Sunday 29 November 2015

Franklin's Gull and a bit more!

Franklin's Gull - a Hong Kong mega rarity!

The past week had been exceptional in terms of birding. Rarities after rarities! It was like the heaven had opened up and great birds were descending upon us! It's at these times that you are reminded of the excitement birding brings, and also time to meet with old friends and acquaintances when everyone are attracted to the same places looking for the same birds!

I hurried off to Mai Po after the sermon at church. Rushing to get there before the tide reaches it's highest point. My mission for today was clear, to get the Franklin's Gull which I missed yesterday. I rushed straight into Deep Bay and met Benjamin at the bird hide, on the way getting close views of a Chinese Grosbeak. No Gulls to be found there except for Black-headed, Saunder's and Heuglin's Gulls after a quick scan with my scope, Benjamin did managed to spot a Long-billed Dowitcher however. There were numerous waders around, with many Pacific Golden Plover close to the hide, a Black-capped Kingfisher stood very still on one of the perches it frequented.

Chinese Grosbeak - handsome as always

Long-billed Dowitcher

Pacific Golden Plover

Black-capped Kingfisher at a distance

Seeing there weren't many Gulls to be found here, we moved along and headed to the HKBWS hide. On the way we encountered a huge tour and the guide told us the Gull was showing at the moment. We hurried over and sure enough quite a few birders were there, including Richard L. whom found the bird few days ago! We soon settled in and with their directions I soon had my scope locked onto the bird, it was however quite obscured by numerous birds blocking the view! For half the time we were only able to see it's head. It wasn't until much later that we got some better views of the whole bird.

The bird was miles away as the tide was much lower then yesterday's. But, I was happy to just catchup with this mega rarity. Franklin's Gull's is native to the New World, where it breeds in central Canada and the States and winters along the west coast of South America. Therefore, this individual was no doubt extremely off course to have turned up all the way in South East China! It probably was wondering at which point it had started heading south in the WRONG direction, I am sure it was still figuring out how come it had followed the oriental flyway instead, hence it could not really sleep much while we observed, jet-lagged perhaps? Here's a shot with John Chan's 500mm + 1.4x whom he kindly lend me for a few shots and a photo by my iPhone through the scope.

Franklin's Gull - sitting amongst the larger Black-headed Gulls

Franklin's Gull - a shot with my iPhone

The bird stood there and didn't really do much while we were there. I wonder if it was lost in translation? So I looked for other means of entertainment in the hide. I found the Greenshanks foraging near the front of the hide quite amusing, one individual caught a large Mudskipper at one point, trying it's best to gulp it down. I admired it's effort and courage, but to swallow what was much larger then it's head proofed to be a little too much for the little wader. It soon gave up, sparing the Mudskipper it's life, it was probably quite terrifying for the Mudskipper though...hence the facial expression on it's face.

Common Greenshank - with the Mudskipper

Just as we were about to leave the hide, the Gull flew and I managed a few distant inflight shots. It followed a few Black-headed Gulls and flew westwards. I wonder how much longer it will stay at Mai Po.

Franklin's Gull - inflight

We headed to hide #3 at scrape 16/17. People had been taking photographs of an Eurasian Bittern there for the past week or so, and that's a species I have yet to get any photographs of despite seeing them every year. The Bittern was hiding when we arrived, but an Eastern Marsh Harrier kept circling around obviously looking for an easy meal.

Eastern Marsh Harrier

It wasn't long before the Bittern finally showed, and what a sneaky bird it was, skulking through the tall grass hunting in the shallows. Seeing one at such close range make you realise just how big they are! It was very entertaining and everyone clicked away every time it revealed a little bit more of it's body. Even my 100-400mm managed some cracking photos, clearly indicating how close the bird was to the hide.

Eurasian Bittern - a top notch skulker with much charisma

I suddenly received a message that a Booted Warbler had been spotted near the tower hide, twitch on! We immediately packed our things and ran to the location to find a group of other birders coming down the other way. They had seen the bird earlier but had lost it in the reed bed. We waited and a brief playback was used but the bird did not respond. We waited and waited, until most other birders had left and the sun slowly sank. Suddenly, we found the warbler fluttering about in the reeds, a tiny plain reed warbler with whitish underparts and buff flanks, very short and pale supercilium. It was a shame that the bird was gone before I had time to pick up my camera, however others in the group managed a few shots of the bird and a quick review confirmed it's identity! Another phenomenal bird! This amazing weekend had gained me three Hong Kong ticks and two lifers. Along with numerous other great birds seen along the way will surely make this one of the most memorable.

Location of the Booted Warbler, the bird will be somewhere in there...

Saturday 28 November 2015

Greater White-fronted Goose - squeezing in some time

I only had the morning free this Saturday, and it's really not the most convenient time of the year to be working on weekends! Birds were falling finally! After a strong cold front that passed Hong Kong starting on Wednesday, and Thursday saw our temperature dropped by 10 degrees celsius! It was only time before birds started arriving in Hong Kong, a Black Stork flew in Mai Po on Wednesday but didn't stay long, yesterday I received news of a Greater White-fronted Goose at Mai Po, and later another news of a Franklin's Gull out at Deep Bay! That will be a first for Hong Kong.

Knowing the tide came in later in the day, I knew the Franklin's Gull will probably be out of my reach. Therefore I had myself first focus on getting the Goose. It was reported to have been darting about the ponds and scrapes. My day started early and I immediately saw a pair of Magpies at the access road, I took that as a good omen and pressed on! (Magpies are considered good luck for the Chinese, and a pair is especially so meaning double happiness)

Eurasian Magpies - a sign of good fortune in Chinese culture

Morning at Mai Po are always lovely and peaceful, Egrets and Spoonbills congregate at the water ways to feed. I scanned around the ponds and didn't produce much. I bumped into our HKBWS ringers and found Kwok Jai ringing a Thick-billed Warbler! That gave me a chance to savour my encounter with another bird earlier last month. Soon, I got a call from Benjamin stating the Goose had been spotted at scrape 16/17 at bird hide #3. I quickly dashed over but the bird had just flown as I arrived. However, I very soon spotted the bird swimming at the far side of the scrape, it's white backend reflected the morning sunlight. We saw that the bird was closer to bird hide #1, so we quickly went over there to get a closer look.

Congregation of Egrets in waterways

Greater White-fronted Goose - a Hong Kong tick for me

The bird was extremely cooperative for a Goose. It spent quite a lot of time wandering about and eating grass seeds, totally at ease minding it's own business. We were quite concerned when an Eastern Marsh Harrier flew over but the bird seemed least bothered, I guess it figured it was too large for the Harrier to take. The Goose showed exceptionally well for the next hour or so, it was indeed a shame that my 400mm f/4 DO had to be taken into Canon for repair (faulty focus button issues?), I only had my 100-400mm f/5.6 lens with me, adding a 1.4x to the recipe was not a particularly good mixture. A lot of my images came out blurry and very loose. I had to turn the aperture up to f/20 to get any acceptable results, even then the photographs weren't particularly sharp...I was thankful for the bright morning sunlight that made these shots possible.

Greater White-fronted Goose

Just before I left the hide the bird flew one last time across the scrape to cheer me up. A star performance by this star bird! Having missed the previous records of this species, what a wonderful way to get a new tick to my Hong Kong list!

Goose in flight!

I was heading back out to the car park by 11am. On the way we had a flock of Chinese Grosbeaks, a very handsome and smart looking group.

Chinese Grosbeaks

A little further up the path, there was another "restaurant" for egrets. A Grey Heron caught a big Yellowfin Seabream! I was sure it could not swallow it, even the thought of such a fish going down it's throat gives me shivers. The Heron took the fish and flew away elsewhere to avoid other egrets from trying to steal from it. Black-faced Spoonblls were amongst the flocks, busy fishing as well by swinging their beaks side by side.

Grey Heron - caught a Yellowfin Seabream

Black-faced Spoonbills

Off I went to work and only to receive information about the Franklin's Gull's reappearance out at Deep Bay...Not something you will like to hear while working! I hope the Franklin's Gull will stay a bit longer for me to catch up with it!

Friday 20 November 2015

Signs of Winter

A walk in Tai Po Kau this morning finally had me convince that winter is here, although the weather felt anything but, it was rather humid and still pretty warm. If it wasn't for the arrival of our wintering thrushes and wintering flycatchers I would swear it felt more like mid-spring! I had plenty of Grey-backed and Japanese Thrushes today but none gave good views, a Rufous-tailed Robin frolicked in the undergrowth, I heard and saw numerous Asian Stubtail, all these were very typical wintering species. I had a single Verditer Flycatcher amongst the first bird wave, a regular wintering species in Hong Kong and one of my all time favourite flycatchers in Hong Kong.

Verditer Flycatcher - our regular wintering flycatcher

A few Scarlet Minivets were present, I have found them increasingly scarce in more core areas within Tai Po Kau, but more common found in urban parks and forest edges. On the contrary, Mountain Bulbuls are increasingly common in wooded areas, especially in Tai Po Kau.

Scarlet Minivet

Mountain Bulbul

The only bird that was particularly photogenic was this Dark-sided Flycatcher. Like any typical flycatchers, they hawk from a single perch and are always a good subject for a portrait. This one was particularly bold and fearless, it flew right towards me to catch a flying insect at one point.

Dark-sided Flycatcher - very photogenic

Another wintering flycatcher is the Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, a very energetic species that doesn't like to stay still as it's distant cousin. There were quite a few around Tai Po Kau today, most of them followed bird waves, calling "silly billy" constantly. I am not sure who came up with the phrase "silly billy" to represent it's call, most likely not Billy.

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher

It is a general rule while birding in Hong Kong that if you find a warbler with yellow underparts, it's likely to be something good. Today I found two of those "good" species, first was the more common Goodson's Leaf Warbler, another returning winter visitor that we regularly get.

Goodson's Leaf Warbler

The second warbler with yellow underparts was around picnic area 1, Mei Ling kindly noted it to me that a Seicercus warbler was around, though the bird was not present at the time. I waited a further thirty minutes after they left and finally got the pretty little warbler in view! A White-spectacled Warbler. Seicercus warbler's taxonomy have long been complex and very confusing, only in recent years have one species been split into six! In the past it was easy as any Seicerus warbler with an eye-ring were identified as "Golden-spectacled Warbler". Now you have to get a much clearer view to get the ID down to species level. White-spectacled Warbler is one of the easier ones, as the broken eye-ring is usually diagnostic, however to be sure the eye-rings are broken you need a very good view, and that's not easy in wooded areas. These warblers are lightning quick and rarely stay stationary for a long time. To make matters worst you get bad lighting in the forest and the bird may not always be close to you. I was lucky that the bird decided to give a few fairly good views (though bad for photographs). I also saw another Seicercus warbler in another bird wave, however that one did not stay for me, but I had a feeling it was more likely to be a Bianchi's Warbler, but since I could not nail the ID, it will have to remain a mystery...

White-spectacled Warbler - broken eye-ring is diagnostic

Sunday 15 November 2015

Grey Bush Chats - wild pair

A bit of nostalgia - back in winter of 2007 there was an immature male Grey Bush Chat that frequented Lai Chi Kok Park, it was quite photogenic and drew quite a bit of attention. However, everyone were dubious whether this was an escaped individual. It sure was a scruffy bird, but you sometimes get scruffy wild birds too (that was my own effort to persuade myself to believe it could be wild). It was also very bold, and at the time I thought that was a sign of escapee where it's not afraid of people. But then another bird at Long Valley in 2013 showed me that not all wild birds are naturally afraid of people, that individual was pretty bold (shame I didn't have my camera with me), so then I thought to myself maybe "approachable" is in the blood of such pretty chats, like the Siberian Stonechats we get in Hong Kong.

Grey Bush Chat - scruffy looking one back in 2007 (Taken with EOS 20D)

It's been a while since I have last seen Grey Bush Chats in Hong Kong, so I thought I really should get an update on this species. Just so happen, three individuals have been spotted at Shek Kong Catchment in recent weeks and I received news that they were spotted again this morning. So, off we went to hopefully find the trio in the afternoon. weather was exceedingly lovely after the morning shower, there were many family walkers and hikers along the catchment in the afternoon.

Views from the Catchment towards Kam Tin

It wasn't particularly birdy, but that was expected for a forested area in the afternoon, so my expectations weren't exactly high. We had a few calls from Pygmy Wren-babblers and Lesser Shortwings. Common birds were more active, a Spotted Dove flew up to some bamboo when we disturbed it feeding on the road. A flock of Masked Laughingthrush foraged noisily in some bushes before hopping up to a branch for a clear look; very energetic birds as usual.

Spotted Dove

Masked Laughingthrush

We arrived at the supposed site for the Bush Chats, a cemetery with bushes and short trees. Pretty much perfect habitat for this species. The area wasn't particularly birdy, but produced a few Olive-backed Pipits, Hair-crested Drongos, Japanese White-eyes, Yellow-browed Warblers and a huge flock of Red-whiskered Bulbuls on a fruiting tree.

Cemetery area - actually quite good habitat

Then, I spotted a small bird "flycatching" from a low perch. I immediately went after it and soon locked my bins on a smart looking male Grey Bush Chat. Their huge white brows contrast very sharply with its black mask. However, as I casually approach that bird, it immediately flew off to a further perch. I was very surprise by how skittish this one was! It never allowed me anywhere within 10m - 15m. It even flew off whenever I picked up my camera...Of course, every bird have their very own personality and I shouldn't judge a whole species from the few individuals I have observed.

Grey Bush Chat - smart looking male

Soon after, I found the female in the same area. This is actually the first time I have seen a female Grey Bush Chat, so it's sort of a lifer for me. However it was just as skittish as the male and we pretty much went on a wild goose chase around the cemetery, after a while we finally got a few clear looks and a few distant record shots. At least I can be sure that these are genuine wild birds...I only saw two individuals during my visit though. Either way, mission accomplished!

Grey Bush Chat - more modest looking female

On our way back I spotted a Red-throated Flycatcher. It was just as skittish as the Bush Chat and took off right after I took a few record shots from a distant. For whatever reason every bird in the cemetery seems to be afraid of people...

Red-throated Flycatcher

Finally, we found a very distant Ashy Drongo while walking back from the catchment. This was however the less common hopwoodi Ashy Drongo with dark face. We get salangensis, leucogenis and hopwoodi in Hong Kong, all three are winter visitors, but salangensis and leucogenis are by far more common then hopwoodi. It's actually very hard to believe that they are treated as the same species considering how utterly different they look. hopwoodi have much darker and bluish plumage.

Ashy Drongo - hopwoodi