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.

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