Harlequin Ducks on the Jetty

Last year, on yet another fruitless trip to Island Beach State Park in search of the elusive Snowy Owl, some fellow twitchers just suggested offhand that the Barnegat Inlet, particularly the jetty, is a wintering spot for Harlequin Ducks. I never made it down last year, but the other day, on a whim, and in part due to some unseasonably warm weather for early February, I took a ride down to Barnegat Light with a vague notion of Harlequin Ducks and the jetty in mind.

We were greeted with an unremarkable sight once we arrived at the park: numerous parkgoers taking advantage of the weather on a Saturday. The wind was light and I didn’t notice many birds hovering about the inlet, which in years’ past had held scores of gannets, gulls, and terns. It’s safe to say I wasn’t expecting much and made my way out to the platform above the jetty.

There, I spotted some regulars, like the common loon and long-tailed duck. These are very easy to spot just offshore throughout the beaches in New Jersey, but it’s nice to see them from the jetty where you can get a somewhat closer look.

Another duck I saw, which was a bit surprising, was a group of buffleheads. Most of them appeared to be females with only a few prominent males. I was surprised to see them out here since I hadn’t seen them in such typically treacherous waters before, though admittedly it was very calm. Usually I find them in calm lagoons throughout inland waters, mostly males, solitary or in very small groups. To see such a large group of females in the inlet was a bit surprising!

Now I had visited the lighthouse at least once each winter for the past decade, at first for no particular reason and eventually for birds and seals, but never walked out on the jetty itself. On most days, it seems like a bad idea, since to slip on the jetty is as easy as it is hazardous. But the weather that day was just incredible: warm, sunny, and relatively still, and the jetty itself was bone dry, making for much safer traversal. So I found my nerve and walked out, and was not disappointed.

I first came across some ruddy turnstones on the jetty. I had seen these birds for the first time in Florida last year—also early February—but never before in New Jersey. They’re rather delicate little birds, but also they didn’t seem to mind people walking back and forth on the rocks.

There was a lone dunlin on the jetty as well. I’ve seen these birds in huge numbers in open marshlands, but never on a jetty, so that was interesting.

A bit further along the jetty, I also saw some purple sandpipers, which I also hadn’t seen before, but am aware that they are quite common on the jetty. Like the ruddy turnstones, these were utterly unfussed by our presence, so I was able to get some closer shots than I expected.

The main event, however, occurred further down the jetty when we saw a tight and noisy group of ducks hanging out right on the rocks: the Harlequins.

These incredible birds deliberately choose to live in extreme environments, preferring rough, rocky coastlines where they are regularly battered by waves. These ducks are reported to have more broken bones on average than any other species, as shown by X-ray and museum specimens. Luckily, this group decided to tolerate the rather calm seas and sit posing for us on the rocks, bathing in the early Spring sun, leading to some lovely portraits of these gorgeous birds.

I don’t know if or when I’ll ever have that sort of luck with seeing these birds, but I’m so grateful that I had this chance and was able to document it.

Exploring Sorae Marsh Ecological Park 소래습지생태공원

I had been meaning to visit Sorae Marsh Ecological Park for some months now, but was always worried during the summer months that it would be far too hot without any protection given that it is a wetland, and I was right! It neared 20C yesterday (6 November) so I couldn’t imagine how hot it would get in the summertime. At any rate, I finally made the trip over by taxi and did some meandering and birdwatching.

The area is sparsely vegetated, with the majority of the trees on the outskirts. The problem there is that this means that the trees are located along the bike path, which means that the areas most likely to hold birds are also most likely to be disturbed by park-goers. Luckily, I was there by 9AM on Saturday and so the park was relatively quiet until about 10:30-11AM when I was getting ready to leave anyway. But regardless of the activity, I found that a number of trees did indeed reliably hold birds.

As you enter the park, you cross a bridge over a muddy tidal river that was full of eastern spot-billed ducks and mallards bathing.

Marshy river with some bathing ducks

It looked like the tide gets quite high, but at the time I went it was really quite low. It didn’t seem, though, that the marshes within the park were subject to tidal changes, perhaps due to engineering. The marshes empty out into Sorae Harbor, which is home to a lovely fish market. I wasn’t quite brave enough to actually purchase anything there, but perhaps once I learn a bit more Korean and can at least count (or maybe even haggle!) then I’ll try my luck.

I have no idea what these red bushes are throughout the marsh but they really did add something special to the environment. I’m not sure if they’ll turn brown during the winter time (or if they had been brown all summer) but I was definitely appreciative of their color this time.

Now down to business: birds. The first place I stopped was actually right at the park visitor center, and to be honest it produced the best birds overall. There, the trees are further away from the bike path and access otherwise is blocked off, so it seemed like birds were more keen on hanging out in that area and foraging in the morning.

Daurian redstart blending in with the autumn colors.

The first bird of interest that I spotted was a daurian redstart. These birds are positively ubiquitous in the autumn near where I live in Incheon as I hear them basically every day and see them quite often as well. Unlike the redstarts I’m used to seeing in Hong Kong, which were mostly rather shy females, the males I’ve found so far in Korea have been utterly fearless and will sing loudly from atop the branches without a care in the world. I only managed to spot one female yesterday during my trip compared to 4 different males.

Yellow-throated bunting hiding in the willow.

Another bird I spotted rather early on was a yellow-throated bunting. It was hanging out in a tree with another bunting that I couldn’t identify but the both of them would occasionally fly over to the bushes near where I was waiting and forage around a bit on the ground before returning to their tree. They were far too quick the first time they came around. See if you can spot the bunting in the willow!

I also finally had some semi-decent luck with the elusive Oriental greenfinch (also known as grey-capped greenfinch). These birds are also rather ubiquitous this time of year, but I find them to be quite difficult to capture given their speed and reluctance to stay still. I managed to capturer a few perched, and even one feeding, but still I’m not entirely satisfied with the detail. I’m sure there will be more opportunities!

As I made my way around the park, I came across a handful of other usual suspects including many spot-billed ducks, herons, egrets, and cormorants, which I didn’t bother to photo. I managed to take one somewhat decent shot of a little grebe, looking a bit haggard, but the most interesting surprise to me was a bull-headed shrike. I had seen these birds in Hong Kong a few times before–once during a very close encounter on Victoria Peak with a specimen who stayed at the garden throughout the winter–but I was happy to find one here, though I’m sure many small creatures are less pleased with its presence.

On my way back to the entrance, I found another lovely surprise: a light-vented bulbul, otherwise known as a Chinese bulbul. While they became almost something of a bother to me in Hong Kong, not quite being a bird of interest given their ubiquity, I was pleasantly surprised to be reminded of home with its gentle chirping. Two of them were foraging in a berry bush and after about 5 minutes of waiting, one of them poked his head out and came out to say hello, and even posed with its lunch.

Lond-tailed tit showing off its long tail.

After I saw the bulbul, I began heading back to the entrance to see if I had any good shots and try to figure out what to do next. As I was packing up, though, I heard the familiar call of a group of long-tailed tits, and so I decided to try my lick. Mixed in with them was also a group of vinous-throated parrotbills, but I wasn’t able to capture any of them. I’m mostly just satisfied that I finally got a full, unobscured photo of a long-tailed tit complete with its long tail and with reasonable detail.

These lovelies are something of a fixture in Incheon, usually traveling in groups of 10 or so from tree to tree nibbling on whatever it is they nibble on. Their calls are a bit more shrill and less varied than the even more common Japanese tit, and so they definitely play the role of adding a bit of variety to the local birds you might expect to see walking around a park in Inchean (and perhaps elsewhere in Korea–i’ve only birded in Incheon so don’t want to speak too soon!).

Full-body shot of the yellow-throated bunting

But once I packed up for real, I heard a curious call in the bushes right near the visitor center. It was much more varied and sing-song-y than some of the usual bush-dwelling suspects, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I saw it not 2 meters away right at my feet, though hopelessly obscured by brush–the grand prize of the day: a yellow-throated bunting. I could hear it calling in the brush and in a last ditch effort I got out my camera just hoping that it might show itself for a single record shot, but to no avail for the first five minutes.

But then fate smiled upon me and this lovely bird flew over to a bush in front of a clearing and was hanging out in the grass right in front of the brush, and for about a minute or so I was able to get some very clear shots from an excellent vantage point. This lovely male was absolutely fearless and was happy to show off his yellow throat for the camera and even posed a few times. I feel so lucky to have found such a cooperative subject at the very end of the trip right before I left for good.

Overall I’m looking forward to returning to Sore Marsh Ecological Park and hopefully finding even more birds there as I suspect it might be one of the more productive nearby places that I have easy access to—a new patch to explore indeed!

A few Migrants and an Eagle at Mt. Davis

Mount Davis is probably the easiest spot for me to visit these days, second only to Lung Fu Shan. I dislike going there, however, given the foot traffic and, well, the truly oppressive amount of stairs. The walk up to the top of Mt Davis, by contrast, is more gradual. It’s a pretty tight spot, however, so you may struggle to find good stuff on the edge of the field at the top like buntings and chats during the autumn if some merrymakers are up there.

By the time I got up there, two separate groups were taking wedding photos in the field, and a few hiking groups also showed up, so at one point there were nearly 30 people up there—not great for birds. However, I did manage to spot an Asian brown flycatcher, as well as an Arctic warbler, two common migrants this time of year.

Asian brown flycatcher

More impressive, however, was a flyover by a white-bellied sea eagle. I’ve only seen this rather impressive bird in Hong Kong once before, soaring very high up during one of my trips to Po Toi. Today, however, I managed to get a proper shot as it was comparatively low while I was in the field at the top of the hill.

Additionally, I managed to see a Chinese sparrowhawk, a first for me. These raptors are currently migrating through Hong Kong and can be observed primarily in the open countryside or island hills. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to get a good capture of it flying lower.

Ashy Drongo at Mt. Davis

Just a quick post today: an ashy drongo from Mt. Davis. This was the first time ever saw one, so I was very happy to get a record shot. These birds migrate south for the winter, so this one is likely passing through. However, there may be more permanent residents elsewhere in Hong Kong, as it is within their breeding range.

The species has a number of subspecies that vary primarily in color throughout their distribution. The ones furthest east in Asia ranging from about Korea to Southeast Asia are more grey colored while those to the west in the Indo-Malayan subcontinent are closer to black.

Quiet Morning at Tung Lung Chau

Tung Lung Chau is a small island off the eastern coast of Hong Kong. The island’s east faces the South China Sea rather uninterrupted, so its cliffs are rather steep and impressive (and good for rock climbing). The island is mostly barren due to a history of clear-cutting combined with the intense weather there, but some of the trees near the village and the surrounding areas are a bit more mature and have proven to provide refuge for migrants.

Today, though, luck was not really on our side. While our 8:20AM ferry was not very crowded, the subsequent ones were all packed, making for a persistent stream of people passing through the village throughout the morning. But I’m not sure what effect crowds really had, as things seemed pretty quiet to begin with. In the trees just beyond the village we found a few Arctic warblers.

Beyond the trees in the open brushland, we immediately had a brief encounter with a Siberian stonechat, which we also saw yesterday at Mt. Davis. Otherwise, we didn’t see much of note aside from the occasional dollarbird or black drongo perched on a power cable.

This one posed rather nicely on an exposed bit of brush.

We also noted a group of 3 Chinese sparrowhawks very high in the air, likely traveling together during migration. A few of these have been spotted in the territory this past week, though they are not easy to photo.

Another fun encounter was a migrating group of 15 traveling cattle egrets. I don’t often encounter large groups of birds like this in my trips (though perhaps that will change in the coming months especially in the wetlands!) so witnessing groups like these on the move is pretty special to me. Otherwise, we may have heard a pale-legged leaf warbler calling, but really nothing else.

Happily, just before the ferry arrived to take us back, we had a bit of luck at one of the large trees in the village. A dark-sided flycatcher was perched on a rope under the tree, from which it was flycatching. I still don’t have a good shot of this rather common bird this season, so I was excited to have my best chance yet. I’m still not fully satisfied with the results in terms of sharpness, but still they’re way better than nothing!

We also saw an Asian brown flycatcher together with the dark-sided at times, which is a common but always welcome guest.

Buntings and an Osprey at Mt. Davis

Well, after a long and busy week of work, I was finally able to get a morning at Mt. Davis, right down the street. Temperatures were around 26C today at the top and it was breezy, so we had perfect autumn conditions well suited for an October morning. We taxied up right away (not without some protest from the cab driver) and were immediately greeted by a little bunting, a sure sign of autumn.

We heard some other buntings calling and saw some flyovers, so I’m fairly confident that this will be a good spot for buntings as the season rolls on, which is good news for me! But it seems the best strategy is to go early and catch them when they’re exhausted and cooperative (without disturbing them too much of course).

Another concurrent visitor we were pleasantly surprised to encounter was a Siberian stonechat. I’ve only seen these before in Long Valley, which I haven’t made my way to yet this season.

In addition to the usual assortment of large-billed crows, bulbuls, magpies, and white eyes at the summit, we also saw a few pale-legged/Sakhalin leaf warblers, and Arctic warblers, one of whom was very cooperative for a photo.

As it was very windy at the summit, I didn’t expect us to see too many raptors, and unfortunately I was right—at first anyway. Eventually at the summit, we saw a besra, a small raptor, but I couldn’t get a photo. We did, however, have a number of flyovers of at least 3 different crested goshawks.

The most impressive encounter today was in my opinion the one osprey we saw just as we began our descent. I was very surprised by this, since although they do occur in Hong Kong sporadically, I’ve only ever heard of reports from Mai Po. To see one hanging out at the top of Mt. Davis was definitely a treat.

I’m very pleased with our findings today and I’ll definitely be returning to Mt. Davis in the coming weeks as the fall migration continues.

Bust at Sai Kung, but Ho Man Tin saved the day!

This past week was my first week of online teaching, and I was (and unfortunately will be) quite busy with class prep, so today was the day for me to try.

Sai Kung

With the first round of autumn migrants well on their way through the territory, I returned to Sai Kung to try my luck. Last weekend we didn’t see any Amur (or Japanese) paradise flycatchers, so I had assumed that they had all left by now were it not for a few sporadic reports of sightings throughout the week. But alas, none were to be found today either.

What’s worse is that I failed to find any bird waves, instead hearing a symphony of mostly residents, as well as a few calls I couldn’t identify. I did manage to spot a single, very shy dark sided flycatcher, but alas the photo is no good. Other records included two emerald doves, fairly common but extremely shy forest residents, and the unmistakable call of a bay woodpecker. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to see it.

I do wonder if the presence of the paradise flycatchers encourages bird waves at all. They seem to be numerous, prominent, and well-accompanied when we were used to coming across them. For local forest residents, i still think that this is one of the better places in Hong Kong to visit, but without the draw of such VIPs as the paradise flycatchers, I may try and explore somewhere else next weekend.

Ho Man Tin

Rather disappointed with my trip to Sai Kung, (and also frustrated by the traffic back to Mong Kok), I found the initiative to give Ho Man Tin a try, as there were some good reports this week, in particular of a Taiga/red-throated flycatcher. I did manage to spot the bird very briefly, but thankfully it was also enough to get a record.

I saw a pale-legged leaf warbler as well, another rather common migrant over the past few weeks, but the real prize was a clear shot of an Asian brown flycatcher. I’ve seen them at Ho Man Tin before, and last week saw one at the very same spot at the top of the hill, although I could never get a shot. Even though they are rather common visitors and lack an exciting plumage, I was still very happy to finally get a decent shot of this lovely bird.

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!