Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Indian Cuckoo

I've felt as though I've been being punished for something of late, with unseasonably poor seawatches and a string (well, two) of dips (on Amur Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei last week, and on Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia yesterday). Thankfully, the rot was stopped today with the addition of a Siberian Blue Robin Larvivora cyane to my year list from my reserve woodlot. I've had a string of abysmal seawatches since the weekend, with Common Tern Sterna hirundo numbers especially way down on what they should be and still no semi-rarity or oddball to break the monotony of a largely empty sea. Tu Cheng continues to play host to two female Ruff Philomachus pugnax, and these have now been joined by a juvenile Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus and any number of snipe. Most of these are presumed Swinhoe's Snipe Gallinago megala, but the presumed Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura of the weekend (mostly due to very short-looking, rounded scapulars and tertials with deep rufous centres and narrow, contrastingly white (as opposed to buff or similarly-toned) fringes) was photographed in flight today and it is indeed a Pin-tailed. One or two individuals within this flock are currently calling with distinctly higher-pitched calls than the usual and now familiar deep, gruff 'gurk' of Swinhoe's, suggesting that Pin-tailed Snipe is indeed lurking somewhere in their midst.

With a mere 90 Common Terns in two and a half hours this morning, my seawatch was aborted early in favour of checking out the woodlots. My reserve woodlot held a Siberian Blue Robin, which scurried away deeper into the undergrowth upon seeing me, but 'tacking' and pumping/fanning its short tail in characteristic fashion as it went. There was no hope of ever photographing it in all the tangled underbrush, but it wasn't that much to look at anyway. Rather better to look at was a juvenile cuckoo which showed up just as I was about to leave. This had the white-splattered head and broad white fringes to everything above that I assume only Indian Cuckoo Cuculus micropterus will show, and the very dark iris looked right for that species, too (juvenile 'Oriental' Cuckoos Cuculus saturatus sensu lato, at least those on OBC, show a slightly paler iris). An Asian Brown Flycatcher Muscicapa dauurica also put in a brief appearance, indicating that an overnight arrival had certainly taken place. You wouldn't know this if you spent the day in Area A, though, where there was absolutely nothing and it really does look like this place is now finished.

It's slow progress, but progress nevertheless. If I can get my missing Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus this weekend I'll be able to pack it in with sea altogether from now on, ... so where's my storm? Above photos taken in Tu Cheng and Qi Gu, Tainan County 30-31/8/16.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Various terns

With no respite whatsoever from the unremitting heat and humidity, this weekend was practically unbearable and one which I was more than happy to see the back of! The Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica finally left overnight Friday, with nothing of any note in any of the woodlots other than a few Brown Shrikes Lanius cristatus on either Saturday or Sunday. The only thing 'new' in my reserve woodlot was three recently fledged Striated Herons Butorides striata which, rather embarrassingly, I seem to have overlooked completely on recent visits!

A seawatch Saturday proved to be practically pointless in all the shimmer and haze, but rather than head home I elected to traipse all the way out onto the sandbar (in appalling heat) to go through the very large flock of Common Terns Sterna hirundo that was sitting out there. Once out there, it was readily apparent that Common Terns was by and large all there was, though the monotony of all the longipennis found itself occasionally relieved by the odd red-billed minussensis-type.

There were a small number of Roseate Terns Sterna dougallii, too, now with a bewildering array of bill colours as they acquire winter plumage, ranging from the all red typical of recent weeks to all black with a strong yellow bill tip. The latter were in the majority on Saturday, and one leg-flagged individual of this 'type' was present in the flock. A few nice-looking juveniles were also flapping around, though these were still dependent on the adults to bring them food.

Sunday kicked off with nothing in woodlots followed by next to nothing seawatching. The Common Tern count was frightfully low for the time of year, though the very good autumn for Brown Noddy Anous stolidus continues with 49 south in just over two hours. A stop at Tu Cheng on the way home added a couple of female Ruff Philomachus pugnax to the day list, but the heat was so uncomfortable there that I only spent ten minutes or so with them before beating a retreat home.

Despite the nice birds on offer (for which I am grateful), it does now feel like quite a long period of time has elapsed since the last new bird (Dark-sided Flycatcher) turned up. As this has now gone, some form of replacement would seem to be in order. Above photos taken at Qi Gu and Tu Cheng, Tainan County 27-28/8/16.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Red-necked Stint vs. Little Stint

I lucked-out on Wednesday, with a dip late afternoon on Asian (now 'Amur') Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone incei. Despite charging out to and reaching the coast before dark, the bird had either already roosted or had left the area. On the off chance that the former might be the case, I did a quick circuit of the woodlots early Thursday morning but found nothing in them other than the now long-staying Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica, which was also present on Friday.

I will admit to having looked sideways on a couple of occasions at my photos of the juvenile Little Stint Calidris minuta taken on Monday (though needn't have done, as it is in every respect a 'classic' individual). I was keen this week to have a good look at juvenile Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis and headed out once more to Tu Cheng late Thursday afternoon where surprisingly I was only able to find one. This was astonishing as large numbers of Red-necked Stints have already gone through, but the absence of juveniles among them means that there are still many thousands more to come. This juvenile, though, was also a 'classic' representative of the species, with 'large-headed' look, thick bill, and long gradually tapered rear end. In the plumage, the lower scapulars and coverts were grey-centred (not black) with black central shaft streaks, and the bird also had a distinct greyish-pink breast band (complete, and most obvious when viewed from the front). I managed pretty good quality shots of it, which allowed me to knock up a composite of both this and Monday's juvenile which I think captures all the key structural differences between these two species. It also shows just how much easier it is to pick out Little Stint in amongst Red-necked Stints on structural characteristics rather than on plumage!

There was little else at Tu Cheng Thursday, just a snipe SP. which I would guess was probably Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura, but no spread tail was seen. I was back there on Friday (after leaving no stone unturned in hitting every last one of the familiar haunts and turning up nothing), which seemed to be the right day to look for Temminck's Stint Calidris temminckii.

Although I am enjoying getting up close to all these waders, there's an undeniable 'Groundhog Day' feel to everything, and the next 'something different' to come along and break the monotony feels to be about due. Above photos taken at Qi Gu and Tu Cheng, Tainan County 25-26/8/16.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Stints galore!

With the sea having been poor over the weekend, I elected to do a quick smash and grab in my woodlots Monday morning before I would have to head home and get on with some work. The worn adult Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica was still present in one of them, but that remained pretty much the only migrant on offer.

A stop at Tu Cheng once again failed to produce any of the larger waders that had been present there in recent days, but my first juvenile stint of the autumn turned out to be yet another Little Stint Calidris minuta, a species I am having a pretty good run on so far. This bird did have me quite puzzled for a short while, though, as despite having the full suite of features on show for Little Stint (namely strong orange tones throughout (especially buff-fringed coverts), split-supercilium, 'tram lines' on the mantle, noticeably 'leggy' appearance, and small size, including small-looking head (it was obviously much slimmer/more delicate than Red-necked Stint Calidris ruficollis when feeding alongside any), its rear end looked somewhat longer than had those of the recent adults and its bill was rather shorter and less fine. However, whilst most juvenile Red-necked Stints show split-supercilium and 'tram lines' of varying prominence, they are typically rufous only on the upper scapulars, and these contrast with the lower scapulars and coverts which are predominantly pale-fringed and grey-centred with prominent black central shaft streaks and arrowhead markings near the tip. They also have more sullied greyish-pink breast bands and more gradually tapered, bulkier rear ends. Solid black feather centres and liberal warm fringing above, together with orange at the breast sides, make this one a Little Stint. I guess the slightly shorter and subtly more 'blob-tipped' bill must have something to do with this one being juvenile.

In addition to this juvenile, the small pool also held two further moulting adult Little Stints (at greater range), numerous Red-necked Stints (some with still quite a lot of summer plumage retained) and abundant Long-toed Stints Calidris subminuta, and no fewer than four Temminck's Stints Calidris temminckii. This is more stints than you could shake a stick at, but still no sign of my Yank!

The heat had become horrendous by noon and the haze (even over such short distances) apparent in photographs. Happy to have gotten something on my camera for the day, I was more than content to beat a hasty retreat home! Above photos taken in Qi Gu and Tu Cheng, Tainan County 22/8/16.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Dark-sided Flycatcher

I tend to start my 'critique' of the weekend by looking for some kind of adjective I consider to be a suitable descriptor of it, and the only one I could come up with this time round was 'typical'. Although that might initially sound negative, as I chose to spend the whole of the weekend in Qi Gu that's not necessarily the case. By the time I first began circulating news of Qi Gu many years ago, I had already compiled a quite massive list for the area. This led at least some subsequent visitors to arrive expecting large selections of migrants from single visits which, of course, does not happen. Lists for this area are accrued 'piecemeal', through the medium of regular visits, with single additions at regular intervals yielding an impressive-looking total, but only by the end of a season. On most days, in actual fact, there is very little, but more than just occasionally there is something that bit more special to be found. This weekend fit this pattern comfortably, with little to nothing for most of it, but a bird I personally consider to be a bit of a mega (certainly locally) showing up right at the end of it. It all got underway on Friday, with a very disappointing tour of the woodlots producing nothing (arguably less than nothing, with another five metres or so chewed away from Area A by a large storm mid-week), though the day was eventually salvaged by a second adult Asian Dowitcher Limnodromus semipalmatus for the autumn at Tu Cheng (after having failed with snipe at various sites and with Pale Sand Martins Riparia diluta).

Saturday kicked off with an appalling seawatch, with just a single Swinhoe's Storm Petrel Hydrobates monorhis from it (though close enough to photograph as a 'blob'). I couldn't believe how few terns were passing, as mid-August should be around peak for several species, and gave up just short of three hours in to look once more for waders. The only bright moment of the day was bumping into another British birder, Dominic, at San Liao Wan, and together we were able to add Little Stint Calidris minuta (a single adult) to his East Asia list. That was about all, though, as back at Jiang Jun the snipe were once again not performing and had dispersed from their favoured field, meaning we only managed pretty poor flight views of a single Swinhoe's Snipe Gallinago megala. En route home, two Temminck's Stints Calidris temminckii were at Tu Cheng, where no sign of the Asian Dowitcher. The 'hoops' that the hirundines like to sit on held plenty of Grey-throated Sand Martins Riparia chinensis, but no Pale Sand Martins that could be found.

This is certainly the longest period of seawatching I have engaged in from Qi Gu without some kind of semi-rarity showing up, so I was not at all happy when I logged no seabirds whatsoever in three hours on Sunday morning and even fewer terns than on Saturday. It was outrageously hot on Sunday, with southerly winds suggesting that no passerines would have arrived overnight and that the woodlots would once again be a complete waste of time (I had checked them all Friday). A flyover Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea at the seawatching spot introduced some doubt, though, and I decided to stick my head into my reserve woodlot to see if anything at all had turned up there (which would deter me from heading once again to spend the hottest part of the day totally exposed in a sweltering field full of non-performing snipe, the direction in which I was once more heading). The first bird I saw when I stuck my head in the woodlot was a juvenile Malayan Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus, not a migrant, but sufficient to lure me deeper into the trees.

When I disturbed the heron, it flushed what was obviously a flycatcher, and this got me really excited! Typically, any August flycatcher in Qi Gu is a good one, with Dark-sided Flycatcher Muscicapa sibirica being the earliest to arrive (if it is indeed going to). As I had not seen one of these for close to a decade in Qi Gu, I fumbled around to set up my camera as quickly as possible as I had the feeling that that was most likely what I would be dealing with! The bird was forever in and out of shade, and bore a strong resemblance to a Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta when viewed in stronger sunlight (when paler areas on breast and sub-moustachial appeared more prominent). However, when in more shaded areas, it was spot on for Dark-sided Flycatcher, with prominent white eye crescents behind the eye, rather diffuse sub-moustachial and large patches of solid brown at the breast sides. When confronted with an 'Is it/Isn't it?' one of these, there's always the primary length to fall back on, which (reaching to about a half way down the tail) indicated that bird was certainly a Dark-sided Flycatcher, an awkward one to find in Qi Gu!

I spent three hours in total with this delightful little bird and in the end got some quite decent photos. This is one which had the real potential to be a big 'banana skin' on my year list this time round, as I had missed it in spring on Dongyin and know it to be a very tricky one to get on Taiwan proper. There are actually two flycatchers which fit into this pattern, the other one being Yellow-rumped Flycatcher Ficedula zanthopygia (which also comes through early in autumn and which I also missed on Dongyin in spring). In fact, I was so pessimistic about my chances of getting either one of these two now that I was planning to go to Penghu next weekend as I felt that I would stand a better chance of at least one of them on an island rather than on the coast. That trip can now be scrapped, and this little fella has done a very good job of saving me more than a bob or two! Above photos taken Tu Cheng and Qi Gu, Tainan County 19-21/8/16.