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!

New Patch: Wolmido Island 월미도

There’s a curious patch of green in the midst of a heavily industrial area on the coast of Incheon: Wolmido Island. Historically, the island has been very important, being, for example, the site of the naval assault by the South Korean and UN forces to re-take Incheon from North Korean forces. Now though, it’s a lovely spot to spend the day. On the coast of the island is a lovely waterfront with many seaside shops and restaurants. In the middle of the island is a heavily wooded forest park that leads up to an observatory on top of the hill. On the inland side is Wolmi Traditional Park, a perfectly lovely and peaceful garden park.

The park area is not heavily wooded, but it does have a number of areas that managed to hold a few birds even in the heat of summer. I definitely plan on returning during migration season.

The most ubiquitous bird at the park was the azure-winged magpie, pictured above. Unlike their even more ubiquitous cousins, the oriental magpies, these birds seem to have a slightly lower tolerance for urban settings, and their calls filled the air throughout the park.

There were just two other species of note that I was able to capture. The first was a pair of grey-faced woodpeckers–male and female. I had actually nearly given up on finding anything more exciting than the magpies at the park, especially given that it’s the wrong season, but my heart nearly skipped a beat when I heard the male woodpecker calling, and managed to spot him on a tree.

After chasing him around a bit, I managed to sneak up on him and his misses as they popped down to the forest floor to do a bit of foraging.

The other birds of note were an adult and juvenile grey-backed thrush. I suspect the adult was the parent, though I suppose there’s no way to know for sure. They were hanging out together at a little clearing next to a stream.

Overall I’m convinced that Wolmido Island will be a great patch to explore in the future!

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.

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

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.