Friday, 21 June 2013

The Last Few Weeks...

Can it really be five weeks since Peter returned from China?  Where does the time go?

It’s fair to say that we’ve had one or two distractions and diversions from our normal routine during the past month, some of them planned but others not so.  However, in spite of these there has been plenty of birding to enjoy.

 European Roller

Montagu's Harrier

Visits to the Castro Verde area have been fewer of late.  In contrast to the wonderful display of wildflowers that we were seeing earlier, the landscape is now looking very parched and straw-coloured as crops of hay and cereals have been harvested.  As the breeding season progresses, both species of bustards have become more difficult to see and now Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Kestrels and Rollers are among the most conspicuous birds as they go looking for food for newly hatched young.  Also regularly seen have been Collared Pratincoles, Calandra Larks and Black-eared Wheatears and the number and variety of raptors has guaranteed regular roadside stops to check them out.

Black-eared Wheatear

In the Algarve, we’ve made only a couple of visits to Ludo and Quinta do Lago and most of our birding has been around Castro Marim.  It’s been very convenient to have several pairs of breeding Collared Pratincoles easily viewable and Little Bustards were also good while they lasted although impossible to find once they stopped displaying.  More often heard than seen have been several pairs of Water Rails.  About 20 Slender-billed Gulls and up to about 10 Caspian Terns have been regular and in the past few days the number and variety of waders has increased with Black-tailed Godwits, Red Knot, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling, Turnstone and Dunlin all in smart breeding plumage.  There are waders in the Ria Formosa, too, and Audouin’s Gulls are ever present.

By way of a change, we recently spent a morning just a few kilometres inland from Tavira, sitting in the car by the roadside next to a small river.  The aim was photography but we weren’t very successful!  However, from that one spot we were able to watch a surprising variety of species that included Golden Orioles (a pair with three young), Kingfisher, Bee-eater, Little Ringed Plover, Green Sandpiper, Grey Wagtail, Rock Bunting, Blue Rock Thrush, Turtle Dove, Crested Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Azure-winged Magpie.  Only a Green Sandpiper and a Grey Wagtail came close to performing for the camera on this occasion but when we have time to return to this delightful location we will be hoping to have some more of these birds coming down to the water.

 Grey Wagtail

Green Sandpiper

Earlier this week we popped across the border to Spain, to the Doñana area.  Unfortunately, the White-headed Ducks that June found on her last visit in May were nowhere to be seen but we did see five Red-knobbed Coots, a species that we don’t often find in Portugal.  It was good to see that the visitor centre at the Dehesa de Abajo is now regularly open and we met up there with ‘old friends’ Beltran Ceballos Vázquez and Sergio González who regaled us with stories of the latest sightings of Iberian Lynx.  Huge numbers of Glossy Ibises were a feature of the day with nice views of them nesting at the José Antonio Valverde visitor centre alongside many Cattle Egrets and smaller numbers of Little Egrets, Squacco Herons, Little Bitterns and Black-crowned Night Herons.  Elsewhere there seemed to be plenty of our favourite Purple Herons feeding well-grown young hidden deep in the tamarisks.

 Cattle Egret

Purple Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron

In the Tavira area, the ‘best’ bird we have heard of was one that we didn’t manage to see even though it was apparently around for several days.  It was in the mouth of the harbour and described to us by a non-birder friend as “looking like a penguin”.  Previous reports of penguin-like birds have usually involved pale-fronted immature Great Cormorants but when we eventually saw the photographs, this one proved to be a first-winter Atlantic Puffin, somewhat unexpected at this time of year.  What a pity that we didn’t get a phone call until long after the bird had gone!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

China - 4

During the second week of our stay in China we spent four nights on Happy Island.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to find out the island’s Chinese name nor how it came to be called Happy.  It didn’t seem to be a particularly suitable name.  Much of it was a construction site and even the shape of the island has been changed by the reclamation of huge areas of mudflats that were once wader roost sites.

 Your guess is as good as mine!

On the way there we heard that a causeway had been built connecting the island to the mainland but on arrival we were puzzled to find that we had to wait for a ferry boat and make the short crossing in a rather less convenient way!  There was no explanation.

Our accommodation was, to say the least, spacious.  Externally, the building brought to mind the Bates Motel of Hitchcock’s Psycho movie but it was obviously no more than a year or two old.  It was huge; it had meetings rooms and large communal areas but only four bedrooms.

Happy Island guesthouse

Happy Island has a history of spectacular falls of passerine migrants and after the disappointment of Beidaihe we were very much looking forward to some better birding action.  We had also been led to expect good numbers of waders.

There were several birders already there who were happy to share information about the island’s best sites and what birds had been seen recently.  One of them was Ray Barnes from Birmingham with whom I soon found I shared several mutual acquaintances from Bittell Reservoir and Upton Warren back in the 1970s.  Who would have thought 40 years ago that our then friend, schoolboy birder Mark Brazil, would go on to author The Field Guide to The Birds of East Asia that we were all now using.

Our first day on the island was disappointing.  Waders were comparatively few although they did include Far Eastern Curlew, Lesser Sand Plover, Great Knot and Terek Sandpiper so not too many complaints!  Passerines of note were Daurian Starling, Japanese Grosbeak and Yellow-rumped Flycatcher but it was hard work.

 Japanese Grosbeak

Our second morning was much better.  Two Common Cuckoos were seen flying in off the sea at about 5.30am, there were several Siberian Stonechats where none had been before and surely that must be a different Yellow-rumped Flycatcher from the one seen yesterday!  During the next few hours Grey-streaked Flycatcher, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Radde’s, Pallas’s, Dusky & Yellow-browed Warblers, White’s Thrush, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, Japanese Waxwing, Siberian Rubythroat and Siberian Blue Robin all contributed to making this the best day of the trip so far for migrants.

 Siberian Stonechat

 Grey-streaked Flycatcher

 Asian Brown Flycatcher

The following day saw a similar pattern.  A particular highlight was seeing Siberian Rubythroat, Siberian Blue Robin and Siberian Thrush one after the other coming to drink and bathe at the same water.  Other birds during the morning were White’s Thrushes, Eye-browed Thrushes, Swinhoe’s Robin, Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Brown Hawk Owl, Dollarbird, Taiga Flycatcher and Asian Brown Flycatcher.  All of yesterday’s Grey-streaked Flycatchers had gone overnight; there wasn’t one to be found.

 Eye-browed Thrush

I’m a firm believer in ‘birds first, food second’ so today I skipped both breakfast and lunch.  This enabled me to walk to the far end of the island where several Saunders’s Gulls were nice to see and I agonised for a while over the identification of a probable Blyth’s Pipit among a small group of ‘yellow wagtails’.  Brown Shrikes were everywhere today, several hundred of them, I would guess.  I also found a Bar-tailed Godwit with a leg flag that identified it as a bird from Australia.  The afternoon produced little in the way of new birds but a roosting Grey Nightjar was a highlight.

 Saunders's Gull

 Brown Shrike

As it was going to be my first proper meal of the day I was looking forward to dinner but it proved to be no better than the previous night, which is to say, pretty poor.  There was definitely a marked contrast between the food on Happy Island and that at the hotel in Beidaihe.  Dinners at the Jinshan had been generally very good although fried eggs and cold chips isn’t everyone’s idea of a hearty breakfast.

There don’t appear to be any maps of Happy Island.  We were told that change there is so rapid that there would be no point!  However, as long as the small woodland areas survive they will surely continue to attract migrants and I would certainly consider going back for another try.

 Boardwalk through the Temple wood, probably the best site on the island

When it came time to leave the island we packed our bags a bit more carefully remembering the earlier ferry boat trip.  But then there was the complete surprise when our regular minibus arrived to collect us and take us back to the mainland via the causeway.  Go figure!

Back in Beidaihe, there was a single Relict Gull on the beach but our last morning there produced few other ‘new’ birds.  It would actually have been awful if we had had to leave on a morning when there had been a fall.

It has to be said that this trip was only a very limited success.  The positives were more than 70 lifers that included Ibisbill and quite a few ‘Sibes’ but the scale of the migration at Beidaihe and Happy Island was poor compared with accounts I have read of previous years , the numbers of waders were disappointing and the opportunities for photography were not as good as I had hoped.  But I’m still glad I went!   

Thanks are due to Ray Tipper who organised the trip from this end; Jean Wang of the Beidaihe Jinshan International Travel Service who made all the arrangements in China and obtained all the required permissions, all of which were impossible to fault; our Chinese guide, the delightful Carol, who seemed able to fix almost anything; our driver, who hadn’t previously adopted a western name but is now known as Ayrton - he was excellent; Mark Andrews, Paul Holt, Vaughan Ashby and everyone else who shared bird information.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

China - 3

Beidaihe is a popular beach holiday resort on China’s Bohai Sea coast but has also long been known as a migration hotspot visited by birders from the UK and elsewhere.  The Jinshan Hotel in Beidaihe was our base for the first part of our trip and as well as pre-breakfast birding in the grounds there and at the nearby Friendship Hotel, we visited local sites known as “the Reservoir”, “the Sandflats”, “Lotus Hill Park” and “Lighthouse Point”.  All of these provided us with interesting birding but unfortunately without ever producing the numbers and variety of migrants that have been seen in the area in previous years.

Of these local sites “the Reservoir” was probably the most productive in terms of the number of species seen.  It is actually a wetland park used for recreation by ‘China’s leaders’ and as a result not always open for visits by mere birders.  Amongst the birds seen there were Vinous-throated Parrotbills, Falcated Ducks, Amur Falcons, Eastern Spot-billed Ducks, Taiga Flycatcher, Brown Shrike, Olive-backed Pipits, Black-faced Buntings, Chinese Penduline Tits, Yellow-browed, Radde’s & Dusky Warblers and a selection of herons that included Chinese Pond Heron and Yellow Bittern.

 Yellow Bittern

We also had day trips out from Beidaihe to the Jiaoshan Great Wall and to the Qinglong River and an excursion with an overnight stay to Old Peak.  All of these were enjoyable and reasonably successful.

We were at the Jiaoshan Great Wall on a particularly windy day which wasn’t at all good for birding but we did manage to find a Plain Laughingthrush, Godlewski’s Bunting and Large-billed Crows that we initially mis-identified as Ravens.  It was interesting to see the Great Wall even though much of what we saw was a repaired or re-built section.  We were actually very lucky to be there at all as the whole site was officially closed to tourists and we had to have a special permit to enter.  This meant that we had the Great Wall to ourselves without having to contend with any other visitors.  

 Part of the Jiaoshan Great Wall

Our stop at “Stone River” on the way back from the Great Wall to Beidaihe was also badly wind-affected but Grey-tailed Tattlers, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and Pacific Golden Plovers were especially pleasing to see for the wader enthusiasts amongst us.  A flock of Yellow-bellied Tits were also fun to see at very close range, seemingly oblivious to our presence.  Another visit there on a better day would have been nice.

 Grey-tailed Tattler

 Pacific Golden Plover

 Yellow-bellied Tit

Our day trip to the Qinglong River had two main targets: Ibisbill and Long-billed Plover.  I must say that I had no great expectations about seeing either of these birds but after some searching we managed to find both species.  First we came across a pair of Long-billed Plovers, a comparatively little-known wader of freshwater rivers.  Later, in similar habitat, when some of our group seemed ready to give up the search, we found a pair of Ibisbills with young.  The Ibisbills were probably the birds of the entire trip for me.  It’s a species that is sufficiently distinctive to merit its own family, Ibidorhynchidae.  They aren’t rare but their habitat and range do make them somewhat difficult to see; they were high on my list of reasons to sign up for this trip.

 Long-billed Plover


Other birds along the Qinglong River included Rosy Pipits, Eastern Yellow Wagtails of the race macronyx, White Wagtails of the race leucopsis, Amur Falcons, Meadow Buntings and White-cheeked Starlings.

 Meadow Bunting

Amur Falcon

We were also successful in finding our main target species at Old Peak where an early morning start brought us a good but rather brief look at a pair of Koklass Pheasants.  There was no chance to think about a photograph!  These are elusive birds of high altitude forests so we were very lucky to see them as well as we did!  Koklass is apparently a word that is onomatopœically derived from the bird's territorial call, although it requires some imagination!  Also at Old Peak we saw Pale Thrush, Grey-sided Thrush, Claudia’s Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, Chinese Nuthatch, Yellow-throated & Tristram’s Buntings and Daurian Redstarts.  The hotel there was a bit funky and surrounded by building work in progress but then, much of China appears to be a building site!

 Early morning on Old Peak

Chinese Nuthatch

Happy Island, our next destination for a four-night stay, was certainly a building site. More on China follows soon…