Sunday, 27 November 2016

Booted Warbler

A cracking weekend this one, with a tick for my Taiwan List from it (yet another warbler), as well as a very tough year tick (also a warbler). The plans for the weekend had been laid out in skeletal form earlier in the week, when I received a request for help in identifying an unidentified warbler (which turned out to be a pretty straightforward Booted Warbler Iduna caligata) seen the week before somewhere in Ilan. It was impossible to miss the fact that the bird was in very heavy wing moult, meaning that, wherever it was, it would likely remain in that area until this process had been completed (which from the looks of the bird was still at least a couple of weeks away). I managed to prise the exact location out of the finder on the understanding that I would not disclose it, or at least be very discerning about to whom I did disclose it (as the finder wished to keep the site off the radar of any photographers), conditions to which I agreed. As it turned out, the site was nothing more than a minute patch of weeds out in the paddies, perhaps not big enough to support such a bird for any length of time. As it was, though, still an awfully long way to travel up just on spec (and with the forecast for the weekend looking none too pleasant), I asked a trusted local birder to first check out the place to see whether or not the bird had gone. I was on the Jiu Xue River when the news came back positive, meaning that, come what may, Saturday morning I would be either on my way up to or already in Ilan! I had learnt from Cai Zhi Yuan earlier in the day that he and Yan Xiou Chin had plans to visit Gui Shan Dao on Saturday morning and knew they would be kind enough to offer me a lift up should I ask for it. I had procrastinated a bit about doing this for a while, but did so when my 'news' came back positive, as this bird was in such a tiny patch of habitat that it ought to be a dead cert and possible to pick up in the first two hours of the morning before the boat was due to sail. After a bit of a mix up with the pick up in Taichung, a steady drive up, and a twenty minute or so wait for there to be sufficient light in the day, I found myself out in the paddies in Ilan early Saturday morning staring at a moulting adult Booted Warbler!

Although the bird was easy to find, it was more of a challenge to photograph as it spent most of its time in the most tangled areas of branches and weeds. I was happy with what I had on my camera, though, when it was time to head for the boat, but less so when I received a phone call advising me that this would be cancelled just as we were pulling into Wu She Harbour. We spent a bit of time at other spots in Ilan (picking up a nice but 'surplus to requirements' Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus at Diao Bie Ci as we received news of it just as we were driving past it), but, with nothing new seemingly 'in', we elected to return once more for the Booted Warbler late morning.

Astonishingly (as the boat had been cancelled), late morning turned out to be hot, sunny, and what's more still when we were back at the Booted Warbler site, conditions which not only encouraged the bird out into the open but also encouraged it to sing. I did fare much better with photographs late morning, but sadly never quite managed to get the one I wanted with the raised crown and more upwards-pointed bill, i.e. a more 'classic-looking' Iduna posture. 

The conditions in the afternoon were also appropriate for Locustella, millions of which winter in Ilan's reedbeds! It was a fantastic relief, then (after having battled with these things recently in both Tainan and in Au Gu), to throw a tape into the reedbed at Xia Pu and get a stonking adult Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola pop straight out (literally within seconds) for a look at all the commotion. Although I didn't manage to photograph this individual (it was much too fast for that anyway), I was treated to very clear views of the solidly black-streaked back and jet black tertials (sufficient to eliminate the more usual and numerous Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella ochotensis), a rather clean white throat and upper breast (sufficient to age the bird as adult), and saw a surprisingly rich reddish base colour to the crown and mantle (sufficient, together with the small size, to suggest that it probably belonged to the minor population). Either way, this was a very tricky one to pick up for my year list, one which I do see annually but had been giving me problems thus far this year! With job done in Ilan, we headed up to Fu Long to spend the night there with a view to checking out Tian Liao Yang the following morning. After a quite literal 'wild goose chase' (and back to Ilan) early doors Sunday, a disappointing Tian Liao Yang produced just four Eurasian Skylarks Alauda arvensis and a couple of Rustic Buntings Emberiza rustica. This was in the hour or so that the rain stopped, though by lunch time it was coming down in buckets which clearly signalled that the game was over and prompted the retreat home.

Despite the weather and a the disappointment of the boat being cancelled, the Booted Warbler was just outstanding and the supporting cast really not to be sniffed at either. What a nice way to perhaps draw a curtain on my trips north for this year (as most birds are now 'in'), and thanks so much to Cai Zhi Yuan and Yan Xiou Chin for the kind offer of a lift up there this weekend to get at these birds in a bit more comfort than usual! Above photos taken at various locations, Ilan County, and Tian Liao Yang, Taipei County 26-27/11/16.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Black Stork

For the want of something better to do, I spent Friday morning on the Jiu Xue River hoping to find my missing Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos for the year. As with every trip up there, I got a single 'teaser' one at range which appeared both dark and small, and this time was being continually harassed by a distinctly larger juvenile Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus. This individual furthermore had barring through the primaries and tail, strongly suggesting Pied, but, as it lacked a white rump, it can only go down as some 'presumed' immature plumage stage of Eastern Marsh Harrier. The surprise of the day was a juvenile Black Stork Ciconia nigra, which took to the wing on the south side of the river the second I pulled up on the north! I went immediately back round to look for it after it had landed, but it refused to fly further despite a lengthy wait/search.

My wait in my reedbed hideout proved to be quite nice for other birds, though, with first a juvenile Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia performing a close flyby. This was followed by what for some reason I fancy to have been the large male Oriental Stork Ciconia boyciana from my last visit which made an incredibly close pass, allowing me rattle off yet more shots of this enormous beast which I typically see only at considerable range.

Happy with what I had on my camera by noon, I turned to head for home, making brief stops at Au Gu and Ding Shan on the way, where I would fail to add anything much to the day, let alone the year! Above photos taken on the Jiu Xue River, Yunlin County 25/11/16.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Common Ringed Plover (2)

A fairly weak cold front during the week brought some wind and rain, which put a stop to Locustella hunting at least for the time being. The coast proved disappointing Tuesday, with no migrants at all in what little remains of my severely battered woodlots (now nothing more than a few scattered trees). The overcast skies did mean better conditions for photographing the Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula, though, which was still present and showing well in Sz Tsau Tuesday, being much more confiding than it had been on previous visits.

With the migration now over and little showing up in coastal woodlots, my enthusiasm for checking these places in the early mornings had completely dissipated by Wednesday. Cold fronts seem to be bringing little nationally either, and I'm now in great need of something to twitch. Above photos taken in Sz Tsau, Tainan City 22/11/16.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Plastic and Disappointment

It seems strange to suggest that a weekend which brought with it a lifer might well be the worst one of the year, but that's how it all ended up feeling. With nothing whatsoever nationally (other than an escaped Pied Buchat Saxicola caprata in Taipei), I elected to stay in the south this weekend and kicked off Friday with a resumption of the hunt for Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler Locustella certhiola (which has been going on in the early mornings for much of this recent sustained dry/still period). Over the last four or five years, I have managed to find at least one of these wintering locally, and this has typically been the first Locustella of the winter that I have clapped eyes on. I am therefore not in the habit of having to work for them, and it has come as a bit of a shock this time round to have to spend countless hours pishing and playing tapes at suitable locations, only to get (the admittedly more expected) Middendorff's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella ochotensis pop out of the reeds. This happened Friday, when (after getting stuck in the mud out in the marsh for a good while) I did manage views of two out of the three or four birds wintering at Ding Shan, only to be able to confirm them both as Middendorff's (and not get any photos of either). Disappointed, I moved on to Au Gu to try the reedbed there, albeit much too late in the morning after having first made an unproductive stop at Ma Sha Gou. I did flush one promising-looking Locustella from the edge of the reeds but, other than a dark juvenile Eastern Marsh Harrier Circus spilonotus patrolling the reedbed, that would be all I would get from wetlands for the whole day.

I had a lot more joy in the forest at Au Gu, where I found a very elusive and flighty pair of Japanese Thrushes Turdus cardis and at least three Red-breasted Flycatchers Ficedula parva back for the winter. I failed to photograph any of these, but did get a sound recording of at least two Red-breasted Flycatchers calling together at the same time, with one giving a peculiar insect-like call (something to do with it interacting with the other birds present) I have not heard before (recording is here). I also recorded one or two Arctic Warblers Phylloscopus borealis in the forest at Au Gu for good measure (here), just to show that the winterers there (as well as the overwhelming majority of passage birds) are all borealis (leaving open the question as to exactly where all the Japanese Leaf Warblers Phylloscopus xanthodryas might be). I got an atrocious shot of yellowy-looking first-winter Arctic Warbler deep in forest, and that was it for Au Gu (and for Friday).

Worried that I had failed to add anything Friday (and with no news nationally and the prospects of anything new turning up looking increasingly remote), I set off down to Feng Shan in Gaoxiong early morning (4:30) Saturday, determined to get Orange-cheeked Waxbill Estrilda melpoda OML so that I would finally be able to move on past that one. This was the last of the tickable 'Category C' birds for me to see in Taiwan (hence would in fact be a lifer 'of sorts'), and I fancied that early morning would be the right time to get it (and hopefully get it over and done with quickly), after which I would be free to continue southwards towards Long Luan Can just for the Hell of it. Despite getting pretty much everything else (by which I mean Indian Silverbills Euodice malabarica and a couple of unexpected Black-headed Munias Lonchura atricapilla), I had failed to find any waxbills by mid-morning, which meant that my plans for the weekend would be in need of revision. I elected to stay put, and in the end it was 15:00 when I finally managed to get views of two Orange-cheeked Waxbills sat atop some weeds a short distance away. Having already waited nine hours for these birds, I was understandably expecting to dip, and my camera was packed up on the ground some twenty metres away. It hardly mattered, as just ten seconds after they had climbed up out of the weeds they flew off, over some trees on the near horizon to who knows where. And that was that for my Orange-cheeked Waxbills! A nine hour wait for a ten second view of a bird I perhaps never really wanted to see anyway (but am at least relieved that it has made its way onto my list). Too tired to continue on to Long Luan Can, I left Feng Shan at 16:00 for the hour-long drive home, with just one Indian Silverbill on my camera and a few more recordings of Arctic Warbler (one such recording is here) to show for a quite miserable day (although the Arctic Warblers at Feng Shan were at least calling with subtly lower-pitched and occasionally more slurred calls than any elsewhere, though still comfortably within the range of borealis).

I woke up late on Sunday, sapped of enthusiasm and with no idea of where to go. When I opened my e-mails, though, I had been sent a picture of an unidentified tit Parus Sp. taken in nearby Jhong Shan Park, Tainan City, a spot with a reasonable (and growing) reputation for migrants. The tit in question had only traces of green on its back and lacked much colour below, and therefore superficially at least resembled a Japanese Tit Parus minor. Without thinking (or looking carefully at the photo), I raised my hands skyward believing the weekend to have been saved, and set immediately off on the short drive to Jhong Shan Park. The bird took only a short time to find, but from the start did not look right. Despite being greyish above and having only traces of yellow below, it had an odd-looking wingbar and the tail pattern did not seem right (with tail 'spots' rather than white outer rects), both of which seemed oddly better for Green-backed Tit Parus monticolus. A bit of on-site Googling also revealed the upper wingbar to be wrong for Japanese Tit (in which species none), as were the big and obvious tertial spots (smaller and with white fringes to the tertials in Japanese Tit). All of these 'hard' plumage details pointed clearly to Green-backed Tit, despite the colours being 'out' (immatures/juveniles should also be brighter, and show pale at the base of the lower mandible), and my assumption is that the absence of pigmentation reflects some kind of dietary deficiency, most likely the result of a period spent in captivity.

Disappointed once more with the outcome of the day's birding (an interesting puzzle, granted, but plus none for the year list), I headed out for some fruitless local birding around the airport and in An Ping. As it was still in the afternoon, I was once more lured out to a reedbed by the prospect of Locustella towards evening, and tried a spot on the Tseng Wen River where one bird had been eluding me on previous visits. I did manage to get it out this time (and onto the camera, no mean feat), but once again it turned out to be a Middendorff's (albeit a nice yellowy first-winter).

So, despite the lifer, frustration throughout this weekend (though I really should add that, had I not been year-listing, I would have been quite happy with this weekend's birds), and little progress on the year list front with time now very much at a premium. I lay the blame firmly at the door of the weather, which has been warm and still for at least a week now. How I will long for this later in the winter when all the wet and windy stuff arrives if I don't find a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler soon! Above photos taken in Au Gu, Chiayi County, Feng Shan, Gaoxiong City, and Jhong Shan Park and Tseng Wen River, Tainan City 18-20/11/16.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Common Ringed Plover (1)

Thanks to a tip off from Pan Zhi Yuan, I was able to twitch and add Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula to my year list locally at nearby Sz Tsau this morning. This was a great relief, as an especially annoying and otherwise 'nailed on' individual had spent the whole of December at Ding Shan, only to disappear completely in January when the new year came around. Unfortunately, the light was all in the wrong place this morning, meaning that I could only manage rather poor record shots of the bird, this despite it actually being quite close.

This was the last of the plovers to get this year, meaning a clean sweep of this 'set'. Hopefully, if it winters, I'll be able to do it more justice photo-wise at some point later on. Above photos taken in Sz Tsau, Tainan City 15/11/16.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Pallas's Reed Bunting

After a couple of weeks of dipping, twitching some outrageously stringy stuff, and having to settle for adding one paltry year tick a week to my all-important year list, I felt like I was arriving at a stage where I was owed a bit of a change of fortune. That change did I suppose come this weekend, with a reasonably successful trip to the north coast and once more out to Gui Shan Island. I got the ball rolling at Tian Liao Yang Friday with not one but two year tick bunting species, Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans and Pallas's Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi. The former of these (two birds) were hiding in some bamboo and would not be photographed, but the latter (three birds) I did quite well with, given their fondness for hiding deep in the grass. In truth, I was much more interested in these as they seem to arrive in the north in November and seldom winter and are a much tougher prospect to find in the south than Yellow-throated Bunting. They were also species #450 for this year, and in that sense represented something of 'mission accomplished'.

There were plenty of other things at Tian Liao Yang and in its environs, most notably yet more buntings, with two juvenile Black-headed Buntings Emberiza melanocephala and a first-winter Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica also on offer. A European Starling Sturnus vulgaris was something not to be sniffed at, as was the Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus that left at 17:30 denying me a photograph, as I (expecting it to come into Tian Liao Yang to hunt) had my camera and flashlight all set up and ready for night photography, only to see the bird leave its roost and quickly gain height and leave following the river to the west.

On Saturday, I headed out once more to Gui Shan Island, in the hope more than anything of catching up with the elusive Japanese Woodpigeon Columba janthina, something which once more would not come to pass. Although it was far too sunny on Saturday, the island was not a total loss as there were a few migrants around, and I was at least able to get one Yellow-throated Bunting on my camera from the trip. This was not the only bunting on offer, though, and bird of the trip was the outrageously tame Black-headed Bunting which at times was using my shadow for shade and came to within one foot away from my boot. As if not to be outdone, at least one Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla also chose to be similarly tame.

Other migrants on the island included a single Buff-bellied Pipit Anthus rubescens and numerous Dusky Thrushes Turdus eunomus and Daurian Redstarts Phoenicurus auroreus. The only other birds around were some quite large flocks of Chestnut-eared Bulbuls Microscelis amaurotis, many of which looked quite intent on leaving.

The fine weather continued into Sunday, and Tian Liao Yang continued to play host to numerous buntings, all of which had become more flighty given the pressures of weekend photographer traffic. I spread out into the nearby foothills looking for other things, but all I could find was one relatively posey Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela, a species I usually ignore.

I was happy and relieved to have brought up my #450 for the year as this had been my target all along. Obviously, this total will now go higher, but it could have used a bit of a bigger bump than it received from Gui Shan Island (although, given that few finches have arrived yet, there may still be yet one weekend which has to be spent in the north). Above photos taken at Tian Liao Yang, New Taipei City, and Gui Shan Island, Yilan County 11-13/11/16.