Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chinese Grey Shrike

For my money, the last week of October and the first two of November are the best weeks to be birding in Taiwan. All eyes are on the north as successive cold fronts arrive, each one bringing with it new birds to migration hot spots along the coast. Few of these cold fronts are powerful enough to penetrate further south, until the migration is all but over that is, and the north is where it's at. Accordingly, the megas were lined up like dominoes this weekend, and it could have been without doubt the best one of the year. However, it turned out instead to be one marred by dips, with at least one of these being a significant one! The first domino not to fall was a Ryukyu Robin Larvivora komadori, a bird which Yeh Liu had been playing host to right up until Thursday. Friday, however, proved to be one day too late, and all I came away with was an Asian Stubtail Urosphena squameiceps and yet another Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina for the autumn.

After three hours of waiting for the robin to show, I decided I had had enough and moved off to Tian Liao Yang where I was expecting a nice selection of buntings. I saw absolutely none, the best birds there in overcast and muggy late afternoon conditions being two European Starlings Sturnus vulgaris. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus was also hunting the fields and a couple of Mandarin Ducks Aix galericulata kept doing brief flybys, but both were always either that bit too fast or in the wrong kind of light for me to get satisfactory results with my camera.

I had booked to go to Gui Shan Island on Saturday, and when news reached me late Friday of a Spoon-billed Sandpiper Calidris pygmaea not far from Wu She Harbour (where it had been all Friday afternoon), it looked like the weekend was about to pick up big time as I would have plenty of time to grab this in the morning before the boat was scheduled to sail (and would have passed on the boat entirely had this extraordinary bird been showing at all well). However, this too would not perform, and was nowhere to be found early Saturday. Obviously, this was a massive dip, as Spoon-billed Sandpiper is arguably the most mega of megas likely to appear in any year nationally (or anywhere for that matter). My expectations for the weekend rapidly evaporating after my second dip and still absent a year tick, I took the boat to Gui Shan Island where I hoped my fortunes would improve somewhat. They did, as there had been a small fall of migrants on the island following overnight rain, and I was greeted on arrival by a flock of buntings which contained both Yellow Emberiza sulphurata and Chestnut Buntings Emberiza rutila.

There were more birds adjacent to the lake and I would finally pick up my year tick, a Taiga Flycatcher Ficedula albicilla, from there, though not do terribly well at photographing it. Stars of the show from Gui Shan Island were the small number of Mugimaki Flycatchers Ficedula mugimaki that had also arrived and were showing very well right in front of us. Finally, I would be able to put something on my camera to document this slowly improving weekend.

It was raining persistently on Gui Shan Island, and the wind was also pretty strong. I'm assuming that the weather kept my Japanese Woodpigeon Columba janthina from putting in an appearance, the main target for this trip. The boat ride back was a choppy affair in blustery conditions, and the drive back to Fu Long particularly unpleasant, but I did learn when I returned to the homestay that a Chinese Grey Shrike Lanius sphenocercus had turned up at Jin Shan, which meant a chance of at least one high quality bird from the weekend. I hit Tian Liao Yang first Sunday morning though as that was where I was staying, and managed a distant and split-second flyby Amur Falcon Falco amurensis for my efforts, but even after overnight rain the only bunting on show was a single and highly unco-operative Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata.

As soon as I learnt that the shrike was still present, I set off to Jin Shan, arriving there just after 09:30. The bird had actually been tamed by this time, and was coming ludicrously close. Still, at least this meant more fodder for my camera and this all went a long way to salvaging the weekend.

As if two dips had not been enough, though, a small flock of Greater White-fronted Geese Anser albifrons turned up at Tian Liao Yang shorty after I had left. I can only hope that some of these winter birds (fingers crossed especially for the sandpiper) settle into some sort of pattern and that they will be available to be twitched in the upcoming weekends! Above photos taken at Yeh Liu, Tian Liao Yang, Gui Shan Island, and Jin Shan, New Taipei and Yilan Counties 28-30/10/16. 

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Northern House Martin

Yet another typhoon in the Bashi Channel made the weather pretty much all wrong for much of the weekend, bringing unseasonal southerlies and the bizarre sight of 'summer' storm clouds rolling in off the sea from the south in late October. It looked pretty poor on Friday, but when I pulled up at my reserve woodlot I did at least notice that plenty of Hirundines seemed to be moving over the big dune just to the north of the trees. As I had picked up Northern House Martin Delichon urbicum at around this time and in similar conditions last year, I positioned myself outside of the woodlot hoping to cop for some decent vis mig during the morning. This paid off first of all with a Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla sitting up on top of some distant bushes, too far to photograph well but presumably the same individual as last year returning for its second winter, so I expect more opportunities at it. It took about half an hour for my target bird to come through, and it literally just bombed straight past, appearing over the woodlot heading straight towards me before veering off inland and then quickly south. In total the bird was in view for no more than thirty seconds, a great shame as I have yet to photograph this species especially well, but at least there is sufficient on view in the photos to age this one as a first-winter.

There were just three birds in the woodlot, a Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina, a Grey-streaked Flycatcher Muscicapa griseisticta, and an Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis, none of which would be photographed. The same three birds were still present Saturday, and, with neither Wryneck nor any vis mig to enjoy, I was forced to cast the net a bit wider for the first time this autumn. Ma Sha Gou held much the same assemblage as my reserve woodlot, with the addition of a first-year male Blue-and-White Flycatcher Cyanoptila cyanomelana and a flighty Northern Boobook Ninox japonica. I also passed the two 'miles-away' adult Greater Flamingos Phoenicopterus roseus at Ding Shan, birds which I had thought had long since departed. 

I headed back up to Ma Sha Gou on Sunday, after stopping first at Ding Shan to try and coax some Locustella out of the reedbeds there. A total of nil did not set me up at all well for the day, a day in which I was unable to drive too far after my bike had developed an electrical fault on Saturday evening (which could not be fixed until Monday). I limited myself to Ma Sha Gou, which held the same warblers and flycatchers as the previous day, but with the nice addition of a second Kamchatka Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus examinandus for the autumn. This bird was calling persistently with its highly distinctive grating 'djrrrk' as I fumbled to set up my tape recorder but, wouldn't you know it, went completely silent the second I pressed 'record' (calling just once more in the hour or so for which I subsequently followed it around). I did manage some poor photos of what I assume to be it, another decidedly clean-looking Phylloscopus with a slender look to it, in many ways reminiscent of Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus.

There was electrical misery of another kind to follow when I failed to record an 'Arctic' warbler with a flatter-sounding call due to the battery in my microphone having run out of power. I expect that the bird was nothing more than just a borealis, but it would have been nice to have been able to make sure. As it had become unexpectedly uncomfortable by noon on account of the heat, I decided to call it a day and head for home, and to get stuck into what looks like will be a very long week of replacements and repairs! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Ding Shan and Ma Sha Gou, Tainan County 21-23/10/16.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Long-billed Dowitchers

A poke around my reserve woodlot Wednesday showed one or two migrants still present there, including a further male Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina for the autumn and a couple of Arctic Warblers Phylloscopus borealis. The Arctic Warbler seemed to be yet another 'variant' for the autumn, with dull (rather than moss) green upperparts, rather grey-brown legs, and noticeably dark grey breast sides which almost formed a complete breast band. Whether or not all these subtle plumage differences represent different age classes or different populations, for a relatively 'featureless' species, Arctic Warbler exhibits quite astonishing variation! 

There were a few local things of interest around, too, bird-wise a Malayan Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus (which could also have been a migrant) and dragonfly-wise a juvenile male Eastern Lilysquatter Paracercion melanotum (doing its best to look like a bluetail), somewhat unexpected right down on the coast (though an infrequent visitor to Area B).

The drive home produced a single Ruff Philomachus pugnax and not one but three Long-billed Dowitchers Limnodromus scolopaceus. Two of these were already in winter plumage (and presumably adult), whilst a third was still acquiring winter plumage (and presumably juvenile).

A quite reasonable morning all told, which goes to show that there is always something there to be found if you bother to look! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 19/10/16.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Common Chiffchaff

Another top weekend this one, with yet another outrageously good Phyllosc added to my domestic list, this time round Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, one that had been sitting high up on my wish list after adding Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus in Au Gu late last year. There was both a change of scenery and a change in comradeship this time, too, thanks to a lift up to Tian Liao Yang courtesy of Richard Foster, which allowed both myself and Dominic Le Croissette to make the journey north Friday in comfort and in style (with cheese and biscuits even). It was raining when we got there, and the birding was rather hard work, even though it was readily apparent that there was a ton of birds creeping around down in the grass. Despite the weather, we managed views of a number of the anticipated Tian Liao Yang goodies, which included Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica, Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis, several Pechora Pipits Anthus gustavi, Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla, and a Forest Wagtail Dendronanthus indicus (which left with the pipits towards dark and was nothing more than a bird which was the right shape, but which did importantly have the right call). The weather and gloomy conditions didn't really help my photographic record along any, though, and all I came away with from the first day was an acceptable shot of a single Pechora Pipit. This hardly seemed to matter after we had checked into out homestay, as Richard's van turned out to be something akin to a mobile branch of Oddbins, and there was plenty of cheer to be found in his assortment of reds!

It was up early on Saturday to get stuck into breakfast (again courtesy of Richard) and then to the train station to pick up Dave Irving so that once again all of Taiwan's foreign birding contingent would find itself present in one spot all at the same time. It was raining once more at dawn, but periodic dry spells did mean that we eventually ran into our first group of buntings, Yellow-browed Buntings Emberiza chrysophrys, which had in tow a single juvenile Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala (essentially presumed, but with a well-streaked crown). A calling Phylloscopus caught my ear, and this could be recorded without fear of breaking anything electronic so I took out my recorder. Much like some of the more recent individuals in Qi Gu, this bird had a distinctly lower-pitched call to most of the early-migrating individuals to come through (this time persistently so), together with a doubled-up 'dju-dji' note which I have not heard any borealis give thus far. It was also distinctly yellow on its throat, good for Japanese Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus xanthodryas, but by no means diagnostic of it. However, the frequency of the call once more proved to be too high for xanthodryas, in which all of the call should fall below 5000 Hz (the calls below 5000 Hz in the sonogram below are those of the Grey Treepie Dendrocitta formosae that can be heard on the sound recording here), and it looks as though catching up with one of these is going to be much easier said than done!

We were discussing this bird when Dominic noticed a Phylloscopus fly out of the copse I had been recording in and land in some weeds close by. As neither Dominic nor David had yet looked at this warbler, we ambled over to inspect it. However, what popped up out of the grass was not an Arctic-type warbler, but a Common Chiffchaff! There was little else similar to this bird to prompt any confusion, with the sole exception perhaps of yakutensis Willow Warbler. Although these can be quite grey and featureless above, our bird had black bill and legs, a short primary projection, and a 'usual' length tail (as opposed to a long tail). Furthermore, whilst being surprisingly greyish above, last year's yakutensis did have quite strong yellow tones below, which this bird completely lacked. It was essentially a small, slim, dull greyish-brownish Phyllosc whose sole features were its black bare parts and its persistent tail-dipping, quite wrong for anything other than tristis Chiffchaff!   

With this bird ticked, lunch time rolled round and Richard had to be on his way due to commitments in Taipei. I was in two minds whether or not to head back to Tainan with Dominic (after perhaps stopping to look for Orange-cheeked Waxbills Estrilda melpoda) or to stay in the north for a further day. A couple of decent birds had been reported from Turtle Island by lunch time and this swung the decision, and I elected to stay over in Fu Long for another night after first picking up transport in Keelung. The afternoon back in Tian Liao Yang saw the Chiffchaff still present but elusive and more Red-rumped Swallows, but I was certain that the following morning would be a belter.

Things looked excellent early doors Sunday as the rain had been coming down all night ensuring that nothing should have left Turtle Island and perhaps even that more should have arrived. I made the first sailing at 08:00 and was bobbing around offshore (twenty metres from the jetty) Turtle Island waiting to land just before 09:00. However, the Coast Guard Authority (it was presumably their decision) declared it unfit to disembark, and the boat turned around and began heading back to port (and slowly, too)! What a disappointment! It was lunch time before I rolled back up at Tian Liao Yang, to large crowds and some harassment, day essentially wasted, and to find nothing new there except for one or two perhaps different Red-rumped Swallows.

I seem to be more in the habit when birding of facing some initial disappointment only a for a big silver lining to come along and clear it all up in the end. This weekend things were very much the opposite way around, with the (Turtle Island-shaped) turd in the puch bowl popping up after the punch had already all been enjoyed! However, though the trip to Turtle Island was nothing short of a disaster, I'll not be letting it take any of the shine off the Common Chiffchaff, something I would have been more than happy to have come away with this time round not having seen anything else whatsoever. Above photos taken at Tian Liao Yang, New Taipei City 14-16/10/16.