Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Pelagic Fun in May

I joined two pelagic trips in the beginning of the month, hoping to catch some more seabirds before spring migration is over. Both days saw strong easterly winds throughout the day, which is not good for migrating seabirds, but great for birders! Although we didn't find anything really unusual or rare, finding at least a few Shearwaters and Skuas was already something! This is also a really good time to find migrating terns, which we saw no less than hundreds of them. The most numerous being White-winged Black Terns, these good looking birds can be fairly common during passage, and this was a particularly good year for them, as birders been seeing them almost anywhere with water! We encountered flocks of these feeding together.

White-winged Black Tern

Common Terns were also seen in good numbers, we saw constant stream of these throughout the trips. Most were of race longipennis with all dark bills, only a few were of race tibetana or minussensis. Quite a few were seen resting of floating polystyrene out at sea, taking a break from their long distance migration.

Common Tern - race longipennis

Common Tern - race tibetana / minussensis

Spring is also a great time to see migrating Aleutian Terns in Hong Kong waters, it still amazes me to think that up till 80s their wintering grounds were almost unknown to ornithologists, and wasn't recorded in Hong Kong until 1992! Now, we know they winter in equatorial waters in South East Asia and as a regular passage migrant through the coast of China. We were able to get quite close to a few of these elegant looking birds as they rested on floating buoys or debris.

Aleutian Tern

Another regularly recorded species of tern throughout spring is the Greater Crested Tern, this species does not breed in Hong Kong but probably breed somewhere not far from Hong Kong, even from a distance we can usually pick them out from other terns due to their larger size.

Greater Crested Tern

The smallest of our migratory terns is the Little Tern, we saw quite a few following most of the White-winged Black Terns. They also have quicker wing beats, always looking quite 'busy'.

Little Tern

Finally, you get our trio of breeding tern species. They start arriving by late April and now starting to show signs of courtship. Black-naped Terns are the palest looking of the three species, they look almost all white from afar, with only a black stripe running across the back of their head.

Black-naped Tern

Bridled Tern is the most numerous and darkest of the three, they are also the largest and have longer wings. We saw plenty of them during the trip, but usually in pairs, I wonder if those are already paired up for the breeding season.

Bridled Tern

The least common of the trio is the Roseate Tern, we only saw a single one resting on the buoy with the Black-naped Terns. In breeding plumage their breast turns a pinkish hue, hence appropriately called the Roseate Tern.

Roseate Tern & Black-naped Tern

Hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes migrate in flocks at sea, this arctic breeder winters throughout tropical oceans, during spring migration they are commonly found feeding on the waves. Breeding females have dark face, while males are duller in colour.

Red-necked Phalarope

On the first trip we encountered a single Arctic Skua, this seems to be the most numerous Skua species we've been getting these few years. Much thanks to dedicated sea watcher Bart de Schutter, who notified us of this incoming bird from behind our boat from his sea watching point on Po Toi! ID for adults are pretty straight forward, as they have a short streamer and slightly bulkier than Long-tailed Skuas, the large single wing patch on upper and lower wings also supports that.

Arctic Skua

No pelagic trip feels complete without find a Shearwater or two, we were lucky to find Short-tailed Shearwaters on both trips, though the best encounter was on the second trip when this individual flew in alongside to our boat! Thanks to the dedication of Hong Kong sea-watching pioneers like Geoff Welch and Bart de Schutter, we now have a much better understanding of seabirds migration in Hong Kong, it also shows the limitation of boat trips in terms of racking up species count, as we have limited visibility at sea, we are likely missing a lot of birds going past us outside of 1km radius. That being said, we do get to enjoy close encounters with these birds when we do chance upon them, so I am not complaining!

Short-tailed Shearwater

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