Monday, 29 January 2018

Wild Kinmen!

My annual winter trip to Kinmen was completed this (long) weekend, and I have no idea really what to make of it. It was undeniably a successful one, with two big targets (Russet Bush Warbler Locustella mandelli and Booted Eagle Aquila pennata) both seen quite well, but still it was an experience I would not care to repeat! I set off late Wednesday afternoon in strengthening winds and arrived with only half an hour's light to spare. This didn't seem to matter much, as the forecast was for a steady improvement in conditions over the four days I was due to spend there. I was disappointed, then, to awake Thursday to very strong winds, and this would deteriorate into a major depressive episode when they increased to gale force on Friday! I had managed to hear the Russet Bush Warbler in its preferred bush (and remarkably make a field recording of it singing (here) in the worst of the winds Friday), but had dipped completely Thursday afternoon (in good conditions, actually, with every other raptor up) on the Booted Eagle. I had more on my tape recorder than on my camera come Friday night, as I had also recorded calls of Brownish-flanked Bush Warbler Horornis fortipes (here). Indeed, all I had on my camera after two days of dawn to dusk birding were a single Richard's Pipit Anthus richardi and a Chinese Bulbul Pycnonotus sinensis! I had become so concerned that I was going to leave with nothing whatsoever photo-wise that Chinese Bulbul had become a bit of a priority, as it would at least give me an opportunity to compare the race on Kinmen with those on Taiwan in the inevitable blog post!

It took until Saturday for things to improve, with clearing skies and the winds dropping to below gale force (but remaining strong). Still, things got off to the worst possible start when the bush warbler failed to sing in the first three hours of daylight. I then had to decide what to do with the remainder of my last full day on Kinmen, and set off on a panic-stricken tour of the island to put something on my camera. Remarkably, I ran into Chinese Penduline Tit Remiz consobrinus (about fourteen) immediately at Xi Yuan Lake. These flew high to the west (and I would later hear them calling at Lake Ci) the second I pressed my shutter, leaving me with just a handful of images. A Brown-cheeked Rail Rallus indicus was also creeping around Xi Yuan Lake, but as this was not a priority I could not be bothered with the long wait getting decent photos of it would necessarily entail!

Instead, I set off in pursuit of the returning Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca at Sha Gang, one I really could not miss on a winter trip to Kinmen, and managed to pick it up very quickly after arriving. A little disappointingly, I only got very distant images if it, though admittedly I do find these quite pleasing with a murky Tai Wu Shan in the background.

More importantly, whilst at Sha Gang, my phone beeped with a message from Cai Zhi-Yuan relaying the co-ordinates of the Booted Eagle. I did already know these, but had assumed from having spent all afternoon at them Thursday that the bird had left the area in the fine weather of the previous week, and that it was not a bird that was lingering. However, something about the wording of this message put renewed doubt in my mind, as the verb phrase chosen was 'hanging around' (that particular area). Although I had already given up on this bird mentally, the message put pressure on my psyche as I would feel pretty stupid if the bird was actually still present and I had missed it by virtue of not affording it sufficient time. So, even though it was already late in the day (13:30), and even though I was expecting nothing more than to waste a further three hours (to add to the two days of 'waste' accrued already by Thursday and Friday), I chose once more to travel across to Small Kinmen for one last look for this mega eagle. Astonishingly, the bird appeared in the sky within five minutes of my arriving at the designated co-ordinates!

The bird simply appeared out of nowhere, circled a couple of times, then began a descent into a wooded area on top of the hill in front of me. I was optimistic that it was ultimately going to emerge at head height, giving me an opportunity to rattle off some full frame photos of this very unlikely vagrant! However, it simply dropped into the trees and did not reappear at all, despite blue skies, dropping winds, and (dare one say it) even a modicum of warmth now in the day. Jubilant but at the same time cheesed off that what images I had were distant and grainy, I stopped off at Ling Xue Lake en route back to the ferry terminal, where I did at least add Greater Coucal Centropus sinensis to a now slowly growing list off birds photographed this trip.

On my final morning, the wind had dropped to zero and, not surprisingly, I found myself once more back at the Russet Bush Warbler site. With no wind to contend with this morning, this seemed like the best day of the four to actually try and see the thing. Once it began singing, I lay on my belly and stuck my head in the bush for a better look around! After about ten minutes or so after finishing singing, it came hopping past (at less than two metres' distance), and I was able to clearly see a plain russet-brown face, a russet-brown back, and a few rows of black spots in a white throat! Obviously, the bird was startled on clocking a big ruddy face in its bush, and shot past after nothing more than a two-second (but clear) view, and that was that for Russet Bush Warbler! Having spent around ten hours on this bird already (for just a two-second view) it didn't take much wit to realise that that was likely all I was going to get from it, so I left the area pretty much straight away, absolutely thrilled that I had finally managed to see this almost impossible bird! The wind was once more starting to strengthen, and this time there was the added bonus of rain, severely limiting my choices of where to go next. In the end, the best thing I found with the remainder of the day under darkening skies was a hybrid Mallard x Eastern Spot-billed Duck, and this brought to a close to my four day stint on Kinmen, three of which had actually been a bit of a write-off!

At least, that was intended to be the end, but the minute I arrived at the airport late Sunday afternoon  my phone beeped once more with notification of a flock of Scarlet Minivets Pericrocotus speciosus on Small Kinmen. Unfortunately, UniAir will allow customers to change their flight schedules, so once at the check-in counter I chose to add another day to my stay and twenty minutes later was back at the hotel I had just left, demanding a fifth night from the bemused owner (who had just driven me to the airport). So, Monday was a case of back to Small Kinmen on the first available ferry and spending all day looking for the minivets. The area they had apparently been in was also within sight of the eagle hill, so it was also in the back of my mind that I might be able to get better shots of this, too. Ultimately though, neither the minivets nor the eagle would show, and it was furthermore raining heavily early morning and cloudy all day long, with a strong and bitterly cold wind blowing also. My final day trip to Small Kinmen did allow me to put a few common warblers on my camera, and also an unexpected pair of Grey Treepies Dendrocitta formosae, but otherwise it was yet another write-off to add to the collection from this trip!

Come late afternoon, I was back at the airport checking in for my return flight to Tainan (with my phone switched off just in case). Unlike previous trips to Kinmen, I had this time fallen foul of the weather. In fact, all of the best birds had been picked up in 24-hour period from late morning Saturday through to late morning Sunday. Otherwise, four out of five days had actually been a total write-off! Thank Heaven the one window in the prevailing grot had been sufficient to pick up everything that mattered! Above photos taken on Kinmen Island, 25-29/1/18.

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