Saturday, 31 December 2016

Finally, it all comes to an end ... at 470!

My big year finally drew to a close in an unimpressive manner this weekend, seeing me limp over the finish line failing to add anything whatsoever to my total with the last two days of the year. It was my own fault, really, as the only bird available seemed to be a Pied Harrier Circus melanoleucos, but, as this was all the way out in Hualian and reportedly awkward, I just couldn't be bothered travelling all that way to try and pick it up. Instead, I spent Friday morning hoping for more than I ultimately got at local reedbed sites, turning up a good number of Middendorff's Grasshopper Warblers Locustella ochotensis and Black-browed Reed Warblers Acrocephalus bistrigiceps for my efforts, together with more expected stuff like Siberian Rubythroat Calliope calliope.

An unexpected bonus find was a second Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula for the winter close to Ding Shan. Unfortunately, though, this bird chose to spend most of its time on a private fish pond with the sun very much in the wrong place for photography when viewed from the road. As there seemed to be no conceivable harm which could be caused by my doing so, I ventured in about twenty metres up a dirt track that skirted the fish pond to put the sun in a better position. However, I was quickly turfed off by some thoroughly miserable old sod that took offence at my staring at 'her' mud and insisted that I retreat the twenty metres back to the road and view the mud from there. Sadly, this disposition (fearful and mistrusting) is de rigueur in this part of Tainan County, and I'm more than used to it by now (there'll be a gate on the place the next time I visit).

There was nothing else of interest on Friday, save for an obviously 'yellow-faced' Arctic Warbler Phylloscopus borealis at Ma Sha Gou. All of the images of Japanese Leaf Warblers Phylloscopus xanthodryas I have been able to find online have shown birds with similarly yellow faces, but this individual (like all the others this year) called repeatedly with the call of borealis. So, whilst there's nothing especially exciting about this particular individual, the close attention I have paid to this group throughout the year has forced me to conclude that I have not yet seen (or heard) Japanese Leaf Warbler in Taiwan, and it has become my prime target species for next year!

Although Friday felt to have been acceptable, Saturday was just risible, as I tonked it up to Fen Qi Hu hopeful that I might encounter some finch flocks at higher altitude (as none seemed to be being reported from the coast). Of course, I encountered none, and got precious little by way of consolation. The most unexpected birds were a rather large (at least twenty) flock of Taiwan Barwings Actinodura morrisoniana above Shr Zhoa. These can sometimes be tricky to see (and indeed up to that point I had in fact only seen one all year), so I wasn't too unhappy about being given the chance to photograph those. They were not alone, and were accompanied by the usual Steere's Liocochlas Liocochla steerii and Taiwan Yuhinas Yuhina brunneiceps.

I remained in the mountains for an hour or so after dark, ostensibly to look for owls, but the traffic on the way up to Alishan was much heavier than I had expected and this looked like it was also going to end in failure. By my own listing rules, I therefore ended the year on a grand total of 468 species, a number which to my eye did not look all that aesthetically pleasing. To get around this (and ensure the result I wanted), I imposed a couple of 'boundary changes' to my listing rules, admitting White-rumped Shama Copsychus malabaricus and Black-throated Laughingthrush Garrulax chinensis on to my own version of 'Category C', therefore rendering them countable. I considered this deviation 'acceptable' on the grounds that the populations of both are now large and growing and both are well established, and also that the CWBF checklist that I use for determining precisely what is countable is several years out of date (2012) and in need of revision. In the end, I am in fact far happier with adding these to the list than I ever was with Feral Pigeon Columba livia! This revision brings the number I'm sticking with for 2016 up to a nice, round, 470 (with the last bird added being the Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis on Christmas Eve), and contains 11 (established) Category C's. My full list for 2016 can be found here. There is some possibility of future revision in the form of 'armchairs' should birds like Zebra Dove Geopelia striata ever find themselves admitted to Category C in future CWBF updates, but for now birds such as these remain on E* (where they are not countable). 470 species in a single year is a challenging gauntlet to throw down, and I'm more than happy with that tally. Whether or not I'll choose to pick it back up again remains to be seen!

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Burmese Shrike and Lesser Scaup

Obviously, I was hopeful of at least something from the last full weekend of the year, but could never have imagined just exactly how it would turn out! It took some sort of form last weekend whilst I was on Kinmen, when I received notification that Taiwan's first Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis had been found at Long Luan Can. This got penned straight in for Friday, with the 'remainder' of the weekend provisionally to be spent in search of House Crow Corvus splendens at various harbour sites between Dong Gang and Gaoxiong. What happened next I could never have predicted, as Taiwan's first Burmese Shrike Lanius collurioides also got found mid-week, conveniently in a city park immediately inland from the harbour area at Gaoxiong! This opened up the real possibility of picking up three very big year ticks over the weekend (with the shrike also being a lifer), and it was with a sense of real excitement that I set off in the dark early Friday morning once more in the direction of Qi Jin (where I had added Fujian Niltava Niltava davidi just a few weeks before), and once more optimistic of great things from the south. I arrived just after first light and found the spot where a House Crow had been seen a few times in recent weeks and that I fancied it might show up in. I had only been waiting about ten minutes when I heard one calling from somewhere close by. A peek around the corner and I found a rather vocal House Crow sat on wires, giving me one from one from what now had the potential of being a top weekend! 

The bird behaved in a similar manner to other House Crows I have come across here, being a real sod to approach and photograph. This species must be one of the most intelligent there is, as it could not give a damn about the fishermen, road workers, and road sweeps that were milling around in very close proximity to it, but flew immediately off or into cover (from quite some distance away) whenever I drew near as it was well aware that I (unlike the other 'bodies') was paying particular attention to it. After two hours with the thing (and never really getting it in the right kind of light), I decided it was time to move off for the shrike as this after all would be the day's main event. I'd gone for House Crow first as the tiny city park that the shrike was in typically fills up with pensioners early doors and I had been advised that the bird might be problematic at such a time. It was 09:30 when I turned up to the surprisingly open, pocket-handkerchief of a park that the bird was said to be frequenting, and finding it took little more than ten minutes. It proved to be quite the performer, allowing a close approach and even breaking into song at one point.

Both the pale bill base and some unmoulted brownish juvenile tail feathers indicated that the bird was a first-winter, and the fact that it had been singing indicated that it was male. I had had some initial reservations (given the location) as to the origin of the bird, but its condition was immaculate, with no sign of feather damage around the forehead or (as shown in the first photo below) to the wing, suggesting that it had not spent any time in captivity. I would later discover that this (the nominate) race was also migratory in southern China, and listed by Brazil as a strong candidate for vagrancy further east into the East Asia region. With all my fears regarding its origin allayed, all that remained was to fill my boots with photos of it whilst I was in the privileged position of being aware of its presence well in advance of any of the crowds!

Two from two and I was over the moon and on my way to Long Luan Can late morning with still plenty of time in the day to make it three from three before the day was out! Things would not go according to plan, though, as when I arrived at Long Luan Can early afternoon it was blowing an absolutely ferocious gale, making picking anything out on the lake challenging, and unsurprisingly I dipped. As I fancied that that the bird would certainly not have gone (despite not being seen all week), I stayed overnight in Heng Chwun in order to have a second crack at it Saturday (in somewhat lighter but still strong winds). As I was unable to pick it up from range, I crept closer to the Aythya flock using the banking as cover and, after selecting a spot concealed within a bush from which to view them, was able to find the bird after a small amount of searching.

From the sole photo of the bird that was in circulation, I had been expecting a first-winter male and for the mantle to stand out at long range as being significantly paler that those of the surrounding Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula. It didn't really, and the bird was perhaps in actual fact an adult female, and consequently a much tougher prospect to pick out in amongst the other Aythya. Once on the bird, the scapulars and upper mantle could be seen to be rather dark grey, with thick black vermiculations the entire length of these feathers visible in the scope (though not too well in the photos I took of it, a consequence of only having a small lens). Unlike the other Aythya, the hind flanks also had obvious light grey vermiculations (as opposed to being plain or with scattered patches of solid brown), a feature shown only by female Common Pochard Aythya ferina (outside of the two scaup species) in the region. The head and bill shape was completely out for Greater Scaup Aythya marila (as was size, with a male of this species close by for comparison), and the bird also lacked the rear ear covert spot shown by females of that species. There were no 'pro' Common Pochard features apparent on the bird, or anything to suggest hybridisation with some other 'local' Aythya species. The bird spent much of its time asleep, but once alert the distinctive 'triangular-shaped' head of Lesser Scaup was obvious and made it stand out from the Tufteds. Two critical details were also observed which looked spot on for Lesser Scaup: firstly, the nail, which was black on the nail only and lacked traces of black spreading out laterally along the bill edge/tip (as in the majority of Aythya, and which would be the case in a hybrid between any of the more common Aythya in the region); and, secondly, the wing pattern, with gleaming white secondaries and much duller (all) primaries, including the inner primaries (as opposed to clean white on most (or at least most of the inner) primaries). These two features (together with head shape and vermiculated upperparts and hind flanks) pointed to Lesser Scaup rather than to any kind of hybrid, and there was certainly nothing obvious on the bird to suggest such an origin.

After two hours with the bird I figured that I wasn't going to get better than I already had and left to begin the long drive home, stopping en route to photograph a juvenile Oriental Honey Buzzard Pernis ptilorhynchus. I'd hoped the good fortune might continue into Sunday, but (other than offering up yet more Red-breasted Flycatchers Ficedula parva for the winter) Au Gu proved quiet and the Pu Zhi River quite unmanageable due to overgrown mangroves and strong sunlight.

Despite the return to normal Sunday, the weekend had been a quite unexpected belter with which to close the year. With nobbut a few days left in it now, Lesser Scaup may well be the last bird to go onto the list this year. Above photos taken at Qi Jin and Gaoxiong 'Labourer's Park', Gaoxiong City, Long Luan Can and Fang Liao, Pingtung County, and Au Gu, Chiayi County 23-25/12/16.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Collared Kingfisher

The first and only Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris of the year turned up while I was out of town on Kinmen. Fortunately, it both hung around and was just 'up the road' on the Ba Zhang River, meaning that it would be possible to successfully twitch it early doors Tuesday. It was always a bit distant whilst it was in view, but remained out in the open for sufficiently long enough for me to fill my boots with it views-wise before leaving for home quite happy.

It's so late in the year now that this bird will probably winter. Collared Kingfisher makes a welcome addition to any domestic year list, but (as species #465 now) it was especially gratifying to be able to add it to this one! Above photos taken on the Ba Zhang River, Tainan County 20/12/16.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Imperial Kinmen

An truly wonderful case of 'saving the best till last' this weekend as I made my fourth and final trip of the year to Kinmen. I had been itching to get out there for the best part of a month, ever since a Lesser Shortwing Brachypteryx leucophrys turned up which seemed to be quite twitchable. However, fancying that this might winter, I kept putting it off and putting it off in the hope that one or two other birds might arrive and I would be able to get the most from my time spent there. A steady trickle of birds gave way to a flood, as a flock of Indochinese Yuhinas Yuhina torqueola were next to turn up and the Lesser Shortwing count increased to around three. These were both followed quickly by, of all things, an Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca! At the time I had wanted to go (last weekend) I found the flights out to be fully booked. This left me with a nervous wait until Friday afternoon (by which time a White-spectacled Warbler Seicercus affinis had also turned up) when I could at last get airborne and find myself winging my way towards Kinmen! As the morning flight had also been fully booked, it would be after 14:00 before I would be out in the field birding. A strong wind had been blowing all day and temperatures had plummeted, so the smartest decision seemed to be to spend the three hours before dusk on the trail of the eagle, the most desired bird of the bunch anyway. Fortunately, this was still around and (on account of its size) was very easy to find. It was not really enjoying the attention of all the photographers, though, and I would only manage flight views of it on this my first afternoon with this magnificent beast!

Expecting a vast throng of photographers at the eagle site Saturday, I went straight to the Dou Men Hiking Trail at first light to see what I could find there. Disappointingly, I got nothing in the first hour, and all was quiet in the cold and windy conditions. It was not until 08:00 that I figured there would be nothing lost in trying a tape, and threw one in at a likely-looking spot. Almost immediately a Lesser Shortwing responded, but with a mere two bursts of song. I was able to pish the bird out into view once I had worked out its location, but this was only for a split-second and a photograph was quite out of the question. I left Dou Men at about 09:00 for some usual aimless driving around, but by 10:00 had returned to find the place completely changed, with Pallas's Leaf Warblers Phylloscopus proregulus and Yellow-browed Warblers Phylloscopus inornatus all over the place, together with one Phyllosc that was calling remarkably like a Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides (recording here) but which I would not see at all well (until the following day). My treat in Phyllosc terms was a Hartert's Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus goodsoni which did pose for my camera, albeit once and only briefly. However, the warblers were put on hold when an obvious tight flock of small and very noisy birds began moving through the canopy in the distance, birds which from all the chattering could only be yuhinas. The flock flew towards me and magically landed in the tree right in front of me, allowing me to get shots of one (out of the twenty or so birds) in the thirty seconds they were twittering away right above my head (after which they simply flew off and I would have neither sight nor sound of them for the remainder of my stay). I had been told that these birds had not been seen for over a week and was expecting to dip on them. Under the circumstances, they have to go down as an unexpected one, all the better as they were my one lifer from the trip. With so many quite excellent birds around, it was a surprise that the resident Chestnut Bulbuls Hemixos castanonotus managed to get a look in (despite their being a big target for the majority of photographers who visit Kinmen).

After an hour or so of playing around with all these birds, I clearly heard a White-spectacled Warbler Seicercus affinis pipe up with its mellow, piped, three/four-note diu-diu-duli, a call I was well primed for being aware that one was at large on the Dou Men Old Path. I got onto it quickly and began snapping away. The bird was of the cognitus form (which lacks any grey whatsoever in its crown) and, unexpectedly, spent most of its time very close to the ground. Despite this, I did reasonably well with it camera-wise as I managed to rattle off more than a few record shots.

This was the second time I had seen this species in winter on Kinmen, though the first time I did not have a camera (unfortunate as there were no prior records at that time). It was nice to finally photograph one anyway, as this tiny Seicercus is a real gem of a warbler. It was after 13:00 when I left Dou Men for the day, after half an hour or so of quiet, to spend the afternoon back with the eagle. Once more it was flighty, and I seemed to find myself perennially on the wrong side of the light when photographing it. The only views I could get of it perched were also somewhat distant, though this hardly mattered in the context of such an otherwise excellent day!

Sunday was once more straight out to the Dou Men Old Path which would be similarly congested with birds as it had been the previous day. First up were not one, but now two White-spectacled Warblers in the same bush together, calling much more frequently this morning than they had been before which meant that I could get a recording of the 'typical' call (recording here). The presumed Greenish Warbler was also very vocal, and it seemed worth trying some playback, the results of which were just astonishing! The second I pressed 'play' on the song of Greenish Warbler, this bird flew in immediately from almost 100 metres away and began calling continuously and looking for the tape (descending from the canopy at one point, too). Unfortunately, the light was atrocious (and the bird incredibly active), but I did at least manage some record shots of this, only my second-ever Greenish Warbler nationally (but also my second this year).

It was late morning and I was ready to give up and head elsewhere when a Lesser Shortwing (three of which had been more vocal in the pleasant conditions this morning, but more distant) began singing from a dark clump of undergrowth about five metres away. A combination of tape work and pishing brought it out into the 'open', and finally I managed to get shots of this bird too, meaning a 'clean sweep' photographically of all the goodies on Kinmen this time round!

I tried a few other spots after leaving the forest close to noon, but all were poor. With just half an hour left before having to return to my hotel to head for the airport, I decided to do a quick 'once' round Shagang Ranch just to say goodbye to the eagle. There were absolutely no photographers around (all departed) and no eagle that I could find, that was until I turned to exit the ranch and found it sat on a concrete pillar on the way out. It seemed not in the least bit concerned when I drove past it, meaning I would be able to stop and whip out my camera and get the photo of Eastern Imperial Eagle I had been hoping to get ever since arriving!

A fly-by Japanese Quail Coturnix japonica brought my last trip to Kinmen this year to an end, all that remained was to ton it back to the hotel to make my plane. I reckon this trip quite comfortably takes the award for 'Best Trip to Kinmen Ever'. It'll take some beating when I find myself back there in five or six weeks' time! Above photos taken on Kinmen 16-18/12/16.