Thursday 29 October 2015

Wader watch!

Many waders are notoriously difficult to distinguish; their forever repeating patterns and shear numbers all tightly packed together have given many birders serious headaches in the past, you need a strong stomach to commit hours of wader watching, or else you will end up feeling dizzy and nauseated, leaving you defeated in a pool of your own vomit (OK, I am exaggerating slightly, but you get the idea).

I myself have never been a keen wader watcher, nor a particularly skilled one. But once in a while I still need to sharpen my skills to keep my wader knowledge from rusting. So, I took that up today and spent a day at Mai Po. Things were pretty quiet to begin with, a juvenile Purple Heron perched on a mangrove tree near the entrance.

Purple Heron

I headed towards pond 16 & 17 and found flocks of waders congregating. On my way a friendly Greenshank greeted me. I got into bird hide number 5 and found the scrape covered with waders, a truly wonderful sight to behold and we who live in Hong Kong are truly privileged to have this spectacle right at our doorstep.

Greenshank - the friendly one

Waders at Mai Po

The first interesting bird I found while scanning the scrape was a single Little Tern, a species I usually see in Spring. This time I get to see one in non-breeding plumage. It was pretty far away, only manage a record shot. At a glance I found the following: Pied Avocets, Black-winged Stilts, Little-ringed Plovers, Greater Sand Plover, Whimbrels, Black-tailed Godwits, Redshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Marsh Sandpipers, Greenshanks, Great Knots, a single Terek Sandpiper and Dunlins. 

Little Tern

Scanning further I found a few Far Eastern Curlews amongst the Eurasian Curlew, here is a distant flight shot I managed, you can clearly see the difference. Suddenly the whole flock of waders took to the air, all crying and calling loudly. It's always spectacular to see thousands of waders take flight at the same time. All birders will learn to recognise this as a sign of an incoming raptor, everyone in the bird hide looked up at an instance.

Far Eastern Curlew - comparison shot with Eurasian Curlew

Black-tailed Godwits - mostly

Greenshanks in flight 

Surely, right above us was an Eastern Marsh Harrier, circling around looking for a quick meal. It didn't manage to catch anything this time however and drifted slowly away.

Eastern Marsh Harrier

After the commotion, I went back to scanning the waders once the birds settled down. I didn't find anything of much interest. A Little Egret kept fluttering about in front of the bird hide, asking desperately to have a photograph taken. A Chinese Spot-billed Duck swam past.

Little Egret

Chinese Spot-billed Duck

I finally spotted something remotely interesting, a single Long-billed Dowitcher. This wader is a scarce migrant and winter visitor to Hong Kong. Breeding in Alaska and Northern Russia, most of the population winters in America, while a small population winters in Asia. The bird was pretty far away, therefore another record shot.

Long-billed Dowitcher

A flock of Spoonbills were also present, they have only recently return to Hong Kong from their breeding grounds. Close inspection revealed two Eurasian Spoonbills amongst the small flock, we get much fewer Eurasian Spoonbills in Hong Kong, although Black-faced Spoonbills are much rarer globally.

Flock of Spoonbills

Black-faced Spoonbill

Eurasian Spoonbill

The waders slowly flew away flock after flock, most will return to the mudflats to feed in the retreating tide. Nothing much were around for the rest of the way, a Cinerous Tit posed on the metal fence, my first Eastern Buzzard this season and a Pied Kingfisher performing it's party trick (hovering) in front of the bird hide.

Cinerous Tit

Eastern Buzzard

Pied Kingfisher

After Mai Po I saw that I still had a bit of time before I had other business to attend, so I dropped by Long Valley very quickly. The short visit was relatively productive. Three Yellow-breasted Buntings and a Chestnut-eard Bunting. I finally connected with the Black-headed Bunting that's supposedly been around for sometime! This species used to be very rare in Hong Kong, but ever since they re-introduced paddy fields into Long Valley, this species have became a regular visitor. While walking a long the tracks, I flushed a small Quail, I quickly picked up my bins before it landed and found myself clearly looking at a Yellow-legged Button-Quail! It was however unfortunate that after two flushing I could not locate it and it flew right into some dense vegetation (It flew right out from the side of my boots at one point!). However brief the encounter was, I still consider this a lucky one!

Black-headed Bunting

Saturday 24 October 2015

Forest Birds Research - Yinpingshan Forest Park #2

The second Yinpingshan Forest Park(銀瓶山森林公園)visit for me, and third for Captain. After the first visit I have found this site worthy of a few more attempts, the forested area is quite large, nearly equivalent to the entire Tai Mo Shan Country Park in size, while the habitat seems decent enough to hold some interesting species.

We stayed overnight at Zhang Mu Tou (樟木頭) again, the high speed railway got us there in no time. Friday night was not as busy as expected, we got settled into our hotel room and got some rest. The next morning we got up at 6am, after another KFC breakfast we hopped onto a Taxi straight away which took us directly to the entrance of Yinpingshan Forest Park (70RMB).

Guan Yin Zuo Lian Gu Dao (觀音座蓮古道) was clearly our best choice of trail, we followed it up the hill. We immediately were greeted by calls of Pygmy Wren Babblers and Lesser Shortwings, which seemed quite active today. Our first bird was however a male Daurian Redstart, a recently arrived winter visitor to our region, the first one for me this season!

Daurian Redstart

Bird activity was slow, Mountain Tailorbirds were also calling but none showed themselves. It wasn't until we got to where we saw the Piculet last time that we heard something interesting, the call of the Bay Woodpecker. This species have been recorded here before, but we have not found this bird in our visits. I played a recording of the bird and a pair flew right in giving some half decent views, though they didn't stay long and soon flew out of sight, leaving us with their haunting calls. Still, a record shot none the less!

Bay Woodpecker

Flocks of Chestnut-collared Yuhinas kept us entertained though they were quite high up and views were not good, an interesting bird to note was a single Radde's Warbler that skulked in the undergrowth, calling constantly. It's call is easily recognised and distinguished from the similar Dusky Warbler by it's softer and more muffled tone. It did not stay long nor did it allow any photographs to be taken. Things were pretty quiet afterwards, I managed to get a clear shot at a Mountain Tailorbird. Commoner birds such as Grey-chinned Minivets made appearances.

Mountain Tailorbird

Grey-chinned Minivet

It wasn't until near the end of the trail we found some interesting species, including a flock of Blue Magpie. Lesser Shortwings were very active today, but none showed well, we found one that responded well to playback but remained fairly well hidden in the undergrowth, I only managed some record shots. 

Lesser Shortwing

We heard our second pair of Bay Woodpecker, I immediately played a burst of playback and the pair responded very quickly! One actually flew out to the open at one point, which gave very good views (Bay Woodpecker standard), allowing Captain and I to take a few half decent shots before they disappeared. Captain most definitely got some better shots then I did, which make me consider very seriously about upgrading either my camera body or my lens (or both!). Bay Woodpeckers are very widespread throughout the region but is never easy to see well, this was one of my best encounter with this species so far. Seeing them so well established here, it's clear that the Hong Kong birds that have only became regulars in recent years come from forest reserves similar to this, which indicate places like Yin Ping Shan as important stepping stones for forest birds dispersal.

Bay Woodpecker

It was extremely quiet the rest of the way, we barely saw a bird! A flock of Red-billed leiothrix at close range compensated. This species have been found in all forest sites we have been to so far, and seems to be doing quite well if not better then the birds in Hong Kong. Likely because there are less competition here then in Hong Kong?

Red-billed Leiothrix

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Something to be cheerful about - Bull-headed Shrike

Took half a day off, main reason being I really want to try my luck with the Amur Falcon. I first started the afternoon at Ma Tso Lung area, but nothing much were there except for a fly-by Japanese Quail, it never showed itself from the tall grass once landed. With nothing else interesting I headed over to Long Valley.

It started slow, birds didn't quite want to show themselves, the Buntings were all hiding somewhere. A Richard's Pipit gave fairly good views, there were quite a few of them on the fields. A few Red-throated Pipits were also present, you don't really see the "red throats" at this time of the year.

Richard's Pipit

Red-throated Pipit

Siberian Stonechats numbers have increased drastically, you see them everywhere now.

Siberian Stonechat

Things picked up slightly when I got to a field with tall grass, where a Black-browed Reed Warbler made an appearance, it showed fairly well though photographing them is still a huge challenge. I managed these two half decent shots.

Black-browed Reed Warbler

Things got interesting when I suddenly saw a bird perched on top of a tall grass at a distance. I looked through my bins and saw a shrike, initially I thought it could be a Brown Shrike, but once the bird turned around it was clear what it was; a male Bull-headed Shrike. This is only my second male seen in Hong Kong, I usually see females or juveniles. A very handsome bird indeed! Though it remained quite skittish and was flushed very easily, never allowing you to get close. This was the only half decent shot I managed.

Bull-headed Shrike - A scarce migrant and winter visitor in Hong Kong

Things got a little quiet after the Shrike, a few Chestnut-eared Buntings showed briefly but views weren't great. I also found a Painted Snipe amongst some tall grass. A few Sooty-headed Bulbuls kept me entertained at one point.

Sooty-headed Bulbul

The most photogenic bird appeared all of a sudden, a male Yellow-breasted Bunting in non-breeding plumage! These are usually skittish birds but sometimes you get an odd bird that's not shy at all. This was one of those, and what a beauty it was! A truly privileged view of this now endangered species. The day ended with a Japanese Sparrowhawk that flew past, a Peregrine Falcon hunting for bats at dusk, finally two Cinnamon Bitterns before it went dark.

Yellow-breasted Bunting

Saturday 17 October 2015

Quail and a few odd birds

Got news of a few Yellow-legged Button-quails at Long Valley in the morning circled around, so I decided to head over and check it out in the afternoon. The fields filled with Yellow Wagtails, a few Red-throated Pipits were there as well. But otherwise things seemed quiet.

The first interesting bird I saw was indeed a Quail, not a Button-quail but a Japanese Quail. We get these as regular migrants and winter visitors, though their numbers fluctuates from year to year. I personally have not seen them for a long while, so I was quite pleased to see this one. I managed a quick photograph before it "quailed" off, nothing spectacular but indeed my first photographic record of the species.

The usual Black-winged Stilts were business as usual, though you may still get nice compositions from their graceful postures from time to time. I must have taken hundred of photos similar to this one by now...

There weren't as many Buntings as I would expect, there were a few Yellow-breasted Buntings around. This species is now becoming rarer and rarer by the year, due to heavy poaching and hunting in China, less of these beautiful Buntings make it to their winter grounds. Yellow-breasted Buntings are considered a delicacy in China, people pay thousands of dollars just to eat it's supposedly nutritious meat, though I doubt very much that there are in fact any medicinal properties to it at all. It is very sad to know that such uncivilised practice still goes on till this day, and even sadder to know that they are being driven to extinction simply by one nation's appetite. The birds I saw were quite far away, no good photos either.

The second Bunting species were a pair of Chestnut-eared Buntings. They flew about the place, both remained in the distance. We get them every year, though in quite small numbers. Our hope for Amur Falcon faded as the sun went down, none came down to perch...Guess I will have to look some other time!

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Rarities and Surprises - Mai Po and Lok Ma Chau

There are days where birding seems slow, but there are also days when everything seems to go your way. Today was one of those days. I took a whole day off after weeks of intensive work on our Pak Sha O book launch. I really needed a break from work.

I started my day early at Mai Po, where reports of a Cotton Pygmy Goose at pond #20 have been circling around the HKBWS forum, considered a major rarity in Hong Kong, this is only the 6th or 7th record(?). Autumn in general is a good time for migrants at Mai Po, with many flycatchers and warblers, so I thought it was worth a shot to walk around the nature reserve for half a day. Immediately near the AFCD warden post I found this very showy Common Kingfisher, always a nice bird to see up close. Not too far away, a flock of Chinese Grosbeak perched on a tree, a good returning migrant thats now heading south to winter, many will remain in Hong Kong throughout the winter months.

Common Kingfisher

Chinese Grosbeak

Inside the reserve, I headed over the bird hide #1, on the way photographing a Little Grebe at fairly close range. There were quite a few waders at the Geiwai but most were too far away, with my bins I identified Curlews, Black-tailed Godwits, Greenshanks, Marsh Sandpipers, Redshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Broad-billed Sandpiper and most notably a single Red-necked Phalarope. I am sure I missed many, but without a telescope it's was hopeless and I didn't even bother to try.

Little Grebe

Red-necked Phalarope

I quickly moved on towards pond #20, not a soul seen at the spot. I stationed myself at the little house and waited. Things were quiet for the next 30 minutes or so, but all of a sudden out of nowhere, the bird appeared right next to the platform I was standing on! A tiny little water fowl, swam out from the tall grass it was hiding in. Soon after, a group of birders and photographers arrived, the bird showed for a little while but decided it disliked the crowd and flew off to the far side of the pond. Amongst the birders was Nigel Oh from Singapore! What were the chances, shame we couldn't arrange to bird together for your visit this time, I am sure we will next time round. Here are the best shots of the CPG I managed on the day, not perfect but much better then those I had years before.

Cotton Pygmy Goose

A walk around various paths in Mai Po yielded good results, including a personal record breaking high count of over 20 Asian Brown Flycatchers! There must have been one on every tree I went past! It was hard to get away from them!

Asian Brown Flycatcher - one of the many!

I had a good variety of phylloscopus warblers to challenge myself. I have always found identifying them tricky. A Pale-legged Leaf Warbler made an appearance, it gave it's identity away from it's continuous tail flicking and it's distinctive metallic "chink"call. The next was a little more tricky, a warbler with 2 wing bars, slightly larger then our "default" Yellow-browed Warbler, with greyish legs and a pinkish orange lower mandible. It remained very silent as I observed it, and I couldn't get a good photograph of it because it was so quick. With the supercilium not joining the base of the bill, I am betting it's identity as a Two-barred Greenish Warbler. I am however very open to suggestions. A Yellow-browed Warbler nearby gave good comparison. Dusky Warblers were also everywhere, mainly heard but many were seen as well.

Pale-legged Leaf Warbler

Two-barred Warbler (I think)

Yellow-browed Warbler

Dusky Warbler

A Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike gave good views, they tend to like Delonix regia trees as I have observed throughout the years, however for reasons I do not understand, I am guessing there are particular type of insects that they like on those trees? This one was found on one of those trees at first, later flew to another.

Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike - foraging on a Delonix regia tree

At the rain shelter, I spotted a male Black-naped Monarch. A common species in both Taiwan and South East Asia, we only get this species as migrant or winter visitors. I usually see females and have not seen a male in Hong Kong for a very long time, a very handsome bird indeed! The best bird there however must be a single Thick-billed Warbler; a rare migrant that I have not seen for over a decade! It was a very shy bird, giving really terrible views half the time. I managed a few photographs when it suddenly decided to hop out from the thick undergrowth, this half decent photo is the best one I got. A truly amazing warbler species, this huge warbler is the same size as a Bulbul, it can erect and flatten it's crest. A very secretive Lanceolated Warbler lurked nearby, I glimpsed it's beautiful patterns before it melted into the undergrowth and out of sight. I also saw my first Black-browed Reed Warbler of the season, but again too quick for any photographs.

Black-naped Monarch - male

Thick-billed Warbler - A star skulker!

After Mai Po, I decided to head towards Lok Ma Chau, where David Chan have recommended the area after spotting a Pheasant-tailed Jacana at a water lily pond. It's a less explored part of New Territories for me, the former Frontier Closed Area was finally opened to public in 2013. Habitat looks promising, with a small patch of farmland that resembles Long Valley, most of the area were fishponds. A good variety of birds were seen upon arrival, including a flock of Red-throated Pipits and Scaly-breasted Munias. A very bold Black Drongo gave great views, and an Oriental Reed Warbler popped up from the tall grass. Other birds included Asian Brown Flycatchers (again!) and Sooty-headed Bulbuls.

Farmland at Lok Ma Chau

Typical view of frontier areas in Hong Kong, a stark contrast to Shenzhen.

Scaly-breasted Munia

Red-throated Pipit - one of many

Black Drongo

Oriental Reed Warbler

I quickly found the water lily pond David talked about, it was a well maintained pond with a lovely carpet of water lilies. I looked around for the Jacana but did not see it, however I flushed a female Watercock from the tall grass at the edge of the pond! A complete surprise! Watercocks are really quite uncommon nowadays due to habitat loss, so it's always a thrill to see one. A White-breasted Waterhen carefully navigate around the pond. A White Wagtail fluttered about the pond, it makes a good composition when it landed on the water lilies.

Water Lily Pond

Watercock - female

White-breasted Waterhen

White Wagtail

Finally, after some waiting the star bird arrived! A Pheasant-tailed Jacana, it wasn't shy and fed around the lily-pads. A rather peculiar species, it's elongated toes helps to keep it from sinking into the water, distributing it's weight perfectly on the floating plants. A Chinese Pond Heron also skulked nearby, not as graceful though. This former breeder is now becoming rarer in recent years due to local habitat loss, it's now a passage migrant in Hong Kong, recorded mainly in Spring or Autumn.

Pheasant-tailed Jacana

Chinese Pond Heron - with the Jacana in the background!

Pheasant-tailed Jacana - smile!

I observed the bird till the sun dropped low. The Jacana posed for a close-up portrait which ended the day perfectly. Birding don't get much better then this!