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.

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