Wednesday 28 December 2016

Quality Christmas Birding

My schedule for Christmas was quite full, and simply packed with bird outings with different people and birders from all around the world! There's nothing more joyful then being able to share the beauty of nature with others, both locally and globally.

Great Barbet - the bird of the weekend for me

It all started on 24th of December, I was invited by Sangwoodgoon (an excellent local organic farm to do a bird guiding tour for a group of fifteen after the screening of "Fly, Kite Fly", an excellent Taiwanese documentary about Black Kites by directer Chieh-te Liang.

   Photo credit to : Sze Wong

After the screening I led the group down to Mui Shue Hang Park to look for some common birds around us. We got a nice selection of common birds along the river like Wagtails, Sandpipers and Egrets, even a Common Kingfisher decided to give everyone a great look. The finale was naturally the female Plumbeous Water Redstart that had been there for a few weeks now, the uncommon visitor was a great way to introduce them to how important Hong Kong is as a wintering ground and passage migration stop for many bird species. The photos of this confiding bird I took before the tour.

Plumbeous Water Redstart - star bird at Mui Shue Hang

Plumbeous Water Redstart - very confiding as always!

For 26th and 27th I led two separate birders for a half day and a full day respectively, Anssi a birder from Finland on the first day and Jeff a birder from the US on the second day. We started both days at Tai Po Kau, and for both days we got some quality birds from our prime forest site, and possibly one of the best mixed feeding flocks I've encountered in the last three years!

Both mornings started with a fruiting Ficus tree, the tree attracted a lot of birds, and the best of them all were no doubt a flock of seven Great Barbets on the 26th! A few turned up on 27th, and I managed some much better shots that day! Great Barbets are really not an easy species to see, being usually very high up in the canopy, but the fruits had lured them down and this was as close as I have ever been with this species in Hong Kong. For me this would be the bird of this long weekend!

Great Barbet - the fruits had made this usually camera shy species very photogenic

Quite a few other species were taking advantage of this bountiful food source. Ashy Drongos came by, a leuocogenis race with the white face. Silver-eared Mesias were amongst the first to start feeding at the tree every morning, often followed by Blue-winged Minlas and also numerous Velvet-fronted Nuthatches. Yellow-browed Warblers were easily visible, a pair of Black-winged Cuckoo-shrikes visited on the second morning, adding more excitement to this magical Ficus tree! 

Ashy Drongo - leuocogenis

Silver-eared Mesia

Blue-winged Minla

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

Yellow-browed Warbler

Black-winged Cuckoo-shrike

The forest trail was fairly productive on both days, but birds behaved very differently. The first day was much warmer, so mixed flocks were quite scattered, although we still caught up with a few quality birds including Goodson's Leaf Warbler and other "commoner" Tai Po Kau residents. The best bird though was no doubt a Lesser Shortwing which showed extremely well (by Shortwing standard), giving me and Anssi quite a decent view, Jeff was less lucky but still got glimpses of this skulking species.

Lesser Shortwing - been a while since I've seen them

Both days were blessed with a range of different supporting casts, Chestnut Bulbuls were obviously one of the most numerous. Both species of Minivets were entertaining to watch as ever, they were particularly close on 27th, where a few just came to within 2 meters! Here showing a female Grey-chinned and a male Scarlet. Blue-winged Minlas were another staple for Tai Po Kau, here's one that took a large katydid for breakfast.

Chestnut Bulbul

Grey-chinned Minivet - female

Scarlet Minivet - male

Blue-winged Minla with Katydid

Although Velvet-fronted Nuthatches are common, who doesn't enjoy seeing a blue bird with red bill hanging upside down? A face as pretty as that it's difficult to say no. Huet's Fulvettas have now established a stable population in Tai Po Kau, a split of the Grey-cheeked Fulvetta meant that there are more birds for birders to tick off their world list, Jeff was happy to know that they are now considered a different species to those he saw in ! Indochinese Yuhinas are also now split with Striated Yuhinas, we got some very neat views of these handsome looking birds.

Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

Huet's Fulvetta

Indochinese Yuhina

For wintering warblers we mainly get Yellow-browed and Pallas's Leaf, however there are two other species of wintering warblers that can be slightly harder to pick up. The Eastern crowned Warbler was the more unusual one, they have been wintering in Hong Kong for the last year or two, they are usually a passage migrant. A few wintering Goodson's Leaf Warblers provided quite decent views while it was preening, their nuthatch like behaviour is hard to miss once you know what you're looking for.

Eastern Crowned Warbler - first time I seen them in winter

Goodson's Leaf Warbler - one of Jeff's target bird

I have never had much luck with photographing Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers, they usually stick to the canopy. But those on the 27th were a completely different creature! One of them came to within a few meters away and provided some great photography opportunities. At one point I had to step back because I simply could not fit it into my frame! I will have to thank Jeff for providing such amazing luck!

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher - first time for me to get so close to this species

Outside of Tai Po Kau, Anssi and I visited Long Valley briefly. There weren't a great deal around at noon time, but we found a flock of Hirundines with Red-rumped Swallows, Barn Swallows and most surprisingly a few Northern House Martins (quite rare in HK)! Also with them were a few House Swifts, and most notably a Himalayan Swiftlet (also quite rare in HK)!

Black-winged Stilts - always there to entertain you when nothing's around

Himalayan Swiftlet - bright spot for a not very exciting Long Valley

Jeff and I on the other hand gave Starling Inlet a try, however the windy weather did not help and we barely got any birds there. So, we decided to hit up Central Kwai Chung Park to try for the Emerald Dove that Jeff had on his Christmas wish list, the Doves did not really cooperate, we heard two calling to one another but simply could not locate their exact locations. The Grey-backed Thrushes however gave quite a show, slow to begin with but around a dozen birds slowly materialised and a few gave decent views. The best bird however which made this little trip to this urban park worth while was a great view of the skulking Asian Stubtail Warbler, what better way is there to end a great day of birding?

Grey-backed Thrush - one of the handsome male amongst a dozens in the park

Asian Stubtail Warbler - a great bird to end the day which provided stunning views!

Sunday 25 December 2016

Blue Magpies - Work Distraction!

Red-billed Blue Magpie - a stunner

If you ask me what is the most colourful and impressive looking bird species in Hong Kong, I probably would answer Fairy Pitta; that's quite obvious. But, if you ask me what is the most colourful and impressive looking RESIDENT bird species, then the title probably will goes to Red-billed Blue Magpies, or Blue Magpies as we usually call them. Their colourful plumage, large size and long tails really make them centre for attention.

They really are quite common, although not a bird that you see on an every day basis unless you're in an area where they occur regularly, but you will see them every now and then gliding across roads while you're on the bus, or hear their cheery and very noisy calls on a tall tree in the park. It just so happens that a flock of these awesome looking magpies lives right where I work, so I have the privilege to pretty much see them everyday. It ALSO just so happens that I got my camera with me this day, and upon hearing their noisy calls I went up to the second floor to try get some decent shots.

Kai Yip estate in the background

And decent shots I got! The group were not shy and gave excellent views. As I was a floor up, I had situated myself right at eye-level with these impressive looking birds. Tt was perfect conditions for photography, as you really need the right lighting for their bluish purple sheen to really show through!

I enjoyed great views for over ten minutes before they decided to move on and make noise somewhere else. A very good show from my very good neighbour! Bad thing about having them at your work place is that they really distract you from your work on hand...I better get some earplugs soon.

They have successfully distracted me from my work...

Friday 23 December 2016

Year End Surprise! Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - a very nice christmas present for everyone!

It's been an exceptional year for American vagrants, Franklin's Gulls and American Wigeon earlier this year were phenomenon! Adding any more more American vagrant into the mix would be incredible! On Tuesday, Yuen texted me about a Buff-breasted Sandpiper he found at San Tin during fish pond survey, I nearly jumped out of my office chair. This would be the 2nd Hong Kong record, with the first one being seen very very briefly at Mai Po around two years ago. Naturally, everyone wanted to go see this mega rarity. I was however unavailable until Thursday morning, luckily it stayed the whole day on Wednesday, which looked hopeful for me to visit the bird on Thursday morning before work.

My father and I started early and drove directly to the fish pond at San Tin, where a group of birders were already watching the vagrant. We soon locked our bins onto the very distinctive little wader, no bigger then the Little Ringed Plovers next to it. 

"Twitchers" along the fishpond early morning

Buff-breasted Sandpiper & Little Ringed Plover - much smaller then I expected...

The bird "performed" very well despite being a bit far, showing us all it's diagnostic features, including the distinctive white underwing that this species famously uses for displaying.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - showing off to a crowd of twitchers it's famous armpit

Usual habitats for this species are pastures and grassland, a little bit different from drained fishponds...but I suppose you cannot be too picky when you're lost in a country that's on the other side of the world! This species are long distance travellers, naturally occurring and breeds in the arctic tundra in northern Canada, migrating through central USA and South America all the way down to Argentina! This one had clearly headed the wrong direction to begin with and followed the wrong flock, giving me a suspicion that this bird may be dyslexic (dyslexics often can't tell left from right)!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - it certainly had came a long way...

A few Temmink's Stints were also present at the same pond, also Avocets and a lot of Little Egrets. The Sandpiper looked slightly intimidated by these strange neighbours.

Temmink's Stint - one of the many there

Pied Avocet

Little Egrets

We were there for less then an hour before heading back to work. On the way out I noticed a strange silhouette on the wire, I stopped the car and looked through my bins and saw that it was a Wryneck! They are regular winter visitors and migrants, although I haven't had much luck with them these two years, I am glad to have finally caught up with this one! An absolutely perfect way to start the day!

Eurasian Wryneck - perfect start for the day!