Sunday 31 July 2016

Boat chasers - Terns at Sai Kung

Bridled and Black-naped Terns - two of our three breeding terns in Hong Kong

Terns are one of the main summer birding attraction in Hong Kong, while terns watching at sea is a nice way to spend a hot summer day. The few weeks between mid July to early August is the best time to observe their boat chasing behaviour. Most of our terns breeds on uninhabited offshore islands in Eastern waters. Near the end of their breeding season the terns will start boat chasing in flocks of tens, catching any small fishes caught up in the wake of the boats. Today we visited Wong Shek Pier and took a ferry to Tap Mun and then Chek King and back, and we were not disappointed.

This year, the numbers of terns engaged in boat chasing have been one of the highest in recent years, even the Bridled Terns which are usually a more pelagic species joined in the "buffet".

Terns chasing the boat as seen from Wong Shek Pier

At least two dozens of terns chasing our ferry at one time

Buffet for terns!

This is a good time to really enjoy their presence around Long Harbour (the bay area of Wong Shek and Chek King), they really bring a lot of life into the area, even non-birders enjoy close views from the deck of the boat. Their elegant flight is a welcoming sight and seeing them dive bombing into the sea to catch fish is always entertaining.

Three species of terns breeds in Hong Kong waters, the largest being Bridled, easily separated from the two other species even from a distance by it's chocolate brown plumage. Black-naped Terns are smaller and look nearly pure white from afar, only to appreciate their diagnostic head pattern when you get closer. Roseate Terns seems to be the least numerous of the three but can be easily picked out by their red beaks and black caps; I managed good photos of Bridled and Black-naped today, but couldn't manage any good photos with the only two Roseate that joined in the feeding frenzy shortly.

Bridled Tern - a brown tern with smart looking white eye-brows

Black-naped Tern - an elegant species that looks all white from afar

These elegant seabirds will soon take off to winter in the tropics, so seize your chance to see them and enjoy them while they are still here! It will be another year before we see them in our waters once again.

Monday 25 July 2016

Night Walks - where magic happens

Summer is the best time to look for wildlife in Hong Kong - except for birds, and a lot of interesting creatures are in fact nocturnal in nature and are usually not seen throughout the day. Therefore, I spent a few evenings with various friends to look for wildlife around woodlands in Hong Kong. Here are some of the "collections" from the few outings.

You will expect to find Owls when you go into the forest at night, but the truth is Owls are usually very difficult to find at night. You may however sometimes bump into sleeping birds, perched on a thin branch to keep themselves out of danger of predators such as snakes. Here, a Common Tailorbird was obviously alarmed by our presence but did not really move despite us being just a few feet away.

Common Tailorbird - just incase you wondering how birds sleep at night

Amphibians are one of the top category of animals that truly comes to life at night! Hidden away in crevices during the day, frogs can become very vocal in the safety of the night, mainly to keep away from the scorching heat but also to stay clear of potential predators. Asian Common Toads are the most abundant on almost all outings, they are pretty large and can easily be seen hopping along the roadside clumsily.

Asian Common Toad - you have to watch where you are stepping with them...

The Gunther's Frog is one of the most common frog species in Hong Kong, where they can be found along streams or ponds in wooded areas, where the males can be seen calling through the night (and a lot of the time through the day!) to females, they are pretty large frogs, too.

Gunther's Frog - you can see two colour variations here

Paddy Frogs are also quite common in Hong Kong, they can be found in various habitats from woodlands to agricultural land. They may look similar to the Asian Bullfrog, but the line that runs through their snout to vent is the key diagnostic feature of this species.

Paddy Frog

A species more closely related to hill streams, the Green Cascade Frog is the only frog that is actually green in Hong Kong, they have similar structural built to Gunther's Frogs but is different in having a green back and have different preference to habitats. Their calls are quite distinctive, like a bird chirping. They are not rare and many can be seen perched along rocks next to the stream at night.

Green Cascade Frog

Another extremely widespread frog is the Brown Tree Frog also known as Hong Kong Whipping Frog, it is our only arboreal frog species. They are quite common and can be found in a wide range of habitats, they can even be found far away from water source.

Brown Tree Frog

A less common of the common species, the Lesser Spiny Frog have a more specific habitat requirement, they are usually found in fast flowing hill streams, hidden away in crevices during the day and only emerges at night, but they are still not easy to spot amongst rocks as they are very well camouflaged.

Lesser Spiny Frog

One of our most interesting frog species, the Hong Kong Cascade Frog is a near endemic amphibian that is not uncommon in suitable habitats, they prefers fast flowing rapids where you will usually see them clinging onto the slippery rocks with their specialised digits which acts like a suction disk. Due to the limited range, it's considered an endangered species.

Hong Kong Cascade Frog - perfectly adapted to live in fast flowing streams

A lot of reptiles found in Hong Kong are also nocturnal, many snakes for example are more active in the night time. Geckos especially are one of the most common creatures that you will encounter at night. The Chinese Gecko is a very common and widespread species in Hong Kong, although they are not the most common gecko species found inside houses, they are the most common in woodlands and more rural areas.

Chinese Gecko

The Mock Viper is a small to medium species that is quite common in Hong Kong, I usually sees them during the day but it seems this one was also active at night! Although they may look a bit like a viper, they are in fact not a true viper and do not have venom that is dangerous to men. Most of the time they are quite docile and rarely will they strike in defence. They are such beautiful creatures that I enjoy seeing them every time!

Mock Viper

A large amount of insects are of course nocturnal. I am never very good with insects, so a lot of the time I cannot ID them. Here, two stick insects of the Neohirasea sp. mating, they male on top is nearly half the size of the female!

Neohirasea sp.

The Nyctalemon menoetius is a common and very large species in Hong Kong, they are so large that many people may mistaken it as a bat when it's flying! Moths pretty much take over what the butterflies do during the day and do them secretly at night, here you see the Nyctalemon menoetius drinking water to absorb minerals.

Nyctalemon menoetius

Another large moth species is the Erebus ephesperis, they have quite impressive markings on their wings. Here is one sucking on the sap of a tangerine tree.

Erebus ephesperis

Mammals are of course one of the most difficult genre of animals to observe in the wild, this is especially true in the dense woodlands in Hong Kong. We were very fortunate to bump into this Masked Palm Civet one night, munching away on a fruiting tree! I am not entirely sure about the plant species but the Civet concentrated on the fruits for as long as we wanted. After getting some satisfying views, we left the beautiful creature to do it's own thing.

Masked Palm Civet - one of the largest Civets in the region.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Tai Mo Shan - an afternoon stroll in mid July

Chinese Francolin

A few weeks ago, I got an email from UK birder Dave Bickerton who was passing through the city for a business trip, I saw that I had the Sunday afternoon free so I offered to take him around for a short bit of birding. With the heat we have been experiencing of late (38 °C) last week caused by the nearby Typhoon in Taiwan, weather's been quite unstable. I was up one night photographing lightning bolts from our living room window, quite a sight to behold...I naturally wanted to find the coolest place in our city to bird in the afternoon, therefore suggesting an outing at Tai Mo Shan.

A huge bolt from our window, one of the many that night!

My father and I met up Dave on Sunday afternoon at his hotel. I was a little doubtful in the beginning about the conditions near the summit, as I saw that the summit was clouded over. My father however insisted that we should go up and just take a look first (we later credited him for his perseverance!). So, up we went all the way to the car park. Turned out the cloud wasn't as low as I have expected, so we decided to pushed on. We were certainly made more willing to walk by the considerably cooler temperatures.

Things began okay, with a pair of Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers that showed briefly (not the best views), a Black-throated Laughingthrush sang it's melodic and beautiful song from the thickets nearby but never showed, we also heard Mountain Tailorbirds, Brown-flanked Bush Warblers and Lesser Shortwings but none of them wanted to show. The rest of the way up was pretty much the same, with birds teasing us constantly with their calls!

We got to our usual birding spot and very soon heard a series of harsh calls from below the ridge, the call of the Chinese Grassbird for sure! We quickly got up to the ridge and played a burst of playback, but by that time a bit of mist came in and we heard the bird moving further down the slope away from us, we waited for a few more minutes but heard nothing more. Moving on, we walked towards the southern slope and soon heard a Chinese Francolin calling not far off, we got the bird on our binoculars soon after scanning the rocks! The bird was calling away and didn't really move as we snuck even closer, we were taking advantage of the mist that came through, hiding us from the bird! This was by far the closest encounter I have had with this species, we were so close that we could even hear it usually inaudible clucking noises!

Chinese Francolin - what a bird!

After enjoying this prolonged and excellent views of the Francolin, we moved further down hoping to get another Grassbiird. It wasn't an easy walk as the bamboos had really started to grow over the footpath and moss were growing on the rocks, making the path very slippery! We managed to get to the open grassland where I played the recording of the Grassbird once again, but nothing replied. We waited for a little bit and decided to walk back up and see what else we could find.

Me and Dave at the Grassbird spot, me scratching my head wondering where all the birds are...

Up to the bit where I usually find a dozen of Parrotbills, but they were not there today. Dave however picked out a small bird hopping about in a bush. We all managed to get our bins on the bird and confirms it to be a juvenile Russet Bush Warbler! What a find! It's the first time I have seen a juvenile and the first time for my father to actually see the bird! (He only heard it before) It showed quite well for a few minutes (by bush warblers standard) and hopped out of sight into the bamboo thickets.

The rest of the way wasn't that exciting, a single Long-tailed Shrike made an appearance, not the most regular visitor up to this elevation. A few Mountain Tailorbirds continued to taunt us in the thickets and a Blue-winged Minla passed through briefly for Dave to have a better look.

Russet Bush Warbler - juvenile, a tick for David and my Father!

Long-tailed Shrike - the unusual visitor to the area I suppose?

We were going to head down to Shek Kong Catchment for a brief visit, but the road was blocked by what looked to be an accident, so we drove Dave straight to the airport afterwards. All in all, a very pleasant and enjoyable afternoon stroll with a few great birds! Most importantly making a new friend on the way!