Thursday 25 March 2021

Upland Hike - Search for the Upland Pipit

Back in late 1990s to early 2000s, my dad and I often drove up to Kowloon Peak during the summer months to look for Upland Pipits and Chinese Francolins, you are almost guarantee to hear the 'dit-deeee, dit-deeee, dit-deeee' song of the Upland Pipit as soon as you get out of your car, where you will often see one singing from a rocky outcrop. Since 2014 this species had became more and more difficult to track down, where the pipit is seemingly missing from previously known strongholds such as Tai Mo Shan and Kowloon Peak. The reason for this is still unknown, but it is nowhere as widespread and easy to find as it used to be.

The global distribution of the Upland Pipit is slightly odd, as they are most commonly found along the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal and India etc, but they are also patchily distributed in Central and South China, Hong Kong is one of the stronghold of this species in Guangdong, also the lowest elevation of its range.

Upland Pipit - in its natural habitat

Me being me, I haven't bothered to venture up Lantau Peak as yet to tick this bird off my annual list in the last couple of years, I kept trying in suitable habitats around Tai Mo Shan but with very little luck, I more often just find Richard's Pipit up there. That being said, this species had been at the back of my mind for a few years, as I have yet to get a good photo record of this species. After hearing Captain finally found one up on Wong Leng at Pat Sin Leng Country Park, I thought I should give it a try given how close I actually live from there...

I parked at Hok Tau and walked up from there, the walk to the reservoir was pretty easy and I saw some birds a long the way. Several Speckled Piculets were heard and later seen, this species had really taken off in Hong Kong and now I see them almost weekly, sometimes a few times each week! Indochinese Yuhinas are still present in small numbers. White-bellied Erpornis was also seen within the feeding flock.

Speckled Piculet

Indochinese Yuhina

White-bellied Erpornis

I heard a few Rufous-tailed Robins singing along the way, often perched on low branches just above the undergrowth. A handsome male Tristram's Bunting was seen feeding amongst the Olive-backed Pipits.

Rufous-tailed Robin

Tristram's Bunting - male

Second part of the hike after passing Hok Tau Reservoir was quite steep, with very high steps. It doesn't help to be carrying a camera and binoculars, as they weigh you down. Fortunately the climb was not that long, I made it up the stairs in just over half an hour with some rests in-between. Once you get to the top of the steps it eases off and the trail becomes easy again.

Looking towards Sha Tau Kok at Ping Fung Shan

It took me a total of 1 hour 30 minutes to get from Hok Tau camping grounds up to the top of Ping Fung Shan, including birding stops and breaks. Once I got to the top I started scanning the rocky outcrops for any pipits, the first bird I saw was however not a pipit but a female Blue Rock Thrush.

Habitat at Ping Fung Shan

Blue Rock Thrush - female

It wasn't long before I started hearing their distinctive song, but the sound came from further down the cliff and out of sight. I heard another individual calling from further towards Wong Leng, this time I was able to locate the calling bird, perched on a rock not too far away from the footpath. Upland Pipits are extremely distinctive looking as far as pipit goes, they are quite short-tailed with a big head, and beautifully marked down their crown and mantle. They can be fairly confiding birds given you approach them quietly, at one point one of them started doing their display flight and landed right in front of me, where I was able to get quite a decent photo.

Upland Pipit

For my morning effort I counted a total of three individuals, where I seen two and later heard another one much further away. While the exact reason for this species's disappearance from several of its previous stronghold in Hong Kong is not known, I do hope this charismatic species can continue to thrive in Hong Kong.

Monday 22 March 2021

From Fish Owl to Gulls

 I visited Cheung Chau the other night and successfully found the Brown Fish Owl at its 'usual' spot along the promenade. As always, it was such a thrill to see this species in the wild, I can never get bored of them. Brown Fish Owl is a widespread species in Hong Kong, you can find them near many streams, as well as water catchments and reservoirs, or in this case the waterfront.

Brown Fish Owl

Many birds in Tai Po Kau are now showing signs of breeding, such as Grey-chinned Minivets which are now getting paired up instead of moving in large flocks. The usually quiet Plain Flowerpeckers are now very vocal and many can be heard throughout the trails.

Grey-chinned Minivet - male
Plain Flowerpecker

I heard the melodious songs of a White-rumped Shama, a species I seldom see at Tai Po Kau. It was behaving in the most classic 'Shama-like' manner, singing loudly in a gully inside the dense forest, it later showed itself briefly. Previously recognised as released or escapes, the number of Shamas reported in Hong Kong the last few years suggests they have now established a small breeding population.

White-rumped Shama

Speckled Piculets can be heard drumming, this one was pecking away near the top of a bare tree, which made it very visible. Another very vocal species at the moment is the Chinese Barbets, where this was a very rare species just a few years back, at least two were calling constantly at Tai Po Kau with several other reported at various sites such as Kadorie Farm, Shing Mun and Tai Lam, the pair at Tai Po Kau seems to be making a nest on a dead tree stump, a good sign that this species is slowly spreading.

Speckled Piculet

Chinese Barbet

A Ring-billed Gull was reported on Saturday at Mai Po, which will be the first ever record for Hong Kong as well as China, unfortunately I had work in the afternoon that day and missed the bird. I tried my luck the next day and ventured out to Deep Bay. The mudflat wasn't particularly interesting, the only notable wader being a Far Eastern Curlew. Many Black-faced Spoonbills now in their breeding plumage, making them even more attractive to look at. Caspian Terns are now in decent numbers.

Far Eastern Curlew

Black-faced Spoonbill

Caspian Tern

Despite not being able to relocate the Ring-billed Gull, there were plenty of other gulls to look at. Large Larus species have always been troublesome group of birds for birders worldwide, the inconsistencies of information of these gulls in Asia have made learning how to differentiate them even more challenging, as taxonomy is being updated every few years. The constant hybridisation of the three (or two) species that occurs in Hong Kong and the physical differences at various age makes identification even more difficult. None the less, gulls are fascinating and well worth spending some time to look into. I can't dare say I am a good 'gull-er', but it is important for birders to keep in mind that gull identification is a constant learning process.

Currently, IOC list that two members of the 'Herring-type' Larus that occurs in Hong Kong are the Vega Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Of which, two subspecies of Vega Gulls are known to occur in Hong Kong, namely vegae vegae and vegae mongolicus. Of these two mongolicus is by far the more common one. Here is a brief update on the large gulls that occurs in Hong Kong.

Vega Gull (mongolicus)

Here is a good example of an adult Vega Gull mongolicus early in the year and in spring, with completely white head, pinkish legs and lighter grey backs. It is important to note that mongolicus moult earlier than the rest due to their breeding grounds being further south. 

Vega Gull (mongolicus) - adult

This below is likely a sub-adult bird showing most of the same features as adult, except for some feathers still retaining on lesser coverts, as well as fine spots on the back of the neck.

Vega Gull (mongolicus) - sub-adult

Likely a 3rd year bird, with very worned out tertiaries, greater and lesser coverts, with 'saddle' developing. Overall structure is that expected of mongolicus, shorter winged than heuglini.

Vega Gull (mongolicus) - 3rd year

Here are a 2nd year bird that shows traits of Vega vegae such as well marked head and neck, although not quite as extensively as one might expect, it is also not quite as blotchy as expected on the flanks or underside. Structurally this feels shorter winged than that of heuglini, so I am leaning towards this being either a vegae or mongolicus, but can't confidently identify these to species level.

2nd  year vegae / mongolicus?

Vega Gull (vegae)

This is the least common of the three 'common' species of large gulls in Hong Kong, adults seen in Hong Kong are usually easily picked up by heavily marked head and breast, as well as pink legs. This is an old photo from Feb 2016.

Vega Gull (vegae) - adult

The individual on the left here I would consider a good candidate as a 3rd year vegae, compared with the heuglini on the right, it looks much chunkier, where as heuglini looks slimmer and more slender. The heavily mottled neck, breast as well as underside is also a good indication for this being a likely vegae.

3rd year vegae (left) and 2nd year heuglini (right)

A very dark looking individual probably a 2nd year vegae, first of all it is very heavily blotched and well marked from head to underside, this is very unlikely to be heuglini or mongolicus. Also note the almost unicolour greater coverts and very thinly patterned scapulars and coverts, giving it an impression of 'light back'. 

Probably two mongolicus (left) and 2nd year vegae (right)

2nd year vegae

Lesser Black-backed Gull (heuglini)

By far our most numerous large gull, local birders usually just refer these as Heuglin's Gulls. adults are easily separable with Vega due to its very dark back, structurally they look more slender and longer winged, leg colour is also a good method to separate them as adult heuglini always have yellow legs. while 2nd and 3rd year birds show similar structure with adults, with darker scapulars and coverts than Vega in general, with a more distinct 'white collar' around the head.

Adult heuglini (left) and 2nd year heuglini (right)

These are the general rule of thumb for 'herring-type' large gulls in Hong Kong at the moment, there are of course a lot of variations and hybridisation are known to exist more often than we would like, therefore it is important to keep in mind that identifying these gulls are sometimes like looking at a spectrum, where you may get traits of both species in one bird, sometimes on more than the other.

Monday 15 March 2021

Black-chinned Yuhina - successful twitch!

Our second attempt for the long staying Black-chinned Yuhina was successful, it arrived on a fruiting Schefflera heptaphylla or Ivy Tree like clockwork at around 3pm. It was feeding intermittently on the tree with a few Swinhoe's White-eyes during a half hour window, but showed beautifully while it was there. Whether this record will be accepted by the RC remains to be seen, but I don't see no reason why this vagrant couldn't have followed the wrong flock of Indochinese Yuhinas or White-eyes and ended up in Hong Kong, it certainly looks to be in very good conditions. The Ivy Trees also attracted other birds such as bulbuls and a few Yellow-cheeked Tits.

Black-chinned Yuhina - 1st record for Hong Kong

Yellow-cheeked Tit - male

I haven't been to Long Valley for a while, and with the ongoing construction of the 'nature park', things are not quite the same as they used to be, bulldozers and lorries are now a regular sight along the fields, with various concrete structures erected at various locations. Whether this will affect the birds in the long run remains to be seen, my concern is that constructers re-landscape everything first and making the once fertile wetland into a man-made wetland. If it becomes something like Wetland Park (Which I truly hope not), we maybe in trouble...

I am guessing a toilet block of some sort?

The only birds that seems to be happy about the bulldozers seems to be the Eastern Cattle Egrets, which were following these metal beasts, hoping to feed on anything turned up in the soil by them.

Eastern Cattle Egret

A flock of Eastern Yellow Wagtails had me scanning for Citrine Wagtails, just when I thought I got one with the 'C-shaped' ear coverts, something about this individual didn't look quite right for me, it wasn't as 'grey-toned' as I expected, but ear coverts were yellow and its lores were quite pale. Head wasn't particular yellow so that was no help. Wing-bars were useless in this case as it was moulting and both median and greater coverts were very worned. Back was showing some tint of olive. So, is this a Citrine or Eastern Yellow Wagtail (race taivana)?

Citrine Wagtail - I will put it as that for now, happy to be corrected

I dug up some old photos of various supposed Citrine Wagtails I photographed, and this individual from spring 2010 certainly was even more peculiar than my bird, but very yellow ear coverts and a supercilium as well as pale lore doesn't quite fit regular taivana Eastern Yellow Wagtail. What are these? Maybe some taivana can show these features during moult?

Citrine Wagtail / Eastern Yellow Wagtail? - from spring 2010

Despite all the constructions, many common residents still seemed happy to hang out in the remaining fields. Here are several species which you are guarantee to see at Long Valley, White-breasted Waterhen, Wood Sandpiper, Siberian Stonechat, Plain Prinia and of course the fabulous looking Greater Painted Snipe.

White-breasted Waterhen

Wood Sandpiper

Siberian Stonechat

Plain Prinia

Greater Painted Snipe

On a wet muddy field, quite a few hirundines were collecting mud for their nests, including numerous Barn Swallows, but also the larger Red-rumped Swallows. This species is a less common breeding species in Hong Kong, I observed at least 3 pairs carrying mud away from this site.

Barn Swallow

Red-rumped Swallow

While this was not a particularly good time for buntings, I found two species, including a Little Bunting and a very pretty looking Chestnut-eared Bunting, on closer inspection this was a ringed individual, likely by HKBWS. 

Little Bunting

Chestnut-eared Bunting

The numerous Chestnut and White-headed Munias were still around, there were actually more of them than Scaly-breasted Munias. My guess is that they will likely start breeding and spread in Hong Kong.

Chestnut Munia

White-headed Munia

The best bird at Long Valley was however a very confiding Common Starling, this was the closest I've ever been with a Common Starling in Hong Kong. I never quite appreciated them when I used to see them every day in the UK, but they are truly magnificent looking birds when seen up close with their iridescent plumage. 

Common Starling