap decision to head up to Ta Ta Jia for the evening saw me speeding north towards Chiayi straight after lunch. It was close to 16:00 when I pulled up at Shr Jhoa hopeful of Russet Sparrow Passer rutilans. Although usually hit and miss here, they are straightforward this year as they have chosen to nest in a telegraph pole right above the road. A few Brown Bullfinches Pyrrhula nipalensis were also hanging around this area, giving me two year ticks in as many minutes after stopping my bike.

I took the decision then to continue onwards and upwards as I thought it might be possible to get to the top with some daylight to spare and to perhaps pick up one or two of the birds I wanted that evening before I began looking for my main target, Himalayan Wood Owl Strix nivicolum. It was raining at the top when I arrived, but it stopped with about an hour or so of light left, meaning that I would actually come across a surprising amount of birds all told, including Golden Parrotbill Suthora verreauxi, Taiwan Fulvetta Fulvetta formosana, White-browed Bush Robin Tarsiger indicus and (quite unusual for me) Mikado Pheasant Syrmaticus mikado

A Himalayan Wood Owl began calling fairly close to Ta Ta Jia some time before dark, giving me the opportunity to try and locate it whilst there was still some ambient light left in the day. Luckily, it was hunting a landslide area close to the road and I was able to approach it with my flashlight and camera. I could have done with an extra pair of hands to hold all the stuff required for night photography, but got some reasonable images of this bird anyway, meaning that it does not have to languish around on my 'heard only' list this time round (a list I'm never very keen on).

With a high hit rate from the afternoon and the main target already in the bag right on dusk, I took the decision not to stay at Alishan for the evening and to begin the long drive back home. It was upon starting my descent (still above Alishan) that I came across my second large owl of the evening, flushed from a very low position at the roadside (perhaps from the ground). This owl appeared much larger than the Himalayan Wood Owl I had just been watching and looked strikingly and quite uniformly pale (almost white) on its breast and through its underwing (looking 'hooded' from its throat upwards), and my immediate reaction was that it really had to be a Brown Wood Owl Strix leptogrammica. However, despite looking for it for another hour, I could not relocate it, and left wondering whether or not the apparent 'paleness' of this bird had just been the effect of headlights (which are really not all that strong on a scooter). As the heat starts to become unbearable in the lowlands, it looks as though night time in the cool of the mountains is set to become the preferred way of spending this particular summer, especially if owls are proving easy to come across! Above photos taken at Shr Jhoa, Chiayi County and Ta Ta Jia, Nantou County 27/5/16.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Japanese Paradise Flycatcher

I had a truly awful week in Qi Gu this week, a week which was marked by only a single event which was dipping on a Jacobin Cuckoo Clamator jacobinus on Tuesday! Sadly, I only got wind of this bird the moment I arrived at work, making it already too late to leave, and I could only hope that it would stay put until the following morning (which obviously it did not). There were few consolations to be had in Qi Gu on Wednesday, save for a decidedly late Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata, my first of the year as they have been at a premium in Qi Gu this spring. However, this really did nothing whatsoever to temper the disappointment.

Had the Jacobin Cuckoo been at the other end of the country, I really wouldn't have minded missing it. However, as it was right on my local patch, this miss feels especially cruel. I have therefore already lodged a strong complaint with the very highest authority and am awaiting some form of compensation! Above photo taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 25/5/16.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Fairy Pitta

I had booked to fly back from Kinmen on the early afternoon flight rather than the late one Sunday as I had the intention of trying to pick up Fairy Pitta Pitta nympha locally that evening (before they all stop singing for the summer). After the disappointments of Kinmen, it was a bit of a surprise that I could still muster any enthusiasm for birding, but I nevertheless did manage to force myself to drive straight past the turn-off home after landing and continue on towards the foothills of the mountains. As no pittas had been reported from nearby Xin Hua, I chose to head to Wu Shan Tou as the habitat there is anyway similar and I had actually seen Fairy Pitta at one spot here in the past (rather than simply hearing one pipe up right before dusk, which is generally the case in Xin Hua). In fact, I saw my very first Fairy Pitta at Wu Shan Tou (now an astonishing twelve years ago), and it was to this very same spot that I optimistically headed this time round. I had my tape recorder with me anyway (having taken it to Kinmen) and set up right at the spot where I got my first of these forest gems all those years ago to see what would respond. The answer (after a few quick bursts of song) was nothing, and I was left wondering just where else might be suitable before the onset of dusk. As I was about to leave, I figured that it might be worth giving a few bursts of whistled song as my speaker set up is not all that loud and might not be carrying sufficiently through the forest. Astonishingly, there was an immediate response (from a bird less than fifty metres away), which meant that I would be staying put until I had seen Fairy Pitta for this year too!

This bird managed to outsmart me for a while by moving through the canopy of the bamboo rather than on the ground. However, I caught up with it in the end, and managed to snap off a couple of poor record shots. It was exceptionally dark down in the forest, not helped by a thunderstorm which was brewing overhead, and it did not look like I would be able to do any better picture-wise than I already had done. So, I contented myself with what I already had and left for home before the heavens opened. I couldn't help but marvel all the way home (once more in the rain) at the astonishing site fidelity this species had shown after all these years (obviously, this was not the same bird). Suffice to say that I was also really very grateful that it indeed had! Above photo taken at Wu Shan Tou, Tainan County 22/5/16.

The rains of Kinmen

I made a frankly awful trip to Kinmen this last weekend, and was once more soundly beaten by the weather there. I had set off Friday very optimistic of picking up one or two of the cuckoos I had thus far failed to see this year, chiefly Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus and Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus. Fancying that there would be little else to go at, I had hoped to put the time in on these two birds and come away with a nice set of photographs and sound recordings, with which I would have been quite contented. Things looked very promising on Friday when I arrived late morning to overcast and surprisingly comfortable conditions, and found Indian Cuckoos to be singing in pretty much every small copse I visited. Though there were plenty around, with many in song flights, it took until late afternoon for me to track one down nice and close perched atop a telegraph pole, and therefore to get the first of my targets in the bag in pleasant conditions.

I tried the 'Botanical Gardens' late afternoon, where I learnt that there had been three highly vocal Chestnut-winged Cuckoos the previous morning. Fancying that these might well be morning birds, I decided to return at the crack of dawn the following day (my only full day of the trip) to pick up them up, which I imagined would be easy. Things did not go as planned the following morning, as mist and drizzle had rolled in overnight and it was very gloomy up at the Botanical Gardens. This did not stop a Lesser Cuckoo Cuculus poliocephalus from piping up for a few bursts of song, though I did not have my recording gear set up in time to catch it. I did manage to record a Slaty-legged Crake Rallina eurizonoides (Click here), very unexpected on Kinmen, and one of two birds (so obviously resident and breeding). I must have been within twenty metres of one of them at one point, but still managed not to see it in the darker areas it was favouring! After a couple of hours and no further cuckoos on the mountain, I descended to the coastal plain hopeful of more there, picking up just an Oriental Cuckoo Cuculus optatus singing from wires on my descent.

What happened next was just appalling, as the drizzle (instead of easing, as I had been expecting) shifted up a gear to become persistent rain, which meant packing up my camera and seeking shelter. As the rain was still relatively light at this point, I was at least able to record Indian Cuckoo (Click here) in song, together with a rather odd-sounding Oriental Cuckoo (Click here) (the first note is distinctly higher pitched than the second), until the rain became so heavy that I had to pack my microphone away too. I began my all-too-familiar 'island visit' pattern of aimless driving around, getting wetter and wetter in the process. At around noon, somewhere close to Wu Hu Shan, I picked up a small (and close) falcon circling low above a forested hillside, and at least managed to get my binoculars onto it in sufficient time to see that it was a female Amur Falcon Falco amurensis. This disappeared over the hillside quickly, being pushed southwards in front of a very black cloud and approaching band of heavy rain. My pursuit of this bird produced nothing, other than a soaking due to the ensuing downpour. Disappointingly, this was my #400 for the year, a totally unexpected bonus and very much the right kind of bird to bear that title. Unfortunately, it is going to be one that will remain memorable for all the wrong reasons, thanks to the perennially miserable weather on Kinmen! It continued to rain heavily for the rest of the afternoon and right the way through the night until the following morning. I found a single Chestnut Bulbul Hemixos castanonotus whilst spending two hours in the afternoon in a bus shelter waiting for the rain to ease, but in the end was forced to throw in the towel at around 16:00 and go back to my hotel as it was clear that the day really was going to be an absolute write-off. The following morning, much of the island was flooded, and there were marsh terns and herons everywhere. The highlight of the day was a Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis flushed from a small pool in the village of Xi Yuan, but this up and down too fast for me to get my camera on to, and that was it for the morning. The conditions remained gloomy, with few cuckoos singing. I did stop to try and take a few memento snaps of Blue-tailed Bee-eater Merops philippinus in several places, but even these would turn out to be awful thanks to the crappy conditions.

So, my third trip to Kinmen this year was much like my second, with gloom and rain and few photos to show for it. Though the birds had actually been quite good, I would have sacrificed them all to have had sunny weather on Saturday, singing cuckoos and nice conditions for photography, as this would at least have been enjoyable. As it happens, the one full day that I had on the island was a complete write-off, making the holiday itself quite a miserable affair. Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 20-22/5/16.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler?

Just thinking about Sakhalin Grasshopper Warbler Locustella amnicola is akin to picking the scab off an almost healed wound! Basically, this is one bird that I used to count on the strength of what I thought were consistent morphological differences evident between individuals passing through Qi Gu, but later had to admit defeat and removed the lot when the structural differences (apparent mostly in photos, but also in the field) consistently did nothing to back this up. Talk of Locustella obviously means that I spent the weekend in Qi Gu (and, coincidentally, also have plenty of wounds to show for it), and that there was something of a fall of these birds, but this did not happen until Saturday. Friday in Area A did move my year list along, though, with a distant but always obscured Ruddy Kingfisher Halcyon coromanda, my first for several years, but that would be all I would get 'year-wise' from the woodlots for the day.

Moving from Area A to my reserve woodlot brought my first set of wounds for the weekend when I came off my bike on a pile of sand that had been dumped on the road by trucks that have started working in that area. A bruised ankle and (more than anything) a bruised ego were all I came away with from the incident as, fortunately, I had managed to cushion all my optics as I headed towards the ground (admittedly at very slow speed). My subsequent 'hobble' into my reserve woodlot produced a spectacularly late Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops and a male Asian Koel Eudynamys scolopaceus, neither of which helped my year list along any. It was, in fact, more exciting to find a Taiwan Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus musicus in there than these two, as this is a very scarce visitor to this coast (only my second ever in Qi Gu).

Saturday was the day of the big fall, though I chose to start it by seawatching (and got very little for my efforts). I flushed two Gray's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella fasciolata on entering my reserve woodlot, which suggested that they had arrived overnight, together with a female Asian Koel. Area A was where all the prizes were to be had, though, as approaching a dozen Middendorff's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella ochotensis and a similar number of Gray's Grasshopper Warblers were scurrying around all over the place in this tiny woodlot. I'll post some straightforward Middendorff's photos first before I get into the more thorny issue of the Gray's!

It has been my assumption for some time now that the majority of the Gray's Grasshopper Warblers sensu lato that pass through Qi Gu have to be of the 'nominate' form fasciolata. Although I have seen quite some variety in terms of plumage, all consistently show a very long P9, which ought structurally to make them this form. The white-edged P9 is usually very close to P8 in length, and it also occasionally appears to exceed it in length (albeit marginally) in the field. It is invariably much longer than P7, which, although not ruling out amnicola on its own, would make amnicola difficult to claim (being a form which reportedly has a short P9). Below is a bird I consider to be a 'typical' fasciolata in spring, which was taken in the fall of this Saturday.

It is evident on this one bird alone just how big a difference light makes to apparent plumage tone. In the top photo, due to sunlight, the bird has pale 'golden' tones on its upper mantle and looks uniform pale off-white/greyish below, becoming warmer and more rufescent towards its rear end (characteristics of fasciolata). In the lower photo, in shade, it looks much more 'sullied' altogether, with a redder back and more 'sulphur-stained' underparts (suggesting more amnicola). It does, however, have a contrastingly greyer crown under both light conditions, and the edges of the flight feathers do contrast with the remainder of the upperparts in both (giving a brighter 'rear end', a feature of fasciolata). All this aside, the P9 (as it is on most of the birds in Qi Gu) is very long (=P8), and it is this that has prompted me to give up trying to identify amnicola on plumage (although many resemble what is described for amnicola, all have P9 much too long for that form), leastways absent some kind of supporting structural difference. It is no wonder, then, that I paid little attention to the very first 'Gray's' I saw on Saturday (with others more 'gettable' nearby), and it wasn't until I got home that I noticed that it appeared to have quite a short P9!

Although it is difficult to judge precisely where the P9 ends, it certainly ends a good way short of P8, and appears to be closer in length to (or even shorter than) P7. With almost all birds in Qi Gu having a wing P9=P8 (P8-7), this would make this bird a 'strong candidate' amnicola (it is the first 'Gray's' I have noticed in Qi Gu with such an apparently short P9). Although perhaps unreliable, certain plumage features do also point in the direction of amnicola, including uniform brown upperparts (crown, eye stripe, mantle), lack of contrast between the mantle and the flight feather fringes, pink lower mandible, and sullied buff underparts. Although Kennerley & Pearson (2010) states that few amnicola can be identified on wing structure alone, given the variation in plumage shown by fasciolata (and the quite extraordinary effect that light has on these birds), a short P9 would seem to be a vital component in identifying one away from its breeding grounds!

For my lack of wit in missing this putative amnicola in the field, I was stung by a bee just above my eye on the way home and had to spend much of Saturday evening in hospital (with a swollen face and only half of one eye open and anything like operational), fearful that I would end up missing Sunday. A pile of injections saw to it that that would not be the case, and I was free to hobble around Qi Gu on battered legs Sunday, with a very sore arm and a boxer's mien, getting nothing for my troubles save for a Pacific Swift Apus pacificus (above, together with a House Swift Apus nipalensis for good measure), and a Brown Noddy Anous stolidus offshore Area A. There were a few more 'Gray's' in Area A late morning, but none that would sit still for long enough to be examined as closely as the ones of the previous afternoon. In truth, who knows just exctly what they all are?! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 13-15/5/16.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Pectoral Sandpiper

A second unexpected bonus from San Liao Wan for the spring came in the form of a Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos which turned up over the weekend whilst I was in the mountains, but fortunately stayed put for long enough to allow me to catch up with it Tuesday. With only a small lens, I could only manage distant images of this very scarce spring passage migrant, but these were at least superior to the familiar 'at least you can tell what it is' variety that I often come away with when I attempt to do anything with waders!

This small area has been quite remarkable this spring, with two big rarities turning up in flooded fields there in the last few days. These fields are typically dry at this time of year, so once again it is rain I have to thank for bringing me these exceptional birds. Above photos taken at San Liao Wan, Tainan County 10/5/16.