Thursday 26 May 2016

Birding in the Clouds

Took a day off to bird with David and Tom at Tai Mo Shan this morning. Weather wasn't too bad by the looks of it but clouds were quite low, which meant the summit area would be clouded over. We decided to go ahead anyway, so I picked up the guys at Tsuen Wan and drove straight up there. It was just before 7:30am when we arrived, as we started to walk up and into the white mist. Tai Mo Shan become a dreamy landscape in such conditions, and you start to see things that simply aren't there (spooky~), well mostly just shapes on rocks or trees that resembles birds...

We arrived at the usual birding spot and had a pair of Chinese Francolins calling, after a few tries by everyone on possible silhouette on various rocks, David picked out the bird properly calling from an exposed rock. It was calling continuously and we couldn't see it's markings clearly, only feature you can pick out slightly is the white white cheek and throat and the spotted markings on it's body. It's my first photographic record of this species, but it's not what you call a great photograph exactly. Still, better then nothing!

Chinese Francolin - "Come to the Peak, Haha!"

The guys walking up into the misty summit

Brown-flanked Bush Warblers were again very vocal and we picked one up on the way, this one was close enough that the mist did not really affect the photo. The Russet Bush Warbler; another breeding warbler species on Tai Mo Shan was heard calling, but remained distant.

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler

I walked with the guys back to the area where I saw the Grassbird a few days ago, but with no luck. The area was in general very quiet, not even a Parrotbill in sight. So, we walked further up to the summit area. We decided to walk to the northern side of Tai Mo Shan, past the radar station on the summit and down the stretch of Maclehose Trail section 8 towards Leadmine Pass. That's an area we have rarely explored so we thought it maybe a good place to look for Upland Pipits.

We past a disused barrack which was built back in the colonial era, by the looks of it the building must have been abandoned for over two decades. The mist added a hint of spookiness to the place. It's around the fence of this area that we found a few Vinous-throated Parrotbills, again they were difficult to photograph and I only managed a record shot of one.

Disused Tai Mo Shan Barracks

Vinous-throated Parrotbill - record shot

We walked further and soon were looking at the northern slopes towards Lam Kam Road. The mist did not show signs of clearing, and strong winds were blowing constantly, making listening out for birds that much harder.

View towards Lam Kam Road, the northern slopes of Tai Mo Shan

We got to the end of the concrete road and onto footpaths, here we follow a ridge heading eastwards. The habitat looks promising with good stretches of open grassland and short bamboos, however bird activities were slow. A few Richard's Pipit stood on the rocks which gave false hopes for Upland Pipits, but our target bird never showed, not even a single call was heard. The rapid decline of this species is truly alarming, and the fact that no one really knows the reason behind the decline is even more worrying. We encountered nothing much except for a good size herd of grazing cattle. I played recordings of several different species a long the way but nothing responded. Only a very distant Chinese Grassbird was heard.

Disappointingly, good habitat for Upland Pipit...

Grazing cattle

Just as we got to a point where we thought we wouldn't see anything interesting and wanted to turn around, we heard the call of a Chinese Grassbird nearby and soon located the bird calling from some tall grass and bamboos. This one showed for a few minutes, hopping in and out of the bamboos. At one point it got close enough for a better photo. This individual had some kind of lump growing at the base of it's lower mendible, it look healthy enough but I hope it's not something serious. Feeling that our walk had not been wasted, we turned around back towards the radar station.

Chinese Grassbird - a hard earned bird!

The mist did not lift, in fact the weather got even worst when rain started to fall. Although I did not bring an umbrella, it was fortunate that I at least have a rain cover for my camera which came in handy. The walk back up the slope took a bit more effort, but we were rewarded when we reached the radar station. A Russet Bush Warbler called close by, it's "zee-bit, zee-bit" call was diagnostic. I played a burst of playback and sure enough it responded! Giving us some fairly good views (in the mist), it's in fact the first time I have seen this species so clearly. The photograph did not show up too well originally, but thanks to a bit of post-production I was able to bring back some contrast to the image. Proper summer will be assuming in a few days, here comes the quiet season!

Misty and raining...

Russet Bush Warbler - a usually secretive species, I wonder if the mist made it feel safe

Sunday 22 May 2016

A Sunday Afternoon With The Grassbird - Tai Mo Shan

It took some thinking how to spend one's Sunday afternoon, in the end I chose to take a walk around the summit area of our tallest mountain in Hong Kong. Here in Hong Kong, we don't really have massively huge mountain ranges, but what we have are hilly terrain. Tai Mo Shan is the summit in Central New Territories, it's pretty much dead centre when you look at the map of Hong Kong, much more so then Central. Here, you will find a range of species you don't usually get at lower elevations, it's here that you can find short bamboos and grasslands slopes with scrubs and short trees and our "upland" specialities that are associated with this habitat, these includes the globally scarce Chinese Grassbird, Vinous-throated Parrotbill, Upland Pipit, Russet Bush Warbler, Brown-flanked Bush Warbler, Chinese Francolin and Chinese Babax. The Babax have became very rare and only recorded very sparingly.

Chinese Grassbird - one of our main upland attraction

It is my believe that our "upland" species are now under the pressure of habitat loss, but not from deforestation that you often hear about, but from trees growing too tall, the species of tree that seems to be over growing the most are the Common Machilus or Red Nanmu (紅楠). The ever ascending tree line slowly replaces the grassland and short bamboos that some of these bird's species needs for breeding, which may in turn be damaging to the breeding population. It's difficult to judge whether managing some of the trees may help, but certainly we must ensure there are enough habitat for these small pockets of breeding population in order for them to continue thriving.

Looking towards the summit, note the advancing trees on the grassy slopes

It was a beautiful afternoon, maybe a bit on the hot side even. I rarely venture up to Tai Mo Shan in the afternoon, so I wasn't really sure what to expect with the birds, will they be active? Turns out it was least of my worries, I had a good numbers of Brown-flanked Bush Warblers calling upon arrival. I walked all the way up to the usual birding spot and was soon welcomed by an inquisitive individual, checking me out. A burst of playback brought it to the tree next to me, it gave me a good look and fluttered off.

Brown-flanked Bush Warbler - posing on a rare occasion!

Chinese Francolins mocked me constantly with their "Come to the Peak, Haha!" call, several were calling but none gave me a look! I waited around the area I last saw a Chinese Grassbird last year but I heard no calls. Only a few pairs of Vinous-throated Parrotbills skulked about the scrubs and undergrowth, it seemed like their breeding season is in process as they were all too busy finding food and did not for once wanted to stop for a photo.

Environment shot of the upland habitat

Vinous-throated Parrotbill - don't quite fancy a photo

Seeing that nothing else was around, I headed down a narrow path downhill, hoping to spot something interesting. The path was obviously walked very sparsely, I didn't meet a soul on this Sunday afternoon and the grass seemed a little overgrown; a good sign! A stopped at various spots listening out for calls, but didn't get much. A very distant Crested Serpent Eagle had me mistaken for a Francolin! A Large-billed Crow chased it off soon after. I ventured further down hill, much further then I usually go, where the path became a little treacherous but not unmanageable.

Crested Serpent Eagle - a good imitation of the Francolin quite frankly...

Grassbird Country

It was here that I suddenly heard the ugly and harsh unmistakable call of the Chinese Grassbird. I soon located it not so far off on a stalk of bamboo shoot, calling. I took a few shots and played a quick burst of playback, which had it fluttered closer, finally stopping on a rocky outcrop! It continued to call from the rock for a good minute or so before dropping back down into the sea of short bamboos. A real treat to get such wonderful views of this globally scarce species! For those who are unfamiliar with this species, the Chinese Grassbird have very limited global range and only until recently, Hong Kong had been the only source of reliable records for the last 80 years. A pocket of population have been rediscovered in both Myanmar and Cambodia in recent years, but with ongoing habitat loss of suitable habitats, the fate of this species maybe under threat. Therefore, the Chinese Grassbird population in Hong Kong is of international importance, and I sure hope we will continue to hear that ugly and unattractive call on these grassy slopes.

Chinese Grassbird - 

Finally, a flock of cattle grazing along the path as I was on my way back down to the car park. I guess it's a good thing they keep some of the grass and plants in check so they don't over grown. Their dung are of course good fertilisers. So, thank you cattles!

Tuesday 17 May 2016

End of Spring

It didn't seem that long ago that we were looking forward for the arrival of our spring migrants, and it was all over so quickly. You can just feel it in the air, the migrating season coming to an end. There were still some birds around, but nothing as exciting as before. Breeding was well underway for many species and it was very apparent. At Mai Po car park, a few pairs of White-shouldered Starlings were nesting in their favourite spots; electrical boxes on wooden pylons, these man-made boxes have provided a safe and convenient location for them each year, and it seems the numbers of breeding pairs have increased, seeing that all three boxes at the car park were occupied!

Prinias were all singing loudly on exposed branches, this one was no exception. It's a ringed individual, likely to have been ringed by HKBWS.

The pair of Asian Barred Owlets should have a nest somewhere, although we may not be able to see their nest directly. This poor guy was chased around by a pair of Magpie Robins for some time before finally settling back on one of it's favourite perch.

Most Purple Herons are winter visitors to Hong Kong, only a few remain over summer, usually young birds like this one. There have been a handful of breeding records most notably two pairs in 2013, but it's still a rare breeding species.

The only remaining "Springy" migrant I found today was a single Grey-streaked Flycatcher. This species is usually quite late compare to other migrating flycatchers, so whenever you see them you know the Spring is about to end. It hawked around for a good few hours, I saw it along the same group of trees when I was on my way out.

There weren't that many waders around, but a large flock of Red-necked Stints were present at scrape 16/17. This is probably the single largest flock of Red-necked Stints I have personally seen. I scanned long and hard for any Spoon-billed Sandpipers and Little Stints without much success. Although there were plenty of other waders mixed within, including Sanderlings, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Curlew Sandpipers, Broad-billed Sandpipers and Long-toed Stints.

So, a long and gruelling summer awaits.

Monday 2 May 2016

Spring Time Catch Up

It's near the end of Spring, weather's been much wetter and fairly unstable. Southerly winds have made today much more humid and warm. As it was Labour Day holiday, my Father had a day off, so he was able to join me birding today, a rare luxury for him nowadays. We were joined by Long Long, whom we picked up at 7:15am and arriving at Tai Po Kau at around 7:30am. Our main target of this visit was the long staying Chinese Barbet, which have been reported to be very active of late. I have only heard it before and have yet to get any photographic record of this species in Hong Kong, so I was hoping to at least see the bird well. We immediately heard the bird calling from the AFCD warden's mass when we got up to the top of the slope. We hurried there and soon got distance views of the bird perched high up on the tallest tree. I gave a quick burst of playback and the Barbet rushed from it's perch to a tree nearby, it gave very prolonged views at a reasonably close range.

Chinese Barbet - a new addition to Tai Po Kau forest

At one point it perched right on the Ginkgo Tree which provided a feast for the eyes! In good lighting you can really appreciate the amazing mixture of colours in this single bird. It also gave us a good look at it's air pouch which expands when calling, it doesn't open it's bill throughout the process and it seems to me that it must be the air forced out of the air pouch which creates the resonating sounds? It's no lifer but I still find it fascinating to watch.

Chinese Barbet- sequence showing deflated to inflated air pouch

Plain Flowerpeckers were again very vocal, but they didn't give good views today, a pair kept fighting over their territory above our heads though. This one was obviously feeding on nectar somewhere, as it's forehead was covered by pollens.

Plain Flowerpecker - this one is a messy eater

The hills were however very quiet. Except for a single Hodgson's Hawk Cuckoo heard calling a few times, bird activities were not very visible. I only managed a shot of a Huet's Fulvetta and one of the many calling Mountain Tailorbird. Otherwise, the walk was pretty uneventful. This could be a result of most birds having paired up for breeding, they don't form as many feeding flocks now they have young birds to attend to.

Huet's Fulvetta

Mountain Tailorbird

We departed with Long Long after the walk at Tai Po Kau and headed to Mai Po. My father have yet to catch up with the long staying Franklin's Gull(s). So, my mission of the day was to find him a lifer on the Labour Day...When we arrived at Tam Kon Chau Road we spent some time watching the flock of congregating Whiskered Terns.

Whiskered Tern

Amongst the flock we counted only two White-winged Black Terns. Another species of Marsh Terns that is less common then Whiskered. I like their smart look; jet black underparts and head with contrasting wings, vent, rump and tail. Another smart looking species, plenty of Chinese Pond Herons have moulted into their breeding plumage, a huge difference between their dull winter plumage.

White-winged Black Tern

Chinese Pond Heron

We soon arrived at the new bird hide. Nothing were in sight, but I thought it was better to be waiting around then to miss the birds! Especially when I know the Franklin's Gull tend to take off sooner then expected. A family of Common Moorhen kept us entertained, the adults were feeding the fledgelings along the edge of the mangrove.

Common Moorhen - with two out of five chicks showing here

It was a very long wait, but my Father was not disappointed when I pointed out the pair of Franklin's for him in the scope, which made all the hours of waiting very well spent. Most of the time they remained quite far, but as the tide rose the pair of Franklin's followed the Black-headed Gulls and flew closer to our hide! For the first time, I was managed to catch on with many of the Gull's details and behaviour.

Franklin's Gull - inflight comparison with Black-headed Gulls

The pair stuck together throughout the whole time, they seems to enjoy each other's company. I guess you can't really be fussy if you're the only pair in the region. The pair were also quite tough, in that many Black-headed Gulls would harass them but the pair fought back on most occasions, even managed to scare some of the Black-headed Gulls off.

Franklin's Gull - a lot of bickering...

The pair were like carrots and peas, even when they do get separated they would call out for each other to find their way back to their mate. The pair exceeded all our expectations and really made our day. If the Franklin's Gulls were the cake, then the icing would be the pair of Chinese Egrets, this globally rare species is a passage migrant through Deep Bay, where it is regularly reported annually. Unfortunately the global trend of this rare Egret is still on decline, so seeing them still brings comforts for us to know that they are hanging on.

Franklin's Gull - it will be difficult to ask for a better view

Chinese Egret

On our way out, I spotted a flock of birds perched on the wires at Tam Kon Chau road, I immediately thought of Bee-eaters as their postures were very upright. I scanned with my bins to confirm my suspicion and sure enough, a flock of around 40 sat there on the wire, hawking for insects. And if the Chinese Egrets were the icing, these Bee-eaters will have to be the cherries on top! Blue-tailed Bee-eaters are regular but scarce passage migrants in Hong Kong, although we get them annually they are not always easy to come by, as they only pass through our airspace very briefly, stopping for insects shortly and move on. The peak of their migration should be over now, so I honestly thought I would miss this species this year, I am very glad to catch up with these colourful birds. We enjoyed some good views before they all decided they have had enough rest and headed off, leaving no trace of them ever having been there except our excitement.

Blue-tailed Bee-eater - my photographs only showing a small proportion of the flock...