Sunday, 30 April 2017

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

It looked as though the poor run of form I've been experiencing throughout much of this year was set to continue into this weekend, too, but that spell really has now well and truly ended! (Hooray!) My original plan for the weekend had been to head up to Gong Liao for dragonflies, but I discovered Thursday afternoon that there would be a marathon up there (meaning nowhere to stay), so I knew I needed to quickly look for alternatives. The ferry to Dongyin is all but impossible to get on these days, and flights out to Kinmen had been fully booked when I had checked earlier in the week, so depressingly both of these also looked like non-starters. However, something really very remarkable happened late Thursday, as a single seat became available on the outward flight to Kinmen for the following morning, with yet another single seat available for a Sunday return! Kinmen had come onto my radar big time following the quite outrageous discovery of Taiwan's (and most certainly East Asia's) first Blue-cheeked Bee-eater Merops persicus at a bee-eater colony there the previous weekend, a bird which had not been relocated after first being seen (and was widely assumed to have gone). Even though I was not expecting to connect with this mega (and didn't plan on spending too much time looking for it), I figured there would be nothing lost in heading out to Kinmen anyway as there should be enough on the island late April to keep me entertained (sufficient to justify my first trip away from Qi Gu this spring). It looked once more as though I had gotten it all wrong Friday when I discovered not a single bee-eater at the target colony, and had nothing more on my camera at the end of the day than just a couple of Eurasian Oystercatchers Haematopus ostralegus, a (Swinhoe's) Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus (dealbatus), and a solitary (and rather late) Little Curlew Numenius minutus!

Saturday got off to a similarly poor start, with just a non-seen Pale-legged Leaf Warbler Phylloscopus tenellipes calling along the Dou Men Path and little else (bar one or two other more expected birds, also 'heard only'). However, en route back to the bee-eater colony, I received direct communication from the Gods in the form of a magnificent eagle! I interpreted this as harbinger of a great victory about to come, and it lifted up my spirits immediately! (Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela is actually a rarity on Kinmen, and represented the first decent find of the trip.)

When I arrived at the bee-eater colony, I found it absolutely packed with Blue-tailed Bee-eaters Merops philippinus and looking a whole lot more promising than it had done the day before! After about an hour or so of looking, I sat down in the hope that one or two of these might settle closer to me (as they were exceptionally shy and difficult to approach) so that I would be able to get some photographs. It was then that the miracle happened: a bee-eater with a distinctly (strikingly) white forehead flew towards me and directly overhead! I got onto it with the 'bins quickly and could see that it also had uniform green upperparts (lacking any bronze tones) and limited colour in the throat: surely the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater! The bird was present (but awkward, and quite unapproachable) for about an hour or so, after which it disappeared. In that time, I was at least able to get a few record shots of this utterly gorgeous and not at all expected bird!

It was baking hot around noon and the bird had already disappeared for at least an hour, so I headed up to the Botanical Gardens in search of shade. There I was finally given the opportunity to try out my new flash on some dragonflies, and surprisingly did find a new one: a Saffron-faced Blue Dart Pseudagrion rubriceps. The remaining species were all very common (Orange-tailed Sprite Ceriagrion auranticum, Black-kneed Featherlegs Copera ciliata, and Wandering Midget Agriocnemis pygmaea), but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to play with those as well. Kinmen still has one further damsel that does not occur on Taiwan proper, but I've really no idea just where that one hangs out. I also got views of Chestnut-winged Cuckoo Clamator coromandus in the Botanical Gardens, the most ridiculous of the species to have eluded me last year!

I got little else from the day, so all hopes ended up being pinned on Sunday back at the bee-eater site (where I hoped to do better photographically with the Blue-cheeked). I arrived at first light, and the bird took about an hour or so to show up. Fortunately, it chose to give one close flyby, meaning that I could get a small number of shots (two, actually) that I could leave Kinmen happy with. I also managed a distant and rather poor sound recording of it (here), which does seem to reveal a subtle difference in the quality of the call between this and the much more numerous Blue-tailed Bee-eaters. (The Blue-cheeked Bee-eater is the bird calling with the lower pitched, flatter call in the background on the recording; the more excitable foreground noises are those of Blue-tailed Bee-eater). The call of this species is subtly flatter (left- and rightmost marks on the sonogram), with a range of between 2000-3000 Hz. On Blue-tailed Bee-eater, the max. height is closer to 4000.

I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to get shots of Blue-tailed Bee-eater whilst I was surrounded by them, either, but this proved to be easier said than done when you are visible to them (they really are shy). I managed sound recordings of an individual (here) and of an excited flock (here). The calls of the individual are slightly higher than those of the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater.

Getting shots of both species allowed me to knock up a composite in which both species could be compared. The Blue-cheeked Bee-eater was really very straightforward to pick out amongst the Blue-taileds, both when perched and in flight. In both cases, the white forehead (which produced an altogether pale-looking 'front end') was the most obvious feature to look for.

The bird once more disappeared late morning, presumably to feed somewhere away from the colony, and I gave up on the wait just before noon. My subsequent tour of the island to pick up whatever I could with the time I had left produced little else, but this was anyway completely irrelevant. With what will doubtless prove to be the best bird of this year in the bag from this trip (and the only bird new for my domestic list so far this year), it really wouldn't have mattered if I'd seen nothing whatsoever! Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 28-30/4/17.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Terek Sandpiper

After the very promising build-up, the weekend (with its much anticipated overcast skies and small amount of overnight rain) turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, really. My coastal woodlots were once more empty throughout, and were quite literally so on Saturday, leaving me with just the sandbar to go at (where just one or two rather restless Sanderlings Calidris alba to play with).  

Sunday was little better, with flybys from a Chinese Egret Egretta eulophotes and a close Short-tailed Shearwater Ardenna tenuirostris breaking the deadlock and making the effort worthwhile.

Bird of the day, somewhat surprisingly, was a Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus, which came ridiculously close whilst hunting crabs and caught one less than ten metres in front of me. It was quite wonderful to sit watching this thing clowning about dealing with its meal! It looks like it's the body of the crab that it's after, and the legs need first removing before this gets swallowed.

Not quite what I had had in mind from the weekend, but enjoyable nevertheless. It has been several years since I spent the whole spring in Qi Gu and just watched all the common migrants come through. After the excesses of last year, an average one this time round will do just fine! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 22-23/4/17.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Swinhoe's everything!

I was all primed to hit the north coast this weekend on a quest for dragonflies (to the point even of procuring a decent flash to get better shots of said insects), but on Wednesday morning something quite unthinkable happened: I entered my woodlot to find it packed with migrants! First up was a cracking Rufous-tailed (alternatively Swinhoe's) Robin Larvivora sibilans! Unfortunately, these are not the easiest of birds to shoot, and there seemed always to be something in the way of this one! 

Consolation for lousy shots of the robin came in the form of several flycatchers in the woodlot itself, the most showy of these being an approachable Ferruginous Flycatcher Muscicapa ferruginea. This was joined later on by a far less approachable adult male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone atrocaudata and a real split-second job Narcissus Flycatcher Ficedula narcissina. Although female Narcissus Flycatchers are notoriously hard to provenance, this scruffy individual seemed to have the look of an owstoni about it for some reason.


I had chosen to leave my flash at home Wednesday, something I would come to regret when I stumbled across a nice male Hyaline Dusk Hawker Gyncantha hyalina. After clearing a bit of foliage, the built-in flash on my camera proved sufficient to cope with things (once the output had been set to max) and at least allow me a record shot of this admittedly very common species. A few nervy Eyebrowed Thrushes Turdus obscurus were also frequenting the same area. 

Obviously, I was straight back in the woodlot Thursday morning to find pretty much the same birds present. Unfortunately, the most desirable of these (the male Japanese Paradise Flycatcher) had departed overnight. However, it had been replaced by a female Swinhoe's Minivet Pericrocotus cantonensis, a far rarer bird in the context of Qi Gu (only my third). Although this was always rather awkward, I did manage  a few shots of it, just not the clean portrait shot I was after!

I was surprised on my way home to find several birds out on the sandbar for a change. The best of these was an approachable Chinese (alternatively Swinhoe's) Egret Egretta eulophotes, but the most impressive the many hundreds of Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus that were resting on the sand whilst the tide was out. These continued north once the tide pushed them off the sandbar, and one or two Common Terns Sterna hirundo gave flybys in the absence of anywhere to land.

Things had returned to normal a bit Friday, with most of the birds in the woodlot having departed. Although the diversity had fallen, as many as three Ferruginous Flycatchers were now present, and I also found a group of three Pechora Pipits Anthus gustavi creeping around in a shady area.

I was kicking myself a bit Friday for not having taken my scope, as the conditions early morning looked excellent for a seawatch. With pretty much 'everything Swinhoe's' bagged over the last few days, you would think that the storm petrel must have been flapping around offshore somewhere! With thunderstorms forecast for the weekend, it might make for a decent time to look! Above photos taken in Qi Gu, Tainan County 19-21/4/17.