Amur Paradise Flycatchers and more in Sai Kung

Today I visited Sai Kung with a friend to try and track down the Amur paradise flycatcher. I haven’t done much birding in Sai Kung because it’s just so far away, but I decided to make the trip anyway just because there have been so many reports of these birds around, and I’m very glad that I did.

Amur paradise flycatchers typically make their way through Hong Kong on their way further south from the end of August to early September. Last year I did managed to catch one in a bird wave, but I wasn’t very satisfied with the only photo I managed to take.

Amur paradise flycatcher, September 2019

Today I had much better luck and was able to get more shots (we saw a total of 3), but still I’m not fully satisfied. I hope to have a few more tries before they all depart.

But that wasn’t even the whole of our luck. We also found a brown-breasted flycatcher, although the photo was only just barely enough to successfully identify it.

Brown-breasted flycatcher

Another good find was an arctic warbler. These are not terribly common in Hong Kong, though they are regular migrants and visitors.

Arctic warbler

A final bird of note perhaps only for me was the white bellied erpornis. I hadn’t ever seen or heard of this bird before, but they were regulars in most of the bird waves we came across.

This was the only shot that I managed, and the leaf unfortunately photo-bombed it.

The Amur paradise flycatcher and the white-bellied erpornis have entries in my Hong Kong Bird Log.

Asian Dowitcher at Long Valley

There have been reports of a lone Asian dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus) at Long Valley for weeks now and I finally headed out to have a look. I am very grateful that this bird decided to stick around long enough for most birders to have their fill, leaving me to visit it in relative peace. (There were only two other birders there when I arrived.) The dowitcher was flanked by a handful of black-winged stilts, little egrets, and Chinese pond herons, though I was only interested in photographing the dowitcher.

It seemed rather relaxed, foraging around for worms and crustaceans in the mud with its characteristic “sewing machine” method before eventually wading out into the middle of the pond and having a rest.

These birds are actually nearly threatened, with a steady and clear decline in the adult population having been recorded by the IUCN Red List. It was very nice to see this rare and vulnerable creature relaxing at the soon-to-be-former oasis that is Long Valley.

It was the first time I had visited Long Valley since March and the Civil Engineering department had already walled off the farmland that will soon be developed, irrevocably ruining this fragile and immensely valuable speck of farmland in Hong Kong. Local conservation efforts have allegedly succeeded at acquiring some modest concessions from the government regarding the conservation of some farmland, but still the whole place will almost certainly change for the worse once construction begins in earnest.

Another oddity at Long Valley this year is a flock of a hundred or so white-headed munia, which are typically not found in Hong Kong. These birds were no doubt released as part of a “mercy release” common in Buddhist traditions, though the practice is hardly merciful when animals are released into habitats in which they can’t survive!

White-headed Munia

For now though, these munia seem to be enjoying their summer in the farmland, and i hope the best for them whither they stay and try to tough out the winter in Hong Kong, or decide to migrate further south nearer to their usual range.

The Asian dowitcher has a corresponding entry in my Hong Kong Bird Log.

Bridled Terns in Hong Kong

Terns on a structure on a rocky island near Tap Mun, Hong Kong.

As August comes to a close, so too does breeding season for Hong Kong’s terns. Unlike our trip a few weeks back, there were hardly any black-naped terns to go around, but instead we found hundreds (thousands?) of breeding bridled terns, in all the glory of their breeding plumage.

Bridled tern on some debris

Bridled terns (and black-naped terns) breed on the rocky coasts of islands in Hong Kong in large numbers. The government has designated some of these islands as tern nesting sites and prohibits entry, which hopefully deters adventurers from disturbing the nesting sites.

Additionally, we got lucky enough to spot a greater crested tern on some debris. They don’t breed in Hong Kong so they aren’t quite as gregarious as the black-naped and bridled terns found here, but they do spend the off-season here in limited numbers.

Greater crested tern

Eurasian Whimbrel

Whimbrels on the shoreline, Deep Bay, August 2020.

While hiding out at my usual spot, about 8 whimbrels flew in right in front of me to land along the shoreline. Whimbrels are generally wary of people, and will even attack them when they are nesting, but these 8 either didn’t notice me or didn’t care, and so I was able to get most of them in frame.

Most interestingly though was the presence of a whimbrel with a tag that reads R8. After doing a bit of searching online, I discovered that these birds are actually tagged locally, and are meant to track birds stopping over in Hong Kong wetland sanctuaries.

This bird has a corresponding entry in my HK bird log.

Crested Goshawk Surprise!

I decided to go for a walk in Lung Fu Shan after stopping work early mostly just for the exercise, but I brought my camera along. The trails and parks along the way were fairly busy, reasonably so given the limited options for exercise these days, but I eventually came to Victoria Peak Garden. I was about to start heading back down, convinced I wouldn’t see much with all the activity, when I noticed the goshawk perched on a branch right over the one-lane road up to the summit. And two cars had just passed by as well!

I had no camouflage and I was walking in the street, but I managed to snap a few shots before it flew to a new branch. I was able to follow it to the branch and actually get closer and get a better angle and was able to snap a few just before a family came and it flew deeper into the woods.

Crested goshawk (Accipiter trivirgatus)

This is something of a special bird for me as it is actually my third encounter with what I believe to be crested goshawks in Lung Fu Shan. (Perhaps they’re all the same bird?) The first time I was hiking and was nearly able to take a record shot but an approaching hiker from the other direction scared it off. The second time was while hiking with my dad in November. It was a case of not knowing the bird was right in front of you until it flies off, so I missed that one. Finally being able to photograph one so close was really good luck for me.

Hong Kong bird log entry here.

Black-Naped Tern

The black-naped terns (sterna sumatrana) is a member of the family of seabirds Laridae, which includes gulls, terns, skimmers, and noddies. They breed in Hong Kong primarily in August on the rocky coasts of various islands and outcrops.

The best way to see these birds is by boat—particularly by ferry, as the propeller stirs up the small fish they like to eat and so they will often follow the boat for food.

Black-naped terns are unique among terns being one of the only species aside from the snowy crowned tern that lacks a black cap for mating season.

They lay their eggs on bare rocks without nesting material and so there is a small chance that divers and fisherfolk who fish from the rocks may disturb tern nests or worse, so if you are hiking on any islands be careful of tern eggs!

Check out this post in my Hong Kong bird log for more information about this interesting seabird.

Striped Stream Snake

Striped Stream Snake (Opisthotropis kuatunensis)

The striped stream snake (opisthotropis kuatunensis) is a species of snake belonging to the genus opisthotropis, all of whose species are endemic to Southeast Asia. Confusingly, this species is also sometimes called the “Chinese mountain keelback,” not to be confused with the elusive and also Hong Kong local “mountain keelback.” It is found in Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Guangxi, Hong Kong, and, I would imagine, Guangdong. It is not a threatened species at the moment.

Striped Stream Snake (Opisthotropis kuatunensis)

Little is known about this snake, as it is not very well studied, but a fair amount can be inferred based on its habitat and physical features. It thrives in mountain streams as a predator feeding on freshwater shrimp, fish, tadpoles, and other soft bodied prey. One has even been recorded attempting to eat a freshwater crab in Hong Kong, though it must have been one that had just molted, as the snake would likely be unable to eat a crab with its hard shell intact. It’s possible, however, that freshly-molted crabs may be an important part of their diet due to the regularity with which crabs tend to molt. Further, other snakes are known to eat crabs larger than their head by picking off the legs one-by-one and leaving the rest of the parts that are too big to swallow. It would be very interesting to come across an interaction between a striped stream snake and a crab, though the chances of seeing one I suppose are very low.

Concerning its physical appearance, its scales are heavily keeled all along the back, meaning that they have a ridge that sticks out from the middle of each scale. The evolutionary purpose of keeled scales is not fully understood, but the main effect is on the snakes overall appearance, with keeled scales making the snake rather dull looking, and smooth scales making it appear more shiny. Not all stream snakes have keeled scales (Anderson’s stream snake does not, for example), and in fact this is the only keeled species of opisthotropis in Hong Kong, so I’m not quite sure if the keeled scales give this stream snake an evolutionary advantage.

Striped Stream Snake (Opisthotropis kuatunensis)

Like other stream snakes, its nostrils have evolved to be positioned higher on the nose than on their land dwelling counterparts, no doubt in order to help it breathe more easily when the rest of its body is submerged, such as in the example photo of Anderson’s stream snake below.

Comparison of stream snake and pit viper nostril placement

This positioning of the nostrils is actually a fascinating example of convergent evolution, as the gradual upward relocation of the nostrils (or nostril) in cetaceans, eventually becoming what we now know as the blowhole, was the result of similar evolutionary pressures stemming from an increasingly aquatic lifestyle.

Grey-tailed Tattlers in Hong Kong

Grey-tailed Tattler (Tringa brevipes)

The grey-tailed tattler, also known as Polynesian tattler, is a species of shorebird that breeds in Siberia and migrates south along the coast to anywhere from south-eastern China to Austrailia and even New Zealand. Four or five came by in a group along the shore of Deep Bay during my trips on the 1st, 4th, and 6th of August (2020). Unlike their American counterparts, the wandering tattlers, the grey-tailed tattlers prefer open mudflats to rocky shorelines, making the Deep Bay flats a perfect sanctuary for travelers. However, it is still technically breeding season for them, which lasts until late August, so these are either on their way to their breeding grounds rather late, they’ve already bred and are on their way back south, or they failed to attract a mate and are simply vagrants.

The species is listed as nearly threatened due to the substantial decline in the adult population, with only 29,500 mature individuals estimated from 2016, but there may very well be fewer now. The main causes of their decline is of course habitat loss and pollution. These birds are currently being monitored by means of various tagging programs, so perhaps with more information, conservation efforts can be more effective. I haven’t yet seen one with a tag, though I do hope to someday so I can report it.

Concerning their behavior, I don’t really have much to say in terms of interesting observations, though it did seem like these waders were more interested in rest than in eating, unlike their plover counterparts, who were scuttling about and voraciously eating everything they could find on the sandbar. The few tattlers that flew in instead just wanted to relax by the shoreline and even in the water. I hadn’t ever seen a wader just hanging out in the wash!

Early August Waders

Greater Sand Plover Juvenile (Charadrius leschenaultii)

The last week of July brought some substantial low pressure systems in from offshore, and seemed also to have brought some migrating waders. Mai Po marshes recorded many greater sand plovers, greenshanks, redshanks, and spoonbills, among others during the final days of July. So I decided to make a few trips to my usual spot on the shores of Deep Bay (Shenzhen Bay), to have a try. (Details are secret.) The variety here isn’t as good as what you can expect at Mai Po, but with a bit of luck and care, you can end up getting much closer to the birds, if you manage not to scare them off!

It seemed like the same group of birds were in town all week, in spite of weather differences. Various and at times severe storms earlier in the week eventually gave way to a subtropical ridge of high pressure that should stay for at least a few days. High tide has been peaking around midday, leaving the best time to try in the early afternoon. However, on the southern shores of Deep Bay, the summer sun can be brutal, and unfortunately as it lowers makes it more difficult for birding, so really the stormy days are best.

Upon first arriving, on the 1st, I spotted a black-winged kite. Their hunting strategy couldn’t be much more different from their larger cousins, the black kite. Like other kestrels, they hover in place rather than circling, watiing to divebomb some unsuspecting creature. Unlike other hovering birds, black winged kites cannot support themselves as they hover, so they must fly into the wind to keep afloat.

On the 1st, the four main species of wader we saw included 12 or so greater sand plovers, another dozen or so little ringed plovers, a four to five terek sandpipers, a ten or so grey-tailed tattlers, four or five common sandpipers, and three whimbrels. The tide was low, so by the time I noticed those birds they were already well out into the sandbar and had no interest in coming closer.

Common Greenshank

The plovers, on the other hand, were much more fearless, coming in close to check out the strange man trying to take their picture. I was able to get some decent photos of the little ringed plovers, which appeared to be a mixture of juvenile and adults, as well as the greater sand plover.

Stay tuned for more in-depth posts about the individual birds I managed to photo!

Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius)
Greater sand plover (Charadrius leschenaultii)