Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Less than plastic (2)

It was probably my last blog post that tempted me into travelling to see a bird I said I'd never have any interest in seeing this afternoon: Zebra Dove Geopelia striata at Wei Wu Ying. This, coupled with an eagerness to get out but an unwillingness to drive anywhere in the ferocious heat, made the trip look like a very attractive one once I discovered that it could easily be done in the relative comfort of the train. There was also a significant element of 'insurance' at play as well as, although the population there is very small, it does seem to be stable (hence might be a candidate for acceptance onto Category C (or its equivalent) at some point). They were fairly easy to find, even at midday, and all told I found about a dozen in the four hours or so I was in the park.

Whilst the population at Wei Wu Ying is relatively stable, it doesn't seem to have spread out much beyond this park, hence probably does not yet reach the threshold for inclusion on the Taiwan List (so is another bird this week which counts for nought). However, if Jungle Myna Acridotheres fuscus is on that list (a species which seems to be entirely absent Taiwan), then 'reputed to occur' may in fact be all that is actually required (hence the unease). One bird absent any credentials for acceptance onto any 'tickable' part of the list is Vinous-breasted Starling Acridotheres burmannicus (a bit of a shame is this is a very attractive starling), a pair of which I found feeding on one of the more open areas of the park. There was also a Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis flying around which, given the composition of the park's avifauna, could have come from absolutely anywhere!

It was a nice (if hot) afternoon spent in the park, with plenty of things of interest at which to point my camera. The trip does nothing to move my year list on, though, which seems now to have stalled until some kind of storm arrives. Above photos taken at Wei Wu Ying, Gaoshiung City 28/6/16.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Less than plastic (1)

The sun and heat have been so outrageously fierce over the last week that I've had little choice but to spend much of this weekend in 'sheltering' mode. According to the Central Weather Bureau, the 'apparent' temperature for Tainan maxes out at 38 degrees at the moment (and doesn't fall below 30, even at night) which, with no cloud cover, does not make for comfortable birding conditions. I've spent some of the 'cool' parts of the day snooping around the perimeter of the airport looking for Estrilid finches, as I am short one or two of these for the year and recall seeing a large mixed flock in the vicinity of the airport some (many) years ago. As I was far from hot at identifying escaped Estrilids when I had just arrived in the country, I figured it might be worth a 'second' look there to see if any were still extant in the area. I had fancied at the time that I had mostly been looking at Common Waxbills Estrilda astrild (not countable by my own listing rules), but couldn't rule out the possibility now that they may have in fact been Orange-cheeked Waxbills Estrilda melpoda (countable by my listing rules). On the off-chance that I might save myself a long drive into the midlands, I spent a few hours Friday morning and an hour or so Saturday and Sunday evening flogging farmland in the vicinity of the airport. I did indeed turn up a few waxbills, but sadly my guess all those years ago had been accurate and all I could find in the area were Common Waxbills (two on Friday, three on Saturday, four on Sunday), even less than plastic!

I was saved the disappointment of a 'tick-less' weekend by a seawatch on Sunday morning, which added Swinhoe's Storm Petrel Oceanodroma monorhis to my tally for the year. Although the number of birds (as one would expect for the time of year) was low, the seawatch was most marked by some odd terns, including a flock of eight Gull-billed Terns Gelochelidon nilotica (which do occasionally show up mid-summer) and, more unexpectedly, an adult Aleutian Tern Onychoprion aleutica (my first mid-summer record). There were also a dozen or so Bulwer's Petrels Bulweria bulwerii offshore, indicating that they also are around, and a rough sea any time soon may have the capacity to be quite productive for them at least. Above photos taken at Tainan Airport, Tainan City 25-6/6/16.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Blue-spotted Emperor

I've been lucky so far this June in having had things to occupy me (namely Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembris and Scaly Thrush Zoothera dauma). However, all of this now seems to have come to an end. As I'd had such a good time of it the last time I went up there, I decided once again to try Alishan this weekend, and to this time get a couple of days out of it rather than heading straight back down on Friday night. The plan was straightforward enough, i.e. stay overnight Friday in Alishan and wake up fresh the following morning and make a day of it Saturday, but things are never that straightforward at this place. I got off to a decent start just above Alishan with a Himalayan Wood Owl Strix nivicolum sitting on a road sign at about 20:00. This bird was there for the taking, being incredibly approachable, and it looked like I was finally about to get good shots of this species. However, wouldn't you know it, that the first car past for almost an hour would come haring round the corner right at that moment, flushing the bird into nearby trees from which it would not reappear, leaving me once more with record shots rather than decent photographs.

I checked into a reasonably-priced hotel at 22:00, but once more found there to be ambient light all over the place (both in and outside the room) and pillows that were like bags of cement. After less than two hours of sleep, I awoke with what felt like a broken neck to begin my 'pleasant day's birding' higher up at Ta Ta Jia. Fortunately, I found a big group of 'Ta Ta Jia birds' all in the one spot just below the top car park. These included Grey-headed Bullfinches Pyrrhula erythaca (which I had missed last time out and was keen to photograph), several Golden Parrotbills Suthora verreauxi, rather more Taiwan Fulvettas Fulvetta formosana than last time, and (my sole year tick this time round) a single Taiwan Barwing Actinodura morrisoniana.

The birds did their best to raise my spirits, and it looked like I might be set to have a decent morning of it, but by 9:00 all had gone silent and it became a challenge to find even a White-whiskered Laughingthrush Garrulax morrisonianus. I had wanted to look at the Youth Activity Centre for dragonflies on the way down anyway, so decided to set off there early as the bird activity at the top had seemingly come to an end. I found the usual Fiery Darters Sympetrum speciosum and Blue Spreadwings Indolestes cyaneus on the small pool behind the visitor's centre, but no big hawker this time round. However, the hour or so spent there turned out to be time well spent when a female Blue-spotted Emperor Anax nigrofasciatus flew in to lay just before I was about to leave!

So, a predictable trip in terms of birds and yet another disappointingly predictable one in terms of accommodation, but at least the insects did their best to give me something to come home smiling about. Above photos taken at Alishan, Chiayi County, and at Ta Ta Jia, Nantou County 17-18/6/16.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Scaly Thrush

It is pretty obvious by now that this year is the one that is going to be the 'big' year! I attempted something similar last year, but summer was really where it all tailed off and a string of dips on the resident White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster at Tseng Wen Reservoir helped kick what enthusiasm I had for it all into touch. In stark contrast to last summer, though, things could not be more different this time around, as my year list continues to grow and the quality of birds added to it so far in June is unmatched by any year that has gone before. This weekend's addition (a four-day one due to the Dragon Boat Festival) is exemplary of the pattern, as Scaly Thrush Zoothera dauma (a bird which is not found in all years and which is only very infrequently found in circumstances where it might be described as 'twitchable') was added at Xi Tou. When I heard that this bird was 'showing well', I really had no option but to twitch it. However, nothing could have quite prepared me for just how well it was actually showing!

There were three Scaly Thrushes in total, an adult and two recently fledged juveniles. These were hunting for earthworms in the nursery at a distance of between five and twenty metres from the assembled photographers (ludicrously close). All were really very tame, with the adult feeding the juveniles right in front of us, which was quite fascinating to watch. She (as presumably this was the female) would pull up an earthworm, kill it, and then leave it dead on the ground. When she had killed a sufficient number, she would collect them together and either call the juvenile out to her to be fed or take the earthworms to it (each time handing over quite a mouthful). It was remarkable just how quickly the juvenile gobbled these down. This was so fast, in fact, that I repeatedly missed both 'handover' and 'gobbling' with my camera.

I could never have expected to have seen Scaly Thrush quite so close as this. As well as providing a great opportunity to get some photos, the close range also offered a chance to grill this (presumably unknown) race of the species. It is difficult to say without direct comparison just how much smaller than wintering aurea this form is, but its primary projection is clearly shorter. Unlike aurea, this one is essentially bicoloured above, being solid russet throughout with black markings to the feather tips from crown to rump. On aurea, the upperparts are much brighter, almost yellow-golden, and become much paler/brighter towards the rump, often with some white spots present in the 'gold' distally close to the feather shaft. Given what has happened to Plain-backed Thrush Zoothera mollissima recently, I am surprised that there weren't at least a few microphones present, as I understand one had been singing at some point earlier in the spring. However, these were not the only thrushes that I had to get whilst at Xi Tou, as one or two Island Thrushes Turdus poliocephalus were also present in the immediate vicinity. These were more flighty than the Scaly Thrushes, and more sensitive to the commotion created by all the photographers running around.

Unexpectedly, I had finished at Xi Tou by noon and did not really know what to do next. It seemed to be a straight toss up between heading home or continuing on up to He Huan Shan, specifically to pick up Alpine Accentor Prunella collaris, perhaps the most frustrating bird to get nationally. Since the South Cross Island Highway collapsed, Alpine Accentor can be found close to the road only high up on He Huan Shan, a six hour drive from Tainan! As the forecast was for reasonable weather Thursday, but for rain for the rest of the holiday, Thursday did seem to be the day for heading up into mountains. The weather forecast swung the decision, and I found myself at the top of He Huan Shan at 15:30 with a couple of hours of daylight left to frantically try and pick up this enigmatic little bird. I did my best to miss it, as none were in the upper car park when I rolled up there and, despite this being the best area for them, I left to try elsewhere after half an hour or so of hanging around. I drew blank after blank, until I returned to the upper car park at 17:45 and picked up one singing on the rocks above the cars. This bird quickly came down and began feeding between the cars, giving me about ten minutes to photograph it before a large bank of cloud rolled in and reduced the visibility at the top to almost zero.

Despite Thursday apparently being the best day to head inland, it absolutely threw it down the minute I had finished with this bird, leaving me to descend all the way down to Pu Li in heavy rain (and arrive in Pu Li soaked). I had little choice but to spend the night there and, after first managing to dip on some plastic along the river the following morning (Orange-cheeked Waxbill Estrilda melpoda to be precise), to tackle the long drive home on Friday. Above photos taken at Xi Tou and He Huan Shan, Nantou County 9/6/16.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Eastern Grass Owl

I spent so long deliberating over where to go on Friday that at one point it really looked like I might not get anywhere. In the end, it was mid-afternoon before I finally set off out, and the destination I chose was about as off-beat as they come. I elected to try farm fields around Qi Shan for no other reason than there were historic records of Black-headed Munia Lonchura atricapilla from there, a bird I somewhat comically always end up 'needing' for my year list despite spending ample time in places where it is not uncommon. The preposterous idea that I could try Jhong Liao Shan for Eastern Grass Owl Tyto longimembris was also floating round at the back of my mind, though I knew that the odds of seeing one were practically nil. Needless to say, the historic records did not reflect current circumstances, and I drew a blank with the munias. Jhong Liao Shan offered nothing by way of consolation, just a Collared Scops Owl Otus lettia to file with my growing collection of  'terrible owl photos' that seems to have grown out of nothing in recent weeks.

Despite quite expectedly failing to connect with Eastern Grass Owl, my decision to head out to Qi Shan proved to be the right one as I did unexpectedly succeed in finding the next best thing as I was leaving the area - an Eastern Grass Owl researcher! After umpteen visits to this place, it was reassuring to know that I was by now at least 'hot' (just never hot enough to connect with birds). A very pleasant conversation with this researcher ensued which in turn led to something I had not been expecting nor angling for - an offer to be taken to a site if I were free on Sunday evening (as it was by now already too late for that evening). Obviously, from that moment on, I was quite free on Sunday evening, and the rest of the weekend was really just a matter of waiting for that to come round. When Sunday evening finally did arrive, the visit almost got cancelled due to a heavy afternoon thunderstorm. Fortunately, however, it went ahead, and only minutes after rolling up on site I found myself able to add this incredibly tough bird to my Taiwan List!

Only one bird flushed from the small area we explored, but this was obviously far better than none! There had apparently been four some weeks earlier, but the roost sites are known to vary seasonally somewhat with this species. My only regret was that I had kept the 1.4x converter on my camera as I had been expecting birds (if any at all) to be at range, not to flush from just five metres in front of me as this individual had done! Once this bird had gone, that was it for owls, although there was plenty of evidence to suggest that other individuals had been using this site, including a number of feathers and pellets. We also found the eggs of a Savanna Nightjar Caprimulgus affinis, though strangely flushed none nor heard any as darkness set in.

After about an hour or so after sunset it was time to leave, as this is the peak hunting time for Eastern Grass Owl and (here at least) they hunt at considerable distance from their roost sites (hence any we had overlooked had by now gone). I was obviously elated with this great bird and especially grateful to my guide both for sparing the time to take me for it and, more importantly, for actually getting me it! Out of respect for his wishes, I am not at all willing to disclose the precise whereabouts of this site (so, as frustrating as this may be, there really would be no point in asking). Above photos taken at Jhong Liao Shan 3/6/16 and an undisclosed site, Gaoxiong County 5/6/16.