Monday 30 January 2017

New Year Surprise - Lesser Whitethroat

Lesser Whitethroat - most unexpected find while out working!

While out working last Tuesday at Tsim Bei Tsui, I encountered a small bird that made an unfamiliar "tick tick" call. When I found the bird that was making the call, I immediately recognised it as a Lesser Whitethroat despite the fact that I did not have any binoculars or camera with me at the moment! The bird was merely 5m away from me, so it was quite clear what I was looking at. On Thursday I decided to give it another try. A few birders saw the bird earlier that morning after hearing the news, but the bird only showed briefly.

I waited along with them for another three hours before the bird reappeared! And briefly it was! It perched on an open branch for a few seconds before jumping into a tree giving very obscured views, shortly after it disappeared into the woods and not to be seen again. Luckily I managed to grab a couple of record shots. A nice tick of this rarity before Chinese New Year!

Lesser Whitethroat - a bird that really make you wait a long time...

On other birds during the Chinese New Year break, a visit to Shek Kong Airfield yielded a few female Common Rosefinches yet again, but I again didn't have much luck with any males, although the females showed quite nicely. The other nice bird there was a single female Black-naped Monarch, which was seen briefly.

Common Rosefinch - female

Black-naped Monarch - female

Common birds like Yellow-browed Warblers and Dusky Warblers were still in good numbers. But I didn't find any other interesting warblers amongst them. Both of these quick little birds showed well though, even posing long enough for me to take a few photos! A flock of Red-billed Blue Magpies again showed quite well, with this one perched right out in the open for a good minute or two.

Yellow-browed Warbler

Dusky Warbler

Red-billed Blue Magpie

I also visited Kam Tin River to try get some closer shots of the Grey-headed Lapwings there and with great success! I found a flock resting along the shore next to the road, I snuck up to them and popped my head and lens just over the low wall so not to scare them off. Turned out they were quite confiding and I managed to take some good photos before sneaking off again without disturbing them from their roost.

Maybe having a bird as the Chinese zodiac this year will bring more birds! We shall see!

Grey-headed Lapwing

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Close Encounters of the "Bird" Kind

Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler - one of the shopping mall's new attraction

As we birders all know, birds can literally turn up anywhere anytime. This was indeed the case for two locustella warblers that turned up at some hedges within a shopping mall complex at the heart of Kowloon earlier this week. The shopping mall is often packed with people and this was the last place you would expect for any rarity to turn up. But, an unusually timed Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler (they're usually passage migrants) plus a very rare Baikal Bush Warbler took up resident at this most unlikely location.

I took a few hours on Monday morning before work to look for the two birds, the Baikal Bush Warbler was showing well, but not so easy to photograph...I only managed one half decent shot after hours of trying. But, I guess this is already quite good for bush warbler standard. Key diagnostic features to separate Baikal from the very similar Spotted Bush Warbler are supposedly broader white tips to under tail coverts and generally more pointed wings. The first feature I could pick out quite well, the second feature I don't feel so confident about, mainly because I don't have much to compare this with...I will trust the experts who have had hands on experience with these locustella warblers.

Baikal Bush Warbler - doesn't make it easier despite how confiding it is...

Half of the time too close for me to focus with my 500mm lens

The Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler on the other hand was much more showy, boarder lining BIZARRE...At one point the warbler hopped onto the tiled ground to look for food just like a sparrow would do. It felt so strange to be looking at one of the most skulking warbler being very non-skulky. But, I am not complaining! As my best view of this species had previously been birds flying away from me as I flush them out from a field, not what you call a great view. So, I sure did enjoyed these amazingly close encounters while it lasted! Since then these two warblers had became a bit of a local celebrity, even local residents were interested to know what everyone were trying to photograph.

Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler - fancy a swim?

Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler - 
well marked crown, mantle and wing coverts, darker sub-terminal band with white tail tips

Other then birding in shopping malls, I have also been out a few times in New Territories birding in the past two weeks. Great birds includes three Common Rosefinch at Shek Kong Airfield Road on the 14th, a Japanese Sparrowhawk at Long Valley on the 21st, but neither of them provided me with any satisfactory photographic opportunities unlike the following birds...While I was not having much luck with any other Buntings, Little Buntings had filled in the large gap of this genre. Here, a confiding individual at San Tin as well as one from Long Valley to stick with the "close encounters" theme

Little Bunting - 
equally confiding birds from San Tin (top) and the other from Long Valley (bottom)

Siberian Stonechats are of course extremely friendly as always and make great photographic subjects. A very confiding Common Tailorbird at Long Valley was also nice, a species you don't get to see this well everyday. A frame filling Long-tailed Shrike was too tempting for me not to take a portrait of this handsome bird, who could say no to this pretty face? Chinese Pond Herons also provided some great close up photos at Long Valley.

Siberian Stonechat

Common Tailorbird

Long-tailed Shrike

Chinese Pond Heron

Oriental Turtle Doves are always nice to see and can be a nice change from the usual Spotted Doves. Red-throated Pipits still in good numbers with plenty at Long Valley as well as San Tin. Also plentiful at Long Valley were numerous Common Snipes with a few Swintails, although I couldn't manage any photographs of the latter. Also at Long Valley, a handsome male Daurian Redstart that had taken up position near Ho Sheung Heung.

Oriental Turtle Dove

Red-throated Pipit - non-breeding plumage

Common Snipe

Daurian Redstart - male

Not all birds like to come close, most of the time they like to stay well away from people. One of them was this Bull-headed Shrike at Long Valley, I think this one had been around for sometime, although a bit far it was nice to finally caught up with it. Common Mynas were regularly seen, although not always easy to get any decent photographs, they usually fly off before I get the chance to get any closer.

Bull-headed Shrike - it was gone before I could even get closer...

Common Myna

Finally, some flight shots of birds to wrap things up before Chinese New Year! Wishing you all a birdy and exciting year of the rooster!

Collared Crow

Pied Avocet

Eastern Buzzard

Sunday 8 January 2017

A Duck, a Crane and a Duck!

Mandarin Duck - my best bird in far!

Nathan Goldberg, a student studying at Cornell University contacted me months ago about visiting Hong Kong, this Saturday we finally got together for a day of birding. It was still dark when I picked him up from Kowloon and we drove straight to Tai Po Kau Park. This had became one of my favourite spot to start off a day's birding, especially with the ficus tree in fruit at the moment. We waited around the tree and Nathan got acclimated to the sounds of the forest in Hong Kong, we were of course also there for the Great Barbet; which showed very well, evidently the Barbets had became a local twitch for local birders and photographers alike, there were about 30 people below the tree by the time we leave.

Great Barbet - still plenty of food to go around

We started Tai Po Kau pretty well, connecting with a Pygmy Wren Babbler on the way up after 10 minutes of trying, the skulker gave fairly good views before melting back into the undergrowth. As Nathan managed to get a Mai Po permit for the day, we thought we would plough through Tai Po Kau quickly so we get enough time for the ramsar site in the afternoon. Things went pretty good for the short amount of time we were there, we hit our first mixed flock even before we got to the trail, White-bellied Epornis came close for a good look. The beautiful Silver-eared Mesias were as eye-catching as ever, a flock of these gave very good views.

White-bellied Epornis

Silver-eared Mesia

We encountered a few more feeding flocks when we got to the trail, connecting with nearly all of the "usual suspects" in Tai Po Kau. This itself is in fact not an easy task nowadays, as flocks are now much further apart and birds more disperse due to improvement of habitats elsewhere. Huet's Fulvettas showed well, along with Streak-breasted Scimitar Babblers, a male Yellow-cheeked Tits at close range stole the show, a few Mountain Bulbuls gave fairly good views as we cleaned up on the local Bulbuls! Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers were again quite active and showed extremely well.

Huet's Fulvetta

Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler

Yellow-cheeked Tit - male

Mountain Bulbul - one of the more "difficult" local bulbul species

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher

On our way out I checked the Rhodoleia tree which had just started flowering, surely enough a pair of Orange-bellied Leafbirds were there. They perched motionlessly which made them difficult to detect at first, but you simply cannot take your eyes off once you locked onto them. This being one of Nathan's target bird here ended our Tai Po Kau visit perfectly.

Orange-bellied Leafbird - male

We decided to go for an early lunch before heading into Mai Po, before that we drove to Siu Lek Yuen close-by to check for a Mandarin Duck that was spotted the day before. Although I have seen them before I never seems to have much luck with this Hong Kong rarity in recent years. We arrived at the spot where a group of photographers were already there, but they didn't have the bird in view. So, we decided to walk along the river to see if we can spot the duck somewhere down stream. As we were walking Nathan suddenly exclaimed that he found the bird sitting along the bank! Mean while I was looking at the completely wrong distance, as Nathan spotted the duck nearly 300 meters away from where we were standing! Credits to him, and I probably need to get my eyes checked pretty soon...

Mandarin Duck - it's far, but definitely recognisable!

We arrived at Mai Po just past noon and Nathan got his permit without much trouble. Things started off slowly, but a few Plain Prinias were welcoming sight, a bit of pishing got a group very excited. Strangely enough they seems to be the very few birds in Hong Kong that reacts well to pishing.

Plain Prinia - pisssshhhh

We tried locating any Yellow Bitterns from the Education Centre but came up empty handed, although a flock of confiding Chinese Grosbeaks just outside were more then enough to make up for that.

Chinese Grosbeak - male top, female bottom

We reached pond 16/17 soon, hoping to find the Siberian Crane that had been around there lately, sure enough that was pretty much the first bird we saw as we sat down! Views were not great to begin with as the large bird stayed behind the reeds, but it later came out to the open for us to indulge spectacular views of this rare crane. It was awesome to be able to connect with this bird, and no doubt one of Nathan's target bird of this trip, good to have this species on my 2017 list as well!

Siberian Crane - the crown jewel of Mai Po right now

Another globally rare species at the scrape was of course Black-faced Spoonbills. They are in fact quite common in Hong Kong during winter, and it's easy for us to forget just how endangered they are still. Their numbers dropped below a thousand individuals back in 1980s, fortunately their numbers seems to be increasing again and the global population now estimated at around 3,000 individuals world wide. Good views of a few close to the bird hide was another highlight.

Black-faced Spoonbill

Other more common birds around...A few Garganeys were nice addition to our day list, White Wagtails showed well next to the hide, and an Eastern Buzzard flushed many of the ducks but failed to grab any. A Peregrine Falcon also tried for a few avocets at the far end of the scrape but seems to have failed.


White Wagtail - leucopsis

Eastern Buzzard

We headed out to the boardwalk just in time before the tide came in. Good timing as well as the Black-capped Kingfisher came out and perched on one of the "kingfisher pole" for a good fifteen minutes or so for us to enjoy. (Sorry Jeff...if you're reading this!)

Black-capped Kingfisher - our most "elusive" of the four local Kingfishers

The tide came in a little bit earlier then anticipated, but in a rather disappointing fashion as most of the waders were either not in range or just not there! I scanned hard for any Nordmann's Greenshanks within a flock of Common Greenshanks without much success. Same went with Far-eastern Curlew which kind of broke my "there's always one in there" rule...A female Eastern Marsh Harrier came and flushed the waders a few times, but despite shifting positions we got very few new waders. A few Black-faced Spoonbills were feeding very close to the hide though. Matters were made worst by a large group of WWF tour filling every window space within the hide...Locating a few Saunder's Gull at the far end of the bay kind of made up for the lack of waders.

The disappointing flock of Greenshanks...

Eastern Marsh Harrier - flushing all the ducks

Black-faced Spoonbill

But, with Siberian Crane on our day list, we couldn't really complain about anything. On our way out we stopped by a few fish ponds to enjoy a flyby Black Kite and a perched White-breasted Kingfisher, which sums up our day perfectly as that completes our local kingfisher collection of the day!

Black Kite

White-throated Kingfisher

Since I only managed a crappy photo of the Mandarin Duck the day before, I decided to try for the duck again Sunday morning with my Dad. We got to Siu Lek Yuen just past 8:30am and didn't have much luck. The bird was not seen by anyone, everyone was looking for the bird along the river.

By 9:30am we thought that it was gone and headed back towards the car park, as I got to the bridge next to the car park I noticed a bird lurking beneath it in the shadows. Surely that's a Mandarin Duck! We quickly called a few birders back as they were about to leave and everyone got a pretty good look at the duck resting just below the bridge. It later started venturing out into the open and we ended up with a stunning view of the bird in great lighting! It's a shame this male is in moult...we can only hope that it sticks around a few more weeks and moult into the glorious drake that it can be!

Mandarin Duck - eclipse drake, and hopefully in full plumage soon!