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.

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