Saturday 20 June 2015

Escaping the Heat - Parrotbills on Tai Mo Shan

The summer heat have been quite unbearable, with temperature soaring up to 36°C these few days. The city with it's high-rise skyscrapers and concrete roads is the ideal habitat for a heat wave, only when you retreat to somewhere with more greenery can you be spared from the scorching sun and boiling tarmac.

Grassy slopes of Tai Mo Shan

Tai Mo Shan, our tallest mountain offers a slightly cooler retreat, where temperature can be 5-6°C lower then the rest of the city. My parents and I drove up there this morning for a short walk. The temperature was much more pleasant and the summit sheltered us from the morning sun. Brown-flanked Bush Warblers were calling everywhere, we found a pair of juveniles hopping about in the undergrowth, they came out into view with a little pishing but stayed quite far away.

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler juv.

I heard a few Russet Bush Warbler calling from higher up the slope, I tried calling one in with my recording but it didn't get any closer. They have a very distinctive cricket like call, going "zee-bit, zee-bit". We got to the patch of tall grass where I saw the Chinese Grassbird a few months ago but I heard none (, only a few Plain Prinia fluttered about in the grass. Chinese Francolins called constantly, at one point a male was very close to us and we caught a glimpse of it behind a tree, however the bird sneaked off as I attempt to get a better view, they are very sneaky birds...we waited for another 15 minutes but it never came back out.

On our way back I heard the call of the Vinous-throated Parrotbill, and just up ahead a flock of small birds flew out from some short bamboos. We snuck up towards the bamboos and played the recording, soon a few of these little birds came to check us out! They were a bit curious but remained well in cover, I only managed to snap a few shots before this one hopped off back into the undergrowth. The Vinous-throated Parrotbill is the only Parrotbill species in Hong Kong, where they are restricted to the summit of Tai Mo Shan. Curiously, they are not rare in Mainland China or Taiwan, where they can be seen in the lowlands, which makes you wonder why this species is restricted to one summit in Hong Kong...Though not the best photograph of this species, it's the first photo I ever got, so I am still quite pleased with this one.

Vinous-throated Parrotbill

Sunday 14 June 2015

Forest Birds Research - Luo Fu Shan, Huizhou

My 3rd research trip with Captain Wong. This time we travelled to Luo Fu Shan (羅浮山) near Huizhou, approximately 100km from Hong Kong. Brother Kei, a friend of Captain was kind enough to be our driver of the trip. We left Hong Kong from Huanggang Port at around 6:30pm, and walked to the carpark where Brother Kei kept his car in Shenzhen. After dinner we set off for the two hour drive towards Luo Fu Shan.

Forests at Luo Fu Shan

Luo Fu Shan is one of the ten sacred Taoism mountain in China. Standing at 1296m is the summit Fei Yun Ding. The climate is quite typical of sub tropical ever green forest of South China, where it is wet and humid all year round. It is now a major tourist attraction near Huizhou, which no doubt causes some disturbance to the forest. Though it is reputed as a good birding site close to Hong Kong, this mountain is no doubt extremely under birded, with very little local birders or visiting birders going, many potential species may still be lurking somewhere waiting to be added onto the list! A few key species make this place worth going, including Silver Pheasants, Chinese Bamboo Partridges and Spot-breasted Scimitar-babblers which have been recorded here before.

Though we encountered some heavy traffic at Shenzhen, it was quite smooth rest of the way. We chose a nearby hotel that was reasonably priced and stayed the night there. Upon arrival we heard an Oriental Scops Owl calling outside, a species rare in Hong Kong.

We got up at 6am and headed to the park entrance around 6:30am. Unfortunately, the park gate doesn't open until 7am! We could not find any information about the opening hours beforehand, the lack of information can be quite frustrating. Many Barn Swallows were seen nesting near the park entrance. The entrance fee set us back 60RMB each! Which we thought was overpriced.

Barn Swallow

We quickly got the tickets when the ticket booth opened and started our ascend up the mountain. We don't plan to go all the way up top, but were more interested with the forest near the lower to middle slopes. Upon one of the first interesting bird we saw was a Drongo Cuckoo, a species that actually breeds here in the summer, but only recorded as a vagrant during migration season in Hong Kong. It's distinctive "I'm a Drongo Cuckoo" call is hard to miss. A juvenile Scarlet Minivet caught my sight, it carries the pattern of a female and reddish tint from the male.

Roads going up the mountain were quite well built

Drongo Cuckoo

Scarlet Minivet juvenile

Chinese Barbets kept calling constantly, another species that was not recorded in Hong Kong until this year, but is very common here. Chestnut Bulbuls and Mountain Bulbuls were moderately common.

Chestnut Bulbul

Mountain Bulbul

We finally got a good look at a Chinese Barbet further up, one individual responded well to playbacks and gave fairly good views, though not good enough for any proper good photographs. This beautifully coloured Barbet seems to be increasing in numbers and no doubt have the potential to spread and colonise Hong Kong. The recent record from Tai Po Kau is still under review, but I am surprise this species have not been recorded earlier considering how common they are up here just 100km away from Hong Kong.

Chinese Barbet

Bird activities were a bit slow, we didn't see much else except a flock of Striated Yuhinas and Blue-winged Minlas. A pair of Minlas were showing nesting behaviours, they no doubt are breeding residents here. interestingly, the Blue-winged Minlas in Hong Kong have been long considered to have came from a captive origin. Finding wild populations towards the North may help us understand further whether some species could have been part of the original avifauna in Hong Kong.

Blue-winged Minla

We reached to a platform near the upper cable car station, but we heard thunder brewing up in the clouds above and decided against going up any further. We saw a Changable Lizard basking on top of a dead trunk. On our way down, a sudden downpour came in a flash and soaked us through! Nothing could shelter us from the heavy rain so we just tried our best not to get our equipments and bags too wet. We finally reached a small shop and took shelter there, the rain didn't last long and soon the sun came back out again. But the rain have left us completely soaked from head to toe.

Changable Lizard

After the rain, bird activities picked up slightly, we got quite a few Black Bulbuls but they stayed quite far away. A male Orange-bellied Leafbird basked in the sun to dry itself off after the downpour. Just around the same area we found yet another Drongo Cuckoo.

Black Bulbul

Orange-bellied Leafbird

Drongo Cuckoo

Further down we saw a few Grey Treepies, a juvenile was kind enough to show itself to us in full view. This is quite a shy species and good views are not always easy. Scarlet Minivets were very common. A very large Ground Beetle was seen feeding on a dead earthworm, I am no insect expert but it looks to be one of the calosoma sp.

Grey Treepie

Scarlet Minivet

calosoma Beetle sp.

Back down near the entrance, a pair of Great Barbet called from a tall tree. It took us a while to locate them. I haven't seen this species in Hong Kong for quite a long while, surprisingly this is one of the declining forest bird species in Hong Kong at the moment. I only managed a record shot of this species, but this is only my first photo record!

Great Barbet

Though we didn't encounter anything particularly exciting, Luo Fu Shan proof to be a site that is well worth visiting. The forest seems to be holding up quite well with some fairly mature patches. The fact that many ground and undergrowth dwelling birds can be found suggest that stretches of more primitive forest have survived. Certainly a perfect weekend destination from Hong Kong for getting the few species we don't usually see.

Thursday 11 June 2015

The Painted Snipe Show

A pair of Greater Painted Snipe have been reported breeding at Mai Po since last month. I haven't caught up with them yet, so I decided to use my morning of day off to find them. Though Long Valley have the highest density of this species in Hong Kong, a few odd pairs breed occasionally at Mai Po.

I got there early as I wanted to avoid the scorching sun. However, the sun was already very bright when I got there at 8am with temperature going right up to 30ºC. I found two Little Grebe nest on the way, a single chick was spotted. Grebes build their nests on water, where they float on the surface and are usually secured by tying their "raft" onto stems of grass or other vegetation.

Little Grebe on nest

When I got to the bird hide my shirt was already soaked! The first birds I saw there were a few Black-winged Stilt fledgelings, they were right up in front of the hide. Black-winged Stilts used to be migrants to Hong Kong but have slowly established themselves as a regular breeder. It's always fun to watch these young birds go about their business.

Black-winged Stilt adult and chicks

Their nervous parents were always on the lookout for danger, chasing away any intruders that dare come close into their territory. I haven't observe breeding stilts properly before, and their aggression truly amazed me. Each pair guard their own "air zone" and chase off the intruders with threatening calls and physical attacks, they sometimes uses their long legs to "kick" the intruding birds. For the record, the following were seen being chased by these usually mellow waders: White Wagtails, Black-collared Starlings, Little Egrets, Intermediate Egrets, Great Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Avocets and a Black Kite...However, the only bird that couldn't careless were the Great Egrets, they simply ducked their heads when they were dive bombed and carried on feeding! What attitude!

Black-winged Stilt and Great Egret

Finally, the star of the day. The female Painted Snipe showed exceptionally well today, which was the main reason for my visit because I have had enough of half hidden views at Long Valley, where I usually just get to see half or part of the bird! Here, they come right into the open, though they still remains quite nervous if they see any odd movement inside the hide or when I accidentally dropped my bag on the floor. The lights were not particularly good, but I managed some good shots when a cloud float past, diffusing the hard light and giving an overall more mellow exposure.

Greater Painted Snipe (female)

After two hours of waiting, I finally caught sight of the male with two chicks. They came out briefly into the open. The male was a lot more alert and took extra care when coming out into the open. Greater Painted Snipe have a very unusual breeding habit, firstly, the females are more colourful which is unusual in the animal kingdom (except for us human I guess). During mating season, the females attract the males to mate with her, then she will lay eggs in the nest which the male have already built and leave the male to incubate the eggs. The male will care for the fledgelings once they hatched until they are big enough to be independent. As I see it, all Painted Snipe families are tragic; divorced parents, single Father caring for three kids! The male later led the chicks to another island in the scrape, the sight of Painted Snipes crossing open water in broad day light was quite a sight!

Greater Painted Snipe (male with chicks)

The female was as usual...minding her own business. The bird put on quite a show and gave good photograph opportunities. It's good to see that Painted Snipes are also doing well outside Long Valley. With New Territories to be under heavy development pressure in the next decade, I sometimes worry about the future of our countryside and the animals that rely on it. Hopefully, these amazing creatures can hang on for generations to come.

Greater Painted Snipe (female)