Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Kinmen 2017

I'm now starting to believe that, whatever 'luck' you get apportioned in birding, I must have used all of mine up last year! Chinese New Year brings with it a lengthy holiday and, more often than not, I choose to spend most of this on Kinmen. This year would be no different and (with it being only five weeks or so since I was last there) I had a fair idea of what would be on offer this time round. With a full five days available to me on this visit, my chief targets were, first of all, all of the small stuff that was wintering up the Dou Men Old Path (and better photos of it all this time than last) and, secondly, the resident swamphen (Sp.) on Small Kinmen (and once more some decent photos). My first full morning (Thursday) was therefore spent in search of all the small stuff on Dou Men Old Path, and I would be fortunate enough to connect with all of Indochinese Yuhina Yuhina torqueola, Greenish Warbler Phylloscopus trochiloides and White-spectacled Warbler Seicercus affinis on my very first day. However, all of these would be either flitty or distant, and I would leave without any photos whatsoever. I would at least leave with some sound recordings, though no real improvement on what I had managed last time (Greenish Warbler here; White-spectacled Warbler here). More worryingly, the Lesser Shortwings Brachypteryx leucophrys had been silent throughout the morning, leaving me with a strong suspicion that they had perhaps already departed Kinmen. Slightly disappointed with the morning, I moved off to Ci Lake, where an apparent hybrid American Wigeon Anas americana was swimming around with a bunch of other waterfowl.

Although the red in the eye stripe seemed to give the game away and scream 'hybrid', I couldn't help but be struck by the complete absence of any other pro-hybrid features in this bird's plumage (such as grey in the flanks or solid areas of red in the cheeks). Furthermore, the bird had the correct structure for American Wigeon, with a subtly larger head, longer neck and fuller nape than Eurasian Anas penelope, together with a much longer tail. It was so perfect elsewhere that I started to wonder if this bird might better be classified as an 'aberrant' American Wigeon rather than a hybrid. At worst, it would seem to be an example of a 'backcross' (a fertile hybrid paired with one of the parent species) rather than a 50-50 hybrid, so good were all the structural and plumage features. I was keen to wait around for it to flap to take a look at the axillaries, but got distracted when everything took to the wing flushed by a passing raptor which unexpectedly turned out to be the juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca! I had little choice but to give chase after this magnificent beast but lost it as it drifted over the trees somewhere behind Sha Gang Ranch. When I returned for the wigeon, I was unable to relocate that, too, and thus ended Thursday!

Friday was straight back up the Dou Men Old Path in search of the small stuff there, only once more to find myself frustrated. I spent an incredible length of time on the White-spectacled Warbler in particular and could scarce believe just how hard it was proving to photograph (given that it was actually in view for most of the time I was playing with it). Unlike the previous day, though, the Hartert's Leaf Wabler Phylloscopus goodsoni did at least put in a brief appearance, and I was able to get a short sound recording of its vocalisations ('pitcha' and 'pit-tsit chewa', both here). After a second full morning on the Dou Men Old Path, I left having once more seen everything (bar the shortwing), but with just a handful of half-decent shots of White-spectacled Warbler (and not the one I had wanted) on my camera. Things were to demonstrate that they could in fact stay similarly frustrating in the afternoon when I failed to find anything of note save for a large flock of European Starlings Sturnus vulgaris which were enjoying the free meal on offer to them at Sha Gang Ranch.

The trip reached its nadir point on Saturday when I headed out to Small Kinmen to try for the swamphen, only to spend eight hours in front of the small reedbed there with nothing to show for the time save for a couple of flyby Eurasian Bitterns Botaurus stellaris. Wondering just what it was that I was doing wrong this time round, it was late afternoon when I left to return to the main island, electing to do some general birding elsewhere on Small Kinmen en route back to the ferry terminal. Finally, this policy would at last pay dividends, as I stumbled across a couple of surprise Greylag Geese Anser anser in fields in the north of the island. At last, something unexpected, reasonably approachable, and out in the open for me happy to be photographed!

As the policy of driving around actively looking for things (more my kind of birding anyway) had been the one which had brought the rewards the previous day, I chose to adopt it for Sunday, too, and engaged myself in a mini 'Big Day' (with the target of a hundred species for my penultimate day on Kinmen). This proved to be more enjoyable than just waiting around for things (and then have them not show) and Sunday was by far and away the best day of the trip (and a welcome return to form). First up early doors was an unexpected Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus just to the north of Ci Lake, a real bonus bird, quickly followed by the more expected flock of Chinese Penduline Tits Remiz consobrinus (and any number of spoonbills) behind the lake itself.

The day would offer much more for my camera, including a most unexpected wintering Grey-tailed Tattler Tringa brevipes (my first record of this species in winter, the only other unseasonal tattler I have seen in Taiwan having been a Wandering Tattler Tringa incana). Always on the lookout for the more unusual, I was also keen to pay more attention to the many Stejneger's Stonechats Saxicola stejnegeri that winter on Kinmen (given the excitement one is currently providing back in the UK), though wouldn't as yet know where to start in picking out a vagrant maurus. I also turned up a Bluethroat Luscinia svecica on my wanderings, though this was more wily and almost (but not quite) succeeded in giving me the slip (as I did manage a single record shot by randomly pointing the camera in the approximate spot where I assumed it had landed).

I closed the day with species #107, which proved to be the Eastern Imperial Eagle. Getting so close to this huge bird was a most agreeable way to finish the day, though it would not descend from the canopy and was always awkward against an increasingly grey and gloomy-looking sky.

My final morning on Kinmen was windless and foggy, ideal conditions to try once more for the swamphen. Unfortunately, the wind was forecast to quickly strengthen to Force 5 by 09:00, which (coupled with how unco-operative the swamphen had already proven to be) was sufficient to put me off of trying. Instead, I tried one or two less frequently birded parks, turning up a Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla and later a Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva (a bird I had really wanted to add to my Kinmen list, just to show how poorly understood the wintering range of this species actually is), together with plenty of 'obligatory photograph' holiday Hoopoes Upupa epops.

I suppose you would have to be an exceptional misery to be disappointed with the trip list from this winter's trip to Kinmen, and it does most certainly have to be placed right up there with the best of them. That said, the obligatory cloud still lingers as I had failed quite miserably with both of my initial aims for this particular trip (warbler photos and swamphen), increasingly familiar territory for me this year! It does put into sharp focus just how good my December trip to Kinmen actually was (as indeed was the whole of last year), which thankfully happened to occur when it was of far greater personal significance. Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 26-30/1/17.

Monday, 23 January 2017

The Confused Dunlin

I seem to be replete with stories regarding the 'joys' (or absence thereof) of birding with which to regale the unsuspecting reader at present. I wouldn't say that things were necessarily going well today, but, for an afternoon of aimless driving around Tainan County, connecting with my first Little Stint Calidris minuta of the year at Ding Shan was anyway 'fine'. Not the most leggy of individuals, it wouldn't come especially close, but still close enough to appreciate the structural differences and the subtle differences in feeding pattern between this and the (many) Red-necked Stints Calidris ruficollis nearby (though this bird did always choose to distance itself from them for some reason).

It was whilst sitting waiting patiently for this bird to walk by that a most peculiar thing happened: First a splash, then a Dunlin Calidris alpina swimming around in the middle of the water looking really quite confused (as much as any Dunlin can look confused), obviously having literally fallen straight out of the sky! I've seen this kind of thing happen before when a bird has been clipped by (or had a very near miss with) a raptor, but there was no panic evident amongst the other waders and no raptor in view. A look at the overhead wires quickly resolved the conundrum of 'The Confused Dunlin', as the bird had come into contact with them and left quite a big clue there!

Trying once again to take 'positives' away from my birding experiences, I suppose I did at least get a very crisp photo of a close up Dunlin from the afternoon. Still, I could not escape the feeling that my recent forays out into nature have had more in common with the kind of behaviour modification therapy meted out in A Clockwork Orange than with any enjoyable pastime. Above photos taken at Ding Shan, Tainan County 23/1/17.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Vinous-throated Parrotbill

In dire need of something nice to photograph (and at close quarters, too), I headed up to Ilan this weekend with three big targets in mind, only to discover once there that the first two of them had quite unexpectedly (given the mid-winter date) already gone. The third would have necessitated something of a drive to get to, and with no news either way on it for about a week or so, I found myself not in the correct frame of mind to undertake such a drive. I spent Saturday night at higher elevation in Ilan, optimistic of connecting with some owls, but after four hours of looking and failing there, too, had little option but to throw in the towel. I did have Tundra Swan Cygnus columbianus and Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna on my camera by the end of Saturday, but as very distant specks out on the Lan Yang River. So, come Sunday, there was basically 'nothing' on my camera (a situation I am finding to be increasingly disquieting), and I was really quite relieved to come across a couple of very tame Vinous-throated Parrotbills Sinosuthora webbiana at Xia Pu, meaning I would at least go home with 'something'. (This is me trying to extract 'positives' from the weekend, as the dips were really very large and overshadowed the lot of it!)

The unease and disappointment turned to flat out rage at Xia Pu when I saw just how much of the fabulous reedbed there had been ripped up or burnt for whatever (still inexcusable) reason. (Shall we start the list here? One of the most threatened habitats globally; barely any reedbeds left nationally; significant numbers of wintering Locustella in this reedbed in particular; breeding Purple Heron Ardea purpurea; etcetera etcetera, ad infinitum ad nauseum (and always ineffectual)). There is a simple repeated line in a now very old Fall song where the singer barks out "Look where you are" a couple of times. For some unknown reason, this line has quite extraordinary explanatory power for me, and invariably (and quite involuntarily) comes immediately to mind whenever I encounter things (like this) which leave me with a sense of being 'taken aback'. It succeeds enormously in helping me rationalise phenomena: This is just another manifestation of the 'nature nausea' of the kind expounded in Brave New World. Look where you are! There's nothing at all you can do about any of it, except for marvel at the prescience of Aldous Huxley!

And if you are 'deviant' like me in that you derive any form of pleasure from the dirty and repugnant 'outside' (contra what is dictated to you by your social programming), make the most of it while you can. I (and I am honestly not alone in this) give it all about twenty years! Really not the best of weekends, this one. Above photos taken in what remains of of Xia Pu, Ilan County 22/1/17.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Short-eared Owl

I guess this post should really be titled 'Lesser Scaup (again)', as that was the prime target of the weekend and I did at least succeed in year-ticking it. I had resolved some time after my first visit to Long Luan Can to return and get better photos of the Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis. However, some time between seeing it and subsequently 'resolving', I had forgotten just how bloody awkward the Aythya flock there could be and just how difficult it was to get anywhere near them. In the end, I once again managed nice views of the bird (which I believe to be an adult female) in the 'scope, including some of it wing flapping (when marked contrast between gleaming white secondaries and duller primaries was obvious), but ultimately came away with photos inferior to those I had taken just before Christmas. Despite spending several hours on the bird, it was fairly obvious from the start that I was not goint to manage anything better than 'miles away' this time out!

There was a very nice consolation prize on offer, though, in the form of a Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus. This was flushed off its day roost in a nearby field when a herd of cattle went rampaging through, though I was hidden behind my 'duck tree' and daren't come out (for fear of flushing the duck flock) when it first came unexpectedly flapping by. As I ultimately had to walk past the spot it had landed in to return to my scooter, I came across it a second time, and was amazed to discover that there were in fact three! I got better shots of one of these than I was ever going to manage with the ducks, but these were still far from great as it was blowing an absolute gale for the entire day I spent at Long Luan Can, making the conditions very challenging.

Long Luan Can was it for Saturday, and Sunday was all concerned with the long return drive home. I stopped off at Jia Dong to pick up my King Quail Excalfactoria chinensis for the year (in exactly the same spot I always get them) and flushed a total of six males. I estimate that, once flushed, these birds are in the air for around three seconds, making it quite a challenge to focus on them (and, for a second time armed with a much better camera than I had had before, I succeeded in coming away with nothing more than a bunch of 'bird-shaped' blurs). Next stop was Ying Da Farm as it was also en route home. No big surprises there, with just an Ashy Drongo Dicrurus leucophaeus keen to keep up the 'miles away' theme of the weekend, and an adult Black-naped Oriole Oriolus chinensis doing its best to buck this trend somewhat by venturing more 'into range'.

Some nice birds from the weekend all told but all, for whatever reason, in quite challenging conditions (especially so on account of the wind down at Long Luan Can). Once more further disappointment camera-wise, though, and I feel to be in need of something nice to shoot now, before having a camera succeeds in completely destroying my love of birding! Above photos taken at Long Luan Can, Jia Dong, and Ying Da Farm, Pingtung County 14-15/1/17.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Crested Goshawk

I do hope that this, the first weekend of the year, will also end up being the worst weekend of the year! Not that the bird list was at all bad, it's just that everything I saw seemed to be involved in a 'who can be the furthest away' contest, which meant that I came home with a pretty empty camera all told. The Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis (at about a quarter of a mile away) tried to offer me something to photograph, followed by the Red-breasted Mergansers Mergus serrator, which 'teased' (at about half a mile away), but the accolade of 'furthest away' was quite clearly won by the Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea, which was so far away on the horizon you could also make out the curvature of the Earth when looking at it directly through the 'bins! All of these birds were at Au Gu, and all 'year ticks', but the most sought-after prize (a male Baikal Teal Anas formosa) refused to put in any kind of appearance (at any range), which went a long way to compounding the misery. I was in Au Gu both Saturday and Sunday, with much the same fayre on offer on both days, and it was not until late Sunday that news that threatened to break the deadlock (of a Bull-headed Shrike Lanius bucephalus in a city park in Tainan) magically appeared on eBird. It was already too late to try for it Sunday, but (as it is already proving to be a good winter for rare shrikes wintering in suburban parks) I was there for it early morning Monday, but succeeded only in finding a 'common or garden' Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus for my efforts!

Still, this did leave me at least one photo from the weekend I could post on this stupid blog! Despite their being plenty of good stuff on offer up and down the country this winter, it does feel to be about time that something new turned up! Above photos taken at An Ping Old Fort, Tainan City 9/1/17.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Collared Kingfisher (again)

Having very much enjoyed my second helpings of the Burmese Shrike Lanius collurioides over the long weekend, it also seemed that no harm could possibly come of making the short drive north to the Ba Zhang River this morning for a similar second look at the wintering Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris. The bird had been wary and always at range when I had first seen it in December, meaning that my photos of it all were grainy and poor. I was hopeful that I would be able to do better with it photographically today and optimistic that the bird would be somewhat more confiding. Much like the shrike, this time round it proved to be more than happy to oblige.

There was nothing else out on the river, save for a distant Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes. Both the drives out and home suggested that, just like last year, the Ding Shan Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula had done a bunk right on the turn of the year. Oh, well, some you win, some you lose, I suppose. Above photos taken on the Ba Zhang River, Tainan County 4/1/17.