Tuesday 25 April 2017

An Urban Fairy

Fairy Pitta - Pitta nympha

It was April of 2015 that I saw my last Fairy Pitta at Tai Po Kau, that was a huge birding moment in Hong Kong personally, I can still remember how overjoyed and exhilarated that day was for me. Seeing a Pitta; any Pitta is worthy of being a highlight in any given country or places, but to see one in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong was absolutely amazing.

Flashback - the Tai Po Kau Pitta from April 2015

I received texts that a Fairy Pitta was spotted by John Chow at Ho Man Tin, the hills of Ho Man Tin had been his local patch for last few years, and thanks to John this spot is now known as one of the best places for migrants in Kowloon Peninsular. The exact location is Ma Tau Wai Service Reservoir Playground, the best spot for birds there is a small platform on the hillside next to the pumping station. Bang on time, as most Pittas should be passing through Hong Kong mainly from mid April to early May.

My dad and I got there just before 8am, there were already more then a dozen birders looking at the bird. This is my dad's lifer and I presume it is for many other birders present. The bird kept out of view for several minutes but finally showed itself briefly, foraging actively on the ground. At one point it was on the feeding with a few Tree Sparrows! Certainly a sight you don't see everyday. We spent just around fifteen minutes there and left the place as more birders arrived to pay a visit to this rarity.

Fairy Pitta - quite a good show for just under fifteen minutes!

I heard from other friends that after we left more and more people arrived, and it seems that some of those people weren't behaving as they should, being overly noisy, littering, breaking branches or plants...and as a birder you can't help but to be concern of the well being of the birds. It's a huge dilemma in today's birding scene in Hong Kong whether to keep the rarity hushed up or to disclose the location publicly. The first option seems to have created a lot of arguments and had torn the birding community in half, for example 'birders vs bird photographers', while creating a lot of 'closed circles', where only some birders may benefit from certain bird news, while some being completely oblivious. This situation for me is not the best in the interest of both birders or birds.

As a birder, I think it is important to keep the public educated about the birds around us, theoretically the more bird lovers there are, the easier it is to protect the birds in our city. So, hushing up bird news in a way stops people from enjoying or getting into this hobby as pure birders, instead those interested will turn towards the community that they can gain most access, in this case bird photographers circles. This seems to have been the case in recent years, where most new 'birders' were introduced to photography first and birding second, where they might not have the basic conservation knowledge of a naturalist and becomes objective orientated bird photographers, where their prime concern became whether they can take good photographs or not and not the well being of the birds.

I can't say I blame those people entirely, as they were never introduced to those concepts of conservation, sure a lot of their actions probably won't benefit the birds, but isn't it a better way in educating those just starting in the hobby about the correct way of birding instead of barring half the people from the excitement of birding? There will always be 'bad blood' in any hobby, but the current method in hushing up bird news seems to have created more trouble then good in my opinion with both parties growing further and further apart, even more conflict amongst birders, while the photographers continue with their own way...a vicious cycle looping continuously.

Rome wasn't built in one day, and these kind of problems certainly can't be fixed overnight, I believe birders needs to take on a more active role, not just simply condemning those who doesn't follow proper birding codes, but to educate more new comers on the correct way of birding. And ultimately, the birds will benefit from more controlled birders who put the well being of the birds above getting good photographs.

Just my two cents on this subject, although much is debatable and I am sure there are tons of different opinions out there. Either way, I wish this Pitta will find it's way to it's breeding ground safely, unharmed. Hopefully, it will visit us again sometime in the near future!

Monday 24 April 2017

Continued Surprises - Mai Po

Eurasian Eagle Owl - our largest owl species, likely in the world!

Mai Po never seizes to surprise us, and in April anything can turn up anywhere. The raptors are taking advantage of the abundance of migrant waders, other then the Peregrine and Eastern Marsh Harrier from the previous posts, I witnessed a Black Kite coming down onto the mudflat and grabbed an injured Curlew Sandpiper and devoured it right in front of the bird hide! A Besra was also ambushing around the footpaths, this particular one I encountered at least twice throughout the day, first time it chased a few songbirds through the mangroves, the second time Pan Lau found it perched close-by next to the footpath, we enjoyed some confiding views for as long as we wanted.

Black Kite - with Curlew Sandpipers between it's talons...


Large Hawk Cuckoos had been calling constantly in Mai Po, and we have been getting some good views of them lately, here's another one perched on top of a tree, a bit further away then my last close encounter. The other Cuckoo species that had been active are Indian Cuckoos, their "One More Bottle" call can be heard throughout, I was lucky to bump into one that allowed me to get an obscured but close view, it's the first time had been able to get a photograph of a perched individual.

Large Hawk Cuckoo

Indian Cuckoo

Mudflats at Deep Bay had been full of waders, here are just a sample of the many waders found there on any given day...Greater Sand Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Terek Sandpipers, Great Knots, Red Knots, Red-necked Stints, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, Common Sandpipers, Whimbrels and Asian Dowitchers...

Greater Sand Plover

Ruddy Turnstone

Terek Sandpiper

Great Knot

Red Knot

Red-necked Stint

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

Common Sandpiper


Asian Dowitcher

An interesting wader caught our eye on the mudflat, a very bright and well marked stint foraging amongst the Red-necked Stints. The general reaction in the bird hide at the time is that this was probably a Little Stint, and I thought so too given that it looked so different with rest of the flock. It was later suggested that this is a Red-necked Stint, although I must say it's bill shape doesn't quite click as classic Red-necked to me, it looks slightly longer and very pointed...especially when placed side by side with the Red-necked present, but I must admit the body structure, leg structure both seems a bit off for a usual Little. I did saw a more 'obvious' Little Stint on the same day in bright breeding plumage, although it was way too far for any photo to be taken, but in breeding plumage they are difficult to miss. It does show the huge variety Red-necked Stints can show. So, I will have to wait my turn for photos...

The 'strange' Red-necked Stint with a 'regular' Red-necked Stint

Other then waders, there was a bird that attracted quite a lot of attention in form of an Eurasian Eagle Owl, they are rare to scarce residents in Hong Kong, although quite widespread they are seldom seen. One had been spotted around pond 11 frequently and attracted a lot of birders to try their luck for this elusive species. I took my chance and went for it, knowing that birders waited half a day to get a look at it the day before. I was surprise therefore when Peter Wong found the bird sat right next to the footpath, it didn't move much for the next few hours. By the time it was surrounded by a dozen of photographers, it seems quite obvious to us that there was some problem with this owl. After a heavy rainstorm birders reported it to be quite week, and called up WWF to pick the bird up. It was later transferred to SPCA later on the day. It was unclear what was wrong with the bird, but our guess is that it could have ate a rat with poison? Sad news is that after a few days this majestic bird did not make it. It was exciting while it lasted...let's hope we get to see a healthier one next time.

Eurasian Eagle Owl - RIP...

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Three Days of Excellent Birding

Brambling - a rare passage migrant in Hong Kong

Dave Bickerton whom we met in July last year for an afternoon birding was back in Hong Kong again for two weeks; mostly for business with a little bit of birding (I think that's what Dave wants people to think anayway!). So, we arranged a few days birding together around Hong Kong. Being April and likely one of the best time to be birding in Hong Kong, there are chances for all sorts of interesting birds and migrants, we took the chance to try for a few of them.

Day 1:

We met on the morning of 3rd of April, picking Dave and his wife Bernie from the Lai King MTR station and we drove straight to Mai Po Nature Reserve. Dave had reserved a day permit for the day and we were hoping to catch the incoming tide. It was Bernie's first and Dave's second visit to Mai Po, the first being his last visit in July; obviously not the best time to visit! So we had quite high hopes for the reserve! We were greeted by a few White-shouldered Starlings and Azure-winged Magpies at the car park.

White-shouldered Starling

It didn't take long for Dave to retrieve his day permit from the WWF office, once we gone past the AFCD warden's post we were greeted by a nice looking male Black-faced Bunting! A very handsome looking guy that gave great views for a few minutes. Dave got acclimated to the constant singing of Yellow-bellied Prinias, which are now busy nest building. Plain Prinias are just as visible now and will sing on an open branch occasionally.

Black-faced Bunting - male

Yellow-bellied Prinia - with nesting materials

Plain Prinia

When we got to the furthest bird hide it seems we underestimated the tide and water came in quicker then expected. We still managed some waders and a few Gulls and Terns. We got Heuglin's Gulls, Mongolian Gulls and Vega Gulls altogether, along with two Black-tailed Gulls, all pretty far though. There were also good numbers of Caspian Terns. Other then the common waders, we got at least one Far-eastern Curlew amongst the Eurasian, looking very big with a very well marked vent. We added Grey Plovers and a single Ruddy Turnstone.

Mongolian Gulls with Caspian Terns and Curlews

Far-eastern Curlew (3rd left) and Eurasian Curlews, also a Bar-tailed Godwit to the right

Grey Plover, Avocet and Ruddy Turnstone

Once the tide came in and most waders left, we were entertained by a large group of Black-faced Spoonbills feeding in front of the hide, many of the adults in beautiful breeding plumage, they came very close and we all enjoyed amazing views of this globally rare bird.

Black-faced Spoonbill in breeding plumage

Black-faced Spoonbill - juvenile

Dave spotted an interesting gull inflight, but it was quite far, it's wings were comparatively long and slender, we came to the conclusion that it was a 1st winter Saunder's Gull. It was lucky we still got this one as most of the Saunder's Gulls had moved on and this was the only one we saw. We later saw what we think is the same Gull back out in the scrape, roosting amongst huge flock of Gull-billed Terns.

Saunder's Gull - 1st winter

Out at the scrape we got a large flock of Black-tailed Godwits, we scanned for other interesting waders but with little luck. There were a lot of Marsh Sandpipers, and we did manage to locate a few Nordmann's Greenshanks amongst the Common Greenshanks, with them assuming breeding plumage it's easy to pick them out just by looking at their plumage!

Black-tailed Godwit

Marsh Sandpiper

Nordmann's Greenshank amongst Common Greenshanks

After Mai Po I took Dave and Bernie to San Tin and Lok Ma Chau, where we added a few more species including a very confiding Sooty-headed Bulbul. The day ended well with a few Black Drongos perched nicely over a fishpond, and a beautiful view of the fishponds overlooking Shenzhen.

Sooty-headed Bulbul

Black Drongo

Overlooking Shenzhen

Day 2:

Ship docks at Aberdeen

We arranged to meet at the brand new MTR station of Wong Chuk Hang on the South Hong Kong Line, going to Aberdeen to catch a ferry to Po Toi Island. We met at 7:45am, half an hour earlier then the supposed departure of the ferry. Hoiling came along with us on the day to make up our four person group. Weather was good; perhaps a little too good and we were worried whether any migrants will stop on the island at all! But we went ahead, as with a dozens or so other birders all aboard the ferry.

On the way we saw little birds at sea, only a single Red-necked Phalarope flew by. Po Toi Island is traditionally the best place in Hong Kong for migrants, and only two days before our visit some lucky birders found a male Maroon Oriole! A mega rarity in Hong Kong! But as with many rarities that turn up on the island, it was only seen for two days. So, we will have to look for our own birds...We encountered very little in the first hour after landing, mainly Crested Mynas and Bulbuls, we did manage a single Pacific Swift. A few Black-faced Buntings gave obscured views behind the Sister's Cafe.

Black-faced Bunting

It wasn't until we found two accipitars circling above us that things started to pickup. A juvenile Crested Goshawk with a much smaller accipitar, I initially thought it was a Japanese Sparrowhawk, but the thicker tail bands and faint streaks on it's breast indicate it as a male Besra. We also got a single Grey-faced Buzzard circling around the harbour, another regular migrant passing through Po Toi.

Crested Goshawk with Besra

Grey-faced Buzzard

The lack of Flycatchers were made up with by a lovely looking young male Daurian Redstart. It was quite confiding and allowed some great views. It's not a great bird or a rarity, but it's a nice find in April, although I would have much preferred a Narcissus Flycatcher or something more exciting...

Daurian Redstart - male

And excitement we got! When a strange bird flew around us on the banyan tree, Dave saw that it was orange but the bird did not stay still enough for us to get a good look. I really thought we got a Narcissus Flycatcher or something like that as it's the most logical species, but I was so wrong when Dave finally got the bird in view and exclaimed "Brambling!". It was probably more excited for me then for Dave (who is from the UK), as he sees them all the time! But here in Hong Kong, Bramblings are quite a rare migrant that passes through mainly in March and April. The bird later came down on the ground to feed, giving us great views for five minutes or so before fluttering off, likely to continue on it's migration north.

Brambling - the bright spot of a quiet day on Po Toi

Things quieten down a little, with very little birds around except Yellow-browed Warblers. We managed to find a single Yellow-fronted Canary. This is a regularly seen bird in Hong Kong, although not native here they seems to have established themselves here, they have even made up their own migration route where they passes through Po Toi annually!

Yellow-fronted Canary

Things continued to be quiet, so we decided to get an earlier ferry off the island, a single Grey-faced Buzzard saw us off at the pier. It was afternoon tea at Stanley afterwards that was equally enjoyable.

Grey-faced Buzzard

Day 3:

Bernie left for UK earlier then Dave, we did have a very enjoyable dinner at Tai Fung Lau before she left, a very old restaurant for northern cuisines and one of our favourite eatery. Dave was very kind to treat us all for the dinner with Peking Duck and delicious sweet and sour fish!

After Dave was back from his working trip in China, we met up once again for one last day of birding before he fly out of Hong Kong. I picked him up at his hotel before 7am and we headed towards Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve. Dave had yet to get any of our forest species in Hong Kong, so Tai Po Kau was the obvious place to go, and I was glad we went. Things started off OK and we soon picked up beautiful Silver-eared Mesias and a few Blue-winged Minlas, we also got a few Grey-chinned Minivets in the distant. Red-whiskered Bulbuls posed for us at picnic area 1, when I heard the call of the Chestnut-winged Cuckoo! I mimicked it's two-note whistle and sure enough the bird flew in straight at us, but it didn't perch in an open branch for us to look at, although for the next few minutes we had a few more good fly-by views of this impressive looking cuckoo.

Red-whiskered Bulbul

Chestnut-winged Cuckoo

We encountered a Mugimaki Flycatcher in the distant but it never showed again despite some waiting, so we moved on and just as we were walking up the steps towards picnic area two I heard the familiar song of Plain Flowerpecker, I played a short burst of recording and brought in a single bird, circling above our heads for a minute or two! This is still considered a local rarity in Hong Kong with so little records in the last ten years or so, but I think once we know it's song we will no doubt see an increase of records for this species!

Plain Flowerpecker

Things quietened down a little as we reached the second picnic area, but when I heard a singing Hainan Blue Flycatcher we immediately went after it. It took us a while to get some acceptable views of the beautiful bird, but it was a little further along the path that we encountered a few more of these amazing looking flycatchers! A male came very close and gave eye-level views! It's very nice to have them back again for another year, hopefully they will have a successful year of breeding at Tai Po Kau.

Hainan Blue Flycatcher - male

A bit further on we encountered a single Streak-breasted Scimitar Babbler that showed very well but not long enough for a good photograph. A few Blue-winged Minlas and Huet's Fulvettas were far more obliging and gave great views.

Blue-winged Minla

Huet's Fulvetta

As Dave had booked himself another permit into Mai Po, we wanted to leave some time for the waterbirds, so we decided to head back down, on the way we picked up a song that sounded oddly like a Magpie Robin but different, it sounded familiar to me but I simply couldn't nail what it was until I spotted the bird making the noise. A beautiful Orange-headed Thrush, perched on an exposed branch singing it's heart out! What a view to behold and the best bird we could possibly get for such a short trip at Tai Po Kau.

Orange-headed Thrush - in song

On our way down we heard plenty of Crested Serpent Eagles calling above, and had one of them flying very low above, giving excellent views.

Crested Serpent Eagle

Before we headed into Mai Po we grabbed a quick breakfast at the cafe just outside Mai Po (egg and luncheon meat sandwich with tea) before heading into the reserve. We weren't there to catch the rising tide as we had spent our morning at Tai Po Kau, therefore we decided to stick to the scrape and scan for roosting waders. We were greeted by a large congregation of Little Egrets perched on the wire, they created an interesting composition.

Little Egret

The first two interesting things we saw in Mai Po were not birds, but a Checkered Keelback just outside the Education Centre and a single Javan Mongoose that came across our path, adding some diversity into our day.

Checkered Keelback

Javan Mongoose

On the scrape, plenty of Asian Dowitchers were around, a nice addition to our three day list of this uncommon spring migrant. We were also granted great views of a Far-eastern Curlew with it's massive bill out. We were in no shortage of Nordmann's Greenshank on the day, where we counted at least 8 on the scrape.

View of scrape 16 & 17

Asian Dowitcher

Far-eastern Curlew

Nordmann's Greenshank

The scrape was again patrolled by a Peregrine and a Eastern Marsh Harrier, both flushing the waders and terns on several occasions.

Peregrine Falcon

Eastern Marsh Harrier

We heard the "brain-fever" call of the Large Hawk Cuckoo constantly, and Dave was determined to find the bird. Having heard them but not seeing them on so many occasions I was already half given up when Dave suddenly exclaimed that he had the bird in view! We enjoyed great scope views and later managed to snuck up closer to it and got a few shots before it flew away.

Large Hawk Cuckoo

On our way out we were met by a nice looking Chinese Pond Heron in breeding plumage. It's the right time of the year to photograph these herons. A Dusky Warbler came in close for us to take a good look, many of them are now in song and should be heading north very soon for breeding.

Chinese Pond Heron - breeding plumage

Dusky Warbler

As Dave had to be at the airport by 4pm, I thought we would make a stop at the Magic Roundabout at the airport before I drop him off at the terminal. We did a quick stroll along the trees between the roads and added a single Hair-crested Drongo, a White-cheeked Starling, Long-tailed Shrike and 16 Oriental Pratincoles passing above! Not a bad way to end what was already a great day of birding, with a total of 108 species for the day!

It was overall a great three day's of birding, with many key species like Nordmann's Greenshanks seen many times and a few rarities here and there, it was great to share some of the local birds with visiting friends but also get inspired by information on birding from another corner of this planet.