Interesting Residents at Sai Kung

Well, considering today’s trip as well as reports from yesterday, it seems that the paradise flycatchers I got so used to seeing this month have left. Indeed their absence was very much felt on the trail this morning, which boasted a handful of resident species, as well as some migrants. The autumn migration should replenish shortly, though, with a new round of flycatchers passing through the territory from around now through October and November, as well as buntings. Regular winter visitors should also begin to arrive soon as well.

The most photogenic of them all, however, was a lovely female orange-bellied leafbird, perhaps the same from the other day. It was singing with a very high-pitched whistle for a short while, confusing us at first.

Another slightly less common resident was a grey-chinned minivet couple—one male, one female. I’ve often struggled to get decent shots of these birds in spite of how common they are in Hong Kong’s mature secondary forests.

In the past, the females have been more cooperative subjects than the males, but today I was fortunate to get a very handsome and confident male bird showing off for a few seconds, while the female, wisely perhaps, kept her distance.

We also recorded the call of a bay woodpecker, perhaps two, as well as a single but very distant dark-sided flycatcher, and a single female yellow-rumped flycatcher. The usual crowd of chestnut bulbuls, white-bellied erpornis, common tailorbirds, fork-tailed sunbirds, and Japanese tits also kept us company on our walk.

Fairy Pitta and more at Ho Man Tin

I visited Ho Man Tin this morning to try and find a tiger shrike that’s been there for a few days. Instead, however, I was greeted by a juvenile brown shrike, whose slightly barred plumage on the front and lack of a prominent black eye-stripe possessed by adults did in fact have me fooled at first. Still though, it was a cooperative subject, and I’m glad to have gotten a few record shots, the following being my favorite.

In the next photo, you can see a bit of the patterning on the chest and neck, which should disappear I believe as it grows up.

The real prize from this morning, however, was a surprise appearance by a fairy pitta. These gorgeous ground-dwellers are indeed fairy-like in terms of their elusive behavior. When I left this morning, however, a group of interested birders was indeed forming, and I suspect it will be a star if it decides to stick around. Likely, it will be baited, so I suspect others will have better photos than the one record shot that I managed.

Definitely a special encounter with a special bird. I wish it luck on its journey, and I hope it isn’t held up too long here in Hong Kong!

Other records included a female yellow-rumped flycatcher as well as one or two Asian brown flycatchers. I spotted up to 5 arctic warblers as well.

More good records from Sai Kung

Last Saturday, 12 September, was a very productive morning in Sai Kung. The early Autumn migrant season is indeed in full-swing, with reports of flycatchers and warblers throughout the territory last week. We saw the usual amount of Amur paradise flycatchers during our walk, but also came across a few unexpected surprises in our bird waves.

One such surprise was 3 Hainan blue flycatchers. I’m not sure how much longer they’ll stick around, as they’re mostly here in the early summer for breeding purposes, but it was nice to finally see one this season and even get a record photo.

Equally welcome was a female yellow-rumped flycatcher, a bird with many records at Ho Man Tin and elsewhere, but one I hadn’t actually yet seen. Unfortunately my photos were no good, but at least it’s a clear record.

Perhaps the most special bird of all, however, was a Japanese paradise flycatcher mixed in with the Amur paradise flycatchers. They’re a bit difficult to tell apart, as they were considered to be the same species until re-organized in 2015, but the Japanese paradise flycatcher’s outer plumage is a bit darker overall compared to the brighter reddish of the Amur. Additionally, the Japanese paradise has a noticeably lighter eye-ring, as well as a lighter colored, uniform beak compared to the Amur’s black-tapered beak. I’m very pleased that I managed to snap a record shot.

Another special encounter was with some much welcome residents, including two bay woodpeckers and a speckled piculet. These elusive residents are a sign of the health and increasing maturity of Hong Kong’s secondary forests. Sai Kung is definitely proving to be a reliable and worthwhile place to visit this season!

On Baiting Birds

I wrote up a permanent page on the controversial practice of baiting birds. The intro paragraph is below, followed by a link to the full page.

Baiting is the practice of using bait—generally food—to attract wild birds. Sometimes it’s done fairly innocuously, while at other times, it can be both excessive and damaging. In Hong Kong, unfortunately, the latter is usually the case, and so I’m afraid that I’ll have to here defend the uncompromising view that baiting birds should not be done in Hong Kong…

Click here to continue reading….

Unfortunate Changes (and some waders) at Long Valley

It seems that the long arm of urban development has finally reached Long Valley. Once-hailed as an oasis for migrating waders and buntings, this quaint and invaluable stretch of farmland and shallows is beginning its long and unfortunate process of development.

Why just a few weeks ago when I went to visit the visiting Asian dowitcher, there was overgrown farmland adjacent to its favorite pond that is now fully demolished and excavated. Last year as well I saw a plaintive cuckoo in this very field of what I believe was okra. What a shame to see such a fragile and valuable ecosystem being so encroached upon.

The entire road to the entrance point that I usually use is walled-off as well. Currently workers utilize that access point, but I’m not sure for how much longer I will be able to use it. I really don’t know much about what or how Long Valley will be developed, but no matter what I imagine things will be tougher for birds, birders, and farmers alike during this fast-approaching autumn bunting migration season.

(Added 14-9-2020: It turns out that much of the development of the main farmland patches at Long Valley are largely ecological. The farmland and valuable patches of wetland will be largely preserved, but access in the future will be limited to certain areas. This is ultimately better for the birds, though it may make certain records more difficult to make with limited public access. Ultimately, I’d say it’s a good thing. Details on the development of Long Valley can be found here.)

Adding to the unpleasantness of the experience were looming thunderstorms–a real worry if you’re romping around in Long Valley’s open fields with a tripod!

In terms of birds, there was only one noticeable addition to last time. In the first place, there were many more black-winged stilts. I counted nearly 30, a marked increase from last time’s mere handful.

I don’t really have much luck with taking photos of stilts. Their plumage makes them rather difficult to expose properly, and they’re rather loud and annoying when they notice you and plan to flee if you get too close. Either way, I’m still happy to see them in decent numbers here.

Among the stilts though was also a solitary common greenshank. They’re also not the most exciting of waders to see, but it’s the first time I’d seen one at Long Valley.

The most numerous birds were the wood sandpipers. Personally I counted at least 30, and I’m sure there were others hidden in the far reaches of the ponds.

I noticed these birds last year when I visited Long Valley for the first time later in the season, though I don’t recall them being so numerous. Perhaps this really is the peak of their migration through Hong Kong. If so, I hope they enjoy their stay, and I”m happy that I got to take at least a few somewhat respectable record shots.

Wood sandpipers, black-winged stilts, and common greenshanks each have corresponding entries in my Hong Kong Bird Log.

Good records at Sai Kung

A friend and I journeyed to Sai Kung once again on 5 September for a late afternoon birding-cum-herping trip. The trail we take goes along a small stream for most of the way, which suggested that it would be a good spot for herping. But alas, while our bird luck was decent, our herping luck was not.

Immediately when we arrived, we spotted a small bird-wave that included an Amur paradise flycatcher. Among them was also an arctic warbler, two or three Japanese tits, and of course some chestnut bulbuls. I only cared about the flycatchers….woops!

As we moved along, things got quiet until we found another small bird wave. This one also had one or two more flycatchers, but equally impressive were two birds that I haven’t yet had good encounters with: one black-winged cuckooshrike, and one female orange-bellied leafbird. Both were hanging around a fruiting tree on the trail.

Orange-bellied leafbird (female)

I don’t think I’ve ever recorded an orange bellied leafbird yet, so this was a real treat. I hope to some day see the male bird with its striking blue cheeks.

The black-winged cuckooshrike put on quite a show devouring a praying mantis—a slightly less common bird devouring a slightly less common insect!

A few Waders at Peng Chau

I visited a friend in Peng Chau yesterday and brought my camera along just in case, and boy was i glad that I did.

Peng Chau is a very small island just off the coast of southern Lantau. There’s one supermarket, one ATM, and no cars. Aside from municpal buildings, the village housing is mostly comprised of 3-4 story apartments. Otherwise the island is covered in trees that eventually meet the shore. I’d been there before just for visiting purposes, but this time I just wanted to see if there were any birds around.

There are actually quite a few large, old trees all over the island, so I suspect that some interesting birds may be hiding in there. I didn’t see any, however. Although it’s a small and relatively “quiet” island, its few trails are well-trafficked by residents and visitors. I could imagine it being quite difficult to find a place to set up and wait for birds that wouldn’t have to contend with villagers, farmers, or hikers.

Peng Chau, South Side shore. Photo by Jamal Sage

But I was most interested in walking along the coast looking for waders, as it too seemed potentially productive. Indeed shortly after disembarking from the ferry I spotted a common sandpiper on the sea wall. It seemed to be interested in picking off bugs and crabs from the base of the sea wall, as well as these rather large seabugs.

Common sandpipers can be found along Hong Kong’s shores either alone or in small groups. I found 3 in total dispersed over a rather large stretch of sea-wall along the northern side of Peng Chau. I’ve seen them many times before in my more usual wader spots, but seeing them on the seawall made for much better photos than I’m used to.

Moving east around the island along its northern shore, the shoreline was mostly comprised of large and jagged rocks punctuated by small rocky beaches. Conditions indeed seemed favorable to certain waders, but the walk was mostly unproductive. I did managed to spot two grey-tailed tattlers along the shore of one such rocky cove.

Eventually though we came to the main beach of Peng Chau’s largest cove, and I happened to notice a few waders amid all the crested myna and rubbish.

There was an additional common sandpiper bopping around here, but there were also two little ringed plovers. It was a bit disheartening to see them foraging around among a significant amount of trash, rotting boats, and stray dogs, but this is indeed what we’ve managed to do to their winter home.

Perhaps with increased awareness, certain stretches of beach could be designated for wildlife, but I doubt it. The village life on Peng Chau is just too entrenched, so I suspect this spot will be largely lost to humanity for the time being.

Brown-chested Jungle Flycatcher at Ho Man Tin

I always hear about good records at Ho Man Tin, but I’ve personally not had any luck there until today. It’s a rather strange place–just a green hill in the middle of an urban jungle with a number of unusually old trees (for Hong Kong). It seems to serve as an oasis for many impressive migrants, especially flycatchers, though they generally don’t stay for long.

That was why when I heard reports of a brown-chested jungle flycatcher there today, I went right over to try my luck. Aside from being a slow bus ride, I happened to arrive just in time for a pretty nasty thunderstorm. Luckily a few birders were still at the spot when I arrived, so I knew where to set up. I waited out the storm under the forest cover, which was surely dense enough to keep me safe, but not enough to keep me completely calm!

As soon as the storm was over, this little fella came out to say hello. He was very close and still for seconds at a time on a few branches, but only these two gave me any chance at a shot. The conditions weren’t ideal, as it was late afternoon in heavy overcast under cover of a some fairly dense and large trees, so light was definitely an issue. I brought my tripod and cranked up the ISO and managed to get some shots that weren’t completely destroyed by noise. Without the tripod I wouldn’t have had a chance.

Aside from being very cute, brown-chested jungle flycatchers are considered a vulnerable species due to habitat loss, so each of these birds is quite precious. They are native to southern China and winter in Southeast Asia, so this little one probably comes from just a province or two away. Though it appears juvenile due to the bi-colored beak, adults do in fact have a yellowish lower beak and base of the upper beak, so I would say this is probably a full-grown bird.

Ebird describes these birds as “lethargic” and I’d say that’s accurate judging from my encounter. The bird did not seem eager to bounce around, comfortable instead sitting on a branch until something on the ground caught his attention. Indeed what might easily be mistaken for an exhausted juvenile is actually a lazy adult!

This bird has a corresponding (brief) entry in my Hong Kong Bird Log.

Waders in Deep Bay

Grey-tailed tattler

I got up around 6AM this morning to get ready and head out to my usual spot on the shore of Deep Bay (Hong Kong side), knowing full well that I’d have to wait a bit for the tide to go out no matter how early I got there. I find that I have the best luck during the outgoing tide at this spot, but only for a few hours. There’s a crucial point shortly after high tide where the waders will come in fairly close to shore as the shore expands. After about 2 hours or so, however, the shoreline, along with the waders, is too far out to really expect good shots, so it’s important to be timely.

Unfortunately I arrived far too early and had to wait about 2 hours for the tide to get low enough for any waders to even attempt to start bopping around on the sandbar. Normally this would be fine, and I would have just come later, but the other major factor was heat, which was why I was keen on meeting the tide exactly. By midday we had temperatures of 34C, which, aside from being unpleasant to the point of dangerous in the wrong place, forces a photographer to reckon with image distortion caused by heatwaves.

In my experience, heatwaves are strongest close to the ground, which, unfortunately, is where you want to be for waders. However, while some of my shots were noticeably affected, others happened to turn out okay. Perhaps because the beach was so freshly uncovered by the tide, the ground was still cool enough to not throw off very much heat. Either way I’m happy that not all of my shots were ruined by heatwaves.

As for the birds, I saw the usual greater sand plovers, though not in very great numbers; I only counted 5. With them was a lone lesser sand plover, hugging the shoreline, as well as 3 kentish plovers. The smaller plovers stayed very near the shoreline and well away from me, while the greater sands were more characteristically fearless.

One of the greater sand plovers was very diligently grooming itself in the same spot for quite some time, fluffing itself up even. (I think this one is a juvenile due to the more varied patterning on the wings.)

Most entertaining, however, were the 22 grey-tailed tattlers scurrying about the mudflat, along with 4 very grumpy Eurasian whimbrels. I’ve seen whimbrels at this spot before, but they didn’t behave like the ones I saw today. These ones were clearly interested in feeding at this spot, and had even waited on the beach with me for the tide to go out for some time until one of the locals walked by.

When out on the mudflats, the whimbrels were very territorial and would routinely chase each other off, shouting alarm calls at each other, flying over to the next beach and returning, chasing one-another on foot–it seemed like they just couldn’t stand each other’s company, totally unlike the 8 whimbrels I saw weeks ago who all stayed very close to one another while resting and foraging. If I were to guess, I might think that the group of 8 were too tired from a long journey to bother one another, while the visitors here are more well-established and have their preferences.

Equally entertaining were the tattlers scurrying around trying to stay out of the way of the bickering whimbrels. In one photo I managed to catch 11 of them (count and double-check) keeping cool under the mangroves while the whimbrels foraged first.

One cheeky bird even took a bath! If you ever wondered how tattlers take baths, well, this is it.

This is probably the closest I’ve gotten to a tattler before, and maybe ever will. The last time I was almost this close, the shot was ruined by heat waves. This time though the water in between us definitely kept things cool enough to not throw off any heat, so that was some very good luck indeed.

Otherwise there I didn’t notice anything else in terms of waders aside from 2 shy common sanppipers. There were no little ringed plovers to be found, nor did I see the common greenshank from last time. Hopefully the next time the tide swings back around to coincide with earlier hours, some other migrants will arrive.